Garden Renovation: Finishing Up

Garden from the office deck
(The garden, as seen from the deck off my second floor home office. Move the patio set to one side, and there will be plenty of space for a portable live steam track…)

Having started work roughly two months ago, the garden renovation is 99% finished.

There are still little details to take care of – and the back of the house will get clad in new material in the spring – but the landscapers have wrapped up and our designer/contractor has gone home for the winter.

After finishing the fence (at least on the north side: the south will wait for the spring), the final major bit of progress was delivery and installation of several large planters, custom fabricated from Corten steel. These are more than planters – they’re raised gardens:

(One of the planters viewed from below, showing off the general construction)

Prepping the planter space
(Our contractor Marc – kneeling at right – and the landscaping crew prepare the space for the planters)

Planter installation
(Marc adds some spacers to one of the planters. In the distance, Trixie – the border collie owned by the landscaper, Bill – inspects the work. Or, perhaps, checks for food? She’s a dog, after all…)

Three planters
(Three planters in place along the north fence, including loops for the irrigation system. We’ll plant herbs and other goodies in them in the spring, and enjoy no-stoop gardening!)

The deck at the back door also includes space for a barbecue:

Planters and BBQ

A fourth planter runs along the back of the house, and includes a bench made from a Corten pedestal capped with the stone that used to be our back step. It’s perfect for putting down grocery bags while unlocking the door:

Lower planter

The back of the house will be re-clad in the spring, and that kooky downspout will be addressed then. (We used to have a rain barrel – hence, the junction and two spouts.)

Our eldest border collie, Mocean, checks out the new patio:

backyard - final - looking east

backyard - final - looking west

What a difference from before!

Backyard - before

We’re thrilled by the outcome of this project and look forward to finally being able to enjoy our garden. We never realized the full potential of the space, but that’s all changed. I can now start planning a portable steaming track, too. Fortunately, Jeff Young and I described how to build one of those on the most recent segment of “Fired Up!” on TrainMasters TV

Fired Up

Garden Renovation: Fence

November has turned wet, but our brilliant designer/builder is prepared to keep working on our garden renovation – with some help from a tent:

Marc + Tent
(Marc brings fence boards through the garage. The big sliding door is a real help when moving large stuff)

Tent + Tools
(As long as the power tools are dry, work can continue)

The next project is primarily cosmetic: new cladding for the fences to make them look more modern. The work is straight-forward, but fussy. The posts need to be shimmed to ensure the fence cladding remains straight along its length, and intermediate supports are required so the fence boards do not buckle. The figuring and prepping took a few days, but then the boards themselves went on relatively quickly.

Fence in progress.

Deck and fence
(The deck at the back door is finished, and work on the fence has started)

Garage deck
(The deck at the garage has also been finished and our garbage bin shed is back in place)

Fence + inspectors
(The inspectors check out the progress on the fence – and approve!)

We’re still determining how to treat the fence on the south side of the property. A preliminary investigation revealed a couple of rotted posts on this side, too – so we’ll have to discuss the fence with our neighbours on that side…

Garden Renovation: Decks

Bill and Trixie
(Bill, our landscaper, and his border collie Trixie inspect the progress on the new decks)

With most of the stone patio work completed, the next step in the garden renovation was to add decks at the back door and at the garage. The crew spent a couple of days installing and truing up the footings, then built the framing:

Deck framing - back door
(Framing for the back door deck. A drain pipe will distribute rain water under the deck. The wooden panels are a temporary path for our dogs to reach the garden)

Deck framing - garage
(The framing for the deck at the garage end of the garden. This will be extended under the recycling bin storage box as well)

For the decking itself, we went with a sustainable option – Bamboo:


I’m not sure how “X-treme” it is, but it sure looks nice…

Deck bamboo - garage
(The forecast calls for rain, which will take care of those boot prints)

Deck bamboo - back door
(The inspectors check it out on a wet Saturday)

The decks are only a small step up from ground level, but they nicely add interest to the garden while maintaining the sense of open space that we desired. There’s still some work to do on them, but we’re really happy with the results so far!

Garden Renovation: No more wires

No more wires!
(It may seem like a small thing, but it made a huge difference)

Since we were executing a scorched earth policy in the back garden anyway, we decided to remove the overhead wires and place them in conduit below ground:

Conduits and Cables.
(Jack inspects the conduit. Click on the image to read more)

This week, the lines were successfully re-routed. First, our designer/contractor removed the four overhead power lines that connected our garage to the main panel in the house:

Removing the power lines

At the same time, he routed our internet connection through the garage and up the old power pole. Then, a field technician pulled down our overhead lines (you can see them running through the new trees in the above photo) and routed those underground too:

Re-routing the internet connection

The difference, as shown in the lead photo, is actually bigger than I thought it would be. I can only surmise that the overhead lines would act as something for the eye to focus on, so they would draw the eye along them to the edges of the garden. They would also divide the sky into strips – much more so than I thought a thin black line would. The view from the ground is much, much better now.

From a practical perspective, we’ve removed the potential for our new trees to cause a problem with our wires.

I’m really glad we did this!

Garden Renovation: Plants and Trees

Garden overview
(It’s starting to look like a garden where we actually want to spend time!)

Sharp-eyed readers might have noticed some plants appearing along the fences of the garden in my previous post about the new stone patio. (If you did not, you can revisit that post. Go ahead: I’ll wait here.)

With the patio mostly in place, the landscapers decided it’s time to finish the plantings – especially in the back (northwest) corner of the garden. With three border collies in residence, we’ve gone with a mix of hardy shrubs and a stand of trees that – as they grow – will help shade the garden from afternoon sun.

Truck - trees
(It was exciting to see the truck pull up across the street yesterday, with trees on board)

Trees and bulbs
(Shrubs and edging for the patio)

Trees and bulbs
(Some colour for the spring)

Trees and bulbs
(Planting Trees and burying bulbs)

Trees and shrubs
(Bill the landscaper spreads mulch around the trees. The overhead wires will be buried in conduit as mentioned previously on this blog)

Trees and shrubs
(The pocket garden under the trees, with lots of room for plants to grow)

Trees and bulbs
(The baggage wagon, set in place)

Lion and Lamb
(A lion and lamb, from my mother’s house, finds a place to rest in a corner of the patio)

From from the back landing
(The view that greets visitors as they enter the garden. There are plans for all those spaces currently occupied by gravel…)

Overhead perspective
(The garden as seen from the 2nd floor deck off my home office)

(As always, the inspectors must inspect at the end of the day)

More to come next week, as we move on to adding some wood tones to the space!

Garden Renovation: A Proper Patio

As my wife and I discussed the garden renovation with our designer/contractor, one of the things I insisted upon was a large patio. I wanted space to set up a portable steaming track (as well as space to swing sheet goods through a table saw on occasion). With the jungle cleared, the services laid, and the gravel spread, the landscaper’s stone expert got to work.

Al worked on his own – no need for distractions, I guess – and spent two and a half days laying out the patio:

Garden Patio

Garden Patio

Garden Patio

Garden Patio

Garden Patio

Garden Patio

It was wonderful watching the patio grow from a single square into this new, welcoming space. We’re looking forward to hosting parties (and steam-ups) in our garden!

Garden Patio Inspectors
(The inspectors, well… inspect)

Next up, some greenery…

Garden Renovation: Unseen Essentials

The landscaping crew is making quick work of rebuilding our back garden. With the destruction out of the way, the next step involved adding some services into the garden to make it a more welcome space – and hiding others from view.

Right now, two sets of wires span the garden, front to back. One set delivers electricity from our main panel to a satellite panel in the garage. The other set runs from the laneway to provide our Internet access. Right from the start, we knew we wanted to bury the electrical service in conduit. As for the Internet, we made some phone calls and had an onsite visit from a technician from the appropriate utility, and were instructed on what needed to be done to bury that as well.

The landscapers ran the necessary conduits and cables along the north side of the yard:

Conduits and Cables.

Jack inspects the work – and approves!

Jack inspects.

We also added water and natural gas hook-ups, for the watering system and a grille:


With that work out of the way, gravel – lots of gravel – started to arrive, to form the foundation for a new patio:


Patio installation is next… and will radically transform the space.

Garden Renovation: Clearing the Jungle

For someone interested in live steam and running trains in the garden, I have one huge hurdle to overcome.

I am not a gardener.

I’m lousy at gardening – and what’s more, I hate doing the work.

I blame my mother for this, in part: She was an amazing gardener and whenever I’ve attempted anything involving plants and soil, I always end up feeling inadequate. She had two green tubs: Mine are black. In addition, my mother often recruited me to help doing the donkey work in the garden – the digging of new beds or the end of season clean-up. It’s no wonder I prefer to work indoors.

Still… one does not need a garden railway in order to be a live steam enthusiast. As I have learned through my friends, it’s possible to enjoy this very social hobby with the aid of a temporary/portable steaming track:

Doors Open 2008 - Water Boilers Display Track

Setting up such a track in the back yard on nice days would be, well, nice! If only I had the space. Well, it turns out I do – or I will…

Given that we live in the downtown of one of the most expensive cities in Canada, my wife and I have a huge amount of under-used space on our property: Namely, a back garden that’s approximately 20 x 40 feet (with an extension of roughly 10 x 10 along one side of the house). Neither of us are gardeners, so over the years it has become a bit (well, a lot) of a jungle:

Back yard - September 28 2018
(The garden, as it appeared at the end of September)

Having lived with this suboptimal situation for several years, we decided this year to do something about it. So, we talked to the designer/builder who has been helping us renovate our house. He devised a plan and has brought in one of his landscaping contacts to help make it happen. It’s in progress now, and should be done before the snow flies.

The plan includes a large patio – big enough for parties, but also big enough to swing sheet goods over a table saw or host a portable steaming track. At some point next year, my goal is to build such a track – and find room to store it in the garage.

But that’s in the future. Right now, the work has started and I couldn’t be more excited. Here are some progress shots of the clearing of the jungle:

Garden - October 3
(October 3: The landscapers made short work of the greenery)

Garden - October 5
(October 5: The crew removed a lot of stone, and is now down to the soil and rubble)

Garden - October 9
(October 9: We decided to do this work, in part, because a storm blew down portions of the fence along the north side of our garden. The crew has replaced rotted posts and re-hung panels. The baggage wagon makes a handy, mobile storage space. There’s a spot for it in the new garden, of course!)

There’s a lot more to do – and I’ll share more progress photos in future posts. I’ve also created a category for all posts related to this project – Garden Renovation – for those who want to follow along.

A whistle post for the garden

I made a trip down to Port Colborne, Ontario recently to visit my friend Jim Martin. Jim and his wife recently moved to a smaller property and wanted to unload some pieces that were surplus to their needs – including this whistle post, once used on the Niagara St. Catharines & Toronto Railway:

NST Whistle Post - Garage

The NS&T is a significant prototype for me, with a lot of personal connection. In fact, I’m currently debating whether to model it in 1:64 (S scale). More about the whistle post can be found on my NS&T website but what’s important here is that I’m happy to take a turn as the caretaker for this piece of railway history, now that Jim has decided he no longer needs it in his life.

Fortunately, the post fit in the truck – barely:

NST Whistle Post - Truck

Before my trip, Jim measured the post for me. It’s 12″ wide, 3.5″ deep, and stands 73″ tall. A quick measurement of my truck showed that 73″ would just fit, if the post rode on its edge and was angled across the bed. I’m not sure what I would’ve done if it had been 74″…

As the lead photo shows, the post is currently propped against some renovation materials in the garage, but it won’t be there for long. That’s because in a month or so, landscaping work begins on our back yard.

My wife and I have been working with our architect/contractor and a landscaper that he likes to use to eliminate the jungle behind our house and convert it into a welcoming, useable space. The whistle post will find a home in the new back yard, alongside the baggage wagon I acquired several years ago:

Baggage Wagon
(The baggage wagon, currently being used to hold some patio stone samples for my wife and I to review. To learn more about the wagon, click on the image.)

Of course, one of the reasons to undertake this landscaping project is to create a space where I can set up a portable steaming track, so I can start to enjoy the live steam equipment I’ve collected over the years. Most of the hardscaping will be done before the winter, with planting in the spring, but once the garden is ready I’ll even be able to host steam-ups. I can’t wait!

Fixing the Decauville

The live steam community is a small one, but it’s incredibly supportive. When there’s a problem, members of the community come together to help each other fix it. This is a good example: a story about a product that didn’t live up to expectations – and what the community has been doing about it.

Decauville - delivery
(Maybe THIS year it’ll actually get to run?)

It’s been more than a year since Peter Foley and I picked up our 7/8″ Accucraft Decauville locomotives while attending a steam-up in western New York – yet due to a number of engineering issues with the models they still haven’t turned a wheel under steam.

That’s about to change, however: on Saturday, Peter and I took our beautiful – but mechanically unsound – steamers for a visit with Jeff Young.

Jeff and Peter
(Jeff and Peter in the workshop at the start of our day. Four hours later, those smiles were harder to coax out of hiding – but we had locomotives that might actually steam! Note the black rectangles in the lower left: those are the replacement gas tanks.)

Jeff has been working his connections in the live steam community since last year to secure upgraded parts to turn these shelf queens into track-worthy models. They had a number of problems as delivered from the factory, including a poor burner design and a gas jet that was too aggressive. Most challenging, the gas tank was located right next to the boiler, which meant when the boiler heated up (as they do), it would actually boil the butane in the tank. Not a good thing.

The fixes included:

– Installing a new burner. This was straightforward: a single screw holds the burner in place, so one simply removes that, swaps the burners, and replaces the screw.

– Installing a new gas jet. From the factory, the Decauville was fitted with a #5. Jeff picked up #3 and #4 jets for us. They’re a screw-in replacement.

– Removing and replacing the gas tank with a new one designed by Accucraft UK and built by Accucraft in China. This was the big project for the day.

Ex-works, the gas tank was located in the right-hand water tank. (This was not used for water, which goes directly into the boiler through a valve under the steam dome.) The new tank would go under the floor of the cab, between the frames.

While the old gas tank could’ve stayed in place, we needed to remove the body so that we could unscrew the connector on the feed line. This required finding and removing about a dozen small bolts… loosening the lubricator… disconnecting the steam pipe from both ends (throttle and cylinders, via the lubricator)… and removing the gas regulator (disguised as a brake stand). We also had to remove the throttle handle, which was in the way for drilling the floor to accept the new tank.

A variety of metric and BA tools were required. This set from Wiha came in handy, and I will pick up one at my local tool supplier:

Wiha Tool Set
(Tool collecting: the hobby within the hobby!)

With everything in pieces, we used a marking template supplied by David Mees at AbbyBach Engineering Services to locate the three holes for the new gas tank:

(We labelled the template with a marker before sending it on to the next Decauville owner – as explained below.)

This is cleverly designed with two pins that line up with two screws in the cab floor. These would be drilled larger to accept the mounting bolts for the tank – one of which is hollow, and designed to mate with the connector on the as-delivered gas line.

Decauville - cab interior
(The cab interior, as delivered: Note the two screws in the floor. The original gas tank is in the near side tank: the filler valve can be seen in the shadow across the top of the tank.)

The third hole – upper right in the photo above – is the location for the gas tank filler valve. With the holes marked, we put the Decauville under the drill press and carefully created the new holes – enlarging them in three or four steps to the size we needed.

Here’s the new butane tank in place between the frames:

Decauville - butane tank

We then annealed the gas delivery pipe so that we could bend it to connect with the new tank. It’s not pretty, but it’s out of the way of fingers, and it’ll work just fine.

Decauville - piping
(The tank has two threaded rods which pass through the footplate. Two nuts secure it in place. One of the threaded rods is hollow and designed to mate with the gas delivery pipe. The shorter pipe in this photo will connect to the gas jet in the burner. Note the gas tank filler valve on the floor to the left of the far bolt. Also note the hole to the right of the near bolt: we accidentally had the template turned 180 degrees, which resulted in an extra hole in the floor. We marked the template for the next user(s), and I’ll add a bucket or other detail to cover the hole.)

The procedure took the best part of four hours, and – frankly – put our already impressive vocabulary of swear words to the test. But it’s done, and we celebrated with a late lunch on the patio at Cuchulainn’s Irish Pub.

I know that in addition to those people mentioned here, many others in the live steam community – including other Decauville owners, but also those who have no skin in this particular game – have been working over the past year or so to address the shortcomings on this model. While I can’t give them a proper shout-out here, I’d like to thank them for their help: Much appreciated!

Thank you, Jeff and Peter, for turning a daunting project into a fun day out, and turning a frustrating locomotive into something I look forward to running!

(While visiting Jeff’s workshop, I couldn’t resist snapping a photo of his scratch-built “Windus”: If I’d only stuck to clockwork…)