I have had a LionChief Polar Express Set since the year it was introduced. The engine has always smoked like a champ. This year I didn't have it running under the tree (new location, forgot to build a new platform), so I kept it in reserve at The Grange and ran it on our Christmas Layout when my kids or others were around that would have liked to operate something with a remote. Yesterday we had an engine overheat so I quickly swapped it out for the PE. I loaded it up with fluid and it was running great for about 15 minutes. Then I noticed that the smoke output had completely stopped. I could see the smoke pooling up at the top of the stack, so I didn't figure on the element going bad. Took it home last night, tore it down, and cleaned it out. Upon reassembly I noticed the plunger was getting stuck in the "UP" position, which ID'd why the production stopped (though I have no idea why since it had been running great for 3+ years). I found this video that pointed to an easy fix:

My problem now is that I can't seem to locate a viable replacement spring. I went to my local Big Box who pointed me towards a local Ace/True-Value. I went to True-Value this morning and they only had larger, more powerful springs. I did walk out with some graphite, which I applied with a brush to the plunger and the interior of the receiver on the unit. That unfortunately hasn't worked since it still gets stuck "UP" when depressed.

Any ideas as to resources for the type of spring mentioned in this video?

Original Post

A few things.  Clean the plastic piston really well first.  Its possible you put too much smoke fluid in the reservoir and flooded the piston.  This will also cause it too stick.  Clean it, apply graphite, and also make sure the mechanism is lined up straight to the smoke stack.  Otherwise bend it slightly.  And like Bill Nielson mentioned above:  stretch the factory spring out and you should be golden.

Jeff T posted:

I just watched the video that the OP attached. In the video it shows the piston cup inserted with the open end up. I swear mine is in just the opposite?? 

I thought mine was in there like that too when I first opened it. Putting it back together with the open side down I couldn't figure out how the chuffing arm would actuate it, though, as it doesn't sit straight with the arm going up into the piston cup on the open end. Now I'm wondering if it is in upside down, though. Can anyone else pop the shell on theirs to confirm which direction the cup sits?

I tried stretching the spring out and it seems to be returning to the down position. Need to test it on the layout, though. Even if it works it's not a long-term fix, I don't think, and I'd still like to find the spring the gentleman used in the video I posted.

Jeff T posted:

That's what I thought JJ! Makes you wonder what the lever pushes on. The side of the cup to cock it??

It actually pushes up into the middle, but you have to have it aligned correctly or the piston sits crooked in the smoke unit. I actually used a little glue dot (one of the kind that you put on paper packaging) from a Christmas gift to hold it in place when I replaced the smoke unit over top. Everything seems to be working fine now but I would still like a better spring if anyone comes across one.

I’ve been having the same issue with the PE smoke unit, smoke looking at the stack but not billowing out. Saw that YouTube video and my spring is so ridiculously weak it’s not funny. What junk! I’m on the hunt for a new spring with better tension, hoping my postwar repair guy has a better spring in his hardware store. Also, someone mentioned cleaning the smoke unit. How does the dome of the unit come off and what did you use to clean the inside where the coil is? Mine has all brown and black gunk in there, old smoke fluid I would presume. Any help here would be great. Thanks. 

James

It looks like the piston cup is open and the spring sits inside, at least in that video. someone else on this thread said the open side should be facing down and the spring sits on the “bottom” of the cup. I’d like to close this engine up once and for all once I get this smoke issue straightened out. Does the operation of the smoke interact with the chuffing sounds? Because those haven’t worked correctly when the engine is in motion for a long time. Sound board issue or smoke unit as well?

Well that’s good to know. Since when I took it apart last night, the spring was sitting in the open side of the cup, which means that’s how it came from the factory! Maybe Lionel should be doing a little better on the ol’ quality control! 

Next question...is there a way to open the smoke unit to clean it? And if so what can I clean it with?

Janitor John posted:

A few things.  Clean the plastic piston really well first.  Its possible you put too much smoke fluid in the reservoir and flooded the piston.  This will also cause it too stick.  Clean it, apply graphite, and also make sure the mechanism is lined up straight to the smoke stack.  Otherwise bend it slightly.  And like Bill Nielson mentioned above:  stretch the factory spring out and you should be golden.

Best advise yet. Try it. It works. 

Rod Miller

Thanks for the advice. I bought a new spring with a little more tension and clipped it down so it fits inside the piston correctly. I definitely need the graphite. Smoke is working again, but it’s just pouring out instead of the nice rings it makes. The piston doesn’t seem to be firing because it’s dry. The old spring was shot so hopefully the graphite will do the trick. I just brush it on the outside of the piston cup? 

As one who has cleaned and rebuilt my PE smoke unit numerous times, I use brake cleaner sparingly on the whole unit once I get it disassembled, then I blow or wipe it dry. If the wick is burnt, replace it. A whole replacement wick will fit in the smoke unit. You need to make sure that the 2 vent holes that go to the piston are not blocked. This will limit the amount of smoke the unit puts out. Look at the piston itself. I have seen burrs on mine and have used the fine side of a finger nail file to remove the burrs. These typically are on the open/bottom edge of the piston. The piston cylinder walls appear to have a slight taper (this is how the air gets to the top of the piston), when you put the piston all the way up in the cylinder it will get stuck. I haven't found a fix for that yet. As said earlier in this thread, find a slightly stiffer spring or stretch  the OE spring to increase the tension to avoid the piston getting stuck in the cylinder, then reassemble. There is a solid bar that runs on the bottom side of the piston, this is what the lever pushes on when making the piston go up. Spring tension makes it go down. If your PE is the LionChief (or newer) don't change the value of the smoke element. I don't know what the decreased value of the smoke element would do to the motherboard, probably burn it out. You can overfill the smoke unit. The fluid will run out the vent holes in the bottom and gum up the piston and get fluid all over the bottom front of the engine (I know this as fact ). When you replace the wick, add fluid to the wick counting the drops, when saturated (without running into the vent holes), stop. This will be the MAX number of drops you can add to the smoke unit. I also use a bright flashlight and look down the stack, when the wick appears wet and I can still see the vent holes, Stop. Once the smoke stops coming out from operation, I'd say no more than 10 large drops of fluid once you have to start refilling after a rebuild. You'll have to play with it. Also, one last thing, Make sure the smoke unit engages the boiler stack. Mine has on occasion been miss aligned and the smoke doesn't come out properly.

Hope this helps,

Chris

Chris

Chris, thank you for the detailed description on how to clean the smoke unit. Not sure if I’m going to attempt that, but I know I’ve got the lowdown on how to now! I have definitely had fluid run out the bottom, so I probably flooded it a few times and there’s overflow. I’ll make sure to use less fluid from now on. As far as the wick goes, I didn’t inspect it but if I had to guess, that probably needs replacement as well. I may pop it open to check it out. 

I don’t have a washer on my PE either. I’m hoping the new spring and the graphite lubricant will do the trick. 

Thanks again guys. 

I'm wondering if the use of graphite is a good idea? Reason being, no matter how careful you are most likely you're going to have smoke fluid overflow / blow by to a certain extent at some point. With that, the smoke fluid and graphite will mix together.  Not sure what the result would be...  

I haven’t used it yet, and I just tested it and even with the new spring, I’m still not getting the smoke rings puffing. Smoke is coming out but not the way it’s designed. If the spring is causing too much tension could that prevent it from working correctly? I could trim down the spring a little bit. Also, I’m wondering if the piston isn’t moving up and down because it’s not lubricated at all. I had wiped it down to remove excess fluid. Thoughts are welcome.....

UPDATE:

no luck ):  Today I purchased graphite, used it on the piston cup, made sure to align the piston and smoke unit and the spring, and I’m still getting the same results. Smoke, but not the rings. Just pouring out of the smoke stack. The spring I bought was stronger but also not as wide as the OE spring. Could that be the issue? Ace Hardware didn’t have one like that. Should I purchase a new Lionel replacement spring? Any help again would be great. I’m getting frustrated. 

James B posted:

 I’m still not getting the smoke rings puffing. Smoke is coming out but not the way it’s designed.

James,

Make sure the smoke unit is fully engaged with the smoke stack on the boiler shell. I had that issue once, and when I looked down the stack it was misaligned. Just push it in the direction it needs to go with a small screwdriver. Just don't go too deep.

Chris

James B posted:

UPDATE:

no luck ):  Today I purchased graphite, used it on the piston cup, made sure to align the piston and smoke unit and the spring, and I’m still getting the same results. Smoke, but not the rings. Just pouring out of the smoke stack. The spring I bought was stronger but also not as wide as the OE spring. Could that be the issue? Ace Hardware didn’t have one like that. Should I purchase a new Lionel replacement spring? Any help again would be great. I’m getting frustrated. 

There was probably nothing wrong with the spring. All it does is aid gravity in returning the piston. The piston should simply fall out when the unit is held vertically. The stronger spring may have bent or broken the lever so the piston  is not reaching the top of the stroke. Make sure the piston and cylinder are clean and if the piston still gets stuck take some very fine sandpaper 600 or finer and lightly sand the sides until it does move freely in the cylinder without aid of the spring.

Pete

So many things to consider....how does that bar even get bent? I may go buy a replacement spring since the one I bought a few days ago doesn’t seem to be working. The piston does seem a bit misaligned so maybe that’s the issue. I used graphite so it moved better up and down but once it’s running the smoke isn’t coming out right. I have a number of things to check now. Thanks guys!

Well, I think I may have solved the problem! A trip to Home Depot, a second spring with lesser tension, and the realignment of the smoke unit once the shell was put back on, seemed to do the trick! Some of the fluid must be on the chassis because I have some smoke coming out the sides of the engine near the cowcatcher, but there's smoke rings once again! I'm hoping it keeps operating as it should! Thanks to everyone for your advice and tips on how to fix this. Much appreciated!!

James

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