January 21, 2019

The Tenth Anniversary of the Layout

It's hard to believe, but about ten years on this date I started building the USMRR Aquia Line. This is a good opportunity to look back on what my helpers and I have accomplished, and to look ahead. I will do that in the next week or so with some additional posts. In the meantime, please enjoy this short video celebrating the railroad. It includes some special effects and special guests.

January 19, 2019

Dispatcher's Telegraph Station

I finished building the desk for the dispatcher's telegraph station.  I still need a few items to make the look more authentic such as a vintage clock, appropriate  artwork, a lantern, ink well, wooden chair, and a telegrapher’s key. And yes, the flag is correct for March 1863. It has 34 stars as West Virginia is not yet a state.  The USMRR did have lanterns with their initials on the glass globe. It would be awesome to find one, but in the meantime, a regular lantern will suffice.'

Note that the artwork of the Baldwin  Tiger 4-4-0 is a silver on glass "print" from the Franklin Mint that my parents bought about 50 years ago to decorate the bedroom for my brothers and I.  Was this a foreshadowing of what was to come?

This was the "easy" part. Next comes wiring of the control panels at each station. The solid panel in the center will display the station lights and a "clear" button.

Using a track saw and parallel guides to rip pieces as I
don't have table saw. The parallel guides
are a bit tricky to calibrate, but they can result in
good cuts.
Here are some photos showing the construction of the desk and cubby holes. Alicia says I should build chair for it too. I think I'll just buy one.

I used tools from the Festool system to fabricate the parts. The Festool system is ideal for a small shop where you don't have room for lots of bulky, specialized tools, like a table saw.  However, this project  convinced me that the next job will be to build a workbench that allows me to access the Festool boxes without having to unstack them when I need a different tool.

Cutting the top to size using Parf dogs and a Festool MFT to
keep the track saw square.

I used a Festool domino to machine attach the
legs to the frame. However, the tool visible in the photo is a
Festool Rotex sander, probably the tool I used the most in this project.
The dust collection of this tool is outstanding.

Drawer is full extension.

I used lots of clamps to glue the face frame to the pigeon hole box

January 14, 2019

60 Amps of Power

I finished the secret project I mentioned in my last post. It was an animated version of a bedtime story that I used to tell my kids. You can see it here if you wish. It was a lot of fun to make, but also a lot of work. I had help from my wife and niece as they provided voices.

The electrician was able to use existing speaker holes
in the ceiling  to avoid cutting holes over PoLA.
In the meantime, I had an electrician work on improving the electric service to my garage workshop. He took care of the electric stuff by running a 220V, 60 Amp line, while I did the sheet rock repairs where he had to cut holes in the ceiling and walls.

Luckily, the wiring work did not affect the areas by the layout, but my office had to be cleared out to allow the work to proceed.

In moving the book shelves around, I realized that I will have to rebuild them. The thought occurred to me that if I made new bookshelves,  I could build a nice small shelf layout into them. The mind boggles at the possibilities.  But, that is a project for later. For the present, we have enough power in the garage to run all my tools, as well as the capability to add a charger for an electric car, if and when we get one.

Brian eying over my stack of N Scale DRGW stuff
During the wiring upgrade process, we had a surprise visit from Brian and Jake Brendel. Brian was in town for a fire department memorial service. They had a chance to familiarize themselves with operations on the Aquia Line. Hopefully, they will be back for a full session.  I took pleasure in seeing that the Aquia Line ran well for them in what was essentially a no-notice inspection!

With the garage powered up, I continued to work on the desk for the telegraph dispatcher. The top, legs and frame are ready to go. I just need to decide if and how I can add a drawer to the desk.  This was the first time I used the Festool Domino system to make floating tenons. It really is a neat system. It's probably too expensive to recommend for model railroad benchwork, but it sure makes nice joints.  I may try some benchwork with this system in the future, maybe for a module frame.

Jake running a train into Falmouth
While I am working on the desk, Seth and Steve revised the software for the telegraph system. The revised chips and boards should arrive any time now, so we can renew work on the telegraph system electronics.

Gluing up the legs for the dispatcher desk
Cutting the desk top to size with my track saw

December 31, 2018

Happy New Year

Sunrise at Daytona Beach Shores, Florida
Another year is upon us. It will be a special year for me, as January 30, 2019 will mark the tenth anniversary of my starting work on the Aquia Line and starting this blog.  I have a special treat planned to mark that event, and no, it is not tearing out the layout.

Tapered legs
We were  in Florida for two weeks during the Christmas vacation for  family time and golf. Nonetheless, I managed to get some layout related work done.

Planing the slabs
Domino holes for table top, didn't get them quite centered across the width, but they were all consistent. 
Table top glue up
Mock up of desk. Final assembly will happen in Virginia
      I hauled down a pile of maple lumber from Virginia to my brother's wood shop. There we used his tools to joint and plane the slabs, and cut the tapered legs. We also used my new Festool Domino machine to make floating tenons in the desk top. I returned to Virginia with the wood pieces to do final assembly and finishing.

Meanwhile, Seth and Stephen were modifying the Arduinos software and making a few other improvements to the circuits.  We'll get back on the telegraph system as soon as the revised parts arrive.

In the meantime, I have been super busy with a secret project. I need to wrap that up soon, as the back log of projects is getting out of hand.  My 2019 Do List is chock full of interesting projects, such as models for clients, and  new products for Alkem Scale Models, but it is starting to get scary.

Best wishes to all my blog readers. I hope you have a great new year. Thanks for your support by reading this blog.

December 13, 2018

It's Alive!

Tom Pierpoint helped wire the first telegraph station today. Most of the process was straight forward, but we did encounter some curveballs.  Tom had ordered some jumper cables from Adafruit. They were nicely made, but the female end did not fit securely on the posts of the rotary switch. So I had to solder each connection, instead of simply pushing each one on.

First wires to be attached
Also, we had some confusion on how to wire the train numbers to the rotary switch. The Arduinos can handle 11 inputs. We  need to be able to OS train numbers 3-12, but we also need train number 1 to program the station number into the Arduino. That is because the Arduino uses the rotary switch settings at start up to set the station location. We think we sorted it out by making train 12 on the panel actually be train 1 to the Arduino.  We'll see if that works.

After Tom left, and we had a dinner break, I went back through the documentation for the tenth time and finished the final wires. Sure enough, I got the system to work. All train numbers except 6 work properly for regular and extras.

When I select train 6 and push either switch, the small LED on the back of the Arduino flashes, indicating it got a signal, but the message doesn't start playing. The wire connections appear good, so it might be a software issue.

Fully wired with some test leads to the sounder
Another glitch is that the reset procedure is not working. This station was set to Brooke, probably because we had the rotary switch set to 2 when we fired it up. It should be Aquia Landing. Stephen suggested that I reset while repowering and that worked. The station now has the correct station code. Yeah!  But now 5 is sending Train code 6 and 6 still doesn't work. Oh well, it's getting closer.

We still need to build 4 more station panels and the dispatcher desk, so lots of work to go but, so far I am pleased with the system. This is US Army Dot Code, a simplified version of Morse code adopted by the US Army during the civil war to allow new operators to be trained quickly. It was easier to learn than RR Morse, but did not allow messages to be sent as rapidly as regular railroad morse.  We have the speed set so that it sends messages slow enough, that even a new operator can take down the dot code, and then translate the messages with a cheat sheet.  Perhaps, now we can have a dispatcher job position on the RR. It won't be the most exciting job, but it will be a change of pace. And everyone else in the layout will enjoy the sounds of the telegraph clicking away.

December 12, 2018

Telegraph System Design

Two prototype telegraph sending stations for comparison
We have been working on the telegraph system for the Aquia Line. I had mentioned this before here Ripple Effect - Adding a Telegraph.
Last spring, Seth Neumann and Steve Williams, of Model Railroad Control Systems,  built an automated system to my specs. I wrote up a spec sheet and they designed, wrote the code, built the circuit cards, and provided documentation for an Arduino based system  that meets that spec,  plus they added some embellishments.

This was my turn to be a defense contractor after many years of being involved in defense acquisition from the other side as an operational tester and budget analyst of defense systems. If only our defense contractors were as capable, customer oriented, and under-budget like the guys at Model Railroad Control Systems. They did a superlative job, and are willing to help get it working too. I can't say enough good things about these guys.

Circuitry behind the sending panels
Now, with some help from Tom Pierpoint and Amby Nangeroni, I have been working on getting the system built.

I started with designing the telegraph sending stations. The photo at the left  is the prototype set up before we add the wiring harnesses. It will be a partially automated system.

Jumper ribbon cable
The lead photo shows two designs for the telegraph sending stations that I considered. I am going to use the upper design, as I believe it looks more like a 19th century instrument to me, even though it uses some modern control components. Remember, during the civil war, there was no electric power except for battery powered telegraphs.

Each of the 5 stations on the railroad will have a sending station like this. When a train departs a station, the conductor selects the train number using the rotary switch, then pushes either the regular or extra button to OS. The Arduino does the rest and the sounder in the dispatch office plays the USMRR dot code. The dispatcher will get the message and annotated the train sheet with the appropriate data.

Tom found some neat ribbon cable that we will use to wire up the rotary switches to the terminals on the circuit cards. We will also have to run a Cat 5 cable from each station to the control panel. There is no data bus, each station has to have its own cable run.

At the dispatcher desk, a colored LED on a control panel will light up indicating the calling station. Thus the Dispatcher can tell at a glance what station is calling without having to know the USMRR dot code. However, the system will also generate the appropriate USMRR dot code for those wishing to listen and decode the message, to get the rest of the data such as train number and class.

The system will also generate a set of typical military railroad messages at random intervals. These messages are based on actual telegraph messages that I have obtained from the National Archives.  Those messages serve no functional purpose except to add audio scenery to the layout, and give the DS a chance to practice decoding dot code.

Design of the dispatcher's desk.
I plan to build a small desk for the dispatcher over the Christmas break with the help of my brother, Rob and his wood shop in Florida.  The desk design is shown here.

Right now, the desk is a pile of maple lumber on its
way to my brother's shop in Florida.

 The desk will reside in my home office, so it is somewhat small to fit the space I have available. It's a basic table design based on one I saw at the Station Museum at Ellicott City, MD.  The central portion houses the control panel with  the indicator lights. Not shown is  the sounder and telegraph key.

I'm taking design cues for my dispatcher office
from the Provost Marshall office in the Ellicott City Station Museum 

December 11, 2018

Rappahannock Bridge Mock Up

Mock Up of Rappahannock River Bridge
The Aquia Line is coming up on its tenth anniversary. I've been thinking a lot lately about what comes next. Of the options that I considered that expand the Aquia Line, the one that seems to appeal to me the most is the Fredericksburg Expansion. That expansion is a what-if scenario that I discussed earlier  such as, Fredericksburg Plan RevisedConcept Art for Fredericksburg Expansion and Finding a Foundry.

One of the worrisome aspects of this plan is that the fascia under the bridge will be quite low once I subtract the height of the bridge from track height.  This is because the track in this area has to be no higher that 50 inches from the floor to clear under the stairs.  Obviously, I'd have to relocate the TV, which shouldn't be a big issue.

Also problematic are various water levels. The track at Aquia Landing is 51 inches above the floor, while water is at 50 inches. To model the 600-ft long and 75-ft high Rappahannock Bridge would require the river level to be 32 inches from the floor, while the bridge would be 12 feet long. I don't have room for that, so I scaled the bridge to 6 feet between end abutments and 12 inches above the water, making the water surface 38 inches from the floor.

Would the lower water level here cause a visual disconnect? To get a feel for the situation, I made a mock up of the bridge and fascia with red rosin floor protection paper. I placed a 8-car train and one engine on the existing PoLA benchwork above the bridge mock up.  Then I took a photo of the mock up and used photoshop to enhance the scene with a backdrop and some scenery.

The good news is that the scene seems to work. Because you really can't see the bridge and Aquia Landing at the same time, the geographic incongruity is not that noticeable. To test it out, I asked my wife to look at the mock up and see if she saw anything unusual. She didn't comment on the water levels, but she did ask, "you're going to get rid of PoLA, which everyone likes?" Well, that is the question, isn't it?

I am leaving the bridge mock up taped to PoLA's benchwork to get a longer term feel for the scene. In the meantime, I've been working on several other projects. I am making slow but steady progress on the bulk carrier for PoLA.   The garage renovation is almost done, and I have been busy with videos and customer projects. I've also been sketching layout plans that would replace the Aquia completely.

December 3, 2018

Paul Dolkos's Baltimore Harbor District 10th Anniversary

Mat, Pete, John, Lance, Doug and Paul. (L to R) I took the photo.
Today I had an opportunity to operate on Paul Dolkos's Baltimore Harbor District HO scale layout. This op session marks the tenth year that the layout has been in operation. Participating in the event were John King, Mat Thompson, Pete LaGuardia, Lance Mindheim, Doug Kirkpatrick, Paul Dolkos and myself. Congratulations to Paul and Linda.  I put together a short video showing some of the action. Paul might not remember, but I had the honor of being the first outside visitor to the layout 10 years ago when he started. I still remember the small pile of sawdust on the floor.

Also, I should mention that Pete LaGuardia is also celebrating the 10th year on his large HO scale layout.

I ran the Carroll Street Job today.  Several years ago I did this same job and I came away inspired to build a similar layout. Thus was formed the germ of an idea for my PoLA layout. It has basically the same design concept  as Carroll Street, only enlarged to accommodate modern equipment. If you are looking for a small layout design idea, the Carroll Street part of Paul's layout is an excellent place to start. It's essentially a double ended siding with several spurs coming off it, but the spurs are long enough to have room for multiple cars and spots.

December 2, 2018

Op Session 17 - Half John

An interesting situation at Brooke

John Drye at Aquia Landing
Ops Sessions 17 on the Aquia Line and 22 on PoLA are in the books. The half of the crew today were Johns -  John Drye, John Salmons, John Barry. Of the crew not with the first name John were Tom Pierpoint, Brad Trencamp, and first timer Ambrose Nangeroni.

The sessions went well. I never heard a peep from the PoLA crew of conductor John Barry and engineer Brad Trencamp. John was celebrating his birthday too, which was Friday.

John Salmons and Amby Nangeroni at Falmouth
Meanwhile, Train 7 and 10 ran under conductor John Salmon's leadership with Amby on the engine. Trains 8 and 9 were conducted by Tom Pierpoint with John Drye on the engine.  Things were running well until engine Haupt started stuttering near the end of the session. I swapped it out and the crew finished with Whiton. Of course I wasn't able to replicate the problem once I had Haupt on a test track. Arrg DCC!

The crews did a pretty good job in filling out their paperwork too, though Train 9 forgot to do a conductor's report at the end of the session, but Tom can be excused since he was distracted as we finished the session with a discussion of the work on the new telegraph system.

John Barry and Brad Trencamp working PoLA
One of the great things about the Washington DC area is talented people we have in this area.  For example today we had 5 engineers, an architect, and economist in the crew. Two of the engineers are electrical engineers and they are interested in helping build the telegraph system.  Tom gave me some good ideas on how to build the panels, while Amby volunteered to do extra work sessions to help.

 The January session will be a work session vice an op session. Hopefully by then I will have one of the telegraph stations built so we can mass produce the rest.

Group shot of the crew looking resplendent in their Aquia Line shirts 

November 18, 2018

The Army of Northern Virginia Invades New Jersey

Jim Homoki's HO layout

This past weekend the Army of Northern Virginia invaded New Jersey, despite a raging winter storm, now called Avery. The invasion had the two prong objective of operating on Northern NJ Railroads, while having a great time.

Advance party bivouacked in 9 inches of  snow in
Scranton, PA on  Wednesday night

Advance elements of the AoNV, my mom and I,  infiltrated Pennsylvania on Wednesday in advance of the storm. We stayed at my brother's safe house in Scanton, PA.  While there we took the opportunity to set up his Lionel Christmas layout and ran his GG1 at a scale 156 Miles per hour. 

By Friday morning, the main body of the AoNV was moving north, while I  conducted a flanking move from the west.

Mat Thompson leading his raiders north.
Unlike R.E. Lee's invasion  in 1862, the AoNV picked up new recruits in Maryland and even a few from southern Pennsylvania as it moved north. By the time it arrived at its objectives in Northern NJ, the model railroads of Jim Homoki  and Tom Piccirillo  had no chance. After sweeping victorious over those layouts, the AoNV continued to Ted Pamperin's gorgeous lake front house to raid his  commissary and put a heavy dent in his liquor cabinet. Ted has some great scotch.

At dawn the next day the AoNV continued its sweep through the mountains of Northern New Jersey, raiding the layouts of Perry Squire, Tony Koseter, Dave Olesen and Dave Abeles. Later that evening, the AoNV withdrew to the Panther Valley Country club along with the various layout owners and helpers.   Everyone enjoyed a wet happy hour, delicious dinner, and great camaraderie.

Steve King dispatching Gerry Dzciedic's layout.
By the next morning, the weary invaders raided Dave Ramos and Jerry Dziedzic's layouts before falling back to the relative safety and warmth  of the south side of the Potomac River. The New Jersey layout hosts and their helpers were too tired to pursue.

It was a great weekend. Thanks to our hosts and their helpers for their efforts. This is just another example of how model railroading is a great hobby with wonderful people.

November 13, 2018

New World Headquarters for Alkem Scale Models

It will never be this neat again!
Amazon Inc isn't the only new HQ moving to Northern Virginia. Alkem Scale Models is building its new world headquarters in our garage. OK, perhaps our project isn't quite as grand as what the on-line retail giant is doing up the street, but it should make my modeling and woodworking projects a lot more efficient.

The first step was purging the garage of stuff. We were quite ruthless, anything that we haven't used in ten years was sold, given to charity, or taken to the dump. Probably the biggest item removed was my Porsche 911. I sold it and purchased a new VW Tiguan with all the latest safety and convenience features.

I had an old oNeTRAK module and a piece of my former N Scale Tennessee Pass layout stored in the loft of my garage. The module went to the dump and I found a person willing to take the layout section for use on their layout.

With the garage freed of the car, old layouts, skis, tennis rackets, scrap wood, and bikes, we went forward with designing the new work space.

Side elevation of the planned workbench
We ended up contracting with a local garage make-over service that specializes in Monkey Bars products. But before they could do their thing, I had to prep the walls for paint. The sheet rock in the garage was poorly installed and suffered from numerous screw holes, stains, and nail pops. I took care of those. Then the contractors arrived and removed the former epoxy floor covering, which was peeling in a few places. That involved diamond grinders and lots and lots of dust. With the floor prepped, they installed a two layer Polyurea with stone flecks finish. That came out very nice.

The next day, they installed cabinets and slat wall. The cabinets are bigger than the old Ikea shelves we had and they now have doors.  The slat wall will hold tools on hooks. Our hooks haven't arrived yet.

Still planned is my new work bench with storage for Festool Systainers, a new electrical outlet, and improved lighting. I may also add a separate HVAC system. Also, I will move the spin caster and the workbench from the basement. This will take that dusty process away from the layout, and open up the aisles near Aquia Landing. I hope to do more spin casting in the future.  I have several customer models for clients coming up, including a 8-ft HO scale warehouse. So the workbench improvements will be quite handy for that job.

The garage wasn't the only area receiving improvements. I also updated the infrastructure on my computer. Adobe offered a sale on a subscription to their complete Creative Cloud (CC) Suite of applications. So I got the whole caboodle for a year. I already had InDesign (Id), Photoshops (Ps) and Illustrator (Ai). However, when I updated my iMac to Mojave OS, the Adobe Creative Suite (CS, the predecessor to CC) aps stopped working reliably. I use AI and PS nearly every day, so I had to upgrade. The sale allowed to try some of their other aps. Those include After Effects (Ae), which is awesome. There is a steep learning curve, but if you know PS, then it comes a lot easier. PremierePro is also great, but seems a little clunky to me in work flow, but that is probably because I am not experienced with it yet.

Test of an animated character in Ch. I drew it
with Ai
The CC also came with other aps including a Character Animator (Ch) that is really neat. I tried it a bit and was able to do some "cute" animations fairly easily. I had no idea this was included, so it was a pleasant surprise.

One of my objectives in retirement was to improve my video making skills. Now I have professional grade tools to achieve the goal. It will be exciting to learn how to make more interesting and compelling videos.

October 23, 2018

Initial Impressions Arsenal DSLR Intelligent Assistant

Final image using Arsenal captured images and Photoshop image Stacking
Test set-up with Canon 70D and  Arsenal mounted on hot shoe
Setting up the Arsenal is tricky.
I got this error message quite frequently


Model railroad photography is a unique branch of photography.  If you take a conventional professional photographer and ask them to shoot a layout, they probably won't get great results. They will get well focused and exposed shots, but they probably won't look real. It takes some experience to learn the tricks on how to make model trains images look real.

Why? We are trying to take macro range images of our models and make them look like natural images taken outdoors where everything is in the hyperlocal region. I discussed this before here.

The use of focus stacking software has changed how we achieve that objective. Instead of using one image where we hope everything is in focus due to a tiny aperture, we use multiple images where only a small sliver of the image is in focus. We then use image processing on a computer to create one sharp image from the set of in-focus slivers.

The process of taking the slivers can be tricky as you must manually move the camera focus in a step-wise fashion to get complete coverage of the scene. If you go too far on any individual step, you may leave a portion of the image that is out of focus. This is made more difficult if you use a wide aperture for each sliver, as each sliver with have a smaller section in focus.

In using focus stacking, I find I get the best results with apertures around f9-f16 and 6-10 images. It depends on the scene. Photos that will have a lot of immediate foreground need more images, as the foreground slivers are narrower than the slivers in the background.

The Arsenal 

Arsenal is processing the stack of images.
This can take 5-20 minutes
Once connected this is what the live
view on the Arsenal looks like
When I learned about the Arsenal intelligent assistant about two years ago, it sounded interesting. The automated focus stacking especially caught my attention. So I was an early Kickstarter adopter. The device arrived this week, and I did a series of test shots.

I followed the directions and let the device charge over night. Meanwhile I downloaded the Arsenal Ap to my phone.This Ap will control the Arsenal device, which I mounted on the Canon 70D camera.  Once everything was mounted up  I installed the latest firmware updates and got the Ap to connect to the camera.  The Ap creates its own WiFi network. The connecting  process was finicky. It took me several tries to connect the device to the phone. It appears that the USB plug is very susceptible to improper connection. Once I got it connected, I only lost connection once in a two hour photo shoot.

I shot a series of images using the focus stacking feature. The Arsenal does a pretty good job of advancing the focus to get the slivers. However, it seemed like the Arsenal had real trouble in taking up close slivers using my Macro lens. So I switched to my 18-135 zoom and it worked better.

As the Arsenal makes the camera take an image, that image is written to the  SD card on board the camera. Once all the images of the stack are taken, it loads them to the Arsenal Ap via WiFi. But it does not load the full res images to the phone. So once you end the session, the high res images are erased from the Ap. However, they are still on the SD card in the camera.

Then the Arsenal tries to create a single image from the stack of images. This process takes anywhere from 5-20 minutes. In some of my test cases, it never finished processing and I did not get a finished image. When I did get a finished image, I saved it using the share button on the Ap. I saved mine to the phone, but you can email or send to social media.  The Ap stops processing if the connection to the camera is broken. That is annoying. I'm not sure if it picks up again when you reconnect. I don't think it does.

In general, the processed images from the Arsenal where not usable. Below you can see three of the results from about 13 test images. The stacking processor in the Arsenal is not as good a Photoshop or Helicon Focus.  It's slow and doesn't always give a fully sharp image. Sometimes the processor hangs up and never gives a final image. That's the bad news.

The good news is that the stack of images are on the SD card. So I imported them to my computer and used Photoshop to get the final stacked image (see lead image above). That image looks fine.

The Verdict

My initial reaction to this device is mixed.

The wireless connection was finicky to set up and will cut out if you make any camera changes or jiggle the USB cord.

The device does a good job of taking the images for the focus stack, but the on-board processor was not able to consistently create a final image.  If you have a recent version of Photoshop or Helicon Focus you can use the stack that the Arsenal generates to get a good image, but you won't be able to rely on the on-board processor to handle it for you. I'll do some more tests and report the results in the future.

The Arsenal is capable of other features like HDR and time lapse, but I did not test them.  I did not take the device outdoors, so I can't comment on how it works in that environment.

Test 1 looks like the focus stacking processing was not complete

Test 2 was one of the better of the Arsenal processed images, but still not as good as Photoshop focus stacking

Test 3 was a success. This image doesn't have as much detail very close to the camera. The Arsenal processor was
able to make a nice sharp image from this test. I tried this with 10 images and the processor got hung up.
But with 6 images the Arsenal was able to process the stack.