Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Meet Allison, New Flatcar Release, and Soldering Tips

In this latest installment, we’ll introduce you to our indispensable Administrative Assistant /Sales person Allison Nataro. Then we’ll have some fun with flats. As our tech-tip, we discuss a bit about soldering to help dispel some myths and guide you to reliable solder joints every time.

Intro to Allison

Allison grew up in Beltsville, Maryland as an avid cyclist. Pursuing her passion for mountain biking, she began her college life in Durango at Fort Lewis College. After her first year, she 
returned home following a cycling accident, but not before meeting Casey. She graduated from Longwood University in Virginia with a BA in English and Professional Writing. After college, she bought her 2003 VW Beetle Turbo S, which started a deep passion for VWs and auto performance, which is her main hobby today.

After 8 years of keeping in touch with Casey, she decided to move along with her ‘baby’ Snoopy, her black cat, back to Durango. Allison answered an ad for a job at SoundTraxx on her first day back in town. She started here in January 2008 and has continued to grow her role in the company since.

The influence of her co-workers and her interest in Blackstone Models inspired Allison to build a HOn3 layout of her own. She has learned so much about the hobby and has a better appreciation for model railroading. Her layout will be on display in Hartford, Connecticut at the 2009 NMRA national convention. Stop by our booth and see her work and say hi!

Fun With Flats... oh…and a Teaser!

Blackstone Models has issued a second release of our popular flatcar. There are five new D&RGW numbers as well as one new RGS car number. These feature our new enhanced deck with simulated wood grain and weathering. Since we have these available now, we decided to have some fun and try out different loads to enhance the appearance of these cars.

George found in his stash a Jaeger Products lumber load kit. This makes a great and interesting load.

We also trimmed some straws from local fast food eateries and painted them to create a pipe load.

Then we decided to haul a NASCAR car and a VW around Allison’s layout.

Now for a teaser photo for our next release, the D&RGW Long Caboose. This is a pre-production sample. These will be available sometime late summer/early fall.

Tech Tip: Soldering 101

Many times we answer questions about soldering tools and techniques. Many fear soldering, while some are simply misguided. So here is a guide for soldering for the inexperienced, as well as a reference for the experienced.

To start, you want a good soldering iron. Retailers like Radio Shack have some inexpensive soldering irons that will work just fine. If you are doing many installs, you may want to upgrade to a better iron for a more proficient solder joint. There are many professional quality soldering irons and soldering stations available from companies like Radio Shack and Weller. Never use a large soldering gun for installing and soldering decoders. Keep the soldering iron's rating below 25 watts. We recommend using a soldering iron holder, preferably with a sponge for keeping the tip clean. These are not expensive and can keep the iron from rolling off the table or burning someone, help keep the iron's tip clean and keep your soldering area neat and organized to insure your soldering work is more professional.

There are many types of solder and flux that you can get for various jobs, for instance, plumbing, jewelry and electrical work. Thin solder designed for electrical PCB work will help you better control the amount of solder you apply. The solder we recommend for installing decoders is .032” or 20-gauge 60/40 rosin-flux core, which is also the most common. The flux core cleans oxidation from the surface and helps the solder flow easier to obtain a better solder joint. Flux is also available separately to help supplement the flux core of the solder. Pay attention to the type of flux you use as well. There are different types of flux available for specific purposes, for example electrical work, jewelry work or plumbing. Be sure to get flux designed for electrical PC board work. We have seen instances where using the wrong type of flux, like an acidic flux, caused damage to decoders. By using the proper tools and materials, you can protect your sound decoder from accidental harm.

To guarantee a reliable solder joint, there are some techniques to follow. When soldering, heat the joint, not the solder. Be sure to solder only on the designated pads provided on the PCB style decoders or you could damage the decoder or its components. Heat up the joint and lightly touch a minimal amount of solder to the joint while the iron is touching it. The flux core of the solder will help clean the joint and help the molten solder flow evenly into the joint. If you opt to use additional flux on the joint, apply it sparingly before you make the joint. After the solder has flowed evenly into the joint, pull the iron and the solder away and allow it to cool for a few seconds. Do not blow onto the joint as this could compromise the quality of the joint. After the joint cools, it should be smooth and shiny silver in color and appear like a small smear, not a puddle or doughnut in shape. To properly solder, it takes two hands, so tools like hemostats and self-closing tweezers can help hold the work in place while being soldered. To clean up the excess flux after the soldering is done, you can use lacquer thinner or rubbing alcohol applied lightly with a cotton swab.

Be sure to keep the tip of the soldering iron clean. You should have a damp sponge to clean excess solder off the tip after each use. Typically the sponge is located beneath the iron holder. Do not use your soldering iron to melt plastic. This could affect the plating of the tip and shorten the life of your soldering tip.

Soldering is an integral part of installing sound decoders. It is a skill that is easy to master, and handy to have in the model railroad hobby. Following these tips and techniques, you can easily achieve professional, reliable solder joints every time!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

On the Road with Jarrette and George, Blackstone Models Update, and PTB-100 Tech Tip

Jarrette and George's Excellent Adventure (by Jarrette and George)

With the “Trains on the Plains” train show and the Rocky Mountain Region NMRA meet in Greeley, CO, we decided that a road trip was in order so we could see the old D&RGW narrow gauge right-of-way and the C&S line south of Denver. That weekend also marked the official grand opening for the Greeley Freight Station Railroad Museum.

On the way, we would be passing the Colorado Railroad Museum located in Golden, CO. We decided to leave at 6 a.m. Thursday morning to give us some time to visit the museum. George had not been to the museum since he was around 10 years old; Jarrette hadn't been there since December. On an overcast day, it still was an enjoyable time. Among the large amount of narrow gauge equipment they had was a D&RGW Long Caboose # 0574, one of the numbers we are producing in our Blackstone Models line.
The C-19 #346 was put away, but fortunately we did get to see it. There were a few diesels there, but George enjoyed seeing the steamers too. Overall, we had a good time at the museum -- Jarrette even got to pull handles and twist knobs. Next, it was off to check in to the hotel, because we had another activity taking place soon.

One of the treats of our trip was to operate on John Parker’s BNSF Fall River Division layout located in Longmont, CO. The operating session started Thursday night about 6 p.m. and lasted till about 11 p.m. We were handed a multitude of jobs and everything ran flawlessly.
The layout was a mushroom-style linear walk-around that made it feel as though we were in remote locations and traveling great distances on his layout. A run that traversed the layout took about 20-30 minutes depending on whether the dispatcher liked you or not. The dispatching was done via radio communication and full operating CTC signaling. If the layout looked this good partially scenicked, we can’t wait to visit again when he has done more scenery!
Overall, we had a great time. We want to give a special “Thank You” to Mr. Parker and his regular operating crew. They were hospitable, friendly and helped make the operating session fun and enjoyable. The crew and layout from top to bottom was first-class all the way. Visit his website,, to see the track plan, more photos, and what it took to create this great model railroad.

We did not want to travel near Denver without visiting Caboose Hobbies. Friday afternoon, we looked around and shopped a while, and then we presented a Tsunami programming clinic. Attendance was great and we want to say "Thank You" to those who were in attendance. A Tsunami-equipped locomotive was given away to one of the attendees.

After the opening night of the "Trains on the Plains" show on Friday, we were able to visit the Greeley Freight Station Museum, located in Greeley, CO. Some of you may remember the museum from articles in magazines such as the Model Railroader December 2008 issue. With as much as there is to see there, they could fill the entire magazine with pictures and still miss some things! We were looking in awe of the sheer size of the layout, then someone handed us a throttle. We ran a train around the layout, following the working CTC and radio communication with the dispatcher. It took us about 3 hours to get through the entire run!
We want to give a special thanks to the Greeley Freight Station Museum personnel for their hospitality throughout the weekend. Many who attended Friday night were able to run trains on this extensive layout. Be sure to stop in and say “Hi!” when you are in the area. You can also visit their website at

With all the fun we were having on the trip, the highlight was Randy’s Chicken Coop’s dancin’ chicken. This was too good to pass up, so we decided to get a photo with him to share with you.

Overall, we had a great time and a productive trip. We were able to meet and talk with many of our customers, which we enjoy doing. If you are at a show that we are attending, come on by and see us. Visit our "Shows" Web page to learn more about our upcoming appearances. 

Blackstone Models: High Side Gondolas are Here!

On a side note, excitement hit here this Thursday. The much-anticipated Blackstone Models High Side Gondolas finally arrived! Everybody was outside checking in the shipment and inspecting the cars to ensure they exceeded our standards. Shipping to our customers has begun this week.

Tech Tip: PTB-100 Programming Track Booster

PTB-100 Programming Track Booster
The PTB-100 Programming Track Booster is designed to help boost the power signal on your programming track to give the decoder enough power to fully “wake up” the processor and accept the programming.

Back in the early days of DCC, there were many manufacturers in the marketplace, but all had a different way of doing DCC. They all came together under the watch of the NMRA to decide on a standard to benefit the modelers. At that time, sound decoders did not even exist, and even motor decoders did not have the features that Tsunami has today. Without the foresight to see the future of sound technology, the power to the programming track was set very low.

Today, Tsunami has so many features that we have incorporated a powerful 16-bit processor that needs a little more power to be able to accept changes in CVs. We have designed the PTB-100 to help program your decoders, give visual 2-way communication so you know your decoder has accepted the programming, plus short circuit protection for suspect or faulty installations.

By wiring in the six wires, you can be ready to program the decoders reliably. There is a green LED on the board for signifying proper operation and the presence of a DCC signal. The yellow LED illuminates when the decoder has accepted the programming. The red LED illuminates when there is a problem, and the PTB-100 immediately shuts down the power to protect your locomotive, decoder, and DCC system. Other programming boosters on the market simply boost the signal. Using our PTB-100, you can program non-sound decoders as well with the same acknowledgement. Using the PTB-100 with any DCC system available will help ensure you can program Tsunami sound decoders, as well as many other decoders on the market.