Caveat Emptor...or.... Buying Steam Engines Without Getting Burned

A few tips on buying, miniature toy steam engines without getting hurt or killed in the process.

I 've watched with great interest, over the past 10 years or so, as the miniature and toy steam engine hobby has grown in popularity, far beyond all expectations. The hobby has had an astounding resurgence as more and more people have discovered these marvelous little pieces of mechanical art. Much of this growth has been fueled by sites like this one, but the lions share of credit most certainly must go to Ebay.

As time has gone by, I've gotten more and more into the restoration end of the hobby and I have restored quite a number of old engines for others. In doing so, I've seen a number of issues which some owners ignored, either from sincere ignorance (curable) or a devout wish to be removed from the human genetic pool. (often terminal). For the former individuals I'm sharing a few tips and concerns in the hope that I can help them avoid disappointment and possibly some very real pain. For the latter....I'll have candles lit on holidays....(grin)

Buying A Steam Engine:
There it is... right there on the computer screen... the steam engine of your fondest desires. You check the bids and this one looks like it just might be yours before evening is at an end. One push of the bid button and the auction ends with you as the proud winner of an old and beautiful little steam engine. Fast forward time a week or so and the hard won prize arrives. You unwrap the little fellow and set it on the table to have a look. This is when you either beam with pride over a wise buy or you slap yourself for not paying more attention before hitting that $#&*@ bid button. Here are some tips for beginner and old online auction steam engine warriors alike.

  1. Photos are great for determining the condition of an engine, but there are subtle ways to hide things. Take notice of the angles shown. In a group of pictures, it is easy to miss the fact that one area or angle of an engine has been avoided. This can be an indication the seller is hiding damage that you are not supposed to see. If one end of the boiler is studiously avoided, it's a good thing to wonder why. Out of focus photos are not always an indication of problems, but it is a very good idea to ask for better shots before bidding. A little blur can hide a lot of surface problems.
  2. Look for things that should not be there. A hex bolt in a boiler port, an unusual looking screw in a linkage or a burner under an electric heated engine are a sure signs things are not what they should be. Any one of these problems is likely to indicate an unrepairable and non running steam engine. Such damage is an indication of an abused engine. While it might make a nice desk display, it's not going to be an engine you'll be able to run. A bolt, living where the safety valve should be, is an explosion waiting to happen. A cooked out solder joint is not going to hold pressure and hot steam blown in your face is painful beyond belief.
  3. Look for dents, cracks, bad solder repairs and missing items. A missing steam line is not a huge problem if you are mechanically inclined and have a few tools, but it can be a dead end if you are not capable of doing a bit of restoration work. A broken sight glass is easy enough to replace on most engines, but in very old engines it can be difficult to do without breaking things. A small boiler dent in the middle of the vessel is probably not a problem, but a small dent in a corner of an end cap can indicate serious problems. Avoid all engines with large dents... trust me on this one. Cracks in solder joints are common and they are hard to spot in a photo, so look closely. These are the dangerous and should be avoided. A cracked flywheel flying apart and bouncing about the room is not very conducive to a positive experience.(such cracks are relatively common in some older Fleischman engines)

  4. Small missing parts may not seem like a huge problem. After all, old steam engines show up on Ebay everyday. Not so fast there Tonto. Buying a steam engine with the hope of someday finding missing parts is a sure recipe for disappointment. Engines which are still made, such as Jensen or Wilesco are usually pretty easy to find replacements for. An old Bing, Doll, Faulk, Plank or some other brand which is no longer made, will usually prove nearly impossible to find replacements. If it is missing something, assume it is not going available and factor this sad fact into your decision making equation.
  5. Don't be fooled by paint, tarnish or rust. A fresh coat of paint is a great way to hide sins. By the same token, a an engine with rough paint is restorable if everything else is as it should be. A little bit of rust is not a deal killer as long as it has not compromised the structural integrity of the engine. A bit of elbow grease can work miracles on tarnish and rust if the underlying metal is intact. If the corrosion is such that it has deeply pitted a fire box, boiler or other engine component, leave it alone and buy elsewhere.
  6. Email the seller and ask questions before bidding. Check the seller's feedback for clues about their history. If possible, make phone contact with the owner and get a more personal feel for things. A seller who doesn't know much about engine is not necessarily a problem. In fact, they simply do not know much about the engine. They will usually be quite happy to act as your eyes as you ask questions. Once you feel you have a good feel for the seller and a clear idea of the engine's condition, go ahead and push the bid button if it feels right. A seller who is evasive or uncooperative when questioned is simply bad news. It's not too hard to get a sense of this attitude, even by email. When in doubt... as difficult as it might feel...walk away and avoid potential problems.
  7. Don't be afraid to request more or better photos before you make your decision. Most reputable sellers will be pleased to provide them if the are technically capable of doing do so. Sometimes a different camera angle will answer a question you might have. It might also show damage that the seller was hoping to hide.

  8. In most cases, private sales are a much more comfortable method of purchasing a steam engine. The rushing deadline of an auction is something that we've all experienced. You have to make a choice in a short period of time with fairly limited information. This often means that mistakes are made. Buying an engine directly from an owner at a leisurely pace is my preferred modus operandi. There is more chance for personal contact, more information exchange and you get the chance to make a new friend in the process. Sure... this doesn't allow checking feedback, but most of us form pretty fair character judgments, given time to communicate a bit. Private sales tend to be a bit harder to find, but I recommend them highly. My best quality engines and best deals have all been private sales

With a bit of common sense, some due diligence and careful observation you can pretty much avoid the disappointment of winding up with a steam engine that has problems. These are often very old machines which have passed through many, often less than gentle hands, so a bit of caution in making the deal is not a bad thing. .With a few careful purchases, you too will discover the joys of having no more available shelf space...(grin)


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