Monday, January 28, 2013

Big letters for the smallest model of the World’s Biggest Bookstore

Making the letters for the sign was easy, but tedious. First, I found a font that came close to the one used on the storefront by playing around with the fonts in Apple’s Keynote: Arial Black in 185 point was the one I settled on.  The font was determined by comparing the size, shape and positioning of prototype’s letters to the entry doors and people in the photos. You can see that my letters aren’t an exact match to the prototype, but they’re close enough to give a reasonable impression of it.
From Keynote, the letters for the sign were printed on paper, and then cut out and glued to a sheet of 0.040 inch styrene with rubber cement. To make sure the words were glued on as flat as possible, I evenly spread a thin coat of rubber cement on them, pressed the words onto the styrene sheet making sure they were flat and there are no bubbles, folds or creases as they were attached. I placed a clean sheet of paper over top of the newly applied words and used a roller to apply pressure across their surface. After a few passes with the roller, I lifted off the sheet, and the words were flat and uniformly bonded to the styrene. I let them dry for around an hour before proceeding.

To cut out a letter, I scored around its edges with a sharp knife. For letters that had contained areas like o, or e, I used a drill bit to open up a few holes in the area, and then scribed some radiating lines from the edges of the contained area to the drilled holes. I used a pair of fine, small pliers to carefully break out the pieces from the area. Once done, the edges were a little rough and needed some cleaning up with files, sanding boards or a knife.
To free a letter from the styrene sheet, I first used heavy-duty scissors to cut out the letter leaving a small amount of surrounding plastic encircling its scribed outline. I then used pliers to carefully snap around the scored lines to remove the excess material from the letter’s edges.  To remove excess material from curved edges, I first scored some radiating lines from the scribed curved edge on the letter out to the edge of the excess material. I then used pliers to carefully bend and snap each radiating piece. Again, some edges were a little rough and need sanding to clean them up.

Once a letter had been cut out, I peeled the paper pattern off its surface. Since rubber cement was used, it came off cleanly and did not leave a residue.

Then I repeated the process18 times.

Well, I guess I shouldn’t say it that way. It’s actually rather calming to cut out letters. I need quiet and no distractions to do this job, so it’s rather relaxing to chill and cut out 2 or 3 since it requires my brain’s background chatter to drop to zero.

Although, cutting out the letters ‘s’ and ‘e’ can try the patience of a saint :-)
Once all the letters were formed and strung out in a long line as on the prototype’s sign a “Holy Cow! That’s going to be one large building” moment whacked me on the head. I knew from the numbers it was going to be a big façade, but laying out the pieces drove that point home. It’s going to be my largest scratch-built building to date.

Well, the letters still need some sanding and filing to smooth them out before painting, so it’s time to move on to the next phase of construction.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The World’s Smallest Model of the World’s Biggest Bookstore*: Making a Start

I was looking over some pictures I had taken last year and started to wonder if I could manage to build a model of Toronto’s World’s Biggest Bookstore. With its long, low shape, bold red and white paint scheme, huge sign and traveling lights, it would be quite striking. It’s also a Toronto icon that opened in 1980 and is possibility slated to close at the end of this year – a casualty of Toronto’s building boom and the changing ways books are bought these days. It’s been one of my favourite places in the city since its opening. Streetcar service doesn’t run in the road in front of the building – the store is located on a side street, Edward Street, off Yonge Street - but using this building as a backdrop for streetcar operations might be quite visually striking. 
The model is going to be a compressed caricature of the real thing in order to keep the size manageable. I got things started with a trip to Michael’s to see what they had in the way of lettering that might be useful for building the sign (on the Fortran building I eventually settled on printing out some letters from my computer and using those on the façade – we’ll see how this one works out, but since nothing panned out at Michael’s,  I’ll likely use the same method in this project), and by trying to draw out the front façade in HO scale to understand component sizes and how this thing will go together. I guess this should be done with a computer drawing application, but I must admit if I don’t draw things old-school style with my own hands, I don’t have a sense that I understand what I’m doing. I don’t make a formal drawing, just some sketches of pieces that I think are key to understand. They are tools instead of products in and of themselves.
I’ve been wondering if I’m finally abandoning E. L. Moore style buildings and techniques with this project – and maybe with some others I might try this year. I’m thinking, yes and no. Yes, in that they are in a different genre than Mr. Moore worked in, and they won’t use his mainstay materials like balsa and card (well, maybe a little card :-) ) in preference for sheet styrene and plastics. No, in that he built things he found interesting – and often unusual things - just as I find this an interesting and unusual subject. And again, no, in that he used simple materials common to his time along with manual construction techniques. I’ll be doing the same with simple materials that are readily available these days. This year I plan to write some posts on Mr. Moore’s legacy and relevance to today’s world, but I’ll need to find some quiet time to pull my thoughts together. Maybe this project will be a demonstration of some of those ideas.
To get going, I started with the entry doors. I figured that if I could manage to get them drawn and cut out without too much difficulty, I could manage the rest of the build. I find modern glass framed doors a bit intimidating to model because they are unforgiving structures in their preciseness (I had both good and bad experiences with the McGregor Park Library project – main entry door, good; back service door, bad).
I drew the outline of the door unit on 0.020 inch styrene with a ready supply of sharp HB pencils on hand. Each pair of doors is a little under 7 feet wide by 7 feet tall. In HO scale, 7 feet would translate to 24.5 mm. To keep measurements easy, I knocked that back to an even 24 mm. The divider between door panels is 1 mm, and the doors themselves have a 1 mm wide inner frame. 
To cut out the glass openings in the unit, score each of the window outlines with a sharp knife. One or two passes with the knife is all that is needed. To punch out a scored window, take a wooden cocktail stick and use it to apply pressure to a window corner until it snaps free. Once free, it is easy to ‘unzip’ the remainder of the window by gently pulling from the freed corner along the scoring.
Once all the windows were cut out, I used a scribing tool to demarcate the borders of the individual pieces and door frames in the unit. When completed, the door unit itself was cut free from the remaining styrene by scoring its outline with several light passes of a sharp knife until it broke free. Use caution here because the outer frame elements are thin and can easily tear. Once the door unit is cut out, have a look at it under a magnifying glass and use a file to clean up any rough edges.

Voila! I was quite happy with the result. I decided to paint it black. I believe the prototype is a very dark brown, but I chose black as I think it will give a little stronger contrast to the building’s red and white paint scheme.
To finish off this stage of assembly on the door unit, I cut a piece of thin clear plastic backing and glued it to the door frame unit. Some additional clear plastic pieces were cut for the sides and ceiling of the entry area and then glued up with the door unit. I’ll add door handles and other details later. Right now I’m going to concentrate on major assemblies. And the next major one I have in mind is the letters for the sign.
I’m having some difficulty getting back into building and blogging this year. I hope this project will help move things along – so far the ‘signs’ are promising.
*Yes, the title indulges in hyperbole since the model is going to be HO scale and not N or TT or Z so it could be smaller, but in HO, it’s likely the world’s smallest if any do exist :-)

Bob and Emily’s couch

I’ve been thinking about building a model of the Chicago office tower where Bob Hartley, played by Bob Newhart, had his fictional office in The Bob Newhart Show television series. From what I can tell, the building has undergone an extensive facelift since the ‘70s when the series was shot, so digging up information is a bit of a challenge. While wandering down a dead end on one archeological expedition, I had a look at some pictures of furniture Bob and Emily had in their apartment, and thought it might be interesting to try and use their couch as a prototype for a couch building project for the Oceanview Hotel. I needed 6 – one for each floor – but after I had built 1, I had had enough of what turned out to be a rather finicky construction task. So, I have 1 ‘Bob and Emily Hartley’ couch on the 5th floor of the Oceanview Hotel and need 5 more couches so guests don’t have to sit on the floor :-)

Here are a few pictures from the project,
[Here's the original. As you can see from my heavily 'weathered' version in the top photo, mine should probably be put out by the curb on trash day.]
[I started with some drawings to figure out how it would look. I used our own family room couch for some basic dimensions.]
[Here's the pieces for the frame. They're cut from 0.020 inch styrene]
 [Here they are glued up and ready for 'cushions'.]
 [And speaking of seat cushions, here they are! It doesn't look too comfortable.]
[But, when it's placed way up on the 5th floor, and obscured by figures, it's useable.]

Sunday, January 6, 2013

A review of some Bowser, Con-Cor, and Bachmann HO-scale streetcars

With the layout board upstairs in the living room during December I had a lot of opportunity to run my rolling stock. Over the course of the month I probably ran my small fleet of streetcars and diesels far more than at any other time.  Everything ran well, but they all had their own operational characteristics, so I thought I’d write a few notes about what I observed.

First, some ground rules and my biases.

I’m not going to analyze the fidelity of the models to their respective prototypes. Visually, they all look fine, and do a good job of evoking their full-size counterparts without seeming overly toy-like. Some have one or two visual quirks that could use some tuning up – I’ll point those out in due course – but generally, they all look good.

I don’t model a particular prototype, although I’m biased to models and colour schemes based on the Toronto Transit Commission’s streetcar fleet.  If anything, my Lost Ocean Line takes the San Francisco's Market Street Railway as its spiritual muse with its mixed fleet of streetcars. 

My DCC system on the LOL is very simple: an MRC Prodigy Express system with two wired hand-controllers. I chose this system for ease of setup and its relatively low price. The LOL is a very simple layout, and the Prodigy Express system handles it just fine. Although, if I were to do things over, I’d probably go with a system with wireless hand-controllers because it’s easy for two operators to get tangled up as they run the layout. The LOL is a free-standing layout that allows operators to walk completely around the setup; hence, the tangling problem.

Over the Christmas holidays I looked into running JMRI on my laptop as a better way to program and control my fleet. It turns out that according to the JMRI website, JMRI doesn’t support MRC DCC systems since MRC won’t release certain proprietary information to make support possible. Apparently MRC does have its own DCC software for laptops; however, it only runs only on PCs, so isn’t of much use to this Mac user. According to the JMRI website, JMRI runs on both PCs and Macs. I can understand the business rationale behind the MRC position on this issue, although I’d encourage them to consider future support for JMRI.

My layout doesn’t have overhead streetcar wiring. All models draw power from the rails. Hopefully I’ll add overhead wires in the near future to make things look more realistic, but I doubt I’ll electrify them as I think that is currently outside my skill level.

Bowser’s TTC Postwar PCC streetcar with Tsunami Sound
This one is my favourite. I didn’t think sound effects such as motor noise, doors opening, passenger stop request bells and so on would make much difference, but I was wrong. They’re definitely fun, and add a lot to the overall ambiance, especially when guests are perusing the layout. On the operational side, it’s smooth running, very responsive to commands, and runs well at low speeds. The only odd thing I encountered was that, try as I might, I couldn’t change its loco ID from the factory preset of 3. No doubt I’m likely doing something wrong on my end, but I haven’t experienced this issue with my other DCC equipped rolling stock – I’ll look into this further once the layout is back up and running in the basement.

Bowser’s non-sound TTC Postwar PCC streetcar
One can’t run a transit company with only one streetcar :-) , and even though I very much like Bowser’s Tsunami sound PCC streetcar, it’s too pricey for me to have more than one and still be able to build out the fleet a little. Although they don’t come with DCC decoders, they do come from Bowser DCC-ready. All I had to do was open them up and install a DCC decoder. For that I chose to outfit them with TCS's M4T. These two silent partners run just as well as their sound equipped cousin. 

Con-Cor’s TTC Air Electric PCC streetcar
This is the model that started me down the highly enjoyable path of streetcar-oriented modeling*. One day a couple of years ago Debra and I were visiting George’s Trains and she saw that they were taking pre-orders for these Con-Cor streetcar models. I was intrigued as I hadn’t come across these sorts of models before, and was glad to see these old TTC icons in miniature form. After a little humming-and-hawing, I put down a deposit and placed an order for one.

This was the first model I installed a DCC decoder into. When I ordered the model I didn’t realize that it didn’t come with a decoder pre-installed. I was not savvy to DCC and thought all DCC locos and streetcars and such had decoders pre-installed since up until then all I had purchased were Bachmann Spectrum line items where pre-installed decoders is the norm.  So, after receiving my new streetcar, I had to plunk down some more cash for a decoder. A TCS M4T was recommended, and not knowing anything better, that’s what I bought. I could have had the store install it, but I wanted to save some money and decided to forge ahead and install it myself. It wasn’t hard to do – it took maybe only 20 or 30 minutes – but it was a little nerve-wracking. It worked alright, but the interior lighting stayed on all the time the streetcar was sitting on powered track. It couldn’t be switched off or dimmed. I figured I had done something wrong. After some internet searching it turns out that is one of the ‘features’ of that decoder when installed in this particular streetcar. It is possible to modify the car’s electronics a little to allow the interior lights to be switched on and off, but the procedure is currently beyond my skill level. The model runs just fine – just as well as the Bowsers – so I’m just going to live with the ‘lights on all the time’ feature.

One thing I rather like about this model is that when it’s in motion it seems like it’s gliding down the track not just carried on its wheels. No doubt it’s an optical illusion caused by its smooth stop and start performance combined with its body shape and stance on the track.

As for overall looks, the only odd thing is the disk at the end of the trolley pole. Doesn’t seem like a scale-item, although it’s not horrible to look at. For a while I thought it might be the basis of some overhead visual effects.

Bachmann Spectrum Peter Witt streetcar
I’ve been looking for one of these in TTC colours – and I’m still looking – for a while. Yeap, this one is in Chicago Surface Lines colours. Turns out it was on a sale table at a price I couldn’t walk away from. Model streetcars aren’t popular items – especially those in US colours for sale in Ontario – so bargains can be found from time-to-time when sellers want to be rid of them. I liked the colour-scheme of this unit, and with the good price, it became a new addition to the fleet in the summer.

I had been spoiled with the smooth running of the Bowser and Con-Cor models. Even after some initial lubrication and breaking-in, the motor growls and is a little hesitant to get rolling at times. Sometimes a finger or two must reach down from the sky to give it a little nudge to get it in motion. But, even with these caveats in mind, it seems to run ok. But only ok. The Bowser and Con-Cor units are definitely a cut-above. I’m pretty sure this was a new, ‘never been opened item’ when I bought it, so I felt it should have ran a little smoother than it did. Bachmann diesels I had bought a few years ago ran very well – and still do – right from the box without issues.

On the looks end of things, the thread used on the power pole needs to be replaced with something that hangs in a more realistic manner.

Bachmann Spectrum Birney Safety Streetcar 
I wrote about some issues with this model last year. Suffice it to say, after a little work, it runs fairly well now, although I should point out that its lightweight and short wheel-base make it fairly sensitive to imperfections in my track work. I also found that it’s important to be a little extra scrupulous and make sure the wheels and pickups on this model are clean and free of dirt and oil. This car is a sentimental favourite – I like its size, shape and colours - even though it can be a little cantankerous if operating conditions are not perfect.
*I don’t know if ‘Streetcar-Oriented Modeling’ is the best phrase for what I have in mind, but I’m using it as a placeholder until I can figure out the correct term. Recently I’ve been thinking that SOM can be – maybe is - fundamentally different from Classic Model Railroading even though aspects of SOM are usually cast as sub-fields since they share some superficial similarities. I need to get my story together on this.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

More rambling

New title picture
 Green T
 Yeah, my shorts match the loco, but I can't sit here like this all day.
 Hi Mom
 Getting ready for rush hour
 Late night at Archie's
 Last car from the Bookery
 Leavin' town
 Blue Jays
This is what happens when you leave guests unattended at a Silver Spike party
Along the boardwalk

HO scale Bluesmobile

The only model building project I worked on in December was this re-decoration of Busch's HO-scale '70s Dodge Monaco into Jake and Elwood's Blues-mobile. It was easy and could be worked on a few minutes at a time. It isn't an exact replica, but it seems to capture the spirit of the original.
The car is easy to pry apart. Not shown in the above photo is the clear plastic insert for the windows, and a sprue of side-mirrors that is packed with the car. The chromed parts were soaked in SuperClean to strip them back to the unfinished plastic. The body was washed in soap and water before painting.
The car was brush painted with thin flat black and white acrylics using photos found on the internet for reference.  Grills, bumpers and trim were painted with a loose mixture of flat aluminum and black paint. Before re-assembling the parts after painting, everything was washed with loose mixes of gray, brown and black to dirty things up. I was lucky and found a pair of small star decals in my stash for the doors. Also, some thin strips of styrene were cut and fitted to the front bumper to represent push bars.

Rambling back into the New Year

It's hard to believe 2012 is over, but here it is, 2013. Today the train board goes back to the basement. While it was in the living room a lot of streetcars and trains were run. Over the entire month of December the fleet probably saw more operation than at any other time since it was assembled. I certainly learned a lot in amongst the fun and frivolity, and hopefully I'll post about it this month.
I also got an appreciation for layout lighting, or the lack thereof in my case. It was glaringly apparent that I need interior lighting in the buildings, signs, and any other key lighting to tell the layout's story. What little there was, both in the scenery and the rolling stock, was striking in the right conditions. I hope to learn more about LEDs and lights and such things in this new year.
 And the buildings need some details to help bring them to life. 

 Darkness settles on the city
 "Dudes, check out this bad boy!"
SUV: Streetcar Utility Vehicle