Monday, January 16th, 2012

A dull, dreary day is a perfect day stay in the basement, working on the model railroad layout.

I spent most of the day running a subroadbed through a tight curve that will end up at one of the three terminals on the line, and at the very highest point as well. The way the lines cross over one another, I was having a little trouble getting the subroadbed high enough to pass over the level below it. After readjusting the height of the second level, though, I think I’ve got it licked.

This is the third and last level to be added to the back corner of the layout. The bottom level is the return loop, the second level is the switchback that leads to the passenger station, and the top layer is a short line to a commuter rail stop. If and when I ever get around to adding the scenery, you won’t be able to see the bottom layer, and most of the second layer will be hidden, too.

And so will all of the work I did today. I spent hours chopping up half-inch by half-inch sticks to use as supports for the subroadbed, clamping them to the frame and screwing them in place ever so carefully, checking repeatedly that the subroadbed remained level. It looks busy as hell. “Wow, that’s getting pretty complex,” My Darling B said, when she came down to ask when I wanted to eat supper. But after the scenery’s in place, none of it will be visible. All you’ll see is the track.

Some day. Not today. Not tomorrow, either. Come back in about a year. I might even have trains running by then.

subterrainian | 5:03 pm CDT
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Sunday, March 6th, 2011


image of benchwork rebuild

Cleats! Millions of ’em! I’ve been gluing these little bastards to the benchwork all week long, five at a time, because I have ten two-inch C-clamps and that’s all. I could go buy more, but I’m such a cheapskate that I haven’t been able to bring myself to bust open my wallet and spend a few bucks on this when I could just settle for the slow and steady approach. So I settled. If this approach has anything to recommend it, I’ve become expert at tightening a C-clamp one-handed.

The one pair of four-inch C-clamps I have in my toolbox come in handy for when I have to glue cleats on the double-up boards. They’re awfully big and clunky, though, and so heavy that they hurt a lot when I unscrew them and the loose heavy part bashes across the points of my knuckles, so I mostly stick with the smaller ones, because, ouch.

image of benchwork rebuild

And why exactly am I gluing all these damned cleats to the frame of the bench? Well, of course it’s so I can glue three-inch-wide strips of plywood between the cleats. Why else?

You can’t imagine how many times I’ve asked myself exactly that question during the past two weeks. Weirdly, an answer didn’t pop into my head until this morning as I was pulling out one of a half-dozen splinters I’ve gotten stuck in the ends of my fingers. I’m pretty sure it’s because I’ve always wanted a train layout like this one. Well, probably not literally always. Probably since my best friend showed me the awesome layout his dad built for him in their basement and he let me take the throttle. I was about ten years old. That’s close enough to always as to make no difference, isn’t it?

And it’s starting to look like an attainable goal. The basic benchwork is nearly complete. I’ll add shelves underneath some day in the future because I need the storage space, but my most immediate concern is laying track and getting trains running. I plan to lay the track on a roadbed cut from Masonite which I salvaged when I demolished the benchwork of the old layout earlier in the year, and the Masonite, in turn, will have to be supported by something, hence the plywood stringers. I’ve never been sure why they’re called “stringers,” unless it’s because they’re strung across the gap between the frames. Let’s go with that.

Clamp this! | 6:55 pm CDT
Category: hobby, LoCo Rwy | Tags: ,
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Saturday, November 27th, 2010

image of my choo-choo trains

Paint for scale models used to cover in just one coat when I built plastic model airplanes by the dozen many, many moons ago. Now it doesn’t. What the hell’s up with that?

I’ll grant you, a few other things have changed since then: Not all of the models I build now are plastic. Some of the locomotives in my roster are very old-school models made of a metal alloy called zamac, unnaturally heavy, probably toxic as hell or even radioactive. There’s no telling when it comes to things they made back in the 50s and 60s. I had no idea painting metal like this might require some special consideration, but it turns out all the books and bloggers say it has to be washed clean before I could so much as dream about painting it. Without a good cleaning, apparently not even napalm would stick to it.

And the paint I use now is not the same trusty Testor’s enamel I used to get at the dime store, either, but an acrylic paint instead. I learned about acrylics in an art class I took in college. Those student loans might have been worth taking out after all. The acrylics I painted with then came in a tube and I could mix the colors myself, but what I really liked about them was they weren’t runny and were absolutely opaque, or at least they were the way I used them. You could mix them with water to thin them, but I didn’t like that approach. When it comes to painting I’m very much a big-brush, straight out of the tube kind of guy.

Or, in the case of paints made for model choo-choo trains, straight out of the bottle. Paints for scale models come in teensy-tiny little bottles they make you pay through the nose for. At five bucks for a one-ounce bottle, I’m paying $640.00 a gallon for this paint, although it’s not like I could buy a gallon of it in a pail if I wanted to. I’d have to buy one-hundred twenty-eight of those little bottles, which is probably what’s jacking up the price at least a little bit. Overhead’s a bitch.

Where the hell was I going with this? Oh yeah, one-coat coverage. I just can’t get it to happen. Using it straight out of the bottle, no thinning at all, I have to apply at least three coats. I didn’t have to do that when I was making models of fighter planes back in high school, and a good thing, too, because I would have dropped the hobby like a paper cup full of hot coffee. Painting a model just one time called on me to use up every inch of my attention span. Painting it twice just wouldn’t have happened. I was, and still am, that lazy.

That’s why I don’t use an airbrush. I have several, and if I could have gotten them to work right I just might have learned to use them, but every time I loaded one up and tried to use it, it spattered, it clogged, it did everything but apply an even coat of paint, and every one of them is a royal pain in the ass to clean up. Brushes are small and don’t apply the gorgeously smooth coat of paint (some) airbrushes do, but I already know how to use a brush and I can clean one in about ten seconds. Maybe some day I’ll meet a sensei who can enlighten me in the way of the airbrush, but until that time they’re packed away in a box while the stick brushes are in a beer stein on my work bench.

After all these years I thought I might need a sensei to show me how to use a brush again, but no, it came back to me pretty quickly. I tried several different ways to load up the brush and different strokes to apply the paint, but what it comes down to is, this paint just doesn’t cover in one coat. I have to paint the choo-choo three or four times. That’s just the way it has to be. But that’s okay. I’m not in a huge freaking hurry to finish a model any more, the way I used to be.

And a good thing, too. I started putting together a loco I bought at an auction last spring, got to the point where I had to paint it, applied several coats and then along came summer and I had to spend many months painting the house (is that ironic? I’m still trying to figure that out). Now that it’s too cold to paint the house I’m trying to finish painting the loco so I can get back to putting it together and get it running. Eventually everything comes full circle.

And while I’m doing that, I’m also applying a few coats to other locos I’ve had standing by for some time, just to see what the livery looks like when several of them are standing together in the same yard. So far it’s a flattering look, but a photo of them together, each at the head of its own rake of passenger cars, is still quite a few weeks away.

Old Paint | 2:16 pm CDT
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Sunday, September 19th, 2010

image of model railroad

Gloomy & wet all morning, cold and gray all afternoon – perfect day to stay in the basement, playing with trains. Haven’t done that in quite a long time, and the neglect is apparent in one glance at the layout: track torn up, box cars lying on their sides. You wouldn’t look at it and ask to take one of the choo-choos out for a spin. More like, ask for the phone number of a good insurance adjuster, or the name of the Hurricane that blew in the day before.

Cleaning up should have taken all day, but I managed to pack and stow several boxes of kits and wires, then clear off the layout right down to the table top, in just a couple hours. Then, standing back, I took a long look at the layout and thought about what I wanted to accomplish here.

When I began to build the Lost Continent Railway, I did it the way I learned from back when the boys and I set up our Lionel train set: we cleared a big, flat space in the middle of the floor to work in and started piecing together lengths of track. There was never any plan. So long as the train could go around and around, turn off on a siding, and maybe cross over so we could crash them once in a while, we had a great time with whatever emerged of its own accord.

That’s pretty much how I started building a model layout, too, although I did have one or two must-haves in mind. From the moment I started, for instance, I knew what I wanted was a layout that was all about passenger cars and steam engines. I pictured a passenger terminal tall and grand as a cathedral, with a shed over a dozen of sidings in a yard that would hold dozens of cars, and a long, sinuous track leading away from the terminal and wrapping its way around the rest of the layout.

On the way to that dream, I ran into a few road blocks: First, I don’t have a basement with enough space to build a layout vast enough to comfortably hold a broad, towering passenger terminal surrounded by long, sweeping curves of glistening track. We have boxes filled with stuff that we store in the basement, because piling them up around the walls of the living room would make us look like hoarders. I also have a small workshop in one corner of the basement where I can pound nails into lumber and otherwise perform small acts of mayhem that I pass off as maintenance on Our Humble O’Bode. I’ve had to scale back the model train layout a bit to fit into the remaining corner of the basement left over for it.

Second, even if I did have the space to build a layout as grand as my dreams, it turns out that a model railroad is a money monster almost as ravenous as a sailboat or a high-maintenance mistress. I don’t have even a tiny fraction of the disposable income I’d need to build the layout of my dreams. With what’s left over from my modest weekly allowance after I buy a six-pack of beer and take My Darling B out for pizza, I could put together a small passenger station with a pair of platforms where I’ve built up a yard on one end of the table. On the other end of the table I think I have enough room to shoehorn another four-track yard into the foreground where I can model a commissary and other buildings that would make up a passenger car servicing department. It’s all about passenger cars, after all.

I can almost see it, squinting my eyes while I gaze long and hard at the now-cleared table top. But for now, the cleanup will have to keep me happy until the next rainy day.

All the live-long day | 6:18 pm CDT
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