The On-Line Magazine of Rideable Model Railroading


June 25 2007  

©Discover Live Steam. This material may not be published, rewritten, or redistributed without written permission.

 | Read other articles Send in an article |


Building a Battery Powered
Loco on a Budget


My first successful engine, a steeple-cab electric.
click any image to enlarge

Written by Joe Powell

This was not my first attempt at building a locomotive.  I had several successful locomotives before this one.  I learned something new with each model.  The first attempt, which I will call number Zero, was a gas engine named "the brick special" by LALS members because of my choice of ballast (1992). The bricks were attached by the gravity they provided, and ultimately found new resting places along the track. When I ran out of bricks, I used a partly consumed bag of cement. This, too, ended up trackside, aided by the engine and still running chains which distributed it into the sprinkler mists, etc. Two weeks later one of the guys was digging there, and remarked that the ground was like concrete. I replied, "I can't imagine why". This machine went through many revisions and was ultimately scrapped, to the relief of everyone.

The First real engine, numbered 26, is a steeple-cab electric. It's currently at LALS, where most of it went together. It had wheelchair motors and was slow and weak (1993?). I understand the current owner had it overhauled and it is currently operating nicely. The locomotive was in an issue of Modeltec (1995 IBLS meet?).

Successful chassis number Two had four wheels, and used a surplus 1 hp 24 v [refrigeration?] motor and worked very well (1996?). I sold the chassis, which through a series of owners, was finished into a nice boxcab currently  in Ridgecrest, CA.

Number Three used a gas engine (2002).  This was by far the best gas locomotive I have ever owned, with an Eaton hydrostatic drive and ample reduction. It was, however, a mess to fuel and oil, it was noisy, and it did not run smoothly like an electric.

Number Four (2003) was a 4 ¾" gauge four wheel electric using a surplus motor and homemade controller by a member of LALS.  

Number Five is the chassis I'm writing about here which was completed in March '07.  When you build on a budget like me, you can appreciate the importance of  project #5.  It's a fantastic locomotive that can be built with minimal skills and will fit the most meager budget.  It will fit in the smallest car, or the smallest yard (see my video). It works for everyone. It is perfect for moving your big heavy steam engine and heavyweight consist in and out of the sheds as well. Each attempt has been a learning experience.  I found I like electric power the best. The noise of a gas engine detracts from the ambience, and I like the growl of a traction motor and the sound of the track going by. I like talking on the radio or to the person behind me. Electrics are the way to go!!! Power, pulling performance, and smooth operation are what well-designed electric locomotives will offer.

The real trick in succeeding is not to make tolerances too close. A little slop in things is good. Use layout dye and reproduce the dimensions on the part carefully before cutting. Use a power bandsaw ($150 from Harbor Freight) to make these cuts. This is a tool you cannot live without. Make sure the blade is tight and buy a Starrett blade, which is the best way to get the most from this tool. Begin making the journal blocks by drawing an X from corner to corner to find the EXACT center of this piece and then punch a large dimple in it at the center. Using a center in the tailstock, press the journal block up to the four jaw chuck and grip firmly. Center drill the block, and work up to a half inch bit. When the hole is large enough, bore so the bearing (which can be supplied by Ben Viola / Roundhouse) is a little loose inside and sits flush with the block. This is how you make the blind hole in the journal. Then, slot in your milling machine 5/16. The sideframes are 1/4 inch thick. Remember- loose fits between journal and frame. Make a 1/8 hole in the top of the block. Center drill round stock 1/8 for about 1/2 inch. Cut the drilled stock to make 1/4 inch thick circles. Cut short pieces of 1/8 brass rod (hobby shop) and with Loctite, secure the pins in the hole in the top of the journal, and place a circle on the pin. This is the spring keeper. The free end of the spring rests in the top of the pedestal. Order a 12 inch long, 1/4 inch thick, and 2 inch wide aluminum plate. This will be used to make the coupler brackets. You should also order some heavy duty 2" right angle stock, about 18" worth. Make sure it is the heavy gauge angle stock. This will make the corners of the frame (cut in your new saw). You will need a drill press. A six inch lathe and hobby mill are also required. A grinder is a handy tool. A presswill be needed to assemble the wheelsets (or you send Ben the sprockets and let him do it). I always overbuy materials, just in case. I also like to build a scrap bin, which is very handy.

List of materials:

1) Electric Motors -  two 200 watt/2750 rpm/24 volt motors from
2) Batteries-- type U1 from
3) Controller--Curtis 1505 from
4) Knife switch--DPDT for directional control from eBay (relays can be used)
5) Metal frame and deck pieces from Metal Express or any good online metals shop. Ends and sides were cut to needed dimensions by the shop. Shaft material from hardware store is good enough.
6) Sprockets and chain from Burden Surplus (
7) Wheelsets - 3" from Ben Viola / Roundhouse (714-891-5378). Ben is a member of OCME.
8) Couplers from wherever. Coupler is pinned in a homemade assembly.
9) Springs are from Century Spring Company and I used number O-98. They have a forty dollar minimum so order 2 sets (8 total) and ask for their catalog. They are in Los Angeles.

These suppliers are very easy to deal with and will save you the most money and hassle in acquiring the necessary goods.

Here is a sketch of some of the main components.  This should help you to get started on your own locomotive.


Written by Joe Powell

Would you like to discuss
the ideas in this article? 
Post a comment or question here.

the end



Write Jim O'Connor   to ask about use of  this article.

Have an idea for an article?  We need your article on ....

Technical Issues such as problems and solutions associated with steam locos, hydraulic drives, electric drives, track laying and maintenance, signal systems.

Construction Projects, mostly looking for car projects (let's leave the steamer building to the print magazines). How about scenery construction or building a hand car?

Full scale railroads and museums.  If you work for or volunteer for a railroad, if you've visited one recently and have a few photos and can write up a half dozen paragraphs on it, we'll be happy to put it up on the web.

Live Steam Railroads. How about a little background and a tour of your railroad or one you've visited.

Please share what you know with us.



The On-Line Magazine of Ridable Model Railroading

Read Other Articles

| Live Steam Railroads | Suppliers | Postings | For Sale  |
 | Events Calendar | Books | Magazines | Videos  | Photo Contest |

Hit Counter