Flagstaff Field Work (With a Six-Year-Old)

The Superintendent and I were on location last week in preparation for the scenery phase of the Flagstaff Subdivision.

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I’m a freelance modeler, so all I really want to do is make the Flagstaff portion of the layout kinda feel like the real thing. I’m not worried about duplicating trackwork or buildings down to the finest detail.

Which is good, because when you’re traveling with a six-year-old there’s little exploring and no measuring going on. I got about 45 minutes to take pictures and scoop up some dirt before I was reminded that the real reason we were there was to go to Bearizona just up the road.

But I figured this much out:

Depot

I want to model the depot.

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It’s an attractive building that will look good with the Many Lost Ways steam shuttle docked out front. I hope I can find a kit to approximate it. Otherwise I’ll build a placeholder while I scratchbuild one, which I will get around to never.

Giant Mass of Road Signs

About a block away from the depot was this giant collage of road signs. I don’t have much room on the Flagstaff Sub for roads, but this thing is situated on the opposite side of the sidewalk from the road.

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I think I’ll model the sidewalk and curb against the edge of the layout and put the signs between that and the track. That will clearly convey the intended geography to viewers.

Color and Foliage

As I noted above, the Superintendent and I collected about three quarts of dirt in various colors from several locations near the BNSF mainline that runs through Flagstaff. I’ll sift it on the layout for ground cover and secure it with diluted white glue. That, along with referencing pictures of the topography and foliage, should help me give the scene a realistic “Flagstaff feel.”

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Okay? Now let’s go look at some bear cubs before you pee your pants.

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ModelStory: The Last Time

???????????????????????????????Big Roger thinks about the Last Time a lot since they moved him to the home.

The Last Time he used his table saw.

The Last Time he fired a rifle.

The Last Time he shuffled out to his own mailbox.

The Last Time with Mae.

The Last Time with Mae – gosh, when was that?

He’s not sure when the Last Time was for any of those things, he just knows they don’t happen anymore.

He remembers the Last Time he drove that pickup, though. It was in the ‘70s and his two oldest were canoeing and he set out to pick them up. He was cutting overland along the railroad tracks toward the river (people did that in those days, though the Last Time was awhile ago) and POW! – a ball joint let go and she went down on one knee like a wounded mule.

The truck was surplus by then, a Saturday beater he never much cared for anyway, so other priorities got in the way of retrieving it. The Last Time he seriously considered it was a weekend that same summer, when his brother offered to drive down from Kanab with his wrecker, but then there was a pileup on 89 and oh, brother made a bundle on the cleanup instead.

So the truck is there and he is here and he wonders, “When was the Last Time I could have gone down there and turned it over?”

The Ford wouldn’t have gone anywhere on its crippled suspension anyway. But he’s the same – a good motor in a ruined chassis – so the wondering is good for his mind:

When was the moment? The Last Time the bearings and gaskets and plugs were all still just good enough, it would’ve cranked and maybe sputtered but the old straight six would have caught, and then the next moment – just a moment’s more corrosion on the points maybe – it wouldn’t have?

That’s the funny thing about the Last Time, he thinks. You hardly ever know it.

When does a disabled truck become a derelict?

When does bread become toast?

When does a man become an old man and then become – well, what sort is he now?

Big Roger remembers when they were young Mae would run her fingers through his hair when she rode with him in that pickup. He loved that, but parenthood doesn’t leave much room for scooting over on the bench seat, so there was a Last Time for that, too, but he’s not sure when it was.

He thinks about a routine he had with the kids at bedtime. Sometimes he would carry them by the ankles and swing them upside down before sliding them under the covers and then one day – who knows when? – the littlest got too big. A giggling child curled up liking how Daddy did that, but it was the Last Time and no one knew it.

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(Modified and weathered Classic Metal Works 1954 Ford F-350, JTT trees, Woodland Scenics field grass.)

ModelStory: A River Deep and Wide

At first the thing that bothered him most about the whole idea was that they might fall.

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“At first the thing that bothered him most about the whole idea was that they might fall.”

As a dad, falls are a major concern. Traffic and roadway hazards are a close second, followed by choking and other ingestion-related dangers. Dads tend to worry about the things that cause immediate trauma.

Moms fret over the hazards of repeated exposure like dressing properly for the weather and adequate nutrition.

Dads worry about falls.

So the notion that his daughter and her cousin would embark – unchaperoned – on a three-hour river raft trip caused him some heartburn.

(It had to be a three-hour tour? The universal code for nautical tragedy?)

“They’re fourteen years old, Ted,” said Marcia. “As long as you’re there to pick them up on time, how much trouble can they get into? Frankly I was looking forward to some time alone during this vacation. Just me and the Discover Card and those cute shops in Salvation Point.”

That didn’t make him feel any better, but he realized he was licked and agreed to drop them at the dock.

And now he stands here all alone experiencing one of those unforgettable moments of immense transition:

She WON’T fall.

She’s fourteen and a pretty good swimmer and smart enough to stay seated.

She’s not the little girl who couldn’t help but skip everywhere she went, the one who fell out of bed and fell off the jungle gym and fell off her bike and needed him to fix her up and remind her to pay attention.

She hasn’t needed any of that in a long time. She’s done some growing up, and he wishes he’d been paying closer attention.

Because there’s this boy, sitting right across from her, and they’re not fifty feet from the dock and already talking to each other.

She’s going to have different kinds of falls now, harder ones to recover from.

He’s not sure he’s ready.

*   *   *

At first the thing that bothered her most about the whole idea was that she might fall.

As a kid, falls were a major concern. Falls out of bed and falls off the jungle gym and falls off her bike – and Dad was always there to fix her up and remind her to pay attention.

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“At first the thing that bothered her most about the whole idea was that she might fall.”

So the notion that she would embark with her cousin on a three-hour river raft trip without him had her freaking out a little.

(Dad kept singing some stupid song about a three-hour-tour, a THREE-HOUR TOUR, like that meant something.)

“We’re fourteen years old,” said Brittney. “As long as he’s there to pick us up on time, how much trouble can we get into? Besides, it’s better than hanging out with your mom in town.”

She didn’t entirely agree with that, but she realized she was licked and agreed to be dropped at the dock.

And now she sits here experiencing one of those unforgettable moments of immense transition:

She WON’T fall.

She’s fourteen and a pretty good swimmer and smart enough to stay seated.

She hasn’t needed to worry about falling or choking or getting hit by a car in a long time. She wishes she’d paid more attention to the growing up she was doing.

Because instead of Dad – well, hello cute boy across from me!

The falls are about to get harder.

She’s not sure she’s ready.

(Scratchbuilt river raft, factory-painted Preiser and custom-painted Model Power figures, EnviroTex Lite water with clear silicone caulk effects.)

Upgrading and Detailing Wiking Vehicles

Outdoor recreation is a big part of the story on the FCFL. Having a few boats being towed around helps convey that.

I picked up two sets of Wiking vehicles, including boats on trailers, for my gift layout project. I kept the powerboats and one of the older model Mercedes for myself and added some quick, fun details.

Boats on Trailers

I applied some strings of very tiny letters and numbers from an old boxcar decal sheet to the bows of the boats for registration stickers. I didn’t fret over legibility or accuracy.

I “tarped” one of the boats by spreading a thick layer of Squadron White Putty over the top of it and sculpting it into “tarp” shape. This took a few rounds of sanding and filling to get the shape and finish I wanted. I painted the tarp a flat dark green.

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The boats were molded white with yellow interiors. I brushpainted the other boat to add some detail, then added a couple of wire fishing rods and a scratchbuilt styrene cooler.

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These are both towed by Atlas SUVs. The trailers are good enough – not great – but I think the detail of the boats distracts from them.

Mercedes Downgrade (riches to rags?)

One of the cars from the Wiking set was an older model Mercedes. I made it look more realistic by removing the solid black “window” insert and crafting a basic interior from bits of strip styrene. I painted the interior tan, the bumpers and wheels silver, and the tires rubber brown.

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The front of the car needed a little definition, so I used a needle file to shape the headlights. I then sprayed the body with a heavy coat of dullcoat. When the dullcoat dried, I gave the body a wash of my rust-colored alcohol ink solution. When the alcohol dries over the dullcoat, the finish looks like badly faded paint over rusty metal.

I made a new windshield and rear window from strips cut from the flexible clear plastic insert from a pack of Preiser figures. I glued these in place with CA.

I borrowed a whimsical sunglasses image from the Internet and printed it about 3/8 inch wide. I cut it the height of the windshield, then carefully folded it into accordion shape. I then installed it behind the windshield like one of those cardboard sunshades, tacking it in place with a little CA.

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With the work of a couple evenings, these Wiking vehicles stand out in the traffic on the layout.

Grade Crossing and Block Signaling 101

Last week I wrote about the grade crossing with working lights The Superintendent and I added.

Electronics are not my thing. Ohm’s law? Amps versus volts? I don’t know what’s watt.

Thankfully the FCFL’s signals chief, AKA my Dad, is an electrical engineer. Here’s Dad on how we made the grade crossing lights work, with a bonus on an occupancy detector for a hidden stretch of track:

FCFL Railway signaling

The FCFL Four Corners Division traverses sparsely populated areas of the Southwest. Given the long distances between stations with few crossings and relatively little vehicular traffic most of the division operates “dark,” that is without centralized traffic control or automatic block signals. Most of the rural grade crossings are protected by stop signs warning road traffic to watch out for trains.

Grade Crossing Signals

signs and grade crosssing 037There are two ways to detect trains and actuate grade crossing signals. One is to detect the locomotive current. The other is to use photocells that detect the light change when the train passes over them.

Detecting locomotive current is simpler and doesn’t depend on room lighting for operation. However, the signal operation isn’t prototypical in that a long train may still be in the crossing when the locomotive exits the block and turns off the signals.

The photocell system provides more prototypical operation by starting the signals flashing before the train reaches the crossing and turning them off once the train is clear of the crossing.

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Photocells are mounted between the rails and flush with the ties. When a train passes over the photocells, the grade crossing signals are triggered.

The Logic Rail Technologies Grade Crossing Pro was chosen for this application. The Grade Crossing Pro module uses four photocells, two on each side of the crossing to detect the train, and has outputs to drive the flashing lights as well as an output to drive a switch machine to actuate gates, although gates weren’t installed for this crossing.

One complication with this crossing is that there are two tracks and trains can be on either or both tracks at the same time and be moving in either direction.

The way to handle this situation is to use two Grade Crossing Pros.  One acts as a slave unit that only detects the train on it’s track and sends a signal to the master one to actuate the lights.

A DC power supply is needed for these units.  A Radio Shack 110 Volt AC to 12 Volt DC “wall wart” power supply was used to power the grade crossing electronics.

The signals work well, even when the crossing is the site of a meet between two trains:

Occupancy Detector for Hidden Track

Between Herbst Junction and the Flagstaff staging area there is a 25-foot stretch of track where the train isn’t visible.

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This headhouse is the eastern end of a 25-foot tunnel. A block detector was installed to alert operators when a train occupies the unseen trackage.

Automatic block signals were installed in this section to provide an indication that the block is occupied.

A Circuitron BD-2 Block Occupancy Detector was used to detect the train and drive the signal heads at each end of the block.  This is a self-contained unit for one block. It detects the train by sensing the current drawn by the locomotive when it is in the block and has outputs to drive the Occupied/Clear signal aspects.

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A westbound train enters the tunnel, and the signal head indicates the block is occupied.

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Twenty-five feet to the west, the train exits the hidden trackage, and the signals show all clear.

Beyond the block occupancy detector module, the signal heads, and about 50 scale miles of wire, the only requirement is the Radio Shack 12 volt supply used for the grade crossing signals.

There is a small voltage drop in the track power going through the occupancy detector.  To compensate, back to back diodes are connected in the power supply to the rest of the layout so there isn’t a sudden change in voltage as the locomotive enters or exits the block.

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Mission Accomplished: Happy Kid.

Lessons in Forced Perspective

Most model railroaders are familiar with the idea of “forced perspective” – selectively resizing scenery elements to create the illusion of greater distance. I recently modeled a new road, using forced perspective to make it look a little longer than it really is.

My partner in the project, The Superintendent, forced my perspective a little, too. He had some firm ideas about the scene and we disagreed a bit, but seeing it from his perspective made this project special.

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Last fall at a model railroad show, The Superintendent spotted a grade crossing with working lights and gates on an HO-scale module. He insisted on one of our own. I couldn’t shoehorn in the mechanism necessary to actuate the gates, so we compromised on a new stretch of road with a grade crossing and working lights.

Here’s how we did it:

Shrinking Roads

The FCFL is a narrow layout – just 10 inches wide for this scene – so creating convincing roads is a challenge.

Just east of Salvation Point, there was an existing rural road with an underpass beneath the mainline. Our new road is a spur from that road.

The Superintendent dubbed it Arizona Highway V. Arizona state highways are numbered, not lettered, but what’s that to a six-year-old?

“I want it to be Highway V just because I do,” he explained.

We made Highway V by carving a right-of-way into the scenery, sanding it smooth, and paving it with lightweight spackling compound. We paved right over the mainline tracks, then immediately cleaned out the flangeways with a toothpick. Once the spackling dried, We sanded it and finished the road with another coat, again clearing the flangeways immediately.

I wanted to model precast concrete panels across the tracks, but The Superintendent insisted on asphalt all around, with no roadway markings of any kind.

“It looks cooler that way and more real,” he said. “I want it to look like the street we live on.”

Fair enough. Unmarked asphalt it is.

Both the old road and the new road are a scale 28 feet (about 2-1/8 inches) at the front of the layout, and taper to about 1-1/4 inches at the backdrop. This helps fool the eye into thinking the road is longer than it is.

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Shrinking Signage

We installed two signs along the roadway. They are a nice detail to the scene, help place the layout geographically, and further aid the forced perspective.

The nearest sign is an Arizona highway sign copied from the Internet and modified to show “V”. The highway sign is .2 inches wide – a scale 32 inches.

The second is a speed limit sign, which we made .15 inches wide. The speed limit sign  is mounted on a shorter post that is half the width of the nearer one.

Looking down the road at the two signs enhances the illusion of depth:

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The speed limit sign shows 55 mph. To me this looks like a 35 mph zone.

“I like going 55,” says The Superintendent. “And that’s the speed limit on country roads.”

Tough to argue with that.

Shrinking Vehicles

Finally, all the way against the backdrop, is a Z-scale logging truck that I kitbashed from a cast metal container truck.

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The viewer compares the N-scale SUV up front to the Z-scale truck in back, and the road appears longer again.

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The Superintendent wants a long line of N-scale vehicles waiting for the train, which would ruin the whole illusion. We’re still sorting that one out.

This was a fun project. I think we successfully stretched the road using forced perspective, and it was good to stretch my imagination to see things my son’s way, too.

Next week – a guest blog from the FCFL’s signals chief (my Dad) about how we make the lights go blinkety-blink.

Signs, Signs, Everywhere There’s Signs

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Signs are everywhere, and including them on your model railroad is essential to realistic scenes.

I went on a little sign binge on the FCFL recently and I’m pretty happy with the results.

There’s nothing groundbreaking or difficult in my approach to sign making: I went online and searched images of the signs I wanted, pasted the images into Word, resized them to N-scale, and printed them on my inkjet printer.

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According to The Internet, the accuracy of which I trust unwaveringly, standard sign sizes are:

Speed limit signs – 24″ x 48″, 36″ x 72″ or 48″ x 96″.

Stop signs – 18″, 24″ or 36″.

I divided the dimensions by 160 (N-scale) and told Word to resize 24″ signs to .15″ wide, 36″ signs to .23″, and 48″ signs to .3″.

I printed most of the speed limit signs 36″ wide. I think they’re a little big but I’m going to live with them awhile and see what visitors think.

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The 36″ stop signs I printed were way too huge, but I found the octagon shape got distorted if I printed them much smaller. I went with 24″ stop signs mostly, but I had to fix the shape when I trimmed them.

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To simulate the primed aluminum most road signs are made of, I laminated the white printer paper to gray or tan colored construction paper using Elmer’s spray adhesive. I carefully trimmed the signs out with sharp scissors.

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My signposts are mostly scale 4×4 basswood, but in a few cases I used some 28 gauge and finer wire. I glued the signs to the wood or wire with CA, then cut the post a good inch long or more. I drilled matching sized holes in the scenery and secured the signs with white glue.

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I may come back at a later date and weather some of these with an India ink wash. For future signs I might also soak the basswood signposts in an India ink/alcohol solution to make them look aged. These all look brand new, and they don’t look pressure treated.

This is a fun detail project that doesn’t take a huge amount of time, skill or materials, but the added realism is immense.

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