Small-Scale Live Steam

Introduction: what's small-scale live steam all about?


So-called "small scale" live steam is actually on the large end of the usual model railroading spectrum, though most live steam equipment runs on much wider track (.75" scale or larger).

There are quite a few different sizes and scales which fall into this category. Live steamers are easy to find in 1 gauge (45mm or "G" gauge), and in 0 gauge (32mm). In the US, most live steamers are in 1:22.5 or 1:32 scale, running or 1 gauge track. The correct US narrow gauge scale, 1:20.3, has become widely accepted in live steam circles more quickly than among electric train buyers. In the UK, the most common size is SM32 (16mm/ft scale narrow gauge on 32mm gauge track).

We call these locomotives "live steam" because they run on actual steam power, as opposed to electrically powered models made to look like a steam locomotive.

Here are some frequently asked questions about small scale live steamers.

What's so interesting about live steam locomotives? This is like asking someone why they prefer coffee over tea, but it's worth trying to answer. The simplest answer is that live steam locomotives are real locomotives. While the electric trains most model railroaders use are faithful representations of real locomotives, they are in the end just facsimilies. Running an electrically powered model train is no more driving a train than running a radio controlled model car is driving a car.

There is much more to running a live steam loco than simply turning a knob and watching it move. The interaction with the locomotive -- the steaming up rituals, the sounds and smells, the thick plume from the stack, even the occasional burnt finger tips -- add up to an experience which is much different and more engaging than model railroading with electric trains. If you are interested in live steam, but don't know whether to take it up, I would encourage you to seek out someone with a live steamer and ask him or her to teach you to run the locomotive. It won't take long, and when it's done you will have the feel of touching a metal beast and bringing it to life in your hands, the smell of steam oil in your nose, and most likely a desire to take home a steamer burning in your brain.

I believe my experience was a common one: I rarely run my electric model trains since building my first steamer. 

What sizes do they come in? We will only deal with the small-scale steamers here -- there are larger live steamers in several scales, and they are covered elsewhere in print and on the web.

Small-scale here means "too small to ride on", that is, gauge 1, gauge 0, or smaller. Gauge 1 live steamers are popular with garden railroaders because they interoperate with electric gauge 1 equipment and because some of the problems with live-steam operation are lessened outdoors. (Most people don't have room for a 45mm gauge track in the basement, and spillage of hot water or oil drips are more problematic on indoor layout materials.) Some larger scale steam clubs also have gauge 1 tracks for the smaller steamers. Because of the interoperability, most gauge 1 live steamers seem to belong to clubs with other gauge 1 modelers, rather than specialized gauge 1 steam clubs. (The folks who run electric models really seem to like the live steamers, too!)

Aster Big Boy Gauge 1 models of large, mainline engines can be quite impressive. Aster's model of the Union Pacific Big Boy certainly grabs your attention (photo).

In the UK, live steam is most often SM32 scale, run on gauge 0 track. What is SM32? Roger Loxley of Roundhouse Engineering explains it like this: "SM stands for Sixteen Millimetre (denoting the scale) and 32 tells us the gauge is 32mm. We also have SM45 over here, but you should be able to work that one out now. We don't work in imperial measurement when it comes to this type of work which is quite strange really but it is far easier than working with 5/8" : 1 foot. Actually it should be .6299" : 1 foot and is 1 :19. The SM45 has evolved from running our 16mm scale stock on 'G' scale track. As all Roundhouse locos and most other UK makes have adjustable gauge wheels, this is a common practice."

Just for completeness, I have seen several and heard of a couple of HO or smaller scale live steamers, too. There are limits to how much the laws of thermodynamics will scale down, and HO would seem to be right at the lower limit. But I am told that several much smaller engines have been built: "The late Jim Wilson of Miniature Steam Railways built a Stirling 2-2-2 in N scale [1:160]. The tender was the burner, and the loco ran off a single tiny oscillator. Jim made a train of three cars for it and a loop of track, and the thing would run for 20 minutes unattended!"

N-gauge saddle tanker Alistair Grant (Carnoustie Scotland) reported on Brian Caton's 009 live steamers -- 4mm scale (1:76) running on N gauge track. This little tram engine is meths fired and runs at around 15 psi. The boiler is silver-soldered copper and even has superheater coils. Brian also has another layout of the Isle of Man locos in live steam at 5.5mm to the foot. Edward Kompast of Austria sells a 4.5mm/ft scale live steamer modelled on a Welsh saddle tanker (photo).

Nigel Cliffe writes "The smallest live steamer I know of was 1:240 scale, by Arthur Sherwood. Sherwood spent a lot of time persuing the smallest live steam possible, starting at around 1:120 and getting smaller. See Live Steam in 1:240 by AA Sherwood, November 1973 Model Railways 540-43."

While we can all marvel at such enormously tiny accomplishments, most of us will never even see one, so this is the last time I'll mention them in this document.

What makes up a small-scale live steamer? They share the basic characteristics with all live steamers: they burn some sort of fuel to boil water and move cylinders. They may differ from electric trains in the same scale in that they typically have actual working parts such as valve gear, pressure gauges, relief valves, feedwater pumps, etc. (That is, the gauges show actual pressure, and the valve gear controls actual steam going into cylinders which really drive the wheels.) They may differ from larger live steamers in that their mechanical design is (often) simpler. Fuels are usually butane, methylated alcohol ("meths") or solid fuels (rare), while larger steamers tend to burn coal or fuel oil. Modeling detail spans a wide range: a live steamer will happily run with no more than a boiler, cylinders, valves and pushrods. Aster and others make super-detailed scale models. There are many other models which fall in between these extremes. The little live steamers typically pull rolling stock which is also seen behind large-scale electrics: LGB, Bachmann, scratch-built.

Diamond Enterprises/Yesteryear Toys have a nice article with a lightly technical explanation of how steam works to move vehicles. 

Aren't they very expensive? How much do they cost compared to electric model locomotives? First of all, we must set a level of comparison and expectation. Live steamers are, by necessity, made of metal -- copper boilers, steel frames, brass detail castings, etc. So to compare steamers with electrics, you must first choose comparable (brass) electrics, such as those from Precision Scale or Samhongsa. These electrics sell for several thousand dollars, and there is little reason to expect a live steamer with a similar level of workmanship to cost less. (In fact, Aster makes their steamers available in electric-powered versions. The electrics typically cost at least $100 more.)

Now, after that shock treatment, you won't think it outrageous to learn that live steamers may cost anywhere between $200 (US) and $20000. You will get what you pay for in terms of precise scale modeling, convenience features, performance, quality of materials and work, etc. But they are all basically variations on the same simple theme: burn something to boil water, use the compressed steam to move wheels.

There are many technical distinctions among live steamers which will affect both price and performance. For example: boiler types may be "flue", "pot-boiler", "porcupine", "Smithies", etc. Each of these represents a trade-off of construction complexity (and thus cost) vs. efficiency. Some locos have two steam cylinders, some only one. Those with one sometimes have dummy cylinders where they would be on a prototype, with the working cylinder between the frames. Cylinders may be fixed (with a wristpin on the driving rods) or oscillating (the driving rod is a single piece, and the cylinder moves to accommodate the movement of the attachment point on the driving wheel). Prices can range from a couple of hundred dollars (US) for a simple Mamod oscillating-cylinder loco to tens of thousands for a limited-edition, finescale Aster such as the Union Pacific Big Boy or the Beyer Garratt.

Inexpensive beginners' choices include the Mamod, Berkeley Loco Works' Cricket, and Brandbright's Jane. All these can be had for well under $500. If you can spend $1000-1500, you can have a well-detailed, fairly sophisticated locomotive -- and there is a large variety of shapes and sizes to choose from in this range. If you can afford to spend several thousand dollars, you can get almost anything you want in live steam.

You don't have to buy a new steam loco. There is also a good market for used live steamers. As people move up, leave the hobby, or just have to make room, good locos can be found. The best place to find one is by hanging around at clubs or steam-ups and talking to people. Let them know you're looking for a used engine. A lot of iron changes hands at the steam-ups and you'll almost certainly find something there. Several dealers also carry used equipment. In the US, West Lawn Locomotive Works and J&J Trains usually have a good variety of used steamers. And, of course, there are often ads in Steam in the Garden and Garden Railways magazines for used locos.

Peter Jones gives good advice on selecting a used locomotive in his Steam in the Garden article "Used ... or Abused?" (SitG v3n3, p. 8; reprints available from Sulphur Springs Steam Models). 

Are there generally different quality live steam engines from different manufacturers like in the electric engine world (i.e. LGB excellent and expensive, Aristo good and affordable, Bachmann 'less' good and very affordable, etc.)?

There is a large quality range in live steamers. Mamods are the "get what you pay for" specials of live steam -- very low entry cost, low performance and low reliability. Moving off the bottom, however, gets into good quality quickly. Brandbright's Jane -- a British quarry 0-4-0 type -- is a charming engine, a good runner and seems to be very well built. Price: about $300 (US). Berkeley Locomotive Works' geared industrial loco Cricket costs $499 (US). The Cricket's running time is somewhat limited, but it seems reliable, it's a good puller and it has a lot of visual appeal with a single vertical cylinder driving a counterweight and gears. Roundhouse makes good and relatively inexpensive locos and kits, which are excellent runners and very reliable. They range from around $1000 to $3000. Argyle's price niche starts just above Roundhouse, with more detailed locos at higher prices (they are good runners, too, but a little more temperamental from what I hear). There are several other manufacturers (for example Geoff Coldrick, Maxwell Hemmens) whose locos can be bought for not much more than a LGB Mogul with all the bells and whistles. LGB themselves offered a live steam loco, Frank S, a couple of years ago, and there are still new ones floating around various dealers' shops for around $1500. It was made by Aster and is an excellent performer.

Aster, like LGB, targets the upper end of the mass market -- their machines are well detailed and engineered and tend to acquire some collectible value on the basis of their limited production runs and the desirability of the prototype. Aster's upper end are superbly designed models. They are not always terrific performers, but not everyone who will spend $10000 or $15000 on a live steam loco wants to light a fire in it anyway. Then there are even smaller builders who make very small runs, usually by subscription, of various locos. These may or may not be extravagantly expensive. There were plans afoot last year to import a Korean 1:32 scale SP Consolidation, but they didn't get enough subscriptions to go into production. It was projected to cost only $3500, which is a terrific price for an all-brass locomotive of any type. Devon Locomotive Works is producing a small run of "Pocket" Climaxes, costing around $2500.

To summarize, most of the good quality live steamers available now -- good performers with features like reversing Walschaerts or Stephenson valve gear, radio control, feedwater pumps, finescale detail parts -- can be bought for between $1500 and $3500. Some can be bought new for $1000, some will cost $10000 or more. Low-end new engines can be had for $500 or less, and good used locos are sometimes as little as $500. Check the list of Manufacturers and Dealers for more information.

How is the pulling power of a live steam compared to an electric engine? Without having run any scientific tests, it's my gut feeling that steamers and electrics are about comparable. I have seen a single live steamer pull 20 or 30 cars, and I have also seen some electrics stall out with a load other locos would not even notice. As far as I know, no one has ever done any pulling tests on currently available live steamers, so there aren't any charts. As with everything, it depends on the loco.

In general, they will pull about the same number of cars, and at about the same speed, as electric models. Those who like realistic running speeds should note that steamers start and stop with more natural momentum than electrics, and they have good slow speeds.

I do notice, however, that live steamers tend to react more to grades than do electrics. This applies both to up grades -- they need more throttle, just like the real thing -- and to down grades -- they usually have a lot more weight, and they're not subject to resistive braking like electric motors are. This means that you may not be able to pull as many cars if you haven't been careful about the grades on your line, or it may simply require you to pay more attention to your engine and regulate the throttle as it moves over your line. (You should do this anyway -- steamers are interactive toys, not rolling aquariums.)

How long will a steamer run? To start, you must service a steamer before running, just as you would a real loco. This means filling the boiler (and the tender, if applicable) with water, filling the fuel tank with fuel, starting the fire, and lubricating the engine while the water is heating. The boiler is ready to move the engine in five minutes or so, depending on the size of the boiler, the type of burner and the operating pressure.

For an engine which carries all its supplies on board, a minimum run of 15 or 20 minutes seems to be typical. Those with tenders which actually carry fuel and water can run much longer, often an hour or more. Gas and alcohol tanks are designed (in most locos, though not all) to run out of fire before the boiler runs out of water. This prevents the potentially disastrous possibility of firing a dry boiler, which will ruin it at best and can be dangerous at worst.

Engines with larger fuel tanks will have water pumps which permit the addition of water to the boiler as the engine is running. Such a pump may be driven by a cam on an axle or it may be hand-operated. Some locos have blowdown valves which can be used to refill the boiler by vacuum: as the boiler cools, the condensing steam inside creates a vacuum which will draw water from a refill hose.

Given the ability to refuel and replenish the boiler, you may run the loco virtually indefinitely with occasional service stops. Typical "pit stop" time is a couple of minutes, depending on the loco, during which time the fuel and water may be replenished, the lubrication checked and the boiler heated again to running temperature.

Do live steamers have a faster, slower, or same top end speed? How do you control speed and direction? Almost all have throttles which control the amount of steam going out of the boiler and into the cylinders, and therefore the speed. Almost all have some sort of reversing mechanism, which will reset the valves to permit the loco to run backwards. (Some of these reversing gears can be lever- or radio-controlled, while the simpler ones -- the slip eccentric -- require pushing the engine backwards to set the valves to run backwards.)

Whether to use radio control or manual control is a philosophical question, not a technical one. There are two schools of thought on throttle control. One school hates to stoop while running to catch a moving loco in order to burn one's fingers on the hot metal of the throttle lever. This group tends towards modern radio control of the sort also seen on model racing cars and boats. The other school holds that steam is a venerable, but historical, technology. As such, it should not be burdened with anachronistic intrusions like R/C. Part of the total experience of running a steam engine, these folks feel, is to control the throttle yourself, just as on the real engines.

I'm not a mechanical genius. How can I run a real steam loco? Live steamers are more complicated than electric model locomotives, but operating one is much less complicated than driving a car, for example. You just have to learn the basics, either through reading, through watching and listening to others, or through trial-and-error experience, and then pay attention to what you're doing. Because of the relative complexity and expense of steam locomotives, it's usually a good idea to chat with someone who knows about them, or to do some learning about them, before buying one. Due to the niche role of this segment of the hobby, the dealers in live steam tend to be very helpful and willing to help you choose a steamer that fits your needs. Check the advertisements in Steam in the Garden and Garden Railways for live steam dealers. I have also compiled a list of manufacturers and dealers from the magazines' advertisers.

Can I build a steamer from scratch? Many live steam fans build their own locos from kits, commercial parts and castings, or from scratch. Scratchbuilding takes longer, of course, than buying a ready-to-run loco or a machined kit. But you understand the workings much more thoroughly, you receive the pleasure of creating an impressive little machine, and you save money. You can buy a steamer either with your money or your time, to quote Harry Wade. Several of the manufacturers and dealers listed offer their locos in kit form, or will sell parts you may incorporate into your own design. Roundhouse, Hemmens and Aster all offer build-it-yourself possibilities.

For beginners, a kit is generally recommended as an excellent way to learn about the workings of steam locomotives, while avoiding the complexities of metal machining work. Once you get the feel for how steamers go together, you are then in a much better position to start building one on your own.

Barry Leach of Cheltenham, UK writes "I would argue that most people starting in our hobby, and wanting to build a 'live steam' locomotive, do so not fully understanding how a locomotive works. They love steam locomotives and want one to fire ... but do not understand the intricacies(?) of the loco itself." Barry recommends sticking to published plans which have been proven to produce good locomotives.

I would also recommend Marting Evans' book The Model Steam Locomotive to anyone interested in building a live steamer, either from a kit or from scratch. While it assumes a basic understanding of the terminology and function of steam locomotives, it will get the novice deep into the issues involved in building a loco, and lead to a more informed decision about when, or whether, to start building from scratch.

Brandbright publishes a book by Peter Jones entitled "First Steps in Building a Steam Loco", which shows how to build an 0-4-0 tank engine using Roundhouse mechanical components. Unfortunately, many of the Roundhouse parts used by Jones are now obsolete, and the project can no longer be built as published. The basic approach is certainly still applicable, however, and I would recommend this book to anyone thinking about building a loco from kit and scratchbuilt parts. The full-sized plans for frames and bodywork can be modified to mate with the current Roundhouse builder's parts with little difficulty.

There are, regrettably, relatively few plans available for small live steamers. Those that do exist are mostly of British prototypes, and are aimed at experienced machinists rather than beginners. Marc Horovitz commented on this situation:
"In olden days, both in the US and Britain, people were more oriented toward the kind of technology that it takes to build steam locos. Back in those days Sears and Wards sold metal lathes off the floor of the hardware department, and it wasn't at all uncommon for people to have small ones tucked away in their garages. Back then a project like the ones the British call "beginner" projects were reasonable for people to start out on. If a person didn't finish his engine in a month, or six months, or a year, it was still all right because life was slower moving and people's expectations were lower, or at least more realistic. Today, in our instant-gratification electronic age, these skills and attitudes are, for the most part, gone. [Buying a kit for your first loco] is, I think, an ideal way for the nonmachinist to go. If he is still in love with it afterward, then maybe it's time to take the next step and look at lathes."

Here is a list of plans for small-scale steamers which will give you a basis for starting your own loco project. 

Where can I find "meths" for my alcohol-burning loco?
From the Concise Oxford Dictionary:

v.t. Mix, impregnate, (esp. sprit of wine, to make it unfit for drinking, so as to exempt it from duties) with methyl alcohol, as ~d spirit.
There is some confusion (in the US, at least, where we are separated from our British cousins by a common language) about what "meths" is. The term does not refer to methyl alcohol, or methanol. This misconception has led many a live steam beginner on a fool's errand in search of methanol, which has become quite difficult to find from common sources. Luckily, "meths" is a shortening of "methylated spirits", known also as "denatured alcohol". The denaturing agent (methanol in this case) is added to prevent the ethanol in it from being used (or taxed) as an intoxicant. Thus, the primary ingredient of meths is ethyl alcohol, also known as grain alcohol or ethanol, and sold widely in pharmacies and liquor stores (180 proof).

If you can afford the stuff from the liquor store, it will work fine. But you'll economize if you get it from a pharmacist. You can also use propanol (usually labeled "isopropyl alcohol") as a fuel. This is widely sold as "rubbing alcohol", but beware of buying propanol with additives such as glycerine, which will coat your boiler and reduce its efficiency. Any alcohol bought for a steam locomotive burner should be 90% alcohol (all alcohols absorb a little water from the atmosphere, so you can't get 100% alcohol).

Finally, I have heard that there are some people who swear that methanol is the only way to go. Advantage: it burns hotter than ethanol. Disadvantage: it's a nasty poison. Recommended equipment for its use are goggles, rubber apron, gloves and a vent hood. The standard warning labels on methanol containers read

                                 POISON DANGER
                              HARMFUL IF INHALED
                         CANNOT BE MADE NON-POISONOUS
This was taken from the Materials Safety Data Sheet for methanol. How much is that little bit of extra heat worth...? 

Is there any way to tell when my alcohol has spilled and is on fire? I have burned the couplers off my favorite car, and burned up a lot of ties on the track. Well, you're not alone in this. Dr. Dick Stein tells a hilarious story about setting the washing machine on fire while stoking one of his little steamers. (It's only funny because nothing was damaged, however.) And we have burned off a few couplers, too. Alcohol flames are almost invisible, especially outdoors where there is a lot of ambient light. Often, the first sign of wayward fire is the bubbling of the paint on your locomotive, or the melting of the plastic parts on the cars behind.

Live Steamers Mailing List members to the rescue: adding a pinch of baking soda to your alcohol bottle puts just enough sodium in the fuel to color the flame yellow. This makes the flame much more visible, and therefore safer. The sodium adds color, but does not affect the heat of the flame.

I should be noted, however, that many people adjust their wicks by looking at the shape and color of the flame. When doing this, yellow indicates a cold flame, and blue indicates a hot flame. Keep this fact in mind when trimming your wicks. 

Where can I find less expensive butane? Those cigarette lighter refills are driving me bankrupt! Many people with butane-fired locos start off fueling them with little canisters made for Ronson brand cigarette lighters. These are widely available at tobacconists and (at least in the US) in the tobacco section of many supermarkets.

If you're using cigarette lighter refill cartridges for butane, you are undoubtedly spending too much on butane. Since you may not be driving the engine a long, long way, this may be an acceptable expense. There are many different sources for bulk butane which are less expensive, but you may have a lot more trouble finding them.

The most common source (at least in the US) of butane in larger quantities is a sports or outdoor supplies store. There are several camping stoves and lamps which burn butane in canisters of various sizes (I have seen them in 6 oz., 250 ml, 500 ml, etc.). Some cans will have some propane (up to 20%) mixed with the butane. This mixture works well in small locos, but do not attempt to use pure propane, as its increased vapor pressure may cause various operational and safety problems.

The butane cartridges will have outlets which mate with the stove or lamp, but not with your locomotive. You can get adapters from several sources: Roundhouse Engineering, West Lawn Locomotive Works, Kevin O'Connor. Check the Manufacturers and Dealers listing for addresses. 

What is the difference between distilled and deionized water? Can I use deionized water in my boiler? Do not use deionized water in your boiler! Use only distilled water in your small-scale steam boiler. Your engine will run on deionized water or even ordinary tap water. But there are problems with each of these which we should avoid.

Tap water contains minerals which will stay behind when you boil the water out of the boiler. When you run your steam engine, you are in essence distilling the water in the boiler. What comes out the regulator is pure water vapor, and the minerals are left behind in your boiler as scale. When you use distilled water in the boiler, there is nothing left when you're finished.

Scale reduces the boiler's ability to transfer heat to the water, and thus reduces the efficiency of your engine. Eventually, the lines may become so clogged with scale that you can't get any steam out of the boiler at all. Operators of larger engines can sometimes remove the scale physically by scraping or brushing. We have no such small scrapers and brushes, though. Scale can sometimes be removed by boiling vinegar or some other very weak acid in the boiler. This should not be considered a desirable alternative to using distilled water, however. Stick with distilled water and you won't have to worry about mineral scale.

Deionized water contains no ions, which means it has had the chemically reactive molecules removed. If put into contact with metals, however, it will happily take on new ions, with disastrous results. Mike Chaney wrote about the effect of using deionized water at a UK exhibition:

After about a weeks running some of the loco boilers started to "weep", although they had been properly tested and certified. An investigation showed that the silver soldered joints were failing because the water was trying to grab back ions from any metal with which it came into contact. Copper, zinc and silver were found to be particularly susceptible.
Moral: for the long-term health of your boiler, avoid deionized water!

Bob Stiegler wrote

I bought two measuring devices at the local wholesale nursery supply co. One measures pH, the other total water hardness. I tried them out on collected rainwater, and measured 7.5 pH (neutral) and approx 5 ppm total hardness (verrrrrry soft). Not having the facilities for collecting large amounts of rainwater (and having no way to collect any rainwater whatsoever when its snowing), I bought some bottled water. It was also neutral and sufficiently soft, but expensive. I then saw something called an RO (reverse osmosis) watermaker in a tropical fish supply catalog. Not cheap ($200.00, approx), but very effective (7.5 pH, 1 ppm total hardness). It takes a couple of hours to fill a 7.5 gallon water bottle. My plants thrived, and I didn't go bankrupt buying soft neutral water.
While this is a bit too expensive to be justified by the the average small-scale live steamer, it's something which could be attractive for a club to buy as a group. Or, if you keep tropical plants or fish, you might well get enough use of it to justify one yourself. 

The instructions call for use of steam-engine oil. Can I use a locally-purchased oil, as for a car? You do not want to use motor oil in a steam system. There are several reasons for this: first, the temperatures and pressures in a steam engine require a much thicker oil than an automobile engine. The viscosity of steam oil is between 200 and 600 weight, compared with 30 or 40 weight for autos. Second, motor oil has detergents and other additives which will carbonize in a steam line and fill the passageways with ash. If this happens in a car, you can give it a "hotrod tuneup" by racing the engine vigorously enough that the temperature and ferocity of the combustion blows the carbonization away. (At least, that's the theory.) You can not do this in a steamer, so you must prevent it -- use only steam cylinder oil for your engine!

If you can't find any place locally which will sell you steam oil in small quantities, many of the dealers in the dealers listing carry it. You can buy small bottles for a couple of dollars; Sulphur Springs Steam Models offer it for US$5 per quart. 

A related pursuit? Internal combustion locomotives. For those interested in going to completely self-contained (and prototypical) power sources, the "large scale" live steam community (1:12 or 1:8 scale) have been running gas-electric or diesel-electric locomotives for some years. These are now starting to appear in the smaller scales, too. In 1984, Dr. Paul Frenger wrote an article in Garden Railways (Vol. 1, No. 1) on building a hydraulic transmission suitable for powering model trains with small internal combustion engines -- a gas-mechanical locomotive. It is also possible to drive a small generator with a similar engine to produce electricity. Such locos duplicate modern diesels in their operation: an internal combustion engine provides power to drive an electric generator in the locomotive cab, which in turn powers the traction motors which drive the locomotive's wheels.

The earliest mention I have found of this idea in the model railroading press is an article in the June 1974 issue of the British Model Railways magazine. In an marvelous three-part series entitled "It can't be done!", Robert Symes Schutzmann and Stewart Hine show in stunning detail how they took a brass gauge 1 loco shell and turned it into a living, working Diesel-electric locomotive. (Apparently this was preceded by a diesel-hydraulic some years earlier.) They proved, of course, that it could be done, but for years no one undertook to follow in their footsteps, perhaps due to the intimidating intricacy of their model.

In the July 1978 Model Railroader magazine published an article entitled "The possibilities of live diesel-electric". While author Charles Rakiecz includes convincing drawings of the prime mover for a loco in 1:48 scale, he apparently did nothing more than experiment with his idea. He seems to have been unaware of the Schutzmann-Hine engine.

Dave Watkins produced a charming little Diesel-mechanical switching engine (humorously named Detritus). It is radio-controlled and uses a real Diesel engine with a mechanical clutch. You can read about it on his Web site at

And there's a similar engine -- narrow-gauge, British prototype gas-mechanical -- which was produced in a limited run by IMP Models a few years back.

WadaWorks GP-9 At the 1995 Diamondhead Steam-Up, Mr. Kosaku Wada of the Yokohama Live Steamers club (Japan) showed a gauge 1 internal combustion loco using an engine developed for radio controlled helicopters. The prototype is converted from an LGB European box-cab diesel model, and is a smooth runner and a strong puller. Mr. Wada produces these under the name WadaWorks. His first production model is a high-hood GP-9, and started shipping in December 1995. (Photo.)

Simon England wrote an article in the July, 1996 G1MRA Newsletter (pp. 21-26) describing how he took a brass class 40 BR diesel -- also known as a "Deltic" -- and fitted it with an Irvine 20 Diesel engine, using an R/C airplane starter motor as a starter/generator. Details on getting back issues of the Newsletter and joining the G1MRA may be found in the clubs and associations listing. There have been a couple of other articles on live diesels in the G1MRA Journal and Newsletter since then, so the subject continues to appeal to the hardy few.

Other good sites for basic information on small scale steamers:

Go to next section (How to Get Started in Small Scale Live Steam).
Go to table of contents.

Compiled and © copyright 1995-2011 by: Vance R. Bass. Please use any and all information contained herein for your hobby enjoyment. If you're going to make money from it, talk to me first.

Last updated: 5 July 2011