Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Lighting the ATSF Super Chief HO Train (on the cheap)

Like many model train hobbyists, I have a bit of a thing for the Santa Fe Super Chief with the F-3/7 Warbonnet painted engines.  My cousin had a beast of one in O scale long before I was born.  My older siblings inherited it, then later returned it to my cousin who now has it.  It's a bit of a family tradition.

My first DCC HO train purchase was a Walther's Proto F-3 with the Warbonnet paint scheme pictured below.

My plan was just to learn the basics of DCC with it, and no more - well, you know how that went.  I was out in Silicon Valley for a conference and stopped by a train shop there.  I had previously looked into the Walther's Super Chief passenger cars online - they were sweet, but way too expensive.  They had people in them and everything.  I just couldn't justify buying six or ten cars at well greater than $100 each.

But this shop in Santa Clara had Athearn Ready to Roll Super Chief cars that were relatively inexpensive.  The guy at the shop helped me line out the consist (by the way, some reviews online said he was surly - sure, not Mr. Smiley Face, but he was straight up with me and helped me out - I liked him).  Later on I added a couple coach cars just to lengthen the consist.  Unfortunately I wasn't paying attention and bought a few with the same side number (it's not the first time I've done that).  Oh well.  It still looks good.

The Athearn series doesn't seem to have a dining car, so the coach car has to fill in - they're all long and silver, so it doesn't look bad.  Nonetheless, I wouldn't let the absence of a dining car pass without a classic rock break:

Whose wine?  What wine?  Where the hell  Did I dine?

Peter, if you partied all the way from Chicago to LA on the Super Chief, you'd have more questions to ask than just those.  Onward.

The first thing I noted about the cheap Athearn cars is that the height of the couplers is not standard, or at least not the same as the Walther's Proto coupler, which was pretty standard.  Grrr.  Also, the couplers are truck mounted and not body mounted - double grrrr.  Someone online in a forum (I've lost the link) suggested using those inexpensive metal Cuidado Hay Perro signs you get at Walmart.  You chop the sign into little rectangular pieces and use them as spacers or shims, then body-mount a Kadee or similar coupler.  I set about "fixing" the couplers with the intention of doing the whole consist but I quit after three because I'm lazy:

Getting the first car (the post office one if I recall correctly) set up to hook up to the Santa Fe F-3 engine unit was the critical one.  All others are gravy after that.

Like every project, especially creative ones, the end result is never as clean or as well executed as you imagine it when you start.  Basically, I wanted to have the passenger cars lit up but not have it cost a fortune or have to deal with flickering and the finicky parts of track power.  Overall, I'm pretty pleased with the surface result (pictured at the top of this entry).  The undersides and insides of the cars I probably could have done a better job on.  Part of the problem was lack of practice and skill; part was just burn out after a handful of cars.  I learned a bit on the way.  Anyway, these are the steps I took to make the car lighting part happen:

1) take the shell of the car off exposing the interior - sounds simple, right?  Actually it helps to be patient with this.  I left a few screw driver marks here and there.  At least one car I had to touch up with silver paint (blended to match Athearn's color).

2) remove the metal weight plate - there are two small bolts holding it down.  Take them out, then gently pull off the plate - you may need a small screwdriver to pry it off.  It is glued on, but very weakly.

3) find a spot where you can place your battery/LED light pack (I actually didn't think this through enough on a couple cars including this one - we'll get to that in a bit).  I got a mini-bulk cache of these, the blue LED's, and batteries from Adafruit, a nerdy maker shop out of NYC.

4) Mark the spot on the plastic bottom of the car where you'll drill a hole for the light switch with a Sharpie.

5) Drill out the slot with a small drill - the Dremel is perfect for this - you don't want anything too powerful or you'll chop your car in half like Godzilla.  The plastic will stick to the drill and wrap around it.  You can "clean" it off by running the drill against a piece of metal.

6) The little battery pack/wiring for LED assemblies come with an electrical connection - you'll be wiring directly so you don't want that (for this project, at least) - snip that off.

7) Strip the wires so they can make contact with the resistors and the LED's.

8) Put the batteries into the little battery unit, wrap the exposed red (positive) wire around one end of the resistor, connect the resistor to another exposed segment of red (positive) wire with and then wrap the other exposed (stripped) end of the second red wire around the positive (longer) segment of the LED.  Wrap the exposed black wire around the negative lead for the LED.  Turn on the light and see if it works before you solder anything.  To recap:  red battery wire --> resistor --> second red wire --> positive end of LED --> negative end of LED --> black wire.

Shown are the LED pack and resistor strip I bought from Adafruit.

The wiring I used on this car had in my opinion too big a gauge.  It is harder to work with than the super thin wiring you use for electronic connections like decoders.  I could be wrong, but I think it also contributes heavily to the resistance for the amps going to the LED.  At least one of the cars I used thin wiring on shines a bit too brightly, while others (like this one) are a bit somber when viewed in the dark.  We'll look at that later.

9) (recommended) hook another light up to the assembly with another set of black and red wires.  Tie the red wire in at the second resistor connection.  tie the black one in at the negative lead to the first LED.  I stumbled upon this setup when I noticed I couldn't get the lighting even in my cars with just one LED.

The wires for that second light need to be longer because that one will have to go at the other end of the car.

10) when you're sure everything works, solder the connections, then make sure everything works again.

11) insulate the connections so that you don't get a short - I use electrical tape - it's ugly, but it's about to get worse below . . .

12) place the metal weight plate where it should be (without securing it) and mark the spot where you need to drill with a Sharpie.

13) put the metal plate in a vise and drill out the opening for the light switch with a sturdy drill (I use the Black and Decker my geologist and reverse circulation drilling friends got me for my first wedding back in '94 - you won't hear me badmouthing this durable beast).

Milk bone box dog says hello.

14) Reassemble the metal plate and car chassis, then glue in the battery pack with CA.

You can see that I failed to plan for one of the weights I had to remove to make space for the battery pack.  This wasn't a deal breaker, but I really needed to be more careful.

CA is cy-an-o-acrylate - wow, that's a mouthful; no wonder it's just called CA.  It's awful stuff.  Worse, it yellows with time.  If I could I would use Elmer's, but this does a much more robust job.

15) tape the lights and wires in place - by in place I mean, put the lights pointing toward the middle of the car pointing roughly straight ahead horizontally - the idea is to create even light, not a beam shooting out one window.  For the wires, make sure they are secured in a way that they are below the windows - they leave shadows and totally ruin the effect if you don't.  Electrical wire and CA are the duct tape and bailing wire of model railroading. The only thing worse than a poorly rigged job of hiding the wires is none at all.

Essentially, this has to be set up so that you can turn the car upside down to turn on the lights and not have everything fall out or fall apart.  Added to that is the spectre of <dramatic monster music> . . .


Seriously, the poor old dog is diabetic and blind.  She doesn't mouth the train cars so much as she bumps into them as she's navigating the floor plan.  Sweet girl, at 15 she's enjoying her golden years.  A knocked over Super Chief car is quite forgiveable.

Frosting or obscuring the windows:  I did this by covering the inside of the windows with frosted paper from Michael's.  The paper isn't expensive - less than 75 cents for an 8 1/2 X 11 inch sheet if I recall correctly.

At first I tried really hard not to get any CA (glue) on the part of the paper that is up against the transparent train windows.  Eventually I gave up.  I didn't just smear CA on everything, but a fair bit got on the windows.  I'll pay for that later.

This part of the crafting was weird for me in that sometimes it was relaxing and like second nature.  Other times I would get so frustrated.  Anyway, the basic gist is that I roughly  measured the width top to bottom of the windows against the frosted paper, then used a makeshift straight edge and Exacto knife to cut the strips to the right size before glueing them in.  If you don't cut the pieces narrow enough they get in the way when you go to put the shell back on the car chassis.  A pair of tweezers is handy for getting the little strips of paper placed right.  A toothpick is good for applying the CA glue.

Lighting results: 
my brother (the one who for a time inherited the O gauge Santa Fe) has a preference for passenger cars with people, or at least silhouettes of them.  I hope this doesn't mean I'm asocial, but I'm the opposite, ghost train all the way for me.

Classic rock break:

And I've been riding on the Ghost Train
Where the cars
They scream and slam

Of all the cars the Pleasure Dome (I think) turned out the best.  I was actually kind of encouraged by the result.

I'm not sure, but I think the gauge of the wire used made a difference as to how bright the LED's shine.  One car shone a bit too brightly - I'm too lazy to dink with it or rewire it now, but it's definitely a weird outlier.

It has the look of a space alien abduction and a train robbery happening at the same time :-\  Oh well.

Consist/Mulit-unit Engine Setup:  this is the most expensive part of the whole thing, naturally.  DCC equipment isn't as expensive as it could be, but it's not cheap either.  I have a Zephyr starter kit command center.  The engines I bought for the three unit consist (A-B-A) are all Walther's Proto with Tsunami sound.  I'm not an expert on F-unit shell accuracy, but they do look nice and pull well.  Each cost between $150 and $170.  The B unit is always the tough one to get a hold of.  Trainworld had some and I rewarded myself for completing the light project by grabbing the A and B unit that completed the three engine consist:

Programming the Tsunami requires some hardware trickery.  Rather than mess with it, I bit the bullet and bought the little programming booster unit - I think it was about $50 or $60 but don't quote me on that:

The Zephyr command station, JMRI (the software that allows you, with some modifications, to run a bunch of throttles from your computer), and Tsunami all have a different way of handling multi-unit engine consists, and they don't work that well, in my experience, together.  A guy much more knowledgeable than I pretty much confirms this.  I ended up having the best luck with the scheme outlined in the Tsunami manual that involves CV's 19 and a couple of the CV-2X series.  The link a couple sentences ago will make that clearer if none of that DCC talk makes sense.

Final notes:  it is a pain to turn all those lights on with a little pick instrument then re-rail the cars (the Kato railer plastic thingy helps).  But it looks so damned pretty.  I confess, I'm pleased.  There are far better modelers than I out there.  One guy I knew in Cruces when I lived there made trees you'd swear were real.

Even so, I'll close out with one more classic rock memory (obscure if you're not German) from our friend Niederdecken who coined the phrase long before Nike's marketing team even thought of it:

Et kütt nur drop ahn
Dat Do et deiß

(high German: Es kommt nur drauf an
Dass Du es tust)

(English:  the important thing
is just
that you do it) 

Thanks for stopping by.

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