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© Steam Plough Club 2017

Steam Plough Club, Pant-y-Cae, Clyro, Herefordshire HR3 6JU


Mike Goodman

The basics

1. The method of working the different types of compound engines are all the same although some of these may be fitted with two speed plough gear. However, a few notes of guidance will be helpful although it is realized that more than one session may be required to gain sufficient experience from all the operations discussed in these notes.

2. Rather than go into a lengthy and possibly bewildering technical description of the working of a wide variety of implements and the various types of steam engine, either single cylinder or compound cylinder, it is felt that the basics can best be explained by the instructor in charge of the particular engine or implement that is to hand with one feature of operation at a time being explained and mastered before moving onto the next.

Handling the compound engine

3. First of all concentrate on the handling of the engine with the management of the boiler, i.e. firing, maintaining the water level and the steam pressure being left to the instructor until a later stage. As the technique in handling a single cylinder engine is different to that of a compound cylinder engine we will consider a two crank compound engine first.

4. It is a good idea to get the "feel" of the engine by running it out of gear at first and get used to starting and reversing. With a two crank compound engine, before opening the regulator, first check that the right hand side (high pressure) crank is not on a dead centre. If it is, then do not open the regulator but gently push the small spring loaded auxiliary valve lever first. This admits boiler steam direct to the low pressure cylinder, which having its crank at 90° to the high pressure one will enable the engine to start. Do not hold this lever in once the high pressure crank has moved off centre. The main regulator valve should now be opened to run the engine.

5. If the high pressure crank is not on a dead centre then the main regulator only should be used for starting.

6. If the engine is running slowly with the regulator just open and the engine stalls on a high pressure dead centre, e.g. when moving along slowly in gear and the engine meets some resistance e on the ground, or perhaps when the ploughing clutch is engaged, it is not necessary to close the regulator. Just give the auxiliary valve lever a push and then open the regulator a little more.

Engaging the clutch lever

7. A left hand engine is one where the rope comes out on the left hand side of the engine as seen from the footplate works along the right hand headland of the field and ploughs with the engine running in forward gear, i.e. with the reversing lever in the forward position.

8. A right hand engine, with the rope coming out on the right hand side and working along the left hand headland of the field, ploughs with the engine running in reverse gear, i.e. with the reversing lever in the rearward position.

9. Therefore, assuming we are on a left hand engine, then run the engine slowly with the reversing lever in the reverse position and when we are ready to engage the ploughing clutch swing the reversing lever over to the forward working position and simultaneously engage the clutch lever as the engine reverses. This will allow the clutch to slip in smoothly.

10. As the resistance of the plough increases the regulator will need to be opened further but slow steady pulling at the start is essential in order to assist those at the other end maneuvering the plough into position.

At the end of the pull

11. The correct procedure at the end of a pull with a left hand engine is to act promptly as soon as the regulator is shut by pulling the reversing lever over into reverse and with the left hand disengage the clutch lever if it has not already dropped out on its own. Next, swing the reversing lever straight to the forward position but pausing briefly at the mid-gear position where it will be found that the remaining "active" steam trapped in the valve chests is sufficient to turn the crankshaft gently. This will enable the engagement of the slow speed road gear without recourse to using the regulator. This avoids crashing the road gears into mesh.

12. With a right hand engine the procedure is the same except that the reversing lever is already in reverse at the end of the pull so all that is needed is to swing the reversing lever to the forward position as noted above and the clutch can be disengaged at the same time as the road gear is engaged.

13. It is absolutely vital that the driver keeps an eye on the implement at all times when pulling. Avoid all distractions. It is advisable to keep a hand near the whistle cord to give a stop signal at a moment’s notice as the implement pulls away. Make sure that the implement is in good sight of the other engine before tending the fire etc. On no account leave the engine footplate when work is in progress.

If the engine stalls

14. If the engine stalls and will not respond to further opening of the regulator, the regulator should be shut and the reversing level pulled over. The engine should now run the other way. As soon as this happens the reversing lever should be put back to its running position and the regulator opened in the normal way. 

15. If the engine has stalled through overload with the high pressure crank stuck on a dead centre, the first thing to try after closing the regulator is to use the reversing lever, although in these circumstances it will be hard to pull over but ease the lever carefully past the mid-gear position otherwise the engine may race away violently.

16. If the engine has stalled with the ploughing gear clutch engaged care is needed when swinging the reversing level over beyond the mid-gear position because as soon as the engine starts to run the opposite way the clutch will push itself out of engagement. The clutch teeth have a positive rake formed on the teeth which prevents disengagement when under load.

17. If it is necessary to use the reversing gear in these circumstances the clutch lever must be pushed down the very instant the engine starts to run the other way, fully disengaging it to avoid the teeth from striking one another. If the lever is held down hard for a moment or two when disengaged this will operate the drum brake thus avoiding dropping loose coils of rope on the drum.

18. If the regulator was open wide when the engine stalled with steam in the valve chest at or near full boiler pressure and operating the auxiliary valve lever fails to turn the engine do not continue to push the auxiliary valve lever as this will allow high pressure steam to build up in the low pressure receiver and act on both sides of the high pressure piston. This will "lock" the engine from turning; a situation which should be avoided.

19. However, if we do find ourselves in this situation, which can be caused by worn or broken piston rings, where the engine will not turn in either direction regardless of the position of either of the cranks then the regulator should be fully closed and the cylinder drain cocks opened to release all the steam. When the steam is cleared from the cylinders swing the reversing lever over to the opposite side and when all the steam is cleared from the valve chests shut the cylinder cocks, check the crank positions and start again.

Handling the single cylinder and single crank compound engine

20. Single cylinder engines take some getting used to. Judicious use of the reversing lever is called for when starting the problem to avoid the engine getting "stuck" on a dead centre. With a traction engine the flywheel can be easily reached from the footplate to pull the crank off dead centre for starting. This is not so easily achieved on a ploughing engine. Swinging the reversing lever fore and aft at the same time as opening the regulator will usually start the engine. The technique is to get some momentum into the flywheel before setting the reversing lever into the desired direction of working. This initial momentum will keep the crank turning without stopping at the end of its stroke on a dead centre until tick over speed is reached.

21. Further opening of the regulator with the winding gear engaged and the engine under load is best done by watching the crank and opening the regulator after the crank has just passed a dead centre. If stalling occurs under load move the reversing lever gently past the mid gear position and as soon as the engine starts to turn, quickly put the reversing lever back to the running position. Further opening of the regulator may be needed to avoid stalling again.

The technique with the single cylinder Fowlers Nos. 2861 and 3195

22. Then engaging the ploughing gear this is different as these engines do not have a ploughing clutch as on the compounds. They require the bevel gear to be slid into mesh with the matching bevel wheel. Therefore the crank must be stationary before attempting to engage gear.

23. The procedure is as follows. Run the engine at tick over and close the regulator. Swing the reversing lever over to the opposite way to the pulling position and the crank should then stop in the correct position for starting and engaging the bevel gear. In the event of the gear teeth not meshing the reversing lever will have to be manipulated until it is possible to engage it. Alternatively the flywheel can be moved by hand the fraction necessary. With the reversing lever now set for running in the right direction the regulator can be opened to start the engine in the normal way. 

24. It must be borne in mind however that in the event of stalling with the winding gear now engaged it is not permissible to allow the engine to reverse beyond a half revolution otherwise the rope will unwind on the drum with disastrous results.

Fowler/Burrell engine

25. The Fowler/Burrell engine is a compound cylinder with both pistons connected to one crank. This engine has a clutch so the same procedure is used to engage the ploughing gear as that already described above for the other compound engines. The starting process is the same as described for the single cylinder engines.


26. Firing up is one of these things that requires some experience as this is different on the road to working in the field. Initially just pay attention to placing an even amount of coal over the grate ensuring that there are no "holes" in the fire and pay particular attention to the sides of the grate and the back below the firehole door. This cannot easily be seen especially on a BB engine. Cold air drawn up round the sides of the firebox does not do the firebox any good and the engine will not steam properly.

27. Fire up and put the injector on while the other engine is pulling back. Do not open the firehole door while you are pulling. This is unnecessary on a ploughing engine and if done allows cold air to be drawn in and impinge directly on the tubes. Similarly when driving on the road one would not fire up when the engine was pulling hard going up a hill.

Water level

28. Maintain a good three quarters of a gauge glass of water when standing level, almost a full glass of water when working up hill to keep the tubes in the front end of the boiler covered and if very steep the water will need to be right up to the top nut. Most importantly ensure that the water level does not go below the bottom gauge glass nut when working downhill.

Whistle Signals

29.       1 blast = STOP

            2 blasts = GO

            1 long blast = WATER REQUIRED   or COAL REQUIRED

Hand Signals by the Ploughman

30. The ploughman must at all times be facing the driver to whom he is signalling. This also applies to a flagman who must turn to face the driver when relaying a signal.

One arm raised above the head = STOP

Both arms raised above the head = STOP AND PUT THE CLUTCH OUT

Swinging arm from one side to the other across the front of his chest. = GO ON

One arm held out horizontally shoulder high = SLOW DOWN

One arm held out, waved up and down about a horizontal position = SLOW DOWN QUICKLY

31. If the driver receives a "slow down" signal and slows down but the ploughman continues to hold his arm out horizontally, then a slower speed still is required. A "Go On" signal is used when it is required to increase speed again.

The plough - types

32. Operation of the plough is perhaps best understood by observation at first. There were many types of plough made and this is a complicated subject to discuss fully. We only need to consider the two in use - the 5 furrow bevel frame plough which is a shallow type with a 12 inch furrow width and has anti-balance gear. In this type when the plough is at work the plough centre, main wheels and draft gear are thrown out of balance to transfer more weight onto the working end of the plough, about 5 cwt, to help keep the working end of the plough down in the ground.

33. The four furrow plough is also a shallow type and is a true balance plough with a 10 inch furrow width. This is an earlier design of plough compatible with the single cylinder engines.

Working the plough

34. The usual method of working with a balance type plough is to steer the plough out of the furrow at the end of a pull about 8 yards or so from the pulling engine, turning the steering onto full lock and steering the plough out of the furrow onto the unploughed land and towards the front of the engine by an amount equal to about two thirds the working width of the plough and just before the plough stops turn the steering onto full opposite lock.

35. When the driver has released his ploughing clutch remove the tail rope from the slack rope hook on the end of the plough frame otherwise it will be impossible to tip the plough down. This is the assistants job.

36. When the engine next to the plough has moved along the headland moving its rope out of the way of the plough shares the other engine can start to pull. If the plough is of the anti balance type watch the anti balance rollers in the plough centre and as soon as these move to the centre balance position the plough can be pulled down and should now be held in balance with the end of the frame about waist high and swung round towards the unploughed land with the furrow wheel running towards the last open furrow. As soon as the furrow wheel is in line to enter the open furrow the plough frame is swung back into line with the direction of the work before lowering it onto the ground.

37. The slack rope can now be placed on the slack rope hook by the assistant. It will be appreciated that except for the smallest of ploughs at least two people are required for this manoeuvring and the foregoing operation requires steady pulling by the opposite engine until the plough is lowered into its working position with the shares starting to dig into the ground before the speed is increased.

38. When putting the slack rope onto the slack rope hook on the end of the plough frame grasp the rope at least 18 inches away from the hook to avoid pinched fingers when the plough middle slides into anti-balance, as the rope slides with it through the hook.

39. When steering the plough with the right hand furrows working the steering is the opposite way round to normal. This takes some getting used to and if the furrow wheel is inadvertently steered out of the furrow the plough must be stopped and pulled back by the other engine. It cannot be steered back into the furrow without missing several yards of ground and if done it will spoil the work and leave a crooked furrow.


40. The cultivator is a turning implement having 9 tines in the frame of 11 tines with the extra brackets fitted on the outside beams. It is known as an 9/11 cultivator and is fairly simple to operate. The tines are automatically lifted when it is turned. The two things to remember are

a. Not to pull the central release lever and drop the tines until the implement is fully turned round for the next bout otherwise the tines can get bent and the points broken if they are the cast iron type and

b. Towards the end of a pull when you are about 6 yards or so from the pulling engine steer the cultivator towards the front of the engine so that it is partly turned when the pull is stopped. This will assist in the steady turning of the cultivator when the other engine starts pulling back. This is particularly important with the narrower 9/11 cultivator which can otherwise be easily tipped over sideways when turned.


41. Regardless of which implement is in use the engine driver should slow down when nearing the end of a pull and in the case of a plough should keep eyes on the plough furrow wheel. Immediately this is steered out of the furrow onto the unploughed land the regulator should be closed a little more to counter the increase in speed due to the reduced pulling resistance of the plough. Then pull slowly for the last few yards before stopping to give the ploughman time to position the plough for the return journey.

42. Other implements such as a cultivator and harrows are worked at a higher speed than the plough but must be slowed down in the same way near the end of a pull before stopping.

43. A sudden stop at the end of a pull with high winding speed must be avoided as this causes problems with loose coils of rope dropping out of place on the other engine’s winding drum. If this happens the coils must be put back into place before it can start its next pull and you will not be very popular with the other driver.

engaging clutch lever