The Internet Craftsmanship Museum Presents:

Chuck Balmer

Winner, Joe Martin Foundation Metalworking Craftsman of the Year Award for 2018

Added to museum: 1/18/18

The Joe Martin Foundation has selected model engineer Chuck Balmer of Ohio as "Metalworking Craftsman of the Year" award winner for 2018. His work will be honored April 30-31 at the North American Model Engineering Society Expo in Southgate, MI. The award includes a check for $2000.00, an engraved gold medallion, an award certificate and a commemorative book.

Chuck Balmer (Click on photo to view a larger image.)

Photos used in this article are courtesy of Chuck Balmer, Lee Hodgson and Craig Libuse .

Chuck Balmer—Master Live Steam Model Engineer

Introduction

Over the years the Joe Martin Foundation has honored miniature craftsmanship of all kinds, both the work of professionals like clockmakers, jewelers, engravers and gunsmiths and dedicated amateurs in model making and other areas. (Amateurs here meaning not that they are unskilled, but simply that they are unpaid.) Joe’s favorite form of craftsmanship, however was the type developed by home shop builders who worked simply for the love of creating something of beauty regardless of how long it took and what new skills had to be learned to complete the project. This is why the foundation’s overall focus often returns to the hobby of model engineering, where many of this type of devoted, often self-taught craftsmen invest their spare time. At the heart of model engineering is building a miniature running engine of some kind, with steam engines being among the earliest and still the most popular. Getting an engine built faithfully to scale to run is a challenge and getting it to run well is an art. The smaller the scale, the tougher it is. Chuck Balmer’s 1:16 scale Allegheny meets the challenge and then some.

Chuck Balmer poses with his latest and most ambitious finished project, a 2-6-6-6 Allegheny on the 3-1/2" gauge club layout. (Click on photo to view a larger image.)

Model engineer nominated by fellow club members

When several members of the “Cinder Sniffers” steam model railroad club in Ohio sent us some photos of work by Chuck Balmer, we knew we had found one of the “best of the best” in this field of miniature live steam locomotives. Club president Donald Frozina had this to say in his cover letter:

Chuck’s work is without parallel, and his contributions to locomotive modeling are immense. He is most recognized for his 1:16 scale Allegheny—a tour de force in modeling that required him to create parts from measurements and photos, build his own patterns, and cast parts in his home-built foundry. This locomotive is in the small ¾" scale—the small end of rail park locomotive construction. He is a prolific and meticulous builder who is a resource and mentor to other builders. Enclosed is a nomination with further details. We believe Chuck Balmer epitomizes the Joe Martin (Foundation) ideals.”

In his nomination summation Mr. Frozina also noted the following:

“Chuck Balmer epitomizes the technical skill, extensive research, and attention to detail that fine miniature modeling requires. This is coupled with an enthusiastic willingness to share his expertise with fellow modelers.

He is a retired electrical engineer, who, at the start of the space age, designed aerospace testing equipment, data systems, and even robots, while preserving the technology of the railroad age through painstakingly accurate working locomotive models. The jewel of his collection is a 1:16 scale 3 ½" gauge live steam scale model of the famous 2-6-6-6 Allegheny locomotive built by the Lima Locomotive Works in Lima, Ohio, an effort that took 14,000 hours and more than seven years to complete. Balmer was inspired to model steam engines by memories from his youth of watching The Wonderful World of Disney on TV as Walt drove a scale steam locomotive around his property.

After graduating from the University of Dayton in 1968, he built and equipped a home machine shop and an electronics lab; built a foundry to cast his own parts; learned pattern making and welding; and honed his machining skills by building a stable of locomotives in the small ¾" scale as well as two robots.

Those models and robots include:

·         An NYC 4-6-4 Hudson steam locomotive completed in 1971

·         “Pidge,” an 0-4-0 Switcher , completed in 1973, the year he and his wife, Julie, were married (Pidge is Julie’s childhood nickname)

·         An EMD F7 Diesel electric completed in 1975, based on copious photos he took of an Erie Lakawanna F7 that was on its way to the scrap yard.

·         “Sugar,” an 0-6-0 vertical boiler plantation engine completed in 1976

·         The Allegheny 2-6-6-6 articulated engine completed in 2013. It is 8 feet long and weighs 350 pounds.

·         An SD70 "Ace" diesel electric in BNSF colors completed in 2014

·         An 0-6-0 gasoline powered boxcar switcher in 1 ½” scale completed in 2017

·         7 additional engines acquired from other sources that have been either restored or completed

·         9 cars, including riding cars, freight cars, and a caboose

·         Avatar, a knee-high robot that received the 1982 Robot of the Year Award by Robotics Age magazine and was displayed in the Boston Computer Museum for three years. Avatar was written up in several publications including the Wall Street Journal.

·         Huey, a 12-inch-high autonomous robot built in 1992 that wanders through Balmer’s shop, mapping its course, and then backtracking home to its charging station. Huey is programmed to remind Balmer of birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays.

Although the robots are not models, they are powerful examples of Balmer’s miniature machining and design skills. The diesel engines mimic full size engines with an internal combustion engine driving a generator with appropriate electronic controls.  Few diesel models are so internally accurate.

Balmer had first seen the massive, full-sized Allegheny in the Henry Ford Museum in 1963, and it sparked a passion to build it in miniature. In 1977 he purchased a set of 100 blueprints of the Allegheny, which showed basic schematics but few part details. Family visits included hours of research at the Allen County Historical Museum in Lima, Ohio, and photographing and measuring the full-sized engine in the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan, allowed Balmer to create the needed part designs and dimensions in sketches that fill an 1-1/2" thick binder.

Parts ranged from a 4-foot long copper boiler that took a week of 8-hour days to machine and generated 28 pounds of copper shavings, down to tiny fittings no bigger than your fingernail. He also made 59 wooden patterns. Then, over two summers, he and his son, Jim, made more than 100 castings.

Building fully functional miniature steam locomotives poses daunting engineering and design challenges. The Allegheny, like most of his other engines, runs on steam. This creates additional issues dealing with heat and expansion, as steam and water do not scale. All of his engines run and are regularly seen steaming around the Cinder Sniffers Rail Park in Indiana as well as at his backyard track in Urbana.

Chuck Balmer is a master designer as well as a master builder in miniature. He also is a champion of the work of other model builders. Several aging model builders and widows of model builders have turned to Balmer to complete locomotives that otherwise would be scrapped. Finishing a partially completed project can be more challenging than building your own. Balmer has resurrected seven locomotives, ranging from rebuilding once-running engines to completing locomotive projects that were only 20% underway when they were carried into his shop.

Balmer’s Allegheny will be featured in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of Live Steam Magazine. We hope you will stop by his exhibit at the April NAMES to meet Balmer and see his work in person. A video of the Allegheny running at the Cinder Sniffer track is available on YouTube at https://youtu.be/crDWkCoWdtI .”

Click on the above image for a larger view of the magazine cover, or CLICK HERE  to view a PDF version of the article in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of Live Steam Magazine on Chuck Balmer and the building of his 1/16 scale Allegheny. (Article reproduced with permission of Live Steam Magazine.)

Watch the engine's first successful test run at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ASSNAjJ-rY&feature=youtu.be . Other videos are also avialble on YouTube.com.

Chuck Balmer’s path to craftsmanship

Chuck has been building live steam locomotives for quite some time. Here he is at the controls of one of his earlier projects, a NYC 4-6-4 Hudson. It was completed in 1971. (Click on photo to view a larger image.)

A love of trains since childhood

Like most young boys raised in the 1950’s, Chuck had a Lionel train set that he loved. His family lived just two blocks from the train tracks here in Urbana, Ohio, and he would go down and watch the steam locomotives switch cars around in the yards. He moved on to HO trains for a while but then got interested in electronics when he was about twelve years old and temporarily put the trains aside. He had seen Walt Disney’s backyard steam railroad on TV, and a seed was planted that would later flower into the live steam hobby that he still enjoys today.

A young Chuck Balmer works on one of his electronics projects. (Click on photo to view a larger image.)

Developing skills in electronics leads to a career

As a young boy Chuck built a lot of models, some plastic and some scratch built. When he became grade school aged, he got interested in electronics and built numerous radio transmitters and radios, audio amplifiers, and eventually computers using vacuum tubes. He built radios and even worked for a local TV repair shop and continued doing TV repair into high school where he began building computers that won superior ratings in state science fairs. He also built his first robot in high school. While an undergraduate at UD, he built another small robot and several other computer related projects. He was also offered a part-time technician position in the instrumentation department at the UD Research Institute. In addition, he built a fuel injection system for his Triumph motorcycle and wrote an article about it for the UD Engineer magazine that won a prize for the best article published that year.

After graduation he built his first locomotive and proceeded to build three more by 1976. In 1972, Chuck designed the first 16-channel digital multi-train control system for electric trains. The system was the DIGITRAK 1600 multi-train control and was featured in an article in Model Railroader Magazine. He started a company called Electro-Plex Inc. and marketed these controllers for several years.

Chuck graduated from the University of Dayton in 1968 with a BSEE degree and went to work as a contract engineer at Wright Patterson Air Force base. He moved on to Grimes Aerospace as a project engineer where he worked on an aircraft proximity warning system as well as many other projects. He earned his MSEE degree while working and eventually went to work for an instrumentation company where he designed data acquisition equipment. Having started their microcomputer program, Chuck became software engineering manager and was responsible for developing large data acquisition systems. In 1982, he left the company to strike out on his own. While slowly developing a consulting customer base, he taught a computer course at Ohio State University and took on contract engineering jobs. He continued running his own business for 25 years, specializing in the design and manufacture of electronic production test equipment for the aerospace industry. Chuck officially retired in 2006 but still does some consulting for one of his long-time customers.

Star Wars movie inspires work on robots

Chuck designed and built these robots, named "Avatar" and "Huey." (Click on photo to view a larger image.)

When the movie Star Wars came out in 1976, Chuck’s focus shifted back to robots. He built a robot named Avatar and won a contest for an article on the best home built robot in Robotics Age magazine in 1982. This robot was put on display for 3 years at the Boston Computer Museum. While it was gone, he built another more complex robot named Huey that was operational in 1992 and still roams his shop today.

Getting a start in metalworking

He first learned how to use machining equipment in the Mechanical Engineering department at the University of Dayton making fixtures for the test equipment he was building. After graduation he decided to put together an electronics and mechanical laboratory at home where he could pursue building his own projects. The first mechanical project was a 3 ½” gauge 1:16 scale model of a New York Central 4-6-4 live steam locomotive. He learned most of his mechanical and metalworking skills on his own with a little help from his brother-in-law who was a tool and die maker.

A return to live steam locomotives

Although he has built, finished or restored a number of steam locomotives, the  Allegheny is Chuck's most ambitious project to date. (Click on photo to view a larger image.)

In 2006, after retirement Chuck again focused on the live steam hobby and began building the Allegheny 2-6-6-6 locomotive that took seven years full time (14,000 hrs) to complete. In addition to the four scratch built locomotives built before 1976, since 2013, he has scratch-built three more locomotives, restored or completed eight more, and built seven train cars to go with them.

Learning the casting process

Chuck needed to make castings for another locomotive and purchased a small furnace, some books on casting, and began learning how to make patterns and molds. Eventually he needed a larger furnace, so he designed and built the one that he still uses today. The techniques he uses for making castings were learned from experience. He even created a video explaining the casting process from making patterns to pouring metal to share his experience with others.

Advancing his welding skills for the Allegheny

Chuck had learned to gas and stick weld when he was building his first locomotive. When building the Allegheny, he realized that he needed to learn how to TIG and MIG weld, so he and his son enrolled in an eight-week course at the local vocational school. Here they learned the basics and were even able to bring in the chassis for the Allegheny for final welding. Eventually he bought his own welding equipment, so he wasn’t dependent on the availability of the school’s equipment.

Building a workshop for the lifetime collection of tools he had acquired

Here is where the work gets done. Chuck's shop includes all the necessary metalworking machines plus a foundry for casting the many parts he needs. In the last photo, his son Jim is helping with the casting process. (Click on photo to view a larger image.)

In 1972 Chuck purchased a piece of property and built a 24 x 30' frame building. He moved the equipment that he had acquired out of his parents’ basement into the new building. The interior was organized into an office area, a machine shop, an electronics lab, and a foundry area. Over the years, two additions have been added to accommodate the welding area, stock storage, and room for locomotive storage.

In addition to many specialized hand tools acquired while building test equipment, he has three metal lathes ranging in size from a small Unimat for very small parts to a WWII vintage 5" South Bend thread cutting lathe for larger parts. He has a small vertical milling machine as well as two drill presses. All of the lathes and the mill have been outfitted with digital readouts on all axes. He has a 24" sheet metal sheer, brake, and roller as well as a 1.5 ton arbor press and a 20 ton hydraulic press. Other equipment includes a 14” band saw, a horizontal power hack saw, and a 16" scroll saw. The welding area contains a Miller 200 amp TIG welder, a Hobart MIG welder, a band saw blade welder, and an acetylene welding set. The foundry consists of a propane-fired furnace capable of melting eight pounds of cast iron and additional equipment for preparing casting sand and making molds.

The electronics area of the shop has several computers, three oscilloscopes, a function generator, several power supplies, several types of meters, and soldering equipment, and a selection of thousands of electronic components.

But Balmer’s most important asset is his understanding wife who shares his enthusiasm for trains and fully supports his shop activities.

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Here are several examples of Chuck Balmer's work:

Photos courtesy of Chuck Balmer, Lee Hodgson and Craig Libuese

Click on small photos below to view a larger image.

Description of Project

Over 100 castings were required for the Allegheny alone. Chuck makes the wood patterns himself and does the casting in bronze, iron and aluminum in his own home-built foundry.
Trailer truck frame casting after welding
Trailer truck suspension parts
Top view of trailer truck frame
End view of fabricated rear engine cylinders

Piston valve assembly

“Y” pipe and ball joint assembly for steam supply from rear to front engine
Side view of rear engine frame
Welded rear engine frame and pre-welded front engine frame
Mock-up of entire engine chassis
Mock-up of engine and boiler shell on home track
Under side view of front engine
Lubricator test setup
Front engine steam and exhaust piping
Ash pan mounted over trailer truck
Jig for holding smoke box while machining
Smoke box covers, piping, and accessories
Front engine with partially assembled smoke box
Test setup for hot pump
End view of turbine powered cold pump
Assembled boiler firebox before welding
Firebox outside sheets assembled to boiler shell
Firebrick furnace built to preheat boiler for silver soldering 
Finished firebox after welding
Chuck's son Jim dipping boiler in acid to remove welding flux
First time boiler shell set on engine chassis
Propane burner mounted to frame above ash pan
Tender with outer shell mounted. The complete tender with 6-wheel and 8-wheel trucks.
8-wheel Buckeye tender truck, assembled
6-wheel Buckeye tender truck, assembled
Rear of tender frame with assembled 8-wheel and 6-wheel Buckeye tender trucks
Mobile engine stand for shop storage.
Mobile stand for freight cars
Chuck Balmer and son Jim stand behind the Allegheny on the hydraulic lift stand.
A 5-tiered engine stand displays some of Chuck's other engines at the NAMES model engineering show.
Chuck's engine stand and engines at the North American Model Engineering Society (NAMES) Exposition in Wyandotte, Michigan.
Low angle view of the Allegheny
Engine stand with engines displayed at a model engineering show
Display racks in Chuck's shop support his collection of steam locomotives and cars. There is also a wall display of the casting patterns that goes to shows along with the trains.
A low angle shot of the  Allegheny gives an idea of how impressive the real thing must have been coming down the tracks.
A side view of the engine and tender illustrates it's length and 34 wheels.
A Burlington Northern Santa Fe diesel/electric engine is also part of the collection.
A 2-6-0 Mogul and a 4-4-0 Virginian early locomotives
A vertical boiler 0-6-0 sugar plantation engine, “Sugar” was completed in 1976.
Chuck has also built a number of scale cars in 1/16 scale to pull behind the engines. Here is a coal car and cattle car on the club track.
A detail of the controls and gauges inside the Allegheny's cab shows the attention to detail throughout the project. Note that the engine is named "Julie B." in honor of Chuck's very understanding wife.
Lima Locomotive Works provided 100 pages of plans for the original engine, but many more drawings had to be made to cover some details not found in the plans. Several trips to the Ford Museum in Michigan to measure and photograph a full-size Allegheny displayed there provided the needed details.
Chuck's son Jim is seen here at the controls of #1600 on the Cinder Sniffers club track in Ohio.

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New Submissions Welcomed

If you have additional information on a project or builder shown on this site that you would like to contribute, please e-mail terry@craftsmanshipmuseum.com. We also welcome new contributions. Please see our page at www.CraftsmanshipMuseum.com/newsubmit.htm for a submission form and guidelines for submitting descriptive copy and photos for a new project.

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