Articles - Life-Like SW9
08/01/2007
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The SW9 switcher was classified ES12 (EMD, switcher, 1200 horsepower) by the Pennsylvania Railroad. The PRR bought them in 1952-3. The prototype 8500-series engines were set up for MU'ing, whereas the 7900- and 8800-series engines were not. The 8500-series engines have MU handrails, MU stands, and drop steps on both ends.

The Life-Like model is a very good representation of the prototype engine. To make it a cosmetically-accurate model, the end handrails would have to be changed, or a different road number and spark arrestors on the tops of the exhaust pipes would have to be applied. The only other difference is that the PRR prototype's fuel tank has more piping around it than does the model. Originally, the model weighed 1.6 oz (44g). The July/August 2003 issue of the "N-Scale" magazine has an article about replacing the worm gears of this model.
This side profile shot shows the engine with all of the modifications I made to it.
Life-Like SW9
A simple diorama set-up where the SW9 is pulling a couple of passenger cars past an empty freight station.
Life-Like SW9

Coupler Conversion

I bought my model used through eBay. It already came with Micro-Trains N-scale couplers installed. The couplers were glued in place. With some gentle prodding using a sharp knife I was able to get them loose and out of the shell.
Life-Like SW9
The opening for the coupler was already big for the N-scale coupler. The Z-scale coupler fits in the opening with a lot of room to spare. In the future I may go back and fill that in with pieces of styrene. I used 5-minute epoxy to glue the couplers in place. There isn't a lot of holding room for the draft box of the coupler. A small ridge on the body and a U-shape railing is all there is. I used both to stabilize the draft box.
Life-Like SW9
The new Z-scale coupler on the front.
Life-Like SW9
And on the rear of the engine. It sure looks a lot more prototypical, I think.
Life-Like SW9

DCC Conversion

I used the Digitrax DZ143. A DZ123 would have worked also, but I already had a handful of the DZ143 decoders available, so no need to spend extra money. The main reason for using those decoders is that I wanted the silent-running feature. The four function wires are not used at all in my installation. I followed the excellent article by Joe Ellis, but shortly after I did the conversion his web site went away. The frame has to be slightly modified to accommodate the decoder in the front, long-hood side of the engine. Joe's article describes using a fine-blade jeweler's saw. I have one of those, but I didn't have a fine enough blade. I decided to file the parts down. It is time-consuming and messy, but it worked great. Joe's article had a much better set of photos indicating what needs to be removed from the two frame halves. I've made an attempt in this next photo. The important thing to remember is to NOT remove too much because the tiny vertical posts are required to hold the motor in place. Without it, the frame is ruined. The amount to remove is to the bottom of the indentation that used to hold the light board.
Life-Like SW9
Here are the two frame halves after their modifications. I was very careful filing around the vertical posts because they appear to be fragile and are so crucial to the success of this project. Also, I thoroughly washed the two frame halves so that all traces of filings are removed. Those can ruin the motor later on.
Life-Like SW9
After that intense work, it is time for something a bit easier. As per Joe's article, I used a pair of needlenose pliers to hold the brush caps. These were then tinned to prepare them for their wire installation later.
Life-Like SW9
The red sleeve around the decoder is much larger then the decoder itself. It has to be removed to make it fit. However, according to Digitrax, you will void your warranty when you remove the sleeve, so think about it. You may want to test the decoder first before doing any modifications. I removed the sleeve by carefully cutting along the side edge of the circuit board. Next, I cut all the decoder wires to the right length, as per Joe's article. Since I am using a DZ143 I have two extra wires that need to be trimmed. The yellow, blue, white, purple, and green wires are not going to be used (again, the last two colored wires are only found on the DZ143; the DZ123 doesn't have those). Like Joe, I left mine on there just in case I wanted to use them in the future. They don't get in the way when the engine is re-assembled. The orange, red, and black wires were cut to a one-inch length (2.54cm), and the gray wire, which goes under the motor, is a bit longer at 1.6 inches (4cm). Then I stripped the insulation off of the four wires (about 1/8 inch) and tinned them (not shown in the photo below).
Life-Like SW9
The next step is to solder the two brush caps to the appropriate wires. I soldered the gray wire to one and the orange wire to the other. The wire is simply soldered flat across the top of the brush.
Life-Like SW9
The two contact strips have to be adjusted next. Before, the two lips on both contact strips were placed under the brush caps. This transferred the electricity from the frame to the brushes. Of course, for DCC the brushes have to be completely isolated from the frame. As per Joe's article, I straightened the contact strips. Then I trimmed and tinned them across the top of the long one and the one remaining lip of the short one. Note: the short one, with the one lip remaining, actually needs to be tinned on the other side of the lip from the way it is shown in this photo (see the photo two photos down).
Life-Like SW9
The long contact strip is then soldered to the red wire as shown in the photo below.
Life-Like SW9
I had originally soldered the black wire incorrectly because Joe's article wasn't quite clear on how to do this. This next photo shows how it should be installed. Please note that you will see it incorrectly placed in the photos in the paragraph below, because I didn't discover it was wrong until I started putting the engine back together.
Life-Like SW9
We're done with all the work. All that remains is to simply put the whole thing back together again. The first thing to do is to re-install the brushes into the motor. The one with the gray wire goes first and is installed in the bottom of the motor. This next photo shows the order of the parts that make up the brush. The metal cylinder goes into the motor. Then carefully place the spring in the brush cap and snap it into the motor.
Life-Like SW9
The mutator brush is back in the motor.
Life-Like SW9
Then run the decoder and all of its wires through the plastic motor cradle and snap the motor back in place in the cradle. The bottom of the cradle protects the brush cap and the soldered gray wire from touching the engine's frame later on when it is fully assembled.
Life-Like SW9
Do the same thing with the other brush cap, the orange wire, which goes on top of the motor.
Life-Like SW9
The motor can now be installed into the two frame halves. Note the position of the gray wire.
Life-Like SW9
The long contact strip with the red wire slips snugly back into the right side between the plastic motor cradle, the frame half, and the motor as shown below. Make sure the contact strip and its attached red wire do not touch the brush on top of the motor.
Life-Like SW9
The short contact strip with the black wire goes into the left side between the plastic motor cradle, the frame half, and the motor. Mine was a bit harder to get in, but with patience it worked. The next two photos show the sequence.
Life-Like SW9
Here the strip has been moved into position.
Life-Like SW9
To prevent the fully-exposed decoder from making contact with the frame halves, I put some brush-on electric tape on the tops of the two frames. It is hard to see because it is black.
Life-Like SW9
This completes the DCC conversion. To finish the re-assembly all that needs to be done is to install the shell, the cab, and the wheels. I wound up almost completely cutting off the purple and green wires because I was worried about them getting in the way of the worm gear at the front of the engine. These two wires are attached to the bottom of the circuit board. Of course, with a DZ123 that wouldn't have been an issue. The engine ran fine. I put it to work right away cleaning some track. The only thing I noticed was that the front rides a bit high. That is probably due to the shell-mounted contact strips. I need to adjust those. Note that these shell-mounted contact strips stayed on my model. Most people experienced them falling off during disassembly. After applying all the other modifications I have described in these pages covering this engine, it ran great. I then programmed it according to the DZ143 instruction sheet for a "switcher". First, I programmed the engine's 4-digit address, and then I set CV 02 to "002", CV 06 to "038", and CV 05 to "064". The engine now crawls when it needs to, and has a very reasonable upper speed.
Life-Like SW9

Improving Pickup

The electrical pickup from the wheels on this locomotive can be improved. Many owners of this model have commented about how fragile the small, shell-mounted pickups are. Mine stayed on with no problem. However, what I experienced was a model with a bad case of the stutters. It would come to a screeching halt every few inches. Very frustrating. I decided to remove the original pickups and construct and install my own. What I decided to use was some 0.005" thick brass sheet. I ordered mine from Clover House many years ago and now finally have a use for it. The next photo shows two of the four original pickups removed from the shell already, and a piece of brass cut from the sheet. I had to use an X-acto knife to get the old pickups to come loose. The piece of brass was cut from the sheet using a razor blade. Several passes and then some controlled bends at the seam will make it break off.
Life-Like SW9
I wound up making four individual strips. Near the center of the shell these strips were glued using superglue. The brass strips were cut where they needed to bend up to make contact with the trucks' wipers. The glued sections have another lip bent down so that they make contact with the engine's frame halves. By the way, the reason for making four individual strips rather than two (one for each side) is that in the center of the walkway has a gap into which the shell snaps in place. I didn't want the strips to interfere with the shell assembly. I then fine-tuned the flexible ends of the brass strips so that they sat perfectly on the truck wipers. The result: a significantly better running engine!
Life-Like SW9

Disassembly

Here's a step-by-step photo guide describing how to take this engine apart. But first a note. A lot of the model's various grab-irons and handrails are simply snapped into place. As you manipulate the shell, they may fall out. Be very careful. I started by popping the safety bars from their holes using the small screwdriver.
Life-Like SW9
Next, I removed the cab. This was not trivial. Mine had a bit of glue in the back corner of the cab, so it doesn't come loose willingly. Using the small screwdriver, patience, and a bit of back-and-forth wiggling on both sides of the cab bottom, I eventually got it to let go. There is a weight in the cab. Mine didn't fall out. Be careful with the horn, it's fragile. I knocked mine off. I'll have to glue it back when I am done.
Life-Like SW9
I continued the disassembly by popping off the fuel tank. It is snapped snugly onto the bottom of the frame, so it, too, requires a bit of wiggling to get it to come loose. I used the small screwdriver as shown in the photo below. The piping around the tank is very fragile so use the "straps" to put some downward force on the tank part to get it to come loose. Keep track of the orientation of the tank. I took several photos so that I could always go back to them.
Life-Like SW9
Here's a quick photo of the tank removed from the engine (in the correct orientation).
Life-Like SW9
The key to removing the shell from the frame is to push down on the frame halves at the points indicated in the photo below; pushing toward the table surface. You will notice the frame coming out from the bottom of the shell.
Life-Like SW9
Here's a photo of the frame removed from the shell.
Life-Like SW9
The shell can be disassembled one step further. The walkway can be snapped off of the shell.
Life-Like SW9
Removing the two trucks is next, and its very easy. Simply start turning them 90-degrees and they will fall out. Note that the plastic cover on the trucks, hiding the gears, is to face toward the front and rear of the engine when re-assembling.
Life-Like SW9
To gain access to the screws that hold the two frame halves together, the plastic caps, indicated in the photo below, need to be removed. They are probably the most difficult to remove. I was able to get one of them loose with a small screwdriver by wedging it between the cap and the frame. The other one just wouldn't come loose, so I had to stab it with an X-acto knife and then lift the knife at an angle. Both have a bit of glue under them, which prevents them from falling out, but also makes it harder to remove them.
Life-Like SW9
Here's one of those little buggers.
Life-Like SW9
The light board fits snugly, but it is easy to remove now.
Life-Like SW9
Before taking the frame halves apart, I labeled the top of the motor with an "F" indicating that that is the top-front.
Life-Like SW9
Below is a photo of what you're left with once you take the screws out to separate the two frame halves. Note the two plastic spacers that hold the frame halves apart.
Life-Like SW9
I decided to go the extra step and mark one of the frame halves also ("F" for "front" and "R" for "right").
Life-Like SW9
For conversion to DCC, we also need to take the motor partially apart. The plastic cradle that holds the motor in place needs to be spread slightly apart. The long parts along the sides need to be pulled apart (I used my finger nails), while pushing the motor down out of the cradle. The two metal contact strips can now be removed by carefully pushing them off of the motor brush caps.
Life-Like SW9
Again, if converting to DCC, attempting to solder directly to the brushes while they are still in their plastic housing will most likely lead to melted plastic housing, ruining the motor. They must be removed. They are hard to remove because they fit very snugly into the motor. I used a small screwdriver and carefully wedged it up, a little from each side. When they do come off, there's a very small spring in the motor that is very eager to enjoy its new-found freedom. Don't let it! It happened so fast for one of them that I spent some time looking for it. I was doing this next to my computer's keyboard. Luckily I found it dangling between two keys. The way these parts work is that the solid metal cylinder rides on the motor's internal shaft. The spring fits inside the brush cap, which presses the metal cylinder onto the shaft. This completes the disassembly.
Life-Like SW9
The next set of photos describe how to take the trucks apart. The wheel-and-gear assembly can be removed from the outer plastic shell by unsnapping the lip shown in the photo below. It takes a bit of effort, but it is doable. If you insert a very small screwdriver blade where shown in the photo, then you can pry the plastic shell open enough to have the wheel-and-gear assembly come out. You have to push from the bottom of the wheels to have the assembly come out of the top of the truck.
Life-Like SW9
Here is a close-up photo of the assembly about to pop out.
Life-Like SW9
The truck simply falls apart once removed. Luckily the gear assembly stays together!
Life-Like SW9
And here is a photo of the entire truck taken apart.
Life-Like SW9

Adjusting Wheels

I used code 40 rail for my track, and I noticed, especially over turnouts, the trucks were bouncing around a lot. I took the trucks apart and measured the wheels against an NMRA gauge. I discovered that the wheels were a bit too tight. A couple of twists and pulls on the wheels did the trick.
Life-Like SW9
Even after improving the engine's pickup, the engine still stalled and humped over the turnouts. I realized that the wheels may be good enough for code 55 track, but their flanges are a bit too tall for code 40. I filed them down and then thoroughly polished the wheel thread surface. You can see the difference in the photo below. I believe Life-Like may have blackened the wheels and some of that got on the wheel thread. When I tested the engine again, it ran flawlessly over my turnouts and didn't stall (no change to the track - no cleaning).
Life-Like SW9