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© October 8, 2005 

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Entry Level Live Steam on an Extreme Budget

Written by Ed Kelley

Live steam is far from a “cheap” hobby to say the least. With the cheapest ready-to-run 1-1/2” scale locomotives rarely below $10k these days, I think that proves the point further. But how about entry-level live steam, for you, or perhaps for your young child, to “stoke up” interest in the amazing invention known as the steam engine?

Think small; very small. Well, the cheapest true live steam toy you’ll find is the Putt-Putt boat, sometimes even under $10. If you know what these little things are, you’re probably laughing just at the mention of them on this site…but they’re sure neat gifts for kids (many, including myself, have grown up with these contraptions). Two copper or brass tubes run from the end of the boat, where they connect to the ‘boiler’; a small covered dish heated by a candle or olive oil fire. In all its simplicity, the concepts of steam can still be learned. An “injector” (in the form of an eye dropper) is needed to get the thing going.

The “injector” on this little fellow is a little eye dropper or such, used to squirt water into the pipes into the tiny “boiler”. When heated, the boiler flickers, making a puttering sound drawing water in through one pipe and spewing it out the other. These boats range upwards from about $8.99 at local curio toy stores, or museum shops; in the forms of speedboats, tugboats, and even the Titanic.
But the most important thing; at what point do your dollars turn into something powered by steam that can run on rails?   The answer I found is $125. What’s the catch? Well, $125 won’t buy you a Big Boy, but it will buy you a Lutz-Hielscher steam “trolley” which runs on HO model gauge track. This little fellow will fit in the palm of your hand, and its makers call it the smallest possible live steam engine around. The boiler is simply a tiny Erlenmeyer flask. Fueled on an open fire by Esbit fuel tablets, the oscillating steam engine will run her around the track for about 5 minutes. The company offers a variety of other things; from stationary engines to steam carriages, powered by these tiny clockwork steam engines and Pyrex boilers.


For the “young adult”, any 10-12 year old would love to find themselves in the hands of a miniature stationary steam power plant.  There’s several brands of these; probably the most famous would be Wilesco.  Wilesco, as well as English makers Jensen and Mamod, all offer tabletop-size miniature steam engines that take up less surface area than a VCR.  These little stationary engines burn Esbit solid fuel tablets, or can also be used with a butane burner.  The simple ones have just enough power to turn a flywheel, while others are equipped with dynamos to generate electricity to power lights, as well as some of Wilesco’s more conventional and more unusual accessories


Wilesco currently is offering for sale its first live steam railroad locomotive, the “Lucas” (G-scale) for around $1100.  .  In addition, Mamod and Wilesco offer several steam-drawn wagons, carriages, tractors, and cars; even a steam-powered London Omnibus!  These are all mostly under $500. 

Around $300, Hielscher begins to offer their real live steam engines.  These little four-wheeled engines have true boilers; fired on distilled spirits or alcohol.  The company offers them dressed up with an American-style diamond stack, a Welsh narrow-gauge styling, a steam dummy, or a simple German 0-4-0T.  US importers sell them for about $385.  For about the same price these days, you can pick up a G-scale live steamer from Accucraft.  Their simple, low-priced “Ruby” has captured the garden-scale live steam market by storm; and with a variety of accessories on the market, you can make it look like what you want…even a Forney! 

Another well-known producer of smaller-scale live steam is Mamod.  This English company specializes in the production of all live steam ‘toys’, but their railway systems have been popular for many decades.  Mamod offers a line of 0-4-0Ts, as well as metal tracks and rolling stock, for their popular O-gauge railways.  The engines go for around $500.

Wilesco's Lucas from Catfish Hollow

Mamod's 0-4-0T from Catfish Hollow

So you CAN afford to own live steam, in some form or another anyways. And while these certainly for most aren’t the ultimate quenching of a steam interest, it can be a stepping stone; a building block for a greater interest; particularly for the younger generation. Many a youngster has gradually moved up from a Putt-Putt, to a Wilesco, to dad’s live steamer, or skipping that step towards preserving steam as a professional steam locomotive fireman or engineer. If the younger generation has no interest in keeping steam alive, it will cease to exist. Now you know you can help bring a new generation into your family and get them interested in steam…without ravaging your wallet.

For more on this subject, visit


Written by Ed Kelley

All photos © the manufacturer or retailer.

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