Banking on Steam Engine Restoration

Indiana man builds steam engine restoration business

Banking on Steam Engine Restoration 1

A 20 hp Minneapolis undergoing complete restoration.

Bob Crowell

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At the dawn of a new millennium, state-of-the-art technology is the hallmark of most professions. For an Indiana man, though, it's the obsolete technology of steam engine restoration that pays the bills. 

In a shop just southeast of Indianapolis, Bob Gold and two full-time employees restore steam engines built nearly 100 years ago. They'll tackle just about any job.

"Whatever somebody wants us to do, we'll attempt it," Bob says. "What we do is as simple as putting in a set of tubes, to taking an engine that looks like a refugee from the scrap yard, and making it a running engine again. We do repairs to fireboxes, make tanks and bunkers, and we'll do oddball jobs. We do a good bit of boiler repair. That's heavier work, and harder, but it's something that most people don't feel confident doing themselves."

B&B Steam Restoration was founded about seven years ago by Bob and partner Barry Moorman (who's no longer with the company). Bob's involvement with steam engines, though, goes back more than 20 years.

"I've been going to steam shows for as long as I can remember. My grandfather was very mechanical, and he was a steam enthusiast," Bob says. "He had been an operator of steam engines in the 1920s and 1930s. He always talked about wanting an engine ... well, he finally bought one, but he never saw it run."

That engine - a 1919 60 hp Case - is Bob's now. The vintage steamer is up and running now, but Bob seldom has time to play.

"There's always something else pushing it to the side," he says. "Usually we have several different projects going on at one time. We probably do six to eight major jobs in a year. Right now we have stuff here from western Missouri. We're shipping pieces and parts - a contractor's tank and bunker - for a 50 hp Case to California. We've shipped one set to Arizona. We go nationwide with parts... mostly Case parts, but we do some others. We've made water tanks for Minneapolis engines and Reeves engines, whatever comes along. If we can help, we will, or maybe we'll pass 'em along to somebody else."

Steam engine restoration is far from a boom industry.

"I know of two or three other guys who do a little of this stuff in addition to fabricating and repair work," Bob says, "and I know people who work full-time on steam locomotives. But I don't know of any other shop solely dedicated to working on this stuff."

For employee Brian Vaughn, who earlier served in the U.S. Navy as a nuclear machinist's mate, steam engine restoration has been a dream job.

"I enjoy working with this type of equipment," he says. "It's neat to figure out the way that the old guys did this stuff originally."

The tooling used at B&B is as collectible as the steamers.

"We pick it up at sales," Bob says. "The newest technology we use is a welder from the early 1950s. We're using tools that were being used in shops when these engines were built. A lot of it is flatbelt driven."

And that suits Bob fine.

"I like the old mechanical stuff rather than hydraulic or electric," he says, "because when something goes wrong, I can usually figure it out."

Major equipment at the shop includes a set of light plate rolls for patches, a 1920s-vintage radial arm drill press for drilling holes in plates, vertical and horizontal milling machines, a hydraulic press and lathes. A McCabe flanging machine developed more than 80 years ago is at the top of Bob's wish list. "It was sold mostly to railroad shops," he says.

Tools aren't the only thing Bob scouts at sales.

"I have about 300 books at home on steam, steam engines and steam boilers, a lot of them dating to the turn of the last century," he says. "I read those, then try out some of that stuff, and you learn little tricks. Mostly, we try to put it back the way it was when it was new, then it's as good as it ever was."

Original documentation is also a useful source of information. National steam engine clubs, state agencies and museums sometimes have corporate records on construction, testing and product shipments.

"There's a lot of amazing stuff still around the countryside," says Brian Vaughn.

The real treasure, Bob says, is when he's able to visit with someone who actually worked on steam engines years ago.

"Every once in a while, we run into somebody knowledgeable about steam, who had hands-on experience with it," he says. "But there aren't many of those guys left, the ones who ran steam and made a living with it. A lot of engines are on third generation ownership within a family. And back then, most of the time, it was easier for the grandfather to fix something than to teach somebody else how to do it. Lots of times, the son was only taught how to fire the engine and keep water in it. A lot of that knowledge was not passed on, just because it wasn't convenient."

Decades later, a new base of knowledge is growing at a shop on a back road in Indiana.

"We do something that almost nobody else does," Bob Gold says. "We take something that other people think couldn't be repaired and we put new life into it."

Full Steam Ahead: Hobby Back on the Upswing, Indiana Restorer Says

Collector interest in steam engines is on the upswing, Bob Gold says.

"At Rushville (Ind.) five years ago, there were maybe 25 steam engines," he says. "Two years ago, at the 50th annual show, we wanted to have 50 engines; 54 came. Last year, the number was in the forties. Steam is going strong in this area, and younger people are getting involved. It just goes in cycles."

Indiana has a strong heritage in steam engines.

"At one time, there were 13 companies in Indiana making steam engines," says Brian Vaughn. "There was Gaar, Reeves, Meinrad Rumely, Advance Rumely, and a bunch of smaller regional companies. There were gobs of them in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois: this was the heart of steam country."

Clubs put a high priority on preservation of that heritage.

"In this part of the country, shows pay people to haul their steam engines in," Bob says.

"Our club spends $10,000 or $12,000 a year on that."

Safety is a critical component of steam engine operation. Clubs and shows are becoming increasingly involved in educational efforts.

"At the Pawnee Steam School at Rushville (Ind.) last year, more than 450 people attended," Bob says. "They represented 28 states, and some came from Canada."

Engine inspections are a routine aspect of many shows.

"At the Rushville show, they have three boiler inspectors," Bob says. "In Indiana, steam engines are exempt from state law. Clubs have taken over that function, and they do their own inspections. I think they do a very good job."

A typical inspection, he says, consists of four main parts.

"You start with an external inspection," he says. "You just look for leaks."

Then comes the internal inspection. "Take out the plates and shine a light in," he says. "It gives you an idea of the kind of care the engine's had."

Next is a hydrostatic inspection: The boiler is filled with water and then pumped to 1 1/2 times the engine's working pressure to expose any weak areas. Finally, the engine's ultrasonic thickness is evaluated to determine the thickness of the metal in the boiler.

Most engine damage is the result of old age, Bob says. A bit of care, though, will prolong any steamer's life.

"The biggest factor in extending the life of a steam engine," he says, "is when it's put away, have the boiler washed out and let it dry." FC 

For more information: B&B Steam Restoration, Inc., 5804 East County Road 150S, Greensburg, IN 47240; (812) 662-6158.