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Friday, May 13, 2011

Problematic: Late Scale-Craft Wheelsets [With Long Update on Other Makers]

One hobby-within-a-hobby that I really enjoy is rebuilding old freight and passenger car trucks. Actually, I am kidding, it is not so much something I enjoy as something I have needed to get better at to run vintage/retro trains reliably.

With my code 100 track I avoid running standard Lionel wheelsets. They actually work great in a way, Lionel opted for a much wider tread and larger flange that will not derail under any normal circumstance. With their solid metal bolster you have to use a solid axle wheelset for two rail operation; a split axle type wheelset such as the standard Scale-Craft wheelset will create a dead short (standard S-C wheelsets with brass wheels require an insulate bolster for two rail operation). So with the Lionel cars I run I either have them running on RP-25 contour Ultimate wheelsets (which were made in Lionel and S-C versions—the best OO wheelset ever!) or on late Scale-Craft wheelsets with the solid axle. I had saved a number of them from cars for this very reason.

Actually, I should have said I had Lionel trucks running on those late S-C wheelsets until this past weekend. I had noticed some nagging derailment problems in turnouts with one of these cars in particular, a car I very much wanted to run. I kept checking the gauge of the wheelsets and of my track but could not solve the problem. Finally I checked the width of the tread as seen in this photo.

You tend take it for granted that all wheelsets should be up to NMRA standards, especially these which date to probably the early 1950s. However, of these only a fraction of the production is up to NMRA tread width standards! On virtually every one of the wheelsets I have of this type one or both sides are well under standards. The tread is not supposed to drop in the slot on the standards gauge.

I had used these wheelsets mostly in reproduction Lionel trucks. To get those cars operating well the solution was to drill the axle holes a little bigger and use Ultimate wheelsets pulled off S-C upgraded trucks, with those trucks being converted back to standard, split-axle type S-C wheelsets from the parts box, which on my track (and especially the Mantua turnouts) are pretty much bullet proof. (But see the UPDATE, below).

The side story being that S-C was shipping out trucks at the end with problematic, off standards wheelsets. It did not help out the end of their sales or reputation with operators of the day. And I am totally banning their late type wheelsets from the layout. I really don’t need derailments caused by wheelsets.

In the past I noted as well that Nason wheelsets are also touchy, and that I have Nason trucks that have been re-worked by prior owners with Scale-Craft and Lionel wheelsets (Nason and SC wheelsets are similar, more here). (UPDATE: See this one too!) Those operators knew things I am just figuring out. What I discovered in following up further was that quite a percentage the Nason wheelsets I tested are also under NMRA standards in tread width! Some actually are up to standards and seem to operate great but do test every Nason wheelset for this same dimensional problem if you plan to run them. On my track anyway it makes a huge difference and I suspect would also make a huge difference in operating on Lionel three rail track as well, in particular their turnouts. I would be interested to hear from any Lionel operator on this topic.

UPDATE: (Now itself updated several times) It is interesting how some problems will have an obvious answer but yet it can elude you for years.

The issue with the wheelsets got me looking and now I see also that well over half of the Famoco/Eastern wheelsets I have around are under/off standards as well. I like to keep cars "pure" if possible and I have only seven cars that are set up and in a condition that I would like to operate them regularly that are on Eastern/Famoco trucks.There is one specific point on the layout that models are most likely to derail and I used that area for testing purposes. I was very hard pressed to come up with five pair of Eastern/Famoco trucks that really work even after seriously sifting through the loose parts supply and cars not set up for operation.  It is a combination of tread width and flange profile variation that kills these trucks. The wheelsets are obviously from several runs, some of which were clearly not up to standards. Not good. And the insulation has shrunk on some runs and the trucks can fall apart easily. Not the best design to develop repeat customers.

Ultimately in shifting through the parts suply I realized that I could combine some (but not all!) of the Famoco/Eastern axles with the early S-C Bakelite wheelsets and re-mount them in the Famoco/Eastern trucks. I was able to fix three pair of trucks up with these and have all the Famoco/Eastern cars I run rolling around the layout great, plus one spare pair of trucks for future use. After some real effort.

I also have a good number of Graceline cars and a couple of those I would like to run on the layout. These I also had found to be touchy on my track when I try them (an example may be seen here) even if they were in gauge and now I know why. I knew their wheelsets varied and now I can see that another variable that was off was, you guessed it, tread width. This, combined with their flange profile being way too variable, makes a lot of their trucks be not suited for my operation anyway as shipped out. Another project to do and I will keep shifting through the parts supply.

To touch on one other maker, the one Transportation Models wheelset I tested was way off, under width. I have never seen a pair of those trucks built up on a car. With too many small parts and bad wheelsets (an example may be seen here) that is completely understandable.

To their credit, Scale-Craft did, overall, make wheelsets that operate well. They seem to have had a spec for these that is actually just a hair narrower than NMRA standards as later set but they do operate well for me, probably because they are consistent with a good flange and the trucks are square and solid in design. The problem with the solid axle late type wheelset is quite a number of wheels are more than a hair under their spec. Every other run of them beside the solid axle type featured in this article (there were many runs over the years, take a close look and the variations are clear) seems to be closely up to dimensional specs and thankfully cause me no operational problems. The early Bakelite wheelsets have a wider profile similar in width to Lionel and also cause me no operational problems.

Thus, the unexpected project now is going through the vintage wheelsets yet again and separating out the ones that are not up to standards. They will be put in a box where the sun does not shine, only to be used on cars that I know I won't be trying to run or salvaged for parts (for axles for example).

Standards varied just a bit year to year in production runs for the small firms, and we have to remember also that those wheels were made by humans. If the lathe operator had a bad day then wheelsets just off standards were made and ultimately shipped out. Unfortunately for those makers it translated into inconsistent/bad product and would have impacted customer satisfaction for sure. Operation would be spotty, depending on track standards. I suspect strongly that Scale-Craft and Lionel used far better machinery and cutters to make their wheelsets than the other early makers.

To conclude what has become a rather long article, tread width is critical and can't be taken for granted with vintage scale models. This will now be something that I specifically look for in prepping any car for layout operation.

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