Visit to Bill Van Brocklin's Shop

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by George Broad

Modeltec, January 1996

Bill Van Brocklin, Jr

I was unsure what to expect on this interview. I knew that William Van Brocklin had long been regarded as one of the most prolific builders of miniature steam locomotives. Once can hardly discuss ways to get wather into a steam locomotive boiler without someone mentioning a Van Brocklin pump--which he's been building since 1945. He's been writing articles and designing things for steamers, everything from unions to lubricators to fabricated cylinders to, well, you name it, for longer than any of the current American steam hobby magazines have been around. He started building steam locomotives in 1940. Even before that, he'd built his first horizontal steam engine in 1935.

My host for the day, Jonathan Leiby, pulled the car to a stop in the driveway of an ordinary house in an ordinary suburb of Boston, a house surrounded by a cirlce of trees of the sort that make even urban Massachusetts feel comfortable and countrified. And the fellow who greeted us, the young, smiling fellow Jonathan introduced as "Billy" Van Brocklin (as Bill is known to most of his close friends), certainly didn't fit any of my preconceptions. Obviously, the years have been as kind to Bill Van Brocklin as he has to the live steam hobby.

We were ushered into Bill's basement shop and I was immediately impressed by the orderliness, the freshly swept neatness of the place. There were places for everything and everything was in its rightful place. Bill certainly doesn't waste much time hunting around for those tools he was using only yesterday. I asked if his shop always looked like this. Bill may have been about to say he had cleaned it up, but Jonathan forestalled any such answer with the comment "There's more chips on the floor than I've ever seen." And truthfully, there were some. At least three. Maybe four.

Bill's shop occupies most of his basement, an area extending from the front to the back of his house and about as wide, being relatively square except for a small alcove-like area where the stairway descends. There resides 3/4 inch scale Maine Centraol 4-6-0 No. 12, Bill's personal locomotive (Photo 1), built in 1971. She has very distinctive lines, like almost all Van Brocklin locomotives. In fact, they're as distinctive as any locomotive built by Baldwin or Brooks. To know it's a Van Brocklin locomotive, one look is all you need.

Only one other complete locomotive was present. No. 37, a 3/4 inch scale saddle-tank Mikado (Photo 2), was residing on a shelf elsewhere. Named Claudie, the engine should be a puller indeed. The saddle tank is filled solid with lead. The numberr 37 is significant. Bill numbers his engines, sequentially, so No. 37 is the 37th locomotive he's built. Most of them have been 3/4 inch scale and Bill is glad to see that scale starting to come back into popularity. Nevertheless, he has dabbled in other scales, even building a couple of Americans in 1-1/2 inch scale. His latest project, No. 40, a modern 3/4 inch scale 4-4-0, is taking shape in the shops now.

Like most of the pioneering live steamers, Bill isn't solely limited to locomotives. Phot 3 shows a stationary engine similar to an Ames engine that Bill built about 10 years ago. The castings were from his own patterns.

As for the Van Brocklin pumps, you can see several examples of them in Photo 4. Bill has even made a body for one out of clear plastic, to show how the various passages are drilled. The size of these pumps can be gauged from the pencil lying in the midst of them. Yet they run with almost flawless reliability.

For a mill, Bill has a Clausing with a power feed on the table (Photo 5). Much smaller than a Bridgeport, it's much sturdier than any mill-drill currently made. Just at the left of the photo, you can see a Dayton SCR speed control. Bill says he hates changing belts. One of his lathes (Photo 6) is also equipped. It's a 9 inch South Bend Model A and it happens to be his older lathe. Like its owner, it doesn't show its years.

Another of his lathes is a South Bend 10 inch equipped with a quick-change gearbox (Photo 7). It's located in the center of the room, on one of the several table-sized islands--and there's plenty of space between the islands for navigating around to different machines.

Each area of the shop is devoted to some particular type of work. There's an area just for drawing and laying things out and work area to set books and catalogs while using them as references (Photo 8). In the background of that photo, you can see another workbench lined with tool chests holding his precision instruments and special tooling. An arm's reach away is his surface plate. Everything is well-lighted with fluorescent shop lights over every bench and adjustable work lights scanntered around where they can be most useful. Plus an assortment of framed photos and shelves of models and memorabilia, just to make the place feel comfy.

As a further example of the special use nature of his work areas, take alook at one of his center islands where all his sanders and grinders and polishers congregate (Photo 9). It's well away from anything with machined tables or ways.

Another specialty area is set up for very delicate work, with a sensitive drill, a homemade tapping machine and a Toyo ML-210 Micro-Lathe (Photo 10). The tapping machine assures that taps go into holes straight, and like most of Bill's special tooling, is shop-made. In the background you have a glimpse of the frame, running gear, cylinders and smokebox for locomotive No. 40.

Photo 11 shows an electrically-fired test boiler. it uses a 1500-watt heater, and helps Bill test pumps and other steam accessories under service conditions.

While we were admiring his workmanship on the chassis of No. 40, Bill pulled out a photo of the prototype, a big shouldered and beefy Baldwin 4-4-0 which was built in the 1920s for the Cornwall Railroad and was one of the last of that wheel arrangement to be guilt for any American railroad.

"This one," he said, "will be my last."

Jonathan gave him a sidewise look. "That's what you said about number 17," he gibed.

And shortly after, when Bill pulled open a drawer, intending to show us something elese, we found the drawer full of yet-to-be-machined locomotive smokebox fronts, cylinders and whatnot. "You're not about to quit building engines," I realized. "You've got castings in there for at least six more."

Bill just shot me one of his big smiles and spread his hands.