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.

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