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Sunday, March 26, 2023

Stopping by Woods at Mineshaft Gap


I finally had a chance to wrap up the forestry at Mineshaft Gap.  I got Virginia Hill (the big ridge) mostly done several years ago, and even "completed" the creek in 2020.  But despite the promise of prefab trees, the foreground areas just take forever.  For starters there's the me-like stewing over every single tree, in terms of size/shape/color/quality/placement, rather than just carpeting the hillside, as with more distant scenes.  

But also, I like to detail the forest floor up front, since you'd be viewing from the middle of the woods in that location.  That takes time but it's worth it.  

Aside from being able to hide a bunch of "easter eggs" in the woods, catching a glimpse of a passing train through the scrub growth is totally just like life.  Railfanning in the eastern US is primarily about getting to where you can see at least one entire piece of rolling stock -- around, over, or through the trees -- before it gets away.  Especially in West Virginia.  

[Utah?  Pffththtt -- "Look Ma, I can see for a hundred miles!  I can catch 19 trains in one shot!"  Where's the sport in that?  Come to hardwood country, fan-boy. 😉]


Anyway, first how about a couple of "Before" views, for comparison. 


Only the future forest floor is roughed in, beyond the clay cuts and cinder fill.  The contour along the creek (far left) is just in plain paint, since the ground will not be visible.  

(And how about that shrinkage/separation from the fascia?  Fixing that was included as well.)

I'm pleased with the macro result of the "After" -- not just to be relieved of the eyesore of empty contours, but also because it provides a nice defining edge to the scene at Mineshaft Gap, as I'd hoped.  

It's a useful viewblock from the areas across the aisle -- makes it feel much less like you're floating in space, and more like you're in a holler watching a railroad bounce off the valley walls.  Most of what you can see beyond the hills and woods now is more hills and woods.  And backdrop, which of course is even more hills and woods.  Starting to feel downright rural.  

The new "old growth" on the right-hand side of Logan's Run now highlights the original contour of the valley, vs. the more angular, barren fills put in by the railroad and the pulpwood lot.  

SNR's re-alignment of the creek for the overpass 
has had a deleterious effect on the opposite valley wall.

Having the forest run down to the roundhouse now helps complete the original vision for the mainline up on the grade, which is of a fill cutting across the valley.

The woods as scene definition and viewblock works in the other direction, too.  

Still to come:  I need to "organic up" the clay cuts (background) with scrub growth and detritus - but that'll be in the "detailing" portion of our show, later in the program.  Like say, in the 2030's. 

Several years ago my friend John Miller (Kanawha & Lake Erie) gave me a still he thought belonged nicely in the Appalachian territory transited by the Suffolk Northern.  The edge of Mineshaft Gap was about the only wooded place on the layout with a gentle enough grade to use it, so I'd been looking forward to giving it a home for quite a while.  Thanks, John!

Sawyer MacShay, whose name in the mountaineer brogue 
is pronounced roughly "Sour Mash", 
is widely renown for distilling Carter County's finest white lightning,
in the ancient Highland Scot tradition.  

I augered out the fire pit so I could use a "Flickering Flame" from Evan Designs. 

It's even got its own on/off switch.

The logging road now feels much more like a raw cut through the woods too, as it's supposed to be.  
The scrub growth has already filled in the gaps -- but then, it does that.  

With visibility at the crossing now inconveniently obstructed by trees, 
Ronnet-Pulaski Lumber Co's ramshackle trucks
now have to grind to a responsible halt on the steep, 
rutted grade down to the SNR right-of-way.

Well, thanks for reading.  Having something to write about is a definite incentive to get stuff done!  

And now it's on to the next eyesore.  So much barren hillside yet to go... As Robert Frost said,

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

But hey, making progress.  If you're curious about place names or the oddball trees, see below ***.  And let me know what you think down in the comments!

*** Reference links:

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Déclassé Buicks

- or -

How to Adapt Glistening Exotic Antiques for the Workaday Post-War World


Those of us modeling the 50s are blessed these days with a variety of excellent scale model automobiles fitting the period.  On the SNR though, it's only 1952, so most of the car "fleet" should be from the 40's, with their pointy snoots and pontoon fenders - and that's an under-represented class in HO.  Also under-represented are mundane Ford, Plymouth, and Chevrolet sedans, in favor of the rarer, classier models, which stand out a bit too much for a "fleet" look.  Sylvan makes quite a range of 40's cars, but those are Lexan kits - expensive and a lot of work.  Someday...  

So to fill out the fleet with older cars, I needed to reach back into the '30s.  Oxford Diecast of the U.K. offers a very nice 1936 Buick which is a good add, even if it's a convertible - but by '52 it would be 16 years old - an automotive Methuselah at the time.  It would be at best a $75 car, assuming it hadn't already been declared terminal for needing rings and a valve job.  Those beautiful Oxford cars were going to need some "facelifting", and "downscaling", to fit Truman-era Appalachia.   


Join me for a look at a few tweaks and considerations that scratch an itch from my other hobby. 

  • Dual side-mounts.  Who are we, Roosevelts?  Only the fanciest cars would have carried them in the first place.  And after 16 years, certainly most would have been discarded as being in the way.  Granted, with a rumble seat there was no trunk to put a spare in, but most coupes and roadsters carried one on the rear bumper.  Putting on airs with fancy covered tires, gracious sakes - thankfully they were not cast-on, and could be pulled away.  I painted the hollows black on the maroon car, and tried to match the body color on the yellow car.
  • Whitewalls.  Until the mid-50's, these were another extravagance that you'd only find on newer luxury cars.  Very few people buying a used car, or a new car from the "low-priced field", would have coughed up the extra five bucks for wide whites.  Yet every over-restored, option-laden, too-shiny rig at a "Boomer Car Show" these days, like most every HO model, is sporting gleaming sneakers like Spike Lee.  Look at period pictures - most everyone's on blackwalls.  See below.  

  • Black grilleHuh?  For some reason, the yellow car came with its grille and cowl painted black.  I'd never seen this before, and could not find an example on Google.  So I returned the grille to silver, and hit the cowl with body color.    
  • Top boot.  In the history of convertiblism, no one has ever put the cover on over any folded top, except for parades and first dates.  They are an enormous pain.  Even with my '62 Caddy, I only put the boot on for the first car show of the season - then once I need to put the top up, it's back into the trunk again until next April.  

  • Top well.  Without the boot though, I needed to do something to simulate the top folded down into the well.  So I filled the mounting holes with putty, and painted the edges flat black to simulate the canvas top where it attaches to the body.  I painted the center a grayish-black to simulate the top's interior as seen when folded, then outlined some of the edge shapes in glossy black, to represent the top's header bow and side rails.  It's no contest winner, but it does go a long way toward suggesting a workaday old convertible from a distance.
  • Paint.  Until Messrs. Ditzler and Dupont graced us with acrylic enamels and clearcoat lacquers, automotive paint was just not that good.  It was not terrifically shiny right out of the booth, and until the mid-50's, waxing was almost unheard of, unless your chauffeur needed something to fill his downtime with.  So being unprotected, the paint just oxidized away down to the primer.  As I try to do with any model auto more than 4 years old, I painted both cars with Dullcote to kill the gloss.  And since they're so old, I also added surface rust on the horizontals using pastels - particularly on the hoods, because of the engine heat helping the process along.  

Our dull, faded '36 makes quite the contrast with the brilliant, week-old '53 Pontiac parked ahead of it.

  • Dirt.  You know what else wasn't that good?  Roads.  Most country roads were still dirt in the '50s, or maybe paved with gravel or cinders if you were lucky.  Most folks didn't wash their cars much either, since they'd get dirty so quickly on those roads - so rural cars got pulled into a downward spiral of dullness and filth.  Shiny cars were for city folk!  So I added a general coating of dirt, particularly on the fenders and wheels, and ground in 16 years' worth of use into the drivers' seats as well.  The dirt and rust also served to dim down the cream yellow, to more of a proper background level.

The downtrodden Buick parked on Della St. begs the question:  where is the owner shopping?
Is he bargain-hunting at Matt-Mart, or has he been saving his money for the jewelry store?

Another of my "someday" jobs will be to make a pass through the whole automobile fleet, and apply these considerations across the board for a coordinated look, as we do with the freight car fleet.  Here's a good target shot for that fleet look, from Detroit in what looks to be 1951.

What are some of the things this photo tells us about the street "scene" in that period?

  1. Very few cars are shiny
  2. Very few cars are even clean - even in a city on paved streets
  3. Very few cars are on whitewalls
  4. Very few cars have full wheelcovers, rather than just hubcaps
  5. Very few cars are luxury cars, or even from the "mid-priced field"
  6. Very few cars are not a dark color
  7. Very few cars are pre-war
So this demonstrates that if we're wanting to build a representative sample for our model streets, it behooves us to concentrate on the mundane rather than the exotic, just as with freight cars, for the majority of the fleet.  (Now, if you'd like to join me for a car-spotting deep-dive on this beautiful shot, see below.**)

And in any case, thanks for reading, and let's hear what you think in the comments!

** OK what gems does this feast for the eyes hold?  

  • The newest car I can make out is the '50 Chevy front & center.  The one back in traffic might be a '51.
  • The second-oldest car I can see is the '39 LaSalle back in traffic.  Interestingly it also is one of the cleanest - might well be a chauffeured car.  Old money has no problem with old things.
  • The oldest car is the beater '35 Ford behind the LaSalle.  Virtually everything else on the street is post-war - at most, six model-years old.  
  • Is the Hudson getting a push?  Or is the guy behind him just that impatient!  Any further up his pipe and the guy could see daylight through the grille.  Same with the poor Studebaker 3 cars ahead.
  • Hey look - a black '49 Mercury coupe that hasn't gotten the James Dean chop & slam job yet!  Rebel Without a Cause is still 4 years off - but in the 21st century, there are nearly no stock ones left.  
  • Check out Mr. Car-Proud in the black '50 Pontiac coupe!  He's got a glistening Simoniz job going, along with gleaming wide-whites.  Totally out-sparkles the equally new car next to him.  
  • In the absence of any new Cadillacs, the light-colored '49 Olds wins the technology prize, boasting the only OHV V-8 in the whole shot.  The LaSalle and the Fords & Mercs have V-8s, of course, but they're flatheads.  (The engines!)
  • Man I love this stuff.  Hey, where are the pavement markings?!

Monday, January 23, 2023

Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye

The St. Amour yard goat, S-2 #137, rolls along the Western Ave. line 
with an important shipment for the Manufacturer's Generating Co..

What's Up?  Dock.

I've long had a hankering for a depressed-center flat car, but needed to find a reason to have one on the layout.  A few years ago, I built an equipment dock for the small power plant in St. Amour, in part as a destination for such big electrical loads, someday.  It's a wee bit wee for this purpose, but hey, it's the Suffolk Northern - what isn't?

Dock: check.  Next up: a car.

Roll Out the Zoloft

A while back, I got a depressed-center flat car as a gift from my friend Jim Bax, who is the honoree of the JBAX reporting marks for the James River Basin Petroleum Corp. refinery.  It's a Roco model, and has been sitting on the shelf ever since, new-in-box, waiting for its coming out party.  I liked that it's a 6-axle car, whereas most of the models you see are of the four-truck variety, which would be overkill in the tight confines of the SNR physical plant.

But the Roco needed some work for its debut.  For starters it had truck-mounted couplers, and weighed nearly as much as a postage stamp.  After some draft gear fabrication I was able to jam a couple hundred pounds of lead skeet shot into every nook and cranny, including the hollow between the deck and frame, and get it to at least stay on the rails when breathed upon.  

However, as a low-boy it was riding on 26" wheelsets...  and while they looked to be of great quality, having both metal wheels and metal axles, every last one of them was out of gauge.  It was bad enough to derail the car on virtually every turnout, and no testing with additional weight would remedy it.  Further, the wheels were fused to the axles so tightly that they were impossible to budge without collateral destruction of the wheelset.  

So having a poorly tracking car, with oddball wheelsets, some of which were now destroyed, I was in a bit of a bind.  I tried standard 33" InterMountains, but that left it riding way too high, and created clearance problems with the trucks too.  Luckily I was able to locate a set of Kadee 28" wheels - close enough for who it's for.  I still had to ream out the journals to get the Kadees to actually spin, of course, but ultimately did get the thing to track fairly reliably.  

Woof.  At least all that was left to do was a better brake wheel & staff, and weathering, especially to mute the dazzling, chocolate-brown plastic deck.

(And hey, look - a bonus shot of a JBAX tanker.  Thanks for the well car, Jim!)

Depressed-center flat car: check.  Next up: a load.  

Transformers:  Robots In Disguise

(Get the title reference yet?  😉  If you were watching TV in the 80s, you couldn't avoid it.)

The goal here was to find a transformer load big enough to justify a well-flat, but small enough to not also require a high-wide movement.  That's actually a pretty narrow range, and no amount of searching would reveal one that'd fit the bill while also being an appealing model.  

Walthers makes a nice kit, which I'd planned on using, but it turned out to be gargantuan.  Gave that one away.  Beaucoup 3DP and resin options are out there, but they all failed one of the dimensions, the era, and/or the aesthetic tests.

Enter, as always, my friend and tech man Darren Williamson (IHB).  He looked around for drawings usable for 3D printing, but found equally few candidates fitting our specs.  Finally he just engineered the damn thing himself, using numerous references from photos and plans, and printed it for me.  With a couple of iterations and a coat of Westinghouse-y paint, this is the result.

I couldn't be happier.  (Thanks, D!)  I think one of the best features is those cooling tubes on the sides.  Modern units use cored radiators like automobiles, and, those are usually shipped dismounted from the transformer - so that the actual load is kind of just a box.  But in the old days, the oil was cooled just using circulating pipes, which were integral to the unit and therefore shipped as a complete assembly, adding gobs of character.   

Darren also added a variety of representative control boxes, insulator mounts, stabilizers, and other details - and those funky top brackets that are mounts for the oil reservoir.  His original design included the tank too, but especially perched way up on top, that would have been shipped separately.  Probably the brackets too, but no way I was parting with those!  

Transformer: check.  Next up:  loading the thing.    


The Loadmaster

Enter my friend Ed Swain, whose beautiful PRR Middle Division is replete with open-car loads.  And every one of them is prototypically mounted, with chocks and blocks and straps and chains and rigs of every size.  So much so, in fact, that he qualified for the billboard rotation on the SNR.


A while back Ed had turned me on to his secret muse, the book of AAR Flat Car Loading Practices, part of the Railway Prototype Cyclopedia.  This is another rabbit-hole volume of addictive period minutiae, on par with the Postwar Freight Car Fleet book I mentioned in an earlier post.

Well, the flat car "bible" shows that transformers in the 25-250 ton range should be tied down using no fewer than eight 1" steel rods, secured in some way directly to the car's frame.  And the unit is to be girded at its base by brackets bolted through the deck, or on steel-floor cars, actually welded to the floor.  Who knew.  These guys were serious.

The AAR rules offer numerous options for the format of those brackets, so I cobbled up some representative articles from Evergreen I-beams and channel, and mounted them to the car.  

This of course means if I ever want to run a different load, it will need to have the same footprint as this one.  But that's no problem - and with any luck it will provide a convenient excuse to build up another car.

For the stays I used .015 brass rod.  These are to be mounted to the transformer's loading hooks, or - to the mounts for the loading hooks, if the hooks themselves are removable, which is the route I went.  

The car features mounts in the depression slope that are secured to the frame through the floor, for just such a purpose - so I put four of the stays into those.  The other four stays went through holes drilled in the upper frame rail, since the car does not have stake pockets. This practice was specified by the AAR too.

Because I'm a loads-in-empties-out kind of guy, the transformer had to be removable - so seating it and getting all 8 of those stays into their respective holes at one time is a little like putting high-heels on a cat.  The price we pay.

Loadedcheck.  Thus concludes yet another post with far more verbiage than I intended.  But the project was a trip and had some fun stories to tell and people to thank.  Thanks to you for reading, and let fly with the comments below! 

Number 137 gently accelerates the massive transformer away from the Della St. interchange.