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How Do I Light My Steam Engine Fuel Tablets?

  1. Sep 25, 2011 #1
    I recently bought one of those model steam engines, which came with a box of fuel tablets which I can't figure out how to light. I've put them over my cigarette lighter until they snap, crackle, and pop but they just won't catch and my engine won't go.

    How do you light these things?

    The box describes the substance of the tablets as Methenamine, and it gives a warning that says they're "highly flammable".

    Yeah, I wish!
    Last edited: Sep 25, 2011
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 25, 2011 #2


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    Staff: Mentor

    I remember those tablets, but I don't remember what they're called, or whether I had to do anything special to light them besides an ordinary matchstick. (This would have been 35-40 years ago.)
  4. Sep 25, 2011 #3
    I don't know.

    Is there a way you could rig it up to run off an alcohol burner?
  5. Sep 25, 2011 #4
    They may be hydroscopic and have absorbed water. You might bake some in the oven at low heat and see how they behave afterward.

    You might also try rubbing on some ash as a catalyst. It works for sugar, and also mixtures of sugar and potash.
  6. Sep 25, 2011 #5
    I don't see how. It's a Wilesco model D456, with a small fuel tablet aperture.

    I've thought of buying some candles for a child's birthday cake and chopping them into pieces small enough to fit in the fuel slide.
  7. Sep 25, 2011 #6
    I tried rubbing them in sugar, and it didn't work. I don't had any potash lying around: I'm a physicist, not a chemist.
  8. Sep 25, 2011 #7
    Um. Rub with ash, not sugar. Though it probably won't work. It was a possible quick fix and long shot, though ash will probably help with lighting them.

    Try the oven trick for a few hours or a hot sunny window for a few days.
  9. Sep 25, 2011 #8


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    If you have a gas burning stovetop at home, put one of those on the small stovetop, light it and see what happenes. It might burn, then take it with a pair of pincers and have fun, if not then there are a lot of things than clould have happened including too much stabilisers or the wrong chemical.
  10. Sep 25, 2011 #9
    I do have a gas range, but I detect certain safety issues involved with your suggestion (I live in an apartment building).

    I think I'm just going to try my candle trick.
  11. Sep 25, 2011 #10
    try holding a match flame to one. Maybe the cigarette lighter isn't working because it's not a flame.
  12. Sep 25, 2011 #11
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 26, 2017
  13. Sep 25, 2011 #12
    These are the small white bricks, right? I also had them some thirty years ago. Since they're flammable, I wouldn't mess with them. I would just buy new ones at the store, they can't cost more than a few bucks...
  14. Sep 25, 2011 #13


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    They should light instantly with a match. Don't use candles instead; you might burn a hole in your boiler.
  15. Sep 25, 2011 #14
    This is probably the best solution: just buy fresh ones.
  16. Sep 29, 2011 #15
    I finally got it to work!

    Instead of putting both tablets in at once, and attempting to light them through the air holes in the sides (which allowed the metal fuel tablet tray to conduct the heat of my match away from the fuel tablet) or trying to light the tablets from above (which frustrated my attempts due to the tenancy of heat to rise), I finally learned to place only one tablet into the tray, and then light it edge on (applying maximum heat to minimum surface area), and, once I got that tablet going, to insert another tablet into the tray, and then to insert the tray into the boiler firebox.

    I got the engine working, and it even operated the little machine-shop I bought to go with it.

    Even so, it took me several tablets just to get up a head of steam in the engine, and, even then, the boiler and cylinder were both extremely leaky (with the cylinder leaking both water and lubricating oil), and I always had to twirl the flywheel to get the cylinder to operate.

    All in all, it's going to cost me a fortune in fuel tablets to get this engine to run for any decent amount of time.
  17. Sep 29, 2011 #16
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 26, 2017
  18. Sep 29, 2011 #17
    Anyways, the Ole Gal (hey, I think that's what I'll call her, seeing as every steam engine deserves a name, and every steam engine is obviously female (temperamental and high-maintenance) stopped running a short time ago, so I gave her a major maintenance work over: washed out her fuel tablet tray, topped off her lubricating oil, wiped her down (I'm finally beginning to understand why steamships had crew members entitled "oilers" and "wipers"!), and replenished her boiler water.

    Firing "Ole Gal" up again!

    Let's see what happens!
  19. Sep 29, 2011 #18
    Ole Gal gave me lots of good service this evening, but she ate up all my fuel tablets in the process.

    Like I said, I'm going to go broke running this thing.

    Just like a woman!

    (My favorite video of which song just happens to be:



    One more point:

    I use the engine to operate the Wilesco M56 Model Plate, which consists of a grinder, circular saw, and drill press, but I must mention that the last doesn't seem to work, no matter how high I hike up the tension in the transmission belt. I can find no port for lubrication oil for the drill press, so I've simply found it best to disengage it from the mechanism to keep the entire arrangement operating at peak efficiency. Even so, I've tried to use the circle saw to cut through matchsticks and toothpicks to no avail: way too little power behind the tools (although I was able to score some small degree of success with the grinder versus the matchsticks).


    I have more fuel tablets on order, but I have no idea how soon they'll get to me.


    Thanks for all of your kind suggestions.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 26, 2017
  20. Sep 29, 2011 #19
    Is this what you have? :

    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  21. Sep 29, 2011 #20
    So? Convert her to an alcohol burner. If you don't mind the soot, an oil burner works well, too.

    What? Soot?

    Just joshing with you.

    I knew a modeler (cars, planes) who kept a steam engine running next to him for decades. It powered little saws and grinders he'd built. That was in the days before Dremel, of course.

    His was powered by oil lamp. He was always cleaning the thing, so he later converted to methanol. He had quite a miniature machine shop in his garage, and I think he designed and built the thing himself. Even had throttles and fire control slides like a locomotive.
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