Sunday, June 28, 2009

Looks like California!

The last few week's fiddling with the signal controllers finally worked out, and the signal controller's now safely hidden under the upper deck with all its wiring neatly arranged. I did some final touches on the signals (including adding power to light them up, and then decided to touch up some of the Glenwood scenery.

I knew I was getting the scenery right. The scene started reminding me driving on lonely roads in the foothills with old, gnarled trees following the property lines - a common scene whether you look in Marin County, in the Sierra foothills, or in the Salinas Valley. In one place, I tried to hide the disappearing road by having it disappear underneath some live oaks, and I thought about roads near New Almaden where the road climbs up a short spur in the hills and dives into the tree cover.

This scene at the far end of the Glenwood siding is modeled on the track south of Glenwood proper. You're in one of the canyons of the Santa Cruz mountains, but Bean Creek is pretty small and the canyon's wide enough for the sun to reach the bottom. Oaks, sycamores, and other deciduous trees take over from the redwoods at the higher altitudes. The State Highway (later to be called the Glenwood Highway when Highway 17 is rerouted along the top of the ridge) still runs along the tracks, and just past this point, the railroad will jump across Bean Creek and into the Clems tunnel over to Mountain Charlie creek and eventually down to Felton. It's summer, and it's pretty hot - hope the photographer found a shady place to wait for the train to come by.

Scenery-wise, I finally pulled out the static grass (Scenic Express's new golden grass) and my home-made static grass applicator (made from a electric fly swatter), and tried applying static grass. It turned out wonderful - the 6mm fibers are tall enough to look like a typical grassy hillside, and the color's a great match. The grass looks better from the side - strong yellow, with a grassy profile. If you look at it from the top, the ground color shows through and the grasses look a bit bare. Luckily, the grassy areas in the photo were already covered with yellow ground foam (AMSI's -- Woodland Scenics's grass color just looks wrong). On the lower level where I tried some more static grass, the brown ground color showed through and the grass looked a bit bare.

The trees are mostly Supertrees with either Noch dark green leaf flake (for the oaks) or a yellow-green ground foam (for the sycamores and other trees.) The big old trees use their sagebrush twig armatures, with regular Supertrees material glued on. Scenic Express's self-stick bunchgrass also made it easy to dot larger groups of weeds around the scene.

Almost invisible in this scene is a barbed wire fence. This maybe took an hour: take some 4x4 HO lumber, stain it grey with a fabric marker, drill holes in the scene, and glue in the fence posts. Stringing the line was easy; tie some 2 pound fishing line leader to the first post, then put a slipknot in the free line, loop it over a post at the right height, and pull. Dot super glue on the knots occasionally to keep a too-strong pull from undoing all the nice work.

There's still some cleanup to do, and lots more ballasting to do. I also need to put some barbed wire on the track side of the field to keep the cows out of the way of the trains.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Signals fixed!

After spending a couple weekends trying to get my semaphores to show yellow signals, the signals are now working. Thanks to Bill at Team Digital for correctly diagnosing my problem.

For those that care, or who have a similar problem: I was connecting Team Digital's SMC4 servo controller to the SIC24 signal controllers which I program with all the special signal logic. It turns out the servo controller expects to be driven by an open collector output - that is, the output should float up to 5v because of a resistor, but get pulled to ground by a transistor. The SIC24 uses push-pull drivers where transistors tie the output to either 5v or 0 depending on the signal intended. The push-pull output interacts badly with the SMC4 so it never lets a yellow indication get through. Disconnecting all the inputs to the SMC4 and connecting each input to ground would make the signal work correctly. Bill's suggestion was to add a diode on the red signal line. (Time to pull out my college electronics book to understand why that works.)

With that small change, I have three indication semaphore signals working wonderfully!

Now, I just need to clean up the mess of wires covering Auzerais St., and then I can figure out my next project.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

California Buildings

Folks always seem a bit surprised that I'd aimed my model railroad for an earlier era so I'd have less reason to do crazy, electronic things. After a weekend spent fighting with a controller for the semaphore signals, it sure isn't surprising for me.

So, my model railroading this week has primarily been a bunch of colorful words I can't repeat here. Maybe it's time instead to repeat a rant that first got me thinking about this blog.

I have a short, shameful confession to make: I really hate seeing buildings on a California-themed layout that don't look like buildings I'd ever see in California. There's no better way to ruin my day than to show me a California-themed model railroad layout with a Main Street lined with brick buildings, or obviously New England style warehouses, or houses borrowed from the Colorado Rockies.

I grew up in the San Francisco bay area, and grew up wandering through the old downtowns of suburban San Francisco communities like San Bruno, South San Francisco, and Millbrae. I visited grandparents in the East Bay, and saw pictures of the old family fruit ranch in Hayward. I learned how to drive in the industrial parks of South San Francisco as well as the roads winding through the Santa Cruz Mountains. I saw all sorts of buildings. Sometimes I'd see traditional houses built before the turn of the century that resembled the buildings seen elsewhere in the US. I saw all the Spanish Revival, Mission Style, and Berkeley brown-shingle buildings from the 'teens. I saw the modern and art deco buildings of the twenties (and the cleaned up, modern San Francisco townhouses of San Francisco's outer Sunset). Scattered through many of the old neighborhoods, I'd see a mix of all of these. 

[Spanish-revival Rio Grande gas station, originally in Santa Barbara, California. Built from plans in a 1970's era Model Railroader magazine.]

Unfortunately, none of these sorts of buildings are found in the typical manufacturer's set of buildings.  There's tons of brick buildings for your midwestern main street, or towering warehouses, tenements, high-peaked roofs, classical pillars, and covered stairwells and mud rooms. 

What do I want to see? Look, for example, at this picture of San Mateo Ave. in San Bruno, a suburb of San Francisco.  The center building is Spanish Revival because of the curved line of the stucco facade; behind, it's brick or (more likely) wood.  The rest of the buildings are all one story, and none appear very architecturally significant except for that great curved-roof grocery store halfway down the block.  Or look at this photo of a parade with a grocery store behind.  Again, modest buildings, stucco false fronts with the rest of the building in clapboard siding, or Bank of America's modest art deco bank building suitable for a smal town?  (I've probably seen the same bank building in a few other towns along the peninsula.)

What makes a building Californian?

• Very little brick. Unreinforced brick buildings fall apart in major earthquakes, so Californians quickly learned that brick buildings were bad. You'll still see older brick buildings in California, but in general brick fell completely out of favor by the time the Long Beach earthquake stopped shaking in 1933.  Unfortunately, it must be easy to make good-looking brick buildings in plastic, and so the manufacturers have lots of buildings to sell us.  Sorry, that's not what my main street looked like! 

If there are brick buildings, they usually predate the 1906 San Francisco earthquake or (at worst) the 1933 Long Beach earthquake.  For extra realism, place some some steel plates just below roof level with nut-bold-washer castings in the center to represent the reinforcing rods that pull the sides together and keep the walls from falling over during an earthquake.   Your HO figures deserve your caution! 

[Wooden packing shed based on buildings in Wrights, California. The original was probably built of redwood milled within a couple miles of the building site. The board and batten skirting protected the posts which propped this building up above a creek bed.]

• Lots of wood. Wood-frame and sheathed buildings were cheap and easy to build in California; there were huge forests along the coast range and in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. San Francisco recovered quickly from the 1906 earthquake because lumber from the Mendocino coast and from the Santa Cruz mountains quickly arrived for rebuilding. It's not at all unusual to find older industrial buildings built completely from wood.
• Single story, low and big buildings.  Land was cheap in small-town California, so low buildings that spread out were common.  Stairs, after all, are a lot of trouble; if you can buy a big lot and put a spreading building on it, why not?  With the mild winters, there also was less worry about heating the building.  The buildings also stay low to the ground.  Because the ground doesn't freeze in California, there's no need to dig the foundations below the frost line.  Placing buildings directly on slab is safe and cheap.
• Less enclosed storage, more outdoor work space. Because of the mild climate, it's not surprising to see equipment stored outside, or for a building to be open on one end. Houses won't have mudrooms, and will often have large porches to catch breezes during the summer.  Large, overhanging eaves keep the heat out in the summer.  (Watch out, though, for the steeper roof lines and big eaves from Colorado or New England; those roof slopes aren't needed when you're not trying to encourage the snow to slide off.)
• Less substantial industrial buildings. Most California towns had industries that were seasonal like agricultural, or were new businesses that built light buildings. There were few of the huge industries that might build large, permanent buildings, nor was land expensive enough to force owners to build up. As a result, it's not surprising to find wood-framed or corrugated iron buildings instead of large brick warehouses and factories. 
• Lemon trees. Every house in California needs to have a lemon tree planted somewhere on the property. It's a zoning requirement that's strictly enforced.

What kits do I like?  The old Suydam kits (now made by Alpine Division Scale Models) have some of the best California lines.  Their lumber yard shows how mild weather kept most of the lumber exposed and the office small. Suydam also made two of the only Craftsman-style houses in HO with their Dr. Whyte's house and Brown's Bungalow.  Both would be at home in any suburban town in Northern California.  The cardboard kits require a bit of care, but turn into nice models.  Timberline Scale Models also produced a beautiful laser-cut Craftsman bungalow kit back in 1998,  and my model sits proudly front-and-center on my Market Street layout.   Campbell's wooden kits also capture the California look-and-feel with lots of low wooden and corrugated iron buildings.  Some look a bit too rustic, but that's nit-picking.  All Campbell's buildings also have wide eaves and lighter construction which makes them look more Californian than many of the wood kit manufacturers.  Compare Campbell's kits to Bar Mills's kits, for example. 

There's also few kits for the art deco and streamlined moderne styles that were common in the 1930's.  Walther's bus terminal or City Classic's market would both fit the Bay Area well.  IHC's San Francisco townhouses provide material for kitbashing any of the stick-style townhouses seen in Northern California urban cities.  Although the townhouses might have been two or three stories in San Francisco, these can also be cut down to a single story.  Finally, I love Showcase Miniature's barn, which looks exactly like a typical barn you'll see in rural California even today.  Those Iowa-style barns with mansard-ish roofs just don't appear out here.

I model the 1930's, but if I modeled the 1950's or later, I'd also need to put in mobile home parks.  Mobile home parks in California were often built on the undesirable land that was easily graded, so it's common to see clusters of mobile homes in odd shaped lands along creeks or in other places where flooding appears frighteningly possible. Usually, the railroad went by the same spot.

I'd love to see more California-style buildings.  Spanish revival style buildings are really common on the San Francisco peninsula, yet I can't think of more than a couple kits with tile roofs.  I'd love to see some embellished false fronts with stucco and red roof tiles hiding a worn wooden building behind.  I've built one by routing the facade from plexiglas and building bay windows from styrene.  Model Tech Studio's kit for the San Francisco's 4th and Mission switch tower is beautiful (and I wish I'd get around to building mine.)  I'd also like to see more art deco building kits; I've always been interested in Funaro and Camerlengo's art deco building, but have never gotten around to buying or building one.

[Spanish-revival storefront with bay windows, modeled from building in Campbell, California. Front wall is plexiglas milled to shape; rest of body is styrene sheet.]

Now, my other pet peeve are buildings that are asymmetric, badly balanced, or look too crazy to have ever existed, but I'll save that rant for another day.

Here's details on a few of the structures I've built for my layout that look like California buildings: 
Borcher Brothers building materials, North First Street, San Jose
Abinante and Nola packing house, West San Carlos St., San Jose
Smith Manufacturing Co., Stockton Ave., San Jose

Saturday, June 13, 2009

I need *how many* boxcars?

They might say model railroad operations is like a really fun game, but they don't say what it takes to get enough pieces to play. [Photo from the Sparks railroad yard, January 2006]

Different people have different ways to get the "pieces" for operating a model railroad - the freight cars. Some folks buy a bunch of Athearn plastic cars, and find things are "good enough" for operation. Jack Burgess, on the other hand, starts by looking at photos of the Yosemite Valley in the late 1930's, and tries to recreate exact cars that had actually been seen on the real railroad.

When I started building the Vasona Branch layout, deciding on freight cars wasn't hard. I went to the box, and grabbed my collection of HO freight cars. Some were plastic "shake the box" kits from my teenage years. I had a couple scratchbuilt kits from grad school days. I even had whatever western-prototype kits I'd managed to build when we lived in New York, from some Red Caboose refrigerator cars to a pair of Denver and Rio Grande Western iron ore cars I'd gotten one weekend from the hobby shop in Ridgefield, Connecticutt. (Iron ore? In Colorado? It was all they had.) All fifteen or twenty of the cars went on the layout that first weekend as I got basic benchwork, a reverse loop, staging tracks, and the beginnings of the West San Jose scene built. I put the cars in a train, ran them here, ran them there, and switched a couple at the sites of industries. Cool! I've got a big layout!

It didn't take long til I realized just how many industry tracks I had on the new layout, and how I didn't have anywhere near enough freight cars to keep even some of the industries busy. I did some quick figures, guessing at the number of cars that the layout could hold and the number of trains, and figured out I was going to need to build a lot more cars.

Worse, I realized that I really wanted to capture that 1930's look of short freight cars, dominated by a sea of plain brown boxcars. Few of the shake-the-box kits really captured that 1930's look I wanted (though Accurail's outside braced 40' boxcar is really decent.) My other big sources of traffic also needed freight cars-tank cars for oil products, gondolas for gravel, flat cars for lumber.

So one of my big hobby projects over the last five years has been building more freight cars. Each time I think I've got enough, I start trying to run additional trains during an operating session, or get annoyed at seeing the same box car run on the layout twice in an operating session, and decide that I could use a few more.

To capture that look of the 1930's, I turned to resin cast kits. These kits are made in small runs by garage manufacturers, and have a scary reputation for being lots of work to build. They come just as flat castings straight out of the mold, and need to be built up into a box, then need details like grab irons and brake systems to be added, and finally need to be painted. I've probably got 15 or so on the current layout.

My best way for building the resin kits turned out to involve burning out at work. After a couple crazy projects, I desperately needed to get away, so my wife and I rented a vacation house up at Sea Ranch on the Sonoma Coast. Sea Ranch is an isolated collection of vacation houses in the middle of nowhere; apart from walking along the ocean, visiting little Gualala, or sleeping, there's not a huge amount to do. We both brought several craft projects, and I managed to finish four resin freight cars over five or six days, generally finishing one a day. That worked so well that I made sure to wear myself down the next year so we'd have to take another break, and managed to get another four resin kits done that trip.

The attached photo shows some of the projects done on the second trip. These are a mix of Westerfield, Funaro and Camerlengo, and Sunshine kits. I use superglue to assemble these, following the trick of a needle in a pin vise to apply the glue and an upside-down shot glass to hold the glue so I don't stick my elbow in it.

I also built a bunch of the Red Caboose refrigerator cars for the layout at other times. When we moved out to New York, one of my favorite parts of our new neighborhood was Valley Model Trains, located out in the old mill complex in Wappinger's Falls. I built six of the kits while in New York, and when I needed more refrigerator cars for the new layout, I decided to stick with these kit. I mail-ordered another six from Red Caboose (because I could never find them in the local hobby stores).

When I mass-produced the additional six kits, I tried to fix some of the problems I'd had with the older models. I found the plastic grab irons and steps were too fragile, so this time I made my own wire grab irons and used flexible plastic steps. I also bought undecorated kits so I could match the black roofs of the late 1920's and get unique numbers for each of the kits. To make decalling all the kits easier, I marked up a clear plastic template that was the size of one side of a car, and showed center lines and heights for each of the decals. With the template, it was easy to make sure all the various text appeared in the same place on each car.

Last year, I started running a gravel train during my operating session. The train's story was that it would run from Santa Cruz to the new mainline construction in San Jose, drop off full cars, and pick up empty cars already dumped. This train was intended to be a combination of a troublemaker (getting in the way of other trains) as well as being a low-pressure job for late in the session. It had been running with an odd mix of gondolas. There were a couple Details Associates steel gondolas that had a problem staying on the track because of their light weight, some of Red Caboose's steel SP gondolas, and a mix of scratchbuilt and borrowed gondolas of different flavors. The Red Caboose and Details Associates gons are based on 1950's prototypes; they were reasonable things to get when I wasn't sure what era I was modeling.

However, none of these were prototypical; a normal work train in the 1930's would have been filled with very distinctive drop-bottom gondolas. The only problem was that the only sources for the cars were imported brass cars (pricey!) or some 1960's Ulrich kits no longer in production.

I thought about different options for a while, but all the old photos I saw from my era showed those hard-to-find cars. I thought about trying to kitbash something appropriate out of new kits, or maybe casting my own kits. Luckily, I checked Ebay and found that the Ulrich kits, though collectible, were very common. I started bidding on kits as they appeared on Ebay; my price limit was $15-20, I went after assembled and original kits, and I got non-SP cars usually in garish colors (because the SP cars commanded a big premium.) I finally had seven cars sitting in the closet, and so I started assembling or repairing them. I painted them all boxcar red, and bought a fistful of decals from Champ to give them appropriate lettering. These cars are nice and heavy, so they roll up and down the layout quite nicely with none of the derailing of the plastic kits. I remember being so worried that I'd spend too much on Ebay, but in the end I spent less than if they'd been available as new kits.

The layout's pretty much stuffed with cars now; I've gone from an average of 7-8 car trains to 12, and the staging tracks don't always fit a full train during operating sessions. (The photo shows all the cars from the layout moved out of the way for cleaning before an operating session.) But that sea of brown freight cars - almost all 40 foot cars, with the occasional 36 foot shorty boxcar or longer 50 foot automobile or furniture car - definitely captures the feeling of the 1930's I'm trying to maintain. Mass-production of car kits isn't always my favorite way of spending my hobby time, but I've been happy with the progress.