Model Railroad Therapy

Why would anyone go through all the work of planning, gathering, re-planning, gathering more, designing, deciding you haven’t gathered enough, redesigning, feeling discouraged, realizing gathering more would help you feel better, wondering whether you’re losing your mind, understanding that you’ll know you haven’t lost your mind when you see the things you continue to gather are soooo cool, completely changing your design, deciding the house you live in isn’t quite big enough to properly house the empire you are about to build, and finally settling on a manageable layout that satisfies you? Because it is great therapy. No, you don’t think of it that way, but it is. Model railroading is a microcosm of life the way we wish it was, or the way we think it used to be. No one builds a model railroad duplicating everything the way it is because as soon as you’re finished you realize something changed and now you have to rebuild. Model railroading works because you are in charge. No surprises, nothing unexpected, your opinion is the only one that matters. Reality isn’t like that at all. Model railroading is completely safe.

The secret to being satisfied with your work is not to compare yours with others. You can learn a great deal by watching how-to videos, reading books and magazines, but the bottom line in model railroading is deciding that what you have created is good. Not because it won an award, or was featured in a model railroading magazine, or your track-side photos had a million likes on social media, but just because you created it.

If you don’t have room to build a permanent (just kidding – no model railroad is permanent) layout, make that table-top empire great with what you have. Your imagination will work wonders with sectional track, snap-together buildings and plastic trees if you use it. When you’re done, put everything away and start dreaming about your next layout.

Okay, everyone, get started on that model railroad empire!

Adventures in Model Railroading – Small Beginnings

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People who consider themselves model railroaders, or someday hope to be, had to start somewhere.  Not very many start with a bunch of locomotives, tons of rolling stock, loads of scenery and a ready-made layout just waiting for an engineer.  Usually, they start with a “train set” and a dream.  Even a small oval on a tabletop allows a railroading dreamer to get down to eye level and watch the train roll by.  The clicking of metal wheels on rail joints is a wonderful sound.

You will know you’ve crossed a threshold from having a train set to being a model railroader when someone asks you, “How fast will it go?” and you are offended.  When you talk of operating your layout (no matter how small it is) instead of playing trains, you’ll know you have arrived.

Model railroaders find a way to move from a circle to an oval to their first turnout and spur as quickly as possible.  My first turnout was an Atlas kit I bought at the little hobby shop in our town.  I didn’t have enough money to buy a ready-to-use model, so I tried the the kit.  I had no idea what I was doing.  I tried to put it together on a small piece of plywood.  The result was a mess and it never worked.  The old hobby shop owner saved me.  You will find that used equipment can be your best friend.

For several years a ping-pong table I set up in my basement bedroom was the home of my layout.  Nothing permanent, it was 12 inch brass track pieces and turnouts, most of it used.  The wires weren’t hidden, I taped them down.  What few trees I had were stuck down with clay.  I loved it.  When I first started I set everything up on my bedroom floor,  so the table was quite an improvement.

Whatever you have is a great place to start.  Attend model railroading swap-meets to find hidden treasurers.  Online market places will sometimes have items for sale.  Keep your eyes open and your railroading empire will begin to grow.

Adventures in Model Railroading

My first HO scale train was a Tyco blue and yellow Santa Fe F-7 with a few freight cars, and an 18 inch radius circle of track I received for Christmas when I was fifteen.  My love of trains, however, began on Christmas morning in 1956 when my brother received an American Flyer S scale train set.  My fascination with trains has been life long.

Sadly, my new F-7 didn’t work right.  It ran backwards pretty well, but wouldn’t go forward. The small town we lived in had a model railroader’s paradise, a hobby shop where I spent a lot of time.  The shop was a small garage but it was loaded with HO treasure.  The owner loved trains as much as I did and was always willing to help.  I traded my Santa Fe engine for an old metal 2-6-0 switcher that squeeked, but it ran.  I also purchased two small boxes of track so my layout became a larger oval instead of a circle.

For those unfamiliar with model trains, HO actually stands for “Half-O.”  O gauge is the size of the familiar Lionel-type, three-rail trains.  HO trains are half that size.  I have always preferred HO.  The two-rail track and detail is more realistic.

The little hobby shop quickly became my favorite place, and the owner taught me everything he could about model railroading.  He also sold me Pere Marquette Berkshire 2-8-4 and Southern Pacific 4-8-8-2 Cab Forward steam locomotives for $10 with a trade and $25, respectively.  Unbelievable!  Those engines now are twenty times that much! The only thing I still own from the little hobby shop is a twenty-five foot fiber tie strip for hand laying and spiking rails.  I’ve never tried that.

The photos above are of my first full layout I built thirty years ago.  As you can see, it had open-grid benchwork and it was also my first experience with cork roadbed and ballast. I learned a great deal about what not to do with future layouts.  The biggest mistake I made was not planning for taking it apart.  When we moved I had to chose the best spots to cut it apart and it was not easy putting it back together.

The unpainted wood stand with the white tank structure was scratch-built forty-two years ago.  At one point it was crushed by a basketball, but since has been rebuilt and painted.

In upcoming posts I will include details about benchwork, scenery, and model railroading in general.  I hope you enjoy it and find it helpful.

 

 

 

 

Building An HO Scale Layout

These are some track-level photos of my most recent HO scale train layout.  It was a “shelf-style” layout, which simply means the room I was using was too small to have a free standing layout supported by its own benchwork legs.  I used a model railroading magazine specifically for benchwork and just followed sketches to build the shelf supports along the wall.

My first obstacle was trying to figure out how much room I had for the loops on each end of the layout.  I didn’t want to build a “down and back” type of track plan.  I wanted to allow the trains to run continually, and wanted to be able to run two trains at the same time.  So, I ended up with a detailed two-line track plan with several sidings and a couple freight yards to choose from.  What I ended up with was a 22 inch outer line radius, and an 18 inch radius on the inner curve.  One mistake I made was not allowing enough room through the entire curve for two trains to run side-by-side.  I had to make sure the two trains did not run through the curves together.  I won’t make that mistake again.

I don’t run passenger trains, so the entire layout was built for freight operation.  Most of my buildings are manufacturing style, as a few can be seen in the photos.  Although I enjoy operating the trains, my main focus is scenery.  As you can see in the photos, the layout was not finished, as there were plenty of bare spots where there were neither roads, grass, or weeds.  But, that’s just part of the hobby.  The work is never finished.

I used “flex-track” which comes in 3′ sections.  I used code 100 rail, which has to do with the fine detail of the rails.  For my use, this code works great and it is less expensive.  I only use nickle-silver track as it does not corrode as quickly as brass.  I don’t know of anyone who uses brass track for serious layout construction.  The flex-track works great for my layouts.  I have never tried scratch-building track, either with a tie-strip and rails, or by hand laying ties.  It’s too much work.

Model railroading is a great hobby.  There is just something about trains that have captured my attention my entire life.  I take every chance I can get to watch trains. Unfortunately, I don’t live close enough to any operational lines to allow me to watch every day.  I am really looking forward to starting my next layout.

Working on trains always makes me think of coffee.  Speaking of which, it’s time for more.  Coffee, that is.

– Dale Parsons

 

Model Railroading

 

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Model railroading has been my main hobby since I was fifteen.  My brother and I had O scale trains when we were younger but as I got older my interests changed to HO.  HO actually stands for “Half-O”, so HO gauge is half the size of O gauge.  Lionel trains are the main brand for those who have “train sets.”  In my opinion, for those who are more serious about really doing something with the hobby, HO is the preferred scale.

The photo above is a layout I had until we moved last year.  And, by the way, those who are serious model railroaders don’t have train sets, they have layouts.  A serious layout is crafted from the bench work, which is the wooden frame that is the basis for all the railroading action, all the way up to the track work, the rolling stock, and the scenery.

For me, the railroad operation is not the most interesting part.  The scenery is definitely the most fun.  And scenery is not just trees or grass.  The scenery includes buildings, mountains, grass, weeds, junk, people, everything that is not the track and trains themselves.  The scenery work is never finished.  There is always something more to add, some new little detail, which might be as small as adding small bits of model scrap to a junkyard.

One of the most fun things to do is putting lights in the buildings.  It’s fascinating to get down on track level and watch the trains move among buildings that are casting rays of light through their tiny windows.

My uncle, who is now in his eighties, is the one really responsible for getting me into HO model trains.  In 1970, I spent spring break with him and his family.  We spent the entire week working on trains and going to hobby shops.  In the back corner of layout pictured above, there is a small cottage that we built from scratch that week.  It is a treasure of mine.

Model railroading is a terrific way to relax and forget about life for a while.  Scratch-building items for the layout, including operating signal lights (that’s for another blog session) and other little things is the best.  There is nothing like the sound of the wheels clicking over the rails.

Something that makes it even better is a cup of coffee sitting close by.

– Dale Parsons