Cleaning electrical contacts with Everclear

Cleaning electrical contacts with Everclear

When I was 19 or 20, I paid a visit to my old grade school to do some computer repair. My fifth-grade teacher dropped in, saw me cleaning up the contacts on a circuit board, and asked why I wasn’t using Everclear. Cleaning electrical contacts with Everclear is, at least, a practice people talk about a lot.

Well, I couldn’t legally buy Everclear yet, for one thing. But let’s talk about why Everclear is good for cleaning electrical contacts but there are other things that can be better.

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Marx 999 repair and service

Marx 999 repair and service

I had a Marx 999 that didn’t run well when I pulled it out of storage. When pushing it along the track a few times didn’t yield any measurable improvement, I decided I’d better take it apart and give it a thorough cleaning.

In this case, I worked on a Marx 999, but everything I did applies to any other O gauge train Marx made except for the very late 490 locomotives, whose motors don’t seem to have been designed to let you do any more than replace the brushes.

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Fight voltage drop with copper anti-seize lubricant

If you have issues with your trains slowing down on the far reaches of your layout–and judging from my website hits, many people do–there are a couple of things to do about it. The first thing is to run additional feeder wires. Going by the book, you should go every third track section. Do I push it a little? Sure. Sometimes I can get away with a little less than that, and sometimes every three sections isn’t quite enough.

But over time, the conductivity between track sections can wane a bit, as moisture and oxidation creep in. Coating track pins with copper anti-seize lubricant keeps the moisture out, which keeps oxidation out, which makes the layout more reliable, especially if the layout is outdoors, in the garage, or in the basement. Read more

Fixing track that gets hot at the track joints

I saw a question about a Fastrack layout getting hot at a track joint. That’s a conductivity issue causing voltage drop, which in turn causes the heat. While not likely to be dangerous, it’s a sign of inefficiency and can lead to other problems, such as the train slowing down at some parts of the layout. Poor conductivity also causes motors to run hotter than they should, which can eventually damage the armature.

I can think of two fixes, none of them especially expensive or time-consuming. And although this question was about Lionel Fastrack, it can happen with other makes of track too, and even other scales.
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Save money on cables by not buying at retail

I’m ashamed to say I own one Monster cable. Hopefully if I tell you I bought it at a garage sale for $2, I’ll regain your respect. But there’s an easier way to save money on cables than buying at garage sales.

Unless you need it immediately, there’s no reason whatsoever to buy Monster and other overpriced cables at big-box consumer electronics stores. Profit margins are really thin on most electronics, even the big-ticket items, and they use the cables to make up for that. That’s the reason nobody includes cables in the box.

You’re always better off ordering cables online. Then you can get that $20 cable for much closer to its wholesale price, which will be single digits. If that.

Places like Newegg.com and Mwave.com sometimes run specials on certain cables (dealnews.com is a good place to look) but if you can’t snag a special, check pricing at Monoprice.com and, if you don’t mind futzing around with a wonky search engine and waiting a few days extra for shipping straight from Hong Kong, Dealextreme.com. For that matter, good old Ebay usually has a good selection of inexpensive cables too.

For example, I priced a 6-foot HDMI cable. At the home of blue shirts and extended warranties, you’ll pay $13 for a low-end, house brand cable. A “premium” house brand cable will run $40, and a Monster cable runs an insane $99.

There’s no reason to buy any premium HDMI cable. But even $13 is too much, considering something virtually identical will set you back 3 bucks from Monoprice, and about $6 from Dealextreme. Generally speaking, if you’re ordering one cable, Dealextreme may end up being cheaper. If you’re ordering multiple cables, Monoprice will probably be cheaper.

And if you think that price differential is crazy, try pricing Ethernet cables. At Monoprice, Ethernet cables are cheaper than garage sale prices.

There’s little, if any, truth to the claims you find on Monster packaging, especially when you’re dealing with digital signals. The only claim that has any validity is that gold oxidizes more slowly than other metals, but guess what? I have cables from the 1980s that still work just fine, including the cable connecting the very keyboard I’m typing on now. If they were oxidized, unplugging them and plugging them back in is usually enough to knock the oxidation off and get them working again. Failing that, a blast of De-Oxit will do the trick.

I keep a can of De-Oxit on hand, but I can’t think of a time that I’ve needed to use it on a cable. Keep in mind I live in St. Louis, and if there’s one thing St. Louis is known for, it’s humidity. If my cables can go 25 years here without getting oxidized, yours can too.

Recapturing the charm of Dad’s Lionel train

I unboxed Dad’s old Lionel train Monday night. They don’t make them like that anymore.

Dad’s train led a rough life. My investigative reporting skills tell me he got the train sometime between 1949 and 1952, and then sometime after 1953 he got a new locomotive and cars. And then sometime in the 1960s, the trains ended up in a box. I remember him telling me it came out a few times in the 1970s for Christmas, but most of my memories of Dad’s train are four big pieces of plywood with rusty track mounted on it, sitting in the garage next to a stack of repurposed liquor boxes containing train parts.

Finally, when I was in the fourth or fifth grade, my incessant pestering paid off and the train found a new home in the basement. Dad and I plugged the track back together, and Dad wired the transformer. Then Dad produced two locomotives out of one of the boxes. Dad’s fanciest locomotive didn’t work at all. The smaller locomotive sputtered and sparked when he put it on the track. That was more than the fancy one did. Dad’s answer to everything mechanical was WD-40, so he went back up to the garage, got the can off the top of the gun safe (there was always a can of WD-40 on top of Dad’s gun safe), came back down, and blasted the locomotive with several spurts of the tinkerer’s favorite. (Incidentally, for those of you here seeking advice on trying to get an old Lionel train to run, this isn’t a good idea.) This time, when Dad put it on the track, the train produced a lot more sparks and a lot more noise, and it even moved a little bit. He picked it back up and blasted it again, with similar results. I asked Dad why the WD-40 helped. He said it would lubricate the moving parts, but it’s also a conductor of electricity.

Dad eventually gave up and started paying more attention to the football game. I ran the train around the track a few times by hand. When I was in the fifth grade, this was more interesting to me than football. For that matter, it might still be more interesting to me than football. When I got bored with that, I decided to go over to the transformer and give the train some juice. The train hesitated, and it sure didn’t move fast, but it moved. I gave it some more juice, and it chugged its way around the track, gradually picking up more speed and creaking less. The more we ran it, the better it got. We started adding scenery. There wasn’t much of anything realistic about it, and Dad didn’t have much scenery short of a plastic diner and two train stations, but it was fun.

Well, we moved a couple more years later, and the train found itself back in boxes again. Eventually it made its way out of the boxes and into the new basement. If I remember right, this was Dad’s doing, and not mine. The second time around, Dad spent more time with the train than I did. But after I went off to college and my parents finished the basement, the train went back into boxes. After Dad died, the trains stayed in boxes in Mom’s basement. After I bought a house, one weekend the trains showed up in my basement, where they stayed for about a year, until this week.

What I found this week was a trio of dusty engines, three trailing tender cars, bits and pieces of scenery, one caboose, and a whole lot of rusty track. That was one more locomotive than I remembered and a lot fewer cars than I remembered. I suspect there’s still a box or two of train cars somewhere in Mom’s basement.

One of the locomotives was very clearly missing a few pieces. I set it aside. I recognized one of the others as the plain-Jane locomotive Dad and I first messed with. The other one was fancier. I took eight straight pieces and eight curved pieces and made a circle. One of the straight pieces had the contact piece for the transformer, so I connected the transformer with two pieces of wire. I put the fancy locomotive on the track, fired up the transformer, and recalled the episode from 17 years earlier.

I skipped the WD-40 this time. I didn’t have any, and the residue it leaves behind tends to attract dust, making the situation it was supposed to correct worse in the long run. I grabbed the other train. It was about as lively as I am first thing in the morning, but it made noise and it moved. I gave it a little push, and it moved even better.

Eventually I searched the Internet, and I consulted with Tom and his mechanically inclined sidekick Tim, and they suggested I clean the track with some 600-grit sandpaper to remove the oxidation. After doing that, both locomotives ran pretty well.

As for the engines, the first thing you want to do is use a soft brush to remove any dust you can find, both on the visible surfaces of the cars and locomotive but especially on the underside. The most common advice suggests a small, soft paintprush. I didn’t have one, so I ended up using an old soft-bristled toothbrush. That was fine, but you want to make sure it’s a soft-bristled one, such as an Oral-B. A paintbrush would definitely be gentler. The idea here is to get the dust off the equipment so it doesn’t find its way onto the track or, worse yet, inside the engine where it can gum up the gears and motor(s).

Next, use a light grease to lubricate the gears and a light machine oil to lubricate the other moving parts. I didn’t have any grease, but I have a little tube of oil I use to keep my electric razor working well, so I applied some of that to a toothpick and lubed some of the moving parts on the two engines. Honestly, I don’t know how much of a difference the oil made. It seems to me that just running the engines, pushing them around the track with power applied until they were able to move on their own, made a bigger difference than anything else I did.

If the only lubricant you have handy is WD-40, skip it. If you happen to have some compressed air, blasting some of that into the crevices after you’ve done a job with the brush probably will knock loose some more of the gunk that’s accumulated inside, but I wouldn’t bother unless the engine isn’t running well.

It doesn’t seem to take much to get a vintage Lionel working again.

There’s a train store on the way home from work that has a Lionel sign in the window. I stopped in on my way home tonight. I bought a very overpriced Lionel-branded maintenance kit–for $14.50 I got a little tube of oil, a little tube of grease, a bottle of some substance with the words “track cleaner” and “biodegradable” on the outside, and a pencil eraser. I bought it mostly for the directions on the back, and to hopefully help ensure that train store will be there a little bit longer.

Perusing the store and perusing the awesome Postwar Lionel Trains Library, I found out, not to my great surprise, that few of the pieces I’d unboxed were particularly rare. The only rarity was Dad’s caboose. That did surprise me. It wasn’t popular, so it wasn’t made very long, so now it attracts interest. Figures. But that’s how it always goes with collectibles.

The store had an elaborate Lionel layout in the front, with three trains and a level of detail I’m more used to seeing in HO- and N-gauge layouts. They used an aftermarket track with wooden ties and the middle rail painted black to make the notoriously unrealistic O-gauge track look much more like real track. The new locomotives had digitized sound effects and the whole layout operated by remote control. I have to admit, it was pretty impressive. But the cars and the engines looked cheaper and flimsier than Dad’s stuff made in the fifties.

“For $130 I can add sound effects to your old engine,” he said when I looked less impressed than most people probably are.

It sounded like a cool idea. But for now, I don’t think I want to mess with that. This set’s charm isn’t just about trains, and I’m not sure if jaw-dropping whiz-bang technology would enhance that charm or just cover it up.

A day of catching up

I might finally have reliable DSL. Gatermann and I spent a good part of the day cleaning up my phone wiring. The wiring appeared to have been done by someone who couldn’t make up his mind how he wanted to do it. Seeing as I had two jacks that didn’t work anyway, and I own exactly three telephones plus an answering machine, we pulled out a number of the runs altogether (the wires are still there, just not hooked up at the box). And we cleaned up some oxidation that had shown up on some of the lines that were there.
My DSL connection does seem to be more reliable as a result. We’ll see in time how it turns out, but I know the brief storm we had tonight would normally knock me off the ‘net, and I haven’t fallen off yet since we did the work.

We also rebuilt a system. I’ve been intending to rebuild this one for some time (I pulled the case out of storage months ago) but never got around to it. Anymore, it seems like it’s a lot more fun to mess with other people’s computer projects than with my own. Anyway, we pulled out the system that served up this web site up until about a year or so ago (a Celeron on one of the last of the AT motherboards, a socket 370 job from Soyo), removed it from the old Micron case I’d put it in, and we put it in a monster server case, a former Everex 486/33. It’s a really good-looking case–battleship gray with black drives. And it’s built like a battleship too–very heavy gauge steel. It was pretty funny when we pulled out the full AT motherboard that had been in there and installed the Soyo, which is even smaller than what we used to call baby AT. We installed my CD-RW and DVD-ROM drives and a few other bits and pieces, and… an ISA video card. Yes, I’m sick. I was out of PCI slots and I loaned the AGP video card for the system (a Radeon 7000) to Steve last week and won’t be able to meet up with him to get it back until Wednesday at the earliest. I am half tempted to go ISA for either the sound or network card for the time being in order to free a PCI slot for an Nvidia Riva 128 card I have kicking around. It would be a big improvement. The screen writes remind me of BBSing; the text comes onto the screen at a rate somewhere between what I remember 300 bps and 1200 bps looking like.

But then again, what I want this system for (primarily) is to do things like burn CDs, and I don’t need superfast video for that. And I don’t know that I’m going to be burning anything between now and then.

Yes, I know, catch-up days are terribly exciting to read about.

But somewhere around here I think I have some stuff I wrote last week and never posted. I’ll have to see if I can find it to post tomorrow.

Remember your first car?

The other night, the talk turned to first cars. And I sure remember mine.
“You miss it?”

No hesitation. “Oh yeah.”

I don’t remember writing any poetry about girls when I was in high school, but I remember writing a poem about my ’71 Plymouth Duster. You bet I miss it.

My mom and sister hated it. It was that gold color that was popular in the ’70s that didn’t take to oxidation very well, so by the time 1990 rolled around, it looked a lot less gold and a lot more like… something else. I saw beyond that, into this car’s soul. And believe me, it had soul.

It had manual brakes and manual steering. I hated power brakes and steering. With manual brakes and steering, I felt more in control. Plus it meant I got a workout driving to school. Real cars make you buff when you drive them.

Air conditioning? Yeah, it had that 2-55 kind. Two windows down, 55 miles per hour on I-255.

It had a Slant-6 in it. A Slant-6 is the perfect engine for a 16-year-old because it usually didn’t come off the line very quickly and it didn’t have a high top speed. That Duster’s top speed was probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 MPH. Slant-6s were known for being good truck engines that didn’t break, not high performers. The classic Mopar muscle cars people remember had other engines in them.

But I still remember a Chevelle pulling up to me at a stoplight one day at the intersection of Gravois and I-270. He looked over at me, grinned, nodded, and revved his engine. I shot him a “whatever” look. The light turned green. He gunned it. I gunned it. And blew him away. I looked back and saw him pounding his steering wheel. I’ll bet money he had a lighter car, and we both knew he had the bigger engine. My Slant-6 just wanted to surprise me that day, I guess.

But that was its last hurrah. I didn’t have the Duster very long. It reached a point where it wouldn’t idle right so it was dying at stoplights and it developed steering problems to go along with it. The ’81 Plymouth Reliant that replaced it didn’t have half the character the Duster did. It may have replaced the Duster in my driveway, but it never replaced it in my heart, soul, or mind.

If I were ever out driving around and spotted a Duster for sale, I’d probably stop and buy it. You know, for old time’s sake.

What was your first car?

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