Steam boats 'r' us

Yesterday, I had the crazy idea of making a steam boat with my kids.  It all started the night before, when I told my two boys a bedtime story about James Watt and his invention of the steam engine.  I thought it would be cool if they could see a real working steam engine.  Even better - if they could build one themselves.  Well, I discovered that with a little work and perseverance I could build one and they could enjoy watching it run.

Around 9:30 this morning, I found this great set of instructions online.  And by great, I mean so super awesome, that I can't say enough about how useful they were.  There are written instructions, video instructions, printable cut outs, history lessons, and more.   The instructions were so well done that I made a working putt-putt boat on my first try!  Since this was supposed to be a project with the kids, I rounded up my three little ones and dragged them to 3 different stores to find all the materials.  The materials weren't that expensive, especially since some of the things could have been recycled - soda cans, soda bottles, and orange juice boxes (I didn't have any of those handy so I bought some soda and orange juice which were enjoyed later).  Other things you need around the house - scissors, epoxy, hot glue gun, ruler, marker, small candle (either birthday or tea candles will do), a stick for spreading epoxy, and straws.

After lunch we set to work.  I downed a can of diet Dr. Pepper so that we could build the engine.  After lots of cutting, folding, and gluing, we finally had a working aluminum engine.  My two eldest kids (6 and 4 years old) helped for the first hour or so, but wandered off after they realized it was going to take a long time.  And as much as I wanted them to participate, I also recognized that most of the steps required skills beyond their capabilities (but then again, I've under estimated their skills before).  Now that I know the steps, I would be more comfortable helping them complete their own engines next time.

The technology behind a putt-putt engine is pretty simple.  Essentially, it's a steam engine.  As the water heats up inside the metal engine, it turns to steam.  The pressure from the steam becomes so intense that eventually a bubble is forced down the straw and out the back of the boat, pushing the boat forward. When the bubble escapes, cool water rushes back in providing fresh material heating material for more steam.  Since the water flowing out is moving faster than the water flowing back in, the boat moves forward.  The "putting" or "popping" noise comes from the expansion and contraction of the flat aluminum side as the steam expands and contracts.  There are silent versions of this engine using coiled copper tubes, but I could not find the right sized tubes at Lowes.  Maybe next time.

As you can see from this video, the kids loved watching it run.

Just another fun activity dads can do with their kids!


  1. That is so cool! Teaching your kids the value of doing something as a team is a brilliant idea. It is through small projects like this that kids learn valuable life lessons like dedication and team work.

  2. Thanks Mark. It was a great project and one we may do again, so all three kids can have their very own boat.