Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sharing 16-20V AC accessory power between turnouts and lights

It's often said that incandescent lights on a layout, be they inside your structures or the streetlamp variety, look better and last longer if they are run below their rated voltage, for example running a 12V lamp at 9V. To do that, though, you can't just wire up all the lamps to your accessory power, you generally have to run them off the variable DC output of an extra transformer.

I have a nifty solution for this problem, which also reduces flicker in the lights if you use the same accessory power with remote turnouts. Using diodes, create two circuits off the accessory power with each circuit rectified in a different direction. The half-wave rectified power in one circuit is still plenty powerful for the coils in your turnouts. The other circuit goes to the lights, and since there is a lag when incandescent lights switch on or off, they appear to still be glowing continuously, albeit a bit dimmer.

Note that this doesn't work for any LED lights, the half-wave power will product a very noticeable flicker since LEDs shut on and off instantaneously.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Hi-Res Color Pictures of American Cities, Mid-20th Century

These are really something, should be very inspiring for those of you modeling transition-era American cities.

Monday, May 12, 2008

How about a layout on an ironing board?

A discussion group to which I belong recently started talking about building a small layout on an ironing board. I think this is brilliant. A typical ironing board is a bit over four feet long, about a foot wide at the fat end, tapering at the narrow end. In N scale, that's enough space for the narrow end to be a switching headshunt, with enough width at the fat end to include both an Inglenook/small yard, and a small industrial switching district.

Other thoughts:
  • Most boards are covered in fabric with felt underneath, so no need for raised roadbed, which you don't usually see anyway in small yards and switching districts.
  • Built-in folding legs, easy out-of-the-way storage when not in use.
  • Build the headshunt track to extend just fractionally beyond the tapered end, then later build a second ironing board layout, connect them, and you've got a two-piece modular layout over eight feet long! The second layout could contain a town, passenger station, and freight house, and maybe one more large-ish industry.

Friday, April 25, 2008

A great microcontroller board for model railroaders

I wrote earlier about the myriad uses for microcontrollers on model railroad layouts, and at that time recommended the pricey but easy to use BASIC Stamp by Parallax. It's a great learning system for those who are new to microcontrollers. However, for those who are a bit more comfortable with basic electronics and simple programming, I'd recommend taking a look at the Arduino, in particular their Diecimila board which costs about US$35.

Unlike the BASIC Stamp, which runs interpreted BASIC on the board, the Arduino uses a compiled language called Wiring which is very close to C/C++, so code runs much faster; the software and development environment are freely downloadable. In addition, there is 14K of flash memory on the board for your program, 14 digital I/O pins, 6 separate analog input pins, and serial communication. There's also an on-board USB jack for easy connection to a PC; the board gets its power from the USB jack, a battery, or an external power supply.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Especially for model newbies: test and clean your track

I was recently reminded about the importance of good, clean track. I pulled out an old micro layout, one of the first I built, just to run some trains back and forth ... oops. They just kept stalling, if they ran at all. So I pulled out the trusty Bright Boy and cleaned the track thoroughly. Now they ran OK except for one spot on the layout where there was a small problem with two track ends meeting. I had this problem when I built the layout, and had filed the track down to sort-of-fix the problem at the time, but had conveniently forgotten about this since that time ... I guess cognitive dissonance took over.

Newbies note, don't make my mistake: it is vitally important that you thoroughly test trains on your track before you start scenery. The time to fix problems, or to rip out sections and start over, is before glue and dirt and foam and paint are cemented down over everything. If the trains don't run optimally at this stage, adding scenery can only make it worse.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Lots of little layouts

My thinking has been undergoing a change recently, which seems in line with where much of the hobby is going. Having spent the last couple of years designing, building and selling several smallish layouts, I'm ready to turn my attention toward a layout of my own.

So I've been knee-deep in trackplan books, scoping out where in our little apartment would be the ideal place. One thing I've been considering is the modular idea, in particular the T-Trak specification which is excellent for small spaces, but which requires expensive Kato turnouts for yards and switch districts.

Then another possibility hits me ... in lieu of small modules that connect together, what about a series of small layouts that operate independently? Maybe 2 or 3 shelf switchers? The obvious disadvantage here is very limited train sizes, but if we're primarily talking about yards or switch districts, that's not such a big deal. The advantage is that you can do quite a wide variety of times and locations without worrying if they match up.

So I'm still undecided, but very attracted to the idea of building and owning multiple independent layouts.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The instant way to take better photos of your layout

This also applies to indoor photography in general: stop using flash.

A layout with marvelous scenicing, detailing, and weathering turns to instant messy cartoon look under the harsh glare of a flash. Set your camera so the flash is forcibly turned off.

If you can, get your layout close to a window and use the natural outdoor light to illuminate it ... or if it's small and lightweight enough, just take it outside! I've actually found that bright overcast days give better results than sunshine, because there are fewer harsh shadows.

If there's no way to get natural outdoor light near your layout, the next best method is to find a powerful incandescent light and get it close. Make sure the white balance on your camera is set to incandescent. Observe the shadows and the "tone" of the light very closely and feel free to adjust the light position before you press the shutter.

Finally, either in your camera or using photo software, experiment both with increasing the contrast and decreasing the color saturation. A little of each goes a long way.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Ridiculously simple and good-looking roads, lots, and pavement

For roads, lots, and pavement, sandpaper is your friend. You can easily trim it to any size and shape you want, from narrow road to large lot. You can cut it to fit between the rails for street running or grade crossings.

Start by selecting a grade of sandpaper suitable to what you're modeling. Fine is good for sidewalks and parking lots, while coarse is better for streets and roads. The extra thickness and height of the coarse paper also looks good at grade crossings.

If you're simulating a dirt road, the sandpaper is probably already the proper color. Otherwise, you'll want to paint the sandpaper with two coats of cheap craft store acrylic paint. For pavement or asphalt try shades of gray to dark gray. For concrete, use your eyes when selecting the paint. I use a shade called Bamboo.

After your painted sandpaper has been installed (cut and glued down), get creative with weathering. A technique I like is drydabbing. Like drybrushing, your paint brush has been wiped almost totally dry, with just a tiny amount of paint left, but instead of stroking use quick stabs and dabs. Drydab with colors just a shade or two removed from your pavement/concrete color.

I also like to use Bragdon weathering powders to simulate the soft streaks left on roads by tires and spills.

Finally, use a fine-tipped permanent marker to add cracks and tar patches.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Enough already with the Flickr pools

I promise this is the last one, but I had to include it because it may be the best of the bunch:


Friday, February 22, 2008

Why I Love Trains and Modeling

Our hobby is multi-faceted. Ask 100 enthusiasts what they love about it and you're likely to get 100 answers. Here are the hobby's two biggest highlights for me:

1.) It requires several disciplines, which appeals to my sometimes short attention span and desire to learn new things. I came to the hobby most interested (and experienced) in electronics, and am now captivated with track planning and scenery. In model railroading, you draw, assemble, paint, sculpt, build, and "hack," and you have to do at least some of these things well.

2.) The focus in our hobby is on modeling times past, which has a powerful sentimental pull for me. Frankly, I'm one of those people who was born in the wrong decade. 100 years ago, America was en route to being on top of the world. The overall societal tenor was of enthusiasm and looking to the future. Most of us didn't specialize, but knew how to do different things in addition to our chosen profession. Our money system was pre-fiat and based on tangible value, as were our attitudes toward children, neighbors, and self. I think about these things extensively when I watch the trains run.

Friday, February 15, 2008

One more cool pool for us on Flickr

This was added since my last post about Flickr, and I couldn't have put together a more appropriate photo pool for model railroaders if I designed it myself. 'Nuff said, just take a look and let the scenery ideas flow:


Sunday, February 10, 2008

The ever-versatile continuous loop

When designing small or micro layouts, you can cut down quite a bit of space by getting rid of continuous running and doing, for example, a simple terminus or very small yard. However, consider how versatile the loop is, and how much is sacrificed by its removal.

For starters, it's probably our mainline. Trains will usually take a few laps around the loop going from "here" to "there".

Secondly, the loop can easily also be our runaround, when we have stubs pointing in different directions and no passing sidings. This isn't prototypical, of course, but then neither is the loop itself!

Finally, the loop is for continuous running, when we want to showcase our layout or just watch the trains run.

When you remove the loop, you're removing quite a lot.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Perhaps these are the cheapest and easiest layout baseboards you can find

In a word (two words actually): folding tables. The pre-built kind, which you can get through Amazon and lots of other places. Adhere your pink/blue foam or other subroadbed/scenery base to the tabletop, and you've got an inexpensive and (probably, choose wisely) lightweight layout that folds up when not in use.

I've noticed there are some common sizes which seem particularly well suited for N scale, including 30" X 72", 2' X 4', and 34" square. There are even some round folding tables, but they're pricier.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Use Flickr for model railroad inspiration

Here's one of those seemingly basic ideas that can turn out to be invaluable. Flickr, the photo indexing and sharing Web site, has interest groups called "Pools" (where many users' photos can be combined and displayed together) which can be a terrific source for model railroad scenery ideas. Here's a few you can check out:






Sunday, January 6, 2008

A quick n' "dirt"-y plowed field

This works well in HO or N scale ...

Start with a piece of scrap corduroy fabric, cut to the desired size of your field. It should be an earth color, tan or brown (or else gold or green). Study a photo of the type of field you're trying to recreate; often the fabric will look right as is ... otherwise:

Paint some glue into the "crevices" of the corduroy and sprinkle on some dirt or earth ground cover; let dry and shake off the excess.

Paint glue on the remaining "tall" parts, and sprinkle on green or yellow fine ground foam. Let dry and shake off the excess. Glue the piece down and that's it!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Keep your eyes open for miscellaneous small things that can be used as scenery

I'm doing a design at the moment that incorporates a rather unusual industry: a landscape supply company, the kind with lots of fountains and statuary piled around outside. I was scratching my head trying to think what I would use for all this outside merchandise, and got the answer recently when browsing a craft store: glass or ceramic beads. I will just select the appropriate sizes and shapes, and paint and weather them.

The experience reminded me that all kinds of random bits can be pressed into service on a layout. Look around you, see any ideas?