Thursday, December 21st, 2017

It’s been eighteen months since The Deluge, the plumbing accident that created a virtual monsoon in our basement. As bad as it looked then, and it looked REALLY BAD, quite a lot of our possessions escaped The Deluge unharmed. We had hundreds of books down there, for instance, and almost every one of them survived without water damage.

I started to build the model train layout of my dreams in the basement many years ago.  There’s no more to it than the bench and track; I never got to the point where I landscaped it, or built any tiny train stations or other buildings, and a good thing, too.  All of that would have been washed away by The Deluge.  The track wasn’t affected by the water; it’s still all firmly in place and shows no signs of corrosion.  The bench is made of scraps of lumber that doesn’t appear to have warped at all in spite of all the water that washed over it.  So essentially the layout is unchanged from the day before The Deluge, presumably in working order.

The room the layout’s in, though, has been a mess ever since.

Two of the overhead light fixtures fell from the ceiling when the water-soaked overhead wallboard panels began to buckle under their own weight and the anchors that held the light fixtures up lost their grip in the sodden panels.  Same with the electrical conduit and outlets I screwed to the ceiling to plug the lights into, so there’s been no electrical light in that back corner since The Deluge.

The floor was a scattered mess of scraps of drywall and all kinds of jetsam that got washed off the bench by the floodwaters.  Cleanup was such a daunting task I never quite mustered the motivation to get in there with a broom and a vacuum cleaner. It was too depressing to look at, much less think about cleaning up, until last weekend.

It began when I swept a path through the debris wide enough for me to walk in.  Then I ran a couple extension cords to the two overhead lights that remained hanging from the ceiling.  I crossed my fingers and yanked on the pull chains, not knowing if they still worked.  They did.  That gave me enough light to keep going.

I pieced together the electrical conduit and outlets that fell from the ceiling.  Wouldn’t do any good to hang the lights if I couldn’t connect them to power.  Putting the outlets back up was easier than I thought it would be and took less time; I dreaded the idea I might be at it all weekend, but they went up in just a couple hours.  I even did it right the first time: The lights came on when I flipped the switch, same as if I knew what I was doing. Always pleasantly surprised when that happens.

LoCo Railway

With the lights taken care of, I had to get down into the dirt.  Literally.  There was so much dirt and dust and many, many dead spiders. Lots of broken glass. Bits of wallboard and insulation everywhere. More dirt.  It was an unholy mess, and there was nothing to do for it but get down on my hands & knees with the business end of a vacuum cleaner.  Kept me busy for the rest of the afternoon.

The next step is to close off the room so the cats won’t be able to get in there.  No use wiring the track up again if they’re just going to swipe at the wiring like it’s their favorite new toy.  That’s a project for next weekend.

revenant | 9:05 pm CDT
Category: LoCo Rwy
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Saturday, December 27th, 2014

Gah! The new motor I bought for this Bowser locomotive was supposed to be a plug-and-play installation: Unscrew the old motor, screw in the new motor, solder a few wires to complete the electrical connection, done! But no, that’s not going to happen with this particular locomotive because the holes where the screws go don’t line up. I’ll have to drill at least one new hole and hope that Baldwin, the patron saint of steam locomotion, smiles down upon us modelers, too, and will keep the gears on the motor tightly meshed together with the gears on the wheels. Yah, I don’t think they will, either.

model steam locomotive

praise Baldwin | 4:34 am CDT
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Sunday, December 21st, 2014

I spent a couple hours yesterday afternoon picking teensy-tiny little pieces of a model train engine out of the dust and dirt on the floor under the work bench, and when I say “teensy-tiny,” I’m talking about pieces as small or smaller than fingernail clippings. And just to complicate things, the dust and dirt was littered with little splashes of solder that froze when they hit the floor into odd shapes that looked a lot like pieces of a model train engine, so just to be safe I picked up all those up, too, and sorted through them after arranging them under the light on the work bench. This is how I relax.

The bad news is that I discovered one of the side rods broke when it hit the floor. Side rods are the long iron arms that connect the driving wheels of steam locomotives together. If you’re a Buster Keaton fan and have seen The General (and if you haven’t, HOW CAN YOU CALL YOURSELF A BUSTER KEATON FAN?), he sat down on the side rod and rode it up and down, up and down as the locomotive began to roll away in the first reel. Love that scene.

The good news is that I managed to find a shop on the internet that sold me a new set of side rods. They didn’t, however, sell valve gear (can’t explain, too nerdy), so I’ll have to figure out how to cobble those together myself, probably many years from now in retirement when I have oodles of free time and a lathe.

side rods | 10:10 am CDT
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Monday, May 12th, 2014

The Lost Continent Railway had its first visitors last Saturday, my cousin Carrie’s three boys, who are possibly into trains more than I am. Every one of them was wearing a train-themed t-shirt, and the oldest boy had an engineer’s cap (gotta get me one of those, no matter how dorky it makes me look). 

Their visit was the most fun I’ve had so far with the LoCo. I get a great big smile each time I can make the trains do what I want them to do, but this was the first time I’ve gotten a belly laugh making the trains go when someone else wanted. “Make the yellow one go!” “Now make the Polar Express go!” 

For the big finish, I crashed the train. Not on purpose, although if I’d known a crash would be as well-received as it was, I would have prepared for one in advance.

crash | 12:29 pm CDT
Category: daily drivel, hobby, LoCo Rwy, play
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Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

track switch controlsThe awesome power in these little wooden knobs is hard to overstate. Honestly. I wouldn’t bullshit you about something as serious as that. Or about the fact that I wouldn’t bullshit you. Which is bullshit, and I’m sure you know it.

Hmmm. Kind of wandered just a little bit. Didn’t take long, either, did it?

Back to the photo and the little wooden knobs. Each knob is connected to a track switch on the train tracks of the Lost Continent Railway. Until I installed these babies, I had to run from the throttle to the farthest corners of the layout, throwing those switches by hand, which is a huge pain in the ass on a layout that’s twelve feet long and six feet wide.

I have to bend and duck under a lot of the tracks, too, because the layout is butted up against the walls in a cramped corner of the basement. When I started to build the Lost Continent, I didn’t think duck-unders were going to be a problem, but after my fiftieth birthday came and went, I changed my tune real quick. I really should have paid attention to all those geezers whose very first rule of model railroad building is: “1. No Duckunders!

So if I can stand at the throttle and control everything on the layout, that’s a big plus. I always intended to install track switch controls but never made a firm decision on the kind I would eventually use, even though I have used Blue Point switch machines from the very start. The first one I bought as a test worked so well that I immediately bought five more and installed them at the most-used track switches where they very satisfyingly click-clacked left and right, holding the points of the track switches solidly open or closed.

Then about two weeks ago, after I finally figured out how to wire the crossover and could move trains freely around the layout without having to work out a detour around the gaping hole that the crossover filled, I broke down and bought a five-pack of the knobs and red tubes and connectors so I wouldn’t have to do all that running around and ducking and banging my head on the underside of the thick, unmoving wooden crossbeams of the track bench. I spent the last week or so installing them, and I’m happy to report that they work so well I’m giddily writing 500 words of drivel about them. Doesn’t take much to make me giddy, does it?

knobs | 9:19 pm CDT
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Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

crossover at Overcoat JunctionIt’s been a good day here on the Lost Continent Railway. The track gang has put in a solid two days of work this weekend, finishing up the crossover at Overcoat Junction ahead of schedule. Honestly, the chief engineer was sure this was going to take all week to complete, but he was poking around through the inventory and found a prefabricated crossover that, with a little jiggering of the original track plan, he could fit into the spot where it was needed. When he discovered it could solve a problem that had been plaguing him all winter, the poor guy didn’t know whether to shit or go blind. He had Dominic Book, boss of the track gang, round up the boys, load the crossover onto a flat car and haul it out to the junction where they’ve been working on it since Friday. When the boys finished up early Sunday morning, the chief was so well chuffed that he put a ten-dollar gold coin in the till at The Draw Bar and told the boys to come get him if they could drink that all up before the sun set. They went pounding on the door of Round The Bend, the chief’s business car, with a couple hours to spare, so he tossed them another ten dollars and sent them on their way.

crossover | 12:53 pm CDT
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Monday, January 20th, 2014

What I did with my Sunday:

Well, first I made a big, steaming pot o’ joe, same as I always do. Always. The day doesn’t start without a pot o’ joe. I don’t know if you’ve noticed that. If you have, and you’ve been wondering why your day didn’t start as early as every other day, it was because I got up late. Now you know.

Then, I ate some oatmeal and drank my coffee while I read the morning news. Took me hours. Because Sunday.

At about ten o’clock, My Darling B reminded me that we had a date for eleven o’clock at a restaurant on Park Street called Inka Heritage, our first meal to kick off Madison Restaurant Week, one of our very favoritest festivals. I may be remembering this wrong, but I think Inka was the first restaurant we visited when we started going to Restaurant Week many moons ago, and I think we’ve been starting the winter version of Restaurant Week every year by going to Inka. Even if I’m not remembering that right, I’m pretty sure this is the third time we’ve been there and I know I haven’t been disappointed by the food yet. I don’t know why we don’t go more often. Probably because it’s not in the neighborhoods we usually visit. We should get out more.

We both had the fish, by the way. Scrumptious.

Then I spent all afternoon in the basement throwing crap out, putting away the stuff I couldn’t make myself throw out, and finally knocking together a work bench where I could work on choo-choo trains. I used to make a temporary work bench by throwing a board across an open stretch of the layout, but there aren’t any open stretches any more, and I still needed a place to solder track together or whatever.

I had an old pine shelf that came out of one of our closets, and a dozen or so sawn-off ends of two-by-fours I could knock together into brackets. Took me a little longer than I thought it would to knock them together, but then it always does. Once the braces were up, all I had to do was cut the pine shelf to length and screw it down. The shelf was too long to cut it with the table saw, so I clamped it down to my Black & Decker WorkMate 200, with a board across the top to act as a guide, grabbed my circular saw and got ready to make some serious noise.

The clamp was in the way. It usually is. I don’t use the circular saw very often, so I usually make this mistake. As I was repositioning the clamp it seemed there was something about the way I’d set up the cut that wasn’t quite right, but I couldn’t quite figure out what was bothering me about it until I was just about to pull the trigger on the saw, and then I saw it: The line I’d planned to cut was laying right across the middle of my WorkMate. If I’d gone and made the cut, I would’ve sawn the WorkMate in half.

It wouldn’t have been the first time I’ve abused it that way. One end of the WorkMate’s front jaw has been shorter than the back jaw (the top opens like a vise) ever since I sawed it off the same year I got it as a Christmas present, and the tops of the jaws are pockmarked with holes where I’ve drilled through work that I was sure was too thick for the drill bit to get all the way through. I’ve known for years that I’m probably going to saw it in half eventually; it’s pretty surprising, really, that I haven’t done it already. And yet somehow I avoided doing it yesterday.

With the shelf cut to length, all that was left to do was screw it down and cover it with a whole bunch of crap. And done.

setting up shop | 7:53 am CDT
Category: entertainment, festivals, food & drink, hobby, LoCo Rwy, Madison Restaurant Week, play, restaurants | Tags:
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Monday, December 30th, 2013

Could it be the control board for the Lost Continent Railway?

control board of the LoCo Rwy

It could be. It could.

i’m so board | 10:26 pm CDT
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Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

From high atop the tallest stepstool I own, I took this aerial view snapshot of the Lost Continent Railway:

aerial view of the Lost Continent Rwy

My phone camera can also do panoramas. Nifty keen neato, right?

The latest addition to the LoCo is the benchwork along the backside of the layout. The eastern terminal, yet to be named (although it’s rumored that “Gertrude” is still holding tight to first place), will be erected near the upper right corner, with five tracks and attending passenger platforms running underneath it. The five tracks will combine in a kind of spaghetti-bowl tangle through a series of switches to be laid on the narrowing strip of plywood in the center of the photo, until they connect to the three tracks in the horseshoe curve to the left. Two more tracks where great big chuffing steam engines will wait for their cue to join with the passenger trains will branch off toward the control panel.

So far, this is all in my mind. Oh, wait, no it’s not. It’s all been carefully drawn out by John Armstrong, master track planner extraordinaire!

Even though there’s still a shocking amount of hammering and sawing to do, it’s starting to feel a lot like I’m nearing the home stretch. The track to the station will be the last of the mainline track to be laid on the Lost Continent. There are a couple of short line tracks that curl outward from the crossing in the center of the layout, but I won’t be fiddling around with them much until I get the mainline done. The major challenge of this layout has always been piecing together the switches that make up the approach to the station so that cars can move through them smoothly, and there will be a lot of switches. It’s not going to happen this month, or even next month, but it’s just possible that trains could be pulling into the station before the winter’s over.

loopty-loop | 6:18 am CDT
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Saturday, October 26th, 2013

motive power on the LoCo RwyMotive power on the Lost Continent Railway is a hash of electric, diesel and steam. Until I started building the layout in its current incarnation I wasn’t sure what era I wanted my railroad to look like, so for the longest time I collected just about anything that came along at the right price. Later I realized that the locomotives I most loved watching were steam engines and the passenger cars that were most interesting were the old heavyweights, and that’s what I’ve gravitated towards these past years. Yet I still have all sorts of motive power in the engine shed and so far haven’t been able to bring myself to part with any of it.

The steam locomotive in this photo is one of a pair I bought on sale almost fifteen years ago. Dressed in the colors of the New York Central, it’s meant to represent a Niagra class 4-8-4. I haven’t painted it in the livery of the Lost Continent yet. A smooth runner, it’s way too large for the Lost Continent, a railroad that I have always envisioned as a regional line that spanned no more than a couple states, but this steamer looks so good that I know I won’t be able to leave it out of the regularly scheduled lineup. It’ll always be one of the two flagship locos in the fleet. In case you’re wondering, the second one’s still in the box, although I’ve brought it out once or twice to let it get some air and stretch its legs, just to make sure it’s still working.

I bought the electric just five years ago when I was planning a shelf layout that was going to be nothing more than a passenger station in the modern era. I’ve always been just as fascinated by electric locos asI have with steam engines, and this AEM-7, a small electric, felt just right for a small layout. I kept it even after my shelf layout metamorphosed into J-shaped round-the-room layout because it’s such a smooth, strong runner and is easy to set down on the rails with just one hand. I use it all the time to try out newly-laid stretches of track.

The diesel, an E-8, has been on the Lost Continent’s roster less than two years, I think. I bought it at the same time I snatched up the rake of sleek streamline cars behind it. Streamlined passenger cars didn’t come along until the 40s and the E-8s were built in the early 50s, so it doesn’t fit the late-20s era of the Lost Continent, but I love streamline passenger cars, especially the ones with domes, and when I saw a stack of them on sale at a cut-rate price I couldn’t keep walking. After narrowing my choices down to a half-dozen I thought, Now what I really need is an engine to pull these, and that’s how I ended up with a train that really doesn’t fit my railroad but which I love just as much as the big steamer pulling the old heavyweight passenger cars.

horsepower | 9:21 pm CDT
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Sunday, September 15th, 2013

RRbookshelvesThe Lost Continent Railway occupies a lot of real estate, most of it at chest level. I wanted to stand alongside the right of way instead of looking down at it. That left quite a lot of room underneath the bench that the layout’s built on, room that I had barely begun to make use of until this afternoon when I knocked together some shelves that would hold the couple hundred pounds of books I’ve collected. Until now, they’ve been gradually bowing the shelves of a chipboard book case that I desperately need to get out of the basement to give it a little more breathing space. The three-quarter inch plywood shelves in this corner of the layout holds all the books and has a little room left over. The shelves also do double-duty as a rock-solid anchor for the bench. Not bad for a couple hours’ work.

splinters | 10:04 pm CDT
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Saturday, March 16th, 2013

I made my weekly trip to Madison Hobby Stop a day early this week, heading over in the morning as soon as I could. I had to be back by noon so that My Darling B and I could buy tickets to the Wisconsin Film Festival, and I had several other errands to run besides poking around on the shelves looking for toy train stuff.

I was looking for a particular bit of gadgetry but they didn’t have it in stock this week. No problem, the very nice lady at the counter said, they’ll order it for me, and straight from the factory, too! She even took my name and number so she could call me when they got it. Those guys are the best.

| 7:23 am CDT
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Friday, March 15th, 2013

horny1Visiting a train show a couple years back, I spotted a big stack of boxes from across the aisle that made my spider-sense tingle. They turned out to be passenger cars, dozens of them, at rock-bottom prices. I picked out two dome cars, two or three sleepers, a coach and an observation car for the tail end. There weren’t any baggage cars in the bunch or I would have snagged one of those, too. I felt pretty good about my discovery for about twenty minutes, then wanted to go back and buy all the rest of them. I still don’t know how I didn’t.

The cars were all made by Rivarossi, an Italian company that made some affordable yet still rather good-looking passenger cars. By ‘affordable’ I mean they’re on the cheap end of the spectrum without going quite all the way into the shabby shit you can expect when you pay no more than five dollars per car. The paint job is plain without being sloppy. The grab irons are molded on without looking like turds stuck to the sides of the car. They’re about as good-looking as you could expect to get without feeling like your wallet’s been raped.

They didn’t spend a lot of money on the couplers, that’s for sure. Admittedly, horn-hook couplers were the industry standard back in the day, and they work well enough but they don’t look a thing like real couplers, or anything else you would expect to see on a passenger car. Might as well have great big white-gloved Mickey Mouse hands sticking out from underneath the ends of the cars. I’m not a rivet-counting stickler for realism, but I cannot abide horn-hook couplers.

horny3Luckily, there’s something I can do about that. Namely, rip the old couplers off the cars and install new ones. An American company called Kadee makes nothing but miniature couplers that look like the full-size couplers on real train cars, and while I was visiting my favorite hobby store not long ago I found some Kadee couplers that I thought would work perfectly on my Rivarossi passenger cars, so I bought them all, took them home and, over the past several nights, have been trying to figure out how to mount them to the cars in a way that would look almost like I knew what I was doing instead of like I had no clue and wasn’t going to get one any time soon.

The first thing to do, it seemed to me, was to pull off the frames that the wheels were mounted in. Model rail geeks call these trucks, because trucks. I don’t know why, they just do, okay? The horn-hook couplers stuck out from one end of each truck and they got in the way. Taking off the trucks cleared the decks, so to speak, and made it easier to figure out how to remove the horn-hook couplers. They were clipped in place with a thin, circular spring that was almost as hard to unclip as a bra strap, but after I figured it out I could take off a coupler in two shakes, no waiting. Again, sort of like a bra strap.

horny5Then I had to figure out where to drill the holes so the replacement coupler would stick out far enough to grab the coupler of another car, but not so far that it would look like a great big moldy pumpkin on the end of a broom stick. This seemed like a simple matter of measurement, and I did carefully measure it out, check my measurements, and measured it again before I drilled that first hole, but I still got the moldy pumpkin. Can it be that the universe has evolved up to this point just so I could experience that moment?

After a little experimentation, I got the coupler in the right place and it was time to put all the pieces together. Kadee couplers are sold as kits, each set in a little brown envelope filled with tiny screws and springs that roll all the way across your work bench and right off the edge if you’re not smart enough to dump them into a dish. Not a single one of the pieces is big enough to make it easy to handle with your fingers. You have to use tweezers a lot. I’m no good with tweezers. When I try to pick up a teensy-tiny little screw with a pair of tweezers, chances are about fifty-fifty that, just as I’m guiding the screw into the hole where it’s supposed to go, I’ll squeeze a little too hard and the screw will go sailing through the air and I’ll never see it again.

And don’t even get me started on springs. One moment, I’m trying to gently push one into a slot with the flat of a screwdriver, the next moment it’s not there. Didn’t see it take off, didn’t even see what I might have done wrong to make it go flying. It was just time to leave, so it left. After the last cuss word had cleared the air and my breathing levels off, I have to wonder sometimes that this is what I do to relax after work.

horny6After everything’s put together and the couplers are finally mounted to the car body in the right place, though, I have to admit that all that cussing is worth it. And it was fun to finally put these cars on the track and hook them up to an engine so I could take them for a spin around the track. All my engines have knuckle couplers, so until I could replace the old horn-hook couplers, the only way I could move them around the track was with the end of my finger. I made choo-choo sounds with my mouth while I did it, but it just wasn’t the same and cranking the throttle open and watching an engine drag them down the line.

coupled | 6:06 am CDT
Category: entertainment, hobby, LoCo Rwy, play
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Monday, March 11th, 2013

main control boardI spent just about the whole weekend up to my elbows in an extra-large helping of copper-wire spaghetti, not because I was involved in yet another home improvement project, like fixing the garage door opener that’s still spread out in pieces across my work bench, but because I was playing with my choo-choo trains. A man’s gotta have his priorities.

Some of it, like the stuff behind the control board of the Lost Continent Railway, was easy to get at because I attached the board to the bench with hinges so it flips out and all the guts of the thing are exposed. Easy-peasy.

Some of the wiring, though, snakes around through the spaces between the track and the bench and seem to be all but impossible to get to, but really it’s not impossible. All I have to do is crawl under the bench on my aching knees, scrape my bleeding knuckles across the rough edges of the plywood as I thread the wire to the right place, then crawl almost all the way back out and try to stand up while I’m still underneath the bench so I bang my head. Every. Single. Time.

So maybe you can see it’s with no small sense of relief that I can finally say the trains of the Lost Continent Railway can finally run from one end of the track to the other.

Well, after just a little troubleshooting, they do. The first train I tried to send around the west loop wouldn’t move much faster than a slow crawl no matter how far I cranked the throttle open. That usually indicates a short circuit, which I have to sheepishly admit took me most of an afternoon to find. The west loop itself was the short. Duh. I think that’s in chapter two of Model Railroading For Dummies.

Here’s a short video of one of the first trips around the Lost Continent Railway made by a long, sleek, streamlined passenger car (all the trains on the LoCo are passenger trains – I got a great big thing for passenger trains) and, because you’re my favorite visitor, I’ve even thrown in a train crash at the end. You’re welcome.

spaghetti | 6:16 pm CDT
Category: entertainment, hobby, LoCo Rwy
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Sunday, March 3rd, 2013

Hours spent burning my fingertips with a soldering iron have finally paid off: Locomotives can finally move under their own power through the switches at the center of the layout.


They can move through two of the switches, anyway. The two that matter. After my fingers heal, I’ll have to wire two more switches to get the locos to go up the outside tracks. Right now they can only go up the middle track under their own power and I have to push them with a finger to the outside tracks. Even so, I’m geeking out watching one locomotive, and then the other make their way almost all the way around the layout as I man the throttle.

progress again | 6:16 pm CDT
Category: entertainment, hobby, LoCo Rwy, play
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Sunday, February 10th, 2013

Trains moving along the LoCo RwyAfter spending a good three hours wiring the control board, trains are finally moving under their own power along the Lost Continent Railway!

I ran a steamer up the inside stretch of track first, then the diesel. The steamer seemed to slip a lot, even though it was pulling only a tender and three short cars. Not sure there’s anything I can do about that. The diesel is a good puller, easily dragging a rake of five cars all the way around two curves and through the crossings.

I can’t run trains along the outside stretch of track until I fix the crossover on the low end. It’s shorting out the circuit and I can’t isolate it without simply cutting it out, which I’ll do anyway when a replacement crossing arrives in the mail some time next week, so I’ll just wait. I can push a string of cars up the outside track with my finger, though, to make for a slightly more interesting photo.

Action along the LoCo Rwy | 5:58 pm CDT
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Sunday, January 20th, 2013

120120trackI couldn’t wait until another day to finish laying the rest of the track through the crossings and past the switches that led to the horseshoe curve back to the terminal platform. I thought I could wait until next week, but it turned out I’m a weaker man than that. I had to finish up so I could push a string of cars through it with my index finger while making ‘choo-choo-choo’ noises and imagining what it will be like when someday soon the tracks will be wired and I’ll be able to open the throttle on a big steam locomotive that will stomp its way through this stretch of track.


a little more | 9:38 pm CDT
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Saturday, January 19th, 2013

track120119Track boss Dominic Book rounded up the track gang this morning. He had to pound on the doors of every whore house and tavern on the low side of town to do it, but Dominic’s not a man to shirk from his job, nor is he a man that people say no to. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s a regular customer of all those business establishments, where they met him at the door with hot coffee and gave him enough time to drink it while they rolled the gang out of whatever corners or closets they were sleeping off last night’s revelry.

When they were all in tow, Dominic marched the gang down to the kitchen cars in the yards at Dog Water to be fed, then put them on a special train that took them out to the crossings at Pistol where a pile of ties and rail were waiting for them. While the boys set to work, Dominic conferred with the Chief Engineer over plans to lay four switches through the crossings. The weather was good for trackwork: The skies were clear and sunny and the temperature, moderate. The gang worked through the day into the evening and were doing so well that Dominic didn’t blow the whistle until an hour past dinner time, but the gang didn’t complain, because they knew before they climbed aboard the special to take them back to Dog Water that there were iced buckets of beer waiting to refresh them on the trip back.

a good day’s work | 9:35 pm CDT
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Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

switchedLate Christmas just keeps going and going and going: There’s a guy in New Jersey who sent me a whole mess of train tracks through the mail. Not for free. And he wasn’t my Secret Santa or some goofy shit like that. I paid him what I thought was a fair price, particularly because I’d been searching teh intarwebs for switches that are kind of hard to find. When this guy’s e-bay store turned up, chock full o’ exactly the kind of goodies I was looking for, I kind of squealed like a little girl. Two minutes later I’d placed my order and was camped out by the front door, waiting for the package to arrive.

That was, unfortunately, just before Christmas. What with the holidays, the blizzard, and this guy’s other personal obligations, the tracks I ordered didn’t pop up on his radar for more than a week. He finally posted them in the mail sometime last week, and I got them today.

The box he packed them in was the best cardboard box I’d ever received from an e-bay vendor. Whoopdie-doo, right? No. You’re not right. Maybe that’s not a big deal to you, or maybe every box you’ve ever received an e-bay purchase in was expertly packed in plenty of bubble wrap and closed up in a solid, new box. My purchases have all arrived in boxes that looked like they’d been recycled at least twice, taped back together with the better part of a roll of duct tape, then fell off the delivery truck and skidded along the asphalt before the delivery guy scooped it up and put it on my front stoop.

Mr. New Jersey Train Track Guy, on the other hand, sent me a box that was brand new and carefully taped shut. My address, and only my address, was clearly written across one side. There were no previous address labels, bar codes or dire warnings of toxic chemicals that might have once been shipped in the box, half-blacked-out by swirls of magic marker. I hadn’t even opened the box and I was already impressed by this guy. Then I opened the box and I was even more impressed. He’d carefully taped the track between two slabs of cardboard and packed plenty of rolled-up newspaper around it to keep it from rattling around in there.

I took the track downstairs to the layout and arranged them on the stretch of roadbed where they’ll eventually be nailed down. Then I crouched down, closed one eye and sighted along each rail. Then I rearranged the track, trying to line it all up. Then I had to go around to the other side of the layout and do the squinting-through-one-eye thing again. Then … okay, you get the whole, great big geeky idea.

switched | 9:40 pm CDT
Category: hobby, LoCo Rwy, play
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Sunday, January 6th, 2013

DSC00401[1]It’s been a little while since I’ve been working on the railroad, mostly because of the place where the tracks cross on the foreground. I’ve built that crossover three times, and even though it gets better each time, I still can’t reliably roll cars through that crossing with confidence that they won’t jump off the tracks, because about half the time they will. I don’t know if it’s because the rails are out of gauge or not in line, or both. Whatever the reason, I don’t get no kick out of laying that particular stretch of track no more.

Also, I haven’t been able to figure our how to wire it. My choo-choo trains are very simple. The little electric motors inside them run because they get power from the rails. The rails have to be separated from each other. If they touch, they create a short circuit and the engines don’t go. Obviously, when they cross over one another, they touch. There’s a way to insulate them from one another in a situation like this, but I haven’t figured out how it’s done.

While I was searching for a solution to these problems a couple days ago, I found a company in Buena Vista, Colorado, that makes crossings like this one. I searched for these last year but never did find them. Guess I wasn’t searching in the right places. I asked them to send me one of their crossovers and might get it by next weekend, or maybe sometime during the week after that. When it comes, I’ll have to tear up all the track that runs through the crossover and rebuild it.

Assuming I can get the crossover working so that trains can run through it, they’ll eventually end up looping around the big curve in the background and up around the bend that turns toward the camera in the photo. When that happens, I’ll have to throw a party and invite you over to see it.

loco update | 8:25 pm CDT
Category: entertainment, hobby, LoCo Rwy
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Tuesday, January 1st, 2013

Lost Continent Railway, model train, train, HO scaleI spent a chunk of the afternoon installing this bit of bench work for the main railway station on the Lost Continent RR — finding the right height for it, leveling it off, screwing all the bits in place. It turned out to be a lot more fiddling than I thought it would. It always turns out that way.

I wanted to keep this part of the bench work as low as possible. The “bedrock” of the bench work is already chest-high, and the tracks climb seven inches as they make their way around the various turns toward the main station. But, I had to build this final piece of the bench high enough that I wouldn’t impede the passage of dome liner cars on the tracks underneath. I found the ideal height through a little experimentation — inching the posts up and down a quarter inch at a time, then pushing dome cars back and forth along the track.

With that settled, I had only to cut the lumber I needed, then screw it in place, easily the least enjoyable part of the job, requiring that I contort myself into all kinds of yoga poses I didn’t know I was even capable of to fit myself beneath the bench so I could drill out the needed holes, then drive screws into each of them.

About three hours later, with a short break for lunch, this 20 x 48 inch piece was finally laid in place. The passenger station will eventually be erected over five tracks on the near end of the plywood sheet, and trains will enter through a throat off to the left of this photograph, where I’ll have to raise more bench work soon enough. Not today, though.

Working on the railroad | 2:58 pm CDT
Category: entertainment, hobby, LoCo Rwy
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Saturday, September 8th, 2012

A list of things I should get done this weekend:

  • mow the back lawn
  • pick up all the crap laying around in the back yard (should probably do that before I mow)
  • clean up all the crap that’s accumulated on the deck
  • mulch the branches I’ve pruned off bushes over the summer and piled in the back yard
  • mow the front lawn
  • prune the ivy that’s overwhelmed the front porch
  • clean the crap out of the garage (there’s a lotta crap around here)

What I’m going to do this weekend:

  • ask My Darling B to go to breakfast with me
  • ride my bike
  • ask My Darling B to ride bike with me
  • play with trains in the basement (I’m going to stay up all night, if I have to, to make sure I get to this one)
  • mow the front lawn, if I can work it into my busy schedule

Laziness: It can be quantified.

measurable laziness | 7:33 am CDT
Category: daily drivel, food & drink, hobby, LoCo Rwy, Our Humble O'Bode, play, restaurants, yard work | Tags:
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Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

image of a badass controller What I’ve always wanted is to have a model train layout like the old-timers used to have: A tangled pile of spaghetti in a small corner of the basement with simple block control from a master control panel that has lots and lots of switches with toggles as thick as your thumb and a throttle with a great big necker knob on it. If you didn’t understand any of that, don’t sweat it. Just focus on the throttle with the necker nob.

The control panel and the toggle switches I can handle. I knocked together a big, wooden box using scrap wood for the frame and a leftover sheet of masonite for the face, and each time I’ve had to stop by the hardware store for a length of pipe or a tool to finish the latest fix-up project around the house, I detoured through the electrical aisle and grabbed three or four toggle switches. After about a month of that I’m pretty sure I’ve got enough to finish the main panel. If I don’t, I will have in one more trip.

The throttle presents a bit of a problem. I’ve saved up enough back issues of Model Railroader to know I could figure out how to build a working throttle from scratch. The thing is, I don’t want to. Maybe some day I’ll save up enough pocket change to buy a mile of copper wire and then somehow find enough time on a weekend to hand-wind a transformer coil, but who wants to go to all that trouble? Lucky for me, it just so happens that I’ve got a controller that has heroically agreed to donate its internal organs in order that the Lost Continent Railway might have a really nice control board.

Tonight I took the first step toward getting at the innards by cutting my way into the case. I wouldn’t have had to cut it open if the people who built the case hadn’t fastened it shut with screws that can’t be undone by any of the screwdrivers I have in my work shop, but they did, so I did. I put a fresh cut-off wheel in my Dremel tool and carefully cut a gash all the way around the bottom of the case. Worked like a dream. The only down side was, a Dremel tool spins at a couple thousand revs per minute and a cutoff wheel is like sandpaper, so it burned through the plastic more than cut through it. Stunk like hell. I’ll probably grow a huge cancerous goiter on my septum from getting some of the smoke from the burning plastic up my nose.

After peeling the bottom off the case I breathed a great big sigh of relief: This was going to be easier than I thought. I was worried that the innards might all be soldered to a copper-clad board. That kind of construction makes it easy to assemble and makes wiring almost non-existent. It also makes it almost impossible to disassemble, but this controller was apparently manufactured in the days before that kind of design became popular. There’s lots of wire inside. I should be able to disconnect the parts with relative ease and reconnect them behind the control panel any way I like.

But that’s enough for tonight. Now I sreepy.

casemod | 10:34 pm CDT
Category: entertainment, hobby, LoCo Rwy
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Sunday, February 26th, 2012

To give you an idea what’s been going on along the Lost Continent Railway, here’s an overhead shot of the layout. Compare with April 4, 2011.

In my spare time this weekend, between washing clothes and tending to a plumbing emergency, I laid twenty-four feet of track; made templates to build four of the switches in the middle of the layout; made an adjustment to the road bed that ran a little too close to the track below it, preventing dome cars from passing beneath; tried and failed to figure out why I can’t seem to cut track joiners with my Dremel tool without shattering the cutoff wheel, spraying my face with bits of grit and initiating a cloudburst of cussing; conntected temporary electrical jumpers to the longest stretch of track to run a choo-choo train back and forth just for the hell of it; searched high and low for a piece of crossover track that I know I bought a month or two ago, but never did find it; and soldered, soldered, soldered but never once burned my fingers! It’s one for the record books!

All weekend long I’ve had this song stuck in my head:

I’ve been working on the raillll-road all the live-long day.
I’ve been working on the railroad just to pass the time away.
Can’t you hear the whistle blowing? Rise up so early in the morn.
Can’t you hear the captain shouting, “Dinah, blow your horn!”

Dinah, won’t you blow, Dinah, won’t you blow,
Dinah, won’t you blow your hor-roar-roarn!
Dinah, won’t you blow, Dinah, won’t you blow,
Dinah, won’t you blow your horn!

Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah.
Someone’s in the kitchen, I know-woe-woe-woe.
Someone’s in the kitchen with Die-nah!
Strummin’ on the old banjo.

Come, sing it:
Fee fie fiddle dee eye oh
Fee fie fiddle dee eye oh oh oh oh
Fee fie fiddle dee eye oh
Strummin’ on the old banjo.

I love that song. It’s one of the first songs I can remember my mother singing to me (that, and “Mississippi Mud”) when I was just a pup. I suppose it could be her fault that I’m a train nerd.

dinah | 4:26 pm CDT
Category: entertainment, hobby, LoCo Rwy, music
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Friday, February 24th, 2012

I bought a diesel engine choo-choo at the train show last weekend and it’s taken me until tonight to finally put it on the track and run it back and forth. With that lack of commitment I have to ask myself: Do I really deserve this?

But after listening to that engine purr and watching the little headlight flash as it pulled six long passenger cars around a wide curve, I have to answer myself: Oh, hell yes!

I’ve been working on the LoCo in fits and starts, a little here, a little there in between long breaks away from the layout that were filled with trips to the hardware store to buy pipe and other gadgets needed to fix broken plumbing or replace a burnt-out light switches. To make those trips to the hardware store pay off, I picked up a couple DPDT switches, wood glue and other widgets I’d need for the layout eventually. I can multitask.

I’ve advanced the track to the point in the center of the layout where I’ll have to build about a half-dozen switches. I ordered thirty feet of flex track in anticipation of a few long nights in the basement, stripping rails from the road bed, rolling in into tight curves, cutting it to length, filing the points and soldering the whole mess together. I also anticipate a lot of cussing, burnt fingers, cussing, deep cuts, and cussing. Can’t wait. Ought to be fun.

choo-choo | 6:00 am CDT
Category: entertainment, hobby, LoCo Rwy
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Saturday, February 18th, 2012

I’ve just come home from my annual trip to the Madison model train show, where I was doing a pretty good job of sticking to my promise to myself not to spend a lot of dough in spite of all the tempting toys.

In a room as big as two football fields, I found a vendor just inside the door that was selling a pile of passenger train cars for eight dollars apiece. In very short order, half the pile was my pile and I was heading to the checkout with a light heart and a big, happy grin on my face, even though I was practically stealing those cars. They were forty years old and didn’t have nearly the level of detail inside and out that pushes the cost of the cheapest passenger cars made today into the forty-dollar range. Models like that are the reason vendors can sell the empty plastic shells for eight bucks, but empty plastic shells are what I run on my layout, and the ones I picked up today are just as pretty as most of the cars I already have, so hey, lucky find.

Then I went and blew my steely resolve by dropping eighty bucks on a locomotive. I really don’t need a locomotive, but it looked so pretty, damn my eyes. It’s going to look especially good pulling all those passenger cars.

So much for promises. On the bright side, It’ll be a whole year before I can break them again.

broken | 1:36 pm CDT
Category: entertainment, hobby, LoCo Rwy
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Saturday, October 29th, 2011

I went to visit Caboose Hobbies this afternoon while My Darling B joined The Seansterator in the Occupy Denver march through the downtown area. We split up for two reasons: One of us should have remained “on the outside” in the event, however unlikely, that it would become necessary to post bail and arrange for legal representation. Also, I really wanted to walk amongst the toy choo-choos once again.

A visit to Caboose Hobbies was one of my favorite ways to spend a Saturday morning back when we used to live in Aurora. Even if I didn’t buy anything, I still had so much fun wandering through the aisles of what is still the biggest model train store I’ve ever been in, and I’ve been in a lot of model train stores. Now that the hobby is mostly served by on-line sales, stores of any size are not at all common, but Caboose is still there, thank dog. I spent a happy ninety minutes poking at boxes, flipping through magazines and books, and making a long mental list of all the cars, engines and other neat-o stuff to search e-bay for after I got back home.

Then I rode the light rail back into town. Not only does Denver have the biggest, coolest toy train store in North America, the store is just a few blocks up the street from a station on the light rail line that goes right through the city center. I could hop on the train and be back at our hotel in about twenty minutes. I could have done that, if I had known enough to change trains at the Osage stop, but I didn’t, so I ended up at Union Station. No problem, I thought to myself, I’ll hop on the free shuttle that runs through town, a work-around that would have worked if the Occupy Denver protest march hadn’t disrupted all bus service in the downtown area. Small world.

occupied | 3:26 pm CDT
Category: daily drivel, hobby, LoCo Rwy, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, Seanster, travel, vacation | Tags:
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Sunday, October 2nd, 2011

image of the Lost Continent Railway

The track gang has earned their keep this weekend.

This was the scene this afternoon at the crossing on the low end of the Lost Continent Railway. With the last of the rails laid through the crossover, the return loop was completed at about three-thirty and the chief engineer, standing on the roof of the cab of the work train’s engine, yanked the cord on the whistle to signal an early end to the working day. “It’s a good day’s work, boys,” he told the track gang. “If you stop in at The Draw Bar on your way home, the first round’s on me.” Three cheers went up from the gang as the chief climbed down from the cab.

On what was likely the last really nice weekend, which I probably should have spent in the saddle of my bike (did you know that cyclists refer to bike seats as &#147saddles?” Pretentious bastards, aren’t they?) or hiking through a park while I can still do that without hearing the crunch of leaves underfoot, I was instead in the basement of Our Humble O’Bode for several hours yesterday and today, cutting and burning my fingers as I pieced together this last daunting section of track.

I can’t say I enjoyed it. I got a lot of satisfaction out of standing back and admiring the finished product, but getting this far required a lot of cussing. Yes, required. There are some things I really can’t apply myself to unless I have the freedom to blow off steam through cussing prodigiously while I’m trying to work my way through a really tough problem. I’m not sure I’d be able to ever join a model railroader’s club unless the rest of the members cussed like construction workers.

The section of track outlined in blue painter’s masking tape was especially satisfying to complete because it required that I concentrate intensively on planning, execution and, of course, cussing. I had to cuss ten times as hard to complete that crossover (the Hella scale of cussing increases logarithmically, with each escalation being ten times more blisteringly offensive than the previous onslaught). I laid down blue tape so I could peel up the glued-down ties in case I botched the job, something that seemed likely as my scratchbuilding skills are no better than rudimentary at this point, but that wasn’t necessary, thank dog, and I was able to finish off the crossing this afternoon by laying flex track on the road bed and connecting it to the hand-laid track.

Compare to the same view on May 28th.

crossed | 6:24 pm CDT
Category: entertainment, hobby, LoCo Rwy
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Saturday, October 1st, 2011

It has been a day.

Everything was fine to start with. Morning coffee with the morning news, one sucked, the other didn’t. While B got ready to go to the farmer’s market, I threw a load of dirty clothes into the wash machine and cranked it up, then went about the rest of my morning chores: Filling the magical cat food machine that automatically dispenses kibble three times a day, then tromping down stairs to sift the crap out of the kitty litter, my favoritist job in the whole wide world! Yeah, not really, but I have to say that because I’ll blow my brains out if I ever admit to myself that I’m going to spend the next ten to fifteen years of my life sifting cat poop. So I don’t admit it.

The wash machine happened to finish the first cycle and drain the wash water while I was in the basement. The water runs down a pipe that fills up the sink in the basement, and I noticed that the water wasn’t draining. At first I thought it was draining slowly until I went back five minutes later to check on it and found the water hadn’t gone down by as much as a half inch. That’s as bad as not draining at all. Great.

But we had a trip to make to the farmer’s market, so I put it out of my mind and enjoyed walking around cap square with My Darling B. I am her bag bearer. My job is a lot easier since we bought a little cart to hang the bags from. Bag bearing used to pull my arms off but now I just drag the cart around and help her arrange the bags from the hangers. And eat scones. One chocolate chip scone is the price I ask for dragging the cart around all morning. Seems fair to me.

I set to work unclogging the drain as soon as we got back, because we couldn’t wash clothes or use the kitchen sink until it was draining again. I tried the usual tactic of shoving a garden hose down the drain and flushing it out, but that didn’t work very well this time around so I went to the garage and got the sewer snake. I hate using that thing, mostly because of the gunk that’s stuck to it when I pull it out of the sewer. It washes off, but yuck. And yet, even though I jammed twenty feet of coiled stainless steel down the sewer and gave it a good thrashing, the water still backed up in the drain. I don’t know what else to try. It may be time to finally call the professionals. That’s gonna suck.

After I got that mess cleaned up I stripped off all my mucky clothes, then stood in a blistering hot shower for about twenty minutes. I don’t usually go for ultra-hot showers, but after I’ve been splashing around in sewer water I’d like to be boiled. Since that’s not possible, I crank the temp up as hot as I can take it and stand under the shower head until my skin is bright red.

My Darling B had lunch ready when I came out, so we sat down to pulled-pork sandwiches. I had worked up enough of an appetite to wolf down two. Then I napped. I felt as though I deserved it.

My nap reminded me of the time when I was sick and trying to get some sleep in our bedroom while a woodpecker was hammering away at the side of the house. When I woke up, I tromped down stairs again to fetch a can of wood filler from the work shop, went out to the garage to grab an extension ladder, and when around to the side of the house to see about patching the gaping hole the little bastard made in the siding. It was an impressively large hole for such a little bird. He must have been working on it most of the summer. I scooped quite a bit of wood filler into it, patted it flat with a putty knife, filled in a few smaller holes and generally smeared plenty of wood filler all over the patch of siding he appeared to find so tasty, hoping the epoxy would be the ultimate yuckfest that would discourage him from ever coming back.

I had to visit the hardware store to buy some wire staples for a future project, stapling a ground wire to the back of the house where it runs down from the attic to the electric meter. I don’t know what it’s for but I pulled it off the siding last summer and had to yank another part of it off a window frame when I painted all the frames this month. I’m going to staple it back on tomorrow or maybe next weekend, unless another plumbing emergency swallows up most of a day.

And then I played with my toys. If the Justification Police had come around to see what the heck I thought I was doing, I would have pointed at the mucky sewer snake in the pail under the basement sink. I’m still laying track around the return loop at the very end of the Lost Continent Railway, but I’m nearly done. It’s a three-track around a half-circle six feet across. There are six switches and a crossover I had to build myself. In other words, there’s a lot of tiny little fiddly bits to piece together.

Today, for instance, I pieced together several bits of track leading up to a switch. Each bit had to be precisely cut to length so all the bits would fit snugly together. I bought a specially-made tool like a wire cutters that’s supposed to cut through the track easily and leave a flat, clean end, but the one I have does neither. It’s gone dull and I haven’t been able to sharpen it no matter how long or how carefully I work it over with a file. Old-timers used to cut track with a razor saw, but that’s always been a chore for me. One day, when I was desperate to cut some track, I grabbed my Dremel power tool and fitted it with a cutoff wheel. It cut through the rail like butter. I’ve cut rail with the Dremel every since. The only downside is that the friction from using a high-speed power tool makes the rail hot enough to sting my fingers.

The bits of track are held together with track joiners, inventively-named clips that must be tight enough to hold the track ends but loose enough to slide into place. They are, in fact, always, always too tight or too loose. They’re also too long. I usually cut about a third off the end, then trim the tongue off the other end so both ends are flat. I’m not sure what the tongue is supposed to do, but what it ends up doing is pushing the track ends apart, resulting in a lot of cussing. I’m not against cussing, but I am against wasting time.

I cut the track joiners with the Dremel tool, too, and that’s why I have blisters on my fingers tonight. The cutoff wheel makes the tiny track joiners so hot they burn. I’ve tried holding them with pliers, or in a vise, but I can’t make the cut as quickly that way. Speed trumps comfort. Blisters don’t change that equation.

blister | 7:52 pm CDT
Category: daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, LoCo Rwy, Our Humble O'Bode | Tags:
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Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

Sorry, not much time left over to drivel tonight. I spent a couple hours doinking around with train track on the model layout in the basement, and when I thought I couldn’t justify spending any more time on that, I went upstairs, sat my butt down in the recliner and read other people’s drivel posted on the interwebs. That made sense.

I can claim to have spent at least a couple hours wisely this evening: I went to dinner at Alchemy, a nifty local bar, with My Darling B. We wish Alchemy was a lot closer to our house, within walking distance, say, then realize that, if it were, we’d spend all our free time and most of our money there. I don’t consider that a bad thing, just not very thrifty, but then if we stuffed all our money in a bank account we wouldn’t have any fun, would we? And it’ll all be worthless after the economy implodes, anyway. Might as well spend it while we can still afford thick, juicy burgers and put on a layer of fat for the lean years ahead. Geeze, could I be more cynical? Damn digressions…

And I washed some clothes! And put away the dishes! I’m an engine of productivity!

doink | 10:20 pm CDT
Category: daily drivel, entertainment, food & drink, hobby, LoCo Rwy, Our Humble O'Bode, play, restaurants, scrub-a-dub-dub | Tags:
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Monday, September 19th, 2011

image of trackwork on the Lost Continent Railway

The track gang has had all summer to lie in the sun, but now that the dogs days have passed it’s time to get back to work. This crossing has been on the mind of the chief engineer all summer while he’s been at home mowing the lawn and painting window frames, even while he’s been trying to relax on the deck with a Tom Collins in one hand and his best girl’s hand in the other. He finally picked up the phone last Sunday night and asked Astrid at the telephone exchange to ring the track boss on the party line. “It’s about time to get this behind us,” he announced to Dominic. “Round up the boys and tell them we start laying track this week. I want to have trains rolling on the lower end of the Lost Continent before leaves start to fall.”

This is the bit I’ve been dreading and eagerly anticipating at the same time all summer long. I knew I would have to build this crossing from scratch because nobody sells a Code 83 19-degree crossing with a slight bend to the outside on either track, and I couldn’t fudge it with the closest thing I could find at the store, a 25-degree crossing, so I started tinkering with a soldering iron and lengths of rail stripped from old flex track. Never having handlaid any track before in my life, I knew I would misfire more than once. My first attempt was horrific. The second, passable. This one benefits from lots of lessons learned and is even showing promise it might prove to be the charmed third time. We’ll see. I have yet to fit two of the rails to form the diamond, and even if I can get that right I’m already sure I’ll have to figure out how to get a razor saw into the flangeways to make them a little wider. But it’s promising.

on track | 10:42 pm CDT
Category: hobby, LoCo Rwy
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Monday, May 30th, 2011

image of the Lost Continent Railway

The track gang finished laying the roadbed around the three-track loop a little more than a week ago. They did it so quickly and so well that, when they finished and lined up at the pay car, they found to their pleasant surprise that I’d authorized the clerk to dole out a bonus of five silver dollars to each of them for their much-appreciated work. I didn’t lay eyes on them again until the very early hours of Thursday morning when they dragged their hungover asses into the bunkhouse and slept until late Friday afternoon when I sent Dominick Books, the boss of the track gang, over there to wake them up, a job that he did with relish. I heard he used a fire hose.

The boys worked the rest of the weekend into dusk on Friday grading the right of way and laying roadbed through the approach to the loop, and did a damned good job of it, everything laid out according to the plan. Even Cadwallader, the chief engineer, was pleased with it, and that was after he dragged the chains and transit out there to measure the geometry and make sure the crossover and switches would end up in the right place. The Old Cad is a man widely known never to have smiled at his own mother, but he had a grin on his ugly mug and was even whistling when he sauntered back to the office yesterday evening, plans rolled up under his arm.

After talking it over with Dominick about what might be an appropriate token of my appreciation, we agreed that putting a double sawbuck on the bar at The Thirsty Camel would give them a good head start on their day off this holiday weekend. They drank it up in under an hour but Patch, the manager at the Camel, put the rest on their tab, knowing that next Friday is payday.

thirsty | 9:05 pm CDT
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Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

image of lost continent railway

Here’s an update on my project to glue together every piece of scrap lumber in my workshop until it fills one whole end of the basement. As you may be able to tell from the helpfully-placed photograph, it’s coming along well.

To be perfectly candid, not every bit of it is scrap wood. I’ve made quite a few trips to the local hardware store to buy about a half-dozen two by four-foot sheets of plywood that I cut into strips and used in various ways, mostly to substitute for high-quality lumber that would have cost me an arm and a leg if I’d built something this big with the good stuff. It’s the cheapskate gene in me taking over. Plywood is sooo cheap, and easy to cut into almost any size and shape I need.

But quite a lot of the wood in this bench came straight out of my scrap pile with only a cut or two on the miter saw to clean it up and make it usable. Just this evening I was rifling through the boxes of sticks and stub ends to find pieces I could use to support the slabs of ply that will be the ground under the railroad tracks. I get about two usable sticks for every splinter in my hand. I don’t know if that’s typical for most people. They’re almost all annoying at worst and easily plucked out between the nails on my thumb and forefinger, so I keep on digging.

About once a day, though, I end up with a splinter that’s not quite so innocuous and, even though it’s still pretty easy to pull out, doesn’t let go without drawing blood. A little cussing goes a long way toward making these bearable.

Then, maybe about once a week, I get one that slides in just under the skin, not too deep, so I can clearly see it, and the end breaks off at the surface, denying me a handle to get hold of it. “Go ahead, try to get me out,” these taunt me. Fingernails and cussing won’t do anything but drive these deeper into my flesh. These call for much more drastic measures. These get the sharp end of a knife.

There seems to be an unspoken agreement among most people that prevents them from digging at their flesh with knifes while in view of the public. I can usually keep this in mind but, the other night when I caught one of these splinters that stung in the worst way, I grabbed the first sharp instrument at hand, a craft knife, the kind you usually see construction workers use to slice open cardboard boxes, and started chopping away at my middle finger, forgetting for the moment that I was in the middle of making a remark to my youngest son.

“I can’t believe you’re doing that,” he said after watching me, without comment, for about a minute.

Splinters! | 9:51 pm CDT
Category: entertainment, hobby, LoCo Rwy
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Monday, April 4th, 2011

image of model train benchwork

Just because I haven’t been posting updates about my project to rebuild the LoCo Railway doesn’t mean I haven’t been tacking on a little benchwork here and a little more there to keep the project going. Whenever I can find twenty minutes or so I sneak down to the basement to see what I can add to it, but there’s been quite a lot going on during the past two weeks to keep me from doing much. For the past five days I’ve spent all day every day downtown with My Darling B at the 13th Annual Wisconsin Film Festival, not thinking of work or anything else except relaxing in a darkened room watching beautifully made films. And the weekend before that I was … well, I can’t remember what we were doing the weekend before that, but it kept me really busy.

Instead of going straight back to work the day after the film fest, My Darling B got the brilliant idea of taking off the Monday after so we could enjoy an emergency back-up, time-delayed weekend during which we could sit around in our pajamas, reading the paper and sipping coffee, in order to put ourselves in the right frame of mind to go back to the office. Did us a world of good.

After this morning’s coffee and pajamas, I stole a few hours this afternoon to cut some plywood for the stretch of road that runs past the front side of the layout. The ply had to be screwed down to the benchwork so it was level from side to side, and so that it ran slightly uphill the long way. Took a bit longer to figure out than I thought it would, but I got there eventually.

Progress! | 9:37 pm CDT
Category: entertainment, hobby, LoCo Rwy
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Sunday, March 20th, 2011

image of model train benchwork

Even though this looks like much the same photo I took of the layout benchwork yesterday, it’s a do-over, because an unwritten but widely acknowledged law of the universe clearly states that we can’t have it exactly right the first time, can we?

In point of fact, the big doughnut I cut out and glued together yesterday was exactly, but exactly as big as I meant to make it: sixty inches across. The reason I had to rebuild it was not because the Big Cosmic F.U. reached in and bumped my elbow to make me gank up an angle or cut a board too short. No, what happened was that, for reasons I can’t quite wrap my head around, I figured that the doughnut had to be sixty inches across. That was not correct. The doughnut had to be sixty-nine inches across, and the difference is significant enough that I could not fudge it, alter the plan just a little bit and use the sixty-inch doughnut after all. There will be no fudging going on here. I’m sticking to the plan.

So, after I pulled my head completely out of my ass – knock wood – I revved up the table saw again and ripped another two-by-four sheet of plywood into eight-inch-wide lengths, then chopped them up into angled pieces with the miter saw and glued them together to make the much wider doughnut that you see in the updated photo. And now I’ve got a roadbed that matches the plan of the layout, and all will be well. Huzzah.

Do-over | 12:43 pm CDT
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Saturday, March 19th, 2011

I spent about three hours trying to figure out how to make this goddamned thing.

I needed a great big doughnut-shaped piece of plywood sixty inches across I could lay a curve of railroad track on. The easiest way to do this is: Get a sheet of plywood sixty inches wide, draw a big circle on it, cut the circle out with a jigsaw – done!

But that leaves you with a big sheet of plywood with a sixty-inch hole cut out of the middle that you can’t do much with, if anything. To use the plywood up as completely as possible, I figured that I could cut it into nine-inch-wide strips, then cut the strips into much shorter blocks with ends angled so that, when I put them together, they would make an almost-circle. I figured a twelve-sided shape would give me the best circle, and I knew that I would have to cut the ends at a fifteen-degree angle, but the part I had the hardest time figuring out was how long to make each piece.

You’d think the internet would have the answer to this, but it doesn’t, or at least it doesn’t have an answer I can understand. Most of the forumlas I found had cosines and square roots and all that geometrical crap I didn’t understand when I had a teacher to pester with stupid questions. No teacher hanging around my house today, though, so I had to come up with something on my own.

And what I came up with was this: The big circle was sixty inches in diameter. That means the circumference was almost one hundred eighty-eight and a half inches. I wasn’t building a circle, I was building what is technically known as a dodecagon, but twelve sides is so many that it almost looks like a circle, so I figured each piece of it should be fifteen and three-quarters inches long on the outside by dividing 188.5 by twelve and calling it close enough.

And you know what? It worked. I started getting kind of worried as I cut up the plywood pieces because they looked too short, but after I pieced it together I laid a tape measure across the whole great big thing and what do you know, it turned out to be sixty inches across. You’re as amazed as I am, aren’t you?

Doughnut | 4:53 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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Sunday, February 13th, 2011

image of benchwork rebuild

It’s another post about the big plywood box I’m building in the basement! I keep adding to it even though I haven’t brought it to your attention in quite a while. If I had, the posts would have looked something like this: It’s a big box. It’s a bigger box. It’s an even bigger box. So you can probably see why I haven’t mentioned it.

I’ve been making the box bigger and bigger each weekend by adding more benchwork on either side. It would make one hell of a great basement bar if I changed gears at this point and put a walnut top on it right now, lined the wall with shelves for gin and rum, and hung a disco ball from the ceiling. Too bad I don’t drink anything stronger than beer. And I’m boring. A basement bar just doesn’t fill any of my social needs.

A basement train set, on the other hand, suits my social needs perfectly. Make what you want out of that, I’ve come to terms with it. So there won’t be any walnut top, no bottle-lined shelves and no disco ball. Instead, there will be fluorescent lighting and a nifty control panel to make the trains go around. It’s not as wild and crazy as a bar but it’s still kind of fun if you never bothered to mature any farther than eight years old.

The train tracks will make a big figure eight, crossing in the middle of the room over the big box in the center, so I’ve been working on building the bench tops that reach out like wings from either end of the middle. Last weekend I added wings to the right, and although you can’t quite see it in this photo, I spent a few nights this week putting together one of the wings on the left. Then I had a facepalm moment.

I realized as I was finishing up the left-hand wing that after the benchwork was put together I’d have one hell of a time turning on the overhead flourescent lights. Up until this point I’d been walking right up to them and yanking on the pull chain. That’s no problem right now, but after the benchwork covers the floor and fills in that whole end of the basement I won’t be able to walk over to the lights on the far side of the room at all, so building the benchwork came to a screeching halt while I mulled over how to wire together all the lights.

And that’s what I’ve been doing this weekend. A few trips to the hardware store, a few hours on a stepladder, a little cussing and some sore muscles later, and now the lights are plugged into a series of overhead electric outlets that are connected by an easy-to-get-to switch on the wall. And now I can get back to building a great big box.

Big Box | 2:19 pm CDT
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Sunday, January 30th, 2011

image of demolished model train layout

Day One of the Rebuild of the New Lost Continent Railway: The benchwork. [I know it looks like a big, empty box with no sides. Play along with me here.]

I’ve been pecking away at this a little bit through the week, whenever I could find an hour or two after dinner. The frames at the ends and in the middle of the bench are salvaged from the previous incarnation of the LoCo but I had to clean them up a bit to make them work for this layout: saw off some dowels, pull out some nails, shorten the legs from fifty-three to forty-eight inches, and add blocks to the corners to make the bench a bit more rigid (I hope).

They were cleaned up and ready to go this morning and I had even found time to rip a set of rails from three-quarter inch plywood, so I after our Sunday morning routine of coffee and a show I changed out of my jammies into some work trousers and began the first steps of piecing together the New Lost Continent Railway.

I finished the frame nearest the camera this morning, working slowly to see how well the salvaged pieces fit together as part of the new plan. I thought of this mostly as a test; if it didn’t work out, I was going to chop it up into little pieces and start over again with new lumber. Happily, it went together so smoothly that I ripped four more rails this afternoon and pieced together the back half of the bench this evening.

This is about all I had time for today. To go on to the next step, which will have to be moving a pile of books out of the corner if I want to have the room I need to keep building, I’ll have to go back to eking out an hour here and there after supper.

Boooooard! | 7:06 pm CDT
Category: entertainment, hobby, LoCo Rwy
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Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

image of demolished model train layout


I demolished my model train layout this weekend. The original section still stands, but only because it’s going to take me the better part of a day to disconnect the electrical fixtures and unscrew all the hardware that I’ve attached to it over the years. I’m hoping to begin rebuilding later this week.

This is all John Armstrong‘s fault, or that’s who I’m going to blame, anyway. Ever since I laid eyes on a track plan he drew for the August, 1953, issue of Model Railroader, I’ve been dreaming about building it.

First, I tried to adapt it to fit the bench work I’d already built. I didn’t want to tear it down and start over, because, you know, yuk. But no matter how I fiddled with it, I couldn’t get it to fit. And the more I fiddled with it, the more I knew that fiddling with it would only make it so much less fun than the plan that Armstrong drew in the first place.

So I started to think in terms of building the plan as is, or nearly so. Armstrong’s 5 x 10 plan called for a minimum radius on the main line of twenty-four inches, with eighteen-inch curves on the branch lines. I didn’t want the curves to be quite so tight, and I had more room to play with, so I drove over to the library one afternoon last week and used their copier to enlarge the drawing until it was twelve inches on the long side. Then I re-drew the grid lines on the layout to make it a 6 x 12 plan. Finally satisfied that I could make the curves almost thirty percent bigger and still fit it into the back of the basement, I tried to get myself into a frame of mind that would let me demolish the bench work I’ve been building up for the last four years.

image of demolished model train layout

I started by picking noncommittally at the acoustic tiles I’d used instead of homasote for the track bed, just to see how cleanly I could separate it from the masonite subfloor. Pretty cleanly, it turned out. The tiles were way too easy to pry off with my fingers, and I could peel the acrylic adhesive completely off the masonite with a chisel in one long stroke with a little practice. In no time at all I’d carved up the rest of the tiles with a craft knife and was prying them off one at a time until they were all stacked at my feet. And I had to admit to myself at that point that I was pretty goddamned committed to demolishing the rest of it.

The masonite was glued to the cross-braces of the bench work but came up surprisingly easily without cracking. I’ll be able to reuse almost all of it as subfloor for the roadbed on the new layout. Next, I knocked all the cross-braces out with a few taps from a hammer. They were just glued in, too. I undid the screws fastening the benchwork frame to the Phase II module next, then broke the frame down until nothing was left but the end brackets. I’m going to cut each one of them in half, add a leg and use them as part of the bench work to brace up one end of the new layout.

image of demolished model train layout

I still had quite a bit of steam built up, so I started demolishing the long module on the end of the layout by severing the bridge that connected it to the station yard. This was also glued together and easy to knock to pieces with a few taps of the hammer. Quite a bit of the bench work was assembled this way, but the crossover bridge was a kludge so head-slappingly jerry-rigged that I’m amazed how well it held up under the onslaught of my periodic abuse. I laid down and tore out track over this part of the layout at least three times and it never gave way. Thank goodness.

That done, I began tearing the tiles off the long module, then cleaning up the masonite, and finally throwing away all the junk. That last step ran a close second to the hardest thing I did, including tearing to pieces the layout I built with my own two loving hands, as temps have hovered around ten degrees all day, which is why I spent pretty much all afternoon in the basement working on my layout. I was outside a grand total of maybe ninety seconds and I FROZE MY NIPPLES OFF! Literally. I now have no nipples.

image of demolished model train layout

Now I’m down to the really hard part: Getting all the passenger cars and kit boxes and tools and other crap that’s piled up on the bottom shelf of the original module, which I’ve been using as a work bench, and moving it away some place else, any place else, so I can finish this demolition and start rebuilding.

As it turned out, cleaning up all that crap didn’t take as long as I thought it would: I had just about all of it loaded into boxes and stashed on the other side of the basement with enough time before lunch to tear all the tiles off the top and peel the adhesive off the masonite. The clean-up went so quickly because a lot of the kit stuff was still in the original boxes or the original box was close by, and quite a lot of the small parts that were part of a model I’d been working on were already carefully stored in small boxes or pill bottles. I’ve lost a lot of parts to carelessly leaving them on the desk top, thinking it would be just a very short time before I put them back. Now that I know that never happens, I always drop parts into boxes or bottles as I take them off.

image of demolished model train layout

After pulling up all the tiles, cleaning off the masonite boards and stashing them away I still had a little time left before lunch, so I dismantled the portion of the bench work that I added on to the original bench, which was only four feet long and just under three feet wide. This was what I started with five years ago, what would have been my N-scale shelf layout that was almost immediately abandoned for an HO-scale shelf layout. I never had a plan for either one, just an idea in my head that was constantly morphing, and as soon as I started on the HO-scale layout it morphed again into a layout that would need more room, hence the addition, and every addition after that.

These constant changes were fun to pursue for a while, but over the years they’ve only grown frustrating as I’ve never had a track that I can run trains over. BUT NOW, I HAVE A PLAN! And I’m not going to change it in any way at all. I’ve drawn a sketch for the bench work and I’m going to start putting that together this week. Six by twelve, it’s going to run the length of the back wall, just as this one eventually did, but it’s not going to take up nearly as much of the room as the old one did, and there will be two openings in it, one on each end, so all of the track, even the corners, will be within reach without pulling a muscle or standing tip-toe on a stepladder, something I couldn’t count on before.

Train Wreck | 3:28 pm CDT
Category: entertainment, hobby, LoCo Rwy
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Monday, January 17th, 2011

track plan by John ArmstrongJohn Armstrong was a freaking genius, was he not? This is just the kind of layout that makes boys big and small pucker their mouths and go “Oooooo!” Or at least that’s what it did to me. I go gaga for layout track plans with lots of track looped on top of itself with a crossover in the middle, and if there’s a cockpit where I can sit right in the middle of the action while I make the trains go round and round, all the better.

This layout gets a much longer look from me because it’s all about passenger train movement. That’s a five-track passenger terminal in the upper right-hand corner, and there’s another major passenger station right in the middle of the layout where the figure eight crosses itself. Four other stations lie in various corners of the layout: a nifty curved stop called 54th St on the lower left, another one on the curve in the upper right corner, North Orange in the valley to the right of the crossing, and Hillside at the top of the layout in the middle right.

The only change I would make to this layout is a second cockpit in the middle of the “bottom” loop. I’m sure Armstrong left it out because he didn’t want to overdo it, or for some other artisitically sound reason, but I’m no artist and I would want as many different points of view as I could stick my head into, so that little town on the bottom would get cut out and I’d have another seat right in the middle of it.

I am seriously considering tearing out what I’ve already laid down and starting over with this plan, because it’s such a good plan and because I never really had a plan to begin with. A plan like this would make much better use of the limited room I have. And I love that trackage.

John Armstrong, you’re a genius | 4:47 pm CDT
Category: hobby, LoCo Rwy, play
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