Powering My Trains: The Start of My Journey Learning about Digital Command Control (DCC)

Having not used Digital Command Control (DCC) in the past and owning only a few factory equipped sound and DCC locomotives, I started with a fairly blank canvas. This led to a lot of reading on the internet to gather as many opinions as possible and see which things are most important to me and my layout.

My original concept did not involve operations and slight changes have made that a little more important, but my path chosen did not make the adjustment difficult. One thing that seemed universal was the advice to choose a command and power system supported by a local hobby shop or a local club. Not belonging to a club, I chose the former and sought the advice of Raymond Stern at Pro-Custom Hobbies in Eldersburg, MD. He recommended Digitrax and as it was unlikely I would be running more than five trains at a time, I purchased the Digitrax Zephyr Xtra DCS51 All-in-one Command Station/Booster/Throttle (recently replaced by the Digitrax Zephyr Express). It fits the size and scope of my planned layout, offers programming, 3 amp power, and throttle all in one unit. It looks and feels similar to the DC Power Packs I was used to, so that held some charm.

The little stand is just clamped to a leg as a temporary location.

For convenience in wiring the layout I purchased an NCE LWK25 – DCC main bus wiring kit designed to handle 25 feet of double mainline track. I later purchased additional wire and connectors, and a high-quality wire stripping tool to make life a little easier. Important lesson learned in the process is to not tin the wires to be inserted into crimped connectors. It’s a thing, ask someone experienced in electrical circuits.

Not my best work, but with multiple turnouts and track connections in one location it was needed. I will relocate, twist-tie common leads. and retest when I complete this module.

Programming pre-equipped locomotives proved a little challenging and I had to add a Soundtraxx 829002 PTB-100 Programming Track Booster to boost power to my programming track. It worked, but the steps in changing CVs with the Digitrax multi-function unit for anything more than changing the locomotive’s address were long and tedious (multiple button pushes in specific orders). This led me to using JMRI Decoder Pro (freeware), something that I had considered as a worthy investment from the beginning. This was confirmed after programming a few locomotives and then having them reset or lose a CV change. I am very supportive of a product that would keep the stored values somewhere other than the locomotive for ease of reprogramming when something goes wrong. It also eliminates the button pushing and uses a more familiar Windows interface. I purchased the Digitrax PR4 USB to LocoNet Interface with Decoder Programmer and connected it to my Windows 10 machine on the desk near my layout. This is the piece required to connect the Decoder Pro running on the Windows machine to the programming track (other brands are available). It also allows the Windows machine to act as a throttle and I can later connect my layout control system to my computer, if desired. I am still experimenting with these products, but after playing around with programming types and rebooting the machine several times, it has been able to program all of my older Broadway Limited and Bachmann factory sound equipped locomotives, as well as one experimental set of non-factory equipped P2K locomotives that I am adding Soundtraxx DCC and sound units to over time. The changes to operating the Bachmann EM-1 (it’s a must have for a B&O Modeler) have made it worth it already.

Digitrax PR4 connected and running.

Adding sound decoders and speakers is the subject of a few more blogs in the future, as I am equipping the ABA set of P2K Alco units first (along with some prototypical detailing) before I tackle my Kato F-3 ABA set and the OML Peddler’s brass Q-7f Mikado. All in good time.

One operating session on John King’s B&O layout led me to want walk-around throttle control, as it puts you literally in the engineer’s seat as you follow the train on the layout, the old single control point from the power pack days had to be updated. I found a simple, effective solution with WiThrottle, an app for my iPhone and iPad. Game changer. It’s a $10 app (free trial version available) and required the purchase of the Digitrax LNWI LocoNet WiFi Interface that connected to my Command Station with the supplied LocoNet cord. Up and running in ten minutes. If I need more throttles for visitors without iPhones, used iPods are available pretty cheap.

WiThrottle in action controlling the Q-3 Mike right behind it.
WiThrottle locomotive selection screen.

I am pleased with my ability to add pieces to the system that I find I need over time, while keeping a low initial investment. Some may prefer to buy a system that does it from the beginning with a larger initial investment, I believe that is a matter of preference.

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Some Tank Cars for Through Freights on the B&O Old Main Line. Kadee and Tangent Scale Models.

As I work on track and scenery I am always on the lookout for new freight cars that could appear on through freights on my 1950 version of the Old Main Line. And of course I am looking for specific cars that appeared on the local, the OML Freight Peddler. These are the cars that take the most research and stretch my modeling skill, but it is fun to locate photos and evidence of the through freights and the cars they carried or could have carried.

Recently, I found Kadee #9015 Mathieson Chemicals SHPX #2570 models for only $30 each, which is a pretty good deal for a car with excellent detail and ready to run in my era after some minor decaling and weathering. These models originally listed for $45. I bought a pair of these Mathieson Leased cars with the same number and experimented with removing the “zero” at the end of the car number and replacing it with a ”one”. The cars were built in 1947, decorated in their as-built paint, and fit in with my layout era. With Mathieson plants at either end of the OML they could realistly have been in service between the two points hauling anhydrous ammonia from production plants to sister plants making fertilizer or out to a final designation customer elsewhere.

Removing the number from a Kadee car was much easier than expected. I used Walthers SolvaSet as either a solvent or a lubricant, not sure which, and it made it very easy to lightly scrape the number off with a dull Exacto no. 11 blade. The number on the sill that appears to be on unpainted plastic came off very easy. I dapped on a little “Pledge” to give a gloss decaling surface and as the photo below shows and the tank car is ready for a “one” to be added and then a spray of DullCote.

I added a little dark gray Tamiya pin wash TAM87199 to the white dome cover to highlight the edges/seams and the tiny handle used to open the cover. What a nice detail to highlight and the contrast brings the viewer’s eye toward this area.

The “one” came from my very small collection of spare decals. I decaled a modern boxcar for a friend years ago, making up a fictitious line for his company which has a siding in North Carolina to ship sweet potatoes. The left over set MicroScale 87-70-1 seems to be a good match. A good act years ago seems to have paid off for me in the present. Carma?

The “one” added to the road number after removing the “zero” looks like a good match.

Basic weathering includes spraying the wheelsets with Vallejo NATO Black. Following some advice from Bill Welch I used my newly acquired baking soda blaster (9 oz. Abrasive Blast Gun to reduce the shine on the Kadee side frames and prepare them for painting. I used 90 psi and some Arm and Hammer from the kitchen and the results were great. The texture and dull black finish tempted me to stop weathering them at that point. After this first attempt at soda blasting, I sprayed them with Vallejo NATO Black adding a little thinned Vallejo Hull Red overspray to the mix to achieve a grimy, black-brown color. Then some grime and dirt mixes on the underbody followed by another thin coat of Testors DullCote from a spray can. I have had good luck with the spray can and while the cans are little expensive, they provide the convenience of not having to spray solvents through my airbrush and the cleaning that follows. The last detail is the Dangerous placards, they were included with the Kadee model, I secured them with a drop of canopy glue. A light dusting of Pan Pastels is added to simulate steam era cinders and soot, with a slight hint a rusting dirt, as these are both relatively new cars in 1950.

I wasn’t sure if SHPX 2571 actually existed when I started this project and some input from Steve Hoxie of Pensacola, FL offered me the answer I wanted. The links are below:

Weathering allows the altered road number to blend right in.

At about the same time I got a bargain on the Kadee cars I got another bargain when Tangent Scale Model Products released a General American 1948-Design 8000 Gallon Welded General Service Tank Car. I bought a pair at full price, still a bargain, with different numbers in the GATX Black Lease “Original 1948+” paint scheme. These cars in their general leased paint scheme could be headed to many locations to or from the port of Baltimore and points west beyond Brunswick.

A little more detail about my experiment with soda blasting. The health hazards of this technique are minimal, the media (baking soda) is pretty inert, and at 90 psi it was barely strong enough to remove over-sprayed paint my high tech truck painting stand. I was able to put the trucks on my stand in the yard, blast them with 90 psi and they didn’t fly away. Hitting my nitrile gloved hand with the soda blast didn’t have an affect on the glove, no penetration was evident. My truck painting stand, pictured below, is just skewers stuck in a block of foam with rubber bands wrapped around some of the skewers for trucks with larger screw holes which tend to slide down. The frames stay in place while soda blasting, then I rinse them with water and after dry, airbrush with some Vallejo paints.

High tech truck painting stand.

Again basic light weathering as described for the Kadee cars and these excellent models are ready for service. Great models at a great price. The challenge of tank car resin kit still awaits, but I am happy with the lower cost per model and now have enough for my through freights.

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Ilchester, Maryland; The Big Picture(s) as the Module Progresses, Part One

A quick photo tour of the development of the Ilchester, MD 2’x4’ “module” is a good way to see the progression from idea to model. It is also cathartic for me to see the progress of the past several months.

The goal is to have this scene/module completed with additional photos of the overall progress in a part two and as well as complete some specific blogs about structures and track work over the summer.

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Getting the New Tangent Models O-59A Gondolas Layout Ready

I just bought two Tangent Models B&O O-59 Gondolas and they look fantastic. They are a very nice compromise for a layout model as opposed to an RPM model with full underbody detail. At $38.95 retail they have a lot of great features and B&O specific details. The coupler bodies are extended from the ends to replicate a Duryea underframe and it is roughly represented under the car. The underbody details are hidden from the side view, so the rough representation is a good compromise as it allows space for adequate weight, there are two. This was an intentional compromise by the manufacturer to insure the floor height was accurate to the prototype. Weight is always a problem for empty gons and flat cars and in this case I prefer their approach to making it look correct from the top and side, rather underneath. The carbody has separate grab irons, great hand brake detail, coupler lift bars, and a Tatum slack adjuster. I wonder if they would sell those Tatum slack adjuster castings for detailing other B&O freight cars? I’ll check. I have gotten a kind reply and the parts sprue is out of stock. I will edit when it is in stock. Tangent offers most of there parts sprues for only $3. it does appear the underbody details aren’t aligned with the slack adjuster, the underbody detail is at the other end of the car but on the same side.

O-59A Builder Photo, BORRHS Collection.

I recently saw on a chat group someone state that an old Athearn Blue Box kit would be around $25 today, when adjusted for inflation. It gives some perspective on what a deal I believe these cars represent.

Getting them ready for my 1950 era layout starts with some basic steps, the first thing I do with every car is paint and install metal wheels. These models have great wheelsets included so a quick trip to the paint booth, a spray with Vallejo NATO Black, and they are ready for service. You can see in the photo how shiny they are compared to the paint mask that has been sprayed many times. This hasn’t happened to me before with other wheelsets, I would recommend washing the them with a degreaser as I got an unsatisfactory finish on several wheels and it appeared to be the result of some type of oil on the wheel face. Lesson learned. The trucks get a quick weathering paint job with a mix of Vallejo NATO Black and Hull Red.

While I have the trucks removed, I was hoping to burnish the coupler box interiors and add some Kadee 231 “Greas-Em” Dry Graphite Lubricant. The end detail makes it difficult to remove the couplers, so I will shoot some lubricant into the coupler boxes and exercise the coupler shafts to make it as smooth as possible. The cars are already equipped with scale couplers, bonus. I lightly brush painted them with some rust paint. Late note, I was using one of the gons on the layout to test track placement and a derailment caused a coupler box to come loose. They are actually glued in place and the screw only holds the cover to the box, not the car. I was a little disappointed with the two small spots of glue that secure the coupler box without a mechanical attachment, like a screw. I will use some styrene cement to reattach the coupler box using the original two pin connections and supplement it with some epoxy in other locations under the box to add some durability. I hope the flexibility of an epoxy held joint will help improve longevity as the styrene pin joint is small and rigid.

One of the preinstalled air hoses took at beating in the derailment so before painting with some rust and light grey on the “metal” parts, I installed some Hi-Tech HO Scale AAR Air Hoses 22″, part #6038. After drilling a #76 hole in the end sill I used canopy glue to secure the hose from behind to the sill. It took some careful trimming to remove the valve from the diagonal support that came with the kit. I secured the support to the body with styrene cement and CA. The joint with the rubber hose was secured with canopy glue. I use Formula 560 Canopy Glue from Zap as recommended by others. It’s durability will depend on me limiting derailments.

Next I weathered the body with a combination of thinned NATO Black overspray, Pan Pastels, and artist pastels. The very light overspray of Vallejo NATO Black lightens the basic black body color and dulls the stark white lettering to represent nine years in service behind steam engines and near steel mills. The interior gets attention with Pan Pastels, especially rust and brown tones. I also have a set of artist pastels and a very stiff, wide brush I use to add lighter colors. I will repeat this after DullCote overspray to make sure the car has an appropriate “in-service for a decade” look.

Final touches include creating some stencil updates to the reweigh and repack information with black decal patches and 1950 dates and B&O locations. I added a few chalk marks from Speedwitch Media’s Decal 135 – Freight Car Chalk Marks. I want these to appear less weathered as if they were written within the last year.

Finally I overspray with Testors dullcote and add some scrap donnage and other things found in gondolas constantly in service.

In addition to the B&O cars, I purchased a Lehigh Valley gondola with similar features. The LV car was a treated similarly to the others and I got to weather the wood decking using time honored techniques of gray, tan, and black washes. This car does not have Duryea underframe. For the body, the lighter red color allowed me to use some Tamiya 87131 Panel Line Accent Color – Black to weather the seams, structural members, and to highlight the details. I enjoyed using the accent color using the pin wash technique and will write further about it in a future blog.

A couple of nights worth of work and these cars are ready for service. Nice models at a fair price.

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A Modeling Bench; Part Two, Adding a Cutting Surface.

As I relayed in an earlier blog, I have repurposed a used jeweler’s bench as a “modeler’s bench”. It has some ergonomic features not readily apparent but probably developed over time. My experience over time has taught me to keep my glues and other liquid bottles to the left, out of the way of my dominant and sometimes clumsy right hand. This makes them much harder to knock over. Tweezers and cutting blades are to the right for easy access by my right hand. Other tools are arranged to so that those most often used are closer to the right.

The wood slat sticking out to the right of center of the work area is an elbow rest to keep your right arm steady and supported. The center anvil is a solid work surface for a jeweler’s soldering, filing, and cutting. This is the part I modified.

I don’t do a lot of filing and soldering up close like a jeweler, but I do cut and trim small plastic parts with an X-acto knife and prefer them close to my body for precision and control. So I converted the anvil to a cutting surface with a small piece of oak and a cutting mat. It has slight angle to put my hand in a more natural and ergonomic position when cutting.

I glued a small piece of oak trim to the bottom of the oak board to keep the cutting mat in place. I sanded the edges of the oak to give a smooth surface.

Then I screwed the oak board to the anvil with countersunk wood screws. Next time I am spraying some gloss clear coat I will put the boards in the paint booth and give them a protective finish.

Finished, an ergonomic cutting surface close to my body with an arm rest to the right to steady my cutting arm with a catch tray below that I can pull it out close to my knees to catch scraps or the occasional dropped part. Not an earth changing improvement but an incremental one that makes my modeling easier and more precise.

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