Technical Information

Well, water is just water isn't it? Actually no, it's not quite that simple.

Our miniature steam boilers are made mostly of copper, with some bronze and silver solder and there are also brass steam fittings for the steam to negotiate before it exits to atmosphere. Although all these items are made from non-ferrous metals and therefore do not rust, they are subject to chemical attack in other ways. Here is a quick run down of the common sources of water with their pros and conns.

Tap water - in soft water areas, this is fine but in hard water areas it can quickly lead to a build up of 'lime scale' on the inner surfaces of the boiler, fittings and pipe work. The easiest way of establishing what your water is like is to look inside your kettle. If it's thick with white 'lime scale' deposits, avoid using it.

Rain water - free of charge and quite good if you can get sufficient quantity. It must be filtered to get all the dirt, grit and other rubbish out of it and the filters used by home brewers and wine makers does an excellent job.

De-ionized water - this is often sold for use in steam irons and the general opinion amongst the small scale live steam community is that it should not be used. Because of the way it is 'purified', it can cause long term problems by slowly removing zinc from the brass fittings - commonly called de-zincification.

Purified water - tricky one this, as it is not always clear how purification has taken place. Shops that sell it will variously tell you it is de-ionized, or distilled. If you can't be sure that it is distilled, don't use it.

De-humidifier water - another good source. A de-humidifier is a bit like a fridge in reverse, and the water that collects in the tank is quite safe to use.

Refrigerator/deep freezer ice - good. It is basically moisture in the air that has frozen and once thawed out is good to use if you can get sufficient quantity.

Distilled water - the best water you can use but unfortunately it is difficult to get hold of. If buying distilled water, be very sure that it actually is. Some retail outlets will sell 'purified' or 'de-ionized' water (for steam irons or car batteries) and tell you it is distilled but it is actually quite different.

You will probably find that a combination of these will supply all your needs but if you store or stock pile collected water, be sure to filter it well before use and change the containers from time to time. If not, you will find algae and other deposits forming in the water which will cause steaming problems. Dirt, algae and other debris can cause the water to foam as it boils and this will cause priming to the cylinders and syphoning at the safety valve.

First, a little history:

Roundhouse haven't always produced gas fired locomotives, in fact, untill 1988, all models were spirit fired, but it was introduced at that time to allow greater flexibility in design.

A single closed flue system was adopted as components were readily available from specialist manufacturers, and it was simple and compact. After some years of using bought in parts, and finding the problems and limitations of the system, Roundhouse decided it could produce a better system 'in house'.

During 1994/5, a great deal of time and money was spent on developing a new gas system that would do just what we wanted when we wanted. With the help of a number of specialist's in the gas field, including time in the Department of Fuel and Energy laboratory at Leeds University, the 'FG' gas burner was eventually developed which was easy to manufacture and is efficient, quiet and weather proof.

'FG' Gas System

Gas, stored in the tank on the locomotive, passes through a needle valve regulator, then on to the gas burner. The burner has the job of mixing precisely the gas and air, so allowing it to burn correctly in the closed flue. The hot gasses pass along the flue, transferring heat into the surrounding water, and exit via the chimney along with exhaust steam from the cylinders. A superheater, carrying steam to the cylinders, also passes down the flue tube to ensure that the steam reaching the cylinders is as dry as possible.

The recent introduction of our 'Budget' range, meant another lengthy development stage to produce a similarly good system for use with externally fired boilers. The 'FX' burner was the result and once again is quiet, efficient and pretty weather proof.

'FX' Gas System

With this system, air passes up through the bottom of a firebox which surrounds the boiler. The gas burner is mounted beneath the boiler and hot gasses from this pass up, around the outside of the boiler and exit at the top. The firebox controls the passage of the hot gasses to ensure that maximum heat is transfered into the water inside the boiler and keeps out any unwanted cold air and wind. The main steam pipe passes through the firebox in large loop around the inside. This gives a certain amount of re-heating to the steam on it's way to the cylinders, but it does not afford the same level of re-heating as with the closed flue internally fired system.

Gas is carried on the locomotive in a purpose built storage tank which is filled from a gas cannister as used for filling cigarette lighters or larger types used for small blowlamps or camping stoves etc.

The most important thing to realise is that gas firing is not just down to the burner. We are dealing here with a complete system and many factors come together to make it work correctly. You can not just buy a Roundhouse burner, fit it in your own boiler and expect good results. Because of the requirements of a closed flue system of this size, every aspect of the entire system has to be 'just right' in order to get good performance and very small alterations or variations can throw the whole thing into dissarray. Every care is taken at the factory to ensure that ready to run locomotives are set up correctly and every aspect of it's operation is carefully checked, culminating in an exhaust gas analysis test to see just how efficiently it is working.

Ordinary Butane or Iso-butane gas (as used in gas cigarette lighters) is the preferred fuel, though for economy, the larger canisters as used for blowlamps or camping stoves etc. are better. The larger canisters have an EN417 threaded self sealing valve on top and require a special adapter to couple up to the filler valve on the locomotive.

Mixed gasses, i.e. Butane with a proportion of Propane mixed in, are available, and may be used on current models (PLEASE NOTE EXCEPTIONS BELOW) if straight Butane is unavailable. These come in a variety of mixes ranging from 90/10 to 60/40 with one of the most common being 70/30. The figures refer to the proportions of the mix i.e. 70/30 contains 70% butane and 30% propane. If using mixed gasses, always choose the one with the largest proportion of butane. The addition of propane slightly alters the gasses properties. This can make the burner a little more difficult to light when cold or after filling the gas tank.

Always open the regulator very slowly when lighting, and only just sufficient for ignition to take place. Opening too much too soon may extinguish the flame until the burner reaches normal operating temperature.

Due to the higher storage tank pressure of mixed gasses, they should not be used in the following models.

Replacement gas tanks suitable for mixed gasses are available for models in catagories (5) & (6), enquire for further details.

Basically, we have an excellent system that works well but if you want to incorporate our parts into your own locomotive, ask our advice. We do offer certain parts in our range of 'Home Builder Parts', but it is not always a simple matter to achieve the correct results. A range of shapes and sizes of gas tanks are available, CLICK HERE for full details

From 1982 to 1994, Roundhouse produced spirit fired locomotives.These were externally fired and featured a firebox round the boiler to contain the heat and keep out the weather. Spirit was contained in a tank beneath the cab floor.

The growing popularity of gas firing, which required no setting up by the customer and offered instant control of the fire, led to a decline in the popularity of spirit firing. Also, 'methylated spirit' was fast becoming harder to get hold of and what you could get, was often of very poor quality. Consequently, the demand for spirit fired locomotives dropped to a level where it was no longer ecconomic to manufacture them.

If a good burner/firebox/boiler combination is used then, in performance, it is the equal of gas firing and, as a method of producing steam, it does it's job very well. It does however require far more input from the operator in terms of maintenance and setting up. Wicks require regular cleaning and re-packing or replacement and this in itself is something of an art which many failed to grasp.

Spirit Burning System

For a closer look at spirit firing and how to get the best out of it, go to our 'An Introduction to Spirit Firing' section.

All current Roundhouse locomotives are fitted with a pair of 9/16" bore x 5/8" stroke double acting cylinders, which are operated by slide valves housed in a valve chest on top of the cylinder block.

Exploded Diagram of Slide Valve Cylinder

There are several variations of the slide valve cylinders and though they look slightly different externally, bore and stroke are the same.

Scale Diagram of Slide Valve Cylinder

The cylinder block is manufactured from brass, all glands and the piston ring are silicone '0' rings and gaskets or '0' ring seals are used for all covers and joints. They are designed for easy maintenence and will give a lifetime of excellent performance and service, requiring only the occasional replacement of seals.

Slide Valve Cylinder

Piston valve cylinders were used on the Forney model produced between 2000 and 2004.

Piston Valve Cylinder

Currently, only the slide valve cylinders are available to home builders (product code: C). They are mounted to the frames by two M3 screws, and come complete with dummy crossheads, inlet and exhaust pipes attached and instructions for installation and maintenance. The instructions for this item can be downloaded here

The valve gear can be anything you care to make, or, if building valve gears is not your thing, the Roundhouse Walschaerts valve gear is detailed further down this page. Full valve travel is .140" ( 3.56mm).

The simplified Walschaerts type valve-gear used as standard on many Roundhouse models.

Photo of Walschaerts type valve-gear

We use the description 'simplified' because it does not include a functioning combination lever/union link/drop link, it does offer forward and reverse running but not variable cut off. Used in conjunction with the Roundhouse cylinders, very slow steady running is easily achieved.

Quality materials are used throughout - rods and links are laser cut in stainless steel - return cranks and lifting arms in cast nickel silver - stainless and silver steel also used in other parts where appropriate.

Available as a complete set - not including coupling or connecting rods - for the home builder and includes full instructons for assembly and setting. Part code:WVG

 Walschaerts type valve-gear

General arrangement of valve gear - coupling, connecting rods and outside cranks shown for referance only but are not included in the valve gear set. All dimensions in millimetres.

 Walschaerts type valve-gear

You can download the instructions for this item here.

Hackworth valve gear was used extensively by a number of British locomotive manufacturers on their smaller industrial engines as it is quite simple and compact.

Photo of Hackworth type valve-gear

Please note that the special inclined cylinders with horizontal valve chests are required for this set, it is not suitable for use with our standard cylinder set.

 Hackworth type valve-gear

'Steam oil', to use it's common name, comes in many forms and weights and often under some other name. There seems to be a commonly held belief on this subject, that 'thicker is better', but this is just one more 'old wives tale'. Also, to say that a certain viscosity of oil is correct for all, without any other qualification (eg. at certain steam pressures, temperatures or pipe size etc) is a little misleading. It may work fine in one design of engine, but be less suitable for another. By choosing the correct weight and composition of oil, you can obtain a more efficient lubrication.

There are a number of things to be taken into consideration when deciding which oil to use such as, temperature of steam, size of piping, point of entry into stsyem, type of lubricator etc. etc.

The current oil supplied by Roundhouse is, to use it's correct title, 'Compounded Bearing Oil 220' (220 being the weight or viscosity) and was chosen after consultation with the oil's manufacturer and discussion as to its precise application and working environment. The change of oil was brought about a few years after Roundhouse adopted internal gas firing and a small number of engines were experiencing blocked super heater pipes after prolonged use. The blockages were caused by carbonised oil, though this had never been a problem with the earlier externally fired models. The key points that dictated what oil to use were as follows:

  1. Working on a (relatively) low steam pressure of 40psi.
  2. Displacement type lubricator positioned in cab, so 'wet steam' pickup.
  3. Long pipe run (again, relatively) between lubricator and cylinders.
  4. Small diameter of piping.
  5. High degree of superheating between lubricator and cylinder as superheater heated directly by gas burner and will often be glowing red during operation.

What was needed in this case was an oil that would be picked up and carried by the (relatively) low pressure wet steam, then travel through all the small diameter piping, through the high temperature of the superheater (without being carbonised), and arrive in the correct proportion in the cylinders where it cools again before doing its job.

All of this pointed to a medium weight oil so that it would pick up and pass quickly along the narrow pipes and one with a low 'solids' content so that carbonisation in the superheater was kept to a minimum. The 'solids' reffered to, are additives such as tallow and other fats, which are used as they are a good lubricator in wet conditions.

To deliver the correct amount of 220 weight oil, the feed hole in the displacement lubricator had to be reduced in size as the now thinner oil picked up and flowed far more freely.

We offer the above case both to illustrate the fact that no one oil is 100% suitable for all needs, and to explain why the current Roundhouse oil is so different from it's predecessor.

Please note that using the current 220 oil in an older Roundhouse loco that was originally supplied with the thicker oil will not cause any problems other than an oily engine. Using thicker oil in the current models should not be a problem as far as lubrication is concerned (slightly less getting to the cylinders), but may lead to long term carbonisation in the superheater.

When choosing an oil, you should look at the particular requirements of the model in question. A low pressure oscilating cylindered loco with displacement lubricator will need quite a different type to say a coal fired engine running at 90 psi with oil fed by pump directly to the cylinders. Also, if you are playing about with or changing between different weights of oil, a lubricator with adjustable feed rate is desirable as the this can vary considerably.

We shall also include here a short explanation of our displacement lubricators mentioned above.

Diagram of Displacement Lubricator

This simple but effective device, takes care of lubricating the inner working parts of the cylinders. It is called a displacement lubricator because of the way the condensed steam displaces the oil in the chamber.

It comprises a hollow chamber with the steam pipe passing through and has a filler cap at the top and drain at the bottom, both of which seal against the internal pressure.

The steam pipe has a small hole in it, within the chamber, to allow the transfer of steam and oil. Before use, the lubricator is filled with 'steam oil' (as described above).

As steam passes along the steam pipe and through the lubricator, some of it enters the chamber via the small hole in the pipe. Because the lubricator is cooler than the boiler, the steam condenses into water which then sinks to the bottom. This in turn displaces the oil upwards and a small amount passes out through the same hole and is carried along with the steam to the cylinders.

This means that while ever the locomotive is running, a constant oil mist is being transported to the inner working parts of the valve chest and cylinders.

Periodically, the water must be emptied out of the bottom via the drain screw, and the chamber re-filled with more oil.

There are other slight variations to this design, some which are placed on the end of a seperate pipe rather than have the main steam pipe passing through it, and some which also have an integral needle valve to adjust the oil flow, however all work on the same basic principle.

All Roundhouse locomotives have a lubricator similar to the one illustrated though the drain screw position may vary.

This device controls the maximum pressure allowed to build up inside the boiler and is an important safety device. All Roundhouse locomotive boilers have a single safety valve set to prevent pressure from raising above 40psi (pounds per square inch). The unit screws into a bush in the boiler with a 5/16" x 32 ME thread.

Diagram of Safety Valve

As can be seen from the diagram above, it is a simple device comprising a rubber seal mounted on a stainless steel or brass spindle which is held in contact with its seat by a stainless steel spring. The spring is compressed by a screw-in ring in the top of the valve body and is set so that a steam pressure of 35 to 40psi will lift the seal and spindle from the seat. This allows the excess steam to pass through and exit the top of the valve via four slots which are machined up the sides of the screw-in ring.

These are a slow release type valve which means that it will start to open the valve before the maximum pressure is reached. The nearer the maximum, the more the valve opens so that by the time 40 psi is reached, it is fully open. Note that there will be a small amount of steam escaping from about 10 psi below the maximum level and that will slowly increase as pressure rises.

The valve can be adjusted to compensate for the '0' ring and spring 'bedding in' and, even on a new locomotive this is sometimes necessary.

The center screwed ring has four slots around the edge into which fit the two prongs of the safety valve adjuster tip of our 'Multitool' or, the tips of a pair of thin nosed pliers. Adjustment of the valve should be carried out with the locomotive in steam but take great care as very hot steam is blown upwards out of the valve during the operation. The Roundhouse 'Multitool' has a specially designed adjuster that channels the steam out sideways but it is advisable to wear safety gloves to protect your hand.

Photo of Safety Valve AdjustmentPhoto of Safety Valve Adjustment

If the blow off pressure is too low, slowly screw the center adjusting ring clockwise to increase pressure on the internal spring. If the blow off pressure is to high, turn the ring anti-clockwise to release pressure on the spring. Make small adjustments at a time and wait for the boiler pressure to settle between movements. When assembled and set at the factory, a small dimple is pressed into the body of the valve near the top. This is to prevent the adjuster ring from moving on it's own, but the friction it produces is easily overcome during adjustment.

The procedure above assumes that the pressure gauge on the locomotive is reading correctly. With older models, it is advisable to have the gauge checked against a known, correctly reading gauge before attempting adjustment. Most valves only require a small adjustment to obtain correct operation, often only 1/2 to 1 full turn so, if you have to screw the adjuster ring in more that two or three turns, or it is not possible to adjust the valve correctly, then it either requires a new spring and internal seal or replacing completely.

Remember, this is a safety valve and is fitted to protect the boiler against over pressurizing and must function correctly. Do not adjust it to allow the boiler pressure to rise above 40 psi. If in doubt about the above procedure, please contact the factory and if there is any doubt about the functioning of the valve, then replace it.

We are slowly building up a database of service sheets that will be of help to Roundhouse locomotive owners in the repair, maintenance and troubleshooting of any problems that may occur in their locomotives.

Below a vast majority of our loco instructions can be found in pdf format for you to view or download as required.

Roundhouse Engineering Co. Ltd., Doncaster, UK. 2018. Click Here To Return To The Homepage