I had a lawn mower wheel height adjuster stuck hard a week or two ago. I bought it off a neighbor for $20, so I expected a few problems. I fixed it with a screwdriver and a hammer.
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Last night, the Lionel train under our Christmas tree–a low-budget special, of course–started struggling. It had been able to pull five cars before, but suddenly could only pull four. Here’s how I fixed it.
A few weeks ago, my security go-to guy, Rich P., bought a new Intel 320 SSD for his netbook. With my encouragement, of course. It finally arrived this weekend, and he installed it. Rich reports not only faster speed, but also a 30-minute improvement in battery life over the WD Scorpio Black it replaced.
He told me the secure erase function, to enable AES, had a snag. But he solved it. I’m documenting it here in case you ran into the same thing he did.
Read More »More on the new Intel 320 SSD
Cleaning and storing Lionel track is another common question when the subject of trains comes up. Now that you’re getting the electric train track out for Christmas duty, there are some things you need to do to get it ready. And when the time comes to put it away until next year, a little preparation then will leave it in better shape for next year.
First, a note: Since writing this piece, I discovered a miracle. I treated my track with a conductivity enhancer, and the difference is unbelievable. I haven’t needed to clean my track in two years.
I’ve been noticing that a post I made several years ago about my experiments fixing a Marx 490 train locomotive has been getting a disconcerting number of hits. Disconcerting, because I repeated some advice on how to fix old Marx locomotives from another web site that I later found, by experience, wasn’t all that good.
Here’s how I go about doing simple repairs on Marx trains today, now that I’ve done a few.
So, I rebuilt a Dell Dimension 4100 last night. I didn’t make any hardware changes other than replacing the Western Digital hard drive inside, which was on its last legs.
Along the way, I learned a few things.I won’t say much about the WD drive except to say it’s the most recent in a long line of bad experiences I’ve had with the brand. I don’t know anything about current WD drives. But this one was loud and shrill, Windows bluescreened when I tried to install to it, and when I tried to run SpinRite on it, it said it would take 140 hours to test. A drive that size (20GB) should take 8-10.
In its defense, that drive was five years old. But I replaced it with a Maxtor drive that’s almost eight years old. SpinRite processed that Maxtor in 3 hours and found nothing worth commenting about. (Just because SpinRite didn’t say anything doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t do anything.)
The Dell Dimension 4100 does have a proprietary power supply (although it looks like an ATX). If you work on Dells, I suggest bookmarking PC Power and Cooling’s Dell cheatsheet. PCP&C power supplies are expensive, but they are reliable, and their prices are comparable to what Dell would charge for a replacement and they are higher quality than what you would get from Dell–assuming Dell will even sell you the part (they’re in the business of selling computers, not parts). I believe newer Dells use standard power supplies.
If you buy a Micron, you can punch in a serial number and get drivers for the machine. With a Dell, you just get guesses based on the options that were available for the machine.
Download the chipset drivers and other low-level stuff from Dell’s support site. Windows 2000 didn’t completely recognize the system’s Intel i815 chipset and I get better performance afterward.
Nlite offers a lot of promise–automating the Windows install, removing components, etc.–but I had trouble getting it to work with the OS recovery CDs I had. I didn’t have enough time (or blank CDs) to figure out how to get it to work for me. I’m sure it works better with a plain old Windows 2000 Workstation CD, but of course I can’t find mine. But if you have a CD that works with it, it’s nice even if you don’t remove the stuff Microsoft doesn’t let you remove, since it provides a nice interface for slipstreaming service packs and hotfixes and removing all of the prompts during installation.
The tricks in Windows 2000 with 32MB of RAM work pretty nicely, even when you have more than 32 megs. Of course, if you’re ruthless with Nlite and can get it to work for you, you probably don’t need that bag of tricks.
I didn’t try to install it without Internet Explorer. I’d love to try that sometime but I didn’t have time for that. At least disabling Active Desktop (see the link in the paragraph above) gives most of the benefit you would get from smiting IE.
The quality of the Dell hardware is reasonable. It didn’t floor me, but I didn’t see anything that made me cry either.
I serviced a PC last week while my Internet connection was up and down like George Bush’s approval rating. It was making a lot of loud noises and at first the owner thought his hard drive was crashing. But when he described the sound to me, it sounded like a fan.
He sounded relieved and said he’d ignore it, but I told him I should take a look at it.Noisy fans are more likely to die than quiet ones. And while a lot of computers have enough fans in them that they can survive if one of the case fans dies, the likelihood of surviving long with a dead CPU or power supply fan is slim. Case fans should be kept in working order too, just because life expectancy roughly halves for each 10 degrees Celsius the temperature rises.
By opening the case and powering the system on, I was able to quickly isolate the noise to the case fan. It really wasn’t terribly loud–he commented that it quieted down a lot when he brought it to me–but I figured since he’d brought the computer over and I’d looked at it, I might as well do something useful. I peeled back the foil sticker on the fan face that hides the bearing and applied a drop of oil. Use 3-in-1 or a similar oil, or for that matter, a drop of 10w30 or another automotive oil if it’s all you’ve got. Do not use WD-40 or a similar penetrating oil. WD-40 does a great job of stopping squeaky doors and freeing up locks and preventing rust, but at best it’s a mediocre lubricant.
Also, with oil, more is rarely better. The excess will shoot out of the fan and weaken the adhesive on the sticker. It’s much better to put in a little and have to add more later than it is to put in too much from the start.
I replaced the sticker and put the fan back in the case. I powered the system on. It was noticeably quieter.
I don’t know if that fan’s life expectancy is now measured in weeks, months, or years, but it’s a pretty good bet that it’s been lengthened, and it’s going to annoy a lot fewer ears.
It’s the weekend after Thanksgiving. The time of year when nostalgia runs high and ancient toy trains come out of the basement or the attic and get set up again until sometime after the new year.
Well, hopefully they make it that long. Here are some tips for getting old Lionel, American Flyer, Marx, and similar electric trains running again.
Note: Please don’t do what I did in this post. Chances are you’ll make things worse in the long run. If you’re looking for information on fixing a Marx train that won’t run, go here for instructions on how to do that.
I fixed my Marx 490 locomotive this weekend. I used the tips in The All Gauge Model Railroading Marx Trains guide. Scroll down to the heading titled, “The Marx motor.”
I was skeptical because these instructions call for WD-40, and it seems I’ve read a hundred other places never to use WD-40 on any model train. But my Marx 490 wasn’t running well, and it would cost more to have it professionally repaired than it’s worth.But before I continue, let me interject something. If you’re here from Google because you just found a box of old trains that say “Mar” on them, the company is Marx, not Mar. And the trains look a lot like Lionel, but they’re not Lionel. In a few rare instances, Marx trains are very valuable. But in most cases, a Marx isn’t worth as much as the box a Lionel came in. Which is why I said it would cost more to repair my Marx than it was worth. I just had two Lionels repaired for $25 each, plus parts. You can usually get a Marx 490 with some cars on eBay for $25.
But that’s not to say Marxes don’t have charm. They certainly do.
There. I feel better now. Back to the story. Where was I? Oh yeah. WD-40. I didn’t use WD-40 on my Marx. I used Gunk Liquid Wrench instead. Two reasons: The main purpose behind WD-40 and similar oils is to clean, rather than lubricate. They leave a little bit of lubricant behind, but not a lot. Gunk Liquid Wrench, like WD-40, is primarily a solvent. But it has synthetic oil in it, whereas WD-40 has kerosene in it. In my mind, this makes Liquid Wrench a better choice for this purpose because what little lubricant it leaves behind when the solvent evaporates will be of higher quality and last longer than WD-40’s lubricant.
But there was a second reason. Liquid Wrench was on sale, so it was cheaper. I also thought long and hard about Marvel Mystery Oil in a spray can–it works in cars and airplanes something wonderful–but opted for Liquid Wrench because the instructions called for a penetrating lubricant, and I didn’t know if the Marvel would exhibit the same kinds of properties. I’m a journalist-turned-computer tech by trade, not a chemist.
But first, I tried omitting the WD-40 step and just cleaned it with Goo Gone and TV tuner cleaner. Like I said, every time I turn around I read somewhere that you shouldn’t go near a model train with WD-40. Between the TV tuner cleaner and the Goo Gone, the train looked brand new very quickly. I was impressed. It ran very nicely too, but the next day it didn’t run at all. Figuring that now I had nothing to lose, I broke out the Liquid Wrench.
After a spraydown with Liquid Wrench, it ran too well–it flew off the track and fell 4 feet to my concrete floor. Ouch. That left a mark. One corner of the cab busted off, and it took me a good 15 minutes to find it. After I’d let the locomotive run 20 minutes–with a big load this time, to slow it down and keep it on the track–I re-glued the broken corner with some Tenax-7R plastic welder. Tenax is great stuff–apply a small amount of it, hold the pieces together for a minute, and they’ll stay. It’ll take 8 hours for the joint to completely dry and reach full strength, but after just a minute, the joint is as strong as it would be with every other glue I’ve ever tried on plastic.
Lesson learned: Keep your test track on the floor. Or surround it with pillows. Or use a Marx transformer that can send just a couple of volts on its lowest setting, so slow actually means slow.
The next day, I ran my 490 the opposite direction on my track–the first time I’d ever run a locomotive that direction on the track. And guess what? I found a bad spot on the track. It derailed–again–and the piece I’d glued fell off in spite of the cushions I’d placed all around my table.
Then I remembered that Tenax is amazing stuff if your two pieces fit snugly, because unlike some glues, Tenax doesn’t fill in the gaps at all. The break must not have been clean enough to give the Tenax adequate surface area to create a very strong bond. So I re-glued with epoxy, since epoxy will fill gaps. It held this time.
So now Marxie has a battle scar and he’s probably worth half what he was worth a week ago, but he runs very well. It’s short on ability but long on heart–it struggles pulling loads that won’t make a Lionel break a sweat. But it’ll pull them, and you can see it working hard doing it. And where a Lionel will just give up on a grade with a curve with a long load of cars, the Marx just keeps spinning its wheels, ever faster, until something manages to catch and it propels on its way.
I think that’s what I like about it. It never gives up.
There are a few other things to like about them too. Like I said before, you can buy a Marx locomotive for less than the price of the box a Lionel locomotive came in. Marxes are easy to take apart–mine’s held together by four joints, easily pried apart with a small slotted screwdriver. And the motor is simpler than a Lionel, so it’s easier to understand. If you want to learn how to fix toy trains, Marxes are easy to learn on, and if you mess up, you ruin a $15 locomotive rather than a $100-$1,000 locomotive.
As you can probably guess from the length of time between postings, the Lionel has proven to be quite the distraction. A welcome one, but definitely a distraction.
I’ve picked up a few tricks along the way.
Clean old plastic buildings quickly. My buildings had accumulated a decade or so of dust and grime sitting in a box, and they probably weren’t clean when they were boxed either. The solution? Put a dab of hand soap and a small amount of laundry detergent in a bucket, then fill it with warm water. Just put in enough soap and detergent to make some suds. Disassemble the buildings and drop them in. Let them soak for a few minutes, then scrub with a toothbrush. They’ll look almost new. Note: Don’t do this if they have decals, or if you deliberately weathered the buildings. If you don’t know what weathering means, then go get your bucket.
Cleaning severely rusted track. To clean severely rusted track, give it a thrice-over with a drill’s metal brush attachment. It’ll mark the track up badly, but it’ll clean it up fairly nicely and may allow a dysfunctional train to run again. Don’t worry about ruining a prized collectible; used Lionel track sells for 25-50 cents a section at a hobby shop. This also means you shouldn’t put a lot of time and effort into salvaging rusty track–especially considering the new stuff sells for a dollar.
Lubricate your cars’ wheels for smoother operation. Unlike the engine, WD-40 is fine for this. Put a small quantity of oil into a bottlecap, then use a toothpick to apply it anywhere that the axles come in contact with other parts of the car. After doing this, your train will run more quietly and smoother, and your locomotives will be able to pull approximately 30% more weight, so you can feel free to add another car or two.
Buildings on the cheap for the nether regions of your layout. If you have some kind of structured drawing program (Adobe Illustrator, KDE Kontour, Macromedia Freehand, or even something like Visio) you can draw the basic shapes of buildings, print them out on heavy card stock, and cut them up and glue them together. Get started by taking measurements from an existing building and use that as a guide to help you learn the height of a door, window, and floor. Export the file to some kind of raster format (JPG or PNG) prior to printing and use GIMP or Photoshop to add textures if your drawing program doesn’t support it. For added realism, cut out the windows and glue in pieces of transparent plastic (kitchen plastic wrap is fine but cutouts from clear plastic bags are nicer). It doesn’t take any longer than assembling and painting a plastic model, the results are surprisingly convincing–the only advantage plastic offers is more realistic texture–and you’ll never beat the price. And if something happens to the building, you can always print out and reassemble another one.
Polystyrene sheets for scratchbuilding plastic models on the cheap. Once you’ve built some paper models and want to move up to building plastic buildings from scratch, you can pay $7 for a small sheet of polystyrene at a hobby shop, or you can buy 88-cent Beware of Dog signs from the nearest hardware or discount store. It’s the same stuff, only bigger and printed on one side. Put the printed side on the inside of the model and cover it with paper if you want to keep your secret safe. If you live near a big city, I’ve heard that plastic distributors sell big 4’x8′ sheets of polystyrene for about $7. A square foot of material makes for a good-sized building, so a 4×8 sheet will probably yield more than 30 buildings.