Morning on the Layout: Kof II idling in the yard.

Sunshine is streaming in through the windows this morning and I was able to get this photo of the little Minitrix Kof II locomotive sitting in the yard.

The one thing that sticks out to me in this photo are the shiny rails and the 'unballasted' Unitrack in the foreground. If model railroading is therapy, I have years of solace awaiting ahead!

Burger Konig Lighting almost complete!

A quick post on my efforts to 'globalize' some of the Japanese buildings I've acquired in the past several weeks and my interest in creating more of the 'backlit' signage affects of prototype buildings. "Burger Konig" is almost done, I just applied a second decal over the first layer (I am using an inkjet printer with Testor's white background decal sheets, more on that here) which does give a better 'solid' color than just one layer of decals, the decal in the photo has not yet been trimmed yet, which explains some of the 'flappiness' around the edges. The vertical signs on the face of the building (not the sign over the storefront) have just the one original decal layer, and as you can tell from the photos, the LED in the plastic behind the decals overpowers the inkjet decals. I will likely apply a second decal as that seems to work pretty well.

Unitrack Connectors

I'm planning on implementing a "BCD" circuit which will allow me to use standard SPDT toggles along with a lighted control panel and signals next to the track (using standard bi-color LED's on the control panel and yet to be decided signals on the layout). The idea is that I'll have a control panel with lighted indicators as to switch position, as well as some signaling showing the direction of the turnout on the layout itself. Pretty excited to get this going, as I've decided that the standard Kato 'blue' toggles really don't work well for more complicated track plans. If you want more information on the wiring necessary to do something like this, the plan idea comes from one of the members of the Yahoo! Unitrack forum. I must say, he's been a great help for me in educating me on how to wire these circuits.

Anyway, As I've begun to educate myself on how this will be wired, I also decided that I wanted to build this circuit with as much of the original 'plug and play' capabilities of the Kato Unitrack system as possible. The biggest obstacle is getting more of the Unitrack connectors (affordably...without having to cannibalize any Kato products).

I've found a great article by a gentleman named Randall Roberts on About.com that talks about some of the design of the Unitrack connectors at a level of detail I've not seen anywhere. This may be old news to some of you (and irrelevant to others!) but I did not know that the Unitrack "male" and "female" connectors are actually reversed! Yes, the connector that appears to be the female actually has male pins inside of it, and the same is true for the connector that appears to be the male connector (female pins inside).

And as I went about shopping/searching for the connectors which I will need to attach to the switch machines (the switch machines have the outward looking male connectors, which require what appear to be the female connector, but actually contain the male pins inside), it seems like various vendors (most of them in the R/C field) contradict each other as well.

I did find a really good price on the connectors I was looking for at all-battery.com at US $1.39 each, which is a lot cheaper than buying the the Kato cords! I had to get them with 18 gauge wire vs. the Kato connector standard 22 gauge, but I don't think that will be an issue.

There are other Tamiya connectors out there that LOOK like Kato connectors, but they are a different size (for Unitrack compatibility, what you want is the MINI-Tamiya connectors). I've ordered them to use with building lighting and so forth, which have been designed to run on a separate 12v DC power source. The photo at the top of this post shows the apparent similarity in appearance, but the significant difference in size (the smaller version is the Kato Unitrack plug)! Again, I like the plug and play capabilities of these connectors, and the fact that there are similar, but incompatible types of plugs allows me to easily configure my electrical needs without having to do extensive labeling.

UPDATE (5 Jan 2010):
I've discoverd that the Tamiya connectors do not fit correctly with the Kato Unitrack 3-Way Extension cord (24-827).  The electric conducting plugs and sockets are fine, but it seems the white plastic sockets on the 3-way is not long enough to allow the Tamiya connectors to go on all the way.  I assume that if you modified or trimmed the white plastic on the Tamiya connectors a bit they will slide all the way on, but I haven't tried this yet.  I will provide another update on this once I've tested it.


Urban Development at 1:160

The project that I have been working on lately revolves around trying to get somewhat typical lighting into my buildings and structures. I've always been interested in this part of the hobby/layout building, and some recent successes with LED lights, which are great given their relatively long life span and low heat output, have made some of my desires- to add more 'realistic' types of lighting effects to buildings -very achievable and very affordable. It also hasn't hurt to give me an opportunity to work on my soldering skills!

I first started using 'pre-assembled' LED lights, particularly the 'universal' kind, in some buildings, which I was purchasing online from ModelTrainSoftware.com. While these work quite well, at around $5 a pop, I figured it would be far more cost effective if I figured out how to do it myself.

There are really only two things to do after I decided to start trying to 'build' my own LED lights. The first is that I am going to have to learn to solder. The second, is to figure out all of those voltage, ma, and resistor calculations. There is no short cut for the former, however, for the later, I've found the LED Center and their "linear1" website which features a foolproof (nearly) calculator for both single LED's and the LED's in series.

From there, its all about figuring out your voltage source, and then getting the right LED's and the right resistors. I've started to get these from eBay given the amazingly cheap prices you pay for quantities of 50 or 100!

The lighting projects I am most interested in are adding some 'back lit' signs to buildings and signs as they seem to be nearly everywhere. Its an area of lighting that I expect to give a lot of 'color' and 'life' to my layout. Other than neon signs, these seem to be the most common method for stores and other commercial entities. You can kind of see the effect I am going for in the above picture, which has a typical 'unlit' sign between two 'backlit' signs (which is clear plastic added in after cutting out the original plastic in those parts of the building).

Its a bit hard to tell from the photos (I could not get the right shutter speed to show it accurately) but what I've done is collected various types of clear, flat or cube-shaped plastic, reduced it to the appropriate size for the sign (which means lots of hand sanding, difficult cutting, or grinding on my belt sander), drilled a small hole for the LED to be glued into on the 'back' side, and applied a white decal to the sign front (I am using the Testors Inkjet, white backed decals, which have not been altogether succesful). You can see one building face in progress, with all of the LED's, wires, and resistors sticking out.

Wallah! Backlit signage! However, I have mixed feelings about the progress so far. The LED's certainly provide enough luminosity to appear like 'backlit signs',but the decals are a weak link, which is not too surprising. I have tried 'transparent' inkjet stickers (the kind you can get at the office supply stores), but my results with those were awful; they just don't 'absorb' enough ink. On the other hand, while the decals absorb enough ink (in fact, I cannot use 'photo-quality' settings with my printer as that puts too much ink on the decal and it melts away in the water, even after sealing with dullcote or the Testors decal bonder sprays) but lose a lot of crispness in the process. I may double up some decals in order to add some 'crispness' and color.

One final comment on LED's is that they have a very 'focused', almost spotlight-like beam. This is great for headlights, but not great for signage. I'm trying a lot of different things to overcome this affect, from sanding the LED to sanding the clear plastic the LED will be mounted in (to diffuse the light beam a bit), but one of the better looking signs is the backlit "Burger Konig" sign in which I did not embed the LED's in the plastic, but rather attached them further behind the sign with a glue gun (glue guns, of course, emitting that clear gooey mess, which works pretty well for 'diffusing' light). This distance back from the sign allows for the narrow light 'funnel' from the LED's (of which I used 3 in this case) to 'spread' rather than maintain a tight circle.

I'll add additional updates and photos on this project, hopefully I will get a 'city block' done soon and can move onto other parts of the layout!


Locomotive Roster: BLS Class 485; Fleischmann 738601

This locomotive is one of my latest additions, in fact, it was a Christmas gift from my wife, and I believe she chose very well! This has been a very powerful little engine and is able to handle up to 32 of my cargo rolling stock cars without breaking a sweat (to include climbing a 2% grade!).

I am starting to notice a 'swiss' theme to my layout with the addition of this locomotive! Well, I have to admit, both my Class 450 Zurich S-Bahn locomotive set and the BLS locomotive and cars have some of the most impressive and dynamic color schemes of almost any railway in the world. The bright green on this locomotive is quite striking and complements the smooth contours of the locomotive nicely.

The paint and detail on this locomotive is fantastic and I truly believe that we must be in some sort of 'golden age' given the quality of N Scale locomotives these days.

My one comment on this locomotive is that installing the decoder in this engine was a bit of a trial. The NEM 651 standard socket and plug for 'plug and play' installation of decoders is genius, but this would not be model railroading if it was too easy!

This locomotive presents a challenge as you absolutely need to get a decoder with the wire harness. After initially taking off the shell and attempting to install a 'standard' 6-pin decoder, I found that once the decoder is installed it sits too high and you can't get the shell back on. Well, that won't do. I ended up ordering an ESU 52680 LokPilot micro with 6 pin plug and cable. I've used this decoder on my Thalys as well and for the price and quality, they are really quite nice.

This decoder was the solution, and as you can see from the photos, I show the side where the socket is for the 6-pins to be installed (and you'll notice the line where a decoder would stick up if you don't have a wire harness) and I also show the other side of the locomotive where Fleischmann (apparently) conveniently provided a space just large enough for a small decoder underneath an electrical bracket/contact (that can easily be slid out of the way to place the decoder in the recess). Hopefully the photos will help to show others how to do this as it was not clear from the instructions that this was how it should work.

A really nice locomotive from Fleischmann.


Video of New Minitrix Items

Nice little video produced by the Marklin/Trix company showing the prototype and their new 2009 products. A nice way to spend 7 minutes!


I'm Turning Japanese

I debated whether or not the title of this post should be about some new purchases I've been making based on Japanese prototypes, or the real subject, which is my new plans for the 'city' area of my layout. So an alternative title could be "Urban Planning" or something, but I think I want to make a specific call out to some wonderful values that I've found from across the other ocean.

First, I have to say that I have been very inspired by the Japanese approach of modeling in N Gauge, particularly the quality of the work they put into their materials, and the elegant beauty of some surprisingly small layouts and dioramas. Some blogs of note include both Akihabara Station and the Japanese Model Train Newsletter and others (see my blog list).

I work in downtown Seattle, and I am within walking distance of a special Japanese shopping complex called Uwajimaya which features a small bookstore where I was able to pick up two N Scale magazines and one 'real Japanese railroad' magazine. Some of the pictures and diorama's in these magazines are amazing. As I was purchasing the items, the clerk made a comment about how the Japanese are 'crazy about trains'! Which is, of course, a fantastic thing! Of course, I don't read a word of Japanese, but the pictures make these magazines worth it!

Its probably the popularity of trains in Japan that allows for the production of some very nicely detailed buildings and structures, which are also a great value! I've already got a few of the Kato (and one or two Tomix) structures on my layout, primarily because these are really the only modern city buildings available. Once I got past the fear of the 1:150 scale (which has only been noticeably too large on some Japanese die cast buses. With the buildings, however, I don't know if anyone can tell the difference), I've now invested in a few more, mostly Tomix, but also Greenmax, structures. One item that has been a real kick has been the Tomytec "The Town (Machinami) Collection No.7", its a sealed box that contains twelve (yes 12!) modern two and three story buildings.

These are really cool kits and I look forward to customizing them with lighting, some 'Globalization' to add some diversity to the Japanese look of the buildings, and adding them to my city in the weeks to come.

What I find most fascinating about this hobby, is how popular it is in Japan. When you consider that Japan is also the home of Nintendo and Manga, it seems to me that there may be more in this hobby for the younger generation in places like the U.S.


Locomotive Roster: DB Class 323 (KoF II); Minitrix 12544

This is a TINY locomotive, it looks a lot larger in the photos and video than it is in real life! That the folks at Minitrix were able to not only fit the more, lights, but a DCC decoder into this little engine!

Of course, all of the meticulous engineering in the world cannot overcome one of the physical realities that a light, two-axle locomotive is challenged with...and that is that it really needs clean track and has no tolerance for non-powered switch frogs! Fortunately, I have all 'powered frogs' on my layout and the little engine worked marvelously with the Kato Unitrack. Ironically, I originally had a very small loop with Minitrix switches and Atlas flex track, but due to this engines absolute intolerance to run on this track (it would stall everytime it reached the non-powered frog of the Minitrix switch), I ended up replacing all of the track with Unitrack!

The LED's are not very bright, but I suppose that is the 'cost' one pays of attempting to put any sort of light in such a small space. This is minor, the big thing that I would be careful about for any potential operator is the question of how well, or not, this light, two axle locomotive will do on your track.
I am keeping this review short, as I feel like the photo and video (which is also short!) say it all! So for a very small locomotive, a very small review!


Track Cleaning Solution? The NO-OX test

I came across a very provocative promise in the forums at NScale.org. One of the forum posters was making some fantastic claims about track cleaning. The basic claim being that he doesn't have to clean his track, and hasn't in four years, given the application of a type of gel (he pointedly states it is not a grease) to his rails called "NO-OX-ID “A SPECIAL”" .

This is quite a claim, and cleaning the track is probably (for all of us I'm sure) one of the least interesting aspects of this hobby. If it is true that applying this...gel..can indeed reduce the amount of cleaning that is necessary, then I am all for it!

I found a tube of this stuff on eBay. It was very cheap, and the tube is very large! I certainly have enough to last a lifetime!

Of course, track cleaning is also a highly debated topic! I am willing to try anything that does not harm the locomotives, track, take too much work, or harm my health! Of course, one has to be skeptical of a 'grease that is not a grease' and its promise that it can take away the pain of track cleaning, so I've decided to conduct a test.

The test I have set up is really simple. On my layout I have 4 independent loops (well, 5 actually, counting a very small circle for my son to run loco's in conventional mode), I decided to apply NO-OX to the inner loop on my upper level, but no where else. I expect that since all of the track on the layout will be subject to the same environment, conditions, rolling stock, etc... and the track is all about the same age (and primarily all Unitrack) then this will be a pretty fair test of the NO-OX results.

I applied it following the specific instructions that were posted on the forum. Given the risk of applying a 'grease' (yes, yes, not supposed to call it that but, "looks like a duck....etc...") I was absolutely to the letter of those instructions. I think the most important part is do NOT be tempted to apply too much. Fortunately, I didn't. And when I got to the later part of the process (where your wiping off even the small traces you put on) and running locos that, yes, are slipping pitifully, I am glad I did not over do it.

The NO-OX has now been on the layout for about a month. Let's pick early January 2009 as the 'start' date of this little test. So far, I have not had to do any cleaning on any of the track yet, so nothing to report. I will update this post the first time I find that my track is in a state where it requires cleaning and provide some comparisons.