Traverser Control Dev Board

Here is my latest development(dev) board for the traverser control system for Comstock Road.

Prototype embedded systems are often embodied as a development(dev) board. This is, electronically, a complete system laid out on a printed circuit board instead of in whatever form factor the final product is expected to be in. The dev board is used by embedded software developers to create the firmware. Laying things out on a board makes it much easier to attach measuring instruments such as multimeters, oscilloscopes and logic analyzers to see what is actually happening in parts of the system.

Unlike the industry standard, my dev board is a literal pine plank with components attached to it but it serves the same purpose. All the parts are there and wired up, just not installed in the layout. Given how chilly the basement is right now and how far it is from my computer, this is a non-trivial advantage! Attaching everything to a board also allows me to move it around easily with reduced risk of damage.

Clockwise from the bottom right, the components are:

  • NEMA 23 stepper motor
  • Big Easy motor driver board with a barrel jack for power
  • 4×20 LCD display board
  • 2 limit switches
  • Arduino Uno with a screw terminal shield on top of it
  • Breadboard (so far just used as a ground bus)
  • Front panel with pushbuttons I built

Wire management could be better but it is clear enough to me in person. Now I just have to create the actual code.

Beachhead (Re-)Established

I am working on the Arduino based drive system for the traverser on Comstock Road and have arrived at the point where I need to solder leads onto buttons so I can hook them up to the mocked up system. I have also been putting that off for a while now because my workbench has been well buried in detritus. It is the place I tend to unpack things and put things that I am not putting away.

This afternoon I took a bit of time and did some tidying up. I put away things I have places for and cleaned up the general accumulation of stripwood ends, dropped straight pins, jumper wires, … Surprisingly, there was relatively little that doesn’t have a place although bottles of fluids it definitely a problem area as indicated by the upper left corner of the photo.

I got the lead soldering project started and am now set up to leap back into action with no startup costs. I have also identified a necessary improvement in the form of some sort of small bottle stabilization scheme to prevent upsetting the narrow bottle of flux I was using. Or, historically, any bottle of flux I am using. At least nothing else was in the splash area so my virtuous cleaning had immediate benefits.

Swarf Curtain

I am willing to bet that nobody had “fish patterned swarf curtain” on their 2022 bingo cards. I turns out that I had all the materials on had to solve on of the issues identified during my recent operation session. The cute fish pattern is more festive than I would choose if I was paying but free is better. It turns out that there was a corresponding set of curtain hanging rings also in the stores along with a suitable length of wooden dowel.

A quick and simple project but I think the inhabitants of Comstock Road will appreciate an abatement in the periodic rain of hot metal fragments.

Operating Session

This afternoon I decided to stage a simple operating session as a way of assessing the current functional state of Comstock Road. I have run the loco back and forth once in a while but haven’t really operated at all. My plan was simple, get all four of the operational (aka couplers on both ends) cars in the fiddle yard into a train, number the industrial spots on the layout, randomly generate four numbers and put the four cars wherever the numbers said. And identify any issues as I went.

Overall, it went surprisingly well considering how little maintenance I have performed in the last year. Once I was set up, it took about30 minutes to complete the setouts. The pink foam wasteland has train service!

I did encounter some issues that I will need to address. Here are the ones I remember because I am not yet systematic about it to write them down as I go…

  • Layout need to be vacuumed to remove metal swarf. Proximity to milling machine makes this a recurring problem. Not a lot of bits but how many little bits of aluminum spanning a gap or steel sticking to a motor does one want? Plan is to acquire a plastic shower curtain and hang it between mill and layout.
  • Wireless throttle battery was flat. I thought I had it set up to charge off the general shop circuit but that has not worked. Investigation required to avoid operating while plugged into charger on end of extension cord.
  • DCC base station had been unpowered long enough to lose date and time settings. Although the default 1970 date was appropriate for Comstock Road, that would not be how I would do it. Need to either power up the layout more regularly or move that unit onto another circuit that is.
  • No uncoupling tool ready to hand. Scrounged a small flat bladed screwdriver which I kept losing track of. A dedicated swizzle stick or something is in order.
  • A couple of derailments happened, all in the same place and with the same car. Subject car is very light and was coupled to the loco which is very not. Loco coupler is the stock Atlas O one with a spring designed to toss diecast cars around on three rail tinplate layouts. Car has San Juan plastic wheelsets. Is likely some combination of those.
  • Banged head on lighting valance leaning over to align the transfer table. Stepper powered operation will fix that. Work in progress.
  • Pink foam wasteland and pint paint cans to not an attractive photo backdrop make. Motivation for scenic aspects of layout construction increases.

And that is it, other than a general desire for more cars to push around. Not perfect but mostly things with well defined and reasonable solutions. Perhaps I will schedule a regularly recurring op session for myself as a way to get me moving on some of this list.

Goals for a New Year

Lookit here, third post in as many days. Christmas sugar rush still in effect. I have a few things I would like to get done and putting it out there in a post is one way of adding a nudge towards action. I am blessed with the required resources of time and money but struggle with inertia, motivation, getting started, whatever you want to call it. I am also still alive so there is still hope for improvement. 🙂

At the risk of upsetting anyone who has seen too many corporate management fads go by, I am defining goals that fit my version of SMART(specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time bound). The specific is the important one to me, improve shop organization is vague, create a set of drawers for the lathe stand is specific. Everything can be done with infinite time so some target deadline helps me but I am not going to be too stressed about it. I am going to aim to get it all done by the end of May.

Without further ado, here are the ones I want to start with:

  • Machining – Complete Beam Engine: already ongoing
  • Shop Organization – Lathe Tool Rack: started on some widgets, need the thing to hang them on.
  • Shop Organization- Organize Measuring Tool Drawer: Kaizen foam in hand, need to work out a layout
  • Modelling – complete On30 railbus kit: this one is a bit ambitious but I think the machine shop gives me a way to fix my blocking issue
  • Comstock Road – Traverser Automation – I have already applied the paddles to this long dormant project, still working on rebuilding my development environment. With this done, I can complete the backdrop and mock all the structures.
  • Comstock Road – Rough Scenery – foam is half done. I want to finish that and get everything covered in basic ground cover.
  • Blog Regularly – I will aim for once a week at minimum. It may be me talking about why I haven’t done anything since last week…

That is all I am going to put on the list but of course there are many other projects lying about. Hopefully, this

Sieve Experiments

My soil sieve arrived unexpectedly early so I took advantage of the sunny weather to experiment outside and see what I could come up with. I started with some of the contents of a leftover bag of limestone screenings with thoughts of producing my own ballast. (When it’s not cinders, ballast in southern Ontario is usually limestone.)

The sieve came with three different meshes: 1mm, 3mm, and 5 mm. 1mm is about 2 O scale inches so about right for ballast. Or that was the theory, anyway. What I failed to account for was all the smaller bits and outright dust that also passes through that mesh. What I got was good “dirt” material but not ballast.

I then hunted around the house for something with a finer mesh. I was partially successful in that I found a bit of plastic screening but it looks to be about the same as the 1mm. I tried sandwhiching it between two of the screens and did get some “ballast”. I think it looks darn good but the amount produces is such a low ratio to the total material processed that I could not reasonably produce enough to do even a small layout such as Comstock Road.

Not to be discourages, I decided to use the “dirt” as a first texture layer on the foreground test scene. It is undeniably an improvement over brown paint.

Next I need to round up a suitable brush for stippling on glue and shoot some grass on this thing.

Foreground Staging: Useful Scenery Practice

I have been sporadically putting in the foam scenery base of Comstock Road but with no sense of urgency. I think that part of that lack of drive is due to a bit of uncertainty about the next steps. I know what they are, more or less, but have not done some of them in a long time (mixed Sculptamold in various consistencies and configurations) or ever (applied static grass). What I need is a practice project with low investment, material or emotional.

Coincidentally, I have been using my scheduled reading time to catch up on my pile of partially read model magazines and came across the perfect project concept. In the November 2020 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman, George Dutka presents the idea of foreground staging. This is a small, simple, scenicked diorama used to provide foreground in layout photography and hide the front fascia. It also provides a way to temporarily deploy structures that don’t otherwise have a home. (If you are familiar with George’s work, you will know that he probably has an extra structure or two about the place. 🙂 )

Given the narrow depth and close to the edge track locations of Comstock Road, some foreground staging is something I can definitely use. The entire scene in front of the traverser will only be about 6″ deep. The diorama is inherently expendable and quick. So I am off! I have gotten as far as the “paint the Sculptamold” phase but am stalled a bit on some materials.

I am assembling appropriate ground textures from local sources, a process much slowed by the current Toronto area lockdown but not impossible. Hopefully, once I get ahold of some suitable sieves I can get this done. With curbside pickup and online shopping only, I can’t stroll the housewares aisles looking at the size of the meshes in the strainers so I have resorted to the online retailing behemoth for a set of soil sieves. Now we wait. And collect and dry used tea bags. By the time I get this done, I should have shaken out all the bugs in a basic scenery system.

As a thoroughly unimpressive illustration of the concept, here is what the aforementioned foreground track looks like with and without my work-in-progress foreground bit held in front of it.

Including of a structure to frame an edge will require a steadier setup than board held in left hand and phone in right. George recommends accumulating a suitable stack of boxes.

Some Pending Verticality

This is the current main loading dock side of Griffiths Foods, one of the few remaining rail served customers on the CN GECO spur. The view is facing west with the real Comstock Road is directly to the right. In the absence of any 1970’s photographs, I am going to take this and run with it, or at least what will fit.

The building front will be a maximum of 38 scale feet wide and mirrored to what is here. Main truck docks to the left will be implied to be in the off layout space in front.

Things I like about this and hope to capture:

  • Side by side truck and rail doors with the truck dock ramped down.
  • Despite a lack of any windows, there is a lot of things going on.
  • Clear progression of additions at different heights/widths.
  • Whatever that machinery on a plinth is to the right.
  • I have a big pile of 1:48 embossed brick sheet!

Things I am reasonably sure don’t belong in the 1970’s:

  • That metal siding at upper left. Covered windows perhaps?
  • Security camera on corner of building.
  • Gas bottle storage with exchangeable 20lb propane tank.

My current plan is a foamcore shell with brick sheets applied thereon. I will do the foamcore as a mockup to see how it looks.

About That Foam Scenery

During some of my scheduled shop time, I have been working towards getting all of the spaces between the tracks filled in with foam. The first priority to is relieve my anxiety about any derailments involving rolling stock making a fast trip to the concrete. Nothing even close to that has happened and I am generally well pleased with operational performance so far but it is still something I worry about.

Getting all those non regular shapes cut and fitted is time consuming and got me thinking about what I might do differently next time. I haven’t really settled on anything but I did want to share what I have learned about this approach. Queue the list.

  • Retrofitting foam is fiddly and time consuming. No matter what methodyou chose it will take time and probably involve a mess somewhere.
  • I have tried tracing the shapes onto the underside of the foam from below. This is awkward and not as accurate as I hoped. I always have to trim things down.
  • I have tried “routing” the shapes by tracing the edges from above using hot wire tools. This produces closer shape matches but has the various drawbacks of hot wire tools. Ironically, the Hot Wire Foam Factory router tool doesn’t work as well as the “knife” tool. The router is too short and too thick.
  • Foam board aka extruded polystyrene rigid insulation is very slow to cut with hot wire tools. The Hot Wire demo videos all depict white foam “bead board” and are clearly the intended material. I will consider using that instead for future projects if I don’t need the structural feature of the rigid foam.
  • Polyurethane glue works a treat but squeezing the bottle (LePage 200ml) for long beads is hard on the hands. I have resorted to using a quick grip clamp as a squeezer.
  • T-pins are great for holding foam bits together while the glue cures. T-pin use number eleventy-one.
  • Fumes from hot wire foam cutting are unpleasant. duh.
  • Getting the pictured foam in along the back edge strongly validates the removable backdrop design. It would be a real bother to do from the front.
  • Ditto having the layout lighting working.
  • Glue instructions say to dampen surfaces prior. Choose a stable container for your water supply. Just sayin’…

I expect to have everything roughed in sometime next week and will probably roll straight into some final contouring with additional layers of foam and sundry coatings. I have a jar of Foamcoat I intend to try out in addition to the traditional Sculptamold.

Not a New Year Resolution

I have been struggling with hobby inertia in the last couple of months. It is just easier to sit down at the computer(upstairs) rather than descend the stairs to the shop and figure out what to do next. And the longer you are away, the harder it is to remember what that was and where you were at in it.

Late in December, I decided that I needed to reform the habit of regular effort. (Just ask be about workout routines, I am a master of starting those…) I have scheduled a daily block of time merely labelled “shop”. I am using Google Calendar so that it goes ping on my phone so I have less excuse to “forget”. The intent is to be in the shop or doing shop related things for at least that long.

I have taken the approach that anything done is good (barring fire and flood caused, of course) and that it will eventually produce results through accumulation. So far, so good. I have done a bunch of cleaning and reorganization, done some planning for the developing machine shop and made, at long last, some progress on foam scenery base for Comstock Road. The lighting update is one identifiable result.

I have more or less stuck to the routine and it feels like I am getting some forward progress. Hopefully I will have more discretely identifiable things to share in the near future.