Steam-Powered Machine Shop

It’s sometimes hard to believe how stuff was made over a hundred years ago when electricity wasn’t widely available. One of the most common ways of powering tools was via belt drive — powered by a water mill, or a steam engine, or even horses. [David Richards] has spent a good chunk of time making his own period accurate steam powered machine shop — and it’s fantastic.

It represents approximately what a 1920’s machine shop would look like in America. Not a single tool is newer than 1925. The whole shop is powered by a line shaft using steam power. A massive boiler provides steam for a Pennsylvania built 5 by 5 steam engine, dating back to approximately 1895. Using belts and clutches, it powers a few lathes, drill presses, a mill, and even a shaper — an identical machine to one in the Edison Museum!

It’s truly incredible seeing how stuff used to be made, and seeing the dedication [David] put in to building this shop. He posts regularly to YouTube under his channel, we’d highly recommend you check it out.

68 thoughts on “Steam-Powered Machine Shop

      1. Line shaft belts dont need a whole lot of tension, it is the large surface area of the belt in contact with the pulley that does the work. They are just tight enough to keep them out of the way.

    1. WRONG sir: Recommend all the works of the late great Fred Dibnah, if you are not “into” engineering you should GAZE UPON HIS WORKS AND BE CONVERTED.

      The man’s an engineering hero.

  1. Amazing his 100yr old belts are still moving such big chunks of metal and providing enough torque to machine metal. It really is something special when someone puts the time, effort & cash into something like this just because he can and wanted too.

  2. 1920s machines? Obligatory “They don’t make ’em like they used to” comment.

    That’s a wonderful shop he’s got there. Hopefully he never needs to just drill a few quick holes

  3. Guess what? Steam power is still being used in high-tech environments… where? On board US Navy Submarines and Aircraft Carriers. The nuclear reactors produce steam to turn generators and operate heavy equipment like the steam catapult on a carrier deck. Also utility company nuclear power and natural gas plants do the same with steam. I personally think steam power was the greatest power invention ever. But you must totally respect steam as it can injure you instantly and badly.

    I think steam locomotives are fascinating. I wonder what fuel David uses to heat up the boiler. Natural gas I hope. Wood and coal is an air pollutant. Solar would be very unique.

    1. I watched the video. He uses wood. Ugh! He also has Knob and Tube aluminum wiring. How the heck does his insurance company underwrite that shop? In Connecticut he’d have to deal with annoyed neighbors for him aggravating their allergies due to wood burning exhausts. I guess his insurance inspector hasn’t paid him a loss prevention visit lately. Most people have the boiler in an outbuilding away from the domicile. They have computer controlled regulators and fire extinguishing equipment nearby. The exhaust should have a diffuser to mitigate fumes reaching people downwind.

      I know he wants to preserve the 1920’s, but theirs a reason why most people don’t do things the old way any more. It’s called life safety and progress, I like his shop but it needs some safety recommendations from his liabilty insuranc carrier..

      1. Wow, you would be one hell of a neighbor. There are actually quite a few steam powered shops still around, at least one was featured here.

        Lots of people burn wood in their fireplaces, this is no different.

        Boilers are required to be tested by most areas, I am sure he has his tested too. I dont see why he needs liability insurance any more than anyone else does on their home shop. If someone’s bottle of acetylene in the garage goes off it will be just as bad as this.

        1. Gas bottles are tested as well. Liability insurance is a good idea for this man as would be a foranyone with gas bottles in their home shop. No lives in complete isolation.

          1. Simple static testing just requires filling cold with water so there is no air present, then using the pump to pressurize the boiler to the desired pressure. If it leaks it leaks, no explosion!

        2. No I would not be a neighbor but maybe an inspector. Most insurance companies would not underwrite his place without UL approved equipment and fire fighting equipment. The knob and tube I hope is dormant and only a show piece. He needs romex. bx, or conduit. Fireplaces are a problem too if they are not cleaned and flue is inspected annually by a chimney sweep. A boiler adds an extra dimension of danger due to explosion risk.

          Garages and weld shops are required by fire marshal and insurance company to secure their welding gasses in a safe manner. I’ve seen commercial grade wood burning boilers but they were located in an out building or a garage with remote electronic monitoring. I’ve seen exhaust stacks with smoke diffusers, David is just pumping soot into the air with no regard for his neighbors.

          Notice that this boiler is in his basement? Is he using CO detectors upstairs and near the boiler? I’d have to fail him on 21st century safety. Very quaint setup and very attractive. But I’m sorry to say a safety hazard waiting to happen.

      2. So you noticed you seen knob and tube wiring, but you aren’t there to make an assessment of it. Knob an tube isn’t inherently dangerous if the material are in good condition and sized for the load. The man has a considerable investment, why would you believe he would risk it. My mom’s home still has knob and tube in some places, but they aren’t high current circuits. Do I wish it wasn’t there, sure, but I’m not going to fear monger her in into making an investment she cant earn back on the sale of the home. The home is old with solid structure yet, but is doesn’t allow the sort of remodeling that most now wan or central air A conundrum I don’t enjoy being aware of. Until she starts looking for excuses to make the decision to move into subsidized easir housing for the elderly I I’m not saying anything anything more than I have already. I’m I’m disabled myself so I can’t do the although such work was part of my livelihood in the past.

        1. Knob and tube wiring is an old method of using aluminum wiring covered in cloth and separated by ceramic knobs and tubes. It generally can only handle less than 20-amps of current and above that tends to get hot an catches on fire. Also these people use old glass fuses and such. Trust me I’ve seen my share of below-code K&T, aluminum, and old defective StabLok fuse boxes. They all get FAILED and loose their insurance coverage. Yes people still insist on doing this trying to save money and not lives!

          Dave is free to do as he wishes with his electrical wiring and fire hazards. However, I hope he doesn’t expect his insurance company to foot the bill for a massive loss or claim. I can’t see how his local fire marshal is all the happy with the setup either. Maybe he hasn’t been out there yet.He’s going to get a huge fine for lack of CO detectors in a domicile with a fossil fuel source in basement.

          Please don’t tell me Dave is in Southern New England! I’d hate to be his inspector. I love to give everybody a break but this is too much.

          1. Knob and tube used copper wire. As long as the system has not been compromised, loads kept in check ( 15 amp circuits) , all joints are soldered, and the wires never touch .

      3. I like his shop but it needs some safety recommendations from his liabilty insurance carrier..

        Yeah, that’s exactly what he needs. And doesn’t he know about the internet? It’s cheaper to just buy parts from China instead of making them.

        1. t-bone – I hope you’re not being sarcastic as yes he does need property and general liability insurance. EVERYBODY does if you can’t afford to pay out of pocket for huge losses due to fire, etc.

          I hate to admit it but I do buy from China directly despite that everything is already made there anyway. David hand made that boiler? That means he has a welding setup somewhere nearby. You can see the weld joints. He did an excellent job of it too.

          Believe it or not I know baby-boomers today who still refuse to get on the Internet. I think they are called LUDDITES.

      4. Knob and tube properly maintained is safer than modern wiring. With the conductors separated it dissipates the heat better, and there is less chance of the wires shorting to each other. The problem is the breakdown of the old insulation that makes it unsafe.

      5. Well, it’s now 4 years after your comments and nothing catastrophic has happened to Dave Richards’ shop.
        A few salient points.

        1. The premises are NOT a domicile, it is in fact the former stable for a hotel across the street that no longer exists and is zoned for running his business.

        2. The area where the boiler and and machinery are placed is NOT a basement but is the back end of the premises. It’s ground level and the building has street frontage.

        3. The front of the building is where Dave manages his other business of rebuilding engines and reconditioning heads using very modern equipment. Although, he has recently extended his line shaft to this area to run a vintage planer.

        4. The area above the boiler (up the stairs) was a storage area for the old stables and Dave continues to us it for storage.

        5. The boiler is not home made, but is a vintage industrial boiler that Dave has restored (including replacing fire tubes) and is inspected yearly by the appropriate authorities as required by statute.

        6. Everything Dave does is done in a tradesman like and professional manner including his obligations to the law of the land.

      1. You don’t say. I never knew that. I always wondered where all of the supply & maintenance trucks and vans where all hidden at DW. Come to find out hey have an underground system of ventilated service tunnels that leads from a service road at the exterior to all over the park; but underneath.

  4. YES! I love this!! I actually gasped in excitement when I saw this from my HaD RSS reader and perked up.

    I *love* this exact thing. Lineshafting and belt powered stuff makes me happier than most things. It is my
    personal dream someday to own a fully lineshafted machine shop run in a restored water mill somewhere
    here in PA.

    I know it’s not a hack, but doing machining like this, kinda is nowadays. If you’ve never seen pictures of
    one of these types of shops and you don’t find it beautiful, then I don’t know what to say.

    I know these full on non-electric shops exist, and at least one somewhere in Maryland does actually produce
    parts commercially, but I never see stuff like this. For some reason, people who own them are not well
    connected to the internet on this stuff, so finding real pictures & video of them and details is really difficult.

    I am saving this in full and his youtube channel to enjoy slowly this weekend. You guys made my week!
    More of these, please, even if it’s not quite a hack!

    1. Yes I live in Southern New England USA and we have a lot of old shops that used water power and such back in 19th century. What gets me is that we had so many gun manufacturers here in Connecticut and Massachusetts and they all used water power to bore barrels! I’d love to see a Winchester manufactured back then. I live near Colt Firearms and I’d love to see their operations.

      My only exposure to steam-power today was a tour of a nuclear boomer submarine down in Connecticut. What an amazing tour that was. Also got to tour the first nuclear sub ever too. But alas the USN doesn’t do that any more after that tragic civilian accident in Hawaii. And Colt will never allow tours either. So many people don’t allow tours any more. I’d love to get into Coca-Cola bottling and see the process. I even was turned away from a government place in northern Virginia once thinking they allowed tours still. They said they USED to do that but not any more.

      1. Not surprised that the gun manufacturers aren’t doing tours any more. If you want to know why American based business are so closed off from the public these days. Google GIBSOM GUITARS SWAT RAIDED BY FEDS and read about how an American icon was raided by an armed SWAT team (not once but several times) because it used some wood in its raw form (unprocessed) instead of buying the wood already processed by an over seas manufacturer. This is not unlike the mob busting in and tearing up a small business owners shop because he paid for product from the source (i.e. a farmer or factory) instead of getting it from a mob approved middle man. Granted the government uses a lot of fancy legalese to make it sound like as if its protecting the planet/mother nature. But even if GIBSON was breaking the law is it really a good use of tax payer dollars to send in armed SWAT team for this kind of activity?

        Why then would the Feds use an armed SWAT raid for something insignificant like this? To set the precedence of using armed SWAT for any and all activity.

        1. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service does not have SWAT teams. Gibson was guilty of “mislabeling” rosewood shipments for importing from India and Madagascar under false pretenses. That’s called “smuggling”. They ostensibly violated the Lacey Act of 1900 which was amended in 2008 to cover wood imports. Gibson did pay heavy fines but never admitted guilt. The matter is now turning into a political football.

    1. Yeah- thank you! That’s the one in MD. Met them at the Cabin Fever Expo this year, it seems like a really nice place I have to go see that. Before this one, that was the only other I knew of as functional and running

  5. Our shop used to have this, the holes in all the overhead beams show. Most of it probably went to the war effort as scrap. We still have the hanging enameled lights and the ceiling is dark wood not the cheerful white paint in his shop. That good of lighting wasn’t around then. Think one tenth of the lumins.
    Loud? I had to get up and go to the amp and turn it way up after the music intro. If there is no way to run up the audio from a single device recorder, never speak more than 3 feet (1M) from the mic. Yell instead. I could hear the mourning doves cooing. A wood shop will be much noisier. Then you will yell if the compressor is running or any tools are running.

    1. Uhhhh… no. The only people who will literally crawl up his keester is the local fire department inspectors. He will have huge fines for violating local fire codes and other stuff. The cops won’t care as it’s just an innocent accident. DHS definitely won’t give two craps about it. And don’t worry about the NSA. Dave is probably a LUDDITE and doesn’t have an Internet connection. He probably only has an old 500 set rotary dial phone on a AT&T analog line. The only Muslims he sees are probably Abdhul at the local 7-11 when he needs a Big Gulp. No that’s not racist. It’s true! :-)

      1. Pal, you must be a drongo. Dave a LUDDITE?. He has a you-tube channel if you read the article correctly. It was my understanding that you NEED an internet connection to upload content to the site. Maybe he still uses 8mm or 16mm home movies, has them developed , and sends them by UPS to some address in Retardistan to have them converted on an old IBM mainframe

  6. And that power output is a massive step forward on what existed before. On an old episode of the show Time Team, they excavated an old watermill from about the 18th century. When they found the wheel, an expert measured it up and did some quick calculations on its output. About 7 horse power. That’s roughly 5kw. So that whole building wouldn’t have been enough to run a modern kettle and toaster at the same time.

  7. Wow I love assuming…
    Why are we assuming the knob and tube is aluminum? I’ve never ran across aluminum knob and tube before. It looks like the safest knob and tube installation I’ve ever seen. On the surface, nice and square, and no way for a homeowner to put insulation up against it. Not that it meets present day code or anything but may meet the code of the day it was installed.
    Why are we assuming the boiler is in his house? Maybe his shop is extra special and has a bonus room up top
    Why are we assuming he’s belching smoke to his neighbors? What neighbors? Maybe he lives in the country…

    1. Well “ASSUMPTIONS” based on video evidence is all we have. Back then COPPER proved to be too expensive especially in Depression Era (1929+). Aluminum was cheaper and a lot easier to be malleable. It’s a good conductor just like copper but doesn’t handle thermal-runaway to well. Since K&T goes through bore holes made in joists it makes it an excellent fire hazard. Agreed copper is mainly used in K&T though. Agreed Dave’s K&T looks pretty nice. But the insurance underwriters are pretty gun-shy about it. They hate it and would probably cancel his policy and force him to go to Lloyd’s who will insure anybody or anything for the right ridiculous price.

      The shop APPEARS to be in his basement because of the nicely shellacked banister to the stairway behind the boiler. I ASSUMED that as I never have seen that in a all commercial structure only in a mixed-habitational structure. Whatever, the bonus room would still need a CO detector if anyone resides or sleeps up there.

      The belching smoke is never good even if closest neighbor is a mile away. But yes I was ASSUMING he was in a rural residential area. Just seemed to be likely for Americans like Dave may be. I assumed he was American too. I do like Dave’s setup, I just think his insurance company and fire marshal would not.

  8. OK I did a little more probing after being accused of making too many unfounded ASSUMPTIONS, Turns out there was 2 ABC fire extinguishers noted in the video, but a possible acetylene bottle right behind the boiler at time-stamp 13:33. I think the K&T wiring was just for show as Dave has lots of 3-prong outlets with wall conduit (probably contains romex or bx inside).

    David Richards automobile “machine shop” is a commercial business in south central New York. He runs it out of his outbuilding behind the house (a converted 2-story house). The outbuilding MAY have a “bonus room” upstairs. The operation is near the downtown section of this small town and is clearly a heavily residential area with mixed commercial and residential structures. His closest neighbor is only several feet away. It is not a agricultural-zoned area but you can clearly hear a rooster in the background. Don’t know if it’s his or a neighbor’s.

    It’s still a very nice shop though. In 1830 the first steam saw mill built by Chester Patterson and Jonathan Day was in Dave’s town. Here is a video of Dave on TV NEWS show about his love of dragsters and cars:

    Yes I’m clearly NOT normal :-P

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