“Instant on”

Car Storage Drawers under the Staging Yard

While I now have a lot of storage capacity under my sector plate staging yard, I also like to keep a full complement of trains ready to run on the four-track sector plate itself. In addition to the locomotives and rolling stock, I try to have all the paperwork for these trains ready to go.

In discussing an unrelated issue with a friend offline, I realized one of the things I like about this arrangement is that the layout is ready to go with the press of a power button. The electronics world calls this “instant on” and it has several advantages – particularly for simple, one or two person layouts such as mine.

The biggest is the ability to run short, frequent sessions as time allows. Lance Mindheim has written about breaking down operations into small chunks, and then operating several times per week, whenever one has a bit of time. Here’s how this concept applies to Port Rowan:

On my layout there are two towns and a total of 12 “spots” for freight cars – but as I’ve noted recently, typically less than half the spots are used at any one time.

For the sake of this exercise, let’s assume six freight cars are scattered throughout the layout, and only three of those are ready to be lifted: One in St. Williams and two in Port Rowan. To run a train from staging to Port Rowan and back, with all work performed, would typically take 75-90 minutes – and I do that fairly regularly with friends.

But what if I don’t have an hour and a half? What if I have 15 minutes this morning, and 10 minutes this afternoon, and another 15 minutes tomorrow, and so on?

Breaking the operation down into smaller chunks is the answer:

Let’s assume I have 15 minutes available to me this morning, I could grab my paperwork and throttle, and run a train from staging to St. Williams. I could also complete the paperwork at the station – figuring out what cars to drop and which ones to lift, writing up my switch list, and so on. Then I could go do the “real world” things that need to be done.

Van at St Williams station
(A freight extra stops with the van in front of the St. Williams station, so the conductor can confer with the station agent on the work to be done in town)

Again, assuming I find myself with another 10 minutes this afternoon, I could return to the layout space and pick up where I left off. With the paperwork ready to go, I could switch the cars in St. Williams. I might get all of the switching done, or I might only get the lifts taken care of, with the set-outs still to do. When I run out of time, I can put down the throttle and paperwork, and go back to the real world.

St Williams team track
(There’s switching to be done in St. Williams – not much, but some…)

Tomorrow, I can use my 15 minutes to run from St. Williams to Port Rowan, stopping for water along the way and arriving at the station. I can prep my paperwork for switching Port Rowan. And then I can walk away, knowing the next time I have time I can start on the switching.

Extra 80 West arrives in Port Rowan
(A freight extra arrives in Port Rowan. Before switching, it will continue ahead to the station so the crew can receive their orders)

It might take a week of short segments to run a “full operating session” in this manner, but it means the layout continues to entertain, and continues to be run – which seems to be the best way to keep any model railway in good shape.

However, there are several things to consider about running a layout in this fashion. These include:

The layout needs to be “instant on”. If one has to set up trains in staging, or even set in place a removable section of layout to allow for operating sessions, that can eat up a good chunk of the 10 minutes one has to run trains.

It works best for simple layouts – for example, this one, with one train on the line at a time. That said, on a more complex layout one could set up a branch line train to be used for these quick sessions, without disrupting the relationship of trains elsewhere on the layout.

One needs space to store paperwork and throttles, near the places where the train will pause between operating sessions. In my case, I have pull-out work desks at both St. Williams and Port Rowan that are perfect for storing ops aids between sessions.

St Williams Work Desk
(The work desk at St. Williams. Click on the image to read more about these)

I think it’s a worthwhile exercise for everyone to consider how their layouts can be “instant on” and how they can support these segmented operating sessions with activities that require no set-up, are quick to run, and can easily be walked away from when real life calls…

Candy comes in navy with green accents

Festool Roadshow
(Tool demonstrations and discussions: Who wouldn’t want to take part?)

Today, I took in The Festool Roadshow at the Lee Valley Tools store in Vaughan (north of Toronto, for those who don’t know the area).

Festool Roadshow
(The Festool Roadshow: a workshop in a rig)

All I can say is, “Wow”. I had a great time and I learned a lot.

I have several tools from this company. Every one of them is a pleasure to use. What I haven’t really explored – until today – is just how versatile the tools are. I know they have variable speeds and other goodies on them – plus almost every tool can be enhanced with accessories to perform specific tasks. But I have never really thought about those: I tend to simply pick up the tool and go. (And to be fair, most of the time that works just fine – in the same way that one can do only basic programming on a DCC decoder and have it serve most needs, but it’s always nice to be able to be able to adjust the more esoteric CVs when the need arises. But I digress…)

While the tools were the stars of the show, the many accessories such as clamps for specific tasks on the Multi-Fuction Table (the work surfaces of which were used for demonstrations) were great to see. I know Lee Valley offers a bundle of useful MFT-compatible clamps in their Veritas tool line. It even comes in a Systainer-compatible storage case. I’ll have to pick up a set at some point.

The staff in The Festool Roadshow display were friendly and knowledgeable. They asked lots of questions and listened to the answers, then tailored the discussion to each guest. I never felt I was being talked down to – but also felt I was learning stuff. I detected at least one German accent, which was great to hear because Festool is a German company: It’s good to know they send people from the home team on these tours, too. If for no other reason, they get to hear what their customers are looking for. (Can we please, please get more tools for the Compact Module System in North America? Please? The system’s bench-mounted router is great – but it would be nice to be able to convert other handheld tools into bench tools, as can be done in Europe.)

Festool Roadshow
(Routers and “Domino” joiners)

Festool Roadshow
(Sanders and Systainers)

I was like a kid in a candy store and my Wish List just got a little bit longer – which is, after all, the point of these types of shows, right?

Video from Exporail 2016

Bored? Looking to watch some train videos? Why not check out the S Scale Workshop blog?

I’ve just posted four videos from the Workshop’s appearance in August at the annual model train show hosted by Exporail – Canada’s national railway museum. All were shot using my RePlay XD video camera, mounted on a flat car.

Click on the camera car in the image, below, to visit the Workshop’s blog – and enjoy if you watch!

ReplayXD camera train at Copetown

(Since this is not about my layout, please offer any comments on the Workshop blog, or on the Youtube videos themselves. Cheers!)

If you’re finding this post months after I published it and you’re looking for the videos, here are links to the relevant posts on the Workshop blog:

Double-headed 2-10-2s at Exporail 2016
Cab ride at Exporail 2016
F-units at Dunham Junction (Exporail 2016)
Two CNR 2-10-2s (Exporail 2016)

Stock Storage Solved!

Back in July, while building IKEA cabinets with storage drawers for my workshop, I mused that the drawers would work well for rolling stock storage under my sector plate. I was right:

IKEA stock storage
(A single 36″ wide drawer will easily hold approximately 25 pieces of equipment. With 12 drawers – or a 300-car capacity – I finally have more storage space than I’m ever likely to use.)

Sufficient storage for rolling stock has been a problem for my layout almost from the beginning. I like to keep the sector plate free for just the trains staged to run on the layout. And I also like a variety of equipment.

While I already have more rolling stock than I need for a layout of this size, I expect I’ll acquire and/or build more. For one thing, there are certain classes of equipment that should appear on my layout, but which are not (yet) commercially available. For another, I do like building and finishing rolling stock. (In the past, I’ve had my friend Pierre Oliver do a lot of that for me while I focused on building the layout. But I’ve undertaken several projects on my own, too – and I expect to do more of this as the layout nears completion.)

This week, I went back to The IKEA Well, and purchased two 36″ wide six-drawer kitchen cabinets to install under the sector plate:

IKEA stock storage

I picked the Marsta drawer fronts because they have integrated, recessed handles: I didn’t want handles to project into the aisle, where they could catch on pant legs.

Instead of using IKEA legs and a hanging rail against the wall, I attached the cabinets to the layout legs. This required bracing the sector plate with some scrap pine temporarily screwed to the front of the benchwork, the removal of one leg set from under the sector plate, and the repositioning of other leg sets to match the cabinet widths. But by carefully thinking it through so as not to leave the benchwork unsupported, I was able to do this in an afternoon without any problem.

To finish the installation, I cut some half-inch thick plywood for “counter tops” to keep the dust off and the wiring for the sector plate from drooping into the top drawers.

While building and installing the cabinets, I pondered how I was going to keep rolling stock from rolling and/or sliding about inside the drawers. Previously, I used a thin acoustic foam – the kind used as speaker covers. The foam worked well, but it’s difficult to find and needs to be fastened in place or it’ll slide about.

I thought of several alternatives and in the end I decided to dry the mats that are sold to put under carpets to keep them from sliding about. There are several different styles of these available, but by shopping around, I found the right type: an open-weave made (I think) with a string net that’s then coated in rubber:

Non-slip underlay for car storage

I found these on sale for $7.50 per package at JYSK, a home accessories chain. Each package provided enough to line three drawers, and is easy to mark and cut to size:

Marker and Scissors

As the lead photo shows, no dividers are necessary to keep the stock in place. The anti-slip mesh stays put in the drawers, and the wheels on rolling stock nestle into the weave. Cars stay put, and with no dividers I have a lot of flexibility in how I use the space.

I should add that the drawers have soft-close features on them, so they won’t slam shut and they stay closed. Providing I don’t yank on the drawers excessively, the rolling stock won’t tip over. (Those who are worried about this could always arrange all cars like the two tank cars in the lead photo, so they’re in line with the direction of movement.)

With room for approximately 300 40-foot cars, I’m unlikely to run out of storage space now. In reality, I’ll use separate drawers for passenger cars and motive power. I may even divide up freight cars by type: CNR boxcars could have a drawer all to themselves, since they account for about half of my freight fleet.

I may also dedicate a drawer to storing other things that should be near the sector plate. These would include throttles, uncoupling tools, clipboards and blank switch lists, and other operations aids that one needs when starting an operations session.

Regardless, it’s nice to have the options that this massive amount of storage space has made available to me. I’m glad I upgraded my stock storage system.

Convertible top work table

Festool MFT - Covered
(My work table, ready for model-building)

The heart of my new workshop is a Festool Multi-Function Table. This is a terrific tool for woodworking or other “full-size” modelling, but it does have a big shortcoming when it comes to the smaller stuff with flanged wheels.

The Festool MFT is an extremely flexible work surface in part because it is positively peppered with 3/4″ holes for bench dogs, clamps and other devices. That’s great – until you’re trying to use the table to apply grab irons to a model. Then, the holes become gateways to alternate universes, ready to suck in small detail parts.

Festool MFT
(The Festool MFT in “woodworking mode”)

Since I want to be able to use the MFT for as many projects as possible – big and small – I had to do something about covering up those holes. I also wanted to protect the router table extension when not using it.

This called for a cover. I had several criteria for this:

1 – It must be quick to convert from one use to the other.
2 – The cover must be lightweight and easy to remove and store when not in use.
3 – The cover must be secure when it is in use, and not slide around.
4 – The cover must be easy to replace if (no: when) it’s worn out.

My solution is shown in the lead photo. It consists of two parts: A piece of 1/4″ Masonite and a keeper bar made from a length of 1×3 maple.

The key is that the Masonite is drilled with two 3/4″ holes that line up with the dog holes in the corners of the Festool MFT. And the keeper bar is fitted with lengths of 3/4″ dowel to pass through the Masonite into the MFT, keeping the Masonite securely in place.

Festool MFT - convertable top

Festool MFT - convertable top

To make this cover, I cut a piece of Masonite to the dimensions of the MFT top, including the router extension. I then lined up the Masonite on the MFT top and used a 3/4″ Forstner drill bit – passed up through the MFT from the underside – to mark the Masonite. I drilled the Masonite with the 3/4″ bit.

I then lined up a piece of 1/3 maple over the holes, and again used the Forstner bit, from underneath, to mark the centres of the holes in the maple. I used my drill press and the Forstner bit to drill perpendicular holes about halfway through the maple.

I then cut two short lengths of 3/4″ dowel, rounded one end of each dowel with my bench-top sanding station, then glued and screwed these into place in the maple. I installed the keeper bar through the Masonite and into the Festool MFT while while the glue dried, to make sure the dowels were properly aligned with the dog holes. Finally, I softened the edges on the maple with a block plane and sanding block to make the keeper bar to remove the sharp corners. This is what a friend calls making the wood “finger friendly”. It makes a big difference. At some point, I’ll stain it with a clear finish.

The keeper bar is quick and easy to install and remove, and prevents the Masonite from sliding on the Festool MFT. It also acts as a backstop, so tools and materials won’t inadvertently get shoved over the far edge when I’m working. And the two pieces – the Masonite and keeper bar – store easily when not in use. Also, when I have to replace the work surface, it’s a simple matter of cutting a new piece of Masonite and drilling two holes: I should be able to re-use the keeper bar for many years to come.

As a bonus, I realized that by leaving the sides of the Festool MFT fully exposed, I’ll be able to use fixtures that link into the table’s T-Slot tracks. This would, for example, be an elegant way to mount a task lamp that could be positioned anywhere around the table…

HeliCoil thread inserts

Sometimes, I come across a product that I like so much, I want to scream, “Why am I only just hearing about this now?”

HeliCoil thread inserts are one of these.

(A new technology benefits from an old one: a 3D Printed body shell is fitted with 2-56 HeliCoil thread inserts to attach the body to its frame)

I learned about these from my friend Ryan Mendell, who is the most knowledgable person about machining and tooling that I’ve ever met. Here’s the story:

I was looking for a frame to put under the 3D Printed body shell for my CNR D-1 project. Ryan offered to cut one for me out of 1/8″ brass sheet stock. (It’s exactly what I needed, and I’ve written about it elsewhere on this blog.)

Once I had the frame and the shell, I needed a way to fasten the two – something that I could open up for assembly, finishing, servicing, etc. Stephen Gardiner, who designed the shell for me, included plain mounting blocks on the 3D Print in eight locations, so that I had some flexibility about what mounting method I would use. Stephen did caution me, however, that the 3D Printed material is quite brittle and he was worried that over tightening or repeatedly running screws in and out of the material would eventually shatter it. What to do?

Ryan recommended 2-56 Heli-Coil thread inserts because – once installed – they would become a threaded metal insert that would readily accept 2-56 bolts, a standard size for our hobby (many commercial trucks are mounted to bodies with them). Best of all, these would protect the 3D Printed material from stress.

Helicoil inserts were created in the 1930s for the aircraft industry. They’re used to impart a steel-like strength to softer materials, to prevent stripping or cracking. Today, they’re often used to repair damaged threads.

As a quick look at Stanley Engineered Fastening’s HeliCoil page will suggest, these are more than an insert: they’re a system. They require special taps and insertion tools.

To use them, I carefully drilled the appropriate-sized hole in each mounting block on the inside of the shell. I started with smaller (higher-number) drills, and worked my way up to a #41, which is the recommended size.

I then tapped the hole using the HeliCoil 2-56 tap. (This does not tap the hole for a 2-56 bolt: rather, it taps the hole for a 2-56 HeliCoil insert, which in turn is sized for a 2-56 bolt.) I then used the HeliCoil installation tool to drive the insert into place. This tool is threaded to accept an insert, and has a notch on the end that engages a tang on the insert to allow one to screw it into place:

Helicoil mounted on tool
(A HeliCoil thread insert mounted on the installation tool)

Helicoil on tool
(This end-on view clearly shows the tang that engages the installation tool, allowing it to screw the thread insert into place)

Note that these inserts are one-way products: When you install them, you can insert them deeper into a hole, but you can’t back them out. The practice is to insert them so the end of the insert is just below the top edge of the hole. I worked carefully to install them as I got close to the end of the insert, turning a quarter turn then inspecting the work to determine where the insert was in relation to the hole.

Once satisfied, a tool is used to break off the tang so it won’t interfere with the bolt.

I am so impressed by these that I started thinking about other applications in the hobby. The one that immediately comes to mind is the mounting holes in body bolsters on rolling stock. 2-56 screws are often used to mount trucks to bodies – including in S scale. Truck are periodically removed or adjusted. And since trucks must rotate freely under bolsters, this mounting point would be subject to a certain amount of stress whenever the rolling stock is in motion. I know a few of my cars have worn holes in the bolsters – I’ll plug them re-drill, and add HeliCoil thread inserts.

So, I purchased the relevant tools for 2-56 HeliCoil thread inserts, and a selection of the inserts themselves in four lengths. (I ordered these from McMaster-Carr. Unfortunately, the company only sells to businesses – but I am self-employed and registered as a business, so that didn’t pose any problems for me.) I then collected the tools and inserts into a small container with compartments to keep everything organized:

Helicoils - organized

This is not the cheapest solution around: the starter set I put together cost around $200 for the tools (through hole and closed end hole taps, an installation tool, and the tang break-off tool) and a selection of inserts (30 of each of four lengths). The 2-56 inserts themselves are anywhere from 39¢ to 55¢ each (sold in 10-packs). But they do the job and do it well.

(Thanks, Ryan, for introducing me to these!)

How much switching is involved?

Extra 1532 East - St Williams
(Short trains and modest amounts of switching still make for engaging operating sessions.)

A while ago, my friend Terry Smith (who is the most active keeper of the Maine On2 FAQ site) emailed me to ask about typical train lengths and switching activity on my Port Rowan layout. Specifically, he wanted to know how many cars I typically stage on the layout (at various industries) at the beginning of a session – and then how many come onto the layout and how many leave during a session.

Terry’s questions stemmed from a general inquiry about how few freight cars one needs on a layout for a realistic/satisfying operating session.

Those are terrific questions – and the short answer is, “For me, not many”.

The longer answer depends on several things, including:

– the amount of time I want to spend operating during a session
– the capacity of my staging tracks
– the capacity of the team tracks and other locations which cars are spotted on the layout
– the need to keep operations fluid in order to be realistic, which means not overstuffing the layout, and
– the realities of modelling a very lightly-trafficked branch line in its twilight years

Let’s look at each of these:

Session length:

Obviously, the more cars to switch, the more work to be done and therefore the longer a session will take. A short session will run 45 minutes. A longer session might run two hours.

I often tailor sessions to the experience of the operators. Freight extras are good trains for those who are new to the layout, because there are fewer things to juggle. Mixed Trains have less switching to perform, but there are tickets to collect, LCL, express and mail to account for, a fast clock to obey, the traffic study to complete, and so on.

Track capacity:

I have four tracks and I stage one train per track. But only one train is run for each “day” that I operate. The multiple trains are staged so that I can run a variety of locomotives and other equipment, as I represent several days in a single session. For example, if I have two friends over, I might run two days on the layout during our session – with my guests switching engineer/conductor roles between the two days. We might even break for lunch between running those two days worth of trains.

Each staging track is 6′-4″ long – which is roughly equal to nine 40-foot S scale cars. I count a locomotive as two cars, and a van as one – so I could have up to six revenue cars on a freight extra. However, I tend to leave space for stopping, and will vary train lengths to provide a variety of operating sessions. Typically, a staged freight extra will have 0-5 freight cars (plus caboose and locomotive), while a staged mixed train (M233) will have 1-2 freight cars, plus locomotive, baggage/mail car, combine, and one boxcar in LCL service.

Train lengths - sector plate
(The sector plate stages four trains – and all are fairly long in this image. The two mixed trains each have to carload cars, plus an LCL car and two passenger cars. One freight extra has three freight cars, while the other has four.)

Fluid operations:

Making sure things run smoothly means not stuffing all available track with rolling stock. But if I did:

– I would be able to spot four cars on the team track spur in St. Williams.
– I would have space for eight cars, total, on the tracks in Port Rowan: the team track has spots for four cars, the mill has space for two and the elevated coal track has space for two.

My rule of thumb is, on average, to have each town half full – or less. So, typically, I will have 0-2 cars spotted in St. Williams and 0-4 cars spotted in Port Rowan.

Train lengths - St Williams
(The St. Williams team track has space for four cars – although typically, no more than two occupy it.)

Train lengths - Port Rowan
(Using the “half-full” guideline, Port Rowan has four cars in it today – three on the team track and one in front of the mill.)

While all cars in a staged train will be destined for spotting on the layout, not all cars spotted on the layout at the start of a session will be lifted. On average, about half the cars in each town will be lifted, while the other half will stay put. If they must be moved during switching, they must return to their original location when switching is finished.

Fluid operations also limit the train length in another way: In Port Rowan, the runaround track has less than four feet of clear space between fouling points. That limits as follows:

– Freight extra: five 40-foot cars, plus a van.
– Mixed train: One 40-foot car, plus a boxcar in LCL service and two passenger cars.

Note that this does not include the locomotive – because of course it’s doing the run-around move. This is one reason why cars lifted from the team track in St. Williams are left on the siding to be collected on the return trip.

Train lengths - Port Rowan run around
(This train doesn’t fit in Port Rowan: With the combine in the clear at the far end of the runaround track, the fouling point is at the front edge of the tank car. When the crew picked up the first boxcar behind the locomotive from the team track in St. Williams, they should’ve left it on the siding there – to be collected on the return trip.)

Representing the prototype:

My prototype is a lightly trafficked branchline in its twilight years. Within a decade of my modelling period, the line is abandoned for good. So I try to not make the trains too busy. Still, they’re busier than the prototype, which may have seen one car load of freight a week in a busy period. More likely, by the end of its life, the traffic on the branch was down to a few cars per month.

I balance traffic so that if there are a lot of cars on the inbound train at the start of the session, there will be fewer cars on the layout to be lifted. Trains that arrive from Simcoe (staging) heavy tend to return light, and vice versa. Also, if there’s more switching to do in St. Williams, there will be less to do in Port Rowan, and vice versa.

So, the answer is:

From this, I’d say the average session sees 6-8 cars moved – including both set outs and lifts – plus of course any temporary switching of cars that must be returned to their starting positions.

Thanks for asking, Terry – it was a good exercise for me to think through your questions so I could answer them!