Friday, January 20, 2017

Friday Fun - Feline Fotos

Only tangentially railroad-related (note RR stove and decor), but kitty photos are always welcome and popular on the internets....

Happy Friday!!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

NCE PowerCab Mount/Box

I mentioned recently that I got an NCE PowerCab as an additional throttle and to use for decoder programming at my workbench. And I've also posted some photos (here & here) of a little box I've been working on to store it all. Well, I just finished the box - so here's why and how I did it.

The PowerCab comes packaged in a nice box that stores all the components safely and conveniently. You have the PowerCab itself (the throttle, affectionately known as "the dogbone"), a plug-in panel, a power supply, and a flat cable to connect the throttle to the panel.

You can do as many folks do and store/transport your PowerCab system using this handy box - but what do you do when you want to connect your PowerCab to a computer to use JMRI for decoder programming, for example? You need to get the NCE USB PCB - and there's no handy place to store/transport that (and its associated cable) in the original box. Besides - who wants to go through the hassle of unpacking & connecting everything every time you want to use it?

So, I decided to make a new box that would store everything, be easy to transport, and already have the components mounted so all I'd have to do is plug everything in and I'd be up and running.

For a nice, professional look that would match my components, I used black foam core board from Staples. I'd considered masonite, but figured that would less convenient to work with (requiring drilling & sawing) and would need to be painted afterwards. Black foam core is already - ahem - black, and I could cut it easily with an xacto knife at the coffee table in my den.

The most difficult part of this project was deciding how big to make it. I figured the end would need only to be as big as the components that would be mounted on it, and the length would need to be long enough to hold the throttle. From there, it was easy - just measure and cut 4 sides and a lid (which later turned out to be the base) - and use hot glue to put it all together.

The photo above shows the plug-in panel and USB socket. I was surprised that the #4 sheet metal screws I used actually bit and held in the (relatively) thin foam core - but I hotglued the two screws I could get to for some extra insurance. Note that - in addition to the USB socket on the right, there are two RJ11 sockets on the panel. The left one is for the flat DCC system cable, and the right one is for a cab/throttle cable.

Here's a view inside the box. The plug-in panel is on the left and the USB PCB is on the right. I mounted the USB on a piece of foam core using hot glue and white spacers as you see above. I also determined how far "forward" to position the board so that the socket would protrude through the foam core enough to be flush with the front of the box (as you can see in the first photo).

Another view inside the box after I connected the wires. PRO TIP: All the instructions for the USB board tell you to use the coiled throttle cable to connect it to the cab/throttle socket on the front of the plug-in panel. Well, once I discovered that there's another extra cab/throttle socket on the rear of the plug-in panel (thank you Erik), I decided to make my own, much shorter throttle cable using some spare phone cord (thanks to PeteL for loaning me the special crimping tool) which spared having to use the 6 foot coiled cable. I think you'll agree this is a much more elegant set-up.

Other than that new, gray wire, the other wires are for power supply (black) and track wires (black/white). To keep things neat (in case you haven't noticed, that's a "thing" with me), I used my handy hot glue gun to tuck & glue the wires into the corner of the box. They all go out through a hole cut in the rear.

You may notice I've changed orientation here. While I initially conceived this box as having a "top" I could mount/rest the throttle on, I quickly discovered that it was much smarter to just use it as an open-top box: better for storage/transport and nothing would fall out. So the USB socket is now on the left, and the socket into which you plug the flat/DCC/PowerCab cable is labeled with that handy labeler I got from Roman.

And here's the setup: PowerCab connected to front panel and power plugged in (note LED light and throttle screen are on), track wires connected to track feeders using alligator clips, and USB board connected to computer

Another view showing how nice and neat everything is - all organized and together without wires going helter-skelter all over the place.

Once you're done, just disconnect the cords from the track, computer, and wall, disconnect the throttle, and tuck everything neatly away in the box. Pretty cool. The only thing I would have done differently is make the box deeper and add a hinged lid and latch (and maybe a little carry handle). But I don't plan on transporting this stuff too often so the way I have it now will work fine.

I hope you'll get some inspiration from this to make up your own storage/transport box. Using the foamcore and hotglue makes it a pretty easy, fun project. And if you do make one, be sure to let me know!

Now that I have such a cool setup, I was excited to connect it to JMRI and do some programming. Well, unfortunately, that ended up being a project in and of itself. The instructions weren't as complete or as clear as I'd hoped, and "Google help" just made things worse. But after lots of trial and error - as well as a few emails back and forth the the very patient Erik at Tony's Trains (where I purchase all my NCE stuff) - I was finally able to get everything up and running. Next time, I'll let you know what I learned and hopefully save you some trouble.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Weekend Working through the Punch List

"Be careful what you wish for."

Like most model railroaders, I for a long time wished for more space for more railroad and I'm truly blessed to have a full basement to give the Valley Line (and the Airline, um, and the Shoreline) its due. And - even better - after wishing for a good crew of friends to help me with regular operating sessions, I have the best, most enthusiastic group of guys helping support my effort.

So I've been able to have regular operating sessions on a (fairly) large layout. And it's just as much a blast as I'd always hoped it would be. But . . . there is a downside. An ever so tiny cloud way out on the horizon of an otherwise clear blue sky. It doesn't look anything like a bunny, or a sheep. It's a funny-shaped, long, skinny cloud and actually looks a little bit like a word . . . I can barely make it out . . .ah yes -

M  A  I  N  T  E  N  A  N  C  E

It's one of the few things that can dampen your model railroad enthusiasm - and the larger the layout, the larger this cloud can be. But just like clouds bring much-needed rain, regular maintenance is necessary to keep your railroad healthy and happy. There's nothing like a good operating session to make those clouds pop up. And the best thing you can do to keep the rain off your parade (of trains) is to keep up with the maintenance and regularly work through your punch list of issues.

So that's how I spent my hobby time this past weekend - working through the punch list created after last month's session.

After snipping off some more KD "air hoses" and re-aligning/clamping the liftout between Somerset and Mill Hollow, I decided to figure out why the Airline local derailed on its way back from Middletown. Of course, the derailment happened on the only almost-inaccessible track on the entire railroad.

Yup, the track between Middletown and Mill Hollow on the Airline is tucked back behind the backdrop at Shailerville bridge. See pic above. To even see that track, you have to stand on a tall, 2-step step stool - making sure to tuck in your shirt so it doesn't damage the scenery - and lean over carefully. When you do all that, you can finally see the track...

There it is - coming from Middletown, which is on the other side of the wall. Close observation may reveal the cause of the derailment (especially if you click to embiggen the photo) - one of the feeders had popped off and poked up! Naturally - the only feeder I've ever had fail (so far, anyway) had to fail in the worst possible place! I can't access it at all from underneath, so I had to try and (re)solder it from above.

Very fortunately, as it turned out, this wasn't as difficult as I'd feared. I fluxed the wire and the side of the rail (both had already been tinned from being soldered before) and I used a long bamboo skewer to press the wire against the rail. I had the skewer in one hand and the iron in the other. Presto! Feeder reconnected!

After cleaning off the flux with denatured alcohol (you do clean off flux, don't you?), filing the solder from the top of the rail, and Bright Boy-ing the area, I moved on to my next problem: the turnout for the Meech & Stoddard siding in Middletown, the one "powered" with a coathanger.

TomD had a lot of trouble when switching this siding - he couldn't get the points to swing all the way over very easily, and often had to apply constant pressure to keep cars from derailing. Once I got under the layout, I saw immediately what the problem was - the coathanger had slipped over toward the tube. Consequently, there was almost no travel - certainly not enough to actuate the points on the turnout.

The solution ended up being simple in concept, but difficult to execute. I first bent the piano wire into a tight loop at the end - but even that wasn't enough to keep the coat hanger from creeping toward the tube over time (and the piano wire was a bear to bend in those tight quarters!). So I also soldered a scrap piece of copper wire as a "stop" to keep the coat hanger in place. It's certainly not an elegant solution, but it works. So far at least.

Another problem that crept up during the last session was the lack of bumping posts at the end of the east end staging tracks. When I redid this area a couple weeks ago, I installed nails at the end of each track. But that resulted in an unexpected problem - cars would actually couple to the nails!

So I went back, removed the nails, and did something more conventional and just as easy...

I used spare ties (you clip off a lot of them when laying flextrack) and glued them to the rails using drops of Aleen's Tacky Glue. Now there won't be any unexpected coupling and - bonus! - no possible damage to the couplers themselves. I should have just done it this way from the start.

Sometimes, while going through the "known" problems on your punch list, other things occur to you along the way. Case in point - photo above. One of the persistent points made during ops session job briefings is to let the Airline local crew know how to actuate the turnout in the tunnel at Somerset. Well - duh! - I finally got around to just labeling the darn thing! Thanks to Roman for his labeler (I'm going to try - really hard - not to label everything in the house. This is not a something you should ever give to someone with OCD. It just enables them. Not that I'd know anything about that. Nope. Not me.)

I still have a few items left on the list to do, but I think I'm going next to concentrate on finishing my little ProCab project. I really want to finish the mount/box - and really need to make sure the USB/Computer/PCB is working, um especially since it's already mounted in the box... And, of course, it'll be nice to get this mess cleaned up in time for the next NHRHTA Photo Archive session. But all in good time. These are just fun, little, puffy clouds. What more could you wish for?

Friday, January 13, 2017

Friday Fun: Finally Finishing Feeders

It's my first busy time of the year at work, so there's not much layout progress to report - and the progress there is, is pretty much invisible crews and such. Other than building a box to house my new NCE PowerCab components, I'm wiring up the (hopefully) last of my feeders!

Yes, like most folks, I was anxious to get the railroad up-and-running ASAP so I just installed enough feeders to get by. But now that we've had a bunch of operating sessions (and have completed what I hope are the last of the track modifications) and are now starting some scenery, it was time to audit/check what tracks didn't yet have feeders.

So, I reconnected all the feeders in the East End Staging yard and under the Saybrook Scene (including adding additional new ones), and I'm "finish feedering" the line from Essex up to East Haddam (electrifying every section of track).  Click here and here for how I do feeders. I'm not going to take the time to go into it in this post since I have to get back to work!

Friday, January 6, 2017

Friday Fun: NCE Power Cab

I've needed another throttle for quite some time now . . .

and I could use a way to program & test locomotives in the comfort of my den, near my workbench.

Well, a late-arriving gift just arrived today and fit the bill for both!

I'm looking forward to putting this all together on a nice, portable mount/box that I can take anywhere and hook up easily to my test loop. I just haven't decided whether to use masonite or foamcore. Either way, I'll share here how I do it.

Merry Christmas/Happy Birthday to me!