Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Tender Trap 2

I was looking at some items on eBay the other day and ran across not one, but two examples of something that really, really, bugs me. I call it the tender trap.

When you're talking about steam locomotives (at least in the U.S.), the car immediately behind the engine is called the "tender." It's where the engine's fuel supply is carried. In the early days, this was wood, but soon it was replaced by coal. The term is probably a shortened form of "coal tender."

Now I know that most people don't really know -- or even care to know -- that much about toy trains. But if you're going to display them for sale, why not set it up properly? It definitely makes what you're trying to sell more appealing to the potential buyer (who most likely does know something about these items).

So how can you tell if you've set the train up right? Simple. Just hook the cars together. Almost any toy train will have some kind of unique coupling arrangement that prevents you from having the tender face the wrong way.

Why would anyone want the tender to face the wrong way? Because there's a mistaken notion that the tender should slope into the engine's cab, so the end that's taller should be in the back.

Here's the first example, a small Strombrecker floor toy:

Yep. The tender's backward. That opening should be facing the engine, because (if this were a real train), that's how the fireman would access the coal. And ignorance is no excuse. These Strombrecker trains used a very simple coupling system. Underneath the body of each car runs a long wire that sticks out at both ends. On one end is a hook, and on the other, an eye. Sticking out of the back of the engine is a hook. In the current setup, the photographer has the hook from the engine touching the hook of the tender. That should have been a clue that perhaps it wasn't set up right.

Strombrecker built the train so that the tender could only be connected to the engine one way -- by using the hook on the engine to connect to the eye of the tender (found on the open end). So simple, a child could do it (and often did, back in the day).

Here's what it should look like, in an image from the Strombrecker  catalog. If you look carefully, you can even see the hook and eye connectors. (You can click on an image to enlarge)

This next one really takes the cake, though. It was clear from the copy that the seller had absolutely no idea what the tender was for. He called it a "blue car." Notice how it's not even close to the engine!

And yet, even though he has no idea of the car's function, he still placed it backward! Despite the hook and eye connectors that suggested otherwise, by golly there it is.

As you can see from the Strombrecker image below, these things only connect one way.

One more thing: as an extra added bonus, he also placed the caboose incorrectly. Now again, not everyone knows that a caboose (the red car) goes at the end of the train.  But all you have to do is connect the thing together. The engine has an eye, but no hook. It has to go at one end. The yellow car and the blue car (the tender) have both a hook and an eye, so they go in the middle (and the tender only connects in the right direction). The caboose has a hook, but no eye. It has to go at the end.

No real need for any kind of expertise here. Just connect the cars together, and you'll be fine. Really.

And so will I!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Straco Layout, Part 4 - The SilClear Solution( and Problem)

Read more about the whole project here.

In the last post, I talked about how I cleaned the track to help with the electrical connection the Straco Express locomotive needed to make with the track, and for the track to relay current around the oval. I did get the train to run, but performance was marginal.

As you can see from the video above, there's a severe voltage drop about halfway around the loop. In other words, about as far away from the terminal as possible. Now keep in mind that the power pack for this train set is comprised of two "D" cell batteries, so we're not talking about a lot of power, to begin with.

Well, the Straco Express is a marginal product and needs all the help it can get to operate with even just a hint of dependability.

I gave the SilClear a try. In addition to coating the terminals, I also brushed it on the battery contacts. I also coated every pin. Because it spreads, I coated the top two-thirds of the pin. When I inserted the pins into the rails, the tight connection spread the SilClear further down the pins. This effectively coated the pins without any leakage.

The results were good -- almost too good. As you can see from the video below, the train whizzed around the track. Unfortunately, it went fast enough to jump the track.

And there's still a voltage drop on the far side of the oval.

If you look at the videos carefully, you can see the featherweight track rising and falling as the train passes over it. I think that once the track is affixed to the board that derailment may be less common. I'll also crimp the track connections again once I'm ready to install the track permanently. That should address the power drop issue.

Still, I was impressed by the difference SilClear made. I may try it on my O-gauge layout.

The next step is to begin work on the board itself. Stay tuned!

One final note: If you're wondering why I didn't back off on the throttle to prevent high-speed derailment, I couldn't. The red control lever on the power pack is just a directional on/off switch. Push it to the right, train starts up in one direction. Move to the center, power's cut and the train stops. Push the lever to the left, and the engine goes in the opposite direction.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Straco Layout, Part 3 - Cleaning the Track

The top piece of track has not been cleaned.
The bottom piece has
Read more about the whole project here.

The next step in the process of building this layout was working with the track. Although the sections came from three different sources, every piece of track had three things in common: age, grime, and corrosion. The age of the track (approximately 50 years!) wasn't something I could do anything about, but the grime and corrosion (accumulated over that same half-century) I could.

Someone asked me if I was going to use steel wool. While that's a good way to clean metal like this, it's not such a good idea for toy train track. Sometimes little shavings of steel wool remain on the track and can get pulled into the locomotive as it rides over the rail. And a small sliver of conductive metal rattling around inside an electrical motor can lead to real trouble.

So instead, I took it in stages. I happened to have an electric eraser that I used to get most of the superficial dirt off of the track. If you're not familiar with the device, it's used primarily  in drafting (I used it for music copying in pre-computer days). It spins the eraser very quickly, letting you erase in a very small area without smudging everything around it.

My goal wasn't to completely clean the track -- that would have been very difficult. Rather, I wanted to clean all of the surfaces that would help relay the electrical current from the battery pack through the rails and then to the contacts on the wheels of the locomotive. The eraser took off most of the corrosion off the top of the rails, ensuring the locomotive would make good contact.

After cleaning the track with the eraser, I then scrubbed it with silver and metal polish. This pulled up, even more, grime off the tracks. The third step was to use a track cleaner solution to ensure the tracks were as clean as possible.

I then assembled the sections. There's a reason why I got the track operational before trimming the table to fit. These sets came with enough curved pieces to form a circle and two pieces of straight track. I had some extra straight tracks from the three combined sets, so I was hoping to use them in the circle.

No such luck. The power pack uses two "D" cell batteries and adding just two extra track sections caused a significant voltage drop in the circuit.

As I've said before, the operability of this Japanese train set is marginal at best. It was designed for a circle and two straight pieces of track, and no more.

I pieced the oval together, making sure I crimped the open sections of track to ensure a better connection with the pins. Just one more step, and I would be ready to test the track with the train.

Read more about the whole project here.


Thursday, February 10, 2011

WTJU and Horn Bands of the '60's - Part 2

In part 1 of this two-part post, I outlined the reasons for doing a special program featuring horn bands of the late 1960's on WTJU. Now we get to the good stuff -- the music itself.

Basically, on my program airing Wednesday, February 16 beginning at 6AM on WTJU, 91.1fm, I'll be airing music from the following groups:

East Coast Bands

Blood, Sweat, and Tears is probably the best known of this group. The band leaned closer to jazz than they did to rock, especially after Al Cooper left and David Clayton-Thomas came on board.

Chase was founded by jazz trumpter Bill Chase. They only had one hit, but their three albums were legendary.

Mid-West Bands

Chicago was formed in Chicago (of course), and before they became mushy balladeers, they were capable of some hard-driving rock. Witness this live performance of "Now You've Gone Away."

The Ides of March were sometimes mistaken for BS&T, because of a similarity in sound. But make no mistake, these guys came first. Lead singer and primary songwriter Jim Peterik appeared on Bill Chase's final album, and later played in Survivor, where he wrote their hit "Eye of the Tiger."

West Coast Bands

Cold Blood was an amazing horn band from San Francisco. Lead singer Lydia Pense was often compared favorably with her contemporary Janis Joplin.

The Electric Flag was a little more psychedelic, but you can hear the horns! Check out this live performance of their tune "Groovin is Easy."

The Sons of Champlin featured lead singer Bill Champlin. Although they never broke into the charts, they were critical favorites. Bill Champlin would later join Chicago as their lead singer in the 1990's.

Foreign Bands

Lighthouse was a supergroup from Canada that had one chart hit, "One Fine Morning." Nevertheless, this massive band put out several fine albums of music uniquely suited to their brass and string sections!

The Amen Corner from the UK wanted to reproduce the Stax Records sound. To achieve that, they incorporated both tenor and baritone saxophones into their group. The lead singer wrote "Bend Me, Shape Me," which they recorded and released, and was soon covered by the American Breed. Here are both versions, which actually appeared on the UK charts at the same time.

The Foundations were a mixed group from the UK. Most people remember them for "Build Me Up, Buttercup," and "Now That I Found You." But I'll probably be playing this track, too.


I'll be featuring other groups on the show as well, but this will give you a general idea. So be sure to tune in and -- more importantly -- make a pledge! You know it's the right thing to do.


WTJU and Horn Bands of the '60's - Part 1

The show

Wednesday, February 16 from 6AM to 9AM I'll be hosting a program entitled "Horn Bands" on WTJU, 91.1fm Charlottesville VA (and online at wtju.net/stream).

For three hours I'll be playing music by rock groups of the late 1960's who had horn players as their members, as opposed to groups who used studio musicians when they wanted backup brass on their records.

The reason

WTJU, being a community radio station, has to raise a significant amount of money from its listeners to meet its operating budget. The station broadcasts four musical genres: classical, jazz, rock, and folk. For our fund drives, each department takes over the station for a week to celebrate its particular genre in all its diversity. Jazz did their fund-raising marathon in October. The Classical Department (which I'm a member of) did ours in December.

Now it's the turn of the Rock Department. The goal is to raise $30,000 while presenting some of the most diverse and in-depth rock programming anywhere. Programming that only WTJU can deliver.

The goal

My personal goal is to raise $3,000 in pledges. I think it's very possible. I only need 30 people to make a $100 pledge, and we're there. And I'm not buying the theory that only impoverished university students listen to our rock programming. Most of the volunteer announcers are well past their college years, and so are the listeners. I know we have doctors, lawyers, professors, and other professionals listening in, and to them -- and to you -- I say:

Tune in, pony up, and rock on.

We take VISA and MasterCard, and if you pledge online, you can even pay your pledge in convenient monthly installments.

Make no mistake: I intend to have a lot of fun this coming Wednesday morning, but I also intend to raise a lot of money for the station.

That's where you come in. No matter where you are, please tune in -- and be sure to call in. Better still, if you're one of our many online listeners, just open up a new window on your computer and pledge online.

In fact, you don't even have to wait until the fund drive starts. Pre-pledge now and avoid the rush!

The criteria

So what do I mean by "horn bands" anyway? I'm looking at a very small group of bands that flourished ever-so-briefly between 1966 and 1970. I'm staying away from more funk-oriented groups like Earth, Wind, and Fire and Tower of Power. Instead, I'll be playing groups that blend jazz and rock, as opposed to soul and rock.

Blood, Sweat, and Tears is an obvious choice. And so's Chicago (this is when they were still good). But who else fits? I'll provide a partial run down of the groups I'll be playing in Part 2.


Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Review: The Ames Piano Quartet Aims to Please

Ames Piano Quartet Play Mozart Hummel Beethoven

Dorian was always one of my favorite independent classical music labels. And while I was sorry to see them close up shop, I was glad that Sono Luminus bought the assets and revived the label. Dorian was always about not just top-notch performances. They were also concerned about the quality of the recorded sound.

Happy to say, Sono Luminus has been continuing both traditions. The Ames Piano Quartet has been mainstay of the Dorian label for years, and their newest recording of Mozart, Hummel, and Beethoven quartets doesn't disappoint. The sound is somewhat transparent -- it doesn't sound like a studio engineer's fixed anything up. The instruments sound natural, with real presence -- very much as they would in a live performance.

Because the Ames has been together for quite a while, there's a comfortable interplay between the performers as one might expect between old friends getting together. No one's the star here. These are four colleagues coming together for one purpose -- to make great music.

The disc features three works from the classical era; Mozart's Piano Quartet in E-flat major, K. 452; Beethoven's Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 16, and Hummel's Piano Quartet in G major.

Each work has a different character, and the Ames Piano Quartet each credibly well. Mozart is sufficiently light and airy but still played in such a way that the work's substance comes through. The Ames tackles the Beethoven quartet differently, ramping up the emotional content as one might expect. The end result is convincing if a little on the sedating side. This is Beethoven with combed hair and an unruffled collar. That's not to say it's a bad performance at all. In fact, it tends to highlight rather than hide Beethoven's connection to the older classical style of Mozart and Haydn.

Hummel probably comes off the best in this recording. Sandwiched between two giants, Hummel doesn't suffer that much by comparison. It's clear that the quartet devoted as much attention to Hummel's music as they did with Beethoven's and Mozart's. The structure of the work is well-defined, and the phrasing shows off the motives in the best possible light. Definitely an enjoyable listen.

If you look at the flow of all three works, the disc starts with something uplifting and appealing, moves to something comfortable, then finishes with something dramatic -- almost like a very large three-movement work. Having the opening and closing works in the same key further carries the analogy. Surely that was all part of the plan.

If you're familiar with the Ames Piano Quartet, then this a worthy addition to your collection. If not, the Hummel should be worth the price of admission, even if you have the other works.

Definitely recommended.

Monday, February 07, 2011

The Straco Layout, Part 2 - Getting the board

A standard piece of pegboard proved to be just
the right size for a complete circle of track.
The first step in building the Straco layout was selecting the board. I had some criteria for what I was looking for:

1) Function - I wanted something simple and portable. The track may be permanently affixed to the board, but I know I wont' be leaving it up all the time. So I was just looking for a flat surface.

2) Weight - I wanted something light for portability. Something like subflooring would be way too heavy.

3) Stability - I wanted something that was flat, and would stay flat over a long period of time.

4) Looks - This is by no means an intense model railroading project! The Straco Express is a brightly colored tin toy, and so something that keeps on the toy side of things is preferable.

Solution: A common piece of pegboard. It's durable enough to be flat, and just wide enough to accommodate the curves. I'll be reinforcing it with some thin strips of wood underneath to help it stay flat after priming and painting.

Total cost on this project so far: $8.32 for the pegboard, finishing molding, and flathead screws.

Read more about the whole project here.


Saturday, February 05, 2011

The Straco Layout, Part 1 - Outlining the plan

As if there was any doubt, I've decided to go ahead and build a simple layout for the Straco Express. This cheap Japanese HO-scale electric train is only marginally operational, and needs as many favorable conditions as possible to work.

You can read more about the strange origins of this train set -- possibly built by Bandai for the J. Strauss Company -- in my earlier posts.

What I'd really like to do is just let the train run around a completed circle of track -- at least once. But there are some basic issues I need to address:

1) The metal that the track's made of is very thin, and easily bent. I need to straighten virtually every piece I intend to use.

This is what I have to work with.
Note how the rail at left is splayed out,
compared to the one at right.
2) The metal that the track's made of is really thin, so every time a section was disconnected over the years, it pulled apart a little bit. This meant that when sections were reconnected, they didn't fit tightly together, weakening the electrical circuit. And each time the track sections were pulled apart, the connections just got looser. I'll need to crimp the tubular track back into place with needle nose pliers.

3) The track's old, so there is some corrosion (which hinders electrical contact), and there's some dirt build-up (which also hinders electrical contact). I'll have to give the exposed metal a good cleaning.

4) The track's mismatched. I'm actually having to use track from at least two different sources, and there's a small difference in height. Which means I might have to shim up the slimmer pieces to ensure a smooth transition.

5) The rolling stock's too light. While the locomotive has plenty of weight, the cars it pull don't. So it takes very little irregularity in the rails to have the wheels jump the track. I can't really add weight to the cars, as the locomotive's motor has just enough power to pull them as is. I'll need to make sure the track is as flat and smooth as possible.

So the plan is to build a simple flat surface I can affix the re-straightened and cleaned up track to. It may take a little while. I'll provide updates as the project progresses.

Everyone needs a hobby, I guess!

Read more about the whole project here.


Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Straco Track: the mystery clears (slightly)

Bandai track with
fiberboard ties
Straco(?) track with
plastic ties
For some time I've been posting on these three inexpensive (OK, cheap) Japanese toy trains I've acquired, and what the connection between them is. In my last post, I talked about the two different types of track that these sets came with. There was an early fiberboard-tie version stamped with Bandai's logo, and a later version where the ties were plastic.

Now these sets came to me through various means. As a child I owned the set with the Santa Fe diesel and two Santa Fe cars (a box car and a refrigerator car). From that set just a few pieces of track survived.

The Straco Express, the most detailed set of the three, I picked up at a toy train meet over a year ago. It had some, but not all, of it's track with it, including the terminal section (that's the piece that has the connectors for the wires running from the power pack).

The other set, which I'm pretty sure is Bandai, I obtained recently through an eBay auction -- primarily to complete my circle of track. It also had a piece of terminal track.

Front to back: Straco Express, childhood Bandai(?) set, Bandai set via eBay

And its those two pieces of terminal track that helped me unwrap the puzzle a little. The eBay set's terminal track was missing one of the posts, while the Straco's was intact. And they were different types. The Straco's terminal track had plastic ties, while the other piece had fiberboard ties.

So I know now that the plastic track goes with the Straco Express, which means that the Bandai fiberboard track belongs to the two earlier sets (I'm assuming that the Straco Express was made after the other two -- it seems newer).

As always, if you happen to know something about these trains -- or know someone who might -- please leave a comment. I'd really like to know more about these toys!