Old posts resurfacing


I’m cleaning up some old posts in my blog and a couple of them have been sent to email subscribers as “new” posts. They’re not – it should be obvious by the photos in them. But if you’re wondering what’s happening, that’s what’s going on.

See you in Burnaby in May!

RMMBC - Logo

If you’re in the greater Vancouver area, I’m a guest speaker at the 5th annual Railway Modellers Meet of British Columbia. This is a convention organized by the members of the 7th Division PNR-NMRA, and takes place May 22-24, 2020 at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby.

The theme for this year’s gathering is “The Road Less Travelled” and in my opening address I’m to set the tone. To that end, I’ll be exploring some of the rabbit holes I’ve been down in the hobby, and how they improved my enjoyment of railway modelling. I’ll also offer suggestions about how others can broaden their focus, and (hopefully) reap more rewards from this great hobby of ours. I’ll also be giving a clinic that focuses more specifically on Port Rowan, and modelling in 1:64.

For more on the convention, click on the logo at the top of this post. Bookmark the RMMBC site and check back often – more information will be posted there between now and May.

I hope to meet some of you there!

Model Local in 2020

Model Local

One of the main reasons I switched from modelling a Maine two-footer to modelling the Canadian National in southern Ontario was practical: the real CNR Simcoe Sub is a lot easier to research.

When I modelled Maine, I was a 12-hour highway drive and an international border away from my inspiration. That meant setting aside several days, and incurring the expense of a hotel (plus lots of gas, meals, and so on). Those adventures were fun, but in the many years I modelled Maine I think I only visited three or four times.

Today, with Port Rowan, I can drive to Port Rowan and St. Williams in less than three hours. I’ve done several day-trips to the area, which always provides ideas for the layout.

The lesson is simple: The closer you are to what you model, the easier it’s going to be to explore your prototype. I mention this because my friend Bernard Hellen has written an amazing, inspirational piece about a potential prototype in his neighbourhood. To read more, click on the image at the top of this post – and enjoy if you visit.

While you’re there, have a look around Bernard’s blog, which is about modelling the Quebec Gatineau Railway – a modern short line running between Montreal and Quebec City. It’s worth the time.

(I’m turning off comments on this post: I encourage you to join the conversation about modelling local on Bernard’s blog.)

New year, new office for Leedham’s Mill

It’s been a while – a long while – since I worked on the Leedham’s Mill buildings for Port Rowan. My hiatus from this project was the direct result of being unable to convincingly model the cinder block walls of the office addition.

Leedham Mill - Office addition 3D print

Courses of cinder blocks will be pretty evenly laid, and the finished wall will look straight and neat. I first thought to use a commercial embossed sheet, but I could not find one in 1:64 – and one can’t get away with using a material in a “close-enough” scale, because a cinder block building is defined by its blocks. (Nobody builds a cinder block building that’s “X feet long by X feet high”: they build it “X blocks long by X blocks high”. Window and door openings are defined in terms of blocks, too.)

I decided to try my hand at scratch-building the wall, with block veneers cut from styrene strip. I found it was impossible to keep the pieces in straight rows and my first attempt at the office ended up looking too messy to be convincing:

Leedham Mill - Office first attempt

That was in early 2018, and the project sat idle while I figured out what to do – and then got distracted by other things.

In March of last year, I found a solution: my friend Stephen Gardiner wanted a sound decoder installed in one of the locomotives for his Liberty Village layout, and while we worked on this I asked if he could design some 3D Printed cinder block wall sections for my mill. Stephen has done a lot of 3D Print work for himself and for others. (And while he’s primarily interested in HO scale, one of the most popular items in his Shapeways Store is his S scale track speeder, now available in two styles: Scroll around until you find them.)

Stephen and I measured the model and looked at the prototype photographs, did some math, and figured out the basic dimensions – in blocks – for each of the four wall sections. He then drew up a block, did a lot of copy and paste work, and designed the walls for me.

The prints work beautifully. I mounted the 3D Print material on 0.060″ styrene, sanded the abutting edges to 45 degrees, then cut out openings for four windows and a door.

The next challenge was windows. The project sat some more while I reviewed my options – and then got distracted by other things.

Recently, I noticed that the walls had curled a bit – the 3D Printed material shrinks, apparently. I braced the walls with scrap styrene, then glued them together to form a box – and then decided the only way I could make the windows I wanted was to scratch-build them. I spent a couple of days of cutting and fitting pieces of styrene strip… and in the process I became best friends with Tamiya styrene cement and its little, tiny applicator brush:

Leedham Mill - windows and cement

With the windows built, I applied Tamiya putty to the corners to fill some gaps, then cleaned up the corners with a razor blade and a pick. I also added a styrene foundation – smeared with more putty to give it that concrete look – and then gave everything a shot of primer. I introduced the office to the main part of the building and set it on the layout. So far, I’m pleased!

Leedham Mill - Office Test Fit

Leedham Mill - Office Test Fit

I’ll have to finish painting the office and add window glazing before I can attach it permanently to the rest of the structure, and there are roof peaks to add (plus lots of work on that big wooden building). But the cinder block problem is solved. Thanks, Stephen!

Finishing up, a month later…

Finishing Up

Well, it took more than a month, but I’ve now finished running the freight extra to Port Rowan that Robin Talukdar and I started back in early December.

I was in the layout room doing something else and realized, “Hey – I have 15 minutes: that’s all I’ll need.” So, out came the throttle and I reassembled the train in Port Rowan, then ran it back to its terminal in Hamilton (actually, staging), with a stop in St. Williams to collect a couple of cars we’d set on the siding for retrieval on the return trip.

Finishing Up

I don’t often run the layout by myself anymore: I have done it enough times that there’s nothing really new in the experience for me (and that’s the reality of closely modelling a specific prototype: things tended to be done the same way, day in and day out. That’s great for a real railway, which is about doing a job – less so for a model railway, which is about having fun).

But sometimes when I’m in the mood I’ll have at it – and this was one of those times. I do need to find more of those times, as I enjoyed the 15-minute ops session. (Better yet, I need to find time to invite friends over to run with me!)

Overall, the layout ran well – although I had a couple of instances where my wireless throttle dropped its Wi-Fi connection, which is odd since it’s never more than 20 feet from the base station.

To read more about the start of this particular run, click on either of the photographs.

7mm GWR Gubbins x3

Over the holidays I had a week to myself and was looking for something constructive to do. I decided I would tackle some projects that have been sitting (marinating?) around the workshop. This is one… or, rather, three.

GWR passenger cars - gubbins
The gubbins for three Great Western Railway passenger cars, coming together on my workbench

No – those aren’t for Port Rowan. Here’s the story:

My friend Brian Dickey is building “Roweham” – a lovely exhibition layout in British O scale (7mm – 1:43.5). I have helped him exhibit this layout at a number of area shows – I even have the proper attire for this, in the form of a replica GWR waistcoat:

Me and GWR 528
Click on the image to read more about Brian’s layout

For the past couple of years, I’ve also owned a lovely little Victorian-era GWR locomotive – a 517 Class 0-4-2T from the Lee Marsh Model Company:

517 Class #528

I decided that my little 517 Class needed some appropriately Victorian passenger cars to haul – and that I needed to explore building some UK rolling stock, to discover for myself how that’s different from building North American equipment. So a couple of years ago I ended up with three kits from Slater’s Plastikard for Great Western Railway four-wheel passenger cars. I have two Brake-3rd cars – like this…

Slaters Brake-3rd

… which will bracket a single all-3rd – like this:

Slaters All-3rd

The whole train – three passenger cars plus a locomotive – will still be less than three feet long, despite being in O scale. Talk about economy of space! (I’ve since learned that I should have a 1st/2nd Composite car instead of the all-3rd – so I may have to order another kit at some point.) Admittedly, these cars (and my locomotive) are far too old for the era Brian models – but I’ll sneak them onto the layout when he’s not looking, and I’ll enjoy displaying them behind glass at home between shows.

The kits have been a very enjoyable build, so far. I’ve had to learn new terminology – and new techniques. I’m particularly impressed by many thoughtful components – including plenty of photo-etch material, crisp plastic parts and brass castings, full interiors including seats and partitions, working compensation to ensure that these cars track well, and an impressive amount of prototype information in the instruction manual.

What’s especially impressive about these kits, to me, is that the photo-etch fret says “©1988” on it. Yes – these kits, with components that we’ve come to expect from top-tier North American models – are more than 30 years old. While North American manufacturers do some things better than what’s found in these kits, the fact that they stand up so well, after so long, suggests we can still learn a lot from our cousins across The Pond.

I hit a roadblock with these kits: the paint and lettering. The cars have five colours on them: cream over chocolate, with red window frames, black borders, and gold lining. But even that challenge pales in comparison to the lettering. Holy moly – Methsfix Transfers completely defeated me. Ugh.

I thought these would end up as abandoned projects because I would not be able to finish them to the quality that my 517 Class engine deserves. But while discussing this with friends I learned from Simon Dunkley that Slater’s recently started offering these cars pre-painted. What’s more, Simon noted that Slater’s has a reputation for excellent aftermarket service, including replacement parts.

I contacted Slater’s and the company will indeed sell sets of sides and ends for these cars, pre-painted and lettered. (If you have untouched sides and ends you can ship them back, or you can buy the sides and ends in addition to the painting service – which is what I did.) I’ve ordered new sides/ends for all three cars and will continue to work on bits and pieces of the frame while I wait for these to arrive.

But I’m sure impressed by the models, and by the company. I can’t wait to find more reasons to buy from them!

Unfinished business with Robin

Unfinished business 3

The weather outside was frightful but the train room was delightful when my friend Robin Talukdar found himself in town with a couple of hours to kill yesterday, and asked if he could drop by to “run a train”.

We grabbed coffees, talked about Robin’s recent experience operating on the SP Clovis Branch that Pierre Oliver is bringing to life in his basement, and then headed to Port Rowan.

A freight extra was the order of the day, behind CNR 10-wheeler 1532. With four cars in tow, we had a lot of work ahead of us – well, a lot for my layout, anyway.

We sorted the team track at St. Williams, setting off two cars and lifting two others, which we placed on the siding to collect on the return trip.

Unfinished business 5

Unfinished business 4

We then headed down to Port Rowan, where we collected one car while setting off two. We placed a British American tank car on the elevated coal delivery track to aid with unloading fuel for a local dealer, and shuffled a car into the team track. We had one car to lift – one of the Milwaukee Road’s distinctive rib-side boxcars. And we turned the locomotive in preparation for heading back.

Unfinished business 1

At this point, Robin’s window closed so we left things as they lay. The MILW car is on the main, the van is set in front of the station, and the 1532 is on the turntable lead. Next time I have somebody over, we’ll finish the work.

Unfinished business 2

Robin has undertaken several layouts. Currently, he’s working on the Guelph Spur in Proto:48, a line jointly operated by Ontario Southland and GEXR. Go have a look – he’s doing interesting things.

Great to see you, Robin – and sorry we couldn’t visit longer. I look forward to our next get-together!

Dinner Train with Robinson and Ilana, and Bernard and Holly

Train M238 - St. Williams west
CNR M238 emerges from the Lynn Valley as it rolls eastbound into St. Williams

Last night, Mairi and I hosted a dinner party for a couple of couples. An old friend from university, Robinson Kelly and his girlfriend Ilana curious to see my model railway – and because we thought they would make a great addition to the evening, we invited fellow railway modelling enthusiast Bernard Hellen and his wife Holly to join us.

Robinson is not a member of our fine hobby – but he really enjoyed his introduction to it and jumped at the offer to come over sometime to experience an operating session. I will have to think about how to introduce that to someone who is brand new to the hobby, especially since I have developed a lot of operations procedures, materials, paperwork etc. I don’t want to scare him off! Robinson would be an ideal addition to our hobby: He’s smart, curious about the world around him, and has the time and the resources to consider building a layout. We’ll see. I’m not going to push him, though: He’s more than welcome to enjoy the hobby through me and the Simcoe Sub to Port Rowan.

As I noted, Bernard is a fellow hobbyist. He models the Québec Gatineau – a modern G&W-owned short line running between Montréal and Québec City – in HO scale. Bernard’s layout is not as far along as mine, although he has started some scenery and the work he’s done is excellent. I think he enjoyed showing my layout to Holly – it was her first visit – because it gave her an example of what he’s planning to achieve. Holly and Ilana both enjoyed the tour.

Bernard lives relatively close by (at least in Toronto terms): I can walk a half block south of my house, hop on a streetcar, and be in his layout room with no transfers in about 20 minutes. In addition the interest in trains that Bernard and I share, the four of us get along really well – so we need to see more of each other. A lot more.

We had an amazing evening – so amazing, I forgot to take photos while giving the tour. (Thanks to Bernard for sharing the image that leads off this post.)

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I don’t build layouts for the trains: I build them for the friendships they foster. As a “social lubricant”, Port Rowan was a huge success last night and I’m definitely looking forward to seeing more of these friends!

Ops and dinner with Stephen

Cornfield meet: Oct 2019 Ops

Recently, at a gathering chez Harbord House of like-minded modellers, I lamented that I don’t get enough opportunities to operate my layout. More on that in a moment – but my friend Stephen Gardiner, who was part of the group, said, “Let’s pick a date and do it!”

So we did – yesterday. I prepped the layout in the morning and when Stephen arrived after work we were ready to go.

The first order of the day was to run a short work extra eastbound out of Port Rowan. This was hauled by CNR 1 – a 44-Tonner. I have equipped this model with a decoder and electronic flywheel, but it did experience a few pick-up problems regardless. I will have to look into that. Fortunately, it was not the main event and soon cleared the line.

Extra 1 East met Extra 80 West at St. Williams. Extra 80 West was the day’s local freight, with cars for St. Williams and Port Rowan. With the exception of a few missed couplings – caused by not having the knuckles properly aligned – the session proceeded flawlessly. It’s a testament to the beautiful locomotives designed and built by my friend Simon Parent, as well as to the power of rubbing the rails with a graphite stick.

Stephen took on the dual role of conductor/brakeman, planning our moves, tracking the paperwork and operating the track switches. I perched in the engineer’s seat. The session lasted just over an hour, by which time we were ready to head for Harbord House for pints and a meal.

Stephen at St. Williams
(Stephen collects the waybills for cars in St. Williams from the bill box, which represents the station. He’ll then use the desk behind him to plan our moves in this small community)

Trevor at Lynn Valley
(Stephen caught me as I ran our train through the Lynn Valley and past the water tank. I look pensive. I’m probably not…)

Mocean at Port Rowan
(Mocean – one of my three border collies – keeps us company during the session. It’s not an ops session in my layout room without a dog under foot!)

Stephen at Port Rowan
(We’ve recently arrived in Port Rowan, and Stephen is planing our moves at the slide out desk opposite the not-yet-built station)

As I said off the top, I don’t get that many opportunities to run the layout. Of course, I could run it by myself – and for the first few years, I did that – a lot. It is well-suited for one-person operations. But once one has mastered the operating scheme, it becomes fairly repetitive. Any layout will do that – but it’s especially true of a layout designed for solo ops.

But that’s okay, because I don’t build layouts for the trains – I build them for the friendships. I enjoy the relaxed ops sessions that my layout enables, because it gives my friends and I breathing space to talk – about the hobby, about other things going on in our lives, and so on.

From a purely practical perspective, I’m grateful that the layout performs as well as it does, given the infrequency with which it gets operated. The layout’s simplicity sure helps here – with a minimal number of switches and no other fancy track work or wiring, there’s relatively little on it to go wrong. And the aforementioned graphite stick is really the bees knees for track conductivity. It’s been more than six years since I so treated the rails and I have yet to clean the track, other than after I’ve worked on something messy in the area.

It was great to run a train or two – and the session reminded me of many of the things I like about the layout – from its relaxed pace of operations to the scenery:track ratio I’ve achieved, which really places the trains in the scene instead of overwhelming it. That’s such a compelling argument for me.

The answer, for me, is not to run the layout more often – but to make opportunities to run it more often because I’m hosting one or two of my friends in the hobby. I’ll work on that.