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Swift Fox Steam Co

Fuel, Oil & Water

I thought I’d share a few tips and tricks regarding the above and share my experiences as these are the three things you need to make your engine run.

I’m going to start with oil first:

Oil is very important in any engine be it steam or internal combustion as it helps reduce friction and wear and prolongs the life of it into the bargain, I think it is also important to use the right oil for the job and I have always used steam oil & bearing oil for all of my engines, however it is worth bearing in mind that any oil is better than no oil at all.

Steam oil is readily available and I’m going to list a few suppliers that I know of below:

Green Velvet

If you are reading this and you live in the US this is a very good option and I know a few fellow steamers in the US that use these oils from this company and are very happy with them. The two oils that are applicable to model steamers would be the Sapon A max 320 cylinder oil and the PB&J220 bearing oil.

Morris Lubricants

This is a well known supplier in the UK (particularly in heritage railway circles) and they also have a good range of oils like Green Velvet, sadly the minimum amount they can supply is in 5 litre containers which is way too much for your average toy steam collector.

Forest Classics

This is where I buy my steam oil from as it is relatively inexpensive and comes in sensible amounts, the largest size (250ml) will easily last me about year.

Cotswold Heritage

As well as making tasty model engines this company also supplies quality steam and bearing oil.

Once you have your oil you will need something to apply it with:

The needle oilers are a great idea and my inspiration for using them came from Roger (Indianarog), they enable you to put a spot of oil where you want it and save you wasting it plus if you put too much on an engine it will fling it everywhere leaving your walls like this:

You can get them off ebay or other retailers and they are very handy things to have around, if I have to fill displacement lubricators or need a larger amount of steam oil I use my trusty Mamod oil can (pictured above with needle oilers). I’m not going to go into the detail of how to oil your engines but Roger has done an excellent video of how it is done:

Alternatives to steam oil

I’d always recommend using steam/bearing oil but if you can’t get it for whatever reason you can use other oils in its place of which I’ve given two popular examples below and as I said at the beginning any oil is better than no oil at all.

In the place of steam oil:

Medium weight motor oil seems to be a popular choice with people and Mamod actually recommend it for some of their engines. One of my steamer friends mentioned to me that non detergent motor oil is best to use as it does not mix with water and sticks to the metal for longer.

In the place of bearing oil:

3in1 or light weight motor oil is a very good alternative to bearing oil, In particular I’d recommend 3in1 for the main bearings on Stirling engines due to its lightness.


Like oil the right water is important, I used to use water from my tap but the problem with where I live is that it is a hard water area which can lead up to a build up of scale inside the boiler and possible corrosion (if it is a brass boiler). The water that works for me is filtered rainwater which has the advantage of being free of limescale and also free of charge, I use coffee filters to get rid of all the dirt and debris and you can boil it prior to storage if you are so inclined but I just make sure I store it out of direct sunlight. You can also use distilled water if you can find a supply and it is a good alternative to rainwater.


There are a lot of different fuels available for steam engines and each has its merits and I’ll do my best to list the ones you are most likely to come across.


This was the first fuel I ever used and is a very safe and easy form of firing albeit expensive and smelly. The two typical brands are Mamod and Esbit with the latter being used for Wilesco engines. One thing to bear in mind with solid fuel is that you should store it in dry conditions as if the tablets get damp they can shatter upon lighting sending flying bits of flaming solid fuel everywhere!


Methylated spirit (denatured alcohol for those of you in the US) is another common fuel and is used in a lot of vintage engines, it is fairly safe if handled properly and used in a ventilated space when lit. Spilled meths can be quite hazardous as it can be hard to see if it is alight and it is worth checking your burners for leaks before lighting and be sure to leave an air gap for the meths to expand when warm. It is slightly cheaper than solid fuel and for this reason I have converted many of my engines to run from it.

Gel fuel

Recently a few steam retailers in the UK have started selling this fuel as an alternative to solid fuel, it has the advantages of leaving hardly any residue or smell and is somewhat safer to handle than methylated spirit. It is also sold as a camping fuel and is used in the catering industry, a popular brand name is Sterno which will be familiar to those of you in the US. It is also quite cheap which explains its growing popularity with toy steamers.


This is my favourite fuel and have since converted a lot of my engines from meths to this fuel type, the great thing about gas is that it is clean burning with next to no smell and the heat is controllable allowing you to generate as much or as less steam as you want. It’s well suited for engines that are not fitted with a regulator valve as you can control the engine speed by controlling the gas flow to the burner. The disadvantage with the gas system is that the initial investment in the burners and tanks can be quite expensive but in the long run it is a great way to run your engines and I know I haven’t looked back since converting mine. I wouldn’t however advise using a gas system with engines without a sightglass as you run the risk of running the engine dry which is something to bear in mind if you are looking into gas firing for older engines.

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