Onwards, to the past! Steam engine uncrating day
So I’ve finally received my steam engine, after… let me think… 3 months. I ordered it on August 3, and I finally took possession late this afternoon and uncrated it before dark. The customs process for pickup was surprisingly painless – get the bill of lading from the transfer/holding company, take it to the customs desk, pay $9, get the stamp, take papers back to the transfer/holding company, pay storage and loading fee ($111, higher than normal since it’s been waiting for me for a while), load box in truck. That is not to say the process of getting here has been painless or cheap – it’s been nickel-dime the whole way here – $35 x-ray fee, $200 trans-shipment fee, wrong bill of lading numbers, three conflicting tracking sets of data (Singapore… no, New York… No, Los Angeles… No, Seattle. No, Snake River. What?) No simple process.
It’s from a firm in India that makes small steam engines, along with a number of other small-scale industrial tools for self-sufficiency or village-sufficiency. They were the only makers of new steam engines that I could find that were meant for production grunt work, versus steam engines made for antique boat propulsion or Mike Brown’s very nice engines which were priced outside of my range and seem a bit too… precision-crafted for what I had in mind.
I know most of you are familiar with me being more at home with high-tech gear, and this perhaps will come as some surprise that I’m dealing with technology from 150 years ago. However, I have a soft spot in my heart for things I can actually fix or even build by myself. Computers do not fall into that category. So you’ll see quite a bit of metal here on these pages in the future that doesn’t look like it belongs in the space program, or even in a server room. I still love all that is digital, but I also am very aware of the fact that it’s easy to get a 100 year old engine started but nearly impossible to get a 20 year old computer started, and that is an important factor to consider when contemplating how engineering effects the world.
Anyway, my goal is to get a steam engine with reasonable horsepower that can run a DC generator for charging batteries. I’ll ignore the issue of the boiler for now; that’s a whole different story. The initial investigation was to import these for resale on a small scale, but I’m thinking that this is really a lost cause using this engine. I’d have to deconstruct the whole engine and base, sandblast, measure, re-machine, re-paint, and re-assemble before they’d even be close to acceptable for the North American market. And I haven’t even run it yet – I’m anticipating some catastrophic failure in alloy strength or in the bearings or something, given my first impressions after opening the crate. Maybe I’ll be more pleased when I start running it.
The good news:
- The crate was intended to stay solid during a fall off a 25-floor building. It took me an hour to pry, smash, bend, and kick it apart. Three cheers for the titanium crowbar and sledgehammer!
- It’s not unreasonably heavy. Not exactly lightweight, but I can see how I’d move it around by myself if I needed to.
- Complexity is LOW. There are no mysteries here, and I suspect anything that goes wrong with this engine I would be able to repair myself with a lathe and some basic hand tools. That’s exactly what I wanted.
- Comes complete with high-pressure water pump. This seems to be made by some other firm, since it looks marginally well-built and isn’t coated with finger paint. This is what takes a cold water supply and replenishes the boiler (under pressure) as water turns to steam and is used by the engine.
- Comes with hand-pump for steam oil. Every few minutes, a little shot of oil needs to be added to the incoming steam to keep the cylinder lubricated. Steam engine operation is a very manual kind of thing – no walking away from the rig once it’s started, which is typical of steam operations. (Boilers can’t be left to their own devices, otherwise they get angry and tend to explode in spectacular style.)
- It seems to spin smoothly, and with little friction.
The bad news:
- Paint was done by someone using their fingers. Paint is everywhere; on the belt, on the bearings, over the grease fittings, on the threads… It’s as if a person was told “Make this look like a 3-year old was given the task to paint this engine.” I’m astonished at how bad the paint job is; a rational person would assume it was intentionally botched.
- The engine was tested before shipment (yay!) but then the water was not drained out. WHAT?! That’s right – there was water in the outlet pipe, enough to fill perhaps a shot glass. The engine thankfully turned over – it had not seized up, but I’m sure when I open the cylinder I’ll find lots of rusty nasties. In the meantime, I’ll pour some oil in it and keep rotating it until things dry out. I pity the person who buys one of these and puts it in storage before opening it up – that engine will be solid as a rock when they finally get around to opening it.
- No markings or instructions on the engine other than things written by markers (visible in photos.) Seriously? Written on the paint?
- No “Made In India” markings. This is actually a legal requirement for importation into the United States, but nobody was going to open that crate to inspect it. Glad they didn’t. No markings of any kind, actually.
- Engine was shipped on its side, not upright. No big deal, since the crate was pretty well made. Nothing appears to be bent. No “This Side Up” stickers or indications on the box lets the shipping company treat it poorly.
Now, before anyone says it – yes, I know, I get what I paid for. I’m not really complaining that much (other than the water in the engine, which could have been “fatal” to the device) because it was cheaply made and cheaply purchased. But after owning several Indian-made Lister-type (aka: Listeroid) diesel engines and now looking at this, I am starting to get an idea of why India has never become the world power that it had the potential to become. The Chinese have a huge leadership position in the manufacture of durable goods; I doubt India will ever be able to catch up with quality this poor.
And a video of the first run:
I’ve got a huge number of projects going, way more than I should. I’ve decided that I’m not going to keep this engine, or at least I’ll put it up for sale and if the right person sees it they can buy it before I get the time to dig back into this endeavor. If you are interested and can give me $1900 for it, it’s yours. It’s still in great running shape, never had steam through it. It can go right into production if you have a boiler. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for details – I will help you load it onto a truck here in Portland OR, but anything more complex than that will require you to pay for a crater to come out and pack it up for shipment.