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© January 22, 2005 

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Steam Locomotive Builders

Photo by Larry Simoneau.


"You Can Do This"

Written by  Larry Simoneau, Daniel Kautz and Jim O'Connor

I think that everyone that's looked into this hobby has considered building a live steam locomotive. Many folks take a pass, some go ahead and start one and others never seem to get started.  Daniel Kautz and Larry Simoneau are building locomotives from scratch. I've asked them some basic questions on building locomotives.  Here's what they said....

Jim: Why did you gentlemen decide to build working steam locomotives?

Daniel: There is a certain romance to steam locomotives. I am old enough to remember them. Maybe that has something to do with it. There is also a lot of exposed action like rods and pistons moving. The sound, the bulk, the beast coming alive under the power of hissing steam. The heat and the smell of oil and coal smoke. If a steam locomotive has a gender it should be masculine. (Although I am sure there are many with female names.) Mostly I want to
capture a bit of history in the form of one of the worlds most interesting, self powered, hard working machines ever built. It also scales down to manageable size very well.

Aside from the romance, a steam locomotive project provides a serious challenge as well as a great opportunity to put my hobby machining skills to the ultimate test. There are a lot of exposed as well as hidden machined parts on a steam locomotive. It is a showcase of the builders skill. If you don't do everything correct, the evidence will be in the operation. Even the parts that don't show have to work correctly.

Larry: My interest in the live steam hobby is in steam locomotives. If the hobby only included diesel (gas/electric powered) locomotives I would not be involved. That isn't to say I look down on non steam locomotives, just that they don't interest me in the way that steam locomotives do. Why build one?  Because of the cost of a running steam locomotive. I thought I could build one at a reasonable cost by scrounging for material and hogging parts out of solid pieces, weldments or silver soldered assemblies.

Jim: Why not just purchase a steam locomotive already built?

Larry: Last year I did. I found a reasonably priced steam locomotive that I had seen running over the course of a couple of years. I bought it because it was taking so long to finish my scratch built Shay. I thought it would give my son and I something to run while we waited for the Shay to be completed. I didn't realize how much maintenance would be involved to keep the locomotive running. That is partly because the locomotive I purchased had suffered from a lack of attention. We have learned a lot about what works and what doesn't work on live steam locomotives. This knowledge has been incorporated into the building of my Shay and will make it a better locomotive. The time spent on maintenance of the purchased locomotive has also delayed the completion of my Shay, something I hadn't planned on.

Daniel: My hobby is machining, not collecting. No fault with the collectors. They fund the builders! I would rather people admire what I built in my own shop with my own hands than what I was able to purchase. However, we all admire a well built locomotive, no matter how it was obtained. There is almost no one who can say they built their brand new automobile from scratch, yet we all admire and compliment the owner on his selection.

Jim: Many folks are interested in diesel locomotives, why not you?

Larry: As I said above, diesels just don't excite me the way a steam locomotive does. I scratch built a GE 44 ton battery powered locomotive while working on the Shay.  It did allow us to attend meets and have an engine to run. However, after a few times around the track I find the diesel boring. Not much to do. A steam locomotive needs constant attention. Even when everything is going smoothly you have to keep an eye on the boiler pressure, water level, status of the fire, blower air, atomizer air (if oil fired) and amount of fuel / water on the tender. The steam engineer has to tend his engine at all times and if he does his job well he has steam when he needs it yet keeps his safeties from blowing. It is so much more satisfying to complete a circuit around the track while controlling a steam locomotive.

Jim: What attracted you to a build it from scratch project when so many kits are available?

Larry: Price! I thought I could save a lot of money by building without using expensive castings. It's true, one can save money. But you do so at the expense of your time. If I were to do it again I would use castings. For the Shay there are two good sources of castings, one being Ken Schroeder and for a larger Shay there is LocoGear. Both sets of castings are reasonably priced and will save the Shay builder a lot of construction time making the probability of successful completion more likely. I had no machining experience when I started the Shay, so I had some doubts as to whether I would be successful. I could start construction without the expense of castings and if my skills did not meet the task I wouldn't have ruined some expensive castings.  It would probably have been wiser to start with a single cylinder stationary steam engine kit and if it was a satisfactory experience then consider a locomotive project.

Jim: I understand you are both building a Kozo locomotive. Who is Kozo?

Daniel: Kozo Hiraoka is simply an amazing self taught Japanese builder of 3/4 inch scale live steam (mostly geared) locomotives.

Larry: Kozo Hiraoka has written several construction series in Live Steam. All of which are now available in book form. Building the Shay, Building the Climax, Building the Heisler and the Pennsylvania A3 Switcher. I have all the books, they are excellent references.

Daniel: Not only did Kozo build these locomotives, but he published the plans and  wrote down the details in a language not even his native tongue. There is sufficient detail provided, that many others have be able to build from his information. In many cases, changing the size to larger and smaller scales. The size of his shop (in his apartment) and the extent of his tools (as shown in his books) tells everyone, it is not the size and brands of machinery you own, but the desire of the builder, that gets locomotives built.

Larry: Kozo presents much more than just a set of plans. He provides pictorials which show how to construct complex shapes by machining material in simple steps.  This technique is of great value to the beginner. He also uses silver soldered assemblies to build components that would be difficult to machine. I machined the crankshaft for my 1-1/2 scale Shay out of a solid piece of metal by following his excellent instructions. It took me many hours to accomplish, but in the end I had a beautiful one piece crankshaft.

Photo of the completed crankshaft. Photo by Larry Simoneau.


Larry: When I started thinking about an engine to build I was immediately drawn to the Building the Shay book. I had built an HO gauge Shay and enjoyed watching it run. I had ridden behind the Shay at the Georgetown Loop Railroad in Colorado. I had also been to the Cass Scenic Railroad. I planned to build a track through the woods at home so a Shay sounded like a natural, able to take sharp curves and undulating track.

Daniel: I have all of the Kozo publications. I felt the A3 offered the new builder a simple design and the best chance to build a successful first project. The step by step instruction is great.

Pennsylvania A3 switcher 0-4-0 (right)
by Tamehito Nakahara.
Photo courtesy of

Jim: What scale are you building in and why?

Daniel: I am building in 3/4 inch to the foot scale. I like the size of the parts. They fit my shop and tools. It is a bit of a maverick scale here in the USA and Texas. Operation is not my concern at the moment. The material cost is also a lot more reasonable than larger scales. A major point is the finished project will be a lot easier to transport and display in the house and elsewhere. I also considered the Gauge #1 in 7/8 scale. The Kozo step by step process sealed my decision with 3/4 inch scale. Just read the book!

Larry: My background was in HO gauge model railroads. Tired of working with the small parts (not helped by aging eyes) I went to a hobby shop and bought all the model railroading books that were available, to look for another scale. At first I thought I would move to O scale. But one of the magazines I had purchased was Live Steam. I was immediately impressed with the 1-1/2 scale models. I thought that a ride on model railroad in the backyard would really be fun.

Larry prepares to steam his new shay for the first time.  How excited do you think he was?
Photo by Will Simoneau.

Jim: Do you have any advice for someone interested in building a steamer?

Daniel: The best advice I have is to get started! I know many folks who have visited my website say they have been sitting around for years wanting to get into machining and/or locomotive construction. Many are afraid of taking that first step because they may do something wrong. They don't want to be considered foolish for starting off with a poor decision. So they make no decision.

In reality there is no one keeping score but yourself. If you start out to make a part and it isn't right, start over. We all do it. It is how we learn. It is to be expected.

You don't have to own a complete machine shop to get started. Read the Kozo books. Purchase at least one edition if you haven't yet done so. Even if you don't build to Kozo's plans, there is a wealth of construction information in every design. Each one shows it doesn't take a lot to get started. I was amazed at what Kozo has accomplished with his modest workshop.

No live steam model locomotive is an easy project. It's like the old adage about, How do you eat an elephant? The answer of course is, One bite at a time. My slogan is, One perfect part at a time.

Unless you are retired with a lot of time, consider construction a long term project. Ed Hume took five years (part time) to build his 3/4 inch scale A3. Building your own locomotive is for the person who likes the journey as much or usually more than the destination.

Larry: Be prepared for a long term time commitment. Try to spend time on the project, even if only an hour here or there. Find a mentor so you can get advice on where to buy materials, tooling, machinery, etc. in your area. Join a live steam club or a metalworking group. Bring a part you are making to a meeting, it's a great ice breaker and you will receive much advice.  Get Nelson's book "So You Want to Build a Live Steam Locomotive", it has a lot of information for the locomotive builder. It makes a valuable companion to Kozo's books. If you are new to metalworking then "Henry Ford's Shop Theory Book" has a lot of information in one inexpensive book. Reprints are available from Lindsay's Technical Books. So is "Running a Lathe by South Bend", a good reference for lathe operation.  Old Live Steam and Modeltec magazines are valuable references for every aspect of locomotive construction.

It Works!  Congratulations Larry. 
Photo by Will Simoneau.

Build your own collection (via or the Discover Live Steam For Sale page) or maybe that live steam club has a library. The Internet is also a great source of information. Discover Live Steam has a Kozo Support Group and the Chaski Message Board is good .  There are many Yahoo Groups, too many to mention here, visit Yahoo to see what they have to offer. Learn how to do Internet searches, start by searching "Live Steam Trains", you will find lots of places to visit.

Will Simoneau, Larry's son, gets a turn.
Photo by Larry Simoneau.

During construction test the fit of every part. If it doesn't fit properly, fix it right away. Make sure nothing binds. Beginners tend to make things fit too tight. Every part I make I try to work dimensions to within .001, even if that accuracy is not needed, it's great practice. Then when you need to be accurate you can do it. Same with the surface finish quality. Learn what you have to do to make parts that look good, even if the surface is not visible on the finished product.

Jim: I want to thank Larry and Daniel for answering these questions.  If you have questions for Larry and Daniel, please fill out the form below.  If you decide to start your own locomotive, Have Fun!

Written by  Larry Simoneau, Daniel Kautz and Jim O'Connor


Visit the Kozo Builders Support Group Forum.

The Kozo Construction Books are available on-line.

Related Websites:

Pennsy A3 Switcher Construction Progress

Building a Climax

Collection of Climax Information

The Hobbyist's Machine Shop This is Dan's site, click on projects.

Ed Hume's Pennsy

Building Kozo’s New Shay

Penn Switcher Construction Process by Tsuneo Minagawa (Japan)


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