Ruminations on coal firing

Just as operating a live-steam locomotive is a thing apart from all other forms of model railroading, coal firing is a thing apart from all other forms of live steam. It's not for everyone. If you enjoy firing up your steamer, then sitting back and watching it trundle around for the next half hour or so, don't even think about coal firing.

Coal firing is messy, dirty, smelly, tricky, and time consuming -- in short, everything anyone could ask from a live steamer! It is the most interactive of all forms of live steam. You have to constantly watch the fire and the water, tending each as necessary. Firing up takes much longer and the unattended runs you get with coal are much shorter. Why would anyone want it, especially in an engine you can't even ride on?

Well, firing one of these little beasties is about as close as you can come to operating a full-size locomotive. I think it takes a particular type of person and, even then, you have to be in the right frame of mind. It's not something one should do hurriedly or under pressure. That can only lead to tears. You need to be relaxed and have all the time in the world. There's a definite mindset that one must cultivate before success in firing a miniature coal-burner can be achieved. It takes on an almost Zen-like quality.

If you've ever taken a piece of coal and held a match to it, you know that coal is reluctant to burn. You can't just fill the firebox with coal, light a match, and expect results. You won't get any. To get a coal fire going, you must first build a fire of charcoal, and even then, you should soak it in kerosene beforehand. This lights up readily. Put your charcoal between some sheets of newspaper and beat it with a hammer until it has degenerated into pea-size chunks. Soak these for a while in kero and you're ready to go.

Filling the firebox is always tricky. Ideally, you should have a round-back shovel. A square back tends to snag when you are trying to remove it. Fill the firebox full with charcoal, right up to the bottom of the firehole. Before you stick the last shovelful in, put the fan in the stack, turn it on, and set the shovelful of kerosene-soaked charcoal alight. It will ignite everything in the firebox nicely.

Then you close the firebox door and wait for things to happen, adding charcoal from time to time, if necessary. Once pressure comes up to 20 pounds or so, you can turn on the blower and remove the fan. Pressure should continue to rise. Charcoal burns quickly, so keep your eye on the fire. Once you've got a good, red fire going, add a couple lumps of coal. If you add too much, you can smother the fire at this point. If you don't add enough, the charcoal will burn away and you'll have to start over. As you gradually change over from charcoal to coal, the atmosphere will begin to take on a pleasingly railroady aroma, one that cannot be duplicated by any other means.

You want to use good, hard anthracite. There are lots of types of coal. The best, everyone says, is Welsh steam coal. This is getting hard to find, especially in the US. I've used some from Pennsylvania that seems just fine. Dirty coal, like lignite and brown coal, makes lots of nice, smelly smoke, but it makes clinkers that will block your flues and grate.

As more coal is added to the fire, make sure it is evenly spread in the firebox. Holes in the fire let in cold air. By now, the safety valve may have blown (several times!). To keep boiler pressure more manageable, add water to the boiler with the hand pump from time to time, which will cool things down.

Finally, the boiler will be running entirely on coal. Add a last scoop or so, check the water, and off you go. Most little coal burners will run for 5-8 minutes or so unattended. You need to keep a constant eye on the water. A locomotive-type boiler has less water space in it because of all those flues. Keep an eye on the fire, too, and add coal as necessary. "Little and often" is a good rule of thumb. If pressure drops while the engine is in motion, open the blower a little. Once you get the hang of it, you can keep your engine in steam all day long. Fantastic!

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