Sunday, 22 February 2015

Sprogs!!!...And Other Things...


   Prior to my layout hiatus, one of the constant sources of annoyance was the need to be "trackside" when wanting to explore the decoder settings of my fleet of locomotives.  As I have stated before, I use NCE for the layout operation and with Cobalt point motors and panel mounted Cobalt decoders I am able to either utilise the panel or the NCE handpiece for layout control and all works well.  On the locomotive/rollingstock front, I have a mix of QSI, Tsunami and ESU or Loksound decoders, and given the advances with DCC/Sound decoders I would imagine that this variety will grow.  I certainly have grown to favour Soundtraxx Tsunami for a number of reasons but feel reticent to pull a perfectly brand new loco or railmotor apart just to change the decoder.

   While it is perfectly reasonable to assume that a factory fitted DCC/Sound loco purchase should work adequately straight from the box, and some people are quite happy to do so...I like to constantly learn about and tweak the performance and attempt to have my locos performing and sounding in a fashion that satisfies ME.  I do think at times that this holy grail of operational/sound perfection is an "urban myth" but nonetheless the upside of all of this reading and tweaking is that I have a better understanding of just what makes my locos tick and now have the confidence to at least attempt to exploit the seemingly endless possibilities that DCC can offer.

   Some years ago, following the successful conversion of an Austrains 442 to Tsunami, I took the plunge and downloaded JMRI Decoder Pro and Panel Pro software.  As an aside, in this increasingly commercial world... it still baffles me that this brilliant software is free...but I digress.  The software loads beautifully but connecting the PC ( via serial cable ) to an NCE system can be trial and error and dependant on the serial cable being configured correctly.  Once successful configuration is achieved...a whole new world of DCC awaits...

   Now that I am forging ahead with the layout, the ability to programme locomotives has again become a necessity and as alluded to in the first paragraph of this post, I needed a more convenient method that allows the programming to be carried out quite separately and untethered to the NCE system and train room.

Existing Layout Computer with NCE power supply and command station tucked away at left...

   Enter the SPROG!.  Apart from a slang terminology for a child, I have no idea why the name SPROG was chosen for the DCC command station....maybe the fact that the unit is so small is why it was coined with that name.  While it may be small, it is a brilliant piece of equipment, easily setup and configured and quite portable...all the attributes I had been looking for.

   As can be seen from the above shot, connections are quite simple.  Power in x 2 and Track out x 2 (on the left) and USB connection to PC or laptop in this case ( on the right ).  Installation of the PC drivers is very straightforward unless utilising Windows 8 or 8.1 which required a bit more juggling about...but still relatively easy...even for this scribe.

   As much as the unit ships with an installation disk...this does not assure the latest incarnations and updates of all my advice is to download the latest releases of DecoderPro and PanelPro directly from the JMRI site prior to installation of the SPROG.  I also took the opportunity of downloading the user manuals and supplementary notes on installation to a PC operating under Win8 or 8.1.

The SPROG II User Guide gives the bulk of the info and is supplemented with the SPROG 3 user guide..

   The only other piece of equipment required is a power supply for the SPROG.  The requirements suggest a regulated power supply 12-18V, 3 A.  There are several "solves" available but I elected to also purchase a Cobalt PSU2+  power supply with Dual 9 V regulated or bridgeable 18V supply at 5A.  This unit may be overkill and there are plenty of cheaper wall plug type power supplies, but I have wanted one of these for a while to try out as a dedicated point motor the decision was a convenient no brainer.


    I guess it is timely to mention that the SPROG3 and Power Supply were both purchased from DCC Concepts in WA and were delivered to regional NSW within 48 hours of ordering...In comparison it took around 9 working days to receive my Traino 48 Class from hats off to the guys at DCC Concepts...

   I have also fabricated a test track and base that is 1.3 metres in length and houses the SPROG unit and associated wiring.  This test track is also portable, so coupled with a laptop computer, research, learning and programming can be carried out almost anywhere.

    In conclusion, the SPROG's ease of installation, ease of use portability and seamless integration with the JMRI suite of programmes has been a complete game changer for me.  I have no idea why I did not purchase the earlier versions of the SPROG...but better late than never.  Those bitterly cold late night trips to the layout room in the dead of winter, to spend some time loco programming are a thing of the past and I will be spending some more time looking closely at the offerings of the PanelPro software as well... While SPROG and DecoderPro are not cure all panaceas for all brands of decoders...they certainly offer a high level of easy programming and an unrivalled way to learn the secrets behind the dreaded CVs...

   Of course the SPROG is not new...and many DCC-ites will have availed themselves of it for a great many years...but I will post another instalment of the SPROG and JMRI software in practice... if readers would like...We will learn together!      

Friday, 13 February 2015

Back In The Saddle...


During the sorting out around here, I unearthed a couple of unopened Rails North BMF Milk Tank kits.  I am guessing I purchased these in the mid 80s and by the look of the staples holding the packs together and the rust stains on the instructions ( which incidentally are on foolscap paper ) would imagine they have not seen the light of day in 3 decades.  Anyway they took my fancy and I decided to commence construction this afternoon.

I decided to have a play with the tanks to get a feel of just how the wagon will look when complete and the condition of the tanks will give me a guide as to how the decking and underframe will be weathered.

Some time ago, I briefly described the salt weathering method on a structure and decided I wanted to capture the same basic feel with these tanks.  There is not a lot of research material on these particular wagons and apart from a vague recollection that the tanks were white...I am flying blind.  I also have no idea as to when these wagons were it is fair to assume that they would have been a real mess towards the end of their lives and it is this condition that I envisage recreating. 

The tanks are a solid cast resin and while this was the rudimentary method of kit manufacture back in the 70s and is fortuitous, as the weight of the solid tanks means that very little or no added wagon weight will be required once complete.

I commenced painting the tanks with the normal etch primer...followed by a mix of Tamiya browns to taste. Because the Tamiya paints tend to dry extremely quickly on the painted item, I tend to thin it fairly well so that I end up with plenty of time to apply the salt and still have it adhere to the drying paint. You can at this point continue to paint the wagon with a mix of colours and salt layers so that you end up with several shades of show through colour when the salt is eventually removed.  I finish coated the tanks with a "just off white" Lifecolour brand and then set it aside to dry.

When dry...the salt can be rubbed or picked off and the undercolours are revealed.  There is another method where the painted object is sprayed with water and the salt applied to the water to adhere it to the surface.  It all depends on what you are painting and what you desire the end result to be.  In the photos in this post...I have probably overdone the salt to ensure the method is visible...but in most cases less is more and in the case of these tanks I can add another coat to hide some of the simulated pitting marks to lessen the visual impact and can also add rust stain runs to suit...The end result is certainly in the eye of the beholder.

There are so many variations that can be adopted and indeed just the salt added to the rust base colour can create rust bleeds and a kind of rust bloom or "flowering" effect that does not require a top coat...just removal of the salt.

I will post some shots of the wagons construction progress as time goes by...

The photos illustrate the workflow... 


And the trial fit on the incomplete underframe...

Thursday, 12 February 2015

The Pheonix Rises...

Well it has been a while between posts...and by now I would have figured I would have posted some sort of progress on the "new" layout.  As per life, there have been some twists and turns that have changed things somewhat and with family input and compromises...things are again on the move.

We had booked a local carpenter (friend) to lend us a hand to dismantle the existing layout and reconfigure the shed for business use.  This work was scheduled to begin in mid January and in the meantime I had been packing and stacking the modelling items, with some being Ebayised in readiness for his arrival. In late December I began to lift some trackwork in the hope that some could be salvaged but that operation only lasted an hour or so before I lost interest due to the thought of how much time went into laying it in the first place.  This one loss of destructive appetite would later play a big part in the ultimate decision making process in the hobby stakes.

In the week leading up to the shed conversion...The carpenter arrived to gain a final understanding on our requirements and to make a list all items required for the work.  As we toured the layout room and the adjacent shed area, I could tell that his mind was not entirely on the task at hand and his gaze seemed to be drawn to the layout itself.  At that point my wife arrived with a cuppa for us both and it was then that our contractor decided to unload.  His first point of conversation was to enquire as to whether we had looked at ALL options for the business and this question was quickly followed with a friendly but expletive ridden tirade on the sanity of destroying all the many hours that had been "invested" in the layout.

Well the upshot is that he did ultimately come up with some very sound options and as at the end of January 2015...the business has ended up with much of what was required and the medium term survival of Fish River has been offered up.  Secretly, the family have been watching my disposition over the last few months since the demise of the layout was first raised and it would now appear that it was not only me who was agonising over the loss.  And to celebrate the reprieve I received the "homecoming" gift of a Trainorama 48 class and an Auscision 45 Class!....I should make these decisions more often!   As for the planned replacement 009 layout...I will certainly be pursuing this as well, as I now have much of what is required for at least a diorama and this will lend itself perfectly to those cold winter days in the Tablelands where even a trip to the shed is a harsh decision.

And now with that all out of the way...I will end this post with my initial thoughts on the Trainorama 48 class and experience gained with my first DCC and Sound conversion in quite a while.

Out of the box it would appear that Trainorama have produced a very nice model.  My model (4819) has all the attributes that we have become used to from this manufacturer and the overall appearance, paint, detail etc does not disappoint. In saying this, at least two side mirrors have been applied crookedly, the sliding window panels have no "frame" to even simulate the prototype and the side filters appear to be an added part during manufacture and mine must have been fitted on a Monday.  The other appearance issue is the wiring loom running (visibly) through the cab?...surely we have gone beyond this???.  Obviously everyone has differing expectations and of course this is my view only.

I decided to add the DCC Sound conversion kit to my loco and of course this requires the removal of the body which compared to the Powerline equivalent was an absolute dream....Although joy was seriously tempered during reassembly, where one needs to reattach the brake chain and this was certainly a testing task for a middle aged fart with failing eyesight and an aversion to tweezers!  I have left the chain off for now!

The DCC conversion went relatively smoothly.  The Trainorama supplied speaker had to be replaced due to the use of the Loksound V4 decoder and while Trainorama should be applauded for supplying a true "sound ready" locomotive, the decision to incorporate the rear lighting assembly as part of the speaker enclosure is questionable as is the choice to mount the whole assembly to the chassis with the use of tape ONLY...

As I have yet to tweak the loco under decoder-pro...I can only offer my findings based on simple programming thru NCE.  There is a slight audible motor whine at low speed which should be solved thru decoder pro or running in might also see the noise diminish  I am traditionally an unabashed Tsunami fan...but as I get older, the thought of pulling each loco apart to fit decoders, speakers and sort out ever increasingly sophisticated lighting circuits, has lost some of it's gloss and in the case of the 48 class ( as was the same with the 422 conversion) it was just plain easier to fit the DCC Sound offering.  While the sounds of the 48 Class can only be described as brilliant, as is the horn...I was disappointed to find that CV63 ( Master Volume ) was factory set at the upper limit and my installation requires a fair increase in volume just to overcome engine noise.  Maybe a variation in speaker choice could add a slight increase in volume...but as the supplied speaker is hard wired to the should be adequate, but certainly not in my case.

Another difference between Tsunami and Loksound is the notching...where the Tsunami offering can basically work acceptably "straight out the box"....The Loksound decoder appears to only offer manual notching which is a definite deviation from my habits and could end up being a right pain in the butt...time will tell.  My other fear is multiple loco lashups where the differences between the brands could see more on track "arguments" between the locos and speed matching being an absolute pain, if not impossible.

I now have a decision to make regarding the 45 class conversion and will ponder the decoder choice in the coming the meantime I have included a shot of the converted 48 class.

It is nice to be back blogging the NSWGR...