April 29, 2020

Master Blaster?

Well, not quite, I only had 6 jumps as a US Army paratrooper. But a master of a different sort. Today I learned that the NMRA has accepted my Master Model Railroader (MMR)Statement of Qualifications. Mat Thompson, who mentored me through the process, sent me a note that they updated their website with my name on the list on MMRs. Given the quarantine, my certificate and other official paraphernalia will come at a later date.



My MMR number is 654, which is divisible by 2, 3 and 109.   Only 3 factors since 109 is prime.  It is the Pantone code for a dark navy blue, appropriate for a Union railroad. 654 is also the pill code for an antihistamine based sleep aid. Somehow that seems appropriate too.  So, all in all a good number.

Meanwhile, I continued work on the Belle Air farm house. My plan is to build a core with laser cut 1/16th inch MDF (see the photo) and then cover the exterior walls with basswood scribed clapboard siding.

The chimney was a little tricky as the stepped bricks required some trim and putty to get right. The building will need two chimneys, but only one is fully visible on the exterior.

I want the farm to act as a view block for the turn back curve at the far end of the layout. This test photo shows that it will work pretty well in this regard. Once I detail the rest of the scene with trees and hedges, it should work out nicely.

April 26, 2020

Belle Air and a New Track Plan


I updated the track plan to reflect the as-built configuration at Stare's Tunnel and to show the latest idea for the approach to Falmouth on  the east wall of the crew lounge.

This design hinges on a 36 inch radius curve with easement in the lower right corner.  That curve connects with the track from Stare's Tunnel over a long, low trestle. This area will be swampy with a meandering stream. The track makes a brief 36-inch radius curve to enter Stare's Tunnel on a tangent.

My design philosophy here was to have fewer, but larger scale or scope features. Thus instead of a double ess curve I drew earlier, the scene here will be a single, gentle Ess curve over a long low trestle.

It's nice to place Falmouth on this wall, as there is plenty of space to have nice long sidings. No more cramped sidings. And there will be plenty of space for operators.

I also modified the farm house in the front room based on some new information I happened to stumble across. The Historical Marker Data Base has an entry for Leeland Station.  The inscription on the marker reads,
"Near this spot stood Belle Air, a prominent Stafford County landmark and home of the Fitzhugh and Primmer families. John Fitzhugh first constructed a house here in the mid-eighteenth century, but by 1854, when the property was sold to Abram Primmer, a new structure occupied the site. Primmer lived here with his wife and six children and owned nearly four hundred acres, which the Leeland Station now encompasses, and was valued at $7,200.
Primmer opposed secession and sent one of his sons to enlist in the Union army. Abram himself aided Confederate deserters and served as a local guide for Union forces. When the Union army occupied Stafford County in the summer of 1862, it used the Primmer fields as pasture for cattle. The largest intrusion upon Belle Air came in the winter of 1862-1863, when the home and farm became a camping ground for the Army of the Potomac’s Third Corps.
The house survived into the mid-twentieth century, at which time the property was known as Walnut Farm. Today, the building no longer stands."

Another historical marker in the same area describes Camp Pitcher with some more information about the Belle Air farm.

"Following its defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, the Union Army of the Potomac went into winter quarters in Stafford County. Here at Bell (sic) -Air (the nearly 400-acre estate of Abraham Primmer, which the Leeland Station community now encompasses), elements of Brigadier General David B. Birney’s division laid out its camps, while their commander established his headquarters at the house. In honor of Major William L. Pitcher of the 4th Maine Infantry, who was killed at Fredericksburg, the encampment was named “Camp Pitcher.”
Soldiers scavenged livestock, fence rails, crops and lumber from local inhabitants. After four months at this location, the area was stripped clean. In March 1863, Union troops left Bell-Air and moved to new camps near Belle Plain along Potomac Creek.
After the war, Primmer received, $2,752.50 from the federal government as compensation for the damage done to his property. His list of damages included four miles of fence and 160 acres of timber consumed as fuel; 20 cords of fruit trees destroyed; hogs, hay and fodder taken; and boards confiscated for use in the construction."

The first marker includes a photo of the house. This is the only photo of this house I could find.  In fact, I can't find any other information about Belle Air other than these two historical markers.










 The spot where I planned the Worthington House is very close to where Belle Air house would have stood, so I will build it instead. It's a simple, large clapboard building. The trees and house will be large enough to help obstruct the view of the turn back curve behind it.  Note the comment about scavenged fences. I need to figure out a good way to depict that, perhaps with the vertical fence posts but no horizontal rails.

On other idea I have been thinking about is putting a flag stop at Camp Pitcher. This would require trains to stop to pick up or drop off passengers at that camp. It will help lengthen the time to travel from Stonemans to Falmouth, which I estimate will take about 5 minutes at normal track speed.

April 25, 2020

It's Deja Vu All Over Again

The passenger car is the biggest car I have, so I use it to check clearances.





I started building the terrain leading up to the north portal of Stares Tunnel. I don't have a name for this hill yet, but by the end of this post I might.

I started by using my trim router to put a 45 degree bevel on the edge of the plywood roadbed. In the future, I will cut these bevels on the road bed sections in the wood shop on the router table before assembling. That will be much easier. Still, the trim router did a nice job except for places where the tool couldn't fit. In those spots I used my utility knife to trim the bevels.

Next I started building up the terrain using a combination of sheet foam and cardboard webbing.   One objective was to disguise the turn back loop into the tunnel. The high hill and fascia do a good job of hiding the curve, especially as one enters the room and looks to the right.  Some trees on the top of the hill will help enhance the view block and help isolate the scene even more. 


One can never have too many clamps







Tennessee Pass Layout under construction












As I was building this hill, I started getting a strong sense of Deja Vu. Then, I realized, I had built a similar  hill in this spot once before. It was for my N scale Tennessee Pass layout. That time I used styrofoam sheets to build up the hill as it was not as tall as this O scale hill.  On the N Scale backdrop was Mt Elbert.  There will be no mountain on the backdrop in this new version.

Until I come up with a better name, I'll call this area  Deja View Ridge. 
Here are 600 of the 1200 trees I had on the Tennessee Pass layout 









April 23, 2020

Fascia Install Complete

I didn't  get too much done the past two days as I had to do taxes and order some hardboard from Home Depot.  The taxes are done but the on-line order with Home Depot didn't work.  So I went there with my face mask, track saw, and cutting section of foam. I bought two  4 by 8  sheets of 3/16th inch tempered hardboard. I used my track saw to  cut the sheets in the parking lot so they would fit in my car. Home Depot was much busier than I expected and they are operating with reduced staff.

I took down the bendy plywood fascia panel and replaced it with the tempered hardboard. I was not happy with the flimsiness of the bendy plywood, especially in the narrow aisle by the curve where people will be rubbing against the fascia as they walk by.

The hardboard works well. The tricky part is installing it when the piece is so wide. A second set of hands helps, but I was able to do it by clamping and holding it myself. I installed it and I am satisfied with how sturdy it is.

A nice fascia and a backdrop go a long way to making a layout look decent.

On to basic scenery tomorrow.




April 22, 2020

Two steps forward, one step back

I built the two tunnel portals using the stone design. These portals have the elliptical adits, which really convey the early rail theme.
South portal on straight track. 
The north portal is on a curve so I made the brick liner only 6 inches. The south portal is on a straight track, so the liner is 13 inches. The key is to make sure the closet is dark so the interior of the tunnel is also dark.




I tried installing the first section of fascia using the bendy plywood.  It does bend easily, but I didn't like how flimsy it is. I ordered some hardboard from Home Depot to use instead of the bendy plywood. I will use the bendy plywood for other uses such as roadbed and laser cutting stock. It cuts nicely on the laser.

Short video showing a train popping out of the tunnel.

April 20, 2020

Designing Stares Tunnel

First attempt at the tunnel. It has some issues. I will not use it.
I installed rest of the spikes, which were about 1500 total, the electrical feeders, painted the rail and re-stained the ties over the weekend (it's so hard to keep track of weekends now). So now it is time to start some basic terrain around the this area and tunnel. Terrain is needed to prevent cars that come off the track from falling to the floor. Also, some basic terrain and fascia will give the area a more presentable and finished appearance.

The first step in shaping the terrain is to site the tunnel. Then I can fill in the shape of the hill, and the approach cut around it

My original intent was to model the tunnel portal after Millboro Tunnel on the Virginia Central (then C&O-CSX-Buckingham Branch). I visited this tunnel in 2008 and liked its brick design. Unfortunately, my photos of the tunnel disappeared when Webphotos went away. So I worked off some low res images I found on line. But I was not sure about the brick patterns.

I asked the Facebook hive mind for advice and Jonathan Jones suggested that I did not have the brick patterns correct, especially on the pilasters. Turns out he was right.

It never occurred to me to search Facebook, but after Mike Spoor found a contemporary photo of Millboro Tunnel on Facebook, I did a search there too.  And sure enough, a man named Gary Smith had posted drawings of the original tunnel, which was a timber and rock design, and the brick portal that the C&O added in 1892.

So now I see that the brick portal is too modern for my railroad. Since this is a freelanced tunnel, I have some flexibility. But I prefer a tunnel that speaks more to ante-bellum technology styles and building techniques. So I will not use the brick tunnel. At least for my layout. I can offer the corrected version as a custom tunnel for Alkem Scale Models, so not time completely wasted.

I don't like the idea of a timber tunnel that the original Millboro tunnel used.  The RF&P did use substantial stone work on their bridges, so I am leaning more to a design like the Lick Run Tunnel in the drawing before. The elliptical shape of the arch and the stone material suggests ante-bellum RF&P to me. Unfortunately, I was unable to find any photos of the Lick Run Tunnel. It was built in 1872, so a little after the Civil War.

Back to the drawing board. Here is the new tunnel portal design.






April 18, 2020

The Gandy Dancers Have Been Busy

The rail and track arrived today, a few days later than normal. I think the USPS is getting slammed these days, so that might account for the delay. At least it made it through.

So after we had a on-line yoga lesson this morning that my daughter taught from her home in Alabama, I got to work on the track. I paid particular attention to the easements for the straight track that connects the two big curves. They came out nice and the trains roll smoothly thorough those curves.  Here is a short clip showing a train heading into the tunnel.



I think the rebuild is going to prove  worthwhile. The smoother operation,  longer run with longer trains is going to improve the operations experience on the layout.

I've been thinking about the plan for the next room. I like the idea of a trestle, but I don't want the benchwork to be too deep. So, I think a possible solution is a low trestle across a swampy area. The trestle I am thinking about would be something like this one on the City Point Line. We know there was a long, low trestle at Accokeek Creek, so this is not too far from the realm of possibility.




I had some folks ask about the access in the closet. As these photos show, the access is not bad. I can get past the wide point of the curve easily. The hardboard channels also  provide a nice smooth, protective surface if I rub it as I walk in and out.

April 16, 2020

The curve is dead, long live the curve.

I began spiking the new track. I started at Clairborne Creek and proceeded as far as the rail I had  on hand would allow. I installed about 8 feet of track around the new turn back curve. This location used to host the tightest curve on the railroad. With unbridled and ill-advised enthusiasm, I had built a curved turnout in that curve, which never functioned reliably. The new track has a wider radius by 2 or so inches, has better easements, no curved turnout, and fewer kinks. I hope it provides reliable operation.   This video shows a short train testing out the new curve.  So far so good.



I am looking forward to getting a delivery of rail and spikes soon to allow me to continue with track laying. In the meantime, I am preparing the materials for the new benchwork in the crew lounge. 


April 15, 2020

Another 10,000 spikes!


I started installing the road bed, ties and rail in the past two days. I used a layer of 1/8th inch basswood for the road bed. To that I glued the ties. That makes about ¼ thick layer of basswood that easily accepts the spikes.

It turns out my supply of code 100 rail and spikes was very low. Luckily Mainline Hobbies had some to ship to me today.  I frequently get stuff I ordered from them the next day. Can't beat that with a stick. 

I glued a layer of basswood to the road bed. The basswood
accepts spikes easily. I had to staple the basswood along the edges
to prevent warping as the glued dried. 



Painting the basswood roadbed before adding the ties.



















I pre-stained the ties, but once the glue dried,  I sanded them too level their tops,
so I will have to re-stain them.  I used a turnout  template to space the ties
Ties are installed and waiting for rail.

First section of code 100 rail installed and being tested.

April 12, 2020

Stares Tunnel Operational

I finished the work inside  Stares Tunnel. See the test run of a short train in  the video below.  I use Atlas O scale flex track to speed things along.  A 30 inch radius curve is about the limit of sharpness of what you can except from O scale flex track.  It was tricky to get the joints on the curves without kinks.

I lined the roadbed with strips of hardboard to act as guard rails. This will help prevent rolling stock from plummeting to the abyss in the event of a derailment. 

I also finished the sub roadbed from Clairborne Creek to Stares tunnel.  I was concerned about how to tie  the new roadbed into the splines I used in this area before, but there was no problem. I was able to cut away the spline roadbed and bring the new plywood roadbed adjacent  to it without issue. 
I was able to use most of the existing bench work with just a small extension at the width of the curve.
I was happy to see that the terrain piece for Battery Shaefer will fit in the corner with just some minor adjustments. I am trying to reuse as many of the details from the old layout as possible. 




Finally, I used a thin strip of hardboard to visualize the alignment of the track between Stares Tunnel and Falmouth. This is the place where I am thinking about the big bridge. But I am leaning more and more to just a track running through the country.  I think I will build some kind of cabinet or shelf unit under this section as I will need more book shelves at the rate I am going with book acquisitions. 

One other thing that a friend brought up but that I really hadn't considered. It might be possible to install a temporary track from Falmouth to Burnside's Wharf for a continuous run.  I've never missed having a continuous run before, so I wonder if it is worth doing. The only trick to doing it would be to make sure the tracks are at the same elevations. That means the track exiting Stares Tunnel must climb 3 inches. 
Mock up of the new track alignment. 


April 10, 2020

Hamlet and Analysis-Paralysis

To bridge, or not to bridge, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to simply
Model a scene of pastoral beauty,
Or to create a massive canyon
And by opposing bridge it. To chop—to bang,
No more; and by a banging say we end
The debate and the thousand second guesses
That devils us: 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To chop—to bang;
To build, perchance to dream—ay, there's the rub:
For in that blank sheet what dreams may come,
When we have driven the last spike,
Must give us pause—there's the respect
That makes deciding so hard.
For who would bear the wise guy quips and scorns of time,
Th'doubter's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of opportunity lost,
The creeping doubt, and the worry
That something better could have been,
When he himself decided 
With an open heart? Who would stringers and beams bear,
To grunt and sweat over a steamy swamp,
But that the dread of something after deciding,
The undiscovere'd country, from whence 
Something else could be built, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ideas we dream
Than stay with that we have decided?
Thus indecision does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.


Dedicated to all of us with analysis paralysis.

With apologies to the great bard, if you haven't figure it out, this morning has me pondering what to do with the scene before Falmouth. Do I go for a simple pastoral scene or the mega bridge?  Decisions- decisions.  No need to decide right away, but it was fun to bend Hamlet to my task.

April 9, 2020

This might actually work!

I got the toughest part of the project finished today. The rest should be smooth steaming.

The tough part was the section of the track that goes under the stairs. If you recall when I installed the track to POLA in this same space I made protestations about never doing that again. Well time heals all wounds and I went ahead. However, this time it was a lot easier, despite my arthritic hip acting up.

 First, because I needed 5 inches of clearance under the stair landing to accommodate my O scale locomotives, Atlas flex track, and roadbed, I could get my eyes at track level to see what I needed to do. The HO track was too close to the stair landing for me to see easily the track. Also, the access holes in the stair stringers were much bigger, again for O scale. allowing me to see what adjustments were needed.  The stair stringers don't seem to be sagging with all the material hogged out. I can reinforce them if I notice any issues.

Pre-fabbing the track in the garage. 
Secondly, I prefabricated the benchwork and track sections in the garage on a nice large flat surface. The improved access made it much easier to lay these tracks.  I used my curve templates to get nice flowing and consistent curves using Atlas flex track.

I put a joint in the track and benchwork between the curve and the straight section where the tangent ends and the easement  starts. Basically I made two large sections of snap track. That joint has two dominoes to hold it in alignment, but  they are only glued in one side. So I can remove the tangent section if needed.  I reinforced that joint with a piece of 1x3 that is screwed in from underneath, again removable if needed. I was able to reuse  the joists from the POLA staging yard too. The joists help support the tangent piece.

I haven't test run an engine yet, as I want to put safety walls along the roadbed to prevent errant cars and engines from falling to the floor. But hand pushing a box car looks good.

Tomorrow I'll finishing the road bed and connect it to the rest of the layout.  I only plan to use flex track in the tunnels and the closet sections. All the other track will be hand laid as before.

A view down the tangent track. 
There is a 12 inch long tangent between the two curves in the closet.

April 8, 2020

We had to destroy the village to save it

Testing clearance at the hole in the wall. There is only 3.25 inches here due to a stud and a closet wall on the
far side, but it should be enough.


When I was a kid, my friends and I loved building models. After playing with them for a while, we usually found creative ways to destroy them. From soaking rubber band powered planes with lighter fluid for one last fiery flight, to putting firecrackers in plastic battleships, to melting toy soldiers, we were destructive little monsters.   That trend continued when I was trained as a combat engineer in the U.S. Army. They taught me how to build bridges and then blow them up. They even had the insane idea of sending me to Atomic Demolitions School, so if you ever need to nuke anything, look me up.  

Deep into demo
With that background, it's no wonder tearing apart a layout comes naturally to me. However, this time I am taking my time and trying to carefully salvage what I can. Unfortunately, I am not able to recycle any of the track. The reasons are two fold. One, the track is firmly glued to foam  and will not come off easily. The track is spiked 4 spikes per tie and it is very secure. Second, the foam is glued to the plywood sheet that I need to remove. The foam is not coming off easily. However, I was able to salvage the turntable, structures, many of the details and trees.

Demo is almost complete. 

I need to pull the plywood sheet out as I need to drop the track 3/4 inch as it traverses from Clairborne Creek to the stair landing.  A drop of 0.75 inches over the 20 feet of run is about 0.3% grade. That shouldn't be an operational issue. 



While I was doing demo, I was also gluing the road bed wedges together to make the curved roadbed sections. Once I had the full sized curve sections, I began detailed survey to see how things will fit. The main constraints are the height of the stair landing and the gap in the stud by the hole in the wall. I am fortunate that the gaps is 3.25 inches wide, more than enough to clear one track, even if it is on a curve.


I am making the curve roadbed with the previously cut wedges. I am using one domino and two pocket screws to hold the wedges together. The screws act like clamps to let the glue dry while the domino provides strength and alignment. 

April 7, 2020

Demolition Man - A Catharsis

Nothing like demolition!


After months (years?) of thinking about it,  I started construction on the Aquia Line expansion.  Gosh, did it feel good to be back building a layout!

My original intent was to start building the benchwork in the crew lounge and only cut in the new work when it was ready. That plan would have kept the railroad operational during the rebuild. However,  that changed when I discovered two broken turnouts in the Falmouth area. Those would have required some tricky rebuilding work. That plus the fact that we are in self isolation mode convinced me to change my plan. I decided to pull up the existing track and scenery from the south end of the Clairborne Creek bridge through Falmouth and lay the new track from there.  The new bench work will go quickly.

Mad scribblings - High school math in action
The work began with several hours of geometry as I worked out what I considered the optimum cut plan for the plywood. My intent is to squeeze all the roadbed wedges for the curves and framing pieces from one 3/4 x4 x 8 plywood.  I have two other 1/4 x 4 x 8 plywood sheets for the large flat areas.  But, I want to prefabricate the road bed and track for the parts that go under the stairs and in the closet using 3/4 inch plywood wedges.

The wedges will allow me to build the curved roadbed sections all with straight cuts, thereby minimizing waste.  After a few rounds of calculations and test fits, I concluded that wedges cut from 4 inch wide strips with the short side at 11.12 inches and an angle of 11.25 degrees on each side would be sufficient to support the track.
The wedges will be glued to each other with two Festool dominoes (floating tenon joints)  to allow precise alignment and strength.  I plan to use flex track for the sections in the closet.   The diagram at the left shows where the wedges will be placed.

I used my track saw to rip 3 sections of 4-inch wide 3/4 inch plywood. Then using my chop saw set at 11.25 degrees, and a stop set to the length, I proceeded to make 22 wedges.

With the wedges cut, I started clearing off the Falmouth area.  More of that demo tomorrow as I have to pull the engine terminal and Battery Schaefer.   Still, a good feeling for a stressful time.