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Coal Firing

A report from practical experience


Jim Pitts

as published in

Modeling in Gauge 1 - Coal Firing

Edited by Martin Hulse

Click here for ordering information



I started off on my hands and knees watching my Lionel Train circle the Christmas tree.  Being raised in a 3rd floor – one bedroom apartment in Washington, DC, space was at a premium.  My electric train was set up around the tree on Christmas Eve and had to be dismantled by New Year’s Day.  As a lad I made a vow, that when I got big (i.e. adult) I was going to have my trains up and running all the time!   


My evolution in the hobby went from O-scale tinplate, to an HO scale layout, whose wiring resembled a pin-ball machine.  Back in the 1970’s I discovered Gauge 1 and began my excursion into live steam with a butane fired Beck Anna.   


Soon I was digging in the dirt, laying and ballasting track for a ground level garden railway.  Later, I constructed a bench high wooden deck around a patio.  This proved adequate for several seasons, but the tight radius, etc. made operation difficult.  


Eventually, I decided it was time to stand up straight, enjoy a hands on experience without bending, and fire up with an electronic radio controlled barrier.  I was retreating into retro-engineering world of yesteryear.


My excursion into live steam introduced me to Aster Hobby locomotives.  Soon I was assembling an "Alishan" Type B, and being introduced to alcohol . . . firing!  Other Aster locomotives followed; an ecumenical mix of butane gas and alcohol.   

I then learned there was another fuel source that really went back to basics…coal!  Through a friend on the west coast, I learned that he was willing to part with a Sandy River “Roundhouse” locomotive converted by John Shawe to coal firing.   



SR&RL No. 24 Coal Conversion by John Shaw


So my life-long continuing education moved to the next level.  Finally I could get off my knees.  It was time to stand up and build a coal fire, boil water and steam up. 

During this chapter, I became aware of the coal fired niche in the Gauge 1 hobby.  Now I could retreat to back to yesterday when both on high iron main lines and narrow gauge short lines; coal fired steam locomotives were once the norm.  

The pungent smell and plume of coal smoke, the glow of a firebox radiating from a miniature locomotive, combine to form the ultimate re-creation portraying all the beauty and brute strength of real railroading.  Coal was the energy that fueled the fires of the industrial revolution. 

These magnificent machines literally breathed and left a trail of smoke and cinders across the land.  The remembered image of a coal-fired locomotive was an opportunity I wanted to re-create and experience.  

Small-scale live steam locomotives present a variety of challenges in both construction and operation.  I am confident that among the many motivations that attract persons to this hobby is the opportunity to resolve a variety of engineering questions.   

When friends ask if I run trains, I respond that usually I spend more time doing maintenance on them than “chasing them.”   I like a “hands on” hobby that is unique and offers a supportive network of enthusiasts.

Boiling water in a Gauge 1 coal fired locomotive has presented several challenges.  They include: obtaining the proper charcoal; identifying the appropriate lighter fuel; locating a source for coal; and discovering the appropriate technique for building and maintaining a coal fire.  

Naturally, these are questions that are not discussed in contemporary popular culture.  Such basic, if not primitive, knowledge has become limited.  However, the coal-fired segment in small-scale live steam has grown as additional locomotives have become available.   

Also John Shawe has converted a variety of Aster and Roundhouse locomotives to coal firing. Perhaps the rarity in my line up is a coal fired Two Truck Vertical Boiler Shay personal crafted by Norm Saley.  Stateside here in the US, Norm Saley (aka. “Mr. Train”) has become the go to person for live steam service and support.  

Happy to report that in my “shed” are several coal fired locomotives; Aster JNR C62, SNCF 232 U1, USRA Mikado, Roundhouse Fowler and SR&RL 24, and the Saley Shay.  I am confident that the coal-fired crowd will never dominate the hobby, but as a friend quipped, “they will certainly make a stink!”  

My enthusiasm for coal firing is paralleled by my appreciation for Aster Gauge 1 locomotives.  Over the years, Aster has produced a number of models that are coal fired.  They include: JNR C62 locomotives manufactured in 1978, 1991, and 2003, UP Big Boy produced in 1981 and 1986, SNCF 232 U1 in 1991, AD 60 Bayer Garrett in 1994 and 2009; C&O Allegheny in 2002, SNCF 140C in 2007 and the SNCF 241P in 2014. 

The ingredients to recreate in Gauge 1 “a coal fired experience” include the following essential elements: a locomotive capable of burning coal, the appropriate fuel and an understanding of the basic techniques to both build and maintain a fire.  



John and Jack Shaw firing a Roundhouse Fowler


A Coal Fired Locomotive  

First consideration is the locomotive.  Our counterparts in the United Kingdom, long ago proved that it is not only possible, but also encouraged coal fired locomotives.  They were advocates not of mere models, but small “locomotives” that were realistic and really burned coal.  The challenge was to create a locomotive that was efficient and economical.  

John Shawe relates that Curly Lawrence (LBSC) is the obvious pioneer and really the “Grandfather” of small coal fired engines. He started writing for the Model Engineer magazine in the early twenties, mainly describing 2 1/2" gauge engines and proving that such machines could pull live passengers. He also described Gauge 1 and Gauge 0 coal fired engines.  

H. P. Jackson of York also produced some early coal fired Gauge 1 locomotives.  These were mainly British prototypes, built to a very high standard of modeling.  H P Jackson’s work started in the late twenties or early thirties. John Shawe’s father has a Gauge 1 North Eastern 0-6-0 that Jackson built in approximately 1942.  When John was about 8 years old, this particular locomotive became his inspiration for coal firing.  

John Shawe states “No history of Gauge 1 coal firing is complete without mention of these two pioneers: Curly Lawrence and H. P. Jackson. There were others, but I think they were the most prolific. It is probably true that without Curly the hobby as we know it would not exist.”  

Today, both John Barrett and John Shawe are actively involved in producing coal-fired locomotives.   Aster Hobby Company occasionally produces a locomotive that can be fired by coal.



Building a Fire  

Once the appropriate locomotive is secured, then it’s time to boil water the old fashioned way.  The basic ingredients include: steam distilled water (Aster cautions that “deionized” water can damage boiler seams that are soldered), steam oil, “real wood” charcoal, lighter fluid and coal.    

First I inspect the locomotive, tighten fittings and lubricate the axle pump, wheel bearings, side rods, cross heads, etc.   Then, I fill the boiler and tender with water.  Be sure to leave enough room in the boiler for the creation of steam.  Next, I fill the lubricator with steam oil.  

In preparation for firing, I break the charcoal into small pieces and soak in a lighter fluid.  The charcoal should be real wood charcoal, not compressed sawdust like used in briquettes for the barbeque grill.  Such charcoal can be obtained at grocery stores that cater to the gourmet cooks.   

Another ready source for charcoal that is already sized properly in granulated pieces is available from Garden Shops.  This avoids the dirty job of processing the charcoal into small pieces.  

To facilitate lighting, the charcoal should be pre-soaked in a lighter fluid.  Some small-scale engineers use alcohol.  If this is your choice, be careful not to transfer your flame back to your charcoal source with your shovel.  Others use a less volatile lighter, such as charcoal lighter fluid or kerosene.  However, I have found these fuels leave an oily residue.  

John Shawe advised that I use “paraffin.”  After obtaining paraffin wax, like that used in sealing jelly jars, I realized that he was speaking of something different.  I learned that paraffin in the UK means “lamp oil.”  Lamp oil is available in better gift shops and hardware stores.  An ultra-pure smokeless and odorless Candle and Lamp Oil that is 99% pure liquid wax paraffin is manufactured by Lamplight Farms. Following Shawe’s recommendation, I have found lamp oil or “paraffin” to be the preferred wetting agent. 

Charcoal that has been soaked in lamp oil should be shoveled into the firebox until it reaches the bottom of the fire door.  Then, it should be ignited.  Immediately, close the fire door and place an external (battery powered) suction fan on the smoke stack to create a draft. Bill Courtright technique is to start the electric draft and then light the fire.  

While the fire is beginning to build, load the tender with coal.  



Jim Pitts and Yves Guillaume firing an Aster Aster U1


Welsh Coal  

Obtaining a source for Welsh Steam Coal on the American side of the Atlantic is a challenge.  I experimented with Pennsylvania Anthracite.  Beautiful grains of coal, water washed and still wet inside a 20 lbs. plastic bag.  After drying in the summer sun, I find that it crackled and popped, but when it burned it left large clinkers that clogged the fire grates.  Other coal sources were sampled.  With hammer in hand, the black diamonds were cracked and sifted.  Still the fire was not as efficient as I desired.  

Finally, seeking the assistance of a veteran live steamer, Bob Moser delivered to me a lifetime supply of genuine Welsh Steam Coal.  Unfortunately, the size was that of acorns, so again I was back to breaking and sifting coal to grain size. My preference is for grains approximating an adult’s small fingernail.   Welsh Steam Coal is the fuel of choice for small-scale steam fireboxes.

In my quest for fuel, Paul Trevaskis of Rishon Locomotives supplied me with a small quantity of Australian Char. This fuel also offers promise for Gauge 1 firing.  However, Bill Courtright says emphatically “there is no substitute that measures up to genuine Welsh coal.”   

Back to the Fire 

Back to the fire, as a bed of charcoal is established, gradually began adding coal to the fire.  As the coal begin to ignite, add more.  Once the pressure gauge registers 20 psi, turn on the locomotive’s steam blower and remove the external (battery powered) suction fan.  Keep the fire door closed other than when shoveling in coal.   

Continue to add coal, a little bit at a time, making sure than it is level in the fire box, covering the corners, so as not to create a hole in the fire.  A thin fire or one with a hole in the bed of coals allows air to push through and the fire dies.  Efficient coal burning locomotives are designed with a deep grate.  Keeping the fire as far up as the fire door helps prevent a hole in the bed of coals.  

A coal fire burns very hot.  So you will need to continue to monitor the water level.  Until the locomotive is underway and the axle pump activated, you will want to manually pump water into the boiler.  During the run, the axle pump and water-by-pass valve will need to be adjusted to match the locomotive load.   

On operating the axle-driven water pump some say either have the pump on or off, and trying to adjust midway is a waste of time!  The blower can be reduced if not completely cut off depending on the speed of the engine.  However, when the locomotive comes to a stop, the blower should be open.   

Until one learns the particular characteristics of a locomotive, coal firing requires more hands on attention than gas or alcohol.  There is a rhythm of understanding and interaction between the operator and the locomotive.  

Yves Guillaume has found over the years that all of his Aster collection of coal burning locomotives operate very satisfactorily on a mixture or "cocktail" as he calls it, of hard charcoal, anthracite and bituminous (smoking) coal. For example, when operating his SNCF 232 UI Locomotive, after a good fire is obtained with charcoal, two to three full scoops of anthracite are added and spread over the burning charcoal with a poker.  

After the anthracite is well lit, a scoop of bituminous coal is finally added for smoke effect (and smell!) and within a few seconds as steam pressure builds up to maximum and the safety valve pops, the locomotive is off and running with all the realism of its full size counterpart.

I have found another way to enhance aroma.  Add a few wood chips of hickory or mesquite to the fire.  This will certainly confuse the neighbors.  They will think that a barbeque is underway.    

To deliver the coal to the firebox, some small-scale engineers prefer a small coal shovel, others prefer a scoop, such as supplied with Aster locomotives.  During refueling, a pick can be used to clear the ash and clinker build up on the fire grate.  On removing ash and/or clinker, the pick can access the grate from underneath and not disturb the fire if you make sure you do this when your fire is built up and strong.


Norm Saley and Jim Pitts with Norm's scratch built coal fired Shay


Cleaning the locomotive 

Following the operation, after dropping the fire and once the engine is cool, you will want to clean the grates, sweep the fire tubes and remove the ash from the smoke box.  Then it is time to wipe the locomotive down and prepare its next run or for storage.  Because of the grime on the locomotive, WD 40 or other similar light oil lubricant is used to wash off the grime and polish and the cool locomotive.     

Bill Courtright is noted for his spotless and efficient Roundhouse / Shawe Sandy River #24.  His time spent cleaning is approximately 1 hour cleaning to every 1 or 2 hours of running.  Always cleaning the same day as the run prevents corrosion to the flues, fire grates and smoke box.  


Starting young! Will Pitts, grandson of Papa Jim, being introduced (under adult supervision) to playing with fire! "Papa, let me do it!"  Hopefully someday he will embrace coal firing and chasing trains.


Coal firing is a dynamic process  

Anyone who is considering coal firing must realize that all factors leading to keeping your locomotive running are dynamic.  They are constantly changing and you must keep up with the changes or as anything alive will do, it'll die on you.  Because of this, the locomotive does seem like it is alive even more than the gas fired models, where most of the time you are at least dealing with a constant fire.  

“I love the challenge of running my coal fired Sandy River #24,” Bill Courtright exclaims.  “Everything else pales by comparison!  So far my longest run is 2 hours 48 minutes.  Running these little coal-fired engines is doable and immensely rewarding.”  

As John Shawe reminds in his coaching session with coal firing novices, “practice makes perfect.”  As I have discovered, coal firing is 25% knowledge and 75% technique.  Remember with a coal-fired locomotive, you have the opportunity to be both engineer and fireman.  The glow from the firebox, the aroma of coal smoke, and the hiss of steam combine in a miniature re-creation of the real thing. 

Among the joys of Gauge 1 coal firing experience is the collegiality.  Across the years and miles, I have been blessed with a network of coaches, instructors and supportive friends.  In the hierarchy of the cathedral of coal firing, I look upon John Shawe as the Archbishop, and Yves Guillaume as the Bishop.  Following their processional train, I am honored to be an acolyte.    

At this mile marker in my life, I know that my grandmother would be pleased that I am now learning a skill that she mastered.  Daily she built coal fires; cooking meals and heating her modest home. Who would have thought at her age, I would be coal firing steam trains in these digital days.  The train of life has come full circle!


Check our reference page for more articles on coal firing. 

To order a copy "Modelling in Gauge1" - Book 5: Coal Firing,

published by G1MRA click here




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