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The world of model railroading and other hobbies

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Wow, it's been a long time

Well, as I said early on, model railroading tends to be a fall/winter/bad weather thing.
Because of that, and my hectic work schedule, I have been away from my little world for a while.
A recent trip has given me good reason to put up a brief post and possibly seek some air-conditioned refuge in the old hobby room..
My wife and I recently traveled to Frankenmuth, Mich. Naturally we went to Bronners Christmas Wonderland - touted as the world's largest Christmas store. More on that
But I decided we should try to find a hobby shop in the area ... naturally I had a one-tracked mind at that point. (OK, that one wasn't great, but I never claimed to be a comedian.)
We stopped in at the Frankenmuth Visitors Center and I asked a couple of questions.
I learned of a place called Junction Valley just 15 minutes from where we were, so we plugged the address into the GPS and we were off.
So I find the place calling itself the "Largest Quarter-Size Railroad in the World."
This is a classic example of "Don't judge a book by its cover."

(Don't mind the date on the photo, it was only a few short weeks ago that we took our little journey.)
We pulled into the parking lot amid several large, white, metal buildings. Honestly, it looked a little scary. Pulling in, I immediately noticed a large garage-like building, obviously used for repair work of some sort.
Then I noticed a smaller building - resembling a rather large shed. On the outside ... the words "Hobby Shop." No windows, no fancy exterior, no pretentious adornments ... just a building. Four walls, a roof and a door.
I looked at the wife and taking a deep breath, we both exited the car and headed for the door.
Now, I've been to plenty of hobby shops in my life. I THOUGHT I had seen it all.
Once inside, I felt like I might have a minor episode or sorts. I was in heaven, of only for a visit.
This place was packed from floor to ceiling with model railroading supplies - things I have never seen before, not even in catalogs.
I could easily have spent a day (or 2) in this small, crowded, somewhat dark, beautiful, exciting - I could go on and on - "candy store."
I dropped a few bucks and left with a couple things that I had been looking for but was unable to find. I wonder if they were hoarding it at  Junction Valley ... Hmmm.
Anyway. I picked up a few new items for the SL Valley Railroad - items I will look at and know that they came from Junction Valley - and I'm sure I'll have lots to write about in the coming weeks as I attempt to clear some time in my schedule to get back on track and put these items to good use.
In the meantime, check out Junction Valley Railroad's website and if, by chance, you are looking for something to do, take a little trip to Frankenmuth, Mich., and spend some time in paradise - at least that's what it felt like to me for a couple days.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

It's been a while

Time to get back to it. OK ... you've chosen your scale, picked a spot - preferrably a place the wife or significant other does not have a problem with - and your benchwork is in place. You might even know what type of layout you're going to build - switching, point-to-point or just a really big loop so you can watch long trains stretch out kind of like the real thing.
The next thing you need to decide is whether there will be elevated areas on the layout. If so, is it the track or the landscape or both that will be set at different heights?
If you're planning to have your trains go up a hill - and we all know what goes up must come down - consider your options.
Perhaps you have the knowledge, skills and patience I lack. In that case, you could opt for an open-grid style of benchwork utilizing wood on which the track will sit to create the gentle slopes that your tiny engineers will navigate while traveling from Point A to Point B - or Point A to Point A or, uh, whatever.
Be careful to stay around the 2 to 3% range for your inclines. Anything more will be unrealistic and difficult for your trains to climb.
Not being one to pull out the slide rule and surveying equipment, opted for something a bit simpler.
Woodland Scenics offers foam risers in grades ranging from 1 to 4%.
They are flexible, easily modified and really easy to use. They attach to your layout base - in my case particleboard - using Woodland Scenics Foam Tack Glue.
Once they are in place, the roadbed (cork or foam as discussed in a previous blog) and track (we all know what that is) can be attached using the same glue or track spikes, if you're so inclined - get it? "Inclined."
Anyway ... The risers are easily hidden using plaster cloth, paint and a host of other items that will be the subjects of blogs to come.
As the weather warms and the skies clear, we hope, There will be less and less time to devote to our worlds in miniature. But on those rainy days, which are certain to return, you might find yourself wanting to carve out a few minutes to spend in your world. I know I will.
Next time, I'll discuss some of those options for hiding the risers and all those other things that make your world seem not so realisitc.


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Keep museum on track

I'm going to break from the usual purpose of this blog for this week.
As someone who never gets tired of looking at model railroads, I am somewhat distressed to hear that the Western Reserve Model Railroad Museum has fallen on hard times ... really hard times.
While I've only visited the museum a couple of times - mostly because of a busy work schedule - I have come to love the place.
Having read the articles in The News-Herald, I am truly disappointed in what I have learned.
A while back, the museum moved from their Tyler Blvd. location to a new home on Justin Way. They did so, in part, because they wanted to grow and expand and because corporate sponsors had pledged a sizeable sum of money - $200,000 to be exact - that would have helped the museum keep the trains rolling at least until it became self-sufficient.
The plan was to partner with other groups and bring in conventions and other events to help the museum raise money to cover operating costs.
The sponsors reportedly backed out of the deal, leaving the museum strapped for cash.
Now the museum is on the verge of being booted from their new home.
As a 501(c)(3) non-profit trust, the museum relies solely on donations. There charge for admission though donations are welcomed. According to museum organizers, this helps make it an affordable destination for practically anyone.
Rick Montgomery, museum curator and board president, has said there is no way the museum can afford to move.
Mentor Economic Development Director Ronald M. Traub said the city certainly does not want to see the museum disappear.
The museum was established in 2004 and has since become the largest such museum in the United States with 16 different scales of model railroad on display and operating railroads in N, HO, ON3, S, O, O tin plate, O 2-rail, Standard, Lego, Brio and G scales.
There is no shortage of things to look at and no shortage of knowledge thanks to the volunteers who work there.
If you have been viewing this blog over the past couple of months and are still considering jumping into the hobby, take a little time and visit the museum. If you have questions, just ask. Anyone there will be more than happy to help you out.
Remember that brotherhood thing I wrote about a couple weeks back after attending the train show at Lakeland? The knowledge you can gain from these folks is absolutely priceless. Friendships can be built and new ideas for your own railroad are everywhere you look.
While you're there, please offer a donation, even if it's a couple bucks. They need all the help they can get to keep this local treasure in operation.
Winter hours at the museum are: Mon. - Thurs. 3 to 9 p.m.; Sat. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays noon to 5 p.m. Closed on Fridays
From Memorial Day thru Labor Day, it is open Tues. 3 to 9 p.m., Wed. 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Thurs. 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., Fri. 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Closed on Mondays.
I might be the eternal optimist, but I'm hoping someone comes forward with a sizeable sum of money to keep them going.
If I could, I'd do it myself. I can't provide the help that is needed so I'm hoping for the generosity of strangers in a matter to which I have no real ties except for a love of trains.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Tools of the trade

No matter what kind of layout you are planning, there are certain tools that will serve you well in the hobby of model railroading.
Let's start with tools for dealing with the track because we all know that without the track, we have no trains.
First and foremost, since no track you purchase will ever create the layout you envision without some modification, you will need a tool with which to cut the track.
I am a big fan of rail nippers by Xuron. They are easy to use and make nice, clean and accurate cuts.
If you don't care for the nippers, there are saws designed specifically for cutting the track.
No model railroader should be without wire strippers/cutters. Mine are able to cut wire, strip it and can be used with crimp connectors - you know, those little plastic thingies you stick two ends of wire in and crimp using pliers ... or a crimping tool.
Also in your toolbox should be needle-nose pliers. These have a multitude of uses. I recommend a set that has regular needle-nose as well as long, curved and short pliers. 
A good set of precision screwdrivers is a must. They are small enough to be used for the tiny screws on locomotives. Make sure your set is magnetic. Trust me when I tell you that you do not want to go hunting for that tiny little screw you just dropped because your fingers are simply too big to get it back to where it belongs.
That brings me to another tool. It's a little unconventional, but I picked one up several years ago and wouldn't be without it. It looks like a cross between a small screw driver and tweezers.
To use it, you hold it kind of like you would hold a cigarette. Pressing on the top of the picker pushes out and spreads to thin pieces of metal that are bent at a 90-degree angle at the end. You place the head of the screw between the pieces of metal and release the top of the picker.
You can now get that screw anywhere you want it, even in the tightest of spaces. A little turn of the picker will get the screw started at which point you can take over with a regular screw driver.
The above las led me to yet another useful tool - tweezers. Long or short, they, too, have a multitude of uses. From providing delicate assistance when building models, to placing small detail items on the layout without getting glue all over hour fingers and everything else, they are extremely handy to have around.
A good hobby knife is a must as is a package of paint brushes of all sizes.
Other tools I have found useful include:
Hot-wire foam cutter
Heat gun
Soldering iron
Small files
Pin vice (also known as a tiny, hand-operated drill)

Next week, I'll talk about some neat items I have used from around the house to help me with scenery.

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Sunday, March 20, 2011

What a show

I feel so ... limited.
Going to Railfest 2011 has made me realize just how much I wish I had a money tree in the back yard.
But I don't. If anyone out there does have such a tree, I'd be happy to help you with the harvest.
Once again, the show did not disappoint.

While I find myself wishing there had been more vendors offering scenery supplies, I was not unhappy with what I did find.
More prevalent at this year's Railfest were reading material and railroad-related clothing items.
Not something that I am intensely interested in, but for those who enjoy reading about their favorite railroads or for those who want to display a railroad's logo on a shirt or sweatshirt, those items are always a good find.
As is always the case, several working layouts were on display for patrons to enjoy.
Taking a look at these layouts always gives me ideas. Some have worked out, others not so much.
While I didn't necessarily have anything in mind that I felt I needed to purchase, I still managed to drop a few bucks and come home with a couple buildings, some park benches and some figures that will soon have a home on my layout. OK, maybe not soon, but eventually,
One thing I have to say about the people I come into contact with at Railfest is that they are always friendly and willing to offer advice and knowledge.

Delving into the hobby of model railroading is kind of like joining a brotherhood - or sisterhood - of sorts.
For those of us who enjoy the hobby, there is a connection, a common bond.
Whether you enjoy the technical end of the hobby, modeling a prototype railroad, freelancing or just setting up the train on the dining room table on weekends, we all speak the same language.
At shows like these, you can ask a question, get an honest answer and walk out with a little more knowledge than you had when you walked in.
That kind of stuff is priceless. I have found that the best way to learn how to do something is to ask someone who has been doing it for a while and these shows are crawling with such individuals.
If you didn't get to Railfest 2011, and even if you did, it's time to start looking ahead to Railfest 2012.
Until then, I have some work to do.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Don't miss the big show

For those of us who have been interested in the hobby for years and for those of you who might be considering entering the world of model railroading, this weekend offers an event that is second to none.
I have been to hundreds of train shows over the years and let me tell you that the show at Lakeland is the best around.
The Western Reserve Division of the National Model Railroad Association is hosting Railfest 2011 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, March 19-20 at Lakeland Community College in Kirtland.
The show offers up hundreds of vendors selling everything from books shirts and memorabilia to trains, track and just about every accessory a person can imagine.
This is the show I wait all year for.
Hop aboard and spend some time at Railfest 2011.
Visit for more information.

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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Switching things up

It's time to talk turnouts.
You first need to decide if you want a "switching layout" in which usually short trains serve industries. These types of layouts can provide hours of endless scenarios as train cars are moved from one industry to another and back.
If you opt for a "normal" layout, you still will likely need to add turnouts to your plan as they can be useful in providing more realistic operation.
In real life, two trains often use the same mainline - going the same direction or, well, not. Now, lets assume we all understand why not having a way for a train to pass another would be bad. Let's also assume that we all know why serving industries parked along a mainline could be a bad thing with only one track to use.
It'd be like having the loading dock to a grocery store right on the street. Trucks park to unload and traffic is backed up forever.
In our miniature world, we should keep this in mind.
If you are planning a railroad with a single-track mainline, you should consider "passing sidings."
These are sections of track that include a turnout at either end allowing a train to enter and leave the siding to allow faster trains, or trains traveling in the opposite direction, to pass.
Suppose industries are a part of your railroad. You should consider spurs, either off of the mainline or off of passing tracks. Spurs are tracks that don't reconnect with the mainline. They simply end at or near an industry.
Turnouts come in a number of radii, they come in lefthand, righthand, wye and even 4-way/crossover. They can be curved or straight. They can be operated manually or electronically.
Turnouts with larger radii should be used along the mainline as curves with larger radii make mainline runs look more realistic. Those with smaller radii are good for industrial sidings.
For turnouts that will be situated where you cannot easily reach, go for the electronically operated model. If it is close enough for you to reach, I recommend a manually operated turnout. There's something about moving the switch yourself that makes you feel more connected with the railroad ... kinda like you work there.
My layout is constructed in such a way that all turnouts can be operated manually. I never have to wonder if they are set correctly to make the train go where I want it to go.
For manually operated turnouts, I recommend those without the throw switch attached. I like to add my own throws (made by Caboose Hobbies). They are made for HO and N scales and are reasonably priced and easy to use. They look kind of like the real thing and ensure good alignment of the turnout.
I know, I know, there are a lot of options. There's a lot to think about. Don't just go out and start buying turnouts. This is where a little planning comes in handy.
A little advice ... Don't overcomplicate your layout with too many turnouts, passing sidings and spurs. It'll make your railroad simply look like someone dropped a bowl of spaghetti. A good place to start is to decide how many and what industries might be served by your trains.
Look at some of the track-planning books and magazines out there. That's a great place to start.
For more on model railroad turnouts, visit or and type "turnouts" in the search window.
Before we go any further with thinking and planning, next week, I'll take a look at some of the tools that no model railroader should be without - unless frustration is something you enjoy.

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