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Tinkers Bubble - Help Save Our Steam Engine

Please donate now to help save our beautiful steam engine from the knackers yard.

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 will shortly be setting up a crowd funder - please come back here to donate and to see updates on how we are getting on with our repairs!

Please donate now!

If you think you might be able to help with the engineering, please email tinkersbubble@riseup.net.

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

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?

Firebox
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