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Accessorizing an Aster Reno

by Steve Baker

Having acquired an Aster Reno locomotive a while ago, and finally getting it to run, it was time to start building a complete train, and going beyond just the needed maintenance for running.  Doing some research on the Virginia and Truckee Railroad, I found out enough details on rolling stock, prototype fuel, couplers, and other information needed to ensure enough historical accuracy of my train. 

The Reno locomotive was wood fired up until about 1885, when it was converted to coal, and finally to oil, in the first decade of the twentieth century.  As this engine has a wood burning smoke stack, I would model the first 10 years of the Reno’s activity.  This meant link and pin couplers, a stack of wood on the tender, and appropriate rolling stock.  Another key to accurate modeling will be to get all the brass work polished, and then keeping the locomotive in shining condition.

How to model a stack of wood?  Some problems to overcome included ensuring the wood didn’t become a secondary fire hazard from soaking up alcohol, making sure it didn’t interfere with operations and of course, had to look good.  Something that could be easily removed during startup, quickly put in place, wouldn’t shift while running, and especially, looking realistic was also important.   

I took an advertising magnet from last year’s phone book, and trimmed it to fit just behind the alcohol tank.  A little trim of the corners to avoid screws had it sitting flat.  Then I painted the paper black.  Virginia City ran on cord wood during the 1870’s.  The ponderosa pines of the area were cut and the top part of the tree (up to about 2 feet in diameter) was used for firing stationary and locomotive boilers.  I used a beech branch, approximately 2 scale feet in diameter, and cut 2 foot long sections.  Using a wood chisel, I split the logs in half, and then each half into 3 to 4 pieces.  Then I used white glue (Elmers™, etc.) to attach the stack to the magnet.   

Looking at era photographs, I knew I couldn’t be too accurate, as the alcohol tank occupied where the firemen pulled wood from to put in the boiler.  I also didn’t want to load the entire top of the tender, so I settled for about a scale cord of wood, stacked on top. 

Tender with scale wood load in place. 

I was open to any appropriate looking passenger car as my first piece of rolling stock.    The V&T was both a freight and passenger carrier, and the Reno was mostly used for passenger service (but I did find a reference to it heading a freight train at least once).  The operating rules apparently weren’t rigid, and didn’t require there to be a baggage car / baggage end of a combine between the locomotive and the passenger section.  The knuckle coupler was invented in the 1870’s and wasn’t required by law until the 1890’s, so I had to have link and pin couplers.  Off came the tender dummy knuckle coupler supplied by Aster.   

This project didn’t use any paint (except on the base of the wood pile).  Gun blue produces a black oxide coating, which is only a few ten thousandths of an inch thick, so it can be used on threads to take the shine off, without interfering with installing a nut.  Gun blue can be obtained at sporting goods stores that have hunting supplies, and are very inexpensive.  It also doesn’t dry out, need brushes, nor is difficult to clean up.  Make sure you read the information on the bottle, use gloves, and wear glasses to prevent splashes from hurting your eyes, and work in a well ventilated area.   

Gun blue works on most metals, as you’ll see.  It leaves a uniform, matt black finish.  A small bottle will last a long time.   

The white metal link and pin couplers from Ozark Miniatures arrived.  Knowing that couplers may get a lot of use, and wear, I used the gun blue treatment.  However, instead of wiping the surface, I put a set of coupler, pin and link on a piece of copper wire, and immersed them all directly in the bottle, for the manufacturer’s recommended time.  The links, pins and couplers all came out with a black surface, which looks pretty good.  

I spent a fair amount of time searching for either the correct Virginia & Truckee lettering font, or a set of decals.  Champ had HO scale decals, so I bought a set, to see what I could do with them, using the miracle of modern technology.  While waiting for them to arrive, I did find an AristoCraft combine, painted and lettered for the V&T.  The car was immediately purchased. 

Upon the combine’s safe arrival, I found the combine was brightly painted, but my research indicated the train crews were especially proud of their equipment, and spent much time polishing and cleaning.  Maybe later I’ll investigate the finish on the roof, (suggestions from readers welcome, as to how much sheen there is on a well maintained passenger car roof), and work on that, but otherwise, it doesn’t seem indicated to weather the car.  The large plastic knuckle coupler definitely had to go. 


First stage of modifications to combine couplers.

I started planning how to convert the plastic, knuckle style truck attached couplers to body mounted link and pin.  There were a variety of screws holding the car together underneath, so I investigated which would be best to use.  I ended up using the pair of screws that hold the stairs on, as shown in photo 4.  A strip of thin brass stock ( 0.03 inch thick ), was cut to fit the area, and two holes drilled to pass the screws through to the body.  One hole was drilled in the center, to take the coupler body.  A small hole just offset from the coupler hole was drilled to allow attachment of the pin chain.  Zinc plated fasteners were used to hold the link coupler body on to the brass strip.  Again, the gun blue was used to take the bright metal to a dull black.  It was great to have a good color on the screw, with no problem from a fat covering of paint.  Also, a screwdriver will not scratch the oxide surface, the way it would a painted surface.   

Taking the truck off, I carefully cut the coupler off, but left the protrusion long enough to maintain contact with the guide on the underbody.  Also note the way I used the screws that attached the stairs to the car body.  You can see the shining brass and fasteners. The bosses which aligned the stairs were filed down by hand for accurate fit and to avoid removing too much material.  The brass strip needed some relief in the corners to fit flush.   

Setting the coupler height took advantage of modeling a railroad that didn’t interchange with other railroads.  The link coupler body height was determined by how it fit on the Aster tender.  That one installed easily in the pocket provided.  The use of an appropriate stack of washers set the combine coupler’s height to be the same as the tender.  I did this on a piece of track, as I realized the wheel flange widths were different on the tender and combine. 

Once everything was set, I took it apart to, to cut another strip for the other end, and to finish the brass strip.  A swipe with a rag soaked in gun blue gave the brass a dull black finish, and made it look more like it was always there.  The second end installation went smoothly. 

Last, I used the scale link chain, also purchased from Ozark Miniatures, to keep the pins attached and not get lost.  The pins were trimmed just a little longer than the coupler body, which allowed using less chain.  The finished result, as seen from underneath.


Combine coupler modification complete chemical blackening and chain to retain the coupler pin.

Looking at the shiny, but rusty wheels, something had to be done.  Following the directions on the gun blue bottle (Hoppes ® brand, but any will work as well ), I used steel wool to remove the rust.  Then, using alcohol, I removed all grease, and residue from the steel wool. 

Using my analog ohm meter, I did check electrical resistance of the wheel before and after applying the gun blue.  There was no discernable change in resistance due to the coating.  This is great news for those who electrify their track, for car lighting.   

Using proper safety gear, and precautions, I used a clean rag to apply gun blue to the entire wheel and axle assembly.  Waiting the three minutes per instructions, I then rinsed the assembly in water (be careful not to get any on your stainless steel kitchen sink – it will leave marks).  Then, the assembly was dried with a rag, and was ready for re-assembly in the truck. 

Wheelsets before and after blackening. 

The truck was re-mounted on the combine.  The blackened wheels blend well, and do not detract from the finished appearance of the car.  The additional benefit of the black oxide coating is that it greatly reduces corrosion.  A light coating of oil will be retained by the coating, and resist rusting.   

There might be some economies in buying inexpensive steel wheels, and blackening them, instead of going with nickel or other more expensive, but non-rusting wheels.


Wheelsets installed in trucks. After blackening on the left, before blackening on the right.

So, now I have a nice set of link and pin couplers installed, and some good looking, rust resistance wheels.   The whole process, including initial investigation and one false start, took a pleasant morning of work.  After all, this is a hobby, not a production facility. 

Combine with truck and coupler modifications completed.

The finished result is a great looking train, with some amount of period detailing.  Doing research on the internet can be productive, but I must thank fellow live steamer Bruce Gathman for recommending the book “The Silver Shortline”, by Ted Wurm  and Harre Demoro.  There is a wealth of information books that is a great assist in improving modeling accuracy.

This article originally appeared in Issue No. 102  (Vol. 18. No. 6) of Steam in the Garden. Appreciation for permission to reproduce it on SouthernSteamTrains.com website is expressed to Steve Baker, author; and to Ron Brown, Publisher / Editor of Steam in the Garden.  Steve Baker has established Piedmont Steam Supply, offering supplies for assembling, running and maintaining your live steam locomotive. Email: steve@piedmontsteamsupply.com



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