6 options for removing paint from model trains

It’s not uncommon to find model trains with unwanted paint on them, or original paint that’s damaged beyond the point of being able to rehabilitate it. Fortunately, the price is usually low on these trains, and there are numerous household chemicals that can strip the paint off these trains and give them a fresh start.

These tricks also work with other toys and plastic models, but while some of these methods seem to be unknown in the train community, some of them are very well known among collectors who restore vintage plastic model kits. This is an example where knowledge across disciplines can be very valuable, so I hope the car and airplane modelers won’t mind me sharing their secrets.

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Creative sourcing for O and S scale train layout figures

Hobby shops frequently carry a decent selection of figures for O and S gauge layouts, but if you look at the magazines long enough, you start to see almost all of them have the same figures–and they’re probably the same figures the shop near you sells as well.

There are ways to get a better variety of figures so your layout can have something distinctive about it–and the good news is you can save some money doing it as well.

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Tips for using Dept. 56 and Lemax-type buildings with Lionel trains

A frequent question I see regards the proper scale of snow village-type buildings, like Department 56 and Lemax, and whether they’re suitable for use with Lionel electric trains.

The answer is that their scale varies, but the buildings work very effectively with traditional Lionel trains, or, for that matter, 1:64 S scale American Flyer trains. Many hobbyists have built elaborate winter-themed layouts using these buildings. Typically the scale runs from anywhere from 1:64 to 1:48, with lots of selective compression to make the buildings fit an approximate footprint. The very same thing is true of the Lionel trains of the 1950s, so, intentional or not, they end up being a pretty good match.

The figures sold with these buildings, on the other hand, tend to be much larger–very close to 1:24 scale. This discrepancy bothers some people more than others.

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Using s-video gear with Commodore monitors

Commodore and Atari used an early implementation of s-video on their home computers in order to show off their computers’ advanced-for-their-time graphics. Many monitors sold for those computers featured compatibility with this feature, which was called “separated” or “y/c” composite or at the time. JVC called the feature “s-video” when they started using it on their SVHS camcorders starting in 1987, and JVC’s name stuck. Other companies followed suit, and s-video and the mini DIN plug became an industry standard.

Commodore and Atari used a different connector than JVC did, but all it takes to use s-video gear with those old monitors is a cable, which you can make with about $10 worth of parts from Radio Shack. Read more

Want to cut your heating bill? Want to be more comfortable? Shrink-wrap your windows

I spent the afternoon putting plastic film on my windows. It was supposed to be a short project, and I do get better at it every year, but it still ended up taking about an hour per window.

I think it’s time well spent. According to one article I read, it can cut your heating bills by 30 percent. That’s some serious money.

The film comes in kits that you can buy at hardware or discount stores. The two brands I see most often are Frost King and 3M. I like 3M better–I think the tape holds better and comes off more easily at the end of the season, and I think the film is a little bit higher quality–but I buy the kits in the spring at a steep discount and store them until winter, so I don’t really get to pick and choose much. And I don’t think the 3M is superior enough to be worth paying full price to get.

I have 10 windows. Four are newer and more efficient, so I don’t put film on those. Maybe I should. Five of the others have those awful aluminum frames from the 1960s, and many of them are single-pane. I’m going to replace those windows in a year or two, but in the meantime insulating them makes them leak heat considerably less, and it’s cheap. Buying off season, it probably costs me $1 per window.

I have another trick to save money. I tried this out two years ago, when I didn’t have a job and I didn’t have any money. I ran out of film and I still had windows to do, but I had saved my scraps. So I taped some scraps together with clear packing tape (a big roll costs $1 at Dollar Tree) to make a piece that fit one of the remaining windows. It worked fine. It didn’t look good, but at the time I was making $400 a week doing odd jobs so I didn’t care about appearances.

This year I wasn’t going to do that. I had so much film, I was going to have some left over to do one of the smaller windows next year. But the piece for my sliding glass door was considerably smaller than the box said, and of course by the time I realized it, I’d already cut the piece and ended up with something that covered approximately half the door. Worse yet, it was 8 pm and all the stores were closed, so going and buying a new kit, at full price, wasn’t an option. My Scottish blood probably would have staged a revolt at that, but the option wasn’t on the table.

I can justify it another way too, though. Oil is at $100 per barrel now. Do I need to consume more oil just to avoid having seams in my sliding glass door? I think I’ll save some money and conserve a small amount of oil and live with the seams.

One way I found to reduce the seams is to mount the scraps on the window as tightly as possible, then put packing tape over the joint. I used to lay the pieces on the floor and tape them together before mounting, but I think taping the mounted pieces ends up looking better, and the process goes faster. Surprisingly, when I shrink the film with the hair dryer, it doesn’t seem to have much negative effect on the cheap dollar-store packing tape I use.

Some people skip the kits altogether and just buy the tape (3M’s tape is available separately), and either buy a roll of shrinkwrap film from a packing supply store or a big roll of food-grade film from Costco and use that. That may be an even cheaper option than buying the kits off-season, and it’s certainly more convenient. I don’t know what those rolls cost, but I would think one of those would last at least three or four years, if not 10. Plus there would be very little waste.

At any rate, I never sat down and did the math, but I know this fall ritual ends up saving me money. (All I remember was that my gas bill was dramatically lower the first year I did this, without making any other changes.) If the potential really is 30 percent, I think I’ll do the newer windows next weekend to try to squeeze out a little more.

Setting up the tree and the train

Although some of the people in our neighborhood had their Christmas stuff up well in advance of Thanksgiving, my wife and I did the traditional thing, setting the tree up the day after Thanksgiving.We use a pre-lit artificial tree. Growing up, I remember stringing lights on the tree and taking them back down was always the most tedious part of the job, so I decided that if someone didn’t invent it before me, I’d invent the pre-lit Christmas tree.

Someone else did, of course. The next time I get a great idea I need to move on it more quickly.

The angel wouldn’t light, so I got out the spare strand of lights, yanked one bulb, and started yanking bulbs out of the angel and plugging them into the strand to see if I could find the bad one. That got tedious, so I eventually decided to try the fuses. I swapped in the two spares off the spare strand, after checking the rating of course, and the angel came back to life.

The Christmas village is almost entirely secondhand. My wife found five Department 56 buildings–three houses, a church, and a store–at a yard sale a couple of years ago. Last year she found a secondhand bookstore, which she gave me for my birthday. For figures, we use the Cobblestone Corners figures from Dollar Tree, which are sized more appropriately for the buildings than the giant figures Department 56 sells. Plus, they come three or four to a package for a dollar, instead of selling for three or four dollars apiece.

Rather than use the big, clunky lights that come with the buildings, I lit them using a string of LED lights. They run cool and use almost no power. Once warm white LEDs become easier to find (the strand I have is a very cold blue light) I have half a mind to figure out how to convert the tree itself to LEDs. For lighting buildings, the strand of LED lights takes up less space, uses one plug instead of five, and uses less power.

For the train, I put down a simple loop of Lionel Fastrack. In the past I’ve done a dogbone with a reverse loop on each end, but that takes up a lot of space. A loop of Fastrack can take up as little as three feet by four feet.

The train is short and simple–two boxcars and a caboose, all 1950s vintage. The boxcars are Marx and American Flyer bodies I bought for a couple of dollars at a train show. I made replacement bases for them out of basswood from a hobby shop, and screwed a couple of cheap Lionel trucks with fixed couplers onto the base using wood screws, with a fender washer in between and a little bit of white grease between the truck and the washer. The total cost of each car was less than $6. From an operational standpoint the fixed couplers are a liability, but for running around a tree they’re ideal because they won’t come uncoupled. The caboose is a lighted Southern Pacific style caboose I got off eBay as part of a damaged goods lot. When I got it, the only problem with it was that the bulbs had some out of their sockets.

The locomotive is a Lionel 2026 that belonged to Dad. I had it professionally refurbished in 2003, so it probably runs better now than it did 50 years ago.

All in all, it was a nice way to spend the evening after Thanksgiving. We had half a mind to drive downtown to see the new old-style window displays at the downtown Macy’s (formerly Famous-Barr), but we’ll save that for another night.

I got lucky and scored some cheap figures yesterday

Now and then I hear about people scoring bags of figures suitable for O gauge trains at dollar stores.

I finally became one. Here’s what to look for.Most dollar stores have bags of toy soldiers. Soldiers are the most common thing but sometimes you can score policemen, firemen, construction workers, cowboys and indians. Far and away the most common size is 54mm (roughly 2 inches), which works out to about 1:32 scale, and that’s much too tall for me. Whether that works for anyone else isn’t for me to decide–you’ll just have to see how it looks with your vehicles and trains. Personally, when I see figures that are 8 scale feet tall I think of the Nephilim, so I avoid them.

A few times I’ve found figures that were closer to 3/4 of an inch tall. Those would actually be great for an HO scale layout. It seems to me that I’ve found 1-inch figures (22-25mm) once or twice before too. I didn’t get any and I’m kicking myself. Those would be perfect for an S gauge (1:64 scale) layout, or for use on a larger-scale layout for forced perspective.

The best figures for O gauge are 40mm tall, but those are relatively uncommon. Many more figures are made in 45mm size, which is about 1 3/4 inches. That’s seven feet tall in O scale (they’re actually intended to be about 1:36 scale) but for most people, 45mm is probably close enough.

Yesterday I found soldiers, policemen, and firefighters in 45mm size, 53 to a package, for a dollar. I picked up a package of policemen because I figured it’s easier to make excuses for a police-heavy population than any of the other choices, and I figured police officers would be relatively easy to turn into other types of people. Besides, it’s hard to argue with 53 figures for a dollar, even if they’re all going to end up looking like Brad Garrett. For a dollar I can paint up one of each pose to yield six usable figures and then figure out what I’ll do with the 41 leftovers. I paid $12.99 for a box of 32 civilian figures about a year ago.

The figures you find in dollar stores are cheap Chinese recasts of figures from defunct companies such as Marx and Ideal. When the companies liquidated, the molds were sold, and those that survived ended up over there. Since the molds are in most cases approaching 50 years old, the detail isn’t quite what it once was, but we do have much better plastics today. And did I mention it’s hard to argue with a price of 2 cents per figure?

I don’t know if it helps any, but the package I bought was marked Greenbrier International, Inc., and it came from Dollar Tree. There is no other useful information on the package, and the figures are simply stamped "China" on the undersides of the base.

Who knows, I may go back for another package or two tomorrow. Five bucks would score me 265 figures, total. It takes me about 30 minutes to paint one, so that ought to keep me out of trouble for a long time.

Cheap source of parts for projects, electronic or otherwise

I went to Dollar Tree today and picked up some of the street lights for their Cobblestone Corners holiday village series. It’s a cheap way to get some parts for projects, electronic or otherwise.

Where else will you get a battery pack for two AAs–complete with two-position sliding on/off switch–some bits of wire (22 gauge?), and up to three grain of wheat bulbs for a buck?Now I admit, I bought them because the lights are sized about right for my Lionel train layout and the style invokes the turn-of-the-previous-century look that I like. I’ll be snipping the wires at the battery pack and wiring the streetlights in series to a transformer. The multitude of battery packs will go into my parts bin, and I’m sure I’ll be fishing those back out and using them for odd projects for years to come.

All of the mentioned parts have applications for electronics projects as well, and any one of those parts is likely to cost more at Radio Shack than the whole village accessory. So what if you don’t use all of the parts? Keep the leftover parts in used peanut cans. You’ll use ’em someday, and you’ll be glad you had them on hand and didn’t have to run someplace to get them.