Finding a connection to my Dad in a suburban St. Louis estate

Yesterday I wrote about my greatest estate sale find ever. Well, the very same month as that one, I found another estate sale featuring a Lionel 1110 locomotive, which happened to be my Dad’s first train. So of course I put that sale on my list. The 1110 wasn’t among Lionel’s finest moments, but I’ll note that in 1986 when Dad and I pulled his postwar Lionels out of storage, it was the first of Dad’s locomotives that we got running, and in 2003 when I got them out again, it was the only one that still ran.

Well, this 1110 didn’t run. The motor assembly was cracked and it wasn’t worth the asking price. But behind the locomotive, I found some paperwork. “Build these realistic models!” it urged. It was marked $4. The tag warned it was very delicate. I took it out of the plastic bag it was in, decided against trying to unfold it, and bought it unseen. Read more

Why you need a voltmeter on your train layout

I’ve advocated voltmeters on train layouts before, but I realized something, after checking out a new-to-me Lionel KW transformer: It’s very easy for a vintage transformer to deliver more voltage than you intend, and through no fault of its own.

The “problem” is that transformers step the voltage down on a percentage basis. In the 1950s when they were designed, household voltage was 110 volts. So a transformer designed to deliver a maximum of 20 volts stepped down to 20 from 110. Today, however, it’s not uncommon for the voltage at the outlet to be 115, 120, or even 125 volts. So that maximum throttle of 20 volts is now closer to 22 volts in this day and age, because you can safely assume the source voltage is 10% higher. And the voltage markers on your transformer, which never were all that accurate to begin with, will be even less accurate.

Most postwar Lionel trains are designed to run at 18-20 volts, so if you turn the throttle to the max, you’ll probably overvolt them. The situation gets worse with other makes of trains.

Marx and American Flyer trains run fine off a Lionel transformer, except that they’re designed for a maximum of around 14 volts. So it’s very easy to unintentionally overvolt those trains to 22 volts if you turn a Lionel transformer to the max. They’ll run, but they’ll soon overheat and the windings on the motor armature will burn and short out.

While one venue I won’t mention by name might advocate only using modern transformers, a more practical and sensible approach is to add a $6 AC voltmeter to your setup, to make sure you’re never delivering more than 14 volts to your trains. While you’re at it, you might add a similarly priced AC ammeter to make sure you’re not overloading your transformer either. See my earlier post for instructions on wiring them in.

“It’s your happy place.”

Someone told me today that she didn’t quite get the appeal of model railroading, that it must be a male thing. And that’s fair: Model railroads were first invented by a dollhouse maker so they would have something to market to boys. That company still markets trains, but no longer markets dollhouses, so I guess you could say it was successful.

Here’s how I summed up the appeal.

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Does your spouse know who your collecting buddies are?

The story of the 1967 train layout and stash brought up a couple of good questions, even as more facts failed to emerge. If something were to happen to you, would your spouse know how to deal with the collection you’ve left behind?

I think it’s a valid question, and not just for trains.
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I don’t think this basement layout abandoned since 1967 is necessarily a tragedy

A query appeared on one of the train forums and has slowly spread through several discussion groups I’m aware of, regarding a 2-rail O scale train layout, built by a hobbyist in the 1950s and 1960s, who died in 1967. The layout sat for 45 years, and now someone has approached a couple of hobbyists about possibly liquidating it.

Of course, lots of armchair pundits have their own ideas about what should have happened to that layout in 1967, when the builder died.

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How to use price guides

How to use price guides

Pricing collectibles is more art than science, and most guides have some errors in them, so large (or at least very vocal) numbers of people mistrust them.

I still use them, however. Knowing how they’re produced–or would be produced, in a perfect world with perfect data–helps someone to use them to maximum effect. The principles are the same for any guide, whether you’re talking trains or video games or baseball cards or any other collectible. Read more

How to customize Matchbox or Hot Wheels cars

How to customize Matchbox or Hot Wheels cars

It’s fun to customize Matchbox or Hot Wheels cars. I tend to buy representations of pre-1950 cars and un-hotrod them so they’ll look like they belong on my O27 (1:64-ish) train layout; others buy them, paint them differently and put different wheels on them to make something different from what Mattel sells.

It’s a job you can do with simple tools and materials, at least at first. But like many things, you can keep it as simple or get as advanced as you like. And while you won’t do your first car in 15 minutes, it’s easy to divide a car project into 15-minute-per-day steps, especially if you work on two or three of them at once, and at the end of a week you’ll have a few nice cars to show for your time and effort.

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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

Making gradual improvements, starting with whatever bugs you the most

A long project can be paralyzing at times, making it hard to figure out where to start. A trick that I learned in model railroading is to just work on whatever small percentage of the project that bothers you the most. Then, when that’s done, cycle back, create another subproject that fixes whatever bugs you the most now, and keep making incremental improvements like that until you get where you want.

I’ve used the same trick on home improvement projects, and I applied it to this web site over the course of the last few weeks, doing a series of incremental improvements. It led places I didn’t expect it.
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