Building a Basic Backwoods Boiler House
An easy Gauge-1 beginner's scratchbuilding project
In the days before electricity was common, many industries were powered
by steam. A large steam engine drove a long lineshaft to which the
various machines were connected and driven by leather belts. Quite
often, for safety reasons, the boiler that powered the steam engine was
housed in a separate building from everything else. Most large
industrial boiler or power houses were made of substantial brick, with
a large brick chimney.
However, there were also thousands upon thousands of smaller ones
across the country housed in wooden structures as well. They could
be supplying steam for local machine shops, water, oil and gas
wells, small foundries, mines, sawmills, etc..... Our model will be of
this simpler kind; a basic wooden shed with a large metal smokestack.
If you've ever built a birdhouse, you have all the basic skills needed to complete this project.
I used the following materials:
One 2' x 2' piece of used 1/4" plywood
One 5" x 16" piece of used 1/8" plywood
One 2" x 6" piece of used acrylic sheet
One plastic window from a building kit
One Ozark Miniatures Whistle casting (optional)
Small finishing nails
Various bits of scrap lumber
A handful of wooden coffee stirrers
The basic building is made of 6 simple pieces: 2 end walls, 2 side walls, 2 roof pieces
. Since each pair is identical, you only need to draw 3 patterns. 2 different sized rectangles, and a gable end
. The really nice thing about this project is you can make it just about any size you want
. I made mine 6" wide by 8" long, by 9" tall. A relatively tiny 12 x 16 foot structure in 1:24, but adequate for my needs.
Just for reference, this is the kind of boiler you'd probably find in a
powerhouse of this size. A simple hand fired locomotive style, usually
set on a brick foundation. To keep everything dead simple, we'll be following this
philosophy: If it doesn't show, we aren't going to bother to model
First project will be to lay out your two gable ends. These are
just a basic rectangle with a triangle on top.... A ruler, a
carpenter's square and a marker or pencil is all you need.... To make
things easier, the wood grain showing should run the same way as the
grain would on a real building. In this case, vertical for board and
Next, lay out your two sides, they're just rectangles. Their height
should be the same height as the vertical part on the gable ends. The
length is the building length, minus the thickness of the two ends. Don't forget about the grain again!
Cut them out using a handsaw, table saw, bandsaw, scroll saw - or
whatever method you're comfortable using. Then sand the pairs to match.
Next, lay out and cut any door or window openings you want in your
building. Many boiler houses also had a man door or barn door at one
end to make cleaning the boiler tubes easier. This view shows my front
door and a window. I glued coffee stirrers to the plywood to
look like board and batten construction, as well as to frame the doorway. These
cut easily with sprue nippers and add 3 dimesional texture without much
effort. Spot putty was used to fill in the seams between the ends and
sides. The door is just a bit of acrylic sheet glued to the inside of
the wall. A small bead will be added for a door knob... eventually.
The end door for boiler cleaning, and a boarded up window. Boarded
windows are very easy to model. No need to cut a hole, you simply cut
short bits of coffee stirrer and glue them on where the window never
This view shows how to make a basic 'barn' door. Again, it is just
framed with coffee stirrers, since it doesnt open, there's no cutting
This picture shows the inside of the gable end. Here you can see the
blocks of scrap wood
I used to reinforce the corners, and the leftover bits from cutting the
gables used to make a wider area for the glue to hold the roof on.
Small finishing nails were driven through the walls and into the
reinforcing blocks to help hold everything together while the glue
dries and to provide the extra strength of a mechanical connection.
straighter you cut, the neater it looks, but if it's a little rough
(like this), that's still OK, too. You can always file or sand it
straighter, or use putty to seal the gaps.
Once the walls are assembled you can paint them. Leave them natural,
coat them with used motor oil... whatever you like. I used Krylon
Camoflage Ultra Flat Dark Brown simply because it was already here.
I cut the roof from 1/8" plywood, because it looks more to scale. You want to have a little bit of overhang all
around (at least 1/2"). And here's a quick and easy tip to seal the
peak.... good old duct tape. One strip on the underside, one on top. It
holds everything in place while the glue dries too! Simple
tarpaper roofs were usually grey, green or black. Metal
roofs could be about any color, including rust - or even multicolor if
the owner bought used bits. I have some Flat Black in a rattle can, so
I'll use that.
To make the smokestack, I used the stake and lens from a solar
garden light. If you don't have one, you can just use PVC if
you want, and simply add a square of 'tin' (acrylic) under the base
where it meets the roof . The garden light is available at Wal-Mart for
about $3, and is nice because you can cut the lens part
the same angle as the roof and mount it firmly with a single screw.
Chimney installed, painted, whistle and vent for the safety valve
added, and the boilerhouse temporarily set in place on my layout. It looks
like it belongs there, so I'll probably just level it. Then add a coal
bin and some 'clutter'.
Total build time, about 3-1/2 hours...
To see more of my layout, go here:
The Allegheny Valley Garden RR
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