The Things We Do for Our Craft

There is nothing quite like walking through a doorway to a trainset running far above your head, where your dreams ever fly.

I was called to repair an LGB G scale trainset that is elevated nearly twelve feet from the floor in a dentist’s office.  It is a beautiful set.  The little 0-4-0 is small but mighty, and it has a powered tender that is just as strong.  It has only five cars including a lighted caboose, but it could probably pull four or five times as many.  The engine and tender each are plenty heavy and have a traction tire, so they have plenty of tractive power for a long consist.

On my first trip, I cleaned and lubricated the engine units and rolling stock.  I did not have enough time to clean the track.  The set has been up there for three or four years, and it has all of those years’ worth of dust and dirt built up.  I took one swipe of the rails with my hand, and it looked as it did at the end of the Christmas rush.  Black and grey.  ’tis no wonder things squeaked and grated.  I pulled everything down for cleaning, and that worked pretty well.  However, the newly cleaned rails packed on the old dirt and grit, and the electrical contact was lessened.  The track was no less a problem than the condition of the engine.

I had to do some climbing and clambering to reach parts of the track that twelve-foot ladder could not.  It took me three hours to clean the damned thing, but I got it done.  I could have fallen and died at any time, but my trains needed me!

One of my previous jobs had me throwing forty-pound weights on and off theatre stage pulley systems sixty-four feed above the stage floor.fullsizeoutput_275b

Not bad for someone who is afraid of heights, eh?fullsizeoutput_275c

A nice view from one of the upper windows of the dentist office lobby windows.  Looks like a baseball stadium.IMG_2561IMG_2559IMG_2556IMG_2555IMG_2554IMG_2553IMG_2552fullsizeoutput_275aIMG_2549


Here are some random train photos with some repeats and **drumroll** photos!

My question about the decoders was answered, later.  They were defective, replaced, and the new ones worked like a dream!

The little layout on the blue table is the one we have at the store in HobbyTown.  The N scale one is my personal set, and the HO set and structures are the store’s stuff on display.

To whomever reads my humble little blog, what do your layouts look like?  Have any stories of your own to share?

It’s the Little Things. The VERY little things.

Of all the different sizes of model trains, I find the most fascinating to be Z scale.  It’s so small and minuscule, but it is also so mighty!  The little engines are so tiny, but they are deceptively fast and strong.  My first Z set was a Micro Trains Line Desktop Railroad Set with a New York Central F7 diesel.  I also bought a Western Pacific four-car wreck recovery pack.  I really enjoy my little train set.

I’ve noticed something about how the whole consist pulls.  It may be due to the angle of couplers, or merely the size of everything, but it seems that there needs to be enough weight to everything for the couplers to catch one another.  If they are not taught, they release and come undone.  The lack of weight is good for long loads and going in reverse with a lessened chance of derailment, but not so great for staying together.

From little to not so little, I am excited to get into two-rail O scale.  I have only one such item–my Rivarossi 0-8-0 Indiana Harbor Belt steamer.  I’ve heard from several that the two-rail O scale models look more like models than the those of the three-rail variety.  Based on the details I have observed in my engine, I am inclined to agree.  Even so, the track seems to be quite expensive.  It will take much saving to build my little railroad, but the time and money will be well worth the effort.


Let’s move on to bigger things.  A customer brought in two O scale locomotives.  He wanted one to get some regular maintenance as well as have a smoke unit installed.  I wasn’t quite sure if I could make one fit, but I did!  I just happened to already have two smoke units in my spare parts dish.  I was sure I would have to do a lot of form fitting, cutting, molding, possibly melting, and major rewiring to make it work.

As it turns out, all I needed to do was shim the whole frame of the engine.  The smoke unit just fit.  There is absolutely no room for any movement, jostling, spare wires–it could almost be air-tight.  But it fits.  It works.  And I didn’t have to do ANY drilling or filing.  The customer is sure to be happy.

Oh, and the engine, itself, works good as new, too.  Not that that was the whole point of bringing the thing in, or anything…………..


As for the other engine, it seemed to be much more of a challenge.  Fitting a new unit in the body was easy.  It even aligned with the smoke stack.  However, getting the mechanism to puff the smoke in equal and consistent puffs was more than adverse.  The new smoke unit fit, but it wasn’t shaped the same way.  The empty air reservoire that actually pushes the smoke up and out was offset in the old one and directly center in the new.  The lever that operates the reservoire column was too long and not correctly shaped to properly work with the new unit.  I tried flexing the lever and form filing the reservoire, but everything caught and stuck.

I was fidgeting with the old smoke unit, trying to figure it all out, when I dropped the thing to the floor, and the burner element fell out of the loose end cap.  Then, it hit me.  All I had to do was swap out the old wax melting element for the oil boiling one.  After much scraping and digging, the new element fit perfectly.  I soldered everything up, slapped the cap on, fit the rest of the engine back to the frame, and crossed my fingers.








’twas most awesome.

That same engine had a funky reversing unit.  I cracked it open, and everything was pretty dirty.  The funny thing about a reversing unit is the number of parts it takes to make an engine simply move.  The inner drum is lined with metal belts that are shaped to alternately contact metal flanges.  Each flange is soldered to a different wire that either provides electrical flow or redirects it somewhere else.  If a single one is bent out of shape or contacting the wrong belt, nothing works.  It all just sparks or sits dead.  The flanges took some flexing and sanding, but I got it all back into shape.  Pulling the drum out is easy.  Putting it back in is a pain.  The two walls that hold the drum in place have to be close enough to contact it, two flange boards have to fit into slots of the unit walls, the flanges have to be spaced wide enough to allow the drum to fit back into place, and the clip that rotates the drum has to be out of the way.  Much in the fashion of re-assembling steam engine drive rods, everything has to fit in just the right way at just the right time.


I really wish I had had the sense to take photos of the things I’ve been mentioning in this particular post.  Oh, well.  There will be plenty more photogenic opportunities.

In the meantime, here are some photos of other things.IMG_2453IMG_2434IMG_2433IMG_2430fullsizeoutput_2728fullsizeoutput_2729fullsizeoutput_272afullsizeoutput_272bIMG_2484fullsizeoutput_26c6

Time is Quality

Here’s a thought that I’ve been thinking, lately:  “Time is quality.”  Every job I’ve ever had has been an hourly wage-based one, but I’ve never really thought of time as money.

I could spend hours on one repair and never blink an eyelash.  That’s how we were taught in Red Wing.  We were taught quality before speed, and speed came to everyone at very different paces.  The only real speed I ever learned was speed in sight reading sheet music.  Not quite as practical for musical instrument or train repair, but I don’t mind.  I enjoy whiling away the long hours with the littlest of things.

I’m sure I can hand-make electrical pick-ups for a passenger car faster since I’ve done it once, but I won’t try to be lightning-fast.  It’s too easy to slip up and miss something when going fast.

One thing I think I should really learn about is air brush painting and mixing.  I started painting a diesel engine and some freight cars months ago, and I’m nowhere near being finished.

Time, quality, and money.  The big three.  You can have something done quickly for less money and lesser quality; you can pay for high quality in whatever time is required; you can get finite standards of quality within finite time for a finite amount of money.  Those are what I have typically known to be true.  What is the best balance or blend of the three?  What kind of tastes do you have?  I was raised to value quality, money, and patience.


Imagine the time it takes to go from this…..img_2214

… this…..fullsizeoutput_268a

… this.

Just imagine all the hours spent hunched over a plank of wood or stooped on the ground–fastening, gluing, painting, wiring, always modifying.

’tis most exciting.

I love little work like taking apart steam engine drive rods and putting them back together.  Standing back and taking in the fruits of all that hard labor, time, and effort feels great.  You made something exactly how you wanted it, and it looks GREAT!!!

I’ve been talking with a college friend, and he is just getting started on making his railroad.  He just bought $700 worth of Great Northern Empire Builder passenger cars for $160.  I am excited to watch how his collection grows.  I just wish I could make my bank account grow enough to match my train collection…..

“Make it Work!” ….or don’t.

Sometimes, the only thing to do when stumped is to find a way to just make it work.  If you can’t make it work, make something that does.  So, I did.

Model railroading has been around for a long time.  It is a very enduring hobby.  In the earlier days, there were many variances and inaccuracies in scale and detail.  One of the most easily overlooked but crucial details of model railroading is couplers.

There are a variety of different styles of couplers used in model railroading.  There are hooks and loops, trucks with coupler arms, coupler boxes attached to body frames, interchangeable couplers, permanently installed couplers, metal and plastic ones, all metal, all plastic–so many variations!

A customer came seeking a particular style of coupler for his son’s rolling stock.  His son was swapping out his truck-mounted and pin-fastened horn couplers for knuckle couplers because he wanted a more prototypical aesthetic.  There is a specific coupler that will fit the little pins, but they are out of production.  Therefore, I decided to fashion some adapter sleeves that will secure modern knuckle couplers around the holding pins.

I used 3/32″ and 1/8″ hollow copper tubing to make a two-part sleeve.  The inner sleeve fits around the fastening pin, and the outer sleeve fits around that sleeve and within the coupler loop.DSC06246.JPG

I would have used only one size of tubing, but I did not find any of appropriate fit.  Now that I think about it, I am glad I am using two sizes.  There is still a very small tolerance between the inner sleeve’s outer diameter and the outer sleeve’s inner diameter, and that leaves a little wiggle room for fine fitting to slight differences in pin diameters.

This photo shows the adapter sleeves in place with a No. 5 Kadee coupler and copper mounting spring.fullsizeoutput_26dc

The adapter sleeves are simple.  However, they do take a little time to make and install.  If they are too thick or thin, they may not hold the coupler in place well and could fail.  Trial and error are great teachers.

This is my cat, Korra.  Oddly enough, she is afraid of my train sets.  Even the little N scale one makes her leery….  One day, I am going to get her to ride on my G scale set.  It will be epic!!!img_2089img_1953img_1910

It Was A Personal Victory

It’s been a little while since my last post.  Moving sucks.  Moving four times in the span of a year and a half royally sucks.

Today, I felt very personally victorious.  A guy sent us a box of boxes of trains that needed various repairs.  In one of said boxes was a Pennsylvania dining car.  The shell was loose, both couplers were loose, it was missing a coupler fastener, and it was missing wiring and a light bulb for interior lighting.

One coupler was easy, but the other one was a little tricky.  The repair concept was pretty simple, but finding the right parts to match was fun.  It’s original fastener was gone, and it was of an older style.  I didn’t have any spares in any of my parts boxes, so I trimmed the coupler box arm to fit the new fastener.  It fit well, but it did not have a strong enough friction fit for me to call it done.  I bored out a hole through the arm and the new coupler fastener to make room for a screw.  I had no screw of the precise width and length, so I cut off the excess length with a cutting disk.

Simple, but kind of time consuming.

The next obstacle was rewiring it to light up.  It’s original bulb was gone, it had no wiring, and it’s electrical pick-ups in the trucks were gone.  I could only find a marginally oversized bulb that worked, so I bored out the circuit plate to tolerate the bulb.  I used some sheet brass to fashion home-made electrical pickups that would contact the three axles of each truck.



It was aesthetically crude, but it worked well when I tested it.  Once I had the trucks fitted to the frame with their new pick-ups, I soldered some multi-stranded wire to the fastening screws and the electrical contact plates to complete the circuit.


It wasn’t quite to manufacturer standards, but it worked well.  I’m happy with it.  The guy’s son is going to be very happy when I send his trains back to him.

My next big challenge is digging into the GP40 Union Pacific locomotive behind the dining car.  I can’t find any discernible screws or flaps, and its parts diagram isn’t very helpful.  I found a photo of just the metal chassis, and it looks like something is reverse-fit into the shell.  Oh, well.  I enjoy the challenge of it all!


My repair bench on a daily basis.

Trains, Trains, and–what’s this???? MORE TRAINS!!!!!

I’ve not been to a train show in almost a decade until Saturday.  I went to the Dallas Area Train Show in Plano as a representative of work, and I had a blast!  I wish could have spent the whole day at the show rather than two hours, but I enjoyed every second of those two hours.  I learned a few things about the Lionel company, I enjoyed talking with other train buffs, and I found some super cool three-dimensionally printed N scale houses.  3D printing has great potential down many avenues, and I would like to pursue a few of those, someday.

Some people don’t realize just how big model railroading really is.  Some of the earliest model railroads actually had no rails.  Dribblers/Piddlers were model steam locomotives with no track that just ran across the carpet–hence, the name carpet railways was very fitting.  One of my fellow HobbyTown employees mentioned that, at one time, he had no idea just how big model railroading really was.  It really is a big deal.

Model trains began in Germany around the eighteen-thirties, and the fun spread to France and England.  Germany is the birthplace of another great invention–the tuba!!!!!!  Germany still makes the best tubas.


Some modelers really do go all out.  They do it well.


Baby’s First Train Set

I was two years old when I got my first train set.  It fit perfectly around the cake Mom made me.  I don’t remember much from way back then, but I do remember that little train.  As you can tell from the featured photograph, I was fascinated by it.  I would have fallen from my high chair if my family hadn’t kept me upright.  There isn’t much I won’t do if I think I have a chance to see a train.

There is just something about the wonder of the sounds and movement of a train that captivates me.  They are big, strong, loud, and just look so cool!  They can take you wherever you want, and, if you lose your way, you can always find your way back.  They leave pretty big tracks!!!

The wonder of that little train started a lifelong passion.  I never get tired of watching train videos on YouTube.  There is always so much to enjoy and see.  Trains are a big part of America’s history.  They brought people out west, they transported goods to and from the west coast, and, at one time, they were the spitting image of luxury travel.  Even today, people actively seek out steam excursions.  Diesels and electric trains are cheaper and more efficient, but people always love the symbol of strength and exploration steam locomotives embody.

People have lots of different passions.  Mine are trains, music, and literature.  What sparks the passion, fascination, imagination, and wonder of others?  People of all ages love trains.  Every day, I see people with grey and silver hair and pacifiers come look at the trains.  Parents hold up their children to get a closer look at trains in glass cases or to play with my little N scale set by my work bench.  Others love remote controlled cars, planes, boats, and drones.  People build and collect models, puzzles, robots, and kinds of things of all shapes and sizes.

Something brings joy to everyone.

This is the featured photo from the top.  The bottom part of the train was cut out, so here it all is!fullsizeoutput_26c2

It’s the Little Things

“I’m just kidding!”  I was so relieved, I almost cried.  She just came back to buy the Hogwarts set.  I smiled, and we both had a good laugh before I carried her new set up to the register.

That was a pretty good night.


Today, I enjoyed a coupler swap and re-build for a regular patron.  He is building a Denver and Colorado railway themed layout, and he found a particular boxcar to fit the theme.  However, it was missing a coupler on one end, and it had an older style coupler than what the rest of his set had.  It took a little time, but I fit some new coupler boxes with modern horn couplers onto the wood frame of the car.  He also brought in a boxcar which he had bought from the store that he believed needed new couplers, or something.  Every time the boxcar hit a curve, it or its adjoining cars derailed.  I fit new couplers into the wheel trucks, and all was well, again.

He was very excited about his new boxcar.  He repeatedly said, “I want it!”  He was very hopeful that I could make everything fit for him, and I really enjoyed and shared in his excitement about his hobby.  The little things like that really make waking up worth it.

Another big little thing is watching kids play with my train set.  I brought my N scale set from home and set it up by my work bench.  I know most people won’t be convinced to buy trains just from playing with a set, but they still enjoy it.

That’s what it’s all about.  The only reason anyone needs for a hobby is the fact that they enjoy it.  I have always been fascinated by the sounds of trains rolling down the rails, watching steam locomotives’ wheel cranks move and work together, and how smoothly turnouts blend into and out of a line of track.  There’s just something about the smooth perfection of it all that has a certain artistic beauty.

Some people prefer the large scales, and others prefer the small ones.  I enjoy all of them.  The large ones are really visually impressive, and the small ones are so cute and fun to work  on!  The small ones are also deceptively fast.  Little Z scale engines can shoot off like rockets if you give them plenty of electrical power!

Another fine artistic beauty is the design of the two Hornby European steam locomotives I worked on, today.  Some of the cranks were bent out of shape, and I had to do some scratch soldering, but they both ran beautifully when I finished them.  I find it interesting that some of them draw power from the engine and feed it to the motorized tender.  The green 4-6-2 was like that.  The black 2-6-0 drew power from both the engine and tender, and it was considerably faster than the green one.

Now that I think about it, it was the European style with which I originally fell in love as a kid.  That’s how all the trains on Shining Time Station were made.  It’s funny to think that a European-inspired show featured the Union Pacific 4-8-4 844 American style passenger steam locomotive on its emblem and opening theme credits.  I may have to invest in some European steam locomotives.  They really are beautiful works of human industry and creation.

The green one is finished and just chilling to the side while I test run the black one.  I love watching the big driving wheels turn and move all the little attached parts.



See how the piston crank is bent into a Z shape?  It’s not supposed to be like that…


Riding the Rails and Living the Life

I’m not where I imagined I would be, but I can’t think of a better dream come true.

“Shining Time Station” was my first foray into the world of trains, and it will stay buried deep in my heart for my lifetime.  I still have all of my old die-cast, probably lead-based paint, Thomas & Friends trains in a box at home, somewhere.  I will never give them up.

My first electrified set was an HO scale Life-Like Santa Fe freight set with an extra little green switcher.  I loved that train set.  I played with it so much, and my parents often had to yell at me to get to bed.  I would have stayed up all night playing with it.

My train set took over our pool and ping-pong tables for a long time.  I don’t know how many extra dollars I added to the electricity bill, but I gladly pay the extra bucks, now.  I’ve always been an HO railroader, but this new train repair job necessitates that I begin amassing sets in all the other scales.  I have a nice new G set, I pieced together an N set, and I have two O scale sets with some extra engines and rolling stock.  I am very proud of my train sets, and I am not ashamed to admit that they are my vise.  Some people become alcoholics, substance addicts, or whatever.  “My name is Michael, and I am a train hoarder.”


I wasn’t really expecting to get into model train repair, but I am very glad I sent my boss an inquiring e-mail regarding their train department.  I had never heard of HobbyTown USA.  I just Googled “train shops near me,” and it appeared in a list of several places.  I happened to inquire about a train department job right as their established train repair technician was about to move away.

I really lucked out!  I was very fortunate to train–**slaps knee**–with Jim, the only Lionel Certified train repairman north of San Antonio in the state of Texas.  He taught me everything he could in two weeks.  A patron brought in an HO scale 2-8-8-2 steam locomotive with a broken crank rod support assembly.  It had been dropped or gripped too hard, and it had come loose from its pop-riveted frame.  I tried to think how best to secure metal to metal without the use of a flame torch.  The plastic of the wheels would melt if exposed to my micro torch’s flame, so I decided to drill out the rivets, thread the bore, insert some screws, and sealed the threads with super glue and solder.

I “passed with flying colors!”  That singular engine was my big test, and Jim felt very comfortable leaving his patrons and their trains in my hands!

Thus far, the engine has not come across my bench, again, so I can only believe that my repair work has held.  To date, I have had only one repeat repair, and that was today.  Somehow, the manufacturer forgot to insert a drive shaft in the body of a diesel locomotive.  The engine’s back set of driving wheels wouldn’t turn.  The front ones slipped and spun out while the back wheels were dragged behind.  That is no way to travel!  I took an oversized drive shaft from a parts locomotive of similar model, cut it down to appropriate size, and inserted it into the customer’s engine.  It held for a little while, but the modified shaft couldn’t hold up to the demands of the conductor.  Such modified parts only go so far.  We swapped that engine for an identical new one, and all was well, again!

The internal wiring of some modern O scale engines is impressive.


Below is an articulated Union Pacific Challenger. It’s body is so long, it almost can’t handle the curve.

This is the inside of a 6-8-6 turbine steam locomotive from the first half of the Twentieth Century.  It had lots of corrosion and crud built up inside it, but it still ran right out of the box in which it had been stored for almost half a century.


One of my best repairs was an O scale Lionel Polar Express engine.  A lady brought it in on my day off, so I couldn’t receive and spot-diagnose it for her.  My first thoughts when I pulled it out of its box were how many cotton fibers had built up in the crank rod assembly.  It took a while to cut and clear those away, but I still couldn’t get the engine to do anything after a full cleaning and lubrication.  I replaced the broken primary crank rod, flexed other crooked rods, and checked all the solder joints.  Still nothing.  I had the lady bring in the tender and LionChief remote, and that was all that it really took.  I got it to work, tested it in every what I could think of, and saved the lady and her family hundreds of dollars.  They had purchased the set less than a month prior, and this was a five hundred dollar set.  Such high-end sets should never experience such problems, but shit happens.  I fixed her train, and she was happy and relieved!

As I was working on her engine and we were talking, we got on the subject of Harry Potter.  She and her family are all huge Harry Potter nerds, and they almost bought the Hogwarts Express set versus the Polar Express.  They initially wanted something Christmasy.  The more she and I talked about its different features and design, the more she wanted it.  After she left with her newly repaired engine, she promptly walked back into the store and marched back to my bench.  I was already holding my breath, and I almost shat my pants when she said, “I dropped it.”


…………to be continued.