Saturday, February 18, 2012

Scratching and Bashing

The March issue of Railroad Model Craftsman has an interesting piece by Bob Walker on scratchbuilding.  He talks about his first attempt to build something from scratch -- a 1/4 inch scale caboose -- back in 1956.  That got me to thinking about my own first scratchbuilding effort in the mid-1970s, building a retail coal facility.  I know the exact date -- December 1975 -- because I recently found the RMC article that inspired me in my files.  It was entitled, "Retail Coal Dealers" by Paul Dolkos, with plans for a three silo coal storage facility based on a Manchester, Vermont prototype.  Here is the first page of the article:

For some reason I was inspired to duplicate the structure in the article.  It was my first attempt to build something from scratch, and the three towers presented an interesting challenge.  (Remember, this was 1975!)  I finally ended up wrapping scribed basswood sheets around three beer cans to form the towers.  I believe they were Horseshoe Curve beer cans!  The cans turned out to be just about the right size for the RMC plans.  Then, I had to figure out how to duplicate the steel bands that held the boards in place.  Naive as I was, I used rubber bands!  The shed that went with the coal yard was more difficult, and it has long since disappeared.  But the coal elevator and towers are still around after more than thirty years.

I believe that a commercial copy of this particular structure was produced and has been available for many years.  My version was assembled from basswood with Ambroid cement.  It held up fairly well over the years, but eventually the glue dried out and the rubber bands broke, with sad results.

The model sits on a shelf in the train room, and I keep thinking that one day I will rebuild it -- but it would mean replacing the rubber bands with a more prototypical system of restraints, which I just haven't had the time or interest to tackle.  I keep the building simply because it was my first....

But not my last!  I model Eastern narrow gauge -- specifically, the East Broad Top Railroad.  Over the years I have discovered that tackling a relatively unknown prototype means there are very few models available for the layout -- even kits are rare indeed.  White Ground Models produced a dozen or so kits of EBT related buildings -- I have them all -- but many of the lineside structures exist only in photos or, if you are lucky, in drawings and plans.  So if I want to build a replica of this small south central Pennsylvania railroad, I have to do a lot of scratchbuilding and kit bashing.

Many of the available kits are models of the EBT shop complex in Rockhill, Pennsylvania.  But at least half of the shop buildings will have to be scratchbuilt, including the well known Orbisonia Station and the brick roundhouse.  My first attempt at scratchbuilding the EBT was the car shop, which had to be selectively compressed because of its enormous size.  It was a fun project, and the results turned out better than I had hoped.  I have yet to finish the corrugated metal roof.

I find that scratchbuilding and kit bashing give me the opportunity to try new techniques and materials.  For example, my efforts to build a model of the EBT's stone block enginehouse in Mount Union were stymied at first by the lack of suitable building materials.  Then a friend, Jim Vliet, sent me a closeup photo of the stone block wall, and I decided to try duplicating it. 

Using PowerPoint, I made a series of copies of the photograph, cropping them and arranging them side-by-side to produce a sheet of stone block paper.  I built the engine house from styrene, then cemented the paper stone block walls to the styrene.  Here is the result:

Not far from the Mount Union dual gauge yard I discovered a number of unique little houses, all more or less identical.  A little research found that they had been constructed by the General Refractories Company (GREFCO) for its brickyard employees. 

This was a new challenge for scratchbuilding.  There were no plans, no drawings, no measurements -- just a handful of photographs.  In this case, I drew my own plans, working backwards from typical door and window sizes to figure the dimensions of the structure itself.  Once the plans were down on paper, it was a fairly easy step to cut basswood lap siding to size and build a number of similar little homes for the layout.  These turned out well enough for Bob Brown to publish the following picture in the Narrow Gauge and Shortline Gazette.

Of course, it isn't always necessary to build from scratch.  When an existing model is "close enough" for my purposes, I am perfectly happy to alter it to suit.  For example, almost everyone is familiar with the "W. E. Snatchem Funeral Home" -- you might even own one!  I built the original plastic model per the instructions, but it really didn't fit the needs of my current layout.  Then one day I noticed that the dimensions of the house were fairly typical for a small central Pennsylvania town like Mount Union.  With a little "bashing" -- removing the small bay on the side and the dormer on the roof, simplifying the porch, and replacing the shingle roof with a standing seam metal roof -- and finally, wrapping the entire structure in "Insulbrick" siding from Clever Models, voila!  A typical Pennsylvania house:

My current scratchbuilding project is to reproduce, in miniature, the little mining town of Robertsdale at the southern end of the EBT.  Robertsdale was a company town, built by the railroad and the coal company to house workers for the mines on the eastern slope of Broad Top Mountain.  The heart of the town was a group of four buildings, usually referred to as "company square" where Main Street crossed the EBT right of way.  Only one of these buildings -- the station -- exists in kit form.  The other three must be scratchbuilt.  So far I have finished the station and the company store -- the oldest building in Robertsdale.  Right now I am working on the old Post Office building -- a rather non-descript stone block structure with a hip roof.

Fortunately, the Friends of the East Broad Top (FEBT) now offer sheets of resin cast stone blocks identical to those used in three of the four buildings in company square.  The project has a way to go, but here you can see the structure beginning to take shape:

Scratchbuilding and kit bashing are a necessity when modeling a less well-known prototype.  They can also be challenging and fun!  In fact, over the years I have been involved in the hobby, some of my most enjoyable hours have been engaged in creating "something out of nothing".  And it all began with three beer cans and a bag of rubber bands!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Like many model railroaders, my interest in the hobby goes back to my childhood and my first Lionel train set.  The trains arrived on a Christmas morning when I was somewhere between 8 and 10 years old.  I can remember them like it was yesterday: There was a Santa Fe warbonnet A-B-A diesel lashup with half a dozen fluted aluminum passenger cars, and a massive Pennsylvania Railroad S-2 steam turbine pulling a string of freight cars, including a side dump car, a log dump car, and a wonderful milk car that popped little milk cans onto a platform at the push of a button.  Another Christmas brought an A-A F3 lashup in Western Pacific colors.  I loved to lie on the floor and watch the trains race past -- especially that massive steam turbine that was so heavy it took two hands to lift it! 

Maybe it was the next Christmas, or the one after that, but at some point my father secretly built a layout in the basement for my trains.  I remember it well: Two 4x8 sheets of plywood laid end-to-end, with a figure 8 main line and a passing siding.  There were little Plasticville houses with Christmas tree lights inside, and dad had even painted streets and green grass for the scenery.  The whole thing sat on pieces of 2x4 so that the layout was only about 31/2 inches high, and to my young eyes, it was wonderful!

As far as I know, no photos exist of that layout or of the Lionel trains on Christmas.  In fact, I forgot about trains when I went to high school.  My big love then was amateur radio, and I had no time for railroading.  Consequently, I had no idea what became of those trains, which must have cost my parents dearly in the early 1950s.   They were no more than a vague memory.

Then, a year or two ago, I received an email from my cousin Joe in New Jersey.  We grew up in towns only a few miles apart.  In cleaning out his attic he had come across  a carton filled with electric trains.  He wondered if they might belong to me!  Apparently, when they retired and moved to Florida, my parents had given those old Lionel trains away!  It took a while to arrange for the transfer, but a couple of weeks before last Christmas, a heavy box arrived at the local post office addressed to me.  I carried it home and tore it open.  At first, I was disappointed that the Santa Fe diesels and passenger cars were not there.  But then a miracle!  Wrapped in old newspapers was the Pennsy steam turbine!  It was a little beat up; the paint was chipped and several wheels were missing; but there was no doubt this was the engine I used to run around the Christmas tree as a boy!

A quick tour of the internet revealed that the S-2 6-8-6 steam turbine No. 681 was based on a prototype built by the PRR and was first produced by Lionel in 1950.  Produced from 1950-51 and in 1953, the locomotive came with the 2671W tender shown in the picture.   (Being born in 1942, I couldn't have been less than 8 years old when I got my first train set.)  The engine came with a smoke unit, headlight, and a three position directional switch located on the boiler just in front of the cab.  The locomotive was just as massive as I remembered it.

A little research found that only one prototype was ever built, #6200, delivered to the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1944.  The S-2 was the sole example of the 6-8-6 wheel arrangement.  It used a direct drive stream turbine geared to the center pair of axles with the outer two axles connected by side rods.  Unfortunately, the turbine could not operate efficiently over the engine's entire speed range.  At slower speeds, it used excessive steam and fuel.  The engine's problems and the advantages of the new diesel locomotive technology ensured that the experiment would never be duplicated.  Number 6200 was withdrawn from service in 1949 and scrapped in 1953.  Lionel, on the other hand, produced thousands of them, and they were a roaring success in the mid-twentieth century!

The box from my cousin's attic contained other memories from my childhood.  There was a gorgeous A-A pair of F-3 diesels in Western Pacific colors.  The locomotives were first produced in 1952 , when I was ten years old.

There were a few freight cars in the box, and one passenger observation car from a set I had forgotten about over the years.  The 3469 automatic coal dump car was a versatile freight car for the era, able to operate with any of Lionel's coal related accessories, and was known for its sturdiness and reliability.

The 2401 Hillside observation car was part of a passenger car set produced in the late 1940s.  It was Lionel's first injection-molded passenger car set, based on the latest streamlined passenger cars introduced on American railroads in the mid-1940s.

Since receiving the box of trains shortly before Christmas, I have located a Lionel repairman located on Cape Cod, and the S-2 steam turbine has been repaired.  The missing wheel sets have been replaced, a new smoke unit installed, the whistle repaired, and a new water scoop on the tender installed.  I hope to try it out at the Cape Cod Model Railroad Club's next open house -- it will be the first time the engine has run under power in many years.

As I said in the beginning, these Lionel trains started my interest in model railroading some 60 years ago, and it is a miracle to have some of them back again -- a genuine "trip down memory lane".  By now, of course, my interests have changed, and I model in HO scale rather than Lionel's O scale.  I also model the East Broad Top narrow gauge railroad, so the locomotives and rolling stock are even smaller!  Here is a comparison photo of Lionel's huge S-2 steam turbine in 1:48 O scale and 1:87 HO scale EBT #18 -- not a small engine in its own right, it weighed 80 tons and could pull a string of 22 hopper cars up the mountain to the mines. 

But while times may change, memories do not.  Finding the Lionel trains from my childhood, some 60 years ago, has been a wonderful and emotional experience.  I owe a debt of gratitude to my cousin Joe, for finding and sharing these wonderful souvenirs of those days of long ago.