Weekend Reading: Scratchbuilding for Model Railroaders by Bob Walker

sb4mrrs.jpgI remember thinking some years ago that Bob Walker’s Scratchbuilder’s Corner column in Railroad Model Craftsman embodied a wealth of knowledge that should be turned into a book.  This was apparently not a special insight since not long after, along came Scratchbuild for Model Railroaders. If you ever intend to build a structure be it kit or from scratch, you would do well to own a copy of this book as a reference.  Note the dogeared corners on mine.

In the same self-deprecating conversational style he uses in his columns, Bob covers everything related to scratchbuilding structures from basic tools and materials all the way up to moulding and casting. Things are spelled out in straightforward fashion and include warnings on common mistakes.

We are fortunate that White River Productions has picked up and continued the Carsten books including this one so you can buy it new online right now. There is a lot of information packed into this volume and at $19.95 USD it is probably just about the best value for money available in the hobby today.


The linear progress on a single modeling project described to this point might cause one to wonder about my choice of blog title. Wonder no longer! Here is the other project nearest completion.

Some time ago, I chanced to re-read an installment of Bob Walker’s excellent Scratchbuilder’s Corner column in Railroad Model Craftsman where he suggested on build a shed as start on scratchbuilding structures.  After a bit of thrashing around, I settled on a PRR handcar shed since plans were freely available on the internet at PRR Standard Plans.

I got the whole thing done except the roof and wandered off to other projects. I have recently started on the roof since that seems like a short step to done.  Never one to do things the easy way, I decided to try a technique for creating tarpaper roofing from kraft paper using an India ink and alcohol wash I read somewhere or other.

So, shed with insufficiently rigid 1/32″ plywood subroof:shed

And roofing in progress:roofingfactory

To do:

  • Resolve subroof rigidity issue.
  • Finish staining roofing.  Photo is two coats of stain, I think I need to add more ink to the mix.
  • Apply soffit.
  • Apply roof.
  • Door hardware, perhaps an exterior light and a stove pipe.
  • Affix shed to a minimal base.
  • Lighting?  The door is not openable and there is no interior.

Bench Pin and Saw Frame


A number of years ago I acquired a jeweler’s saw or saw frame along with some vast quantity of blades.  My attempts to cut brass sheet with it were not very successful.  Upon acquiring Simon Bolton’s books (Weekend Reading: Scratch-Building Model Railway Locomotives by Simon Bolton), I learned a bit about what I was doing wrong and determined to have another go.

Things I learned:

  • Get a bench pin.  This some sort of wood block that clamps to the edge of your bench and projects out allowing you to get right up close to the sawing.  Jewelers typically have high benches so they can get their faces right up by the work.
  • Pins are consumables.  You can customize for your needs, for example I cut a notch in the top face of mine to improve holding of round bar and tube I needed to cut.
  • Get the right size of saw blades.  I bought #4 blades, what I should have got is 4/0-6/0 blades.  These are much finer and don’t snag on thin .005″ brass stock.  A 6/0 blade can fit through a #79 hole allowing you to start a cut in a very small area.
  • Lubricate the blade.  Jeweler suppliers sell purpose made lubricating sticks.  I am making do with a surplus candle until my next order.
  • You don’t need to work hard to make a cut. Properly sized and lubricated blades cut very quickly.  Unexpectedly so, for me.  Thus the scrap metal pile did increase and learning took place.


Baseboard Frames Done

Tonight I finished gluing up the baseboard frames.  I decided to do a test setup just to make sure everything fit before the glue dried.  There was a bad moment where I was looking at two section ends both labelled 1 and top but had pins on the same side.  After a little bit of panicking and preparing to rip and end out I flipped the end section over so the pins and sockets aligned and…. it all fit.  Which leaves me pondering where I mislabelled an end or accidentally made things symmetrical enough to work upside down.  Almost certainly the former.  Still, I don’t like it when software bugs magically go away without explanation either.  Oh well.

Here, crammed into the aisle in the shop, is the current state of the layout.  Internal cross bracing will wait on getting the trackplan laid out full size so that turnout linkages can be avoided.  Next up is a big tidy/declutter/rearrangement so that the layout can go up against the wall to the left and a start on the backdrop ends and valance.


Weekend Reading: In Search of Steam Donkeys: Logging Equipment in Oregon by Merv Johnson

IMG_20171118_165748271If I ever attempt a narrow gauge layout, it will almost certainly feature logging and In Search of Steam Donkeys by Merv Johnson is the reason why.  I don’t remember why I originally purchased this book but I am ever so glad I did.  It is just wonderful.

The “In Search of” title is a bit misleading since the author has obviously found steam donkeys in abundance or at least many beautiful black and white photographs of them.  The photos are supported by explanatory prose that explains what a steam donkey is and discusses the different types and their uses but doesn’t stop there.  There are illustrations of rigging, dimensioned drawings, historical accounts and anecdotes from first hand interviews.  And to top it all, there is even a section featuring some models.

This book is no longer in print but is available on the used market at somewhere around the original price.  If you model a mainline railroad and are attempting to avoid catching the narrow gauge bug, you should not buy this book.  Everyone else would do well consider buying it if the opportunity arises.

Pins In: Small Progress Is Still Progress

In his wonderful books, Iain Rice talks about being set up so that even 10 or 15 minutes of time can be used to advance something hobby related even if it is merely ballasting a foot of track.  The concept that small amounts of regular progress add up over time is something that is intellectually easy to grasp but not necessarily emotionally so.

The last week has been seemed sparse on moments of spare time coinciding with motivation.  Remembering Iain’s words, I did manage to make a few advances: acquire a poplar 1×3 to embed the section alignment pins in, cut that poplar into blocks, glue the blocks in and, tonight, install the pins in the first pair of ends.

I am using Lee Valley table leaf alignment pins.  (I am fortunate to be able to claim Lee Valley Tools as a local source which may be cheating a bit)  Some of the barrier to progress was the nagging worry that I would duff the pin install and right off some ends.  Of course, avoiding mistakes by not doing anything is not a better solution so, onward.

Despite my trepidation, the first result is acceptable.  Bang on for horizontal and only barely perceptibly off vertically.  Which is the opposite of the expected failure axis since vertical was against a fence.  The fit itself is tight enough that there is no perceptible play which is what we want.  Phew.

alignmentpins Second set of pins are waiting on some glue to dry since somebody, ahem, tried to plane down a slightly proud block end which resulted in what you should expect across the grain: splitting an edge.  Glue and clamp currently remediating that learning experience.

The Alternative Plan

I wanted to take a look at the other plan finalist and contrast the two.

Here, again, is the plan I intend to implement: comstock12.1

And here is the leading alternative which I think of as the no hidden track version:comstock6

I like the alternative almost as much and suffer periodic wobbling of intent.  (Until I start cutting roadbed, I could go the other way if I wanted).

Things I like about the alternative:

  • No hidden track
  • Nice long multi-spot siding.
  • Main alignment is not parallel to the baseboard edge.
  • No problematic fiddle yard entrance to disguise

Things I don’t like:

  • Short leads at either end of an implausibly short runaround.
  • Reaching over to uncouple on left end.
  • Half the turnouts are sitting on baseboard joints with less freedom to move them off.
  • No way to fiddle equipment on and off the layout off-stage, at least without some sort of additional extension which the current layout site discourages.

Things I like about the intended plan:

  • Traverser both provides a bit of staging and it replaces two turnouts.
  • Off-stage end of run around track makes the runaround effectively infinite in length and less toy-like.
  • Headroom for switching sidings is less constrained.
  • A bit of special but plausible track-work.
  • One more spot with one less turnout. 🙂

Things I don’t like:

  • The inevitable need for some sort of disbelief involved in disguising the fiddle yard entrance.
  • Most of the traverser automation needs to be bulletproof before operating entirely from the front is possible.  I can do it but the critical path is not the best place for the experimental project.

Progress Reports and Mistakes

Like any published media, blogging allows one to control the message. This weekend I found myself asking two questions:

Do I show work in progress?

Most model photographs show finished work which is fine since that is where we all aim to be going.  Many models and model scenes embody tens, hundreds and even thousands of hours of work.  Does one wait until all is finished before sharing anything about the project or phase thereof?  I guess it depends on the size of the project.

Scrum agile software development aims for 1-3 day task size. The idea is to be able to measure progress. If a task is many weeks long, how do you know if you are getting anywhere?

I am going to report on work in progress when I feel that I have gotten something done even if it isn’t finished.  Wanting to have something done is getting me into the basement so I consider that a good thing.

I have finished the baseboard side and end members.  Next is installing some hardwood blocks to provide solid mounting for the inter-section alignment pins. I don’t trust pine to not squish. Here is an action shot where the action is glue drying:action_shot

Do I report mistakes and failures?

Model magazine how-to articles hopefully present a clear and complete set of instructions for completing the project.  Rarely mentioned are the missteps and learning that went into producing the instructions.  At some point, somebody had to figure out the right way by finding all the wrong ways.

I have decided to report on relevant mistakes if only to  provide a periodic reminder that imperfect people can still build model railroads. Imperfect progress is better than a perfect lack of progress.

In the current case, I flubbed the glueing up of one of a baseboard side members by offsetting the end blocks in manner proper for the end members. By the time I realized my mistake, the glue was firmly set. I was forced to choose between writing the materials off and producing three other matching pieces to match.  Locally sourced materials mean that I can get more if I need to so I decided against introducing more confusion since confusion is how I messed up in the first place.

I plan to use the partial side member to test how much of a curve one can put in 1/4″ birch plywood.  I want to try curved baseboard edges at some point and I now have to opportunity for destructive testing.  I also know that my choice of wood glue is not going to fail on me.

Weekend Reading: Scratch-Building Model Railway Locomotives by Simon Bolton

Reading is the one hobby I have pursued longer than model railroading. Naturally, some of the former involves subject matter relevant to the latter. I thought I would share some titles that I have found interesting:

Scratch-Building Model Railway Locomotives by Simon Bolton is an accessible read covering the subject from a start useful to the beginner new to scratch-building in metal i.e. me.  This was an exciting find since the articles on the subject in such wonderful publications as Model Railway Journal tend to assume a basic level of knowledge and experience that many of us in North America lack.

Simon describes the construction of a simple British locomotive in a cheerful style illustrated with many colour photographs and hand drawn diagrams. Tools and techniques are introduced and explained in detail.  Neither is unachievable by the average intrepid modeler.  No lathe or milling machine required!

Even if I never actually scratch-build a locomotive, I learned several techniques that I have already put into use.  There is a sequel, Scratch-Building Model Railway Tank Locomotives that builds on the first book while tackling a more challenging modeling subject.  Both books are available through certain large online book sellers in North America which is how I found them when searching for books on the subject.