Doodlebug DCC

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(It’s alive! Click on the image for a larger view)

My recent posts on couplers have generated a lot of great feedback – thank you! While I’ve been digesting your comments and coming to a decision on that issue, I’ve switched focus and over the past two days I’ve made some progress on my recently-acquired model of an EMC gas-electric.

As the above photo shows, I’ve installed a DCC sound decoder and speaker. After much pondering, I settled on an ESU/Loksound decoder. It’s the first time I’ve used this manufacturer’s decoders and I’m quite impressed.

My decoder came loaded with sounds for a GE 44 Tonner. That may sound like an odd choice, but it produces a nice rattle from what is obviously a small engine. It’ll do for now, and the beauty of this decoder is I can reprogram it if/when Loksound produces a proper EMC gas-electric audio file. (I’m pretty impressed by the Loksound audio catalogue. While a European company, ESU has a large and growing selection of audio files suitable for North American prototypes. So I’m optimistic that a correct audio file will be offered in time.)

The DCC board is mounted to the floor with two small pieces of double-sided foam tape – located where the mounting holes are for substituting this board for a lighting board in a variety of HO scale diesel models. As the photo shows, I mounted a fairly large high-bass speaker directly behind the motor – again, using double-sided foam tape. This not only secures the speaker, but dampens vibration between the speaker and the floor. I built a styrene baffle, which completely encloses the “front” of the speaker, so the sound ports up, though the speaker’s “back”.

When I finish the model, I will not add glass to the windows in the baggage compartment. These have safety bars in them anyway, so the lack of glass will not be noticeable – and the sound will exit the body near the location of the prime mover.

I made a couple of modifications to the model to support the DCC install:

I added pick-up wipers to the insulated wheels, so the model now has eight-wheel pick-up. This is vital for sound decoders and I always wonder what manufacturers are thinking when they produce a model that has an “unrealistically optimistic” electrical arrangement. In this case, the model picked up from just four wheels – the two right wheels at the front, and the two left wheels at the rear. Obviously, the designer of this model never thought anybody would actually try to, you know, run it! The pick-ups were fiddly, but well worth the effort as the model has gone from “unreliable” to “smooth” at even a crawl, with no interruption of the audio.

I also drilled out the headlight casting, added an opening in the roof behind the casting and added a “golden glow” LED for a headlight. The Loksound board supports LEDs without the need to add any extra components to deliver the correct voltage, which is a very nice touch. I connected the headlight to the board with a two-prong connector so I can disconnect it when removing the body from the floor.

Readers paying attention will note that the formerly-bare frame is now black. After doing my DCC install, I started painting the doodlebug.

I debated whether to paint it for the CNR or another road (since the CNR didn’t actually have a gas electric of this design). In the end, I decided I would do it for the home team, because it’s highly unlikely that a correct model will be offered in 1:64.

Everything below the body is done in Scalecoat CN Warm Black – a terrific paint produced for the CNR Historical Association. The black will cover just about anything without any prep. I’m betting it would adhere to pizza grease (but I’m not about to try that). I carefully airbrushed the floor, frame and details, including the trucks, then cleaned off the wheel treads.

I then set aside the frame and moved onto the body:

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As the above photos show, for the body I decided to do some priming – mostly so I would not be airbrushing yellow over bare brass on the nose. Again, the CNRHA provided a lovely Scalecoat CN Yellow – and after painting I put the body in a warm oven to help it cure. I’ll leave this for several days to make sure it’s good and dry, then mask the face and spray the green body. Finally, the unit will get a black roof and belt line below the windows. Black Cat Publishing makes S scale CNR passenger car decals, which will supply the lettering.

While photographing my progress, I noticed a challenge: The back of the gas-electric has an enclosed compartment – and the manufacturer has not provided a means to get into this:

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Unfortunately, in my experience this is also a common shortcoming with brass models, such as passenger cars with vestibules. Apparently the same designer who decided nobody would ever run their doodlebug also decided nobody would want to install glass in the seven window openings in the vestibule. I suspect I’ll be doing some butchery on that interior partition to remove most of it – leaving enough to maintain the support for the roof and exterior walls. I can always install a piece of painted styrene in the opening to re-create the partition. More likely, I’ll add lots of window shades and be done with it.

I’m pleased with the progress so far. The masking around the nose will be fairly straight forward although there will be some finicky bits around the class lamps, as the green on the sides will wrap onto the front face up to the first seams. But I’m looking forward to spraying more paint about. Stay tuned!

“The least disruptive option”

While at the hobby shop yesterday, I ran into my friend Mark Hill – and after leaving the contents of our wallets at the counter, we had a great conversation in the parking lot under beautiful autumn skies.

Among the many topics covered, we talked about my coupler issues – and our discussion helped me organize my thoughts on couplers (and many other aspects of our hobby, but I’ll use the couplers as my example).

It occurred to me that what I’m really looking for with the couplers is the “least disruptive option”. I’m weighing two options:

Option 1 – a coupler that looks very prototypical, but does not couple reliably (at least, not on my layout).

Option 2 – a coupler that does not look as prototypical, but is a reliable performer.

I need to decide which of these two imperfect options will best support my enjoyment of my hobby. And that depends on what my hobby actually is:

If my hobby is, “Build accurate rolling stock that will take a place of pride in a display cabinet”, then the hands-down winner is the coupler that looks just like the real thing.

If my hobby is, “Build a layout that runs well”, then the hands-down winner is the coupler that delivers bullet-proof reliability.

Naturally, the choice is not clear-cut because I hobby is not firmly embedded at one end or the other: I want both. The challenge, for me and for you, is to decide where on that line we fall. And then we have to make that decision for every choice we make in the hobby.

Given that either choice is imperfect, another way to look at it is, do determine which choice is the “least disruptive option”. In other words, which imperfection bothers me most:

Is it a coupler that has a big spring on the side of the knuckle?

Or is it a coupler that doesn’t always couple and that requires resetting every time a coupling is not made?

In this case, I’ve decided that I’d prefer reliable operation over appearance, which is why I’m – reluctantly – retiring my Sergent EC64 couplers. But now I have another choice to make – the Kadee 5 or the Kadee 808. Again, I will have to decide which is the least disruptive option. I suspect the Kadee 808 will be easier to use – the head is larger so it’s easier to get the uncoupling tool between couplers, and the coupler boxes are the standard for S scale equipment to installation is easy and reliable. But the Kadee 5 looks better.

At this point, I need to do more tests to turn suspicions into evidence. But regardless of which coupler I end up using, I’m glad I’m doing these tests because they have clarified some of my thinking about the hobby. I’m going to apply “the least disruptive option” next time I face such choices.

It may not be the only criteria – but it’s a good one.

Three vans :: Three couplers

Yesterday I visited my local chooch emporium and picked up a bulk pack of Kadee 5 couplers, then set about converting a few pieces of equipment so I can test them as an alternative to the Sergent EC64 and the Kadee 808. (As noted earlier this week, the Sergent has many fine qualities but I want more reliable coupling. I’m perfectly happy with the performance of the S scale Kadee 808 but the Ho scale Kadee 5 is closer to S scale size.)

I converted a locomotive and seven freight cars. I also did a CNR van, which means I now have each type of coupler mounted on a different CNR van – perfect for visual comparisons. I took the photos this morning – click on each image for a larger view:

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(Sergent EC64 — Kadee 5 — Kadee 808)

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(Sergent EC64 — Kadee 5 — Kadee 808)

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(Sergent EC64 — Kadee 5 — Kadee 808)

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(Sergent EC64 — Kadee 5 — Kadee 808)

The Kadee 5 is the smallest of the three. As the photos show, it’s about the same size as the Sergent when looking down on the coupler from above, but not as tall when looking at it end-on or from the side.

Appearance-wise, the Kadee 5 is fine although it could benefit from some rusty paint. (That said, I’m hesitant to paint couplers simply because paint could gum up a coupler and wreck its performance. “Unreliable performance” is the reason I’m – reluctantly – turning away from the Sergents: If painting the Kadee 5 results in performance problems, I might as well stick with the EC64.)

I’m less happy with the HO scale coupler boxes. Simply put, the S scale boxes look better under a car, and because they’re the de-facto standard for 1:64, they’re a whole lot easier to mount. Every manufacturer’s equipment is designed to accept them. I thought the Kadee 5 box might have identical spacing of the mounting holes – and it sure looks that way when you compare the boxes on the bench – but it turns out the spacing on the 5 box is slightly wider than it is on the box for the 808.

From an operations point of view, I do have some concerns with the Kadee 5. It’s been a while since I’ve built an operating layout in HO – my last such railway was torn down in 2003 – and I’m used to larger things now, including couplers. In some quick tests last night, I found my uncoupling tools – all designed for Kadee 5 couplers, mind you – require careful fiddling to slip between the knuckles and separate the cars. Uncoupling is definitely easier with the Sergent EC64 and a magnetic wand – but it’s also easier using the typical uncoupling tool with the Kadee 808.

Now that I’ve been doing some conversions, I’m also reminded that in my years of working in HO, I experienced a lot of vertical coupler movement with the Kadee 5. This is because the opening in the coupler box is taller than the shank of the coupler, allowing the coupler head to rise or fall as train forces act on it. This becomes a problem when two coupler heads are not at the exact same height – when pulling a train, the lower coupler can be forced down, while the higher coupler is forced up, and uncoupling occurs. Of course, all couplers should be mounted at the same height – but even if they are, things like sharp vertical curves can cause problems. And I do have two such curves – at the bottom and top of the elevated coal delivery track in Port Rowan. I did not experience this vertical coupler movement with either the Kadee 808 or the Sergent EC64. Something to watch out for with the Kadee 5.

No – I have not yet made a final decision. I will do some tests with the equipment that I’ve converted to Kadee 5 couplers – including a couple of operating sessions with others. (I think it’s important to do one’s own tests in this hobby, rather than rely on results shared by others, so I encourage you to experiment as well!)

But after working on conversions yesterday and doing some initial tests, I might be reverting to the Kadee 808 after all…

Kadee 5 vs Sergent EC64

My coupler investigations continue…

Here are a couple of quick photos to compare the Kadee #5 HO coupler to the Sergent EC64 S scale coupler (actually, one I built years ago from the original production, because all of my current EC64 couplers are mounted on equipment). In both photos, the Kadee is on the left:

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As the photos show, the couplers are very close in size. The EC64 is obviously more prototypical in appearance – that is, after all, one of the selling points of the Sergent line. But if we assume the Sergent EC64 is scale sized, then it’s clear the Kadee #5 is much closer to S scale than is the Kadee 808.

The Kadee #5 is not as tall as a Sergent EC64, either. But if I’m willing to overlook the giant spring on the side of the coupler (and I am), I can live with the discrepancy in height – especially if it means trouble-free operation. (As for that spring, I’ll tone it down with some Neo-Lube.)

I have also compared the coupler boxes for an HO Kadee #5 (Kadee #232) to the couplers boxes for an S scale Kadee #808. While I did not take pictures, I know that the boxes have differences which prevent 808s from being put into a Kadee 5 box, and vice versa.

However, in two key factors they appear to be identical.

– The distance from front face of the box to the post appears to be the same.

– The spacing of the mounting holes appears to be the same.

I will have to confirm this by mounting a #232 box to an S scale car. But in theory, I should be able to use Kadee #232 boxes (and the couplers in the 5, 20 and 40 ranges) on S scale equipment without having to modify my existing mounting procedures. That should save a whole lot of time and aggravation should I decide to change over the fleet to the Kadee #5.

Stay tuned for more on this in future posts.

(On a housekeeping note, if you’ve been following these posts using the Category link, I’ve changed the category’s name to simply “Couplers“. The link remains the same.)

A difficult decision

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(Sergent EC64 at left :: Kadee 808 at right)

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(Sergent EC64 at left :: Kadee 808 at right)

For the past few months, I’ve been exchanging emails with another S scale enthusiast who has been testing the new Sergent Engineering EC64K couplers on his layout – and we’re both coming to the decision that while these couplers are beautiful and have many terrific qualities, they’re not for us.

It’s not an easy decision to take. I really do want to use these couplers on my layout.

As the photos above show, the Sergents look fantastic. Also in their favour, I love the use of a magnetic wand to uncouple: It works even better than the many different uncoupling tools I’ve used to manipulate Kadee couplers.

But unless the Sergent couplers are perfectly aligned for coupling – and I do mean, perfectly – any attempt to couple results in knocking the knuckles closed without making the hitch. This then requires backing away from the failed hitch, re-opening the moving faces, re-aligning the couplers, and trying again.

I have good success with this in narrower sections of my layout, where the track is fairly close to the front edge. But the Port Rowan terminal – where 75 percent of the work is done – is a fairly deep scene in order to accommodate the turntable:

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(Port Rowan looking towards end of track: The operator’s aisle is to the right)

In my experience, the closer to looking straight down one can get when aligning the couplers, the better the Sergent couplers work. In Port Rowan the combination of a deep scene and a 21-inch viewing window (created by the height of the layout and a bulkhead that runs above the yard) prevents operators from achieving a decent overhead view of the couplers.

In short, my visiting operators and I are having too many failed couplings.

Now, I’m told by those in the business that failed couplings happen – but not as often as they’re failing on my railway. Besides, when couplers don’t couple in the real world, professional train crews just have to deal with it. That’s part of their job – and why such activities are called “Jobs” and not “Smiley Happy Fun Time”.

However, a model railway is not real life. It’s not supposed to be a “Job”. I enjoy building accurate models and scenes in 1:64, but I started into S scale because I was frustrated with the running qualities of On2. S scale has solved those problems, brilliantly. My locomotives do not stall and my equipment rarely derails – in fact, “zero-derailment sessions” are the rule, not the exception. In that environment, failed couplings really stand out as something that detracts from the overall experience.

When couplers fail to couple on Port Rowan, they frustrate me. Worse, they become the thing that visitors remember. The rest of the operating experience may have unfolded as slick as spit, but the talk afterwards will be about how many attempts were required to make the hitch.

I haven’t made a final decision: The EC64 couplers are currently out of production to address a manufacturing issue, which may also improve their performance. I will order some of the couplers when they’re re-released and give them a try. I will also hold onto my EC64 stock for the time being: If I ever build a classic shelf layout, the issue of sight lines would disappear – and the Sergent couplers would be more reliable as a result.

But in an email, my fellow experimenter made the following observation about his tests with the Sergent couplers:

“I have noticed that I operate my layout less frequently, and the sessions are usually only a few minutes (instead of 20-30 minutes in the past). Most end in my frustration of not being able to couple some of the cars.”

I realize that I have experienced exactly the same issue (coupling failures) – with exactly the same results (more frustration and fewer operating sessions).

That’s not why I’m in the hobby.

So – unfortunately – unless the reworked couplers solve the problem for me, I’m going to have to pull the EC64 couplers from my equipment and return to the less prototypical but more reliable Kadee 808.

TMTV :: Pierre and I build benchwork

Yep – there’s me again, with Pierre Oliver at the TrainMasters TV studios…

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… and that means the second episode of The Roadshow is now online and available to TrainMasters TV subscribers.

In this episode, Pierre and I build benchwork for my two S scale modules. Okay – truth be told, Pierre does his famous “Benchwork in a Day” magic trick, and I do the Tool-Time equivalent of Vanna White.

Click on the image, above, to find out more – and enjoy if you watch!

Doodlebug decoder question

Well, I’m stumped…

As mentioned recently on this blog, last weekend I acquired an S scale brass model of an EMC Gas Electric. Click on the image below to read more about the model:

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While I decide how I’m going to paint this doodlebug, I’ve been doing some searching online to figure out what decoder to put in it. And I can’t find anything that’s suitable. I’ve checked the catalogues for Soundtraxx, ESU (Loksound) and Train Control Systems.

There are many, many diesel-electric sound decoders on the market – and even a few diesel-hydraulic ones, too. But I haven’t found a gasoline-electric. Am I missing something?

Thanks in advance for any leads you can provide…

On a housekeeping note, I’ve now added “Gas-Electric” to the categories menu. This will allow those who are interested to find all posts about this model in one place.


Every time I go to a gathering where S scale is on offer, I wonder if I’ll find anything I just have to have – and every time, I’m surprised at what that thing is. At this year’s S Scale Social, the surprising find was a gas-electric – bought from my friend David Clubine:

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I didn’t even realize these had been manufactured in 1:64 but I’m a big fan of self-propelled passenger cars – they are the perfect “pike-sized passenger train”, to quote a popular series that once ran in Model Railroader magazine.

The CNR had a variety of doodlebugs and other one-car trains – ranging from steam coaches and cars powered by banks of storage batteries to gas-electric, diesel-electric (RDC) and classic interurban. For a thorough review of these, I recommend Self-Propelled Cars of the CNR by Anthony Clegg. But this article on the Old Time Trains website includes a couple of photos of CNR doodlebugs, too.

The bad news is, this wide variety did not include an EMC gas-electric like this model. The CNR’s cars were from other builders – including Canadian Car and Foundry, Brill, Canadian General Electric, National Steel Car, and the Ottawa Car Company. In fact, the only example from EMC was one delivered to CNR subsidiary Grand Trunk Western in August 1925. Even so, it was a different model with an RPO section and smaller passenger compartment.

As a modeller working in S scale, I’ve learned the art of compromise. “S is for Scratch-build” or “S is for Sorry” (as in “Sorry – nobody’s ever made that”). So, if I want a gas electric, this model is my choice. What to do?

Two options present themselves:

– I can simply paint this model for the CNR and be done with it. This is likely what I will do, since options are so limited in 1:64. It would make a lovely model to take to train shows where the S Scale Workshop is exhibiting. And it would also allow me to add some variety to operating sessions on the Port Rowan branch. In fact, once I prep this model and my CNR RS-18 for service, I could even hold a post-steam session.

– I can find a more suitable prototype – one that I like – and paint this model for that. While it’s not an exact match, this is much closer to Toronto Hamilton and Buffalo Railway 301. But while a THB 301 would be a great addition to the Workshop module I would have a hard time justifying its appearance in Port Rowan…

Samhongsa produced this model in 1989 for “S”cenery Unlimited. (I would love to know how many were produced: If you have that, or other information about this model, why not share it via the “comments” section for this post?)

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While I ponder my choices, are are a couple more notes about the model:

Only the front truck is powered, but that shouldn’t pose a problem for my flat layout and the model does run quite nicely. There’s plenty of room for a decoder and speaker, too.

I think the model has four-wheel pick-up, but I’ll confirm that and if so I’ll add extra pick-ups so it collects power from all eight.

I’m still glad I have this model and I’m sure that however I finish it, the doodlebug will give me many hours of operating fun …

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“This means you!”

Fellow S scale enthusiast (and enthusiastic reader of this blog) Neil Froese gave me this at yesterday’s S Scale Social:
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(Click on the image for a larger view)

I think it’s a great addition to the layout room. Not that I had a problem with people spitting… and the gambling was never a serious issue… but better to clamp down on this type of behaviour before it gets out of hand, right?

Thanks Neil!