First Parvia building

First Parvia building

Originally uploaded by BGTwinDad

This is the long-awaited second step in my review of the Parvia building system. Today, I built a small passenger station for my railroad.

To be honest, that big box o’ parts has been intimidating me a bit, but I had some time to fiddle today, and I’ve been needing a temporary passenger station for my N scale layout, so I decided to take a stab at building something. I’m fairly pleased with the results.

I intentionally ignored the how-to video on the Parvia website, but I did refer to the beta test of the quick reference sheet the company is designing. It will be very helpful when it is finished.

The system is fairly intuitive, and a little experimentation can produce good results. I will provide more detail on the construction process in a later post. As you might notice from the photo, while I used the foundation components, I skipped the base. It is 3/4 inch thick, and to get the right height on a layout, one would need to bury the base below grade (or not use it).

On a good note, with the unmarked “drive” parts I used, the platform is just slightly below the NMRA platform clearance gauge height. Close enough to be realistic, and short enough to be well clear of rolling stock.

The building itself is 2-7/8″ x 1-7/8″ x 3/4″ tall to the roofline, or 38.3 x 25 x 10 scale feet.

While in general, I’m pleased with this initial foray, I must note a few items.

First, the system “suffers” from an inherent limitation of modular systems – they must have a standard unit of size in order to be modular. This isn’t necessarily a problem (hence the quotes), just an item of note.

Second, some of the parts fit loosely. Part of this may be operator error – I’m still learning how the parts are supposed to fit together – but part may be a minor manufacturing tolerance issue on the connecting surface. Or it might be intentional. It is useful to be able to take the models apart and rebuild them differently, and too-tight parts would make this difficult.

In short, my initial foray into Parvia has been a pleasant one. Next up will be actually using the base and creating a small streetscape.

Feeders, Part 2: Turnouts and Curves

(Note:  Part 1 of this series can be found here.)

I’ve gotten a bit farther with the track laying and it appears that my method of dropping feeders does work fairly well.  My work doesn’t score very high in the neat and unobtrusive category, but most of those issues could be fixed with a thinner-insulated wire and a steadier hand at soldering.

Today, we’ll look at turnouts (switches, to some, but since we’re talking electrical stuff, here I’ll use “turnouts” for the track elements) and curved flex track.  Curved sectional track is easy, since everything is fixed into place, but because the rails move when you bend flex track, it is harder to figure out where to put the wires.

Fortunately, a friend on handed me a great idea.  First, we pre-form the flex track on the layout, allowing the rails to (temporarily) take the shape they will have in their final position.  Once pinned in place, take a Sharpie or other permanent marker and mark both rails and the hole location for the feeder wire.

When you remove the flex from the layout, it will return to its straight shape, and you will notice that the Sharpie marks will be offset by several ties.  Here’s a very mild example.

Flex track marked for soldering
Flex track marked for soldering

Sharper curves will have more separation.

Now, we need to solder the wires.  Technically, this proceeds just as with the straight track, except you have to provide some additional separation of the paired wires to accommodate the separation of the marked locations.  Solder each wire to the marked point on the corresponding rail such that the bend in the wire lines up with the marks.

Below, the white wire has been soldered, and the black wire is clipped in place.  You can see how they are separated, and how the wire is lined up with the mark.

Soldering the wires on the marked spots.
Soldering the wires on the marked spots.

Next we install the track on the layout, leaving a little extra slack in the wire.  As we form the track into position, the rails will slide together just as they did when we marked them, and we should end up with the solder points directly across from each other and right next to the drilled hole.

Installing the flex track
Installing the flex track

Turnouts are easier, but care must be taken with the soldering iron.  I’ve had considerable trouble keeping the rails and ties connected properly if I take too long to get the soldering done.  I think it’s a combination of the tension on the curved rail and of course, melting the plastic spikes.

To solder the side with the control on, I clip the wire close to the switch machine at the points end of the turnout and bend the bare part toward the end of the rail.  Care must be taken not to over-solder, or you will have trouble installing a track joiner.  Alternately, if a metal track joiner is to be used, it could be soldered in place while installing the feeder.

Soldering the machine side of a turnout.
Soldering the machine side of a turnout.

The other side is easier, as the switch machine is not in the way and the bare wire can be bent away from the rail joiner.  However, this is the side that is most sensitive to accidentally breaking the rail loose.  If this happens, CA (“Super Glue”) is your friend, but nothing beats keeping the turnout intact, so go slow, but solder quick.

Soldering the curved side of the turnout.
Be careful not to break the rail loose from the ties.

A visit to Cass Scenic Railroad

Cass Scenic Railroad Shay #11 at Whittaker Station, Cass, WV
Cass Scenic Railroad Shay #11 at Whittaker Station, Cass, WV

Over Labor Day weekend, my family visited the Cass Scenic Railroad at Cass, WV.  Cass is a living museum of the logging industry that thrived in the area during the first half of the 20th century.  In particular, they are home to a large stable of Shay type geared steam locomotives, and provide 2 and 4 hour excursion rides up the old logging railroad on Back Allegheny Mountain.

We took the 2-hour round trip to Whittaker Station, about half way up the hill.  This ride features some spectacular views as the train crawls up the steep grades (averaging 4.5% and rising to 8.7% in places) and sharp curves (up to 29 degrees!) on the mountain.

Shay locomotives (and their competitors the Climaxes and Heislers) were specially designed to handle these difficult trips, with tilted boilers, vertical pistons and geared trucks that helped provide smooth, continuous power to the rails.  Our host for the trip was Shay #11, weighing in at 105,000 lbs.

The smooth power delivery of the Shay becomes evident as it begins pulling the grade.  Shays do not produce the sterotypical “Chugga-Chugga” of standard steam locomotives, but more of a smooth rumble that almost – but not quite – resembles a Diesel engine.  There’s no mistaking that black plume of smoke and the ash blowing off the roof of the cars, though.  This is coal-fired steam power at its best!

If you decide to go, you should also check out the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Green Bank, WV, only a few miles away.  I don’t have any photos, since digital photography isn’t allowed (it messes with the radio telescopes), but it, too, is well worth the visit, and is a wonderful mix of astonishingly beautiful scenery and science at its best.

JMRI at Trackside!!

JMRI at Trackside!!

Originally uploaded by BGTwinDad

You can’t read the screen here, but what you are looking at is my “new” computer, with JMRI talking to WiThrottle on my iPhone. On a desk right next to my layout!!

The computer itself is a hand-me-down from my parents who just upgraded themselves.  I dropped in a new hard disk and picked up a display, and “Shazam!” my kids can stay off the Mac and I can run my trains!

I don’t have a DCC system yet, so I can’t actually DO anything much with it, but I was very surprised how easy it was to set this up. The online instructions were easy to follow, and the system just “came together”.

One interesting side note. I remember buying my first hard disk to install in a 386-SX PC when I was a teenager. IIRC, it cost $200 for 20 MB at the time, and that was considered a good price for a massive disk. Note that the price works out to $10 per megabyte.

The new disk in this recycled computer is a 500GB Seagate, and it set me back $50. That is about 1/100 of a PENNY per megabyte. About 5 orders of magnitude price difference in 25 years.

This was all so much fun that I may have to pause my layout construction (purchasing, at least) while I save up for the Digitrax Zephyr and decoders I was planning to get for Christmas…

On Dropping Feeder Wires

(Note: This is Part 1 of a 2-Part Series.  Part 2 can be found here.)

Now, I’m not saying this is the right way to add feeder wires to N scale track, but it’s the way I’m using, and so far it’s working well, if it’s not the most beautiful, unobtrusive method. So I thought I’d share, if at least to serve as a warning of how not to do this.

I’m using Atlas Code 80 flex track and turnouts, and 24 gauge 2-conductor intercom wire for my feeders.  I’m also dropping a feeder from every piece of track of any significant length, so I’m dropping a lot of them.  For those of you who don’t know, the feeders are the small-gauge wires that run from the track down to the main power bus for the track, which is usually a significantly larger gauge.  Feeder wires should be relatively short, so the small gauge is OK.

Many people use separate single-conductor feeder wires, one for each rail.  This is probably better than my method, if for no other reason than that the holes drilled through the roadbed are smaller.  But, I like having the wires paired under the bench, and I believe after ballasting this will end up looking pretty good.

Here we go!

Step 1: Tools

The tools I’m using:

  • Soldering iron, solder, rosin flux
  • Wire strippers and cutters
  • Small metric ruler
  • Hemostat
  • Alligator clips
  • Wire (24 gauge, 2-conductor intercom wire)

Tools for soldering feeder wires

Step 2: Prepare the wire.

I cut an 18″ length of wire, long enough to reach the longest distance from the track to one of the terminal strips I’m using to connect to my main bus.  Next, I clip the white conductor 10mm shorter than the black, and strip a short length off the ends of the wires.

Feeder wire prepared for soldering

If you like to tin your wire ends prior to soldering, now would be the time.

Step 3: Soldering the wires

Next, I bend the white lead and place it up against the outside of one rail.  I use a convention where all rails to the inside of my (oval) layout are on the white wire and all the outer rails are on the black wire.  This works because I have no reverse loops.  Those would require some slightly different convention.

Bend the wire, place it against the rail, and clip it in place with the hemostat.  Optionally add alligator clips to the rail on either side of the spot to act as heat sinks.  If you’re quick enough with the soldering, you won’t need them.

Make sure the bare wire is flush against the rail.  Add a dab of rosin flux, and solder the wire to the rail.  Be quick, but neat, and don’t use more solder than necessary, or it will be too obvious.

Feeder wire clipped to the rail and soldered

Once you’ve got the white wire in place, bend the black wire across under the ties and into place on the other rail.  Repeat the soldering process and stow your iron.

Black wire bent across under the ties

You’ll note that both feeders will now fit nicely through a single hole on the white side of the track.

Step 4: Installation

Now we are ready to install the track on the layout.  Lay the track in place, making sure it is exactly where you want it.  Then mark the spot where the feeder wire is and drill a hole for the wire.

Track test-fit on the layout, and feeder location marked for drilling.

Once the hole is drilled, cut a groove in the roadbed to accommodate the black wire running under the track.  This is important.  Without it, the black wire will create a bump in the track.

Feeder hole and notch in the roadbed.

Finally, feed the wire through the hole and glue the track into place.  As you can see, the wire is fairly unobtrusive, but not completely hidden.  You can fill the hole with some spackle or other material, and it should hide fairly well with ballast.

Track and feeder installed and glued.

In the above photo, the adhesive caulk has not cured and is still white.  Below is an overhead view of another installation after the caulk has cured.

Track and feeder installed and glued.

There are (at least) two drawbacks of this technique.  First, the hole for the paired wire is relatively large and will be harder to hide than two separate smaller wires.  Second, by soldering both rails to a pair of wires this way, the rails are located together and cannot be slid relative to each other.  So far, I have only used this on straight track segments and turnouts, so that has not been an issue.  I am not certain how well this will work with curves, but will report back soon, since I have several coming up.

(Go on to Part 2 of the series)