3D Printing & Model Railroading – No it’s not Voodoo (Part 1)

One emerging aspect of technology and the Hobby that i have had the good fortune to have the right skills to be at the leading edge of is 3D printing.  I’ve been lucky to have learned the right skills to let me engage in this part of the hobby, and over the past five years or so i have experimented and pushed myself to do more detailed and bigger designs, but i’ll get to that in due course following this introductory post on the subject.

The first thing to do, is to clear up some misconceptions or preconceptions about what this means.  I get looked at like I’m some kind of heathen by so many “old school” modellers when i say i have had something 3D printed, rather than building it out of strips or wood or styrene or brass or whatever.  3D printing isn’t some voodoo black magic, and I’m not a wizard or warlock or any other mystical creature just because i am applying new technology to the hobby and experimenting.  Many long time modellers seem to think that there is no skill in building a 3D printed model, or that it somehow cheapens the hobby, which couldn’t be further from the truth in my opinion.  In some ways, it may be what saves the hobby, as people younger than me may not come into the hobby by traditional routes, but through the “maker” culture they may be interested in various aspects of the hobby that draw them in further.  My friend Trevor Marshall recently spoke at the NMRA Frontier Division convention in Ottawa about this, and has tackled this issue on his blog here, i won’t repeat what he’s said, as its far more insightful than i could be, and isn’t the core point of this post.

Back to my point, which is an introduction to my 3D printing and design projects in relation to model railroads.  Excluding completely the computer and drawing skills required to create the model and have something to send to 3D print (which is no different than preparing drawings to build a traditional model), what you get back from Shapeways, iMaterialize, the public library, a home printer or anywhere else is far from a finished and ready to go model.  It’s a part, and often looks like an incomprehensible blob of plastic until you have cleaned it, painted it, added detail parts, and applied all the other “traditional” modelling skills that you need to know to actually turn the output of a 3D printer into a model worthy of using on your layout.  These skills are still needed, as 3D printing is expensive, and wasteful if you use it to print large flat surfaces that could much more easily be done in card or styrene using the 3D print as a frame.  This is especially effective on models of buildings, but that’s a discussion for down the road.

By way of background, i first learned to use a 3D modelling program in 2000, in a second year Design Studio course in the Urban and Regional Planning program at the University of Waterloo.  We were introduced to a modelling program called FormZ, which was used at the university in the Planning and Architecture departments to construct 3D models of buildings or city blocks for projects.  While I’ve never been a competent drawer by hand, and now have passable AutoCAD skills, at the time, i had little background in computer graphics, but something clicked, and i readily took to the 3D modelling in university.

Sampling of project images from University of Waterloo Site Planning and Design Courses using FormZ.

Fast Forward almost a decade from when i graduated university, I started dabbling in using FormZ for scale models in 2012 at my place of employment, as we had bought a copy several years earlier since i knew how to use it.  In my day job being able to quickly mock up 3D views  comes in handy for projects to do some basic visualizations of proposed buildings or expansion, even at the skill/detail level of a land use planner rather than a full architectural design.  Working on 3D models of railroad stuff at lunch and after hours is a good way to clear the mind in the office for when you actually need to be focused on work.  At some point, i heard about Shapeways, who are a commercial business set up to bring 3D printing to the people, you upload your designs, and they print them on machines you could never afford for home use. This was the motivation to see if i could use the service to make things i couldn’t reasonably make using traditional methods.

I started out working on designs to replicate the 7.5″ gauge live steam equipment at the Toronto Railway Museum.  I had been considering building a model of the structures and railway village at the museum, but to do so, would mean a lot of work as nothing was available commercially, none of the structures, and none of the “miniature” railway equipment.  Searching online, i found T Gauge track, a Japanese micro scale, which at 1:450th scale equipment is tiny, but more relevant, the 3mm track gauge scaled to 10″ in HO Scale, close enough to be indiscernible from 7.5″ gauge that’s in the park.  This plan worked and by the end of 2013, i had what i call my “proof of concept” model that i could in fact model the miniature railway effectively, which meant i could move on to a larger project.  I’ll talk more about the larger project later in future posts.

3D Printed 7.5″ Miniature Railway Equipment in HO Scale. 3D Printed in Shapeways “White Strong & Flexible” laser sintered nylon material.  Shown unpainted and painted with figures added on a diorama.

Having been successful in small parts, my next decision was to try and see if i could apply the 3D printed techniques to something a bit more challenging, creating a custom model of a piece of rolling stock.  For the first attempt, rather than build a whole car, I wanted to take a readily available piece of equipment, in this case, a Walthers HO Scale Heavyweight Solarium, and replace all the windows to accurately match the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Cape Race, another car on display at the Toronto Railway Museum.  The basic dimensions of the Walthers car are close for the CPR Cape, but the windows along the sides of the car are all wrong, and for a passenger car, that makes all the difference in how it looks.  Once i had the Walthers car, i determined that i could cut out the window strip, and design a whole new strip to go into the car.

Design, execution and finished product of a 3D printed window strip for a Canadian Pacific “Cape” solarium car.

Having the luxury of access to the actual Cape Race car at the Toronto Railway Museum, I was able to physically measure the actual car to get window spacing, dimensions and other relevant details to do the design.  Black Cat Publishing make decals for the CPR Cape series cars, which made finishing the model easy.  Traditional techniques to construct a new roof (the Walthers roof has an air conditioning duct down one side that the CPR cars did not have).

With the knowledge that these “easy” projects were achievable, and having taken the time to learn and understand the limits of what can and can’t be printed by Shapeways in their different materials, I have moved on to much larger and more complicated projects, but that is a future post.

5 thoughts on “3D Printing & Model Railroading – No it’s not Voodoo (Part 1)

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