How to Make a Steam Engine

Two Methods:Making a Soda Can Steam Engine (For Kids)Making a Paint Can Steam Engine (For Adults)

The words "steam engine" often conjure images of steam locomotives or Stanley Steamer cars, but these machines have many more uses than transportation. Steam engines, which were first created in primitive forms around two millennia ago, have become major power sources in the past three centuries, with steam turbines now producing 80 percent or more of the world's electrical energy. To gain a greater understanding of the physical forces at work in a steam engine, build your own steam engine with common home materials using one of the methods in this article! See Step 1 below to get started.

Method 1
Making a Soda Can Steam Engine (For Kids)

  1. Image titled Make a Steam Engine Step 1
    Cut an aluminum can to about 2 1/2 inches (6.35 cm). Use tin snips or shop scissors to make a smooth horizontal cut about 1/3 of the way up from its base.
  2. Image titled Make a Steam Engine Step 2
    Fold and crimp the cut rim with pliers. Fold the rim of the can in on itself to eliminate its sharp edges. Take care not to cut yourself as you do so.
  3. Image titled Make a Steam Engine Step 3
    Push the bottom of the can out from the inside to flatten it. Most soda cans have a circular base that curves into the interior of the can. Push this out by flattening it with your fingers or using the bottom of a small glass or jar to smooth it.
  4. Image titled Make a Steam Engine Step 4
    Punch two holes on opposite sides of the can 1/2 inch (1.27 cm) from the top. You can use a paper punch for this, or you can make the holes with a nail and hammer. You will need a hole slightly larger than 1/8 inch (3.175 mm) in diameter.
  5. Image titled Make a Steam Engine Step 5
    Place a tea light candle in the center of the can. Crumple foil and place it under and around the candle to hold it in place. Tea light candles come in small tins, so the wax should not melt and spill into your aluminum can.
  6. Image titled Make a Steam Engine Step 6
    Wrap the center of a 6-to-8-inch (15.24-to-20.32 cm) piece of the copper tubing around a pencil 2 or 3 times to make a coil. The 1/8-inch tubing should bend easily around the pencil. You will need enough coiled tubing to stretch across the top of the can, plus about 2 extra inches (5.08 cm) of straight tubing on each side.
  7. Image titled Make a Steam Engine Step 7
    Insert the ends of the tubing through the holes in the can. Center the coil over the wick of the candle. Try to have about the same length of straight tubing sticking out of each side of the can.
  8. Image titled Make a Steam Engine Step 8
    Bend the ends of the tube with pliers to make 90-degree angles. Bend the straight sections of the tubing so that they go in opposite directions on each side of the can. Then, bend them again so that they reach below the base of the can. When you're done, you should have a coiled section of tubing in the middle over your candle that stretches downward into two opposite-facing "jets" on either side of the can.
  9. Image titled Make a Steam Engine Step 9
    Set the can in the bowl of water with the tubing ends submerged. Your "boat" should float comfortably. If the tubing ends don't quite sit below the water line, try weighing the can down slightly, but be careful not to sink it.
  10. Image titled Make a Steam Engine Step 10
    Fill the tubes with water. The easiest way to do this is to place one end in the bowl of water and suck through the other like a straw. Alternately, you can hold your finger over one end and hold the open end under a running faucet.
  11. Image titled Make a Steam Engine Step 11
    Light the candle. Over time, the water in the tubing will heat up and begin to boil. As it evaporates into steam, it will shoot out of the the "jets" of the tubing, causing the entire can to spin in the bowl.

Method 2
Making a Paint Can Steam Engine (For Adults)

  1. Image titled Make a Steam Engine Step 12
    Cut a rectangular hole near the base of a gallon paint can. Mark a 15 x 5 cm rectangle horizontally on the side of the can near the base.
    • Note that for this paint can (and the other one you'll use), you'll want to ensure that the can contained only latex-based paint and that it has been thoroughly washed with soap and water before use.
  2. Image titled Make a Steam Engine Step 13
    Cut a 12 x 24 cm (4 & 2/3 x 9 1/3 in) piece of metal mesh. Bend 6 cm (about 2 & 1/3 inches) at either end of the 24 cm side down at a 90o angle. This should create a 12 x 12 cm square "platform" with two 6 cm "legs". Place this mesh inside the paint can, "legs" down, lining it up with the edges of the hole you cut.
  3. Image titled Make a Steam Engine Step 14
    Make a half-circle of holes along the lid's perimeter. Eventually, you'll burn coals inside this paint can to provide the heat for your steam engine. If these coals don't have a steady supply of oxygen, they won't be able to burn well. Allow ventilation by drilling or punching a series of holes in a half-circle pattern along edge of the can's lid.
    • These ventilation holes should ideally be bout 1 cm (4/10 in) in diameter.
  4. Image titled Make a Steam Engine Step 15
    Create a coil from copper tubing. Take about 6 m (about 19 & 1/2 feet) of soft copper tubing 1/4 inch (.64 cm) in diameter and measure 30 cm (11 & 8/10 inches) from one end. Starting from this point, wrap the tubing into five coils 12 cm (4 &3/4 inches) in diameter. Wind the remaining length of the tubing into about 15 coils 8 cm (3 & 1/6 in) in diameter. You should be left with about 20 cm (7 & 5/6 in) extra.
  5. Image titled Make a Steam Engine Step 16
    Run both ends of the coil through the lid ventilation holes. Bend both ends of the coil so that they're pointing upwards and insert each through one of the holes in the lid. If you don't quite have enough length in the tubing, you may need to unwind one of the coils slightly.
  6. Image titled Make a Steam Engine Step 17
    Insert the coil and charcoal into the paint can. Place the coil on top of the mesh platform. Fill the space around and inside the coil with charcoal briquettes. Close the lid tightly.
  7. Image titled Make a Steam Engine Step 18
    Drill tubing holes in the smaller paint can. In the center of the quart-sized paint can's lid, drill a hole 1 cm (4/10 in) in diameter. On the side of the can, drill two 1 cm holes - one near the base and one above it near the lid.
  8. Image titled Make a Steam Engine Step 19
    Insert corked plastic tubing into the holes on the side of the smaller can. Use the ends of the copper tubing to bore holes in the center of two corks. Insert one 25 cm (9 & 5/6 in) piece of hard plastic tubing into one cork and one 10 cm (3 & 11/12 in) piece into the other so that they fit snugly and extend slightly from the other end of the cork. Insert the cork with the longer tubing into the bottom hole on the small can and the cork with the shorter tubing into the top hole. Secure the tubing in each cork with hose clamps.
  9. Image titled Make a Steam Engine Step 20
    Connect the larger can's tubing to the smaller can. Place the smaller can above the larger can with the corked tubing facing away from the larger can's ventilation holes. Use metallic tape to secure the tubing from the bottom cork to the tubing extending from the bottom of the copper coil. Then, secure the tubing from the upper cork to the tubing extending from the top of the coil in the same way.
  10. Image titled Make a Steam Engine Step 21
    Insert copper tubing through a junction box. Use a hammer and screwdriver to remove the center portion of a circular metallic electrical junction box. Secure an electrical cable clamp to the junction box with the retaining ring inside. Insert 15 cm (5 & 9/10 in) copper pipe 1/2 in (1.27 cm) in diameter through the cable clamp connector so that the tubing protrudes a few cm below the hole in the junction box. Blunt the edges of this end inward with a hammer. Insert this end of the pipe into the hole in the lid of the smaller can.
  11. Image titled Make a Steam Engine Step 22
    Insert the skewer into the dowel rod. Take a standard wooden barbecue skewer and insert it into one end of a 1.5 cm (6/10 in) hollow wooden dowel rod 3/8 in (.95 cm) in diameter. Place the dowel rod and skewer inside the copper pipe in the metal junction box so that the skewer points up.
    • The skewer and dowel rod will act as the "piston" when the engine is running. To make the motion of the piston easier to see, you might want to attach a small paper "flag" to the top.
  12. Image titled Make a Steam Engine Step 23
    Prepare the engine for operation. Remove the junction box assembly from the small upper can and fill the upper can with water, allowing it to drain into the copper coil until the can is about 2/3 full of water. Check all connectors for leaks and ensure all seals are tight. Secure the lids of both cans by tapping them with a hammer. Replace the junction box in its spot above the small upper can.
  13. Image titled Make a Steam Engine Step 24
    Run the engine! Crumple up pieces of newspaper and place them in the space enclosed by mesh at the bottom of the engine. When the charcoal has caught fire, allow the briquettes to burn for about 20-30 minutes. As they heat the water in the coil, steam should begin to build up in the upper can. When this steam reaches sufficient pressure, it will push the dowel and skewer piston upwards. Once sufficient pressure has been released, the piston will be pulled back down by gravity. Trim pieces off of the skewer as needed to reduce the weight of the piston - the lighter it is, the more frequently it will "pop" up. Try to whittle the skewer down to a weight such that the piston "runs" at a constant clip.
    • You can speed up the burning process by using a hair dryer to blow through the ventilation holes.
  14. Image titled Make a Steam Engine Step 25
    Be safe. It probably goes without saying that this DIY steam engine requires careful handling and operation. Never run the steam engine indoors. Never run it around flammable material like dry leaves or overhanging trees. Only run it on a tough, non-flammable surface like concrete. If you're working with children, ensure an adult is present to supervise at all times. Do not children or teenagers approach the engine while the charcoal is burning. If you're ever not sure how hot the engine is, assume that it's too hot to touch.
    • Also, be sure that the steam is able to escape from the upper "boiler". If the piston becomes stuck for some reason, pressure can build up inside the small can. In a worst case scenario, this can cause the can to explode, which can be very dangerous.


  • Place the steam engine in a plastic boat, with both tube ends facing off the back and into the water, to make steam-powered toy. You can cut a simple boat shape from a plastic soda or bleach bottle to make the project "green."


  • Do not seal the copper tubing in any way other than submerging the ends in water. Though unlikely, excess pressure could cause the tube to burst and result in injury.
  • If you must handle the engine while it is in use, do not point the ends of the tubing toward anyone, as hot steam or water could cause scalding.
  • Be sure to use tongs, pliers, or an oven-mitt if you need to handle the engine while it runs.
  • Do not attempt to build a more complex steam engine with a boiler unless you thoroughly understand how to do so. A boiler explosion, even in miniature, can result in serious injury.

Things You'll Need

Soda Can Steam Engine

  • Aluminum soda can
  • Tin snips or heavy scissors
  • Pliers
  • Paper punch
  • Tealight candle
  • Aluminum foil
  • 1/8-inch (3.175 mm) copper tubing
  • Pencil or dowel
  • Water
  • Bowl

Paint Can Steam Engine

  • Gallon paint can (preferably unused, but, if not, cleaned with soap and water)
  • Quart paint can (same as above)
  • 6 m of 1/4-inch copper tubing
  • Metallic tape
  • 2 corks
  • Circular metallic electrical junction box
  • Cable clamp compatible with the junction box
  • 15 cm of 1/2 inch copper pipe
  • 12x24 cm metal mesh screen
  • 35 cm of 1/8 or 1/4 inch hard plastic tubing
  • 2 hose clamps for plastic tubing
  • Barbecue charcoal (match-light is preferable)
  • Barbecue skewer
  • 1.5 cm of 3/8 inch wooden dowel rod (open at one end)
  • Screwdriver
  • Drill
  • Hammer
  • Tin snips/scissors
  • Pliers

Article Info

Categories: Science for Kids