Mission Accomplished: Building a Scale Steam Traction Engine

42-year-old dream becomes reality in a half-scale Case steam engine.

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Gerald Lee’s half-scale Case steam traction engine.

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I would like to share a story about achieving a 42-year-old dream - owning my own steam traction engine. This story begins in 1965 when my parents took me to the National Threshers Reunion in Wauseon, Ohio. For as long as I can remember I've had a strong interest in old iron, whether it is antique automobiles, tractors or steam locomotives. But the trip to Wauseon introduced me to something I had never seen before - steam traction engines.

My interest and knowledge of steam was fostered by my uncle, Ralph Lee, and by attending many reunions at Wauseon over the years. As I studied traction engines, I realized large storage space and heavy equipment were required to own, maintain and show the engines. Concerned about the logistics of owning a full-size engine, I began to notice some of the exhibitors were bringing scale model engines to the shows. I saw this as a practical answer to achieving my steam experience: I would build my own half-scale steam traction engine. However, I would have to wait 35 years to have the resources to achieve my dream.

Setting the stage

In 2000, I found myself in the position to realistically pursue that dream. However, my shop lathe and milling machine were too small for such a project and I knew just enough about welding to know I had no business building my own boiler. My first step was to find a set of plans. Through an advertisement in Iron-Men Album, I obtained a set of half-scale Case engine plans from Lloyd Creed. Armed with that road map, I began to search for a builder to construct an engine, which became a challenge. My wife, Vicki, pointed out an advertisement in Live Steam for Steam Age USA, which was right in my own backyard.

The day after Thanksgiving in 2003, Vicki and I went to Cypress, Texas, about 30 minutes from our home. There we met the owners of Steam Age, Raymond and Valerie Pennell. After several hours talking about steam, and viewing the scale live steam locomotives Ray was constructing, we set plans in motion to begin construction of my half-scale Case steam engine.

Over the course of several years, starting in the spring of 2004, steel was ordered for the boiler and wheel rims and delivered to Steam Age. The adventure had begun. The boiler was finished and tested in June. The boiler, as it turned out, was the easy part of the project. While the boiler was being constructed, I ordered a set of castings for the engine from Lloyd and had them shipped to Texas so they would be ready to be machined after the boiler was finished.

Scavenging parts

My next quest was to find gearing for the engine, which turned out to be a real scavenger hunt. After many phone calls to tractor salvage yards, I located a set of bull gears in southwest Ohio and had them shipped to me. The differential, drive pinions, and intermediate and crankshaft pinion gears were also a challenge to locate. Several years prior, I had located a small tractor salvage yard in Montgomery, Texas, while searching for parts to complete my restoration of an Allis-Chalmers C. The half-scale Case required a gear drive train where all the gears rotated within the same plane. I determined the best source for the differential would be from a John Deere 2-cylinder tractor.

I set out to explore the salvage yard in Montgomery armed with a card-board pattern of the bull gears in order to match them with the tractor gears, which were yet to be located. I was about to give up when I spotted the remains of a John Deere rear end in the back of the yard with a tree growing out of it. I was not the only one interested in the Deere's remains. Coiled inside the rear end was a copperhead snake! After chasing him out and making sure he was the only one in there, I checked the gears and discovered I had hit pay dirt. With this one find, I now had drive pinions, differential, intermediate and crankshaft pinion gears for my engine.

The salvage yard owner cut the tree, lifted the rear end with his gin pole, cut open the case and removed the gears for me. As if the day's find was not good enough, while walking around the yard waiting for the gears to be removed, I came across the carcass of a Case SC. Just barely sticking above the dirt was an exposed steering gear. I dug the rest out and found just what I needed for the scale steam engine's steering worm gear assembly. Yes, that was a good day indeed!

With the wheels and gearing now mounted to the boiler, it was time to start on the engine frame mounting, and the left and right main bearings. The right bearing was a challenge, as I had no casting for it. The builder ended up milling the bearing base and clutch arm support from a single piece of steel. By the time it was completed, I didn't know whether to mount it on the boiler's wing sheets or put it on display as a piece of modern art in a museum. While the machinist worked on the engine bearings, the welder completed the water and fuel bunker assembly.

Next came the mounting of the engine frame, and machining the eccentric and governor drive pulley. Soon to follow was the clutch assembly, the completion of the cylinder and piston, and the site glass assembly. I constructed the clutch, throttle and reserving levers in my shop, and delivered the parts on one of my many visits to Ray's shop to observe the engine's progress. Over the succeeding months, the injectors, throttle valve, two pressure relief valves, governor assembly, mechanical oiler, valve gear and linkages were completed and installed on the steam traction engine.

Moment of truth

Finally, the big day arrived (in January 2007) when the half-scale Case steam engine was run on compressed air for the first time. We were all pleasantly surprised that the engine ran very smooth and balanced on as little as 15 psi of air. With the installation of the boiler blanket and whistle manifold, the engine was ready for testing with a fire in the boiler.

On March 30, 2007, my steam traction engine ran for the first time under its own steam. The half-scale Case steams very well, raising the relief valve set at 100 psi in about one hour. After minor adjustments to the governor assembly and freeing a stuck pinion gear in the differential, Ray announced the engine was complete. My Case steam engine arrived at the house April 18, 2007 - 1,047 days after delivery of the steel for the boiler.

Now the really fun part of owning this engine begins. I figure it will take me awhile to learn how to safely fire and operate the half-scale Case. I look forward to running the engine on the farm and displaying it at steam shows. I have completed a water wagon and a scale model stationary hay baler for the engine to power. In the future I also plan construction of a scale model saw-mill. FC 

Half-scale Case by the numbers 

Dimensions: 11-by-5-foot
Height: 6 feet at the smokestack
Weight: approximately 4,800 pounds
Safety relief valves: 100 psi
Boiler capacity: 43 gallons
Flues: 16 at 1-inch
Water bunker capacity: 39 gallons
Parts: more than 1,210

For more information, contact Gerald Lee at gerald_l@sbcglobal.net