An O scale glossary of sorts

I just spent some time explaining some of the terminology that goes along with Lionel and other O gauge and O scale trains. That made me think maybe a definition of some terms might prove useful to somebody. So here’s an O scale glossary.

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Cars (as in vehicles) for train layouts

I was at Kmart today, and as I usually do, I wandered down the toy aisle on the off chance I might find some cars that might work on my train layout.

I did a lot better than I usually do–Jada and Maisto came through for me.I won’t talk about HO and N scale trains because for those scales, you can walk in to any hobby shop in the country and find pretty much anything you want. Us Lionel and American Flyer fans have it a lot tougher.

Lionel O scale is roughly 1:48. You won’t find 1:48 vehicles anywhere these days, but you can find 1:43 and 1:50. Some people fret that 1:43 is way too big, but sometimes you can hold up one maker’s 1:43 vehicle next to a similar 1:50 vehicle from another make and find they’re just about the same size. Maisto and New Ray are two makes of cars that size.

Lionel and Marx O27 is 1:64, more or less. Maisto, Jada, and Ertl make lots of 1:64 cars. Some Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars are close, but most are closer to 1:72, which is a bit small.

American Flyer O gauge trains made after 1937 are 1:64 scale, and all American Flyer S gauge trains are 1:64.

Since I run O27, I have lots of vehicles to choose from, but the problem is finding something era-appropriate. Contemporary vehicles are no problem to find, but if you want something old, it’s hard to find much other than a ’57 Chevy. Well, you can find a handful of late ’50s cars of various makes, but it tends to lean towards the late ’50s, and from looking at the stuff in the diecast aisle, you would think Ford and GM were the only two companies making cars in the ’50s. Want a Studebaker or a Hudson or (gasp) a Dodge? Good luck.

Of course I had to make things more difficult. I like really old trains, so a ’57 Chevy isn’t exactly going to cut it. I need 1930s and 1940s cars.

Maisto just happens to be offering a 1:64 ’36 Ford Coupe as part of its G Ridez series. It has homey-ized rims and thin tires, but other than that, it looks pretty stock. Hot Wheels has offered a ’36 Ford since I was a little kid, but it was always a hotrod.

Maisto also offers a ’37 Ford, but it has a prominently chopped roof

And Jada is offering a 1:64 ’39 Chevy Master Deluxe as part of its Dub City Old Skool line. Like the Maisto, it has thin tires and weird rims, but aside from that, it looks stock, and it’s black. This is a very nice car to have because it’s a late 1930s station wagon–a family car. It looks just like the cars you see families using in the movies set in the ’30s and ’40s. I hope I can find a few more of these because it’s the kind of ordinary car that will look natural even if I had several on the layout.

So if your toy train preferences lean towards American Flyer S gauge or Lionel or Marx O27, a trip down the toy aisle at your local Kmart or Target would probably be a good idea.

One thing I’ve learned is that I have to be patient. Usable cars are out there, but there may only be a handful of them issued every year–including anything Mattel releases under the Hot Wheels or Matchbox brands, undersize or not. I take what I can get. But improving the layout a little bit at a time over the course of years is part of the hobby’s appeal. At least it’s supposed to be.

Recapturing the charm of someone else’s dad’s American Flyer train

My buddy Todd brought over his dad’s American Flyer train today. It had been a gift from his dad on his first Christmas. It was from 1938.

That was a peculiar year, because it was the first year that A.C. Gilbert, of Erector fame, built American Flyer trains. Previously American Flyer had been an independent company in Chicago.

This model was a Gilbert design, and at most produced from 1938 to 1941.Late last year, Todd had asked our mutual friend Tom about how to go about getting the train repaired. Tom referred Todd to me, since 3-rail O gauge isn’t Tom’s specialty. Of course Tom knew the answer: Marty Glass, of Marty’s Model Railroads in Affton.

So Todd took it to Marty earlier this year, once the Christmas rush had died down. Todd called me yesterday and said Marty had finished it. He brought it over.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but he brought out an intricate 4-6-4 Pacific. It had far more detail than anything Marx ever made, and far more detail than any O27 locomotive Lionel ever made too. It had an intricate set of linkages, which turned out to be its downfall because they got bound up on us once. Marty had run the train for Todd when he picked it up–I suggested Todd have him do that, since 68-year-old trains always need some adjustments after they’ve been repaired. It ran fine on Marty’s layout.

Before we ran the train, I fixed the light in the Pullman car Todd brought over. He hadn’t taken that to Marty. The wire had come loose from the pickup on the underside of the car, and the light bulb was rattling around inside. I fished the bulb out, examined it (it looked fine; the old light bulbs in these trains is almost always fine, even after being shipped across the country), put the bulb in the socket, and re-soldered the wire to the pickup. I solder like a plumber, but judging from the pickup on that train, so did the Gilbert employee who built it.

With the car ready to go, I put it and the locomotive and tender on the track. We quickly found that the oddball American Flyer link and pin couplers didn’t line up right. Time for some more adjustments. I finally got the coupler heights adjusted correctly, then I hit the power, expecting since it had run in the store, it would run just fine on my layout.

Not so much. It ran for a few feet, then stopped in a shower of blue sparks, leaving a buzzing sound on the layout that I’ve come to associate with a short circuit.

The handrails were the biggest problem. There are two holes in the cowcatcher assembly that the handrails are supposed to slide into. Had I been doing the design, I would have made the rails longer, so they could be bent further underneath. But that’s irrelevant now. With the handrails not in the holes, they were pushing the cowcatcher down low, there it could short out the third rail. S gaugers can gloat that this wouldn’t be a problem on 2-rail S gauge track, but they really ought to respect their elders.

So I fixed the rails, and put a dab of solder on the underside to hold them in place (solder won’t stick to the zamac boiler). I noted the Phillips head screws Marty used to put it all back together. I’ll have to give him a hard time about that the next time I see him. Phillips screws didn’t come into widespread use on toys until the ’50s.

With that problem taken care of, it ran, but then it locked up hard. I gave it another thorough examination, and found that some of the intricacies on the drive rods had come misaligned, causing it all to bind up. I had to take it apart to free up enough space to realign everything. I took off the front truck, then the cowcatcher, guided everything where it was supposed to go, and reassembled everything.

And what do you know… It ran. It was a bit herky-jerky at first, but in my experience, old motors are always that way when they’ve been sitting for decades. They seem to need to get some running time in before they get used to running smoothly again. Todd told me that Marty said the motor was fine; the only problems he found were structural. From the sound of the motor, Marty obviously had lubed it–they tend to squeal a lot after 50 years, let alone 68, and this motor sounded like new–but I guess that’s all it had needed.

I found out the hard way that this locomotive (an American Flyer 531) really hates O27 curves. It derails every time, even on curves where you lead into the O27 and back out with a wider curve. So we moved it from my inner loop to my outer loop, which is mostly O42 except in one corner, where I had to do O34 to make everything fit. It made me nervous on O34 curves, but it did manage to stay on the track. It was much happier on the O42, which makes sense, because American Flyer O gauge track was 40 inches in diameter, just like its S gauge track.

Once we were confident it was running, we packed it back up. Todd was going to go surprise his dad with it. It’s been a long time since its last run. I hope he’ll enjoy seeing it roam the rails again.

Now that I’ve seen some of the late prewar 3/16 scale American Flyer up close and personal, I have a new admiration for it. I own a number of the Flyer freight cars from that period, but none of the locomotives. The detail is very good, and they run smooth and are geared low, so they have plenty of pulling power.

I’m sure Todd’s dad will be happy to see it running again. I know I sure enjoyed fine-tuning it.

Excuse me while I go check eBay…

Aliens on my train layout

I bought a couple of aliens for my train consist today. At the annual TCA Ozark Division train show at Lutheran South that happens every December, I spotted some lonely American Flyer bodies sitting neglected on a table. There were two steam locomotives, a gondola, a boxcar, and a caboose. I looked at the locomotives but there wasn’t any way I could remotor them with parts I had available. I did buy the boxcar, and then came back for the gondola.

I spent a total of $3 for these artifacts from 1958. Not bad.The problem for me is, they’re from 1958. American Flyer was doing S gauge in 1958. I’m into O gauge.

But that’s OK.  S gauge is 1:64 scale. O27 (which is the flavor of O I like, because it’s what I grew up with) is supposed to be 1:64 scale. Hold an American Flyer S gauge gondola up next to a Lionel or Marx O27 gondola, and they’re awfully close to the same size. Sure, there’s some difference, but when you look at real trains, not every boxcar is exactly the same height, and not every gondola is exactly the same height and length either.

K-Line took some criticism when it dusted off the old Marx O27 molds, outfitted them with S gauge trucks, and tried to market them to S gaugers because the Marx boxcars are taller than the American Flyers, and when you measure the Marx car with a scale ruler, it’s a funny length. But most people don’t notice. When I put a Marx O27 boxcar next to my Flyer 805 with O27 trucks on it, the difference wasn’t as pronounced. You can tell the Flyer is shorter, but something about the O gauge trucks makes the difference harder to notice.

It took me about 10 minutes to outfit the Flyer gondola with some spare Lionel trucks I had kicking around. Then I decided I wanted a conversion car, so I put a Marx truck on one end and a Lionel on the other. It looks good with my Marx and Lionel gondolas.

It took me considerably longer to get the boxcar in running order, since I had to fashion a frame for it. So I grabbed a bunch of junk from the scrap box and I fashioned a frame. That ended up taking me a couple of hours to do (I can do it a lot faster when I’m doing several at once and I have all my tools and materials in order). For what I make per hour, I could have bought several nice boxcars, I know. But this was more fun than what I get paid to do, and besides, nobody was offering to pay me to do anything today. And besides, rescuing a lonely boxcar off the scrap heap is a whole lot more meaningful than just plunking down some cash.

Once it was all together, I grabbed Dad’s old Lionel 2037 and put it on a loop of track on the floor with the Flyer 803 and 805 and a Marx boxcar that I rescued from a similar fate about a year ago. I had to work out a few kinks of course, but it wasn’t long before the consist was running smoothly.

I know a lot of people who run 1950s trains tend to do so homogeneously. It tends to be all Flyer or all Lionel or all Marx. But all of them have their strengths. For one, all of them did cars that the others didn’t. While American Flyer’s locomotives are amazingly smooth runners–even their cheapies–I don’t think American Flyer made anything that has all of the positive attributes of the Lionel 2037: It’s no slouch in the smooth running department itself, it’s a great puller, it’s reliable, and it’s common as dirt so you can easily find a good one for around $70. And as much as I like Marx, Marx never made anything quite like the 2037 either. The Marx 333 can’t pull with a 2037, it’s nowhere near as common, and these days it’s more expensive too.

But Marx and American Flyer made plenty of cars in plenty of roadnames and paint schemes Lionel never made. And when they did overlap, there tended to be some differences, just like you see in real life. So turning some dilapidated American Flyer cars into O27s was a nice way to add some unique rolling stock to my roster.

I’m happy. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for more American Flyer cars that need running gear.

I\’m published again

It was a small-time gig, but if it helps pay the bills, that’s all that matters. I published a guide to refurbishing 1950s Lionel, Marx, and American Flyer trains over at Associated Content.I guess it’s ironic that I used a picture of an American Flyer train, seeing as I only owned a postwar Flyer S gauge train for about two weeks before I traded it for some Marx stuff. But it was the only picture I had handy.

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.

Build a quiet and reliable toy train layout

I hear two complaints about Lionel/American Flyer/Marx electric train layouts (besides the common complaints from uptight scale modelers, that is). One is the amount of space they take up, and the other is the noise.

Let’s tackle the noise. While we’re at it, we’ll tackle reliability.

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A compelling toy train layout with animations done on the cheap

Layouts featuring Lionel, American Flyer, and other O or S gauge trains don’t have to be expensive. Joe Rampola has lots of ideas for creating a good-looking layout with lots of animation (aside from the trains) using mostly inexpensive items. His site has lots of pictures and video clips.

His work has been featured in both Classic Toy Trains and O Gauge Railroading magazines.Among his better ideas: Lay a loop of HO gauge track, then put 0-4-0 mechanisms from cheap HO scale locomotives in the frames of 1:43 scale die-cast cars and make streets for the layout. This is a similar approach to K-Line’s new Superstreets, but Rampola did it years earlier, and his approach is a lot less expensive for those who can live without instant gratification. His approach also allows you to use any vehicle you want, so long as you’re willing to modify it.

He also has plans and instructions posted for lots of inexpensive animations he did using the cheap unpainted (and unfortunately, discontinued) K-Line figures from the classic Marx molds of the 1950s. Sometimes you can still get lucky and find a box of unpainted K-Line figures hiding on hobby shop shelves.

He even has his animations controlled by an old Timex Sinclair 1000 computer. He gives enough detail that I suspect someone good with homebrew circuits could adapt his circuit and his program to another computer, such as an Apple or Commodore. Even a 3.5K unexpanded VIC-20 ought to be up to the task, let alone a behemoth Commodore 64.

I’ve always bristled at the thought of adding electronics to my traditional layout, because my trains are my escape from computers. But using a real computer–real men only need 8 bits–to control parts of a layout does have some appeal to me.

Last weekend\’s find

You never know what you’ll find when someone advertises “old trains.”

This is an American Flyer Type 4 locomotive. This variety was manufactured in Chicago from 1927 to 1929. It’s powered by clockwork, as many inexpensive toy trains were at the time. You wound it up with a key. The key for this one is long lost. I may be able to find another one, but keys are easily fabricated from K&S brass parts, available at hobby shops.

Amazingly, the motor still runs. The train doesn’t. It’s missing one of the drive wheels, and the other wheel isn’t soldered to the axle very well. Replacement wheels are still available and I can re-solder the other one. It ought to take about $5 worth of parts and about 15 minutes to get it running again.

It runs on O gauge track, the same as Lionel. But the track has two rails, you say? It sure does, because it’s not an electric train, so there’s no need for the third rail. This train predates American Flyer’s 2-rail S gauge electrics by about 25 years.

The locomotive is made of cast iron, cast in two pieces and held together by a screw. The tender and passenger coach are made of pressed steel, plated with tin. This is commonly called “tinplate”. The graphics on the coach are lithographed, a form of offset printing. This was very common on cheap toys up until the 1950s, when lithographed tinplate was gradually replaced with molded plastic, which was cheaper, could hold more detail, and could be made without any sharp edges.

This item isn’t particularly rare, but it’s an interesting curiosity.

I’m very happy to have it, but the genealogist in me really wishes people would hang on to things like this. This was someone’s grandfather’s train. All too often people’s reaction to an old train is “What’s it worth?” They’re looking for a fast buck.

In this condition, this particular train is worth about 50 bucks, give or take a few dollars.

Any toy that once belonged to any of my grandparents would be worth 10 times that to me.

What to do when a PC is too bogged down in spyware to run the tools

Spyware was grinding this PC to a screeching halt. I’d click on an icon, and the program never appeared. Or maybe it would finally appear 15 minutes later. And once I finally got a browser window open, it was so slow, I could pretty much forget about downloading any tools to fix it.

What to do?I hit CTRL-ALT-DEL. There was all sorts of stuff in the task list. (This was a Windows 98 computer.) I followed the same rule that I once heard in a movie. Desperado, I think it was. The crime boss said something like this: “How tough can it be? Go around town. Don’t recognize someone? Shoot him.”

So if I didn’t recognize a task, I closed it. In the end, nothing but Explorer.exe and Systray.exe were left running.

The result? When I clicked on icons, programs ran!

I then ran the usual battery of tools: Bazooka, Spybot Search & Destroy, Ad-Aware, then Bazooka again (I have Bazooka scan to give me a quick overview of how bad it is, since it finishes in seconds, then run the others, then run Bazooka again since Bazooka only assists you in removing stuff, but doesn’t actually do it).

Then for good measure, I ran AVERT Stinger, which removes common trojan horses.

No trojan horses, but he had just over 200 different spyware infections. He asked how he could prevent them in the future. I showed him how to use the tools.

Then I installed Mozilla Firefox. I explained to him that it doesn’t have the hooks into the OS that Internet Explorer has, so if a website tries to maliciously install spyware when he visits, the chances are much lower. And since it blocks the popups, his chances of accidentally visiting those kinds of slimeball places drop. Then I showed him the tabbed browsing feature, and the built-in Google search bar. He dug it. I think Mozilla may have gained a convert.

This job took me a while. I cut him a break on my hourly rate, since he’s referred people to me in the past. And besides, he let me see his old S gauge American Flyer train, still in its original box. Letting me spend five minutes with something cool like that is always good for a discount.

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