Steam Power Hack Chat

All steam, no punk

Wednesday, August 17, 2022 12:00 pm PDT Local time zone:
Hack Chat
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Quinn Dunki will host the Hack Chat on Wednesday, August 17 at noon Pacific.

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The steam power age may be behind us now, but that doesn't mean that the engineering that went into steam engines isn't worth exploring. In a lot of ways, the steam age is what made modern engineering what we know it as today. Where wind- and water-powered devices could often work well enough with a couple of inches of tolerance, steam engines required parts measured to the hundredth or even thousandth of an inch. Optimizing steam engines required a deep understanding of thermodynamics, too, which unveiled more about the way the universe works than had ever been realized before. And the need for parts strong enough to withstand steam pressure and the lubricants needed to keep the wheels turning paved the way for advances in materials science and chemical engineering that are still paying dividends today.

Celebrating the achievements of steam power may seem anachronistic, but in light of everything steam has done for us, it makes a lot of sense. And that's not to mention the cool aesthetics of steam engines, with beefy castings and brass parts sliding back and forth, complicated linkages doing who-knows-what to make the engine work on nothing more than a little bit of boiling water. There's the attraction of danger, too; improperly built boilers can be a disaster, so building a boiler that's safe to use can be quite a challenge.

All this and more is what the hobby steam field is all about, an area that Quinn Dunki has been exploring for a while now. Over on her YouTube channel, Quinn has documented the process of turning raw metal into a working steam engine and boiler, and is currently working on a bigger, more powerful engine. We've invited her on the Hack Chat to talk about all things steam -- where to get started in the hobby, what kinds of things you can learn by building your own steam engines, and how her current builds are going. If you've ever wanted to explore steam power, here's your chance to ask a real aficionado.

  • Hack Chat Transcript, Part 2

    Dan Maloney08/17/2022 at 20:42 0 comments

    Andy Pugh1:02 PM
    A quick Google has handily debunked the mummy-fuel idea, and traces it to Mark Twain.

    anfractuosity1:02 PM
    With a steam engine say on a train, do they ever recapture the steam and re-introduce it into the machine, so you wouldn't need to fill up the water tank as much?

    Quinn Dunki1:03 PM
    If you're burning solid fuel, firebox mess is no small thing. Firebox maintenance is an important skill in running a boiler. Fireman was an entire job on a locomotive for a reason. How and when to rake the coals, keeping proper grate surface area, ash management, etc, all dictate how well the engine will run.

    Andy Pugh1:03 PM
    It seems to me that a small Thorium reactor would be the ideal heat source for home steam engines.

    Quinn Dunki1:04 PM
    @anfractuosity Absolutely! There's a thing called an Economizer which takes the exhaust gases, shakes the steam oil out them, recondenses the water, and puts it back in the water tank, ready to be pumped back into the boiler. It also uses the exhaust gas to pre-heat water being pumped into the boiler. Water consumption is a big problem on steam engines, so a lot of technology exists to recycle as much water as possible.

    Dan Maloney1:04 PM
    We're up against the top of the hour, and my guess is that Quinn still has a few boxes to unpack. We'll have to let her get back to it, and of course to making the videos we love to watch. A big thanks to Quinn for her time, and to everyone for coming along with some great questions. Thanks all!

    Quinn Dunki1:05 PM
    @Andy Pugh All nuclear reactors are steam engines. Next time you see one, think "cool steam engine!". :D

    Dusan Petrovic1:05 PM
    Thank you @Quinn Dunki and everyone else for a 'stimulating' conversation!

    Quinn Dunki1:05 PM
    My pleasure. Thanks for the great questions, all!

    Andy Pugh1:05 PM
    One last thing, Ms Dunki: Have you heard of "lathe files" ?

    Ken Nickerson joined  the room.1:05 PM

    Jonathan D.K. Gibbons1:05 PM
    Steam never really left, it just went turbine rather than reciprocating and the transmissions became quite long and electric :)

    Quinn Dunki1:06 PM
    @Andy Pugh Yep, I am familiar with lathe files

    anfractuosity1:06 PM
    that was super interesting thanks! just looking at the prices of traction engines now ;)

    Quinn Dunki1:06 PM
    Okay, take care everyone! Signing off now

    Andy Pugh1:07 PM
    I got one as I am a tool freak with more money than sense, but they do seem a little better than normal ones on the lathe.

    charliex1:07 PM
    thanks quinn!

    Andy Pugh1:07 PM
    Aye, thanks.

    Rudgas1:07 PM
    Thx bye!

    CLamb1:07 PM

    Dan Maloney1:07 PM
    Thanks all. Transcript coming up.

    charliex1:08 PM
    thanks dan

    Nicolas Tremblay1:09 PM
    Thank you Quinn for the chat. Super fun. Love your machining and build videos. Keep up the great work.

  • Hack Chat Transcript, Part 1

    Dan Maloney08/17/2022 at 20:41 0 comments

    Dan Maloney12:00 PM
    OK folks, here we go! I'm Dan, I'll be moderating today along with Dusan as we welcome Quinn Dunki back to the Hack Chat. We had Quinn on a couple of years ago to talk about machining in general, but now we want to get into specifics of her steam engine and boiler builds, which are all pretty cool.

    Hi Quinn, are you on board yet?

    Quinn Dunki12:00 PM
    Oh hai

    Dusan Petrovic12:00 PM
    Hi Dan

    Dusan Petrovic12:00 PM
    Hello and welcome everyone

    charliex12:01 PM
    hey quinn

    Dan Maloney12:01 PM
    Hey there! Thanks for taking time out from what's probably a hectic time, what with the move and all. Getting settled?

    Quinn Dunki12:01 PM
    Getting there! It's an all consuming project unto itself. Very close to making chips in my shop again though.

    Quinn Dunki12:02 PM
    Hey Charlie! :D

    Dan Maloney12:02 PM
    Cool! So where did the interest in model steam engineering come from?

    charliex12:02 PM

    Quinn Dunki12:03 PM
    I've always loved steam engines, and I learned about ten years ago that building them yourself is a thing people do (waits for British people to all finish sighing). I started watching machining videos on YouTube and it's sort of a slippery slope from there.

    Quinn Dunki12:04 PM
    I got into machining with the goal of building a working engine (among other things), but then once you're in the engines start getting bigger and more complex until you wake up one day surrounded by cast iron and wondering how you got here.

    Dan Maloney12:05 PM
    Seems like an area that might be hard to just jump into, what with the danger of boilers and all. What's the "on-ramp" to steam look like for the newbie?

    Quinn Dunki12:06 PM
    The truth is that steam is a great fit for hobby machining for the exact same reason it started the industrial revolution- these engines are very forgiving and pretty easy to make with mediocre equipment. The boilers, yes, are fraught, but you can run on them on compressed air as well, which many people stick to.

    Quinn Dunki12:07 PM
    Internal combustion engines are much more difficult- if you don't nail every tolerance, they immediately self-destruct (possibly passing a rod through your eye in the process). Steam engines fail gracefully- the better made they are, the more efficient they are. But to quote the great Emma Ritson, "they always run". It's honestly pretty difficult to build a steam engine that won't at least run, even if it wastes a lot of air and makes no real power.

    Dr. Cockroach12:08 PM
    My brother, now passed on, was great working on and building his own steam engines both water tube and fire tube types. He would have loved to sit in on todays chat.

    Quinn Dunki12:09 PM
    Plus they are simple enough beasts that you can make them with simple manual machine tools and few setups. That all makes them ideal as hobby machining projects. A little wobbler engine from bar stock is something anyone can built on a mini-lathe with basically no experience.

    Dan Maloney12:10 PM
    Sounds like steam power could be a civilization rebooting technology, should we ever have need of that *looks nervously at the news*

    Quinn Dunki12:10 PM
    Like the old saying goes.... if the zombie apocalypse ever happens, find the person with the lathe.

    charliex12:10 PM
    always have a friend with a lathe in your local group in case of collapse, if you decide you want to live in that outcome.

    anfractuosity12:11 PM
    What kind of pressures are you using out of interest? And does that vary much? Also is there any risk of something blowing up and shooting bits of metal?

    Quinn Dunki12:11 PM
    *hands Charlie a Coke*

    Dan Maloney12:11 PM
    The Gingery books are probably cheap insurance, too. Just saying.

    Quinn Dunki12:12 PM
    For pressures, it's actually a point of pride how low your engine will run on. An engine that can idle on single-digit PSI is the goal. To make real power and do real work (say to light a lightbulb) you're look at more like 30-60 psi. Scale locomotives that pull people around typically run on about 100 PSI. Beyond that you're...

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