Norris Chambers Old Timer's Tales

How We Built A Steam Engine!

by Norris Chambers

   Cross Cut was our closest little village. It was duly incorporated and platted, but never had a mayor or council and had no street signs. In the late 1800's and the early 1900's it was a prosperous little community. None of the streets were paved or graveled. It had no water supply, no garbage service and not much of anything else. But it did have a big boom in the oil business in the middle twenties and early thirties. Many little shacks were built to house oil field workers and little businesses sprang up to take care of their necessities. There still was no water supply except two old muddy tanks below the hill and cisterns to catch rain water. The shack people got their water for 50 cents a barrel from a water wagon that hauled the muddy tank water and filled their barrels by the front door.

  But this tale is not about Cross Cut. I only mention it because it did have an excellent junk area. The main road came along the top of a hill and businesses on the road had their back yards at the edge of that hill. Below the hill was the junk yard. You could throw away anything you didn't want and you could take anything you found that suited your fancy! Because Clifton and I were always building something, we made frequent trips to the junk area. Those who are interested in Cross Cut can look on the Internet at

  This tale is about the steam engine that Clifton and I built. In those early years many steam engines were still in use. The cotton gins had steam power and the early oil drilling rigs used a steam engine. Steam rollers were used to smooth the streets in larger towns and steam tractors moved and operated grain threshers. Steam engines required a large boiler that was heated and generated steam at high pressure. One of the good features of a steam engine was that it would run in either direction, depending on which way you advanced the throttle.

  The project we had in mind was rather simple. All we wanted to do was turn a grinding wheel and eliminate the foot pedals that were used to turn it. Often kids were required to pedal the grinder while the adults sharpened axes, hoes, digging bars and other tools that needed to be kept sharp. The grinding wheel was made of rock and was usually about a foot and a half in diameter and about out two or three inches thick. There was a crank on each side of the wheel that was attached to the shaft that was connected to the center of the wheel. The pedals were on each side of the wheel and when pressure was applied the wheel turned. The weight of the wheel and its inertia kept it turning at a constant speed as long as pressure was applied on each side on the down stroke.

  Our idea was to take an old heavy duty tire pump and mount the bottom on an axle and the moveable handle to one of the cranks. The pump had an opening at the bottom of the cylinder where the air came out and a hinged bracket that rested on the ground and was held down by one foot while the rod was pushed up and down causing the piston in the cylinder to pump air for inflating tires. So mounting the pump was pretty easy since we had a well equipped blacksmith shop to bend and shape parts.

  We connected a stop valve to the air outlet hole. The idea was that when the valve was connected to steam and opened at the right time it would push the crank. A little more complex was a method of closing the valve when the crank was at the top of its travel. And then there was the problem of removing the steam pressure so the wheel could turn and bring the piston back to the bottom. As you probably know, a stopvalve only turns 90 degrees to open and close. Your gas meter has two, one to the main line and one on the line to your house. Your water cutoff line probably has one also. What we needed to do was cut off the steam at the top of the travel and open the line at the bottom of the cylinder to allow the steam to escape when the piston came down. We solved this by using two stop valves connected to the crank on the other side of the wheel shaft. We positioned the crank so the pressure was cut off at the top and the other stop opened to allow the steam in the cylinder to escape. We took two old gears from a binder and finally got the speed and travel of the second stop to open and close at the right time.

  The next step was the boiler. We found and old 10" barber pole that someone had discarded among the other goodies in the junk area. It was heavy pipe and about four or five feet long. It already had a steel plate welded across the top. It was a simple matter to weld one across the bottom and weld a one inch collar at the top for the steam line. We found a three inch pipe collar and a plug and welded that on top so we could pour the water in. All we had to do was pile wood around it and start a fire and when the water boiled the steam would do the work!

  Believe it or not, it worked pretty well. But it was noisy and shook a lot and the steam hissed and fumed all around the machine. The adults were afraid to get near it and refused to use it for grinding. Also, it was always running out of water or wood and was quite a bit of trouble to operate.

  But we learned how a steam engine works. The only trouble was that about the time we learned all about the steam engine, the gas or gasoline engine replaced it for all applications and the steam engine was a thing of the past. The railroads continued to use steam until after WWII, but most stationary engines were either gas or gasoline fired.

  Our next venture was to learn all about the gasoline engines. We spent many happy hours tinkering with old pumping engines and car engines. These were plentiful in the Cross Cut junk yard and we made good use of them in our blacksmith shop.

  We enjoyed building things and making contraptions work. I guess that's why I eventually studied electronics and always had a radio repair shop wherever we lived.

  The moral of this story (if it has one) is if you can't fix it, tear it apart and see how it works and while doing this don't forget to have FUN! You might be able to fix it next time.


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