Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Ghosts of Railroads Past

(In the "spirit" of the season, and because we've been without power since Sunday's storm, I hereby repost this from last October. I think you'll agree it's especially fitting this time of year...)

A big part of my motivation for recreating the Valley line is to keep alive the memory of the men & women who were responsible for getting the stuff of life delivered to you, each and every day.  From coal for winter heat or a bicycle to ride in the summer, for over 100 years in this country the stuff of life was delivered almost exclusively by rail.  And sometimes, if you're lucky, your historical research will unearth a ghost or two.

Given that Halloween is today, here's a question for you:  Do you believe in ghosts?

The answer for me depends on what kind of ghosts you mean. I don't believe in the creepy un-dead or goulish wanderings of departed souls. But I do believe in the ghosts of the past - the hauntings of a place by the memories of the people who were there. Who were they? What were their dreams and plans? Were they anything like us? While dead people don't actually haunt us, the spirits and memories of the past can - and often do. Especially if you're paying close attention.

During this time of year especially, if you keep your eyes open and know where to look, you can see some of these ghosts of the past materializing.  You have only to slow down, pay attention, and keep your eyes peeled. Here's just one example for those interested in the history of railroading in the Connecticut River Valley...

Bridge far
Railroad line from Middletown to East Berlin.  Trust me, it's there - somewhere...
I passed this spot a dozen times back during the summer when I was riding my bike to work, but only recently did I spot a ghost of the old railroad line between Middletown & Berlin across this field. Do you see it there in the distance? How about if I zoom in . . .

Stone arch bridge, Middletown - Berlin line
You'll have to excuse the camera quality of my phone, but if you tilt your monitor just right, you should see, just beginning to poke out of the trees, this beautiful stone arch bridge. The railroad was abandoned and torn up years ago, and the trees have long since reclaimed much of the roadbed. But this bridge remains - a monument to the memory not only of the railroad, but to the spirit of the men who built it.

If during your travels you stop at a spot like this and imagine, even for a few minutes, how those men lived, what their hopes were and whether they ever achieved them, you might see some ghosts.

And if you're especially quiet, you may even hear in the sound of the leaves floating by on the breeze a whisper of thanks from those men for not letting them be forgotten.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Modeling Monday: Rt. 15 Overpass & Priming the B&O Flatcar

I've been a little schitzo lately, making a little progress on multiple fronts, but not making substantial progress on any one project. But to the extent that this blog is - at the very least - a record of what I'm doing on the layout, I herewith submit a few pics of what modeling I've been working on lately - centered around the Rt. 15 overpass (at the north end of the Wethersfield section, disguising the hole in the backdrop), and the B&O P-11 flatcar.

Here's my mockup of the overpass - it's a standard Rix early highway overpass, with custom girders to follow the prototype more closely (click here for pics of the prototype and the Shapeways girders developed by my friend MikeR). I plan to use the Shapeways parts in the front and as masters for the other two girders.

Here's the mockup in place on the layout, effectively hiding where the Valley mainline (on the left) and the Berlin Branch (on the right) enter the backdrop.

Besides the girder work, I still have a lot to do on this area to get it all to fit and look right. But I'm REALLY pleased with how it's coming out.

And here are the girder parts getting a primer coat in the paint shop along with the B&O flatcar. Heh - and here is where they've sat for a while, while I got distracted with other things like model photography and such.

But even incremental progress is still progress - and big goals are reached by a number of small steps. So I'll take that as some encouragement that - while I haven't accomplished or finished much lately, I'm having fun working on a variety of things at once knowing they'll get done. Eventually.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Tuesday Test Shots

Went down to Saybrook to try out the homemade tripod some more . . .
Shot with my iPhone 6 - no regard to settings; Nikon Coolpix P4 on the tripod.
Unless otherwise noted:
 no flashlayout lights only, auto white balance
macro setting, auto focus
ISO 50 f7.6 @ 1/8th sec (self-timer)
8 megapixel 2448x3264 @300dpi
Exposure Bias -1 step
Exposure Bias -0.7 step
1/6th sec, Exposure Bias -0.7
1/7th sec, Exposure Bias -0.3
1/20th sec, Exposure Bias -0.3
I'm really pleased with how these came out - except for the last one, which came out too dark. I bracketed all my exposures starting at -0.3 (underexposed) and going darker by 1/3 EV (exposure value) down to -1. Doing so gave me at least one shot of each lot that I liked. Unfortunately, the best shot of the last image was the one I shot first - at -0.3. A normal exposure at 0.0 would have been better for that shot.

As I continue to learn I continue to covet your constructive criticism and guidance, as well as any tips you have to share. Of course, if you have any kudos/compliments to share that'd be encouraging as well!

Monday, October 16, 2017

Homemade Tripod

As you may have guessed from my Wordless Wednesday post last week, I'm starting to try out some layout/model photography. I used to be an amateur photographer of sorts back in '80s/early '90s but didn't keep up with it. And when I got the urge to dip my toe in again, I realized that the New Digital Age had totally blown past me. My equipment - state of the art back when I got it - was now obsolete. Besides, who "needs" all that stuff when you have a great camera right on your phone?

Well, looks like I do. The iPhone photos I take for this blog - while nice enough - don't really cut it when it comes to trying to get a photo published. Go figure %^)

Soooo..... I've gotten back into things a bit by doing some research and trying to catch up. I'd purchased a second-hand Nikon Coolpix P4 a few years back, but having a "camera" in my pocket, I wasn't motivated to learn much about it. But during my research, I heard about an old article by Brooks Stover in the 2011 issue of Great Model Railroads where there was supposedly a sidebar about taking layout photos with a point and shoot digital camera. Thankfully, one of my friends had that issue and let me see the sidebar (thanks again Pieter!)

What a find! Turns out, Mr. Stover used a Nikon Coolpix P4 to shoot all the photos that were published in the article - AND his sidebar described a cool, homemade tripod he fashioned to get the camera in close to his models and still hold it level and steady.

Allofasudden, I had all the motivation I needed to learn how to get the same results from my P4. But first, I decided to make the tripod.

  • One 1/4" piece of masonite, cut to 2.5" x 5.5" (or whatever size will accommodate your camera)
  • Three 6" long 1/4"x20 carriage bolts (you can get by with shorter if your terrain is flat-ish)
  • Three pieces of 1/4" heat shrink tubing, cut to 3/4" long
  • Three 1/4" tall T-nuts, threaded for 1/4"x20
  • One 1/4"x20 thumscrew, 1/4" long
  • One 1/4" washer
Construction is pretty straightforward:
  1. Cut the masonite to size
  2. Center your camera on the masonite
  3. Eyeball where to locate the 3 carriage bolts. Mark & drill 5/16" holes
  4. With the camera centered, lift it up slightly at the front and mark where you see the tripod mount hole; do the same from the side, to give you the location for the tripod mount hole. Mark & drill a 5/16" hole
  5. Use a file/rasp to round all the edges/corners of the masonite and clean up the holes
  6. Press the T-nuts into the holes, place the masonite on top of a scrap piece of wood and hammer them in (I made the mistake of putting the masonite right on the concrete basement floor "for a good, solid backing" and promptly trashed the threads when they got banged into the floor)
  7. Thread the carriage bolts through the T-nuts; "screw on" the heat shrink tubing for "grips" (it'll thread on - no need to heat it)
  8. Add the washer to the thumbscrew, push it through the tripod hole and screw it into the camera to attach it to the masonite (the washer is necessary to keep the thumscrew from bottoming out in the camera's tripod mount hole)
It took almost as long to type all that out as it did to actually built the tripod. When you're done, you'll be able to use your camera like this:

Many of us have placed our camera phones and small P&S cameras right on the layout to get unique and more-realistic shots - that's the main advantage they have over full-size DSLR cameras. But in order to keep the camera perfectly still while taking those shots, you need to use the self-timer on your camera (or a Bluetooth/wireless shutter release), and if your camera has to rest on uneven terrain, you have to use a tripod - and this particular design is fully adjustable and not much larger than the camera itself.

Now that I've figured out the "stability" part of taking a good shot, I still need to work on lighting & white balance. I have LOTS of light on the layout - but they're all "daylight" fluorescents. Great for seeing car numbers, not so great for photography.

And they're all up above the layout, of course, which can create aggravating shadows. But using a "bounce fill card" (aka a sheet of white paper) brightens up some of the shadows, at least.

I've got a lot to learn and a long way to go, but after lots (and lots) of trial and error, I finally got what I think is a pretty decent shot of the Goff Brook Farmhouse. Of course, the background (wall, door) will have to be Photoshopped out, but the foreground looks pretty good. What do you think? Any and all constructive criticism wanted and welcome!

Shot Particulars:
  • Nikon Coolpix P4
  • Aperture Priority, stopped down to the smallest available, f7.6
  • 1/9th sec
  • ISO 50, 8 megapixel, "Fine" setting (highest quality options available)
  • Macro setting, auto focused
  • 3264x2448 pixels; 300dpi
  • Auto White Balance (layout lights only, no flash)
  • Exposure Bias -0.3 step

Saturday, October 7, 2017

On the Valley Line Today - Saybrook Special, Oct. 7, 2017

What will probably be the last Saybrook Specials of the season are happening this weekend, and I was down at the crossing this morning to capture it.

This one was a bit different in that it had to Stop & Protect due to a broken crossing gate. Made for a lot of stack talk as she started back north - Enjoy!

Friday, October 6, 2017

Freight Car Friday: B&O P-11 Flatcar Trucks/Couplers

One of the great things about this hobby is that there is such a variety of different things to do that you can just about always find something that you're actually in the mood to do. Makes for a very enjoyable - not to mention productive - hobby.

So after posting prototype info and photos on the B&O class P-11 flatcar I'm modeling, the kit took a back seat while I did some decoder installs and finished the Valley Coal tank farm "kit" I got from my friend Dave Messer. But it was high-time to get back to it. . .

I'd left off after adding all those finicky stake pockets, so I got back in the swing of things by adding the remaining details - stirrups sill steps (sorry Ted!) and grabs. I consulted the prototype photos, but placement is pretty straightforward. Just be careful when drilling - some of the pieces you have to drill holes through are pretty thin. I made a dimple with a push pin to keep the bit from wandering, then used a #78 bit in my Dremel flex shaft, operated at low speed with a foot pedal, to drill the holes, and ACC'd them in place. And here's the result:

Remember you can always enlarge the image by clicking on it
I think I mentioned that I won't bother with underbody details since 1) you can't really see it with those deep side sills, and 2) I'm going to fill the underbody area with as much weight as possible.

Another reason for taking a break from this kit was to wait for the proper trucks and some screws to arrive. The kit instructions indicate PRR class 2D-F8 50 ton trucks, and the proper ones are made by Kadee (item #517). The only downside is that they come with the NMRA standard .110" treadwidth wheels. I'll eventually change these out for Code 88 "scale" wheels.

I also wanted to get some of the KD plastic 2-56 screws to mount the trucks. While I could have used a Dremel cut off disk to trim any screw overhang that would interfere with the car floor/deck, I figured plastic screws would be easier to snip and sand flush.

Unfortunately, when I test fit the trucks, they interfered with the underbody as well as the sill steps. Fortunately, the car also looked like it was sitting a bit low. The solution was easy - just add a shim to the bolster to raise the carbody off the truck.

In this case, I used a piece of .042" thick styrene strip, drilled a clearance hole with a #43 bit, and ACC'd it in place.

Here you see what I meant about the screw coming up too far through the frame. Since it's plastic, it was easy to trim it to precisely the proper length.

Snip the excess with flush-cutters . . .

Then sand down to flush.

Next, I installed KD #158 couplers ("scale" head, whiskered) with the "trip hoses" snipped off, per my usual practice. The coupler box cover that comes with the kit snaps securely in place. If/when it ever fails, I'll snip off the lug and drill/tap for a screw rather than snapping it in.

Turns out, just adding the .042" shim on the bolster solved a bunch of problems: no more interference with the underbody or details, and the couplers are at exactly the correct height. #FTW!

So now that I know everything fits and will work, the next step is to remove the trucks & couplers and wash the completed carbody/frame and deck/floor to prep for painting. F&C recommends either Dawn grease-cutting dish soap or Shout, so I picked up both at the grocery store last weekend and will clean everything up as soon as the glue's all cured.

Looks like I may be painting this weekend!

Thursday, October 5, 2017

A Few Words about Wordless Wednesday #190: Valley Oil(?) Kit(?)

Long-time readers know that the major rail-served industry at the south end of Wethersfield during the late 1940s is Valley Coal, located at Wells Road and the Silas Deane Highway.

This is a view of the Sanborn map, oriented as you'll see it on the layout (the aisle would be at the bottom of the image).

And here's an admittedly poor aerial view of the prototype, shot looking east/northeast. This is a zoomed-in view of a photo taken after the 1938 hurricane. These damage photos are actually great resources in that they're often the only perspective view you ever get of a particular area. In the photo above, you can barely make out the Valley Line near the top of the pic, going from upper left corner down toward the right. The siding is located between the oil tanks and the mainline. You can also barely make out the vertical coal hoist, and assorted sheds and bins.

Like many retail home heating fuel companies during this era, Valley Coal offered both coal and oil for local customers - but as far as I know, despite eventually being 100% an oil dealer (and even selling gasoline), it was always known as "Valley Coal."

I've posted separately about the amazing model of the Valley Coal office, just outside the picture on the right, that Dave Messer built. For all my posts related to modeling Valley Coal, click here.

Well, Dave's participation in the Valley Coal project continues with the construction of the oil tanks - and I just got the completed model last Saturday. Unfortunately, despite prominent labels marked FRAGILE the USPS did it's level best to destroy it. Fortunately, they didn't succeed - but there was still a little work to do.

Once I unpacked the box, the above is what I had to work with. I later found a few more details (I'm glad I saved the box!). So it was like receiving a really amazing kit - that was already 98% finished!

All I had to do was confirm with Dave where everything was supposed to go, then I used my new favorite glue (Aleene's Fast Grab Tacky Glue), applied with a toothpick, to attach all the pieces. It took a couple of consecutive evenings since I couldn't glue everything back together at the same time - I had to go in substeps, letting some things cure before being able to attach additional things to it (e.g. installing a tank before attaching the platform).

But I really enjoyed being able to "participate" in the construction, even if only incidentally and in a very minor way. The best part was being able to appreciate all the fine detail Dave included in this scratchbuilt industry.

Yesterday's Wordless Wednesday showed some of that process and what was necessary to weigh down some of the parts while they dried. But after all that, here's the finished product:

Looks amazing and another example of Dave's craftsmanship. Sharp eyes will note that the "tank farm" is selectively compressed - 3x2 tanks rather than 5x2 - but I bet if I hadn't pointed that out you wouldn't have noticed. Bottom line is that it's going to be perfect in the Valley Coal scene I'm building.

One last thing I decided to go ahead and add was hoses to the ends of the pipes. I'd been using 3/64" heat shrink tubing during my recent decoder installs, so I got the idea to use those to represent hoses.

Fun Fact: 3/64" tubing slips nicely over the end of the wire that Dave used to represent the pipes. I only needed a daub of tacky glue to make sure they wouldn't slip off.

But first, I dipped the ends into some silver/gray paint to represent nozzles at the end of the hoses. Turns out that the hoses will mostly be on the back side - facing the backdrop and away from the aisle - so I didn't have to worry too much about superdetailing the hoses. Just having them at all will do the trick I think.

And here it is placed temporarily on the layout:

Compare to the prototype map and photo and I think you'll agree that Dave nailed it! Can't wait to get this scene finished and continue progress north into Wethersfield proper. Hope you'll continue coming along for the ride!

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

More DCC Installs - Successful this time (mostly)

All heady from my first decoder install (despite the poor running result, which is likely the result of a poor mechanism rather than my installation), and having built some confidence in my soldering ability, I decided to tackle a harder project (harder since I had no sample to use as a guide) - converting an old Frateschi New Haven Alco FA-1, imported from Brazil by E-R Models back in the late 80's/early 90s. Apparently, "they used to produce US product for Atlas until Atlas took the work to China" so I figured it'd be a good candidate for conversion.

This model isn't Atlas/Kato smooth, but it runs really well considering its vintage. Yes, this time I tested it thoroughly on DC before starting the conversion. Besides, I need some more road freight diesels for the Shore Line.

The shell comes off easily enough - just spread the sides to clear the lugs, lift up the back and slide forward. When you do, this is what you see:

Very old school - the "PCB" is really just a way to save wiring, I suppose. There's nothing on there but traces for the wires to solder to. Unfortunately, the motor terminals are soldered directly to this board.

Removing the wires was easy enough - just touch the iron to the solder and pull the wire - but disconnecting the board from the motor required desoldering braid to remove all the solder and free the board.

Took some effort, but I was finally able to remove it.

Before removing all the wires, I had noted which motor terminal was connected to which side of the track pickup/trucks. On this model, it ended up being counter-intuitive: the right motor terminal, which would normally connect to the right/red side of the trucks and be attached to the orange wire from the decoder, actually connected the left side. And vice-versa. So to keep things straight, I used a Sharpie to mark that this terminal required the gray decoder wire rather than the orange.

Gray wire successfully soldered and insulated from its surroundings with a piece of shrink tube.

(Un?)Fortunately, things progressed very quickly from this point on as I briskly fluxed/tinned/soldered connections to get things finished much more quickly than my previous install. So I didn't take any more pictures until I was about finished.

iPhone speaker, upside down for clearance, and ESU/Loksound Select decoder
What I did though was make a styrene mounting board  like I did for the DL-109. This one was fashioned as a replacement for the PCB I'd removed, using .060" thick styrene, cut to .485" wide (to slide through the existing mounts above the motor) and 3.25" long (to provide enough support for the decoder and speaker, while not going into the cab area). Double-sided foam tape and Kapton tape completed the installation - well, except for the headlight.

Speaking of the headlight.... I used a 3mm clear white LED with a 1k resistor soldered on the cathode (- side of the LED). I would really have rather used a "warm white" or "sunny white" LED for a warmer, less bright white tone, but my local shop didn't have any. If you have any recommendations for what you'd use, please let me know!

Fortunately, the brightness of the LED can be adjusted on the ESU decoder and I dialed mine back to a level 10 (from a default value of 31). That toned the brightness down to an acceptable level, but it's still very white. If I find LEDs that look more like the "Golden Glow" headlights I've seen in color photos of New Haven diesels, I'll have no problem changing them all out. The hard work is already done.

Here's a shot of the completed installation, with the headlight installed.

And a closeup, showing the resistor, twisted headlight leads, and shrink tubing to keep everything isolated. You'll also notice that I cut back the LED leads quite a bit, opting for wire rather than the stiff leads for easier clearance.

Having finished one, and having another to do, I jumped right in.... Here's the second one on deck...

 And a finish photo below...

This time I opted to place the resistor further away from the decoder, at the risk of it showing in the cab. I don't know how much heat the resistor will give off - and the decoder produces heat too - so I figured separating them would be a good idea.

Things apparently were going All Too Well though - so Mr. Murphy decided to give my smugness a little slap. As I was attempting to put the shell back on the second locomotive, I managed to break off the rear coupler mount!

So here's the chassis, supported by two blocks of wood (rather than a foam cradle, which might hurt my decoder wiring), with the broken mount/coupler off to the side.

A closeup of the break. I'm going to try using contact cement to repair this, but given the strain/tension that this mount may have to endure hauling long freight trains, I don't know how well that will work or how long it'll last. In the meantime, I'm going to try to find some 1/4" square styrene to fabricate a new mount.

And if that wasn't "fun" enough - part way through this process, this happened:

That's my entire 3-drawer tool/supply cabinet spilled onto the floor(!) Another rookie mistake - having the two heaviest drawers pulled out at the same time and expecting it not to fall. %^)

All in all though, these decoder installs have been incredibly satisfying. I've succeeded in removing the mystery that had prevented me so long from even trying it - and now I'm, well, not a "veteran" but I certainly know how to do it. And HAVE done it, three times now. I don't know how long it'll take me to attempt an install on an old brass steam locomotive, but I'm fairly confident now that I can take care of most diesel installs. And that's a pretty cool place to be.

Hopefully my story will encourage some of you to give it a try - and if you do, be sure to let us know so we can cheer you on!