Thursday, February 26, 2015

Scenery Stash

Usually when I do a house project, my biggest incentive for getting it done quickly is so I can get back to working on the railroad. I'd planned a week for this living room project, but as we go into a third week now, we've decided to have somebody else refinish the wood floors we discovered under the wall-to-wall carpeting. The bad news is that we're still waiting for the last estimate/bid to come in. But turns out that's the good news too - until the floor's done, we can't do anything else.

So I'm able to get back to the basement.

Bill came over to help me assess some things. Long story short - I decided to take a break from Saybrook (have some reworking ideas to consider) and start some scenery(!) Heh - problem was (as sometimes happens with such visits) we ended up chatting/analyzing/considering so much that by the time we were ready to start scenery, it was time for Bill to head home. No problem though - we at least started to get a handle on what supplies I had on-hand.... and what more I needed to get.

This is what I have on-hand: a pretty comprehensive, though hodgepodge, collection of Woodland Scenics ground foams, some trees that friend Pete made during a long-ago scenery work session for the modules, and various/sundry other related items & tools.

Great for a 1980s/90s layout - and it'll all be useful at some level - but model railroad scenery technology has changed a lot since I first got into the hobby. Now it's a lot about Super Trees & static grass. So, after consulting another modeler who does the best New England Autumn scenery I've ever seen (thanks Marty!!), I put together a shopping list, decided to take a deep dive into my railroad fund, and got on the Scenic Express website.

The order just arrived today - and this isn't even all of it! In addition to the box of Super Trees, I ordered a variety of autumn-colored static grasses, leaf material, and misc other items. There are a couple things on back-order, but it looks like I'll be able to get started on scenery with a vengeance soon!

I just hope the floor guys don't get done with their part of the living room project TOO quickly...

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Rapido Switch Stands

I mentioned in a recent post that Rapido is coming out with authentic New Haven Railroad (and Rutland RR, and many-other-railroads) specific operating switchstands. Well, I took the sample Bill left and put it on some actual headblocks, rather than just having it stuck in the plaster cloth. I think you'll agree that it looks pretty awesome...

Yes, these actually operate. The wire that the target & lamp are mounted on goes all the way through the cork & subroadbed to be actuated by an under-the-table switch machine. And the targets and lever actually move(!).

Now, since this switchstand isn't actually mine, I came up with a method for attaching it temporarily - and discovered that this method would probably work as a permanent solution so you can remove it easily for maintenance/repair if necessary.

First off, I'm using Micro-Engineering turnouts. They come with headblocks which you glue to the ends of the ties. The mounting pins on the bottom of the switchstand are .060" apart and will press-fit into #68 holes that you drill near the end of the headblocks, allowing the wire will go down just inside the spacer that you leave at the end. I drilled a 1/8" hole down through the cork and the subroadbed for the wire.

So everything's just press fit and easily removable - you know, in case I can't get Bill to forget it's here...

Check out for more information - these things are really cool and really add a lot of realism, not to mention being an awesome detail in its own right.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Engineer Training

It's been busy around the Valley Line lately. Not only did I break ground in Old Saybrook, but I've been in the middle of a (decidedly UN-Valley-Line-related) remodeling project which has kept me from the basement for a bit. But perhaps the most exciting development lately is that I've been doing some 1:1 scale railroading.

Long-time readers may recall that I not only model the Valley Line, but I occasionally work on the full-size Valley Railroad, firing steam locomotives on the line I'm modeling. How cool is that?!  But it gets better: After many years on the left side of the cab, I got a chance to start my journey to the other side. Yup, I've started engineer training. And what a time of year to start it! Let's just say that all those beautiful Phil Hastings photos of New England winter railroading are best enjoyed with a warm beverage in hand and a cozy fire in the fireplace. It was COLD! And since we had a diesel, there wasn't even a nice warm firebox to thaw us out.  But I wouldn't have missed this opportunity for anything,

The occasion was the final day of the Eagle Flyer which the VRR operates during President's Day Weekend each year. It's an operation unlike any other that we do - especially when there's been a lot of snow. This year, there have been not one, but TWO snowplow specials to clear the tracks (click here to watch one), so it's Real Winter Railroading for sure. Follow along on a little photo tour of the day...

Awaiting passengers at Essex. Snowplow is parked on the siding. We used a GE 80 tonner on this (north) end, with another diesel pushing on the south end.

Stopped to deboard passengers at East Haddam. That's Camp Bethel up there on the hill - East Haddam's own version of Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard - lots of little Victorian cottages.

Stopped at the end of the line - well, the farthest we can operate so far, anyway.

South of East Haddam station. Compare this photo to the one for Wordless Wednesday #34

While I'm a long way away from actually operating, the engineer kindly took this photo while we were stopped.
It's really exciting to be starting this new phase of my fledgling railroad career - but it's certainly nice I don't have to do winter railroading for a living! I'll never look at those Hastings photos quite the same way again.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Breaking Ground in Old Saybrook

Actually, more like "punching through a wall" - literally.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. In my last post, I hinted at the head start I got on my latest expansion during my last ops session. While Tom took over the agent's duties, I got out my machete and started hacking my way through the primeval forest, clearing the way to Old Saybrook. Here's what the landscape looked like when the surveyors arrived...

Given the, um, "terrain" a number of changes would be necessary to accommodate the Shore Line mainline as well as the Old Saybrook station area & wye (not to mention a new staging track for the Air Line):
  • The doorway would need to be moved left as far as possible;
  • I'd need to cut a huge proscenium (I'd never even heard that term until recently) in the main wall - essentially a large picture window, looking out at the basement's foundation wall;
  • Add supporting benchwork;
  • Cut not one, not two, but three holes in different walls in addition to the proscenium (just love using that word)
The day after the ops session, I broke ground - or, rather, broke wall. With a little lot of help from my friends (thanks Pete, Dick & Tom!) we got started (BillS had a lot less fun in the other room working on locomotives - when he'd come anticipating doing scenery. The DEY-5 (Alco S-2) is running & sounding much better, but the K-1b is still being ornery...).

As usual, the photos tell the story best . . .

Tom, Dick & Harry Pete get started on moving the door. The destruction de-construction went so quickly that by the time I got out my camera, they were already to this point!

Meanwhile, after much hemming & hawing - and figuring now that the doorway was gone we'd reached the point of no return - I finally made the first cuts in the wall with my machete drywall saw. The sheet over the other doorway was necessary given the HUGE cloud of dust created by power sawing the drywall next to the door.  Thus, the drywall saw used here.
Whew! Here's the proscenium all cut out and the doorway area cleared. That "line" across the wall is actually the top of the section of wall I removed with Tom's help. Compare this view to the pic at the top of the post.

Another view of the proscenium, with a 1x4 installed as a "window sill" (ties together the tops of the lopped-off studs) and a 2x4 attached to the foundation wall to support the back of the benchwork that'll go here.
Reconstruction of the wall to the right of the doorway. You can tell by where the baseboard ends where the doorway used to be. It doesn't look like much difference, but in HO scale that extra 10" means the difference between the ShoreLine going through the wall versus through the doorway itself.

After reconstruction comes new construction - of benchwork! Although the rest of the layout (except the modules) is L-girder, I decided traditional open-grid benchwork would work best for Old Saybrook. The terrain is pretty flat, so not much undulation needed - so a full plywood base would work well. You can see above my (relatively) ingenious method of clamping everything together to keep things tight & square for drilling/screwing everything together. Turns out this ended up being a bit of overkill - later joists were just held by hand against the triangle square. TIP: build the benchwork upside down resting on the plywood - that will ensure that all of your joists are flush at the top and there'll be no waves in the plywood top when you screw it down.

Once the benchwork was completed, I put it in place to level it all up, side to side and front to back.

Here's the benchwork in place. I attached it to the back 2x4 with two vertical 1x3s - much easier to level up & attach at just two points. Also, I shimmed up the joists at the front with old business cards. You can see in the background the new plywood "sidewall" with a hole for the Air Line coming through. Also, note the plywood "ceiling" - painted blue - which doubles as the top sill of the window. I salvaged some old doorway mouldings (and purchased two new long pieces) to picture frame everything.

And this is the view you see as you come down the basement stairs. You're looking "southwest" - the AirLine will come in through that hole in the back right corner and be hidden behind the masonite backdrop (which I've yet to install - you can see the "backdrop joint backer" 2x3 propped up at the left); the Shore Line from New Haven will come through the wall just to the right of the Saybrook Wye; the station will be approximately where that plywood rectangle is; and the "loop track" that goes behind the station is mocked up as well. The "pointy part" (north end) of the wye starts the track to Essex and points north.

This is the other side of "west end" wall, showing the cutout for the Shore Line from New Haven, represented here by a return loop. The Air Line will come off the module (right end of the pic) and head through the hole in the corner. That section of the Air Line will be a generic "Middlefield area" farm scene, with a team track and a cider mill. The Shore Line return loop will be hidden under that scenery.
This expansion has really fired my motivation to complete the rest of the railroad: Old Saybrook and Middletown to East Haddam, and New London to Old Saybrook (including a large staging yard). I was going to wait until I got some scenery completed in Wethersfield - and that's still a priority and the "to-do" for an upcoming work session - but I'm eager to complete at least the benchwork and track for the Big Plan so that I can start operating sessions incorporating all the trains (and crew members!) I'd planned: not only the Valley and Air Line locals, but the two Shore Line locals, as well as some mainline freight and passenger trains (gotta have someplace for my DL-109s, PAs, I-4 & I-5 to run!).

Continued progress will have to go on a brief hiatus while I do a remodel in our living room (part of the justification for all the tools/skills I've acquired while model railroading is that I can use those tools/skills elsewhere in the house), but with motivation this high I've already put together a very aggressive work schedule, and I expect I'll be back to work on The Valley Line by next week!

(PS: If you're in the Wethersfield, CT area this Saturday morning, I'll be doing a show following the prototype Valley Local in the late 1940s, using photos from John Wallace and research I've gathered over my time doing this project.  Also, if you're interested in actually riding the Valley Line, the Valley Railroad/Essex Steam Train will be running trains this weekend to view eagles!)

Friday, February 6, 2015

Ops Session FAIL! - well, almost - and a Special Visitor

I had my latest Valley Line Operating Session last Friday, but it almost didn't happen.

As the start time started getting closer, I fired up the layout and went to move the Valley Local into position. For some reason, an engine can't start out on the reversing section. I don't know whether that has anything to do with the fact that polarity on the reversing section is controlled by a Frog Juicer, but the fact remains that if the engine is on this section when I power on the layout, I can't acquire it. So I start the engine/train in Middletown and move it to "Hartford staging" (the reversing section) before the session starts.

I fired up K-1b #278 and started to move it in position - and it promptly started shorting. It's been giving me all sorts of fits lately - can't figure out why - so after about 10 minutes, I decided to substitute an Alco S-2. That worked fine - until it hit the reverse loop - then it shorted and stopped.

And nothing - I mean nothing - I could do could get it to work. The whole reversing section was dead.

After almost an hour(!) of fiddling, checking connections, pulling on feeders (and hearing members of my crew arrive and - worse - enjoying themselves upstairs, without me), I was ready to grab my wire cutters and start cutting out things.  That's when BillS - who had joined PieterR downstairs to help - said "try it now." I saw out of the corner of my eye what he'd done - he was on the other side of the peninsula in East Berlin, but I could see him a little bit through the "tunnel" in the peninsula backdrop. I couldn't believe what he'd done - but I tried moving the Alco forward.

And it moved as if nothing had happened.

I'm only going to say this once since it's an embarrassing admission: I'd left a track gauge on the East Berlin track. Bill noticed it and removed it.

Rookie mistake, for sure.

But, in my defense, it never even occurred to me that I'd left metal across the tracks. If that gauge had been anywhere else on the railroad other than in the reversing section, the layout would have shorted as soon as I turned it on. Since it was on the reversing section, it just managed to shut down that section - but gave no indication of a short. It just seemed like the section was dead.

So, an important lesson learned: If your layout isn't working, always Always ALWAYS do at least a quick check to make sure you've left nothing metal across the rails. You may not see a small track nail easily, but a 12" long track gauge should be easy to see and pull off.

Other than this pre-session drama, the rest of the evening was a success - and BillS also treated us to a couple of special guests:

Since he's one of the main go-to guys at Rapido, he'd brought the demo of their latest offering - a New Haven FL-9. Since the prototype didn't arrive until 1957, it's 10 years past my era. But it still looked pretty cool on the layout (even if a bit out of place). The amount of detail on this engine is truly spectacular - every, and I mean EVERY, detail you can discern on the prototype is present on the model. And it's 1:87th scale. Truly amazing.

But that wasn't all. I'd heard about the FL-9 but I hadn't heard - much less seen - another cool Rapido product, soon to be available: Operating Switchstands!

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you will soon be able to add authentic, prototype-specific switchstands to your layout. This is, of course, the New Haven (and Rutland and O&W) version. Yes, the targets turn with the hand lever. If you connect it to the machine, it'll move the turnout points as well (and provide polarity, etc). Now I just have to go back and add headblocks to all my turnouts!

Be sure to visit for more information and details about these exciting new products.

Speaking of guests, this ops session was also notable for the introduction of a new crew member. BruceE - Valley Railroad engineman and O&W caboose owner - finally got a chance to join us and operate the Valley Local.

Here's Bruce trying to figure out how to switch the new Wethersfield Lumber Co. buildings

And here he is with Bill trying to figure out their next move before taking the local south to Rocky Hill.

Meanwhile, Pieter and Roman operated the Air Line Local. In order to slow them down a bit (and equalize time with the Valley Local) I had them hostle their engine before starting their switching. What I didn't realize is that, while the train had been blocked, it was blocked exactly backwards. The Air Line crew must've done something to tick off the Cedar Hill yardmaster(!)

The timing equalization worked! Both crews are in Middletown, as per usual on the prototype - though it turned out the Valley Local had a lot more to do . . .

Here's a quick grab shot of the Air Line local just south of the Middletown diamond.
I trained TomD on agent's duties, so I had a bit more time to roam around and enjoy the railroad being brought to life. Especially since - after Bill got that gauge out of the way - it now could have a life at all!

And I took advantage of the down time to get a head start on a major expansion project - which would be the focus of a Valley Line Work Session the following day. Stay tuned - details on that will hopefully be the subject of the next post!

Thursday, February 5, 2015

A Few Words about Wordless Wednesday #54

I have a confession to make - though I hope with proper attribution that I'll be forgiven. Yesterday's photo was a phone pic of a photocopy of a picture that appeared on page 33 of the January 2015 issue of the Haddam Bulletin. My punishment - so far at least - is that the photo (of a photocopy of a photo printed in a newspaper) is of lower quality than I hope you've come to expect here.

That's all the bad news. The good news is that it's the only photo I've seen that shows the old Frissel Manufacturing Company mill in Higganum, CT circa 1934. What a beautiful industrial complex and in such a bucolic setting! According to the article - "[t]he company was a leader in textile braiding and dyeing and produced a variety of textiles used for industrial belting, gun cartridges, elastic webbing and cords, and using silk from a mill in Massachusetts, even made lace products."

The article didn't go into detail, but Frank H. Frissel, who started at the Russel Manufacturing Company in Middletown, got his big break by patenting a new type of woven ammunition belt for machine guns. He branched out on his own in 1920, buying some Russel Co. facilities south of Middletown in Higganum and setting up shop as the Frissel Fabric Co. By 1937, "Frismar" was also a major manufacturer of typewriter ribbon, carbon paper and other office supply items, in addition to textiles.

Higganum is on the Valley Line - it's a village in the Town of Haddam - and, in fact, Frissel Manufacturing was on Depot Road. It was never directly served by rail - being water powered originally, the factory needed to be further upstream. But they likely shipped by rail - the depot and the team track were only a few hundred yards away.

Unfortunately, much of Frissel burned down years ago (1990s?) and the area is now a SuperFund cleanup site. Fortunately, cleanup is progressing and the remaining buildings will be preserved. But for now, we can enjoy this neat view of a typical New England mill along the Valley Line.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Tuesday Tip: Badger Modelflex Paint

So I went to paint my model of the Valley Coal conveyor and realized I didn't have any more PollyS Grimy Black paint - my go-to "black" for such things. But I'd purchased a "weathering set" of paints by Badger some time back and - lo and behold - there was a bottle of "grimy black" in there.

I've never used Modelflex paint before, so I checked the label to see what the thinning ratio would be for airbrushing. There was none. So I checked the internet. Everything I read said it was "airbrushable right out of the bottle." Guess what - it was.

After the bottle was shaken and stirred, I put it directly on the bottlecap attachment on my Badger Model 200 airbrush. Here's the key: I also use the mesh filter.

I set the airpressure to 25psi and everything worked like a charm. Yup - sprayed right out of the bottle. No thinning!

Now, I don't want to assume that just because this experiment worked so well that I'd always shoot Modelflex right from the bottle. But so far so good.

What's been your experience?