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The Aster NYC Hudson

Modifications and Updates to a 20 year old beauty.

by Fred Gandolfi

(with additional pictures and information supplied by John Garrett)


A short while back I had the opportunity to purchase a Aster J-1C Hudson from an online auction.  I’ve loved this style engine since my youth running my Lionel in the basement. Only hearing little bits of conversations over the years about this engine didn’t mean much to me since I thought that I would never own one.  I really didn’t know what to expect when I finally got to bring her home.   Since the seller was only 350 miles away, we made plans to meet half way and make the exchange.  Pleased with the initial observation of the engine, I headed straight to the only friends house that had a track close to large enough diameter to give it a run.  Bob Weltyk was waiting for me to arrive that afternoon and we went right to work.   

A good oiling, checking the nuts, bolts and other connections that I could see just to make sure everything looked tight and the way it should be.  First I filled the boiler and tender with water, and the fuel tank with butane.  Then I made the connections from the tender to the engine and got ready to light this beast up.  Drawing from my knowledge base of other engines I’ve had,  and currently do own, I put the flame to the stack and cracked open the fuel valve.  Pop, once.  The fire jumped back into the boiler, but didn’t get the burner to stay lit.  Pop, twice, three, four….. finally after many attempts it popped back and kept lit.  Lesson number one.  Only did I find out later (when reading the instructions that came with the engine) that to light the burner I was to pull the whole housing from the rear of the boiler about an inch, light it, and place it back into the boiler!  (more on this later)  

It seemed like in no time at all the pressure gauge showed 4 bar.  I moved the J bar forward and slowly cracked the regulator.  After a hesitation or two she started to move down the track very slowly.  Nice and slowly she crept, but I soon discovered that the engine didn’t want to stay on the track.  Any minor dip or bump in the track, or taking of a curve, and the front pilot wheels would jump off.  A few times the drivers jumped the rail.  It was time to shut her down and take a closer look.   

Did I make a mistake?  Is this engine so finicky that it will take all of the fun out of running her?  I must say that the thought ran through my head more than once in those first few hours. 

Since this humble beginning I have learned about and discovered a few modifications and tricks to this engine.  Placing a posting on Steam in the Garden online I asked for any and all known modifications from other Hudson owners.  I was able to derive some information, but more importantly I made some connections with other owners, and that some of them have experienced at least parts of what I was experiencing.  That was good news.  But how much work and time is it going to take to get this thing in tip top running condition? 

Well, here I am about six weeks later and many changes and modifications have been made to my engine.  I wish that I was completely done at this point, but I am still a few projects away from being totally satisfied.  The sight glass is still a major problem that will need to be addressed and I hope to have some kind of update on this in the future.  Overall I have spent many hours working on the Hudson getting these changes done.  Some have been rewarding and satisfying, while others have been pure frustration.  But frustration turns into joy when the job is finally completed and works as planned!  

Below is the list of problems, solutions, and updates I found that needed to be done to get this engine in good running order again.  Of course not all Aster Hudson’s out there would need all of these, but some listed below are inherent to the design of the engine and should be addressed.  For informational purposes, this engine was factory built. 

Solutions, modifications and updates:

The burner.  A few conversations with John Garrett on the phone, some e-mails flashing back and forth, and the ideas were coming.  The first thing John suggested to me was to make the poker a radiant style burner, and to flip the whole burner upside down.   It seems that the Aster Hudson and K-4 had a slight problem with the upper most flue tube being placed too high in the boiler.  The sight glass was so high that it was almost non functional.  The change to a radiant style burner, by turning the burner 180 deg forces the hottest heat to the bottom of the boiler firebox instead of the top.  By keeping the hottest part of the fire from directly getting to that highest flue helps to divert the potential of a disaster if the water level ever got too low.  And this would not be difficult to do if relying on the site glass!   

The next piece of information given to me by John was to use a suction fan when lighting the burner.  Just as you would an alcohol fired engine.  No fooling!  Using these suggestions made a world of difference firing  the engine and bringing her up to steam much faster.  Also an added benefit is a longer run time because of the radiant burner being added.

(Update: Since this was written, John has returned his burner into the normal position while leaving on the radiant burner.  He said that it seemed to make a difference for him.  Since I am making more steam than I can use, I’m leaving mine rotated 180 deg.)  

Front pilot wheels.  When I finally had a chance, I went through everything on the engine.  Push, pull, twist and generally inspect everything I could touch and see.  This is when I discovered a few problems that contributed to the engine not holding the rails in the dips and curves.  The front pilot wheels were not turning.  Further inspection reveled that the pilot housing was bent so badly at the point where the wheel bushings went through the housing that not only were the wheels not turning, the axles were not floating in the housing.  This is one reason any dip or bump would lift the wheels off of the track.  A lot of bending, oil, and aligning finally got everything moving freely.  I knew that this was going to make a major difference in staying on the rails. 

Compensated Drivers.  I also found that the drive wheel compensators were stiff or sticky to move.  I would have to assume that these had not been lubricated in a very long time by the looks of them.  There are three pivot points per side per wheel, and the axle bushing itself that moves up and down in the frame.  A quick cleaning with some WD 40, then fresh oil loosened everything up and moving freely. 

Adding weight to the smoke box.  When the previous two items were completed, it was time to give the engine another run on Bob’s track to see if there was any improvement.  Although there was some improvement, we now noticed that the rear of the engine had much more weight distributed to it than the front.  We also confirmed that she was going through steam oil at an alarming rate.  More on that issue later.  But after I placed my question on the SitG forum, the first answer I got was from Sam DiMaggio.  He mentioned the addition of weight to the smoke box, as did Jim Overland.  I had all kinds of images in my head as to how I would do this, but once again Mr. Garrett came to the rescue and took some pictures of what he had installed in his Hudson.

Finding an acceptable size of brass tubing was the biggest problem for me.  Then there was finding a solid piece of brass for the center fill piece.  Bob Weltyk came through with a piece of solid brass that could be turned down with a lathe to the right diameter.   When I found both pieces that I needed, I took some measurements, made up a drawing,  and using the basic design John and Larry Herget used, took the parts to work to have one of the machinists mill out and turn down  the pieces as shown.

When I finally got to install the new weights, I found that I had a fair amount of room between the weight and the smoke box walls.  Using some flat brass strips that I had, I was able to cut them to length and slide them between the weight and the smoke box walls.  Not only did this add an additional 4 oz. of weight, but it helped to stabilize everything so the weights could not move during runs or transportation.   

The total weight added to the front of my engine was about 48 ounces.  This has perfectly balanced the engine weight from front to rear.  Now for that added benefit of making this change.  John Garrett told me that after he made this improvement he was able to run his Hudson on 13 foot diameter track!  According to Aster, this engine requires 3 meter radius (about 19.5 foot diameter).  So, when I got everything back together, I fired her up and let her run for over 30 minutes on my track which is 13 foot diameter!  Not one problem.  Slow or medium speed, the engine ran true and not once showed any sign of wanting to jump track.  What an amazing change. 

Oil consumption.  Mentioned above, it was obvious that this engine was going through steam oil in massive amounts.  Oil was being spit out the stack like a shower, and even a short run left the lubricator nearly empty.  That has always been one of my pet peeves, when an engine uses too much oil.  I realize that oil is cheap.  I also know that too much is better than not enough when it comes to this subject.  But there should be a limit to how much oil ends up on your engine or track, and to make sure that you do not run out of steam oil during a run. 

This was one of the questions that I brought up online, but no one had any information on improvements.  There was acknowledgement that this issue existed on at least some engines, but any changes would have to be made on my own, or so I thought.  Once again John G. got the jump and was already looking into this issue.  He sent me a picture of changes that he had made, and what he had done to the lubricator

I started to make the same revisions when things went south…… in a hurry.  For John to add the extension pipe, he had to open up the existing tube end enough to fit in the new tube and solder the two together.  Sounds fair.  But when I went to open the end, I went through the wall of the tubing.  I obviously wasn’t going to solder on another piece now!   

A good night’s sleep and lots of thought on the problem came up with a solution.  I have a nice selection of various sizes of needles that you use with syringes for oil or whatever.

Removing the needle from the sure-loc plastic housing with low heat, I was able to install the needle into the existing metering hole in the oil line. If you need to open up the hole some, use a sharp pointed dental pick tool.  The tubing is soft copper and will open up easily.  After bending the needle so it will end near the top of the tank, insert one end of the needle into the existing metering hole and gently crimp the copper tubing on both sides to seat the needle in place.  This will give you the same look as photo #6, but with a much smaller tube.  I used Teflon tape rolled and wrapped around the tube as a new packing gasket when assembling the tank back on to the tube.  I ended up using the “yellow” colored housing needle.  I had tried the “blue” (even smaller), but was afraid that there wasn’t enough oil being used.  With the yellow size needle, I use approximately one half tank of oil per full run.  No more mess, and no more worry about running out of steam oil during a run.  Sulphur Springs carries a variety of syringe needle sizes.  Just make sure you get the long needle (just over an inch in length). 

This photo shows how small the needle is when installed in the lubricator tank.  You can see it crossing the opening. 

Gas control valve.  One of the first things noticed on the maiden run was the touchy gas valve.  This question was also asked online without any help other than replacing everything with a Roundhouse tank and valving..  Reading past issues of Steam in the Garden showed me modifications that Kevin O’Connor had made and discussed in a article he had written.  Not having a lathe to re-machine the valve, my only other option was to remove the valve and old O-ring and try replacing the O-ring with a new Viton ring.  Applying a touch of oil to the ring before installing it on the valve, and more oil before placing the valve in the housing gave acceptable results.  Even though the flow control is still rather course, there is no longer “rebound” from the O-ring.  Fine adjustments are now possible, and with the radiant burner installed, getting the gas flow to a minimum. 

Burner Howl.  The engine had a tremendous howl when first received.  The air inlet adjustment ring that fits on the burner housing was not installed, but was in a bag of parts that came with the engine.  The addition of this ring took away most, but not all of the howl.  Since the addition of the radiant burner, the howl is intermittent.  Seems that there is more than one variable whether the extra noise will be there or not.  I am still trying different settings, but so far have not come up with a sure fix for this.  The radiant burner did eliminate about 90% of the noise. 

Whistle valve ball (nitril).  A change to add a nitril ball (available from Sulphur Springs) in place of the existing metal ball stopped the steam leak that was coming from the whistle valve.  To do this you need to remove the cab, then remove the regulator.  Unscrew the ‘T’ from the housing and replace the stainless steel ball.  Use the middle size ball sold from Sulphur Springs. 

Johnson Bar.  Moving the Johnson Bar while the engine was under steam usually resulted in a burnt finger or two.  The addition of a bracket with a threaded bar attached resulted in a much easier, and no more burnt fingers update.  Bending a small piece of thick brass plate unto a “U”, soldering on a small piece of brass tubing, drilling and taping a hole for the locking bar is all that’s required.  Now a quick twist of the threaded bar to hold in the handle lock and you can move the J bar with ease into the desired location.  Another quick turn to release and set the handle lock and your done.  Much faster, much easier, and a lot safer for your fingers.  . 

Gas Line Quick Disconnect.  Whenever the tender was disconnected, there was the problem of the gas line being attached to the jet and housing.  This would usually mean removing a very hot burner and housing, or waiting for everything to cool down enough to get a wrench on the line and unscrew it.  Neither are good choices.  The addition of a quick disconnect to the gas line solved that problem.  The disconnect also has a positive check on one end.  This end should be connected to the tank side of the line.  If the line were to become disconnected for any reason, the check does not allow gas to continue to flow.   I can now disconnect the tender from the engine directly after shutdown without any problems from heat or removing the burner. 

Coal Load The coal load was an update to the pretty much non existent original load.  Some pieces of coal that were in a film container were about all that was left.  Since I didn’t know what the original load looked like, I made my own using the same technique as my Mikado. 

In Conclusion:

I am happy to report that the engine is running very nicely.  I’m sure that there are still more modifications and updates that have been done over the years to the Hudson’s.  This list is a compilation of information gathered from John Garrett, and myself that accomplished what my original goal was.  “To get this engine in good running order again”, and it has .    There were other “normal maintenance” type items that were done also.  Changing the rubber tubing lines for the axle pump is one good example.  Twenty year old rubber didn’t stand up to the task any longer and a hole soon appeared in the feed line from the pump to the boiler.  Items like this were not addressed here because I did not consider these types of issues as updates or improvements. 

This article originally appeared in Issue No. 78 (Vol. 14. No. 6) of Steam in the Garden. Appreciation for permission to reproduce it on SouthernSteamTrains.com is expressed to Fred Gandolfi, author; and to Ron Brown, Publisher / Editor of Steam in the Garden. 



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