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"Notes from the Unit Shop"

Kevin O'Connor's advice for the beginning small scale live steamer


Improving Aster's B-1 Baldwin 0-4-2T (1981 Edition)


Turning this delightful little locomotive into a furious steamer – the easy way



In 1980 Aster introduced their live steam model of a Baldwin Locomotive Company plantation style locomotive.  It is a very nice, simple, high quality rendering, having proportions to please the eye.  There were a fair number of these little locomotives built in ether of two variations.  One version, done up in all black, represented American practice as used in the pine forests of the Atlantic South, while the light green boiler of the “Russian Iron” variant represented Japanese logging practice.


I had wonder why I had never seen one of these beauties in the flesh, so to speak, at any of the west coast steamups that I had attended, but never asked the question.  At Diamondhead, I saw one of the B-1’s in action at the hand of my friend Gary White, who used to be the representative for Aster in the United States.  I noticed that he was operating at warp speed and I inquired why.  He told me that the B-1 did not have a good reputation as a runner since it was almost impossible to hold a fire on all wicks at the same time.  The forward wick was the worst actor of all.


Gary further related that the way that he got his B-1 to operate was the plug up the forward flue up comer, disable the attendant burner cup, lengthen the remaining three wicks and to “run as fast as hell” to keep the flue drafting.  I saw it, it worked, but the high-speed approach was not to my liking. 

To my mind, if you are going to model in one scale or other what is the point of mechanical accuracy if you don’t enforce operating accuracy?  Anyone who has seen the commercial videos that highlight the Yokohama live steam club’s operating meeting knows just what I mean about non-prototypical operation.  The members seem to operate all their locomotives in the fast forward mode all the time. 


I vividly remember one scene in which a beautifully done up Aster Alisan Shay rockets by the viewer with all its valve gear threatening to lurch into space, and look for all the world like a giant Philippine cockroach scurrying into the next flat rock under which to hide.  What I wanted to get to was a B-1 that would run slowly and pull four or five four-wheel cars at scale speeds. 


A few months after seeing Gary’s B-1 in action I was able to purchased a used Russian Iron version from offshore.  It was in relatively good condition, all things considered, but it was missing its headlight.  Mr. Inoue of Aster was able to supply me with a replacement part and I was grateful for his help.  I noticed that the locomotive had been steamed many times, but that there was almost no wheel wear. 


I also noticed that someone had soldered larger diameter brass tubing around the copper wick holders in an attempt to increase the wick diameter.  The existing wicks, made from an outlawed substance, were very loose in the burner cups and the whole locomotive had the extra patina that only soot can impart.  At this point, I boxed up the B-1 for another day went about other things that seemed more pressing, such as developing the radiant butane burner for the Brandbright “Jane” 0-4-0 locomotive.


A year later, after thinking about the B-1 since it arrived in the Unit Shop, I reanalyzed the B-1 once I had it out of the box.  The absence of wear on the drivers, especially in conjunction with the evidence of much fooling with the burner and wicks indicated that approach to fixing the problem had little merit.


The overabundance of soot in/on an alcohol-fired locomotive speaks of poor drafting and/or a smothered flame.  I considered a couple of options, including butane firing, but for the time being set out on to utilize as much of the existing locomotive as possible and to be the least intrusive to the mechanism. 


Since this is a non-directional flame burner (butane, by the necessity of aspirating the fuel mixture, is a directed flame) the fire will always take the course of least resistance as it propagates.  This why coal, alcohol, and ceramic burners need a drafting source in the horizontal boiler configuration to draw the hot gasses of combustion through the flue(s) to the smoke box and out of the stack. 


To this end the smoke box must be airtight and both the blower and cylinder exhaust nozzles must be properly aimed in order to create as much dynamic suction as possible.  Please check all this out per the Aster B-1 instruction book before you start to steam the locomotive.  If all this is not right, not even this optimum burner configuration will perform properly. 


I also had a third goal: I wanted to become proficient in the use of alcohol as a model locomotive fuel.  Even though I am a fourth generation American, my long ago and far away heritage shudders at the though of burning a substance that more appropriately should be consumed in the company of others; it has no quibble with butane nor coal as a proper fuel.


Former steaming buddy Maelor Davies had started me on the road to alcohol (my ex drove me to drink), and between them I had some rudimentary information with which to start.  Mike O’Rourke (who tries to keep me humble) early on loaned me some articles written by Richard Loxley many years ago in the English model press about alcohol firing and the concept of the wick as a valve.  Armed with this information I dug into the challenge at hand; the B-1.


I was successful.  My plan work the first time, and here is what I did.  I deduced that Gary was onto something with his idea to plug the forward flue up comer and to increase the available draft to the remaining three up comers by over speeding the locomotive.  I reasoned that if I plugged up the forward up comer and increased the diameter of the remaining wick cups that I would be able to supply sufficient heat to the boiler to sustain low speed operation with the need to “crack” the blower valve.


Please look at the drawing that my friend Larry Bangham made of the replacement burner.  It is a direct drop-in for the Aster burner, no cutting or fitting required.  It is made from brass tube and round stock silver soldered together.


Not shown is a brass plug that needs to be turner and gently push-fitted into the forward up comer tube, which will block it off.  This plug prevents cool air from being sucked up into the flue, and it also improves the draft of the remaining three up comers.  The jumper line provides adequate alcohol hot fuel to the forward wick and both the jumper and the centerline supply the middle wick.  If any wick starves it will be the center. 


The wicks need to be packed medium tight, with the looser one in the middle.  If you pack the wicks too loose the safety will be constantly lifting, and you know from my other articles on small-scale locomotive firing that is something that I think should be avoided. 


It is interesting that a locomotive that had the reputation of being a poor steamer now will produce so much steam that alcohol metering because a critical operating factor



This article were originally published in Steam in the Garden.  Appreciation is expressed to the author, Kevin O’Connor, drawing by Larry Bangham, and Ron Brown, Publisher/Editor, for permission to post to the SouthernSteamTrains.com web site. 




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