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Tinkers Bubble - Help Save Our Steam Engine

With mot of the repairs complete, and the majority of our fundraiing succesful, we are still hopeing to raise a few thousand pounds to complete the project. Please donate now to help get our beautiful steam engine back in operation.

About our steam engine

Tinkers Bubble is a small woodland community in Somerset, established in 1994. We use environmentally sound methods of working the land without a need for fossil fuels. Most of the fruits of our labour go back into sustaining the community, but we do sell some produce – mostly organic apple juice, cider and timber.

Steam engine running circular saw
Our engine in happier days. Marshall Britannia No. 88270 was built in 1937

Producing timber here involves managing a 26 acre woodland in a sustainable way – felling selected trees with two-person handsaws and axes, transporting logs with the help of our handsome horses, and processing these logs on a wood fired steam-powered sawmill.

We have heard that we may be running the only remaining commercial portable steam engine in the country. Our steam engine is 83 years old, and we’ve been using her almost constantly for 26 of those years. She is now in need of a new lease of life; a once-in-a-century major refurbishment.

For us to continue to produce timber, and to continue to act as an example of what is possible in this country without fossil fuels, we need to urgently raise the funds to replace the firebox. We will be carrying out as much of the work as we can, but the costs are far beyond our reach.

We have a crowd funder underway and greatly appreciate all donations. We will also update this page to let you know how on how we are getting on with our repairs!

If you think you might be able to help with the engineering, please email

Woodlanders Video

Off Grid Forestry
Click here
to see Woodlanders excellent video of our sustainable forestry operation, including footage of the steam engine sawmill in operation.

Updates on our progress

29 November 2022

The home straight...

After a spate of 'bad news' updates in 2021, we're glad to be able to have a 'good news' update for 2022! I've been hesitant to post anything in case we're a bit premature, but I think it's fair to say we're on the home straight now.

The engine is still with James at Shaftsbury Steam, and is now in the process of being put back together. Repairs took a long time because new problems kept being discovered, new metalwork had to be fabricated, and the machining of the metal has been very specialised. But now that all the pieces are made and in the right place, the processing of fitting them together should be fairly straightforward. So we await the completion of that process, probably in early 2023, and then have the tricky job of threading the engine back through our car park and into it's old position. Whilst that is going on, we'll also be doing some work to get the sawbench back into service, and building a new housing for the engine.

The total cost of the work shouldn't increase by much now - there are a few unknowns still, like transport costs, and the final couple of invoices for the repairs. But thanks to the crowdfunder, and a very successful auction of promises back in April, we're well on our way to the target. We do still need a bit more money, so if you're inclined, you can follow links to the crowdfunder page.

We're still up to our knees in apple pulp and the sweet smell of fermentation at this time of the year, but with this update I can almost taste the grease and steam, and hear the whir and whine of the bandsaw, which makes up the very tactitle experience of our forestry operations. We will be glad to be back underway...

28 July 2021

An Escalation

Bad news, folks. Ole' Steamy requires a little more attention than first expected. If new tubes, firebox, tube-plate and a good dollop of molten metal wasn't enough, the other tube-plate and most of the outer jacket had better be. We got the news a week or so after her triumphant shift over to James in Shaftesbury who gave her a good tickle with a needle gun and got the inspector in to see what was left. A combination of age, good use and poor maintenance means the metal of the outer shell of the boiler has corroded down to less than 6mm. On a vessel running at almost 150psi for most of the day I can assure you more than 6mm of metal holding everything together is a good idea (not to mention legal).

To get Ole' Steamy from the stripped down condition she now finds herself in to belted up and running the saw-bench again puts our funding aim up to £20,000. On hearing the bad news and the advice from both James and Dave the inspector to "maybe-perhaps-a-good-idea-might-be... to find a new one?" my heart sunk and my head hit the desk. But, we forge on.

This last in a line of set-backs really shook the boat. So much so I started considering other alternatives. There is some pretty nifty little electric saw-benches out there and even feasibly within range of a decent solar set-up. Other ideas included stationary steam engines, generators, gasification units and hydro via our little stream but its fair to say nothing quite inspires the glint in the eye of a volunteer like a dirty green fire-breathing behemoth (ignoring the smutty, sweaty Bubbler shoving douglas up the back end).

So even though this seems yet more of a mountain (like contemplating the weeding of Greg's carrot bed) we will rise with the morning dew, put on our boots and cap (sometimes nothing else) and get out there and do it. We need to get this money raised to get Ole' steamy back. There is not enough thanks that can be conveyed by technology for what everyone has already done for us during this mammoth task. I am incredibly grateful for the advice and support I have received while figuring out the work the steam engine has needed and all the possible alternatives. And, of course, a great big thank-you to everyone who has already donated. Although we are asking for more, it in no way lessens the value of that initial push.

To get 'Ole steamy back we are also doing fundraising-style open days, a promise auction, and probably other exciting things so please keep an eye on our events page.

19 April 2021

The Steam Engine off to the yard

Away she goes
The steam engine leaving site

And there she went, rolling a little from side to side as if to wave.
“Goodbye. We’ll see you soon” is whispered

After a weekend filled with farewells from The Bubble our steam engine sat wistfully on the back of a recovery truck, heading off for a brief rest and a serious overhaul at a workshop over in Shaftesbury.

The removal of ‘Ole Steamy’ was a typically Bubble-esque challenge but ended with a very un-Bubble like smooth operation. From the moment we opened the firebox 8 months ago to find steam escaping where it really did not need to be escaping we wanted to do this our way: no fossil fuels and do as much as we could ourselves. Sadly that lofty cliff was eroded as the damage extended to the tube plate and then the entire firebox. Consulting with professional steam engineers revealed the scope of the challenge and the extent of the work required. Work far beyond our abilities or technologies. Ole’ Steamy needed serious surgery and was going to require a workshop to make it possible.

During the diagnosis, however, we did manage to get our hands dirty. And our faces. And, somehow, the backs of our necks, behind our ears and more than one arm pit. We were able to cut out the old corroded tubes and with the help of a local steam hero (Mark Fry) managed to remove the front rivets and the firebox.

Now. I’m a simple bloke. Raised in Yorkshire. Give me a hammer, show me where to hit and I’ll keep it up most of the day, rain or shine. So for me the heat, the noise and the achy muscles from banging out rivets and twisting, grunting and levering out the firebox was (maybe oddly) quite enjoyable and well within my abilities but after the sweat and the toil comes the work. Now the real mountain emerged.

A simple bloke
The engine stripped down and ready to leave site

The quote came in. We have to raise almost £14,000 to get Ole’ Steamy from the sorry state in which she sat back to a working engine in its prime. She had to get over to Shaftesbury, get new metal fitted and old metal fettled then tested and back again. With the sawmill out of action our main source of income was halted. Barring miraculously finding a pot of gold (not out of the question: remember when the horses ploughed up that sword?) we needed to ask for help from the wider world. Fundraising had to get us back our steam engine.

If the fundraising wasn’t daunting enough (it is) we also had to shift the old girl from her pasture. It wasn’t like she hadn’t been moved before (a number of years ago in a change of saw bench she shuffled from the barn to her own personal lean-to) but she hadn’t left the land in 26 years. To make things worse the unwritten (un-holy) law of Bubble accumulation meant there was a fair amount of clearing up to do before she could move. Worries mounted as we looked at the track she had to leave on and the subsidence of the car park.

But it had to be done and when a job needs doing you just have to do it (after a cup of tea). The way through was cleared, including the dismantling of an old planer (which has headed over to Zig-Zag for an interesting sounding project) and the old girl’s lean-to was dismantled (safely, of course). Before we knew it 2021 was here. Forestry weekends were blooming, coppicing was wet but musical and the sauna got a new burner. The sun seemed to linger longer, the trees dared to wink awake and the little motes of life we live among scampered hither and thither.

A human-powered steam engine

Then Ole Steamy was ready for her holiday. A very friendly and enthusiastic breakdown company (DMS Vehicle Logistics) were eager to move her and the amazing Mark from Bagnell farm volunteered to help haul her out with tractor power. On the last forestry weekend the old girl was prepped and ready to go. We had twenty or so people on site including residents and volunteers so in one last ditch effort to do it ourselves and to do it fossil fuel free we got everyone on a rope.

Twenty something smiley faces poked out from behind one another as I looked behind me. In front of me stood the majestic if slightly naked and sheepish looking three and a half ton steam engine. She was surrounded by parts of her that should be on the inside and she had sunk over the years into a bed of soft loamy sawmill cut-offs. I’ll be honest: I doubted.

A human-powered steam engine

But someone (probably Bobby) struck up a shanty, I felt the line go taught, I gripped as tight as I could, dug in my heels and I pulled.
We all pulled.
And she moved!
An inch at first, if even that, but she moved. She was as surprised as us (I think someone fell over). With the second pull a further two inches was gained and on the third pull we could drag her.

Ole’ Steamy was free and ready to go. I would like to say we dragged her all the way down the lane and took a trip to Shaftesbury but unfortunately, with no brakes, she had to be pulled by tractor to get her down the car park and on to the truck. The camber of the slope into the car park and the grip of metal wheels on old stone gave us worry but with only a little wiggle from her behind and a little slide here and there she was expertly manoeuvred down the slope by Mark and winched onto the truck.

Gently does it

And so the final farewell on a weekend that heard goodbyes from Pedro, Charlie, and horses Charlie and Jim was for a member of the community that has stood stalwart almost since the Bubble began. Of course it is not a final farewell for Ole’ Steamy. With everyone’s help she’ll be back in a few months time, shiny and ready to sing, providing sustainable and responsibly managed timber for all kinds of projects. This is a big thank-you to everyone who has already donated (but also a plea to keep the crowd funder moving!) and an even bigger thank you to everyone involved in getting her back on her feet:

James Duncombe over in Shaftesbury who is doing the engineering
Mark Fry for helping us remove the firebox and general steamy advice
Mark over at Bagnell Farm for expertly driving her out (Also for the burgers we sometimes get from them)
Iain and team at DMS Vehicle Logistics for threading the big 18 ton lorry down our bumpy lane

PS. I reckon the return of Ole’ faithful will warrant a cider party so lets keep the fundraiser going, yes?

10 December 2020

Removing the old firebox

Firebox in pieces
The firebox had to be cut into 3 pieces.

The past few days have seen Phil and Greg removing the firebox, with the help of local steam expert Mark.

To detach the firebox from the body of the engine, we first had to remove the rivets. This seemed easy enough and we set to cutting the tops of the rivets off with an angle grinder, using mains electric from our neighbours. Unfortunately they just wouldn't shift, no matter hard we whacked them, so we had to borrow an oxy-cutter to melt the rivets before we could pop them out.

Even without the rivets at the front end, the rivets at the other end of the firebox meant that the box wouldn't slide out, so we had to cut it into pieces.

Winching out firebox
Winching out the firebox pieces.

Despite years of corrosion, the metal is still almost 1/2 an inch (12mm) thick and very heavy. Even with the firebox cut into 3 pieces, it took several hours to winch the pieces out.

Now we await the verdict of our boiler inspector - Is the engine worth saving? Do we need to patch up the bottom of the engine? How much will it all cost?

Levering pieces to stop them catching
Firebox removed
Empty engine
Firebox pieces
All the pieces removed

27 November 2020

Boiler inspection calamity

Everything was set to go. All the old boiler tubes painfully removed, engine cleaned out, new tubes purchased at great expense and ready to go in - all that was needed was the approval of our lovely boiler inspector Dave.

As he started looking at the boiler plate that holds the tubes, things were not sounding good. It has got too thin - it might take the tubes, but there's a good chance it would collapse - and then we would have to try to get our brand new tubes out without damaging them.

We were contemplating this risk, but then the final blow arrived. Part of the firebox is down to 6mm, from 1/2" (12.5mm) when it was built in 1937 - it is right on the safety limit and is unlikely to make it another 10 years until the tubes need replacing again. The firebox needs to be replaced.

We knew that it would go one day, but we had always thought it was ten or twenty years away and we would have put enough money away by then. It's the one big operation an engine needs and it's not cheap. If we pay an engineer to do the whole job for us, it might cost over £30,000 - as much as a new steam engine. Even if we do most of the work, it's going to cost thousands - far more than we can afford - and some of the work is beyond our abilities. It's a bleak day for our beloved engine.

20 October 2020

Removing the tubes

During our last sawing, water started leaking out of some of the boiler tubes - never a good sign. One of the local steam experts, Jerry, confirmed our suspicions - the boiler tubes needed to be replaced. It was about time, this set had lasted for exactly 10 years.

"Just cut 'em with an oxy cutter and wiggle them out with a bar - should take about a day"

Well, as always, we wanted to avoid using fossil fuels to do the job, so we started off with a hack saw. Soon realised that there was no way it was going to fit in the space. Next stop, we borrowed a battery powered angle grinder that we could charge with our solar panels. The battery died before we got through the first tube - at that rate it was going to take two months to get the 36 tubes out...

Next we borrowed a mains angle grinder, wired up an extension cable and borrowed some electricity from our neighbours on the grid. It's pretty scary - you have to reach in through the tiny access hatch, holding the angle grinder with one hand and barely able to see what you are doing. The cutting discs aren't large enough to cut through the whole tube, so first you have to cut out a little window in the tube and then cut through the other half. Sometimes the grinder kicks. To start with I thought I was going to lose my hand.

Boiler tubes
We finally removed all of the tubes.

After an hour or so, we had managed to cut through one tube. Next we had to try to remove it. We whacked it as hard as we could. Nothing. Stuck a 4 foot bar in the end and wiggled. Nothing. Tried levering through the tiny inspection hatch. Still nothing but some bruised fingers. Eventually after another hour or so of levering, wiggling and whacking, we got the two halves of the tube out. Somewhat better than the battery angle grinder, but at this rate it was still going to take 100 plus hours work...

Of course, over time our technique improved and before long we were removing one tube every hour or so. The angle grinder didn't get any less scary, but I still have most of my fingers. Within 3 days we had all but ten of the tubes out. The last ones were too far to reach, so we had to call in outside help. Another local steam enthusiast, Rob, came with an oxy-cutter to remove the last 10 tubes. This time it only took about 15 minutes to cut through each tube, but it was no easier to wiggle the tubes out - and after an afternoon, we had cut through them all but still had 4 to remove.

Fortunately by now we had a volunteer small enough to climb through the access hatch (thanks Martha!) and lever the rest out.

Sawmill Gallery