How to make a steam engine

Written by daniel r. mueller
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How to make a steam engine
A fine example of a train with a steam engine. (Highland Lass Steam engine image by morphstu from

A steam engine is a deceptively simple device that can be built by anyone who is comfortable around machines. The basic principal is harnessing the power of high-pressure steam to perform work, which can be anything from spinning a gear to driving a complicated system of pistons like the ones that set the great trains of the Old West and the Victorian Era rolling. This hobby steam engine is a learning and entertainment piece. However, modifications on the idea can be put to work in industry too.

Skill level:
Moderately Challenging

Things you need

  • 6 cinder blocks
  • Large canning pot, unpainted with side handles
  • Heating coal or firewood
  • Old newspaper
  • Matches
  • Welding gloves
  • Safety goggles
  • Drill with metalworking bits
  • Copper tubing the same diameter as your larger drill-bit
  • Solder and soldering torch
  • Framing nail
  • Two empty soda cans
  • Tin snips
  • Needle-nose pliers
  • Smaller pot, with a latching lid, unpainted with handles, all metal without plastic or wooden handles
  • Low-gauge steel wire

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  1. 1

    Use six cinder blocks to create a simple platform on which to set your large canning pot. Build a level surface; you may have to dig in to the ground to do so. Place your canning pot on the platform. To ensure stability, loop your low-gauge wire through the handles and the holes of the cinder blocks.

  2. 2

    Prepare the fuel. Use both coal (or wood) and the newspaper tinder at the bottom of the pot, just enough to get a fire started. Fuel can be added as you go if you need more heat. Don't start the fire yet.

    How to make a steam engine
    Combusition is by far the simplest way to create steam pressure. (fire image by Fotocie from
  3. 3

    Put on your safety goggles. Drill a small pilot hole through the lid of your latching pot, well away from the top handle or the latch handles. Using gradually larger drill bits, drill a hole large enough to tightly accommodate your copper pipe. Drill two small holes at the end of your length of copper pipe to provide a snug fit for a framing nail. Using your tin snips, cut the end of the copper pipe once it is inserted through the opening by about an inch, and use your pliers to bend the three newly formed flaps flush against the inside of the lid. Put on your welding gloves and apply the solder with the torch to both sides of the pipe, forming a solid, watertight bond.

  4. 4

    Suspend the small pot inside of the larger pot by wiring the handles of each together with the steel wire. The smaller pot should be level inside the larger one, hanging at halfway to one-third of the canning pot's depth. Once you've hung the smaller pot in place, fill it two-thirds full with water, taking care not to spill into the fuel.

  5. 5

    With your tin snips, cut away the circular base from both of your soda cans. Cut notches into one and bend it into a crude gear shape using pliers. Keeping your gloves on for this is a good idea as the edges are potentially sharp. Cut away the outer third of the second can bottom until you have a metal disk left behind. Using your drill, make holes in the centre of each can bottom so that a framing nail fits in nice and snug. Using the tin snips and pliers, cut and bend the metal disk into a small fan shape that will move comfortably inside the end of your copper pipe. Cut away two sides of the pipe end with the snips, making a mounting bracket.

  6. 6

    Insert the framing nail though the gear-shaped metal piece you made, then solder the nail head to the gear. Run the nail through the bracket mounting hole at the end of your copper pipe, through the small fan blade you made. With the pliers, bend the bracket you have already run the nail through at a 90-degree angle so that you can easily solder the fan to the nail. Be careful not to fix the nail to pipe. Bend the bracket back into its original position, while running the nail out the side of the other bracket. Use your pliers to bend the nail's protruding end to a 90-degree angle, and cut off all but a half-inch of the nail after the bend with your tin snips.

  7. 7

    Lock the lid assembly into place and start the fire with your matches. Once the water starts to boil, the fan should begin to spin at the end of the pipe. If the water isn't boiling hard enough, add more fuel, being careful not to disturb the smaller pot. If you can get the small gear you made to turn, you've succeeded in making your own rudimentary steam engine.

Tips and warnings

  • Before you solder your pipe to the latching pot lid, bend the pipe so that the fan end will be away from the middle of the pot and the heat of the fire as well as the smoke, so you can get a better view of the work in action.
  • When you are making the fan assembly at the end of your copper pipe, be sure that it spins freely before you test it.
  • Paint a pattern on the outside of the gear to better illustrate the movement being produced by the steam.
  • Make sure all observers are wearing protective goggles.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher handy in case the pressure builds to an unsafe level.
  • Steam and fire are potentially dangerous. Be sure to have a second person present when testing it.

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