The Shelf Layouts Company, Custom Layout Builders and Designers
My hope for visitors to this site is that they take away something of benefit whether it be an insight, inspiration, or modeling tip. For my part, I was first exposed to model railroading by my parents around age eight. As with most kids that age, I went through every conceivable hobby with none being able to hold my interest more than a few months before something newer and even more interesting came along. I re-visited the hobby more seriously as a teenager only to drop it again as I focused on obtaining an engineering degree and getting established in the work force. The hobby finally took hold for good in my mid-thirties. As a pursuit model railroading has provided more enjoyment, creative expression, self-confidence and friendships than I'll ever be able to re-pay. When I'm not building models I enjoy following basketball and football (where I'm an unabashed fair weather fan), watching my favorite crime show dramas on television or DVD's, reading crime novels, and haphazardly following a physical fitness regime to stem the body decay that inevitably begins after age 40. I'm a full time custom layout builder by profession, details of which can be found on my business site www.shelflayouts.com.
Scratch Built Structures
An Assist From Technology
May 5, 2013
I've never gotten into the play value or gadget effect of technology. For whatever reason the phrase, "There's an app. for that" makes me cringe as it conjures up images of parents at their kid's sporting events totally immersed in their smart phone's apps., oblivious to the event they are supposedly there to watch. However, when you get into the combination of technology and tooling as it relates to doing a job more effectively you get my attention, especially when it comes to model building. Last week I bought a craft level die cutter to use for scratch building structures, particularly for my custom layout building business. You've probably seen larger versions of these behind the counter of sign shops. You feed thin material into the machine and your drawing directs the blade to perfectly cut the sheet.
The Black Cat Cougar is in the upper end of the spectrum of personal craft/die cutters. Such cutters come in a variety of sizes and costs. I thought for quite some time about whether to go for a simpler, less expensive version, but given the amount of use it would likely get at work I decided I'd better spend the money on something fairly rugged.
In my last blog I outlined how to correctly scale a prototype structure so that you can build a model of it. I frequently use the model railroad CAD program, 3rd PlanIt, for work. A nice feature of the program is that you can import photos. I knew that the prototype structure was 32 feet tall, or 4.4 inches in HO. I opened a CAD file and drew two horizontal parallel lines 4.4 inches apart. Next I imported the photo of the structure I'm modeling. Using the sizing handles, I sized the photo until it fit exactly between the two parallel lines meaning that the photo was now sized to 4.4 inches tall or a scale thirty two feet. Next, I simply traced the major features of the photo in CAD. When I was done I deleted the photo.
The next step was to import the CAD file into the software the machine uses for cutting.
Finally, I fed a sheet of .015" styrene sheet into the cutter, the end product of which is shown above. This gives me perfectly spaced, clean cuts. The warehouse model I'm working on is almost six and half feet long so doing this by hand would be tedious. It would also be very difficult to consistently get clean vertical and horizontal lines. Essentially I have a veneer at this point, which is the hard part. I can then laminate this onto a heftier core for strength.
Scratch Built Structures
Plan, Prioritize, Build
April 28, 2013
South elevation of Miami's massive and distinctive Gulf Atlantic Warehouse (ca. 2007)
Scratch building structures for your layout can be one of the most relaxing and satisfying aspects of the hobby. Not only do you end up with something entirely unique that is a perfect fit for your theme, the cost is much lower than using commercial kits. Often I think that modelers shy away from scratch building because they think it is much more difficult than kits. A more accurate view would be to say that it's different as opposed to being harder. You can read articles until you're blue in the face, the only way to really learn is to pick a simple project, jump in the pool, and get started. Through practice you learn where the subtle trouble spots are ahead of time and how to work around them on the next go around.
It's human nature to jump right into a project with the assumption that you'll figure things out as you go. To an extent that works but does put yourself in the position of painting yourself into a corner and having to do a lot of re-work to dig yourself out of the hole you created for yourself. A little advance thought and planning goes a long way. Assemble all of the materials you'll need ahead of time. Give specific thought to material thicknesses and how you will brace the structures. Make some rough sketches and perhaps a simple mock up to check proportions. I mentioned the learning curve we all must traverse. Most recently for me it was to give a lot more thought to structure rigidity and bracing before I start. This is particularly important with larger buildings.
Gain an understanding of what contributes to a successful result and what is less important. Coloring and weathering is critical. I've seen perfectly executed models that fell well short because the coloring was too brilliant and there was no weathering. Again, effective coloring will carry more visual impact than anything else. Next up is fit and alignment. The only way to get this down is through practice and patience. Skewed gutters, open seams, globs of glue, etc. detract from your results. Accept that early on you'll have these imperfections but they'll diminish the more you practice. Finally, it's critical that you stay on top of material cross sections and make sure they aren't overly thick. Window mullions and rails that are oversize are the number one deal killer for structures. Prototype accuracy is important to an extent but if your staircase has 10 stairs vs. the prototype's 12, nobody will notice.
Build it. Regardless of your end result, never get down on yourself (or too high). It is important to make mental notes of the landmines you stepped in so you can correct them for next time. If it's a real dog, make some notes, strip off the useable parts, photograph it, and pitch it. On my layout I feel no obligation to keep something I spent hours on if I'm in the mood to replace it with a better effort. I have a full trash can every month.
Getting Dimensions of Your Structure Prototype
In order to scratch build a model of a prototype structure, at some point you'll need at least rough dimensions. Some folks are pickier than others about this but you'll at least need to get in the ballpark. Over time, as you gain experience working with your structures, you'll gain a sense for standard dimensions which will allow you to guess fairly accurately. For example, you know most loading docks are four feet high and that ten and twelve foot doors are common. With practice you can look at a structure and know the door is a ten footer. I tend to rely more on scaling from photos than actually measuring with a tape. For one, I don't like the idea of trespassing on private property to get the dimensions and two tape measuring takes too long. When working from a good photo, all you need is ONE KNOWN dimension and you can scale everything else from that. I look for bricks, masonry block (8"x16"), and personnel doors (80" tall), for scale. Count bricks, count blocks, scale the door, that's all it takes.
Here's a side view of the Gulf Atlantic Warehouse I plan to model next. I didn't take any measurements because I knew the image itself contained enough information. The key is the brick panels. Simply by measuring like bricks on my home I know that the height of eighteen bricks is four feet, a very round and handy number. That's all I need. Again, I'm not going to get down to quarter inches here. A simple approach from here on out is to just print the picture, use your known four feet, make your own scale and get the rest of the measurements from that. There is some distortion in the photos so you need to use common sense. If you scale the height of a door at 11.8 feet, a reasonable assumption is that it's actually twelve feet. If the platform comes in at 3.8 feet, there is probably structure settling going on and I'd build the model at four feet.
If you know you're way around a photo editor, a faster and more accurate approach is to use the image pixel size as a guide. In the above photo my eighteen bricks ended up being 95 pixels tall. 95 pixels divided by four feet means that you have 23.5 pixels per foot. Using the rulers with your editor or other means, measure the pixels of a dimension and convert to feet.
Here's the final image with most of the key dimensions I'll need. I'm often asked how you convert to model dimensions. Here's how assuming we want to work in inches and working in HO. We'll use the height as an example. 32 feet x 12 inches per foot gives a total height of the structure of 384 inches. Divide that by 87 (384/ 87) gives us 4.4 inches. We want our HO scale model to be 4.4 inches tall.
All of this dimensional information aside, when building the model my primary focus will be neatness and matching the color and texture. It's critical that the door and window openings are razor sharp and perfectly square. The columns need to be perfectly vertical. In terms of color, note that the prototype is not pure white. After assembling the model out of styrene I'll paint it Rustoleum Textured paint (probably sandstone color) immediately followed by Rustoleum light gray. Next, I'll fog white primer over the gray just heavy enough that most, but not all of the gray is covered. Finally, the most critical step. Using a wide soft brush I'll apply a very dilute India ink wash (1 teaspoon per pint of alcohol) using downward strokes.
O.k., you've made it to the finish line unscathed. Assembly is crisp, no grossly oversize window frames or rails, and the color is correct. Don't shoot yourself in the foot just as you're about to finish. Don't add anything that will detract from the fine work you've done thus far. A key example is sign work. For gosh sakes don't undermine your efforts by doing something crazy like printing out a color saturated sign on ordinary bond paper, and slapping it onto the structure with white glue (to inevitably start peeling later). Remember no detail is better than a bad detail.
April 20, 2013
Preparing for ďThe DayĒ
Youíre 55, 60, or 65. Youíve wanted a layout your entire life and you spend hours fantasizing about Ďthe dayí. By that I mean the day when the kids are out of the nest, retirement final yields some free time, or the necessary space frees up. Fantasizing is one thing but what about effective preparation? With a little thought now, you can effectively prepare for the day you are ready for a layout (and have a lot of fun in the process). Before we get started letís think about what doesnít constitute effective preparation. Random spending on rolling stock and structures frequently ends up being dollars down the drain that doesnít move you in the direction youíll want to go.
I suggest developing some basic skills now. In addition, take a much more focused approach to equipment and tools you will, without question, need. Here are some simple suggestions that will not only provide you with some relaxing afternoons but also put you in a great position later. The Ďlayout on a plankí blogs would be a good platform to work with.
Practice basic electrical skills
Learn to solder simply by practicing on a scrap of flex track. Start by practicing making feeders soldered to the rail. All you need is 18 gauge hook up wire (All Electronics), a 40Watt soldering gun and .032Ē solder (Radio Shack) and Flux (Team Trinity part 5004). Next, practice tapping the feeder into a scrap of 14 gauge wire. You can buy the 14 gauge wire by the foot at The Home Depot and 14 to 18 tap connectors can be picked up Radio Shack. The point is to get used to making the solder flow and making good connections in the controlled environment of your work bench
Learn To Use DCC and program a locomotive
Put yourself in a position where you have two smooth running, fully operational and tuned, DCC locomotives. If youíre positive you will have a layout, it makes sense to get the basic system now and learn how to use it. Even four or five feet of test track is enough. With no disrespect to other systems, you canít go wrong with the NCE or CVP EasyDCC wireless. Setting up your DCC system is no harder than setting up a new television set. Hook it up to your test layout and begin experimenting with locomotive programming. You wonít blow anything up and if you really screw up the programming just do a reset. In terms of decoders I suggest the Soundtraxx Tsunami (great directions, high quality, very tunable). For starters I suggest having a professional install the decoders for you.
Practice Track laying
Pick up some Atlas or Micro Engineering flex track, joiners and a turnout or two. Practice laying straight track, curves, placing turnouts, and transitions to curves that are free of kinks. Youíll need some Xuron rail cutters and one small jewelers file to clean up any burrs. If you want roadbed I suggest Midwest brand cork, secured with adhesive caulk.
Practice laying ballast
You want even applications free of particles on top of the ties or sticking to the sides of the rail. The easiest way to get a successful application is work in several layers as opposed to trying to bringing it to full height in one shot. Life is much simpler if you use natural rock blends such as Smith and Sons or Arizona Rock and Mineral.
Start now on posts, signs, and sheds
Layouts have a voracious appetite for signs, utility poles and small sheds. Why not start assembling those now. These are small achievable projects that build assembly skills, donít take a lot of time, and can be easily stored without taking up much room.
Learn to use an airbrush
Paasche and Iwata are two excellent brands. You will also need a compressor. Start by practicing with dilute india ink washes as these clean up easily and then move on to paint. Youíll also need a high quality respirator to protect your lungs.
Practice Rolling Stock Weathering
Learn how various weathering mediums feel in your hand. These can be oils, enamels, acrylics, craft paint, ink washes, and chalks. Start now as it really does take LOTS of practice to get good results. I suggest picking up the cheapest freight cars you can find and work with those first. Begin with basic subdued looks before going on to the more complex weathered patterns. Grimy black or rail brown dusted with brown chalk or dusted with dark brown is a good starting point. Dullcote the car. Practice subdued washes (Diosol with a few drops of grimy black and roof brown) fogged onto the car. Read up and practice the techniques on The Rust Bucket Forum. When weathering, work hard at light layers and self restraint (easier said than done you'll find).
Puttering around with some of these ideas over the next several years will not only be fun for you but also give you an early ramp up on the learning curve for when you do have that layout. The basic skills needed to build a medium to large layout are really no different than those for a four square foot test layout. You just repeat the same steps more often.
April 16, 2013
New Photobucket Album
In an effort to find a more streamlined way of making my prototype photos available, I've established a Photobucket album. I'll try to add photos periodically as time permits. I doubt I'll be checking the comments section very often, if at all, so if you have specific questions about any given photo it's best to just email me directly. The album is organized in west to east format with the westernmost industries listed first.
The Two Types of Beginners
April 7, 2013
We have a tendency to try to lump folks into large, homogenous classes. In many cases this is totally innocent if not outright convenient. For example, Bill is a Ďretireeí or Bill is Ďfrom the west coastí, or Bill is Ďformer militaryí. You get the idea. However, outside of small talk and cases where generalizations suffice, they donít take you that far. Obviously the needs of individual retirees are quite different, not all folks from the west coast are the same etc.
The same applies to model railroading. One of the most common generalizations is to classify somebody as a beginner. Beginners are a major segment of the hobby and their welfare is important to the long the long term success of the hobby. Itís incumbent upon the more experienced modelers to nurture, support, and help them develop. By definition a beginner is somebody new to the hobby that is at the beginning of the learning curve in terms of assembly, painting, wiring, and scene composition skills. However, not all beginners have the same point of reference. I would break them into two very different groups. The largest, and the one most people think of when they hear the term beginner, is the casual recreationist. Not only are they just learning assembly skills they also have limited knowledge of the prototype and limited interest in acquiring such knowledge in the future. They are captivated by the romance of the rails and an eclectic mix of structures and rolling stock leaves them entirely satisfied. A layout with a coal mine, pier, and whatever cool product hits the hobby shop shelves gets them going and keeps them blissfully content. Because of the size of this group, and the amount of product they purchase, they are critical to the health of the hobby. The recreational beginner group is viewed as the all encompassing definition of Ďbeginnerí and tends to be well served by the press, hobby stores, and manufacturers.
Labeling is a slippery slope though and you can get you into trouble if you arenít aware of the shades of gray within any classification. There is a second, slightly smaller class of Ďbeginnerí that is much different than the standard definition. If you are a beginner, and reading this blog, you are likely in this second group. For lack of a better term Iíll call them the Ďprototype modeler beginnerí. Like their counterpart they have yet to learn the basic assembly skills of the hobby. Hereís the big difference though, they are extremely knowledgeable about the prototype. Running an Amtrak Acela and steam loco. in the same train would make them break out in hives. They want a model of an actual railroad. This leaves them in somewhat of a bind because they want a higher level of finish, donít have the skills yet to produce it, and arenít really served by the press or retail establishments. Itís a frustrating position to be in. Unlike the recreational beginner, the prototype beginner tends to be more self-conscious about their skill set, possibly because they spend more time around experienced modelers. This embarrassment is unfounded in reality because every experienced modeler was in the same boat at one time. They care about the hobby and want to help the newcomer along. They generally donít take a condescending or dismissive attitude towards those just starting out.
So, whatís the prototype beginner to do? How do you escape the frustration of wanting a decent looking model of a prototype railroad when you havenít yet acquired the skills to build it?
Track plan for the prototype beginner layout
The April 2013 issue of the Opsig newsletter, The Dispatcher's Office, has an article that would provide the basis for an excellent ďprototype beginnerĒ layout (Switching Dow Chemical by Dave Butts). Not only is it simple to build it offers fairly sophisticated operations. Iíll leave it to you to read the article's breakdown on operations. Hereís the track plan.
Pick up a pair of eight foot long, ten inch wide shelf planks and mount them on the wall. Paint the surface flat gray and lay Atlas code 83 directly on the wood surface. Power it initially with a standard DC power pack. Put your emphasis on basic neatness, progressing at a methodical pace and getting wheels turning very quickly. Once you are up and running you can expand from there with details, scenery, and DCC. Best of all you can say, "Finally, I have a layout!"
Ockham's Razor, Dead Frogs,
and the "Juicer"
March 24, 2013
William of Ockham (aka Wm. of Occam, Wm. of Hockham) was a fourteenth century friar generally credited with originating the K.I.S.S. principle. Interpretations of his philosophy are used as a starting point in science when comparing theories. The general guiding strategy among scientists being that, when faced with two possible scientific explanations for an event, more times than not the simplest is correct. Moving to model railroading, when trying to solve a mechanical problem, the cleanest and simplest solution is generally the ultimate answer. The further down the path we go of layer upon layer of Rube Goldberg devices and baling wire, the more likely we're heading in the wrong direction.
One of the key components of our hobby is the basic track turnout. It's a amazing the inventions that have arisen to solve the simple task of moving two strips of metal, the points, an eighth of inch one way or the other. Solutions vary from switch machines, oversize ground throws, to complex systems of rods, sleeves and wires. The question William of Ockham would ask if he were alive (and cared) would be this, "If you can simply flip the points with your fingers and they would stay in position (which they do) why would you not do that? Why add a machine to solve a problem that doesn't exist? If the points are loose, a simple shim under the throw bar will hold them in position. Spring loaded turnouts such as those by Micro Engineering and Peco are generally more than adequate for most situations. After painting, the points of Atlas and Walthers turnouts will generally stay in place simply by throwing them by hand. Taking this simple approach to throwing the points saves time, cost, and frustration.
In this DCC age, the frogs of turnouts are generally electrically isolated and unpowered, i.e. they are "dead frogs". Almost all locomotives are long enough, and have enough electrical pickups, that they pass right over the dead frog without so much as a hiccup. For this reason it's often gross overkill to power the frogs. That said, there are instances where powering the frog is necessary. Examples include shorter switchers, trackmobiles, critters, and the occasional "misbehaving" long loco. that stalls on the frog for some maddening, unknown reason. This rudimentary task of adding electricity to the one inch long piece of track, without shorting, often results in the model railroad axiom of "the most expensive and complicated" solution is the best. (Back in the day model railroaders hated William of Ockham. Legend has it that it was a model railroader that was responsible for his ultimate demise).
When it comes to powering these pesky frogs, fortunately saner minds have prevailed. Enter the brilliant, ingenious little device invented by Tam Valley called the "Frog Juicer". The juicer is a polarity sensing circuit board that powers the frog and does so without shorting when the points are thrown. The real genius, however, is its simplicity. Simply run ONE wire from the board to your frog and your problem is solved, you have power that also sense polarity changes to prevent shorting. Given that the vast majority of your frogs won't have stalling problems I wouldn't power them from the outset. If, after operating awhile, you have a few that have stalling problems just spend five minutes hooking up a frog juicer to it and it's "problem solved".
The beauty of the Tam Valley frog juicer is its simplicity. A single wire to the switch frog is all that's required to power it. This model has the capacity to power six switches. I've used two of the six terminals.
March 10, 2013
A southbound local passes bridge E8, south of Bloomington, IN on my old n scale layout. I devoted a full thirteen feet to this 'boring' scene. There were no industries, no turnouts, nothing but the field and stream modeled as they actually appeared.
Of all of the factors that contribute to realism, at the top of the list is scene composition. Scene composition refers to the size, shape, location and distance between elements we put on our layouts. It also refers to which elements we chose to place in a scene. Have you ever been riveted by a cleanly executed architectural model? Even if the model is all white or gray you are drawn in because it is perfectly composed. Such models drive home the impact of getting it right. If you don't get it right, it can be hard to compensate regardless of how well you perform the rest of your efforts.
Element Spacing - Crop, don't compress
At the top of the list is the spacing we place between elements. This is where modelers typically put themselves behind the eight ball right out of the box. Given our limited space, obviously there will have to be some compression. However, if you take compression too far and place your elements too close together, your scene suffers. Such overly compressed scenes are probably the single largest error model railroaders make. There are so many interesting things to include on our layouts it's only natural to try to include as many as possible. It takes self discipline and a leap of faith but, if you can accept the fact that you can't have it all, incorporate fewer elements, and space them further apart you'll be amply rewarded. A few things done well are much more powerful than a lot of things done not so well.
Pictured above is a typical agricultural scene found throughout the country. Diagram 1 shows the scene drawn to scale. Note the ample space between elements. Given our real world of limited modeling room, the natural tendency is to eliminate the open spaces between elements (diagram 2). The typical model railroad mindset is to preserve and incorporate all elements at any visual cost necessary. Unfortunately these open spaces are what defined the scene and we've just eliminated them. With the open spaces eliminated, the modeler then compresses everything into the space available. The results is a typical, overly compressed, model railroad scene and not a "model of a railroad".
If in fact realism is the key, if you do indeed want to have the real world in your basement, difficult choices need to be made. Cool stuff needs to be scratched from the docket. Realism is achieved by cropping away items you don't have room for and maintaining space between those that do remain. Crop, don't compress. You can't have it all, it's just a fact of modeling life. However, if you don't try to 'have it all', you'll ultimately be richly rewarded with doing justice to the items you do decide to incorporate.
Element Selection - Document, don't judge
Another aspect of scene composition centers around the elements we chose to place in our scenes. Are you a 'cherry picker' or a journalist? Do you pick and chose which elements to include based upon how interesting you think they are or do you document what is actually there without judgment? If realism is your goal, simply copying what is actually there is the ticket. It's also much easier. The moment we start having a beauty contest is the moment the scene starts looking like a typical model railroad. Model the mundane. Model what's there. There is also a hidden payoff here. In many cases, elements that at first glance you had written off as boring, upon closer examination turn out to be understated gems .
Diagram 1 illustrates a typical rail side scene. Some buildings are interesting, some not so much. A ragged field and empty lot are front and center. The houses aren't particularly dramatic, probably one or two story white clapboard with their backs facing the right of way. There is a rail side structure that, horror of horrors, doesn't receive rail service. In other words it's a typical scene. The modeling path is extremely simple. Just copy it, as it is, without judgment. Unfortunately, doing so make many modelers break out in hives. Anything that approaches the mundane is eliminated. Empty space is considered wasted space (figure 2). Boring elements and open space are eliminated. All industries must be served by rail. The Walthers catalog is pulled out and every nook and cranny is filled with caricatures. The end result again is a model railroad and not a "model of a railroad".
Slow down, take a breath, take in your surroundings and train yourself to appreciate the ordinary, understated beauty that comprises the ACTUAL rail scene we love so much.
February 25, 2013
(Photos and Modeling by Ron Griffin)
Scene composition and color treatment are the two largest contributors to realism. That said, basic neatness in your modeling efforts does play a significant role as well, and itís free. Because they are such visual focal points, extra care with structures particularly pays off. Ron Griffinís excellent modeling on this engine shed illustrates the point. Notice the clean tight joints at the corners, the invisible seams where parts meet and the perfectly plumb downspouts. There are no globs of glue or melted styrene oozing out. The door frames are flush and squarely aligned. You can accomplish a lot with respect to being neat simply be being aware of it. However, in some cases (such as Ron's structure) a degree of skill comes in, skill that is acquired through practice and repetition. Naturally, when you first start developing a skill your initial efforts wonít be as neat as they will be after youíve had some practice (or a lot of practice). Producing neatly executed structures like Ronís does take practice. Youíre not going to get those results on your first attempt. Iíve gone on record before in saying I think itís a tremendous mistake to put off model building until some Ďperfectí time in the future. Start now and begin to develop your skills. Smaller structures say four inches square or so are ideal platforms. Build and practice. Work at a careful but deliberate pace that still allows for progress. When done, make a mental note of things that worked and things you want to improve the next go around.
One practice that can prevent messy mistakes and disasters, and leads to a neatly executed final product, is to always apply your initial color and weathering attempts to a scrap or sample first. Donít just hit your recently completed model with a wonder mix and hope it works. Ron painted some scrap siding while working on his structure and then tested his ink wash techniques on the sample. Once he had the color and application method he liked he then moved on to the model.
The Aroma of East Rail
February 22, 2013
This is one of those Ďonly in Miamií stories likely conjured up by the fact that of all the human senses, smell is lodged most strongly in the memory. Last year, while rail fanning East Rail, there was an overpowering aroma of coffee in the air. Iím not talking about a gentle whiff, I mean truly overpowering. The smell wasnít like walking into the local Starbucks. It was much stronger and much more bitter. As I worked my way to the northeast end of the park, I found the source, Colonial Coffee Roasters (not rail served). Under that roof they were obviously really getting after it with some serious roasting as white smoke poured out of the exhaust vents and heavy winds blew it my direction. A quick Google search explains that they are a wholesale roaster and prefer orders in the hundred plus pound range. Nonetheless they do sell to the public via Island Breeze Coffee Company. Out of curiosity I ordered a bag of whole beans. I don't know how good it will be but I'm curious what 'East Rail' coffee tastes like.
Back side view of Colonial Coffee Roasters with one of the East Rail spurs in the foreground.
The Misguided Tourist
February 18, 2013
I always tell people if they want to do an effective marketing study, just find out what my interests are....and do the exact opposite. What I find interesting bores (or appalls) others and vice versa. Case in point, tourism. I really have very little interest in the traditional tourist destinations. On the flip side, I'm fascinated by towns and cities that most would make a concerted effort to avoid. I could spend days, if not weeks, in towns that will never be in a tourist brochure. I like to roll in, blend in, and take in the town. Last weekend brought me to Trenton, NJ to photograph a bridge for one of my commercial projects. I came in from the west via Morrisville, PA which sits on the west bank of the Delaware River across from Trenton. Ever hear of Morrisville? I thought it was pretty cool. You probably would to. Most others would disagree with us. It was colder than a step mother's kiss but I hit a time window between snow squalls with absolutely perfect lighting. Sun blazing to my back and winds howling at 30mph I got some great shots of the Trenton skyline and bridge. Trenton is the butt of a lot of jokes which is unfair. Just as with Gary, Indiana or Camden, NJ there is a lot of architecture and culture that shouldn't be dismissed.
Trenton, NJ skyline. Taken from the west shore of the Delaware River (Morrisville, PA) facing east. Perfect lighting.
The primary target of my foray, the 'Trenton Makes The World Takes" bridge.
Interesting industrial branch on the west bank of the Delaware/Morrisville, PA. A little further up the line there is street running. Rails were shiny. Northeast corridor on distant bridge.
A Safety Reminder
February 3, 2013
In the past several years I've had no less than four friends and relatives diagnosed with lung caner or similarly grave lung conditions. Most can not pinpoint the cause but none were smokers. This is a reminder to maintain a healthy respect for some of the materials we work with as a modeler and take proper safety precautions. At the top of the list is a respirator. No, a fabric dust mask is NOT a respirator. A decent respirator can be picked up at most hardware stores for around forty dollars. Most people are smart enough to understand you need protection when working with spray paints but other work procedures aren't so obvious. Always wear a high quality respirator when:
The Foundations of Realism
Scene Composition, Color Treatment, Plausibility & Material Selection
Frisco, Ft. Worth Sub-division modeling by Curt Baker. Photo by Dave Reed
When building a model railroad we can approach it in one of two ways depending on what we want to accomplish. One option is to create a model as we Ďwishedí the world was, a fantasy world if you will. I would say the majority of the hobby falls in this category and for them, realism isnít a critical goal and doesn't need to be.
The other approach is for those folks entranced by the way railroading actually is. They want a miniature version of a working railroad. They want to be transported. For this group realism IS critical. The more realistic their efforts, the more powerful the experience, and the more satisfied they are with their efforts.
If realism is the goal, the first step is to identify the critical elements that contribute to realism and their relative importance. This is where things get tricky and many modelers get off track. They put their efforts into areas that arenít major contributors, neglect those that are, and insert items that destroy an otherwise well done scene.
The four key elements contributing to realism in order of importance are: scene composition, plausibility, color treatment, and material selection. Detail and fine craftsmanship are important, and do contribute, but not as much as the big four. If you want to improve the realism of your layout, you need to train yourself so that when you look at a very well done, realistic model you understand why it succeeds. Several days ago modeler Curt Baker sent me this photo Dave Reed had taken of his Frisco layout. (It's always dangerous to send me stuff by the way). I was impressed by Curt's scene for several reasons. First, it's the perfect example of using the 'Big Four' to create excellent results. Also, there isn't anything Curt did that couldn't be copied by anybody. He just knew where to focus his efforts. The end result is what I call a "model of a railroad".
Let's break down why Curt's scene works:
Just as important is what Curt did not do. He didn't shoot himself in the foot by inserting what I call scene busters. No glossy figures in odd poses. No cheap vehicles. No overly thick, kinked attempts at power lines. No poorly modeled trees with lollipop armatures. No over the top backdrop. No overly thick mesh, crude chain link fencing.
By not having any one element being over the top, the scene as a whole is in fact extraordinary.
Now, THIS is Model Railroading!
THIS is Model Railroad Journalism!
January 24, 2014
Talk about timing. A day after my last blog, my January issue of Railroad Model Craftsman arrived featuring Steven Peck's layout. This is the way things should be; excellent modeling, exceptional scene composition, great photography and great writing. Steven writes, "Just what is it that drives us as model railroaders? I think it is the memory of the sound of a locomotive blowing for a grade crossing, or the sight of one thundering past. We each have our own personal history that pushes us to model something that no longer exists, something in our mind's eye that we long to see so much we will go great lengths to recreate it. Yes, we as modelers are given a very unique opportunity provided by our craft, preserving the history of the iron horse." He goes on to say, "I had seen other historic models but all of them had been done loosely - in other words leaving out crucial details or by using that model crushing technique called compression"
Steven Peck, January 2013 Railroad Model Craftsman
This is what I was talking about yesterday, an article that inspires you to grab your Xacto knife. And now for the mind blowing photos of his layout. Check this out: http://www.miniloco.com/lehigh
On the Outside Looking In
January 23, 2013
From time to time the various magazines will run a poll in an attempt to gain some insight into the state of the hobby and the current breakdown of the multitude of tribal sub-interest groups. Itís a good idea. The quality of the results, however, will only be as good as the questions that are asked and therein lies the challenge. Some of the important questions are easy: scale, years in the hobby, era of interest etc. Others, are not so apparent and hard to quantify.
At the top of my list would be finding some sort of measure of how deeply somebody wants to be immersed in the hobby. An immediate follow up would be where they feel they are now with respect to how deeply theyíd like to be involved. How do you even measure that? I donít know but I am sure the second part is pretty darn important in terms of where we need to focus our efforts with respect to recruiting, supporting, developing, and retaining newcomers.
Most of us have a number of interests. Some we participate in on a cursory level but enjoy nonetheless. Other hobbies we dig into more deeply and thus get a much richer level of satisfaction from them. Model railroading is no different. Some hobbyists participate at a modest level and enjoy doing so. Others totally immerse themselves in the hobby.
How deeply we delve into an area of interest doesnít matter if, and itís a big if, we are where we want to be. A big problem arises though if we have a longing to be deeply immersed in an activity, donít know how to go about doing so, and as a result feel shut out. We feel like we are on the outside looking in. Based solely on anecdotal evidence, and my gut, I have a sense that this is a major issue in model railroading. I canít shake the feeling that there exists a rather significant number of individuals that arenít involved in the hobby at all or to the extent theyíd like to be.
Does it matter? Yes, it matters. It matters to the individual that isnít able to access something that would be so fulfilling. They miss out on the therapeutic value of creating something by hand. It matters to the hobby because we suffer by not having these folks on our side of the fence.
Who are these Ďoutsidersí? Typically they are older, say age 40 and above. (Those on the younger side either have no problems jumping into the fray or are temporarily pre-occupied with school and early adult responsibilities). These Ďoutsidersí tend to be very bright. Even though they may not have built a single model, this group is extremely knowledgeable when it comes to prototype railroading. Their primary interest is in said prototypes. Professionally they tend to be very successful at whatever career theyíve chosen whether it be business ownership, medicine, law enforcement, military service, teaching, etc. They have an intense interest in railroading in general. Unlike the bulk of the hobby, they have no interest in a layout that is a generic Ďtoyí. They want a 'model of a railroad'.
Now letís be clear, a portion on the outside really arenít as serious about being involved in model railroading as they profess. Just as I enjoy the sport of surfing vicariously, they enjoy the hobby as casual observers. Thereís nothing wrong with that as long as youíre honest with yourself (the likelihood of me riding a forty foot wave on the north shore of Hawaii is pretty close to zero). Iím addressing those folks that are seriously frustrated about feeling locked out of something they really, truly want to be involved in.
If these outsiders are so interested in being more deeply immersed in the hobby, why arenít they? The reasons are an equal split between the hobby environment in general and the inertia theyíve created for themselves through inaccurate perceptions and poor time management.
Within the individualís control there are a number or reasons for this fix they find themselves in.
The other half of this conundrum has to do with the current hobby environment as a whole. Although the foundation for solving any problem lies with taking responsibility for how you got yourself into a particular situation in the first place, I donít put sole blame on the outsider. In the last one or two decades those on the inside havenít exactly rolled out the red carpet or handed over roadmaps as to how to join the club. The number of compelling reasons and inspirational examples for joining the hobby hasnít exactly been on pace with previous decades.
This group, the outsiders, want a 'model of a railroad'. They arenít motivated by the generic layout typified by a double track dog bone loop, sprinklings of monotone ground foam, un-modified Walthers structures, and general look alike model railroads they are seeing. They want a convincing miniature replica of railroading that can be built taking into account their available space, entry level skills, and time limitations. Of course that can be done, itís just that there isnít anybody out there explaining to them how to do it.
More than any other group the press drives our hobby. Like it or not, they assume the leadership role and as they go, so does the hobby. Unfortunately, the advent of the internet has thrown all print media, including the model railroad press, completely off balance and theyíve yet to find completely find their way. The problems the hobby press face are numerous, some self inflicted, many by shifts in technology and the business climate. The current magazine environment is one of covers emblazoned with ďHow ToĒ followed by whatever the trick of the month is. The problem is they never really tie them all together in a cohesive manner and show you how they relate so that you can build a Ďmodel of a railroadí. Dig deep articles on top tier layouts have become more rare than they were in the past. A wonderfully executed model railroad receives the same page count as an average layout, both of which fade to oblivion when the next ďhow to coverí hits the shelves, typically never to be seen again.
What is leadership in the press? Press leadership is one of going to whatever lengths necessary to root out inspiring model railroads and cover and highlight them in proportion to their quality. Itís showing how to Ďmodel a railroadí via a cohesive, month to month approach of explaining how various technique interrelate to and meld to create the overall effect. The Ďone hit, how toí articles still have their place but it should be a secondary, filler focus more of a side bar if you will, not the main thrust.
The most obvious example of the approach Iím talking about was Allan McCleallandís V&O. Lost in the fray was that McClellandís modeling was only half of the brilliance, the other half, was the way it was written about and presented to the public over a several year time frame. That article series transformed the hobby and for the most part is a formula that hasnít been repeated since. Yes, it was a large layout but the concepts applied to all. Allen and the writers made you want to run to your work bench and get to work and they showed you how to do it. They showed you how all the concepts fit together and related. In the past several decades weíve gotten away from that approach.
Personally, I feel the way out of the doldrums is to dust off this dig deep journalistic approach, bring it a back with changed emphasis on smaller, more attainable layouts skewed towards the modern era. Put the, one hit how to wonders in a supporting/filler role. Focus on a start to finish approach to modeling an inspiring, attainable, railroad laid out in simple achievable steps, and the reasoning why certain approaches are followed.
If the outsiders see something that motivates them consistently in print, feel they too can build it, and feel it fits their space and lifestyle theyíll start putting down their Androids and picking up track cutters.
Kicking off 2013
January 18, 2013
2013 kicks off with my annual trip to Florida. I started with my 6am flight to Miami to update my photo files. The first stop after getting the rental car is at the C.O.D. restaurant for refueling by way of a Cuban omelette sub and cup of Cuban coffee for a grand total of $5.75. As with Seattle, Miami is a city that knows how to keep people fed without them having to search too far for a suitable watering hole. Food is a point of civic pride. In Miami restaurants, Cuban cooks aren't inclined to take dictation from Americanos when it comes to ordering so the drill is that you just let them prepare what they are inclined to on that particular day. The end result is a mouth watering meal of massive proportions that you just can't stop eating long after you've passed the bursting point. After waddling out of C.O.D. like a gorged watermelon I shot East Rail and the Downtown Spur and then hit the road north for the prototype modeler's meet in Cocoa Beach.
The C.O.D. restaurant at the entrance of East Rail.
As far as the layout goes, I go into January with a rough area I want to have completed by the end of the year. This year I'll be working on the area around 12th Avenue and Trujillo and Sons, one of the more active shippers.
As far as the blog goes, my focus will be on approaches and techniques to improve model quality, especially for entry level modelers. In model railroading, great results are driven as much by color selection, material selection, and technique selection as they are by decades of experience. I've considered writing a book on the subject but that will be dependent upon how busy work is. Consumers are a fickle lot and it can be a real crap shoot selecting titles that sell enough copies to justify the tremendous time commitment of writing them. As far as the website goes, the website file size is becoming quite bloated so over the balance of the year I'll be deleting pages and entries that aren't visited as often.
No Problem! Part 2
January 8, 2013
I've gotten a few emails about how the "No skills" layout would be operated so here are a few ideas. For lack of a better term the lead to the right that curves down to the fascia is the "main". The term main would more likely mean the primary track through an industrial area as opposed to a class one main line for multi-unit, full blown freights. The arrangement with the main taking the diverging route through the turnout is not that common but does occur in the field. In terms of industries, keep in mind that many structures see a turnover in tenants over the years. A traditional brick structure may be a warehouse for awhile, then a plastics business, then a furniture business etc. The point being that within reason you could have the structure represent whatever industry you want. It's very common for industries to locate their internal storage tanks inside the structure itself. This is handy for us modelers because we can simply represent the tanks with a hose out front. Examples of internal holding tanks taking rail cars include: chemicals, paint, corn syrup, and vegetable oil to name a few.
This plain Jane structure could house any number of industries. At the present the tenant is a paint manufacturer. The paint chemicals are unloaded into tanks located inside the structure. If the paint business vacated the site a totally different, rail served business could move in. Note the hoses next to the wall for unloading. Solder, painted with gray primer, is good for representing the hoses.
In the 'No Skills' track plan above the industry is multi-spot meaning specific cars go to specific locations (or spots). Boxcars go to one set of doors, tank cars next to the unloading hoses etc. Cars can be 'double parked' on the parallel track with unloading via car to car bridge ramps. Sorting and re-shuffling cars can be done on the section of the main that curves down towards the fascia. Add a gravel drive near the entrance to one of the spurs and the location can double as team track unloading.
Keep in mind though that the point of the 'No Skills' layout is not to be an intellectual exercise. Its sole purpose is to mobilize folks to get something, anything up on the wall. That 'anything on the wall' would also look pretty decent if the modeler follows the techniques and uses the materials and colors outlined in the first installment.
Have A GREAT Layout by New Years
December 18, 2012
Many view me as a champion of small model railroads. Iím really not. Theyíre just a means to an end. What I am is a strong believer in is finding ways to get those not actively engaged in the hobby actually in the game. Small, easy to achieve, layouts are just the most practical way of doing so.
I am a steadfast believer in the increased quality of life that comes from creating something by hand. While buying Ďstuffí may give a short term high, much like a candy bar buzz, it quickly wears off leaving you where you started. The satisfaction that comes from creating something, however, is long lasting and therapeutic. For those that donít have layouts, you owe it to yourself to find a way to do so. Small, simple, it doesnít matter and is probably better for a first go around.
If most people acknowledge they would find having a small layout satisfying why donít they build one? The first issue is that they donít know how to go about it. Iíve addressed that at length in my books.
An equally large reason is that they donít think they have the skills and are somewhat embarrassed at the prospect of putting something up that doesnít measure up to their self imposed standards. Iím going to address the skill issue here. No skills? No problem. You can still have a decent looking layout and if you follow along could have one by the New Year.
How could that be? We all see the Ďmagic bulletí commercials on television that promise weight loss, instant riches etc. with no expenditure of effort. We also know its so much hogwash. What makes model railroading different?Model railroading is different because we can compensate for entry level skills by careful selection of materials and color. The big three in producing a great looking model railroad are: scene composition, color selection, and material selection.
Follow along and Iíll show you how to have a surprisingly sharp looking layout in a few weekends. As I go through this I want to emphasize that, since the ultimate appearance is driven by material and color selection, it is very important that you use the exact items I discuss. No substituting! No freelancing! Use the specific colors and materials I suggest. Letís get started. Hereís a step by step breakdown.
Design: For our basic plan let's stick with the tried and true shelf style industrial switching layout. Operation potential is secured by selecting an industry that requires multiple car spots.
Bench work: Pick up an eight foot long by ten inch wide pine board from the hardware store. Mount this on the wall shelf style.
Front trim strip: This is extremely important and will go a long ways towards getting buy in from your spouse. Pick up some floor molding and tack it to the front of the shelf with panel board nails. Paint the front trim strip a semi-gloss dark olive. Actually, do this even if you don't have a spouse.
Bench work surface: For this project we are going to skip any form of scenery surface. No foam base. No cork sub-roadbed. Paint the surface of the shelf your soil color. You want a very pale, muddy, light gray. If you can find it, Delta Ceramcoat ďMudstoneĒ is a good color. I believe AC Moore has it. If not, it should be easy to find something close.
Track: Micro engineering code 70 flex track and turnouts. Not Atlas, not Walthers, Micro Engineering. Paint the track Rustoleum Brown Camouflage paint. Most hardware stores carry it. Do NOT substitute other colors! After painting, lay the track directly on the painted wood shelf surface. There is no cork sub-roadbed. Secure it with a few drops of white glue spaced six inches apart.
Soil base: For now we wonít worry about ballast or soils.
Grass: For the grass and brush pick up Heki 1576 Pasture Green Wildgrass grass fiber. Again, No substituting of products or colors! Use this exact product. Donít even glue the grass down. Stretch it out, rip off patches and pat it loosely in place on the layout surface.
Structures: Pick up some of the Jefferson Street Radical flats from King Mill and place them along the back of the layout as your primary industry as well to serve as a backdrop.
Things to avoid: For now I suggest skipping a painted backdrop. If you feel compelled to do so, just paint an 18 inch tall pale blue band on the wall. No painted clouds, no painted trees, no painted hills. No photo murals.
All done! I think youíll be surprised how good this looks. At his point you can finally say that you ďhave a layoutĒ and a professional looking one at that. To say that it doesnít count because it doesnít meet some arbitrary square footage bench mark is the epitome of flawed thinking. It does count. The design also lends itself to fairly sophisticated operating sessions. After youíve been up and running awhile you can go back and start refining the project with ballast, soil, and details. If thereís enough interest, and a few people actually take this to heart Iíll follow up with a future blog. Time to put down that iPad, get off the chat forums and hit the hardware store!
Picking A Theme For Your Layout
Donít Sell Yourself Short
December 2, 2012
Although there is no right or wrong way to participate in model railroading, there is, without question, a measuring stick of how successful we are at it. Success is measured by how much enjoyment and satisfaction we get from our involvement. To that extent the guy with the Lionel set that is on cloud nine is highly successful, period. Success isnít measured by the quality of our assembly and painting skills, how often weíve been published, or how accurately we copy a given element in miniature. There is however the barometer of enjoyment and satisfaction that canít be ignored. Typically itís not so cut and dried though. A modeler may be somewhat content while, at the same time, have the subtle feeling that boredom is creeping in without really knowing why.
Having established there is no right or wrong way to pursue the hobby, if your enjoyment level is a six out of ten then why not explore ways to get it to an eight or nine, whatever path that takes?
This takes me to the point of the discussion, selecting the theme for your layout. Personally, I feel modelers limit themselves by being way too quick to settle on a totally generic, themeless model railroad. This approach is often driven by randomly accumulating whatever freight car or structure catches the eye on a particular day and then bending the layout to incorporate said purchases. This isnít so important on a first layout where the goal should be skills development. However, by the time youíre on layout two itís an important enough subject to give more than lip service to. The second factor that drives this malaise is a lack of self awareness as to what we find satisfying (or perhaps having the self awareness but not accepting it).
With three and a half decades in the hobby, my fly on the wall perspective is that those modelers that base their layouts on a specific place get more enjoyment and a deeper satisfaction out of the hobby. This isnít a prototype vs. freelance discussion. Note that I said theme Ďbasedí upon a place that they draw inspiration from. You can have a quasi freelance layout that is still tied closely to a specific town. Also I want to be crystal clear that I said Ďget more enjoyment and satisfactioní from the hobby. I didnít say they were superior, better modelers, or higher and mightier, just more content as a group.
A major part of the payoff comes from the fact that once you pick a specific place to model, you open up a second world totally separate from model building, the thrill of discovery associated with exploring and learning about the town(s) you are modeling. You get as much satisfaction from delving into the details and culture of the town as you do the modeling. Every month seems to unveil an Ďahaí moment of ďI didnít know that about town X, even if itís your own home towní.
Letís face it, model railroaderís are odd ducks in terms of what they find fascinating. They are blissfully content exploring the back roads of Livingston, MT, Altoona, PA, North Little Rock, AR or Compton, CA. Given the choice between Disneyworld or being trackside watching a Los Angeles Junction switcher working a ratty industry in our twisted minds weíd pick the LAJ trip every time.
That being the case, have the self awareness to recognize and acknowledge our fascination with these places that the tour buses deliberately avoid. Model a specific location and delve into it as deeply as your time and resources allow. Visit the town. Talk to the locals at the diner. Track down the employees that work or worked there. Go beyond the tracks and learn what makes the town tick. Continually re-visit. Immerse yourself and enjoy the thrill of discovery. The more you learn, the more fascinating the place becomes and the more satisfying it becomes having a miniature version of it in your basement.
How do you pick a location? First, you need to know what aspects of the hobby you enjoy most. If you enjoy switching operations, certainly you want a spot that has that activity. If your interest is more in tune with modeling scenes and less so on operations, factor that in. How much of the line still exists? The more that still exists, the more interesting in my view. Thatís why I enjoy modeling the modern era so much. The location has to be something that pushes your buttons, a place that produces an emotional response, regardless of what others think. Finally, given the limitations of space and time we all have itís unrealistic to think we can model much of even a mid-size town. Modeling a small portion of it well will hit the spot.
Not a month goes by where somebody doesnít email me a fascinating industrial park that I didnít even know existed. Sadly I know most of these deserving themes will never be modeled. At the same time every time we open a model railroad magazine thereís another generic layout, built by a modeler that is Ďpretty happyí. Maybe thatís you, youíre pretty happy, fairly satisfied. Donít you owe it to yourself to at least consider the possibility that there is another approach to the hobby that would make you even happier and more satisfied? Food for thought when your current layout has run its course and youíre faced with a clean piece of paper and ready to start anew.
Sidebar To Today's Blog. Site scout extraordinaire Rhett Graves brought to my attention the gem of what is North Little Rock, AR. North Little Rock? Who would've known? There it is though, street running, barges on the river, black and red Paducah rebuilds, the Little Rock skyline on the other side of the river. What a great theme. Brett writes:
From here, the line runs down the middle of Arkansas Avenue. Ken Ziegenbein's website has some ground-level pictures of a train switching this line and running down the middle of the street: http://www.trainweather.com/arkansas-midland-nlr022607-broadband.html (Note from Lane, the shots on Ken's site are mind blowing).
At the end of the line is what's left of the old Cotton Belt Yard in North Little Rock. The yard used to cover the open area in the middle of the photo below. Ash Grove Cement at the bottom is the major customer on this part of the line. In addition, the track swings right along side Brother Paul Dr. to form another team track (where the tank cars are spotted in the upper left).
This is an area that would fit your most recent blog post extremely well. Ash Grove Cement and the transloading facility would be the two industries with multiple spots that get switched every day. Between the team tracks, lumber yard and barge loading, you'd have enough extra spots to create some daily variety. These tracks are also used to store cars for Union Pacific at times (Ken's got pictures of reefers being stored), so there's lots of variety in rolling stock to boot!
Using Likely Op. Session Length
To Determine The Best Size for Your Layout
November 19, 2012
How much layout do you need to do accomplish what's important to you? I mean, realistically, how much model railroad do you REALLY need to be satisfied? Most newcomers, and many veterans, grossly over estimate their requirements and by doing so create a lot of unnecessary expense and angst for themselves. Certainly there are many factors that could go into determining how large of a layout you design for yourself. My hunch however is that, as a hobby, we are so petrified that our layout will be too small that we pursue the subject with blinders on. With no basis in reality, many begin the design process from the negative viewpoint that they donít have enough space. Every decision is based on the shoehorn strategy. How do I shoehorn in ďone more industry, one more turnoutĒ. This panic driven approach to layout design often results in model railroads that are too large for the individualís lifestyle and frequently never get built. In those cases where the layout does get built the owner may find they designed in far, far more operational capacity than they could ever hope to utilize. The visual result is a model railroad packed with overly compressed, unrealistic scenes.
Unlike the hobby as a whole, the majority of the followers of this website are interested in operations. Many are just starting, or are about to start, construction of their first layout. A fair number of folks have a generous amount of space available. (They may not realize it yet but they do.)
So, if your primary interest is operations and space is adequate, how much capacity do you design in? How many industries or car spots do you need to get the satisfaction you want from the layout? If you had a thousand square foot basement would you design a layout to use all of it? Of course not, youíd never be able to utilize that much capacity.
To start we need to know a few things: How often will we operate alone, how often will we operate with guests, and finally, how long do we want an operating session to last. Iím going to divide op. sessions into two types. The first is the full blown session with guests. Outside feedback continues to confirm that most guests start getting burned out at the three hour mark. Three hours (or a bit less) is generally the ideal session length when guests are over. However, this is the upper end of session length. The frequency of these sessions with guests should also be taken into account. Despite the best of intentions, for most people these full blown/guest operator sessions donít happen nearly as often as they initially thought, perhaps three or four times a year max.
By far the most common op. session scenario is the layout owner running by himself, or it least it should be. Donít fall into the trap of thinking that a session has to be the full three hour deal with guests vs. nothing at all. For planning purposes assume that when youíre running by yourself that you go for twenty minutes to an hour at most. Letís say you do this once or twice a week (ideally more).
At this point we know the lay of the land. If the maximum load on our layout is when we have guest operators over, we only need enough capacity for, at most, a three hour session.
Now we get to the design part. The key question is this, how much layout does it take to create a three operating hour session? How many industries, or to be more accurate, how many car spots do we need? This is where people get into trouble. It takes far less layout than you would think because the individual operational tasks take far longer than youíd think.
It takes about eight industries. Eight industries will give you a three hour session. Certainly there will be some variation in this number depending on the type of industry but this is a good starting point. It certainly isnít fifteen or twenty (or fifty).
If you have the space, it doesnít hurt to put in a few extra to allow for some variety from session to session. If you had a dozen industries that would give you enough cushion so each session wouldnít be identical. I donít view this as being critical though because in the real world there IS a fair amount of repetition from week to week. The larger, more active customers, are often switched every session. Remember also that the full blown, three hour session is the exception not the rule.
Of those eight industries Iíd shoot for:
This is just a guide though. A basic two track corn syrup facility could take two or three hours by itself to be switched (which by the way is the design solution if you don't room for eight industries).
If your design starts running to more than a dozen industries, you may be designing in and building in more capacity than you can utilize.
There may be other reasons beyond operational variety for having a larger layout but, you have to start asking yourself some very pointed questions as to what you are accomplishing with the extra capacity and square footage.
The diagram above shows the tasks from my last op. session. I had a guest over and it took about three hours. There were no tricks or complexities, the guest made no operational errors, and we worked at a realistic but relaxed pace. The work at the two scrap yards was about as simple as it gets, swapping loads for empties. Even so the first 55 minutes of the session were spent here. It took about 20 minutes to swap out a load for an empty at Trujillo and about 25 minutes working the two industries on the switchback (which required particularly slow speed running and the use of fusee's for the grade crossings). The rest of the time was spent on the remaining industries, running down the main, brake tests, and pausing to review the paperwork. Note that there were many industries that were NOT worked. The two scrap yards, Trujillo Foods, and Family & Son would be switched every session.
November 8, 2012
I've never been somebody that was that interested in tech gadgets just for their entertainment value. When the technology serves a useful purpose, and makes things simpler and more efficient than the non-tech version, then it catches my attention. Here are two things I'm working now.
Locomotive Speed Characteristics and the Sound of Notching
Here's something that doesn't make sense to me in this day and age. If you take any loco. out of the box, place it on the layout, and open up the throttle all the way, what is the scale top speed? It's astronomical. 200mph? 250mph? More? Why in the heck do they gear them that way? There are a lot of problems with this set up. First, novice (or careless) operators have a tendency to really crank open throttles, launching your prized engine like an F-15 off an aircraft carrier. Second, many of us operate in a speed range less than 20mph. This means just the slightest turn of a throttle knob gets us to 20 mph rendering the rest of the throttle range utterly useless. Thanks to the smart guys at the DCC firms they've come up with ingenious ways to compensate for this unrealistic speed range. With the simplest of key strokes you can instantly download what are called new "speed curves" . Your imagination is the only limit when it comes to how you dial in top speed, acceleration curves etc. A variety of standard curves can be programmed in essentially by saying via your dcc programmer "Give me curve six. Hmmm, too slow, give me curve 5". It's that simple.
As easy as this process is, it is simpler yet if you use DecoderPro run through a Sprog 2 (June 7th blog). DecoderPro gives you a nice visual with sliders. Just open DecoderPro in your laptop, go to the "speed table" tab, and start moving the sliders. When you get something that looks interesting just hit the key that says, "Write changes to loco." That's it. This week I've been experimenting with very flat curves that really knock all of the top end of the power range. See above photo. No matter how wide you crank the throttle, the engine isn't going to see the far side of 20mph. I'm still experimenting but it looks promising. You can also experiment with a variety of acceleration settings to further tweak things.
There is an unforeseen complication with getting into this lower speed range. Even under the best of circumstances, sound decoders tend to sound 'over throttled'. By that I mean the loco. runs through the notches way too fast in relation to its load and speed. It doesn't take much to find yourself with a switcher pulling two empty gons at 15mph and quickly hitting notch 8. You can alter a CV so that notching goes slower, which does help, but you still can't dial it back enough. Another option is what is called 'manual notching'. The loco. stays in notch one and doesn't rev. up until you manually hit a function key to click it to notch 2. As I played around with the manual notching I did find it pretty cool but my gut reaction is that its too much additional task work with everything else you have going on. It seems even more the case when you have to key backwards to notch back down. Oh well, it's all a work in progress.
Touch Screen Work Orders
If a 1950's era modeler were to hold an operating session, in an attempt to be prototypical, you'd commonly see perfect copies of actual switch list paperwork used during the session. The same concept applies to the modern era, you want to copy the prototypical method of doing things if practical. More and more you're seeing computer tablets in the locomotive cab. Up until now I'd never found a practical way of having my work orders resemble the computerized version you see on some railroads. I settled for taking the prototype format and printing it out on an Excel spreadsheet. Frankly this paper method did the job, was very simple, and worked well. Enter the iPad craze. I knew there must be a way to get the worksheet on the tablet. A switch list is just a railroad 'to do' list not much different than a shopping list. The trick was to find an app. that looked like the format a railroad would use. I also wanted the app. to have the touch screen effect of being able to tap the task and have it show as done. There are dozens, if not more, 'to do' list apps for the iPad. I settled on one called 'To Do List' from Avail Software (5 bucks). The format follows that of my Excel file, paper, work order. Industries that have work are listed in geographic order. Cars that need to be worked are listed with a 'pu' for those that have to be picked up and 'pl' for those that need to be spotted. What I particularly like is that when a car move is done and you hit the 'done' column the font associated with the task goes to gray. The iPad sits on a shelf on my fascia and as the op. session progresses you just tap the task to mark it as done. There's even a tab for notes that, when clicked, opens up a screen for more detailed instructions if necessary. In terms of efficiency the iPad and paper-on-clipboard are identical but the iPad seems more in tune with modern era railroading.
Why We Should Create In Miniature
October 18, 2012
I've always been curious about the psychology of model building. Why do we do it? What is the underlying compulsion that drives us to create in miniature? Yesterday I stumbled on an interesting perspective on the subject by author Martha Beck. Her article starts by addressing the subject of long term satisfaction versus euphoric highs but about half way in she zeroes in on how it applies to us. She writes:
telling me to "be here now" when I was about 20. "Great!" I responded. "How?" Be
still, they said. Breathe. Well, fine. I started dutifully practicing
meditation, by which I mean I tried to be still while compulsively planning my
next billion-watt wow. But one day, while reading up on the latest research in
positive psychology, I discovered a two-word instruction that reliably ushered
me onto the plains of peace when I couldn't force my brain to just "be still."
Here it is: Make something.
You can read the full article HERE.
Of course for this philosophy to work you actual do have make something. Surfing the net, chattering on forums, and shopping online doesn't count.
How to 'Play' With Trains
October 1, 2012
After reading yesterday's blog, professional railroader Barry S. contacted me with the following edits. This is coming from a guy that does this for a living.
1. Second diagram, the conductor has just cut
the engine off from the train and the light engine pulls ahead to the industry
turnout. Having just cut off from the train, the conductor would most likely be
on the rear of the engine so the engineer could pull the engine past the
industry turnout before stopping to let the conductor off to throw the switch.
Why stop before clearing the switch? If the engineer needed the conductor to
assist in getting the engine across the busy street the conductor would have
walked ahead of the engine when it stopped before crossing the busy street,
flagged the crossing, then mounted the rear of the engine after it had crossed
How to 'Play' With Trains
How to Use Your Layout and Use it Often
September 30, 2012
How do we Ďplayí with our layouts? Itís an important question because it ultimately determines how much we enjoy our railroad or whether we enjoy it all. Fewer people than youíd expect can answer the question accurately. The result is layouts that sit idle, never serving their intended purpose of providing recreation and relaxation. In many cases layouts are never built because the modeler doesnít feel he has the space for something that will be satisfying. In other situations layouts are so overbuilt in an attempt to ensure satisfaction that they suffer from overly dense scene composition, a toy like appearance, and un-necessary cost. How we plan to use and interact with our layout should be the first question we ask, and answer, when designing a layout. My guess is it is rarely asked or answered. If we donít know how we plan to operate our model railroad, or how long our typical operating session will be, how can come up with a design that satisfies us?
It's an important issue. If we can teach modelers how to interact with their layouts in a manner that is both fulfilling and easily attainable, the end result will be a more vital hobby as they learn to extract more satisfaction from them. This evolves into becoming more passionate about the hobby as a whole. It can also entice those outside of the hobby, or on the fringes, to jump in. Frankly, as things stand now there aren't many compelling arguments being communicated to entice people to dive into model railroading or delve in deeper than they are now. It's an issue of communication and marketing the hobby.
The key is to get people operating their layouts more frequently and in a way they find extremely interesting. I'm talking about frequent sessions that are easy to set up and can be run on a moment's notice, 15 to 45 minutes at a time, and doing so three, four, five times a week. Such mini sessions are a wind down after work, after the kids are in bed, whenever you need to relax type of thing. Most people can find that amount of time several times a week. The more frequently we operate, the more we stoke our interest level and the better the layout runs. Operating this frequently (even if it's only ten minutes) transforms the modeler from an observer of the hobby to an active participant. (Side note. Kids are much more interested in operations than model building. You'd be surprised to find how many of your kids and their friends would be interested in occasionally participating in these mini sessions from time to time).
When it comes to operating session length somewhere the notion crept into our culture that the sessions had to be several hours long and involve multiple operators. Not so. In theory it would be nice to have this capability on occasion. In the real world, however, even if our layouts could provide sessions this long, the reality is that most folks would only run such full blown sessions once or twice a year, if that. Sub-consciously modelers tell themselves that if they canít do the full three hour session then they just wonít run until they can. It never happens. Layouts sit idle and the owner begins to wonder why he built the darn thing in the first place.
There is a direct relationship between the desired length of our operating sessions and layout design. If we donít feel the design will provide enough operational interest or a long enough session, we compensate by adding more turnoutsÖ..and moreÖ..and more. Generally the problem isnít a lack of opportunity for operational interest but rather a lack of information. As we learn more about how the prototype does it, additional tasks and interest are added. The more we know, the more tasks we have to model, the longer and more interesting the session becomes. By default, the longer it takes to switch a given industry, the fewer industries and less track we need in our designs. This means smaller and simpler layouts are needed to entertain us and it opens up the door to a broader spectrum of people that can enter and actively engage in the hobby.
To be clear Iím strongly against artificially induced complexity to make a task longer. Such an approach is totally counter to the way a real railroad is run. Artificial complexity equates to frustration., not enjoyment. Rather, Iím suggesting that we avail ourselves of the knowledge of how a crew actually goes about their work, modify it as necessary for model railroad use, and copy the work in our sessions. Railroading is hard and often tedious work. Each individual has to make their own decision as to where to draw the line in terms of what adds to the experience and what detracts. One person may want to simulate the full ten minutes it takes for a brake test, another may represent it with a several minute pause.
Recently a reader emailed and asked a great question that Iím sure is on the minds of many. How do I fill those thirty minutes, he asked? What it all boils down to is this, how do I interact with the model railroad? How do I play with it? Great question. Let's take a look at a typical example of a simple but interesting and relaxing scenario. It could be run with just a minute or two of set up and easily provide thirty minutes or more of entertainment.
Pictured above is a rail served food producer typical of those found throughout the U.S. Track consists of a simple, single turnout. A bit of a wrinkle is thrown in by virtue of being hemmed in by two city streets, one of which has very high traffic volume. Rail traffic consists of incoming loads only, oil in tank cars (vegetable or olive oil) and boxcars probably containing rice. The oil tanks need to be placed adjacent to the unloading hoses and receiving tanks. The boxcars are spotted by freight doors. Looking at the picture above it appears the following happened: an incoming train arrived with two loads of oil and a boxcar. It couldn't spot the incoming cars because two oil tanks were still being unloaded at the receiving tanks so there was no room or the incoming cars. It would make no sense to take the incoming cars back to the yard so they were temporarily parked nearby (called 'offspot') until the two oil tankers were unloaded and could be pulled to create room. This situation makes for a simple and relaxing ops. 'mini session'. Here's how it might unfold. In other words, here is an example of how you can occupy yourself for a full thirty minutes on a moment's notice with very little track or equipment. The moves and tasks are simple, it's just that there are a lot of them. Follow along.
You've just arrived at the industry. Your task is to pull the two oil tanks that just finished unloading and put them in your train. In addition you need to take the three 'off spot' cars that were left earlier for placement and move them into position at the oil tank unloading hoses and appropriate freight car door. Pull your train up towards the busy street, stopping four or five car lengths shy of the crossing. You'll be cutting the engine off of the train and rules dictate you need to secure what will now be the engineless train left on the main. The conductor will dismount, walk to the train and secure the handbrakes on two or three of the cars. I model this hand brake operation with props (previous blog) but you could represent it with a pause. With the hand brakes secured the conductor gets on board the locomotive. Even with crossing gate protection it's common practice to stop the loco prior to the street and then lay on the horn before crossing. The point is you want to get out of the typical model railroad habit of screeching to a halt, uncoupling and then blasting onwards in the span of a few seconds.
The next task is to pull up to the industry switch and drop the conductor off at the switch. Once the conductor is on the ground the engine pulls forward to clear the switch. At this point the conductor needs to unlock the switch (a task which can be modeled as per a previous blog) and throw it. Rules dictate that after the switch is thrown the conductor must perform a visual to make sure the points did move across, a good idea on model railroads as well.
Back the engine up to the three off spot cars with the conductor calling out car length distance. Once coupled, the hand brakes must be released before you can move them.
Next, back down to couple onto the two empty oil tank cars. The hand brakes on the oil tankers must be released. Have the oil tank unloading hoses been un-hooked? Also, the 'three step' procedure must be employed while the conductor is between the cars lacing up the brake line air hoses. Last week a professional railroader contacted me and stated that since these cars had been 'sitting' an air test would have to be performed prior to pulling them. The test consists of pumping up the air line, applying a 20lb release, and making sure the brakes applied. Assuming they did, the brakes would be released. Even on a model railroad you should allow a few minutes for this. Take a break and refill your drink and make sure the kids are doing their homework.
Now, we need to get those two empty tankers back to the train. Pull forward to clear the switch. The conductor will throw the switch and then get on board the locomotive. Allow time for him to perform the logical walking path. He can't fly!
Back the entire cut back to your train. As get close to the cut the conductor will need to dismount and call out car length distances until the couple is made.
Next, let's put those three off spot cars in their final position. Pull forward and repeat the steps of dropping off the conductor so he can throw the switch.
The conductor will need to walk back to the position where the cars will be spotted so that he can radio distances to the engineer. Note that his move may be being done at night. Back the cut down to the oil unloading hoses. The conductor calls for three step protection before reaching between the cars. He'll secure the hand brakes on the tankers and prepare to uncouple.
The conductor will walk up to the door where the boxcar will be spotted and call out distance. Once in place it's three step again and setting the hand brake on the boxcar.
Pull forward to clear the switch. Throw the switch, lock it, and mount the locomotive.
Back the locomotive back towards the train. The conductor will dismount beforehand and call out distance to the couple. Three step and hook up the hoses. Remember that you tied hand brakes on the train so those need to be released. Even though we did a brief air test previously, we now have a 'new' train with 'new' cars in it. Perform another air test.
All done, off you go to the next industry. That should have taken you at least thirty minutes. The entire session should be performed at an efficient but measured pace with loco. speeds between four and ten miles per hour. Try to avoid the habit of having your crew on one end of the layout and flipping your turnout toggles a scale 1000 feet from where the crew would be. If you don't get the entire move done before you need to stop the session just kill the layout power walk away. There is nothing that says you have to finish it. Car spotting scenarios such as this are quick to set up and easy to run several times per week. Getting in the habit of this will keep the rails shiny and you engaged in the hobby.
A One Turnout Layout
September 17, 2012
A layout with only one turnout? One that offers diverse, hour long operating sessions without Ďmake workí complexity? A layout that could be built in two weekends and then morph into something that provides several years worth of craftsman projects? A gimmick? Absolutely not. It's all a matter of selecting the right theme, understanding prototype operations, and understanding the fact that car spots, not turnouts drive a layout's operating potential. The plan below is an almost full scale rendition of a bakery in Miami serviced by the FEC. Depending on the day, you'll see two to five boxcars, two to four vegetable oil tank cars, and a grain hopper spotted at the plant.
The layout lends itself to numerous twenty to sixty minute solo operating sessions, perhaps several times per week as a means of winding down after a long day. On a complex day of operations, a session would likely stretch longer than an hour. An hour not long enough or sophisticated enough for you? My guess is that 90% of model railroaders don't operate an hour a YEAR so let's be put things in perspective. Thirty to sixty minutes a night several nights a week would be very rewarding. Although I haven't seen them work this plant I'd imagine an inbound train of loads would first pull the entire cut of cars currently spotted, empty or not, and then put them on the sorting track. At that point a protracted series of push/pull moves to 'sort the deck' would be employed to re-spot everything. The fact that the crew would have to keep the surrounding streets clear adds another twist. (Note that all railcars are incoming loads/outgoing empties. Outbound product leaves via truck). Things are probably tricky most days in that when an inbound train of loads arrives some of the cars are empty and need to be pulled and some are still being unloaded. This means spotted cars that haven't been unload yet will need to be pulled and re-spotted. I would imagine if they run out of space for incoming loads that they are temporarily placed 'off spot' on the sorting track until room clears up. Although I doubt it would be necessary, if you want more diversity you could always backdate and activate some of the abandoned track.
If it were me I would approach construction this way. The first weekend paint the drywall behind the layout sky blue and get the shelf brackets up. The next weekend, mount the hollow core doors and glue 1inch thick extruded foam on top of them. After that, tack down some temporary Atlas code 83 track, hook up a power pack or DCC system, lay down 3x5 cards for the car spots, and start operating. The cost at this point would be minimal. Once up and running you could then go back and embark on a full blown, all out detail assault picking projects as the mood strikes you. The beauty of a layout such is this is that it lends itself to a very focused effort without feeling overwhelmed by the pressure of completing fast swaths of real estate. Gradually replace the Atlas track with Micro Engineering a few feet at a time. Scratch build the structures. Super detail your rolling stock. Don't laugh, it's a way to have a total blast, a 'grown up' layout, and at virtually no cost. These simple layouts serve the broadest spectrum of modelers from entry level to those with decades of experience looking for a highly focused detail effort that will provide ongoing ops. while construction is taking place.
The long leg of the "L" is composed of two, 18 inch wide by 80 inch long hollow core door blanks for a total length of 160 inches. The short leg is a single 18 inch by 80 inch door blank. You could use narrower doors if you chose to. Less common, narrower widths can be custom ordered from Lowes at nominal cost if you're willing to wait a few weeks for delivery. An incoming train would likely start by pulling the entire cut of spotted cars first. That being the case, you need enough track below the turnout to hold the length of the cut plus the length of your incoming train.
Two aerial views facing due South.
Left photo: Vegetable oil tanks. Right photo: Boxcar spots. Note the locked gate which should be modeled.
September 11, 2012
In talking about switching operations with my friends that are professional railroaders, one recurring topic that keeps coming up is the importance of setting hand brakes. When a locomotive cuts away from its train to handle a switching move, the hand brakes on one or more cars on the now engineless train need to be set. Wouldn't there still be enough pressure in the line to hold the cut I asked? Maybe, they responded, the rules are that you set the hand brakes regardless. When spotting a car or cut of cars at an industry the hand brakes on the car(s) must be secured before leaving. Obviously when pulling cars from an industry the brakes need to be released first.
Here's a video showing a conductor securing the hand brakes on a car.
This hand brake operation is easily modeled in a variety of ways and should be given it's importance and the fact that it occurs with almost every move. The simplest way is to just make a mental note of the task and pause briefly as you operate. You could download the above video to an iPod or iPad and watch the video at the time the braking operation should be performed. Another option is to use valve stems to represent brake wheels as per the photo below.
Family and Son typically has two spots, one for oil tank cars and another for a box car. I use three valve stems to model the operation for setting the hand brakes. One stem/brake wheel is for the train the other two for the respective spots. When a train pulls up I spin the stem representing setting a hand brake on the train. If I were pulling a car from spot 1, I would spin the spot 1 valve stem representing releasing the brake on that car.
September 9, 2012
For some time I've been trying to come up with a way to simulate brake tests above and beyond just "waiting a bit". I wanted some form of interactive device that wasn't too gimmicky. Enter the iPad and a free app called Timer +. Timer + allows you to input an infinite number of tasks and set the time to do them down to the second. I talked to my friend, and professional railroader Barry K., for a refresher on the tests, the two most likely to be used in my setting being a Class 3 application and release test and the slightly more involved transfer train test. The next decision was how to modify this for model railroad use. Do I use the actual times for each task in the test or speed it up? It comes down to individual preference but for now I decided to speed things up a bit.
The most common test is an application and release test, to be performed whenever a new car is cut into a train. The conductor puts a gauge in the air hose of the last car and asks to the engineer to pump the train line air above 75 pounds. When the line is charged, the conductor radios the engineer and requests a 20lb reduction (set the brakes). The conductor then checks the shoes on the last car of the train to make sure they've applied. If so, he radios the engineer to release the brakes and the conductor verifies that the brakes on the last car have released. This concludes a successful test at which point the conductor walks back to the cab of the loco. Keep in mind that even with a short, ten car train, the basic act of walking back to the locomotive will take time. You don't just say "test done and fly on to the next industry".
A transfer test is similar and would typically be performed in a situation where the train is at the end of a branch and the loco. runs around the train on the siding in preparation for heading back to the yard. The test would be the same as a Class 3 test with the exception that EVERY brake on one side of the train is checked to make sure it has applied. Instead of the small hand held gauge an EOT device (which among other things has a gauge on it) would be placed on the last car in preparation for the trip home which also adds time. An actual transfer train test for a ten car train would likely take fifteen to twenty minutes, longer than I would probably chose to model.
I simply input these tasks in Timer + and somewhat arbitrarily set a time for them proportionate to the time they would take in the field. For each task of the test I hit start and when the time runs out a buzzer goes off. I then start the timer for the next task.
Rounding Out The Year
September 1, 2012
My goal for the year was to complete all of the scenery and structures on the layout between 22nd Avenue and 27th Avenue. It was an achievable plan that allowed me to take my time and yet still have something of substance to look at when complete. So far, so good as that swath of real estate has been completed. I'll spend the balance of the year upgrading my rolling stock. When you are trying to get a layout launched and running you don't necessarily want to get bogged down spending several weeks detailing a single freight car. That being the case I bought enough cars to have full and varied op. sessions, gave them some light and cursory weathering and put them in service. At this point I want to go back and start replacing individual pieces with more carefully weathered ones. The challenge of the modern era is the unique weathering patterns and the preponderance of difficult to model graffiti. With the aid of the folks on The Rustbucket Forum I'll be spending the rest of the year trying to get a handful of more detailed and weathered freight cars done.
Having a layout at this stage of completion (mechanically complete, 60% of scenery and structures in) is a nice feeling as you have enough done to be able to operate through decent scenery and yet enough projects ahead to keep you motivated.
Only In Miami!
August 30, 2012
The pictures say it all. Need I say more? Only in Miami!
Walthers Crossing Flashers Upgrade
July 7, 2012
Cantilever crossing signals are such a common feature of the modern rail scene that they are likely to be needed on any layout based in the present era. At the current time the only model of these signals is the Walthers product. Although not terrible, there was always something that seemed a bit off with the Walthers model. I couldn't quite place my finger on it. My original thought was the mast diameter was too large and the signal faces way off. Not the case. The prototype mast is quite large. The Walthers signal faces aren't perfect but aren't bad either. Looking closely at the model and comparing it to the prototype photos, the culprit is the walkway (specifically the handrails) on the Walthers model. It is really distracting, not located correctly, and too tall. This isn't too hard to fix. The cantilever is also too short but given that the mag wire is embedded in the model you really can't do much hacking to correct this issue.
I decided to play around with the model to see what could be done. Going in the one thing I didn't want was a major project. I had no desire for rivet by rivet perfection. Instead I just wanted to see if I could make it look better to the casual observer with a few hours work.
Here's the Walthers starting point. I've highlighted the offending walkway and handrails.
I began by stripping all of the walkways and handrails off. Next a Kadee boxcar roof walk was installed. The prototype has X bracing which was easily modeled with .020" wire. One face of the original handrails was then trimmed off and placed behind the walkway and signal faces. A BLMA ladder was run up the mast. The entire structure was airbrushed with Model Master light gray to represent oxidized metal. I may experiment with the Alclad metalizer line at future locations. The signal faces were painted grimy black. Original crossbucks were replaced by thinner ones from Tichy. That's it. All and all about three hours work for one mast.
Here's another angle. (Yes, I did find out after I shot these photos that the Xbuck is upside down :( It's been fixed.)
Crossing Flashers Explained
July 3, 2012
I've never understood crossing flasher behavior in industrial settings. Regardless of location when a train approaches a crossing at speed, industrial or main line, the behavior is simple enough. A predetermined time/distance away the lights activate and the gates drop. After the train passes a few moments later everything resets to normal. Not so during industrial switching. I've seen numerous occasion where the train is a few feet from a busy intersection and the lights are off and gates are up. As soon as the train crawls a few feet the circuit activates, the lights flash and then the gates do drop. I never understood how this happened. Did the crew have a switch to turn things on and off?
To the rescue comes Paul S., a professional signal maintainer by trade, who was gracious enough to explain it all. He writes:
Hello Lance, I just viewed the video you 'd linked to of the Downtown Spur Switcher. LINK HERE. The crossing activation system was functioning as intended. This crossing is equipped with either a predictor or a motion detector for activation. A predictor activates a crossing when a train is a pre-set time from the island -- that's the part of the crossing that intersects with the street. FRA minimum warning time is 20 seconds. We typically use 30 seconds on the (deleted). Regardless of a train's speed, up to the timetable maximum mph (which determines another parameter we input into the predictor's CPU), the predictor will always activate the crossing when the train is 30 seconds outside the island. However, if a train stops in the crossing approach outside the island, as the Downtown Spur switcher did while the switch was being lined from main to the spur, the crossing will recover after a pre-set interval as shown in the video. After this recovery, however, the predictor switches to motion-detect mode. As soon as it senses "motion" the predictor re-activates the crossing immediately. Whenever a locomotive or railcar is occupying the island, the crossing will always activate. The island is a separate circuit of the crossing. "Positive island ring" is an FRA requirement.A motion-detector is basically a complicated on-off switch that activates the crossing regardless of a train's speed. Once the train is in the approach and the MD senses its presence, the crossing activates. Usually MDs are used today only where speeds are slower and approaches shorter, such as on a branch. If a train stops in the approach to the island, the MD also recovers, and then reactivates upon a decrease in AC voltage on the rails.I'm a signal electronics technician for (deleted)
Entering The Main
June 25, 2012
I love the YouTube age we live in. Videos reveal information you simply don't get from still photos. Case in point being Tolga E.'s recent clip showing the local exiting the Downtown Spur and entering the main. Click the thumb above and watch from the 1:00 mark to the 5:00 mark. I had always assumed this switch was automatically thrown from a distant location, perhaps as far away as Jacksonville. Apparently not. As you watch the clip you'll see the local creep right up to the switch and stop. Somehow the crossing gates are de-activated. You'll then see the conductor walk up to the switch and unlock it. The train pulls onto the main, clears the switch, and stops. The conductor then puts the switch back to the main, locks it, and then walks all of the way back to the train. Take note of how much time this simple act of entering the main takes and how much walking is involved. The actual sequence is easily copied and adds lots of play value to a model op. session.
The left photo shows the location of the video and the camera location. The right photo is a ground level close up of the switch throw.
Simplifying Decoder Programming
Sprog 2 and DecoderPro
June 7, 2012
Sound decoders are becoming more and more capable with each new generation. The ability to fine tune a locomotive to our specific needs becomes more and amazing. In addition, the performance changes are becoming impressive enough that such fine tuning is now worth doing. Want to be able to rev up the loco's prime mover before the wheels turn? Itís simple enough with a few setting changes (aka CV changes). Want to alter the entire speed curve? Simple. The possibilities are almost limitless and I think we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg. However, with added capability comes more and more things to keep track of, more things to manage and remember.
We need a way to manage this new world in such a way that we donít become overwhelmed. There are a few problems. First, if you really start tweaking your settings how do you keep track of them all? Ever come back to the layout after a month of downtime and have no clue what you set things to? I have. Have you ever lost your index card with all of an engines settings on it? I have. My old system of writing CV settings on post it notes and paper scraps is Neanderthal to say the least. The second problem is retrieving and verifying the values you previously programmed in. The programming tracks of many DCC systems just donít have enough internal power to read back to you what you programmed in. As a result, it can be very hard to retrieve the values of your settings. Sure, there are programming track boosters but my experience with them has been luke warm at best.
Enter a small device called the ďSprogĒ and a free software program called DecoderPro. The combination of the two resulting in the epitome of simplicity. You simply lay a small piece of flex track on your computer desk, plug it into the Sprog, plug your Sprog into your computer's usb port, and all of your decoder settings magically appear in an organized fashion right on your screen. Want to re-map the function keys of your throttle? Simple enough by clicking a few check marks. Want to remember how you set your speed curve? Just open the screen. Programming is just a few clicks of your mouse.
The Sprog itself is only about the size of a pack of gum. DecoderPro is freeware available online however when you buy the Sprog the software comes with it on a CD. (For HO use you want the Sprog 2 not the Sprog 3 which is for larger scales.) I purchased mine from DCC Train in Ohio and promptly received it in two days. The only question I ask myself is why on earth did I wait so long to buy something that makes life so much easier? As always it was fear of the unknown. The utterly laughable fear that it would add complexity. Laughable because it does the opposite, it simplifies your life immensely. Sprog is not a gadget looking for a job. It is what technology should be, a tool that improves and simplifies a previously arduous task.
Here's a screen shot of DecoderPro's Function mapping tab. Want to change which throttle keys control which functions? Just change the check marks and hit "write".
Port of Palm Beach
Guest Blog By Xavier L.
June 3, 2012
Several months ago, Xavier L., a friend of mine from Belgium, contacted me about our mutual interest in the Port of Palm Beach Railroad. Xavier was planning a trip to the US, hoped to pay a visit to the port, and wanted to know the lay of the land. I told him, that the news was not good. Although the railroad employees are as nice as you'll find anywhere, security at the port rivaled that of a fortress. It is totally walled off making it impossible to get in. His only hope was to make contact with the port administration and see if he could make arrangements for a supervised visit. It was a long shot. Talk about having the rail fan gods smile on you. Xavier puts the call in and, through an incredible stroke of luck, it turns out the contact person grew up in Belgium also living not four miles from Xavier's home. Long story short, he scores a seven hour visit on the rail grounds including a three hour cab ride on the port locomotive. I'm green with envy. Xavier was kind enough to pass on his notes from the trip. He writes:
Typically, the day begins with the FEC dropping some cars at the interchange. This time : 29 cars (containers and trailers on flat)
I was there seeing the FEC engines coupling back at the train and leaving heading south !!!
In the meantime ( I guess from 8:00 AM ), the crew is making the engine ready ( when I was there, there pumping Motor Oil in the engine )
They know exactly how many cars are dropped ! The switching moves were already planned.
The POPB has very few tracks so the 29 cars will take almost everything the tracks allow. Tropical shipping will handle the cargo.
But for now, I'm in the engine with the guys and we're heading out of the shade (engines are always parked under the Broadway Highway - less for the shade but for avoiding having water from heavy rains going
inside the exhaust )
As soon the engine is moving rings the bell.
Even inside the Port, the engine stops at the crossing and the switchman will protect it before the engine goes further.
Running trough the yard, the engineer explains me the tank cars on the left ( south track looking on Google maps ) is a storage track for empty ethanol tank cars ( see pictures ).
Then, nice feature, the engine stops at the gate. The Engineer ( Tony ) called the security of the Port.
A lady came along (with a golf cart - a lot are riding in the port ) and she opened the gates. People from the Rail operations are not allowed to "Unsecure" the entrance of the port.
After getting the gates open, we're running again along the FEC tracks until we're reaching the interchange.
At the first end of the cut. Tony stops the Loc. The switchman ( Dany ) is putting a closed valve for closing the air line.
The engine is now running along the cut of cars left by the FEC.
Dany, on this moment, is sitting on the front platform having a check as we roll by. Making sure cars numbers are accordingly matching the switch list.
Then, we're at the last switch. Again, slowing for a stop. Switch is aligned and the engine is now crawling. Approaching the cars, engine is stopping.
Davy steps out and walk to the cars.
Making the coupler ready.
Engine is approaching ( step 2 on your DCC trottle ) and couple on the train.
Dany makes all the connections in the Air line and secure the coupler.
Now, the bad side of the switchman job. Walking the 29 cars back.
In the meantime, Tony showed me how they plan to put all the cars in the Port. 4 cars on track 2, 6 cars on track 3, etc etc ...
The radio is screaming. Dany is at the end of the train.
Air test : the locomotive has already pump the AIr in the line so the value on the Dashboard in the locomotive has to match with the reading in the valve at the end of the train.
It takes some time and that's what it makes the thing nice ! YOU're expecting the same value and even if you know they will match, okay ... you never know !
But everything is okay and it's time to head back to the Port.
The engine is screaming and slowly, the train is moving. Pushing the cars (even on a flat terrain ) is not that easy ( I was thinking at the old engine - build in 1942 - see picture )
But the new (second hand ) GP38-2 manage to get the train on his pace ( DCC trottle at 6 or 7 max !! )
It takes a lot of time (but a lot of fun) to arrive at the gates and seeing the train curving heading in the Yard.
Of course, Dany is sitting on the last (now the first) car and in radio contact ready for warning any issue who could occur !!
When back in the Port, the security ( not far ) is once again contacted ( the engineer has two radios in the loc : one for his crew and one for the security ) and close the gates after our arrival (even with 29 cars, there is no need
to get out of the Port for switching the cars.
This last part of the job takes some time !!! Cutting the cars and moving on and back is like a choreography ! The radios are the most useful tool for getting the job quickly and safely done. And a golf cart for Dany ( getting quickly on the right spot )
As soon as the first cars are in the Port, the side loaders from Tropical are getting at work ( see pictures ). Unloading the train is high priority. It's about 11 in the morning and the train has to be unloaded, then loaded again. At 4:00 PM, the POPB engine will put back the cars in a train and taking it out of the Port for the FEC. Normally, the FEC will pick up the cars around 6:00 PM ( 5 days a week )
All photos above by Xavier L.
The Incredible Expanding Layout
June 2, 2012
Almost overnight I feel as though my layout has doubled in size, all of this without adding a single turnout or section of track. Itís becoming apparent that I probably have a lot more model railroad than I actually need to keep me entertained. What happened? In the past year Iíve learned an enormous amount about how the prototype crews actually go about their job, the speed with which they do it, and the tasks that are necessary. To the extent that itís practical, Iíve tried to represent as many of these tasks as possible in model form simply because I find doing so to be enjoyable. The end result is it takes me a lot more time to spot a car now than it did last year when I knew less.
Letís say that the most common style of operation is a solo session running roughly sixty to ninety minutes. The way most model operators prefer to run is what I call the car movement checklist. By that I mean the operator runs at a moderately slow pace and the only objective is to place a car in the proper location and check the task off as Ďdoneí. It becomes an exercise in Ďfinishing the listí and the better you get at it, the more items you can get done in a given time span. Many modelers find replicating most of the operational tasks of the prototypical switching crew as boring and therefore they skip them. No harm in that as the goal of a session is to do it in a way that the owner finds most enjoyable. That said, operating under this style you can spot an enormous number of cars and work a LOT of industries. It takes a lot of layout, track, and industries to fill up those sixty to ninety minutes.
However, the flip side also applies and that is what happened in my case. If you enjoy representing all of the tasks a switch crew performs, it will take you MUCH longer to spot your cars. The end result is it takes a lot less track and a lot less layout to keep you entertained for those sixty to ninety minutes. A year ago, I would have switched four or five industries during an hour long solo session. Now, I only get two done. Unlocking gates, unlocking turnouts, setting up fusees, stopping at crossings, setting hand brakes, and air tests, all add major amounts of time to the task of placing a car.
Should you model all operational tasks in detail? It would be easy to come across as self righteous and say this approach is best. It may not be in your situation. Itís only the best if that approach increases your enjoyment of the hobby. If you find it boring, it would be crazy to go to that level of detail simply because somebody stated it was the Ďrightí way to operate.
Since layout size and complexity (turnout and industry count) is such a major planning decision, you owe it to yourself to make a totally informed decision as to what is involved with each approach and which is most satisfying for you. Take the time to educate yourself and run a session or two where all of the prototype tasks are represented. One of the fastest ways to do this is to find a professional railroader to come over and operate with you. With a little searching youíll discover that finding such a person is much easier than you would think. Read books on prototype switching operations. Watch switching videos on YouTube. If after a few sessions you find such a detailed operating style is flat out dull, then back off and gradually eliminate prototype tasks until you get the pace you find the most enjoyable.
Just remember though, the more detailed the operational style, the less layout it takes to fill a given amount of time. If you enjoy detailed operations, at the earliest planning stages you need to come to grips with how long you want your operating sessions to last. If you're like most people and generally run solo for an hour or so, you might really want to rethink designing that twenty industry switching layout. You'll never be able to utilize its full capacity. Conversely, the more you move towards the Ďcar moverí style of operations, the more model railroad it will take to entertain you.
Another psychological aspect that factors in is sound. Itís purely anecdotal, but my experience has been that the higher the quality of the sound system, the slower people tend to operate. Iíve noticed Iím running at an even slower pace since implementing my headphone sound system.
Here's a few links tied to this subject:
Modeling When You Have No Free Time
May 26, 2012
Weíve all been there, or are there now. You look at your kidís school and sports schedule, your work schedule, family obligations, and yard work and realize the amount of free time available for modeling is measured in minutes not hours. Itís not just the absence of free time, such time periods in ones life also leave you with little mental energy when a few spare minutes do show up. After a long week of work and hours spent commuting, even if you have the time you may not be able to bring the level of focus required to effectively put a model together. During such periods itís not unusual for the layout and modeling to go completely dormant for months.
Itís a common life situation and one that can be dealt with without falling into a funk or becoming frustrated. The problem is as much organizational and psychological as it is time related.
In order to stay engaged with the hobby, and keep your skills sharp, itís important that to the extent you can, that you get at least some modeling done every week. Even if itís only ten minutes, try to get something done no matter how small. Try to avoid month long stretches where nothing happens.
Here are a few thoughts when you find yourself in this zero time/zero energy situation.
Have a list prepared of small but necessary modeling tasks (left). Use downtime to be have everything set out for your upcoming project (center). During times of slow progress, keep your layout surface totally clutter free (right).
No project is too small as long as it is a necessary item (left). Try to get fifteen minutes of solo ops. time in per week, even if on temporary track (right).
In summary, the point is to stay engaged with the hobby by maintaining momentum and realizing that completion of the smallest of tasks on a consistent basis will allow you do so.
Give it a try. Pick a small, very simple project you at least want to get started on next week. It should be something that takes no more than hour total to complete. Set a goal this week of having everything ready to work on it by the end of week. This means all tools and parts neatly laid out on your work bench and ready to go. The following week, work on it in fifteen or twenty minute intervals until youíre done. If it takes two weeks, instead of one that doesnít matter as long as youíre getting a little done each week.
May 8, 2012
I've been making a conscious effort to run mini op. sessions on my layout more often. Doing so results in a layout that is cleaner, more reliable, and better maintained. It also reminds us of why we built the layout in the first place, to be used, not to collect dust. In the past these mini-sessions general ran twenty or thirty minutes. Last Sunday, I staged a simple run of picking up a car at Florida Bottling on the far east end as well as swapping a load for an empty at Trujillo. I noticed two things. First it seems these sessions are becoming more enjoyable than ever. Second, the sessions are becoming longer. To my surprise the simple tasks just mentioned ran almost an hour and I didn't have the sense I was artificially and tediously dragging things out. There are a number of reasons for the longer session length. Tony Koester made an astute observation that when locos have sound decoders operators generally operate more slowly. With very high quality sound such as the headphones I think you run slower yet. Second, I've just become more aware of all of the tasks a prototype crew has to perform as they go about the work and the pace they work at. Sunday, I even cut a few corners here and there with the imaginary brakeman. Just knowing what a crew would be doing not only slowed things down but, more important, made the session more interesting. When the quality of our sound system improves and our knowledge of operations increases our layouts begin to seem larger and larger.
East Rail on Video!
April 21, 2012
If there were a railfan allstar game, young Tolga E. of the South FL Railfans group would gain automatic entry. He captured on video what nobody else ever has, the yard job switching East Rail. Even better it was at night. You gotta love the lantern, EOT flashers, and turbo whine. As you watch, notice the CSX ops. practice of stopping at grade crossings and then proceeding across. Congratulations on this accomplishment Tolga. Click HERE for the link everybody. Enjoy!
Headphone Sound Part III
April 20, 2012
My headphone sound project has gone from being an experiment to reaching the point of successfully accomplishing how I want to experience locomotive sound on my layout. I appreciate the many emails suggesting that I go with wireless headphones. Not only does this simplify the wiring logistics immensely, I've experienced no drop off in sound quality and have had no line of sight issues with the transmitter. Locomotive sound is a major, major element of the line side rail experience particularly the bass. As such it deserves considerable attention. Common sense tells you that, no matter how great the sound decoder, a tinny five dollar, one inch, onboard speaker is going to be a very weak link in the chain. With current technology I just saw no way it could work and come even remotely close to sounding like an actual locomotive.
Since my last blog, I've spent considerable time corresponding with the extremely knowledgeable and helpful members of the "Layout Sound" Yahoo group. Their guidance was a tremendous help and probably saved me several hundred dollars in fried parts. Going in, my feeling was that if I was going to be "all in" with this idea I needed to make a commitment to top of the line headphones, even though it would entail a fairly sizeable investment. Between my research and the input of the Layout Sound group I decided on the Sennheiser RS170 wireless headphone model.
My new found friends at Layout Sound made several key points as far as connecting the headphones to the Tsunami. Without those suggestions it's likely both would have been damaged to the tune of literally watching $400 of silicon go up in smoke. First, they stated it's critical to put a device called an "audio output transformer" between the decoder and headphones to match the impedances. The transformers are cheap, can be found at Radio Shack, and are easy to install. Second, the decoder has a CV called "master volume" with values of 0-255. You need to put this CV on a low setting (I used 20) or you will literally blow your ears off. Again, it's an easy push of a programming button. Finally, you need a stereo plug with both speaker tabs jumpered together so sound goes to each headphone speaker.
Set up your components on a board as per the photos below, plug in the transmitter, and listen to that chest thumping bass as your loco. runs through the notches!
Until I can find a permanent shelf, I just have the transmitter sitting on the layout and plugged into the jack. For small layout rooms, the transmitter location doesn't seem to be as critical as you might think.
Here's the "locomotive" tucked behind my fascia.
This is how the stereo plug is wired to the audio output transformer.
Headphone Sound Part II
April 10, 2012
My most recent blog entry on headphone sound has, by far, produced the biggest response of any I've written. The problem with communicating sound issues with the written word is it's difficult to convey just how dramatic the sound improvement was with the headphones. It wasn't just a little better, it was blow your mind better. Not only was the sound razor crisp and deep, headphones resolve the sound direction problem encountered with under table speakers. Almost every email encouraged me to look at wireless headphones as a next step. I agree with that sentiment. If wireless would work, and produce comparable sound quality, that would be a game changer in that you would only need one decoder and virtually no wiring.
In somewhat random order here are some additional thoughts that have come to mind after using the plug in headphones as well as thinking about the comments in the emails. Many mentioned that "cheap" wireless headphones are available. Let's not stray from our initial goal which was to obtain drastically superior sound, not doing wireless just for the sake of having a new gadget. Locomotive sound is such a draw to us that if we are going to go the headphone route it probably warrants an investment on par with what we'd pay for a locomotive (say $150 to $350). These Audio-Technica units, although not wireless, give you the idea of what I'm thinking of in terms of quality. It would be a one time purchase and the enjoyment provided would be worth the money. Again, the question is will wireless work as well as the jack? I don't know but I do think most people are waiting with baited breath for me to take the financial risk and report back :) LOL. Click HERE for a more detailed write up on the wireless units.
Here are some other thoughts. Whatever headphones you get, you really do want something with volume control. While you can tune the master volume of your decoder, doing so is inconvenient. The Peltor headphones are noise canceling and were originally purchased to listen to scanner traffic at auto races. Is the noise cancellation/ear surround feature of the Peltors a major contributor to the sound quality I'm getting? I don't know. If it is, the noise cancellation feature is something you would want with yours. Also, the signature of diesel locomotive sound is the very low frequency base. Many high quality headphones go very low, just make sure you get a set that does. With the Peltors almost all sound is blocked out except for what is coming through the speakers. It's total silence when the sound is off. Obviously you couldn't hear a crew member. Long term, push to talk would be a nice headphone feature so you could communicate with others. I think I'll defer push to talk until I get some other things sorted out. It's more expensive per unit plus you are looking at getting at least a pair of them so the dollars for that capability add up. I operate mostly by myself so I can wait on this.
It's an exciting chase isn't it? Imagine one decoder under your layout transmitting to wireless headphones that allow you to wander un-tethered. Imagine almost perfect sound quality with base that matches the prototype and no directional discrepancies between loco. and sound. Frankly I think this whole idea will work. Also, I think it can be made to work with multiple locomotives. Push to talk is probably viable as is the ability to overlay a dummy recording of a far off dispatcher chatting to other trains.
April 7, 2012
Sound problem solved. For my layout I'll be using high quality headphones connected to an under table Tsunami with headphone jacks.
Last week I was out to dinner at a restaurant adjacent to the local commuter station. While we were there, a train pulled by an F59ph happened to be pulling out and gradually accelerating. The exhaust was low octave, throaty, .... chest thumping. Whether subconscious or not, that type of experience is a major part of what draws us to railroading. It's the visceral experience that captivates us. We want that experience which is why we try to model it. Unfortunately, with sound we don't model it very well yet I'm afraid. The industry has made great strides and has reached the point where we do have high fidelity sound locked into that thumbnail sized chip called a sound decoder. Where we struggle is the science of getting that high quality sound from the two hair thin wires coming from the decoder to our ears in a manner that resembles the real world. The science of sound is complex and capturing what we see trackside and representing it in our basement ain't so easy. The problem is the speakers. The allure of diesel exhaust is its low octave bass. The science of sound is such that the best way to capture that bass is speaker size, the larger the better....big problem given the relatively small size of our locomotives. In addition, quality sound is dependent on the design of the enclosure surrounding the speaker, a tricky task in a crowded plastic locomotive shell. The last element is speaker quality. Here common sense comes into play. If you spent many hundreds of dollars on your home or auto sound system, why would you expect similar audio quality from a 1" speaker that costs less than five dollars?
The trackside commuter experience was like a slap in the face. I was once again reminded of the huge disparity between prototype sound and the tinny, raspy, noise that emanates from the shells of my engines. It had finally reached the point where it was unbearable.
Many months ago I wrote about my experiment with under table sound using an old DSX sound decoder tapped into some desk top computer speakers. The results were promising. The sound was closer to where I wanted to go but not all of the way there. I put the experiment aside until I could continue with a Tsunami decoder and higher quality, larger speakers. My thought being that speakers of high quality and around five inches in size would capture the bass I wanted. I ordered some very nice Dayton audio woofers from Parts Express and wired them into a Tsunami attached to a small board. How disappointing. My lack of knowledge of sound issues hit hard. The speakers required much higher wattage than the decoder could send out in order to perform their best. In addition, they needed a decent enclosure to function well. More money, more wiring, more waiting. Sigh. On a lark I decided to hook up the computer speakers again. They sounded much better being driven by the Tsunami than the old decoder Iíd tested previously. Still there were issues to be resolved. Most desktop speakers are rated at 4 ohms and the literature states that impedance less than 8 ohms can be hard on decoders. The sound, while better still wasn't all of the way there.
Because sound design is so technical, it is easy to get buried in minutiae, spending hours following debates on various forums all the while not making any progress. I'm too impatient. Time for the Thomas Edison, light bulb, approach. By that I mean trial and error. Don't knock it, it turned out pretty well for Edison. As luck would have it, and it was pure luck, the ultimate solution plopped into my lap very quickly. I noticed a headphone jack on the computer speakers and happened to have some very high quality headphones designed to seal off outside sound. I plugged the headphones in and was just floored by the depth and richness of the sound, particularly the bass. I had been focused on speaker size and had totally overlooked the effectiveness of an excellent headphone design. In end it was the headphone not speaker size that mattered. Problem solved. For me the solution is a stationary Tsunami mounted under the layout and tapped into headphone jacks mounted at each location where I would be switching. The under table decoder would be programmed to the same address as my switcher.
In my case, that of a smallish, single locomotive layout, using headphones solves the sound issue definitively...once and for all. The headphones solve the directionality problems you run into with under table speakers where it becomes somewhat noticeable that the sound sound is not coming from the loco. Not so with headphones where you feel like you're in the cab of the loco. No need for multiple speakers throughout the room, transponders, etc. With headphones you get the result you want even if your loco. doesn't have a sound decoder or has a lower quality one. All that matters is that he under table stationary decoder be of high quality. If you flip the headphones off you still have the onboard locomotive speaker to tide you over.
Yes, you are "tethered" to the layout but it's really not much different than being tethered by a throttle and not so much of an issue if you operate mostly by yourself. In terms of communication with your crew they do make push to talk headphones which will be the next piece of research I need to do. The one caveat I would throw out is that if you go with headphones it makes sense to spend the money on those of very high quality, ones probably costing several hundred dollars. You also want the style that totally seals the ear off from outside sound. So far I just have one decoder jack location. I need to either find a way to amplify that signal (which I think can be done) so I can mount other jacks throughout the layout. The other solution would be to buy additional decoders for each switching location. I think the amplifier will be the cleaner cheaper way to go. In addition to push to talk capability, I may also look into the viability of overlaying an audio recording of a distant dispatcher occasionally piping in with instructions to imaginary crews of other trains.
Here's "the locomotive", a Tsunami decoder attached to a small board. The barrier strip allows quick disconnections. I have a short jumper wire with alligator clips I use to connect the board to the programming track for initial programming.
Here's the locomotive board tucked under the layout. It's just sitting there and can be moved easily (left photo). In the right photo we see the head phone jack mounted on the fascia. Each switching area will have its own jack.
April 3, 2012
In modern times at least, railroads lock everything. Switches, gates, derails you name it, nothing happens without the conductor reaching for the keychain first. To have a model railroad where opening things is as simple as an instantaneous flip of a toggle strays from the pace of the real world. I've written before that it is a relatively simple task to put locking covers over turnout toggles. For manual switches, gates, and derails we can simply hang a lock on a hook and require the crew to open the "dummy lock".
Where I got hung up on all of this was the locks themselves. To model the locks you really need large quantities of "keyed alike" luggage locks so that one key opens everything. After months of digging I discovered that such a product does exist. Enter Padlock Outlet a very well stocked lock wholesaler with excellent customer service. For a 30% fee (on orders less than $100) they will sell to small fries like us. Given the very low cost of the locks to begin with, even with the surcharge the locks are very economical. For my layout I purchased 24, keyed alike, small padlocks part number 4120KA. I received my locks the day after I placed the order, barely 24 hours later!
Solo Op. Sessions
April 2, 2012
Whenever I'm at an operating session I invariably ask the host how often they run their layout just by themselves. The answer is an almost unanimous "never". There are number of reasons for this. I suspect in many cases the layout owner derives most of their hobby enjoyment from building things and operating sessions are primarily an opportunity to socialize. By not operating their layouts more frequently, and by themselves, I do think these folks are missing out an opportunity to get more enjoyment out of the hobby. Model railroading is different from our sister modeling hobbies such as military, ship, and aircraft building in that it offers the opportunity, not just for motion, but for realistic motion.
Part of the resistance to having solo operating sessions is probably the all or nothing viewpoint that each session has to be several hours long or it's not worth having. Don't underestimate the enjoyment that can be had from short "mini sessions" that last just twenty or thirty minutes. Pull out an engine and just switch out that cement plant or factory. In addition to being relaxing, frequent running will result in the motivation to do more punch list work on minor repair issues and encourage you to keep the track cleaner. The end result will be a better running layout and more fun for you. You owe it to yourself. Set a goal of operating your layout, by yourself, at least twenty minutes every week.
March 10, 2012
Creating convincing dirt isn't as simple as you would initially think. Given that said dirt is everywhere, we have no choice but to rise to the challenge and try to find ways to model it effectively. As with many modeling tasks, the trick is to create subtle color variations, work in layers, and make a concerted effort to employ the light touch. No matter how wonderful the scenery product, getting convincing results is impossible using just one blend. There are other obstacles as well. Many soil products are too course. Finally, it can be difficult to get a smooth surface free of "glue craters".
Everything starts with a good base product. I prefer the Arizona Rock and Mineral product line. Their general soil blends are not scale specific. In cases where I do use ballast, I go with N scale, not HO grades. To start you will need:
Begin by smearing a very thin layer of white glue on your scenery surface. It should be paper thin. Next, apply the CSX ballast as this will be your base and primary color. You can't get an even application pouring from the bag or cup. Instead, use a small strainer similar to the one in the photo above. As we want the basic CSX gravel to be the dominant color, the next four layers should be applied with the lightest of touches and maximum restraint, particularly since they are darker. Load a small amount in your strainer and make the lightest of passes adding just a hint of their color. Since these blends are so fine, I typically hold a card under the strainer so I can control the release by sliding the card away or back under the strainer. When satisfied with your application, apply a very light and fine mist of water. Finally, apply a gentle mist of dilute matte medium using a mister bottle.
The River Peninsula
March 4, 2012
While preparing for a clinic I spent a decent amount of time searching my files for the photos I took of my mostly finished river peninsula scene. Well, the reason I couldn't find them is that I never took them! Better late than never.
February 28, 2012
There was a good segment last week on ESPN radioís Mike and Mike show. The topic centered on why so many great, or even hall of fame caliber, players were initially undrafted or very low draft picks.
(Click HERE for a sampling.)
Mike Golic got to the heart of the issue. In his view, and I agree, itís the scouting departments love of Ďmeasureablesí Ė athleticism, bench press, 40 yard dash etc. The problem is that what makes the great so great is the intangibles. Itís the qualities that canít be measured.
Not only does this irrational fixation cross over to all sports, at all levels, it applies to most other walks of life. Education is a big one, an area completely and utterly obsessed with measureables. Tests, tests, and more tests. Their hearts are in the right place. Frankly, I donít have any better ideas. The reality is though that there are an awful lot of hugely successful adults whose test scores wouldnít have given any hint of their ultimate success.
Measureables have their place but they need to be kept in perspective.
February 20, 2012
The techniques used to weather these tank cars were so basic they could be administered by somebody just joining the hobby. Simple and effective are not mutually exclusive.
Newcomers to the hobby, whether they be teens or the age 50 plus crowd, tend to underestimate the quality of modeling they are capable of. Like anything else, it doesnít take much poking around to see photographic examples of rather ragged looking modeling, often from more experienced folks. The newcomer looks at that, compares their time in the hobby to what they see, and subconsciously slot themselves at a skill level below the ragged results they see. Just as common, theyíll see a very nice model and assume they are decades away from being able to achieve the same results.
Itís a faulty thought process though and here's why. Model railroading is different than other skills we might think of. Results are much more dependent upon selecting the proper technique and material than practice (not to say practice isnít a factor). If you want to be an even average piano player you have only one path and that is lots of hard work (i.e. practice) over many years. With model railroading, however, it's different.
Newcomers are capable of producing very high quality results within weeks of joining the hobby. Seventy percent of producing an excellent model is selecting the correct technique and applying it. Or, in a similar vein, selecting the correct material. Often the most effective techniques are extremely simple. Iíll go so far to say that effective techniques are sometimes simpler to apply than less effective ones.
If thatís the case, why doesnít the newcomer go the simpler more effective route? The reason is that they donít know which techniques to select from the volumes of information they are bombarded with, much of which is of dubious value.
I donít envy being a magazine editor in the hobby press. Itís an exercise in feeding the beast. Month after month pages need to be filled in a never ending cycle. Add in information available online and from other sources and we have such a mountain of information itís impossible for the newcomer to separate the wheat from the chaff. Which techniques make a difference and which donít? Chat forums and the net compound the problem simply because they contain so much information, all of which is unfiltered and un-edited, and again often of highly questionable quality.
The reality is that just a handful of simple techniques are all that are required to produce excellent modeling. Even a newcomer can pick these up quickly and get to, say 80% , of what would be considered world class modeling. In my book, How To Build A Switching Layout I identify them. I call them ďDifference MakersĒ.
Hereís the list:
Understand Color: Make understanding color your top priority. Train yourself to identify what color you are looking at. For example is that signal head black? No it's gray and probably a lighter gray than you might first think. Use dark colors to downplay deficiencies, and to a lesser extent, use lighter colors to highlight. Topload your color pallet with dark browns, burnt umber, black, gray off white, and light grays. Use orange, yellow, and pure whites sparingly.
Weathering Washes: Washes are simple to apply and make a dramatic difference by virtue of the contrasts they create. Apply a dilute India ink wash to all structures to bring out contrast, knock down any shine, and add a subtle layer of grime. An effective wash to apply to freight cars is an ultra dilute mix of thinner, rail brown, and grimy black applied with an airbrush. Dilute oil washes (black or burnt umber) are very effective as is brushing on a dry wash of dark brown chalk. In all cases the operative phrase is to use a 'light touch'.
Sheen: All structures and rolling stock should have the shine knocked off with Dullcote or other dulling agent.
Saturation: When you have a choice, go with a less saturated version of the color in question. For example gray instead of black, light tan instead of brilliant tan, etc.
Rail Color: When it comes to rail color, make a distinction between what you see in the field and what works for a model railroad. Generic track products should be painted a dark brownish gray to downplay the oversize spikes and oversized rail profile. Avoid rust orange or tan for rail color unless your track is close to scale.
Ballast: Use ballast products made from natural crushed stone as opposed to the more readily available products made from synthetic materials. Make sure you donít have errant grains of ballast sticking to sides of your rail.
The Backdrop: A distinction must be made between effective and artistic. Generally a featureless, cloudless, powder blue sky with a low horizon is the most effective. Avoid 'museum' artwork with dramatic puffy clouds.
Grass and Weeds: Use fiber based products to represent grass as opposed to ground foam. Strive for non-uniform color and texture in your grass. Take the time to add small brush and weeds.
Tree Shapes: Choose armatures that have a natural shape and do not have sharp angular branch structures or large branch ends. Make sure the armature realistically matches tree profiles found in nature and paint the armature a darker color. A good starting point would be a SuperTrees armature painted with Rustoleum dark gray primer. For leaves, use a green blend as opposed to a solid green.
Structure Selection: Select structures based on what is usual as opposed to selecting them based on individual uniqueness and interest. Focus on realistic groupings of structures and include non-rail served industries. If you use commercial kits, try to modify the structure shape and/or profile so as not to be immediately recognizable as a standard kit.
Structure Color: Paint all of your structures with flat finish paint. Paint oversize details a darker color. Select colors that are suitable for your location and era. This means lots of off white houses, beige warehouses, and not much chartreuse!
Rust: Use dark brown and/or black to represent rust as opposed to orange.
Cross Sections: Be constantly aware of parts that have overly thick cross sections and avoid them wherever possible. Examples include fence posts, window mullions, railings, etc. Be constantly aware of the number ".011", that's a scale inch in HO scale. In other words a 4x4 post should be .044" in HO.
Basic Neatness and Alignment: This can not be overstated. Make sure all items that should be vertical are indeed vertical. Make sure no ballast is stuck to the rails. Structures should be neatly seated with no gaps visible at the foundation. Trees and vegetation should not have errant strands of poly fiber sticking out.
February 11, 2012
Ladies and Gentlemen, We've Reached Our Cruising Altitude
Much has been written about the pitfalls of never getting around to building a layout or starting one and never making much progress. Less mention is given to what it's like to 'finish' a model railroad. Personally, finishing a layout is a bittersweet feeling for me. Yes, there is the satisfaction of reaching the goal, but the enjoyment was the journey itself a trip and experience that abruptly ends when we are 'done'. For me the best approach is an aggressive launch where I push hard to get the mainline operational (often with temporary track) and a few key scenes done. At that point I have to consciously remind myself to throttle back and get out of mission mode. That's where I am now with the Downtown Spur, comfortably flying along at cruising altitude and enjoying the ride. 2012 won't be a year with major swaths of real estate completed. Instead I'm going to take my time plodding along with detailing small areas, slowly detailing and weathering my freight cars and spending more time operating.
January 11, 2012
Picking A Year
Buildings in Miami are constantly being repainted. The left photo shows Family and Son as it appeared in 2007. The right photo shows it in 2012.
When I started out modeling the Miami industrial scene, I rather naively set the year as "Today". Reality has set in. It's just not practical to do so. Things change much faster than anybody can build models to reflect such changes. To be accurate you would be in a situation where you are constantly re-building structures and changing rolling stock. Industrial tenants come and go. Industries that saw rail service give it up. In other locations new tenants move into vacant buildings and start up rail service. Buildings in Miami are constantly repainted. CSX has phased in it's new locomotive paint style. I just can't say I'm modeling the present and keep up. For that reason I'm setting the date I'm modeling as 2007. In 2007 the Miami Produce Market still received cars in their courtyard. In 2007 the Seaboard Warehouse was still going strong. I will fudge a bit though. A number of new industries have started taking rail shipments and I'm not above adding those into the layout.