How To Manage A Traction Engine

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Don Bodine of 110 N. Daisy Lane, Danville, Illinois 61834 sent
us a copy of this chapter from a 1903 book, Farm Engines and How To
Run Them, the Young Engineer’s Guide. Don wrote:

‘I found this book very useful. I thought you might want to
publish part or all of it. ‘How To Set A Simple Valve’
could be the most useful part of the chapter. It might help some of
us young guys with our steam engines.’

How To Manage A Traction Engine

A traction engine is usually the simplest kind of an engine
made. If it were not, it would require a highly expert engineer to
run it, and this would be too costly for a farmer or thresher man
contractor. Therefore the builders of traction engines make them of
the fewest possible parts, and in the most durable and simple
style. Still, even the simplest engine requires a certain amount of
brains to manage it properly, especially if you are to get the
maximum of work out of it at the lowest cost.

If the engine is in perfect order, about all you have to do is
to see that all bearings are properly lubricated, and that the
automatic oiler is in good working condition. But as soon as an
engine has been used for a certain time, there will be wear, which
will appear first in the journals, boxes and valve, and it is the
first duty of a good engineer to adjust these. To adjust them
accurately requires skill; and it is the possession of that skill
that goes to make a real engineer.

Your first attention will probably be required for the cross
head and crank boxes or brasses. The crank box and pin will
probably wear first; but both the cross head and crank boxes are so
nearly alike that what is said of one will apply to the other.

You will find the wrist box in two parts. In a new engine these
parts do not quite meet. There is perhaps an eighth of an inch
waste space between them. They are brought up to the box in most
farm engines by a wedge shaped key. This should be driven down a
little at a time as the boxes wear, so as to keep them snug up to
the pin, though not too tight.

You continue to drive in the key and tighten up the boxes as
they wear until the two halves come tight together. Then you can no
longer accomplish anything in this way.

When the brasses have worn so that they can be forced no closer
together, they must be taken off and the ends of them filed where
they come together. File off a sixteenth of an inch from each end.
Do it with care, and be sure you get the ends perfectly even. When
you have done this you will have another eighth of an inch to allow
for wear.

Now, by reflection you will see that as the wrist box wears, and
the wedge-shaped key is driven in, the pitman (or piston arm) is
lengthened to the amount that the half of the box farthest from the
piston has worn away. When the brasses meet, this will amount to
one sixteenth of an inch.

Now if you file the ends off and the boxes wear so as to come
together once more, the pitman will have been shortened one eighth
of an inch; and pretty soon the clearance of the piston in the
cylinder will have been offset, and the engine will begin to pound.
In any case, the clearance at one end of the cylinder will be one
sixteenth or one eighth of an inch less, and in the other end one
sixteenth or one eighth of an inch more. When this is the case you
will find that the engine is not working well.

To correct this, when you file the brasses either of the cross
head box or the crank box you must put in some filling back of the
brass farthest from the piston, sufficient to equalize the wear
that has taken place, that is, one sixteenth of an inch each time
you have to file off a sixteenth of an inch. This filling may be
some flat pieces of tin or sheet copper, commonly called shims, and
the process is called shimming. As to the front half of the box, no
shims are required, since the tapering key brings that box up to
its proper place.

Great care must be exercised when driving in the tapering key or
wedge to tighten up the boxes, not to drive it in too hard. Many
engineers think this is a sure remedy for ‘knocking’ in an
engine, and every time they hear a knock they drive in the crank
box key. Often the knock is from some other source, such as from a
loose flywheel, or the like. Your ear is likely to deceive you; for
a knock from any part of an engine is likely to sound as if it came
from the crank box. If you insist on driving in the key too hard
and too often, you will ruin your engine.

In tightening up a key, first loosen the set screw that holds
the key; then drive down the key till you think it is tight; then
drive it back again, and this time force it down with your fist as
far as you can. By using your fist in this way after you have once
driven the pin in tight and loosened it again you may be pretty
certain you are not going to get it so tight it will cause the box
to heat.

What Causes an Engine To Knock.

The most common sign that something is loose about an engine is
‘knocking,’ as it is called. If any box wears a little
loose, or any wheel or the like gets a trifle loose, the engine
will begin to knock.

When an engine begins to knock or run hard, it is the duty of
the engineer to locate the knock definitely. He must not guess at
it. When he has studied the problem out carefully, and knows where
the knock is, then he may proceed to remedy it. Never adjust more
than one part at a time.

As we have said, a knock is usually due to looseness somewhere.
The journals of the main shaft may be loose and cause knocking.
They are held in place by set bolts and jam nuts, and are tightened
by simply screwing up the nuts. But a small turn of a nut may make
the box so tight it will begin to heat at once. Great care should
be taken in tightening up such a box to be sure not to get it too
tight. Once a box begins to cut, it should be taken out and
thoroughly cleaned.

Knocking may be due to a loose eccentric yoke. There is packing
between the two halves of the yoke, and to tighten up you must take
out a thin layer of this packing. But be careful not to take out
too much, or the eccentric will stick and begin to slip.

Another cause of knocking is the piston rod loose in the
cross-head. If the piston rod is keyed to the cross-head it is less
liable to get loose than if it were fastened by a nut; but if the
key continues to get loose, it will be best to replace it with a
new one.

Unless the piston rod is kept tight in the cross head there is
liability of a bad crack. A small strain will bring the piston out
of the cross-head, entirely, when the chances are you will knock
out one or both cylinder heads. If a nut is used, there will be the
same danger if it comes off. It should therefore be carefully
watched. The best way is to train the ear to catch any usual sound,
when loosening of the key or nut will be detected at once.

Another source of knocking is looseness of the cross head in the
guides. Provision is usually made for taking up the wear; but if
there is not, you can take off the guides and file them or have
them planed off. You should take care to see that they are kept
even, so that they will wear smooth with the crosshead shoes.

If the flywheel is in the least loose it will also cause
knocking, and it will puzzle you not a little to locate it. It may
appear to be tight; but if the key is the least bit too narrow for
the groove in the shaft, it will cause an engine to bump horribly,
very much as too much ‘lead’ will.


We have already explained what ‘lead’ is. It is opening
of the port at either end of the steam cylinder allowed by the
valve when the engine is on a dead centre. To find out what the
lead is, the cover of the steam chest must be taken off, and the
engine placed at each dead centre in succession. If the lead is
greater at one end than it is at the other, the valve must be
adjusted to equalize it. As a rule the engine is adjusted with a
suitable amount of lead if it is equalized. The correct amount of
lead varies with the engine and with the port opening. If the port
opening is long and narrow, the lead should obviously be less than
if the port is short and wide.

If the lead is insufficient, there will not be enough steam let
into the cylinder for cushion, and the engine will knock. If there
is too much lead the speed of the engine will be lessened, and it
will not do the work it ought. To adjust the lead de novo is by no
means an easy task.

How To Set A Simple Valve.

In order to set a valve the engine must be brought to a dead
centre. This cannot be done accurately by the eye. An old engineer,
J. H. Maggard, gives the following directions for finding the dead
centre accurately. Says he: ‘First provide yourself with a
‘tram.’ This is a rod of one fourth inch iron about
eighteen inches long, with two inches at one end bent over to a
sharp angle. Sharpen both ends to a point. Fasten a block of hard
wood somewhere near the face of the flywheel, so that when the
straight end of your tram is placed at a definite point in the
block, the hooked end will reach the crown of the flywheel. The
block must be held firmly in its place, and the tram must always
touch it at exactly the same point.

‘You are now ready to set about finding the dead centre. In
doing this, remember to turn the flywheel always in the same

”Bring the engine over till it nearly reaches one of
the dead centres, but not quite. Make a distinct mark across the
cross head and guides. Also go around to the flywheel, and placing
the straight end of the tram at the selected point on the block of
wood, make a mark across the crown or centre of face of the
flywheel. Now turn your engine past the centre, and on to a point
at which the mark on the cross head will once more exactly
correspond with the line on the guides, making a single straight
line. Once more place the tram as before and make another mark
across the crown of the flywheel. By use of dividers, find the
exact centre between the two marks made on the flywheel, and mark
this point distinctly with a centre punch. Now bring the flywheel
to the point where the tram, set with its straight end at the
required point on the block of wood, will touch this point with the
hooked end, and you will have one of the dead centres.

‘Turn the engine over and proceed in the same way to find
the other dead centre.’

Now, setting the engine on one of the dead centres, remove the
cover of the steam chest and proceed to set your valve.

Assuming that the engine maker gave the valve the proper amount
of lead in the first place, you can proceed on the theory that it
is merely necessary to equalize the lead at both ends. Assume some
convenient lead, as one-sixteenth of an inch, and set the valve to
that. Then turn the engine over and see if the lead at the other
end is the same. If it is the same, you have set the valve
correctly. If it is less at the other end, you may conclude that
the lead at both ends should be less than one-sixteenth of an inch
and must proceed to equalize it. This you can do by fitting into
the open space a little wedge of wood, changing the valve a little
until the wedge goes in to just the same distance at each end. Then
you may know that the lead at one end is the same as at the other
end. You can mark the wedge for forcing it against the metal, or
mark it against the seat of the valve with a pencil.

The valve is set by loosening the set screws that hold the
eccentric on the shaft. When these are loosened up the valve may be
moved freely. When it is correctly set the screws should be
tightened, and the relative position of the eccentric on the shaft
may be permanently marked by setting a cold chisel so that it will
cut into the shaft and the eccentric at the same time and giving it
a smart blow with the hammer, so as to make a mark on both the
eccentric and the shaft. Should your eccentric slip at any time in
the future, you can set your valve by simply bringing the mark on
the eccentric so that it will correspond with the mark on the
shaft. Many engines have such a mark made when built, to facilitate
setting a valve should the eccentric become loose.

These directions apply only to setting the valve of a single
eccentric engine.

How To Set A Valve on a Double Eccentric

In setting a valve on a reversible or double eccentric engine,
the link may cause confusion, and you may be trying to set the
valve to run one way when the engine is set to run the other.

The valve on such an engine is exactly the same as on a single
eccentric engine. Set the reverse lever for the engine to go
forward. Then set the valve exactly as with a single eccentric
engine. When you have done so, tighten the eccentric screws so that
they will hold temporarily, and set the reverse lever for the
engine to go backward. Then put the engine on dead centres and see
if the valve is all right at both ends. If it is, you may assume
that it is correctly set, and tighten eccentric screws, marking
both eccentrics as before.

As we have said, most engines are marked in the factory, so that
it is not a difficult matter to set the valves, it being necessary
only to bring the eccentric around so that the mark on it will
correspond with the mark on the shaft.

You can easily tell whether the lead is the same at both ends by
listening to the exhaust. If it is longer at one end than the
other, the valve is not properly set.

Slipping of the Eccentric or Valve.

If the eccentric slips the least bit it may cause the engine to
stop, or to act very queerly. Therefore the marks on the shaft and
on the eccentric should be watched closely, and of course all
grease and dirt should be kept wiped off, so that they can be seen
easily. Then the jam nuts should be tightened up a little from time
to time.

If the engine seems to act strangely, and yet the eccentrics are
all right, look at the valve in the steam chest. If the valve stem
has worked loose from the valve, trouble will be caused. It may be
held in place by a nut, and the nut may work off; or the valve may
be held by a clamp and pin, and the pin may work loose. Either will
cause loss of motion, and perhaps a sudden stopping of the

Use of the Cylinder Steam Cocks.

It is a comparatively simple matter to test a steam cylinder by
use of the cylinder cocks. To do this, open both cocks, place the
engine on the forward center, and turn on a little steam. If the
steam blows out at the forward cock, we may judge that our lead is
all right. Now turn the engine to the back center and let on the
steam. It should blow out the same at the back cock. A little
training of the ear will show whether the escape of steam is the
same at both ends. Then reverse the engine, set it on each center
successfully, and notice whether the steam blows out from one cock
at a time and in the same degree of force.

If the steam blows out of both cocks at the same time, or out of
one cock on one center, but not out of the other cock on its
corresponding center, we may know something is wrong. The valve
does not work properly.

We will first look at the eccentrics and see that they are all
right. If they are, we must open the steam chest, first turning off
all steam. Probably we shall find that the valve is loose on the
valve rod, if our trouble was that the steam blew out of the cock
but did not out of the other when the engine was on the opposite

If our trouble was that steam blew out of both cocks at the same
time, we may conclude either that the cylinder rings leak or else
the valve has cut its seat. It will be a little difficult to tell
which at first sight. In any case it is a bad thing, for it means
loss of power and waste of steam and fuel. To tell just where the
trouble is you must take off the cylinder head, after setting the
engine on the forward center. Let in a little steam from the
throttle. If it blows through around the rings, the trouble is with
them; but if it blows through the valve port, the trouble is with
the valve and valve seat.

If the rings leak you must get a new set if they are of the self
adjusting type. But if they are of the spring or adjusting type you
can set them out yourself; but few engines now use the latter kind
of rings, so a new pair will probably be required.

If the trouble is in the valve and valve seat, you should take
the valve out and have the seat planed down, and the valve fitted
to the seat. This should always be done by a skilled mechanic fully
equipped for such work, as a novice is almost sure to make bad work
of it. The valve seat and valve must be scraped down by the use of
a flat piece of very hard steel, an eighth of an inch thick and
about 3 by 4 inches in size. The scraping edge must be absolutely
straight. It will be a slow and tedious process, and a little too
much scraping on one side or the other will prevent a perfect fit.
Both valve and valve seat must be scraped equally. Novices
sometimes try to reseat a valve by the use of emery. This is very
dangerous and is sure to ruin the valve, as it works into the pores
of the iron and causes cutting.


A knowledge of the difference between good oil and poor oil, and
of how to use oil and grease, is a prime essential for an

First let us give a little attention to the theory of
lubrication. The oil or grease should form a lining between the
journal and its pin or shaft. It is in the nature of a slight and
frictionless cushion at all points where the two pieces of metal

Now if oil is to keep its place between the bearing and the
shaft or pin it must stick tight to both pieces of metal, and the
tighter the better. If the oil is light the forces at work on the
bearings will force the oil away and bring the metals together. As
soon as they come together they begin to wear on each other, and
sometimes the wear is very rapid. This is called ‘cutting.’
If a little sand or grit gets into the bearing, that will help the
cutting wonderfully, and more especially if there is no grease

For instance, gasoline and kerosene are oils, but they are so
light they will not stick to a journal, and so are valueless for
lubricating. Good lubricating oil will cost a little more than
cheap oil which has been mixed with worthless oils to increase its
bulk without increasing its cost. The higher priced oil will really
cost less in the end, because there is a larger percentage of it
which will do service. A good engineer will have it in his contract
that he is to be furnished with good oil.

Now an engine requires two different kinds of oil, one for the
bearings, such as the crank pin, the cross-head and journals, and
quite a different kind for lubricating the steam cylinder.

It is extremely important that the steam cylinder should be well
lubricated; and this cannot be done direct. The oil must be carried
into the valve and cylinder with steam. The heat of the steam,
moreover, ranging from about 320 degrees Fahrenheit for 90 lbs.
pressure to 350 degrees for 125 lbs. of pressure, will quickly
destroy the efficacy of a poor oil, and a good cylinder oil must be
one that will stick to the cylinder and valve seat under this high
temperature. It must have staying qualities.

The link reverse is one of the best for its purpose; but it
requires a good quality of oil on the valve for it to work well. If
the valve gets a little dry, or the poor oil used does not serve
its purpose properly, the link will begin to jump and pound. This
is the reason why makers are substituting other kinds of reverse
gear in many ways not as good, but not open to this objection. If a
link reverse begins to pound when you are using good oil, and the
oiler is working properly, you may be sure something is the matter
with the valve or the gear.

A good engineer will train his ear so that he will detect by
simply listening at the cylinder whether everything is working
exactly as it ought. For example, the exhaust at each end of the
cylinder, which you can hear distinctly, should be the same and
equal. If the exhaust at one end is less than it is at the other,
you may know that one end of the cylinder is doing more work than
the other. And also any little looseness or lack of oil will
signify itself by the peculiar sound it will cause.

While the cylinder requires cylinder oil, the crank, cross-head
and journals require engine oil, or hard grease. The use of hard
grease is rapidly increasing, and it is highly to be recommended.
With a good automatic spring grease cup hard grease will be far
less likely to let the bearings heat than common oil will. At the
same time it will be much easier to keep an engine clean if hard
grease is used.

An old engineer, J. H. Maggard, gives the following directions
for fitting a grease cup on a box not previously arranged for one:
‘Remove the journal, take a gouge and cut a clean groove across
the box, starting at one corner, about one-eighth of an inch from
the point of the box, and cut diagonally across, coming out at the
opposite corner on the other end of the box. Then start at the
opposite corner and run through as before, crossing the first
groove in the center of the box. Groove both halves of the box the
same, being careful not to cut out at either end, as this will
allow the grease to escape from the box and cause unnecessary
waste. The shimming or packing in the box should be cut so as to
touch the journal at both ends of the box, but not in the center or
between these two points. So when the top box is brought down tight
this will form another reservoir for the grease. If the box is not
tapped directly in the center for the cup, it will be necessary to
cut another groove from where it is tapped into the grooves already
made. A box prepared in this way and carefully polished inside,
will require little attention if you use good grease.’

A Hot Box.

When a box heats in the least degree, it is a sign that for lack
of oil or for some other reason the metals are wearing

The first thing to do, of course, is to see that the box is
supplied with plenty of good oil or grease.

If this does not cause the box to cool off, take it apart and
clean it thoroughly. Then coat the journal with white lead mixed
with good oil. Great care should be exercised to keep all dirt or
grit out of your can of lead and away from the bearing.

Replace the oil or grease cup, and the box will soon cool

The Friction Clutch.

Nearly all traction engines are now provided with the friction
clutch for engaging the engine with the propelling gear. The clutch
is usually provided with wooden shoes, which are adjustable as they
wear; and the clutch is thrown on by a lever, conveniently placed.
Before running an engine, you must make sure that the clutch shoes
are properly adjusted. Great care must be taken to be sure that
both shoes will come in contact with the friction wheel at the same
instant; for if one shoe touches the wheel before the other the
clutch will probably slip.

The shoes should be so set as to make it a trifle difficult to
draw the lever clear back.

To regulate the shoes on the Rumely engine, for example, first
throw the friction in. The nut on the top of the toggle connecting
the sleeve of the friction with the shoe must then be loosened, and
the nut below the shoe tightened up, forcing the shoe toward the
wheel. Both shoes should be carefully adjusted so that they will
engage the band wheel equally and at exactly the same time.

To use the friction clutch, first start the engine, throwing the
throttle gradually wide open. When the engine is running at its
usual speed, slowly bring up the clutch until the gearing is fully
engaged, letting the engine start slowly and smoothly, without any

Traction engines having the friction clutch are also provided
with a pin for securing a rigid connection, to be used in cases of
necessity, as when the clutch gets broken or something about it
gives out, or you have difficulty in making it hold when climbing
hills. This pin is a simple round or square pin that can be placed
through a hole in one of the spokes of the band wheel until it
comes into a similar opening in the friction wheel. When the pin is
taken out, so as to disconnnect the wheels, it must be entirely
removed, not left sticking in the hole, as it is liable to catch in
some other part of the machinery.

Miscellaneous Suggestions.

Be careful not to open the throttle valve too quickly, or you
may throw off the driving belt. You may also stir up the water and
cause it to pass over with the steam, starting what is called

Always open your cylinder cocks when you stop, to make sure all
water has been drained out of the cylinder and see that they are
open when you start, of course, closing them as soon as the steam
is let in.

When you pull out the ashes always have a pail of water ready,
for you may start a fire that will do no end of damage.

If the water in your boiler gets low and you are waiting for the
tank to come up, don’t think you ‘can keep on a little
longer,’ but stop your engine at once. It is better to lose a
little time than run the risk of an explosion that will ruin your
reputation as an engineer and cause your employer a heavy

Never start the pump when the water in the boiler is low.

Be sure the exhaust nozzle does not get limed up, and be sure
the pipe where the water enters the boiler from the heater is not
limed up, or you may split a heater pipe or knock out a check

Never leave your engine in cold weather without draining off all
the water; and always cover up your engine when you leave it.

Never disconnect the engine with a leaky throttle.

Keep the steam pressure steady, not varying more than 10 to 15

If called on to run an old boiler, have it thoroughly tested
before you touch it.

Always close your damper before pulling through a stack

Examine every bridge before you pull on to it.

Do not stop going down a steep grade.

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment