Tag Archives: modeling techniques

Hand Laid Turnouts

This is my first hand-laid turnout. It is a #7 right-hand switch made with MicroEngineering Code 55 rail, PCB ties from Fast Tracks, and using the Fast Tracks template. I cut and filed the rails by hand using my bench vise and a file. Overall it has taken three weeks, but probably only a couple of hours of actual working time.

The wrk wasn’t nearly as hard as I expected it to be. The filing work was a bit tedious, and I did a terrible job on the wood ties, but the turnout is quite functional.

I’m looking forward to building plenty more of these in the future, including some more complex track work like this crossover coming soon…

Having the Right Tools

Wow. I only just realized that my mobile app hasn’t actually been publishing any of the posts I’ve been writing. So I’m a little bit behind.

Anyway, tonight’s thoughts revolve around having the right tools. A week or two ago I had to assemble a couple of circuit boards. Tiny SMT stuff. I have a good soldering iron, but the tip was a bit large. Some old goopy rosin flux, and a couple of really cheap tweezers. Let me just say, it was not a pleasant experience.

Tonight, it was time to build a few more. Fortunately, this time I had a new, smaller tip for the iron, some high quality no-clean solder flux paste, and a pair of high precision curved-tip tweezers.

It was a breeze!

Another version of the same story… I’ve spent years trying to hack together carpentry jobs using a jig saw and a hand-held circular saw. Not so good. Fine for rough carpentry, but not for display-quality stuff like a nice model railroad shelf.

Enter the table saw. Clean, accurate cuts, made quickly.

Now, the table saw was a large investment. I’m not really here to advocate spending a pile of money. But the tweezers, flux paste and iron tips were a total investment of about $10.

The right tools are worth their weight in gold, but they don’t have to cost a fortune. Don’t waste your hard earned dollars on cheap tools.

Not So Easy-Peasy Lighting


Having just purchased some new passenger equipment, I decided to add some lighting. Rapido Trains has a very nice kit for just this purpose. It’s called the “Easy Peasy Lighting Kit” and frankly, it’s the bee’s knees when it comes to lighting passenger cars.

Rapido Easy-Peasy Lighting System

The kit consists of a battery-powered light board that you install in the roof of the passenger car using double-sided tape (not provided) or your favorite “other” means of attachment, and a magnetic “magic wand” that is used to turn the lights on and off. There is a magnetic reed switch in the center of the board. When you bring the wand near the car roof, the lights come on. Bring the wand near the roof again and the lights go on. The system doesn’t require track pickup, so you don’t have to worry about DC vs. DCC or metal wheelsets or loading down your booster or power pack with lighted cars.

On the other hand, the batteries will eventually die, and if you used a strong adhesive (like I mistakenly did), replacing the batteries could be a bit tricky.

Installation in most passenger cars is pretty easy. You just install the batteries, pull off the car roof, tape the board in place, and replace the roof. Done. Here’s the board installed in a Con-Cor Union Pacific smooth-side coach…

Rapido Easy-Peasy Lighting

… and the same car in the dark…

Rapido Easy-Peasy Lighting

All is not dandelions and lollipops, though. I bought these boards to go inside some old Rivarossi varnish that I had repainted for the CH&FR Railroad. To my chagrin, I discovered that the board does not fit in the cars. On all three cars (coach, diner and Pullman), the clear plastic ends of the roof/glazing part are too close in, and the board is too long to fit between the ends. In addition, on at least the coach, the bathroom walls on both ends of the car are too high to allow the batteries to fit inside the car.

Rapido Easy-Peasy Lighting System

Rapido Easy-Peasy Lighting System

Clearly some modifications are required. The diner and Pullman are going to have to be modified fairly significantly, so I will cover them in a later post when I’ve figured out how I want to do it. I will document here how I made the lighting fit in the coach.

The first step was to shorten the length of the light board enough to fit inside the roof-and-glazing part of the coach. To do this, I used a razor saw to trim as much of the battery end of the board off as possible. I got right up against the battery holder here, so much so that you can see I opened up the hole for the one of the battery holder legs. This is a tad risky, so use good judgement.

Rapido Easy-Peasy Lighting System

This is almost, but not quite enough to make the board fit. Unfortunately, the other end has a fairly narrow but important circuit trace around the end, so cutting it with a saw would be dangerous. Instead, I used some 300-ish grit sandpaper to file down the end just a smidge, enough to make it work.

Rapido Easy-Peasy Lighting System

Alternately you could cut the board with the saw, breaking the trace, and then solder a wire to re-establish the circuit.

Now the board fits lengthwise, but we still haven’t solved the “too tall battery” problem.

Rapido Easy-Peasy Lighting System

To make room for the batteries, I used the razor saw to trim 1/8″ off the height of the bathroom walls on one end of the car’s interior part, and then sanded the cut edge smooth. This frees up enough room for the batteries, but leaves the walls tall enough to look OK through the windows.

Rapido Easy-Peasy Lighting System

Finally, after a test fit, we add the tape and reassemble the car.

Rapido Easy-Peasy Lighting System

And that’s pretty much it. Voila! … almost…

Rapido Easy-Peasy Lighting System

The custom paint job on these cars didn’t include the roof, which I elected to leave the original silver. Trouble is, as you can see, the paint has worn thin in spots, so I’ll have to repaint it to keep the lights from bleeding through.

Rapido Easy Peasy Lighting

This isn’t a perfect solution. The foam tape I used is pretty high-adhesive. Probably too high. I’m quite concerned that I’m going to have some trouble when it comes time to replace the batteries, especially since I carved off all the “wiggle room” on the battery end of the light bar. I might actually find myself buying another car to scavenge a new roof from it, if things get bad enough.

In hindsight, it may have been better to cut the ends off the roof/glazing part to make room from the bar instead of shortening the bar to fit in the roof. I could easily have added some thin clear plastic to re-glaze the car ends. But, the car is lit and ready to go, once I replace the couplers again.

I’ll also point you to Mike Fifer’s succinct how-to on installing these lights in a Micro-Trains Heavyweight car.  Notable differences (and I should have listened to Mike!) are that he wraps the LEDs and the light spreader in tape to stabilize the board, and he doesn’t secure the board to the roof, instead just letting it rest on the tops of the seat backs.  That latter difference will certainly make battery replacement easier.

Landscaping begins

Untitled by BGTwinDad
Untitled, a photo by BGTwinDad on Flickr.

I’ve actually gotten a little bit of work done on the layout.  After what seemed an enormous amount of fiddling I finally got the sand tower arranged so that locomotives will fit between the hoses, so I permanently attached that.  Then I filled in with a bit of lightweight spackle and painted the ground with a burnt sienna.  In retrospect that color is a bit too dark and red, but I was going for a wet red clay… I think I need just a bit lighter and more tan next time.  Add some fine turf in a mix of green and yellow, and things start looking like something.  Next up, here, I need to permanently install the fuel tank and add some piping, and then do something to make the road look decent.  I’m going to have to paint it darker, and then add some striping (again), as the tape I was using didn’t work.

The road into town begins to take shape.

Over on the other end of the layout, I’ve installed the road and the first grade crossing.  I’ve got a lot of work to do to make this look right…  I didn’t count on the grade crossing being narrower than my chosen road width, and I made a mess of the road when putting spackle around the edges to blend the grade… but I’ve got the basics in place, and with some work I can make it look like something.

Again, with the burnt sienna paint and some fine turf ground cover, this begins to look like something.  I need to fill in some holes, add some gravel and stuff on the steeper slopes, and continue to add detail… I’ll have to trim the road back a bit and add a gravel shoulder, and blend it into the grade crossing better.

After I took the photo, I went back with the  lightweight spackle and began filling and blending in the grade on the upper hill… very soon the Woodland Scenics Risers should begin to disappear.

Finally, I also began adding ballast to the main line across the front.  This is Arizona Rock & Mineral rock ballast – real crushed rock! – and is very interesting to work with.  It lays very nicely and has a very fine consistency and a wonderful color blend.  I’m glad that Fifer Hobby carries this in single bags, as it’s quite expensive if bought direct from the manufacturer.  I like the way the mainline color (grey, right) differentiates nicely from the yard ballast (brown, left)… should help guest operators see more quickly which tracks are which.

One thing I did notice is that it’s easier to be sloppy with the cork roadbed with Woodland Scenics (crushed walnut shells) ballast. as it’s a bit more forgiving when trying to form a nice slope on the ballast.  With the AZR&M ballast, I’m going back and cutting a slope into the cork instead of leaving it messy.  This is a good Best Practice anyway, so it’s not so bad, and is fairly easy with a sharp razor blade.



Company-Owned Cars

Untitled by BGTwinDad
Untitled, a photo by BGTwinDad on Flickr.

It’s fairly common in the real world (“prototype” to modelers) for a “customer” company such as a chemical firm or a power plant to lease their own equipment to haul either supplies to their plants or product from them (or both!).  Quite often, especially in the case of long-term leased equipment, the customer will place his own logo on the car, while the reporting marks still show the leasing company.  One will thus see covered hoppers with grain or chemical company names, or tank cars from various chemical companies or ethanol vendors or fuel suppliers.

The CH&FR serves NSN Scientific, Inc., a fictional chemical company with sites in a number of places, including Glover’s Bend, the town I am currently modeling.  I thought it fitting, then, that some of my leased hoppers bear the company logo.  These are the first, and I’m sure there will be more.

These particular hoppers have just had an initial base coat of clear gloss applied, followed by the “NSN Scientific” logo decal.  Next up they will receive a coat of matte finish to seal the decal, hide its edges, and kill the glossy finish, and then perhaps a bit of weathering.

I custom printed the decals using decal paper from Micro-Mark on my father’s Lexmark inkjet printer, and used Krylon Crystal-Clear and Matte Finish spray-can paints for the coats. The Micro-Mark paper seems to work well for black decals, but the color ones I tried on another model seem to run… I need to experiment more with that, as it could be user error.  The process is simple.  You just make up your decal artwork in any suitable computer program (I used a mix of GIMP for the image work and OpenOffice Draw for the page formatting), and print on the special paper with an inkjet or laser printer.  Then you spray over the decal paper with Gloss Coat spray paint.  Once the paint is dry, you use the decal just like any commercially purchased decals.

Both cars are Atlas models, the smaller a 70-ton ACF 3560 cu.ft. 3-bay hopper leased from GE Rail Services (ACFX), and the larger a 4-bay 5250 cu.ft. centerflow hopper “on loan” from Union Carbide Corp (RAIX).



  by BGTwinDad
, a photo by BGTwinDad on Flickr.

Well, it’s been a little while since I’ve posted here, and that’s not a good thing.  To my two or three loyal readers, I apologize.  There’s actually been quite a bit going on in the background, including sending my Zephyr Xtra back to Digitrax for warranty repairs TWICE, a family vacation, a bunch of software writing, and believe it or not, some actual layout construction.

What better way to get the blog back to “active” status than to coin a new term:  “Terrafoaming” … rather silly perhaps, but it’s a mangling on “terraforming” – the (so far fictional) engineering process of shaping or forming a planet into a desired form – and the common (and near-exclusive on my layout) use of extruded polystyrene foam to build basic ground contours on a model layout.

In the photo above, you can see my latest efforts in this area.  Since I got the fascia installed (on 3 sides at least), I’ve begun building up the large hill on the right-hand end of the layout  The hill will feature a removable top to provide emergency and service access to the tracks beneath.  The two mainline curves penetrate the hill, with a double portal at the front side and a single portal for the inner loop at the back side.  The outer loop goes through the rear fascia to the rear staging area.  A turnout on the outer loop forms one leg of the new wye, which exits through its own tunnel portal.

Finally, the tail of the switchback in town also penetrates the hill.  This will be modeled as a steep, overgrown cut leading to an abandoned tunnel portal.  The story is that this was the old mainline, and was replaced by the newer one at some point, relegating the old line to its current use.

To build the hill, I first crafted a set of “pillars” which form the lower half of the hill and present a stable, level base for the removable hilltop.  These pillars fill in the spaces between the tunnel portals and form the lower face of the hillside.  In the back corner, between the fascia walls, a triangular pillar provides a base for the platform.

Atop the pillars goes a single solid sheet of foam that forms the base of the removable upper half of the hill.  This will be carved to blend in with the pillars.  The hilltop itself will be formed from expanding spray foam.

As of now, the pillars are (mostly) constructed, except for one area where I need to correct the hill shape, and except for the detail work around the tunnel portals.  Next up will be carving and shaping the hill into a believably natural shape, followed by paint, ground cover and trees.

One of the key parts of this project has been simply getting started.  For a long time, I was unsure how to tackle the hill, and literally afraid to do it the wrong way.  Seeing work progressing on some of my online friends’ layouts caused me to realize that all I had to do was get started, and it would happen, and that if I did it “wrong” I could just rip it out and change it.  This realization was very cathartic, I must say.

I’ll keep you posted, of course!



  by BGTwinDad
, a photo by BGTwinDad on Flickr.

This weekend, the Twins (well, mostly TwinBoy) and I made some trees for the Wye diorama that I’ve been putting together.

I’m not sure if I’ve posted about this diorama yet. It’s a small (10″ deep x 24″ wide) diorama that is the tail of a wye that crosses a creek and a road. I’ve been using it to practice scenery techniques for the main layout, and also as part of a “party” on nscale.net.

We used the Woodland Scenics Forest Canopy starter kit, fall colors edition. It is – like most of their starter kits – a mixed bag. The natural plant sprigs that are included to make the trees work OK, but they are very brittle, mashed flat and very flat-topped.

They look pretty natural from down low, like the photo above, or as true canopy (shot from above, say), but need considerable work to get to look like a real tree because all of the foliage is in a narrow band (vertically) at the top of the sprig.

Still, particularly for a low shot that doesn’t show the whole tree, they work well, and the smaller pieces make convincing bushes.The use of actual natural plant material, dried, makes for a pretty good bark look to the stalks, which is good.

The instructions show how smaller sprigs can be glued to the larger ones to fill out the tree shape, and sprigs can even be taped together using florists wrap as well – though obviously one would need to paint or texture to recover the natural trunk appearance.

What do you think?  Do they look nice?

A new maintenance shack

  by BGTwinDad
a photo by BGTwinDad on Flickr.

This little shack will be a maintenance office/shed for the CH&FR MOW crews. It will be at the grade crossing just past the tail of the wye at Glover’s Bend (that is, it will be on my new diorama…)

This is my first kit build project… it is a GCLaser “West End Shack”. This little guy was surprisingly easy to assemble, though in hindsight there were a couple of details I wish now that I had painted first.

You can follow details of the construction on the thread I’ve posted at nScale.net. I still have to add some detail parts like the stove pipe, some electrical conduit, and the little fuel tank that sits outside.  This is a laser-cut microplywood kit, and it assembles quite easily for a structure so small.  Elmer’s carpenter’s glue (the yellow stuff) holds it all together, and the various features built into the parts help key everything so it assembles easily.  It is a slightly challenging kit for a rank beginner like me, but very buildable, as the fact that I didn’t completely ruin it will attest.

This shack should provide a nice place for the MOW crew to get in out of the weather, keep warm and dry, and handle the paperwork they need to do from time to time.

Bessie the Engineer

Bessie the Engineer

Originally uploaded by BGTwinDad

For Christmas this year, my daughter asked for an N scale stock car (a.k.a. “Cattle Car”) for her stuffed cow Bessie to ride in. We picked up a nice Athearn 36 foot car at a good price, and then I got to thinking… what if it were purple (my daughter’s current favorite color) … and what if it said “Bessie” on the side?

As you can see, the results greatly pleased both the girl and the cow.

This was a real adventure in customizing rolling stock. I had to really stretch my rather beginner-level modeling skills, but I learned a lot very quickly and found that … well, it’s not so hard, really. The time pressure of getting it done before Christmas helped me to get over my trepidation about hacking up a car.

The first step was disassembling the car and stripping the old (brown) paint off. I had trouble removing the body from the floor, so I opted to paint the whole thing.

Based on some advice, I used DOT3 brake fluid. Somewhat dangerous stuff (though it’s mostly a very fine grade motor oil), I had to be careful… turns out it wasn’t such a good choice. The brake fluid did a fine job of stripping the paint, but it also ate through the softer plastic used for the undercarriage truss rods and the brake wheel. So I have some repair work to do later. Next time, I’ll try 91% isopropyl alcohol, which I hear does just as well with less risk to the plastic.

Once the paint was stripped, I had to learn to use my airbrush. A little practice with that, and I was able to successfully lay down a primer coat and paint the base purple color. I then had to let that dry overnight before taping off the sides of the car to paint the top and bottom black. The purple took two coats, but the black took on a nice faded look with only one solid coat.

The hardest part was keeping the airbrush clean between coats, and changing colors. I can see why regular painters keep multiple airbrushes set up.

Next came the decals. I hate decals. I used to do model airplanes as a kid. I hated decals then, and I still do. I’m a little better at them now, but still. The worst part is cutting the individual pieces off the sheet, then trying to grip them with tweezers and get them positioned correctly. Somehow I managed, even while distracting the girl so she wouldn’t know what I was doing (I re-decal-ed a coal hopper as a “cover” operation). I gave the car reporting mark CHFR#1234 so that I didn’t have to do the numbers as individual cut-outs.

Mostly complete!

As mentioned above, TwinGirl was thrilled with the result!

There is still some work to be done. I need to add the car information labels (capacity, weight, etc.), cover the whole thing with a clear matte finish (to seal in the labels and take off the “new paint shine”), and replace the brown trucks with black ones.