Saturday, December 21, 2019

Dome car improvements

Here is a Life-Like passenger car, originally Amtrak Silver Inn 8053, after a rebuild for the Cape Ann. The detail molded into the dining area in the dome is quite amazing, but generally goes unnoticed since the entire interior is all molded grey plastic. 

Step 1 (interior): A careful repaint in contrasting colors shows that each table has four place settings, silverware, coffee cups, napkins, and salt and pepper shakers! Here the carpet has been painted yellow, chairs Cape Ann green, tablecloths maroon. 

Step 2 (not shown): Hungry passengers are brought in. It does require leg amputations to fit them into the seats.

Step 3 (exterior): The all-clear dome needs a bit of work. First, all the window frames are painted by running a silver Sharpie pen along them for a metallic look. The a roof panel is added, made from - what else? duct tape.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Recycling hood unit shells

Have an old shell from a hood unit loco hanging around? You can cut it up and add some ends from styrene to make a lineside instrument enclosure, or even tool storage for your shops. It would be a shame to let those nice doors go to waste!

Friday, November 22, 2019

Staging a loco service in the shop

What to do with a dummy locomotive - or a beyond-repair locomotive? It can be staged as a unit being serviced. Here is an AHM dummy Alco "1000" (I think it is really a model S3). It is parked on the service track at Bolton Shops.

Some of the access doors have apparently been removed for expediency. In reality, the doors are still in place, but have been painted flat black to make them just appear as openings. Four new "doors" have been cut from styrene and painted to match, and leaned against the hood. A workman is posed in position, along with his tool box. And the blue flag lanterns (LEDs) have been set in place foreward and aft.

A similar trick has been used to open some car hoods. See this post.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Pimp my Pancake Motors

The Cape Ann is a point-to-point layout with no provision for turning trains or locomotives. There is a runaround track at each end which allows locos to run around the train. With this configuration, it makes sense for the usual power to be two locos running back-to-back, so they need not be turned.

paired F7's

The standard loco used for passenger service is a Bachmann F9 Pancake Motor model, so called due to its "pancake" motor, having a flat 3-pole round rotor. I have standardized on this model, due to its common availability (can be had for $10-$12 used on eBay), and ease of service. This is a trainset quality loco, but with some tweaking we make reliable runners out of them. The pancake motor itself is never the issue, it is a nice little motor. The problem with it is getting the power to it reliably. (Some Like-Like locos use the same motor). 

The plan is to run the locos in mated pairs. First we will make each loco operate reliably independently, then wire them together. This results in a two-motor loco with double the number of electrical pickup axles. This arrangement makes it immune to any dropouts of power, since the pickup axles are now spread over a greater distance. Now it is a strong puller and will not stall over turnouts.

typical pancake motor loco

1. Find appropriate locos. We search eBay for "HO Bachmann F9" or "HO Santa Fe 307" for possibilities. Look at photos closely. You can generally identify a pancake motor model by the odd notch in the fuel tank area - see pencil point in photo. Every one we have seen with this notch has been a pancake motor.

notch here generally indicates a pancake motor model

Electrical tuneup: Remove the sideframe housing from the pickup truck. Remove the wheelsets for cleaning. Clean the treads and the back sides of the wheels as well (I use a little wire brush in a Dremel tool). Brighten up the wiper strips as well. Place a tiny dot of oil at the four points at which the axles rotate within the sideframe (this should cure any locos which require a little push to start). 

Drivetrain tuneup: Remove the sideframe housing from the drive truck. Place one dot of oil on each gear. Install new traction tires. I like the ones from eBay seller "ggnlars".

Lighting upgrade: Remove the stock lamp and replace with a 12v LED (All Electronics PN LED-12W) and a 1K resistor (All Electronics PN 291-1K) in series. Be sure polarity is correct - it will only light in one direction of travel. This will provide directional, constant-intensity lighting. The LED will be at full brilliance before the loco has enough voltage to begin moving.

Weight check: I add weight to 12 ounces - but that is a personal preference. 

Test each loco independently. Make sure it starts without nudging, and runs smoothly. If it requires a "nudge" to start, that indicates friction somewhere. See the note in Electrical Tuneup about lubing the axles. 

Once they are operating 100%, wire the locos together. I run paired #24 speaker wire between the locos, passing it through the rear window of each unit. 

click to enlarge

After shells are replaced, form the wire into a U-shape to allow flexibility.

I leave the stock horn-hook couplers as is to join the locos. 

Where else can get you a dual-motor loco for the price?

Sunday, November 10, 2019


You can never have enough pallets cluttering up the layout. They are easy to make.

  1. Get a box of FLAT toothpicks.
  2. Cut 1/2" pieces out of the toothpicks, you can usually get two pieces out of the middle of each toothpick. 
  3. Place a loop of masking tape, sticky-side out, on your workbench.
  4. Build the pallet upside down. Place five or six pieces in a row on the tape, leaving a little gap between each.
  5. Place three pieces across, and glue with white glue.
  6. Allow to dry then pop them off the tape.

Note: real pallets have three layers of boards. I tried this but they appeared too thick, so I just use the two layers as shown. No one has noticed.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Milk to Diesel

This Matchbox milk truck converts easily to a fuel truck. Since the model is called "Petrol Pumper", that is what it was designed as originally.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Matchbox loaders

The cute little Matchbox Skid-steer (left) makes a nice HO loader. All it needed was paint on the loader arm and scoop, dirt on the tires, and the lights painted in. My two versions are on the right. A cut-in-half operator could be perched on the seat.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Time wasters

We now have four time wasters installed on the layout, one at each passenger station, and one near a hobo camp.

The idea of a time waster is to "force" passage of time to make us wait while some imagined activity is occurring on the layout. The time waster is just a one-minute sand timer*, held in a cup made from a PVC pipe cap.

When a passenger train stops at a station, the timer is turned over to begin a one minute interval to allow time for passengers to detrain and board. The train cannot proceed until the time has elapsed.

The hobo camp time waster is explained by this excerpt from the rule book:

Block 16 Trespasser check: If any portion of a freight train comes to a stop at any point in block 16, crew shall check for trespassers aboard the train before proceeding. This may be done by either walking the train, or a slow rollby. This is due to a known hobo encampment in this area. A one-minute timer shall be used to force passage of time before proceeding.

* available from Amazon

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Easy structure lighting

All my structures are illuminated the same way, with LEDs scavenged from a string of Christmas lights.

Parts required:

  • String of LED Christmas lights
  • Resistors (see chart below)
  • Plug in wall transformer from some old appliance
  • Plastic milk jug

1. Pull the LED assemblies out of the string of lights. There is usually a little tab which has to be released first (arrow). Then just pull the assembly out.

2. Add a dropping resistor to one lead of the LED. It doesn't matter which one. The value of the resistor is chosen depending on what voltage your plug-in transformer provides. The goal is to get 20mA through the LED. I use a 5 volt supply and I add a 1K resistor, which is an easy choice for any voltage between 3-12 volts. Then add wire long enough to reach your power supply. 

Resistor values to provide 20mA
5 volts = 220 ohm
6 volts = 330 ohm
9 volts = 470 ohm
12 volts = 620 ohm

Of course, you can always use larger resistance values, the LED brightness goes down with increasing resistance. I use 1K just because I have a lot of them, and I don't want the structure lights too overpowering.

You should also read the label on your wall transformer and see what the current rating is. This will tell you how many 20 mA LEDs it can handle. 1 Amp = 1000 mA, so if your supply sources 1 Amp, that is the same as 1000 mA, so it will power 50 LEDs at 20 mA each.

Now you have to mark the wires for correct polarity. I don't bother keeping track until I get ready to connect them up. I just touch my two wires to a 6 volt lantern battery and see which way lights the LED. Then I mark the (+) lead with a red marker.

3. Drill a 5/16" hole in your layout at your structure location, and poke the wire down the hole until the LED just sits atop the layout.

4. We do not want to see the LED through the structure windows, and we do not want to see a point source of light, so we add a diffuser. Cut a 1" x 3" piece off a plastic milk jug. Notch the ends and roll it into a cylinder, and place it over the LED. Here we see how the light is diffused by the translucent milk jug plastic.

5. Place your structure over the LED.  Try putting some opaque black tape over some of the windows on the inside to suggest the building has different rooms - see the red building in the background below, the windows on the right have been blocked out inside.

Saturday, January 19, 2019


On a recent Amtrak trip, I noticed every station has a few taxis, but my layout did not. So we needed some taxis.

These are some el cheapo Chinese architectural model cars from eBay. They snap apart in 3 pieces (body, window insert, chassis). A quick yellow paint job, a roof sign from a bit of styrene, and a stripe made with a mini brush turns them into taxis.