Tool Block

One of my organization objectives is to get tools out of containers so that they are visible and ready to hand. A tool block is, according to me anyway, just a block of material with a bunch of holes in it into which you stick tools. You can pack a good number of suitably shaped tools into a small area and still get at them. On the downside, you have to stick one end in a hole. Hobby knives and screwdrivers don’t work well since the former has the business end sticking up where I will eventually stab myself and the latter has the interesting bit in the hole so you can’t tell which is which. Files and paint brushes work well. I will experiment with others to see what I can make fit.

Here is the proper item I started today with the first two rows of holes drilled. I used an offcut from a butchers block counter top that has been hulking on the wood cart for some time. It certainly won’t be tipping over. Previous decade old “temporary” foam insulation predecessor included for comparison.toolblocks


Better Storage of Projects In Progress

The current big task under way is getting the shop de-cluttered and organized to the point where Comstock Road can be set up against one long wall. The woodworking bench is on the short end and the other long wall will host, in order, wood rack, cart-o-stuff, workbench and bookshelf. There my space effectively ends at the moment.

One of my recurring, er, challenges, has been properly keeping the materials involved in a project together. Random shoebox randomly stuffed wherever is a sub-optimal system. I actually lost track of a project in the course of the current shuffle. Even routine thrashing about looking for something can cost time and motivation.

The current organizational push moved me to splash out for proper shelving and clear plastic tote boxes(shoebox size, ha!) to get things regularized.shelf

I have been puttering away rediscovering things in boxes so the shelves are considerably fuller than this but from bottom to top, I am going for: projects in progress, projects not in progress aka unbuilt kits/activity kits such as scenicking and, models in boxes.

That unfinished ceiling is another motivator for making Comstock Road movable: I hope to get a low clearance drop ceiling installed at some future date.

Actual project in progress list:

  1. Previously mentioned shed.
  2. David Provan On30 SR&RL railbus kit.
  3. Bar Mills HO Waterfront Willy’s kit.
  4. Banta blacksmith annex kit my son was working on.
  5. Boulder Valley On30 critter kit


As I previously mentioned, a major cleanup and reorganization are required to site the new Comstock Road layout against the wall. A primary task was removing and disposing of the last section of the old layout benchwork. Here is a shot of the bottom which is the interesting side.


This section never had anything on it that was supposed to be there and has been serving as a big, very solid shelf since it was built. (It was going to be harbor water and piers.) I cleared it off this morning, carted it out to the driveway and cut it up so that it could join other detritus in a trip to the waste transfer station.

Always one to try a new benchwork construction method, I built the previous layout using the “waffle” approach. The results are rigid to an extreme. Tapdancing elephants might crush it but it probably still wouldn’t flex. Construction time is probably on the same order as the plywood sandwich I am using on Comstock Road but with more sawing with a jig saw required.

But, you knew there must be a but,  the rigidity was at the price of weight. 1/2″ plywood + Homasote over all made the sections firmly in the movable not portable category. There are clubs who base show layouts on waffles so portability standards obviously differ. I suspect such clubs are well provided with extra hands and hauling capacity.

Weekend Reading: Model Building with Brass by Kenneth C. Foran

modelbuildingwithbrassOne of the things all modelers should consider doing is looking outside their particular niche for methods and materials that might be bring something new to their repertoire. Model Building with Brass by Kenneth C. Foran was recommended to me by a modeler who knew of my beginning brass modeling pursuit. I second that recommendation.

As you can tell from the dust jacket, Kenneth Foran builds beautiful large scale models of various vehicles to a incredible level of detail and finish. The full-page and two-page colour photographs are a highlight of this book.

This is no coffee table decoration, however. Kenneth shares many of his methods in detail including tools, fabrication and finishing. Step by step examples give you an idea of what can be accomplished. Some techniques are not obviously applicable to model railroading. For instance I am not sure how I might use something like electroplating but I am ready if the occasion arises. On the other hand, Kenneth’s techniques for fabricating things like gas tanks and working brake pedals would easily translate into things such as tank car ends, brake rigging. diesel noses and cab interiors. If you want to model a prime mover right down to working pistons, this is definitely the book for you.

Model Building with Brass won’t tell you how to build railroad cars and locomotives but it can probably teach you are thing or two that will make things easier and improve your results. I consider the book a good buy for the sheet brass fabrication techniques alone.

Model Building with Brass is still in print and available through the usual online sources.

Stepper Motor Control Prototype Bringup

I made a push this morning to get the planned traverser motor control system assembled.  This involved soldering screw terminal blocks onto the Big Easy stepper driver board, tinning the motor leads, soldering leads to the barrel jack for the power supply, affixing the components to piece of wood and wiring it all up.

Wiring connections were made as per the SparkFun hookup guide for the Big Easy.  Clear instructions for the layperson are not to be sniffed at. This all went appeared to go well but one is never sure before you turn on the power.

A plank of wood as a way to hold things is a quick way to keep things from getting tangled or worse. The motor is quite heavy and could break toe if it landed on it. It would also rip out the carefully traced wiring as it went.

The hookup guide includes matching source code and tonight I used that as the basis for my test firmware. The pin reset function in the example was MIA so I had to write my own with reference to the default settings for the six control pins.

Finally ready for the big test, I plugged things in. LED’s on the driver board lit up and no magic smoke release was observed so on we went and things actually worked on the first try. As veteran developers will tell you, this is unexpected and somewhat unnerving. A tribute to the quality of the documentation, I think.

I took a video but have yet to devise a delivery mechanism for it. Meanwhile, here is a promotional still.


Traverser Automation Plan

controllerpartsI have acquired the necessary electronic components to implement my plan for automating the traverser. Working with stepper motors is a new thing for me so I wanted to start in on that sooner to qualify the technical risk aka figure out if it can be done. In the interests of speed, I decided to go with fast and effective for the prototype.

Initial major components are:

  • A NEMA23 stepper motor which the size typically used by small CNC machines. The traverser table will be rolling on drawer slides and hopefully this motor will have enough torque to move the table when loaded with cars and loco.
  • A Big Easy Driver board to control the motor. This motor can draw up to 2 amps so you can’t drive it directly from microcontroller PWM outputs like a small servo. This driver is one that has good Arduino support.
  • An Arduino Uno R3 microcontroller board. This is major overkill for this application in terms of processor power and functionality but the quickest to get something running. Final version will probably be an Arduino mini but that board doesn’t have on-board debugging support so I wanted to defer that until later.

I am going to use the Arduino development environment with its associated cornucopia of software and community support. I would not base a commercial product on Arduino but nobody is paying me for this so I am trying to focus on the model railroad goal and avoiding the temptation to start from scratch firmware-wise.


In preparation for cutting out roadbed and sub-roadbed, I have been creating the detailed track templates. General track planning software such as AnyRail which I use is good for general planning but does not produce templates for hand laying track.  For that, the go-to tool is Templot by Martin Wynne.

Templot is free to use although I bought it when it was a licensed product. It is a powerful specialized CAD program specifically for producing custom trackwork templates according to prototype practice.  If all of your turnouts are a standard, regular size then something like a FastTracks jig may be all you need. If, however, you need to produce more challenging track formations such as a yard ladder or a crossover on a curve, Templot can’t be beat.

That’s the good part. Not so good is that Templot, like other serious CAD programs, has a steep learning curve. It takes time to get up to speed which is an additional hurdle if you, like me, only need to produce templates every once in a great while. All of the terminology is based on UK prototype practice which also takes a bit of learning.

That being said, I have blown most of the dust off of my modest Templotting skills and am mostly done the tough bit of the Comstock Road plan.  Here is a screenshot of some of the work in progress.templottingwip

The lower right turnout is not a model railroad-esque right hand turnout with what should be the normal route going through the curved leg, it is a #6 left hand turnout diverging from a right hand transition curve.  And incidentally going straight into an asymmetric crossing. Once I had got back up to speed with the Templot interface and watch a couple of subject specific videos, the actual template creating didn’t take that long.

Still to do are:

  • spurs out from the crossing
  • assorted tweaking of ties such as those overlapping and/or too widely spaced around the crossing
  • check turnout motor locations against module boundaries.

Once everything is as good as I can make it, I will print out the whole thing full size on my home laser printer and there will then ensue a lot of trimming margins and taping sheets together. The whole thing then gets used as a template to cut out the Homasote roadbed and off we go.