I get more questions about boilers than anything else in this business, whether it's testing, building, steel versus copper, maintenance - you name it, I've heard most of the myths, dreams and rumours! I have felt the need from time to time to commit some of my thoughts to the website, if only in the form of a boiler faq page (which would also give me a chance to evangelise on all the usual stuff - amateur boiler inspectors and steel boilers don't mix, don't poke sharp things down flue tubes and ignore anybody who tells you that a copper boiler on a large scale engine is a good idea). I'll get round to it one day.
However, last month a particularly unpleasant little boiler story came up (almost as nasty as the large scale traction engine that came in a couple of years ago with a very convincing, though completely forged, set of paperwork and certificates).
Our man, who shall remain nameless to spare his blushes (and protect his "investment", which he still needs to dispose of - more anon) fancied getting into live steam, in particular a locomotive - the larger the better. Since models of standard gauge prototypes in his chosen gauge ran out rather pricey, he was delighted when up pops just the right thing on eBay. Now he wasn't completely clueless and managed to look beyond the standard fuzzy pictures and "museum quality" nonsense that accompany most of the engines that are auctioned there. However, the facts as described were that this was a running engine with new boiler certificate. Now, he might have had a few misgivings, as the item was not available for viewing or, indeed, for collection. After the auction, it would be delivered to his door - no choice here, he either agreed to have it delivered or didn't get it. The week of the auction passed and, at the end, our friend emerged triumphant as the high bidder. As agreed, the seller arranged to have it "delivered" and it duly appeared in a van late one night. Our friend paid the driver, as agreed, and off goes the van.
Now you're probably ahead of me here, but yes, this is where it all starts to turn a bit unfortunate. There are several fittings missing from the boiler, which would have made testing very difficult. The certificate contains little information - simply a piece of paper, stating that the engine had been given a hydraulic test at 80psi. Same as the working pressure. Er, yes...
At this point, somewhat concerned our man telephones a few people, including me. Having told the story, it so happened that the seller was not unknown to me and, indeed, it was his name on the boiler certificate. After the new owner had described the delivery driver, amazingly that turned out to be the seller as well (or, possibly, his twin brother) working incognito.
What our man has ended up with is an engine with an elderly steel boiler with no provenance whatsoever and little chance of ever getting it onto a certificate (other than a dodgy DIY one, which is fine provided you never want to steam it). And a three thousand pound-shaped hole in his bank account.
Now I consider eBay a fine and wonderful institution, where all sorts of interesting things drift by on the current - I got a fine displacement lubricator for my portable engine when I first found out about it six years ago and have been amused and amazed by the things that have turned up since. But, when people start pulling stunts like this one, it is only a matter of time before somebody gets hurt. Our man was cautious enough to start asking questions before he lit a fire in this engine and in the end is only out of pocket rather than scalded. The next chap might not be so quite so clued up.
I've declared my axioms of steam-engine buying before but, for the little they're worth, I'll put them down again.
Museum quality engines are all in museums
If it hasn't got a boiler certificate the boiler's dead
If it has got a boiler certificate the boiler may well be dead (boilers fail in service, not on the mantelpiece. If they're being used, they're probably in ticket, at which point they become a dead engine with a current boiler certificate)
If you're not allowed to go and see an engine before buying, it's either nicked or in a lot of trouble
Caveat emptor, as they say.