Plow train line

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To the best of my knowledge, this is not correct for a CNR snow plow. But as I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, I really like the look of plows with a train line air hose running up and over the top of the plow and entering the cupola. It must be a hold-over from my days modelling the Boston and Maine Railroad.

This afternoon, I added this detail to my Ambroid plow kit:
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I fabricated a bracket from some flat brass bar and installed a BTS train line valve, to which I added the short air hose and glad hand. I bent the mounting pin by 90 degrees so it faced up, and trimmed it just after the bend. I also fabricated a pipe and pipe support for the roof over the plow.

I then found some small brass hex nuts in my collection of tiny fasteners. I glued one to the end of the BTS valve mounting pin, and glued the other to the end of the pipe on the roof.

Finally, I connected these two subassemblies with a piece of appropriately-sized wire – still in its insulation, and trimmed to length so that I could introduce a bit of sag into it at appropriate points.

Some black-grey on the rubber parts, and flat black on the pipes and other hardware, and I was done with the front. I’ll dry brush some Neo-Lube over the pipe, valve and glad-hand during the weathering process to give them an oily/greasy metallic look.

While this is not an accurate detail (as far as I know), I think it does a better job of telling the story of a plow in transit than a small train line air hose sticking out of the plow front itself. Given that I model August, an in-transit plow is the only kind one would see on my railway.

Meanwhile, I know this arrangement is accurate to plows from other roads. Maybe my shop forces stole the idea as a way to keep snow, ice and debris from bashing up the train line. In any case, I’m pleased with how this detail turned out – and it’s my railway, right?

While working on train lines, I also added the appropriate hardware to the back of the plow. This was a much easier operation: I simply drilled a hole, glued the BTS part in place, and added a bit of paint.

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The Galvanick Lucipher

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Now that’s an uncoupling tool!

As I mentioned in a previous post, while testing my first batch of EC64 S scale couplers from Sergent Engineering I quickly realized I needed a lit uncoupling tool. I had purchased a couple of penlights at the local hardware store, and taped a Sergent model MS tool to the barrel of one of them.

It worked, but I wasn’t perfectly satisfied.

First, the light was a bit peely-wally – emitting as it did from a single LED. Second, I was having trouble figuring out how I would secure the tool to the penlight with something nicer than packing tape. And I didn’t like the on-off button on the end of the pen, which was sometimes fussy to activate.

So today I built the beast pictured above.

I already had some other small LED flashlights around the workshop, including this REACTOR light. It’s in an all-metal housing with a machined-in diamond pattern in two bands for a sure grip. It has a nice big power button on the end. And it has an array of nine LEDs so it issues plenty of light: Compared to yesterday’s first attempt at a tool, this one is The Galvanick Lucipher.

It’s also, actually, a cheaper flashlight than the penlight – which was already pretty cheap. And I think it looks neat.

As the photo suggests, I wrapped two bands of flat brass bar (0.015″ x 0.042″ – Details Associates) around the barrel to either side of the knurled grip just behind the lens. I cut them to length, soldered their ends together, and then soldered the Sergent uncoupling tool across the two bands. (If the solder joints hold, then great: If not, I’ll figure out how to add a mechanical connection between the bands and the tool.)

It works much better: It’s very comfortable in the hand when opening knuckles for coupling or uncoupling, or for lining up couplers. And it’s unlikely to wander off in someone’s pocket after an operating session.

First Sergent ops session

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(The first operating session using equipment fitted with Sergent S scale couplers)

Having installed Sergent Engineering S scale couplers on several pieces of equipment this week, today I set aside some time to run my first operating session with them.

Overall, things went very well. Not perfect – but it was a great start.

My Sergent-equipped roster includes a 10-wheeler, a full-length (90-foot) combine, and several freight cars of various types, lengths and weights. I ran a mixed train with a locomotive, a boxcar for St. Williams, a hopper car for the ramp track in Port Rowan, a boxcar in LCL service, and the combine. I placed a refrigerator car in the team track at St. Williams and a boxcar at the head end of the team track in Port Rowan – both to pick up.

This selection would require me to run through all turnouts and do a fair bit of shuffling of cars into the proper order, so it would be a good workout for the couplers.

First, the great news: uncoupling is flawless – better than with the Kadee 808s. I simply held the uncoupling tool over the couplers and they parted like magic. I could do this by inserting the tool straight down between the cars, or in from the side.

Next, the good news: for the most part, coupling was flawless too. A couple of times, I did not have the couplers lined up correctly. And a couple of times, I had them close – close enough that the faces met, but not close enough that the knuckles actually closed.

That said, I realized the biggest challenge to lining up couplers correctly was insufficient light between the cars:
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The 12v halogen landscape lighting system I use to illuminate the layout casts strong shadows – which is great for setting the mood, but poses problems for seeing couplers. The eyes aren’t any younger, either.

Mine is not the only layout that faces this challenge and for a potential solution I’m borrowing a tool that works – brilliantly – on many layouts on which I’ve operated: I’ve strapped the uncoupling tool to a pen-light:
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I’m not sure I like this particular pen-light but my local hardware store has several styles and they’re all fairly inexpensive so I’m sure that if I don’t like this one, I’ll find one that works. Once I’m happy with my lighting choice, I’ll do something about that awful packing tape. I’m sure I can come up with a tool that’s more professional looking and nicer to the touch.

Regardless, I can’t argue with the difference such a tool makes:
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I’ll continue to experiment with the Sergent couplers in future operating sessions, but in the meantime that’s the first in the books – and as first sessions go, it went just fine. I’ll look for improvements in my use of these couplers in future sessions – and report my findings on this blog.
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A cleaned up layout plan

It’s been almost three years since I first posted a plan of my layout on this blog – so it’s time for a new one:
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(Click on the plan to view a larger version)

This plan is based on an original, drawn for me by my friend Chester Louis for an article I wrote for the Layout Design Journal. (Thanks again, Chester!)

There have been few alterations from the original design. Some of the benchwork is slightly different, which made the layout easier to build. But for the most part the changes are minor and cosmetic – involving the tweaking of structure locations and suchlike. The most obvious change is that I split the Lynn River into two segments to make it easier to scenic this area.

Still, I thought it would be nice to add a cleaned-up plan to this blog since my rough scribblings – while adequate to the task of building the layout – leave something to be desired from an aesthetic standpoint:
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(Click on the plan to view a larger version)

The good news is, regardless of the quality of the drawing, I remain throughly satisfied with the track arrangement and the building and operating challenges this layout presents.

The Forest AND The Trees

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My friend Mike Cougill publishes a really neat, quarterly digital magazine called The Missing Conversation, in which he uses his talent and insights as an artist to help people learn how to see – really, really see – various details that we add to our layouts: everything from trackwork to trees.

The current issue – now on sale in the store at the OST Publications website – is all about trees and forests, and what to look for when trying to model them convincingly.

As Mike notes on his blog, many modellers consider trees and other scenery elements to be “just filler”. I think that’s a shame because here’s the reality-check about our hobby:

Most of the people who visit our layouts have no clue whether we’re doing a good job of modelling locomotives and rolling stock. Even those who are lifelong hobbyists would have to be familiar with our chosen prototype, era, and location…

… but everybody knows what a real tree looks like.

Well-done, realistic scenery does more than the trains themselves to convince people that our hobby is an awesome, worthwhile pursuit.

Mike likes my trees, and asked me to contribute an article about how I use them on my layout. I was happy to do so:
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I should stress that my contribution is NOT a rehash of the material I’ve covered on this blog.

Instead, I explore some of the design challenges I faced on this layout and how I was able to use trees effectively to overcome them. With all-new photos – including many from a walk I took along the Lynn Valley Rail Trail earlier this year – I discuss how I balance three objectives that are sometimes in conflict.

These are:

– The influence of my prototype

– The practical constraints of my layout and the room in which it’s built

– The story I’m trying to convey through my modelling to both casual visitors and regular operators

What I do not cover is how to build a tree.

Mike and I discussed this at length, and we feel that Gordon Gravett has written the definitive books on this subject. (I’ve written a lot about Gordon this blog -so if you want to know more, type “Gravett” into the search box on the home page and have a shufty through the results).

Instead, Mike and I hope that this collaboration – 72 pages about trees, forests and layouts – builds on the excellent work that Gordon has done.

Mike did the heavy lifting on this volume, as he always does. He explores how a real forest grows and then focuses his artist’s eye on four common North American tree varieties to help teach readers how to really see a tree – which is the first step towards modelling one effectively.

I had so much fun working on this feature that I shot a some video and put together a short movie to give potential readers a better idea of what I cover in my portion of The Missing Conversation / 09 : The Forest and The Trees. Enjoy if you watch, and after you do I hope you’ll consider heading to OST Publications to buy a copy…

(You may also view this directly on YouTube, where you may be able to enjoy it in larger formats)

Thanks again for the opportunity to work on this, Mike. It was great fun!

Caboose coupler comparison

I’ve now had a chance to mount some of the new S scale couplers from Sergent Engineering onto a few pieces of equipment. Time for some observations.

First, they look awesome.

Here are a couple of photos showing Sergent EC64 (left) and Kadee 808 (S scale) couplers (right):
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With my eye used to the oversized Kadee 808, I have to retrain it to look at the prototypically-sized Sergent EC64 as “normal”. But what a difference they make – both in size and general appearance. I particularly like how they look with the NWSL Proto:64 wheel sets I use.

Second, I can adapt them to all of my various pieces of equipment.

I have now built and mounted Sergent couplers on 12 pieces of equipment – including a 4-6-0, a combine and my under-construction snow plow. The plow front coupler and both couplers on the locomotive required modifications to fit the draft gear:

– On the tender, I had to ream out the coupler to fit the larger mounting pin on a coupler box from S Helper Service.

– On the plow and the engine’s pilot, I needed to cut back the coupler shank and drill a new mounting hole (something I would have to do with the Kadee 808 coupler in any case).

But these are the rare exceptions: Since the majority of my couplers are mounted in the appropriate, Kadee 808-compatible box, I’m confident I can overcome any installation issues.

Third, reliable construction is not an issue.

One of two of my finished couplers are a bit stiff – they probably need more graphite and more working in, which they’ll get over the course of normal operations. But 22 excellent ones out of 24 is a pretty good success rate for something that has to basically be perfect. I’m confident I’ll have 24 out of 24 in no time.

So I’m satisfied that I no longer need to worry about whether my assembly skills are up to the task. The work involved is not at all difficult – anybody but an absolute beginner in the hobby can build these. Soldering a wire to a rail is more difficult. And Frank Sergent reports that assembling these will be even easier once he replaces the current investment-cast knuckle with a die-cast one: When that happens, no filing will be necessary.

The next task is to run some trains and see whether they perform reliably in operation. I started doing this yesterday when my friend Chris Abbott dropped in for lunch.

Uncoupling is awesome: I much prefer using Frank’s magnetic uncoupling tool to poking a skewer between the knuckles – something that I think invites opportunity to break something.

As for coupling, we had a few hiccups with getting couplers aligned properly – but later in the day I did some more switching and found it much easier going. I suspect this will be a simple case of getting used to the new normal and learning to work with the couplers. It should come relatively quickly.

And I have some time: Sergent Engineering plans to replace the knuckles and reintroduce the EC64K S scale couplers in the late summer. Meanwhile, I can put the ones I have through their paces and confirm that I’m ready to place a bulk order with Frank.

Plow progress, couplers, and mods

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I’ve made a bit more progress on my Ambroid snow plow kit. As the photo above shows, I’ve added the headlight casting (fitted with an MV Lens – catalogue number “L 228″). And I’ve added the kit-supplied handbrake to the roof.

I’ve also installed Sergent couplers at both ends and should share some notes on this…

The front coupler required the most work. To position it correctly, I had to shorten the shank and then devise a way to pin it into the coupler pocket casting. I removed the back part of the coupler shank using a cut-off disc in my Dremel Tool. I then filled the slot where the spring goes by securing a piece of 0.060″ x 0.080” styrene strip into the slot with CA, then trimming it to size after the CA had cured.

Finally, I found a small brass screw in my collection to mount the coupler. There’s a pilot hole cast into the coupler pocket – I drilled this out and tapped it for my screw. I then drilled a clearance hole through the coupler shank – partly through the metal, and partly through the styrene. I then assembled the coupler as instructed by Sergent Engineering (and as described elsewhere on my blog).

Since this coupler no longer has an alignment spring, it tended to flop about a bit in the box. I solved this by adding layers of masking tape to the underside of the shank until it created a fit tight enough to stop the flopping but not so tight to prevent the coupler shank from moving when coupled in a train. Two layers worked for me in this case.

I then worked on the rear coupler…
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Here, I was able to use a standard Kadee coupler box, but I had to widen the recess in the body to accommodate it. I used a handy micro-chisel from Mission Models (whose website has now disappeared, it seems) to widen the recess. I also had to add some blocking to lower the coupler box to the correct height. This, I made by gluing up some scrap strip wood – I had several large sizes used for bracing models – and then sanding the block to finished size.

With couplers installed, I gave the plow a test-run on the layout – and almost immediately discovered a problem. The plow wings have large, triangular wedges to help lift and throw snow, and the bottom edge of these would connect with the ties that form the edge of the St. Williams station platform, causing the plow to lift and derail.

I thought about modifying the platform – and did a little bit of carving at one end to help solve the issue. But to do this properly would’ve required tearing out the styrene sheet that forms the base for the gravel platform – a sheet that also helps align part of the mechanism for the working train order board. So, I opted for a less aggravating solution, and filed back the bottom of the wedges to clear the platform. Once painted, the modification is barely noticeable. Compare the photo below with the lead photo on this post and judge for yourself:
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Since some prototype plows have a rolled-under body side – known as a “Tumblehome” on British railway carriages – I’m comfortable with my modification.

Next up: Some more testing on the layout, plus grab irons and other details. But the plow is getting closer to completion.

Finally, a bit of housekeeping: I’ve now added a separate category to collect all posts about this project, to make it easier for those of you who are interested in the plow to find every post in one place. It’s called “Ambroid Plow” and you’ll also find it in the “Categories” drop-down menu on the right side of the home page.

1st impressions: Sergent couplers

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(Couplers for six pieces of equipment, prepped and painted)

I had some time yesterday for a simple project, so I started working on my recently-arrived Sergent couplers. I have yet to assemble any of these, but so far I’m really impressed.

Frank Sergent has two excellent, illustrated instruction sets on his website for these and I recommend printing both of them and keeping them handy. Here are the links:

Assembling Sergent EC64K couplers
Painting Sergent couplers

(Note: It appears the S couplers are going through a slight redesign, with a new version with die-cast knuckle coming in August. I’m building couplers from the first run here, so my notes may not apply when the new ones come out.)

I dumped out a package onto a clean, lint free shop rag. This would catch any small items if I dropped them and prevent them from going AWOL. The castings are sharp and other than the clean-up noted in Frank’s instruction sheet, there’s really nothing more to do. Here are three packages of coupler parts, plus the tools I used to prep them for painting:
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It’s necessary to clean some bumps off the front face of the knuckle. As Frank recommends, I used a flat diamond file. I found a set of six in various shapes at Lee Valley Tools. They’re made by EZE LAP and the red-handled ones I grabbed have the equivalent of 600 grit. In addition to cleaning up the bumps on the knuckle, I gave the top, bottom and back of the shank a couple of light passes just to make sure the shank will rotate freely in the coupler box.

I also made up a polishing stick by using some CA to glue a small strip of 2500 grit wet/dry paper to a spare piece of rectangular brass tube. I used this to polish the knuckle face to a high shine, as shown on the knuckle held in the locking tweezers in the lower right of the above photo.

With this work done, I followed Frank’s painting instructions give the coupler parts a coating of metal primer. (Frank uses a primer from Rustoleum. My local Home Hardware only had their own brand but I suspect it’s the same thing.) This provides a good base colour, which I’ll carefully weather once the couplers are assembled.

The hardest part? I need to let these painted pieces sit for a day or two so the paint can cure thoroughly before I can assemble them. Fortunately, I have more couplers to prep and paint.

It looks like I have a couple of months to play with these before the revised design will be available. That’s plenty of time to confirm they work consistently and that I can use them reliably on my layout. I’m looking forward to my field trials!

Finally, a technical note: I’ve now added a separate category to collect all posts about the Sergents, to make it easier for those of you who are interested in these couplers to find every post in one place. It’s called “Sergent Couplers” and you’ll also find it in the “Categories” drop-down menu on the right side of the home page.

Bracing the plow

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I managed to do a little more work on my plow this morning. As the photo shows, I’ve added the bracing on the roof over the blade, including some rods with turnbuckles (Grandt Line 54). I followed my prototype photo for these details.

I’ve also painted and installed the roof walk over the plow body.

I think I’m down to grab irons at this point, plus little details like the headlight. And, of course, Sergent couplers.

All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up

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(Barry captures my Norma Desmond moment at the TrainMasters TV studio)

Yesterday, I started work on one of the segments in the series I’m doing for TrainMasters TV. What a great experience!

Pierre Oliver and I spent the day at TrainMasters TV World Headquarters, building the benchwork for the two multi-section modules I’m documenting for the show, produced by Barry Silverthorn. Well, Pierre built – I handed him tools and tried to stay out of the way.

I think viewers are going to learn a few neat things when this episode airs later this year – I know I sure did.

The module frames are stored at Barry’s place, ready for our next work session:
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(Some of the module frames we – well, Pierre – built during yesterday’s shoot)

It was a long day – we were on our feet for several hours, working and shooting. But it was also lots of fun.
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(Pierre takes a well-deserved break on Barry’s front deck the before we loaded up the van and headed for home. That’s the CNR mainline between Toronto and Montreal in the upper right. We saw a lot of trains yesterday!)

It’s been ages since I’ve done any TV – basically, since I was in school. So there was a bit of a (re)learning curve. But it went well. Barry’s a real professional – his attention to detail in the production process really impressed me and explains why TrainMasters TV is such a great looking show. It also forced me to up my game, which I think will be reflected in the episodes.

Pierre and I will be back in the studio in a few weeks, to add sub-roadbed and roadbed, do some terraforming, finish off the module frames, and create racks for transport and storage.

I’ve also made a few changes to my plans for the modules, which I introduced on this blog a couple of weeks ago.

The modules will retain their footprint and still feature a single track running through each scene. But I’m putting a more significant overpass into the Judge Farm scene and will make a few other changes to the scenic treatment to make the modules more meaningful to my own experiences.

For example, while I’ll still have pasture, I will substitute sheep for cattle and add a shepherd and border collie to the scene – working their sheep. Working sheep – to train for the sport of sheepdog trials – is something I do with my own border collie and it’s something I’ve always wanted to represent on a layout. Now I can.

Finally, a technical note: I’ve created a new category called “Workshop-Modules” that I’ll use to capture all posts related to this project. That’ll make it easier for interested readers to find these posts.

You’ll find this category in the drop-down menu in the right-hand column on the home page.

If you’re not already a TrainMasters TV subscriber, I hope you’ll consider trying it for a year. If you think it’s going to be like what you see on YouTube, you’re going to be very pleasantly surprised. And the cost to subscribe is no more than what most of us pay for a couple of cups of coffee each month.

I’m looking forward to doing a lot more work with Barry.