Farm Collector


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

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.

  • Published on Sep 1, 1994
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