Progress on all fronts

It’s been a rainy, stormy weekend, the kind of weekend where I can stay indoors without feeling guilty. The Boy had a spontaneous sleepover on Halloween night that lasted into Saturday afternoon so I had most of the morning to work on the house model.

I started this project partially to learn a bit about myself and I’m happy to report I learned something very important this morning:

Cutting windows out of styrene is a giant pain in the ass.

The windows I bought come in various sizes and I’ve found the best fit for the windows around my mom’s house. I’d first measure the width and height of the windows, figure out where on the side of the house they would go, then spend a good twenty minutes laying it out with a square and various rulers. Then I’d use a straight edge and an X-Acto knife to cut out the rough openings.

One of about forty seven windows I had to painstakingly measure and cut out an opening for.

One of about forty seven windows I had to painstakingly measure and cut out an opening for.

Then I’d realize I’d made a mistake, such as mixing up my left and right (I cut from the back side, so I have to do everything in reverse), cutting a hole too large, mixing up my top and bottom (the clapboard siding I’m using has to be oriented properly) or screwing up any number of other things that can be screwed up.

So then I’d have to start over, tossing that side of the house into my scrap styrene container and cutting a fresh side.


Cutting windows for the back porch. I have vague memories of sitting in this porch, watching Game Six of the 1975 World Series when Carlton Fisk hit his home run and all the fans stormed the field.

Eventually I’d get it right and test fit the windows. Most of the time the fit was ok but occasionally I’d have to widen it with the knife or sand it down a bit. The windows aren’t exactly the same as the one’s on my mom’s house but they’re close enough.

And empty shell of my childhood home, loosely assembled with masking tape. I think this is some sort of metaphor or something.

An empty shell of my childhood home, loosely assembled with masking tape. I think this is some sort of metaphor or something.

So far I’m happy with how the house is coming along though I have a long way to go and I’m not sure what the end result will look like. I’ve been experimenting with paint colors, trying to get one that matches the gold/yellow aluminum siding we had. I’ve also begun work on the chimney, using some brick textured styrene. The roof will probably be the very last thing I do. I look forward to learning how I can manage to screw it up.

Sunday afternoon my wife, Amy, and The Boy came home from church and after doing his homework and getting some computer time in he came down to the basement and we started screwing down the subroadbed. Getting the grade laid out properly was a bit of a chore. I had to make a little grade gauge to attach to a level and make sure it was a consistent 2.5% throughout. This is a bit steep by model railroad standards but this is a small layout and I’ll have to condense things a bit.

2.5%, just like my annual raises.

2.5%, just like my annual raises.

The Boy and I settled into a routine where I would measure the height the track needed to be, cut a riser out of a 1×3, glue it to the joist and drill some holes. Then he’d drive in the screws where they were needed. After a bit he took over some of the drilling duties as well. I’m not quite ready to have him use the chop saw. Small steps.


The Boy, screwing down the subroadbed.

The Boy, screwing down the subroadbed.

By 4:00 it was time for me to start making dinner so we called it a day. We have the grade on one side of the layout done but there’s a lot more to do. There’s a grade on the other side and various levels plywood to lay down. It will probably be a couple of weeks before we can start laying track.

Going up.

Going up.

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More Benchwork

We’d built the bench frames, made our track plan, and ordered our track. It was time to continue the benches and cut the plywood to conform to the various grades of our miniature world.

We started by laying out two 4×8′ plywood sheets and a 2×4′ plywood peninsula onto the floor. The Boy and I laid down our our track to conform to the plan, using a square and protractor to make sure our straight lines were straight and our angles were… um… angled.

Straight and True.

Straight and True.

We drilled some holes in a yardstick, put a nail through the one-inch mark, and used it as a large compass to mark out our 21 inch radius curves.


Setting up the yard.

After laying out all the track we marked a 3″ path around the centerline where we’d be cutting out the subroadbed wherever the track went up or down a grade, or was a different level from the surrounding landscape.

I then used my crappy Black and Decker jigsaw to cut out all our “cookie cutter” subraodbed and landscape, in addition to cutting the plywood to match the shape of the benches. We hauled the plywood onto the benches and for the first time could see the shape of our world.


The Boy, making sure we have adequate access for any tunnel derailments.

The next week we started on the backdrop, since a background of particle board and concrete wouldn’t really seem realistic unless we were modeling some sort of post-apocalyptic prison-world train layout. While that sounds pretty cool, we thought a base of hardboard with some happy little trees and clouds might be more appropriate. If only we could hire Zombie Bob Ross to paint it for us, but he’s booked solid for the next few thousand years.

We built a couple of frames out of 1x2s for the hardboard, adding enough strips so the hardboard wouldn’t buckle or warp. Is buckling the same as warping? Maybe. I guess we have absolutely no way of ever knowing for sure. Anyway…

I can't think of anything witty to say about building a frame.

I can’t think of anything witty to say about building a frame.

Once the frame was done we fastened it to the same 1×2 stripping that the benches were attached to. We put the hardboard up and screwed it to the frame with drywall screws, first drilling countersinks so we could wind up with a smooth surface. Once that was done, we patched it with drywall compound. We’ll sand it smooth and patch it again if needed, ending up with a mostly flat surface for the backdrop paint.

The most tedious job known to man: patching and sanding drywall compound.

The most tedious job known to man: patching and sanding drywall compound.

The plywood was down on the benches but not yet fastened. We measured and cut some more joists, screwing them to the L Girders from underneath.  I’d drill the countersinked holes and The Boy would then put the screws in. With the two of us tackling it together we had all the joists in quickly and the plywood, although not yet screwed down, had plenty of support.

The picture was not posed in any way, you have our money-back guarantee on that!

The boy uses an out-of-focus power drill/driver in order to screw in the joists.

Still left to do on the bench is to build risers for the track grades and the various levels of the landscape. The middle of the bench will contain a town with a below-grade track in the middle of it, just like our town, so that will take a little bit of work.

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Milhouse: What are they saying?
    Bart: I'm not sure.
Milhouse: I thought you said you could read lips.
    Bart: I assumed I could.

I am Bart Simpson.

I look at a lot of things and just sort of assume I can do them. In the past I’ve toyed with music recording, video production, carpentry, astronomy, guitar playing, claymation, computer programming, plumbing, home wiring, and any number of other crafts.

In most cases, nobody showed me how to do these things, I just assumed I could do them, and I did them. Very often, badly, but I still did them. If I were spying on someone through binoculars I’d probably assume I could read their lips, just as Bart Simpson did.

If we’re building a train layout, we’re going to need buildings. One thing The Boy and I decided on early is that we wanted our layout to reflect our town and the things we’re familiar with, both currently and, in my case, in the past.

This will include the house I grew up in or, as he knows it, Grandma’s House.

The house I grew up in. Also known as "Grandma's House."

The house I grew up in. Also known as “Grandma’s House.”

I built a lot of model kits as a kid and a few as an adult. Unfortunately, nobody makes a model kit of Grandma’s House. I guess I’ll have to build it from scratch.

I’ve never really built a model from scratch before, but I assume I can do it.

I did some homework and ordered a some sheet styrene, including some HO-scale lumber strips and some clapboard siding that resembled the aluminum siding of my mother’s house.

My mother moved into senior housing about a year ago so, unfortunately, I can’t swing by and measure the house or take pictures. I found the rough dimensions of the footprint on our town’s assessor’s website and I have a few random photographs. Using the dimensions from the town and the photos I estimated the height and angle of the roof and the size of the porches.

I bought an assortment of HO scale windows from Tichy Train Group and found the best matches for the various windows around the house.

With not much more than an X-Acto knife, an HO ruler, and a small square, I got to work.

Tools of the trade

Tools of the trade

Within minutes, I was right in my element. Measuring, cutting. Creating! I was ten years old building a model of the Helicopter from 240-Robert! I’m in The Zone, baby.

Hyperfocusing, is what it’s called.

After an hour or two I had cut out most of the sides of the house. The trouble is, if you look at a house, at least my mom’s house, it’s not just a rectangle. There are porches jutting out of it, doors, windows, a bulkhead leading to the basement. All of this had to be modeled as well. If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this right.

It was difficult for me to visualize where all these things would fit in the house so as I cut out the various pieces I taped them loosely with masking tape so I could see it all fit together.

Now I just need to find an HO scale dysfunctional family to put inside.

The house is starting to take shape. Now I just need to find an HO scale dysfunctional family to put inside.

At this point it was getting late so I called it a night. I have a lot more work to do including cutting out the holes for the windows and doors, adding the foundation and structural braces, building doors, adding trim, building the roof, and of course gluing it all together, painting and weathering it.

Then I’ll want to build the garage and maybe a model of the pool we had when I was a kid.

So far my first attempt at scratch building is going well. I assumed correctly.

Stay tuned.

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I have a confession to make: I am intimidated by plywood. Or at least I was.

Plywood is heavy. And big. A 4×8 sheet of it won’t fit in my Subaru Forester. Getting it from my car to my basement by myself is nearly impossible. Where do I put it? With my Craftsman circular saw I’ve never been able to cut a straight line, even with a guide. Moving it around with all the crap in my basement is a chore.

Good god, I have a phobia of plywood. I wonder if there’s a name? A quick Google tells me there isn’t, so I guess I’m alone.

I decided long ago to never let my fears hold me back. I had a fear of flying when I started my flying lessons. I have a crippling fear of certain bugs (mostly centipedes and other bugs you find under wet logs) but when it came time to dispose of a giant pile of damp construction waste that was sitting in my driveway, I forced myself to do it. I go to an improv comedy workshop even though about 90% of what we do is outside of my comfort zone. Last year I went off a rope swing that had been taunting me for years. It was terrifying, but I knew it wasn’t going to kill me, so I did it.

Did this blog about a father/son train layout just turn into a therapy session? I think so. Anyway, plywood…

I knew if we were going to build a train layout I’d need to get some plywood into my basement. I actually worried about this for a few days. Seriously. I lay awake at night thinking about plywood!

Then the day came when I had to go out to Home Depot and buy a couple sheets. In preparation, I put the roof racks on the Subaru, bought a panel carrier and a new Makita circular saw. I cleared a little room in the shop and took a deep breath. Let’s do this.

I had a guy at Home Depot help me get the plywood on my roof and got it home no problem. With the panel carrier I got it into my basement with little more than a mild struggle. And the saw? It cut that wood like butter, perfectly straight.

Yet another phobia eliminated.

I just wrote an entire post about plywood. Even worse, you just read it.

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“You have too much time on your hands.”

Let’s just nip this one in the bud, shall we?

Someone is going to read this blog, or see my layout, and utter the phrase “You have too much time on your hands.”

It’s going to happen, I know it. It’s happened before.

This phrase will most likely be typed in an internet comment, one of several thousand comments that person has probably posted that day. After closing up their computer they’ll turn the TV on and switch between a football game and a reality TV show. Wouldn’t want to waste time now, would they?

I wasted time setting up my telescope and camera to take this shot when I could have been watching sports on TV.

I wasted time setting up my telescope and camera to take this shot when I could have been watching sports on TV.

I’m not one for hyperbole, but the phrase “you have too much time on your hands” is probably the dumbest phrase in the entire history of phrases. I’m pretty sure phrases were invented some time in the 1700s, so that’s a pretty long history.

Here’s the thing: Nobody has TOO MUCH time. Most of us don’t have enough.

When we’re told we have too much time on our hands it’s implied that our time would be better spent sitting in a cubicle typing TPS reports or cleaning spilled oil from orphaned penguins in the Antarctic. Time, it seems, is too precious to waste creating a train layout or building a martini mixing machine out of Lego bricks, or doing anything that might seem pointless to someone who lacks imagination.

I have a job. I spend enough time in a cubicle, thank you very much. I even like my job most days. Still, when I spend my time creating something it fills me with pride and satisfaction that I rarely get anywhere else.

My creativity comes in spurts. I’ll spend months not writing anything, building anything, programming anything, or strumming anything, so when I do get a burst of creativity you better believe I’m going to take advantage of it. I’m going to “waste” my precious, precious, time writing or building or programming or strumming.

I built this for The Boy instead of working on a way to bring clean water to drought-stricken areas.

I built this for The Boy instead of working on a way to bring clean water to drought-stricken areas.

We should all spend more time doing things we enjoy.

So yeah, tell me I have too much time on my hands. Or better yet, don’t.


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Benchwork has begun

The perfect is the enemy of the good enough. This is what I have to keep telling myself. Before I start any big project I always put it off, afraid to take that big plunge because it might be difficult, or I might screw it up, or I might get bored halfway through, or a meteorite might wipe out all of humanity next Tuesday and do I really want my final moments on Earth to be scratching my head over the plywood choices at Home Depot?

No. No I don’t. But I can’t put it off forever, meteorite or no meteorite. It’s time to get started.

Ready to get started. First I have to relocate the modeling bench.

Ready to get started!

We had our space cleared out, a track plan, some books, and some tools. My wife was going away last weekend so it was a perfect time for The Boy and I to start our project. He was pumped, I was pumped.

Despite my need to research everything to death ahead of time I’m actually very bad at planning things.  I don’t draw a plan, I don’t make a list, I don’t build prototypes. When I build things it’s more like sculpture. I figure out the thing I have to do, I do it, and then I figure out the next thing. Repeat. Sometimes rewind. Not the most efficient way to do something but I can’t get my brain to work any other way.

Friday night while I was waiting for The Boy’s drum lesson to let out I finally figured out just what I’d be building. There are several different ways to build a train bench but two of the more popular are Open Grid and L-Girder. Open grid, which is built like a ladder, a box with joists in between, seemed to make more sense given the shape of the bench, and it seemed a bit less complicated.  L-Girder benches have home-built girders whose cross sections look like an L, hence the name. The advantage is you have greater spans between legs than you would most other ways. L-Girder seemed like it would use less wood and, since I was trying to keep costs down, this seemed like the way to go.

Five minutes before the lesson ended I did some quick math to figure out how much and what type of lumber to get and we went straight from the lesson to Home Depot. We returned home with a decent pile of 2x4s (mostly for the wall I still needed to build), 1x3s, 2x2s, and 1x2s. Add to that some deck screws and we were good to go.

A pile of lumber for the benchwork.

A pile of wood.

The next morning we got up bright and early, had breakfast, and headed down to the basement, ready to start the project. First came the wall.

Well, actually, first came the outlet we had to relocate. Then came the wall.

Then came the rebuilding of half the wall after we realized I’d measured something wrong.

Then came the realization that we’d built the wall on the floor but couldn’t raise it up in place because there was duct work in the way.

It was now lunchtime and we had very little to show for our efforts. After lunch The Boy wanted to watch some TV since he’d decided he wasn’t really into the whole carpentry thing. I went down the basement and quickly re-built the wall, this time in place, like I should have done from the beginning. The wall was done. We could get started on the thing we were going to do in the first place.

The wall for the modeling bench.

The wall for the modeling bench.

Ok, kid, c’mon down and let’s start the bench. First we put up 2x2s along the wooden wall. Easy. He was into this part. Now we had to do the same along the concrete wall only with pressure treated 2x2s and Tapcons.

Tapcons are a brand name of screw that I’ve come to love. Each package comes with a drill bit. Along with a hammer drill, you drill a hole, screw the screws in, and they hold tight. I usually use them along with some construction adhesive to make sure whatever I hang is going to be permanent.

Oops. I didn’t have the right length of Tapcons. The ones I had on hand were for putting up 1x4s for some other project. I had to hang 2x2s and my Tapcons weren’t long enough. I’d have to go back to Home Depot later but for now I decided to just finish the first bench.

Building shelf brackets of this kind was new ground for me so we got off to a slow start but before we knew it we had four of them in a row.

He's pretty good with a cordless drill.

He’s pretty good with a cordless drill.

I took great pains to make sure they were level, both individually and in reference to each other. Of course, spending all that time leveling things isn’t exciting to a twelve year-old so by this time he’d remembered he had some homework to finish and he retreated upstairs. That’s fine, it’s not the type of thing we needed two people for and it was actually a bit faster to do it myself.

Four happy little brackets, all in a row.

Four happy little brackets, all in a row.

As happens, by five o’clock I had a lot less done than I expected to but I still called it a day. I had the first bench partially finished and expected to have the rest done the next day.

Sunday came and I headed off to Home Depot bright and early, sans child, and picked up the right Tapcons, some additional lumber, and four pieces of plywood for the bench tops and also to cover the stud wall I’d built the day before.

I finished the first bench and got to work putting the PT 2×2 studs against the concrete wall. Something about using a hammer drill to drill into a basement wall fills me with a sense of power. It’s nice to own a home!

Thor like hammer drill!

Thor like hammer drill! Photo by The Boy.


That blue screw is a Tapcon. Drill a hole, screw it in, and you can attach anything to a concrete wall.

Some Tapcons, some Liquid Nails, and the studs were quickly up. I then started the rest of the brackets using the same care to ensure everything was level.

No finer sight.

No finer sight.

I should mention that The Boy called some friends over and they spent the entire day building things in Minecraft instead of the basement, so I worked solo on Sunday. He assured me that he’d be more into it once we got to laying out the track and building scenery. We’ll see.

This would be an L-Girder, constructed from a 1x2 and a 1x3.

This would be an L-Girder, constructed from a 1×2 and a 1×3.

Other than building the L-Girders, which involved gluing, most of the project was simply measuring, cutting with the compound miter saw, drilling countersink holes and screwing wood to other wood. Very straightforward building.

One of my most-used tools.

One of my most-used tools. Also the tool that thus far has come closest to taking out my eye.

Building the peninsula was a bit time consuming as I had to measure everything to precisely fit against the shelf. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have to re-do a couple of things.

For me, a day of building something in my basement fills me with more pride than an entire year at my job, and I actually like my job. By the end of Sunday I’d had all the benches done and I was pretty happy with the results. More joists had to be added and of course the plywood cut but that would all happen after we had the track on hand.

Mostly done.

Mostly done.

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The Plan

I should start by saying I know nothing at all about trains and how they work.

Before I started this project I assumed when you built a model train you made a loop, added some scenery, put the train on it and let it run until you got bored with it. I was mostly wrong.

San Diego Model Railroad Museum.

San Diego Model Railroad Museum.

Because I have the need to over think and suck the fun out of everything I did a lot of research. I scanned internet sites, I read books, I (or rather, The Boy and I) subscribed to Model Railroader Magazine, and we visited train shows. It turns out there is so much more to this hobby than watching a train go around the track.

I think it’s safe to say that most serious model railroaders don’t even make loops. Loops aren’t very realistic. Other than the Monorail at Disney World, have you ever actually seen a train that makes a loop? What would be the point of that?

A “model railroad” is just that, a model of a real railroad. Most of the bigger layouts are point-to-point and operate like the real thing. Some of the bigger layouts (and there are some amazingly huge layouts in clubs and basements all over) have dispatcher booths and might require several people to operate them. They use actual schedules and waybills and move freight (or at least model freight cars) around on schedule, building trains, hooking up two boxcars and making ’em run right.

Some layouts might model an industry, such as coal. The operators will move coal cars from the mines down to whatever customers need coal. Occasional loads of wood will come down from the mountains and maybe a boxcar or two of supplies will need to go up to the mines. Because the layouts are smaller than the real thing, the schedule will operate on a clock that is designed to run fast so that the operators have the pressure of time to deliver their loads.

When I started looking into this hobby I went deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole.  I started with the basic train set and found an entire world I never knew existed. I guess any hobby is like that.

I don’t have the time, space, money or interest to build a point-to-point train all over my basement. I don’t have many friends (that I know of) who would be interested in coming over for an operating session where we spend the evening moving pretend freight around the tracks. The Boy wants to watch trains run. So do I. We’re looking for something a bit more simple.

Still, the idea of switching cars around, building trains, and generally doing more than watching appeals to us. We want to watch trains run but we might also want to do something. We’ll build a little bit of that into our layout.

The first thing we had to do was find a place to put the layout. A while back I’d identified a corner of the basement where we could set it up. After clearing out the space we first decided a 6’x6′ “L” shape would do. Then we got around to planning it and realized we really couldn’t do much with that size. It grew to a 6’x8′ layout. Then we added a 2’x’4 peninsula. It’s growing.

The space we had was against the wall of a storage room on one side and a concrete wall on the other. Taking up half the storage-room wall was a modeling bench I’d recently set up and I really had nowhere else to put the bench. After thinking about it for a bit I realized if I could build a short wall separating a sink from where the train would go I could put the bench against it and we’d have at least twelve feet for the layout along that wall.

This was my father-in-law's clockmaking bench. In order to make space for the layout along the wood wall I'm going to have to move the bench. Because I have no more wall space for the bench I'll just go ahead and build a wall. As you do.

This was my father-in-law’s clockmaking bench which I’ve re-purposed into a modeling bench. In order to make space for the layout along the wood wall I’m going to have to move the bench. Because I have no more wall space for the bench I’ll just go ahead and build a wall. As you do.

Before we knew it we had a 12’x8′ L with a peninsula and I’d have to construct an additional wall in the basement. In over our heads? Just maybe.

In order to help us plan the layout we purchased a copy of RailModeler for the Mac. It has its quirks and it can be very frustrating to use, but it was adequate for our needs. Planning a layout of this size (actually somewhat small in the world of model trains) is an exercise in compromise. We wanted it all: tunnels, bridges, switches, grades, overpasses, roads, buildings, towns. Everything. It soon occurred to us that we couldn’t really have all that.

We bickered a bit. The Boy is at that age where he feels just because he wants something, it will work. I’m The Grown Up, otherwise knows as The Ruiner of Fun, so I would have to point out that a particular grade was too steep for an overpass to work, or that a tunnel would be inaccessible, or that we’d have no room for buildings if we had too much track, or that we had to limit the number of turnouts in order to keep the cost down.

We both learned to compromise and we’re still on speaking terms. Phew.

Eventually we settled on a loop with an overpass, a peninsula, and a couple areas with switches. A real model railroader would probably tell us why it isn’t realistic, why it’s impractical, why we’ll have trouble operating. That’s ok, it’s our layout, we’re new at this, and we’re just a father and son who want to build something.

Now we just have to build it.

Some of the curves will be adjusted.

Some of the curves will be adjusted.

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