Christmas Is: Trains!

What would Christmas be without trains? Many kids dream about waking on Christmas morning and finding a Lionel model train running under the tree.

Almost everyone loves the story “The Polar Express”, and for good reason. The movie contains everything of childhood dreams, especially discovering Santa is real! What could be better than riding an old-fashioned steam passenger train to the North Pole?

Trains have been a part of Christmas since the beginning of rail travel. My favorite part in the movie “White Christmas” is the scene on the Santa Fe train heading from Florida to Pine Tree, Vermont. Some day we would like to take a cross-country trip by train and enjoy sleeping and eating on board. We have taken a few train trips that were several hours but never overnight.

I have been working hard on the Maple Valley Short Line. I wanted to have at least a line running when Christmas came, but I’m not sure it’s going to happen. One of my major challenges is the depth of the two ends of the layout. It’s a bench design with a depth of thirty-six inches in the middle areas but the ends are forty-eight inches. That means I’ve made it impossible to reach all the way across the layout to lay the track. So, here I am, on top of the layout, laying track on the outside curves. I’m kneeling on 3/4” plywood, supported underneath by thinner plywood placed between the cork roadbed on the branch lines.

A big step of progress was securing my two scratch-built bridges. The trestle over the river is rock solid and I can’t wait to see trains running over it.

I’m using 36 inch flex track for the entire layout. I have a lot left over from my two previous layouts but I discovered not much of it is usable. I fasten the track using white glue, then pins through the ties as provided in the flex track. I then use jars of coins to weigh the track down until the glue is dried. It works great. (I’m the reason the government is running short on coins.)

Every HO modeler knows the challenge of curves when you’re using flex track. How do you join the rails in such a way that there is no kink at the joint? Here’s what I do. I’m sure it’s no secret, and nothing many others don’t do as well.

Rather than squaring off the rails, I leave the ends distant from each other as shown in the picture. For the joining piece of flex track, I cut the number of ties off necessary to make the extending rails reach the rails of the glued section. I then carefully trim off the plastic “spikes”, one on each side of the rail ends. I slide a rail joiner onto the rails of the glued section. I thread the new rails through the empty plastic spikes until the rails slide into the rail joiners.

After making sure the fit is tight, I put white glue on the cork roadbed for the new flex track. I pin the track and add the jar weights. On to the next! The pins in the ties are a perfect distance so the jars of coins fit between them.

This photo shows the completed joint without any noticeable kink between the rail ends. Smooth operation without the cars wobbling every time they cross a rail joint is important. My strategy works pretty well.

Another challenge I’m anticipating is pouring epoxy on the riverbed. I’m excited about doing it, but I’m concerned about the odor from mixing the epoxy. I should probably mix a little bit in the garage so I can see how strong the smell is before I do it in the basement.

I actually have a few cars on the rails now so I can check for smooth rolling. I love the sounds of metal wheels clicking over the rail joints.

It is time now to begin wiring the layout and making block separations. I may have to pick up a few new turnouts because, for some reason, most of the ones I have are right-hand, and my layout has many more left turnouts than previous plans.

After I am finished laying all the track and completing the wiring, I will begin working on ballast. At this point, my plan is to pour it by hand and spread it with a paint brush. I will then spray it with some white glue solution to set it permanently.

I’m looking forward to working more on scenery. I have lots of trees I made from floral wire to finish with latex, paint, and foliage.

Christmas is trains. Whether it is Lionel O gauge, N gauge, S gauge as in the old American Flyer line, or, my favorite, HO, every train looks better in the glow of a beautifully decorated Christmas tree.

Where’s my eggnog?

Model Railroading Beats Covid Stress

Model railroading is a terrific way to lose yourself in details that have absolutely nothing to do with the media, bad news, worse news, health scares, or Covid.

It’s been almost four months since I worked on my model railroading project, The Maple Valley Short Line.

Part of model railroading, at least for me, has been anticipating but not being upset by the feeling of hitting a wall. My motivation to build disappeared. Today I reactivated and found it.

Even as I stood in front of my layout, it wasn’t until I actually started measuring, cutting, and gluing that I began to feel motivated.

I discovered installing scratch-built bridges is difficult. Making sure the bridge deck is the same level as the cork roadbed which means boring holes in plaster and foam takes time. When it’s done, it will be fantastic.

Plaster is a necessity in model railroading if you’re seeking for realism in your scenery. It takes time and is messy, but well worth the effort.

I have been challenged by the need to cover my styrofoam risers and blend them into the scenery in a way that looks realistic. I’ve thought about covering crumpled paper with plaster, but wondered about mold forming on the paper from the moisture.

I thought about using cardboard strips with plaster, but with one to four inches across thirty-two feet of riser, that is a lot of cardboard to cut and cover. I’m still working on it. I think I’ll use a combination of paper towel and pieces of foam dipped in plaster.

Gluing cork roadbed is time consuming but so rewarding! Covid stress floats away like a crumpled leaf in the wind. Cork roadbed is a model railroading task that you start and finish even though the layout still has a very long way to go.

The river I decided to dig across the middle of my layout added a tremendous amount of work, but I’m excited about how it’s going to look. This will be my first time using the epoxy mix that becomes “water”. I’ll paint the plaster first then pour the magic liquid.

Model railroading is a lot of fun. It provides a great opportunity to see what can be done. Everything is changeable, there really is no such thing as a mistake.

I can’t wait to see my steam locomotive rumble across this bridge. The extra work setting and leveling this scratch-built model is more than worth the time.

I can start placing my nickel-silver flex-track any time. That’s when the layout really starts looking like a railroad. I’ve been working on my model railroad for a long time already. Every step has its own rewards.

I’m looking forward to the day when I can start setting all the houses and buildings I spent last winter creating. Trees, grass, weeds, junk, sticks, fences, rocks, stones, lights, signals, backdrops, ballast, and more junk. Love it.

All this makes me want more coffee. Model railroading and coffee. Inseparable partners.

An Exercise in Patience

Are you tired of waiting for patience?

Model railroading is a great exercise in stretching your ability to wait for something good to happen. My current layout project began, literally, on the floor. The room I am using was a storage place for all the overflow stuff. I had to move, package, stack, sort, discard, retrieve from the discard bin, and re-stack, so that I could actually begin building a model railroad.

I’m trying things I’ve never done before. This is definitely the most pain-staking, detailed layout I have ever attempted. The bench-work is very sturdy. In fact, I have been ON TOP of the bench several times, working on the styrofoam risers, also something I have never used before.

I purchased the risers from Rider’s Hobby Shop in Flint, MI. I’ve had layouts with mountains for the trains to climb through, but the inclines were too steep, so the engines could only pull a few cars. Not this time! I’m using 2% inclines, which require 16 feet of space to lift the train four inches. Since my layout space is 21 feet long, I have plenty of room for a 2%, four inch lift! Voila!

I have two total loops, so I can continuously run two trains. The town of Maple Valley is going to be an attraction for those who climb aboard the old-fashioned passenger cars, pulled by a vintage steam engine. Beautiful!

Back to patience. It has already taken me over a year to get to this point. I still have not placed a single section of track. The bench work is incredible. The 1 1/2 inch foam underlayment is terrific. The 2% risers are all in place. The scratch-built bridges are really cool. They still have to be painted. Mountains are beginning to take shape. I have built a huge number of houses and buildings. I am scratch-building floral wire trees. Also something I’ve never done before.

If my plan was to run trains as quickly as possible, I would have quit a long time ago. Here’s the point. The process is the fun! But, the process is also the patience growth time. The secret is to be pleased, or at least “okay”, with where I am right now. If I do my best with each step of the process, then I can leave the layout at any time along the way and be satisfied.

I am not yet where I’m going. The goal line is not placing the last tree and bit of model grass. The process is the goal line. It isn’t stationary. The goal line is constantly evolving. The beautiful thing about model railroading is I can change my mind at any time, just because I decided to do something different.

Life is not fixed. It’s a process. Constantly evolving. Patience is a project of effort, trust, and satisfaction.

Coffee please.

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.