Steamboats at the 2006 Cabin Fever Model Engineering Expo
©2006 Patrick Matthews
The sound surprised me as the steamboat soared past– not the chuff-chuff that I expected, it was more of a rush that emanated from the hull of the “City of New York”, an 1880’s excursion boat powered by a big twin cylinder engine and a propane-fired boiler. The steamer was making fast circuits around the indoor pond at the tenth annual “Cabin Fever Expo”, a model engineering show held in York, Pennsylvania in January 2006. The show was heavily attended by folks who build, machine, and sell model live steam engines of all sorts– stationary, traction, marine; and the equipment powered by these engines– farm implements, locomotives, and of course, boats.
Quentin Johnson brought the “City of New York” in and let me have a look inside. The Stuart D10 engine and mahogany-lagged boiler were neatly laid in a metal tray set in the lift-built hull. Tidy plumbing and wires allowed for radio control and an automated boiler feedwater pump. Quentin explained that the feed pump drew from the pond and allowed the steam-hungry D10 to get longer run times than boats that didn’t continually replenish their boilers. The big boat was a crowd favorite– at nearly five feet of length in 1:24 scale, it’s an impressive model with fine detailing. Quentin drew his plans by examining period photographs.
A cohort of club members representing both the South Orange Seaport Society of New Jersey and the North American Steamboat Modelers’ Association provided much of the steam-powered maritime entertainment. The crowd also enjoyed watching several radio controlled electric vessels, including several submarines which found just enough water in the pond to achieve periscope depth. The club members showed that there are many ways to enjoy their steam engines– from simple open launches to highly detailed scale models with sophisticated engines and controls. Steve Siegel had a wonderful model of an 1896 US Navy torpedo boat fitted with a gorgeous Saito triple cylinder engine. Steve says that little documentation was available for this vessel, so the model design was influenced by his research into other boats of this type. Built on a Marten, Howes, & Baylis fiberglass hull, the topsides are all scratch-built.
On the more relaxed end were a pair of Midwest Products “Elliott Bay” open launches, both built by Elliots– Elliot Kaplan and Elliott Smith. Most interestingly, both were fitted with Kitchen rudders. These clamshell-like devices can be biased to one side for steering, or closed to provide thrust reversing– very useful for simple steam engines not fitted with reversing gear.
Like any other modelers, steamers love innovation. Bill Schappert had an older Midwest Products “Seguin” tug with the wood hull. While the kit was designed for use with steam, Bill felt that he could improve access to the interior by building a separable deck instead of a simple removable deckhouse. The entire deck, bulwarks, and deckhouse come off the hull in a single unit, leaving a wide-open hull for engineering access.
My favorite model type for steam has to be the elegant steam launch with the cabin aft– and with lots of mahogany, brass and glass. The gleaming engine and boiler are out in the open for all to admire, and of course this can ease maintenance too. A few examples were present, including Elliot Smith’s “Arundel”, which is a Krick “Victoria” kit sporting a Krick boiler and two-cylinder engine, and Marty Feldman’s “Duncan”, a 1903 Thames passenger steam launch in 1:8 scale, with scratch-built uppers on a Kingston Mouldings hull.
While model engineering shows like this tend to cater to home machinists who’d just as soon pour their own castings as well as machine them, most of the boaters were using commercially available steam engines and boilers. From the big Stuart D10 through the jewel-like Saitos, through the wide range of Cheddars and down to the simple Midwest engine in the “Elliott Bay”, there is a good selection of hardware that requires only simple hand tools to assemble and operate, yet they all still offer plenty of opportunity for tinkering and fine tuning. Carl Berg was one modeler who decided to scratch build it all– boat, twin-oscillator engine, and boiler. Carl explained that he liked to use Viton o-rings for piston rings, as they seal nicely at the low pressures used– though care is needed to design the ring grooves for just the right balance of compression and friction.
A word on engine types might be helpful here. The simplest and most common model marine units are “oscillators”. Without hinged connecting rods, their cylinder blocks swing back and forth, always pointing at the orbiting crankpin on the drive wheel or crank shaft. The cylinder blocks are pinned to a valve plate, where strategically located ports are opened and closed with the motion of the cylinder block, admitting and exhausting steam as required. Single cylinder versions are likely to need a spin to get started, while twins will allow for self starting and reversal. Larger cylinder block masses and higher operating pressures may require abandonment of the oscillating model in favor of fixed blocks and slide valves. These engines are more complex and expensive, but are certainly a joy to watch!
Making steam requires heat, and just as with the engines, variations are found in the boilers. No one at this show was firing with the solid fuel pellets found in some “toy” steam engine kits, but instead used liquid alcohol, or butane or propane. I’ve also heard of burners that use camp stove fuel, but I didn’t notice any of these at the show. Boilers can be vertical or horizontal to suit the installation, and with various fire tube arrangements that may increase efficiency and decrease the time to build a head of steam. Safety valves are a must, while pressure gauges, sight glasses, feed water pumps, and even whistles are nice options.
A selection of boilers:
If you’re interested in finding out more about model steam boating, try attending one of the several model engineering shows held around the country, or contact the North American Steamboat Modelers’ Association for membership and newsletter information.
Cabin Fever Expositions
North American Steamboat Modelers’ Association
PO Box 802
Fogelsville, PA 18051
South Orange Seaport Society