Coal Issues

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Steve Goodbody
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Coal Issues

Post by Steve Goodbody » Tue Jul 05, 2016 1:55 pm

Hi all,

I've been test-firing a 3 inch scale traction engine in NJ using two different types of coal but but with only marginal success so far. The coals are sold in 50lb bags, one is labelled "Smithing Coal" (bituminous) and the other "Reading Anthracite". I bought the bags from Wilson Coal in Sparta NJ but I believe they're available elsewhere.

"Smithing" bituminous - the chunk size ranges from pea to lima bean which is smaller than I would have liked and it is dusty. This coal seems to quickly fuse into a solid mat which blocks the airflow. Use of a poker or rake to break up the matt doesn't help, the coal simply fuses back together again. The mat begins forming even when I'm still using the fan, ie the fire doesn't have to be particularly hot for it to happen.

"Reading" anthracite - the coal is grey-green and has some orange mineral streaks in places. It is very hard and the chunk size ranges from almond to half-walnut. This coal is very reluctant to burn, even for anthracite, and it's tough to get the fire going from the start.

I've tried a mix of the two, starting with bituminous and then moving onto the anthracite, but the matting problem with the bituminous coal makes this a non-starter.

In each case I've started the fire with wood, followed up with charcoal briquette chunks, and then built coal upon that. I'm using a stack fan to provide gentle forced draft to get to the point when I can use the engine's blower. The water begins boiling about an hour after lighting the fire. The grate is approximately 8 inches long and 6 inches wide and I'm building up the fire to about 3 inches deep.

The engine is a good steamer when steamed on UK steam coal so the problem is either the coal, or my technique with this coal, or both. Does anyone have any experience with either of these coals (good or bad)? Any suggestions as to what I might do differently? Any alternative recommendations for good steam coal in the NJ area?

Many thanks

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Re: Coal Issues

Post by Fender » Tue Jul 05, 2016 3:57 pm

The smithing coal sounds like it has a lot of ash content. My only suggestion would be to sift out the fines before using. Also, since the pieces are on the small side, try a thinner fire. Avoid stirring the fire (as opposed to punching holes through it), and spread new coal evenly across the top.
Can't suggest another source since I'm outside the area.
Dan Watson

10 Wheeler Rob
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Re: Coal Issues

Post by 10 Wheeler Rob » Tue Jul 05, 2016 4:01 pm

First screen the coal to get rid of fines. Then try 50/50
mix of the two. It should burn clean and not clump up as bad.

I have been dissatisfied with how much dust and fine stuff in the black smith coal I bought as well, it didn't used to be that bad.


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Re: Coal Issues

Post by pat1027 » Tue Jul 05, 2016 4:16 pm

Black smiths want coal that clumps up. The dealer we bought our coal from used to screen the fines and smaller stuff off. They sold the finer material as black smith coal and the larger material as live steam coal. Screen some of the small stuff off and see how it fires on larger pieces. I've burned anthracite and it takes a lot more blower to keep it burning.

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Re: Coal Issues

Post by Marty_Knox » Tue Jul 05, 2016 5:18 pm

Your fire is way too thick. A light fire, a bright fire, is what you want. You want the coal to burn, not coke over. You didn't say anything about your grates - how big are the bars? How much space between?

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Re: Coal Issues

Post by amadlinger » Tue Jul 05, 2016 5:33 pm

Hi Steve,

I've tried the bituminous coal from Wilson's and agree it is on the small size, I do sift it to help with the dust. For comparison, I have also tried the bituminous coal that Aubuchon Hardware sells and it is of similar small size.

As an alternative, several of us at NJ Live Steamers are using the "Pocahontas Nut" coal from Steffey and Findlay in Hagerston, MD ( As they say on their site, the biggest chunks are quite a bigger than what Wilson's sells, but it has quite a wide size range and works great for my 1.5" 0-6-0 (again, after sifting). They sell both by the bag and loose (they let you shovel it yourself), and don't seem to mind if you try to pick over the pile to get the size you are looking for.

A pain to have to drive down to Hagerstown, but I guess it's all just part of the Live Steam experience.


Bob D.
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Re: Coal Issues

Post by Bob D. » Tue Jul 05, 2016 6:28 pm

You didn't say what your using for charcoal. I always found the compressed briquets to be troublesome as there is a lot of crud in them. Use natural chunk wood charcoal and break it up to just fit thru the firedoor. Most supermarkets have it. Skip the wood fire. Douse the charcoal with charcoal lighter fluid in a can then shovel into the firebox. Fill it as full as practical and then light. When its a good solid bed of red coals start putting the coal to it.
I think your loading the grates with ashes at the onset and fighting that. I generally get 20-30 psi just on the charcoal with my copper boiler.

Bob D.
3/4" Juliet II 0-4-0
3/4" Purinton Mogul "Pogo"
3/4" Hall Class 10 wheeler
3/4" Evans Caribou/Buffalo 2-8-0
3/4" Sweet Violet 0-4-0
3/4" Hunslet 4-6-0
3/4" Kozo A3. Delayed construction project

1 1/2" A5 Camelback 0-4-0

Steam Engine Dan
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Re: Coal Issues

Post by Steam Engine Dan » Tue Jul 05, 2016 7:34 pm

sift the coal, it helps tremendously. easier to shovel, and cuts down on clinker and ash build up. like a lot of veteran live steamers have said. the key to efficiency is a low bright fire. when you load the fire up too thick, it cuts down on the air flow coming up thru the grates and that you do not want. you want as much air flow as possible so the fire can breathe. also I recommend buying true bituminous from Steffey and Findlay in Hagerston, MD. that's the best coal around.

there are two ways to a successful coal blend, 1st way is two shovelful's of Pocahontas and one shovel full of anthracite. or one shovelful of Pocahontas and one shovelful of anthracite. mix thouroughly in a gallon bucket and sift in a screen at least 3 times or more until you see no more dust and just lumps, clear away excess dust and fines. and pour the blended/sifted coal into your empty coal buckets.

normal firing methods in experience shows when steaming up after letting the charcoal starter burn down to a white ember, at least one or two shovelful's to both sides. one to the left, one to the right. close the door and let burn for 10 minutes. after 10 minutes, check the fire again. take your poker and feel the fire all around. if it feels like it needs more, add one or two more shovelful's again and maybe a third either in the back or front of the firebox. and you repeat the process until pressure builds up. remember firing is all about FEEL and not look. the poker will tell you how much to add as you FEEL around in the firebox.

but again as before, the key is a low fire to let air flow come up thru the grates and to NOT choke up the firebox with a lot of coal. all this takes a lot of trial and error before you develop you're own technique.
Last edited by Steam Engine Dan on Tue Jul 05, 2016 8:14 pm, edited 2 times in total.

Steam Engine Dan
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Re: Coal Issues

Post by Steam Engine Dan » Tue Jul 05, 2016 8:07 pm

I recommend watching this video, it might help too. the old fireman's motto, little and often.

James Powell
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Re: Coal Issues

Post by James Powell » Wed Jul 06, 2016 12:53 am

- charcoal- I use the briquettes, but then I've been known to do all kinds of strange things. They work OK for me in the 4" traction engine, and are manageable in other engines down to the Monarch (7/8"*7/8 plant). The lump is better for what we do though, there is no question in my mind. Lots of fines, which means that a good rake of the ashpan is called for when done lighting up if you have such a feature and not a self emptying one :) (as in, none, it all goes right on the track...)

-Start off with a decent amount of soaked charcoal. If you remember the 1/2 lb 'baccy tins, that's about how much you want to start with. (sorry, I always knew them as 300 grams...and never smoked). Anyway, you are looking for about 1/4th of a gallon of pre soaked charcoal or softwood. You want chunks which will fit through the door easily. Sift out the fines, they are not what you want. I highly recommend a metal tin. A plastic lid is OK, so up here we have progessed (?) to using tim hortons coffee cans. I do NOT recommend glass under any conditions...good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from BAD judgement. Use paint thinner, diesel, bbq starter, stove oil, or something of those natures, not gasoline or white gas or alcohol to soak the charcoal in

Toss the entire contents into a clean firebox. It doesn't need to be good enough for the PO to do inspection, but it does need to have had last nights fire thoughly chucked out, either by dropping the grate & starting from 0 that way, or by removal via the firedoor. 6 of one/ 1/2 doz. of the other as to the easiest way on most engines as to how to get yesterdays fire out. Hint: Vaccume cleaner hoses do not work well for removing hot ashes. (see above...)

Before you start, you want to also make sure the tubes have all been swept clean with a tube brush. Again, they don't need to shine, but having 3/4" tubes with 1/4" clear down them isn't going to help at all...

Coal: Well, now we get to possibly the worst part of it. Decent coal that other people can burn should usually be OK in most engines. Enough wiggle to have an entire election there !. I'm burning Quinsam in the 4", and in the 3/4" Britannia, and then some what is allegedly Pocohantas #2 in Caribou. Caribou is far more coal sensitive than the other two engines, and what I will do when I run out, I'm not quite sure. (I have about 30 gal left, and with a 3 1/2" gauge engine, that's a fair amount of running). I bought ~4.5 ton of Quinsam, and someone else will be disposing of some of it, I'd figure, rather than me burning it all in my lifespan. (I also know where there is another 11 tons...). Blending coals to burn is fine, if you cannot get the properties you want from one coal, then 2 may give you a decent mixture. You want, for a 3" traction, probably pieces about 1/2 the size of your fist at the biggest, down to about 1/2" mesh or so at the small size. You may be able to get a fire to stay together made of fines, but it will take far more work.

Break and screen to size. You have to in order to have a consistent fire. If the starting point is completely random, then you will get random results. Smashing with a hammer on the front step is not the most efficent way to get coal to the "right" size. Best is probably a home made plate coal crusher, with an opening slightly larger than the desired size. Then sive out the fines, dispose of them. Recrush any over the top in size, and bob should be your uncle. If you are mixing coals, I would suggest mixing after breaking, as most have fairly wildly different breakage styles.

The best by far coal that I have had with the 4" traction was the patent fuel from Nanaimo. Too bad I burned all that was around- about 200 lb of it. That was beautiful, almost perfect size for the 4" door, sat nicely in the box, didn't fall apart. I'm not sure where Kipling got the line "and damm all patent fuels", but that stuff was worth having in my view. Mind, at least one of the Nanaimo seams was considered to be near equal to Welsh steam coal, so that might have something to do with it.


Steve Goodbody
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Re: Coal Issues

Post by Steve Goodbody » Wed Jul 06, 2016 6:38 am

Many thanks for all for your replies - that's very helpful. I used to do a lot of running in the UK but that was with Welsh steam coal which was much more forgiving.

To summarize, the message seems to be:
- Get some decent coal from Maryland
- Sift the coal well to remove fines
- Keep a thinner fire
- Try lump charcoal rather than briquettes, but that likely isn't the main problem (I was using regular Kingsford briquettes, by the way)

Adam - I'm a member of the NJLS but never seem to find the time to stop round - hopefully that will change when I've finished my Hunslet. It would be good to meet you.

Thanks once again,

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Re: Coal Issues

Post by Fred_V » Wed Jul 06, 2016 7:41 am

Steve Goodbody wrote: To summarize, the message seems to be:
- Get some decent coal from Maryland
- Sift the coal well to remove fines
- Keep a thinner fire
- Try lump charcoal rather than briquettes, but that likely isn't the main problem (I was using regular Kingsford briquettes, by the way)
I would first try the suggested methods with the coal you already have and see if a thinner fire makes a difference.
Grates should have about 1/4" to 5/16" spaces; larger is better if the coal tries to clump.
good luck,
Fred V
Pensacola, Fl.

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