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!

CNR 3737 :: Soldering done!

There are watershed moments in any project. One of the biggest is getting the thing built and ready to paint. On Friday, I achieved that with CNR 3737 – my 2-8-2 project.

CNR 3737 - Nose

The extensive re-detailing has taken three years of off-and-on work under the tutelage of my friend Andy Malette. I’ll admit that’s about two years longer than I thought it would take – and my soldering leaves a lot to be desired. But Andy – and others – have looked at it and said “Don’t worry: it’s fine” and right now, I’m happy to take their word for that.

CNR 3737

It sure needs a good cleaning. I foresee myself picking up the tab for lunch with Ryan Mendell in exchange for a couple of hours in his workshop, with his grit blaster. With luck, that’ll strip off any oils, flux and other unwanted stuff, and provide a good tooth for the primer.

CNR 3737

And as Andy has noted, steam engines combined ash/soot, grease, steam oil, and water vapour to create truly foul gunk in corners and on surfaces. So whose to say that’s not what I’ve added as I’ve bashed my way from a USRA standard Light Mikado to a CNR S-3-a?

Thanks, Andy, for the lessons and the patience!

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.

When Scott and Sharon came to town

What do you do when there’s a federal election on, and you’re worried about the outcome? You entertain visitors from out of town – that’s what! The timing was perfect when Scott Thornton (one of the creators of the ProtoThrottle) emailed to say he and his wife Sharon would be in town, and asked if he could visit to see the layout. Of course!


Back when Scott and his friends started selling the ProtoThrottle, I polled a few friends about whether they were interested in one. I figured we could do a bulk order to save some hassle on shipping. Hunter Hughson and Ryan Mendell were both interested, so I ended up ordering three of them. And since I figured that a dinner was long overdue with Hunter and Ryan, I invited them and their better halves to join us too.

I gave Scott a quick tour of the layout – well, not that quick: I think we disappeared to the basement for the best part of an hour. Once everybody arrived at my place, eight of us walked up to Harvest Kitchen – a neighbourhood restaurant that specializes in locally-sourced food and general yumminess. We had a wonderful time.

I was reminded, again, that the true strength of the hobby is in the friendships it fosters. For me, that’s more important than the trains themselves. I’m really glad Scott got in touch.

And it was a great way to forget about the election for a few hours.


Greater Toronto Train Show 2019

Earlier this month I spent a Saturday with my good friends Chris Abbott and Mark Zagrodney at the annual Greater Toronto Train Show. A highlight for me was the opportunity to run a couple of Proto:48 models on an exhibition layout there. Click on the image, below, to read more on my Achievable Layouts blog…

SN 650 - Train Show Test Run

CNR 3640 in RMC


I’ve written a feature for Railroad Model Craftsman magazine about my model of CNR RS-18 3640 (shown above). This is an Overland brass import from many years ago, which I tuned so it would run better. I then made some basic cosmetic changes and added DCC, sound (with two speakers) and lights. I then painted the model – including creating my own masks for colour separation.

You can read about the model in the October, 2019 issue of RMC. Click on the cover to visit the RMC website:

RMC Oct 2019 cover

“Buzzard” at the World of Film International Festival in Glasgow

If you’re in Scotland on October 6th, Buzzard – the short dramatic film shot partially in my layout room last summer – will be enjoying its film festival premiere at the World of Film International Festival in Glasgow. It is competing against 16 other shorts from around the world.

Joy and Filip at Port Rowan
(Joy and Filip discuss a shot overlooking Port Rowan. Click on the image to read all the posts about this film…)

In other news, Joy’s 2017 film – the award-winning Game – is now available for viewing via Omeleto on YouTube. And you can still catch In The Weeds – another award-winner, from 2015 – on Vimeo.

I am super excited for director Joy Webster, co-writer Ben O’Neil, co-producer Lucas Ford, and the rest of the Buzzard cast and crew. And I’d like to once again thank those of you who joined me in backing Buzzard during its fundraising effort last fall. Your contribution helped complete this film, and helped market it to festival selection committees – so it wouldn’t be in Glasgow without you.

I wish Joy the best of luck at the Glasgow festival. I only wish I could attend…