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Getting rid of some rust on old toy trains

I’ve seen some old tin 6-inch Marx cars in nice condition, but I sure seem to have a talent for finding Marx rustbuckets too. I also have a set of very nice Lionel tinplate–nice except for their rusty couplers.

Professional restorers remove rust by bead blasting. How do you deal with rust if you don’t happen to have a sandblaster laying around?A number of products exist catering to auto restorers. They claim not even to damage paint in some cases. I’m told that Oxisolv works safely on toy trains, or at least on Marx trains. Finding the stuff is another story. Every place I’ve looked wants as much to ship it as they want for the liquid.

As I was poking around under my kitchen sink this evening, I came across a household cleaner intended for removing rust stains from bathtubs. But the label also said it would remove rust stains from tools. Not seeing any difference, chemically speaking, between soaking a pair of pliers in the stuff and soaking a Marx train wheel, I broke out my rustbucket Marx 553, removed its wheels, put them in a plastic container, and dribbled on enough cleaner to cover it.

An hour or so later, there was visibly less rust on the wheels and axles.

Most of these products use a mild acid that readily eats away iron oxide, but has little effect on plain old iron. If you’ve heard the legends about Coca-Cola dissolving rusty nails or freeing rusted bolts, it’s the same principle.

I’m not quite brave enough to try it on the painted surfaces, and different brands will almost certainly vary, but this is a cheap way to at least improve a car’s wheels, especially if you happen to already have the stuff on hand.

What’s an aluminum can worth?

I saw someone out scrounging for aluminum cans recently. That made me wonder, what’s an aluminum can worth?

I remember my Dad telling me once that as he drove to one of the many remote hospitals in southern Missouri that he used to cover, he got used to seeing a couple on a riding lawnmower, driving along the shoulder of the road, picking up cans. He commented that he didn’t realize aluminum was worth enough to make that worthwhile.

Being a notorious cheapskate–so much so that the indigenous people of the Himalayas have a folk song about me–I decided to find out.

There’s a recycling place between home and work that I drive past whenever I’m hitting the grocery store on the way home. It posts its aluminum prices where they’re highly visible from the roadside. Price varies; I’ve seen it as high as 39 cents a pound and probably as low as 33 cents a pound.

Lacking a scale with enough precision to weigh a can, I did a Web search and found someplace saying that a pound of aluminum makes about 36 cans.

So, in south St. Louis in 2004, an aluminum can is worth about a penny. But I’ll grant that it has the advantage of being more likely to be sitting on the side of the road, and being far more visible.

Why that high? Aluminum isn’t a rare element by any means but it’s more expensive to process than iron or copper or tin. I’ve heard it said that you can estimate the amount of energy required to process an aluminum can by filling the can with gasoline. So a gallon of gasoline produces enough energy to refine enough bauxite into aluminum to make 10.75 cans.

At a penny a can, it’s certainly not worth my time to go out hunting them, as I’m sure I can’t find 500 of them in an hour. And I save a lot more money by not drinking soda than I’d save by saving the cans. (If you don’t want to give up soda, try cutting back and/or changing to generics. How much you save will amaze you.)

But is it worth my while to save the cans I do inevitably end up with? Sure. Also remember, a lot of other food containers are made partially of aluminum. We use aluminum foil all the time in our kitchens. Pie pans and other disposable food containers are often made of aluminum. My yogurt and applesauce containers have an aluminum foil lining under the lid.

Ten pounds of aluminum yields enough cash to pay for lunch at the cafeteria at work. I don’t know yet if I can accumulate 10 pounds in a month, or if it’ll take all year. But there’s only one way to find out.

Maybe I’ll find that it takes too long. But if that’s the case, my church saves cans. If everyone who goes to my church donated a pound of aluminum a month, we’d be talking $300-$400. And that’s enough money to do something at least semi-serious.

What’s an aluminum can worth? If you guessed a penny a can, you have my congratulations.

Visiting the house where my ancestors grew up

I went to a family reunion this past weekend. You typically need rosters at my family’s family reunions, because my grandmother had 13 brothers and sisters. I don’t know why, but before I got into genealogy, I just couldn’t keep everyone straight.

Now that I know how people are connected to one another, it’s somehow easier to keep it straight.

At the end of the day, my aunt drove me out to the house where my grandmother grew up.Along the way, she told me my great grandfather, Tom Kimrey, didn’t buy a car until after World War II, when he bought a surplus jeep. She said she didn’t know if he ever learned how to drive it, although several of his daughters did. We pulled onto Kimrey Lane and drove all the way to the end. It was cool to see a street named after one of my ancestors, even if it was on the edge of a booming metropolis of 74.

The house was a humble affair. It’s a four-room house, with a kitchen, living room and two bedrooms. The living room doubled as the master bedroom. There was no running water. The house had a tin roof and tarpaper on the sides. A brick pattern was etched into the tarpaper. My aunt showed me where the pot-bellied stove used to be, and where my great grandmother Sallie Groves’ pump organ used to sit.

The whole house was probably smaller than my kitchen and my study put together. And Tom and Sallie raised 13 kids in it. (One died very young.)

I guess standards of living have changed a bit over the course of four generations.

At any rate, seeing that old house gave me some idea of why my grandmother and great aunts and uncles were the way they were about some things. Sharing a bedroom with six other people changes your perspective about things, I guess.

Learning about scratchbuilding the hard way

I haven’t had a lot of free time the past couple of weeks, and as you’ve probably gathered, I haven’t been spending a lot of it in front of a computer. I’ve been in the basement, learning how to make stuff for the train.

Along the way, I’ve learned a few things, mostly from experience rather than from books. I still have a long way to go.Not all paints and finishes are compatible with one another. When I tried to spray one brand of glossy finish atop a different brand of black paint, the paint crinkled. Spraying paint thinner on it would have done less damage.

Aside from the hard lesson on paints, clones of the old 6-inch 4-wheel Marx train cars are very simple to build. That must have something to do with why they cost 59 cents when they were new.

The look of lithographed tin can be reasonably approximated by printing a design on, of all things, plain paper, then spraying it with the same glossy finish that ruined the paint job on the first car I built. Attach said paper with spray adhesive, and only the very observant will notice your car isn’t tin litho.

Styrene plastic is very easy to work with. You can build simple things from it very quickly, so long as you use an MEK-based solvent, rather than the cement that comes in tubes. Solvents give a stronger bond, and after holding the joined piece together for two minutes, you can continue to work with it.

Aluminum is essentially free, and can be cut with scissors, but joining it is a pain. Joining two pieces with solder is very difficult. Epoxy is easier, but it’s harder to work with than the plastic solvents.

Tin and brass are extremely easy to solder. I now know why so many hand-built metal models are made of brass. It’s strong, reasonably easy to form, and not terribly expensive.

Sheet metal is dirt cheap at, but the $3 worth of brass that it takes to make a train car will cost $10 to ship, even if you have them deliver it by stagecoach UPS ground.

It’s very easy to end up paying $12 for a rustbucket Marx train car on eBay, and it’s more satisfying, if you have the requisite ability, to watch cars you made yourself go around your track than to watch cars you sniped with four minutes left. (I’ve only done that once. The rest I bid the way nice people do.) So most of the time you’re better off with your $13 worth of brass, whether you bought it online or at the local hobby shop.

You can fabricate your own Lionel- and Marx-compatible axles using 3/32-inch brass rod from a craft or hobby shop, cut to 1 3/4 inches in length for Lionel, or 1 7/8 inches for Marx. Put a dab of solder or epoxy half an inch inside to keep the wheels from going in too far.

Upgrade diary: Gateway G6-400

I recently had the displeasure of working on a Gateway G6-400. I’ll relate some of the experiences here, in case you ever have the same misfortune.
The G6-400 looks good on paper. This particular configuration had a P2-400 in it on an Intel mobo (BX chipset), a 16-meg 3dfx video card (hot for the time), and a DVD drive. The owner complained it was slow and unstable. The usual cure for that is to remove the extra crap Gateway installs on all their PCs.

Unfortunately, this one wouldn’t boot to let me do that. Not even in safe mode. Nice, eh?

Memory problem? I tried several known-good DIMMs. Same results.

Power supply? I tried a known-good, brand-name power supply. Same results.

At some point, the hard drive made an ominous noise. I replaced the hard drive and attempted a clean install of Win98SE. It bombed out at random points during installation. Just in case it was the DVD drive, I tried several different CD-ROM drives. (Hey, I was desperate.) Same result.

Out of curiosity, I put the suspect hard drive in another computer and tried to boot it in safe mode (I didn’t want Windows to mess up the configuration). It worked fine. Rats.

So by now I’d replaced everything in the box–everything important, at least–except the mobo and the processor. I spied an FIC P2 mobo with a BX chipset at Software and Stuff for 30 bucks. I bought it. I was playing the odds. Mobos go bad more often than CPUs do, especially when you’re not overclocking. And if I was wrong, I have other Slot 1 processors. The only other Slot 1 mobo I have is one of the really old LX-based boards that only has a 66 MHz bus.

Why pay $30 for an obsolete mobo when you can get a modern board for $50 or $60 and put a nice Duron or Athlon CPU on it? I doubted the power supply would handle it well. Spend $30 more on a mobo, and $30 more on a new CPU, then you have to replace the power supply as well. Suddenly $30 more has become $100.

The FIC is a much nicer board, even though the specs are very similar. It has one more DIMM slot than the Intel board had. It has no onboard sound, but it has one more available PCI slot. Expandability comes out a draw (you’ll use the extra PCI slot to hold a sound card), but you get your choice. You can put in something equivalent to the midrange Yamaha sound built into the Intel board. Or you can put in a high-end card. The board itself has a lot more configuration options, and even with the default options it boots a lot faster.

This G6-400 has a microATX power supply in it. At least it looks like a microATX power supply, and a lot of people who sell eMachines-compatible microATX boxes claim they’ll also fit a G6. Why Gateway put a small-form factor, low-power power supply in what was at the time of manufacture the second-fastest PC on the market, I have no idea. Unless the idea was to make lots of money selling replacement power supplies. The plus side is, at least it really is ATX, unlike Dell, who uses something that looks like ATX but isn’t. (You’ll blow up the mobo if you plug an ATX power supply into a Dell mobo or a Dell power supply into a standard ATX mobo.)

Fortunately, this case has screw holes in the standard ATX places as well. Unfortunately, the opening in the back isn’t big enough to accomodate any standard ATX power supply I’ve ever seen (the opening blocks the power plug). Someone willing to resort to violence with a hacksaw, Dremel (or similar tool), or tin snips could hack an opening big enough to accomodate a replacement box. More on that in a bit.

I pulled the Intel mobo and dropped in the FIC replacement. Unfortunately, the case used one big block for all the case switches. Since nobody’s ever standardized the header block for the and reset switches and lights, that’s a problem unless you’re replacing boards with a board from the same manufacturer (assuming manufacturers never change their header block pinouts, which isn’t exactly a safe assumption). But that wasn’t the only problem I ran into with this motherboard swap.

Remember that power supply I told you about? Turns out the power lead on it is just long enough to reach the power connector on the Intel mobo the machine came with, in front of the memory slots. FIC put its power connector on the other side of the CPU, and the cable is about half an inch too short to reach. Good luck finding an ATX power extender cable. has one for $5, but the minimum order is $10 and that’s before shipping. A search on only listed a couple of places having them. Pricing was under $10, but then there’s shipping. I found one computer store in south St. Louis County that had ONE in stock. “They’re not cheap,” the salesperson warned me. I asked how much. $16.95. “You’re not kidding,” I said. That’s half the price of a new 300W power supply. Of course, by the time you pay $5 online and $10 to ship it, $16.95 looks a lot more reasonable, doesn’t it? And if your case won’t accomodate a standard ATX power supply, either buying one of these or buying a similarly overpriced microATX power supply may be your only choice.

To get things up and going, I just jerry-rigged it. I ran the power cables and found a place to rest the power supply where it wouldn’t short out anything. Then I shorted the power leads on the mobo with a screwdriver, and booted Windows 98 in safe mode. It booted up just fine, after insisting on running Scandisk. I booted into regular mode, which insisted on running Scandisk again. It worked beautifully. I did some very minor optimizations (Network server in filesystem settings, turning off Active Desktop, etc.) and rebooted a few times. No problems. No weirdness. Everything was smooth and fluid.

The chances of me ever buying a Gateway (new at least) already approached zero before this adventure. The few Gateways I dealt with in my years doing desktop support always had goofy problems that I usually had to reinstall the OS to resolve. Meanwhile, the Micron or Dell in the next cubicle over kept on chugging away, never needing anything more than basic maintenance.

This motherboard swap is easily the most painful swap I’ve ever done. It worked in the end, but the power supply was an annoyance and an unplanned expense. The header block was an annoyance.

So if you’re thinking about a motherboard swap in a Gateway, particularly a G6 series, don’t plan on it being a walk in the park.

Mac upgrades the right way.

On Tuesday, 768 MB of Crucial DIMMs arrived, earmarked for an old Mac G3. I know, Mac OS can’t make intelligent use of 64 megs, let alone 768 megs, but Photoshop and Illustrator can–especially when used together. Just allocate 256 MB to each of them and get it over with.
Nice thought, except the DIMMs were too tall. When I put them in, the case wouldn’t close.

I tracked down the problem. Older Mac desktops have a grill over the fan that protrudes out about 1/8 inch, and that, combined with the layout of the G3 motherboard, prevents what’s now a standard-sized DIMM from clearing. I figured the grill was aluminum, so I went and got some wire snips and figured I’d just go snip snip, remove the grill and leave the fan unprotected, and let the Mac have its full 768 megs of allowable memory. Well, it turned out to be steel, so my little wire snips barely even scratched the grill. Just then one of the building maintenance guys walked by. I told him what I needed to do, so he went and got a humongous pair of tin snips. What he did next was more of a snap snap than a snip snip, but it got the grill gone, regardless. After that, the case closed properly, and the Mac booted up and recognized its full 768 megs without any sparks flying.

You have computers… You have really big manly tools. Why not put them together?