A streamlined black boiler with a headlight at the tip dwarfs the 5th wheel trailer and secondary trailer it is attached to.

Bringing A Steam Train Back From Extinction

There’s no denying that while railroads have switched to diesel and electric as their primary power sources, there’s a certain allure to the age of steam. With that in mind, a group of Pennsylvania train fans are bringing the alleged fastest steam train back from extinction.

It takes real dedication to build a 428-ton device from scratch, but these rail aficionados seem to have it in spades. Armed only with the original blueprints and a lot of passion, this team has already finished construction of the boiler and nose of the Class T1 replica which is no small feat. This puts the train at approximately 40% complete.

Some changes are planned for the locomotive including a change to fuel oil from coal and replacing the poppet valves prone to failure with camshaft-driven rotary valves. While not original hardware, these changes should make the train more reliable, and bring the world record for the fastest steam locomotive within reach. If the T1 replica can reach the 140 MPH storied of the originals, it will smash the current record of 126 MPH held by a British train, the A4 Mallard, which would be exciting indeed.

Speaking of Pennsylvania and steam, a trip to Scranton is a must for anyone interested in the age of rail.

Steamy Hack Chat Vents Some High Pressure Wisdom

Ask the average person about steam power and they’ll probably imagine a bygone era, a time when the sky was thick with smoke belched out by coal-burning locomotives and paddle-wheel ships. Steam is ancient technology they’ll say, and has as much to do with modern living as the penny-farthing.

Naturally, the real story is a bit more complex than that. Sure the reciprocating steam engine has fallen out of favor as a means of propulsion, but the concept of running machinery with steam is alive and well. In fact, unless you’re running on wind or solar power, there’s an excellent chance that a steam turbine is responsible for keeping the lights on in your house.

In honor of all things steam, we invited Quinn Dunki to host this week’s Hack Chat. Those who follow her exploits on YouTube will know that over the last several years she’s built a number of steam engines, from miniature scratch-built models to commercial kits that can do useful work. Who better to answer your burning steaming questions?

The first questions in the Chat were logical enough, with several users wanting to know just how hard it is to build a functional steam engine if you don’t have access to a mill or other means of high precision machining. According to Quinn, while better equipment will certainly allow you to build a more powerful and efficient engine, the basic premise is so simple that it doesn’t take much to get one going. If you’ve got a mini lathe and some bar stock, you’re half way there. In fact, they are so forgiving that she opines you’d struggle to build a steam engine that didn’t at least turn over — though that doesn’t mean it will necessarily run well.

Naturally some comparisons were drawn between the complexity of building a steam engine and putting together a small internal combustion engine (ICE). But while they might seem conceptually similar, Quinn cautions that building a working ICE from scratch is far more difficult and dangerous. She explains that steam engines have a tendency to fail gracefully, that is, mistakes in the design or poor tolerances generally result in little worse than wasted steam and extra noise. Comparatively, a faulty ICE design could easily turn into a bomb on your workbench.

Of course, that’s not to say working with steam is without danger. You certainly don’t want to underestimate high pressure steam, which is why boilers that are over 6 in (15 cm) in diameter or that produce more than 100 PSI will often require the operator to be licensed. They may also need to be inspected, though Quinn notes that your local government official probably won’t be able to make heads or tails of your homebrew build — so if you need an official stamp of approval, your best bet is to find a local model engineering club or society that would have the appropriate connections. All that being said, most hobbyists make it a point to try and get their engine running at the lowest pressure possible, so unless you’ve got something really massive in mind, you’ll probably never need to build up more than 60 PSI or so.

A DIY electric boiler and small steam engine.

Another topic of discussion was how to fuel the boiler itself. An electrically powered boiler is perhaps the easiest option, but is somewhat counterproductive if you hope to put your steam engine to useful work. Coal and wood fires are an option, and indeed were commonly used in the old days, but the soot and ash they produce can be a problem.

Quinn also notes that if you’re using such fuels, you need a way to quickly remove the firebox from the boiler in an emergency; something she likens to the starship Enterprise having to eject its warp core before it explodes. For her own projects, Quinn says she uses either an electric element or a camping gas burner.

While most of the questions during this Hack Chat had to do with the work Quinn has already featured on her blog and YouTube channel, naturally there were questions about where things go from here. After she completes the steam engine kit she’s working on currently, she says she’ll likely to back to another scratch-built engine. She also plans on coupling some of her engines to generators, as she’s gotten many requests about seeing these machines put to useful work. Looking further ahead Quinn says she’s interested in casting her own bronze and aluminum components, and specifically wants to work with “lost PLA” casting, which is a variant of lost wax casting that uses a mold based on a 3D printed part.

We’d like to thank Quinn Dunki for stopping by the Hack Chat and sharing some insights into this unique hobby. While a handcrafted boiler or a desktop steam reciprocating engine might not be on the average Hackaday reader’s list of future projects, it’s still fascinating to see how they work. We owe much of our modern life to steam power, so the least we can do is show it some respect.


The Hack Chat is a weekly online chat session hosted by leading experts from all corners of the hardware hacking universe. It’s a great way for hackers connect in a fun and informal way, but if you can’t make it live, these overview posts as well as the transcripts posted to Hackaday.io make sure you don’t miss out.

The interior of a failed boiler.

Fail Of The Week: Learning How Not To Silver Solder

Sure, there are subtleties, but by and large it’s pretty easy to pick up soldering skills with a little practice. But wait! Not all soldering is created equal, and as [Quinn Dunki] learned, silver soldering is far harder to get right.

Granted, the job [Quinn] is working on is much more demanding than tacking some components to a PCB. She has been building a model steam engine, a task fit to put anyone’s machining skills to the test. And a steam engine needs a boiler, which is where the silver soldering comes in. As she explains in the video below, silver soldering, or “hard” soldering, uses solder that melts at a much higher temperature than “soft” solders like we’re used to in electronics. That’s a big advantage in the heat and pressure of a boiler, but it does pose some problems, many of which [Quinn] managed to discover as she tried to assemble her copper beast.

It turns out that heating a big hunk of copper evenly without burning off the flux actually isn’t that easy, though you can’t say she didn’t give it the old college try. In the process, she managed to share a number of tidbits that were really interesting, like the fact that drawing acetylene from a tank too fast can be dangerous, or that model steam boilers have to be certified by qualified inspectors. In the end, her boiler couldn’t be salvaged, and was put to the saw to determine the problem, which seems to be her initial choice of heating with oxyacetylene; after that initial failure, there was little she could do to save the boiler.

As [Quinn] says, “Failure is only failure if you don’t learn from it.” And so it may be a bit unfair to hang “Fail of the Week” on this one, but still — she has to go back to the beginning on the boiler. And we already know that model steam engines aren’t easy.

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Arduino Reduces Heating Costs

While almost everyone has a heater of some sort in their home, it’s fairly unlikely that the heat provided by a central heating system such as a furnace is distributed in an efficient way. There’s little reason to heat bedrooms during the day, or a kitchen during the night, but heating systems tend to heat whole living space regardless of the time of day or the amount of use. You can solve this problem, like most problems, with an Arduino.

[Karl]’s build uses a series of radiator valves to control when each room gets heat from a boiler. The valves, with a temperature monitor at each valve, are tied into a central Arduino Mega using alarm wiring. By knowing the time of day and the desired temperature in each room, the Arduino can control when heat is applied to each room and when it is shut off, presumably making the entire system much more efficient. It also has control over the circulating pump and some of the other boiler equipment.

Presumably this type of system could be adapted to a system which uses a furnace and an air handler as well, although it is not quite as straightforward to close vents off using a central unit like this as it is to work with a boiler like [Karl] has. With careful design, though, it could be done. Besides replacing thermostats, we can’t say we’ve ever seen this done before.

Thanks to [SMS] for the tip!

Retrotechtacular: The Art Of The Foundry

Mention the term “heavy industry” and the first thing to come to mind might well be the metal foundry. With immense machines and cauldrons of molten metal being shuttled about by crane and rail, the image of the foundry is like a scene from Dante’s Inferno, with fumes filling a vast impersonal factory, and sparks flying through the air. It looks like a dangerous place, as much to the soul as to the body, as workers file in each day to suffer mindlessly at the hearths and ladles, consumed in dirty, exhausting work even as it consumes them.

Things are not always as they appear, of course. While there’s no doubting the risks associated with working in a foundry such as the sprawling Renfrew works of Babcock and Wilcox Ltd. in the middle of the previous century, as the video below shows the work there was anything but mindless, and the products churned out by the millions from this factory and places like it throughout the world were critical to today’s technology.

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Suffer No Substitutes — The Hudspith Steam Bicycle Is One-Of-A-Kind

In a bit of punky, steam-based tinkering, Brittish engineer [Geoff Hudspith]’s obsession for steam and passion for cycles fused into the Hudspith Steam Bicycle.

Built and improved over the past thirty years, the custom steam engine uses a petrol and kerosene mix for fuel, reaching a top speed of 32km/h and has a range of 16km on one tank of water. While in motion, the boiler is counter-balanced by the water tank on the rear as well as the flywheel, water pump, and the other components. However, [Hudspith] says he doesn’t have an easy go of it carrying the bike up the flight of stairs to his flat — as you can imagine. A steam whistle was fitted to the bike after insistence from others — and perhaps for safety’s sake as well, since it does take a bit of distance to stop the bike.

Many people have offered large sums for it — and at least one house in exchange for the bike — but [Hudspith] has held on to this one-of-a-kind steam-machine. A little more about the development of the bicycle can be read here! A video of the bike in action is waiting after the break.

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Brasilia Espresso Machine PID Upgrade Brews Prefect Cup Of Energy

Coffee, making and hacking addictions are just bound to get out of control. So did [Rhys Goodwin’s] coffee maker hack. What started as a little restoration project of a second-hand coffee machine resulted in a complete upgrade to state of the art coffee brewing technology.

coffee_hack_arduinoThe Brasilia Lady comes with a 300 ml brass boiler, a pump and four buttons for power, coffee, hot water and steam. A 3-way AC solenoid valve, wired directly to the buttons, selects one of the three functions, while a temperamental bimetal switch keeps the boiler roughly between almost there and way too hot.

To reduce the temperature swing, [Rhys] decided to add a PID control loop, and on the way, an OLED display, too. He designed a little shield for the Arduino Nano, that interfaces with the present hardware through solid state relays. Two thermocouples measure the temperature of the boiler and group head while a thermal cut-off fuse protects the machine from overheating in case of a malfunction.

Also, the Lady’s makeup received a complete overhaul, starting with a fresh powder coating. A sealed enclosure along with a polished top panel for the OLED display were machined from aluminum. [Rhys] also added an external water tank that is connected to the machine through shiny, custom lathed tube fittings. Before the water enters the boiler, it passes through a custom preheater, to avoid cold water from entering the boiler directly. Not only does the result look fantastic, it also offers a lot more control over the temperature and the amount of water extracted, resulting in a perfect brew every time. Enjoy [Rhys’s] video where he explains his build:

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