Sunday, December 27, 2015

Sawz-All Sunday

Any time you have an excuse to use your Sawz-All, it's (usually) a good day. In this case, I needed to cut off the tops of the legs so they wouldn't interfere with the foamboard. . .

Yes, BION I'm diverting from my tried and true traditional L-girder/joist construction and trying out foam for Essex & Deep River.

Hope I don't get myself into too much trouble. The Sawz-All is usually a bad omen, but so far so good....

(Today's Soundtrack: Mozart's Mass in C Minor, K.427 - in keeping with the spirit of the day and task)

Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Christmas Helper

With her Christmas present, Rosie is now an official Valley Line helper (hopefully willingly)...

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

More Memorabilia: Firing the Steam Locomotive

In keeping with the "firing" theme of the last post, I wanted to mention a very closely-related item . . .

John Wallace had told me some years ago that the New Haven actually produced a manual for firing steam locomotives and that he'd been given a copy by either Dave Corsair or Ted Michalicki (both firemen on the Valley Line). Alas, over the years, the manual's gone missing and the only copy I ever knew about was located at the New Haven Railroad archive at UCONN. I'd always meant to get there to at least make a photocopy - one for me and one for John - but never got around to it. I'd certainly given up any hope of ever owning an original.

Well, long story short, I saved a search of it on eBay and - after getting dozens if not hundreds of hits for a Reading RR manual (and a repro at that) - the New Haven one finally popped up!

Of course, I had to get it. And get it I did. I thought I'd at least posted a pic of it when I first got it last year, but couldn't find it so here it is again? for the first time:

It's a fairly fragile, spiral-bound book with cardstock covers. All in all though, it's in remarkable condition for its age, with only one loose page (a miracle itself, considering the binding).

It was produced for the railroad by the CT State Dept of Education and (very) interestingly it's much newer than I'd expected, with a publication date of 1946. As long-time readers of this blog know, steam power on the New Haven faded very quickly over the next 3 years (click here for that story) so I think it's pretty unusual that the railroad bothered to produce a steam locomotive firing manual at such a late date.

But I'm glad they did. The information is, of course, especially interesting to anybody that's lucky enough to still be firing a steam locomotive in the 21st century and the illustrations are really cool too (in case you just want to flip through and look at the pictures). I've only casually thumbed through the book so far, so will be sure to post about any particularly notable items when I go through it more thoroughly.

In the meantime, along with the scoop I got for Christmas, it looks like I haven't any excuse left at all not to be(come) as authentic a New Haven RR fireman as is possible almost 65 years after the end of the steam era.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Friday Fun: An Elf's Early Visit

Christmas has started a little early this year thanks to my friend Randy. Now, Randy isn't Santa, of course, but he must at the very least be one of his helpers (a.k.a. an Elf) since he worked a little Christmas magic recently. . .

Long-time readers know I occasionally work as a fireman on the Valley Railroad - which is particularly cool, since I get to actually fire a steam engine on the line I'm modeling. But while I'm fully kitted up for work (including authentic reproduction New Haven Railroad Thompson cap, NHRR lantern & oilcans), it never occurred to me that something critical was missing and that it was actually possible to fill that void.

But last Friday, The Elf (a.k.a. Randy) showed up to our latest Valley Line work session with a Very Large Box, wrapped in Christmas paper. I had absolutely no clue what it was (my best guess was flextrack or roadbed) and even when I got the first peek at what was inside, I still had no idea what it was.

Lo and behold . . .

Yes ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls - you are seeing an Authentic New Haven Railroad fireman's coal scoop!! The Elf told me he found it on eBay, but I'm convinced that there was much more to it than that - nothing less than a Christmas Miracle can explain how this lowly shovel made its way down through the years to once-again be used to fire steam engines on a New Haven RR branchline. I've never even seen one of these before, much less had any hope of actually owning one.

And how do I know it's a real, live NHRR scoop? Cuz' in the great (and especially wonderful for collectors) tradition of railroad inventory practice, it's actually marked . . .

Yup, right there on the metal neck:


And if that's not enough proof, even the wood handle is engraved . . .

This marking is a little more worn, but still easily discernible.

But wait! There's more!

Being the history buff I am, I wanted to learn more about this lowly implement of the fireman's trade. As much as I love history and time-travel, I often maintain that we live in the best time today because we can pick and choose the best from the past (not to mention we have better healthcare) - and how cool is it that I can do a quick search on my phone for "Ames shovel" and find a pdf scan of the complete 1926 Ames Co. catalog(?!)

Thanks Stonehill College! Click here for the catalog.
So I thumbed through the virtual pages, looking for a #2 shovel that had the "I-D-L" handle and the welded blade - a few minutes later, I found it:

"No. 2 Square Point Steel Edge Plain Back Shovel equipped with I-D-L Dee Handle"

The piece-de-resistance? It's an Adams(!) I don't know if The Elf knew about that little tidbit going in, but it certainly underscores the little Christmas Miracle he performed.

I can't wait to (re)inaugurate my "new" shovel and give it, once again, a taste of bituminous coal and hot fire. I still can't believe something like this even still exists, much less that I am now the proud steward of such an amazing artifact. Thank you Randy for such an awesome and thoughtful gift! It's obvious that your skills as a Christmas Magician are formidable - Santa himself should be worried to have such competition!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Saybrook Strangely Shorting

Things have been busy around the Valley Line lately, but mostly with more Christmas-y things rather than model railroad-y things. Fortunately though, Randy, Bill and Tom were able to come over Friday for a work session where we mocked up the Shailerville Bridge scene as a prelude to figuring out how to plot East Haddam down to Essex. The skinny is that we disconnected and moved the Essex/Deep River peninsula, and lowered it by 2" in order to accommodate foam construction rather than the more-traditional plywood subroadbed and riser construction I've done everywhere else. I'm still not totally comfortable with the change, but looking forward to trying a new technique to see if it works as good for me as it has for others. More on that in future posts.

And, also for a future post, I got a super cool present. But, like Christmas, you'll have to wait to hear about it . . .

While Bill and I were in the Shailerville Bridge area, Randy and Tom were shaking down ops on the Shoreline. It looks like the ops there are gonna be pretty cool, but may require some track changes. Also, there is still a bit of a shorting problem on the reverse loop, probably having to do with using a Frog Juicer as a reversing unit. Annoying, but at least operable.

But things seemed to get a lot worse on Sunday. All I wanted to do was have a train running around the Shoreline while I did some other work. My DL-109 wasn't running that great but I've had some good success running a graphite block over the rails, and that seemed to make things better. Until this:

I've never seen anything like this. The high-pitched buzzer/squeal you hear is the PSX circuit breaker indicating a short. Yup - what you're seeing is the train shorting, then resetting, then shorting again.

I can't figure out what the problem is. There was already a shorting issue on the reverse loop, but now this is happening everywhere. The only thing that's occurred to me is that - perhaps - some graphite powder is mucking up around the turnouts and the freightcar wheels are shorting out on them (graphite powder is conductive - that's kind of the point).

Sooo.... tonight I'm going to vacuum out the turnouts and spray them with some alcohol to clean them out. Hopefully that'll clear things up. In the meantime, any other idea what the problem may be? Does my theory sound likely?

Friday, December 4, 2015

NCE Internal Antenna Modification - DONE!

Seems I ended November kinda like I started. Back on Nov. 2, I mentioned I was going to try and modify my NCE Wireless ProCab with an internal antenna (so I could finally get rid of that eye-poking long whippy antenna). Well, during the last weekend of November, I finally got enough courage to do it. Pete mentioned on the way to Jim's house how nervy it was tear open a $200 piece of electronics and monkey around with it. I thanked him for the reminder and tried to forget he'd said anything - since I was already 1/2 way through the project at that point.

Tip: if you attempt this modification, it's probably best not to think about how much your ProCab cost. The good news: if you know how to de-solder as well as solder, and have some basic skills, this is a relatively easy modification to do. Just be sure to take your time - it isn't something you want to rush through.

And now that this little project is done, I can say that the operation was successful! Here's how I did it:

I used this step-by-step description as my guide:

Click to enlarge - you can also get it directly at this link.
I also wanted to add a switch to allow me to turn off the battery pack. I don't know if it's a general problem with these throttles, but it seems to me that batteries left inside will discharge pretty quickly if left sitting - even with the throttle/DCC system turned off. For the longest time, I've just removed the batteries at the end of each ops session - but that's become a pain. So I figured, while I was inside anyway, "in for a penny in for a pound." Might as well add a switch as well.

Step 1 - Disassemble cab

Pretty straightforward - unscrew the 9 screws on the back, separate the front & back of the housing, and carefully disconnect the wireless PCB (which is attached to the back half) from the main PCB (which is attached to the front half). It's a long multi-wire plug (ribbon connector). Use a small screwdriver to gently pry it side-to-side, if needed (you don't want to pull the wires out of the plug). Set the front half of the housing aside in a safe place.

Step 2 - Remove the radio board and remove the antenna boss completely

Removing the radio PCB was actually pretty difficult. It's attached with two layers of double-sided foam tape. And has been that way since at least 2003(!). After trying to pry it off, and failing, I used a hair dryer to warm the back of the housing (you don't want to risk heating the PCB's solder joints too much, so don't blow directly on the PCB). Alternating between applying warmth and gently prying, I eventually ended up with this:

Wireless/Radio PCB removed.
I scraped off the tape and cleaned up where it had been. The "antenna boss" is that threaded part next to my finger in the photo above. Remember you can always click the images for a larger view.

Now, I don't have any pics to show how I removed the antenna boss - I was too focused on doing it without making any mistakes. There are 3 points at which the boss is soldered to the PCB. The trick is to heat all three points up at the same time so you can (again, gently) pry the boss off the board. Having a third hand helps hold things while you work on them. I place a folded-up piece of paper in the jaws of the alligator clip to protect the PCB while it's being held and I used a pair of needlenose pliers to grab the boss and remove it as soon as the soldering iron heated the solder enough to loosen it.

Step 3 - Clean up the excess solder

I used solder removal wick to clean up the solder from the three soldering pads on the PCB where the antenna boss had been. I readily admit my success with this wick is pretty inconsistent. I'd love to hear any trick/tips for working with it.

Step 4 - Cut a wire (solid or stranded, around 20 to 18 gauge, 9 1/4 long

I used 18ga stranded wire reasoning that the extra thickness and the extra "surface area" of the strands would give me my best shot at radio connectivity. Plus, it'll be easier to thread through holes later (see step 8).

Step 5 - Strip the end about 1/4

After I stripped one end of the wire, I twisted the strands tight and tinned them with some solder.

Step 6 - Solder this end to the MIDDLE trace of the boss

Recall back in Step 2 that there are 3 soldering pads where the antenna boss was soldered. You want to solder the new wire to the middle pad. If you've tinned the wire as directed in Step 5, attaching should just be a matter of pressing the wire to the pad with the tip of the soldering iron. Be sure that there is no solder bridging between the 3 soldering pads.

At this point, your PCB should look like this. Note the new white wire soldered to the middle trace
At this point, your PCB should look like the photo above. Note the new white wire soldered to the middle soldering pad where the antenna boss used to be.

Next, I thought this would be a good time to add the switch, so I diverged from the step-by-step instructions at this point.

I used the smallest SPST toggle (single pole single throw - just a regular ol' switch) I could find at Radio Shack (part# 275-0645) to interrupt the circuit between the battery pack and the PCB. I soldered a piece of scrap red wire (20ga solid) to the center terminal of the switch and soldered the other end to the end of the red wire coming from the battery pack (remembering to put on some shrink tubing before making the connection). I then drilled a 7/36" hole through the top of the housing and secured the switch. The photo below shows the result at this point . . .

Next, I cut two new pieces of double-sided foam tape and applied them to the back of the PCB so I could secure the PCB back in place...

then I soldered another scrap piece of red wire to the other switch terminal, as below:

With the switch installed, it was time to finish up the antenna mod.

Step 7 - Drill holes to fit the wire in the stiffener tabs along the side of the cab back

I think I used a 3/36" drill, but just use a drill bit that will be just slightly larger than the diameter of the wire you're using.

Step 8 - Feed the wire down through the holes then buttom up the cab

Pretty self-explanatory, but at this point you'll discover the virtue of using stranded wire. It threads through those holes much more easily.

Before we "button up the cab" though, let's see where we are at this point:

A few quick notes:

  1. The switch has been turned 90 degrees in its hole and now lies "flat" like the PCB. I found this to be necessary in order to clear the PCB that's contained in the other half of the housing. The two halves won't fit together otherwise.
  2. The 2nd/short red wire is trimmed to fit into the screw terminal on the PCB and the black wire is reattached as well.
  3. ****Speaking of that 2nd red wire - if you look closely, you'll see I wired it wrong. I could've swore the wires were "red-black" left to right when I disconnected the originals. But the throttle didn't work when I tested it. I opened up another throttle and saw it was wired "black-red". Then my mistake was obvious - Turns out, the idiot (me) failed to see the little "BLK" printed next to the left terminal(!!) Yup, I'd gotten the wires backwards. The photo above shows them hooked up incorrectly -  and if you look closely, you'll see the "BLK"  Suffice it to say, I swapped the wires and everything worked fine.

And here's the throttle in service on the layout. To switch the wireless (batteries) "ON," I have to flip the toggle to the left, as above. Also note the small square of electrical tape covering the old antenna boss hole.

I'm pretty happy with how this turned out. I'll still be curious as to how long the batteries will last, but I totally expect their lives to be much longer now that I can switch them off. And - best of all - I no longer have to contend with that whippy antenna (and risk poking somebody's eye out).

If you're like me and have one of the older NCE wireless throttles and you want to get rid of the antenna, I hope you'll give this modification a try. Using the step-by-step instructions provided by the ncedcczendesk along with my photos & notes, you shouldn't have any problems. If you do try this modification, be sure to let me know how it's working for you!

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Valley Local on Video(!)

Since Trevor put the bug in my ear the other day, I decided to try shooting some video on my layout. Credit (and many thanks) goes to Bill for the scenery & structures. At least I can lay claim to the trackwork. And the freight cars.

I hope you'll enjoy these short vignettes despite the fact that they're shot freehand with my iPhone (maybe Santa can help me out with that) and they're, um, color - a rarity in the Autumn of 1947.

So, without further ado, I think I hear a train comin' . . .

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Simplicity of a Stolen Hour

Most of us typically wedge in hobby time sometime after dinner and on weekends when possible, but occasionally I can steal some time from the wee small hours of the morning. When I was bike racing, I'd typically wake up a bit after 5am to train and I still occasionally see that time of day now that I'm, um, "retired" from racing. But not often.

An exception to my general rule of "sleeping in" (heh, til 6:30) occurred one recent morning. I'd woken up at my old usual time, and was - inexplicably - wide awake. The responsible thing to do (health-wise) would have been to get out on my bike, or at least go for a run. But the responsible - or at least much more fun - thing to do, was to go down in the basement. And not to get on the treadmill or trainer.

I took advantage of the "found" hour to glue down some track at the Saybrook Wye and lay some roadbed "north to Essex" (on the liftout).

I've seen folks using cans of soup and vegetables to hold their track down. You can use bottled water as well.

Tacking down the roadbed to Essex.

I've written before how important it is to have little projects ready and available to tackle so you can always make some progress on your layout, no matter how incremental or small an amount of time you have available. And sometimes you can do one of these simple projects during some time you've stolen from other things (like sleep, apparently).

Cheshire Branch Videos

Just a quick post to point you to the two videos I took during my visit to Jim Dufour's Cheshire Branch railroad. Keep in mind that they don't really do the layout justice, but - although shot freehand - the image stabilizer did a good job of keeping things steady.

You can see more (and better) videos here (many of which were posted by FlyingYankee59 (who is much better at this than I).

But for a quick taste, click on the vids below - Enjoy!

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Admiration as Motivation: Jim Dufour's Cheshire Branch

Thou shalt not covet.
Exodus 20:17

During this time of Thanksgiving, we take time to be grateful for all we have and to appreciate all the little and big ways we've been blessed. Long-time readers of this blog have seen me go on (and on) about how wonderful it is to live where I do, how nice a space I have, how loving and supportive my wife is. And all of that is - and continues to be - true. But they say confession is good for the soul. So here goes:

I want Jim DuFour's model railroad.

Jim's layout depicts the Cheshire Branch of the Boston & Maine Railroad c. 1947-1951 and is one of the best examples of how a model railroad can be used to transport us to a different time and place. It has everything I want in a model railroad: great scenery - true to the geography of the places modeled, flawless operation - even of finicky brass steam engines, and the highest fidelity to all aspects of this particular section of the B&M, from the signal types used to the particular type of guardrail used along Route 12 in southern New Hampshire. And he's done it all by modeling 5 consecutive towns in a fraction of the space I have available. His exhaustive research and obvious skill have created a world where it doesn't take much imagination at all to believe you've taken a time machine and landed right in the middle of a Philip Hastings photograph. Except better - you can interact with the world Jim's created. And it's in color.

Jim and I met at the NE ProtoMeet a couple years ago and discovered right away that we were on almost-identical paths modeling wise - the only difference  being that he's modeling a B&M branchline and I'm modeling a New Haven RR branchline. Well, that and he's obviously much more talented and further along than I am. But it's been really cool to discover how similar our mindsets are and what we want to accomplish with our modeling.

Since I'd been a distant admirer of his layout for a while, I took a chance when I heard that he was having an open house and all-but-invited myself over, dropping Bill's name (hoping that would help rather than hurt :). I needn't have worried though, he graciously extended an invitation to visit and see the layout in person.

I took almost 10 rolls of film 240 pictures while I was there - everything from the vintage 1948 calendar, to the fastclock control panel, to - of course - the layout itself. Most of my shots were for my reference (his State Line area looks almost the spittin' image of much of the Valley Line, especially the southern end), but I got a few that are worth sharing here. I'm sure others got much better shots than I did, and I hope they'll mention so and give us a link in the comments. That way we can all appreciate Jim's accomplishment.

There's a fine line between inspiration and discouragement. All too often, my reach exceeds my grasp and I've sometimes wondered if I've taken on too much. But seeing the Cheshire Branch in person reminds me of what can be accomplished and that motivates me to keep going with my own effort.

In the meantime though, please pardon my occasional covetousness.

And enjoy this little taste of southern New Hampshire in the summer of 1948...

You come onto the layout from staging at State Line. I've never been to State Line, but if the accuracy of the rest of his layout is any indication, this scene is a spot-on model of the real location. But - to me - it looks the epitome of so much of the New Haven's Valley Line that I took probably 2 dozen photos here alone.

Symbol freight headed out of State Line westbound (compass northwest toward Bellows Falls, VT).

The next town on the line is Fitzwilliam, NH

Westbound freight rounding the bend, approaching Troy.

Local freight stopped at the Troy station for orders.

Later, near dusk, symbol freight BX-1 westbound through Troy, NH

Westbound with Mt. Monadnock in the background


The cuts at Troy Ledges

After Troy Ledges, the next station is Webb. The eastbound local is waiting on the siding.

Just west of Webb 

I hope you've enjoyed this tiny taste of the Cheshire Branch. Be sure to click the links in the text above for additional photos and videos.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Wordless Wednesday #95 - Happy Thanksgiving!

Over the River and Through the Woods....
Valley Local carrying passengers southbound
over Shailerville Bridge, Haddam, CT

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Control Panel Wiring

Now that the control panel is all up and mounted, here's how I wired it up. . .

I needed to power 14 switch machines, including 2 crossovers which would have to be wired together so that they would throw together. The control panel would be on a wall on the other side of the (small) room from the layout & machines - about 8 feet away "as the crow flies" - but as it turned out anywhere from 25-36' away "by wire." In order to keep things cheap economical, I used a 500' spool of plain brown 2-gang (2-wire) lamp cord to provide the power from the panel to each machine. Each wire is also 18 gauge, so should be large enough to carry enough current that distance without too much voltage drop.

In the above photo you see the terminal strip between the machines and the bus wires going to the panel. The wires from the machines come up from the bottom while the wires to the panel go out through the top. I wired one machine at a time, attaching a 2-gang wire to the machine, labeling it, and running/connecting it to the terminal strip (also labeled). Click here more detail on wiring the machines.

I ran what turned out to be 25' of wire from the terminal strip, up & over the door between the staging yard room (shop area) and the layout (as above) . . .

. . . then punched through the doorframe and bottom of the stairway . . .

. . . under the stairs and up along the back of the stairway footer wall . . .

. . . to the back of the wall where the panel would be mounted. And then repeated the process 12 times (thanks to Pete for LOTS of help with this part of the project!) In the photo above, you can see that each wire is labeled - I ran one at a time in order to keep track of them all (I couldn't expect to have found 12 different colored wires - especially being color-blind!).

So that concluded all the wiring between the layout and the panel location. Now, back to the panel itself. . .

You may recall my (what turned out to be a minor) debacle whereby I discovered that the panel was too thick for the toggles to be mounted. As you can see above (and read about here), I used a spade bit to rout out where the toggles would go. The pic above shows the first wire of the power bus installed (the green wire going right-to-left with insulation removed where the wires to the toggles would be attached), the first toggle installed, and connection to the first pair of LEDs. Click here for details on how I wired the LEDs to indicate switch machine direction (polarity).

To keep everything neat and organized - and to make it MUCH easier to connect all my lamp cords later - I installed another terminal strip inside the control panel cabinet. Wires from the toggle to the switch machines get connected to this terminal strip. You can also see in this pic the other power bus (the red wire) and the remaining connections (short wires going from the power bus to the toggles), as well as wires to the terminal strip and LEDs.

Here's a closeup view of all the wiring completed. I still have no idea why I drilled that 13th toggle hole - or why I took the time to rout it out - when it wasn't needed. Oh well.

Here's a closeup of one of the LED pairs wired up. Notice the resistor joined to the anode (long leg) of one bulb & the cathode (short leg) of the other bulb. The remaining legs are joined as well (and of course all the connections are soldered). Wired this way, one bulb will light when the toggle is switched one way, and the other bulb will light when the toggle is switched the other way. For further explanation of this wiring, click here.

I've made mention of the power bus a couple times already. Power comes from the DC terminals of an old 12v MRC power pack I picked up at a local hobby shop for $5.

I used lamp cord (again, since it has the two wires) to go between the power pack and the two 14ga bus wires inside the control panel cabinet which run along the length of the panel (see above). The lamp cord is connected to the bus wires via two screws (poor man's terminal strip) . . .

. . . but the other end of the lamp cord is connected to a SOCKET (female part of the plug).

Attach the plug (male part) to the wire coming from the power pack. This arrangement allow me to easily connect & disconnect the power pack to/from the panel. But you want to be sure and use the SOCKET on the panel-side so you (or anybody else) are never tempted (or able) to plug the panel directly into a wall socket, via an extension cord or otherwise. I don't even want to think of the FLASH!!! that would result(not to mention the smoke, and possibly fire).

Speaking of fire hazards, note also that despite the heavy gauge lamp cord and such, there is NO house current going through any of these wires or into the panel. All of the power comes through the powerpack/transformer and is only 12v (& 1 amp) max when it gets to the panel.

And here's an overview shot of the completed panel wiring. Power comes in through a 1/4" hole drilled through the bottom right corner (and in turn comes from the power pack as discussed earlier) and goes through the bus wires to the toggles. The toggles simultaneously control polarity to the switch machines and alternate lighting of the LEDs. All the wires you saw fanned out under the stairs earlier are coming through a large hole drilled through the back of the panel and through the wall and are connected to the terminal strip. Again, each wire is labeled to keep track of them all (big thanks to Tom for passing them to me from inside the wall!)

And here's the panel in-service above the Agent-Operator's desk. I'm really proud of how it all came out - especially since having it at all was the result of a (mostly) off-hand remark I made way back when I was first starting the Saybrook scene - "Gee, wouldn't it be cool to have all these turnouts remotely controlled by a tower operator just like the prototype - we could put a panel above the operator's desk over there. We'd "just" have to run some wires to it - should be easy."

Well, I wouldn't say it was exactly "easy" but once I thought it through it was fairly easy work - just a lot of it. I had a couple setbacks along the way, but those turned out to be pretty minor all things considered. And the result is - to my mind - the proof that the work was definitely worthwhile.

I can't wait to get things cleaned up and run some trains through Saybrook Junction - S.S. 102!