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.


  1. That's a super little project. Are you going to build the little outdoor book stand and other exterior details Mr. Moore suggested?

    Thanks for building these classic structures. I too am a fan of the old school methods. Give me a sharp #11 and cereal box and look out!

  2. Yes, I think so, but they may get modified a bit to fit into the specific area on the layout where the building will eventually reside.