A report from practical experience
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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in Gauge1" - Book 5: Coal Firing,
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