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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Liquid Nitrogen Isn’t Suitable For Steam Engines

Liquid nitrogen is fun stuff to play with, as long as you’re careful and avoid freezing your own fingers off and shattering them on the workbench. As the liquid turns to gaseous nitrogen at around -196 C, [The Action Lab] figured that it could be used to propel a simple steam engine at room temperature. Testing this out had amusing results.

The device under test is a Hero’s Engine, otherwise known as an aeolipile. This consists of a hollow sphere filled with water, fitted with a series of nozzles that shoot out steam when the vessel is heated. Via the rocket principle, this causes the device to rotate about its axis.

When filled with water and heated with a candle, the aeolipile spun at up to 2520 RPM. [The Action Lab] next tested it filled with water in a vacuum chamber, with the low pressure causing the water to boil at room temperature. The effect was less impressive however, with the engine spinning at a much slower rate.

The best result was with liquid nitrogen inside the engine. With the nitrogen quickly boiling at room temperature, the aeolipile quickly spun up to a great speed. The engine stand had to be steadied to avoid it tipping over, before the seal at the top of the engine blew off from overpressure.

We’d love to see the same experiment done with a piston-type steam engine, too. Video after the break.

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Staged Train Wrecks: An Idea That Ran Out Of Steam

Before there were demolition derbies, there were train totalings. That’s right, somebody had the idea to take a couple of worn-out train engines that were ready for the scrap heap, point them at each other, and drive them full steam ahead. And their boss said capital idea, let’s do it. This was the late 1890s.

Maybe it wasn’t the safest way to spend an evening, but a staged train wreck was surely an awesome spectacle to behold. Imagine being one of the brave engineers who had no choice but to get the train going as fast as possible and then jump out at the last second. A demolition derby seems like child’s play by comparison.

The largest and most widely-publicized wreck was put on by a man named William George Crush who was trying to find new ways to promote the Missouri-Kansas-Texas passenger railway. Once he got the okay, Crush found a large field surrounded by three hills that made for excellent viewing. He stood up a temporary town complete with a circus tent restaurant, a wooden jail cell, and 200 rent-a-constables.

On September 15th, 1896, forty thousand people gathered to watch two trains collide along a section of purpose-built track. They hit each other going 50 mph (80 km/h) and both engines exploded, sending hot iron projectiles every which way. Several people were injured, a few died, and a hired photographer lost an eye to shrapnel. Train totalings nevertheless continued until the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the practice was discarded as wasteful.

Thanks for the tip, [Martin]!

Converting A Lawnmower Engine To Run On Compressed Air

Our most likely exposure to a steam engine these days will probably come courtesy of a railway locomotive. A machine capable of immense power and probably with significant complexity and engineering  in its construction, something the majority of us will only ever be able to see at second-hand. But there was a period when steam engines were much more accessible, before internal combustion engines and electric motors took on the task of automating hard work you would have found small stationary steam engines in all corners of industry.

These engines are on a scale much more easily embraced by hackers and makers, and though vintage stationary engines are thin on the ground these days there are a significant number of people pursuing their construction by converting modern petrol and diesel engines to a more old-fashioned medium.

[Lindsay Wilson] has a lawnmower engine which a few years ago he converted with the addition of a sleeve valve to run on compressed air. It’s not a steam engine because creating a safe and legal steam boiler is an expensive process, but despite this it amounts to the same thing. The engine in question is a small sidevalve single cylinder Suffolk Punch lawnmower engine from which he has removed and blocked the valve gear, and added a sleeve valve powered by a linkage from the crankshaft and using the spark plug hole as an inlet and outlet. He provides a lot of detail on the sleeve valve’s construction, and it really is a surprisingly simple arrangement. We might look for a harder metal than copper pipe for the guide in which it runs though.

The video below the break shows the engine being run up after a period of storage. It’s an effective device, easily capable of taking more air than his compressor can supply.

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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!

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The Simplest Steam Engine

[RimstarOrg] has posted an awesome writeup on his Hero’s steam engine . Hero’s engine is a Greek design from the first century and is the earliest known steam engine. It’s amazing to think he developed the engine seventeen centuries before the industrial revolution, and yet it was largely ignored. While you can find more faithful replicas, of this landmark machine [RimstarOrg]’s rig can’t be beaten for simplicity and he does a great job of explaining the principal of operation and construction.

Using a soda can filled with water and a propane torch [RimstarOrg] was able to get the can to rotate rapidly by ejecting steam from two holes in the side of the can. A fishing swivel is used to provide a pivoting joint and allow the can to rotate freely.

While we’ve covered steam engines before, we loved this simple design, and can’t wait to see what [RimStarOrg] comes up with next.

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A Remote Controlled, Fully Functional, Steam Powered Tank

Steam Powered Tank for the 21st Century

Steam power anything these days is pretty cool, but rarely have we ever seen such a complex build as this steam powered, remote controlled 1/16th scale tank.

[Ian] is an electronics design engineer whose hobbies include messing around with steam power. The Steam Turret Tank is based on a 1/16th scale Tamiya King Tiger die-cast model tank. It features a 3.5″ diameter marine boiler from MaccSteam, which is a fully equipped miniature version of a real boiler, complete with pressure gauges, safety valves, and a ceramic burner. It can produce pressures of up to 70PSI (max 120PSI), but for this project, [Ian] is limiting it to around 30PSI.

A small 2″ diameter fuel tank contains a propane mixture to fuel the boiler. Two Regner 40451 Piccolo steam engines make up the drive train, with mechanical linkages controlled by servos to engage the various features. The tank can go forward, backward, spin in place, and the turret can both rotate and adjust trajectory. It also has controllable headlights, and can even “fire” the turret.

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