Monday, March 16, 2020

Uncle Sam Says: "Work on Your Model Railroad" (grade crossings)

I Want You for U.S. Army

If you ever needed a compelling reason to stay at home (notice I didn't say a "good" reason - there's really nothing good about the Coronavirus), I think our current situation should be reason enough. Provided you're able to. Huge thanks go out to all the folks that still have to go into work - the first responders, medical folks, and yes the drivers of the delivery trucks, the post office, the grocery workers, etc. These will be the heroes of this crisis.

But if you are able to stay home, please do & flatten the curve. And if you do - and you're reading this blog - you're probably a modeler of some sort, so do some modeling! Lots of time at home couldn't be a more ideal opportunity to finally get to all those projects you've been putting off (and I don't mean home projects. This IS a model railroad blog, after all).

I've definitely been doing my part lately. Since we've been ordered to work from home and I don't have to commute, I have two additional hours a day to work on the layout. Add to that the - ahem - lack of any need to get all dressed up, and that's even more "found" time.

And I've been trying to make the most of it in Wethersfield.

As of my last progress report back on March 5 (seems like an eternity ago...), I'd finished the bulk of the terraforming, then I worked on some structures, and did a quick & easy tar & sand road. Since then, I've been working on grade crossings.

"Why?" you might ask. Well, before you add any scenery to that terraforming, you really should put your roads in. And before you put your roads in (generally speaking), you should put in your grade crossings. Seeing that I needed to do three different crossings in Wethersfield (actually four - well, five, but we'll get to that), I figured I'd try some different techniques. Follow along in the photos and you should find a tip or two - if only of what NOT to do...

I must have beginner's luck since my first grade crossing is my standard for all future crossings and I really like how it came out. This is the crossing in East Berlin - made out of individual pieces of 1/16' x 3/32" stripwood to simulate 4"x8" in HO scale. The strips are a scale 13' long and include impressed bolt holes where they "fasten" to the ties. They're also beveled on the ends and at the edges where they press up against outside rail. I glued them to the ties with Aleene's Tacky Glue and used an india ink and alcohol mix to stain them to simulate sun bleaching. The road is foamcore with the paper peeled off, joints and cracks added, painted with Apple Barrel Pewter Gray craft paint, and weathered with brown and black Bragdon powders.

I started the Wethersfield grade crossings with Jordan Lane which will be flangeway-only and feature a pavement-filled center. I used scale 6x8 lumber, but at .069 x .092" they ended up being a little tall for my Code 70 rail. So I had to sand them down even with the rail height. While the Aleene's worked fine in East Berlin, I decided to try Duco cement on these since it bonds more quickly. The strips themselves are 26 scale feet long and beveled on the ends. And don't forget to bevel the bottom inside edge of the wood that's right up against the rail - otherwise, it won't clear the spike details.

For the Church Street crossing(s), I decided to try a pair of Blair Line grade crossings I had on-hand. Like the Jordan Lane crossing, I used the Duco cement, applied with a microbrush.

A good thing about these crossings is 1) the great cast-in detail, and 2) there's only 3 pieces per crossing so they're super quick to install. But it turned out, these crossings also were a little too tall, so I had to sand them down as well. I actually used a razor blade to trim off most of the wood, then finished with sandpaper. Don't worry about obscuring the cool details - a good vacuum will remove the sawdust that fills them up.

See? While Blair Line makes prestained crossings, these are obviously unstained. Even so, at $3.00 each, making your own crossings out of stripwood is much more economical (though the cast-in detail is really nice). Since they needed some color, I brushed on a lot of my india ink and alcohol mix.

Turned out, I used TOO much of my mix! The crossing centers warped and popped right off! You can see how effective the Duco was - apparently it dissolves with lots of alcohol - but still took up some of the paint from the ties.

I don't know how well you can make it out, but these pieces are really warped. I have to learn over and over again that there's little in this hobby that can't be fixed or redone - and that lesson helps a LOT when it comes to actually getting started and trying something new. So..... I figured if my mix warped the piece when applied to only one side, I'd just apply it to the other side, weigh it down, and take my chances.
Thankfully, I have the perfect setup for that: a piece of plate glass and an actual piece of rail!
The "outside" pieces only warped a little, so I applied some more glue and weighed those down in place.
While that was drying, I turned my attention to the more complicated crossing at Wells Road. This is where the siding for the Valley Coal Co. splits off the mainline, and on my layout (unlike the prototype), the road goes right through the turnout.
Like the crossing in East Berlin, this one was made entirely by single pieces of stripwood. And this time I used 1/16" x 1/8" pieces - both the right height (no sanding!) and a bit wider to save having to make SO many pieces, all cut-to-fit. The vertical pieces are "spacers" to maintain the flangeways while the glue dried.

I also took the time to add some bolt detail. I don't know if anybody will notice it, but it didn't take long and I at least will know it's there!

Final step is to mask off the pre-existing road and apply my I&A mix (sparingly, this time...)

The crossing at Jordan Lane turned out pretty good. You can just make out the bolt holes and you see how the I&A looks when dry. I'll cover the real concrete road construction in my next post.

And here are the Blair Line crossings at Church Street - all flattened and stained. The road here is sheet styrene, but - like Jordan Lane - I'll get into the specifics later.
Grade crossings are one of those necessary things that take a bit of time to do well. And are usually put off since they do take time that we often figure is better spent on "more important" parts of the layout. But I've discovered that making them can be pretty enjoyable. They're literally the primary - and sometimes only - physical interaction we have with a railroad. And trimming all those little bits of stripwood to fit can be a zen-like experience. So be sure and give them a try!

In the meantime, I'm going to try not only to make continued progress on the layout, but also try to post daily updates here. For those of you that don't yet have a model railroad - or are confirmed armchair modelers - I hope you find these updates entertaining. And if you do have a layout, I hope you're spending some "found" time working on it - and that these updates give you something helpful - or at least tell you about something to avoid other than a virus.

We'll get through this crisis together - our country has been through worse - and maybe, if we're lucky, we'll come out of the other side with a whole new slew of completed projects to show for the time.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Wayne! Appreciate your stopping by and taking the time to leave a comment!

  2. About half way down I was going to ask which you preferred, Duco or Aleene's...then I got to the warp. Yikes! Glad it worked out in the end.

    It is indeed time to stay in and build models. I hope to blog more frequently as well.