March 2010 Archives

Parts into CAD

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Earlier tonight, I tweeted that I'd draw _A_ part into CAD, then go to bed.  Seven (relatively simple) parts later, I'm really going to bed.

So far, we've got the following parts drawn, between Austin and me:
- Valve Chest
- Throttle Chest
- Valve Chest Cover
- Steam Chest Cover (Throttle Chest Cover?)
- Back Cylinder Head (Austin drew this one)
- Front Cylinder Head
- Piston
- Throttle Valve
- Throttle Nut
- Valve
- Valve Nut
- Crosshead

6 more parts, and we're done with page 4, the first of three pages detailing the parts of the engine itself.
I've just contacted the owner of the Vesuvius design proposing my ideas about open sourcing the CAD files, or at the very least making them available for purchase on-line with a community of makers behind it to offer help and encourage people to put the Steam back into Steampunk.  :-D

I'll keep y'all posted on what he says.
For my first entry, I'll talk a little about CAD. I downloaded the free trial of Alibre ( today, and so far I'm enjoying using it. I've installed it inside of VMWare Fusion on my Mac, so the performance isn't great, but it's surprising usable.

My background in CAD comes from some experience using Solidworks, so don't be surprised if some of my comments tend to refer back to Solidworks.

For tonight, I spent about an hour and a half working with Alibre, and drew one part, the back cylinder head, just to get my feet wet. I'd like to post my CAD drawings, but we don't have copyrights to the designs yet, so I must restrain myself.

I found Alibre to be relatively comfortable, coming from a background in Solidworks, and was able to pick it up and start working, without referring to the tutorials or the manual. I think this is mostly because it shares a lot of the same philosophy and workflow as Solidworks. I had no trouble creating sketches, mostly circles and simple contours, but enough to see some of the power of the sketch engine. There was one point, however, when the sketch tools failed me, and I had to go back to pen-and-paper calculations to generate offsets, and enter them manually. In this case, it seems that either Alibre doesn't allow you to put a dimension on the angle between three points, or I simply wasn't smart enough to figure out how to do it.

Other than that, I'm quite happy with Alibre, and it seems as though the Standard edition has all of the features we'll need, for now.
A friend just pointed out eMachineShop, a company very similar to ExpressPCB where you design your part using their free software, click a button, give them money, and your part magically shows up in your mail box a few days later.

I've used ExpressPCB for several projects and love their service.  I haven't yet tried eMachineShop, but almost certainly will soon.
This story begins in the 1970s with David Sarlan's creation, the Vesuvius Steam Engine designed to go over the front wheel of a bicycle.  Normally, I would link to the designer's webpage showing off this piece of functional artwork.  However, some of you may or may not remember that the Internet had not yet reached the public in the 1970s, and certainly Tim Berners-Lee hadn't invented HTTP, the protocol upon which the web is based, until 1990.  So David Sarlan never had a webpage.

If I have my history right, right around 1996, David sold the design to a Candian fellow named Errol Cramer who still makes the designs available today.  The most recent information I have for Errol is: but no web page.  In theory, there used to be a webpage ( ), but that domain is no longer registered and according to the Wayback Machine, it never had anything more than a "Coming soon!" page.  (I'm actually considering registering it to use for this blog.)

Everything I know about the Vesuvius Steam Engine, I learned by reading this one brief forum converstaion which also includes some pictures (the site doesn't allow deep linking, so visit the forum conversation link and click on the images at the top.)

So, how did I get pulled into this?  Well, my father is a non-practicing steam head, has always been interested in live steam for as long as I can remember.    Apparently, shortly before I was born, my father bought a copy of the drawings and a set of castings for the Vesuvius from Mr. Sarlan with the intent of putting it on a tandem bike for him and my mother to use in parades and the like. He even went so far as to purchase an Atlas 6 inch metal lathe , the unopened grease covered box of which is a very clear part of my childhood memories of our garage.  Which is to say, he never built the thing.  Apparently, I was that hard of a child. ;-)

Fast forward 34 years to Maker Faire 2008.  I guess I had known what Steampunk was, but I had never known it existed to such a degree as was demonstrated there.  I was stricken.  I was intrigued. I was inspired to do something, which I guess is the whole point of Maker Faire.  I told my father about the Steampunk movement that weekend in 2008, and he told me the story I have just told you about the Vesuvius. 

This got me thinking about what I would do if I had a steam engine that would fit on the front wheel of a bicycle.  The idea I came up with was to make a live steam powered rickshaw/pedicab type thing I could ride around Maker Faire giving rides to folks.  My father, always trying to get rid of junk from his garage, let me take home the castings he purchased 34 years prior.  He was unable to find the drawings, however, so they sat on a shelf in my garage largely forgotten about.

A year later, Maker Faire 2009 came, and renewed the steam bug in me.  I mentioned my Dad's castings to a friend at work who immediately expressed interest in helping me.  I guess the fact that one of his nicknames is Train Man (@naMniarT on Twitter) should have led me to believe he might be interested in this project.  You might see him (Austin) posting here every so often.

We got to talking about milling, lathing, welding, etc, and this reminded me of a friend Dale who has several CNC machines.  We all got together for dinner one night and talked about the project.  Dale showed us his CNC machines and what they're capable of, which led me in a new direction for this project.

The problem is, according to Coles Power Models , the company from whom I purchased the lost drawings for the Vesuvius, the castings for Vesuvius are no longer available.  I have a complete set so I'm not worried about my own project, but with CAD modeling and CNC mills becoming more and more available to more and more people, this got me to thinking about how we could open source the design for Vesuvius and make it available to anyone with access to a CNC mill.

So I downloaded an evaluation copy of Alibre Design CAD software (the best bang/buck I've found for CAD software so far; if you've got alternative suggestions, feel free to send them my way.)  and am currently working on CADing up all the parts for the Vesuvius so they can be CNC'd on Dale's machines.  We also started getting a little crazy with the ideas, things like an all high-temp clear plastic engine so you can see all the moving parts, even the internal ones, while still using live steam.

There are copyright issues here to worry about; I have yet to contact Errol, the rightful owner of the Vesuvius designs, to get his opinion on this issue.  At the very least, we'll CAD them for our own use and provide the models and possibly G-code CNC files to him.  What I hope for Errol is a desire to see the design flourish more than a desire to make money, and a willingness to post the CAD and CAM files either for free, or for cheap, and encourage people to make more of the beasts, because I would _LOVE_ to see more live steam in Steampunk.

On the spur of the moment, I brought my 3 year old daughter to The Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition where I had the pleasure of chatting a couple folks from The Neverwas Haul about my project, though not as much time as I would have liked.  While chatting with *mumble*mumble* (forgive me, good sir with the bird on your hat, I do not remember your name) he asked me whether I had a blog or Flickr group with photos of my project.

It was at this point that I proceeded to smack my forehead, kick myself in the arse, and otherwise berate myself for neglecting the obvious.  That night, I set up this blog and wrote the initial post.  Thank you, Sir, for reminding me of the obvious.  Of course I will document this whole process as I go through it.  There probably won't be many pictures for a while, but there is a lot of story to tell (apparently... how long is this post now?)

So, that pretty much brings us up to date on the important details (and several not-so-important ones.)  I've got CAD.  I've got my Dad's castings and his lathe, which has been cleaned up and lubed but still needs several parts before it is usable. I've got the drawings.  I've got help (have I mentioned, I've never machined anything in my life?)

Lets make a steam rickshaw.

What's this, now?

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I went to The Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition this weekend to chat with a couple guys from The Neverwas Haul about using practical steam in Steampunk, a primarily aesthetic genera.  Unfortunately, I didn't have as much time as I would have liked to talk, but one of them (who's name I'm totally blanking on now) made me promise to blog about this project of ours to build a live steam powered rickshaw, based on the Vesuvius bicycle steam engine design.

I smacked my forehead and kicked myself for not thinking of that sooner.  So, here we are.  Hopefully Austin and Dale will post every so often as well.  But it is my goal to use this forum for documenting our journey from Computer Geeks with limited mechanical experience, to full fledged steam engineers with an awesome, home made, steam powered vehicle suitable for showing off at Maker Faire and the like.

This is just a first post to get the ball rolling.  The battery is nearly dead on my laptop, so I'll have to post a "Story So Far" later.  I hope you enjoy reading our story.  :-)


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