CP Executive train in Albany

CP Executive train in Albany

Sunday, February 25, 2018

NMRA challenge: Scratchbuild something!

A week ago our Hudson Berkshire Division (of the NMRA) held its montly meeting, and instead of a layout tour or clinic we were told in our monthly newsletter it would be a "scratchbuilding night." Inspiration for our meeting comes from the Carolina Southern Division and their Program Chair, Scott Perry, for helping our Vice-President, Irwin Nathanson, prepare for and lead our meeting.The information that we were given in advance is:

Participants’ instructions will be to simply “build something” and all will have one hour to work on their creation. Options include houses, stations, factories, rolling stock, or…perhaps a bridge …see related article in this issue! Then there will be a “show and tell” so everyone can show their results and discuss what they built. You can build something just for this event or something that you might put on your layout. All materials will be supplied including cardboard, wood and plastic coffee stirrers, styrene sheets and shapes, bass wood in various forms, misc. metal tubes and forms and “pot luck” of material from [the host modeler's] Scrap Box that you might be able to use. [The]Scrap Box is mostly plastic windows, doors, walls … leftover parts from years of kit building. All HO but, for example, some windows would work with other scales.

Some limited tools will be supplied. For cutting, this includes safety razor blades. However, if you prefer, please feel free to bring your own Exacto Knife (#11 blade) or Scalpel. Newspapers, sandpaper, glues and quick-drying spray paint will also be supplied. Above all you need to bring is your imagination! Please do not bring any drawings, photos, plans, etc. The real “test” of this exercise is not to see if you can scratch build, but rather to challenge your creativity. Blank paper and pencil or pen for sketching out your project is acceptable. [Someone] is bringing his HO gauge Scale Ruler. Feel free to bring your own, especially if you model in another gauge.

Since I like scratchbuilding in styrene, I got pretty excited about this. I thought about what I might want to build, and focused on a hot dog grill shack like one might find in the Lake George area. Though they are sadly becoming a distant memory, they are frequently decorated on the outside with gaudy trim, whatever else might be lying around, and usually showing the effects of winter's neglect and seasonal financial constraints. The shape and design though was heavily influenced by Gus's Hot Dogs, a small dive place in Watervliet with an open window front wall and marginal seating capacity inside.

I brought two brand new #11 blade Xacto knives with me (along with more blades in case others needed some), a metal engineering square, a corner nibbler, a plastic kitchen cutting board which I have used for years for modeling, and my own small bin of styrene scraps. When we started, we were invited to come up in rows and look through the stuff and take things. I took one sheet of 6" x 12" styrene (I think 0.040"), and one HO door casting which I used to base everything else from. After a couple of sketches of raw dimensions on some newspaper, I started cutting and gluing.

I knew this model would not end up on my layout, but I did want to keep it and treasure it so I took the challenge seriously. I laid out the four walls and then used my knife and nibbler to cut out the window and door areas. I glued up the four sides and braced them with triangles of styrene on the inside, and then attached the door casting. Another trip up to the spare casting bin (after everyone else went through first, to be fair) yielded two odd window castings, a couple of flower pot details, and something that looked like a flat vent. I also found some odd brown patternwork that when sliced into strips resembled the bric a brac found on Lake George area buildings.

I wish I had the time (and file) to clean up the window openings better. The roof wasn't cut perfectly and there were gaps along the roof edges which I tried to hide with some round trim and I-beam material that resembled a gutter. My pen markings show on the styrene, but painting the structure was out for sure due to time constraints. The rear wall never had windows installed, and one side is blank styrene (but I imagine the grill is along that wall, so windows aren't necessary and all venting is through the roof.

After about 75 minutes, we had a show and tell period. There was a lot of cool stuff out there. Some people used cardboard and their buildings showed a bit of crudeness that comes with it. Some wooden structures were very well done. There definitely was a corrolary between small structures and more finished results. If you swung for the fences with a complex building, you likely didn't finish it. Had I been forced to use wood or cardstock, I likely wouldn't have been pretty frustrated. I hope to explore those mediums down the road, but learning them for the first time under time pressure without drawings would have surely led to a miserable evening.

Still, I had a wonderful time and am very proud of what I did. I take these contests seriously. In 2011 our division held a "Pair O’ Dice" contest where we were given several months to build/make something involving dice. Some people took the easy way out and simply named a structure with the play-on-words "Paradise" (lame) in it. Others used dice in unusual ways, such as for switch control markers, or buildings with actual dice somehow involved (casinos, tattoo parlers, etc.). I went off the rails and built a fanciful entire train involving dice, with the piece de resistance a gondola decorated as a craps table. I took second in the contest.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Handlaying a Gauntlet track - FAIL!

For my third and final handlaid trackwork piece, I wanted to do something different.  And, out of the whole list a gauntlet track seemed pretty easy. I did some online research and found pictures of some examples where gauntlets were used to bring the mainline closer to a station platform or farther away from a station platform to maintain clearances. They only had points, and no frogs. I found other examples where tracks crossed into each other (usually, for different rail gauges) and there were frogs but no points involved. Which was fine, as I didn't really want to make more points or frogs. My switch/turnout and crossing had been educational and fun, but I wanted to push myself to do something different.

But then I saw a couple of pictures online where tight streetcar track formed a gauntlet to allow it to get around sharp corners where parallel track wouldn't have enough clearance to do so. If you go to this website you can find some interesting street trackage pictures, including the ones posted here.  Photos are by Salada from Freerails.com and used with permission. This gauntlet is interesting because it is short, it features curved and straight track, it has guardrails on the track, and it has paved track. There is another picture on the link showing similar track in a stone-paved roadway.

I had four options for the frogs: (A) I could purchase a chunk of something (brass, steel, aluminum) and mill away the intersecting channels on my friend's mill. It would be pretty easy, as I think I can make both paths straight through the frog instead of curving one. (B) I could buy a chunk of metal but instead use my Dremel tool to cut intersecting slots. This wouldn't be as precise as a milling machine, but it really doesn't have to be either. (C) I could buy some thinner brass and use my belt sander to form four shapes which, once soldered together onto a sheet of brass, would form the frog. (D) I could take two rails and overlap them by cutting away the base of the "top" one and the head of the "bottom" one and soldering them together. I saw it demonstrated on Tim Warris' website (he makes the Fast Tracks jigs) and it looked like fun.

Unfortunately, I ran out of rail. And, LGB rail in 2' lengths might be too short for the outer rails. Aristocraft rail is longer, but isn't manufactured anymore. I didn't want to purchase long (3') lengths of code 332 brass rail for this project, as that will be expensive. So, I instead bought some code 250 aluminum rail from Llagas Creek.. Sure, it isn't the best for track power but for what I am doing it should be fine. And, it was only about $1.50 a foot. The only real downside is that it can't be easily silver soldered, so frog option (D) is out.

I sketched up some ideas for various radius measurements, and to preserve the look of the gauntlet I had one side curve away on both tracks and the other have one leg curved and the other straight. The radius I drew are extremely tight (about 17"R on the inner one) but my short wheelbase test engine will make it and these were, in real life, very tight. One frog has two straight intersecting rails but the other had a curved rail, which matches the prototype and also will be a bit more challenging (and, in my ignorance, interesting) to fabricate. It would certainly be a challenge.

So, I bought some 1/8" thick by 1" wide brass bar stock online and drew out some lines to represent where the rail surfaces would be. Then, I cut it apart into four pieces and took each one to the belt sander to clean up. After that was done, I soldered them to a thin piece of brass shim stock and waited for it to cool. And that is where trouble began. I didn't pin the pieces down and they constantly wanted to "float" on the liquid solder and come together into one unit instead of remaining four pieces. I managed to push them around before it cooled, but it was difficult. Final clean up included a bath in alcohol and then a trip under the wire brush wheel. The last step was to use my grinder shorten the frog to length.

I checked my clearances and they were slightly tight but nothing that a file couldn't fix. I also used my Dremel wheel and accidentally went through the shim brass sheet stock in one place (not a good thing). The real problem though was that the NMRA Standards require a flangeway to be 0.118" deep and I bought 0.125" thick brass to make it (which was taller than required), my actual train equipment has deeper flanges that rode on the bottom of the frog. I can't file them any deeper or else I will go right through the shim, so I will need to remake the frog with thicker metal. So, I ordered some 3/16" thick brass stock which should have been better.

However, things just then got worse. I built two more frogs with the thicker metal, and flange depth was not an issue. I then epoxied the frogs onto the board I had which I was laying my track on, and after that cured I spiked some of the aluminum rails in place (they bent by hand easily). But, different problems came up. "Large Scale" is a pretty loose term for trains that essentially run on Gauge 1, or 45mm, track. Tolerances are all over the map. Most trains are sold with trucks that have oversize flanges, non-conforming back-to-back wheel spacing, and run gigantic rail heights. It all works well in the garden, where obstacles can otherwise derail trains. But here, I couldn't make it work. I laid some rail and tested it with my freight car truck and it just kept derailing. Adding the guardrails won't help. The frog is to NMRA specs, but the truck isn't. Very few commercial models in G scale are.

So, I will need to take a step back and rethink the gauntlet track. I may just build a simple (cough... easy) "Y" style one that has just one frog and no points. Or, I may try and reuse one of these frogs and simplify the track arrangement by removing one of the curves and straightening out much of the track. But first, I will need to do a lot of thinking.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Handlaying a Diamond Crossing

I was having so much fun working on my handlaid turnout that I started looking ahead to the next project. Out of the list of things available, the crossing seemed to be a nice challenge without being ridiculous (a double crossover? Really?) I thought about doing a Crossover, but it didn't seem challenging enough. Plus, it would have been 5-6 feet long in G scale.

So, I picked a crossing. I fiddled around with some dimensions to see what would fit on another 1x3' board like the one I had got at Home Depot. However, to leave enough track on all four ends to fit an engine would require making a really narrow crossing, like a 19-degree. I didn't like that idea at all. Then, I thought about making a 90-degree crossing, which would require all beveled rail angles to only be 45-degrees. That wouldn't be too tough. And as I thought some more, I remembered seeing a nice round wooden board at Home Depot for about $5 that would be perfect. And the die was cast.

I bought the board and more 3/8" square basswood dowels to use as ties. Right now, my Home Depot is cleaned out of straight ones and if I need more I will need to go to a different store. I did some measuring on the circular board to lay out the tie edge lines, made up some more tie strips, and glued them all down. For the tie arrangement under the frogs I printed out an O scale crossing template from the Fast Tracks website as a reference. Once I had the ties glued down, I stained them as before using the Minwax "Jacobean" stain. When it pooled on top and wouldn't fully absorb, I lightly sanded the top to get rid of the sheen.

I didn't have a cut list for the parts I needed, and I was sort of making it up as I went. So, I sketched out what I wanted and how long the rails had to be. I added about 10-15mm to each which would allow me some extra play should the grinding not go as planned. I knew once I had all frogs soldered up I would need to machine them to length to fit, and I wanted to have excess rather than be short. I prefer working in metric because the math is so easy; when using Imperial, I need a calculator and a fractional chart. By the way, the secret to my success is a Kalamazoo 1" belt sander which was a gift from a good friend. It easily cuts the large brass rail.

To bend the guard rails where necessary, I used a Dremel and cut-off wheel to go through the base of the rail on both sides. Once I clamped it in my mini drill press vice, some vice grip pliers easily bent it. When building the switch, I didn't saw through the base of the rail enough on both sides all the way and the rail cracked the head, rendering it useless. So, I learned my lesson here. I didn't follow any formula for how much to bend the rail, I just did it until it looked good. The cutaway at the base looks a bit odd, but it really isn't noticeable once spiked. I don't know how the real railroads do it.

I had the optimistic idea of drawing parallel lines on paper, putting a brass shim on top of it, and then aligning and clamping all eight rail pieces together and soldering. This is what I did with the switch frog, but that only involved four rails. This was different. Despite my best efforts any slight bump to one rail knocked all eight off. Worse still, if the two main rails were not in perfect 90-degrees not only would the other rails be off but the frog might not line up with the other three I had to build. I tried using screws and fender washers but it was no use. So, using my flangeway tool I did my best and just lined everything up without clamping most of the rails.

I then soldered it like before, using the torch to fully heat everything up slowly. The rails didn't budge, but I didn't stick the full flame into the joint either. When it came time to apply the silver solder, though, I had problems. My solder is about 1/8" thick and when I brought it close to the rail to melt it I bumped a small rail and knocked it out of alignment. I had time to fix it with pliers for about a second or two until it hardened up, but the same thing happened again. Finally, I got all the solder in and I let it cool. I figured it would be bad, but I had to just let it cool and see. It was about as ugly looking a thing as you could get.

I was pretty dejected, and I started to have thoughts about throwing in the towel and doing something else besides a crossing. But, there was hope, The main rails were still at 90 degrees. So, I gave it a good scrubbing in alcohol to remove any flux residue (note to self: next time, use less) and then used a Dremel to cut away the excess brass sheet from the four corners. Finally, a wire brush tool in my grinder brought it all up to a nice shine. I then used my Dremel and a large flat file to clean up some tight spots in the rails where the guard rails got too close and I had myself one complete frog assembly. And after seeing that, I pressed on. 

But, I needed a way to make sure the rails didn't move when setting up all eight. I considered temporarily gluing the rails onto the wood/brass shims, one rail at a time, using wood glue or superglue. It would probably work, but it might contaminate the joint once burned and it would take a long time. Then, as I was cleaning up my desk I saw random spikes lying around had a great idea. The most critical joint was the two large running rails, and they had to be at a perfect 90-degrees. So, for the next one I spiked them in place on the board over the shim. I couldn't use a lot of spikes as they would get in the way, and I didn't want them soldered in place. So, I used 2 on each end and one on the outside edge of the rail. The rails were pinned down but a hard bump would move them. I was then able to get the other six rails in place pretty easily.

I also had to figure out a method to feed it solder during heating without disturbing anything. So, I took small pieces of solder and stuck them in the rail joints before heating up the assembly. When soldering, you are taught to let the work heat up the solder instead of melting the solder itself with the iron. I relied on that principle here. I made sure to aim the flame at the base brass stock and waited and waited. Sure enough, when the time was right the solder melted and it filled the gap. Only one rail slightly moved, but I was able to quickly nudge it back. Then, I let it all cool and it was cleaned up again like before.

And then I ran out of rail. And, it was too late on a Saturday to go to the closest hobby shop (which might not have the rail anyway). So, progress was halted for a couple of weeks until the Springfield train show, where I found a vendor selling rail. I had to get LGB rail (instead of, say, Aristocraft) because I wanted the rail profiles to match. I bought a 2-foot section which I assumed would be enough and the next day I got to work. I decided to lengthen the approach running rails which would reduce rail joints in the diamond. I wish I had done this with all four frogs. After about an hour's worth of work, this is what I had.

When spiking my turnout, I discovered the rails had shifted over to one edge of the ties and by the end of the turnout the track looked off-center. Here, I scribed some lines on the ties to help me keep things centered on the ties. This made it much easier to get everything properly located on the ties, and they aren't very visible. I used a file in the flangeways to keep the various pieces in line, and spiked one corner at a time. Some rails had to be shortened (I had made the small ones oversize) and I had to also carve away the ties to compensate for the brass sheet. A check gauge was used to space everything properly.

Finally, at the end of the night this is what I had. There are still some extra ties on each end and that will just have to be the way it is, because I hate the thought of buying more expensive LGB rail just for this. In looking it over, it isn't perfect and there is one rail that I am not really happy about. However, it works great and in the grand scheme of things I am pretty proud of this crossing. I had to do it all from scratch, and getting the 32 pieces of rail lined up took some thinking. I painted the base a nice brown color with oil paint so that it will be durable and provide a semi-professional appearance. I plan to wire it and the turnout up this weekend, and then I ballast it and call it finished.

Further Work on the Turnout
I noticed that when I ran a freight car truck through the frog it would make a noticeable clanking noise as the wheel left one of the rails, dropped into the gap (and started riding on the flange) and then bumped back onto the rail. Had I made the frog shorter (like on a #4 switch) this wouldn't occur. But, longer frogs can have this issue. So, I applied some white caulk to the three ends of the frog inside the guardrails and after it dried I filled it up with epoxy. Once that cured, I scraped out the caulk, used a knife to ramp up the edges of the epoxy (not that this really does anything), and it was done. Now, it just makes a faint clicking sound.