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Story of the Paper Ticket Steam Engine

This story began about four years ago, when Sydney Origami (Australia) member Edric Hong organized and managed our stall at the Mini Makers Faire at the local technology and design museum, the Powerhouse. The museum organizer placed us near a full size steam engine for the event. While Edric was teaching visitors how to make the business card cube using old paper train tickets, he came up with the ambitious idea of constructing a steam train with the train tickets cubes and told the museum about it.

When Edric told me about this idea, I was at first horrified, thinking "what did you get us into" and “how will we get enough train tickets?" But since no commitment was made, I was not too concerned, although I did have a brief discussion with Jeannine Mosely, of the Level 3 Menger Sponge fame, who suggested we design on CAD and see what happens.

With a toddler in tow and a full time job, the steam train became a low priority. However, the toddler grew into a little boy who was obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine. This obsession meant his parents spent hours "appreciating" Thomas books, Thomas toys and Thomas TV shows with him. And two of these books, Thomas the Tank Engine Manual by Haynes, and the Big Book of Engines, take apart Thomas and clearly show the various parts of a steam tank engine.

Another important event also happened around this time last year, when the City of Sydney finally rolled out its paperless ticketing system for public transport. A quick email to CityRail nicely requesting some to-be-discontinued paper tickets for community benefit, led to some 250,000 unused single tickets being made available to our group. Half of these tickets went to our member Kat O'Rouke, who collected the tickets from the warehouse, and kept her share to use in her primary school teaching. The rest went onto my garage shelves, which luckily were mostly empty because my Dad only recently picked up the shelves from a family friend who was moving overseas.

Armed with this important knowledge of train structure and an abundance of paper tickets, as well as Jeannine's half (diagonal) cubes design documented in Origami^6, I finally decided to have a go at designing the train. A lack of CAD skill was not a deterrent, since paper with square grids did the job.

After a few attempts to work out the correct proportions, a design was finalized on paper. I took advantage of the fact that we had blue tickets (from buses) and red tickets (from trains), and came up with a dual colour steam tank engine. The train requires ~600 cubes and ~100 half cubes, which was too much for me to fold.

Taking another leaf from Jeannine's playbook, the folding of the cubes and half cubes was outsourced to 15 members of our Group. While the folding was happening, I wrote back to the museum asking if they knew of any events where this steam train might be a suitable display. They came back to us suggesting the DIY Day at the Museum as part of the Sydney Science Festival in August. The Museum also kindly assisted by providing us with some space for construction and storage of the model on-site, since moving the completed steam train could be done easily.

Constructing the train took over 21 hours over a 5 week period in July and August. Roughly 3,500 train tickets were used, and supporting cubes made from acrylic folders were built to ensure the train would not collapse under its own weight. I also made some adjustments to the design during construction, including the addition of a coal loading bay inside the cab (by taking out a cube in the wall between the cab and the coal bunker), and fire box (by changing the colour of a cube from blue to red, then adding an additional flap as the fire box cover).

It was a lovely feeling putting the last cover ticket on the cube on the train on 8 August, in time for the DIY Day on the 17th. We named the work PROGRESS, since it represents the theme of technological advancement and obsolescence.

We still have over 100,000 paper tickets in my garage, which my husband is keen to move to reclaim some space. So if you have any project ideas, we would love to hear from you*.

*These tickets are not as thick as the cards Jeannine used for her designs, since they are meant to be single use tickets. My guess is that they are around 120 GSM. The proportion is also different from American business cards. They are roughly 5.5cm x 9cm.


Click on photo for detailed instructions.

Winnie Leung