Collecting Toy Steam Engines 101

Collecting toy steam engines can be a fascinating hobby, there is no greater satisfaction than finding a dirty old dilapidated little machine and bringing it back to its former glory.

Every Christmas morning from the time I was four or five years old I expected to find that familiar flat rectangular package under the tree from Santa, it would be the upgrade to the next number of my Meccano set. Then when I was about ten years old the flat box wasn't there, my heart sank, where was my upgrade, what was in that square shaped box, why was my father looking at me with a twinkle in his eye?

Imagine my surprise when I opened the box and found that red, black and shinning brass Mamod Minor 2, of course Santa would never let me down.


History - Survivors - Gone Buy Not Forgotten - Safety - Buying Used - Boiler Types - Heat Sources - Running an Engine

Caution: "Live Steam" is dangerous if proper precautions are not taken, know an engine is safe and what you are doing before firing it up.


Heron, an ancient Greek geometer and engineer fashioned the first steam engine as a toy during the first century AD, which he dubbed the "aeolipile," translating into "wind ball." The steam came from a sealed pot, which was filled with water and then placed over a fire. Coming up from the pot, two tubes emerged and the steam would flow into a spherical ball of metal. As the steam traveled through the series of tubes, the metal sphere rotated.

Toy steam engines as we know them have fascinated children and adults alike since the late 1800's. Most of the finest were manufactured in the Nuremberg area of Germany, Bing, Carette, Doll, Falk, Krauss Mohr, Marklin, Plank and Schoenner were the major brands. Fleischmann also turned out a line of steam engines during this time, but their products were much simpler than those of the Nuremburg masters.

Rossignol and Radiguet were two major builders of elaborate steam models in France.

Mamod, Bowman, Burnac and others in the UK, and Jensen, Empire, Ind-X, and Weeden in the US also produced modest steam models. None matched the elegance, precision, or variety of the Nuremburg makers.

The 1890-1930 time frame was the 'golden age' of live steam models. Around 1900 production soared and continued until the early 1930s.

These steam engines also served as a primary information resource, mechanical models played a huge role in the emerging industrial revolution. They were the 19th century counterpart of film and video. With no motion pictures to illustrate the complex workings of the new engines, models were a primary source of reference material. A model was the only way to see a machine in action.

With the effects of two world wars by 1960, the model steam engine had become virtually extinct, only Jensen, Mamod, Fleischmann, Marklin, and a latecomer to the market Wilesco remained.

By the 1970's, Marklin and Fleischmann had dropped out, leaving only Jensen, Mamod, and Wilesco as major makers of steam models. Motion pictures and television replaced models as a primary teaching and reference tool making expensive mechanical renderings obsolete.

The Last Three Survivors

Jensen Steam Engines were established in 1932, they are still using the original tooling, dies and hand craftsmanship to produce a quality product in limited quanities in the U.S.A..

Their site does contain a warning:

Visitors have reported that viewing these Jensen Steam Engines, may cause increased heart rates, sweaty palms and eye strain... accompanied by an uncontrollable urge to have one!!
Before continuing, you may wish to have a nurse or family member present!

In addition to hobby and educational models they also produce a limited number of four Model 51 Steam Engine Power Plants per year, of which only 2 are designated for private sales at $5000 each.

Jensen Steam Engines Home Page

Jensen Steam Engine Parts

Jensen Stean Engine Museum

Jensen Videos from AOL

If you require parts it is best to give them a phone call as they don't seem to keep up with email that well.

The Mamod company is a British toy manufacturer specializing in live steam models. Founded in 1937, the name is a contraction of Malin Models.

Mamod manufactures both stationary and mobile models. The stationary models have a distinctive red base with holes around the perimiter that fit Meccano. There were roughly 245,000 Mamod Minor 1 sold up until its retirement in 1979. The TE1 shown at the right has sold around half a million units and is by far their most popular model.

Their mobile models also include steam rollers, race cars, limos, fire engines, delivery vans and a London bus.

Mamod Steam Models Home Page

Mamod Spare Parts Site

Video of How Mamod's Are Made

Mamod Videos from AOL

Wilesco, a German company, was founded in 1912 by Wilhelm Schroeder and Ernst Wortmann, the name is a result of the initials of the two founding members. They produced kitchen utensils and subcontracted to make parts for Fleishmann in the 1930's, it was not until the 1950's that they produced their own product.

They also manufacture both stationary and mobile models, many prefer their mobile engines to the Mamod models as they travel at a more realistic speed. As well as being functional they are also works of art, the D456 shown in brass and black is a typical example. Wilesco is now reintroducing electric heated boilers in addition to their tablet fired models.

Products manufactured include stationary engines, mobile tractors, steam rollers, a fire engine, workshop units and the African Queen boat along with other marine engines.

Wilesco Home Page

Wilesco Manuals, menu on left of home page

Spare Parts, menu on left of home page.

Gone But Not Forgotten

There are still a lot of engines available from the companies that have gone out of business, as attics and storage areas are cleaned out and sadly through estate sales the market place is continually replenished. Collectors have preserved and restored many to their formed glory.

Dave's Home Page - Lots of photos of his fantastic collection.

Mikes Steam Engines - Online museum of toy steam engines.

Weeden Steam - Photos and descriptions of most of the models manufactured by the Weeden Manufacturing Company.

Thanks to the likes of John O'Rear, MooseMan and others there are many photos and company histories available.

Bing, Bowman, Burnac, Carette, Doll, Empire, Falk, Fleischmann, Krauss Mohr, Marklin, Plank, Schoenner, Weeden

Where To Buy

Buying a new steam engine is quite simple, there are many hobby stores that carry them, as well as online merchants. This is a simple but expensive method to get started collecting, however you will not have the prestige of owning a classic or have felt the thrill of the hunt..

Finding a used engine is not quite as easy, they do show up at yard sales and auctions occasionally, generally the best option is to locate one through eBay. Be aware that like anything else listed there are some sellers that are less reputable than others. Be wary of the seller that states, "I know nothing about steam engines so I'm selling it as is." Don't be afraid to ask questions and by all means get more photos if you can't see any details on what is provided, make sure nothing is being hidden. Just watch the auctions for a while and get an idea of the going prices for the model you are interested in, also check the shipping rates with the seller, some are reasonable, some not. I have provided links to other collectors, browse through their sites to get an idea of what is out there.

Unless you have really good connections never buy engines that are missing parts, there are very few suppliers of parts and any that are available are expensive. Most collectors are reluctant to part with any spares, knowing they will need them to eventually complete an engine.

A great source of information is the Unofficial Mamod and Other Steam Engines Forum all brands of engines are discussed as well as live steam locomotives and Meccano. Members do occasionally offer engines and parts for sale, often before listing them on eBay.

There have been several books written on toy steam egines, Ken Trobaugh's book Weeden the Company and Its Products is the ultimate reference book on American engines manufactured by Weeden. Weeden Steam lists photos and descriptions of most of the models manufactured by the Weeden.

Roly Williams offers Live Steam Toys - A Users Guide, with more of an emphasis on British models, that covers the workings, care and restoration of toy steam engines.

When purchasing an engine on Ebay request that the seller package your engine with these shipping standards, offer to pay extra for this if necessary:

Drain all water from boiler by taking out whistle and pressure valve on top and shaking it upside down.

Remove chimney, whistle, fuel tray,pressure valve from engine and along wih any other small parts package them wrapped separately in their own bag, place them in with the engine in it's original box if one comes with it, otherwise use suitabily sized box.

Fill loose space within the box with balled up newspaper or bubble wrap so this box won't collapse, do not use foam pellets as they tend to settle and allow engine to move in box.

Place this box inside a larger outer shipper box nested in more crumpled newspaper or bubble wrap.

Include sheet of paper in this box with buyer and sellers addresses on it.

Seal the outer shipper box well with packing tape on top seam, bottom seam and all flap edges. Include sender address and shipper address on the outer box top.

Sight Glasses

Parts, Books and Patent Prints
Visit the Weeden Steam Store

Drive Chains

Running an Engine

What to Know About Used Steam Engines

Any new steam engine from the remaining manufactures will be safe to operate if the instructions that come with it are followed. The danger occurs when a person that is inexperienced with running live steam starts up an antique engine.

These older models can decay from neglect, from improper operation, or just plain old age. While these engines can be restored to safe running condition it does take some special knowledge and awareness of the potential hazards. If you have found one of these models, and don’t know much about them, inquire first before running it. Contact a local railway model club and have an experienced live steam modeler take a look at it.

You can get hurt just adding water and firing it up, steam lines or boilers can burst burning your skin with hot steam, burners can leak alcohol and cause fires.

Be especially cautious with the Nuremberg models, they were built a 100 years ago when the focus of the manufacturer was art not strength. If in doubt at all don't fire it up.

If you have an air compressor, even a small one for art brushes, you can safely test an engine. Turn the regulator down quite low, 5 or 10 psi should run most engines. Attach a length of 1/4" OD vinyl tubing to the compressor, the other end should thread into the whistle hole in the boiler, do not use the safety valve port, always leave the safety valve in place as a precaution. Varying the air pressure will increase or decrease the speed of the engine. Make sure the engine is well lubricated when running on air, steam acts as a natural lubricant, air tends to blow the engine dry. Never add oil to the boiler to lubricate the engine.


Find a suitable surface that will not be damaged by water or oil and is fireproof to run it on. Keep the area around the engine clear. If it is a flame heated model have a damp towel handy in case of emergency, do not use this with electrically heated models.

Visually inspect the engine and burner, checking for any cracks or loose connections

If you are using a meths burner fill it about 1/2 full, check the height of the wick, it should be just above the pipe. Place the burner in a tray, in case it leaks, and light it to check the flame, adjust the wick to obtain a healthy flame. Extinguish the burner, always be very cautious of meth flames, in certain light they can be invisible.

On models that are heated with electricity, have the elements checked with a multimeter and the cord inspected before plugging it in.


It is important to lubricate an engine before running, small bottles of "steam oil" that contain some tallow are available to lubricate the parts that come in contact with steam, piston and cylinder for example. The tallow in the "Steam Oil" makes it cling to the parts in the presence of steam. For other moving parts 30 weight automotive oil works fine.

A synthetic oil such as Mobil 1 is recommended for all parts of the engine when running on air.

Start Up

Fill the boiler about 1/2 full of water, distilled water is best, especially if you lve in an area with "hard" water, this can be done with a small funnel or a syringe. Preheating the water in a kettle will get you going sooner. Check the safety valve, is the plunger free to move and still under load by the spring.

Place the burner in the firebox and light it, the top of the flame should be touching the bottom of the boiler, if the flame curls up around the boiler it is too high,

If you are using solid fuel one brick is usually sufficient, only use the proper holder for solid fuel.

Before running an electrically heated model please read this page

Once the water begins to boil steam will be produced, the amount can be checked by opening the whistle, when the whistle works it is time to give the flywheel a spin and off you go.

If the engine begins to slow down after running for several minutes it is a sign that either the water is getting low or the fuel is running out. Never run an engine until the boiler runs dry, without water in the boiler the solder holding it together may melt causing big problems.

Sources of Heat

There are basically two ways to heat the water in a toy steam engine, electrical elements and burners with an open flame.

Electrical elements were introduced in the 1920's as a safety measure to replace alcohol burners with open flames, unfortunately a two wire ungrounded cord was used which is also a hazard, however they are easily converted to a three wire grounded cord, instructions here.

Open flame burners use several sources of fuel, the most common are alcohol, solid fuel cubes, gel and butane.

Alcohol burners have a fuel tank and one or more wicks usually cotton, the tank must have a vent hole situated as far as possible from the wicks. They were designed to burn Wood Alcohol which is also known as Methanol, Methyl Hydrate or Methylated Spirits, it is most commonly available in the paint section of a hardware store were it is sold as a solvent for shellac flakes.

Mamod alcohol burner later style, wick material is in open fuel tank.

Sold fuel cubes are manufactured specially for steam engine use, do not substitute barbecue bricket starter cubes as they are to hot and may damage the boiler.

Solid Fuel Tablet

Gel fuel burners are gaining popularity, they are a small tray that holds about a spoonful of gel commonly used to heat chafing dishes. The tray must be leak-proof as the gel liquifies as it burns.

Gas burners are now being introduced to the market for toy steam engines, they have a pressurized butane gas tank and a ceramic burner. The tank has a valve to control the amount of gas released to regulate the heat of the burner.

Boiler Types

Both vertical and horizontal boilers were made.

Early Doll Vertical Boiler
mfg. in Germany

This style is also refered to as a

Merkur Horizontal Boiler
mfg. in Czech Republic

Heat Sources

The two main heat sources were fire or electricity.

Various types of burners have been used, wood alcohol being the most common, some used kerosene so the engines were equipped with an actual working chimney.

Mamod Alcohol Burner Later Style

Alcohol vapors can communicate flame, so fire doesn’t have to touch the liquid, it can ignite the vapor that comes from evaporating alcohol. Always be sure the flame has been extinguished when refilling the burner, outside in daylight it is often difficult to see the burning flame.

For safety reasons new engines are now sold with solid fuel burners.

Solid Fuel Tablet

Tray for fuel tablet

Electric Heat Element
Courtesy Vintage Internet Patents

This was a common method of heating for many older models, advertised as a safety feature replacing flame style burners. Always make sure the cord and elements are still in usable condition. These engine use a 2 prong ungrounded cord, there are instructions at the link below to convert them to the modern 3 prong grounded cords:
Grounded Cords

Did You Know?

Without the use of a steam engine nuclear energy could not be harnessed for useful work. A nuclear reactor does not directly generate either mechanical or electrical energy, the reactor itself is the source of heat for the steam engine which converts that heat into useful work.


Be leary of any boiler that has white or corroded spots on the ends of the boiler, this may be dezincification. Minerals in the water will have reacted with the metal in the end cap causing weak spots that will eventually leak. Either the end caps or the entire boiler will have to be replaced.

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