Sergent Couplers

I’m trying to not get too excited about these…
Sergent S Couplers vs HO photo Sergent-S-Couplers_zps5663a6c6.jpg
(Three EC64 S scale couplers, plus one RC87 HO coupler for comparison)

Thanks to John Degnan, who alerted me to the existence of a Sergent Engineering Yahoo Group, I now know that the return of S scale prototype action couplers from Sergent Engineering is a step closer to happening.

Sergent used to offer S scale couplers as white metal kits. I used them on my On2 equipment when I embraced Maine two-foot railroading back in 2003. They were nicely designed but required a fair bit of fettling and my hobby skills were just not up to building couplers that operated consistently. Sometimes, I’d nail it and get beautiful couplers that operated smoothly and reliably. More often, however, I would get beautiful couplers that wouldn’t couple.

This was not an issue with the kits. It was an issue with my abilities to assemble something where finishes and tolerances matter.

But I loved how the couplers worked, and when Frank Sergent introduced his HO EN87A couplers – die-cast and pre-assembled – I bought them in bulk and converted over all of my On2 equipment. They worked wonderfully, even if they looked a little on the small side:
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Now that I’m building a standard gauge layout in S, I’m using Kadee S scale couplers. But I’d love to try the Sergent couplers again.

Why? Well, it’s not just an appearance thing. It’s also how the couplers operate.

With a steel ball used to lock the coupler, uncoupling is done with a small magnet on the end of a wand. One simply taps the wand to the top of the coupler and it’s ready to open. This, in my opinion, is much easier on the rolling stock than shoving an uncoupling tool into the knuckles and twisting.

It’s also easier to do under the layout lighting system I use. My lights cast very strong shadows, especially between coupled boxcars cars. Note how dark the freight car ends are this photo, compared to the sides, and imagine trying to see the couplers to insert a skewer:
Coupled boxcars photo Boxcars-CouplerDemo_zps0d65bf00.jpg

It’s not always easy. One has to thread an uncoupling pick straight down – not taking off the brake wheel or the associated end platform in the process – and insert it between the moving faces of the knuckles. Often as not, the tool ends up between the moving face of one coupler and the back of the knuckle on the other. It can be a bit like spearing the last olive in the jar – but with the lights out.

With Sergent couplers, such feats of eye-hand coordination aren’t necessary. In fact, one could introduce the magnet to the couplers from the side, since it doesn’t need to be inserted between the knuckles. That’s a whole different order of easy.

My understanding is that Sergent Engineering has been working to re-introduce the S scale couplers in a design that’s easier to build. This has been rumoured for quite a while, but – quite understandably – the S scale couplers are a niche product compared to Sergent’s HO offerings and like many things in this hobby, the expected release date kept getting pushed out as Sergent Engineering focussed on introducing new products for its primary market.

There’s still no definitive word on the status of S scale Sergent couplers. But the lead photo – posted by Frank to the Yahoo group – shows that the new coupler design looks similar to the HO die-cast version, with a solid shank with insert instead of a shank built from two halves. I’m pleased to see that – it offers hope that these new couplers will be easier to build and that the finished couplers will be more consistently reliable.

If and when the new couplers arrive, I’ll buy some and if I can get them to work, I’ll buy more. Of course, if they’re offered pre-assembled, I’ll order them in bulk and do a complete switch over.

If you want to know more, I suggest joining the Sergent Engineering Yahoo Group to watch for updates.

Peter’s Model Railroading

I’ve mentioned Peter Vanvliet‘s website before on this blog. Peter’s currently building the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Chartiers Branch – a modestly-sized S scale layout – and doing a great job of it.

Click on the image below to visit his website. It’s always a fun place to explore and I get lots of ideas for my own layout there. You might too – regardless of the scale in which you work!
Peter Vanvliet's layout photo PeterVanvliet-Overview_zps03fe8c94.jpg

A very brief moment of weakness

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While Hunter Hughson and I waited for Mark Zagrodney to arrive for yesterday’s ops session, layout design discussion and dinner, I hauled out some of the Proto:48 equipment that I’d acquired for a planned Southern Pacific layout. Hunter is a musician as well as a modeller, and we had been talking about the shortcomings of trying to push full-sized locomotive sounds through the tiny-and-therefore-tinny speakers that we’re forced to install into our models.

I thought Hunter would enjoy hearing what can be done when one has the space for a decent-sized speaker. And even in a small prototype, such as this SP 2-6-0, there’s a veritable cathedral of space inside the tender. In this case, I was able to fit a 1.77″ diameter High Bass speaker. As this brief video from a couple of years ago demonstrates, the sound is pretty spectacular compared to what one is used to in HO – even captured through the condenser mic on my camera:

The detail on the O scale locomotives in my collection is also impressive. I take no credit for it – it’s all the work of the builder (Boo Rim) and the importer (Glacier Park Models):
A study in piping photo SP-1767-06.jpg

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Back-up light photo SP-1767-04.jpg

And the couplers – retrofits from Protocraft coupler kits – are as realistic as one could want. They even operate correctly: to uncouple, one uses a dental pick to lift the cut bar, which in turn pulls the pin.

After playing with the locomotives and some other equipment for a bit, we went onto other things – but it got me thinking about whether I’d picked the right scale (S) and the right prototype (CNR) for my current layout. Did I make a mistake?

So this morning I re-read one of my earliest postings, called “Why S Scale?” I reflected on my observation from more than two years ago that, as I put it:

When trying to draw an O scale plan for my layout space, I always came away unsatisfied… (and)… my two primary objectives for the layout were in conflict.

That took care of the waffling – and serves as an example why it’s useful to document one’s progress in the hobby. Re-reading my blog this morning, I was able to cast the hard, cold light of reality on yesterday’s moment wistful nostalgia for O scale. 1:64 is definitely the right scale for me – for this layout room, at least.

I also had a look at my entry about the SP Friant branch on my Achievable Layouts blog. In that post, I included a rough sketch of an S scale SP layout for my space. It reminded me that in O scale, the already-compressed scenes in that plan wouldn’t fit at all:
SP Friant Branch Layout in S scale (space test) photo SP-FriantBranch_zps8053816f.jpg
(Click on the plan to read more)

That said, I’m going to hang onto my O scale models, which slumber in a display case in my home office. I enjoy looking at them – and I really enjoyed running a couple of them on a simple test track yesterday.

Maybe – someday – I’ll figure out how to use them as the basis for a layout:

It might have to wait for a move and a bigger layout room.

Or perhaps when I get the S scale layout a little further along I can think about doing a UK-style exhibition layout: Another advantage of those big speakers is that the sound the generate can actually be heard in a public hall.

Failing that, maybe I can find space in my current house for a shelf switcher. It may seem counter-intuitive but when the trains themselves are so big, even a simple “Inglenook Sidings” style of layout can be entertaining.

Well, we’ll see. It’s a hobby and I’m in no rush to make a decision on this. But in the meantime, yesterday’s fun also reminded me that I still have to install DCC and sound in some of these locomotives, a procedure that includes a second decoder to provide independent control of headlight, back-up light, class lamps, illuminated number boards, and cab interior light. Working on these will be a nice project when I need to a break from Port Rowan and recharge my enthusiasm for layout-building.

It’s all good!

Trains and dinner with Hunter and Mark

I had a most enjoyable visit yesterday from my friends Hunter Hughson and Mark Zagrodney. We discussed various things, including Hunter’s plans for his home layout. And we ran a freight extra on the Port Rowan branch.

And once again two truths were reinforced. First, run the layout often. Second, keep on top of the little things.
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I’m self-employed and as is typical for people in my position, I’m either underemployed or buried under projects. This is a busy time of year for one of my main clients and that’s been carving into my hobby time. No complaints – it’s nice to be busy before the holidays – but that means I haven’t been running the layout frequently. Also, when I have had some hobby time, I’ve been forging ahead with new construction – adding ripples and cattails to the Lynn River, working on trees in St. Williams, and so on. Let’s face it: That stuff is more interesting than tweaking track or replacing the missing stirrup step on a boxcar.

But when the layout doesn’t get run, things start to seize up, or shift, or otherwise go pear-shaped. And problems don’t get discovered and corrected in a timely fashion. As the bottle of CA in the lead photo suggests, I was having problems in the yard throat at Port Rowan last night.

Two issues arose:

First, freight cars were derailing when being shoved through the diverging route on the switch to the coal track. I traced this to some tightness of gauge and this morning I worked on the switch. I think I’ve corrected the problem. Time will tell.

Second, the actuating wire on the derail was a little too high, and was snagging on the screw that secures the pony truck to the frame on the 2-6-0 we were using. This wasn’t a problem when the derail was installed, but perhaps something is shifting a bit as the temperature and humidity levels switch from “summer” to “winter”. No matter: I took a grinding stone in a Dremel tool and removed just a bit of the tip of the offending piano wire. In the process, I managed to knock off the block – the portion of the derail that sits on the rail when the mechanism is set, to actually do the derailing. A very careful application of CA restored the block to its proper spot.

We also had a derailment as the engine rolled off the turntable. One of the rails on the bridge had come loose near the end and shifted a bit out of gauge. A drop of CA secured it back in place.

Finally, in St. Williams, the pony truck on the 2-6-0 derailed twice as the engine pulled out of the team track spur. I tried to repeat the problem this morning but for the life of me I couldn’t get the locomotive to derail. I suspect in this case that the switch was not throwing all the way: there may have been some loose ballast trapped behind a point, or the mechanism may just have been stiff from lack of use. I’ll keep an eye on this.

When problems started cropping up, I felt badly that my friends weren’t having a flawless operating experience. But I didn’t try to fix the issues right away. Instead, I grabbed a piece of notepaper – I keep a stack in the pigeon holes on the slide-out desks at St. Williams and Port Rowan – and wrote a to-do list. You can see it in the above photo. And I’m going to do my best to address any problems the day after they occur. It’s the only way to keep on top of maintenance – even on a small layout.

Meantime, I have to look through my rolling stock and identify cars that have missing stirrups or other matters that need my attention. I’m happy – once again – that I decided to build a simple layout based on a modest prototype. I can’t imagine keeping on top of the to-do list for a basement-filling empire!

The lads stayed for dinner, too.

I cooked a lot when I hosted work or operating sessions on my previous layout – the Maine On2 effort. I like the social aspect of the hobby and even more rewarding than an operating session is an operating session paired with a great meal with friends.

Lately, I’ve gotten out of the habit and we’ve been hitting local restaurants for a meal – just as much fun, but it does take more time than serving up something in the dining room. And at this time of year, it’s almost impossible to get a table anywhere that serves a decent dinner, unless one has a reservation.

So, looking for something both easy and hearty, I make Frank Sheedy’s Medieval Stew and paired it with mashed potatoes with chèvre. For the stout, I find the Guinness called for in the recipe makes the stew bitter so I went with Mill Street Vanilla Porter – a very good choice.

For dessert, I paired an apple pie with Niagara Gold from the Upper Canada Cheese Company. Mmm… pie…

“S” isn’t just for “Serious”

My friends in the S Scale Workshop recently took their layout to a Christmas-themed train show. They’re excellent modellers committed to showcasing craftsmanship and historical modelling in 1:64. But in the spirit of the season – and in the interest of entertaining the kids – the Workshop embraced the lighter side of the hobby…

Click on the image below to read about “HO, HO, HO with S, S, S”… and enjoy if you visit!
Workshop Christmas Train photo SSW-RBG2013-07_zps44a815f5.jpg

Well done, guys!

Track: Then and Now (TMC-07)

I was delighted to be asked by Mike Cougill to contribute a feature about modelling branch line track to The Missing Conversation – Mike’s quarterly, digital publication that encourages a fine scale, craftsman approach to the hobby.

The issue – Volume 7 – is now available for download from Mike’s site. Click on the image below to read more about Track: Then and Now:
TMC-07-Cover photo TMC07-cvr_zpse2bf284f.jpg

As Mike notes, this is not a rehash of Detailing Track, the excellent book he produced (which is still available). Neither does my feature simply rehash the material I’ve presented on this blog: I took all new pictures, and wrote a fresh story with – I think – many ideas I haven’t covered here previously.

If you buy a copy, I hope you enjoy it. Mike’s philosophy – one which which I am in complete agreement – is that this hobby is worth doing well. It’s worth pushing one’s limits and trying new things. It’s worth being inspired by – and striving for – excellence, even if that means going back and redoing portions of one’s work that are no longer the best one can do.

I’m enjoying The Missing Conversation and look forward to each new issue.

Winter project

As this photo shows…

Baggage Wagon - 2013-12 photo BaggageWagon-2013-12_zps9cf97cd3.jpg

… it’s definitely the season to spend time at the workbench and in the layout room. And what more appropriate project for a Canadian enjoying some free time over the holidays than a snow plow?
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I’m modelling Port Rowan in August but when my friend Andy Malette offered me an Ambroid / Northeastern Scale Models kit for a snow plow in 1:64 I just couldn’t resist. Andy has built this kit before (and done a beautiful job) and this kit was was surplus to his requirements. I don’t know where Andy got it, but since it’s “S Gauge” I assume it’s been through a few hobbyists’ hands since E and H Model Hobbies thanked the original owner for their patronage:
Ambroid Plow photo Plow-02_zps890d3df7.jpg

I don’t know when this kit was produced but I’m sure it was quite a while ago. There are several clues, including the contact info for Northeastern Scale Models on the instruction sheet…
Ambroid Plow photo Plow-03_zps490ede8e.jpg

Another clue is the box contents. While it’s not a block of wood and the instruction to “carve away everything that doesn’t look like a snow plow”, it’s a far cry from today’s craftsman kits. That said, the parts are very nicely shaped with minimal fuzz. With a strong mug of tea to hand, I hauled everything out of the to identify the components and make sure nothing was missing or broken:
Ambroid Plow photo Plow-06_zps1fd3eada.jpg

The good news – the great news – is all parts are present and accounted for. This is quite an accomplishment, given the kit’s age and the somewhat bashed condition of the box.

As can be seen in the lower right of the above photo, a few of the walls for the cupola have split. But the breaks are clean and I’ve sorted out which pieces go with which and taped them together so I don’t lose them. I’ll glue them together after prepping the wood, and they shouldh’t pose any problems with it comes time to assemble the cupola.

I must admit this will be my first attempt at a vintage craftsman kit so I’m approaching it with a bit of trepidation. But the instructions cover everything one needs to know to build the kit, and it’s curiously refreshing to read a set of directions that doesn’t talk down to the modeller. Ambroid obviously assumed only a craftsman who knows how to measure, cut, shape, and finish would buy this kit.

As the instructions note, the kit is based on a Boston and Maine prototype. But I intend to finish it as a Canadian National unit. For guidance, I have an article from CN Lines magazine that profiles the late Ron Keith – known as “The Plow Man” for the many, many examples he built:
CN Lines 60 - Mr Plow photo CNLines60-MrPlow_zps64f7bbe0.jpg
(Coincidentally, this is Issue 60 – the same issue in which I introduced my layout to the magazine’s readers)

I picked up this kit from Andy a few months ago but I’ve had other projects on the go. Now that winter is really here, I’m in the mood to tackle it. The first step will be to prepare the wood components with Scalecoat Sanding Sealer – my friend Pierre Oliver has a bottle set aside for me (thanks Pierre!) which I’ll pick up when I visit him over the holidays.

If nothing else, this will be a fun construction project and an interesting conversation piece.

Trees in BRM magazine (2013-12)

If you haven’t already purchased the Gordon Gravett books on making trees, well… why not?

But if you’re still on the fence about these, the December 2013 issue of British Railway Modeller magazine includes a four-page article by Michael Russell about building trees using Gordon’s techniques.

While I recommend the books for the full story, this article does give one an idea of the construction process and the results that can be achieved, and may convince you to invest in books that will help you to build awesome trees for your layout.

Thanks to reader Simon Dunkley for bringing this article to my attention…

A visit with Barry

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Barry Silverthorn is not only the Executive Producer of TrainMasters TV, he’s also a fellow Canadian who is a big fan of S scale (in fact, he’s offered some really neat structure kits and details as the owner of Grand River Models)… an all-round neat guy. I found out that and more on Saturday when Barry dropped in for a brief visit – made even shorter, unfortunately, by a tenacious winter storm that snarled traffic across southern Ontario.

TrainMasters TV is a new venture – a video subscription service. But Barry is no stranger to broadcasting and he’s bringing a wealth of professional experience to the table, so it’s going to be a slick show – akin to what one would find on a cable network. Think of it like the Discovery Channel for railway enthusiasts. I’m looking forward to seeing how the show unfolds. I’ve signed up for a two-year subscription. Click on the logo below if you want to know more:
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I also found out that Barry has a personal connection to the Port Rowan area, so it was great to show him the layout, to describe what I’ve done so far and outline my plans for the future.

Barry – come visit again sometime, perhaps in more clement weather. Maybe we’ll even run a train or two on the Port Rowan branch!