Early experiences led Minnesota man to steam engine models.
Even at age 66, Roger Meland of Merrifield, Minn., can trace his interest in steam engine models back to its beginning. When he was a kid, his mother lived across the street from a construction site. “When I came in off the farm to stay with her, I watched a steam-operated elevator working as they built the Minneapolis Honeywell building. I would go and watch the twin-cylinder horizontal winch bring up cement and all the products. I was just fascinated by that engine.”
Then when his family lived on a farm near Deer Park, Wis., in the late 1940s, they would only go to town twice a month. The town blacksmith shop was steam-operated in those days, run by a man who had also converted an old Chevy car into a steam-powered one he drove around town. “I would go right to the blacksmith shop while mom would shop at the grocery store or the general store for cloth to make clothes.” The shop had a variety of buckets hung below leaky valves, including some wood ones, so the water wouldn’t collect on the floor. At the blacksmith shop, Roger was allowed to empty the buckets. “It was like an honor to be able to dump the water out of the buckets,” Roger says. That was how he became fascinated by steam.
In the 1950s, Roger began making steam engine models out of stuff he found lying around the home workshop. “Dad had a lathe and small mill and some stuff like that, so I just started playing around. I was just fascinated with anything mechanical, rebuilding lawn mower engines when I was 10 years old,” he says.
His first boiler for a model steam engine was a two-quart paint can, he says. “It was a compression lid paint can, and my first engine was a single-acting oscillating engine.”
One day Roger read an article in Mechanix Illustrated magazine that showed a model steam engine that could be built from castings. That made him realize he wanted to make steam engines that looked like the real ones he saw. “The homemade engines I was making ran, but didn’t look like the real engines to me, so I started getting into scale engines at that point,” Roger said.
When he was 17 years old, he ordered a model of a Stuart steam engine from England. “I waited for five months for that engine to get here. I can tell you I was chomping at the bit by the time it came,” he says.
Right now Roger is working on building a twin-cylinder steam engine that was at Honeywell in Minneapolis. Roger remarks, “It’s the one from my kid dreams, a twin-cylinder horizontal steam winch.”
Roger has begun making machine shop tools in 1/12-scale, taken out of a 523-page 1895 catalog, which has been reprinted. “It has all kinds of old shop stuff in it, machinery that was for sale by this company, like milling machines, engine lathes, shapers, drill press, arbor press, bench grinder, table saw and a wood lathe,” he says. “The company had their own foundries. I have castings of many of them so people can have their own miniature machine shop.”
One of the steam engines from the catalog that he’s built is a 1/8-scale of a Class F 6 HP Orr & Sembower factory engine. Orr & Sembower Inc., of Reading, Pa., sold very good engines and boilers, Roger says. His 1/8-scale is a double-acting vertical engine of 5/8-inch bore and 7/8-inch stroke. “It’s 7-1/2 inches tall with a 3-inch diameter flywheel, and it has a belt pulley. I also have a printed copy of their original literature.”
Another of his engines is a walking beam engine. “It’s patterned after the patents that really became the very first steam engine that could do work, from the patents ideas of James Watt back in 1778,” Roger says. Watt patented parallel motion, which is incorporated in this model, so people can see how it actually functions. Early engines run by steam were called condensing engines, and the valves had to be operated by hand as the piston went up and down.
“Then James Watt patented the parallel motion, which allowed reciprocating motion to be converted to rotary motion, which could now turn pulleys and drive belts,” Roger recalls. Other people were doing steam engines at the time, Roger says, but Watt is generally considered the father of the industrial steam engine. “Others were condensing steam to create a vacuum to pull the piston down, which wasn’t a very good system, but Watt admitted steam to both sides of the piston which meant much more power.
Roger is high on English-made Stuart model engines. “Two of them come to mind,” he says, “and I guess I would have to say I still do a lot of work with Stuart engines, I have quite a few of them here.” He says the Stuart castings are good and easy to work on.
One of his setups is a regular machine shop that runs on the Stuart engine. The Victoria engine, his all time favorite engine, just runs so sweet. It includes the miniature boiler, pipes, chunks of wood, wood pails, even a miniature line shaft and incorporates a scale operating governor.
He also likes the Stuarts because in England and Germany people in general are more into models than Americans are, he says. “They’re into models of all kinds, model railroads, model steam engines. There are more people doing models as a hobby. It has to do with the size of the countries, the size of their homes, and a whole different system and style of living. In some countries the stores are only open one Saturday a month, and none in the evenings past 6 o’clock,” he says. That gives people the desire to do other things, and making models is one of them.
Roger says it’s harder for the small caster nowadays, because many of the smaller foundries have fallen by the wayside, and the big companies want to do runs of 100,000 or so, which obviously doesn’t work for a hobbyist like him.
Roger says when people see his model steam engines, they think they’re just incredible.
Taking it In
“They think that just because I make them I’m some kind of genius, but I’m not. I’m just a guy from down the street, and it all depends on what you apply yourself to. I’m good at this, but I’m bad at a lot of other things. You should see my typing. If it wasn’t for spellchecker, I would have to make a lot of phone calls,” Roger says.
He says it takes some machining skills and the equipment to do it. “You don’t need big expensive machinery. You can get by with pretty reasonable-priced stuff. The most expensive parts involve tooling. For skills, I just say it’s 90 percent intestinal fortitude, and a little bit of luck.”
Roger admits that sometimes things don’t work out when he’s creating his engines, but he just climbs back on the horse, so to speak, and gets to work again. “My education is in engineering, and I love a challenge, so if I have a problem, and have to go in and redo something, or remake a part, make something different, that’s part of the fun in it for me. I get to go back and make it better,” he says.
Today, Roger says he’s kind of a purist when it comes to models of the old engines. “When I look at some engines that are supposed to represent engines from the 1890s, I see the Phillips head screws or socket head screws, which just don’t look right, because they didn’t have them at the time. So for years I’ve been using scale hex head bolts and scale-sized nuts and studs to make sure they look authentic.”
Roger says there isn’t really a most difficult part of what he does. “Really, it just depends on your experience. For machinists with 30, 40, 50 years of experience, it can be a snap. But for someone just starting out, it can be quite difficult. Each engine has its difficult part, but the difficult part of one engine isn’t necessarily the same difficult part on another engine. Some engines are harder to do the crosshead because it’s kind of closed in or hidden or really tall. Some are harder to do the eccentrics, like the Stuart Victoria model, where the hardest part is the governor, because the parts are so small.”
He has to use magnifying glasses at times. “Right now I’m assembling an engine that uses 0.80-inch screws, so I need a magnifying glass and tweezers to get the bolts in place,” says Roger. Also, he’s performing the work on a twin-cylinder marine engine. “It’s a magnificent engine and just runs flawlessly. It has a Hackworth reversing gear and is a small two-cylinder engine used for marine purposes.”
He has also made several model gasoline engines, including an Economy, an upright Domestic – which is very, very rare in real life – and a New Holland. These engines intrigue him because people made them from scratch in the sense that there were no other engines to follow and no plans. “The engines came straight out of their heads,” he says.
Roger is excited about one of his latest projects, a scale model of an Atkinson gas engine. “The castings will be coming any time now. The Atkinson was a strange engine, a four-stroke engine that does all four strokes in one revolution. It was made out east in Pennsylvania. A friend of mine did all the research on it for me.”
Besides his love of old steam, Roger says he builds and collects these engines because they all have an incredible history. “It’s being lost. People may never be able to see the full-sized engines, but when you have a model engine you can take to shows in the summer and fall they get to see what the model engines are like and imagine what the engines were like when they were full-size,” he says.
One of the fun things he does at the 10 or so shows he attends is to take his 1-1/2-inch steam whistle and toot at the big steamers from the sidelines as they go by. “They toot back with their big one and people get a charge out of that,” he says.
“The shows we go to are just wonderful and my wife, Susy, and I meet so many nice and incredible people. We’ve made so many new friends, including the folks at TM Research who have been a tremendous help to me.”
“I dearly love this hobby and wish more people would get into it,” states Roger.