Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Semaphore Signals

As much as I like complex kits, I'm a big fan of models I can build while watching TV. Most of my Red Caboose refrigerator cars got built in front of the TV on cold winter nights in New York. Sometimes, it's just really nice when all I need to do is build, and not worry about anything time consuming - painting, waiting for glue to dry, etc.

These American Limited semaphore are shipped in kit form, with all the painting--including the signal blades--already done. All I had to do was glue the models together with plastic cement and superglue, and after about two nights of work, I had this line of signals ready for my Market Street shelf layout. They were quick, easy, and very satisfying. The kits are particularly neat because they're customizable; you can either choose to have one or two semaphore blades (or, if you want to break rules like me, you can even add a third semaphore blade to your signal.) You can choose one or two equipment cabinets at the base of the signal. (Normally, the two cabinets would be used for the upper and lower blade mechanism. I made a couple of my single blade signals with two cabinets just to keep the signals at similar heights for visibility and attractiveness.) You can even choose what sort of blades to use - the red home blades, the white blades, or yellow pointed blades for distant signals. I was happy I could customize the signals to match my particular scene. They also average around $7 a signal / $42 for 6, so although they're not operable, they're much cheaper than the movable semaphores on the big layout.

Helpful hints: colored markers (red and green sharpies, and a yellow/mustard art marker) do a great job on coloring the lenses for the semaphores, just as black sharpies are great for coloring handholds on the Red Caboose refrigerator cars. All the blades will eventually be painted red, but the kit didn't come with enough red-painted blades for my particular setting.

These signals are going at the east end of the San Jose Market Street station. This area was controlled by the 4th Street Tower, which controlled the east entrance to the station, switches directing trains to the north (via the line to Fremont and Niles), and south (down the middle of 4th Street and eventually to Los Angeles), and industry spurs for the Borcher Brothers Building Supply and Richmond Chase (later Hunts) Cannery. There's a great photo of this area in John Signor's Coast Line book circa 1906, taken from First Street looking East down the tracks. Old timetables even have the whistle sequence arriving trains were supposed to blow to get the towerman to set the switches. A switch engine blowing two short whistles, a long whistle, and a short whistle could get the towerman to set the switches for the Hunts Cannery.

The signals controlling the southernmost station tracks are single blade semaphores with red blades. Red blades indicate home signals and control the immediately following track, so each signal indicates whether a train is allowed to exit the station and proceed on the track towards LA. The northernmost station track has two red blades, one for each route (LA or Niles/Oakland.) The signal on the LA line has three red blades to indicate which route the engineer will take - which of the three tracks into Market Street station.

Monday, December 7, 2009

...and some specific kit ideas...

Just in passing, here's three buildings that would all make great models. I'll get around to 'em some day.

I'm a big fan of the Library of Congress's Historic American Buildings Survey / Historical American Engineering Record, and think are a great resource. What's the most interesting California-appropriate building you can find there?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Top-five, all-time favorite Model Railroader issues? Well, there's December 1979...

I'm thinking in terms of top-five lists today. Something about reading High Fidelity does that to me. Either that, or it was the fever from the flu. One or the other.

Top five favorite model railroads I've seen in my life:

5) JoJo Hansen's Lake Tahoe Railway and Navigation Company. I saw it as a teenager on one of the 1981 NMRA National convention in San Mateo. He had the first double-deck layout I'd ever seen, and it all fit in the garage of a row house in Daly City. He reminded me I didn't need to wait for the perfect space before I could build a great model railroad.

4) Gene Martin's Lodi layout in Los Gatos. Wow - an entire layout modeling a single town, with huge amounts of switching! I want to do that some day. (Check out Jim Lancaster's Historic Packing Houses website for several pages carefully documenting
Lodi's industries. I'd love to see it again, and be even happier to switch some industries on that layout.

3) The narrow gauge layout at the East Bay Model Railroad Society. I remember visiting there as a kid, and stared at it for hours wondering where the train would appear out of the maze of tunnels.

2) Ed Merrin's Northwestern Pacific Railroad. I saw this at the National convention in 2001. His double-deck layout was torn up after a move, but I loved the size of the layout, and how he had lots of switching and lots of scenery in a modest space.

1) Jack Burgess's Yosemite Valley. No question, it's magic. It convinced me that modeling a real prototype in detail was the way to go, and Jack's modeling inspires me to do better on everything I build.

That took me a fair amount of thought; I guess I don't normally think in top of my "top five" or "top ten", unlike the character in the book (or John Cusack in the movie.)

But my favorite model railroads is not what got me thinking about lists. As part of my usual California-centric structure bias, I was thinking about model railroad buildings that I wish someone would produce in kits. And in the most recent Narrow Gauge and Short Line Gazette, my number 1 kit appeared.

So what's my top five California-theme model railroad structures I wish someone would produce as kits? It's a hard list to put together, but here's my guess:

5) Large wooden warehouses or sheds with clerestory windows at the peak (like Walther's Mountain Lumber Company). It seems like most large shed-style warehouses from the 20's have windows at the roof level to let more light into the building, and I have at least two sheds like that I need for my layout. I could buy the Walther's kits, but they're pricey and I'd hate to throw away all the other bits of the kits just so I could keep the central building. Looks like I'll be scratchbuilding these.

4) Stucco storefront building with bay windows. I've built my own for downtown Campbell, but I wish some of the folks doing brick main street structures would do a couple buildings with bay windows. There's no way to reproduce your typical California main street without 'em.

3) More Southern Pacific specific buildings. There have been some great SP-style speeder sheds and section houses produced lately, but I'm waiting for kits of an SP-style interlocking tower.

2) Airplane bungalows. It seems like half of the houses in older parts of Oakland or San Jose are airplane bungalows. These are small wooden houses that have some details from craftsman houses, but tend to have very low roof pitches hipped towards the front. I could imagine scratchbuilding one or two, but I'd love to be able to build a whole row of them.

Wait, no let me change #5. I don't want sheds, I want sawtooth roofs. I can make shed roofs all I want, but making something with a sawtooth roof is much more painful. Let's move "sawtooth roofed warehouses" to #3.

And maybe replace the stucco storefront with more spanish style buildings. Maybe. I'll need to think about that one.

And what's my #1, most wanted structure? A 1930's public market-style strip mall. Years ago, I was at Moe's Books in Berkeley and found an architecture book on strip malls and supermarkets. (The Drive-In, the Supermarket, and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, 1914-1941 by Richard Longstreth, MIT Press.) My friend thought I was nuts to pay $30 for a used book on strip malls, but it's been a great resource for me both for 1920's pictures and for inspiration for commercial businesses.

It turns out the first strip malls were outgrowths of filling stations: the service station added storefronts around the court, and the bays got filled with with a set of businesses just like the large public markets downtown. There was always a butcher, a grocery store, a vegetable seller, and a sundries store, each a separate business. By the end of the 1920's, developers even had a formula for building these: choose a busy street between the residential neighborhoods and the city center, make sure to be on a corner for visibility, but on a light street so it was easy for customers to drive in. Check out this one still standing alone San Fernando Road in Glendale.

I've always thought one of those strip malls would make a nice model building, and I was really pleased to see Rail Scale Miniatures is building one: their Horwood Brothers Service Station. It's not quite right; they've modeled a more cluttered scene to make it look busier, and they've intended it as a service station only, but all he key aspects are there: small stucco buildings, the corner lot, multiple storefronts, and some really nice mission-style details. Now if only I had a place for it on my layout.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Vasona Junction train register booth

Work's getting in the way of model building, so I'm just throwing out a picture of a project from last year: the Vasona Junction train register booth.

When running trains by telegraph messages, it was pretty common for a train to get the message "Don't pass this place unless train X has already passed there." That's easy if you're on the same track, for you'll see that train go by. What happens if the tracks branch so you wouldn't see it go past?

To answer such questions, railroads kept train register books at stations where trains started and stopped, and at all junctions. Trains passing these places would see a mark on their timetable indicating a train register book, so the train would stop and the conductor would mark down his train, the time he was passing, and his direction. He could also check the register to make sure any trains that had priority over his on the next stretch of track had already gone by.

Usually these train registers were in real stations, but Vasona Junction was stuck out in the middle of the prune orchards, and got so little traffic that the railroad didn't even bother to build a station here. Instead, they built a small booth that sat next to the tracks and contained the train register.

If you look at old timetables, you'll see that all the passenger trains stopped at Vasona Junction. They didn't do this because it was a popular location; I suspect they scheduled a stop only because they knew the trains would be stopping to sign the train register book.

My model will eventually be placed at Vasona Junction on my layout. I also keep a piece of paper handy as the "train register" and encourage the train crews to sign it as they go by.

It was a quick evening project to build. I try to keep a few of these small projects in mind when I'm stuck on what to do next. The body is styrene board-and-batten siding, with a wooden door and boarded up window. I suspect I didn't bother to cut out the door or window opening. The shingles are Campbell paper shingles. The entire booth is painted in the traditional yellow and green that SP painted most of the buildings that the public might see.

See this picture from "Railroads of Los Gatos" for a picture of the actual shack when it was standing along Winchester Blvd. just south of the Highway 85 bridge. Looking at those photos, I just realized I messed up the model; I only added one boarded up window when such windows existed on all three sides. Guess it's time to make another one!

[The Erie Lackawanna train register image came from another web site which I can't remember. I borrowed it when I gave a talk to some computer science friends on train order operation. Thanks to whoever I filched it from.]

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Oooh, BIG laser cut kit!

Check out my latest kit - a Makerbot 3D printer. I'm not sure how useful it'll be for model-making; although it can make things by building up layers of plastic one HO inch high, the output's still a bit rough. Still, it ought to be interesting.

The pieces are great - 1/4" plywood eighteen inches across, and cut just as neatly as any of the laser-cut building or car kits I've made.

More later.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

How Much Difference Could a Few Years Make? Part 2

For the model railroaders who try to model a specific real moment and place (and there's more of us every year), we focus on "the real world" for a bunch of reasons. Maybe we end up with a model railroad that just seems more realistic. Maybe we enjoy the historical research to find out what buildings existed at a specific point in time. Maybe it gives us more details and facts for "dressing" the scene.

One problem, of course, is that we probably can't find an exact moment. Jack Burgess models the Yosemite Valley Railroad in August 1939, but even his huge collections of photos and documents can't tell him every detail about downtown Hopeton, California in that year. Without the right documents (or all the time in the world to search for every bit of historical data), we need to search, interpret, and extrapolate to figure out what should have been at that location at that point in time.

One problem is that the world changes all too quickly. I'm sitting here in modern California, and there's times where even I complain about all the changes that have taken place in our neighborhood in the last five years, let alone twenty. Earlier this year, I wrote about how ten years of railroad timetables showed how drastically the railroad's technology, work practices, and freight traffic must have varied in that time. At the same time, the villages changed to town, motor cars went from curiosities to bumper-to-bumper traffic, music changed, fashion changed… everything changed. It's fine for us to try to interpret how the world changed from a small number of photos, but we need to remember that a few years, let alone ten, is a huge time - a fraction of someone's life - and that the world we see in pictures from 1926 may be completely gone by 1936.

For example, here's one of the photos that inspired me to build my Market Street Station shelf layout. This shows Western Granite and Marble's shed at 396 North First Street in San Jose. A similar photo in Signor's "Southern Pacific's Coast Line" book got me interested in this stretch of track just east of the old San Jose railroad station. The shed later became Borchers Brothers' Building Supply, a San Jose institution which lasted into the 1990's.

When I needed to fill in that spot in the layout, I used the Western Granite and Marble photo as my guide, and added an interesting industry to my 1930's layout. For some reason, I thought that a shed like that needed a little office, so I put a small clapboard building inside for the office structure, and put some stairs up to a storage area on the roof.

That'll make things look like the 1930's, right? Nope.

I did some later research, and found out that shed probably disappeared around 1910, replaced with a more elaborate storefront, and then, in the 1920's got replaced again with a Mission-style store and office in the trendy style of the time.

Dave Caldwell, grandson of the founders, dropped me a note about six months ago, and was kind enough to give me some more photos showing all the changes in the building. He also kindly noted that the little office inside the shed was not in the original. Here's what the building looked like in 1910:

Here's the new building under construction around 1926.

And here's the new building completed. Note that the original shed still appears to extend behind the new storefront.

And finally the late 1930's or maybe even the 1940's. Someone who knows cars can probably tell me the exact date.

So in what seems like a small time -- what's twenty years, after all? -- that building I wanted to model went from a very utilitarian shed to an elaborate and curvy false front, and then to a Mission style front. Who knows how it differed in the 1940's and 1950's, though at least I know (because the building's facade still exists) that the building stayed mostly the same in the intervening years. Dave mentioned that Borchers Brothers sold the building (and a separate yard between 2nd and 3rd streets on the south side of the railroad tracks) in 1982, and moved their yard to Sunol St. near Del Monte Plant #3. It's now a false front for a condo development on the old property, but at least that cool Spanish Revival / Mission storefront is still there.

Am I very frustrated that I built the wrong building? Not completely. The shed fits the scene well, and on a recent visit to San Francisco, we walked by one of the old piers near the Ferry Building. The main door was open, and when we looked into the cavernous space, we saw a little raised office built on poles inside the main building - kind of like my model. I might not have captured Borchers Brothers correctly, but I did record a very California-like scene.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

When in Doubt, Build a Kit

It's been a slow few weeks. Between work, a bit of frustration with the Cricut, and family issues, I haven't done much model building, and didn't have time to do any of the big scenery projects on the layout. I'm mostly blocked on more finish scenery until I build more trees, but that's a messy job that deserves a nice, sunny weekend day.

For a change, I pulled out an old Fine Scale Miniatures kit. FSM is a famous name in the model railroad hobby. They started designing elaborate, highly detailed kits starting in the late 1960's, and were one of the first kit manufacturers to have the idea of limited run kits. They make a fixed number of kits, sell them at one time, and then never sell them again. Modelers buy the kits and hoard them for later, others trade them as collectibles, and some even get built. For building, FSM kits are well known because they included detailed instructions on how to build and weather the kits, because they aimed at board-by-board construction to get a highly-detailed (and usually a bit run-down) look, and because the kits always come with a big handful of tiny castings for every detail item from windows and architectural gingerbread to brooms and cats. Painting all these takes forever, but their kits look beautiful when done. Cynics would accuse FSM of doing caricatures of 1920's buildings - slightly odd buildings with strange additions, immense amounts of weathering and wear, and huge amounts of colorful detail. Sometimes, the built-up kits look a bit more like a Disney or movie-set version of 1930's buildings than is truly real. The caricature charge is probably true; these models are intended to be eye-catching, and they succeeded. As for amounts of wear, I've heard that set dressers on movies can go nuts trying to add all the detail needed to make a scene look correct, and maybe FSM realizes that more than most modelers.

I've never built an FSM kit. I've done a bunch of wooden craftsman kits, some laser cut kits, and done scratchbuilding, but I'd never gotten the full FSM experience. Luckily, Dear Wife was with me at the hobby shop one November, and asked if there was anything around that would make a nice Christmas gift. "How about that kit?" I pointed at a smaller 1970's FSM kit on the shelf; the price was a bit more than an impulse buy, but wasn't that crazy. She got it; it made a good Christmas gift, as it was something nice, and not something I would have bought on my own.

It's been an experience and a time-warp, as it brings back memories of all those 1970's style kit building tricks. They suggest using tiny dots of glue to secure wood to the templates, model airplane-style. They didn't have double-stick tape in the grocery store then. Paints are all solvent-based, and they recommend Floquil brand, back when that was one of the only choices for model railroaders. (Although I followed their suggestions of stains made from black paint, I got similar effects to using Weather-It (vinegar and steel wool wash), as well as using my favorite light grey fabric marker.) The walls were all machine or die-cut, not laser-cut, though they have the cute trick of having the outside clapboards and inside sheathing scribed on both sides of the same sheetwood. I'm also having to figure out how to paint the metal window castings to look like wood, rather than using nice laser-cut windows. They even include a roll of Campbell shingles, originally made from the same material as gummed brown packing tape, and Campbell's aluminum foil-made corrugated roofing. (I might substitute Paper Creek's beautifully rusted printed paper corrugated roofing.) They also suggest detailing the walls by embossing the end of the clapboards and using a pin to simulate nail holes. I'm not sure if all that work makes a difference, but I'll try it once.

It's also been a long time since I've had kit instructions printed on large blueprint-sized paper sheets. With laser-printers and Kinkos available everywhere, most kit manufacturers these days just print on plain paper, and sometimes include color pictures too.

The pictures show my progress - some castings painted, the platform done and looking great, and the building walls looking a bit... dark. I broke away from the instructions to try to make it look as if the building had been painted black originally. (Southern Pacific's engineering diagrams say that non-public facing buildings were painted black with red trim, so I wanted to try doing that instead of the nicer yellow-and-brown seen on stations and buildings along the tracks.)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Still Not Getting the Results I Want From the Cricut

When I bought the Cricut and Sure Cuts a Lot, I was hoping that I'd be able to do work similar to what I'd seen in laser-cut model railroad building kits. My best hope was that I'd be able to cut out a full structure kit out of thin basswood and cardboard. My narrower hopes were to be able to make some of the detailed bits that cut really well in laser-cutting - really fine HO scale windows (with each sash cut out of thin 0.020 cardboard) and strips of cardboard notched to resemble shingles with double-stick tape on the back for adhesion.

The Art Deco building for Campbell showed I could cut a full building, but most of the success there was in cutting the big wall pieces. These aren't particularly hard by hand; it can require a lot of tedious measuring, but cutting out large pieces is pretty easy. I did make the large storefront window from multiple Cricut-cut pieces, and so does count as a success for the cutter. However, I used commercial plastic window castings for the more traditional door and window.

I've tried to make double-hung windows as nice as the laser-cut kits, but the Cricut can't cut them nicely even after I've massaged the SVG line drawings to cut better. I can get paper to cut cleanly with 0.050 inches between cuts, but the 0.020 inch boundaries at sash lines usually tear even with good Strathmore board cardboard. I also still have problems keeping the openings both square and fully cut through. Cutting the entire window opening in a single cut means that the waste piece usually falls out easily, but the corners aren't always square. If I cut the window openings with multiple straight line cuts (cut in both directions), the Cricut still has problems fully cutting through.

Today, I decided to try making shingles. If you haven't seen laser-cut shingles, the shingles are 1/10" wide strips with thin notches cut along one end. To apply these, you glue them to a roof surface, overlapping each row, and with the notches exposed. It makes a neat, realistic roof.

I'd been able to cut small batches of 5" long strips of shingles, but this time I tried to cut a full 6x12 inch sheet of brown construction paper into shingles. I found the cutter does really bad if I'm constantly cutting along the 11" direction because moving the whole carrier sheet back and forth eventually causes the carrier sheet/cutting mat to skew, throw off the cuts, and jam the cutter. I tried reordering the cuts so I did a row of narrow slits across the paper, then moved the paper a bit and cut the next row, and finally cut all the shingles off in one step. I found that even with small movements of the carrier sheet, I still ended up with a 1/16" error from one end of the sheet to the other. Maybe there's some ways to arrange the cuts to avoid the error.

There might be manual workarounds; while cutting all the individual notches for shingles would drive me crazy, cutting the long strips would be a few minutes work with a straightedge. Maybe I could do the slits with the Cricut, and then cut each row of shingles off by hand with a straightedge, or try to cut smaller batches so that there was less chance of accumulating error between cutting the slits and cutting the strips of shingles out. I wouldn't want to do that if I was making shingles to sell, but it'll be easier for the small amounts I need for personal use.

Ugh. I see promise with the Cricut. Watching it cut the slits for the shingles was a nice reminder of the fun of automation - the Circut was cutting several hundred little slits pretty precisely, and doing it all over twenty minutes while I could sit outside and enjoy some nice weather. Unfortunately, I don't feel like I can actually make anything at the level of accuracy for the models. It could do great at curved shapes,so if I wanted to model Gaudi's Casa Badillo in Barcelona (picture borrowed from here, I'd be doing great.

Sigh. Maybe I do just need to bite the bullet and start spending time up at TechShop borrowing time on their laser cutter.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Scrapbooking Building

Here's the scrapbooking building; it's not completely done, but it's close enough. The glass block window was cut from clear styrene on the Cricut. The first shot shows it temporarily in its correct spot on Campbell Ave. next to a dime store (plastic model, I forget which brand) and a mocked up Campbell Theater (to be kitbashed from a Walther's Bank.)

Some quick checks of the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps show the lot holding the building was empty in 1925, but occupied in the late 1930's. It really is a Streamline Moderne building!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Progress on Campbell's "Glass Block" Building

I've started assembling the curved-front "Glass Block" building for the first time. The first photo shows the scribed 0.030 inch styrene walls. The upper cutout is the inner wall, and the lower one is the outer wall. I did two pieces so I could bend the walls easier, and the main window opening in the inner wall is smaller so that the scribed clear plastic can be glued in flush with the outer wall. The tile crosses at the top of the wall were scribed in lightly; the window and door openings were scribed twice, and the outer wall boundaries were scribed once. I snapped the plastic along the scribe lines.

That sheet actually had to be tossed out; I didn't scale it large enough in Sure Cuts a Lot, so it was about 15% undersize.

This second photo shows the model as it appears tonight. The roof and floor pieces were cut from 0.060 inch styrene by the Cricut; the notches around the edge gave me a place to glue styrene uprights to hold the floor and ceiling apart. The two layers of the building front then were glued to the floor and ceiling. Those nice tile crosses got messed up in this cut somehow, and I'm still not sure what happened. The storefront entrance at the right is multiple layers: the outer wall sheet forms the outer surface, a smaller inner piece (also cut on the Cricut) forms the inner window and door panes, and scale 4x4 styrene framed the doors and windows.

I've also scribed the glass block wall on clear styrene, and I'll glue it in after spray-painting the whole model with a base color. The roof will be finished with black construction paper to simulate tarpaper, hopefully cut on the Cricut to shape.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Model Making Notebooks

Making models with the Cricut cutter isn't working so well. I'm halfway through another model of the glass block building in Campbell I mentioned last time, but I'm not completely sure that the cutter's helping me build any faster. On top of that, I just cut out another facade for the building that ended up at the wrong scale and too small, so I'm not in a good mood. It also turns out the software I'm using is having some issues with curves.

So let's get away from all those topics that might get me cranky, and talk about planning.

Building a large model railroad requires planning and making decisions long before you actually start building a particular scene. One common story describes how John Allen, an early model builder, laid wires for model house lighting in his basement's concrete ten years before he ever needed those wires. Different modelers have different ways of remembering those details: folders full of wiring diagrams, binders packed with historical photos, large track plans and maps pinned on the walls, etc.

In my own case, I keep a set of notebooks where I record progress and scribble occasional ideas, and I had some track plans describing what I wanted to build, but otherwise I keep most of my plan in my head. Occasionally, that causes a problem when I don't remember why I wired things in some specific way, but I've been doing ok with minimal designs.

For my historical modeling, I was most worried about matching historical scenes, and knowing where to look when I needed to see a picture of a particular area or read about the location. I occasionally scribbled maps in my notebook, but I couldn't always find them easy, and they were never precise. A couple years ago, I bought another notebook just for keeping track of such historical details. I sketched out a map of each town or scene, then went through all the books and photos I've got and marked the vantage point where each photo was taken.

These were great when I was trying to understand an area. Where was the telephone shack at Vasona Junction? I'd look at all my photos, make some conclusions about how they were related, and then draw my map and make sure all my assumptions agreed.

They were also useful after I figured an area out. When I started putting in the finished scenery at Wrights (at the top of Los Gatos Canyon), I remembered I'd seen photos of a car parked next to the station, but couldn't figure out how the car got to the station - it would have had to cross the tracks multiple times, and I didn't remember if there was a road from the station area to the road bridge. I flipped open my notebook, checked out all the photos pointing in the right directions, and noticed that there was an interesting fence protecting passengers on the platform from falling down a slope to a road below. It looked like the road dipped under the railroad tracks as they crossed Los Gatos Creek!

I never actually found photos showing the road dipping under the tracks, but the idea made sense, and I looked pretty much everywhere I could and found no better sources. I ended up tearing out a bunch of my nice scenery so I could route the road under the trestle. The great thing is that the road routing looks reasonable, and is a much more interesting scene than I'd been planning, either without a road or with the road just sitting on the same shelf as the railroad tracks. Again, trying to model a specific prototype gave me a much more interesting model than I would have imagined doing!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Using a CNC Cutter for Model Building, Part 2

(If you're directed here from TechShop's blog watch, you'll probably find my live steam locomotive experience more interesting. I was very happy to use TechShop's metal lathe to turn the wheels I couldn't make with my equipment at home.)

I've had a bit more experience with the Cricut CNC cutter and "Sure Cuts a Lot" scrapbooking software for the Mac. So far, I'm making some interesting things with the Cricut, but I think I'd still have better luck with a laser cutter.

To recap: I've seen some beautiful laser-cut model railroad structure kits, and I wanted to experiment with both designing structures flat, and hoped on speeding up my model building a little The Cricut scrapbooking cutter is a small standalone computer-controlled die cutter that can cut sheets of thin cardboard or occasional heavier materials. The Sure Cuts A Lot program is a third-party drawing tool for the Mac or PC that controls the Cricut cutter via USB.

My first experiences (in the last blog entry) showed a bunch of problems. I could draw cutting lines in a drawing program and import them into Sure Cuts A Lot, but found that it would tend to cut shapes with a continuous cut and round corners when doing so. It also wouldn't always cut pieces all the way through, so small pieces (like window openings) would need to be trimmed out by hand. None of this would be a problem if I was doing rounded shapes like letters and clip-art for scrapbooking, but won't work for small model railroad structures where I want sharp corners and need pieces fully cut out to reduce labor.

Luckily, SCAL imports vector drawings in the SVG format - an open, XML-based format, and one that's pretty easy to edit either by hand or with a simple computer program. I ended up writing a quick-and-dirty filter to take my cutting drawings, and massage them a bit so they work better on the Cricut:

* All multi-segment lines get broken into individual straight lines to force SCAL and the Cricut to only cut lines and not try to curve connecting lines.

* All lines get extended about .01 inches to try to cut all the way through at corners.
* Any lines colored red get cut twice, and get cut in opposite directions. I saw the knife didn't always bite through until it had been moving for a bit, so cutting the same line in different directions ensures the whole line length is cut through.

* Any lines colored green are considered scribing or embossing lines, and get placed at the front of the list to draw. After all the green lines are cut, a bunch of tiny lines in one corner of the drawing are added to get the cutting head off the drawing. By doing this, I can set the cutting blade (manually) at its minimum setting when I start, let it scribe all the lines that shouldn't cut through, then change the cutting blade to a deeper setting while the print head's doing the small lines.

If you try this at home, also be aware that SCAL silently fails to cut if any part of your drawing extends outside the cutting area. Make sure to keep your drawing inside the dotted boundary lines. Also make sure to measure your drawing at its largest point in your drawing program, then use SCAL's detail mode to enlarge the vector art to that size so you're cutting at exactly the size you want.

The different behavior for red and green lines is an idea taken straight from the laser cutters which already use different color to use different strengths or speeds of cutting.

By running my cutting drawing through my SVG processing program, I'm getting better results. I've actually used the cutter to scribe individual board lines in cardboard, and find the double-cuts in window openings ensures the pieces get cut through. The picture shows a building front in really thin cardboard. The board lines were scribed by the cutter, and the window openings pretty much fell right out.

The wood-frame office for the Hyde Cannery isn't the best demonstration for the cutter; it's all straight lines and minimal windows, and I know I could cut out all the pieces in an hour with a straightedge and Xacto knife.

A better sample project is this curved-front building next to the railroad tracks in Campbell. This building is visible in photos from the 1930's; the glass-block window in the front and inset tile crosses at the roof line are obvious details that are made for the cutter, either on clear plastic (for the glass block window) or scribed onto the wall itself (for the cross detail.)

I tried cutting pieces of this building out on the Cricut; the result isn't presentable yet, but it showed that the Cricut could actually help me with hobby projects. First, I made my model out of styrene, not cardboard - 0.020 inch for the walls (two thicknesses laminated together for a 0.040 thick wall) and 0.060 inch for a floor and curved form for the wall. I didn't expect the knife to cut through the plastic; I just made sure it scribed the plastic deeply, then I snapped the plastic apart along the cut lines. The curved floor piece (with a 2" diameter curve) required a pair of needlenose pliers to get the plastic to break, but generally the scribe lines from the Cricut were enough to snap the plastic apart. I also learned that the waste material I'd seen between pieces on laser-cut work wasn't needed for styrene; keeping the parts adjacent and snapping them apart saves a lot of work.

The problems with the curved-front building were mostly because of the thin material I used for the walls. The curved base cut nicely, but the 0.020 styrene for the wall didn't stay parallel when only glued to a curve at the bottom of the piece. (It didn't help that the 0.020 plastic I was using was already scribed to resemble individual boards, and the plastic cracked along one of those scribe lines.) For a second try, I'm going to need to cut a floor and ceiling piece (with supports between holding the two apart), then glue the walls to that armature so everything stays square. I'll also need to try to cut some small windows now that I'm getting cleaner cuts out of the Cricut.

So, that's my second week of experience with the Cricut. It's not a laser cutter, but it can do some interesting things. For my little one-off projects, it's not saving me a huge amount of time, but if I was making a lot of identical buildings, it could come in handy.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Using a Cricut cutter for Model Railroading

[Hint: I got better results after this post. Check later blog entries for my experiences with the Cricut.]

Ok, here's my full first-day impressions of using the Cricut. I posted this to the ModelersCad mailing list at Yahoo as well.

I'd seen some questions on this mailing list about using one of the scrapbooking / vinyl cutting die cutter machines for model building. Here's my experiences after one day of experimentation. (See the previous post for pictures of sample cuts.)

Short answer: the machines are interesting, but they're not a substitute for a laser cutter. My cutter (like, I suspect, other die cutters) works best when cutting curved, closed shapes, and tends to put 0.050 radius curves on right angle intersections. Using non-meeting line segments didn't really help; the software with my machine sometimes ignored unconnected lines (that were probably below some size threshold).

If you're doing mostly curved shapes (such as cutting pieces for a model airplane's wing cross members) you could probably do some interesting work in thin wood. If you want to cut lots of right angles, you'll be less happy.

My cheap machine did really well with my modeling materials. 140 pound Bristol board (0.020 inches thick) cut cleanly. It could cut into, but not through heavy (0.050 inch) matboard. Cuts in paper were usually clean, though I did see minor tearing when cut lines intersected. The machine only scribed 0.010 and 0.020 inch styrene, but it was really easy to snap on the scribe lines to get a clean result. I suspect it would work really well scribing 1/16" styrene sheet.

I also tried it on 1/16" basswood with the "thick material" blade. The Cricut didn't cut completely through with a single cut, but it did score the wood pretty deeply so that cutting the pieces fully out would have been easy. The basswood moved around a lot even though it was taped down, so accuracy was a problem.

The other big problem is that while cutting curved letters by hand might be tedious, my models with lots of straight lines are much less work to do by hand. The die cutter helps if I'm doing multiple duplicate pieces, but tweaking cut lines and artwork when doing mock-ups is almost as much work as cutting a new model out of paper by hand.

Long answer:

I'm a model railroader, and I've been interested in doing my own laser-cut buildings in HO (1/87 scale). Unfortunately, I'm too cheap to buy my own, and too lazy to drive 20 miles to TechShop in Menlo Park to use theirs. I was curious if a vinyl cutter like the Klic-n-Kut would give me usable results.

I found a cheap way to start; the craft stores (Michael's, Joann's) often have the Cricut die cutters on sale. I got a 6" x 12" die cutter for $99 on sale yesterday. To use the machine, you place or tape your paper or cardstock on a sticky plastic cutting mat, feed it into the printer, then tell the machine the letters or shapes you want it to cut. The cutting blade is a tiny pointed blade on the end of a 2mm rod; a larger blade holder sets the blade to an appropriate depth that will cut the media but not the cutting pad. The holder stays stationary, but the blade can turn in the holder to handle changes of cutting direction. This turning (and a slight amount of play in the blade holder) means that cutting continuous shapes always results in curves at corners. This is great for lettering (which the machines are intended for), but less good for miniatures having lots of right angles. By contrast, laser cutters are great at square corners.

Cricut cutters only do fixed fonts and shapes, and require you to buy their cartridges ($45) to get new fonts. To use the machines, you type in the letters you want into an attached keypad, and the machine does the cutting.

The Cricuts do have a USB port, but their software won't let you cut arbitrary shapes. Luckily, a third party ( sells a program called "Sure Cuts a Lot" (SCAL) that lets you import SVG vector art from a drawing program and cut it on the machine. I had some problems with the SCAL software; it wouldn't connect to the Cricut when I used it with a computer running Mac OS X 10.5, but ran decently on Mac OS X 10.4.(Bzzt. I'd already installed a USB->Serial driver in the past, and it would grab the Crikut device when the OS booted. Deleting /System/Library/Extensions/FTDIUSBSerialDriver.kext got rid of the problem, though now I have to worry why the other driver was installed.) It also imports the art at a different size than my original drawing; I added a 1x1 inch square on my art so I could scale the drawing representing the cuts to the rough size I wanted.

My first project (after a few test letters with the stock Cricut) was a smaller building model. I'm trying to mock up a potential design, so I've been cutting cardboard models out of Bristol board, assembling them, and putting the models on the layout to check size and composition of the scene. Recently, I've tried to make the buildings more real, so I've been drawing the wall shapes and details in a vector drawing program, then printing out these drawings and cutting the pieces free.

Making this model requires some larger cuts for the walls and window openings, and finer cuts for pieces of the windows.

The walls come out ok. Sometimes, the rounded corners are pretty short; on other cases, the blade seems to have trouble finishing the curve and ends up with a spline-like curve that only ends up going straight after a tenth of an inch or so. Interior rounded corners are a little annoying, but can be cleaned up by hand (especially in styrene). Rounded corners on the outside edges are more troublesome; for model buildings, I might be able to cover these with trim.

To really challenge the cutter, I tried cutting the individual window panes out as a laser-cutter would, even though I've not been cutting these by hand. I really hoped the machine could do all the tedious cuts to do individual window frames and panes in a piece whose total size is an inch by 1/2 inch. The laser cutters do beautiful jobs with these sorts of pieces, and it's possible to build up some beautiful windows by layering together multiple pieces. Unfortunately, the rounded edges are a problem.

I also tried cutting the geared calling card available at Thingiverse. (I converted the PDF version of the drawings to line art in the Mac drawing program Intaglio, then exported the line art as an SVG file that could be read in by SCAL. Note all the curved surfaces are set up as line segments, so replacing them with arcs makes the cutting go much faster.) SCAL managed to cut the gears with a lot of up-and-down cutting action, but didn't actually cut through the cardboard fully. It made quick work of the non-gear parts, though. I'll need to try again another time.

So far, I'm not convinced that I can let the computer do all the cutting for my models; the die cutters (at least from what I've seen with the Cricut) just aren't intended for the right angle cuts that all my structure models require. Some of this might be the machine, but I could imagine that some of the problems are with the software that assumes you're cutting out rounded, connected letters. I could imagine tricks the software could do to do better on work like this. It could always do right angles as separate cuts, and do all cuts in the same direction at the same time to keep the blade pointed in the same way. The software could get the blade pointing in the correct direction by starting on a bit of waste material. Nearby cuts could be done at the same time to avoid losing accuracy over several cuts. It's too bad there's no open-source drivers for the Cricut available, or I'd be playing with driving the cutter in different ways to try to get better right angles. Other makers (such as Klic-n-Kut) might do a better job with different kinds of cutting jobs, for all I know.

My Computer Needs to Get Into the Model Railroad Hobby

After last week's work on printing paper models of the Hyde Cannery, I got curious enough about computer-controlled cutters to buy a Cricut Personal Electronic Cutter at Michael's for $99 on sale. This is a computer-controlled vinyl cutter, and can handle material up to 6x12 inches. It's intended only for cutting lettering, but CraftEdges "Sure Cuts a Lot" software lets you send arbitrary line art to the cutter.

I'll get into more detail later, but here's some photos of sample cuts:

Piece from the Cricut on the left, manually cut piece on the right.

Building front cut on the Cricut, made from 140 pound Bristol board (cardboard). The horizontal slices across the work are done by the trial version of Sure Likes to Cut; these wouldn't appear once I've bought the software. Note that sharp corners on the drawing are cut as small (0.020 inch radius) curves because of the way the blade works. I might be able to hide those behind trim, but the fact that the cutter can't do right angles is frustrating.

Sample lettering to show what the cutter does best. Top piece shows cuts in 0.020 inch thick styrene sheet. The cutter only scribes the styrene, but it's easy to snap the plastic cleanly on the scribe lines. The middle piece is 0.010 clear styrene, again not cut through but easy to snap. Bottom piece is 140 pound bristol board, cut very cleanly.

Windows and doors, comparing Cricut and laser-cut pieces. The upper right hand piece is a bit of laser-cut cardboard from an American Model Builder's station kit to show ideal results. The bottom line shows a freight house door (about 1" square); note the rounded edges on the door trim in the bottom left, and the rounded panel edges on the panel overlay piece. The piece just above shows how I tried to get cleaner corners by making sure the lines weren't continuous. The two upper rows show a window cut with continuous lines (with curves) and cut as individual unconnected line segments (neater, but a lot of work to clean up.)

Lettering cut out of 1/16" basswood sheet. The cuts don't go all the way through the wood, but the cut lines would easily guide an Xacto knife cutting the rest of the way through the wood. My biggest problem with the wood was that it tended to slip, even with the piece taped firmly to the backing sheet that fed it through the cutter.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Glenwood, nearly finished.

Here's the latest shot of the end of the Glenwood siding, with ballast and barbed wire installed. The static grass looks really nice!

Monday, July 6, 2009

All Roads Lead Back to Campbell

Now that the Glenwood scene's in good shape (with barbed wire on *both* sides of the field), it's time for me to choose my next project. Campbell's Hyde Cannery has been one of my problem areas, and so it seemed time to try again.

The Hyde Cannery, as seen from photos from the first half of the century, is a large, rambling set of buildings stretching all over the place. It's a fun mix. There's some small, wooden-frame buildings from the turn of the century. There's a huge brick warehouse from the 1870's. Finally, there's the modern cannery production line building, with concrete walls and wooden posts holding up a sawtooth roof with huge skylights. Best of all, Mr. Hyde wasn't shy, so his name appeared in huge letters on each part of the complex.

All those buildings are still there, sitting next to the railroad tracks. Some of the buildings have been turned into office space, others into restaurants and bars that were probably cool in the 1970's, but have lost their momentum to some of the newer places on the refurbished main street in Campbell.

The Hyde Cannery space on my layout is awkward; it's probably 24 inches long and 6 inches wide, stuck up against a backdrop and below a low upper deck. Still, it's one of the larger industries on the layout, and accounts for a lot of boxcars for the Campbell and Los Gatos-bound freights. I've tried mocking up potential building a couple times without a clear idea of what the area should look like. Most of my mockups are made from either matboard or heavy bristol board; I'll guess at dimensions, lay out the rough lines of the building in pencil, then cut the cardboard pieces out and glue them together. With a physical mock-up on the layout, it's easier to figure out if the building will really fit and if the scene looks correct.

The last couple mock-ups didn't go well. The large warehouse is an obvious focal point, but can't be so large that it crowds out all the other buildings. I knew I wanted the sawtooth cannery in the background, but wasn't sure how much room I'd have for it.

I'd also seen this picture of the office area next to the tracks. (This building is just behind the truck on the first photo.) It's a great building - wooden siding, different scale than the others, and more of a sense of being active - doors to the office, loading platform for farmers dropping off produce, signs, steps, etc. When I tried to build that building, I had poor luck. I'd get the dimensions wrong and it wouldn't fit, or I'd get the scale wrong. The half-done models get left on the layout til the next time I try to figure out the scene.

This time, I'd been distracted by some of the cool new tools that exist for model building: laser cutters and 3d printers. I've built a few laser-cut kits in the last couple years, and I've been amazed at how fast I could assemble a model from the neatly cut pieces, and how easy it can be to cut complex shapes as well as window and door openings. Laser cutters are out of my price range ($7,000 for entry level models). Looking at an instruction manual for one of them, I wasn't sure I'd want one even if they were cheaper. "Danger: improper use of this device can cause a fire which can destroy not only the machine, but the building containing it." Gulp. TechShop in Menlo Park has a laser cutter that you can rent time on, but I've never gotten around to taking their laser cutting course.

I'd also just heard about Makerbot, a do-it-yourself kit for a 3d printer that lets you draw 3d models on your computer, then let the computer fabricate the actual object by squirting out bits of styrene. It's a cool device, and I'm sure it would be useful for model building (though perhaps too coarse for the actual models.) However, I started thinking about whether there were other tools with Makerbot's computer-controlled table that might be used for physically cutting cardboard and matboard for model buildings.

I ended up finding out about a whole bunch of computer-controlled card and paper cutters (also known as "die cutters"). These are pretty much the same as the industrial vinyl cutters used for making signs, except they're smaller and intended for home use. They're really popular for the scrapbooking crowd; some brands are available at the chain crafts stores. These tools, like the laser cutters, basically work like large printers. You draw your shapes using a vector drawing program, using different colors for the different cutting intensities or depth. When you print the document, the computer runs the cutter along the lines you drew. Klik-n-Kut is one brand of the more beefy machines; they start at $600, but look interesting.

Wouldn't it be cool if I had a machine that would let me design models of buildings on the computer, then print and modify the models as often as I want? Sadly, there's some problems with this. I'm still not sure what weight of cardboard these cutters could handle. Cutting matboard and thin wood could be best; I could be designing and building my own kits like the old Suydam ones I grew up with. I don't know how sharp or ragged the cut lines are, or how well it could cut out square corners in window openings. I don't even know if I have enough models backed up to need the speedup. Sounds fun, but lots of research to do.

The die cutters got me thinking about the difficulty of designing my buildings flat in a drawing program, so I spent part of Sunday trying it out. I got out my drawing program (Intaglio for the Mac), drew the walls, colored them in, and marked the cut lines darker and thicker as I'd need to do with one of the laser cutters. When I was done, I printed the building out on heavy bristol board cut down to fit through the printer. Cutting the pieces apart was much faster than my hand-drawn kits, and my few mistakes and design flaws only required re-printing the offending parts.

Here's some pictures of the Hyde cannery office that resulted. If you'd like to build one of your own,
here's the original drawing for you to cut apart yourself! Unfortunately, the building didn't fit, and the extra color and board detail I added showed me the building is too low and needs to be raised up a couple feet. All I'll have to do is enlarge the walls on the drawing, then print out new copies and assemble another building. If I need to adjust the building more than once or twice, doing the drawing on the computer might actually be an advantage... and I could use the same drawings if I decided to try that laser at TechShop.

There's also programs for the PC that will print paper versions of buildings like these. I haven't tried any, but I suspect they're a bit easier than working in a generic drawing program.

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