Layout size and reluctance to learn

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(Fun for a wedding, or when on holiday. But if you want to enjoy the many advantages of a modern car, you have to learn to drive)

When I look at the model railway hobby and compare it to what I’ve experienced in other hobbies, I am often surprised at how much resistance people in this hobby offer up to the idea of lifelong learning.

Emphasis is often placed on finding quicker, cheaper, easier ways to do things – rather than better ways to do things. Concepts that promote mediocrity are embraced and spouted as gospel. A good example of this is the “Three Foot Rule” – the idea that as long as something looks good from three feet away, the project is a success and no further work needs to be done.

I’ve often thought about why we do what we do, and there are several posts about this on my blog. But today, while drinking my morning coffee and sharing thoughts with a couple of friends, I approached the problem of “reaching for the middle” from a different angle.

I wonder if the reluctance to learn has something to do with the nature of layout building? In other hobbies, project timelines are much tighter.

A golf game lasts a few hours – and then it’s done. The next game is a new beginning. It’s a new opportunity to do better. Some would say the whole point of golf is to improve one’s score, for the bragging rights.

Building a piece of furniture takes a few weeks or months – and then it’s done. The next piece is a new beginning and can be related to the first piece, or can be radically different. New techniques, materials, and tools can be explored. The resulting piece of furniture doesn’t have to blend in. It doesn’t have to match the previous output.

Military modellers build individual models – not entire fleets of ships or divisions of tanks. Each project stands on its own merits. And each new project is an opportunity to do better.

But in our hobby, we rarely look at each locomotive, or structure, or tree as a model unto itself. They’re usually part of a larger project – a layout – so we spend less time reviewing the project just completed. We tick the box – “That’s one more for the layout” – and move on. We don’t review what we’ve built and ask, “What could I do better – either next time, or right now?”

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(The process of continuous review and improvement is why you’re not reading my blog on one of these)

I’m guilty of this. I have cut corners on many of the projects that comprise this Port Rowan layout. I have stand-in freight cars… background structures… and other compromises. I added them to the layout and then I moved on. And now, every time I look at my layout I see things I could’ve done better. (That said, I also acknowledge that if I had done them better, they probably would’ve taken longer and I would have less of the layout built by now. Would that be a bad thing? Maybe not.)

At least I recognize that I’ve made those compromises. And I also know that since I have a relatively modest layout – one that has taken me a few years to build, not a few decades – I have plenty of opportunity in the future to revisit those compromises and make them better. That’s my plan, anyway. And in order to achieve that, I am actively working to acquire new skills or upgrade as the hobby evolves. For example:

I’m learning to work with brass, through the CNR 3737 project.

I’ve upgraded the decoders in my steam locomotives not once, but twice in five years. Currently, I’m tearing out decoders and replacing them with Loksound decoders loaded with Full Throttle to take advantage of ESU’s sound reproduction and motor control.

I’ve upgraded my DCC system to take advantage of more powerful throttles and more advanced features.

I think sometimes people in this hobby get stuck in the mentality of, “I’ve built that. It’s done. It’s time to move on.” I get that. When building a large layout, one can’t keep revisiting the completed sections – there are still so many uncompleted sections to tackle. And if one has mastered a technique, and it worked on those completed sections, why consider doing things differently the next time?

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(Okay when camping, or in an emergency… but do you really want to give up indoor plumbing for this? Old ways aren’t always the best)

Sadly, this means the resulting layout often looks like the builder’s skills froze in time the moment they started construction. If the first piece of the layout was completed in the 1970s, and the builder mastered the use of dyed sawdust and zip texturing, then that 1970s era scenery is likely still on display today (worse for the wear of being untouched for the past 40 years). And when the layout is viewed by those who have mastered more modern techniques – say, the use of static grass – they’re not going to leave feeling inspired.

I’m sure this isn’t something the builder wants. We all want to put our best effort forward, don’t we? To take pride in our work and inspire those who visit to see it? I sure do.

For those just embarking on a layout, perhaps the biggest favour they can do for themselves is to ask if they honestly have the energy, time and commitment to not only maintain the layout they’re planning, but to continuously improve it. And if the answer is “No”, it’s okay to scale back one’s plans…

Through the Lynn Valley


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

Another day, another video of one of my CNR moguls equipped with Full Throttle Steam – the new sound packages soon to be released by ESU for their Loksound Select and Loksound V4.0 decoders.

I’ve spent a little more time running the locomotive and I’m getting much more comfortable using the Heavy Load and Coast features to bring the sound to life.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, these are beta sound files. The production versions should be released soon. Watch the ESU/Loksound USA website for details.

Meantime, I’m getting ready to replace decoders in more locomotives. It’s a great time to be modelling steam!

German 1:32 steam – with steam


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

This is from a few years ago now, but my work this week with LokSound Full Throttle Steam has me thinking about the next frontier of locomotive control and realism – and these 1:32 scale models of German locomotives remain right on the edge.

This is not your grandfather’s hi-rail smoke generator, which creates smoke that looks like you dropped a lit cigarette down the stack.

The question is, would anybody want this much smoke in their layout room? That said, our furnace is equipped with a steam boiler humidifier to combat the lung-cracking dry air of the typical Canadian winter. Maybe a pair of these could be used instead? “Honey – it’s kinda dry in here: I’m going to go run the layout.”

I note that LokProgrammer has a whole tab devoted to smoke effects…

CNR 86 – Full Throttle – 2nd Run

I’ve made some more adjustments to the Loksound decoder in CNR mogul 86 and CNR 10-wheeler 1560, which are loaded with Full Throttle Steam packages from ESU. And therefore, I’ve made a follow-up to yesterday’s video… this time focussing on 86 in action on my layout…

In this video, I’ve highlighted a number of sounds generated by the decoder. Some are automatic, some are user-controlled, some are both. The video features braking noises, the air compressor, bell, whistle, injectors and dynamo.

In the first scene, the locomotive drifts into St. Williams. In the next, it works hard to start the train out of St. Williams (with Full Throttle’s “Heavy Load” function engaged). Finally, the engineer drifts over a bridge in the Lynn Valley (with Full Throttle’s “Coast” function engaged), before opening the throttle to build speed for the run into Port Rowan.


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

I still have some minor tweaking to do – notably, to adjust volume levels – but I’d say I’m 98% of the way there. Colour me impressed!

Working hard, and drifting

I now have LokSound decoders installed in two of my steam locomotives – CNR mogul 86 and 10-wheeler 1560 – and I’ve loaded them with pre-release versions of the soon to be released Full Throttle Steam sounds and features, thanks to Matt Herman at ESU North America.

I’m still tweaking the sound and motor controls, but I’m 90% of the way there and wanted to share a quick video to illustrate one of the features I really like about this new line.

The Full Throttle Steam series will include a function similar to “Drive Hold”, which is a key feature in ESU’s Full Throttle Diesel sounds. Drive Hold is mapped to a function button and is turned on and off just like activating a bell sound. When it’s engaged, the feature locks the locomotive’s motor at its current speed. Turning the throttle knob will not adjust the speed of the train. But it still adjusts the sound of the locomotive.

Here are two ways it can be used:

If one is pulling away from a station, one can open the throttle to start the locomotive, then lock the motor once a desired (still slow) speed is reached… then continue to increase the throttle to make the locomotive sound as if it’s working harder to get the train underway. The exhaust will be sharp and strong, as if the hogger has put the Johnson Bar right into the corner.

Once one is at track speed, the motor can be locked and then the throttle can be turned down to represent pulling the Johnson Bar back closer to neutral. The exhaust note will be softer and quieter. At its extreme – turning the throttle knob all the way to speed step zero – the exhaust sound will disappear entirely, as if the hogger had shut the throttle. The locomotive will now drift indefinitely, simulating a prototype that’s being carried along by the train’s mass and momentum.

I’ve shot a very brief video that illustrates both of these features. First, I show CNR 86 starting from a station stop. At St. Williams. Next, I show CNR 1560 switching from throttle to drift as it passes the station.


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

It does take a little bit of practice to do this smoothly – but 20 minutes of playing with this feature should fix that. It should be noted that one does not have to use this feature: One can control the locomotive in the conventional way and still get a sense of working hard and drifting by writing high momentum values into CV3 and CV4. But using the motor speed-lock feature is a much more powerful way to accurately replicate the sound of steam.

In fact, the best solution is a combination of these two approaches. I notice the first locomotive (CNR 86) speeds up abruptly as it’s leaving the scene. Increasing the value in CV3 (acceleration momentum) should take care of that, because it will smooth the transition between the locked motor speed and the throttle setting once I release the motor. I may also increase the value in CV4 (deceleration) to help smooth the transition when slowing down. For me, that’s part of the fun of experimenting with DCC.

A special thank-you to Matt at ESU, who prepared these pre-release files for me as part of our Full Throttle Steam recording session at TrainMasters TV last Friday. Matt tells me he will release of the first Full Throttle Steam decoder files very soon, and I’ll be sure to update the blog when he does.

It’s a great time to be modelling the steam era!

Roweham 2017

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(The passenger train – an auto coach pushed by a 14XX class 0-4-2T – arrives at Roweham)

Those who have read this blog for some time now know that I’m a fan of smaller layouts. I’m far more impressed by a small, thoughtfully-conceived and expertly executed model railway than I am by a half-baked basement-filler. The hobby is not about quantity for me; it’s about quality. In fact, I have a whole other blog devoted to what I call Achievable Layouts.

So it’ll come as no surprise that last Saturday, I was delighted to help my friend Brian Dickey exhibit his 7mm (British O scale – 1:43) masterpiece, “Roweham”, at the annual model railway show organized by the club to which he belongs. Also on hand was my friend Pierre Oliver – who, like me, helped Brian exhibit Roweham at last year’s show. We were joined this year by Ross Oddi. (Great to meet you, Ross!)

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(Ross, Pierre, and Brian on deck)

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(Ross deploys Brian’s version of the Galvanick Lucipher to break the train as engineer Pierre prepares his next move. Brian’s layout uses prototypically-correct three-link couplings, which add to the play value)

For me, Brian has really hit all the targets with Roweham. The modelling is excellent, and careful. The design is realistic and relaxed – perfect for a branchline terminal in a Green and Pleasant Land. The locomotives and rolling stock are appropriate for the modelling subject, and run flawlessly. (We had one derailment during the show – the result of buffer lock between a longish 2-6-0 and a short wagon. Brian immediately removed the mogul from service so it would not detract from the presentation.) And the presentation is professional – from the skirting, to the fascia, to Brian’s handsome waistcoat complete with brass GWR buttons. (Since I’m part of the exhibition team, I’ll be happy to follow Brian’s lead and pick up a waistcoat from his supplier.)

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(An overview of Roweham, from the terminal end)

In short, it’s clear that Brian has made an effort to reward the public for their $5 admission fee – even as he enjoys this layout at home. This also informed Brian’s wise decision to have three people help him exhibit Roweham. He wanted to make sure he could talk to visitors even as the layout continued to operate, and he wanted to make sure everybody had a chance to take a break from operating – a much better situation than one person, standing on his feet for six hours, trying to explain the layout to guests and keep the trains moving.

While it’s a modest design, with just four turnouts, Roweham is already finished to a level rarely seen at exhibition in these parts, and Brian continues to add details. New features this year include a cattle dock, a water tank, a brick workshop, some tractors, and more.

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Meantime, Brian has taken a second pass at things, especially equipment, to give it a tasteful weathering job. All in all, Roweham will only get better each time it’s on display. Here are some more shots from the day…

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Most modellers I meet are obsessed with quantity. They talk about the number of locomotives they have, or the number of freight cars, or the size of their layout. The first question often asked is, “How big is your layout?” – with emphasis on “big”. How different the hobby would be if we instead started with the question, “What story are you trying to tell?” – and then gauged how well the layout accomplishes that.

Brian’s layout tells a very clear story, and that’s why it succeeds so well.

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Thanks again, Brian, for letting me be a part of your exhibition!

Preliminary peek at ESU’s “Full Throttle Steam” decoders

On Friday, I hosted ESU North America’s Matt Herman at the TrainMasters TV studios. TMTV brass hat Barry Silverthorn and second camera operator Christian Cantarutti shot a series of segments for DCC Decoded during which Matt and I explored the soon-to-be-released “Full Throttle Steam” sound and motor control files for LokSound decoders. Noted CP Rail modeller Bob Fallowfield – a fan of ESU’s “Full Throttle Diesel” line and a familiar face behind the ESU booth at train shows across southern Ontario – joined us for the day, and a grand time was had by all.

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(Matt – standing – demonstrates the “Full Throttle Steam”-equipped decoder in CNR 1532 as Bob either shoots video on his phone, or genuflects to the awesomeness of Canadian National. Or, perhaps, both…)

As part of this shoot, we equipped one of my CNR 10-Wheelers with a LokSound decoder loaded with “Full Throttle Steam”, including an air-powered bell ringer and CNR-style Nathan five-chime whistle. This is a beta-build of the sound file and there are still a few lines of code to tweak, but Matt is going to send me the updated files once he’s finished working on them.

Once I have those (and have had a chance to customize the various CVs to, for example, synchronize the chuff rate to the driver revolutions), I will shoot video of CNR 1532 on the layout and share it here. But for now, I can say that the early results are certainly impressive. I’m looking forward to converting the rest of the fleet.

(In fact, in preparation for this, yesterday I picked up a refurbished Lenovo laptop loaded with Windows 10 at one of my local computer stores. I use Macintosh computers for everything in real life, but ESU’s LokProgrammer programming and sound-loading tool only works with Windows. Since I wanted a dedicated computer for the workshop, it made sense to find something inexpensive rather than add a PC emulator to a Mac laptop. But I digress…)

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(I’m with Matt and Bob as we prepare to shoot a non-steam, HO scale segment at TrainMasters TV. It’s pretty obvious that we’re having a great time…)

I won’t have to wait long for the finished files- and neither will you: Matt anticipates releasing the first series of “Full Throttle Steam” sound files by the end of the month. It’s a great time to be modelling steam.

Stay tuned for updates!

New life for a Record 0

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Several years ago, as I was preparing my late mother’s home for sale, I liberated my father’s vise from the workbench in the garage.

I knew at some point I’d have use for this vise. I also knew that it was a Number 0 vise from Record, a well-respected English tool-maker – and that it had only been gently used by my dad. Dad wasn’t that talented with tools, but like many guys from his generation he took it upon himself to tackle DIY projects around the home. (If memory serves, dad purchased this vise from Aikenhead’s, a small hardware store chain in the Greater Toronto Area that was purchased by Home Depot in the mid-1990s, becoming the nucleus of HD’s Canadian operation.)

But I also knew the vise needed some restoration work – primarily, cleaning and a new coat of paint – and I had other projects on the go. So it sat in a box for a while.

But then a couple of things happened. Last year, I got serious about setting up my shop. And more recently, I’ve been learning to rework brass locomotives, and a good vise is a valuable tool, especially when using the resistance soldering gear.

So, the vise came out of storage. Last week, while my friend and fellow tool enthusiast Chris Abbott was over for a visit, we set about taking apart the vise so that I could restore it.

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(Major components of the vise. Smaller items – not shown – include a spring, a couple of pins, a washer…)

There was a fair bit of rust and oily dirt/sawdust inside. That oil probably kept the important bits from rusting, although a threaded insert at the back of the vise needed special attention with scrapers before we could remove it to pull the sliding jaw from the body.

With everything disassembled, I tackled cleaning, and then roughing up the surface with sanding sticks and a brass wire wheel in a drill to help the new paint adhere. I was careful to not hit the machined surfaces with the wheel!

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For paint, washed the vise with household cleaner then dried it with paper towels. Then I warmed the vise in an oven (200F – put it in when I turned on the oven and pulled it out when the oven reached temperature – it was warm but could be handled with bare hands). I did this because as a large casting, the vise would get pretty cold in a basement in the winter, and the paint needed to go on a warmer surface. It worked well.

I gave the vise a coat of Tremclad rust-proofing primer and then – since I could not easily get proper Record blue paint (also known as Roundel Blue, which was the colour used in the round “target” markings on British aircraft during the Second World War) – I followed the primer with a coat of Tremclad Dark Blue rust-proofing paint.

The final task was to make a base for the vise. I don’t want to permanently mount it on my work surface – and I don’t have to, since the surface has plenty of dog-holes in it to anchor things. For the base, I laminated together three layers of poplar plywood, then cut and sanded the block to shape before applying a sealing coat of low-glare satin Varathane. Three 5/16″ bolts secure the vise to the base – one on each side, and one under the moving jaw at the back of the vise. The underside of the base is countersunk to accommodate the nuts, which are held in place with semi-permanent Lok-Tite. Washers spread the pressure. It’s not moving unless I want it to!

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I carefully sized the base so that when it’s in use, it fits between the pattern of dog holes on my Festool Multi-Fuction Table (MFT). In this way, I can use up to four clamps on it to secure it in place. As the photo above suggests, two is more than sufficient.

Also apparent in the above photo, I shaped the base so that the front edge projects over the edge of the MFT. The angled shape to either side of the vise means I won’t bump the base with my thigh while standing and using the tool. And the projection was designed so that the fixed jaw of the vise would sit just proud of the tracks that run around the perimeter of the MFT:

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Of course, if I’m not working a piece of material that is going to hang down below the base, I can position this vise anywhere on the MFT, thanks to all of those dog holes.

Thanks for the help getting started on this project, Chris – and for the useful advice throughout. I’m really pleased with how this project turned out, and I’m looking forward to putting dad’s vise to good use!

CNR 3737 :: starting on the cab

On Friday, I spent another pleasant afternoon with Andy Malette in his workshop, as we worked on our CNR 2-8-2 projects. Our main task was to start work on the cab.

When the CNR acquired its USRA Mikados from its US subsidiaries (Grand Trunk in New England and Grand Trunk Western in Michigan), it retrofitted many (or all?) of them to accommodate cab curtains to help crews cope with Canadian winters. This required re-shaping the back of the cab roof, above the footplate, to square it off and allow the curtains to hang properly. It also required adding a back wall to the cab, over the tender.

There were several variations on how they did this. One such is shown in the photo of 3715, below – found in CN Lines Volume 6 Number 4. I had this issue on my CN Lines DVD – which I highly recommend.

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As the image suggests, CNR simply scabbed in some metal to square off the bottom edge of the cab roof. On 3737, the added piece drops down slightly after the walkway, but not every locomotive had that feature. Based on prototype photos, the 2-8-2 I’m modelling – CNR 3737 – did not: Its cab roof went straight across, or ever so slightly upwards, with a very small rounded corner at the rear. The rear cab wall was also inset slightly – not flush as shown in the photo of 3715. My prototype did, however, have the two small vents in the cab back and the smoke deflector on the roof.

As the photo above shows, I’ve soldered in angled pieces of brass – then cleaned up the excess solder and filed, sanded and polished them to shape. I’ve also cut a piece of 0.020″ brass for the back wall of the cab, and started laying out the location of the vents.

Other progress of note:

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I’ve stripped the boiler and smokebox front of many of the appliances that are either not needed, need to be relocated, need to be out of the way to work on things, or need to be replaced with CNR-appropriate versions. There are a few holes to fill. I also need to rework the walkways, which have a step-up to clear the air compressor and water pump on this side of the locomotive.

Finally, thanks to our friend Simon Parent, Andy and I have lovely CNR-style spoked wheels for the pilot truck:

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These are the same wheels that Simon used on his CNR 2-10-2s. He sent us some (along with castings for the Elesco feed water heater), and Andy mounted them on axles for us. They sure complete the CNR-ization of the pilot.

I’m pleased with the progress!