CP Executive train in Albany

CP Executive train in Albany

Friday, December 29, 2017

A little more benchwork

So, I was doing some preliminary studies of how I was going to span the 2.5-foot wide gap in my layout and decided to use my four-foot level to see where everything stood. And, lo and behold, the corner section was sagging in the area where there was no benchwork to support it. It was only about a half of an inch or so, but I figured it was time to correct it. I had a couple of options, and the easiest would have probably been to bolt the other side of the corner section directly to the frame so that it couldn't budge. However, as I wanted my sections to be portable I instead set out to build a support leg for the overhang.

So, I bought about $6 in lumber and brackets and built a complete leg assembly. I also built two L-girder sections that were a little over 8" long. I had to set the legs up for the hockey puck leveling adjusters, but that was pretty simple. Then, the leg was bolted to the existing framework, leveled, and we were good to go.

Under the "nothing is easy" theory, it took me a lot of time to do this though.  I needed bolts which are 2" long carriage bolts. I drove up to Tractor Supply and bought several from their bulk pay-by-the-pound section but only bought 2.5" and 3" long bolts, not the 2" required (I didn't write down what I needed before I left). So, I had to go back on another day and drive another 40 minutes round trip to by $0.47 worth of bolts. I also had to order the threaded brackets again from Ebay, and wait for them to arrive. They don't come fully threaded (no idea why) and last time I had a friend do it but I wasn't going to see him for a while. So, bought a 5/16-18 tap online, but the seller sent me a 5/16-18 die instead (used for threading bolts, not threading holes), so I had to deal with the hassle of returning it and then getting the correct tap.

Oh well, it is done.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to all of you!

A tradition at our house (especially since I didn't have a layout for over a decade) is to put a train under the tree. My wife and I have fallen in love with the O-gauge "Hogwarts Express" from Lionel. Not only is it a pretty train, but it is based on a series of books/movies that we like AND it is British. It really looks festive with my wife's little town set up under the tree.

Oddly enough, Lionel included with the set O-36 track (which means the track forms a 36" diameter circle) and it is too tight for the train. The pilot wheels rub against the cylinder, wearing it away. I substituted 0-48 track that allows the train to look and run better, though it takes up more space under the tree. One year I had the O-36 and O-48 both set up and ran it with my ZW transformer, which was pretty awesome.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Tunkhannock Viaduct

Over this past weekend I went to Pennsylvania to visit my friend and watch the new Star Wars movie. It is sort of a tradition we have. With some time to kill on Saturday, he decided to drive me around and show me a couple of train bridges. One of them was the famous Tunkhannock Viaduct, which was built by the DL&W from 1912 to 1915. While the bridge is a fascinating study in old engineering techniques compared to today's bridge construction, it was just impossible to take it all in from the ground. It was too cold to go exploring, but some day with nicer weather I may venture down again and check out their visitor's center.

Some information about the bridge: it is 2,375 feet long and 240 feet high. When completed, it was the largest concrete structure in the world. It is still used by Norfolk Southern, though sadly we didn't see a train on it when we were there.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Soldering wires to M.E. switch frogs

There are certain projects I really enjoy in model railroading, and certain ones I dread. Laying track and ballasting are by far my favorite things to do. Wiring, especially soldering, it probably my least favorite (though if I ever attempted backdrop painting, it would jump to the top). Soldering is supposed to be easy: take a clean, hot iron + properly tinned wire + apply heat to the thing to be soldered and not the solder itself = clean, shiny joint. Yeah, right.

Except that it isn't always so good. Many times when I am trying to get the solder to melt and it just balls up on the iron or on the wire, not melting and distributing itself. Or, the iron never seems to get hot. For years I couldn't understand it. Then, I decided to do some research online and I came to the realization that I was going about it all wrong. Honestly, though, it wasn't all my fault!

First, there is a bit of conflicting information out there. Take soldering iron tips. Some people say to clean them with fine sandpaper to make them shine when they get cruddy. Others say not to because the tips have a fine copper coating and once removed the tips are ruined. Do you use a wet sponge to clean the tip, or a wire mesh? Some places say to get a 40-50 watt pencil iron for soldering feeder wires, and others say 15-25 watts, and a few prefer big soldering guns. And do you use separate flux or rely on just the solder. Who is right?

Turns out, probably everyone in different situations. For me, not knowing what those situations were resulted in poor results every time I tried to solder. So, I went back to the basics. I bought a new Weller soldering iron station. It has an iron holder (that coiled thing), a place for a wet sponge (not shown in the picture), a knob to adjust the amount of voltage to the iron, and an on/off switch. It is very handy, my iron doesn't roll around and I can easily see if I left it turned on. But it wasn't enough.

Then started buying the proper wire for the job. It used to be that I would grab whatever type (solid, stranded) of wire I had handy even if it was thin wire with thick outside insulation, or heavy stranded wire with ends that would go everywhere no matter how hard you twisted them together. Now, I buy it in rolls online in various gauges (14 for bus wires, 22 for feeders) in the colors I need. It sucks when you run out of green or blue wire at the wrong time, but I stop what I am doing and purchase more instead of substituting something else. As a result, my wiring has improved too. But it wasn't enough.

I used to never use flux, but then I found I had some plumber's flux (Oatey #95) lying around and used that (I have no idea what will happen with those joints but the container didn't have the word "acid" on it). Then, I went out and bought Mininatronics / Miniatronics (note the spelling online, and on the package) rosin based flux and that worked fine. But it wasn't enough.

Finally, I switched my solder from really heavy diameter rosin-core stuff to thinner silver bearing solder. Was it expensive? A bit, but not that much. And, the joints are much stronger. I also purchased some really thin 0.020" diameter solder for times when I need just a little. And finally, it was enough.

Why am writing this? Because recently I did something I thought would be impossible based upon horror stories I had read online. According to some, soldering a wire to the underside of a M.E. turnout just cannot be done. Other people have said it is tough but possible. In fact, lots of people have done it. So what's the story?

I decided to try it myself. Truth be told, it was holding up my track laying. I couldn't lay my switches if the wires to the frogs weren't pre-soldered to the base of the frogs (some have said you can solder to the visible side of the frog casting, but I didn't want to go there). And, if the switches didn't get installed I couldn't really do anything else. Humm. So, I sucked it up and figured at least one soldering attempt couldn't hurt.

I first flipped the switch over and scraped away some excess tie plastic around the frog "button," that little circle thing you need to solder to. It was recommended to do this, as if the plastic melts and gets on the button it would contaminate the area and make soldering difficult. Then, I used the point end of a need file and scraped the button until it shone. You really cannot file/sand it clean by going sideways, as it is recessed. Poking it with the file worked though.

Next, I took a new piece of 22 gauge green wire and I stripped the end and bent it into an "L" shape. However, I couldn't hold it and solder it. Not having one of those handy gizmos with the alligator clips on the ends, I taped the wire to my workbench light and adjusted the light until the wire ended perfectly on the button. Two free hands to solder... yay!  I used a microbrush to apply a blob of flux on the button. I think this is the key to success. I heated up the iron really good and wiped the tip clean, and then melted some solder on the end. Finally, I moved in to solder and in one pass lasting about a second the flux sizzled, the solder melted, the wire fell into the solder, and I pulled the iron away to let it cool. It was bright and shiny.

I then gave the wire a nudge. Nothing happened. I gave it a gentle pull. Nothing still. I then tugged it a bit, and it stayed fast. It had worked! I was so excited I emailed my friend to tell him the news. I had made a good solder joint. Had I done anything unusual? Not really. I just followed good practice. I can't explain why it worked for me and not others, but I have now soldered 6 turnout frogs and all went fine.

Baby steps....

Monday, December 4, 2017

Micro Engineering switch quality

On another front, I have ordered two Micro Engineering code 83 RH turnouts from different vendors and both arrived defective. One had a stock rail that was so warped the the gauge was too tight at the points, and the other had points that wouldn't close at all to allow the curved route to be used. I know the M.E. turnouts are fragile/delicate, but this was before I even got to them. And, since local hobby shops don't stock them I need to order them sight unseen online. It is frustrating to have everything put on hold because you need a piece of trackwork, and it has already happened twice. I haven't had problems yet with either (RH, LH) their code 70 switches or their code 83 LH ones. Perhaps the die for the RH switches is worn out?

People love these things, and I can see why. They look awesome. But, function must come before form and here they are failing me. Hopefully any replacements they send me will work better.

I am considering switching (no pun intended) to Peco turnouts because they are supposedly "bulletproof." Again, though, no hobby store in the area seems to carry electrofrog code 83 Peco turnouts. They are about 25% more than M.E. switches, which is perhaps why they aren't stocked in the stores. However, I have read online good things about them too. We shall see.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Laying Track - Parts 1 & 2

(Edit: 10/15/2019) Somehow, Part 2 was recently re-posted at the top of the blog as a new post in 2019. I can't manually stick it on the correct date, so I am sticking the text at the bottom of Part 1. 

First off: to everyone out there: Happy Thanksgiving!

Though I still had some cork to glue down, as well as some design work for the fourth side and the entrance area, I decided to try laying some track. I had never worked with Micro Engineering flextrack before and had read many horror stories about how hard it was to work with. It was also rumored to be very delicate, and just looking at the code 55 stuff made me realize how small the rail actually was. But, one cannot learn to swim if he doesn't dip his toe in the water. Besides, how tough could it really be?

Using some string, I measured just how much track in each of the three sizes I would need, as well as the switches that would be required. I had plenty of the code 70 and code 55, but I still need to order some more code 83. One thing that disappointed me is that M.E. does not mold in the underside of the ties what code rail the track is. The code 55 looks different from the other two, but code 70 and 83 look pretty similar. Turnouts also look similar. I put a tiny white dot of paint on the top of my code 83 switches to keep track of them (I can scratch it off easily later) and decided to only work on code 83 for now so I don't mix them up.

Before I could glue the track down though I had to deal with the switches. I opened up the packages and flipped them over to remove the over-center spring. Since I planned to install under the table switch machines, these springs had to go. I also drilled two 1/4" holes in the benchwork: one for the Tortoise machine throw wire, the other for the frog power wire. I used a hole punch and my laminated templates to lay out where the holes had to go. I had to notch one side of the template to get the hole punch close enough to reach the frog area.

I then thought through all of the areas of track I could lay that wouldn't require switches (or fitting track between switches) and decided to start with the easiest section of the whole layout: the mainline along the back of the Colonie Liquor section. This was all code 83, and though the track came pretty straight from the factory with black tape on the ends I couldn't get it perfectly straight. I tried shimmying it, I tried pressing it against something flat, and I tried giving it the evil eye. Nothing doing. But, it is mostly straight, which is good enough for me.

I used the same Loctite clear caulk to attach the track, putting down a thin bead and spreading it with whatever scraps of styrene I could find. Where it oozed up between the ties, I lifted the track and spread it out thinner. I then tacked it in place with push pins (the plastic ones, and the thin metal ones). The plastic ones always crack when I hit them with a hammer, but they are cheap. The brass ones are great because they don't foul the track and you can roll a truck along the rails to test joints. I have a spare MDC plastic caboose truck with Intermountain 33" metal wheels (Intermountain wheels are my default) which I painted yellow to use for check for bumps.

As areas where the sections ended, I cut the rails flush at the joint. I didn't spike the rails down now, but there is solid wood underneath the track and I can easily add them in the future if necessary. I left very thin air joints between the sections, and the truck barely makes a click as it rolls over them. If the rail contracts and the gap becomes bigger, I may need to come up with something else. I then used a small needle file to smooth the insides of the rail ends, even though I used straight cutting Xuron pliers to cut the rail.

A friend recommended Walthers/Shinohara code 83 rail joiners for Micro Engineering code 83 and 70 rail. They are obscenely expensive as far as rail joiners ($15 for 50) go, but they do look great. And, it isn't as if I need hundreds of them. The rail is a little loose in the joints, to the point where I wouldn't rely on them to conduct current if they weren't soldered. However, I am adding a feeder wire to every section of rail so it isn't a problem.

Bending curved with the flextrack was supposed to be hard too. And I agree that getting a consistent curve it without some hardwood former. Some people have purchased track radius tools to bend the track, but I think that might just rip up the molded spike heads. Instead, I just used my hands and slowly wiggled the curves along. To be sure, joints on curves weren't much fun and I sometimes had to tack the track in place and use some superglue on the spike heads to get the rail to hold where i wanted it. My curves look pretty good but they are certainly not perfect. The ability of Atlas track to form a perfect arc when holding the two ends is a nice trick. But, my curves are fine. There is one joint where the track crosses on a curve, and that required cutting the rails at an angle. Again, if the rails act up I can always spike them down.

I then took spare M.E. plastic ties from the flextrack and sanded them thinner and slipped them under the joints. The ends of each section don't use rail joiners so the ties fit perfectly. Where the rail joiners were, I took some stripwood and cut it to the size I wanted, sanded it even thinner, and painted it brown. They don't match perfectly the M.E. ties, but who cares? 

All in all, the first hour or two I spent laying track was fun. It was an educational experience and I have discovered that I don't always have full days to commit to certain projects. An hour here and there is more likely going to fit in my schedule.

I will deal with wiring the frogs soon enough, but I didn't want to do it today so I then set them aside. However, in the process of checking the switches I noticed one that had a defective, warped rail. A quick email to M.E. confirmed that they would replace it... thanks Debby!


First off- Debby from Micro Engineering mailed me to working RH code 83 turnouts. A big "thank you" to them! They tested them before shipment and upon arrival they still worked. But, my concerns about them being fragile are still out there.

With them in hand, I worked on finishing the remaining part of the mainline on two of the four sections. Then, I started laying the code 70 and code 55 sidings. The code 55 especially is really small rail, and once it is weathered and ballasted (or perhaps not, depending on condition) with weeds and stuff it will really look great. But, any slight bump can kink it so I worked carefully. As shown in the picture here, the sidings were all code 55 but the main was code 83 and the switches off the mail were code 70. There are a couple of standard ways to go from one size rail to the other, but the one I decided to flat-out avoid was the "smash the end of the smaller rail joiner and solder the rail on top. I just don't trust my soldering skills yet.

So, purchased some of the M.E. conversion rail joiners. They are made from plastic and designed to go from 70 to 55 (I think they also have 83 to 70 too I think). They came in packs of four pairs, which should have been enough for what I needed. What I found though is that they are difficult to use. The code 55 rail easily slipped in the joiner, but the code 70 rail just didn't want to slip in its side of the joiner. I mangled two of them before I got the joint below. And truth be told, it didn't turn out to bad. But, I couldn't push the rails as close together as I wanted without ruining the thin plastic joiners so I had to leave joints which create a slight bump.

After a couple more times trying them on different joints, I went with plan B. I took a file and filed down the end of the code 83 rail about 3/16" long until it was the height of the code 70 rail. It was mostly done by eye. Then, I used regular rail joiners to put the code 70 and 55 tracks together. Truth be told, this also worked for the code 83 to 70 transitions I had. For the sidings and spurs where I switch rail sizes it works fine, and the trains roll over the joints smoothly even though there is an audible bump from the metal wheels.

Another option I thought of was to take a thin (0.030") styrene and glue the end of the code 83 flex track's ties onto it, and then take the code 70 track and glue it to the styrene, with a shim of 0.015" styrene under the code 70 ties. The rails would come out about the same height and the joint wouldn't shift, though I woudn't have a rail joiner at the location. I may try that out, but filing down the rail seemed to work fine.

For the Menands section, I have three spurs: one long one that is still being used, one short one that is still being used, and one short one that was overgrown and I believe out of service. For the long one I used the code 55 track as is. For the OOS track, I took the code 55 and removed about 1/3 of the ties from the flextrack (carefully, as this stuff is delicate) and then re-spaced the ties. For the short siding still in use, I left it as is but I may go back and adjust the tie spacing a little. With the sidings at a lower elevation than the main line, it looks pretty neat. (In case you are wondering, the plywood is indeed painted gloss brown. I tried a new color in a sample size and that only came in gloss.)

For the siding leading into Norlite, I went straight from the code 83 mainline to the code 55 spur. The grade was created with cardboard shims and feathering the caulk, and the curves are tighter than 24" radius. However, the prototype was like this too. I will be burying much of this siding in dirt and gravel, so I didn't play around with the tie spacing. It usually only had 40' open hoppers on it, so no worries there. I tried to keep the siding's cross-elevation in check, as I didn't want the cars to tip or lean. If they do, though, that will be prototypical too! I use plastic push pins to hold things in place, though when I hit them with a hammer the top part fractures off. As a result, I have a lot of broken push pins (which still work for this purpose however).

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Cork and Vinyl roadbed

In preparation for installation of the roadbed, I painted the plywood with brown paint. When I was younger, I had followed articles in Model Railroader and had selected tan or reddish-brown paint for my previous layouts. And, no matter what I did they didn't look realistic to me so I used copious amounts of ground foam to hide any bare patches. Then it dawned on me... the dirt in New York isn't very tan or red. It is brown! So, I followed Lou Sassi's advice and looked for a dark brown. He used something called "Tobacco brown" and I have no idea what that is, but I found a "Turkish Coffee" color that was very dark. Perhaps too dark. Depending on the lighting (compare the other pictures in this blog entry) it varies a lot. I used up a quar, but when I need more I will change to something lighter.

I painted over the top with a pretty heavy coat to get into all the cracks of the plywood. I was careful to try and avoid painting over the track center lines, as they were carefully laid out. However, any building lines were completely painted over as I may rearrange them slightly. For the "Mohawk Paper" section, I also tried to preserve the  street markings because it took so long to draw them. They too are subject to change in the future, but right now it gives a simple visual idea as to what I will be modeling there. I also need to calculate the grade and make sure that what I had planned will work.

Unlike tan paint or bare plywood, it is hard to see markings through or on the dark brown paint. The sidings by Keis required some rethinking, and it came down to whether I wanted to use a righthand or lefthand switch once the track separated from the mainline. I tried drawing lines on the brown paint using blue sharpie, regular pencil, and silver pencil but it was no good. So, I grabbed some tan paint I had leftover on the shelf and painted the small section a lighter color so that I could see what I was doing. In the end, I reverted back to the original track plan. The yellow boxcar is used to show the length of a 50' boxcar, useful for planning siding lengths.

I had a couple of choices for roadbed. On my N scale layout I had used Vinylbed by Hobby Innovations and really liked it. It went down in one piece, was a nice gray color that looked like ballast, didn't dry out, and was firm and supportive. I planned to use Vinylbed (now called Flexxbed) for this layout but they reformulated it. It is not as squishy as foam roadbed, but much softer than cork. So, I bought a box of Midwest HO cork roadbed. Cork works well too though it requires sanding the edges to remove the rough spots. I still have some of the N scale Vinylbed (old stuff) left over, so I will be using that for secondary tracks and sidings.

For joints between layout sections, I wanted something stronger than cork. The track may flex in these areas or need adjustment, and cork just doesn't hold up to repeated changes. So, I went with wood. I tried to find sections of straight wooden roadbed that I could cut into pieces for each joint, but all I saw on Ebay were curved. Perhaps that is a good thing, as they were likely 1/4" thick and I need 3/16" to match the cork (roadbed has gotten thinner over the years apparently). So, I bought some 3/16" plywood on Ebay and cut it to make pieces 1.5" wide. This isn't as wide as normal cork because I will add slopes on each side. In certain areas shimming was necessary with some cardboard.

I used clear caulk to attach the roadbed to the plywood. I avoided any caulk that had the word Silicone on the bottle. So, I bought a bottle of Loctite "all purpose adhesive caulk" that doesn't have silicone. I quickly discovered though that once you squeeze out a line of it and spread it out, it is very tough to see track centerlines for laying the roadbed! So, I did one half of the roadbed at a time. For the Vinylbed, I split it down the middle and widened it to better replicate HO scale width roadbed. I used a spare piece of HO track (painted yellow so I wouldn't lose it) to verify the width I wanted. I also used the caulk to fill in the gap in the middle of the Vinylbed roadbed, which will save me some ballast later on.

I don't have a lot of experience with modeling grades in track, so this will be a bit of an experiment for me. There will be three different track heights (HO cork, N scale roadbed, and on the bare plywood) and I hope it pays of visually. I used cardboard to build ramps between the different thicknesses of roadbed. The ramps aren't perfect but I made sure to not have any abrupt drops, and I also didn't put any cross-elevation in areas where the grade drops because that is just asking for trouble. I think once track is laid and ballasted, it will look pretty good. If necessary, I can always use more cardboard shims under the track.

For the turnouts I used HO cork and split it at the start of the switch, and then filled in pieces. It worked okay, but for the N scale roadbed I instead used some cork sheet that I had and traced the turnouts onto it. I know they sell turnout cork pads but they are pricey. At the areas where the throw bars will be, I cut a 3/8" wide slot and dug up the cork and caulk in the area. Then, I inserted small pieces of cork into the slot on the ends to hide the gap. I will eventually put a thin piece of styrene over the top with a hole drilled in it for the switch machine motor, and that will keep any stray ballast out. I also put a small sliver from the edges of the cork along the wood block joint areas.

I had to sand the edges of the cork to get a nice smooth slope for the eventual ballast. Yuck! What a boring and dirty job. Plus, because the layout was so high it was hard to get in and sand it so I ended up standing on a step stool. My layout doesn't even use that much cork but by the end I was done with it. Now I remember another reason why I loved the Vinylbed so much! The rubber grit got everywhere but my trust shop vac made quick work of the removal. In the end, I am glad I put the work into doing it as it will make ballasting so much easier.

As the last step, I painted the top of the roadbed with gray latex paint. This not only will make it look better, but it also seals the cork and hides any brown spots when it comes time to ballast.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

NMRA MMR requirements for layout

Now that my benchwork is pretty much finished, I can set my sights on more enjoyable tasks such as laying roadbed and then track! I have slowly been accumulating stuff over the past year, but I am sure I will need to place another order before it is all said and done.

As has been mentioned previously, I plan to work on my NMRA Master Model Railroader certification as I build my layout. I have already earned the Model Railroad Author in 2011, and I am now working on my Model Railroad - Civil and Model Railroad - Electrical certificates. Since one focuses on trackwork (Civil) and the other the wiring (Electrical), it seems to make sense to do them together. That being said, I want to finish the electrical one first because the track one will require handlaying a bit of track, and that will slow me down.

There are a lot of requirements for each certificate listed online, though there is plenty of room to pick and choose various pieces. However, if you have a small layout like mine there are some things that necessarily might be missed. That isn't a fault of the MMR system, but it will require some creative planning on my part. One option I have is to wait several years until my layout is larger (my Watervliet section woudl have a wye, my North Albany section would have a yard) but I don't want to do that. Another possibility is to distribute everything onto the layout I have, but I don't want to compromise the vision of what I am modeling. A third option is to devote one area of my layout to the MMR requirements and cram everything on it that naturally wouldn't be elsewhere. This is what I am doing.

In addition to the paperwork that is required, including drawing up schematics and plans and such, there are some physical requirements that must be included in my layout(s). Here are the ones I selected (some were mandatory), with the numbers correlating with the NMRA requirements:

Electrical certificate
1(1): For a DCC layout, include sufficient gaps and switches to maintain polarity and troubleshoot;
1(2): One mainline passing siding;
1(3): One turntable;
1(4): A yard with a minimum of three tracks and a switching lead;
1(5): Facilities for storing at least two unused engines; and
1(6): One power supply with protective devices (short indicator / circuit breaker).
(2) Wire / demonstrate the electrical operation of a: (1) Turnout; (2) Crossing; and (3) Crossover.
(3) Wire / demonstrate the electrical operation of a: (4) Engine terminal including an electrically powered turntable, minimum of three stall tracks, and at least two blocked storage sections for parking locomotives outside of the stall area; (14) DCC decoder installation; and (23) End-Of-Train device.

Civil certificate
(2) At least 50 linear feet of track with ballast, drainage facilities, and roadbed, including examples of: a) passing siding; (b) spur; (f) simple ladder; (h) turntable; (j) super elevation; and (r) grade elevation.

Some of those things are required to be on the layout itself (red/green), while others just need to be built and demonstrated (yellow/blue). The green ones are already integrated into my Colonie Main layout design, while the red ones will be located on the one side of my layout that I don't have plans for. The yellow were built on a separate, small section because my layout doesn't include crossings or crossovers. Finally, the blue items are stand-alone things.

Even as I prepare to install the roadbed for three of the sections I need to have at least some sort of rough understanding of what will go in the last one. I plan to download some templates and play around with them to make it all fit.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Finished the benchwork!

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Fast forward 525 years, and what did I find myself doing on Columbus Day? Finishing up my benchwork! Phew! This has been a long time coming.

I got burned out on the benchwork a couple of months ago, mostly because I was dealing with the problem of keeping 8 separate sections (four sides, four corners) aligned on the top. But, with the lure of a three-day weekend that was absolutely free from commitments I decided to make the final push and finish it. The fourth side of the layout is only 54" long, instead of 84" like the rest. That is a 30" difference. However, it is essentially a square and the only way in or out is to either duck under the layout (not happening) or build a lift out section. Once that section is temporarily removed, there is a 30" gap to allow someone to easily walk into the layout. I didn't want to make it too narrow and tight.

I don't know what to model on the fourth side. However, I am currently working on my NMRA Master Model Railroader certificates and there are some requirements that my layout wouldn't normally have on the sections I am focusing on. So, my fourth side will essentially be crammed with whatever I need to meet the requirements. If I am awarded the certificate, I may later revise the track plan.

Building up the fourth section was pretty easy, though I was once again startled to see how out-of-square the frame would turn out if I built assembled the 1x4" lumber first and and then tried to attach the plywood. So, I built the outside box, then secured the plywood on top, and only then added the cross braces. There are no diagonal corner braces added yet, because I plan to add a large shelf beneath the layout. This will be used to hold the DCC system, any other power or sound system components, etc.

The last corner section is also different from the others because I took a slice off the outside corner to allow easier access to the laundry area. This was my wife's idea, but it was a good one. The corner sections are essentially just filler/temporary areas anyway. I couldn't build it per my normal drawings so instead I built it bit by bit, cutting one or two pieces of wood at a time and then gluing them up. This was a bit tedious, but it meant that every piece was cut exactly to the proper length and angle. The interior bracing was made from a 2x4", which is a bit overkill but I ran out of 1x4" lumber. The plywood top was a cut and paste job, with the gap braced on the underside and then filled with latex caulk, though harder Liquid Nails would have been better.

But that was several weeks ago. Why the delay in posting to this blog?

I was having issues with the four wires that pass between each benchwork section. The problem was that the wooden blocks with the 10-24 bolts were too short and located too close to the ends. The wires had to make a sharp 90-degree bend to attach to the bolts, and there was no place for any slack in the wire to go. Plus, some of the bolts I used were spinning in their holes because I didn't use carriage bolts. So, I made taller ones and located them farther out from the ends. I cut down the old bolts using a Dremel and that took forever. To prevent cuts on the sharp ends, I put a dab of caulk on each one. I also shifted some of the wooden 1x2" lumber screwed to the L-girders to allow for easier access to the wingnuts.

Also, I have been having trouble leveling the benchwork because the ends of the 5/16" carriage bolts are hard to reach below the legs. Plus, with the weight of the layout bearing down on them they are tough to turn by hand, and a wrench is clumsy. So, I fell back upon an idea that I came across on the Model Railroader forums by someone named "Batman" (if that is his real name) which used hockey pucks. It was worth a try, so I ordered a bunch of hockey pucks on EBay for $1 each. I drilled and countersunk the bolts into them, and put a nut and washer on top heavy tightened down to prevent spinning. They work great!

Unfortunately, while installing them into the legs of the benchwork the T-nuts kept falling out. The T-nuts only have three little prongs that dig into the wood, and they just weren't up to the task. I honestly don't know how other model railroaders have never had this problem, but I needed a plan B. I saw some T-nuts with holes drilled in them for three tiny screws, but that didn't look too solid. So, instead I bought some furniture leg brackets online. When they arrived, I was surprised to discover that the thread didn't go all the way through them. So, I took them to my friend's house and he quickly used a power tapping head in a drill press to finish the job. The threaded brackets were 2" square, which was a little bit larger than the layout legs. So, I fabricated some simple wooden "L" shapes which were predrilled and then glued and screwed to the benchwork legs.

I could now level the layout. Working on one section at a time, I carefully jacked up the layout a little bit with my Toyota Corolla car jack to give me enough clearance. Because it wasn't entirely stable, my wife assisted by holding the "t" wooden brace together while I spun the jack. I first removed any remaining T-nuts that were still in the wood by wiggling the bolt. Then, I roughly set all of the hockey pucks to the same level by spinning them. They were then glued and screwed to the bottom of the leg, making sure they were perpendicular to the legs. I then lowered the car jack until the layout was at the desired height, and un-threaded the hockey pucks until they firmly resisted against the floor. I was amazed at how simple a process this turned out to be. To adjust the layout, I found it best to raise/lower it with the jack instead of just screwing in/out the hockey pucks. Otherwise, too much weight would be put on the hockey pucks and they might strip out. The next day, I worked on another section, adjusting it to be level with the first one. And so on, until the project was finished. It set me back a couple of weeks and about $50 for the metal brackets, pucks, and lumber, but I am really happy with how it turned out.

In the end, the benchwork cost me about $650 total. I could have probably saved $50 with better planning, and another $50 if I had a truck large enough to allow me to get my lumber in longer lengths. Would I do it again? Probably not. It seems like it should have been easy (measure, cut, glue, screw) but it wasn't. At least not for me. Prefabricated benchwork would have cost me a lot more, but it might have been better. Oh well.

Finally, I can now work on more interesting things like roadbed, painting the plywood, laying track, wiring, etc...

Thursday, October 19, 2017

D&H whimsical models

I was scrolling through Ebay recently as I usually do, looking for any D&H items that might be of interest to me, when I saw some models that just had to make me shake my head. There are times when a manufacturer takes a model and slaps any road name on it to try and sell it to the unsuspecting public (or perhaps someone who knows it is wrong but doesn't care), and I guess I understand that. Examples that come to mind are steam locomotives, with any old road name listed on the tender, and boxcars. The D&H didn't roster any PB-1 engines but Athearn still did one in blue and silver.

Along those lines, when Riverossi released its E8 engines in both A and B units they painted some in the sharp blue and silver scheme. They look great, and remind me of the PAs (as I am sure Riverossi hoped) but they are completely fanciful. Not only did they get to sell the engines, but they also released passenger cars to go with them! In a move that was surely done with forethought, they numbered the A units "15", which is smart because the PA units were numbered 16-19. So, no conflict there. Still, I don't think any will be joining my roster anytime soon.

But, there are some real head-scratching models out there too. For example, D&H cabooses. Most were painted red, though some bay window cabooses were painted yellow in 1968 when delivered. They lasted only a couple of years before they were repainted red. Also, Guilford had some cabooses that were painted into orange in the 1980s and 1990s. However, Like-Like must have anticipated this when they released a model of a "North Eastern" caboose, which the D&H actually had, but instead of painting them red they used orange. Then, they used a font that screams "1940s" and varied the location of the shield (centered, and off-centered). I think they were produced before Guilford, so the choice of orange instead of red doesn't make sense.

Like-Like then decided to paint cabooses to match the engines it was also selling, EMD Geeps in the "Lightning stripe" scheme. But, the D&H never had any cabooses painted in gray and blue! This time, they actually used a font style that is somewhat plausible and picked a number that fits in the range of D&H cabooses. The large shield is a nice touch, though too large. I must say the engine and caboose sold together in the combination box looks nice, even if it is unrealistic. Why again didn't Life-Like just paint the cabooses red?

Not to be outdone, Lionel too painted up a bay window caboose to match their U33C engines which were done in a very dark rendition of the Lightning stripe scheme. I can't say I like it, and wouldn't recognize it as a D&H caboose were it not for the circle emblem on the right. But, Lionel has been doing this sort of stuff for ages.

Then there is Bachmann, that went with red in the wrong way. They decided to release some D&H hoppers in red and have been doing so for decades. Even my first train set in the mid-1980s had one. I remember loading it with sand or some other scenery material and gluing it in place. Unfortunately, the D&H never actually owned bright red coal hoppers. In fact, that idea is absurd, as they would get dirty quickly. I don't know which came first, but Bachmann actually released two different hopper cars in red with D&H markings. One featured yellow letting and a bright shield, the other was red with white lettering.

However, at least as it regards the yellow lettering and the shield, the D&H did roster some covered hoppers that were painted this way. I think they look really sharp, and have a couple of models myself. Perhaps someone at Bachmann thought that the paint scheme would translate well. I think if I want to run unit D&H coal trains I will stick to the black or brown hopper cars! However, for a train running under a Christmas tree it would look pretty festive.

What is the point of this rambling? Well, it shows me how far I have come in terms of the D&H. Just ten years ago, I couldn't have told you anything about the railroad except for the Lightning stripe scheme. Had you offered me a PB or E8 engine, I might have bought it. (A couple of years ago I bought an O gauge FM Trainmaster in D&H's Lightning stripe scheme, and seriously considered buying a GP7 even though I knew they were fakes... so rules are meant to be broken). I only learned last year about the history of the yellow cabooses. I doubt I would have fallen for the orange or gray ones, but who knows? I shouldn't be too critical of the manufacturers. When it comes to train set equipment, anything that will sell will probably be made. But, it is fun to look back and wonder at some of their decisions.

That notwithstanding, there is a line that must be drawn and to me seeing a steam locomotive painted Conrail blue with a "can opener" on the tender clearly crosses that line. Note: here is a tongue in cheek take at a Conrail "Rocket" 2-2-0 engine (scroll down the link to see it) which is pretty amusing!

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

HO Roster: TOFC equipment

Growing up in the 1980s, railfanning in the Rochester area meant generally three things: (a) Conrail, (b) unit coal trains, and (c) Trailer on FlatCar (TOFC) trains. I really like the looks of TOFC equipment, even though I am not the most knowledgeable on the subject. However, along the way I have done a bit of internet research on various forums as well as picked up several books that have helped a lot.

As time went on, TOFC has faded away and Containers on FlatCars (COFC) have become the primary method of transporting goods. It is a shame, as I really don't find container trains all that interesting. Even though the containers are multiple colors and the equipment can be diverse, it just looks "the same" to me. I bet this is how railfans in the Pennsy era felt when train after train of oxide red/brown cars rolled by.

Before we moved to our new house I collected a bunch of HO scale kits, mostly boxcars and covered hoppers. However, deep down I really wanted to buy some TOFC stuff. At the time I wasn't really sure what to get, but I was cognizant of the fact that I might mistakenly buy stuff that was too modern for my 1984-era layout. Therefore, I set a couple of ground rules: (a) no 53 foot trailers, (b) no flatcars that were designed for TOFC and COFC, (c) no three or five-coupled Impack sets, and (d) no flatcars with stenciling dates after my May 1984 date. As it turns out, I did purchase one flatcar stenciled July 1984 but I doubt anyone will notice! 

Things I did focus on were 40' and 48' trailers, early yellow TTX flatcars, and Front Runners. I also only wanted kits, because I like to build them. My layout will have 24" radius curves but I knew I wouldn't be building the kits to take curves that sharp. I was building them for the fun of it. They may or may not run on my layout, but I could stage them for pictures and also run them at other people's layouts. Also, I was going to weigh them per the NMRA recommendations, including adding some in the flatcars themselves and more in the trailers. And, the trailers were going to be permanently attached to the flatcars so I had to make the joints secure and not rely on the pins and hitches alone to do so. Finally, everything was going to get weathered.

I purchased several kits from different manufacturers, including Walthers, Athearn, and Accurail. Some modeled 85 foot cars, some modeled 89 foot cars, and some were not based on a real car at all. However, it only mattered to me when it came time to mount trailers. Obviously, you cannot fit two 45' trailers on a 85 car. The people at Accurail were helpful in advising me of their models that fit my era. Their kits were also very well done, though the instructions were sometimes vague when showing exactly where the hitches should be attached to the car decks for various trailer arrangements.

While the different makes of cars had various coupler swing arrangements, the Athearn ones were really strange. A-line sells upgrade metal bolster and underframe kits for these, but I didn't want to spend $22+ on a car I only paid $10 for. So, for all my cars I body mounted the couplers after building styrene pads and tapping them for 2-56 screws. The screws stick up a little through the top of the flatcar but I hid it pretty well with paint. I would rather have solidly-attached couplers even if it means the bump on the deck. The trucks all had metal wheels installed for added weight.

The hitches all came as plastic moldings, and while some were nice (Accurail, Walthers) some were terrible (Athearn). Of course, the Athearn kits were older blue box ones and many modelers had written them off entirely as unrealistic so I knew going in that they wouldn't be perfect. I wanted to model at least one flatcar with only one trailer on it (half-empty), and at least one trailer with back-to-back trailers, and at least one with trailers "elephant style." The plastic hitches built up nice but I broke one trying to mount a trailer so I gave up on them. Instead, I used metal Details West trailer hitch castings. I selected ones that I thought looked like the plastic ones in the kits, but when it was unclear I got the larger, stronger ones. They assembled up nicely. For me, they were worth the couple extra dollars each.

Whenever I could, I hid metal shot in the underframe in areas that wouldn't be visible or foul the turning of the trucks. It wasn't easy, but the Accurail cars had a hollow centersill that I drilled open and then used a tiny funnel to fill. I weathered the cars pretty heavily, though I focused more on dirt and grime on the deck itself where the trailers would normally go.


I looked on Ebay and bought a bunch of trailer kits. Some turned out to be too early for my era, and others were "out of region" such that I ended up with a bunch of Union Pacific trailers and didn't use them all. I noticed that pictures of Front Runners frequently had Southern Pacific trailers loaded on them so I bought some specifically. A member of a train club I was in years ago had some of these and they just didn't track well, mostly because they are light. I was especially careful to put weight as low as possible in the trailer. Even still, they will likely always be at the end of the train (which is I think how the prototype railroads handled them too.

For each of the trailers, I painted the wheels, hubcaps, silver trim, mud flaps, and tail lights. I also added license plates sold by Howards Hobby, which I think I found by just doing a simple internet search. I bought A-line vinyl mud flaps but the superglue kept flaking off the vinyl and they fell off, so I replaced them with cardstock painted black.  I don't know much about real trucks so I didn't base them off of specific prototypes. I modified them until they looked "right" to me. The silver trim was sometimes spray painted (for large areas like the roof and chassis) or brush painted (for door hinge trim). I skipped it if it would be so difficult that the final result would look bad. Better to not paint it than paint it horribly.

They were weathered too, usually with black sprays from cans along the roof to represent soot from truck exhausts, and dirt along the sides. I also read online that trailers didn't really get rusty because that made them unsafe for travel over the road, so I avoided rusting them too much. To add weight to the trailers (and thus to the finished flatcars), I built boxes of styrene and filled them with metal shot and glue for weight, with the boxes long and not very tall so the weight was down low.

To attach the trailers to the cars, I followed the good advice from the people at Accurail and used Loctite Super Glue gel. Once I learned how the bottle worked, I discovered this stuff is amazing! I glued the hitch areas as well as under the trailers. To give the tires a nice flat surface for gluing (and also to look like they were being compressed from the weight of the trailer) I sanded them flat. This gave me plenty of glue surface.

I avoided certain brands of trailers, especially ConCor, because they looked too unrealistic. I really liked the Athearn and Walthers trailers, and hope to buy some more down the road (get it?). Notably missing are Conrail "Trailway" trailers, which were all over the northeast. In fact, there is one still visible just east of Fort Plain, NY, from the I-90 Thruway (MP 197.4). The Conrail lettering has faded badly over the past 10 years but it is still there. Athearn made them but I never seem to win them on Ebay... no doubt my low bids are responsible. The Boston & Maine also had trailers with their markings in the early 1980s.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

WW&F #3 coach build (part 4)

I am finally on the home stretch, which is good because my layout itself is calling me.

I did the trucks first, mainly because they looked simple. I first drilled a hole in a small scrap of styrene and threaded the mounting screw through it and then tightened it up, giving me a convenient styrene handle to hold. Everything was given a spray of flat black paint. I removed the paint from the treads with some lacquer thinner and a Q-tip (some day I play to purchase acrylic wheel painting masks which protect the treads from paint overspray). I then disassembled the trucks and removed the wheels and used a microbrush to paint the faces with brown paint. I also painted the backs of the wheels and the axles mottled brown/black paint. In my opinion, many a good picture has been spoiled by unpainted axles shining under cars. Finally, I drybrushed the sides of the trucks with brown to represent a light coating of dirt. The WW&F kept the car in good condition, but some dirt is inevitable. A spray of Dullcote sealed it all up and lightened the drybrushing, making it blend in better.

The underframe was tackled next. I didn't prime it first but instead sprayed it with several light coats of gloss black paint. There were a lot of nooks and crannies underneath and I didn't want to flood it with paint, but some areas stood out in bright red and required frequently passes with the spray can. I was hoping to find Satin black at the store, but they didn't have any. The gloss turned out a bit too shiny (duh) so I lightly sprayed over it with flat black. Then, I drybrushed it with brown and sprayed it with Dullcote. The floorboards on the vestibules were a worn wood that appeared gray, which I painted separately and and then weathered.

This is another time when I regret not taking a single detailed picture of the coach even though I knew full well I was going to build a model of it. I was just so excited to ride the train and I completely forgot. Grrrr! 

I then assembled the body to the chassis in stages, starting with the middle. No matter how hard I tried I couldn't get everything lined up perfectly in one go. The frame had a slight bend to it and had I tried to straighten it I feared the superglued joints would crack. To make things easier, I "popped" the weight off the frame by flexing it and the superglue released easily. I also sanded some areas of the frame a little more to let it slip into the body easier. Then, I superglued the middle of the car and let it cure. After a while, I did one end and finally the other. Adjusting the amount of water in the glass varies the amount of pressure applied. It came out fine.

Along the way, I realized slipping in the interior in one piece would be impossible with the three upper roof braces, I was supposed to slip it in before gluing on the body but it got in the way. So, I cut my interior up into smaller bits. This is how many of my projects go... I spend so much time getting things just the way I want them and then a problem comes up and I need to back track a bit. Oh well, it is just plastic and easy to cut. How I will fit them in, as well as install window glazing, remains to be seen. But, it will happen sometime down the road and not now.

The roof was given several light coats of gray primer, which revealed some roof joints that required a little more attention. However, some more white putty and sanding cleaned that up pretty good. As to final color, there are some pictures of the car (perhaps when it was new?) with a black roof, with the clerestory portions surrounding the glass painted green to match the body. However, the coach currently has a reddish roof that is now nearly black itself from the soot of the engine. It still has the green clerestory areas around the windows.

Internet pictures show that the amount of red or black on the roof varies, perhaps because they repainted it or washed it? It also looks like it had a canvas or tar-paper covering. I don't plan to model the covering right now, but had my hacking apart and rejoining of the roof sections looked terrible I could always have hid it under that!

I looked for a can of spray paint that was close to the red color of the roof at Lowes but came up empty. So, I went to the hobby store with a postcard from the WW&F showing the coach and lo and behold there it was... a can of Testors red paint. When I initially sprayed it on it went on glossy and bright red, which was NOT what I wanted. When I checked on it the next morning though it was perfect. Perhaps it is a tad too bright right now but there will be weathering applied which will darken it and tone it down a bit. The fact that the roof was originally painted in bright red by Bachmann is a bit of irony that hasn't escaped me. It almost looks like I haven't done anything to it.

I thought the green clerestory areas would be tough to do with clean separation lines, but since it is all heavily weathered I might have been able to hide any rough edges. I bought a bottle of craft paint that matched and tried to paint the areas. I got about 1/2" in and realized I couldn't do it. No brush could get in the cracks easily, and it wasn't going on smooth. I needed to spray it. So, I washed off the paint and after it dried masked the whole roof with blue tape. Then, a couple of light passes of the green spray paint and it was done. And you know what, it came out really good! I did a little touch up of each color by spraying the paint into a paper cup and then brushing it on, but on the whole I was very pleased.

Still, it would be nice if D.R.L. offered a wooden overlay in their kits that had the clerestory cutouts which could be painted green and then glued into the Bachmann roof. Then, it was time to weather the roof. It was at this point that I started to question whether I should just leave the roof bright red. However, it looked like a Christmas train at this point and I decided to press on. I sprayed it first with a light coat of Dullcote to tone down the gloss green in the clerestory areas and also give the weathering medium some texture to stick to.

I like weathering with oil paints. I have tried alcohol/acrylic paint washes but I find that they sometimes dry blotchy, they turn the Dullcote white, the alcohol sometimes lifts the paint from the car below, and when I try and layer washes to build depth previous weathering layers wash off. So, I went with oil paints. I squeezed some black straight out of the tube onto a plastic paint dish (yogurt lid) and used a large brush dipped in odorless mineral spirits to dab it all over the roof. I then gently blew all along the roof to help distribute it. More applications of oil paint and mineral spirits helped give more even coverage.
Some areas came out better than others, but with oil paint you never know until it is dried. It matches the real coach.

Update: I printed out some pictures of the coach and realized that while it had a nearly black roof a couple of years ago, now it is mostly red with a light coating of soot. When I blindly showed some pictures of the coach to my wife and asked which she preferred more, she told me she wouldn't have noticed the difference without me poinint it out. That being said, she preferred the red one more. I did too, so I took lightly misted the roof with the red and let it dry. Then, to replicate the effects of soot I took some of my finely ground real coal and rubbed the powdery residue all along the roof. Several applications of this built up the color I wanted. (Yes, if I had black chalk I might have tried that too).

Right now, I am happy with it. There are at least eight coats of gray primer, red primer, dull coat, more red primer, and more dull coat on the roof, and I am quitting while I am ahead!

I then prepared the decals for installation. Man, those gold stripes are a real pain to install! No matter what I did, they just ended up shredding. Perhaps they are old? Also, the lettering isn't spaced right for the "full length" car so I will reach out to D.R.L. to see what they recommend. I would hate to have to cut each letter up and apply it separately. I need to sit back and think. But, I did install the car numbers, which is a small victory.

Still to do: apply decals to the car, install the clerestory "windows" back in the roof, install windows along the car, install the interior, install the end railings, and attach the couplers.