The Accucraft Shay: A review

by Marc Horovitz

Builder Accucraft Trains (China)
Gauge 45mm (gauge 1)
Scale 1:20.3 (15mm = 1'-0")
Boiler Copper, silver soldered, single flue, gas fired
Fittings Safety valve, filler plug, throttle, pressure gauge,
Fuel Butane
Blow-off pressure 60 psi
Cylinders Two fixed, double acting, piston valve
Reversing gear Reversing valve controlled by lever in cab
Lubricator Displacement, with drain
Other features 3.3:1 gear ratio
Dimensions Length over end beams, 16-5/16"; width, 4-5/16"; height to top of stack (with spark arrestor), 7-5/8"
1:20.3, gauge 1, live-steam Shay
Accucraft Trains
31112 San Clemente St.
Hayward CA 94544
Web site:

Pros: Good-looking engine; well made; excellent paint and graphics; good instructions; reasonable representation of Mich-Cal Shay; excellent runner; easily controlled; lubricator drain; removable cab roof for access to controls; can be radio controlled

Cons: Lubricator drains onto drive shaft; gas-control valve has a bit of “spring” due to 0-ring—a little hard to fine tune; burner is loud when turned up; no water glass; liquid gas gets into line when first firing up

Accucraft’s long-awaited Shay is finally on the market, and it was worth the wait. It is being offered in two versions at present, the Michigan-California Lumber Company version (reviewed here) and an open-cab plantation version.

The Shay locomotive was invented by Ephraim Shay and the first engine produced that was recognizably a Shay emerged from the Lima Machine Works (later the Lima Locomotive Works) in 1880. Production of Shays ceased in 1945, after approximately 2,700 of them had been built to all gauges and sizes (including a couple of left-handers, or backwards Shays, popularly called Yahs).

Our review model is not an accurate scale model of the Mich-Cal Shay, nor is it intended to be. It generally replicates the prototype’s proportions and it definitely captures the feel of it. The detail level is adequate, though not high. The offset headlight is a nice touch, as is the beautifully made bell. The paintwork and graphics are excellent, though some may object to the high-gloss finish. This can always be toned down, though.

Accucraft’s Shay is a direct descendant of the company’s first economical live steamer, the Ruby. It shares the same type of cylinders, valves, and reversing mechanism. The cab roof slides off for easy access to the controls, which include a throttle, a gas-control valve, and a reversing lever. Boiler fittings also include a safety valve set at 60 psi (pounds per square inch) and a working pressure gauge. No water glass is provided. While this would have been nice to have, it is by no means necessary. There is a displacement lubricator on the right side of the cab, with a handy drain, so you don’t have to suck the water out with a syringe. The lubricator drains onto the drive shaft, though. This is not harmful, just inelegant.

The gas tank resides on the left side of the cab. The filler valve is atop the turret that houses the gas-control valve. This is a little problematic, as we’ll see later. The boiler is what has become the nearly standard single-flue design, with the burner at the rear end. The oil and water tanks behind the cab are dummies and can be used to house radio gear. In fact, the (upper) oil tank has a convenient hole in it for a servo linkage to the reversing lever. It’s up to the owner to figure out exact placement and installation of a radio.

The trucks and drive train are nicely made. Steel bevel gears drive all wheels in a prototypically Shay-like fashion. The trucks come packed separately from the locomotive and must be attached by the buyer. This is a simple matter and screws, springs, and instructions are supplied. The drive-shaft parts are slid together, the truck is put in position, and the screw and spring are dropped into the mounting hole. Then the screw is simply screwed in.

Let’s go for a run. First, I oiled all moving parts with lightweight machine oil and filled the lubricator with steam oil. The boiler is filled to the top via the filler plug on the T-section, then about 30cc of water is removed to create steam space. Finally, I filled the ample gas tank. You'll need a standard adapter (not supplied) if you use the screw-top butane cans.

I placed the engine on the track and opened the smokebox door. Then I lit a match and slowly opened the gas valve. The fire caught right away and flashed back to the burner. It is clearly visible through the smokebox door. For the first minute or so, the fire coughed and sputtered, requiring a relight two or three times. This was due to liquid gas expanding erratically in the line. Once the gas level went down a bit, the fire smoothed out and burned steadily.

I kept the fire up pretty high while getting steam up. The burner is fairly loud during this time. Pressure began to come up within two or three minutes. At around five or six minutes, it was up to 40 psi, so I pushed the Johnson bar forward and opened the throttle. The engine lurched a half inch or so while condensate dripped from a hole in the bottom of the smokebox (normal). I put the lever in reverse and the same happened again, then back to forward and it jerked ahead a couple more inches. Then the cylinders suddenly warmed up and the engine took off smoothly. Once the cylinders are warm, the engine can be started and stopped at will, always starting up again smoothly.

I turned the gas down to where I could barely hear it and throttled the engine down to a walking pace. It responded beautifully and will just creep along if that is what you like. Top speed is, perhaps, a little faster than that of a full-size Shay, but it is not unreasonable.

Shays are known for lots of power at low speed. I tied on a train of 26 axles (13 small cane wagons) and put a brick in one of them. The engine walked away with it, the exhaust beats clearly audible over the low roar of the fire. The reversing lever is easily accessible, as is the throttle, even with the roof on. Because of the controllability of the engine, manual switching is a pleasure. Backing up to a train and coming slowly to a stop presents no problem. Slow starts, with your fingers on the throttle are easily accomplished, too.

The first test run, like subsequent runs, lasted about 25 minutes after pressure was up. Boiler pressure could be adjusted by changing the level of the fire. I had no trouble maintaining 30 psi. On all test runs, the water was exhausted before the gas. The engine has difficulty maintaining pressure toward the end of the run, which is an indicator that water is getting low. At this point, I turned off the gas, let the engine cool, then prepared for the next run.

The engine was tested on different radii track. It will negotiate LGB's 16000 curves (with some slowing when the cylinders were on the inside of the curve), but 15000s are too tight. This isn't bad, as even a 16000 curve is far sharper than the prototype would ever have been asked to negotiate.

All in all, this appears to be a fine engine. It is easy to operate and fun to run, while being true to its prototype. I've no doubt that many of them will be put to work on garden railroads everywhere.

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