Setting Up a First Workshop

This is a heavily edited compilation of the responses to my question about setting up a shop in a small space to build a small locomotive.

[The Initial Question] [The Available Work Space] [The Choice of a First Project] [Advice on First Tools To Buy] [Suitability of Small Machine Tools] [Where to get Training] [Good Books on the Subject]

The Initial Question

By: Ron Stewart

Fall is approaching, and it is time to think seriously about starting a project. Now, I live in a condominium, and have extremely limited space. My club is really a 7.5" club, but there are some small tracks around here. And besides which, I don't like running trains all that much. I just want to build one.

Keith Manison has a shop almost as small as mine. You can see it at:

My working space is going to be the guest washroom. I will lay a plywood working surface over the counter. I'll make a removeable cover for the sink. Also, I'll put a stand above the toilet if I need a bit more. I am going to need to cover the mirror. Also, the flooring is the oh-so-trendy natural slate tiling. I am going to cut a rubber mat to cover the whole floor.

The space is small, but at least it is well lit. The only power available is a 120V 15A duplex socket with GFI protection on the left edge of the counter. Mind you, the laundry is in the same room, so there is more power available. Then I would have to worry about electrical code.

|                               |______________|
|          Counter Top          |
|           65 x 21             |   Toilet
|                               |  <--31-->

What do I intend to build there? A 3.5", 0.0555:1 (1:18) model of K190, a 2-8-0 Consolidation broad gauge Victoria Railway coal burner. When I was in Australia in 1979-80 it was painted green, and that is the livery I will use.

                             Prototype      Model
   Cylinders                 20"d x 26"     1.11" x 1.44"
   Valve gear - Walschaert   10"            0.56"
   Valve travel              4 5/8"         0.26"
   Driver diameter           4' 7 3/16"     3.07"
   Length of locomotive      34'            22.67"
   Length of tender          26'            17.33"

I have chosen this loco because the finished product looks like a train to me. I know that I can build an 0-4-0 easier, faster, and more reliably, but it won't look like what I want. That means the motivation won't be as strong.

So, folks, where do I start? The wife says we have to pay off the credit card before I get started, but there may be ways to work around that. I figure that careful planning in advance will let me work on the project without spending too much money up front. John Blyth has given me some contacts in Australia who should be of some help. I think they supply 5" ga castings. I also am a friend of the mechanic who keeps the prototype running.

On the other hand, I have never done any metalwork finer than running a shear or grinding welds. Part of my ambition includes taking high school level machining at night school. Oh, and I don't know any details of how steam engines work.

How about this:

  1. Get a decent set of plans.
  2. Start taking metalwork courses.
  3. Detail the parts I am going to make with CAD.
  4. Lay out the protective layer in the bathroom/workshop.
  5. Buy the first tools to fabricate the first part.
  6. Buy tools as needed.

What should I buy first? Probably a decent vice and a set of files?

Now, Keith has a lathe and vertical mill from Sherline. According to Sherline's web page they each cost about $US 500. What else am I going to need to buy to make these useful? Fancy chucks and cutting tools? Are these Sherline machines going to be big and powerful enough?

Is there a book that I should be reading instead of asking these questions here?

[The Initial Question] [The Available Work Space] [The Choice of a First Project] [Advice on First Tools To Buy] [Suitability of Small Machine Tools] [Where to get Training] [Good Books on the Subject]

The Available Work Space

Jim Cook, joked:

I like the setup of your proposed shop. I my case, when I mismachine a part, I say a few choice words and fling the bad part over in the corner. Everyone who comes into my shop comments about the BIG pile of parts in the corner. In your case, if the part isn't up to snuff, well......... flush it!

Jim's Home Page:

Bill Ganoe, bill@SIE.Arizona.EDU responded:

This sounds awfully familiar. I started on this path over a year ago -- with just a bit more room than you have. I'm using a spare bedroom that's being shared with a dresser and a bed turned, on it's side and shoved against a wall. My bench is about the size of your counter top. The carpeting is rancid and will be replace when I leave whether or not it has any metal chips in it, and I have plenty of plastic sheeting taped to the walls. But I've gained a lot of experience, and, through luck or whatever, I've managed to leverage a little bit of equipment and a lot of interest into the potential for doing some projects far beyond the capacity of my little apartment shop.

John Olsen, wrote:

Your proposed working space sounds quite feasable. When I first got the Unimat, it was set up in a small spare bedroom...with the floor and walls covered with plastic and old carpeting. No disasters occured, beyond a little swarf getting tracked where it wasn't wanted. Of course, with growth in the family it got exiled to the basement...slowing work down because it gets cold down there...

George Johnson, wrote:

My basement is 22 x 40, with a walkout back door, we all wish we could have more space. I was forced to build a 8 x 12 shed for the table and band saw [too much dust].

Space allocation:

  • Theatre pipe organ about 20%
  • ON3 model railroad about 15%
  • washer, drier, furnace, hot water heater about 15%
  • left over is work area

Tools hand and power most of them have been purchased and aquired as needed. Floor mounted Atlas drill press new about 30 years ago, it has not been used for milling and will not be as long as I own it. My son has a floor mount horz mill and a vertical mill.

A full Machinest hand tool chest from Grand father Johnson [a chief engineer on the great lakes/winter time one ship was given a complete overhaul.

A six inch Southbend lathe from my father late 1940' vintage. a large number of chucks, tool holders, bits, etc.

Most of my woodwork has been/is cabinet quality. The metal work has been ON3 scale locos. In the late 40's before the Army I worked as a watchmaker jewely repairman. I still use my watchmakers lathe.

The one inch scale Pacific is moving me more into metals, my comment do not buy hobby [lower price] machine tools, there are a number of used machine tool dealers [junkers] with good prices. Do some shopping, if you find some thing that looks good, take a friend along to help pass judgment.

Chuck Knight, wrote:

Yeesh...this is as bad as the darkroom I've set up before, in my bathroom. Personally, I have a dream workshop...a 20x30 foot 3-car garage, completely dedicated to anything I want to do, at this point. (It will eventually be finished into a 1 car garage, a 20x10 workshop, and a 20x10 set of finished rooms for my mom's crafts.) Anyway, now that you're drooling...let me describe my equipment... My best is a bunch of Sears-Roebuck woodworking tools, circa 1960. For drilling holes, I have a drill in Sears' makeshift drill press frame, which literally won't allow me to drill a straight hole consistently. I was making some hub connectors for a geodesic dome, this weekend, and couldn't drill a consistent 36 degree hole...even with a jig!

I think it's about the tools you have, and how you use them. Gads, what I wouldn't give for a decent drill press and lathe, right about now. I'm using hand tools to build a foot-powered lathe, complete with treadle mechanism...hopefully it'll turn out well.

[The Initial Question] [The Available Work Space] [The Choice of a First Project] [Advice on First Tools To Buy] [Suitability of Small Machine Tools] [Where to get Training] [Good Books on the Subject]

The Choice of a First Project

Albert Grant, responded:

Choose projects that you can make out of raw stock that will not be any great tragedy if you perchance mess one piece up. Some of the small stationary steam engines advertised in Live Steam (AMRO, Ltd.) don't require castings. A few weeks ago there was a post by Tom Herbert about the "Cost of Live Steaming" that advises making things out of raw stock to keep costs down and other great hints.

Keith Manison, also responded:

As to how to get started. I really think that building one of the stationary engine kits is a good idea. It'a a confidence builder and the investment inmaterials and castings is not too great. I got back into model engineering after a 20 year break by building Saturated Steam's 1" scale Tangye engine. Made some mistakes, fixed them and it'a a fun little engine to run. Screams at 40 psi, ticks over like a sewing machine at 5 psi.

Actually, I don't know if I would recommend it as a first project. Nothing wrong with it, and the castings are all excellent lost wax castings that need little work. But it comes with drawings and nothing else. On the other hand if you build a Stuart engine you can get "how to" books for many of them that give you a blow-by-blow account of how to do it.

John Olsen, wrote:

I think there is a lot to be said for building what you want to, as long as you are reasonably moderate about it all.

David Wood, wrote:

I'll tell about my start.

I wanted to build a loco since I was so high. I started when I was a student at about 18. First I wanted a loco that was unusual and challenging. I had metal working experience from school and was not afraid of getting going. I saw a picture of what I think is a well proportioned Beyer Garrett. It was the Russian 4-8-2+2-8-4. I wanted to do it in 5", so I started. Got some GA drawings from the museum credited for the picture and of I went.

There's no reason not to start on a loco. Take things easy and apply common sense and logic. If your doubtful, ask someone.

I had a bench, and a vice. I bought the steel for the frames, a scribe, a set square, a decent steel rule and some marking blue as well as a micrometer. I marked them out. Then I thought about how I would cut them out. A friend said chain drill it. I didn't have a drill press, he did. After a number of Saturday mornings, they were chain drilled. I got a hacksaw and a blade and started to cut them out. I got some more blades and a file. Someone told me about evening classes - I got access to a mill. Eventually I got a lathe and mill.

12 years on (married and kids and a few redundancies and moving which resulted in dissolving of the shop under the bridge) I have a 8' by 10' shed. The Garrett is 9' long!! I now have a small old lathe, 18" between centers and swings about 10", no frills (saved 300 pounds). I got a bench drill press (120 pounds) and converted it to a small mill (170 pounds).

I buy or build as I go. Don't get much time, don't have much space. I'm doing everything from stock. No casting readily available and not many foundries around. Yes, it's cheaper.

So, for yours, you can do the same. Get the kit as you need it. Go to the classes if you get to them, but make sure you have things to do. This needs planning. Start with the frames, which I assume are bar frames (3/8th I guess as mine are 1/2). Cut to longer than length to allow you to bolt them together off either end. Make a straight edge. I used black mild steel and ran them under a mill to get a reasonably straight edge. The heights are not too important as long as your can get all the uprights (axle block guides) the same right angle. Now either chain drill or mill. Make sure that the axle box sides (horns) are dead right. Do this with the mill. I chalked the distance on my frames and then counted it off with the mill.

Make sure the Center line of the cylinders are marked, but if this disappears, its not a disaster.

I use a mill more often than the lathe, but others may dispute that.

Well, that's about that for now. If you want to ask anything do. There are some good books about if you want to read about it. I borrowed what I could from the library and copied them (shh).

I'm quite happy to guide you through. I started another guy off at my previous place with a 7.25 gauge sweet pea. He's now gained access to a workshop every Saturday morning for naught and does not really have any of his own kit. He's making more progress than I am now :-(.

Chuck Knight, wrote:

I have a wonderful article from an old Popular Mechanics, which has plans for a stationary steam engine, built from off the shelf parts, and which requires virtually no machining. It's REAL easy to see how the parts work together, and produce a reciprocating action. If you're interested, I'll dig up the article and get the publishing information for date, issue, page, etc. It's definitely helped me understand how these things work, and why.

[The Initial Question] [The Available Work Space] [The Choice of a First Project] [Advice on First Tools To Buy] [Suitability of Small Machine Tools] [Where to get Training] [Good Books on the Subject]

Advice on First Tools To Buy

Tom Herbert, responded:

A vise and a set of files will be extremely useful--that's all I had when I built my first set of trucks for 7.5" gauge.

It was said to me when I was considering what tools to buy, when I first started this insanity, that I should buy a milling machine before I bought a lathe. This allows you to buy only one tool, the mill, instead of having to buy a drill press first, and then later buying the mill, and effectively wasting the money that you paid for the drill press (although I, personally, never consider money spent on tools wasted!)

Now before you guys get out the flamethrowers, think about this - there are more operations that can be done on the mill as well as they can be done on the lathe, than vice-versa. And a lot of operations that cannot be done on the lathe without specialized attachments, milling holders, etc.

When I started buying machinery, I flouted this advice and bought the lathe first, and I'm now getting ready to buy my mill. I wish I had bought the mill first.

Albert Grant, also responded:

I guess that in the tool department, the best thing is to prioritize - Kinda like doing triage at the E.R.

  1. My first priority would be the lathe. I think that is the best training ground for machining. Teaches you what you need the most as a next step, and what you may not need after all. A good companion tool is a drill press. It is said that beginners tend to turn out great quantities of scrap (I can vouch for that through personal experience) so I wouldn't start with a project that requires you to do finish work with expensive or rare castings.
  2. Tooling for the Lathe. When I got my used South Bend it too had no tooling. My recommendation is to get one of the "quick change" kits with an assortment of bits and toolholders offered by places like Enco. When you take your machine shop class, they will probably show you how to grind tool bits so the Quick Change toolpost and holders should accomodate the common sizes of tool bit blanks. Also, good additions:
  3. a 3-jaw chuck
  4. a 4-jaw chuck
  5. a live center, dead center, faceplate and lathe dog
  6. Measuring tools - Micrometer(s), Dial indicator(s), etc.
  7. A set of collets and a holder are REAL nice to have. Preferrably 5C -- Used are OK - BUT do carefully inspect the threads.

Keith Manison, put in:

I also think a drill press is very important with a set of fraction, letter and number drills. And a good set of files is essential.

John Olsen, wrote:

These plus a hacksaw would let you get going on the frames, a good place to start. The course is a good idea. Sometimes this is a way of getting access to those big tools for special bits. The boiler is mostly hand tool work too, apart from the fittings and drilling the holes.

Because these are long term projects you can start with what you have, and trust in providence to provide that special tool or material by the time you need it. Also keep in contact with local clubs....Lathes have been sold within our club for half what they would fetch on the open market, by people who wanted to keep them in the hobby. Also club members should know where you can pick up surplus drills, cutters etc at favourable prices.

Storey Clamp, pointed out:

I presently have a Jet 13" lathe (Taiwan), a Linley vertical mill (US), A band saw (Taiwan), and a Lincoln TIG welder (US).

Bill Ganoe, bill@SIE.Arizona.EDU tossed in:

I would dearly love to have a big South Bend lathe myself, but I didn't -- and don't -- have the room or the money yet, so the question becomes, what can I do with the resources at hand.

You might want to consider a lathe with milling column first, then get the milling machine base with X-Y table as things work out. As the next door neighbor observered, a milling machine is really just a special case of a lathe. But I'm sure it will be a pain setting up the lathe, then setting up for a milling operation, then setting up for a turning operation, etc.

[The Initial Question] [The Available Work Space] [The Choice of a First Project] [Advice on First Tools To Buy] [Suitability of Small Machine Tools] [Where to get Training] [Good Books on the Subject]

Suitability of Small Machine Tools

Keith Manison, also responded:

About the Sherline equipment. The Sherline lathe is an excellent tool, but it is small, 1.5" center height or what the American call a 3" lathe. This means that you can swing piece of work 3" in diameter, but that does not mean you can actually machine it. Sherline offer a spacer block and special tool post that raises the center hight by another inch. But you start to lose stiffness, and have to take things very carefully. I machined a 4" diameter flywheel with this setup, but very light cuts were required.

Having said that, apart from the wheels, most parts of a locomotive that must be turned are very much smaller than the wheels, and as one member suggested you can always find a big lathe to borrow for them. If you get the Sherline you might want to consider the long bed version, I have found the standard lathe a little tight for some long shafts or axles.

John Olsen, wrote:

Keith can probably tell you more about the capabilities of the Sherline series, but for a rule of thumb I would suggest that a center height about the same as the gauge is about about a 3.5 inch centre height (7 inch swing) for a 3.5 inch loco. But you can get by with less if you don't mind taking the odd job elsewhere...I did my Mona wheels on my Dads myford since my unimat was too small. You will want a four jaw, a three jaw, a faceplate, some tools, the means to sharpen the tools, eg a small grinder, a drill chuck for the a basic minimum. Lathe prices do need looking at because they often (not aways) only include the lathe and two need more than that. Others will specify a price including the two basic chucks etc, and will look dearer until you realise this. You don't need could do worse than post a list of accessories and let the members here have an argument about how useful they are.....

Larry Lyle, cautioned:

Just a few words with respect to a choice of lathe. I myself have a "clone" of the Sherline shortbed lathe. I have had fun with it no doubt, but frankly I have had some difficulties with it which, while managable, I would have prefered not to live with.

First, there is the tailstock, which is NOT adjustable. What's much worse it locks to the bed with the use of a bolt that causes the dovetail to pull in about the bed. It would be fine, but at least in the case of mine, it was off center by nearly .01" My only recourse with the tools that I had was to use a wedge and spread the dovetail apart enough to get it centered and then shim it up.

Then, there is the tool post, which in the case of the sherline, is a machined block of aluminum, with a cut out for the bit and set screws to hold it in place. On my lathe, off the shelf bits sat high by better than a hundredth. Not enough to keep it from cutting by any means, but the fact was that the only metal it cut well was aluminum. I solved this by milling out the bottom of the tool slot using the lathe itself and an endmill.

I expect that my lathe may have been a fluke. I don't feel these lathes would sell well if that kind of a problem was present in all.

As an alternative, however, Harbor Freight offers a 7" lathe for about $470 I believe. It doesn't come with a 4 jaw chuck though. But the tailstock is adjustable, you can turn a larger diameter, it comes with a compound slide, and it has threading capabilites standard. Personaly my hand gets tired when turning down axels on my sherline, whimp that I am, I wish now I had automatic feed, or at least the oversized crank.

The the 7" lathe, as was mentioned in someone elses reply to you, may be a little low on the power front, but this is true of the Sherline as well which uses little more than a sewing machine motor to power it. If I had to buy small lathe over again, I would have gone with the 7".

Check out the lathes with hands on if possible though. You may find the Sherline does everthing you need, and may not have the problems mine did.

Storey Clamp, pointed out:

I have met several men who bought cute little Unimat lathes. . . but by the time they became proficient, they came to realize that the little Unimat was too small for much of what they wanted to do.

The Sherline lathe is even smaller, and while it might be fun to play with for a while, you would soon become very dissapointed with your purchase. In addition to its small size, there are two major shortcomings: it cannot cut threads, and it has no compound cross slide, which meams you cannot turn the correct tapers on the wheels. If you are good with a file you can approximate it , but if you want all the wheels to be uniform, then you need a compound cross slide.

What you need is an Atlas 6" lathe, it is compact enough for your small space, it is a full functioning lathe, and you can even turn your drive wheels on it. The only problem is that they are no longer in production so you will have to find one on the used market, but Sears sold thousands of them under the Craftsman label so they shouldn't be too hard to find. They were never used in production shops, so even old ones will not have much wear.

Keith Manison, responded to Storey's posting above:

Well, I agree that after doing a few small projects on the Sherline you might hanker for a bigger lathe (I do, and I'm going to wait until I an afford a Myford Super 7, so there!) But I do not agree that you will be dissapointed with the Sherline. Whenever you need to turn up some small parts it is so convienient to pop the Sheline on the bench and get to work. I also find the smaller lathe is actually easier to use for small parts.

It is not exactly true that it cannot cut threads and you cannot turn the correct tapers. Sherline sell a thread cutting attachment, I bought one. It will cut english and metric threads. You take of the motor, put on a large hand wheel and turn the work by hand. It has the usual set of change wheels etc. Although I bought it when I first got the lathe, to be honest I have yet to use it. Others may wish to comment on this, but I have found that for most live steam work the threads required are all small sizes that are best cut with taps and dies.

Sherline also sell an adjustable top slide that will do tapers. My only beef with this attachment is that you will have to grind the tool appropriately as the tool is rotated through the same angle as the slide is set, unlike a true compound top slide with a tool post.

I thoroughly agree with Storey that the secret for sucessful lathe work is to have a properly ground tool mounted correctly. Someone on this thread mentioned Rudy Kouhupt's video on building a small stationary engine. He also has one on grinding lathe tools. I got it and it is excellent. I also built the grinding rest he designed (you get the drawings with the video) and it really makes things easy and, perhaps more important, consistant.

One source for these videos is New Life Video.

John Olsen, also had comments on Storey's comments:

As far as the small lathes are concerned, keeping your tooling dead sharp would be the number one "secret" of success. For any lathe, the finish is never going to be better than that of the tool, and for small lathes with limited power the rate of metal removal will fall off rather rapidly as the tool gets dull. One old check is to try it on your fingernail...on the flat of the nail you should be able to take a delicate fine shaving. This is holding the tool in one hand, not under power! This is why I suggested a small grinder as an important tool to go with the lathe. Oilstone slips are also good to give an even finer polish than the wheel leaves. Some sort of guide to allow accurate grinding of angles is also useful. Not that we need really precise angles...the difference betwen 4 and 5 degrees won't matter....but you wouldn't want it to get too far from the nominal angle. My father has one of those gadgets with diamond wheels in three grades for sharpening tools, and whenever I get to visit I like to take up a pocketful of tool bits to sharpen. This gives noticeably better results than just sharpening on a bench grinder.

> The Sherline . . . cannot cut threads, and it has no compound cross slide, which meams you cannot turn the correct tapers . . .

It is true that the threadcutting arrangements on both the Unimat and the Sherline are a bit different, and a little cumbersome. On the other hand, how many tasks require a cut thread? The only ones I have needed to cut were threads to fit the machines own mandrel nose. Rather than buy the hobbing arrangement, I lashed up a set of plastic change wheels to give a 1 to 1 drive to the leadscrew, and wound the lathe back and forth by hand. Both machines can have a top slide added to allow turning short tapers.

The only jobs on Mona (3.5 inch 0-6-2 tank loco) which go beyond the unimats capability are the wheels, smoke box door, and former for the front tube plate for the boiler. The cylinder block is a big job but possible. (I did the flat faces on my shaper, but they could have been fly cut on the lathe) I am part way through turning the crank axle for Mona. For parts like fittings I would rather use the small lathe than a larger "ideal" shop would still include the little Unimat, but would add something bigger...3.5 inch centre height or more if the $$$$ permitted. I did change the belt drive on the Unimat to a toothed belt system which is more satisfactory than the original round rubber belt.

Having said that....I do sometimes wish that I had had the money to buy the next model up...the Emco compact 5 (2.5 inch centre height)....but I didn't have the money at the time. That model uses proper change wheels (albeit plastic!) for screwcutting. But I'm told that all lathes are too small matter how big they are, there is always a bigger project!

A second hand lathe is well worth considering, especially if you have access to someone who can make sure you aren't buying a lemon. Club members can be very helpful with this sort of thing. Sometimes it pays to put some feelers out that you are interested, and wait to see what shows shaper came for $400nz like that, and the machine vice on it alone would be worth something of that order to replace...its a beauty. (Mind you, I still wonder why the American manufacturer used a 13 tpi v form thread on the down feed!. I have changed it to a 10 tpi acme form leadscrew pinched from a written off lathe cross slide)

Gordon French, wrote:

About lathes: A good 9" (4.5" outside the USA) used South Bend, Logan, or Atlas is probably the first choice.

  1. You can generally get one for about the cost of a new Pacific Rim made lathe.
  2. You will probably get it WITH most of the stuff you will end up buying to get properly set up.
  3. These lathes were designed to be general purpose toolroom lathes and are versitle.

Avoid the Shoptask types of stuff. They look better than they are and the limitations will drive you nuts. I have the little 7" by 10" lathe distributed by Harbor Freight and others. It will work just fine for all the brass fittings you need to make but will strain terribly with cylinder castings and wheels. I was lucky enough to find a 4 jaw chuck for mine. I also seem to have the only one made that has a tailstock that can be properly adjusted.

When I first set up shop I had a little horizontal mill. I sold it when I got a larger vertical mill. Still there were things that could be done on it that were simpler than the equivalent set up on a vertical mill.

I have a friend with a small shaper, and he does things that I wouldn't even try on a vertical.

Bill Ganoe, bill@SIE.Arizona.EDU wrote:

I can recommend the Sherline lathe (with 24" bed), as well as the Sherline mill, for learning basic techniques as well as doing "small" parts. (By the way, it's got a 3 1/2" swing -- 1 3/4" center height -- not a 3" swing.) The mill is actually probably a better investment than a drill press. You can do very accurate drilling with the mill, but you can't do much milling with the average drill press. But I shudder to think about doing a 3/4" scale engine on a Sherline even with raiser blocks.

I know one guy in the Maricopa Live Steamers who used to be a trouble-shooter for an oil company. He used to spend months at a time in far away places with little to do but trouble shoot for his employer or make chips with the little lathe (I think it was a Unimat.) that he took with him. He has a beautiful little Raritan (3/4" scale 2-4-0) that he claims he built entirely on that little lathe during one particularly long assignment in Iran. I still think that's pushing a lathe that size a bit hard though. The extra rigidity of a larger machine REALLY does make a lot of difference. Kozo Hiraoka did his 3/4" scale engines on a 7" lathe -- also in an apartment shop.

As for tooling, I found that I needed the Sherline 3-jaw and 4-jaw chucks, the 3/8" and 1/4" drill chucks, milling vice, fly-cutter, cut-off tool, slitting saw, and the 3/8" end mill holer (plus a couple of 3/8" end mills). Also a dial test indicator, edgefinder, 1" micrometer, combination square, (all Starrett in my case), 12" vernier caliper, 4" bench vice, hack saw, and an assortment of drills, taps, dies, and hand files. Other things are useful, but this got me through that first project in good shape. Also very useful was the Home Shop Machinist's Handbook that Sherline sells.

It took me a while, but I tried to be as careful and accurate as I could. I finally did finish the thing and took it over to a neighbor's shop to try it out on compressed air. The neighbor was so impressed that he invited me to use his shop (with plenty of supervision from him) for future projects. (I first met this neighbor -- who's actually into motorcycles, cars, and Stirling engines -- at one of the meetings of the local model engineers' group which I stumbled on about the time I bought the lathe. This guy is starting to show a growing interest in live steam now.) So now I have, very close by, a skilled tutor plus access to machines big enough to do up to 1 1/2" scale engines on. Plus there are all those other willing tutors in the club as well as the Maricopa Live Steamers up in Phoenix.

So here I sit, looking for a little G gauge live steam engine to play with (and maybe to act as a means to convey excitement to others) while I make chips (and a large scrap pile) on the way to an engine I can actually ride. I haven't decided yet just what it will be, but, at least, I've gained a lot of experience (and rewards) already.

[The Initial Question] [The Available Work Space] [The Choice of a First Project] [Advice on First Tools To Buy] [Suitability of Small Machine Tools] [Where to get Training] [Good Books on the Subject]

Where to get training

Storey Clamp, wrote:

The most important thing is to get hands-on training in a vocational school machine shop. No amount of studying is a substitute for the guidence that you can get from an experienced machinist. I have met several men who bought cute little Unimat lathes, and after much study and much practice were producing such rough work that they were about to give up the whole idea, and after I showed them how to grind the tool, and position the tool, and how to keep it from chattering, then they could at least produce neat looking work.

John Olsen, wrote:

(Responding to Storey Clamp's posting, above): I'm not totally convinced that the vocational shop time is really vital...Certainly worth going for if it is available....but if you live too far away, don't let the lack of opportunity stop you. I have done many operations for the first time successfully by reading the instructions carefully and giving it a go...including silver soldering boilers.

Ron Stewart wrote:

> On the other hand, I have never done any metalwork finer than running a shear or grinding welds. Part of my ambition includes taking high school level machining at night school. Oh, and I don't know any details of how steam engines work.

You will learn a lot then. Never be ashamed to make a part over again if you are dissatisfied. By the time you have finished you will have figured out how it works! I suspect that a lot of what I have done could be done in less than half the time by a professional who did that sort of thing all day. But it's quality you want, not speed...just take things quietly and think about it before cutting.

Bill Ganoe, bill@SIE.Arizona.EDU wrote:

For experience, I could have signed up for a course or two at the local community college, but that could present some problems since I frequently have to stay at work late to clear up computer problems that don't pay much attention to the wall clock, so I decided to see what I could learn more or less on my own. (My experience was limited to a few weeks of making a center punch with a knurled handle in a junior high school shop -- plus reading through some books on metal working when I started drooling over the Little Engines catalog -- too many years ago.) To get started, I looked at all the kits for small steam engines on the market, but I finally opted for the little stationary engine described in Rudy Kouhoupt's video, Building a Small Live Steam Engine (3 hours and 40 minutes, about $60 from Sherline, Village Press, Blue Ridge Machinery, etc.). This video shows Rudy building a little one-cylinder engine, step by step, using a Sherline lathe and milling machine. It's the next best thing to having a teacher from Sherline standing beside you. (Well, he does leave out a few things here and there, but it's still much better that trying to wing it yourself.) Plus, everything is machined from stock, no castings for you to mess up, creating weeks of delay while you wait for replacements.

Later, Bill privately wrote:

I ordered a copy of the tape from Sherline, in part to see how they responded to orders, played the whole tape while taking careful notes on which tools Rudy used, then made out the orders for the lathe and milling machine from Sherline plus the other things from Blue Ridge Machinery and MSC.

I wish you luck on this adventure and hope that it turns out as well for you as it did for me. There were times when I screwed up a part, or some other obstacle came up, and I wondered if I hadn't wasted my money, but with a little encouragement from people in the Maricopa Live Steamers and the Southern Arizona Model Engineers, I pulled through.

[The Initial Question] [The Available Work Space] [The Choice of a First Project] [Advice on First Tools To Buy] [Suitability of Small Machine Tools] [Where to get Training] [Good Books on the Subject]

Good Books on the Subject

John Olsen, wrote:

I would look for a good construction series or book for a similar close as you can get to what you want. This will help you to see what you are going to have to do...and you are less likely to leave out some vital part. It will also help you to get the basic proportions about right, eg boiler tube sizes and all those sort of things. You will also get a lot of useful information about construction techniques. If you have the original full size drawings close your eyes a won't be able to follow them very closely if it is going to run.

Kozo Hiraokas books are really good for showing techniques, especially for fabricating assemblies. A subscription to Live Steam or Model Engineer would not go amiss...helps to see how others suggest tackling problems. But ask all the advice you can...a lot will be useless, so feel free to discard it too. Someone is sure to want to tell you a vast list of equipment you really must have...but unless you are a millionaire.....

Tom Herbert, responded:

There is no book that can provide all of the information that you need. Asking questions specific to your needs at the time is much more efficient, and if you ask them here, you're going to get a lot more points of view on how to accomplish something than the single point of view in a book.

Vance Bass, continued:

I was just this evening looking over the Sulphur Springs Steam Models catalog and discovered that they carry both "The Model Steam Locomotive" as well as a boat load of other model engineering books. If you're looking for some of the these British ME texts, SSSM would be a good place to start. 314-527-8326, for those in the US.

No one has yet mentioned the book from Live Steam magazine, "So You Want to Build a Steam Locomotive". Live Steam advertises it as something like "the standard reference work for those wanting to build a working steam locomotive".

I don't have it (yet), so I would like to hear opinions on it from those who have it, and have followed or disregarded its advice.

Vance's Home Page:

Father Jay Finelli, answered:

I have "So You Want to Build a Steam Locomotive" and it is a great resource. Wouldn't be without it.

Fr. Finelli's Home Page:

Frank Kerfoot, answered:

"So You Want to Build A Live Steam Locomotive" is far from an encyclopedic reference on building a live steamer. However, I find it to be a useful reference to use in conjunction with many other references. It has several chapters which are broad brush surveys of construction techniques for frames, axles, etc. It also has a number of chapters which appear to be reprints of articles on more specialized topics such as the use of stainless steel for boilers, firing with oil or propane, etc. It is really the only reference I know of which is general (e.g. not describing the construction of a specific loco) and written from the perspective of US prototype modeling. There seem to be any number of reference books on modeling of UK prototypes, which I find useful in some ways (as a modeler of a US prototype loco) but totally unsuitable in others (i.e. plate frames versus bar or cast frames). All in all it is well worth having as a reference.

Roger Mitchell, answered:

Joseph Foster Nelson's book "So You Want To Build A Live Steam Locomotive" is a good reference. Had the builders of the space shuttle read his comments on "O" rings they might have not had the Challenger disaster. His comments were to the effect that one would work where 2 or more would fail. One area where I am at odds with him is on superheaters. All of my 3/4 inch scale locomotives have fire tube superheaters and one even has thermic siphons in the fire box. None have given me any trouble at all. Also, the 6 inch to the foot scale 18 inch gauge 2-6-2 that Alex Schneider and I built has a fire tube super heater. If designed and built properly, they will not give any problems and will make a huge improvement in the performance of the engine.

Keith Manison, answered:

Vance also asked about the Joseph Nelson book. I have it and it's quite good with lots of tips, techniques and ideas. However it is basically reprints of Live Steam articles, so it lacks the coherence of a specially written book. I also have a book by Martin Evans, called (I think) the Model Steam Locomotive which is excellent. Designs are predominantly British, but techniques and methods are universal.

Keith's Florida Live Steamers Home Page:

Gordon French, wrote:

f you can find someone advertising a collection of Model Engineer Magazines that is within your budget, buy it.

The books that are written by Kozo Hiraoka describing the building of a 3.5" locomotives are truly wonderful treasure troves of information.

[The Initial Question] [The Available Work Space] [The Choice of a First Project] [Advice on First Tools To Buy] [Suitability of Small Machine Tools] [Where to get Training] [Good Books on the Subject]