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…)

The Pindal Electric Tram

I’d heard about the Pindal Electric Tram for many years, and even seen a few videos. But nothing quite prepared me for the experience…

Earlier this month, some friends and I visited Kaj and Annie Pindal to spend a few hours in the afternoon riding the delightful 15-inch gauge, ride-in electric trolley line that runs in their back yard in Oakville, Ontario.

While I could go on at length about how Kaj built his own equipment, powered mainly by motors liberated from electric lawn mowers, made his track from fence rails, switched from trolley poles to bow-collectors which he fabricated himself, and can use the railway to take the household garbage and recycling to the curb… I think a video is the best way to express the magic that is the Pindal Electric Tram.

So here it is: enjoy if you watch…

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

Thanks, Kaj & Annie: What a wonderful day out!

Steam up at Tom’s

On Saturday, some friends were headed to a live steam meet about an hour outside of Buffalo, New York, and invited me along. Our host was Tom Bowdler, who has a lovely outdoor track with both 32mm and 45mm gauges represented. The weather was beautiful – sunny enough to be comfortable but with just enough chill in the air that we were comfortable in jackets. The cool air gave the locomotives lovely plumes of condensed steam, too!

My friend Jeff Young brought along “Ursula”:

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

“Ursula” is a 1/12th scale model of the 15″ gauge locomotive built by Sir Arthur Heywood in 1916 for the Duke of Westminster’s Eaton Railway in Cheshire. The model is a bespoke construction designed by Peter Angus and built by Mike Lax. It uses Roundhouse Hackworth valve gear to replicate the unusual Heywood valve gear, and runs on a single flue gas-fired boiler. A batch of three were built – one for Peter Angus, one for Jeff, and one for the fellow who owns the full-size replica Ursula.

Carl Berg ran some terrific, but unusual, live steam locomotives of his own design:

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

Carl built the locomotives seen in this video using vintage Marx “Commodore Vanderbuilt” O gauge tinplate models. They’re powered by a single cylinder oscillator in the cab and a butane boiler in the tender. And as the video shows, they are pocket rockets. I’ve never seen anything faster on 32mm track: any faster and the railway right of way would need to be built with banked curves. These were a delight to watch.

Many other fine examples of the Live Steam hobby had a chance to polish the rails, either on Tom’s permanent garden railway or on his portable exhibition track, which was also set up for the occasion. Here’s a sampling:

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

In addition to several hours of running trains and socializing, the steam-up featured a gathering of three examples of the new 7/8″ scale (1:13.7) Decauville locomotives from Accucraft. These are beautiful models, although they come with bad news and good news. The bad news is, they’re poor runners as delivered. The good news is, the live steam community has been working to solve the issues and it appears there’s a fix. So, with some work, they should turn out to be lovely models that also run well, and offer modellers a perfect locomotive for a 7/8″ estate railway.

Three Decauville engines - Tom's

Decauville - Tom's

Decauville - Tom's

Decauville - Tom's

Tom was a wonderful host – I had a great time. He also has a terrific sense of humour. I was pleased to find this wonderful piece of rolling stock on display in his living room:

Hoser Car

It made me feel right at home. Thanks for hosting us, Tom!

McCarthy - Banner

We ended the day with a trip to Gene McCarthy’s – a brew-pub in the Old First Ward in Buffalo. Here, Jeff demonstrates an interesting, historical feature of our table:

McCarthy - Table

A small shelf under each corner provided space to securely stow one’s pint while playing cards. This would keep condensation on the glasses from getting the table wet (and of course prevent one from accidentally tipping a pint onto the cards or any money involved).

McCarthy - Table

Following a nice meal and a pint or two of craft brew, we headed home – and I captured this glimpse of Toronto across the lake from the tall bridge over the Welland Canal in St. Catharines:

Toronto from Garden City Skyway

Thanks to Peter Foley, Jeff Young, and Mike Walton for a grand day out: I’m looking forward to the next one!

Shooting “Fired Up!” Season 2

Fired Up - Season 2

On August 30 and 31, Barry Silverthorn, Dylan Wickware and I visited the backyard of Jeffrey Young to shoot the second season of “Fired Up!” for TrainMasters TV.

As with Season One, we shot six more episodes over the two days. This time, Barry added a much-appreciated piece of equipment – a scrim, to diffuse the sun and help keep us from turning into lobsters. (It’s the giant white thing overhead in some of the shots here.)

For season two, we’re exploring several additional aspects of live steam. Episodes will cover coal firing, portable steaming tracks, tools, workshops, locomotive customization, and rolling stock.

Fired Up - Season 2

Fired Up - Season 2

Fired Up - Season 2

Fired Up - Season 2

Fired Up - Season 2

While this is definitely a niche market, live steam is a unique and fascinating approach to the model railway hobby – and it’s one that may speak more strongly to non-hobbyists for several reasons:

1 – It’s a hobby enjoyed in the garden – which makes it a fun, family activity that takes advantage of nice weather.

2 – Given that many model railway enthusiasts have spouses who are not in our hobby, but who like to garden, live steam is a nice “crossover” hobby – a place where we can all meet and do something together, and where each person brings a unique set of skills to the project.

3 – It’s freakin’ live steam for goodness sake! At public exhibitions where we can bring live steam to the general public, we’ve noticed that those interested in steam punk and/or retro/vintage style are really drawn to our live steam locomotives – in a way that they would not be engaged by HO electric trains.

I’m proud of the work we do on “Fired Up!” and I hope our viewers enjoy it too. Season Two goes to air on TrainMasters TV this winter.

Fired Up - Season 2

Video of the Accucraft Decauville

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

I’m a little late to the party on this one, as the video was published in May. But here’s some footage of the 7/8ths (1:13.7) “Decauville” live steam locomotive being produced by The Train Department and Accucraft.

I’m very excited about this one. I have several pieces of 7/8ths scale rolling stock for an estate railway, but no locomotive to pull them. My order has already been placed…

By the way, if you want to see the prototype, here’s a video of it on the Sandstone Estates in South Africa, which really illustrates just how small the prototype is:

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

Enjoy if you watch!

Thanks to The Train Department for making this project happen. I can’t wait!

Fired Up! with Jeff Young

My friend Jeff Young is well known in the live steam community and he writes the live steam column for one of the major hobby magazines devoted to railroading in the garden.

So I’m thrilled that he and I have been able to work together on Fired Up! – a new series on TrainMasters TV that explores the world of live steam. Fired Up! covers choosing, setting up, running and servicing garden scale live steam locomotives. It’s aimed at those new to live steaming, but I hope even experienced water boilers will enjoy it.

Here’s a preview for the first episode, which will be available for viewing this weekend:

We’re doing six episodes this season – and if it’s well received we have the outlines of six more for season two. And of course if it’s really well received we’ll create additional seasons.

Yes – there’s a reason for the spinning barbecue in the opening credits. To find out more, you’ll need to watch the series – and to do that, you’ll need to be a subscriber to TrainMasters TV. But here’s the good news: membership is quite reasonable and you’ll be able to watch a whole lot of excellent hobby-related content, created and presented with top-quality production values.

Think of TrainMasters TV as an all-singing, all-dancing glossy magazine about railway modelling, and you’ll be surprised at how affordable it is.

Enjoy if you watch – and happy steaming!

UPDATE: The full first episode is now available for viewing.