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(Part 3)

 by David Stick

Aster ‘Duchess’. Not long after I built her and already a great favourite. Duchess of Sutherland in full cry with a heavy train of GW coaches – obviously working a North to West express!




Whilst every locomotive has its own idiosyncrasies there are some basic methods that must be used for all. Your enjoyment of the operating experience will be largely dictated by how seriously you learn and apply these whenever you run.


First in preparation is to take the engine to the bench and make a close examination to make sure there are no loose nuts or bolts and that there is no damaged mechanism. Repair must be completed before you go any further. I never try and repair anything I take to run at a venue, no matter how far I have travelled to get there because one will almost certainly make a bodge! It is far better to make this inspection BEFORE you leave your own workshop.


Having completed the examination the next job is oiling around all moving parts. Do this accurately and don’t just slap it over everything. You will not be popular with the other runners who will all suffer for the rest of the day because of the oil you will lay all over the track. Fill the oil reservoir with steam oil to about three-quarter full only. Most displacement systems don’t like to be full and you must leave space for some condensate to start the system.


Duchess’ pulls to a stand. “Cor’ Bert, they passengers is going to get wet.” Running at Nick Wilder’s Trethowel track in Cornwall.


Establish its Capacity


Next fill the water tank with water and open the bypass valve on the loco. Use the hand pump to prime the system and get rid of any sticking clacks in the system. If you haven’t run for a while you may find a clack in the hand pump stuck. A good fix for this is to tip some hot water into the tank and try and pump again. This almost always clears the ball from its seat. Next close the bypass, open the regulator and then fill the boiler about two thirds full. If you have a gauge glass you can watch the glass rise till well up the tube. Don’t overfill as this will result in priming and will flood everything with water. You will frequently find that there will be so much water that it goes down the flues into the combustion chamber and may well put the fire out by drowning the wicks. It’s a good idea during the boiler’s construction to establish its capacity so that you can ensure that you don’t overfill. Some people remove the dome nut (often found on Asters) and fill the boiler through this opening. You can keep a close eye on how near the top of the boiler you are if you use a flashlight.


Close the regulator and the blower if you have opened it and refit the dome if you’ve used that method, and then open the bypass again. Next you need to fill the fuel tank with meths. Now I always use industrial grade but others use the ordinary commercial hardware store variety with equal success. All I would say here is that you need to ensure that you keep the meths in a sealed bottle with very little air space left. Being hygroscopic, the concentration will rapidly decay if the air is allowed to get to the liquid. Make sure that the fuel tap is closed and fill the tank carefully. Don’t let it spill on the loco or the track. If you have an accident, mop it up quickly and no harm will be done. Leave it on you paintwork and you may well suffer damage. If you leave it on the track you may well have a conflagration!


Lighting up. Next attach your electric fan blower to the chimney and switch it on. This will draw air through the burners and on via the combustion chamber and flues into the smokebox and out through the fan. Turn on the fuel tap and watch for the fuel to pass through the fuel tube to the burner. If your fuel has been coloured, (food dye works well here) you will be able to see it flowing. After a minute or two you can put a light to the burner and it should light. If it fails as it sometimes does with new burner wicks, allow them to soak a little longer and try again. If it refuses to light you may find that the wicks have been flooded by water (see above). It is essential to have a good draught to light the burner and to keep it going until pressure has risen enough in the boiler to allow the locomotive steam blower to be turned on.


Aster C & O ‘Allegheny’. Ted Chatfield’s huge engine is on the electric blower and under starter’s orders. This loco will pull just about everything we have on rails!


Aster Set the Valves


Once alight the boiler will only take four to five minutes to bring the boiler up to 2bars or about 30psi. You can now open the blower and remove the electric fan. Don’t open the blower too much – just enough to see the pressure gauge needle continue to slowly climb. When the safety valve blows we are nearly ready for action. However, if the loco is fitted with two safety valves it’s a good idea to make sure that the second valve will open at somewhere close to when the first valve blows off. I aim for them to be about ½ bar apart. Aster set the valves at the factory and they are normally set this way. However, it is not unknown for them to be out of adjustment. It is relatively easy to adjust the blow off pressure if you know what you are doing. However, you can seek the assistance of a model engineering society boiler tester to help you with this, using his calibrated gauge. He will also provide you with a boiler certificate – something you will need at many club running tracks where the public are watching. Most G1MRA area groups have a boiler tester who will fulfil this task for you.


Well, we now have a loco with a full head of steam and all ready to go. Now is the time for extra caution. When you open the regulator, steam will pass though the system to the cylinders and being cold, some will condense and will be forced out of the chimney as a jet of hot water. So, gently does it and make sure nobody has his face near the engine. By cracking the regulator open a very small amount you will allow steam into the cylinders and they will begin to warm up. For this reason it’s a good idea to try and run the loco up and down a siding for a few minutes to get the cylinders warmed through. I try and complete a lap or two of the tracks to clear all the condensate before connecting up to my train.


Connect up and set the reversing gear in full forward gear and open the regulator slowly until the train moves. Don’t allow it to spin the driving wheels – you should drive it carefully and as expertly as if you were in a full sized cab. Remember to look at the water level in the water gauge and after a lap or two of the track close the bypass valve for to allow the axle pump to top up the boiler. Don’t leave it fully closed for long or priming will start or the boiler pressure may start to drop. To drive successfully you need to balance regulator, bypass (and if you care to), the reverser setting to obtain optimum performance. In fact you need to drive it exactly like the full size loco. Now isn’t that fun?


Back on Cornwall a 54XX Pannier Tank with an auto-trailer shows that Aster is not just about express steam.


Low Water Level


As the run continues you need to constantly monitor the water level and adjust the bypass to keep about two thirds of a glass full of water throughout the run. Watch for priming as an indicator of overfilling and open the bypass a little more to correct. Sudden speeding up of the train can often indicate low water level, particularly if you haven’t been paying attention. It may occur that you have the tender water tank cover closed and that you have run out of water in the tender. If so, stop and refill the tank. If this does happen, it’s a good idea before restarting to close the bypass valve and use the hand pump to refill the boiler. Remember to do this carefully and, if the engine has very low water level in the boiler, refill the boiler slowly. If you pump cold water too quickly into an empty boiler you may damage it, so the message is to not allow this to happen. This means concentrating when you drive and trying not to be distracted. This is not just important from the locomotive handling point of view but also for safety reasons. Before you started your run you should have walked around the track to make sure you know the road and where the signals and speed restrictions are. I’m sure you get the picture!


When you run comes to an end try to arrange to come to closure with enough steam pressure left to be able to unhook from your train and negotiate the engine to the steaming bays. We all hate to see hand shunting and it is quite unnecessary if you take this activity into account. Besides, it is a demonstration of you ability to control your loco and manage it correctly.


Back in the steaming bay you haven’t finished yet! Firstly, blow out any remaining flame left on the burner by blowing down the chimney. Then open both the regulator and blower slightly to avoid seizure during cool down. If you forget this DON’T try and force them open. You will have to bring the boiler back up to temperature to release them both either right away or next time to run. I have seen serious damage done to a regulator by forcing it open – so be warned!


Next, as the engine cools, open the oil reservoir and drain off the condensate. I use a syringe and aim to empty the container of all water and any oil left over. If you do this with the engine still hot the oil will be thinner and easier to draw off. Refill with new steam oil and then oil around all of the mechanism with machine oil whilst checking for loose nuts and bolts. If you are unlikely to run again for several weeks it is good practice to ‘blow down’ the boiler. Most Asters have a means of doing this and the aim is to drain off the boiler of all water. His lessens the possibility of any sediments or corrosion forming in the boiler.


Aster Stirling ‘Single’ in action. Taken on David Morgan-Kirby’s wonderful track in Ottawa, complete with Brunel timber viaduct. This view shows the engine on its first run after I had completed it. A beautiful little locomotive though definitely not one for a novice!


Wadebridge waiting for signals. My ‘Spam Can’ on Chris Arundell’s lovely Little Eden track in Cornwall.


'King George V' has the front end to make a magnificent entrance


Aster's ‘King George V’ backed on to its load and being connected up. My engine has run for fifteen years without trouble.


Valve Gear and Connecting Rods


Finally, give the engine a good clean off to remove any water, oil or dirt that has deposited itself on the externals. Do this and the paint will stay bright and you will prevent any ‘sludge’ ending up in bearing surfaces. Besides which I for one like my engines to look spick and span and am not an admirer of grubby locos for the sake of it!


In the long life of your engine you will need to conduct regular maintenance. Cleaning and oiling after a run is important and I always do this at the track after the run as described above. When I get home I upend the locomotive and carefully examine everything to make sure things are OK. Just as for your car, things need to be kept in good order and slow the inevitable wear out process. To give you an example of likely failures, my ‘King’ had to have a new regulator and superheater after fifteen years of regular running. Spares are usually available from Aster, although there has to be a limit to the stock held. Neither part is particularly difficult to make though and when the day comes that you can’t get bits, you will have to make them or make arrangements to have them made for you.


The parts I have mentioned are probably the commonest items to wear out and the remainder of the loco should last for many years. Valve gear and connecting rods may need re-bushing which is a simple task but unlikely to occur inside ten years operation if regular maintenance and cleaning is done. Naturally, both steam and water leaks can occur during running. These are usually due to gaskets or washers failing are normally easy to replace. Don’t leave leaks, fix them as performance will suffer or more serious damage may occur otherwise.


Every two years you should re-certify your boiler through your local boiler tester. Failure to do so may inhibit your operating your locomotive in public and some clubs are quite strict about this. Always check with the organiser before you go as a long journey may otherwise be in vain!


So in closing I would urge you to make the step into live steam. You will never regret it. You will have the pleasure of reliving the wonderful days of steam whilst in the company of those of like mind and most are the friendliest of folks only too keen to help and share their experience. Gauge 1 in particular offers the old familiar pictures of steam that we all so miss, though if you are a narrow gauge fan, there is nothing to stop you indulging in both forms providing you take appropriate measures to cope with track clearances. Many enthusiasts operate in both scales and I believe are even more fulfilled by doing so!


‘Duchess’ cab view. The level of detail is here very high.



 part 1 <  < part 2 <  part 3


Appreciation is expressed to Dave Stick for sharing this series along with other articles and photographs for posting to SouthernSteamTrains. com.  


Dave Stick spent all of his working life as an aeronautical engineer.  His hobby has always been model steam locomotive building.  He built his first Aster locomotive, a New York Central Hudson in 1984.  Having graduated from college and served an engineering apprenticeship, he was employed as a development engineer in the gas turbine industry. Dave later joined the Royal Air Force as an engineer officer and retired after 20 years service and immigrated to Canada. There he worked for Boeing Canada retiring for a second time from the post of system director.  Returning to his beloved home in Cornwall, England in 1999, Dave Stick has spent the past decade building and running his collection of Asters.



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