Ops with Mark and Dan

Yesterday, my friend Mark Zagrodney and his son Dan came over for an afternoon operations session on the layout.

I try for perfect operations sessions – zero derailments, zero electrical problems, etc. – and for the most part I have succeeded. But this session wasn’t one of those. Everything stayed on the rails, but I did have some electrical gremlins.

Once or twice, my DCC system kicked into short mode. I suspect, but can’t confirm, that something on a brass locomotive is touching something else that it shouldn’t – and that the lightning-quick circuit protection in the ECoS 50200 is catching the short before it clears itself. I’ll investigate that.

More frequently, though, the Mobile Control II wi-fi throttle would lose its connection with the base station. A while ago, I talked to Matt Herman at ESU about this and he suggested moving the Wireless Access Point (WAP), or replacing it with one from another manufacturer. I’m going to try mounting the WAP higher in the room – right now, it’s in the drawer with the DCC system. If that doesn’t work, I’ll look at a more robust WAP.

In part, I know the problems occur because I haven’t run the layout in a while (and I say that a lot lately on this blog). Unlike in the early days of Port Rowan, I’m less inclined to hold solo operating sessions these days. There are other things to do, and when I have hobby time, I try to work on something (such as the CNR 2-8-2 project).

I don’t know if that’ll change. The hobby is a social one for me, so I’m really happier hosting operating sessions than I am running solo. I guess I’ll have to book more sessions to keep things rolling smoothly.

Despite these DCC issues, I had a lot of fun. Dan took on the engineer’s role, while Mark played conductor. I helped out with brakeman’s duties as required. It’s always interesting to watch people solve the problem of switching what appears to be a very simple, straight-forward town like Port Rowan…

As an aside, Dan is a teenager and has grown a lot taller since the last time I saw him – he’s now taller than his dad, and definitely taller than the bulkhead that runs up the middle of my layout room. I’m glad I installed foam pipe insulation along the edges of this ages ago…

Afterwards, we headed to Harbord House for dinner – of course! And I sent Mark and Dan home with a banker’s box full of back issues of MR, RMC and other magazines that I no longer need in my space. Read and recycle!

The NS&T: The end of Port Rowan?

The short answer is “no”. The long answer is “not yet” and “possibly not ever”.

I’ve had a couple of readers ask if my interest in the Niagara St. Catharines & Toronto Railway means I will be dismantling the Port Rowan layout.

As I mentioned in my first post about the NS&T, I have a number of issues to address before I decide whether to put Port Rowan in the bin. These include:

1 – Building the NS&T equipment I’ve acquired to my satisfaction.

2 – Building some overhead wire to my satisfaction.

3 – Designing a layout for my space that I would actually want to build and operate.

4 – (And this is important) A commitment to finishing Port Rowan. I’m so close that it would be unfortunate to not do so. Providing circumstances (eg: moving, major mechanical failure in the house, etc.) do not force me to dismantle Port Rowan, I’ll get it done.

Addressing the above four issues could require a few more years. And it’s possible that I may never address all of them, in which case Port Rowan stays put.

It’s true that if I do decide to build an NS&T layout, Port Rowan will have to go. But that’s fine. Most of the investment in this layout is in the skills I’ve developed – which I can carry forward to the next project.

As for the physical plant, most of that is reusable too. Equipment, structures, trees, electronics… all can find a home on my new layout, or on modules for the S Scale Workshop. What would be lost? Some benchwork. Some track. Some basic scenery. That’s about it. I can live with that.

No: I will not be selling off Port Rowan – either whole or in pieces. I’ve had a few people ask about that. It’s not going to happen. See above re: physical plant.

I’m excited about the NS&T because it hits many of my hot buttons. I have a stronger personal connection to it than to Port Rowan, which was chosen simply for achievability. That said, if Port Rowan comes down, it will survive in some form or another. As an example, I may rebuild the terminal area into a module for the S Scale Workshop. We’ll see…

Meantime, I’ve created a new blog about the NS&T precisely because I want a place to collect and organize my thoughts and information about the next layout, without cluttering up the blog about Port Rowan. To that end, I’ll stop posting about the NS&T here. If you want to know more, follow along with the new blog.

The NS&T: Well, that escalated quickly…

Soon after starting this blog about my adventures with Port Rowan, I decided that I would never embark upon another layout project without also writing a blog about it.

Given that I’m in the very early stages of deciding whether to embark upon a layout based on the Niagara St. Catharines & Toronto Railway, it should come as no surprise that I’ve set up a blog for it. You can find it by clicking on this image:

NST-Blog Header

There’s not much to see, yet. But I’ve included the usual email sign-up form so you can follow along if you’re interested.

Hoo-boy: It’s the NS&T!

That’s “Niagara, St. Catharines and Toronto” – and it’s like kryptonite to me. I go weak at the knees for this stuff…


In an earlier post, I mentioned that I picked up a number of pieces from my friend William Flatt, who is downsizing his hobby due to age.

William is an excellent modeller who works in S scale, and models a very unusual prototype: a former interurban in the Niagara Peninsula that became an electrified subsidiary of the Canadian National Railway.


I have a long history with electrics, and the NS&T. I grew up in Toronto, and my first exposure to full-size railroading was the Toronto Transit Commission’s extensive streetcar lines and (at the time) two-route subway system. Today, I live in a neighbourhood bounded on three sides by streetcar lines. The fourth side is defined by the subway. (As a consequence, our vehicle spends most of its time in the garage.)

Later – around age 12 – my parents and I moved to St. Catharines. And while the NS&T was long gone by that time, the CNR still ran freights on NS&T trackage through the city – including up the middle of streets – as part of its Grantham Subdivision.

CNR Grantham Sub - Merritton
(The ex-NS&T yard at Merritton, Ontario – in the southeast corner of St. Catharines)

I would walk to high school along one such street – Louisa Street – and a couple of times a week I could count on seeing a freight behind an EMD switcher as it headed to the local General Motors plant…

CNR at GM Ontario Street - 1993
(While visiting my parents a few years after university, I snapped this photo of the CNR passing between the GM plants on Ontario Street. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would be the last time I saw a train on this line…)

If I recall correctly, the GM Ontario Street job worked five days a week, but my timing wasn’t always perfect. Still, I was curious about the local lines – who wouldn’t be? – and was delighted to discover that they had once hosted freight motors under wire. A couple of books were published, and I grabbed them as soon as I could at my local hobby shop.

Between the TTC and the NS&T, electrics became a strong influence in my hobby. As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, many hobbyists my age were inspired by the appalachian coal hauling layouts build by people named Al and Tony – but my hobby hero was Bob Hegge, and the articles I looked forward to in the hobby press were those covering his O scale Crooked Mountain Lines I even have a CML tribute boxcar on my layout.

Many hobbyists model the railway that influenced us at a formative age. I have several friends who do exactly that: to name a couple, Bob Fallowfield is modelling the CP Rail of his youth in Woodstock, Ontario, while Hunter Hughson is recreating the Penn Central in New York State – a line he rail-fanned with his father. By all counts, I should be building a layout based on the CNR in St. Catharines in the 1970s-1980s. But I’m not – for a few reasons.

I’ve never been able to design a CNR Grantham Sub layout that would balance prototype accuracy with my available space. The era I saw first-hand included some pretty big equipment – up to and including 86-foot high cube boxcars that trundled up the street to a General Motors plant.

Boxcars at the GM plant on Ontario Street

Even in HO, those require some space-eating curves. And that’s just as well, because what really appealed to me about the lines in St. Catharines was their electric heritage.

But that posed another problem, in that there are few models of suitable NS&T equipment. I wasn’t about to scratch-build everything. (Keep in mind that I’m only just learning to bash brass and use machine tools – skills that are invaluable when it comes to making locomotives from scratch.)

Now, I knew that in addition to being an excellent modeller, William was also a manufacturer. To model the NS&T in S scale, he designed and produced photo etched sheets and cast parts for various freight motors. I first saw examples of these at the 2007 Copetown Train Show, where the S Scale Workshop was exhibiting its Free-mo style layout. (As an aside, I was not yet a member of the group and their Free-mo layout was less than a year old at the time.)

Will Flatt's work at Copetown
(William’s model of freight motor #18 and express car #41)

The first time I saw William’s work, a couple of his models were on static display on the S Scale Workshop layout. (I could not get a better photo, unfortunately.) I had no idea that he was creating kits for some of the NS&T equipment – and by the time I found out, he was sold out.

At various meets over the years I’ve picked up a couple of unbuilt kits for NS&T freight motors #18 and #20. It was definitely a case of “buy them while I could”, but they’ve always been a low priority for me: I could turn the finished models into a diorama, but two locomotives weren’t enough to convince me to model the NS&T – and anyway, I’m modelling the line to Port Rowan, right?

NST 18
(NST 18)

NST 20
(NST 20)

I knew that William was not interested in selling the NS&T equipment that he’d built. I wouldn’t be either: the models represent a lot of time, and many are the pilot models for his kits. But he did have some unbuilt kits and some part-built models for sale, plus all the detail parts needed to finish them. And that’s how come I now own a small fleet of NS&T potential:

NST 8, 15, 19:

NST motor 15

NST 19

NS&T 15 and 19
(Mostly-finished bodies for NS&T freight motors #15 and #19. I also bought an unbuilt set of etchings and parts for #8 – a third motor built to this design, and the subject of the lead photo for this post)

NST 17:

NST 17

NS&T 17
(The etching sheet for NS&T freight motor #17 – a steeple cab. I also bought the parts to finish this)

NST 620 class:

NST 620

NST 620
(The etching sheet for an NS&T 620-class interurban. Again, I also bought a set of castings to finish this one)

Added to what I have already acquired, I have six freight motors. That’s a respectable fleet. While I only have the parts for a single passenger car, the NS&T hosted a number of fan trips and excursions over the years, so I can use the car for that.

IF… I build a new layout.

Will I do that? I don’t know – yet. And I won’t make the decision until several milestones are achieved.

First – I intend to finish Port Rowan. I’m so close, it would be unfortunate to not do so. I enjoy my Port Rowan layout but I have no personal connection to the prototype: I chose to model this line for the very practical reason that it fit my layout space.

Second – I would have to design a layout that I would actually want to build. I’m picky about layout designs and compromises. In fact, this is something that has prevented me from modelling the CNR Grantham Subdivision in the past. That said, modelling the earlier era – the NS&T under wire – opens up new possibilities for me. For one thing, the freight equipment is shorter, and curves could be tighter – tighter even than the 42″ radius I used on Port Rowan (which is already pretty tight – the passenger equipment barely negotiates it). For another thing, the NS&T offers different scenes and customers to model than the CNR of the 1970s-1980s.

Third – I would have to actually build all of these electrics – to my satisfaction. I can do it – I’m sure I have the skills – but until I have them ready to run there’s no point in considering a new layout. Get the equipment finished first, then address the layout. It worked for Port Rowan, after all…

Fourth – I would have to build some trolley wire and get it working to my satisfaction. Despite being a traction guy at heart, I’ve never done this. Can I do it? I’d better figure that out before I commit to a layout.

If I can satisfy those four criteria, then I’ll retire Port Rowan and embark on a new adventure. Until then, Port Rowan is safe. If I can’t satisfy those four criteria, then I see a wicked good NS&T diorama in my future…

As a bonus, there were a number of locations where the NS&T met the steam-powered Canadian National – from Merritton to Port Colborne – so if/when I do embark on this adventure my CNR locomotives and other equipment can all be put to good use.

CNR 8549

CNR 8549

Last week I visited my friend William Flatt, an accomplished modeller who works in S. William is 80 and has determined it’s time to pare down his hobby – a wise but difficult decision that many people refuse to make in their senior years. As part of that, he has been selling off some of his equipment to local hobbyists prior to putting surplus gear up for auction to the masses.

I picked up a number of things from William, including this CNR wooden express car that will be a perfect addition to my mixed train to Port Rowan. William says he built this from a resin kit, years ago. It’s beautifully done and I’ll be proud to run it on my layout. I will swap couplers and wheels to match my layout standard, but that’s it.

Thank you, William!

(I picked up some other equipment too, which I will describe in a future post)

CNR 3737 :: Tender

I’ve been tardy in updating my blog because it’s been very busy lately, so this is actually a report on two work sessions with my friend Andy Malette. Both focussed on the tender for CNR 2-8-2 number 3737

Let’s start with a reference photo – the stock tender that came with the URSA light Mikado from Overland:

CNR 3737 - stock tender

In the first session (held at the end of January), I reshaped the side walls forward of the coal bunker. On the stock model, these slope back to the deck. But CNR 3737 has a semi-enclosed cab, which meant these needed to be modified. The trick is the fine strip of beading along the top of the side walls: We wanted to preserve that.

A careful application of heat and a single-edged razor blade lifted this off, about one third of the way back along the bunker. I was then able to cut and file away the angles on each side. Finally, I cut and shaped new wall sections to build up the front of the side wall. Once these were soldered in place, I carefully re-bent the bead and soldered it down. Here’s the result:

CNR 3737 - tender mods

When I got home, I realized that the tall walls to either side of the coal bunker doors would also interfere with the back of the semi-vestibule cab…

CNR 3737 - tender mods

… so, off they came:

CNR 3737 - tender mods

The deck to either side of the coal doors is pretty messy now – but the good news is, my prototype photos show spilled coal all over these small decks, so I’m not going to worry about it. I will have to do some clean-up and filling around the side wall extensions that I added, though.

While I was doing that, Andy was prepping for our next session (held yesterday). He cut some channel and angle to length and drilled it for me so I could build new steps at the front of the tender. Thanks to his prep work, the assembly went quickly. Compare this image to the stock photo:

CNR 3737 Tender - front steps

Each ladder assembly consist of 14 pieces. Andy tells me his took a lot of time to assemble, and he was surprised mine went together relatively quickly. Of course, what goes around comes around: The other project during yesterday’s session was building a three-piece assembly for the rear number board. It consists of two C-shaped brackets and the number board itself… and for the life of me I could not get everything to solder properly. Andy eventually stepped in and got it mounted – and I will have a lot of clean-up to do on the rear wall of the tank:

CNR 3737 - tender number plate

The tender still needs a ladder on the fireman’s side, plus railings, power conduit, rear light, and other details. But it’s already looking a lot more like it belongs on the CNR.

Machine tool bases

I spent a couple of hours in the shop this morning, and built some bases for my Sherline tools.

Lathe base

Mill base

Over lunch at Big Fat Burrito recently, my friend Ryan Mendell recommended that I top my bases with a layer of Ultra High Molecular Weight plastic (UHMW). He reasoned that oils and swarf would clean up nicely – and since he is the most talented machinist I know, I followed his advice. On Thursday, I made a trip to Plastic World, a local supplier where I buy styrene sheet, and had them cut me two pieces of 1/8″ thick UMHW to the base sizes recommended by Sherline.

On the way home, I hit a local building supply company for a sheet of 3/4″ MDF, some wood, and a selection of hardware, including rubber feet. (Sherline recommends the rubber feet to dampen vibration … and they do!)

Lathe base - underside

I used the UMHW and the dimensional lumber to lay out the base sizes then cut them with my track saw. Glue and screws secured the wood rails to the MDF. I used dimensional number of various “1 by” sizes – being careful to choose sizes that were as high as possible to help contain the mess, while still low enough that they would not interfere with tool components such as hand wheels. I also ran strips of 1×2″ underneath the MDF base to raise it slightly off the table, and mounted the feet to these. This gives me enough air space under the machines to easily slip my fingers underneath to lift them by the bases.

Lathe base - top

The UMHW is held in place by the bolts that hold down the machine tools, so that I can remove and replace it if need be. I used the tools themselves to lay out and mark the locations of the bolt holes. Machines are secured with washers, lock washers, and nuts from below.

(Thanks for the advice, Ryan – I’m really pleased!)

Machine tool accessory storage

My workshop is built using kitchen cabinets from IKEA, so naturally when it came time to think about organizing the drawers, IKEA is at the top of my list. Yesterday, I made the trek to the big blue and yellow box in the burbs, where I picked up a sampling of drawer organizers in the “Variera” line, including the two approaches shown below:

Variera plastic bins

These plastic bins are sold in pairs (one green, one white) and do a good job of holding small pieces, such as cutting tools and tool posts. Their one drawback is that they don’t fill the drawer completely, front to back: they leave a gap which becomes wasted space (unless I build a styrene tray to fill it, which is a possibility). I have not tried them in different-width drawers. I’ll need to do that. But they hold 90 percent of the machine tool accessories I have. I’d like some larger bins – the size of two of these, together – for bigger accessories.

Variera wooden insert

The wooden drawer organizers use the full space and I like the look – easy on the eyes, and the tools. They don’t provide as many bins, but I could cut and install additional dividers as required. (For wider accessories, I will have to experiment with cutting away a divider between two bins.) They do offer longer spaces for things – which may make them more appropriate for hand tools such as knives, pliers, hammers and so on. They also provide more room for larger accessories such as the lathe’s thread cutting gear shown at left.

I suspect I will eventually deploy a mix of storage options. IKEA has a one-page handout in the kitchen section that shows how the various drawer organizers fit into various size drawers, so I will have some homework to do…

Machine Tool Task Lighting: Jansjo

Good lighting is critical to doing good work, and sometimes you want to aim a light exactly where you need it. Like this:

Tool lighting - Jansjo

While wandering in IKEA yesterday (as one does…), I stumbled across these neat little LED lights. The “Jansjo” lights were about $15 each, so I picked up a pair of them. As the photo shows, they can be positioned to put the light exactly where I need it. If you care about these things, they come in a variety of colours. I bought the silver, because they were on sale and because I think the finish will be easier to keep clean.

Jansjo lighting from IKEA

I’m really pleased with my find.