Dodman miniature traction engine

Posted by Chris Graham on 10th April 2021

Les Kirk, having built a Dodman miniature traction engine, reveals his second project, a 4in Garrett, made to a similarly high standard.

Dodman miniature traction engine

The man himself! Les Kirk with his 4in Garrett.

I was intrigued to see Superb Dodman Miniature on the cover of September’s of Old Glory magazine. I was even more surprised that, from the photographs used inside, the engine featured was my Dodman miniature traction engine, which I’d built over 10 years ago. Well, you always know your own, and there probably aren’t many others finished in the colours I chose – LMS Crimson Lake and BR Signal Red. Actually, I must say that Merv has looked after it well.

The new engine I’m about to commission is a 4in Garrett from Adrian Nutting’s excellent stable. A step back from a SCC Dodman you might think, but here’s my story.

Dodman miniature traction engine

The hornplates bolted together for assembly.

I started building traction engines in 1997, following 10 years of doing rallies and shows with my daughter, Jenny, and a sizeable Hornby Dublo layout; we met some very interesting people in the ‘collections’ marquees. People often sidled up with a suitcase full of HD they were wanting to sell to us; curious coming to a rally with a suitcase!

Some asked us, what was the most valuable item (it’s not here we said, which usually confused them!). Some bragged that their layout was even bigger than ours. We did have loads more at home (minus suitcases). Jenny is still very active in the model rail world, but I moved on to miniature traction engines.

Dodman miniature traction engine

The gearing and crankshaft are in place.

I had no real knowledge of engineering and I’m not an engineer by profession. Nevertheless, I wasn’t daunted. I met with a couple of friends who also wanted to build engines, and who had engineering backgrounds, and it was with their guidance, plus a year at Horwich College on an evening class, that I got going. The course taught me how to use a lathe, plus with the importance of safety. But, at the end of the year, the course closed, in favour of flower arranging or some other vital activity!

I began my journey with no kit, acquiring it along the way and learning ‘on the hoof’. Equipment was all three-phase, but my father-in-law, Stan Morgans, was an electrical engineer, so no problem installing the machinery.

Dodman miniature traction engine

The gearing and controls from the driver’s end.

We went around the miniature ‘stables’, and decided that Steve Baldock was our man, we liked his style and he helped us a great deal. We decided on and made 4in Garretts.

A while after starting the project, I met Bernie Fairbank who was also just getting started on one. He made his Garrett in less than a year, and then I was following him. The rallies we went to were great and, in about 2008, I sold the Garrett and followed Bernie on to making a Dodman. That was handy as If I was stuck, I could simply go and have a look at his.

Dodman miniature traction engine

The tender and towbar have been added in this shot.

If you’ve been thinking whimsically about making an engine, the big hurdle is actually getting started in the first place. That, together with having the necessary persistence and determination. The engineering skills, though very important are, in a sense, secondary. Interestingly, Steve thought that if you made the wheels, you usually got to the finish.

In 2011, after a year rallying the Dodman, I unfortunately had some serious medical issues, and decided to get rid of everything. I must say that Adrian Nutting did me proud, sorting me a buyer. But that wasn’t the end!

Dodman miniature traction engine

A front wheel under construction; note the laser-cut skokes.

I was retired and needed something to keep me occupied and active. So, I decided to make another 4in Garrett. I wasn’t sure what I’d do as far as rallies were concerned, but that was all in the future. I might have progressed to something like a 4CD 6in Garrett, or a Foden steam wagon but, given the medical issues I’d had, I wanted to keep things simple. I had a fair bit of paint left over so, as you can see from the photographs, it looks a bit like the Dodman!

Anyone who might be thinking of doing something when Covid permits, should go and talk to the people with the ‘stables’. We found them all friendly and helpful when we were choosing who to go with. Also, they can do any of the things which are too much for you, like gear-cutting, cylinders or crankshafts, and things like water fittings are readily available. It still leaves you with a great deal to do.

The two clack valves show Les Kirk’s high standard of workmanship.

In the case of my Dodman, a good friend – Jim Unsworth – sorted the crankshaft. He’d been an apprentice at the Horwich Loco Works, and had done that job on real steam locos, back in the day. Stripped down, that crankshaft really spins! With Jim’s guidance, now I can do that. I had the hornplates and wheel spokes laser-cut by a firm in Burnley. It did the holes, which saved a lot of drilling

A couple of things to point out along the way. I ran my first Garrett on strakes. As well as having to drill over 1,400 holes, it proved a bit uncomfortable on hard surfaces so, after that I always got them ‘rubbered’ which, unfortunately, is a bit expensive. Since getting my first set, prices have nearly quadrupled! Also, be sure to pressure-test before your first steaming. There will be leaks, and it’s always safest to sort them out first.

Getting there! The boiler barrel, smokebox and chimney have been fitted.

You may notice from the photographs here that I’d gone well down the track before I got the boiler. It’s a good idea to order early, as you’ll have a longish wait, particularly for one of the excellent, AJB boilers. I was lucky; one of those who started with me back in 1997, wanted to do another Garrett and had got a set of castings and a boiler. But he never started, so let me have the boiler – that was a bit of good luck! I wonder how many bits of partly-made traction engine there are lying around in garages up and down the land? A bit like all those abandoned boats on the canals, slowly turning green and sinking!

The entire motion of the Garrett is beautifully finished.


The finished Garrett has pleasing proportions.


Driver’s view of the Garrett.


Note the rubber tyres; they make the ride much better than on strakes.


Dodman miniature traction engine

Something to be proud of! Les Kirk’s finished Garrett is certainly a sight for sore eyes.

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