Some new goodies to make building models easier

New tools, I’ve written about them before, but there is nothing so motivating as new tools. Two areas of late have been causing me problems, and this week, solutions to both arrived.

Model Railroaders are sexy…said no one ever. But, I’ve hit the point where additional magnification is needed.

First up, something I have stubbornly refused to acknowledge despite wearing glasses. My eyesight isn’t getting any better, and seeing small parts and tiny decals has been a problem for years. I finally broke down and bought an Optivisor. I had been looking at a variety of options, but settled on a DA4 Optivisor, this provides 2X magnification of what you are looking at. The pictures above don’t really do the magnification effect justice, but the simple fact is I can read even the smallest decals on the sheet in the photos through the Optivisor, without it, well, I struggled to find where some of the smaller decals were on the sheet. Simple fact of the matter, I’ve been making my life harder because I’m stubborn. And, I didn’t get into model railroading to look good, as one certainly ups their nerd factor in the Optivisor!!

The Small Shop “Five Speed” photo etch bender. This thing is a beast, its not moving anywhere while you are working.

The second new tool is a reflection of the growing number of things I am doing, willing to try, and pushing myself on. I have never done a lot of work adding photo etched details (parts etched out of brass or other thin sheet metal that are finer and more detailed than plastic, I was trying to find a good explanatory link, this page for 4DModelshop in London isn’t great, but it explains a bit about getting custom etching done). In the past, because I haven’t had proper tools for cutting the fine metal parts, or folding them into shape, I have either mangled the parts, gotten barely passable results, or completely avoided them. In the fleet of freight cars I am building, a number from Yarmouth Model Works have gorgeous etched brass ladder components, and other etched parts for the underbody, and I want them to look good when done, so I finally broke down and bought an etch bender. Multiple friends (including Pierre Oliver who runs Yarmouth Models) have recommended the benders by The Small Shop. Being my usual frugal self and humming and hawing for ages, thinking I could make do with a slightly cheaper tool available from our local shops, I finally reached my usual point of deciding that in buying tools, spending money is OK to get good ones that are hopefully well made and will last a long time. I am happy to report that this is indeed a well made tool. The aluminum milled upper half for bending and folding is gorgeous, and the base has some serious heft, this tool won’t move on you once you put it on your workbench and start using it, which is a must. Even without using it yet, I can feel the quality difference from those I’ve seen on the shelves in stores. I’m pretty confident that whenever I start working on bending parts with this, I’ll be able to happily report that it works well.

Moving Mock-ups to be Temporary Buildings

It’s going to take me a while to build all the buildings on my layout, but that doesn’t mean I can’t improve the mockups. Some have received printouts of more accurate shapes and window patterns taped on to help visualize how I am compressing them. Today, thanks to the miracle of colour printing, I have added some real realism to the Toronto Carpet Factory building.

Photographs perspective cropped in Photoshop giving a better sense of the accurate height and appearance of the Carpet Factory.

As well, while I said I’d finished the mock ups, I realized that I had in fact not done so. I now have mock ups of the last two buildings that are located along the layout edge. These really drive home creating tight spaces on the layout, and fortunately are small enough that they shouldn’t get in the way of operators reach to uncouple cars.

The Bowser Mfg building on the southeast of Liberty Street and Mowat Avenue.

I’m squeezing a large block into a small space in the pictures below, trying to keep the “feel” of the buildings but not the proportions. We will see how this goes, this building has been honestly kicking my butt this week trying to figure out compression and window patterns and such. The left side is the important part as it gets space for a loading dock that was on the building. The right side is because I want to model at least a little bit of the building at 58 Atlantic on the corner, as it has 2nd floor bay windows that add visual interest compared to the other buildings on the layout.

The south side between Jefferson Ave and Atlantic Ave.

So, one thing I’ve realized, including the buildings between the edge of the benchwork and the track was both a great idea and a bad idea. It photographs great, but it will certainly add challenges to operation and cleaning track. That said, so far I’m happier with them than I think I would be without them, so on we go.

Tuesday Train #203


Canadian Pacific Railway SD40-2F No 9006 leads an eastbound expressway intermodal trailer train from Detroit to Toronto (Milton) circa 2001. I don’t know why I thought shooting from the south side here would be good, the light was terrible, but it’s a rare for me daytime CPR success. The Expressway service would later be reduced to just Toronto-Montreal, and eventually cancelled in 2018. One of the last Toronto-Montreal trains made Tuesday Train #107 at that time. The picture below shows the custom joined flatcars that trailers were driven onto and off of at each end of the run in the terminals. The service was an attempt to compete with overnight trucking for regional traffic between Toronto, Montreal and Detroit.


A three hour structure build – Exide Batteries of Canada

So, this is an odd one, I thought my just under two day build of the Gilbert Foundry building was fast. I way outdid that tonight. Even accounting for maybe 20 minutes Sunday night cutting the styrene core walls to height, and visualizing what I wanted to do, the majority of this building was done in 3 hours, with a two hour post work session from 5pm-7pm where the majority of the work was done, and with half an hour of adjusting during my Train Night in Canada Zoom which has moved from Saturdays to Mondays for the summer.

Google Streetview images of the former Exide Batteries of Canada plant at the south end of Mowat Avenue in 2009, shortly before it was demolished.

This building is at the opposite end of the layout from where I have been working, it is immediately adjacent to the Canadian National Staging yard. The building actually is screening two tail tracks from staging for equipment to be able to run around or to park extra cars not used often in. With that in mind, the fact that this building didn’t really have windows meant that it would be easy to build. A couple of loading doors, and one small set of high windows, and otherwise, it was all brick.

The matteboard mockup in place while I was working on the building with the MDF foundation.

This was a pretty easy build, three walls, three openings, a small loading dock and a roof. I didn’t actually intend to finish it in a couple of hours, but sometimes you hit the groove and you just need to keep going. For this building, I used a thinner 0.030″ styrene core, and some Plastruct brick sheet. It’s not quite as fine detailed as the N-Scale Architect I’ve been using for other buildings, but using different brands does also give subtle differences to how buildings look, and I don’t want them to all look like exactly the same brick was used.

Checking the fit before adding the roof. As you can see, the building nicely screens two tracks that are 9″ long, big enough for the largest piece of equipment on my layout to be positioned on.

This was also an easy build as it is another building that is all off-the shelf windows and doors, from my stock of Grandt Line (now San Juan Details). While I’m sooner or later going to run out of buildings I can build with windows and doors that are off the shelf, this is the 4th of 16 buildings on the layout that I’ve started (though the really big ones haven’t been started!).

The mostly finished building in place, I left the roof short so you can still reach in and uncouple cars.

I also used some roof capping that I had bought for another building, and thought it was too big to clean up the roof line for part of the building, and then some styrene strip to try and mirror the appearance of the building from the streetview images at the top.

I am really going to need to find some motivation to get sorted and do some primering of these buildings, though as I’ve said before, they are too big for my paint booth, and it’s too humid to paint outside, so for now, I’ve at least got a collection of unpainted structures replacing the matteboard and foamcore board mockups. Even unpainted the look so much better and motivate me to keep building!

Installing the first Bullfrog Switch Machine

So, in my last post, I wrote about working up to attempting to install a Fast Tracks Bullfrog Switch Machine. on Saturday over the weekend, I took the plunge and after ballasting the track around the first one I wanted to install, I installed one.

Here we go, the first switch I am going to install a Bullfrog in after ballasting on Saturday morning.

Slow and steady was the plan here. Once I got the throw wire threaded through the throw rod on the switch, I marked where I wanted to drill a hole in the fascia for the control lever, and drilled the hole. I think now that I know where from the bottom of the fascia the hole goes, I will be able to drill them from the outside, this first one I drilled from the inside. Using an 11/64 drill, which I think was a size small, I created a nice tight hole that holds the outer red tube for the RC aircraft control rod in place nice and tight without any clamp or glue. Once the outer rod was in, I inserted the yellow inner rod through, and screwed the threaded metal rod into the clevis on the Bullfrog. Here I found another advantage of the clevis over the z-rod Fast Tracks provides, its easy to unthread the control rod from the clevis, and it gives a built in adjuster to move the end of the control rod away from the fascia (this becomes important in a bit).

My first installation of a Bullfrog. Getting a mark for drilling the control rod, getting the control rod in, the Bullfrog mounted and everything fastened in place.

With everything in place, I very gently started testing the switch and if the throw worked. It did, but it was very tight, and in addition to the side to side motion, I was seeing vertical motion, which is bad as the narrow n-scale tie used as the throwbar holding the rails together was flexing and risking breaking. We’d broken one elsewhere on the layout installing track and drilling them, so I know they are fragile if they bend up and down. I also discovered that the way I had put things together, the knob on the end of the rod to throw the switch was right on the fascia and impossible to grab. loosing the control rod in the clevis moved the grab off the benchwork. Problem solved with minimal fuss.

For now I am going to use the knobs sold by Fast Tracks, but I want something more substantial for the future I think.

I was not entirely happy with how it was working at first. It was very tight to pull, and it was visibly putting pressure on the tie bar connecting the rails. After chatting with a friend by text, I disassembled the Bullfrog from below and did some sanding on the moving part around the holes for the ball bearing. This let it move with a lot less tension, while still achieving the lock of the rails the ball bearing is there to provide. The cleanup and adjustment to the Bullfrogs is I think worthy of its own post in the next few days when I work on another and remember to take some pictures of the cleanup.

Video of testing the throw before cutting off the wire and putting on a proper pull handle.

Of course, no successful project goes unpunished, so in ballasting the next switch where I am going to install a Bullfrog, after ballasting the glue was as is often the case, holding the rails in place, in the process of gently prying the rail to break the glue bond, I broke a rail off the throwbar. I am not a great or confident solderer, but instead of burying my head and moping, I got at it and with a little flux in place, got the rail and tiebar wedged back together, and re-soldered the rail. It appears from the track gauge that I got it back in exactly the right place, and equipment seems to still go through properly, so it appears that was also a fail/succeed moment.

It’s hard to see, but on the far point rail, the silver of the fresh solder can just be seen!

So, all in all, I’m quite pleased with my Saturday progress on this one, as I now have one switch machine installed, only twelve more to go!

Working my way up to installing Switch Machines

Before I’d actually started to build the layout, I was doing lots of little things to build skills. One of them was to build a test piece of roadbed that I could install a Bullfrog Switch Machine from Fast Tracks into to start to get a feel for doing so, as I’ve got 13 turnouts to install them on on the layout, and outside the one tester I did, I’ve installed exactly zero turnout machines, be they Bullfrogs or Tortoises or any other brand. On every previous bit of working layout I’ve built, my switches have had nothing and were flipped by hand, or Caboose Industries ground throws. Below layout, remotely operated switches is new ground for me, and I’ve been slowly building up to my first attempt to install a switch machine on the layout.

I have two switches where scenery has made it past them at a base level, but they are both in a corner of the layout and in a tight spot to work with curved fascia. This feels to me like setting myself up to fail by starting in a hard spot to work in. Frankly, I had been hoping that working with a friend who has done them before to help me see the quirks of installation would have been in the cards for this summers build day get together. I’ve had 3 group work days on the layout now in just under 2 years, but Covid-19 is now in the way of having friends over 😦 .

I’m pleased at how much I’ve been able to do myself, but things like the benchwork was a multi person job, some of the complicated trackwork was, and so was at least the first phases of wiring so I could mostly observe and learn from others so I could do it myself and have a reference of others work. I was and kinda still am hoping for the same with the switch machines. I also, quite frankly love inviting 3-4 friends over to “work” on the layout and have a meal together. Yes our sessions when I’ve had friends over have all been super productive, but I’d be OK if they weren’t too, as the social side of the hobby is also important to me. I look forward to the near future where the things left to do are structures and scenery and the layout is in a state to operate, as then I can invite my friends over without the overt use of them as extra labour for a beer and some BBQ!!

Of late, I’ve been looking at how to make all the connections between the Bullfrog and the RC aircraft control rods that move the switch machine from the fascia pull lever. I picked up some mini clevises last weekend, and I think I like them better than the Z rods that Fast Tracks provides. I have extra Z rods, and a couple were badly misshaped, so I cut one off with the Dremel to get to a straight 2-56 threaded rod, and made the connection between the clevis and rod so that I can play around with the machine and how to make the connections.

Two Fast Tracks Bullfrog switch machines, on the left with a clevis attached to the throw, on the right with the Z-bend connector from Fast Tracks.

I can see that I am just going to have to work myself up to doing it on my own sooner or later, but I think I am going to at least give myself the best chance of success by doing the first install on a piece of track where the switch throw is perpendicular to the fascia, and then move onto the harder ones, so with that I think my first weekend task is some more basic ground cover to get a spot ready to install a switch at.