Model Steam Engine Scaled to Perfection

Four years in the making, a scale model Wood Bros. steam engine demonstrates the power of love.

| October 2018

  • steam tractor engine
    This 5/8-scale Wood Bros. steam tractor engine, hand-built by Tom Nichols and John Shepherd, was the Featured Steam Engine of 2009 at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.
    Photo by Kim Nichols
  • steam traction engine
    Rear view of the 5/8-scale Wood Bros. steam traction engine. Fully loaded with water and coal, the scale-model engine weighs 6,000 pounds.
    Photo by Nikki Rajala
  • step cast
    The step cast with "Wood Bros. Des Moines Iowa" is often slippery from oil, Tom says, Note the "good luck" step at the bottom of the photo.
    Photo by Nikki Rajala
  • scale model steam engine
    The 5/8-scale model Wood Bros. steam engine, leading a full-size Wood Bros. engine on a tour of the showgrounds.
    Photo by Kim Nichols
  • Wood Bros. engine
    For several years, John and Tom ran this portable 1/2-scale sawmill with the scale model Wood Bros. engine.
    Photo by Kim NIchols
  • steam traction engine
    Operator's platform of the 5/8-scale model Wood Bros. steam traction engine.
    Photo by Nikki Rajala
  • steam traction engine
    Front view of the 5/8-scale Wood Bros. steam traction engine. The two men joked that it took a "Nichols and Shepherd" to build a Wood Bros. scale model.
    Photo by Kim Nichols
  • steam traction engine
    Tom Nichols.
    Photo by Kim Nichols
  • Wood Bros. engine
    The 5/8-scale model was based on this 22 hp Wood Bros. engine.
    Photo by Kim Nichols

  • steam tractor engine
  • steam traction engine
  • step cast
  • scale model steam engine
  • Wood Bros. engine
  • steam traction engine
  • steam traction engine
  • steam traction engine
  • Wood Bros. engine

The scale model steam traction engine that Tom Nichols helped the late John Shepherd build is a testament of the respect, love and friendship that he had for his friend.

Tom describes it as a labor of love, love that flowed in several directions. John intended the project as a memorial to his father, who once owned an 18 hp Wood Bros. steam engine; for Tom, the project grew out of his love for his friend. "John wanted it, and he was an old man," he says, "so I thought, 'I'll help him get his dream."

And then there was John's love for Tom, as they spent every Sunday morning for two years together, starting as early as 6 a.m., and going five hours or more, working on the 5/8-scale Wood Bros. steam traction engine.

Planning the project

The idea to create a scale-size Wood Bros. steam traction engine developed on a rainy day in 2000, when the two men were driving through Davis County, Iowa. "John was in his late 70s," Tom says. "By that time he and I had become really good friends, because I had bought his full-size Wood Bros. engine (serial No. 426). We were driving around the countryside where he grew up when he said, 'If I had a boiler, I'd build a model steam engine.' I said, 'Shoot, John, it would be pretty easy to find a 16-inch boiler to build a half-scale model.' John said, 'No, I want to build a 5/8-scale."



Tom did a few quick calculations in his head, and said that meant a 20-inch tube, and he didn't know where to come up with a tube for that. "That pretty well ended that conversation," he recalls.

Answers sometimes come in their own ways. Later, at a steam show, Tom asked Bob Thomas (owner of a 1/2-scale 32 hp Reeves steam engine) where he'd gotten his 20-inch diameter tube. "He told me who to contact, so I called Craig Pipe Co. and asked, 'You wouldn't happen to have a 20-inch piece of pipe for a boiler?' He said he had brand new stuff sitting right there."