Upgrading Athearns

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#1
Face it, no matter what you do, there's always *some* engine you can't model except by using an Athearn bluebox. Nothing wrong with that, but after living with Atlas models, I'm spoiled.

So long story short, I want to model a modern switcher like an SW1500. What can be done to an Athearn switcher -- or an Athearn in general -- to make it run at least half as good as an Atlas or a Kato? Enginebashers out there, what do you do to fine tune these motors? New power? Wheel replacements? Weights? Flywheels? Anything?

I want to have nice creeping control and reliable, smooth performance.

Advice? Instructions? Photos? Any and all help appreciated.
 

grumpybob

Lake Shore Lines
#2
First, start by replacing the wheelset with NWSL replacements. Secondly get rid of spring steel wire unit that runs between the front and back truck and replace it with 20 to 22 guage wire. Finally, a good can motor works wonders.

Other than that. sand off the molded hand rails, and use wire. Other than that they are just the good old blue box special. :D
 

RCH

Been Nothin' Since Frisco
#3
Well, here's what you can do "externally" to an Athearn blue box SW1500 (assuming you're talking about the second model Athearn called SW1500 - the first one was renamed to SW7):

http://www.pbase.com/tracktime/liz_sw1500&page=all

Bob's tips on the internal side are correct and in that order: rewheel, rewire, remotor. You may be able to get away with the first two without dropping coin on the third.

Also, take the trucks off, take them apart, inspect the gears for flash, wash everything off with soap and warm water, reassemble and lube sparingly. I use the Labelle lubricating kit to do this and it makes a difference. However, I've also done the Pearl Drops polish and that made no difference.

Just running the thing for several hours on a loop (without the shell, of course - got to keep it cool) in both directions helps, too. Make sure there are straight sections in the loop so the trucks get to swivel as it makes each lap. I actually remove the locomotive from the track and turn it 180° after awhile so the trucks aren't always just turning to the left or the right. Enough running time will make the driveline find its own sweet spot, so to speak.
 

kenw

5th Generation Texian
#4
On the insides, I shorten the ends of the clip on top so that all it does is give me something to solder to and remains removeable. The wires that i've soldered to this clip end with a 1/4" spade quick-connect "socket" that slips snuggly over the metal tab on each truck (that the cip used to fit under). This gives me fabulously reliable contact and yet it's serviceable without unsoldering.
 
#5
kenw said:
On the insides, I shorten the ends of the clip on top so that all it does is give me something to solder to and remains removeable. The wires that i've soldered to this clip end with a 1/4" spade quick-connect "socket" that slips snuggly over the metal tab on each truck (that the cip used to fit under). This gives me fabulously reliable contact and yet it's serviceable without unsoldering.
Do you have a photo of this assembly?
 

CBCNSfan

Registered Member
Staff member
#6
Well I don't have a switcher, but then again all Athearns are basically the same construction. Mr. Irv Athearn set out to produce a decent model loco that everyone in the hobby could afford. In order to acheive this the loco had to to be easily mass produced. Therein lies the faults with the Athearn Loco kits. These problems in design can be changed and compensated in various ways to obtain a quiet, and superb running loco, but it takes work determination and patience. There is a multitude of problems to compensate for so we'll start with those already in discussion. I do not own any Atlas, spectrums or Genesis loco's to compare with. I am not an expert in this, but I do have experience in having completed 8 of them, which are at least as good as or better than any I've seen running at train shows. I've not changed the wheels yet but that is also planned for the future. Here are a couple of links where I got some of the ideas from.
http://www.wave.co.nz/~lakewood/F3-F7Project/AthearnChassis.htm Athearn F7 Chassis fix
http://nm.essortment.com/athearnmodeltr_rkec.htm Athearn general
http://www.rrdepot.com/model/articles/athearnlocos.php Dis/Assembly other instructions

I will be doing several posts on this topic and would like to have your comments, discussion and ideas which may improve or add to the methods that we have now.
Cheers Willis
 

CBCNSfan

Registered Member
Staff member
#7
First Step


Probably one of the worst problems of the Athearn BB is the electrical paths from the track to the motor. There are four points of electrical connection that are mechanical in nature. These are easily modified to provide continueous current to the motor provided the track and wheels are clean. Below are a couple of pic's showing the problem areas and what was done to improve them.
The first pic shows the problem areas A and B

The area A is one area of concern since it is a mechanical connection also depending on friction and B the other is mentioned above
The second pic shows improvments to both areas
The wires at the upper part of the frame are soldered to the pickup on the trucks and also to the crossbars on the frame eliminating dependancy on the mechanical connection for current.

The Area described in B is replaced by wires soldered from the trucks to a shortened spring bar on the top of the motor.

Lastly, An area not shown is the bottom of the motor, for this I flattened the "fingers" on the brush retainer that touch the frame for the other motor conection ( for future DCC installation) and soldered a wire from that clip to a brass screw threaded into the frame.

Cheers Willis
 

grumpybob

Lake Shore Lines
#8
Willis,


I also put Kapton tape in the bottom of the motor mount well in addition to flattening out the fingers. Especially if you are considering DCC.
 

CBCNSfan

Registered Member
Staff member
#9
Yes, a very excellent idea in any case Bob, we can add that to the things to do to upgrade the Athearns.

Cheers Willis
 
#10
Thanks for the informative responses so far. Willis, how do your models do at low speeds? Since I am planning on a switcher, I want to be able to creep and have good control with stops and starts.

RCH: cool photo link. That's one nice switcher!
 

UP Wings

It's All About the Wings
#11
If you are going through all of that trouble to make a good model, I would improve the lighting. Richmond Controls makes great lights for the non digital locomotives. They come with bulbs and circuit board. All you have to do is install the lights and connect the wires and you are ready to go. They also make directional lighting, isolating, alternating as well as different colors of light. I have found that better lights will make any blue box run with the Atlas and Katos. Here is a link.

Richmond Controls
 

CBCNSfan

Registered Member
Staff member
#12
Well Brian, it looks like you've hit on something else, and for those who want lighting this also should be added to the list of modifications.
For myself I left lighting out of my models, (this was by choice because I liked the headlights by Juneco which are representitive of the CN prototype) and used the jewls supplied with them. It's quite possible the 12 volt lamps in the Athearns would have a loading effect on the throttle and the wires could be dropping voltage when the motor is drawing more than it's usual current draw. I'm assuming Atlas and Kato have a better quality motor than the std. Athearn and would not cause as large fluctuations in current draw. The lighting ccts. at that site appear to be of the light emitting diode type " L.E.D." and draw very little current. So, lighting should be of the L.E.D. type :D

Cheers Willis
 

RCH

Been Nothin' Since Frisco
#13
grumpybob said:
Willis,


I also put Kapton tape in the bottom of the motor mount well in addition to flattening out the fingers. Especially if you are considering DCC.
You can always place the strip with the "fingers" on the top and the normal one on the bottom, in addition to the tape, which will eliminate the spring loading action the fingers have (it can work the motor mounts out of the frame, especially if you do like me and strip the heavy gunk paint off the frame). Or you can just trim them off.
 

RCH

Been Nothin' Since Frisco
#14
abcraghead said:
Thanks for the informative responses so far. Willis, how do your models do at low speeds? Since I am planning on a switcher, I want to be able to creep and have good control with stops and starts.

RCH: cool photo link. That's one nice switcher!
You ought to see her SD45X project. Mindblowing stuff. It even puts Dave Hussey's SD39 trio to shame, which is a tall order.
 

CBCNSfan

Registered Member
Staff member
#15
Originally Posted by abcraghead
Thanks for the informative responses so far. Willis, how do your models do at low speeds? Since I am planning on a switcher, I want to be able to creep and have good control with stops and starts.
Wow! Sorry missed answering that one, thank's RC. OK I kept the standard Athearn motor, which is not bad for slow running anyway. However I have a pulse type throttle Tech II ( duals in fact) and the starts and stops are as slow and as smooth as you want them. In fact a jumpy start or jerky stop seems to be impossible. From "0" to "Max" instant increase in throttle is a quick but smooth gradual increase in speed. Also my locos are about 2 1/2 oz. heavier than the std. Athearn chassis I use. Creeping from tie to tie, I don't have the time to waste watching them, they can creep very slowly. They still require that pulse to start the motor turning and as I understand ( from my lessons on DCC) that can be programmed into the decoder. Maybe I'll have to buy an Atlas or Kato to compare the characteristics too and with the prices of the new RTR Athearns way up there that is most likely what I'll do. As long as I can get Blue Box locos in good shape at reasonable prices I'll stick with the Athearns.

Well maybe it's time to get to the next problem " NOISE "
I guess what we have so far is: 1 Electrical connections; 2 LED Lights; 3 Clean the Gear train. Did I miss anything ( I do that you know :D )


Hey! :eek: don't want anyone to think I'm an expert on this, so far I've been lucky, so if you see where anything can be improved, jump right in with your ideas ( even if you haven't tried it) that's how we all learn :) That SD45X project is something else, I'll have to revisit that site to have a better look, have to
now. :D

Cheers Willis
 

CBCNSfan

Registered Member
Staff member
#16
Probably the greatest turnoff about the Athearns, is the noise " Shell chatter". Really the shell isn't making the noise, but is amplifying it. Above we have discussed the cleaning and lubricating of the gears, and even at that they in reality have a sloppy fit. In my humble opinion, the worst cause of the noise is the rubber motor mounts. These rubber mounts allow the motor to move sideways, up and down. This movement is caused by driveshaft alignment, universals on the drive shafts binding and the worms moving up and down, in and out while meshing with the worm gears. Although the movements are small they none the less cause noise and a jerky operation.

Link to Fixing Athearns

Cheers Willis
 
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CBCNSfan

Registered Member
Staff member
#17
For most of my Athearns I've removed the rubber motor mounts, and cemented plastic strips in the recess where the rubber mounts were seated. From the above sitewww.wave.co.nz/~lakewood/F3-F7Project/MotorMount.jpg
Plastic Strips for motor mount
You'll notice he used clear plastic, I used any color plastic which was the correct correct thickness. I also removed the paint from the indents where the plastic would be seated. I then used CA to bond the plastic to the frame and let it set.
Drilling the four holes can be a trial, I used a drill bit that just fit into the smallest diameter of the hole, gave it a turn or two to get the approximate center. Using a clearance drill for a 2-56 screw I drilled the four holes as close to center as I could. I then tapped the four little holes an the base of the motor for the 2-56 screws and then mounted the motor. ( hopefully it is centered and straight in the frame) if not, make it so!
The motor will be solidly mounted and the drive shafts will be aligned with the universals.
Any questions?
Cheers Willis
In this photo you can see the motor sitting level and at about the correct height so the shafts and universals are relatively straight. Also the brass screws can be seen in both photos
 
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RCH

Been Nothin' Since Frisco
#18
Willis, I dig your "humble web site link."

By the way, in case some of you aren't aware, Athearn has actually changed their motor over the years and has made improvements. There's a lot less to do to make them run well if you start with one that's fresh off the factory floor. What I've done with my recent purchases is apply each tune-up step until it's progressively running more like my Atlas GP38. So far, so good.
 

CBCNSfan

Registered Member
Staff member
#19
Willis, I dig your "humble web site link."
I believe I'm just about at the end of my freebe allowance :D , so it will just be updates from now on, combining two photos into one that sort of thing. I'm thinking about dumping the web ring as their advertising on my site is annoying.
Hi RCH, I wasn't aware that they have been upgrading the motors, my newest Athearns are a few years old now, and at that could have been older stock. I only have the two types of motors. The older one has steel flywheels, is larger, and the trucks have metal side frames which are part of the truck. The later ones have brass flywheels, are more narrow (fits inside Tyco and Lifelike shells) and the sideframes are plastic and pressed into holes in the sides of the trucks. Also the older ones don't seem to have the power the newer ones have.
until it's progressively running more like my Atlas GP38. So far, so good.
Kind of happy to see that statement, I know mine are quiet but I have nothing else to compare them with.
Cheers Willis
 

CBCNSfan

Registered Member
Staff member
#20
AH! it's Christmas eve, and like old Scrooge here I am at the computer. But then again what could be nicer than having a nice Quiet smooth running Blue Box Athearn? Makes the Atlas and Kato and PK2 boys wonder why they wasted all that money :D
Well they say confession is good for the spirit, so here it is. Probably five out of the eight were quiet after the modifications, the rest like RCH says the rest had to be tweaked. Some of the ones (second hand) I put thrust washers at the end of the worm shaft to take up the slack. On one the motor was off center to one side, on this one I had to enlarge the 4 motor mount screw holes slightly with a needle file. The enlarged holes caused no problems when the motor was tightened down to the frame. On another one the motor was angled, the cure here was to enlarge two holes which allowed alignment. The last one was a mystery, everything appeared right, except tne noise was much louder than normal ( unmodified) and there was a distinct loss of power compared to the other locos. The problem was uneveness of the motor bed. I loosened two screws opposite corners and the unit run quiet and just as powerful as the rest. Tightening all four screws put the motor frame and armature out of alignment. It's still running this way ( tension off the two screws) untill I have time to flatten the plastic strips (I suspect it's the frame casting more than anything else)
Something to think about.
It's been posted on the forums many times, that "the more an Athearn is run, the smoother it gets". My reasoning behind this is the parts that are bind are also wearing. The more they wear the less binding and smoother it runs :)
Terrible to wear it out just to have it run smoother when a little fixin is all it needs :D
Happy holidays
Cheers Willis
 





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