Sheffield miniature model maker creates amazing pint-sized version of Kelham Island Museum's River Don Engine

Small is beautiful for Lee Smithson, a man who makes miniature models but likes thinking big.

Friday, 22nd April 2022, 8:34 am
Updated Friday, 22nd April 2022, 3:50 pm

Take his latest work, a model of the 12,000 horsepower River Don Engine, the most powerful working steam engine in Europe.

“The customer wanted a static model initially,” says Lee, “But as I was starting the design I realised that although it would mean extra work it wouldn’t be too much more in order to make the model work electrically.”

So it would move. Just as the mighty steam engine did which was built to roll armour plate for the Dreadnought warships that fought at the largest naval battle of the First World War, the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

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The River Don Engine in Kelham Island Museum in Sheffield. Pictured museum technician Keith Wall

It meant trips to the gallery at Kelham Island Museum where the workings of the old boiler are opened to reveal the secret life of the engine, from the story of armour plate to its place in the 20th century story of Britain, linking two world wars, nuclear power and the oil industry.

“It was certainly more than expected but I got there in the end,” said Lee. “I started the design in early January 2022 and after finishing some other commissions off, finally got started on the Don Engine Miniature at the beginning of February.

“It has been designed to fit inside a 30cm Perspex display cube. This first tasks were to transfer the design and cut out the supports - A frames - using my laser cutter and work out the base layout.

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Lee with his electric model of the Kelham Island Don Engine

“Once I had the base layout I then worked out the drive wheel positions and crankshaft design. It was then a matter of designing the rest of the required parts on the laser cutter as I progressed on the build, adjusting some parts to get them to look and work correctly.

How are the miniature models made?

“The build from start to finish probably took me around 70–80 hours, but this is just an estimation. I really enjoyed this project as it was certainly a challenge, but very rewarding when I got things right.

“The materials used are MDF, acrylic, plywood and steel for the mechanical parts. I mostly worked from photographs of the engine I took on a visit to the museum and also used a picture of the technical drawing in the museum for reference.

The River Don Engine in Kelham Island Museum in Sheffield. Pictured museum technician Keith Wall

“As for knowing how the mechanics worked, I watched a YouTube video over and over until I understood how the various linkages and parts all worked together. I do have an engineering background and have rebuilt car engines in the past which helps with this understanding of all things mechanical.”

Born in Sheffield, Lee grew up in Crookes. His dad was a builder, his mum a doctor’s secretary. He went to Lydgate infants and junior before moving on to Tapton School.

At 16, he went to Loxley College to study mechanical engineering, but after a year decided he wanted a job and took an apprenticeship in electronics with Mediplan.

The Sheffield-based firm took him on to repair nurse call systems and he did that for six years.

The River Don Engine in Kelham Island Museum in Sheffield. Pictured museum technician Keith Wall

Other miniature models includ Park Hill flats and the Shepherd Wheel

Lee said: “I got tired of being stuck at a bench and decided I wanted to work with my dad, which I did for three years. I learned how to do a lot of building skills and was really helpful.”

Then he moved to his current job, working with the NHS as a clinical engineer, repairing and servicing medical equipment. He’s 42, is married and lives in Malin Bridge.

Lee featured in The Star when he built a miniature version of Park Hill flats and the Shepherd Wheel, the water-powered grinding workshop in the Porter Brook valley.

“It was one of the biggest things I’ve built. I just fancied having a go at it because I’ve always been interested in Sheffield’s history and wondered if I could make it,” he said.

“It wasn’t a commission, I did it because it interested me. When I finished it, I contacted Weston Park museum and they took it for a year and then gave it back.

Lee with his electric model of the Kelham Island Don Engine

“It’s now with a penknife maker called Steven Cocker.”

The River Don Engine was a commission from a friend for her dad’s birthday this month. The engine was built by Davy Brothers of Sheffield in 1905 at Park Iron Works in Sheffield. Its history is fascinating.

It was made to drive Charles Cammell's armour plate rolling mill located at his Grimesthorpe Works. Cammell’s was one of the companies in the city that supplied the ship building industry with tough armour plate steel.

At a weight of 400 tons and 12,000 horsepower, it enabled the huge mill to roll steel plate up to 40cm thick and 50 tons in weight. The River Don Engine was one of four all built for the same purpose. The second went to John Brown's Atlas Works, the third to the Japanese government, and the fourth to Beardmores in Glasgow.

What is the history of Sheffield’s River Don Engine?

The River Don Engine ran at Cammell's mill for almost 50 years. The engine was then transferred to what was formerly known as the British Steel Corporation's River Don Works. At the works, the engine continued to drive a heavy plate mill, producing products such as stainless steel reactor shields and steel plates for North Sea oil rigs.

It has fans, hence the request for a model as a birthday present and Lee wanted to see it work so he could built it as it really is. He was captivated by the YouTube video of the engine which he watched on repeat to see how the parts and work out how to replicate it.

“I sat with it on my phone watching it again and again, it can get tedious but me being me, I’m a mechanical engineer and happy enough to do it,” said Lee.

“I was quite pleased with myself when it worked because I had a few headaches trying to understand some of it. I love the engine. My dad was fascinated by it and visited it several times a year just to watch it run.

“I grew up watching it and it is an amazing machine. The size, the power, the fact it is the biggest in the country. It used to scare me to death as a child but now it fascinates me. It is amazing and you just want it keep on running.”

You can find Lee’s work at the Sheffield Makers shop in Hunters Bar and the Crow pub on Scotland Street, off West Bar in the city centre.

Demand is such, he’s dropped a day from his full-time job to try to keep pace with the orders. “I had a waiting list of 30 customers and I couldn’t get it down over 18 months. Now it is below 20 and I’ve had orders from Canada and New Zealand,” he says.

He is currently working on a 1980s living room as this was the period he grew up in.

“A lot of my memories are from this time and there’s a Commodore 64 on the floor,” he says.

That’s a computer in case you missed this era. As for the future, he hopes it is miniature.

“I’d like to do this full time but it is taking the leap from a paid job with annual leave and a pension. I would like to do it,” he says.

Visit his website at sheffieldminiatures.co.uk where prices start at £80.

Lee with his electric model of the Kelham Island Don Engine
Lee with his electric model of the Kelham Island Don Engine
Lee with his electric model of the Kelham Island Don Engine
The River Don Engine in Kelham Island Museum in Sheffield. Pictured museum technician Keith Wall
Lee with his electric model of the Kelham Island Don Engine