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.
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.