Batch of 3 or Batch of 42?


Well, that took a long time!

I’ve started working through the freight cars that are done, all 42 of them, to get paint touch-ups done and start running them through my weathering process.  As I covered last summer, the process I use takes a little bit of time to work through, as the layers are built up slowly, and I prefer to let media dry before moving on to the next layer.

After I’d worked on that East Texas Belt boxcar for the A ModelersLife podcast Youtube, I said to myself “Hey, that was cool and didn’t take long.  Get out 3 cars and we’ll get those done quickly!”

Occasionally I should respond to myself that the process isn’t nearly as fast as I think it should be in my head or on my to-do list.

I selected a B&O wagontop boxcar and two CP Mini-Box cars to weather first.  I went through the usual process, but things were “off”.  The initial acrylic weathering was somewhat splotchy in a few places, but I figured later layers would blend that.  I realized about the time I was on my 3rd layer with enamels that I’d forgotten to dull-coat the cars first.  Oops.  They look OK, and I’ll get them finished.  Only I (and probably anyone reading this) will know that a step got missed at the outset.

It was a Thursday when the acrylics went on, the following Wednesday when the last wash of weathering colors went on.  The next day, so a week after starting, the reweigh date’s changed on the CP cars, and on Friday the cars were sealed.  Thus ended the first 2/3 of the weathering process.  Right… only 2/3.  I still need to airbrush the dust and dirt as well as us some powders on these cars before they’re ready for final assembly.

It was about that Wednesday that I said to myself, “Now, this is why you work in those huge batches of cars.”

I had this thought that I’d get energized by finishing those 3 cars quickly.  Instead, it has taken more than a week to get those three to where they are.

That brings me to today, where I’ve decided to work the rest of the cars in two large batches of 17 first and then the balance.  While I know this is a large number, the fact that it doesn’t take much more time to complete each step if it’s 3 or 13 or 17 or 20 cars, the wait time is built into the dry time.

So it’s time to get back to the workbench and start batch painting.  Then, I’ve made a large note to myself, that the next step after the touch-up paint is to seal the cars.

With several more batches of similar cars to build in the next few years, honing the process of building and finishing batches of cars is a good skill to have.

I hear the workbench calling.  It’s time get back to painting!


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Following the Twisting Path

The Yosemite Valley Railroad followed the twists and turns of the Merced River Valley for a good portion of it’s path to the edge of the National Park.  Likewise, my path to building my own model of this line has it’s own twists and turns.


I’ve made progress in the last few days on starting to weather this year’s batch of cars.  The skills learned last year at this point in the construction process have been renewed, and the first 8 cars are just about ready to be airbrushed (as soon as the heat wave we’re having right now breaks).  By the end of July, I hope to be close to, if not finished, with everything that is built and waiting.  That will make room on the workbench for starting some structures this fall.

That’s not the twists and turns of my journey to the Yosemite Valley, however.  I have taken on a number of other projects to keep me occupied around the 10 year plan I recently discussed for being ‘YV Ready”.


As some of you might be aware, I participate with and make whatever contribution to, the “A Modelers Life” podcast and community.  As part of that, I recently made a 5 part series of short videos documenting the rehabilitation of a boxcar that my friend, Lionel Strang, was kind enough to send me for “safe keeping”.  The car had originally belonged to Kalambach Publishing editor Keith Thompson.  I tore the car down, rebuilt it, and applied some moderate weathering.  You can find the video’s I made here:

Workshop Wednesday ETB Boxcar Series

In keeping with the theme, I’ve agreed to take the energy I was putting into the now defunct PLZ&W project and apply the materials gathered for that project to work with another friend, Andy Dorsch, of the Mascoutin Valley Railroad (Mascoutin Valley RR Blog) to kick off some late 1980’s based Free-Mo fun with the “A Modeler’s Life Free-Mo”.  This scratches an “itch” of sorts with modern locomotives and some taconite hauling in module form.  While I can’t break the log-jam of building the YV to my satisfaction currently, building a couple of modules to run trains and promote the hobby sounds like fun.


Beyond even that, my wife and I have both been interested in logging railroads for many years, and in the logging railroads of New Hampshire since I did the research for an article that will soon appear in the Layout Design Journal on turn of the 20th century logging lines in that part of the country.  We want to build a small logging railroad together to display in our home, while we’re working on other projects, possibly even in On3.


So my modeling efforts will be spread around a little.  The YV efforts are focused on getting the rolling stock and structures built and historical research. While I have engaged in other projects to check off a few items on my “wow, that is something neat to model” list.  Will one of those draw me away from the YV?  Absolutely not.  I’m in with the YV for the rest of my modeling career, and there will be YV projects constantly.  The prototype modeler in me loves the challenge of this project, and with 10 or so years ahead, I should easily accomplish the preparation for building that layout.  Along the way, however, model railroading is fun, and sharing it with loved ones, friends, and anyone who might be interested in trains is exciting.  I learn something new every time I talk to another modeler or historian, and the relaxation I get from immersing myself in these projects is worth the time to make them come to fruition.  Some of this comes from a desire to have something that will run, and some from a desire to practice skills that I’ll need when the time comes for the YV layout.  Everything, even dabbling in these other projects, is only aimed at making the YV layout better and more enjoyable.

There’s lots to do, so I better get back to the workbench!


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The 10 Year Plan


I’ve put a lot of energy into trying to plan a layout recently.  Isn’t that part of the goal?  The TOMA principle would lead us to build part of the layout with the plan to eventually build more, and I gleefully trumpeted the idea of TOMA a few months back.  I still believe it’s a great principle, but after going through the motions last month of planning what would be the YV to SP interchange, and still being unhappy with the results, I found myself pondering while working on freight cars what to do next.

The reality that in my particular situation, where my wife and I both would like to have large operating layouts of our historic and modeling interests one day, coupled to the other reality that we are still roughly 10 years from being in a spot to consider a location change that will put us potentially in a position to have those layouts, says to me that I may be spinning my wheels when expending energy on track planning the YV right now.

As I thought more, I began to focus on a long-term modeling plan.  The idea is to build my skills, and at the same time, be prepared for the time when that YV layout space becomes available.

So the 10 year plan, as I see it, is to build to readiness to build the layout.  That includes building the rest of the freight cars that I have on hand, and getting those finished.  Including all the foreign road and YV cars for freight service, passenger service, cabooses, and YV 22 and 23.  It includes getting all the locomotives detailed, but the ones that are not currently DCC might wait for that installation as technology is advancing fast enough that I may choose to go with a system that is pertinent in 10 years, not something of today.

There is more to do beyond just building freight cars and locomotives.  I need to build structures as well.  The YV stations, water tanks, oil tanks, and turn tables are in that list along with industry buildings like Shell Oil, National Lead, and the box factory (at a minimum) for Merced Falls.  While the stations are small, and some of the structures, like the box factory, might be much larger, I can still build according to my layout design philosophy and build a near-flat building for along a backdrop.

But then what happens to running trains?  After all, part of what I’m trying to do here is run these things.  Well, the answer to that is still up in the air, but I’m narrowing in on what might happen.

Having decided to take a breath and not settle for a shoehorned track plan right now, with the plan to eventually have room for the layout is somewhat freeing.  I still have parameters for what things will be.  I can build a display case to display my completed models now, and eventually things will come.

And if they don’;t, I still get to build the models, I still get to share my thoughts on planning and history, and I am still going to model railroad.

Time to go finish some freight cars!


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SOO Line ARA 1932 Boxcar

I’ve mentioned an Atlas 1932 boxcar lettered for the SOO Line several times, and now I’m ready to show you what I’ve done to the car as it’s ready to head for paint and weathering inn the 1st batch of cars next week.

According to the book, “The American Railway Association Standard Box Cars of 1932 (revised edition)” by Theodore Culotta (available from Speedwitch Media at, chapter 21, the SOO Line owned 500 cars of the 1932 design.  SOO cars were fitted with a vertical brake shaft and gear mechanism in lieu of end mounted brake equipment.  Additionally, the cars originally had flat roof panels that were later replaced.

The stock Atlas cars cars be seen in multiple road schemes at v

The car is fairly well detailed, having polling pockets, the correct uncoupling lever, flat roof, and a decent roof-walk.  While I could replace some of these, the most glaring detail on the SOO car is the brake gear.  Atlas delivered the models with the end brake equipment instead of the vertical brake shaft and roof level brake wheel.


The original brake equipment was removed and three small pieces of Evergreen styrene rod were used to fill the holds.

To correct this, I started by removing the brake chain and wheel assembly.  This left three holes in the car end from the factory mounts. Those holes were filled with Evergreen styrene rod which was then filed to match the dreadnaught end contours.


The styrene was shaped to match the dreadnaught end. (I also see that I sanded a little bit on the boards to the right hand side of the car.  I’ll fix that when I apply paint.

A Tichy vertical brake gear set was then added, and a wire support was created using wire and bending liars.  I used the old location of the original brake wheel as the location for the wire support for the brake shaft.


With new brake equipment in place, the car is now more accurate to the SOO Line prototype, and the change only took an afternoon of work.

With everything in place and the CA cured, the car is now ready for the paint shop to touch up the end, and on to weathering.

Time to get back to the workbench!


Posted in Model Trains, Modeling Update, RPM CHICAGOLAND, Uncategorized, Workbench | Leave a comment

Track Planning the SP to YV Interchange: Start at the beginning, and learn CAD.

Track planning seems to be a sticking point for me.  I’ve now planned the SP to YV interchange multiple times over the years, and getting it “right” is always a challenge.

I’ve previously shared what the 1st iteration of the interchange looked like as built.  The second time planning was for an article in the Layout Design Journal, issue #56.  Almost as soon as that issue was out, new information surfaced and because I’m now of the mindset that planning and building Merced is the best place to start the YV, here we are again.


The former Southern Pacific Lines station in Merced.  Now in use as offices for the local park district, the YV trains would come here to pick up Pullman sleeping cars.

Before beginning to plan, I set some parameters for the initial attempts.  My aim was to fit the interchange scene, highly compressed from what would be over 16’ of layout space if modeled to full scale, into a roughly 6’ space.  I decided that I want to maintain the ability to operate Pullman Sleepers on the line, meaning the mainline curves need to be no less than 28” radius, and probably 30” or 32” would be more comfortable.

I should note that I’ve picked modeling Merced because of a number of reasons.  First, Merced is where the YV ‘starts”.  It’s were both connections to the rest of the world is, via the SP and the ATSF.  Second, Merced has a lot of value with regard to switching.  Both locals eventually work here, the daily passenger train works at Merced, and there are spots to load cars, unload cars, and turn equipment.  Third, setting the scale with Merced will help me scale the rest of the railroad, determine what kind of compression I might employ.

The area to begin with at the SP interchange, includes a number of functions and tracks that I feel are important to model.

There are a couple of “must have” elements in this section of the railroad.  First and foremost of course is the actual interchange with the SP.  That track comes off the North/South SP mainline, passes in front of the SP Station at Merced, and then takes a slight bend to the East, running along side 16th Street in Merced.  A spur comes off on YV territory, running back South and reaching the Merced Ice and Cold Storage Co.  To the North, another line breaks off and has back to the SP lines just in front of the Golden State Creamery.  The YV mainline runs then to the Northeast, crossing 16th Street, before reaching the YV station and freight house in the yard at Merced.  It sounds complicated, but really, on YV property, this involves two turnouts is all.

In an article about how he approached modeling this area from the January 2010 Railroad Model Craftsman, Jack Burgess discussed his approach to the interchange.  He only build a couple inches of the SP Station, and included some of the SP mainline, and then the spur to the Merced Ice and Cold Storage Co.  He didn’t include the track that passes the creamery heading back for the SP line as the space didn’t allow for that.


Wes Swift’s Merced Ice and Cold Storage facility is in the foreground, while the SP mainline is in the far upper right corner heading behind the backdrop to where the SP station would have been.

Wes Swift approached the area in a similar fashion, focusing on the Merced Ice and Cold Storage and the lead into the YV yard, while including a short span of the SP mainline leading into staging instead of modeling the SP station.

My first attempt at building this area included room for the ic company, and room for a full-size model of the SP Station, along with a spur that would have gone past a partial model of the creamery, and room for two of the SP tracks along with a track intended to indicate the lead to the turn table that the SP had in the same area.

Now, however, I’m looking at how to approach this area somewhat differently.  I want the function of the area to be the focus, and not necessary everything I included on the 1st plan will fit.  Functionality involves some possible sacrifices when it comes to what structures to model, and I realized that if I model the YV trackage and leave out all the SP trackage except for the North-most return track past the creamery, I might be able to fit a better operating version of the interchange into my given space.

(Note:  For a better idea of the layout of track at Merced, see Jack’s 2010 article, or his book, Trains to Yosemite, page 96 and 97.)

I stat down, then, with some of these thoughts and started to design on the Railmodeler Pro CAD program.  The program is OK.  It’s fairly easy to learn, but the track libraries are limited and  it’s only going to give me a rough idea of what will fit before I move on to drawing on a large piece of paper with full size templates. At some point I need to move on from this software to a more versatile track planning program.

Interchange Function Only

Design 1:  This was designed for function only, it doesn’t follow the prototype track layout, but let me start getting comfortable in the 6′ space.

My first design, intended to fit in the 6’ space, was designed purely for the interchange and ice house function.  I kept the curves to 30” radius on the right hand side for handling the Pullman’s, and also included only one turnout to reach Merced Ice.  That turnout was reversed from the prototype in order to have everything run straight through from the interchange to the curve into the yard without having to run more than straight through the turnout.  This basically shows I could get the function into the space, but it isn’t even close to what I had in my head when it comes to prototype-based track planning, so I moved on to version two.

Interchange without N SP

Design 2:  The lone turnout now matches the prototype, and I attempted to bend the 

Interchange with 28 Curves

Design 3:  We now have all the turnouts, but in order to fit in the space, I’ve had to angle everything, and the interchange tracks are short.  The small piece of track in the upper right hand corner is intended as a dummy of the SP mainline.

Interchange with 22 Curves

Design 4:  This version is getting closer to what I want to build, but the curve on the right hand side that heads to the YV yard is only a 22″ radius, meaning only freight trains would run here.

I tried a number of versions of the track plan intended to fit in a 6’ space, preserving the 30” radius headed toward the Merced Yard.  I also tried one version with a 22” radius, in the event that giving up the Pullman service became an option.

8' Version 30 Curves

Design 5:  Now 8′ long, with the 30″ radius mainline curve, decently long interchange tracks, and a small space between the turnouts, this is the plan that I’ll move on to draw at full HO scale.

Eventually, I decided to try approaching the problem from a different angle.  I had been planning as if the YV and SP interchange needs to be located at the entry to the room.  I decided to plan as if the interchange didn’t need to be located at the entry, but could be on a different wall, expanding the space available from 6’ to 8’.  This change was the key to the version of the track plan that I drew in my last drawing.  The extra two feet let me eliminate close “S” curve in the track at the turnouts going into the curve to the East, and it let me have decently long tracks at the interchange for spotting freight or Pullman cars.  While I’ve given up modeling the SP station in this plan, I can still have Pullman service.  Either the Pullman can be spotted at the interchange, or a removable extension could be used to spot the Pullman on.  Depending on how the rest of the lower deck of the whole layout turns out, its also possible that the Pullmans for the YV could be in a hidden staging track.  There still is much to plan, but the interchange is first, and solving the issues with this area gives me confidence I can solve the other track planning challenges as they come.

With a plan that I like now in hand, I can proceed to drawing the plan at full scale on a large sheet of paper which will allow me to check sight lines and place some equipment on the track diagram to make sure everything will work in HO scale like it did on my screen.

Time to get back to work!


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Freight Car Projects and the Attack of the Gray Cat


This is Maxwell.  Read on to find out why he’s involved in this blog post!

Midway through May, I’ve made some progress on my freight car projects.  I’m trying to be more organized every day, and punch off tasks on a master “punch list” I made for each car so I know what I want to start knocking out.

Two cars have hit the “finished” stage.  The first car to be assembled in final assembly is a D&H single sheathed boxcar built from a Tichy kit.  Followed closely by a Westerfield kit of an ATSF Bx-3 double-sheathed boxcar.  Both cars received my standard weathering passes with acrylics, the airbrush, and were finished with pan pastels.



Other cars are also coming along.  So far I’ve punched off items on 10 cars, and am scheduling time to weather them.

Another car that I’m somewhat excited about is a SOO Line 1932 boxcar.  I received the car as a gift over a year ago.  It’s an Atlas model, which is decently detailed, but I’m making one large correction.  According to the reference material I have on these cars from Ted Cutout’s excellent book on the 1932 cars (from, the SOO ordered their cars with an older style brake arrangement and the brake wheel above the roof of the car.  The RTR car has a newer setup, but removing that was fairly easy.  The car (as pictured) will have the holes filled in the end, then I’ll use a Tichy brake wheel set in place of the original.  It’s only about another 20 minutes of work to get everything done on that car.

The workbench is out daily once again.  If things stay on track I’ll be showing you more cars in the very near future.

Now, I’ll tell you why Maxwell (the cat) is at the top of the page.

I was putting away cars after working, and Max ran between my legs, causing me to loose my balance and drop the tray of cars I was carrying….. namely two of the PRR X29’s I’ve been working on.  I had finished installing brake gear and the patch panels along with new doors on the cars, and they fell on the floor. Off balance, I managed not to fall on my face, but in doing so, the cars got smashed.  They’re done.  I have one more X29 here, and I’ll replace those two soon.  Maxwell… well, he ran upstairs and yelled about the indignity of almost being stepped on.


Time to get back to work!


Posted in Model Trains, Modeling Update, Uncategorized, Workbench, Yosemite Valley Railroad | 3 Comments

Yosemite Valley Railroad: Track Planning Reality Check

Vast spaces, huge yards, a massive layout space for long trains.  That’s the dream, right?  Building a 78 mile shoreline on a single layout deck, that’s also the dream.

My wife and I have discussed the dream of building a home on some land with a separate “train barn”.  We both want to build layouts, and it seems that a separate building might be just the ticket.  That dream makes it possible to plan to spend 12’ on a small town like Snelling, with a larger space for the major towns and yards on the YV.


A recent discussion here sort of lifted the :”oh yeah, we’ll plan for that kind of thing” lenses from my future vision.  The conversation centered around the next house, beyond were we are now, and eventual plans for and needs aside from model railroad needs.  Those things included a discussion that we probably don’t see ourselves away from some kind of easily accessible town or city with access via bicycle or public transportation to get around, and our next place may again wind up being a condo/townhouse, which sort of shoots down the “train barn”.  Not that it isn’t possible in a more populated area, but thinking about living in a smaller space greatly contracts the space that would be available for a model railroad.  The need to get around and plan for the future is important, and as a model railroad is a somewhat long-term commitment when it’s being built, operated, and maintained, it’s important to plan for how to incorporate the layout into the amount of space that is or realistically might be available.

This isn’t a bad thing to realize now, before a stick of track is laid, and it’s actually somewhat relieving to sort of start using the existing home we have to define what might be possible in the future.  Planning in a vacuum makes for some bad choices in that planning.

So, just how much room am I working with, and how does this change plans?


View of the YV yard at Merced on Wes Swift’s former layout.

My friend, Wes, who is also a YV modeler, built his layout in what was once the master bedroom of his home.  Somehow, Wes managed to convince his wife that building the layout in there and having their bedroom be a smaller room was a viable option (how he did that, I don’t know).  His layout was 2 decks with a fairly decent size helix, but he had the function of all the towns he wanted on his version of the railroad.  Supposing I somehow managed to have a room similar in size to the master bedroom of my current home (in the fashion of a bonus room or basement room in a townhouse) that would be a 12×17 space.


Looking toward the West at Merced yard on Jack Burgess’ version of the YV.

Jack Burgess built his layout in a two car garage.  The rough space for Jack’s layout is about 20×20.  His double-deck layout is what many people think of (and rightly so) when they think about the Yosemite Valley.  Should I wind up using a two car garage for my layout, the garage I currently have would also be roughly 20×20.

The logical conclusion is that in order to build a layout of the YV, I’m probably looking at a space between 12×17 and 20×20.  That kind of thinking would, even if my wife and I stayed put in our current space, one of us took the master bedroom and one took the garage, to build a layout that fits into the available space.  (If I had my druthers, we’d have a townhouse with a basement and a nice bonus room with one layout in each, but we’ll see what happens in the future).


This track plan, put together for me by my friend Dennis, shows the bottom deck of my planned first attempt at building the YV.

The first time I started building the YV, I had a 3 car garage that I was working with.  My space was larger than either of the other YV layouts I’ve visited, and in all likelihood, larger than what I’ll have in the future.  Just looking at the apace I had set aside for Merced and the YV yard, my layout was destined to be huge.

I’ve been taking swings, and sort of fouling-off the track planning for the YV for a couple of weeks now.  I thought about building quasi-free-mo style, with no backdrops in a nebulous space.  But obviously I’m focusing in on real spaces.  I’ve also worked on planning spots along the line, like Snelling and National Lead, and went as far as putting wood together for those, but while I could be really excited about building Snelling in 12’ of space, in a more realistic view of layout space, 12’ devoted to Snelling isn’t a realistic or appropriate use of space.


As far as I got the first time.  The YV yard at Merced is laid out on paper templates, while the SP interchange is in the upper left corner.  This would have been the view from about the same spot as then photo (above) of Jack’s Merced Yard.

Where to start then?  The logical answer to that is, let’s start at one end.  Either Merced or El Portal is then the focus, and figuring out how to model them because the logical step.  My first time trying the YV interchange at Merced with the SP, the space was 10’ long and 6’ deep.  In deference to planning with real dimensions, the available space if I use my 12×17 room is 71 1/2” long, or just under 6 whole feet.  In a 20×20 space, like a garage, the room for the interchange works out to about 102”, or roughly 8 – 8 1/2 feet.  I wouldn’t then make the space 4’ deep, but would aim for under 4’ at the location for the ice house would be.

The already built benchwork for this summer may wind up being better suited to use at El Portal or in the yard at Merced.  The yard at El Portal can be fairly compact.  Jack built El Portal in just over 16’, and Merced in 10-12 feet.  The version of both yards that Wes built was also in the less than 16’ realm.  It’s going to take some playing with track plans and measurements to see how things fit.


The SP / YV interchange at Merced.  The two tracks along the wall on the left are the SP, while the YV spur serving the ice house at Merced is in the foreground.  Trains actually ran on this!

The one real “ruling” item I need to figure out, and probably need to figure out now, is how badly I want to use Pullman sleeping cars in my trains.  The sleepers need a 30” minimum radius to operate properly.  That’s doable, and I’m going to plan to keep that radius anywhere the passenger trains might go, but where those aren’t, I may go as low as 18” radius to fit things in.

As I ponder this change in thinking, there are some advantages.  I want to spend the time to hand-lay most of the track for the YV.  On a smaller scale project, that’s much more feasible.  I don’t envision having more than 4 people operating and 1 dispatching the layout, so space for people doesn’t need to allow for huge numbers of people.   I’ll have time to focus on detailing and getting things to look “right” to my eye from the photos of the YV.

This whole thought process has reminded me of the Wheeling Terminal built by my friend, Eric Hansmann.  Eric’s layout, while small and built to fit into a spare bedroom, accomplishes a great amount of railroading.  (Eric blogs about his railroad at

At this point, it’s time to hit the CAD software and play with some track plans to see where I’m at.  I still want to build some section of the YV this year, and as the weather is now continuing to improve to the point where that kind of work is possible, time is of the essence.

Time to get back to work!


Posted in Track Planning, Uncategorized, Yosemite Valley Railroad | 3 Comments