Still Kicking: The Saga of the Annie Engine Continues

Collector Bob Whitney buys a Venn-Severin steam engine at auction; her name is Annie.

| February/March 2015

To recap an earlier article in GEM by Bob Hartwig in the September/October 1969 issue: Mr. Hartwig packed the wife, two kids and some tools into a Rambler wagon and headed out to Prescott, Arizona, to visit with relatives over the summer. His uncle Fred was a prospector and mining engineer who had a hot-head oil engine, a Venn-Severin Type E, in storage after its retirement from pumping water out of a local gold mine. Uncle Fred named this engine “Annie.”

I was on the mailing list for the auctioneer that handled Mr. Hartwig’s estate sale. About every square foot of clear land at the estate sale was filled with engines and equipment. I went to the sale with the Venn-Severin and a couple of stationary steam engines in mind. But at that time I didn’t know her name was Annie. It took a long time to get around to the Venn-Severin. I just kept coming back for another look; I guess there was a bond being made. In the end, I managed to purchase the engine for less than I had planned to pay. I had never seen one of these engines before, so when I got home I did a Google search for Venn-Severin hot-head oil engines. To my surprise there was only one hit: the engine I bought at Mr. Hartwig’s sale.

Annie at last

The first thing I needed to do was build a skid out of steel, big enough for the engine and cooling system to be lifted by a forklift. The cooling tank that came with Annie is old-style riveted and wasn’t tall enough to sit on the skid for proper cooling, so I had to make a riser for it to sit on.

Next, I needed to know what it would take to make it run. No matter how much oil I put in the cylinder, I couldn’t get enough compression for it to bounce back when rolling the flywheels. With the exhaust manifold off, the rings didn’t look right in the port; too dark and not making contact. Also, there was a check ball missing in the fuel pump; it couldn’t make pressure. That must have been why Mr. Hartwig had to belt start Annie, according to one of the relatives at the sale. Even though Annie didn’t run, in 2011 I took her to Caro, Michigan, then Portland, Indiana, more or less on a fact-finding mission. At the 2011 Tri-State Gas Engine and Tractor Show, I talked with the guys that run the Muncie oil engines. They told me about the value of water injection. These engines produce a lot of carbon, which can build up and seize the piston while running. Inject a little water and the carbon will break up and go out the exhaust.

I came to the conclusion that I needed to pull the cylinder apart. The cylinder diameter was 6.085-inch with 0.020-inch out of round and showing signs of scorching on the piston. This is an odd size bore; it must have been a manufacturer’s custom size. I took one of the rings off the piston and put it in the cylinder. Down about 3 inches, the gap between the ring and the cylinder wall looked like the Grand Canyon. That explained the lack of compression. I checked around and decided to have the cylinder bored and honed to 6.125 inches at a local automotive machine shop where they do the big stuff. The piston was spray-welded at Central Metalizing in Saginaw, Michigan, to size. I used my circa 1910 South Bend 9-by-36-inch lathe, with silver soldered carbide tips on blanks. I made two passes on the piston cutting 0.010-inch each time, resharpening and letting the piston cool down between cuts. If not, the tooling would spark out and the tip would be gone. Then I squared up all the ring grooves to the same size. I had Niagara Piston Ring Co. make me a set of rings, two rings per grove and four groves 0.700-inch wide. They’re pinned so the rings won’t rotate the ends into the ports and break.

I fitted the piston with 0.008-inch clearance, with the top ring end-gap at 0.040-inch and the rest at 0.030-inch. The rings were of the step-type overlap, which I had to modify to fit around the pins in the grooves. This was very time-consuming.