The “Fun” Part Begins

To those of you reading this blog, both of you, you should probably not expect too many updates mid-week. We do work a bit on the layout in the evenings but it’s usually an hour here, a half hour there. Most of our real progress is on the weekends.

Not so much this weekend though. It’s late fall in New England, which means weekends are largely spent outdoors, raking leaves in 40 degree temperatures and generally thinking maybe selling the house and renting an apartment in the city might not be such a bad idea.

But where would we put our train layout?

One of the reasons this project appeals to me is that there are many different skills involved. We’ve finished the bench, which was mostly carpentry, and now we’re laying the cork roadbed. Meanwhile I’m still building the first house model out of plastic, getting ready to begin painting. I’m also getting my feet wet learning about DCC encoders and systems.

Laying the roadbed requires care as any mistakes made here will show up later, causing the train to derail, sending hundreds of little plastic people to their fiery death.

The first step is to lay the track down temporarily.


Trust me, dad, it’s straight.

This we did by drilling out the holes for the track nails and using push pins to hold the track in place.

Over / Under pass.

Over / Under pass.

Once that was done we used a Sharpie and drew a series of dots down the centerline.


Connecting the Dots

Now that we knew exactly where the track was going we removed the push pins and took up the track, leaving a dotted line along the route.

The roadbed we used, Midwest Products Cork Roadbed, consists of a beveled piece of cork split down the middle. After brushing down some wood glue we aligned the cork along the dotted line and held it down with push pins, staggering the pieces of cork as we went.

Essential Tools include a Jack's Abby Hoponius Union IPA.

Essential Tools include a Jack’s Abby Hoponius Union IPA.

Progress was slow so we only have about half of the roadbed down. Hopefully we’ll get to more of it this week.

Meanwhile, I’m learning a bit about Digital Command Control.

Anyone who had an electric train as a kid (as I posted before, I was not one of them) will remember the power pack that you plugged into the wall and connected to the track via a couple of screw terminals. You then had a knob that controlled the speed and direction of the train. Simple.

Well, times have changed.

Trains these days, at least the ones beyond those bought at Toys-R-Us, are controlled by something called Digital Command Control. I won’t get too into it as there are literally books written on the subject. In short, it’s a way to control multiple engines on the same layout along with their functions (lights and possibly sound) and other controllable features on the layout. Each engine has an encoder inside it that you can then control with the DCC controller.  Each engine has a unique ID assigned to it so the system can “talk” to engines via their ID.

That’s the basic “I really don’t know what the hell I’m talking about” summary of DCC.

After weighing my options, including sticking with an old-fashioned DC throttle, I opted for a basic NCE Powercab starter kit and a lower-end Digitrax DCC encoder for my engine. Once I figured out how to get the top off the DCC-ready engine I bought from eBay, installing the decoder was easy.

Naked Train.

Naked Train.

There is a standard 8-pin plug on the encoder that installs easily enough. The only issue was that the instructions didn’t say where pin-1 was on the plug and this information was surprisingly difficult to find with Google. I eventually found a forum post that gave a vague clue that the orange wire was on pin-1 so I took a chance and plugged it in, crossing my fingers that when I applied power it didn’t catch fire or open up a worm hole, destroying all life as we know it.

Once that was done I set up the Digitrax controller and a piece of flex track, connecting the wires up with some test leads I have. Eagerly anticipating seeing my engine run on three feet of track, I carefully placed the wheels on the track, turned up the throttle and… nothing.

I think the problem is that the train is slightly out of focus.

Using my rarely-used voltmeter and a power supply I built back when I was a student at Sylvania Technical School (“Are you ready for an EXCITING CAREER in ELECTRONICS?”) over 25 years ago, I began troubleshooting. Did I have the encoder in backwards? Was the controller working? Was the track getting any current at all? I tried everything I could think of but nothing would get this train to run. Finally, I did something I rarely do, I read the instructions.

There were two cables supplied with the controller, a coiled one and a straight one. I assumed the coiled one was the one to use because… well.. because everyone knows hand controllers have coiled cables. This was not the case.

As soon as I swapped the coiled cable for the straight one, the train moved forward. I pressed the reverse button and the train reversed. Before I knew it I was Homer Simpson, alternating between forward and reverse over and over again. “Train goes forward… train goes backwards…train goes forward… train goes backwards”

All this on three feet of track. I can’t wait until the rest is done.

In between tinkering with wiring and laying down roadbed, I’m working on the house model as time allows.

This is the side porch where we had a Garfield poster, yes, a Garfield poster, that said "Welcome to the funny farm."

This is the side porch where we had a Garfield poster, yes, a Garfield poster, that said “Welcome to the funny farm.”

I’m assembling the sides by adding bracing where needed and carefully gluing the pieces together.

Clamping and gluing the foundation to the back porch.

Clamping and gluing the foundation to the back porch.

Making sure sides are straight and true and fastened at a 90 degree angle requires care and patience that I don’t really seem to possess in great quantities.  I’m managing though, and so far I’m happy with how it’s coming out.

You see that chimney? I made that. I'm kind of proud of it.

You see that chimney? I made that. I’m kind of proud of it.

I’ve decided to assemble the main structure and paint it a single color. I’ll then continue to add the details which is mainly white-painted trim around the windows, doors and roof line. I’ll also add some black shutters in the front.

We couldn't afford a roof.

We couldn’t afford a roof.

I’m struggling with just how detailed to make it. Do I add gutters and downspouts? An electric meter? Sillcocks? The answer is I’m not sure. Of course I need to add front and side steps and storm doors. I want it to be recognizable as our house and not any old Cape Cod style structure, but I don’t want it to take forever.

I have way too much still to do.





About Jim

Just a guy who likes to make stuff.
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