[Diggers350] Tinkers Bubble Somerset: Working Steam Engine Repair/Replace Appeal

Tony Gosling tony at cultureshop.org.uk
Tue Nov 23 13:05:56 GMT 2021

Tinkers Bubble Saw Mill, Somerset
Help Save Our Steam Engine or Suggest A Replacement


now to help save our beautiful steam engine from the knackers yard.
We are planning a promise auction for later in 
the year to help raise money, and so are 
requesting promises from our wider community. 
Have a look 
for more information.

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.

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 
funder underway and greatly appreciate all 
donations. We will also 
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 
<mailto:tinkersbubble at riseup.net>tinkersbubble at riseup.net.

Woodlanders Video


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

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, 
promise auction, and probably other exciting 
things so please keep an eye on our 
<http://www.tinkersbubble.org/Events>events page.

19 April 2021

The Steam Engine off to the yard


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.

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 
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


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 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
Empty engine
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.

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.
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