Saturday, March 14, 2020

Rolling Stock Standards and Weathering

Recently upgraded white elephant find
As I recently added to my weathering "tool kit" following several clinics, video and live, I have found myself weathering some rolling stock. Since I see weathering as a part of my set of standards for rolling stock on the 4th Subdivision, I tried combining upgrading to my standards with weathering on this older refrigerator car that I picked up at a train show last fall.

While making sure that any cars added to the roster of my model railroad are set up with metal wheelsets, checked with an NMRA standards gauge, continues to be a part of my standards, I haven't always paid attention to weathering the wheels. Having purchased a box of shiny metal wheelsets, I made sure to include the wheels in my weathering procedure by mixing some brown and rust acrylic modeling paints to paint the fronts of the wheels with a micro-brush before installing them. By cutting slots in the edge of a scrap of cardboard, I had a quick and dirty jig to hold the wheelsets. Another addition to my weathering procedure seen in this shot is to commit to at least attempting to find a prototype photo to use as a reference.

This older, Walthers Trainline ready-to-run reefer, lettered for the Swift Refrigerator Line, was slightly underweight according to the NMRA RP-20.1 and came with horn hook couplers. So, I removed the body of the car to attach the weights that had come loose and add an additional quarter ounce weight. I also removed the trucks and opened the coupler boxes. While the reefer was apart, I went ahead and brush painted the underframe, which had been a shiny, light brown plastic. I used a Vallejo Dark Grey, Oily Steel, and Dark Rust Wash. The Oily Steel Model Color is one of my favorite colors right now!

After the paint dried overnight, I installed Kadee #158 Scale Whisker Couplers in the coupler boxes. I had dry brushed the trucks with the same Dark Grey Vallejo paint and Dark Rust Wash as I used on the underframe. After fitting in the metal wheelsets, I reinstalled the trucks. In tightening the screws, I try to have one truck just loose enough that it turns freely side to side without rocking or swiveling. In what I call my "cinderella" technique, I loosen the other truck just a bit more, so that it can swivel as well as turn side-to-side. Having the trucks either too loose or too tight can lead to train car derailments, wobble, or lean. After press-fitting the car body and undercarriage back together, it was time to tackle weathering this Swift Reefer.

Having seen some some really nice results from using Vallejo Washes, both in a recent Division 12 clinic by Rob Bennett and in a MRVP episode, "Cody's Workshop: Episode 27," I had ordered several and wanted to try them. I used a Dark Grey on the sides of the reefer and a layered combination of Oiled Earth, Dark Rust, and European Dust on the roof. This photo shows the roof after just one or two layers of wash. I ended up using three or four as well as some Bragdon powders. The sides did not go as smoothly as I had hoped. Initially, I felt that the Dark Grey was too dark on the original Aluminum. I applied a light tint PanPastel color over the wash after the wash had dried, but wasn't happy with that either. At that point, I moistened a makeup sponge with water and removed some of the PanPastel and some of the wash under it as well. Basically, I was then in a very painterly mode, working with different materials in a wet-on-wet environment and hopefully knowing when to stop! While my color choice was not ideal for the sides of this car, I will continue to use the Vallejo Wash colors, and I know not to fear tuning up and weathering rolling stock simultaneously.

Friday, February 21, 2020

First Layers of Scenery Revisited

Before the holidays I wrote about focusing on scenery and structures as a solution to modeler's block. Since then, I have gone down several rabbit holes with prepping for and analyzing an initial ops-session and, although I haven't written about it here yet, weathering rolling stock. In my quest to avoid the reoccurrence of severe modeler's block and the associated lack of visible progress on the 4th Subdivision, I have occasionally attempted to add some more scenery elements to the area around the NP interchange track.

In scenicking the plywood plains in this area last month, I decided to add a hillside in the foreground. While partially following the technique I explained in a post from last year, the front edge of the hill was made from one-inch pink foam. To achieve a flat face representing part of the fascia, I turned the foam on its edge, marked the hill profile with a marker, and cut it with a long-bladed, "wall paper" knife. Then, after gluing the foam in place and forming a base for the rest of the hill with newspaper and masking tape, I went ahead and applied several layers of plaster gauze as explained in the earlier post.

After the gauze, or plaster cloth, was dry, I painted the hillside with my standard brown-earth, latex paint. You will notice that I am including a small shack in this scene. While it is a cheap plastic structure, I have painted it and added split, real wood to the box on the side of the shack. It represents a car inspector's shack, as this is an interchange with several cars coming onto the line daily. I also spent fifteen minutes one day painting more ties in the section, so the track would be ready to ballast once the first layer of scenery was completed.

In the past few days I have made some additional progress. First of all, finding my Rubbermaid container of ground goop almost empty, I mixed up and added an additional batch of goop using the formula I first wrote about here. I applied the goop to the new hillside and the unscenicked foreground. The ground goop hides the gauze texture and provides a more realistic ground surface than the perfectly flat plywood. Another advantage of using goop over Sculptamold is the lack of a need to paint and wait through several dry times before adding a first layer of ground cover.

In this photo one can see the tools and materials needed for this combined process. I find a small putty knife and an artist's palette knife to be the ideal tools needed to apply the ground goop. I need a brush and a container of water to apply white glue to any "ungooped" plywood. Then I have a standard set of fine and medium ground foams and natural materials that I apply. I described these in more detail in the earlier post. Applying the scenery materials works best for me by tapping a plastic spoon containing the material over the area. I use 70% isopropyl alcohol as a wetting agent and Scenic Cement as the adhesive; I find that eye droppers work fine to apply both materials. During this same scenery session, I went ahead and painted the fascia side of the hill with my standard fascia/valance color.

The next steps for this area, when I choose to take this area to the next steps phase include some track work, adding some details to the car inspector's scene, and adding shrubs and trees. The track work I allude to includes adding a pair of feeders, ballasting the rest of the interchange track, ballasting the mainline and small yard, and adding switch stands and track bumpers. I need to add a chimney pipe to the shack as well as continue the trackside path. Finally, revisiting tree construction is looming in the future.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

First Ops-session: After-action Notes

Train instructions for two crews
After hosting a first "ops-session" last month, I've been thinking about whether the 4th Subdivision is really ready for more than just fun-for-one operations. My observations of having two crews work the railroad can be broken down into three sets of learnings. Big picture, I made some overall or overarching observations. I also noted some details to be worked out that can be broken down into specific "needs" and "bad order" items.

The first, and perhaps most important overarching observation, was that although space was tight, more than just a couple of folks fit in the train attic; two crews of two, an observer, and myself as dispatcher all managed to navigate around each other. The next consideration was whether the existing layout has enough work to split the sequence operations for one crew into two and/or whether sequence operations is the best way to go with two crews. While everyone claimed to have fun, I noticed a couple of issues.
Potential Nooksack track plan

With the two-crew sequence operations, the Greenrock Turn Extra needed more work to do. Once Nooksack is operational, the second crew will have more action with that train than just dropping cars at the passing siding. Working Nooksack with its cannery and lumber mill will potentially even out the work levels between the two crews. Also, when the second crew was running passenger trains, the first crew didn't know when to clear the main without the addition of a timetable or fast clock. With the layout in yard limits, sequence operations worked fine until the addition of first class passenger trains. Until some form of clock is introduced, it will be up to the dispatcher to be the clock! Another issue for the second crew was the amount of fiddle work that needed to be done in the east staging with  two trains turning there. The east staging was not really adequate for that task and comprises one of the so-called "needs" that I noted.

New label cards for unbuilt industries
Having people over to run trains meant that they were not familiar with the railroad, resulting in a "duh" moment for me for what should have been an obvious need. Many of the industries did not yet have buildings or signage. With a car card suggesting delivery to Beise Box Company, but only my knowing where Beise Box Co. was located, the car forwarding system fell apart. A relatively easy solution was to create labels as place holders for the various industries, which has since been completed. I noticed two other  labeling issues. One was the need for East/West directional signage of some kind. The other was to more consistently add an indication of where a car enters or leaves the layout (Lake Terrell Yard or NP Interchange) on the "Via" line of the waybills.
Disturbing end to east staging

As mentioned earlier, this trial run pointed out the inadequacies of the east staging module. With trains needing to be turned here, the addition of my Atlas turntable and/or some kind of cassette would eliminate the need to pick up and re-rail rolling stock. Additional length would also be useful. Again, as with an earlier visit, visitors found the tracks leading into an abyss at the end of staging tracks nerve-racking. At the very least an end plate should be added.

Finally, several "needs" that I was already aware of should be addressed before operation becomes a regular occurrence. Safety issues around the attic trapdoor and stairs and convenience issues of holders for picks, pencils, and clipboards and/or shelves for dealing with paperwork are all still issues.

Uneven gap in upper rail at trestle
Beyond these ongoing issues around additions or needs to be considered, several specific "bad order" items were discovered during this initial trial. With my doodle bug "in the shop" for sound decoder installation, the passenger train for this session was   made up of an assortment of not fully vetted rolling stock. The coupler height of the coach car in this consist definitely needed to be checked and adjusted. Several insulating gaps in the track-work were observed to be uneven and causing issues. The gap seen in the photo at the trestle will be corrected with the completion of scenery in this area. A temporary fix would be prudent though. A similar uneven gap was noted on the south staging track in the east staging area. To improve my track-work and prevent future issues, I should add styrene fillers after cutting gaps with my Dremel tool, a step that I have been skipping.

While adding the Nooksack section would substantially improve multiple-crew sequence operations possibilities, operating with more than one crew can continue before that addition to the 4th Subdivision. Possibly simplifying the multi-crew train instructions, clarifying and defining the role of the dispatcher, and taking care of some of the issues described in this after-action report would allow for smoother sequence operations. While I have the lumber on hand and just ordered track and turnouts in the last few days, I want to achieve more "completeness" on the existing portion of the layout before starting the new section.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

First Ops-Session and Interlocking Home Signal

Over the last several weeks I have been attempting to get myself out of what I called modeler's block in my last post. In addition to spending time in the attic organizing and adding to my start with scenery, I prepped for and hosted a first ops-session with more than one operator. Last week the MMRC met here and we tried out a version of sequence operations with two crews. In this post I will discuss the steps I took to get ready for that session.

To translate the "fun-for-one" operations to "fun-for-more-than-one," I needed to take care of a couple basic items. I ordered and received a second throttle. Since it was on sale, I splurged on a radio controlled one, knowing that for now it will be used as a plug-in throttle. I also created first draft versions of train instruction cards for each of the two crews: one for the road switcher and one for both the Greenrock Turn and passenger trains 288 and 287. I also took care of cleaning the track, making some wire nut and skewer stick uncoupling tools, and temporarily fixing the loose toggle for controlling the team track switch.

The most involved project that I took on before the session was to install a signal going into the East Staging. Whether going into staging or going into the future town of Nooksack, the scenic divide here at the end of Willow Junction effectively "skips" the junction and crossing with the Northern Pacific mainline other than the recently repositioned fiddle interchange track. An interlock (virtual or actual) according to Tony Koester, "refers to the mechanical and electrical devices that prevent an operator from setting up conflicting routes through interlocking limits." After researching signaling for interlocking at Model Railroad Academy and an NMRA seminar document I concluded that a two light signal as the home signal would be appropriate for the unmodeled interlocking for the junction with the Northern Pacific.

I had the materials needed on hand, so I went ahead with the project. I had a two light (red and green) signal rated for 12-14 volts picked up years ago at a train show. I noted that a black mast was standard in the early 1950s according to Reference Sheet #405 from the Great Northern Railway Historical Society. Using a 9 volt battery I identified the two wires for the red light and the two wires for the green light. I also had on hand a double pole, double throw toggle switch and a terminal block all salvaged from my Seattle modules.

Some wiring needed to be under taken. The toggle switch had been wired to control a Tortoise switch machine, so I had to unsolder the reversing wiring and resolder with the 12 volt inputs coming into the central terminals. Also, while I had a 12 volt wall wart connected to the East staging, I hadn't yet started an actual 12 volt DC bus for accessories. So, I cut some wires, added spade connectors, and mounted a terminal block to the Willow Junction section starting a 12 volt bus. I soldered the tiny wires from the signal to feeders from the toggle switch, protecting the joint for each with shrink tubing before mounting the signal ten scale feet from the edge of the rail. The final step was to create a wooden plate and label for the "N. P. Jct. Interlocking Home Signal."

While the operating session was deemed fun, I learned a lot. The after-action notes are extensive enough that I will wait until a later post to reflect.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Modeler's Block

NP Interchange on the 4th Subdivision
In my last post, I left off with indecision about what to do next, add another layer of scenery here or move on to another scene, after being in "the zone" moving the interchange track. Well, that was a month ago. I am frustrated with myself, or at least my lack of progress on the railroad, and I am attributing my frustration to what I am calling "modeler's block." So, what is this modeler's block of which I speak, why is it happening, and, more importantly, how do I get out of it.

Modeler's block, in my mind, is similar to writer's block. Production and creativity have come to a standstill. I am stuck. As with writer's block, conflicting feelings or aspirations can be a cause of avoidance and/or focus. My paralysis is not primarily caused by over-analysis, but lack of focus. With so many possible things to do on the railroad, I can't seem to focus and instead do something completely different. (Yes, this sounds suspiciously like a form of procrastination!) If I focus on longer-term planning for operations and extensions to the railroad or prepping for visitors, operators, or open houses with infrastructure issues, it becomes overwhelming. Add to that my ongoing issue with preferring to start something new rather than finishing something that I already have started. Part of this I believe is fear of making mistakes or not hitting the standard I am shooting for. While part of my motivation in building this railroad is improving my skills, once I hit a step that I am not as confident about, I am afraid to "ruin" what I have already accomplished. Lance Mindheim wrote an insightful blog post titled Fear of Mistakes that explores how that fear can cause a "log jam of inertia" for model railroaders as well as some solutions to the so-called log jam.

So, how will I get myself out of this "modeler's block"? First of all, I need not search for perfection. Adding a first layer of scenery to what is now painted plywood, won't earn a merit award, but it will make some progress. I need to be very cognizant of my own foibles; don't start new projects, instead finish, or at least make progress on, projects that are already started. Really try to focus on scenery and structures rather than going deeper into operations beyond what I already have planned. The key is to not wait for inspiration, but to create some perspiration. Perhaps, just take the step of scheduling time spent in the railroad attic on a regular basis.

Start here. Add another square foot of basic ground cover. On another day, try ballasting the Northern Pacific interchange track. Don't start planning the scratch-built enginehouse, but instead make some progress on the fueling facility that is already started. Organize the workbench, if the juices aren't flowing. Get the materials ready for the next step of something. It doesn't have to be contest quality, but make some progress. Or not, but spend the time attempting progress rather than avoiding mistakes and procrastinating.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Upgrade to the NP Interchange

The new Northern Pacific interchange track

I had the Meadville Model Railroad Club (MMRC) over last week as part of our new round-robin approach. Eight people did fit (barely) into the train attic, and we painted ties! Apparently though, it is becoming a tradition that with a visit from MMRC members, I make changes to the 4th Subdivision.

Nick Ozorak, the originator of the MMRC, suggested a change in location of the NP interchange track. Originally I planned the interchange to flow into the backdrop at ninety degrees and be reflected with a mirror as seen in the photo from the beginnings of the 4th subdivision. He suggested that it curve into the front corner instead, avoiding all the problems with the use of a mirror as well as following a curve more typical of an interchange into an interlocking connected with a crossing at grade.

Deciding to go ahead with the suggested change, the first step was to pry up the interchange track. One complication was that the interchange track is also my DCC programing track. Between having constructed a "dead zone" area in the programing track and soldering the feeders to the underside of the rails, I decided to keep the existing wiring, rather than clipping and resoldering. This meant that I would need to chisel out a channel for the red and black feeders, thinking it would be easier than rewiring. It worked, and it was easier than rewiring.

Like I had with the original interchange, I carved a scrap piece of cedar shingle/shim to the proper width to make the transition from cork roadbed to the plywood. Then, I smoothed and beveled the edges and any gaps with putty. After the putty dried, I sanded it before applying a quick coat of my brown earth latex paint. After finally dropping and tacking the relocated track in place with a couple of track nails as well as double checking that the electrical connections were still working, I could call the new location as finished as the nearby track work.

However, I was in "a zone" and decided to go further, starting some scenery for this new and improved scene. I glued a scrap of pink foam shaped to create a slope at the edge of the backdrop. I placed several furnace filter trees in place temporarily, and noticed that they cast shadows on the painted "sky." The solution for that problem is to hide the shadows of trees with (wait for it) trees. So, after protecting the track with blue painter's tape and removing the three-dimensional trees, I mixed up some craft paints (a medium green, a gray, and raw umber) and roughed in some background trees. Then I applied some ground goop to create some undulations and hide the former roadbed.

Remembering that one advantage of using ground goop is the ability to apply ground cover while the goop is still wet, I went ahead and applied real dirt and several colors and textures of ground foam. After saturating it with 70% isopropyl alcohol as a wetting agent and applying scenic cement with an eye dropper, I  added a few conifers at the edge of the backdrop.

Now that some basic scenery is in place, I could go ahead and start ballasting. The next steps would be to add some bushes and lower foliage to the scene. Also, the vertical trim at the edge of the scene needs screwed in place and painted with my Andiron green fascia color. Finally, my plan is to have one signal located along the mainline here, representing the entrance to the virtual interlocking. Whether to move along to another area with the basic scenery or to keep building on the start here is a question for another day. Either way, I am quite happy with the relocated interchange track and the nudge into getting some scenery under way.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Research Revisited

Industrial Map of Washington published in 1945
Despite not much happening on my railroad, over the last month or so I have been involved in a number of NMRA activities some of which relate to the 4th Subdivision. In addition to preparing for Division 12's first big event, the Alleghany Western Mini-Meet, I have been thinking about adapting or extending the 4th Subdivision with the Chief Dispatcher AP certificate in mind and using the Golden Spike Award as a motivator and a stepping stone into the NMRA Achievement Program. While these may well be topics for future posts,  I first want to document some additional research into Washington State in the early 1950s and the Great Northern Railroad that I have been doing. In addition to general research that may apply to my model railroad, some of what I found could also lead to adding to the ambiance of the train room in the event of hosting tours or ops-sessions.

The industrial map at the top of this post is useful for both research and ambiance. It was produced in 1945 for school children and published by the office of the Secretary of State. Not only does its visual style capture the time, but it also gives a good overview of the kinds of industry appropriate for my railroad. It reinforces some of the assumptions I have been making in designing the 4th Subdivision as well as giving some guidance as I continue planning additional operations.

Seattle_-_4th_&_Westlake,_1953_(35099997716).jpg (1200×950)
By Seattle Municipal Archives from
Seattle, WA - 4th & Westlake, 1953,
CC BY 2.0,

Another image that could be used to establish ambiance is this photo taken in Seattle. The photo, taken in 1953, shows 4th and Westlake looking north. While I came across it through Google, it is part of the Seattle Municipal Archives, a photo source worth further exploration. The autos seen in the photo and the central Great Northern advertising sign both help establish the time period and the relative importance of the Great Northern Railway.

Some additional resources for researching Washington state history related to developing an accurate operational plan, finding photo sources, or just establishing a sense of time and place are listed below:

Kake Salmon Cannery
As part of my long range plan is to include a harbor scene at Port Gulick Bay, the fictional western end of the 4th Subdivision, I will want to include logical industries that invoke the Pacific Northwest. One such possibility would be a salmon canning facility. Although based in Alaska, the Kake Salmon Cannery portrays such an industry and is very well documented online. Wikimedia Commons contains a large number of files including numerous photographs and drawings as the cannery was documented for its listing on the National Register of Historic Places. 

Postcard view of the Empire Builder
Building or researching a model railroad includes more than just the setting; it also includes the railroad. Over the years I have found several useful sights specific to the Great Northern Railway:
Recently, I came across an awesome railroad photography site: RR Pictures Archives. It has an amazing collection of railroad photos. By going into the fallen flags section I was able to go to the Great Northern collections of rolling stock and locomotives. What a selection! Great color shots to have as resources for weathering or detailing models. 

Clearly part of my interest in model railroading stems from an interest in history. In this post, I wanted to not just document some of my recent trips down the rabbit hole of research, but to also keep a record of this collection of internet sources for future exploration.