Saturday, April 30, 2011

Train to the launch pad

[Image: NASA/Bill Ingalls]

I was reading an article this week reporting that the Voyager spacecraft will soon be leaving the region of space under the influence of our Sun and heading into interstellar space. The article eventually led to a NASA photo archive site, and being a train person I decided to search on ‘train’ to see what would come up. Among the results were some great photos of the train used to roll-out the Soyuz spacecraft rocket to its launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. I’d recommend going to the NASA site directly to get all the details if you’re interested. There’s lots more photos other than these two I’ve posted, and they certainly provide some intriguing ideas for developing a freelanced launch pad layout.

[Image: NASA/Carla Cioffi]

Friday, April 29, 2011

Uncle Charley’s Bookery: Books, books, books, and more books

1965 must have been quite a year for E.L.Moore. As far as I can tell, he published 6 articles about building structures in RMC, and I think that was the most articles he had published in a single year until then:
Ye Olde Corner Drugstore
Tonsorial Parlor
Small Manufacturing Plant
Major Hoople’s Brick Warehouse
Yard Blacksmith Shop
Uncle Charlie’s Bookery

I thought publishing 6 construction articles in one year was pretty impressive, but I later found out that Mr. Moore was just getting cranked up in ’65, because the following years typically saw 8 or 9 articles per year! An impressive legacy of fascinating scratch-building projects to say the least. I wouldn’t have time to build 6, let alone 9 in a single year. I find that his projects seem deceptively simple; and they are with respect to technology, but not in the number of steps and phases of construction.

Interestingly, 4 of the ’65 projects also had interiors of one sort or another, which I’m finding really adds to the total build time. They’re not all loaded up with HO-scale books, but they do have their unique construction challenges. I haven’t really built all that many interiors; in fact, I think it’s just one: the ersatz servicing area in the engine house – and that was many years ago! Well, ok, now that I think of it, there was the viewing area / interior in the Buddha’s Overlook project, although it’s far from a full interior.

The Bookery’s shelved books were rather pleasant to make. I followed the instructions in Mr. Moore’s article, but instead of painting the book spines with brush and paint, I used a selection of coloured, fine-point Sharpie pens. This made the task easier and faster. I also considered skipping the step of indenting the book strip at each spine edge with a knife. This didn’t work out because the indentation prevents the ink from bleeding between spines and gives you a nice sharp division between books.

Window blanks ready for trimming & inking.
Where the books gave some pleasure, the windows took some away. Well, the flat windows were a chore, but, surprisingly, the front bow window was rather easy. Mr. Moore stated he used commercial windows for the flat ones since he had some suitable ones around.

Inking a window on a template.
I tried to make the flat ones look sort of like the ones in his Bookery using his old-school inking method. My window openings weren’t quite square so there was some fiddling and finessing needed to get each window to fit properly. The window beside the side door was particularly troublesome and required 4 attempts to get something that was acceptable - over enthusiastic trimming and sloppy inking on my part conspired to try my patience. On the other hand, the bow window was very easy to make and install, and went in on the first attempt. I made my version in 3 pieces; whereas, Mr. Moore made his from a single clear sheet with folds to make the bow. All my windows are held in place with Micro-Krystal Clear.

This poor thing donated the fireplace horns.
Mr. Moore’s Bookery has a clock above the fireplace mantel. The fireplace reminded me of the one in my father’s house, but his has a set of steer horns on it from a long ago trip to Texas. I liberated a set of horns from a donor toy cow leftover from a project in a larger scale, painted them a bit, and glued them above the row of oversize books on the mantel.

I think I’m in the home stretch now. I’m in the process of standing up the walls, attaching them to the base, and adding some furniture.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Uncle Charley’s Bookery: Beginnings

I’m not familiar with E.L. Moore projects prior to his Cal’s Lumberyard build that appeared in the April 1973 issue of Model Railroader, so it was a pleasant surprise to read his Uncle Charlie’s Bookery article in the December 1965 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman.

I found both the article and the project charming. And, I caught myself smiling throughout the story, so it was pretty clear I needed to build this. It seemed like a simple and fun project, and, after doing a little measuring, it looked like it was going to fit rather nicely into a vacant lot in Scarboro Square - a unexpected bonus.

Repeated readings of the article started to make it seem a little like an archeological expedition. Mr. Moore had an unconventional style – well, at least by today’s standards – where the rather sketchy instructions are embedded in a fictional story. That’s ok with me, but if you’re not used to it, there does seem to be a lot of knowledge assumed of the reader as far as building structures goes, which the narrative glosses over a bit.

For example, he refers to a product called Northeastern yellow brick. I did a little internet searching and couldn’t find anything, but reading between the lines in the article it seems like some sort of sheet material made of 1/16 inch wood that has an HO-scale embossed brick pattern on one side. This was used for making the walls.

I substituted 1/16 inch balsa with Micro-Mark yellow brick paper glued to one side. The Micro-Mark brick paper is very nicely printed, and even though a 8 15/16 in x 5 7/8 inch piece cost me $10.99, it was well worth it, and I’ll probably get a few projects out of it.

Like I said, I cut the walls from 1/16 inch sheet balsa. I could have substituted sheet styrene, but I wanted the interior wall surfaces to have a little texture, and it is an E. L. Moore project after all, so sheet balsa keeps with the spirit of the thing. The foundation is another story though. I cut this piece from 0.080 inch styrene because I wanted a stiffer and more impervious base than 1/16 balsa could provide.

The inside floor – which is attached to the plastic foundation piece with thick super-glue – is still 1/16 inch balsa as per the article. Now, even though the balsa is superglued to the relatively thick styrene foundation, when I stained the floor, it still caused the combined structure to warp a bit as the stain dried. I had to carefully unwarp it back to flat with finger pressure. It restored ok; just something to keep in mind.

I was chatting with an old friend back in February and he commented that the way I laid out walls on sheet stock was old school in the extreme. The advent of laser cutting and CAD design had rendered this old method embarrassingly obsolete. All quite true. Laser cut kits have completely changed the landscape of building model buildings. But, I’m not sure if it’s economical just yet for one-off projects like I work on. Maybe I’m making the same assumptions that Mr. Moore made in his articles that readers just know how to do this stuff, and it can pass without being noted. Maybe this is a mistake on my part. Maybe these crafting techniques need to be illuminated a little. I think I’ll go into this in a future post (although it probably needs a short video), but here are some tips that come to mind that help me achieve an accurate layout.
  1. Always draw the layout with a sharp pencil. I use an HB and keep two or three pre-sharpened at hand so I can replace the one I’m using with a sharp one as soon as the one in use becomes a little dull.
  2. Same with the knife you use for cutting out the layout: always use a sharp knife. It’s safer because you don’t have to press hard as you do with a dull blade, and it’s more accurate. I buy blades in 100 count boxes so I always have a ready supply of sharp blades on hand. Yeah, it’s expensive since a box costs around $25, but compared to buying a half-dozen at a time, it’s far more economical in the long run. Also, when you have a lot around, you’ll be more inclined to replace dull blades right when you need to.
  3. Use a steel ruler when you score the layout for cutting out the walls from the stock. Don’t use a wooden or plastic one – you’ll damage the edge and won’t get straight cuts. I like to use a steel ruler without an attached cork backer so the ruler will lie flush against the sheet stock and the knife blade won’t get under the ruler while cutting.
  4. Whatever type of sheet stock you’re cutting, use several light passes of the blade instead of trying to make the cut with just one or two passes while pressing hard on the knife. There’s less chance of slippage and you’ll get a more accurate cut.
  5. When cutting styrene you don’t need to cut all the way through the material. Cut around 1/3 to ½ through the sheet, then snap it along the scored line. Use a sanding stick to clean-up any rough edges on the cut piece.
  6. When cutting balsa sheets, you’ll need to cut all the way through. Remember to use numerous light passes and keep the blade perpendicular to the ruler. Be extra cautious when cutting with the grain because it’s easy for the blade to catch a grain path and wander away from the ruler’s edge.
  7. Check your measurements. Check your measurements. Check your measurements again. Always check the layout lines you’ve drawn on the stock to make sure they’re drawn as per the plan and they look right. If something looks wrong, or not square, check it before cutting. Check it again. Check it even if it looks right – maybe you’ve overlooked something. I know I do. Sometimes I’m extra lazy, skip checking and assume everything is fine, and then, lo and behold, I find I’ve made a cutting mistake and have to start over
  8. Keep practicing. Don’t give up. These seem like a lot of steps, but with a little practice they quickly become almost second nature.

Even after all this I still don’t always get everything right. I keep trying. I must admit that I find the early stages of building a model building old-school style – drawing out the walls and roofs on sheet stock, cutting and test fitting the pieces, and the initial gluing and forming – almost meditative.

Notes on the characteristics of Gallery

In the back of my mind I’ve been trying to think of what things distinguish Gallery from Museum. I don’t have anything definitive just yet – and I might never will - but here are a few points I’ve been considering.

Figures interacting with each other are commonplace. The figures aren’t just isolated, mannequin-like props used to simply denote the presence of people. There’s lots of interesting figures, doing interesting things, and they tell some sort of story.

Many models or miniatures of things exist in the layout’s world that never existed in the real world, but seem completely plausible in the model world and fit seamlessly into its look.

Scenes are like novellas.

Gallery can be unsettling because on the surface it doesn’t appear to be a serious adult activity and looks more like frivolous child’s play.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

HO-scale logging airships?

I was going through some old files, and came across these MacPaint pictures for a track planning tool I created way back in 1985 with my friend vp.

I was a Mac zealot back then and was especially enamoured with MacPaint. vp thought MacPaint and the Mac’s capabilities in general would make for a great track planning tool. He was certainly more prescient about this than me. I thought model railroaders would prefer using all their spare time model railroading – I was wrong, there is a niche for these sorts of tools.

The tool didn’t undergo much development because I lost interest as other activities over took it. Initially, it was meant to help plan very simple layouts: flat ones that used snap track. I came across some Pascal code I had developed (unfortunately I don’t have a way to run it any more), but we also thought of simply making a track planning font where letters and keys were replaced with different types of track that could be later cut-and-pasted into position with MacPaint or MacDraw.

I only post these fragments because I got a laugh out of the above picture with the blimps and trains that I had done as a diversion while we were fiddling with more prosaic track planner issues. I’d completely forgotten about it. With the popularity of steam punk, it doesn’t seem like the odd combination that it did at that time. Back then I was part of a team doing research into hybrid airships that could be used in forestry, so to my inner model railroader, this logging blimps meets the railroads of John Allen and John Oslon motif seemed like a natural combination. Although, I can’t account for the motivation behind the Queen lyrics and the all-seeing eye

Are functional, flyable HO-scale blimps possible? A late 1970s to mid 1980s vintage Goodyear blimp has an envelope that is 192 feet long and a maximum diameter of 50 feet. Its volume is 202,700 cubic-feet. In HO scale these dimensions would translate into 2.21 feet, 0.58 feet, and 0.31 cubic-feet, respectively. The lifting capability of helium doesn’t scale, so to figure out how much mass the model could lift is simply a matter of multiplying 0.31 cubic-feet by the static lift of helium, which is 31.5 grams/cubic-feet. It turns out the HO-scale helium inflated envelope can lift a mass of around 9.8 grams.

"Logging in steep terrain" - from the LTA-20-1 sales brochure
A similar calculation can be performed on a 1980’s vintage LTA-20-1 concept logging hybrid airship. The sales brochure states its spherical envelope has a 91.9 foot diameter. In HO-scale this becomes 1.06 feet, with a volume of 0.62 cubic-feet. Since it’s about twice the volume of the Goodyear blimp model, it also can lift about twice as much mass, which is around 19.6 grams.

"Heavy-lift emergency situations" - also from the LTA-20-1 sales brochure.
Building an actual HO scale radio controlled flying model will have its challenges given that the static lift of either of these two examples is rather small; however, if the power and control technology of this Carbon Butterfly were used, they seem to be within the realm of possibility. That indoor R/C model airplane has a total mass of just 3.6 grams, so we’re certainly in the right ballpark. Cost ? Well, I’ll swag it very, very conservatively at the cost of 2 Carbon Butterflies plus $100 for helium and some miscellaneous extras; that turns out to be around $420. Pricey, yes, maybe even too conservative an estimate, but in the zone of an expensive locomotive model; maybe it’s not too outrageous for a prototype HO-scale blimp of some sort.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Rail cars

I was browsing through some old issues of Model Railroader and came across this one from February 1982 that kicked off John Olson’s series on building the Jerome & Southwestern.

The cover scene got my attention. I particularly liked that 1940s (1930s maybe? - I can’t say for sure) vintage car on rails. I don’t know if those sorts of things actually existed, but it got me thinking about building more modern versions. An El Camino seemed to me ideal for this sort of conversion – and it turned out to be dead easy.

El Caminos get no respect. The popular media certainly depicts them as down-market transportation. Unfairly so I think.
There were a couple of weeks last summer where I would see one particular 1970s El Camino almost every day on the highway during my commute to work. It clearly had been restored to factory-stock condition. I was surprised at how small it seemed compared to the modern pickups and SUVs - it almost seemed like an economy car. No doubt with today’s engineering, a re-imagined version probably could be one. But, is there a market for them? I have no idea.
I started with a Model Power 1968 El Camino and an unpainted N-scale Atlas hopper car I found in the re-sale bin at the local hobby shop for $4.95 – this turned out the be the cheapest way to get some N-scale wheels for replacing the El Camino’s wheels and tires. Simply pull the axles and wheels from both items, cut the N-scale wheel-sets in half, insert them into the wheel wells in the E Camino, adjust the spacing so the car sits properly on the track, apply glue to hold the wheels in place, let dry, and, bingo, you’re done. The N-scale wheel sets are all plastic. This makes cutting and gluing them easy.
I have a number of 1/24 scale El Caminos, and its Fordian cousin the Ranchero, in my kit stash. And I’ve actually built a couple

The first one was the El Camino Estrella kit-bash that I submitted it to StarShip Modeller’s Gallery when it was done. It was posted, and to my surprise I received a number of complementary emails about it - it was the first and last time that happened It seemed to have struck a chord.

The second build wasn’t an El Camino, but its little Dodge Boys’ cousin, the 1980s Dodge Rampage. This was an extensive kit-bashing project that really pushed my skills. It’s certainly not perfect, but I rather liked the results.

I did the same road-to-rails conversion on a New Beetle that had fallen on hard times. One day I was vacuuming dust from the layout with my Shop-Vac and got a little too focused on picking up dirt and accidentally sucked back this bug from its parking spot. I was only able to find the body and chassis unit in the dust bag. The front seats and a tail-light were nowhere to be found. Given that it was just a pile of parts on my workbench, I figured it was a good candidate for conversion.

I used the same process that was applied to the El Camino. The only difference being that I glued the New Beetle’s wheel covers to the N-scale wheel-sets, and cast the missing tail-light with some Micro-Kristal-Clear.
I guess the problem with these rails cars is just that, they can only be used on the rails. I have an idea for a truck conversion for transporting these things over the roads that hopefully I can start to work on soon.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

N-scale layout-in-a-box

I built this little N-scale layout-in-a-box back in 1978. It got stashed away around 1980, and has been in storage in various places until Christmas 2008. Around that time there were a number of clinic clients interested in model trains, so we thought it would make a nice conversation piece over the holidays. I had to do some refurbishment since it had gotten bounced around a bit during the intervening years.

The layout box measures 31 by 25 inches and has a matching lid that is connected with detachable hinges that allow the lid to be removed when the layout is in use. I made the box from 1x4 pine and ¼ inch plywood. It folds up like a briefcase for transport and storage, and has a handle for carrying it around.

This isn’t an original idea. I remember seeing a picture of a Z-scale layout built in a wooden artist’s box in an issue of MR at that time, and thought I’d like to do something similar in N-scale.

If I get the layout out this Christmas season I’ll need to buy a new locomotive, since my one-and-only ancient one finally seized up during the 2008 holidays. No big deal since it was a rather cheap one and I’m surprised it lasted that long.