The Two-stroke Cycle
The following animation shows a two-stroke engine in action. You can compare this animation to the animations in the car engine and diesel engine articles to see the differences. The biggest difference to notice when comparing figures is that the spark-plug fires once every revolution in a two-stroke engine.

This figure shows a typical cross flow design. You can see that two-stroke engines are ingenious little devices that overlap operations in order to reduce the part count.

You can understand a two-stroke engine by watching each part of the cycle. Start with the point where the spark plug fires. Fuel and air in the cylinder have been compressed, and when the spark plug fires the mixture ignites. The resulting explosion drives the piston downward. Note that as the piston moves downward, it is compressing the air/fuel mixture in the crankcase. As the piston approaches the bottom of its stroke, the exhaust port is uncovered. The pressure in the cylinder drives most of the exhaust gases out of cylinder, as shown here:

As the piston finally bottoms out, the intake port is uncovered. The piston's movement has pressurized the mixture in the crankcase, so it rushes into the cylinder, displacing the remaining exhaust gases and filling the cylinder with a fresh charge of fuel, as shown here:

Note that in many two-stroke engines that use a cross-flow design, the piston is shaped so that the incoming fuel mixture doesn't simply flow right over the top of the piston and out the exhaust port.

Now the momentum in the crankshaft starts driving the piston back toward the spark plug for the compression stroke. As the air/fuel mixture in the piston is compressed, a vacuum is created in the crankcase. This vacuum opens the reed valve and sucks air/fuel/oil in from the carburetor.

Once the piston makes it to the end of the compression stroke, the spark plug fires again to repeat the cycle. It's called a two-stoke engine because there is a compression stroke and then a combustion stroke. In a four-stroke engine, there are separate intake, compression, combustion and exhaust strokes.

You can see that the piston is really doing three different things in a two-stroke engine:

  • On one side of the piston is the combustion chamber, where the piston is compressing the air/fuel mixture and capturing the energy released by the ignition of the fuel.
  • On the other side of the piston is the crankcase, where the piston is creating a vacuum to suck in air/fuel from the carburetor through the reed valve and then pressurizing the crankcase so that air/fuel is forced into the combustion chamber.
  • Meanwhile, the sides of the piston are acting like valves, covering and uncovering the intake and exhaust ports drilled into the side of the cylinder wall.
It's really pretty neat to see the piston doing so many different things! That's what makes two-stroke engines so simple and lightweight.

If you have ever used a two-stroke engine, you know that you have to mix special two-stroke oil in with the gasoline. Now that you understand the two-stroke cycle you can see why. In a four-stroke engine, the crankcase is completely separate from the combustion chamber, so you can fill the crankcase with heavy oil to lubricate the crankshaft bearings, the bearings on either end of the piston's connecting rod and the cylinder wall. In a two-stroke engine, on the other hand, the crankcase is serving as a pressurization chamber to force air/fuel into the cylinder, so it can't hold a thick oil. Instead, you mix oil in with the gas to lubricate the crankshaft, connecting rod and cylinder walls. If you forget to mix in the oil, the engine isn't going to last very long!