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    Pacifc Coast Extension: Progress Pics Pt.3

    2014 - 08.23

    So onward and literally upward with the Pacific Coast Extension model railroad project.  I’ve begun work on the upper level which will have two very large steel viaducts, a model of Union Station in Seattle with long platforms, some kind of industry switching (although I have not decided exactly what yet), and oodles of cool mountain scenery.  That’s what I see when I look at it.  For now it’s all plywood sheet and pine boards.  My benchwork is improvised as I go along rather than pre-planned, which results in some interesting choices, as you can see below.  I don’t mind the added challenge though, since it helps me improve my woodworking skills.  I thought I ought to take some shots of the layout before the upper layer is mounted, because once that happens it’s probably never coming off again.  Here is a view which  is taken from the same perspective as the image in the previous post, which shows the upper layer benchwork that’s new.  Also visible is a wide variety of trains… notably the SD40-2 #156 with the red white n blue Bicentennial paint scheme right in the foreground.  Immediately behind him is a Broadway Limited SW2 which I’ve loaded up with an old Kato NW2 shell that’s actually superior to the brand new Broadway shell despite its age.  Behind that are two observation cars which both have lighted drumheads although–oops–the layout was off when I took this photo so they’re not lighted.  The Northern Pacific North Coast Limited is seen in green, alongside the Heavyweight Columbian observation car.

    IMG_5247 v2

    And here is a view from above:

    IMG_5256 v2

    Visible there is the ascending track which will slowly build in elevation until it unites with the upper level.  Lastly, the same view with the beginnings of the top layer added.  The piece that covers the access hatch from the lower level will be a hinged-section which will swing outward toward the camera, allowing top-level access to the track closest to the wall on top.  Since this photo was taken I have already changed the upper two tracks in the background which will be the station platform tracks, so what’s seen here is still subject to adjustment.  Although you can’t really tell it from these photos, the upper level is just below eye level for a six foot tall person, so the layout is actually quite tall.  These shots were actually taken holding the camera above my head to show everything.  The upper level is 20″ above the lower.

    IMG_5265 v2


    Pacifc Coast Extension: Progress Pics Pt.2

    2014 - 03.05

    So it’s been a while since I posted an update on my model railroading progress. I’ve been dabbling with a host of side projects but the two main accomplishments of the last few months have been 1. the organization of my workbench and 2. the completion of my staging area.

    RR workbenchIt can be hard to motivate yourself to put work into the space where you do your work, rather than devoting that time into actual projects themselves. But my overly-cluttered railroad workbench had reached an overpopulation of ridiculous proportions. I don’t have any “before” images to provide for contrast because taking a photo of how it used to be would be an embarassment. At Home Depot I found one of these 30-drawer organizers meant for screws and washers and that has worked out positively brilliant for the bulk of my small objects which need to be kept in sensible order. It’s been one of those upgrades to your work situation that makes you say to yourself “geez, why on earth didn’t I do this sooner?! I’ve been languishing in the dark ages and this thing only cost me $20!”

    The desk itself is fairly primitive; constructed of spare 2×4 segments left over from benchwork construction and half of a cheap ikea desk surface I sawed in half. There’s a power strip screwed into the base which provides juice to lamps and the soldering iron. Sitting on the tabletop is a stack of white paper which I use to keep greases/glues off the actual green desk surface and a spare piece of foam for setting down delicate engines while I work on them. It’s nothing impressive but it’s been functional. I guess the main takeaway here is that maaan, a little organization sure goes a long way to making life easier.

    The second, more exciting bit of progress I’ve made is to complete the staging yard–which is a short sentence to say but a lot of work to accomplish. Laying track is time consuming work when you want it to operate well. I added more work by deciding to have the whole yard hooked up to an autoreverser. It’s an “AR1” from Tony’s Train Exchange which monitors its (electrically isolated) track section thousands of times per second to see if there’s a short circuit compared to the main. If it detects one, it flips the polarity on its track to match, and does it so fast that the DCC system can’t detect that a short ever happened. It’s actually a pretty impressive little piece of technology if you stop and think about what it’s doing. The practical function here is to allow trains to enter the yard from either direction and never short anything, which allows me to turn long trains around. Very handy indeed! I chose the AR1 model specifically because it draws power from the track and therefore doesn’t need an independent power supply. It also has the capability to use the polarity flip to trigger a switch machine. So far I have zero switch machines on my layout but if I decide to add some in the future I could use that functionality.

    Staging Yard West End

    Speaking of switch machines, I installed a whole bunch of Caboose Industries ground throws and I learned something I wasn’t expecting; when using curved turnouts, you need to make sure that your passenger cars or autoracks don’t smash into the throw! If you position it even somewhat close to the track, it’s almost surely going to cause a problem. I ended up having my throws mounted all the way at the end of each switch throwbar. And it turned out that there was one curved turnout with a parallel curved track next to it which had zero possible placements where a throw wouldn’t cause crashes. I didn’t even think of this when I was coming up with the track plans! Fortunately my local hobby shop had a cheap mechanical solution which I could mount underneath the layout. It’s a Rix hand operated throw which doesn’t have any spring or tensioner in it so I’ll need to keep an eye on it if I use it repeatedly, but I think it ought to work well enough for that particular track.

    And speaking of underneath the layout, I was also surprised at the amount of work it took to add wire drops from each section of track and make sure everything was getting powered. Long stretches of flex track are pretty forgiving when it comes to conducting the signal but add in a bunch of switches and wow, all sorts of connection issues start appearing, even though I was using brand new, snug rail joiners. I had to go back an add more connections once I thought I was done. Now that it’s all complete though, it sure is nice!! I can have several long trains all on the tracks at the same time and choose which ones I want to take out and run, which is the whole strength of DCC afterall. It’s a milestone to now have a yard that allows me to take greater advantage of this.

    Staging Yard East end

    Just a dope train photo in the Canadian Rockies

    2014 - 01.15

    I did not take this, I am just highlighting how awesome it is.  It’s a long exposure of some double stack container cars in Canada.  You could do this same exposure trick pretty easily on a model RR although you need a neutral density filter to get this effect in real life.  Anyway it is NIFTY.

    long exposure canadian trains

    Milwaukee GP-30 in the lightbox

    2013 - 12.19

    After a long hiatus, I’m dusting this thing off of and posting some nifty new stuff.  Here’s an awesome new player on the RR, a GP-30 with a sweet sounding turbocharged prime mover inside.  The high pitch whine of the turbo is a very cool new sound on the tracks, especially with two of them going.  Also, this photo is actually 5 photos stitched together in Photoshop for a composite focus.

    On a totally different note, since I’ve been out of the blogging loop for a while it appears that I need to relearn some things and dang it if flickr didn’t completely get rid of their embedding slideshow features!  That was the whole reason I ever got an account there.  Pfffft.  Just goes to show what’s new isn’t always better.

    Pacifc Coast Extension: Progress Pics

    2013 - 08.22

    I’ve been a busy man over the last months, planning for my wedding in a few weeks!  That’s going to be a lot of fun and I’m really looking forward to catching up with friends whom I don’t get to see like I’d wish.

    Over the last week I did get a chance to put some time into the model railroad and I thought I would post some progress pictures:

    Far East Loop

    Looking just left of the prior photo, onto the long straightaway

    The main section which will be staging and city, someday

    Shinohara #6 turnouts, cut for DCC

    And an action shot.  Working Rotary Beacons are awesome.

    You Might Be Preferred 45 Cool. But You’ll Never Be Xtra-Repaint Ghosted Preferred 45 Cool.

    2013 - 07.17

    It’s been a while since I did a model train post. One thing I’ve been working on lately is a set of blank 45 foot trailers which I’ve been decaling for the Milwaukee Road’s trailer service. They have a number of neat paint schemes which had caught my eye, namely the “Preferred 45”, “Preferred 102”, and “Preferred Pool” trailers. One of each is on display here:








    The decals are by Micro Scale and although they have been out of production for probably 10 years, you can still find them floating around (pun intended?). Old decals can be tough to work with, since they like to fall apart on you, but with some patience I think I nailed it. The trailers are also out of production models, from the Promotex line by a Canadian company called Herpa. I went with these simply because I liked the amount of detail on them. The reflective stripes on the sides are probably an anachronism, but eh, whatever, I think it looks neat so let’s run with it.

    It was actually really tough to find reference photos taken of the prototype (aka the real thing for the non-modelers out there). Below are two which were shared with me from the slide collection of Mr Nathan Dahms. Thank you for these helpful images Nathan!  And thank you for permission to post them here so that others in search of reference images will have something to use :


    I got this first image after decaling mine.  Although I followed the decal sheet instructions (which are consistent with the image below), this trailer is a bit different.  I think for the next ones I do, I will mimic this photo instead…

    And lastly, in the process of searching for images, I rediscovered this dude who goes by the handle Mellow Mike. I had seen his stuff on weathering forums years and years ago, then lost track of what he was up to when those forums closed. This guy is seriously god-like with an airbrush (and whatever other secret alchemy sauces he uses). If this kind of thing interests you, his website will totally blow your mind. Anyway I randomly found a trailer he had done via google image search. It’s a Milwaukee Road Preferred 45 trailer which was sold and painted over, although the original scheme remains faintly visible, a state referred to as ‘ghosted’. He said he based this off a photo. So my little decaling project is neat and all, but check out the real master at work:

    JUST.  WOW.

    Going Kit Crazy!

    2013 - 01.28

    I’ve been busy with a slew of RR projects recently, mostly completing a series of kits. There were three Branchline 50′ NP boxcars in the dark green w/ white stripe scheme, one Intermountain GN boxcar in “bankruptcy blue”, and one Red Caboose Milwaukee Road flatcar. There’s a few more still in-progress: a Red Caboose “Bear Creek Vineyards” (yeap, just couldn’t resist that one) reefer car, and a Front Range Milwaukee Road centerbeam flat car which is quite cool (reporting marks still need to be decaled on):

    Since the GN boxcar was dated to ’69 (the last year the NP existed), I sprayed it with hi-gloss to give it that ‘fresh-from-the-RR-paint-shops’ look. An Atlas caboose from the same year got the same hi-gloss treatment, along with my whole fleet of NP passenger cars, to prepare them for decaling. I thinned the hi-gloss 50/50 with floquil thinner and airbrushed it at 35psi. I think next time I will use a lower pressure and a more gloss-rich mix. Maybe like 20psi and 75/25 gloss/thinner. I got decent results with the cars standing upright as the paint went on, but in a few spots I got a little trigger happy trying to get it shiny enough, and that did cause some subtle pooling at the bottom edge when the thicker paint was drawn there by gravity. The surface texture came out mostly smooth but there were a few spots where ‘gunk’, presumably dust or debris from older paint residues, did show up. I need to clean out the airbrush. Again, not bad, but I want to avoid that kind of thing as much as possible. Perhaps lower pressure might help there…

    A few observations about the kits: cutting parts off the sprue is the most dangerous part. I used a very sharp razor, and there were still parts that broke apart as I tried to cut them free. The Intermountain kit was the most forgiving with this and the Branchline kits were the most fragile. Best advice I can give is place the sprue on a flat tabletop and whenever possible, lay it so that the piece you’re cutting off is making contact with the tabletop, so it can’t bend or flex. Use a sawing motion on delicate parts and use the sharpest blade you can. Cutting away extraneous bits of the sprue to give better access is something I do a lot.

    The Intermountain kit was the easiest to build overall, and the Red Caboose reefer car was the most laborious. It’s just a gajillion parts. Some of which beg the question, why did they not mold this part into the roof? Red Caboose also likes to make you drill out holes so that grabirons will fit in. I really hate that. Yes, technically that gives you a better adhesion because you effectively remove the paint from that area. But man, it’s a pain. Intermountain and Branchline don’t force you to do that, and those kits stay in one piece just fine.

    A few tips for any fellow kit builders: anywhere you see the words “pin-vise”, forget about the pin-vise and use a “yankee screwdriver” aka spiral hand drill (pictured atop the MILW flat). They are literally 2-5 times faster and just as effective. I despise the pin-vise with a passion and plan to never ever use one again. Also, using CA adhesive (aka cyanoacrylate aka super glue) to build kits will leave behind ugly, white, chalky residue. CA bonds the fastest, and I do use it in places where warped plastic parts might demand a hard and fast bonding. My local hobby shop guy talked me into trying out this styrene adhesive (which ONLY bonds plastic-to-plastic). I didn’t have good luck with it. The stuff evaporates nearly instantaneously after you brush it on, and it works by actually ‘melting’ a small bit of the plastic. In theory that should give the best bond possible, but in my experience, it didn’t work that well. I was able to pull off grabirons the next day, which should not be possible. Maybe the painting on the (Intermountain) kit may have gotten in the way, but again, scraping paint off adds another step, and we hate adding steps. And the styrene adhesive has fumes.

    Cutting to the chase, the best glue in my opinion is called “Gator Glue”. It behaves a lot like good old Elmer’s white glue that you used to make macaroni artwork in kindergarden, only it dries up clear. This glue is the most forgiving for exposed areas like single grabirons on the side of cars. Best part about Gator Glue? Not only does it dry transparent, it’s non-toxic. No more noxious fumes and headaches. Just say NO to that masochism. Building kits is a masochistic enough activity as it is. I once made myself quite ill by supergluing in a poorly ventillated hotel room. Those toxic vapors do have consequences, and it’s worth it to avoid them.

    Gator Glue can be ordered online direct from the guy who makes it. Buy a lot and support him because it’s an awesome product. Skip the precision applicator, which must be cleaned every time (and mine STILL got clogged). Just use a wooden toothpick to apply tiny dabs of glue. A box of 100+ cost me $1 at the grocery store.

    Proud new member of the NCE DCC scene!

    2012 - 12.11

    DCC: That thing which turns your train layout from single player into multiplayer. I now have this technology, as well as two wireless throttles to control the action from anywhere! This is the best thing to happen to the trainset since…track. Very excited about this.

    Also, check out that awesome boxcar kit I built. For those so interested, it’s a Branchline Blueprint series model. Excellent details. Got four more like it to build up.

    But yeah. DCC. Wicked.

    Pacific Coast: Roadbed down, key players showing up

    2012 - 12.02

    Man. So much stuff has been happening on the model railroad lately that I’d be at risk of turning this site into nothing but a railroad blog if I posted it all individually. This also partially explains the plummeting number of posts on here. Writing for the site is fulfilling, but I will say it is energizing to work at a hobby where your efforts are rewarded with something physical. Railroading is fun!

    The biggest undertaking since I last posted was removing *all track* from the layout (gasp!), putting down recycled 1/4″ rubber for sound-deadening roadbed, and then rebuilding not one but TWO loops around the whole layout. That one sentence was mammoth amount of work. I also reworked some of the benchwork in the process. This time I built the tracks a lot slower and was doggedly vigilant to get perfect connections between sections. It can’t be overstated how much that pays off, even if it’s excruciating to move slowly while you’re itching to run trains. You gotta fight that urge to rush it. In the construction photo here, you can see the new roadbed:

    That photo distorts the size of the staging end of the layout a bit as it was taken at 10mm.

    A few construction secrets I’ve figured out:
    The rubber roadbed is made of sections cut from a large 4x10ft roll I bought off Amazon. I figured out the best way to cut it is with a boxcutter moving away from your body. That way you push with the meat of your palm, instead of struggling to push down with your thumb and fingers which quickly gets fatiguing. Getting a deep cut on the first pass is essential to making the repetitive job of cutting the rubber go faster. Then you can easily peel the strip loose without fighting. You need to make <1″ wide strips to go around curves, because the rubber does not bend much. I found it’s also easiest to do this right on the layout, where the height is about elbow level. Doing it on the ground is tedious. I went with rubber because it’s cheaper than cork.

    My trackbuilding around all curves has been dramatically aided by using flex track “end ties”. These allow the ties to hold the rail separation constant right up until the end when building a curve. They’re not 100% perfect, but they do go a long way toward avoiding that dreaded slight “V” shape where your rails join up. In my experience, small V’s which are scarcely even visible can be an endless source of derailments and frustration. The end ties work out to about $0.33 each, which is completely worth it when you consider how much hair-pulling they’ll spare you later on. Another thing which is maybe common sense but still bears mentioning is the importance of checking the previous track connection before you finalize the one you’re working on. Flex track does slip around inside the ties and a small gap at the far end can easily appear when you’re not paying attention, causing extra noise, wheel wear, and maybe derailments later.

    With the new and improved mainlines I can now run my Hiawatha Super Domes without being plagued by constant derailments like I was before. Success! Time to bust out my notorious “Mister Super Fussy” flatcar and see how good I really did. The amount of derailments he produces is incredulous. Apocalyptic.

    In other news I broke-in my new Harbor Freight deluxe airbrush and so far it is working great. I got a tip from the dude at the hobby shop that you can thin Floquil paints with Xylene thinner (super cheap) so I’ve been doing that and it seems to be working well. Only advice there is wear nitrile gloves and keep extras handy; Xylene is some serious business. Spill it on your gloves and it will actually eat through them in maybe 10 minutes. Protip: pour some Xylene from the giant gallon jug into something like an old glass pasta sauce jar, then pour that into your airbrush paint jar to avoid spilling all over. Use it outdoors and stand upwind. I don’t even want to know what might happen to someone using this stuff in a confined space with poor ventilation. A 50/50 paint/xylene mix has worked well for an initial coat of Floquil Grimy Black onto my Micro Engineering steel viaduct parts. I’ve been airbrushing them while still on the sprues, with most of the flash already cleaned off. We’ll find out later if that was the right call or not…..

    But enough about the rails–onto the trains. Two big stars of the show have arrived:

    1.) the Milwaukee Road E-2 & E-3  Bi-polar Electrics in the 1955 black, orange, & maroon stripe paint scheme, as built by MTH

    Scored both of these on eBay in the last few months, and ended up paying the full retail value for one of them despite the fact that the eBay auction started quite low. That means street value isn’t budging, even 2 years after their release. Huh! One thing which may factor in here is the apparent desirability of this particular paint scheme. The ‘bay is completely flooded with MTH Bipolars wearing the “cat whisker” paint scheme, and those seem to be the least valuable scheme. When I bought my 2 units at release in 2010, I picked the E-1 in the experimental Olympian scheme and the E-4 in the 5-stripe cat whisker scheme, thinking that those two schemes would be the hardest to find later on down the line. Boy was I wrong about that!

    The simple maroon stripe scheme that my new E-2 is wearing has proven to be the most popular. Weird! Perhaps that can be explained by the era: the cat whiskers, while awesome looking, didn’t appear on the real thing for very long, and if you want to run the super domes (which of course you do), that means you need a paint scheme that is kosher for late ’52 and up: the maroon stripe. That, or UP yellow, which everyone knows is perverse and revolting.

    And their competition:
    2.) the Northern Pacific F9A/B North Coast Limited engines in the “Lowey” paint scheme, from Athearn’s Genesis series.

    I don’t even know how, but somehow I scored these models on eBay for the buy it now price of $60 for the set. And they said you can’t get a good deal on the ‘bay anymore! Pshaw.

    These are my first “Genesis” models and jeez, I now understand why people praise this line as the alpha wolf of plastic trains. The etched see-through grilles on the sides are impressive in person and the fans on the roof are an actual separate part beneath a fine screen; that detail is always super sweet. I’ve had Walthers Proto 2000 E6s for a long time and I always thought those were quite nice. These NP engines are a cut above that. Extremely nice. Although the Bipolars remain my ‘favorite’ engines, these units do capture the crown of ‘most detailed’ on the layout.

    The Genesis Lowey units run smooth and quiet. Only bad thing is that they’re strictly DC while the Bipolars are dual-mode DC or DCC. (fast explanation: in DC all trains go “the same” speed, and DCC is like “multiplayer” where different trains can be doing different speeds, or stopped, all on the same track) Either due to the gearing ratios or simply due to the MTH control setup, the Bipolars run WAY slower than the Genesis units at a given voltage. So the North Coast Limited is screaming around the layout while the Hiawatha leisurely moves through. This fact may push my timetable forward on acquiring a DCC setup, which has always been an inevitability for the future of this layout.  For now I just have two separate DC power packs.  The switch visible in the image of the roof of #6701A there is a fast-tracks #6 curved turnout, made by hand.

    I’ve also been slowly picking up minor pieces of rolling stock when I can find them for cheap. A stock car and a few boxcars. And a Proto 2000 GP-30 for cheap too! That was another lucky find, and he represents the nascent beginnings of a Thunderhawk consist. These are some badass, speedy diesels. I still need at least 2 more GP-30s and a Joe for the motive power… so a loooong way to go still. But this is the “moment of genesis” for the Thunderhawk, which is exciting.

    One cool thing about this image (and the bipolar image too) is that they’re actually made of 2 separate photos with a different focus, spliced together in Photoshop.  I gotta do more of this composite focus thing, it makes for great shots…

    Pacific Coast Extension model railroading update

    2012 - 08.12

    So as I mentioned in my first posting, when I built my railroad, I immediately started to wonder if I hadn’t set the layout height too low. After about a week of watching the trains I decided that yeah, I underestimated where a good eye-level height should be. After cutting up a good amount of 2x4s, the new layout height is 39.5” above the floor, which is 9.5” above where it used to be. That might not sound like a big difference, but in person it has much better visual impact than it did before. I also reconfigured the benchwork on the far left side so that I can cut out a large circular area for access to the staging areas. That was a lot of work. Like a complex switch engine maneuver though, sometimes you have to go backward before you can go forward.

    That’s a perfect example of the disadvantages of planning as you go: things you just didn’t think about pop up and force you to backtrack. The upswing though is that my concept of the layout design is strengthened greatly by being able to SEE how each area looks and feels in the room. I’ve decided to remove the reversing loop on the far right side entirely, in favor of a longer one that will be partially underground on the yet-to-be-built section that will run along the ledge over the living room (this layout’s on the 2nd floor). Once that section goes in, the loop will get ripped out. Removing that loop will add a lot of extra elbow room for the computer desk and make the room feel more spacious. That is a consideration as well: I like the room to feel “open”, and cramming in too much railroad will ruin that sense of space.

    Another recent improvement is the addition of a curved section right in the center. This was more inevitability than sweet revelation, but this new piece will facilitate a larger staging area and better track flow at the “throat” of the yard. Next up I need to improve the benchwork at the center and start laying down rubber sound deadening to make the tracks permanent.

    There have also been two really sweet requisitions in the last few weeks: one, a set of Northern Pacific passenger cars which I’m really stoked about! They’re going to need some custom decals added to make them into a legit North Coast Limited train. I also plan to add the supplied handgrabs (maybe not ALL of them, as it’s tedious work) and airbrush just the sides with high-gloss finish to make them look like they’re freshly washed. I might try lightly weathering the trucks and underbody as well. One thing I noticed about these new cars is that they roll super-duper freely. I thought my Hiawatha cars were good, but man these things will move if you blow at them! This gross discrepancy in the coefficient of model railroading static friction has led me to realize… that the Hiawatha cars are in dire need of a truck cleaning! :O I think 99% isopropyl and a reapplication of Labelle’s #108 oil ought to do it.

    And the second thing, which is so fricking cool that it’s going to get its own post later, is…… the acquisition of a new Milwakee Road electric Bi-polar locomotive!! #E-2 in the maroon stripe scheme. After this one, all I’m missing from the MTH plastic production run (in any sort of desirable paint scheme at least) is the E-3. I’m quite excited to be adding this guy to the engine roster. He’s going to see a lot of action on the pike. All the hell aboard baby!

    But having an awesome railroad isn’t all about just buying up all the right trains.  It’s much more about making things.  Like building really awesome (and sometimes also hard) models!  If I want to run the Milwaukee Road’s “XL Special” freight, I’m going to need some tri-level auto racks to make her authentic.  Accurail makes a kit to build these things yourself and I just completed my first one this weekend.  I think it came out pretty good, although it still needs a Milwaukee badge yet.  Here it is, hanging out in the totally-empty staging area:

    Judge it against a photo of the real thing:

    Mine could use the railing along the top, and some of those cross-braces too.  Pretty decent as-is though.  I’m feeling happy.

    And–AND–this weekend I got into it with my new dual action airbrush from the cheap-tool wonderland that is Harbor Freight…  The Viaduct at Mine Creek now has paint.  Lookout people.  More on that to come….