Boilers can be classified into the following configurations:
- "Pot boiler" or "Haycock boiler": a primitive "kettle" where a fire heats a partially-filled water container from below. 18th century Haycock boilers generally produced and stored large volumes of very low-pressure steam, often hardly above that of the atmosphere. These could burn wood or most often, coal. Efficiency was very low.
- Fire tube boiler- Here, water partially fills a boiler barrel with a small volume left above to accommodate the steam (steam space). This is the type of boiler used in nearly all steam locomotives. The heat source is inside a furnace or firebox that has to be kept permanently surrounded by the water in order to maintain the temperature of the heating surface just below boiling point. The furnace can be situated at one end of a fire-tube which lengthens the path of the hot gases, thus augmenting the heating surface which can be further increased by making the gases reverse direction through a second parallel tube or a bundle of multiple tubes (two-pass or return flue boiler); alternatively the gases may be taken along the sides and then beneath the boiler through flues (3-pass boiler). In the case of a locomotive-type boiler, a boiler barrel extends from the firebox and the hot gases pass through a bundle of fire tubes inside the barrel which greatly increase the heating surface compared to a single tube and further improve heat transfer. Fire-tube boilers usually have a comparatively low rate of steam production, but high steam storage capacity. Fire-tube boilers mostly burn solid fuels, but are readily adaptable to those of the liquid or gas variety.
- Water tube boiler- In this type,the water tubes are arranged inside a furnace in a number of possible configurations: often the water tubes connect large drums, the lower ones containing water and the upper ones, steam and water; in other cases, such as a monotube boiler, water is circulated by a pump through a succession of coils. This type generally gives high steam production rates, but less storage capacity than the above. Water tube boilers can be designed to exploit any heat source and are generally preferred in high pressure applications since the high pressure water/steam is contained within small diameter pipes which can withstand the pressure with a thinner wall.
- Flash boiler- A specialized type of water-tube boiler.
- Fire-tube boiler with Water-tube firebox. Sometimes the two above types have been combined in the following manner: the firebox contains an assembly of water tubes, called thermic siphons. The gases then pass through a conventional fire tube boiler. Water-tube fireboxes were installed in many Hungarian locomotives, but have met with little success in other countries.
- Sectional boiler. In a cast iron sectional boiler, sometimes called a "pork chop boiler" the water is contained inside cast iron sections. These sections are assembled on site to create the finished boiler.