Inside a warehouse off the Mandela Parkway in West Oakland, a group of people in work clothes stained with machine grease arrange the synthetic leather belt on an antique steam-powered printing press. Strewn throughout the large room are various tools and machines ranging from a tractor to a ginormous rusted ship that’s resting on its side. Unhinged doors, ladders, and red gas canisters for fueling the countless machines clutter the building.
Home to Kinetic Steam Works (KSW), an Oakland-based nonprofit that uses steam power for educational and artistic purposes, this warehouse is a mess. But it’s the best kind of mess.
Founded in 2005 by a group of artists, fabricators and engineers, KSW powers antique equipment with steam. William Francis, the president of the board of directors of the nonprofit, argues that what KSW does is distinct from steampunk, the trendy 19th century-inspired sci-fi subgenre. Instead of focusing on the romanticized, science-fiction view of steam that has become popular in recent years, the organization repurposes defunct machines to teach people how seemingly complicated objects work. To this group, the repurposed machines offer a glimpse into the hardships of the past and make people more appreciative of modern conveniences.
KSW currently operates a case traction engine, a paddlewheel steamboat, and a printing press, plus a player piano that they roll out for special events. Every January, KSW takes part in the Edwardian Ball in San Francisco, where they sometimes run a boiler outside and serve tea using the exhaust from a steam-powered coil that heats up the kettle. Francis says that the organization is unique in that they don’t simply aim to entertain. “Not a lot of people take actual steam equipment and repurpose them for art and education purposes,” he says.
KSW also travels around the Bay Area and the country, participating in events like Burning Man, Coachella, and the local Fire Arts Festival. Locally, the group meets weekly in the warehouse, which has a full machine shop, a woodshop (recently donated by a high school), and an array of tools needed to tinker with their antique equipment. Newcomers are invited to come in, pick up a wrench, and get to work. They don’t need a steam-powered background to do so — past volunteers have been carpenters, contractors, accountants, programmers and even kids. “You don’t have to be somebody that wants to get greasy and turn a wrench to come down here and have fun with us,” Francis says.