Monday, December 30, 2013

2013, The Year The Train Left The Tracks

As 2013 comes to a close, it's time for the traditional "year in review" post. This was a tough year, personally and professionally. So much so that I walked away from all of my NMRA volunteer activities. Every single one of them. I'll explain why after a look back at my goals for the year.

At the start of 2013, I laid out a few specific goals:

  • The 2013 TLR Convention is here in the Twin Cities, so there won't be a trip to some exotic location like Sioux Falls or Dubuque this year.  I also didn't have the sense enough to lay low, I volunteered to help organize and promote the thing, and it looks like I'll be presenting at least one clinic, possibly two.
  • I'd like to publish three articles this year.  One is already on deck, slated for sometime this spring.  I have another partially written, and nothing lined up yet for a third.
  • Now that I own a "real" camera, I think I might try to get a photo into the 2014 NMRA calendar or possibly even Model Railroader's 2014 calendar.
  • Now that I've perfected the scratchbuilt double-hung window, I'm going to start construction of the Lakeside Inn, with the intent of finishing it in 2013.
  • My term as the PR guy for the Thousand Lakes Region ends in May.  I've been approached about taking over as editor of The Fusee.  Unless I talk myself out of it in the next 5 months, I'll probably assume that role this year.

How'd I do?
  • The convention was a success. Everybody had fun, attendance was exceptional. However, it came at a price. I ended up being WAAAAY more involved in the planning and prep work than I had intended. I found myself frustrated trying to get people to deliver on their commitments. Want proof that the saying "damned if you do, damned if you don't" is true? Volunteer to organize an NMRA convention. I was pleased that the convention was a success, but would I do this again? No.
  • I didn't publish three articles. I didn't even publish one. And I'm OK with that.
  • I didn't get a photo into a calendar. In fact, I've done very little photography of any kind this year. All of my hobbies suffered this year.
  • The Lakeside Inn is not finished. In fact, it hasn't been touched in six months, not since June 29th, the date of my last blog post.
  • As for TLR, I am not the editor of The Fusee. I'm also not the PR guy. I'm not even on the board anymore. It was becoming too much. People were pressuring me to take over The Fusee and the TLR web site. I was also involved in some projects at the National level. It was becoming a second job, at a time when my real job was not going well. I resigned from all of my NMRA obligations and walked away. I don't think I'm going to renew my NMRA membership when it expires next year.
Do I sound bitter? Maybe, maybe not. I don't think I am, but I am definitely done volunteering for NMRA projects. Too many people seem to not understand that this organization runs on VOLUNTEERS, people who are not paid to do what they do. If you're sitting on the sidelines, enjoying the fruits of their labor but unwilling to lift a finger to help, you have no right to complain or criticize. If you're volunteering to do a job, you need to do the job, not hand it off to somebody else to do.

Do I have goals for 2014? No, I don't. I'm not setting goals for my hobbies this year. Hobbies are hobbies, they're meant to be fun and relaxing. I forgot that somewhere along the way and was starting to take this way too seriously. As a result, I nearly burned out and lost all interest. That's incredibly sad. I am slowly starting to resume my modeling activities. No hurry, no goals, no target dates, nobody waiting for or demanding that I do something.

I have one full-time job - that job pays the bills. My modeling is my escape from that job, my escape mechanism, my way of unwinding and forgetting about the real job. I'm not letting it turn into a second job.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Four Walls Does Not An Inn Make

I had hoped to be far past this point by now, but no. I finally managed to finish cutting out all of the door and window openings in the exterior walls of the Lakeside Inn. It was the perfect exercise to test out my new Olfa knife and cutting mat.

I've been claiming thus far that there would be 55 windows in this structure.  I have no idea where I came up with that number, because there are only 30. I double-checked my original plans and the prototype photos - only 30. The original number of 55 sounds so much more impressive, maybe that's why it was stuck in my head. Regardless, here are the four walls with all of the openings cut out.

Here's a rough look at the final shape and size of the inn.

A Better Knife? Exactamundo!

Like most folks in this hobby, I've "grown up" using the classic hobby knife affectionately known as the Xacto knife.  Many of us incorrectly use the term to refer to a specific type of knife, but as we all know, it's actually a brand name.  There are several manufacturers of these types of knives, but the original and best-known is X-Acto.  Buying my first real X-Acto knife was a big deal - I felt like a real modeler.

Before long, I was buying replacement blades in bulk, because that's what real modelers do.  That, and because I kept breaking off the tip of the blade.  A knife blade with a broken tip becomes useless pretty quickly, requiring a replacement.  Those broken blades aren't completely ineffective - they'll still penetrate a shoe when the knife rolls off the table, as X-Acto knives are prone to do.

About a month ago I came across a discussion on an Internet forum talking about hobby knives made by Olfa, a Japanese company.  Some of the discussion participants were making claims that the Olfa blades were sharper and more durable than the X-Acto blades, and that the knives were in general better products. I decided to try one myself.

My first impressions upon taking the knife out of the packaging was that yes, this is a better knife.  It's heavier than an X-Acto, biased towards the cutting end of the knife.  A padded rubber grip makes the knife comfortable to use and easier to hold on to than the smooth metal body of the X-Acto.  Olfa has even taken steps to prevent impaled-shoe-Syndrome - the knife handle includes a small plastic nub to stop the knife from rolling off of your work surface.  I can put away the steel-toed boots!

So far, I've cut 50 window openings into pieces of black matte board with a single blade.  The tip hasn't broken off, and the blade still seems to be plenty sharp.  It's too early to call me a convert, but it's looking good at this point.  I haven't found a source for bulk blades yet, but if the blades really are this durable, maybe the little 5-pack that I bought will last a long time.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Double-hung, Double-Paned Windows From Scratch - Part 3

In part 1, we build our window sashes.  In part 2, we put the glass panes in our window sashes.  Hopefully we've ended up with something that looks like this:

Now it's time to build the window frame.  Referring back to the exploded parts diagram, we can see that the frame consists of parts D and E (the quantities are wrong, we only need 2 of each, not 4).  Start by attaching one of the 1"x6" sides (part D) - carefully apply a tiny bit of wood glue to the side of the upper window sash, and lay the sash FACE DOWN on your work surface.  Position the 1"x6" frame side against the sash so that the top of the frame is flush with the top of the sash.

Allow the glue to dry for a few minutes, then repeat the process for the other side of the frame.

After again allowing for some drying time, apply a tiny bit of glue to the top of the window sash and then attach the top of the window frame (part E).

Carefully, after the glue has dried for a few minutes, flip the entire assembly over.  Apply a bit of glue to the sides of the lower window sash, and place it FACE UP on the work surface.  Gently slide the lower sash into the window frame.  The top board of the lower sash should be slightly underneath the bottom board of the upper sash.  If you wish to model an open window, just slide the lower sash farther beneath the upper sash, as I've done here.

Did you notice the crack in the glass in the lower window sash?  That's what happens when you aren't careful - this is real glass after all, and it will break under stress.  Rather than discard this window as a "mistake", I'll use it and claim that I was modeling a cracked window.  Modeler's license at work.

The final step in assembling our window is to install the bottom frame board (part E).

That's it - you've just built, completely from scratch, a framed double-hung window, ready to be installed in a structure.  Is it tedious work?  Yep, you bet.  Is it time-consuming?  Yep, sure is.  Is it worth it?  In my opinion, there's no question.  Not only is the look authentic and impossible to match using pre-built windows, but it also gives me the satisfaction of being able to say "I built the whole thing from scratch!".

Alright, now let's put this window to use.  I already have a structure underway, and I have one of the walls prepped and ready for windows.  I've already measured and cut my window openings, all I need to do is to make some minor adjustments using a file.

You want the windows to fit snug - not so tight that you have to force them into the openings, risking damage, and not so loosely that you have gaps around the frames.  Don't be too aggressive with the file.  Here's my completed wall segment with all five windows installed - the white one is the one that we just built, the others were built beforehand.

That pretty much wraps up the how-to for building windows.  I know this isn't new to some people, but I couldn't find much information on how to build windows from scratch - I had to figure it out on my own.  Hopefully somebody out there will find this helpful in their own modeling efforts.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Double-hung, Double-Paned Windows From Scratch - Part 2

As promised, here is the second part of my step-by-step process for building windows from scratch.

If you followed along with the first part (if you missed it, click here), you should now have a pair of window sashes built, ready to have glass installed.  For my construction, I'm going to use real glass.  You could choose to use a different material, some sort of clear plastic or cellophane film, or possibly something else entirely.

The glass that I'm using comes from Sierra Scale Models - seven bucks for 55 pieces of glass, hardly expensive.  Depending on the scale that you're modeling in, you could also use microscope slide covers - they're also real glass, but twice as thick as the Sierra glass.

Cutting this glass can be a bit tricky, and you will waste a few pieces before you master the technique.  The first, and probably most important tip for cutting glass is to work on a hard, perfectly flat, perfectly smooth surface - I work on a 12-inch square marble tile.  The second tip is to secure the glass in such a way that it won't move during cutting, won't scratch, and can easily be unsecured without damage.  I use blue painter's tape for this - turn one piece upside down (i.e. sticky side up), fastened to the work surface with two more pieces of blue tape.  Place the glass sheet on the exposed sticky side of the first piece of tape - this will hold it in place while you're cutting it.

Using one of your window sashes as a guide, place a straightedge (preferably something metal) across the glass and tape it down.

Using a scribing tool (also available from Sierra), make several light passes along the straightedge to score the glass - seven or eight passes should be enough.

Repeat the process for the other dimension of the window sash (width and height).

Carefully slide a razor blade under the scored section of the glass, and using it as a lever, gently lift the scored glass away from the tape.  As I've expertly demonstrated here, if you're too aggressive with this step, or just aren't paying attention, you can easily break the glass.  Store those broken pieces away somewhere safe, and you can reuse them later as trackside debris or litter.

Now it's time to glue the glass onto our window sashes.  It's vital that when you're applying the glue that you don't get sloppy.  Don't use too much glue, don't get glue in the wrong places, don't get glue all over the glass.  Precision is the key.  I've found a glue that works really well for this - a jeweler's glue that I bought from Micro-Mark.  The tube has a syringe-type applicator, allowing for very precise glue placement and flow control.

Place a tiny drop of glue in each corner of the window sash.

Now for the next tricky part - picking up the cut piece of glass, without breaking it, and placing it onto the window sash without smearing the glue.  You can use tweezers for this, but if you do, I recommend wrapping some tape around them to help provide some cushion to protect the glass.  An even better option is to use this nifty suction-cup gizmo.  Micro-Mark sells one, but I found mine on eBay for just a couple of dollars.

Gently place the glass onto the window sash, carefully as to avoid making a mess with the glue.

Repeat for the other window sash, and then take a break.  Let the glue dry for a few hours, preferably overnight.  Tomorrow, in the third and final installment, I'll show you how to put the window sashes into a frame, and ultimately into the wall of your structure.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Double-hung, Double-Paned Windows From Scratch - Part 1

A few people have asked for more details on how I build my windows, so I've written up a step-by-step walkthrough of how I do it.  It seems daunting, but once you've built the first couple and get more comfortable, it really goes pretty smoothly.

First, think about the basic parts that make up a double-hung, double-paned window.  Structurally, it's very simple:

That's it - 14 pieces of wood (13 if you build the lower sash single-paned).  There's not a lot of complexity here.

I know that I'll be building a lot of these windows, so I keep a ready supply of these pieces pre-cut.  I recommend using a tool like The Chopper, it's really the only way to be sure you're cutting your pieces to exactly the same length each time.

I also recommend that you pre-paint your lumber before assembling the windows.  I've done it both ways, painting before assembly and after - it's much easier to paint them before.  The easiest way I've found to paint them is to stick all to the sticky side of a lint-roller sheet.  Paint one side, let it dry, then carefully remove the pieces from the sticky sheet (I use a razor blade to "scrape" them off), flip them over and paint the other side.

The hardest part about this whole process is keeping things square as you assemble the windows.  It could probably be made much simpler by building a jig, but to be honest, I don't know how to build a jig for this, so I've never tried.  I've had good luck with my method, so I've stuck with it.

You'll need a good pair of precision tweezers, a smooth, solid work surface (a glass tile, for example), and good glue.

Again, the hardest part about this is keeping the corners square.  You'll need a solid 90-degree corner for this - I use a couple of "1-2-3" machinist's blocks.  Start with the long side (piece A from the diagram above), place it on-edge against one side of your 90-degree corner.

Place a TINY bit of glue onto the end of a short side (piece B), barely enough to see.  Position the piece firmly against the longer piece, and square it up with the corner of a metal ruler or square.

Let this sit for a few minutes to allow the glue to take hold, then proceed with the other long side (piece A).  Place a tiny drop of glue to the inside piece, near the end, and position it against the end of the short piece that was just added.  Square it up with a ruler or square.  It's OK if the two side pieces angle slightly inward, in fact it can make it easier to put the fourth piece in place.

For the fourth piece, use another "B" piece.  Put a tiny bit of glue on each end and position the piece between the two sides of the sash frame.  Use your ruler or square to make sure it's positioned properly.

If you're building single-paned windows, you're done with this first sash.  If you're building double-paned windows, there's one more piece to install - the short center piece (piece C).  Put a TINY, and I emphasize TINY, bit of glue on each end of the center piece, and drop it into the sash frame, centered along the two short sides.  You could measure and mark the center, but I just eyeball it.

You've finished the first window sash.  For a double-hung window, you need two sashes, so just repeat these steps to build the second one.

In my next post, I'll show you how I add the glass window panes and how I build the frame around the window.  Stay tuned!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Here We Go Again

I must be a glutton for punishment.  That's the only explanation I can come up with for why I'm once again building tiny little windows from scratch.  I've started building the Lakeside Inn, which means I need to build more than 50 of these windows.

I am, of course, using the real glass that I referred to in an earlier post.  Not only does this provide the reflective qualities that only real glass can provide, but it's also crystal-clear, offering a perfect view through the window.  Anything on the other side, such as a structure's interior, will be clearly visible.

As with the depot, I'm using matte board for the walls.  Here's one of the end walls, with two windows already installed.  There is a 9-volt battery behind the wall - notice how clear the view is through the glass window panes!

I have an ambitious plan for how to make the interior of the inn visible (besides through the windows).  I'm going to try to "split" the structure diagonally, so that the front wall and the wall adjoining it to the right will lift away, revealing a cross-section of the building's interior.  I haven't quite worked out the mechanics yet, but if I can pull it off, it will be a unique model for sure.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Through The Looking Glass

How thick (or thin) is 0.007 inches?  Not very darned thick.  How much effort does it take to break a piece of glass 0.007 inches thick?  Not very darned much.

During the convention last week, I spent more time teaching than learning, but I still managed to pick up a new "trick".  Not so much a trick really, more of a "I didn't know that existed!" thing.  Jimmy Simmons from Monster Model Works tipped me off to the use of REAL GLASS for model windows.  I've always used some sort of clear plastic or clear cellophane for my windows, but no more!  After seeing one of Jimmy's models that uses real glass in the windows, I came straight home and ordered some for myself.

For just under $7, you can get 55 pieces of glass, 1" wide, 2 inches long, and 0.007" thick.  You don't realize how delicate this stuff is until you have it in your hands.  Sneeze, and you've broken it.

It cuts just like normal-sized glass.  There is a miniature scribing tool which is used to scribe a line in the glass, and then you just snap it off.  Seems easy enough, right?  After utterly destroying the first two pieces that I tried to cut, I was finally able to cut out the pieces to finish this model.

So what's the big deal?  Look at the reflections in the windows.  Just like "real" glass.  You can't get that effect using plastic.

I'll get lots of practice at cutting this stuff, because the next structure I build will be the Lakeside Inn and its 57 scratch built windows, each using real glass.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Convention - Done!

Months of planning and meeting and bickering and "I'm never volunteering for anything ever again" proclamations all led up to one weekend, and what a weekend it was.  The whole thing was over in a flash, nothing but a blur.  The only complaint that I heard from anybody was "There's too much to choose from!", and I heard that from more than one person.

Mike Engler, Art VanDeWater, Gary Hanson, Dave Hamilton, Les Breuer, Ken Zieska, and of course, my poor wife (who handled the non-rail activities and pretty much ran the registration desk) - we did it!  We pulled off a hugely successful event!

Technically, things started Thursday night, but the real fun started Friday morning.  I was the first clinic on the schedule, originally supposed to be in a small conference room upstairs, but due to the unexpected turnout, I found myself presenting in the main ballroom.  A little larger crowd than I had planned for, but hey, I'm flexible.

I barely left that room all day Friday or Saturday.  Partially due to the fact that I was hosting two different workshops in there, but also because there was so much going on in there that I didn't see the need to leave. Plus, the contest room was right next door, and there were some INCREDIBLE models on display in there. Models like the Twin Mills sawmill, done by Bill Obenauf.

Mike Engler had an equally impressive diorama on display:

There were many other fine models on display, but these were the only ones that I had time to photograph.

There were lots of great clinics to choose from, something like 30 hours of presentations and workshops in all.  Some by local presenters, some from neighboring regions, and even a couple of manufacturers.  The guys from Clever Models were here with some of their paper models and lots of great demonstrations on how to build them.


One of the highlights of the weekend for me personally was meeting Jimmy Simmons of Monster Model Works, getting to spend a good portion of the weekend working alongside him, and even drawing a compliment from him on my scenery techniques.  When somebody like him tells you that your work is good, it means something.

I couldn't resist building one of Jimmy's kits, hist Triple J Repair shop.  Of course, I couldn't follow the rules and build it the way he intended - I put my aluminum foil corrugated roofing on it.  He was impressed with it, and even sent a few folks over to see what I'd done with his kit!

In case you're curious about what color I painted the bricks - I didn't paint them at all.  This is the natural color of the basswood, I simply brushed on some black and brown chalk.  There is on final touch remaining to be added - real window glass.  Jimmy tipped me off on where to buy real glass sheets, 0.007 inches thick, to use for model windows.  He used this glass in his demo kit, and after seeing the real glass next to the typical plastic used in model windows, I'll never use plastic again.  The glass is ordered, just waiting on it to arrive.

We wrapped things up on Saturday night with the awards banquet, where we enjoyed some great food, great company, and the ever-popular Chinese auction.  Three years in a row I've tried to get that damned airbrush, and three years in a row I've failed.

I didn't come away empty-handed however.  My depot won first place in the model contest for on-line structures, and it earned a merit award, one more step towards the MMR.  Also, to my surprise, I was awarded the President's Award in recognition of the volunteer work that I've done for the NMRA.

Sunday was the last day of the convention, a day full of layout tours all around the Twin Cities.  I was one of those, ending the day with 37 new signatures in my guest book.  One of those signatures belongs to a guy from Australia who was here JUST FOR THE CONVENTION, and decided that my layout was a "must see" while he was in town.  That's quite flattering.

Whew...  I think this is the longest blog post I've ever written, but there was a lot to talk about.  This was a great weekend.  Yes, it was a lot of work getting to this point, but it's nice to be able to sit back and see that it was worth it.