576 Murray Street Owatonna, Minnesota 55060
I am no old timer at 30 years of age, but have some information about firing a steam engine with wood to share with anyone interested. I quite often see articles about different engines, the merits of the different valve gears, various pro-Case and anti-Case articles and stories of years gone by, but I have seldom seen articles written on actually running an engine or firing a boiler. Since there are probably a few greenhorns out there (I will always be a greenhorn), wishing for more information on this subject, I thought I would share what little I know with those few out there knowing less than I.
Naturally, being the age I am, I did not run these things for a living. I have gained my little dab of knowledge from two friends who have been invaluable to me. One of them was a thresherman in the Twenties and Thirties and also ran pea viners with steam. The other friend, luckily for me, is only a little older than me. The steamer that I have is a 1922 65 HP Case. That make of engine, as everyone knows, is designed as a coal burner, but I have learned some very basic things that have helped me keep steam up when firing with wood. Being from east-central Minnesota, coal is expensive and wood is plentiful, especially when my engine is used at a friend's sawmill most of the season. Probably the most important thing that I do when firing with wood is close down my grate surface. When you burn coal, you need your entire grate surface and your draft wide open. With wood, all of that grate surface is doing nothing but letting in cold air. I have placed dead-plates (tin from a junked threshing machine) around the entire firebox. The deadplate in the front of the firebox is probably 13' deep and is the width of the firebox. The dead-plate in the back of the firebox is close to 18' deep, once again the width of the firebox. I have also placed two eight-inch deadplates along both sides of the firebox as well. What it boils down to is my grate surface when burning wood is not much larger than the size of the open magazine you are reading now, maybe 15 x 20 inches. I can hear all of you laughing at me right now. There is a reason for this. For a coal burner, coal is best. If you don't have coal though, take what you have and turn it into coal. What you need is a bed of coals along all sides of the firebox. All of those deadplates let you retain a bed of coals and when your ashes and coals are lining the sides of your firebox, that is what is keeping the heat up and keeping the pressure up through the pulls.
When your wood burns up and falls through the grates it does you no good when it is sitting in the ashpan. Your heating value is lost. Many of you remember the old cast iron cook stoves and how ashes were piled up against the sides of the heating area. It was to retain heat. It works the same with the firebox of a steam engine. Those ashes piled along the sides are keeping your pressure up when you're working it hard. When I am firing with wood, I push the ashes to the front and the sides of the firebox. If this sounds crazy to anyone, look at the principle behind the Russell engine with a universal boiler. That make and model of engine had the water leg in the firebox with an opening just large enough for a thin fellow to crawl through. Well, that water leg and smaller opening insures that all of the air that reaches the tubes is well heated. I think most people would agree that a Russell universal is a very easy engine to fire. Putting deadplates around the firebox of a Case will not make it act like an engine with a universal boiler, but it does reduce the chance of cold air reaching the tubes and make it much easier to fire with wood. For those of you already doing this, you know that it works. If not, give it a try.
When using the deadplates around the firebox in a Case, it not only makes the engine easier to fire with wood, but you will also use way less wood than you would without having them there. It retains the heat so well that once you get it cooking, it takes much less fuel. It might be a little slower firing up in the morning but when it helps the engine run much more efficiently, that usually doesn't make much difference to me. I'm always there early anyway.
The type of wood usually doesn't matter as long as it is dry. Some people say you need aged oak. That is great, but if we have good hardwood slabs, chances are they are going to be burned in the house, not in the steam engine. We fire with the leftovers. If the firewood is still a little green, take an axe and split it up into narrower strips so you can lay it in pretty tight and make the most efficient use of the space you have, as once you stack wood in your firebox higher than your lowest row of tubes, you're going to be out of business real quick. Chunks of green wood aren't going to help matters much. You need to keep the bottom of the firebox completely covered so no cold air is hitting your tubes. You can tell by your smoke if you have holes in your fire. With slab wood I have always fired bark side down while firing up in order to let some air pass through while the fire is starting and there is not much draft yet. When I am working it, however, and there is plenty of draft, I fire bark side up so the flat side of the wood is down and is as low as possible in the firebox, thereby giving the widest heating surface possible. The flat part of your slab is where all of your heating value is. I have found round wood to have little or no heating value, at least in the make of engine that I have; it should be split. If you're going to let it smolder in a fireplace or Franklin stove, round wood is great. In a steamer you need immediate heat. If you have a Minneapolis or something with a huge firebox, you can probably throw in anything and make it work. Even in an engine like that, though, if you have deadplates around the firebox, you will still use less wood than without them.
These hints are what have worked for me on a 65 Case. Each year we saw wood throughout the summer, and at shows we run a rock crusher, thresh, pull it on a dynamometer, and plow with an eight-bottom John Deere plow, all while firing with wood. I don't think any activity requires more power out of a steamer than pulling a large plow. We plow every year at the LeSueur Pioneer Power Show in LeSueur, Minnesota, and soil doesn't come much harder to plow than that. We have pretty long rounds there and never have to open the firebox door until we reach the end, usually with nearly the same pressure that we started out with. On a Case, it's more work with wood than with coal, but you can certainly make it work.
For what little I know, I have probably talked way too much, but I would like to close off by saying that in our hobby we should continue to explain what we know about different engines, valve gears, boilers, and their positives and negatives because that is how we learn. We should try and be careful not to talk down or degrade anyone's engine though. There are positives and negatives to all of them and as long as people are on this earth they are going to have preferences. Some engines are going to be better suited to a certain person's needs so they are naturally going to like that particular make better. I have a 65 Case and I like it because I can do so many things with it but I certainly like a host of others as well. When I am plowing I think the design is very well suited to that activity as it works at a high pressure, has lots of power and takes very little power to move on its own weight, etc. etc...
Now you people already know what's good and bad about most engines. Oddly enough, the activity that I use it the most for is what it is probably the worst suited for: running a sawmill. We saw a lot of lumber with the thing. I saw wood quite often with the two friends I mentioned above in the article, and what often happens is that they are on the carriage end of the mill while I shag slabs and fire the 65. Well, about now reality sets in and after a few hours of this, those bunkers seem to keep getting higher and higher to climb over. The firewood gets heavier and heavier to hoist up on the platform. My friend doing the sawing prefers a fire-from-the-ground side mount engine. He likes all engines, but doesn't necessarily love Case any more than the rest, so it doesn't exactly bring a tear to his eye to work the tar out of me going up and over those bunkers all day long. So, do I wish it was a Minneapolis or Russell sitting there on the mill on a hot summer day? Probably. Do I judge my engine or anyone else's on one activity alone? I try not to. Let's keep comparing makes, sharing whatever information we have, but try not to degrade anyone's steamer. There are pluses and minuses about all of them and remember, when you downgrade an engine, any engine, the criticism isn't received by the engine, it is received by the owners. And the people are what make the hobby what it is. Good luck with the wood, my friends! My address is above, and my phone number is 507-455-1027. Let me know if this works or not (it will). I would love to hear from you.