N Scale Layout #4 (2007) - The Ultimate Roundy-Rounder

05/01/07 - Mocking up the tunnel portals

My retaining walls appear to be temporarily delayed, so instead I decided to take a whack at situating my tunnel portals. And since I like a lot of variety when it comes to tunnels (don't ask me why), I picked up quite an assortment at YOLHS (not that I had much choice, what with their motto apparantly being "no more than two of any one thing in stock at any one time").

I wound up purchasing mainly "double track" tunnels (for obvious reasons), and I guess I just kind of lucked out that my particular implementation of double track seemed to jibe with the tunnel guys' ideas of double track. IE, I was able to (for the most part) comfortably fit my double track mains underneath said portals. Yup, another "layout design on the fly" bullet magically avoided.

First off, I got a couple of A.I.M. Products "Cut Stone" tunnels. These turned out to be plaster, which I'm not hugely crazy about. Also, one of them seemed to be a bit malformed, what with the two legs seeming to be a bit knock-kneed (pointing inwards slightly). This didn't leave nearly enough clearance for trains to pass through, so I broke it in two and glued it back together such that the legs were correctly perpendicular to the ground. Not my idea of a fun time, but I guess once it's painted and weathered, who's going to notice anyway?

Next, I picked up three Pre-Size tunnels (one "Random Stone" and two "Cut Stone"). These turned out to have the widest and tallest openings, so I used them in the spots where the track curves the most (IE, the places where lengthy engines and passenger cars will do their damnedest to swing out and nail said tunnels).

Next, I got a two-pack of Chooch Industries "Concrete" tunnels (once again, double-track). These turned out to have the narrowest and lowest openings, so I used them exclusively over straight track. A very good value, though- two portals for the price of one (at least as compared to the other stuff I bought).

Lastly, I got a couple of Pre-Size single-track "Cut Stone" portals to make a pseudo double-tunnel portal up on the north side of Empire (where the tracks are simply too far apart to accommodate a normal double-track portal).

So, not much else to report here. The only real problem I ran into was with the southern portal on the Empire level, where I had to saw a bit of excess foam off the upper level risers to make room for the portal. No big deal, though.

Once all the portals had been placed, I hooked up a couple of long passenger cars to a long loco and ran them around on each loop (both directions) to make sure there weren't going to be any clearance issues. And so far so good, so I guess I'm free to start putting down the foam for the "mountains" and making some actual tunnels.

05/03/07 - Added some drapes to the hotel

I got a great idea from a guy on the Atlas forum ("Old Coaster Paul") for adding drapes to the hotel. Simply cut out some colored construction paper, accordion fold it and glue it in. I wish I'd know about this before I'd fogged up the main floor windows, but it still looks pretty great - foggy windows and all. The pink drapes work really well with the pink colors on the Miller sign (and would probably work even better if the damned thing was lit, but oh well).

Speaking of window fogging... I've been advised that the correct way to do this is to fog from the inside rather than the outside. This way you still obscure the interior, but at the same time retain glass-like reflectivity on the outside. Oh well, live and learn.

05/03/07 - Finished paving the streets

I've been going with Woodland Scenics' "Road System" for my streets pretty much exclusively since "Scenic Ridge". It took a while to get the hang of it, but at this point I'm really comfortable with the system and can lay down nice looking streets in practically no time at all. The procedure is very simple- block out where you want the streets to go with "paving tape", mix up a batch of "Smooth-It" (aiming for "warm sour cream" consistancy), spoon it out, spread it around a bit, and then smooth it out with some sort of flat edged tool (they provide a sheet of styrene for this purpose with the paving tape, but I prefer to use a paint scraper). Once dry, pull up the tape and then sand down any uneven spots.

So, that's the base (street) layer. Now all I need to do is put down a second layer for the sidewalks, foundations, parking areas, etc. But before I do that, I think I'm going to go ahead and get my interior lighting wired up. I don't want to mess around with trying to punch holes through the plaster to accommodate wiring, so I think I'll do the holes first and then lay the foundation plaster around them.

05/04/07 - Finished the backdrops

I started by taking a small saw and cutting out access panels for my (eventual tunnels). Next, I painted everything with my ubiquitous interior latex paint and then glued the side supports to the layout base. Once the glue dried, I used my hot wire to cut some contours along the top edges (shading gradually downward towards the tunnel mouths). Lastly, I glued my "Instant Horizons" to the rear backdrop using Elmer's Spray Adhesive and then pinned the whole assembly to the back of the layout. Once again, I won't be fixing that in place permanantly until I've pretty much finished building the layout - it's just a lot easier to work on stuff with it out of the way.

So cool, now there's nothing stopping me from getting busy with the mountains and tunnels.

05/05/07 - Finished the sidewalk/foundation layer for the two main city blocks

Wow, I don't know what I was thinking when I decided that cutting the wiring holes and then plastering around them was going to be easier. What a dope! As soon as I started putting down the paving tape it became painfully obvious that that just wasn't going to work. Not only was it going to make smoothing the plaster a million times more difficult, but it was also going to leave all sorts of unpaved areas all over the place, resulting in some very tilty buildings.

So, realizing my mistake, I pulled all the wiring out, put masking tape over the holes and then put down the plaster. This made things quite a bit easier, although given the width of these areas (quite a bit wider than my largest smoothing tool), I did have to do each block in two sections. This made getting a nice, smooth, level surface a bit more difficult (especially as compared to the relatively simple task of putting down the streets), but fortunately most of it's going to be underneath buildings anyway (IE, not open to close inspection), so I didn't sweat the details too much.

As far as the wiring goes (and I don't know why I didn't think of this before), simply using a drill should allow me to get through the plaster and foam without making too much of a mess. For some reason I was thinking I'd be attacking the stuff with a saw or something and creating all sorts of chaos. What can I say? Some days the ol' gray matter comes up with some funny ideas (and not "ha ha" funny either).

But now I have another conundrum to ponder. In addition to all of the buildings facing the main street, I added a building or two on either side of the side streets to cement the illusion that the streets continue onward to the west. Well, it all looks great from the "front" view, but viewed from the back side I now have these huge paved areas (2" deep) behind the main street buildings that need to be addressed somehow.

I think what I'm going to do is rearrange my side-street buildings a little bit in order to create some breathing room back there, and then run a skinny alley (wide enough for a single vehicle) along the back edge of the town platform. Then I can turn the rest of that open space into parking/delivery areas. Not only does this solve my "what to do with all that open space" problem, but it also creates an opportunity for just all kinds of detailing later on (trash cans, dumpsters, assorted junk, etc).

05/07/07 - Installed interior lighting into just a whole bunch of buildings

I decided to keep things simple, bulbically speaking, and just use big-ass Miniatronics (now there's an oxymoron if ever there was one) "12 volt, 50 amp, 5.5 mm diameter" incandescent bulbs. They're definitely robust, allowing me to light an entire building with a single bulb. And given my relatively tame power sources, I shouldn't have to worry about accidentally burning any of them out if I somehow screw up and pump an extra volt or two into them. And although LEDs generally give me a better case of the warm fuzzies when it comes to longevity, I decided that the extra work involved in soldering up resistors was enough to steer me in the direction of old-fashioned bulbs. Miniatronics bulbs are reputedly of high quality (and boast a life of 10,000 hours), so I'm just going to have to rely on that.

I started by installing a couple of Miniatronics "Power Distribution Blocks" (plus and minus in, 12 sets of plus and minus out). At $20 each, these are clearly not the cheapest (or smallest) way to organize one's wiring. But whatever they might lack in terms of economy and miniaturousity, they surely make up for in ease of use. I don't know about you, but I have spent my entire life cursing the hell out of this whole business of trying to get wires tightened up underneath terminal screws. I'm telling you, the damned things repel each other like oil and water. On the other hand, these Miniatronics PDB's are just a pleasure to deal with, and I will always trade a few extra dollars for peace of mind. Call me crazy, but I don't think one's hobby should give one ulcers.

Once the PDB's were powered up and ready to go, I locating the best bulb position for each building and then drilled holes to accommodate the wiring. Kind of a mess, what with plaster and foam flying every which way, but nothing my vacuum couldn't handle. Next, I started wiring up the individual bulbs. The Miniatronics bulbs do come with some decent length wire on them (6" or so), but generally speaking this wasn't enough to reach my PDB's. So I had to solder on short two-wire extensions. Once stuck in their holes, I used a bit of loosely crumpled masking tape to hold them in place at the desired height (variable from one building to the next, depending on the whole window situation).

Somewhere in this whole process I decided to give my LCO fiber optic octupus the old heave-ho. One Miniatronics bulb does a better job of lighting a building than do half a dozen strands of fiber optics, not to mention being about a million times less annoying to deal with. So, hasta la vista, baby.

Once I'd finally gotten all the bulbs wired up and illuminated, I turned the room lights off and... wow, there's no other way to put it - I was flat-out blown away by the whole scene! All of those time-consuming (not to mention expensive) interiors and window coverings suddenly came to brilliant, full-color life- completely paying off the whole effort (and sorry, my "night" photography skills are still a work in progress, so you're just going to have to take my word for it).

Unfortunately, all of those fancy-shmantzy, fully-interiored buildings made some of my earlier (and more simplistic) efforts look a bit, well, lame by comparison. Even the ones with Shire window coverings wound up looking pretty stupid once their empty interiors were laid bare. So, the first thing I had to do was fog the windows on all the buildings that didn't have full-blown interiors. This time I did get it right though, and sprayed the Flat Finish on the inside of the buildings (rather than the outside).

Even with fog-obscured windows, some of my buildings still wound up looking a bit too wide-eyed and vacant (particularly my first one - Merchant's Row II), so I went ahead and installed a few GMM generic business decals in some of the main floor windows and homebrew blinds in the upstairs windows. And since I was in "re-detailing mode" anyway, I also built a couple of new facade signs as well (GMM decals stuck to cardstock and then glued to the front of the building). Yah, I think the original plan was to scratchbuild some kind of lit signs for these facades, but after seeing what it took just to light these 20 interiors, I decided that enough was enough. When you figure in interior lighting, street lights, traffic lights and everything else, I'm already looking at close to 100 individual lights on this layout as is, so at least for now I'm going to take the coward's way out and let the real model railroading gods worry about lit signs.

Unfortunately, all is not entirely happy in Happy Valley (or Wingnut, as the case may be). Based on some "Atlas Forum" advice, I'd originally planned on using cheapie trainset power packs to light my lights. And it certainly seemed like a good idea at the time... Unfortunately, my first cheapie power pack (a Model Power job) died after just a few hours of use. Well, cripes, screw that. I'd much rather spend a little more money in exchange for some reliability. And the good news is that I do have a solid solution in the works (which I'll hep y'all to just as soon as I, y'know, actually do it).

05/08/07 - Another lighting dead-end

I ordered this Miniatronics "Neon-Like" sign so long ago I completely forgot about it until it arrived in the mail today (helpful hint- if you want something from Miniatronics, order it from somebody other than Miniatronics). I believe this was originally supposed to be part of my "custom facade sign" project, but since I've already moved on from that particular pipe dream, it's kind of irrelevant now. But hell, let's critique the crap out of it anyway.

Miniatronics has a wide variety of these so-called "Neon-Like" signs, and at some point in the dim and distant past I decided to go ahead and try out one of their "Hotel" signs. I figured that if I couldn't make my own custom sign out of it, I could always just stick it in one of my hotel windows (this being like weeks before I ultimately decided to just go with curtains for said windows). Sadly, now that I actually have the thing in hand, it appears to be pretty much useless on both fronts. Basically it's just too danged big to work as a facade sign, and not really worth the effort (quality-wise) to install as an interior window sign (especially given the cost). On the window sign front, I see very little difference between this thing and a window decal lit with a cheap interior bulb. I think the whole "neon" angle is way overplayed - it's just paint on glass, and it doesn't look anything like neon to me when it's lit.

So, another waste of time and money I guess. What are you gonna do?

And as long we're talking about experiments that didn't go anywhere... I had the brilliant idea (or so I thought, anyway) of sticking silver foil tape inside a couple of my buildings (stuck to the underside of the roof), thinking that this might bounce the light around a little better and further brighten up the interiors. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time, but ultimately I don't think it made much difference. In any case, I didn't bother putting it in the rest of my buildings.

On an unrelated topic, I received a copy of Miniatronics' catalog along with my useless sign, and I was surprised to find that they're now offering a new PDB ("PDB-2") that has twice the number of terminals as a PDB-1 (24 instead of 12). Better still, the board is the same size and it only costs $10 more. Jeez, now they tell me. Needless to say, I ordered up three of those bad boys (direct from Miniatronics, so hopefully I'll receive them some time before the sun burns out).

05/10/07 - Finished paving the town

Nothing particuarly noteworthy to report here. I put down the Smooth-It, and it cooperated by drying. I did wind up having to modify my American Hardware kit-bash slightly, though. I originally built it with two freight doors on the back side, one of which wound up being right next to where the track curves (and leaving zero space for any kind of driveway where trucks could actually get at it). So, I removed the "Receiving" decal, popped out the door and replaced it with a piece of brick wall.

I also decided to do away with the orange cobblestone base that came with the depot- aesthetically speaking, it just wound up looking stupid sitting on top of the plaster. When I get down to painting everything, I may actually decide to revisit the whole orange thing and paint the platform that color. However, I'm reasonably sure I won't be pulling out the ol' Exacto and carving cobblestones into the plaster...

Speaking of painting, I have absolutely no idea how this is all going to shake out. The streets will be asphalt black and the sidewalks will be concrete grey/yellow, but as far as the various alleys, driveways, foundations and parking/loading areas are concerned, well, I remain clueless. Similarly, I'm not entirely sure how I should go about situating my street lights, traffic lights, telephone poles and suchlike either. It's funny, you drive by this stuff every day, but it never really registers. So, I think what I need to do now is hop on my cycle, head out to Smalltown, USA and do a bit of field research.

05/13/07 - Clusterf*ck #2

It's kind of amazing how seemingly small problems can snowball into big ones. Oh wait, not amazing... what's the word I'm looking for... Oh yeah, "sucky".

I was crossing a train over from one of the lower mains to the other when I noticed that one of my switches was very sticky - in fact, damned near seized up. I guess it must've froze up on me back when I was gluing down ballast and I never noticed until now. And rather than doing the smart thing and just fetching the rubbing alcohol and a brush to clear up the goo, I decided to just crank on the groundthrow in an attempt to force it loose. Uh, oops? All that accomplished was yanking one of the moving rails off of the slidebar, rendering the whole switch essentially useless. Oh great...

So, I pried the switch up off the roadbed (using a paint scraper) and set about installing a new one. Unfortunately this switch is connected to two other switches, and trying to insert a replacement using rail joiners turned out to be pretty much impossible. If there were some track sections on either side that I could temporarily pry up in order to have some slack to work with, no problem. But trying to pry up multiple switches and then force them back together in order to get the joiners connected up is a really tricky operation that usually results in the destruction of one or more of the switches involved.

Worse still, when I originally put this track down I kind of compromised and left some fairly decent sized gaps where two of the switches cross over from one main to the other (this to eliminate a similarly sized gap that showed up on one of the mains). At the time I didn't think it was that big of a deal because the joiners held the two ends together well enough, current flowed freely, and hell, I wasn't going to be running trains over that little section of track all that often anyway. So, having a noisy little gap there didn't seem like that big of a deal. Unfortunately, said gaps eliminated any possibility of skipping the joiners entirely and simply soldering a replacement switch in place.

So, rather than flirt with further compromise and risk having screwed-up track, I decided to just pry it all up and start over. And this time I made myself the custom section of track that I should have gone with in the first place, thus eliminating all the gaps. And to avoid further glue issues, I left my spray bottle on the shelf when reinstalling the ballast in favor of simply (and carefully) applying wet water and glue with a small eye-dropper.

So, fifty bucks and a couple of hours worth of trackwork later, the URR is back in business. Not my idea of a fun time, but I'm a nut case when it comes to perfect track. I'd much rather expend the effort now in exchange for flawless operation later on.

05/13/07 - 45 years old and I finally know what an alley looks like...

Hey, guess what? Skulking around in back alleys taking pictures of dumpsters garners one some pretty funny looks. Go figure!

Anyway, this all turned out to be pretty straightforward- mainly it's just a lot of asphalt (although generally lighter in color and more beat up looking than the asphalt found on the street). The foundations are concrete color like the sidewalks, and occasionally you'll find little concrete sidewalks and concrete islands for dumpsters. I even found a couple of spots that were plain old dirt/gravel.

So, cool. Now I know how to paint my alleys, and I even avoided getting ticketed for lurking in the process. It's all good!

05/15/07 - Finished The Great Wall of Wingnut

I can't explain it, but I have always been completely enamored with this look- some tracks, a brick retaining wall, some more tracks on the next level, and then some big, long industrial buildings. It's completely iconic for me, and I haven't the faintest idea why. But whatever the reason, I've always wanted to build something like it on a layout, and now I have.

As mentioned previously, I decided to go with "Cut Stone" walls from Pre-Size. I also picked up a 2-pack of Pre-Size "Tunnel Abutments" to transition from the tunnel portals to the wall, but as it turns out I only needed one of them.

I really like the look of the walls, but unfortunately they do seem to lack a certain consistancy vis'a'vis their size. Of the 12 I purchased (6 packs of 2), 4 of them turned out to be noticeably shorter and skinnier than the rest. The skinniness part actually wound up coming in handy for the sections that are literally right up to the roadbed on the lower mains, but the height differential did take a bit of finagling to conceal (or at least minimize). Basically I cheated by lining up the tops rather than the bottoms (gaps underneath the walls being easier to hide than misaligned tops).

In order to make the wall sections connectable, I first had to sand off the little "ears" (or extensions or whatever you want to call them) on either end of each wall top (to get flat sides). Next, I sanded off the odd spot of random casting shmootz here and there and then painted everything Reefer Gray (including the accompanying tunnel portals). Once the paint dried, I stuck each section to the riser facade with FTG and then spent a good long time getting everything situated such that the tops and sides of each section lined up.

The big downside to this method is that unless you're sticking your walls to an absolutely flat and even surface, there just isn't any way to hide the sectional nature of the wall - the seams are there, and they are obvious. But, I guess that's just the nature of the beast. I don't know how else you'd go about building a brick wall like this.

Anyway, once I'd gotten all of the sections to flow together as seamlessly as possible, I backfilled the gaps between the wall and the risers with brown Woodland Scenics ballast and then firmed it up using the same eyedropper method one would use when applying ballast to track. Next, I brushed some more Reefer Gray on the joints to further conceal them, and then brushed the whole thing with weatherwash and Bragdon powder (and yikes, what a tortuous exercise that turned out to be - I should have done all of that before building the wall).

So, all in all I'm quite pleased with the way it turned out. Not quite ready for the Model Railroading Hall of Fame, but certainly adequate for my purposes. I still have some gaps along the bottom of the wall to deal with, but I'll worry about that when I'm in "turf" mode.

05/16/07 - Finished my one and only grade crossing

Plaster grade crossings are cool indeed, but man, they do require some effort. So, it's actually kind of a relief to just have the one and to have gotten it finished and out of the way (especially given all of the angst I went through wondering just how in the hell I was going to build it at all...)

Fortunately for me, my "bright idea" of extending the corner backdrop and using it to make room for the north side of the crossing (where I'd originally left none at all) actually worked out quite nicely. Ultimately, all I did was FTG a strip of cardstock to the top of the backdrop foam (in order to get an absolutely level surface for the road) and then cover everything up with thin strips of plaster cloth. Once everything dried, I had the extra space I needed to extend my road. No, there's not a lot of road up there, but there's certainly enough to give the impression that it continues off the edge of the layout. More importantly, now there's plenty of room for a crossing gate.

As far as the actual construction of the crossing is concerned, I did come up with a new/better system for carving out the rail slots. First, I sliced along the insides of the rails with an Exacto knife, then I followed up with a box cutter, and finally with a slim (flat) screwdriver (digging right down to the tops of the ties). In the past I've made the mistake of not cutting these things wide/deep enough to accommodate old-school flanges, but I won't be making that same mistake again.

I've also gotten quite comfortable with diving in and manipulating the plaster with that most basic of tools - one's fingers. I used to make myself crazy trying to get all of the surfaces perfectly smooth and level using the ol' flat edge, but eventually I realized that that was pointless. Sometimes it smooths out right away, but most of the time it doesn't. On the other hand, if you wait for the plaster to set up a bit, you can smooth away most of the unevenness just using your fingers (and any remaining glitches can simply be sanded away once the plaster dries completely).

So anyway, with the possible exception of my timing, everything went pretty smoothly. I sort of forgot this, but you're actually supposed to do all of this crossing stuff before you paint the rails or ballast the roadbed. But given the whole "up in the air" nature of the operation, I'm not sure that I could've done things any differently. In any case, it didn't turn out to be that big of a deal- maybe a little more retouch/cleanup work on the ties and ballast than I'd otherwise have had to worry about, but whatever. When you build layouts without a plan, you just deal with the issues as their teeths approach yer ass.

05/17/07 - Fixed old blinky

I'd never wired one these things up before, so when I finally got around to doing so I was a bit surprised by it's total and complete lameness. I guess what I was expecting was a nice, lazy blink (y'know, like a real water tower light). Uh no. Actually, the thing flickers on and off like some disco bulb gone mad. Worse still, it causes every other light on the circuit to go nuts as well. So, rather than risk a lifetime of epileptic seizures, I decided to pull out the stock bulb and replace it with a 5.5 mm Miniatronics bulb (painted red).

So, I guess it looks OK now, but I sure wouldn't mind replacing the whole thing with a more realistic looking tower. And the good news on that front is that Walthers is in fact going to be releasing a couple of honest-to-gosh municipal water towers this summer. However, the bad news is that that's not going to happen for some months. Ah well, maybe on my next layout.

05/22/07 - Hey kids, let's build a power supply!

Noted electronics expert Max Magliaro is walking me through the process of building a home-brew power supply for my lighting. The theory here being that it'll save me from "crappy trainset powerpack hell" and ultimately be cheaper, more powerful, more flexible and more reliable than anything I'm likely to find in a store.

My original intention was to document this entire process on here (just like I document everything else). Unfortunately, it's turning out to be much more involved and complicated than I'd originally imagined. And rather than risk steering any of y'all onto "Electrocution Street" or "Burn Yer House Down Avenue", I think I'm just going to skip the blow-by-blow and present it in it's finished form when/if I actually finish it. My apologies, but as I progressed it became pretty obvious that this whole project wasn't really going to fit in with the prevailing "mediocre modeler" spirit of these blogs.

As for me, I don't know if I've gotten in over my head with this thing or not. But since I've come this far, I may as well finish. And if this blog suddenly goes all quiet for a very long time, I guess you'll know what happened. See you in hell!

05/24/07 - Built some slop'n'foil plaster facades for the front risers

The power supply project is proceeding along at a snail's pace, so in the meantime I decided to get on with a bit of plaster slinging instead. And unlike "the great brick wall", I was able to complete this project in, oh, about ten minutes? All it entails is mixing up a fairly thick batch of Smooth-It, spreading it around on the riser sides with ones fingers, and then pressing on strips of pre-crumpled aluminum foil to provide some rock-like texture. Once the plaster dries, off comes the foil and voila, instant granite (or whatever) walls.

I'm leaning towards ultimately going with a southwestern color scheme for the landscaping, but haven't totally made up my mind yet in that regard. So, for the time being I just painted it all with Earth Undercoat to eliminate the whiteness. I'll worry about finishing it off in "rock" colors somewhere further down the line.

05/25/07 - The power supply is finished

For a guy who wouldn't know a capacitor from a resistor from a hole in the ground, I'm actually quite amazed that I was able to pull this off. Of course I owe it all to my main man, Max. That dude is a total mensch.

Basically what this gives me is two super beefy DC outputs- one at 9.5 volts for my big bulbs and one at 1.3 volts for my weeny bulbs. And when I say beefy, I'm talking 12 friggin' amps. Like, enough power to light all of the lights on half a dozen layouts like this one. So yeah, I'm all set juice-wise.

05/27/07 - Lighting central is open for business

I've never dealt with such a vast conglomoration of electronica on a layout before. And frankly, all those amps coursing through the URR's veins makes me a bit nervous. So, for a little piece of mind, I made sure that all of this stuff was securely mounted to wood (as opposed to foam) before wiring up any lights.

The first thing I did was cut a hole in the dead zone. Next, I nailed a length of 2X4 between the frame crossmembers, giving me someplace to securely mount my power supply. It also serves to lower the whole assembly, so when it comes time to put some sort of lid on top of all of this, I won't have to worry about that big transformer getting in the way. I actually made the hole a little longer than the power supply, both to provide a little bit of ventilation (again, for when this whole area is eventually covered up), as well as creating a handy space for running wires to the back side of the layout.

Lastly, I screwed all of my PDB's to small blocks of wood and then glued said blocks of wood to the foam base.

05/28/07 - Let there be (more) light!

I finished installing lights in the rest of the town buildings as well as in the Empire Leather buildings. I still don't know how to take adequate color photos in the dark, so these no-color infrared shots will have to do. You'll just have to trust me on this one, it's a lot more impressive in living color...

For the town buildings, I once again drilled holes through the platform and then ran wires directly into lighting central. This whole platform thing worked out awfully well. Not having to run my wires underneath the layout really simplified the process. I did have to purchase one special tool to help me out though - a really long, I dunno, I guess you'd call it a forceps. This allowed me to reach in and grab the wires coming down from the buildings on the east side of the street. Very handy indeed.

Rather than trying to run a bunch of long wires directly from the Empire Leather buildings into lighting central, I instead installed a couple of PDBs over under the west side of the layout and then ran a single set of feeder wires into them. I was then able to drill holes through the foam under the buildings and run relatively short wires into the PDBs. Better still, I'll also be able to use said PDBs for the lighting in my lo-pro industries (although that will have to wait until I actually get the rear backdrop fixed in place).

I have to say, lighting the larger buidings with their big, empty windows is quite a challenge. They all take 2 or 3 bulbs to get adequate light shining through all of the windows, and every one of those bulbs inevitably shows up as a "hot spot" through one or more of the windows. Not much to do about it at this point, though. It's not like these big, industrial buildings are going to have window blinds covering up the windows (I wouldn't think so, anyway). And as much as I'd like to have some sort of interior walls in there, cutting down on the areas that need lighting (not to mention giving me something to hide the bulbs behind), I just don't see that happening either. Oh well, they don't look horrible so I guess I'm not going to worry about it (not yet, anyway).

All this lighting did serve to expose all of the various gaps, cracks and crevices in a few of my buildings that will need to be sealed up with Flash Black (Empire Leather, I'm talking to you). Similarly, all of the spots where my plaster foundations wound up uneven (causing light to leak out from the cracks between the plaster and the bottom of the buildings) will also need to be adressed. So, that'll be an ongoing process (undertaken whenever it starts bugging me enough that I feel compelled to do something about it).

So, wow, that's a lot of lighting out of the way. I suppose my next electronics project will be installing the 20 or so streetlights I need in town. But before I get into all that, I need a break from all this soldering and wiring. So, I think I'll take a whack at getting my mountains/tunnels started.

06/01/07 - Yes, we have tunnels

Given how long I've been putting this off, I guess it's pretty obvious that constructing tunnels is not one of my favorite model railroading tasks. For a hobby that I dearly love, there are an awful lot of individual little jobs within it that I really don't like at all, and this is definitely one of them. My problem has always been that it's not anything that I can plan out in my head ahead of time, and consequently I just never know how to get started.

The good news is that this time around I think I finally came up with a system that worked pretty well, and one that I can use on future layouts.

The first thing I did was construct backing pieces for each of the tunnel portals and glued those in place. Next, I connected all of the portal sections together with foam sections of similar height. After that, I glued little foam strips to the side and back supports (just above the access panels), giving me a basic framework on which to build the tunnel roofs. Lastly, it's just a matter of cutting variously sized sections of foam and gluing them to the framework to cover the whole thing up. I didn't actually glue anything to the foam strips on the back support (again, I'm not ready to fix that thing in place permanantly yet). Rather, the roof sections merely butt up to it, so later on I can connect them up using plaster cloth.

So, now all I need to do is landscape on top of the foam, building whatever kind of terrain I like - rocky, mountainous, rolling hills, whatever. I can leave those flat facades flat and stick big ol' rock castings on them, or crumple up newspaper, cover it with plaster cloth and build a gradual decent towards the dead zone. And I'll definitely be finding spots for a couple of cascading streams someplace up there. Unfortunately, that will all have to wait. I can't really get started with the plaster cloth until the back support is fixed in place, and I can't do that until I finish up all the wiring. Blah, I think I'm getting tired of this damned backdrop, and I think I'm not going to have one on my next layout. There are so many things I can't do until it's in place, and there are so many things I have to do first before I can actually, finally glue it on. I tell you, I don't like a damned piece of beaded foam dictacting to me what I can and can't do on my layout on a given day...

06/01/07 - Painted the streets, sidewalks and foundations

Before I worry about painting all of the alleys and driveways and whatnot, I decided to just go ahead and get a basic layer of paint on everything first (Woodland Scenics "Pigment" actually - Asphalt for the street level and Concrete mixed with Stone Gray for the foundation/sidewalk level). Now it's just a matter of masking out the alleyways, parking/loading areas, etc that are currently Concrete/Gray colored and paint those Asphalt. I also need to go around and sand down spots on the curbs to make entryways into said alleys, etc.

And so you ask, am I going to be painting that station platform orange? Boy, your guess is as good as mine. I'm waffling back and forth like some spineless DC politician on that one (you supply the name, I'm not going to be starting any controversies here).

06/04/07 - Started installing streetlights

I did a bit of checking around, and the cheapest streetlights I could find (that weren't Model Power/Bachmann crap) were these basic black ones from Miniatronics. And just my luck - when I first started researching this they were $10.95 for a pack of two, but now I see the price has magically jumped up to $11.95 for the same two-pack. Cripes...

Anyway, I picked up a couple of 2-packs just to see how I'd like them. And after installing said four on my layout, I'd say these are definitely a go. So, I've gone ahead and ordered up a bunch more (supposedly scheduled to arrive later this week). I also ordered up a couple of fancier two-globe versions for the train station platform, and a few "wall" lights to provide some illumination around some of my loading docks.

As much as I'd like to have 6 of these on each block (4 on the main drag and one each on the side streets), I don't know that my 1.5 volt circuit is going to be able to handle more than about 20 total (or so Max tells me), so for now I'm going with selective compression and sticking with 4 per block (2 in front, 2 on the sides). As I keep reminding myself, I do need to save room for my traffic signals, and I don't want too much stuff cluttering up the sidewalks, so... hopefully it'll all work itself out.

When I showed my newly installed streetlights to my wife she said "Cool! Now you just need to build little sidewalk planter boxes and put some trees in there". And dammit, you know what? She's probably right... I'm just not sure if I have the space for such things, but I'll definitely do a little research and see what other people have done in that regard.

06/04/07 - Installed a couple of train signals

I really wanted to go with NJ International LED-equipped signals for these, but they seem to be sold out and back ordered everyplace I normally do business with. So, instead I went with the old filament bulb Model Power signals one can always find gathering dust in hobby shops the world over. And actually, they're really not that bad of a second choice. I've always thought that of all the goofy electronic offerings from Model Power, these are actually the least objectionable looking of the bunch. My only concern at this point is how durable those bulbs are ultimately going to turn out to be. Fortunately, they're installed right on the front of the layout, and easily replaced should they turn out to be lemons. I do plan on eventually adding another pair on the back side of the layout someplace, so hopefully I'll be able to score some NJI's for those.

These signals come with a four-way control switch for changing the lights, but since they're basically just window dressing, I didn't bother with any of that. I just wired them up to have one color permanantly lit and left it at that. I did leave the wires for the unused bulbs in place so I can switch colors in case I lose a bulb.

06/04/07 - Finished the gas stations

I sanded down a couple of entrances from the street and then painted the traffic areas Asphalt. And brother, painting these concrete/asphalt transition areas is just so much fun. "Oops, I got concrete in my asphalt, oops, I got asphalt in my concrete", and on and on, back and forth. I did try masking, but that just takes a lot of time and doesn't really make for any better results (plus, it leaves a lot of leftover tape goop that you have to clean up somehow). I seem to have better luck just freehanding the stuff with a brush, but even that gets to be frustrating at times.

Once I'd finished with the painting, I went ahead and installed an assortment of NJ International overhead lights. And no, I'm not entirely happy with the look of the things, but they're the closest thing I could find to what I wanted. They're a bit taller than I really need for these structures, and frankly I just don't understand the design. Why is it that everybody's "arm style" street lights are "Y" shaped (with their lights pointing god knows where) instead of "T" shaped (with their lights pointing down, and actually lighting the ground)? Worse still, I'm told that if you try bending the arms at all you're almost guaranteed to yank the wires out of the bulbs, so you're pretty much stuck with the "Y" shape. I swear, one of these days I'm just going to build my own and get what I want...

Lastly, I glued the buildings, tanks and pumps to the plaster. So these are well and truly done.

06/04/07 - On second thought...

Man, I've had fast changes of heart before, but this might just be a record. But here's the thing- the more I look at these streetlights, the more I'm falling in love with them. Damn, they look awesome. So forget everything I said about selective compression, electrical considerations, cost, clutter and whatever. I want four of these things per main street block, period. It looks perfect to me, and I'm just going to have to make all of the other elements work to accommodate them. As far as I'm concerned, these things are at the top of the foodchain.

And hell, let's not make it sound any more dire than it really is. At the end of the day we're only talking about adding maybe a half-dozen more lights, so it's not like I'm going to have to take up residence in the poor house or make a ton of compromises to pull this off. I think the biggest hardship I'm going to face here is waiting for yet another Miniatronics order...

Speaking of Miniatronics, I'm still waiting on my first order (obviously), but in the meantime I went ahead and pulled the lamps off the side streets and moved them over to the main drag. To get rid of the holes, I simply filled them in with FTG and then painted over the top.

So, what can I say? Maybe it's the whole simple pleasures for simple souls thing, but I'm telling ya, those two extra lights per block give me a major case of the warm fuzzies. And yeah, OK, you can quit your smug sniggering at any time. It bothers me not!

Addendum- I think I've solved my traffic signal problem. After fruitlessly trying to figure out the best places to install them on my two three-way intersections, it finally dawned on me that the reason I'm having so much trouble placing them is that, in real life, there probably wouldn't even be stoplights at these intersections. All I really need is a couple of stop signs for the eastbound traffic, and that's it. Yes, it pains me to miss out on an opportunity for more lighting, but this way just plain makes more sense. I wasn't having much luck finding any decent looking working traffic lights anyway (although for those who might be interested, Berkshire Junction makes some that aren't half bad - albeit spendy).

Oh yeah, I also talked to Max M. about my current draw situation on the 1.5v circuit, and he said I should be able to comfortably run fifty of these mini-lights. So, boo-yah! Bring 'em on!

06/06/07 - Finished painting the alleyways

For these, I started by sanding down some alley entrances and then plotted out the sidewalks on the three street sides of each block (measuring in 1.5 cm and then using a ruler to draw in pencil lines marking the boundary between sidewalk and foundation). Then I put all of my buildings in place, snugged right up to the edge of the sidewalk lines. Next, I took a pencil and drew lines (freehand) along the backs of the buildings marking the boundaries between alley and foundation. After that, I removed the buildings, redrew my lines straighter (IE, with a ruler), masked off the foundations from the alley and then brushed on Asphalt pigment. Once that all dried, I spent a bit of time tidying up the inevitable sloppy spots.

When I get down to the serious detailing stage of things, I'll apply some Bragdon (or weatherwash or whatever) to these areas to make the asphalt look a little grungier than the streets, just to give the alleys a different look.

06/08/07 - Adding to the foundation level

I decided to extend the plaster base for both the station platform and the freight house loading dock. It seemed odd having a big gap between the edge of the platform and the track at the station, so I extended it right up to the edge of the roadbed. As for the freight house, I just wanted a smidge more room on the street side, and extending the foundation right up to the roadbed allowed me to slide the whole building a little closer to the rails.

It's pretty much impossible to install Smooth-It in such tight areas using the traditional methods. So, what I did instead was mask off the ends with paving tape, mix up a very viscous batch of Smooth-It (something like pancake batter consistancy), and then filled in the desired areas using a big eyedropper. This watery of a mixture usually has a lot of air bubbles, so I spent a while poking those with a pin (or whatever). The resulting plaster is pretty soft and takes a very long time to dry out completely, but this method does allow you to fill in very small and oddly shaped areas pretty effectively.

06/08/07 - Welcome to Taco Bell, may I take your order?

Yep, I finally made up my mind to go ahead and paint that station platform orange. And holy cats, what a fiasco that turned out to be. When it comes to painting plaster, I've always used Woodland Scenics' assorted pigments with great success. And, I assumed using regular paint was going to be just as simple. Y'know, hie down to YOLHS, find a paint of the appropriate color, brush it on and finito. Uh, no... not quite.

Anyway, blissful in my ignorance, I did hie myself down to YOLHS and started browsing through their paint section. And unfortunately, I wasn't really paying attention to what kind of paint I was looking at. All I cared about was finding something red/orange in color and with a flat finish. And what I wound up with was a jar of Model Master "Rust" enamel paint. Well, the color turned out to be perfect, but after it dried it turned out to be all slick and shiney. Oy! What's up with that? Next, I tried brushing on some Bragdon "rust" to kill the shine, but the surface was too slick to get the stuff to stick reliably and the whole thing turned into a big, splotchy looking mess. So, next I tried Flat Finish (no change), Dull Cote (no change), and finally Matte Medium (no change).

So, at this point I decided to take a break from the whole thing and go get some advice. And what I eventually found out is that I should be using very diluted acrylic paint on this stuff and not enamel. So, I sanded off my 37 layers of crud to get back down to the raw plaster, mixed up a seriously diluted batch of Model Master "Burnt Sienna" acrylic paint (about 4:1 water to paint) and brushed it on.

Well wow, this turned out to be exactly the look I was after. Absolutely flat, and decidedly "masonic" looking ("masonic" in the bricklaying sense, and not referring to the sinister overlords that rule the world). However, all was not happy in Happy Valley. After my first coat dried, it was very uneven looking, what with some spots being noticeably darker than others (all very well and good for painting rocks, but a station platform? Not so much...) So, I started brushing on coat after coat in an attempt to achieve some sort of reasonably homogenous coloring. Unfortunately, after about the fourth coat I noticed that some spots were starting to take on that old shiney/slick/waxy look again, so at that point I just said to hell with it and stopped painting. Instead, I applied a layer of Bragdon powder (which went on very evenly this time around) and then called it a day.

So, just a ridiculous amount of work for such a small thing, but the good news is that I think it did wind up looking pretty nice.

06/08/07 - Installed a couple of crossing gates

After going with Bachmann's cheezy little trainset-style crossing gates on all of my previous layouts, it was quite a pleasure installing something as cool looking as these NJ International gates on this one. And apart from the looks, I also chose these because they are equipped with LED lighting. So, hopefully they'll last a good long time.

Installation is pretty straightforward. Each gate has three wires, one for each light (resistors preinstalled) and a common. And I suppose I could've just wired them up directly to the power supply and called it a day, but after having already given up on my neon signs, this was probably going to be my last opportunity for animated lighting on this layout. So, I decided to go for it and purchased a Dallee Electronics crossing flasher board as well.

The flasher board is dead simple to hook up. One power lead into one terminal, the other power lead and the two commons from the gates into another, and the wires from the four lights into the remaining two terminals. And the really cool part is that the board has a little dial that allows you set to the flash rate. I found that the lowest rate of flash looked best.

Once I'd gotten everything wired up, the only problem I really ran into was the fact that my signals were sitting too low (relative to the road surface), so I stuck a couple of plastic shims underneath them to raise them up just a bit.

So, sixty bucks for a pair of flashing crossing signals? Do I think it was worth it? Hell yes! They look fantastic!

Tools of the Trade:

So, maybe you're wondering how one goes about snaking wires down through tiny little holes drilled deep into foam. Well, this is probably a no-brainer, but I thought I'd mention it here anyway. After spending years running wires through odd little recesses on my cycle, I figured out that if you take a piece of a wire hanger (the straight part) and simply tape the ends of your wires to it, you can route them just about anyplace. Very handy!

06/15/07 - Finished installing the streetlights

No, I haven't been slacking off. But wiring up twenty-six streetlights does take a bit of time, and I didn't want to bore everyone with a lot of "Hey, today I wired up 2 more lights" type entries.

Not much to report here - just basically lather-rinse-repeat (albeit twenty-six times). I did fill up the one PDB-2 I'd set aside for weeny bulbs, so I purchased and installed another one (as I plan on installing more than a few "wall" lights around doors and loading docks and suchlike). Also, I had to make a slight modification to the double-globe lights at the passenger station. These come with preinstalled resistors to throttle down typical "power pack" current to more manageable levels. But since I'm running my main lighting circuit at only 9 volts, they barely lit. So, I removed the resistors and now they're perfect.

How about that wiring job? I'm usually a pretty fastidious worker, but I seem to have made a veritable rat's nest out of lighting central. Oh well, it'll all be covered up eventually, so it'll be our little secret, eh? And believe it or not, should a light ever need to be replaced (lord help me, I hope it's a long time before that ever happens) it might actually be easier to address with everything basically hanging free and loose (rather than neatly bundled and routed). Well, anyway, it's a decent rationalization so let's run with it.

06/15/07 - Finished the alleys and parking/loading areas.

Once again, not much new to report here- same procedure as elsewhere. However, as I feared, it does appear that I erred in my selection of DPM's freight house as one of my rail-supported industries (in this particular location, anyway). Despite my best efforts to provide room for trucks (albeit short ones) to "back in and load" on the street side, it just didn't work out. I really didn't want to lose the sidewalk, and the remaining space isn't big enough for a truck of any size to maneuver in. So, I guess the workaround is that any loading at this particular freight house is going to be of the small scale variety (IE, small trucks being loaded parallel to the building, rather than perpendicular).

First off, I guess I'll have to install some kind of loading platforms. So, time to rummage around in my Cornerstone Modular Pile-O-Parts and see what I can cobble together. Looking on the bright side, I guess more loading docks will actually present me with more opportunities for fun detailing, so that's good. Better still, I think I've finally found a logical place for a chainlink fence and gate. I really like chainlink fences and have been scratching my head trying to figure out logical places to put them on this particular layout. And as it turns out, I think one will look very nice demarking this truck loading area. Yep, ill wind, blah, blah, etc.

Speaking of making adjustments on the fly... now that I've actually finished all of the sidewalk/asphalt painting and installed all the streetlights, I'm now thinking that I might be able to install a trio of traffic lights at that middle intersection after all. I can see three very obvious places for them to go, and they won't be getting in the way of anything else. So, I think I'm going to order up some of those Berkshire traffic signals and see what they're all about.

06/16/07 - My layout doesn't suck, it blows!

As I've been adding more and more lights, my transformer has, slowly but surely, started generating more and more heat. Now, Max has assured me that the components I chose are designed to easily handle temperatures much higher than what I'm currently dealing with. However, he's also been very careful about guiding me through the process of adding various heat sinks along the way to help dissipate all that heat. Well, I kind of got tired of all of the little half measures (a rectifier here, a heat sink there) and decided to address the heat issue once and for all by installing a nice big fan on the transformer board. And I'll tell you, the thing runs as cool as a cucumber now.

06/17/07 - Installed some bridge lighting

This turned out to be much simpler than I thought it was going to be. I started with a couple of Miniatronics single arm highway lights, which turned out to be perfect for the job. The little round bases simple slide right off, leaving nothing but a skinny pole. Fortunate that, because these Rix bridges don't really have any sort of sidewalk or other convenient surface on which to plant a light pole. And, rather than sticking them right to the deck (which would've looked pretty stupid), I discovered that they mount very nicely to the outside of the of the guard rails, snugged up and glued to one of the abutment thingies.

Once I had the poles mounted, I drilled a couple of small holes so that I could route the wires to the underside of the bridge. From there, I drilled a couple of holes through the supports and routed the wires down to the ground. Unfortunately, the columns are not hollow and I didn't really feel like I'd be able to drill holes through them (not that I didn't try), so for the transition from the top support to the bottom support, I just ran the wires along the outside of one of the columns. Not the most elegant solution, but after I'd painted them Concrete to match the supports, I think they blended in pretty well. If you squint, you might just be able to make out the wires snaking down on the rightmost support in the above picture.

These highway lights come with preinstalled resistors (like my double-globe station lights), which I once again wound up removing (since my 9 volt lighting circuit isn't nearly beefy enough to scare these bulbs).

Since I'll probably want to be able to pull this bridge out of the way when I get down to the landscaping, I decided to wire it up with plugs. In this instance, I used some GRS 2-prong "Micro Connectors", hooked up underneath the layout. Now if I need to temporarily pull the bridge out of the way, I can just unplug the plugs, pull the bridge wires back up through the base and move the bridge (leaving the long wires snaking into lighting central right where they are).

06/19/07 - Put down some traffic control lines and mocked up some boulevard trees

I'm slowly but surely getting to the point where I'm going to be gluing buildings in place permanantly, so I figured I'd better go ahead and get some road lines drawn while I still had moveable buildings. And so, that's what I did.

As documented on my previous layout blogs, I've tried just about every known method for putting down traffic lines, and the only one I've ever had an success with at all is to simply draw them on using a white pencil (aided by a ruler). The looks are more than adequate for my purposes, the procedure is dead simple, and if you do screw up, all you have to do is flip the pencil over to the "oops" end, erase, and start over. And bro', I keep it all as simple as possible. Parallel lines? Dashed lines? No way, man. My ambitions extend no farther than solid white lines down the middle of the road, crosswalks, parking space demarkation and those little "stop here" bars at intersections. If I try anything more complex than that, well... I guess "laughable" is the first adjective that comes to mind (with "pathetic" coming in a close second).

As for the actual dimensions of all this stuff, I generally just go with whatever eyeballs best. Although, for the parking spaces I did employ a tiny bit of actual science- I picked up a couple of Mini-Metals "1959 Ford Fairlane" taxicab models and took their length (approximately 1.25 inches), added some elbow room on either end (a quarter inch) and came up with 1.75" for the size of a parking space. Yah, it's probably a little longer than prototypical, but it scans well in N scale. For the depth, I once again used the Ford as my benchmark (about a half inch wide), and added on a sixteenth of an inch for some breathing room. Then, to get consistantly sized spaces, I went ahead and actually score'n'snapped myself a 1 3/4" X 9/16" piece of styrene and used that as a template for drawing the parking lines.

So, why bother with parking lines at all? Well, just for fun I think I'm going to try installing a few million parking meters around town. I mean, what the heck? I've already gone nuts with interior detailing, so why not go similarly over the top with the curbside detailing?

I'll eventually go over all of this stuff with weatherwash to fade it out a bit, but since I'm still in drill-wielding mode (plaster flies, pigment retouch follows), I'll hold off on all that until things stabilize a bit more.

As for the trees, I still haven't quite decided if they're going to work. I did a bit of a field research, and what I found was that boulevard trees in this sort of "Main Street, USA" scenario tend to consist of skinny trunks up to the top of the first floor of the surrounding buildings. Above that you get the leafy tree-tops, generally going up no higher than the second floor. So, with all that in mind I picked up a pack of WS "Deciduous Tree Armatures" (2-3") along with some WS "Fine-Leaf Foliage" and set about mocking up some appropriately sized trees.

And after getting said potential trees in place, I must say I really do like the look of them. Now it's just a matter of "will they fit". So, I guess I'll need to glue on some foliage and see what happens...

Side note - hey, if you're doing the whole "mix WS Concrete with WS Stone Gray for sidewalk color" thing, here's a handy tip: mix up as much as you're likely to need for the whole layout at the beginning. Jeez, my original mix ran out and I was completely unable to duplicate the same color with my next batch. Consequently, I wound up having to repaint all of my sidewalks... grr

06/22/07 - A tree grows in Wingnut (fourteen of 'em, actually)

Despite a few headaches along the way, this turned out really well. I started with the aforementioned Woodland Scenics tree armatures (bendy plastic that you can form into any shape you like). And this time around, I decided to paint them first (making them a little less plastic-y looking). All I had on hand was a can of Rail Brown, so that's what I used. And, as luck would have it, I think they wound up looking pretty great.

In the past, I've always used WS "clump foliage" for my tree tops. However, while perusing the WS rack at YOLHS, I noticed they now have something called "Fine-Leaf Foliage". I don't know if this is a new product, or if I just never noticed it before. In any event, this stuff rocks. It's literally manufactured by Mother Nature, although I couldn't tell you what kind of plant it is. But whatever it is, in its natural state it literally looks just like a real tree (I mean, you could stick these on your layout and be done - although, the individual stalks are pretty long, so it's probably better suited for larger scales if you're going to go that route). Anyway, if you slide the foliage off the stalks and glue (WS Hob-E-Tac) it to your tree armatures, the tiny little leaves along with all of the miniature twigs and stems make for trees that are much more treeish looking than what you get going the old clump foliage route. Yeah, it's still a big sticky mess building these things (I can only stand to do 2-3 at a time, so it takes me a while), but the end result is outstanding. And cost-wise, they're pretty reasonable - I'd say about a buck apiece if you combine the cost of the armatures, the foliage and the glue.

The instructions are a little confusing as far as how to get the clumps of foliage off of the central stems. In the picture, they show a disembodied hand grabbing the main stalk and sliding its fingers downwards ("with the grain", if you will). Well, I tried that and the stuff fought me every inch of the way. So, I tried going the other direction (sliding my fingers upwards along the stem and "against the grain") and the foliage clumps popped off with little or no resistance.

The procedure for actually installing a tree was pretty simple - just Dremel a small hole in the sidewalk, apply a little bit of FTG to the bottom of the armature and stick it into the hole. However, finding adequate room for every individual tree turned out to be a bit of a challenge. There are a lot of places where my sidewalks aren't really wide enough to comfortably accommodate trees of any size, even these small ones (particularly on the east side of the main drag where I have most of my DPM buildings). And since I thought it looked kind of dumb having the tree tops literally touching the building facades, I had to make a few minor modifications. First, for the really tight spots, I made the trees slightly oblong (taking up more north-south space than east-west space). Then, I slid all of my buildings backwards a few millimeters to create a little more breathing room on the sidewalk. This is ultimately going to require a bit of Concrete pigment rework back on the alley side of things (to account for the newly moved buildings), but no big deal. I have lots of room back there.

I also had to rearrange/reconfigure a couple of the buildings that were obstructing the obvious positions for some of my trees (namely, the spots equidistant between the streetlights on the east side of the street). My bar with the awning was smack dab where a tree needed to go, so I simply swapped it with one of its neighboring buildings. Also, one of the little signs on my "Merchant's Row" trio of buildings was similarly blocking where a tree needed to go, so I plucked the sign off and relocated it over a different door and out of the way.

The real headache turned out to be Helltowne Hotel and its big "neon" sign (once again back to torment me, it seems). The damned thing was right smack where a tree needed to go, and moving the hotel elsewhere simply wasn't an option - I had to relocate the sign. And unfortunately, all of that Flash Black superglue I used to stop light leakage made extracting said sign just one hell of a difficult proposition. I tried "gentle", I tried "firm but careful", I tried "brute force", I tried "going medieval", and finally I went all "Gozer the Destructor" on its ass (and wound up mangling a couple of windows in the process). Next, I Dremel'd a new slot down near the corner of the building (messing up two more windows, aargh) and reinstalled it there. And I tell you, after all of the painstaking work I'd put it on those windows, there were tears in my eyes throughout the entire operation.

So, get this. When I was in the midst of moving said neon sign, I actually started thinking "Hey, here's an opportunity to buy a couple of new ones and see if I can't get them wired up and working finally!" Yah, then I slapped myself a couple of times, regained my senses, and finished moving the old sign.

Anyway, the good news is that I was ultimately able to clean up and otherwise repair the window damage pretty well, leaving most of the really ugly fixes conveniently hidden behind the tree that instigated the whole embroglio in the first place. I may go back and further repair some of the messed up window blinds at some point, but for now it's good enough. And the good news is that that crazy sign actually looks better on the corner of the building than it ever did in the middle (where it tended to just vanish into the shadow of the building). So once again, I somehow manage to find a silver dollar in the midst of a shitstorm...

06/24/07 - Added a loading dock to the street side of the freight house

Ah, a nice simple project for a change. I score'n'snapped the dock itself off of a Cornerstone Modulars roof section (which just happened to be the perfect length). Next, I filed some indentations to accommodate the wall supports. For the legs, I used some more Cornerstone Modular parts - in this case, some of those brick "corner-style" wall caps (which once again turned out to be exactly the right size). Once assembled, I sprayed the whole thing Rail Brown and then brushed on some weatherwash, followed up by some Bragdon powder.

It turned out great, and now I have plenty of room in there for a truck or two to slide in parallel to the dock and load up.

06/25/07 - The traffic signals are in

OK, I am thoroughly impressed with these Berkshire traffic signals. They make the Model Power signals I usually wind up using look like junk by comparison. They're easy to hook up, nicely compact and, at least to my eye, totally prototypical looking. I left mine in their stock yellow color because that's what color the traffic light poles are up here in Minnesota (or at least the one or two I actually took notice of while driving around yesterday).

Installation was a breeze. I drilled three holes through the town platform layer and then shoved the wires all the way down to underside of the layout using my magical wire hanger tool. Next, I screwed the control board to a piece of wood and then glued that to the underside of the layout. Then it was just a matter of running two wires up to power central and then connecting up the various color-coded wires for the signals. The board has two sets of four output wires, and each signal has a single set of four input wires. So, the lights you want on one cycle go to one set of four PCB wires, and the lights you want on the opposite cycle go to the other four. And like my crossing flasher control, there is a little dial on this PCB to allow you to adjust the length of each cycle.

So OK, kind of spendy for three traffic signals ($81 total for the control board and three poles), but this stuff is high quality and I'm glad I decided to go for it. Watching the lights cycle between the different colors is quite a hoot. Hell, the first time the light changed green I half expected that taxi to start moving.

06/25/07 - Finished the town lighting

I started by installing some Miniatronics "Outdoor Building/Billboard Lights" on a few buildings (mainly along the "front" side of the layout where they'll be more visible). And unfortunately, I can't say that I'm a huge fan of these fixtures. As delivered, they're bare brass and pretty damned ugly. So, I wound up painting and Bragdonizing them in various colors just to get a little variety (and reality) into the mix. And brassiness aside, I'm not particularly impressed with the overall design of the things. They're too big in just about every way they can be too big, and ultimately they look like the "before" picture in an ad for erectile dysfunction syndrome... But oh well, what are you gonna do? There's no easy way to address the diameter problem, and I didn't feel like trying to take the brass fittings apart in order to customize the length. So, what the hell. Options are limited, so I guess they'll have to do.

In addition to the brass fixtures, I also installed a few "bare bones" bulbs on the freight house loading dock (hidden under the overhangs so as to conceal their basic fixturelessness).

So, that should just about do it for lighting in Wingnut. To complete the overall lighting extravaganza, all I need is a bit of exterior lighting for Empire Leather (a few "limp dick" fixtures along with some "under-the-overhang" bulbs should do it), and them some interior/exterior lights for my lo-pro industries. And I gotta say, I'm itching to move on to the scenary, so the sooner I finish up all this wiring the better!

07/02/07 - Put some gravel down around Empire Leather

I decided to go rural/simple here and leave the Smooth-It on the shelf, instead opting for gravel road/parking/loading areas around Empire. I started by masking out the areas I wanted to gravelize, and then painted them with WS "Yellow Ochre" pigment. Then, while the pigment was still wet, I sprinkled on a layer of Highball Products "Fine Light Brown Earth". Once everything dried, I vacuumed up the stuff that didn't stick. Which, unfortunately, was a lot of it. So I repeated the entire procedure one more time, this time using a lot of pigment and a lot of earth. This time around, most of it stayed and, I have to say, wound up making for some fairly convincing looking gravel.

So, that was fun. And now, back to the wiring... *sigh*

07/11/07 - More lighting

I was showing my layout to my dad and he noted that aircraft were likely to start crashing into my Empire Leather smokestack if I didn't put some kind of light up on top. So, I installed a red Miniatronics mini-bulb up there. Safety first, eh? I also added a Miniatronics wall fixture over the door.

At this point I ran out of wall fixtures, so Empire will have to wait until my next order arrives. In the meantime, I decided to get the lo-pros wired up. This required that I finally get the backdrop glued in place permanantly, making for a big ol' obstacle I now have to work around for the rest of the journey. But oh well, it had to happen eventually.

Given the overall height and length of the buildings, I couldn't just stick a couple of bulbs up through the base (ala my town buildings) and expect them to light up all those windows. And given the unstable nature of said buildings, it wasn't really going to be possible to mock up lights a few at a time and see what all was needed. So basically I just had to dive in headfirst and make sure I wired up sufficient lighting right from the get-go.

What I wound up doing was strategically placing bulbs on each story (in the dead space between every other window so as to minimize the "hot spot" affect). Next, I glued all of the wires in place with big blobs of FTG. And I definitely went overboard with the bulbs - something like 10-15 of 'em in each building (not to mention the lights I wired up under the various exterior overhangs).

Once all the glue dried, I twisted and soldered the leads for all of the bulbs into huge octopoid masses (two sets per building). There's just no way I was going to try to run 30 individual sets of wires into my PDBs for these. Next I drilled some big-ass holes for the wires, hooked everything up to my western PDB and turned on the juice. And damn, no question about it - those babies lit up! Definitely more light than is really needed, but oh well, they still look pretty damned cool. I especially like the way the exterior lighting turned out.

After my initial test, I spent some time bending some of the wiring around to move bulbs away from walls (where they glowed through) and windows (where they showed up as hot spots). And once all that was accomplished, I applied a bit of FTG along all of the wall edges and stuck the buildings to the base and to the backdrop (held in place while the glue dried with some heavy objects).

Now, the problem with kit-bashed lo-pro buildings is that (if you're me, anyway) none of the edges are entirely flat, straight or the same depth as any of the other edges. And consequently, you wind up with a lot of light bleeding through the seams along the backdrop. At this point I'm not really sure what, if anything, I'm going to do about it. I'm afraid that if I try to seal them up with something like Flash Black, I'll just wind up with a big, sloppy mess on my Instant Horizons. I guess I'll just let it go for now and see if inspiration doesn't knock on my door somewhere down the line.

The other problem turned out to be the backdrop itself. I guess I didn't get the back edges of the layout base cut entirely straight either, and the backdrop wound up being close, but not quite exactly perpendicular to the base. And as a consequence, my lo-pros wound up with a degree or two of "backward lean" to them. Not hugely noticeable, but it did leave a bit of a gap between the base and the bottoms of the loading docks. So, my fix was to pile up a little bit of brown ballast along the bottom edges of the docks and then fix it all in place with some scenic cement (just like you would if you were ballasting track). Problem solved.

Lastly, I had a Cornerstone "pre-built" signal tower left over from my previous layout, so what the hey, I fogged up the windows with flat finish, applied a bit of weathering, installed a bulb and stuck it on the upper level. The more the merrier, I say.

It's at this point that I'm finally coming to understand the basic problem with all of this lighting. Namely, once you get started it's hard to know where to stop. Every light added seems to beget two more. Like, now that I have that cool little red light on my Empire smokestack, I'm wondering why I didn't go ahead and put similar lights on my lo-pro stacks as well? Oh wait, now I remember... because I'm bloody sick of wiring! Yeesh.

07/15/07 - Finished with the building lighting

Nothing of major interest to report here - basically I just wired up another small assortment of mini-bulbs and wall fixtures on the remaining Empire buildings (3-4 per building). I didn't do much on the track side of the buildings, mainly because I didn't put any overhangs back there, it's facing away from the front of the layout (IE, hidden from view, so who cares) and, oh yeah, I'm just really sick of wiring.

And so, that's it for the building lighting. I'm still waiting on a couple of back-ordered NJI train signals, so I guess I can't say I'm 100% done-done with all the lighting. But, those are supposedly due in later this month, so I can definitely see the light (or in this case, the lack of light) at the end of the tunnel.

At this point I have no idea how many individual lights I wound up installing, having kind of lost track once I topped 100. And so, was it all worth it? Well, turning off the room lights and running my trains (especially lit passenger trains) around in that sea of lights is a truly amazing experience, so obviously I'm quite pleased with how the whole experiment turned out. However, having said that, I also have to say that I am definitely never going to attempt anything even remotely approaching this scale ever again. It's way too expensive, and it takes way too much time. Spending weeks working on the same thing just isn't my idea of model railroading fun and tends to lead to burnout (at least for me). I can already state with a fair degree of certainty that my next layout is going to be much smaller and much simpler.

Anyway, my last major task in the wiring/electronics department is to get my remote switch machines wired up. And to save future headaches, I'm going to first build myself a capacitor discharge circuit that will prevent a careless switch thrower from accidentally melting a switch machine (replacing these things after they're installed being a whole lot of no fun). So, time for another trip to "The Shack" - here's hoping it's my last!

07/25/07 - Finished wiring up the switch machines

I decided to run these off my custom power supply, although in retrospect that was kind of stupid since now I have to turn on all the lights every time I want to throw a switch. Oh well, I didn't build this thing for operations so no big deal I guess. Maybe somewhere down the line I'll splice in some switches for the lighting circuits so I can turn off the lights and still use the power supply for the turnouts.

Atlas switch machines tend to be a bit finicky, and if you get a little rambunctious with your button pushing finger, it's possible to overload them and literally melt them into your foam base. Worse still, replacing a fried switch machine is a big pain in the ass. So, with that in mind I built a simple capacitor discharge circuit and added it to my power supply. Basically this provides a one-time shot of juice - just enough to throw the switch and no more. And you can lean on that button all day long and nothing's going to happen to that machine. Once you let go and give the capacitor a second or two to recharge, you're then ready to throw another one.

I got the design for this circuit from a really handy book (recommended to me by Max) entitled "Practical Electronic Projects For Model Railroaders". Lots of handy information in there, and all designed for the newbie solder-jockey. It's out of print now, but I picked up a used copy off of amazon.com for a couple of bucks. Highly recommended!

This whole project took me just one hell of a long time to finish, mainly because running wires from the machines (on the back side of the layout) all the way to the controllers (on the front side of the layout), and then trying to solder a bunch of hard-to-reach, dangling wires turned out to be every bit as difficult as it sounds. Lengthy wiring underneath a tabletop layout takes some fancy footwork and once again I envy you guys working on layouts where the underside is readily accessible. I guess putting all of my heavy duty electronics on top of the layout (in the deadzone) was a better idea than I originally thought, based on how (relatively) easy wiring up all that lighting turned out to be.

So, apart from my still back-ordered NJI signals, I'm done with the electronics (and not a moment too soon). Time to get busy with those mountains!

07/26/07 - Concealed the rat's nest

Nothing too fancy here. I cut a couple of angled supports out of foam, glued together some 1/4" sheets of foam, stuck the legs on and then painted the whole thing with interior latex. Then, to make sure my power supply remained sufficiently cool, I cut out a ractangular opening and glued on a sheet of nylon window screen material. Rat's nest? What rat's nest?

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