Sunday, October 2, 2016

A new type of locomotive kit?

I have often wondered over the past couple of years whether anyone in the US would ever offer another steam locomotive kit.  Since Bowser and MDC dropped their product lines, the only source has been Ebay, which seems to be circulating a lot of the unbuilt kits.  Prices have seemed to decline over time, so I wasn't optimistic, in spite of the potential for interesting novelties that's inherent in 3D printing.  Eightwheeler Models announced a Civil War 4-4-0 kit in 2011, but it hasn't yet materialized. 

But now a couple of the bright creative lights behind the Yahoo Early Rail group have come up with something that uses not just new technologies, but a new marketing model.  The team of Gerry Dykstra, Al Mueller, and John Ott have put together a near-kit - a set of 3D printed pieces that can be used (with John's beautiful decals) to customize a Mantua General 4-4-0 (kit or RTR) into one of two Civil War-era engines - either the USMRR's "Lt. Gen. Grant" or the famous Western & Atlantic "Yonah."  Pictures are here.  Links to more detailed description at the Early Rail group, including Al's email address, are here

To do this, they are marketing the detail parts through Shapeways, available here.  Guidebooks for the Grant and the Yonah are sold separately, through a print-on-demand site.  You can contact Al Mueller directly for crosshead guides and for a set of John Ott's beautiful decals (his site gives you an excellent indication of his skills, his sense of humor, and his imagination).  For those who are interested in a third option, Al has been experimenting with the possibilities of this for some time, and his book on tweaking out a Mantua General is also available as a print on demand book, here

They aren't doing this for the money - obviously - but it's intriguing to see how they have cleverly leveraged other people's business models to create an appealing-looking kit with minimal requirement for the investments that have in the past made this such a tricky business: no need for dies, molds, or a massive initial inventory investment that takes a lifetime to sell off.  I hope they succeed - and I hope their success encourages others.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Narrow Gauge and Shortline Gazette Disc Review

In model railroading, particularly if you are modeling something that's a niche interest, you're well advised to get it while the getting is good.  Much of the "product" is made in small runs by individual craftsmen, and you never know from one year to the next whether the guy who's making it will be there to run another batch: this is a low-margin, high-risk business, after all.

One guy to whom those particular laws of gravity have never seemed to apply is Bob Brown, publisher of the Narrow Gauge and Shortline Gazette.  I was five when he transformed his previous newsletter efforts into the Gazette, and ten when I saw my first copies - a pair that my parents picked up for me to keep me occupied on a trip.  Even allowing for the fact that the Gazette's style is highly serial (which gives the odd picked-up issue an in medias rex kind of feeling), it was one of those "wild-eyed on a peak in Darien" moments that mark every modeler's life: I had found some people who were doing something inspirational and wonderful, and knew it at a glance.  That was in 1982; he's still at it today, and still producing a great product.

In a world where most periodicals are surviving by turning themselves into a multimedia experience, the Gazette has been stubbornly resistant to change: it still publishes on a bi-monthly basis, and its website is frustratingly minimalist.  On the other hand, if you call or email, Bob usually answers himself, which is a lot coming from a guy who's publishing a magazine that plays the same role of the hobby's fans of the light, narrow, and obsolete that Vogue once played for fashionistas.

He did hint to me in an email last year, when I was looking for a back issue, that something was coming, and with the help of Bob Hayden, it's here: the whole kit and caboodle on DVD: not only the Gazette, but its predecessors, in a simple and easily usable format, downloadable and printable as a PDF.  It's worth every penny.  If you're unfamiliar with the Gazette, there's a wonderful index hosted by Wiseman Model Services at this website, which will give you an excellent idea of the talent and the topics that the magazine has covered over the years.  If you like it, you can reward Bob Brown by ordering a copy, and reward yourself by enjoying it.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

RIP, Earl Smallshaw

I never managed to meet him, but I was saddened to hear that Earl Smallshaw has died.  He published many interesting articles on modeling over the years.  He was always a pleasure to read, because he was a craftsman who could explain his techniques without becoming didactic or boring.

His family has generously consented to keep his website online so visitors can see and enjoy his Middletown & Mystic Mines Railroad, which is a curious but strikingly effective amalgam of Western mountains and a Connecticut river town.  There's a definite "Ash Can School" quality to his city scenes, which capture the crowding and dirt of a New England mill town at its height, and I am also partial to his bridges, buildings, and masonry: he could make a prosaic retaining wall into a thing of real beauty.

This is a great example of 'modeling as folk art,' but it also highlights how sadly ephemeral a model railroad can be.  They sometimes outlive their creator, but not often; usually, the buildings and rolling stock are dispersed among friends or at an estate sale; the rest winds up in the alley.  That's understandable; after all, it's a lot to ask the family to give up a room to the trains when the builder is alive to work on it.  After he's gone, people want or need to turn the page, and  it's a lot of work to keep the railroad running.

For all these reasons, the photos are nice to have, particularly when someone was as good a photographer and modeler as Mr. Smallshaw was.  I always enjoyed his articles and pictures, so even though I never met him, it's nice to have access to these photos for a little while longer- they give you a wonderful idea of his skill and his sense of humor.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

3D printing for the Nineteenth Century Modeler

And what variety there is!  Here are some of the designers working with Shapeways to bring out products that you might not otherwise find:

Panamint Models  Truck and component designs from the mid-XIX century
Bone Valley Models
Image Replicas by Walter B. Vail Some interesting experiments with locomotive bodies - and a Michigan-Cal shay model for less than $25!
Myner Models Mostly HOn30 stuff.
Hurley's Model Railway Supply Interesting detail parts
Light Scale Models mostly narrow gauge and mining equipment
The Dalles Hostler's Models Houses, dog and out, and detail parts
Sierra Studios Log bunks
Austin Rail Products Alternative bodies for MDC cars, to add some variety to the fleet
Singular Trains Trucks and some beautiful Canadian-prototype passenger equipment
Eight-wheeler models Trucks, paper wheels, and turn-of-the-century characters

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Next Big Thing

Is this3D printing is not new; if it were, trucks and other major components would be an idea, rather than a product.  But it's a great idea, and it has incredible potential, because it promises to get around one of the requirements that has always bedeviled model railroading - the challenge of volume. 

The key problem in tooling for an expensive and inflexible manufacturing process like die-casting has always been volume - how do you generate a sufficient number of sales to recoup your investment?  Given that casting and molding have usually been preferred techniques for mass production, since they minimize manpower requirements, the challenge has been to maximize the potential sales volume for your investment.  Alternate methods such as etching have been tried, but they've always been low-volume methods, because the combination of cost and skill level have combined to keep the number of potential customers low - which in turn forces costs upward.  Resin casting, which is cheaper and easier, has been a step in this direction, since you can easily make rubber molds and cast parts and pieces in 2 part resin.

But 3D printing literally breaks the mold: you invest not in a set of molds that can be used to replicate the same object, but a printer that can be programmed to produce a tremendous variety of objects.  Obtaining the unusual, in other words, is no longer a matter of being one of a group of at least five thousand people who are willing to put up the money to obtain it; it's now a CAD drawing away. 
Reactions to this are naturally mixed.  Tim Warris, the creative mind behind the beautiful Port Kelsey Railway and Fast Tracks has a typically perceptive take: it's the ultimate disruptive technology.  Tim thinks that's frightening, and I can see why he would think that: he's engaged in the sort of William Morris-style craftsmanship that every Industrial Revolution threatens to engulf.  I'm less pessimistic than Tim is.  After all, Fast Tracks wasn't put out of business by Atlas or Shinohara; it followed them by a couple of decades, just like William Morris followed the Industrial Revolution.

As someone who engages in an occasional act of attempted craftsmanship, there are a couple of great merits to 3D printing: not only does it make things available that would otherwise be attainable only at great cost in time or effort, it allows me to focus my work on areas that I'm really interested in.  For a guy like Tim, who loves to handlay track, that could mean obtaining hardware such as switchstands.  Many carriers had their own switchstand designs, and commercial manufacturers further increased the range.  Today only a relatively limited number are available from manufacturers in the larger scales, because of the economics of the manufacturing process.  But I'm anxious to see what else come down the pike, because I'm an optimist on matters of this kind - and much as I love to build wooden kits, the fact is that every new method or technique I have seen has ultimately served to enhance the range of choices in the hobby, rather than reduce them.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Annus Mirabilis

Here's another great period British film - this one from 1963; it depicts the recovery of British Railways from a heavy snowstorm. The British Invasion-style soundtrack fits curiously with the railway scenes, many of which underscore the awkwardness of Britain's transition from the industrial age to the modern era. This may be 1963, but only the film quality and the diesel engines distinguish the railway scenes here from those of "The Night Mail." Not much had changed since 1936: the manually-operated signal boxes were still warmed by coal fires, and all of the employees are well past middle age. The film clearly means to convey some sense of the importance and usefulness of the railway system - can't miss the passengers chuckling over all of the cars stuck in the snow - but it's a defensive assertion, made in the face of encroaching modernity, a last argument for the preservation of Things As They Are.
Philip Larkin designated 1963 as a watershed year in his famous "Annus Mirabilis," for reasons that have less than nothing to do with this blog:
"Sexual intercourse began
In Nineteen Sixty-Three
(which was rather late for me)
Between the end of the "Chatterley ban"
And the Beatles first LP."
It was certainly a memorable year in Britain, for a lot of reasons, intimately connected with the culture: apart from that LP and the ending of the Lord Chancellor's longstanding ban on the publication or sale of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, there was the Profumo Affair, another one of those salacious incidents that leave the impression of ineradicable change.
And of course, there was also the Beeching Axe. In March, 1963, the British Railways Board published "The Reshaping of British Railways," which recommended the wholesale closure of large segments of the railway system. In spite of rising losses and the clear need to conserve funds for modernization of the surviving system, there was an immediate outcry - the press dubbed the proposed plan "The Beeching Axe," after its author, Dr. Richard Beeching, and the folk singer Cyril Tawney commemorated it in song. In spite of the outcry, the government went ahead and pursued mass closures. Many branches vanished, as did the Great Central line from Nottingham down to London; the great Midland line from Settle to Carlisle narrowly escaped closure.
So when you see this video (or, for another taste of the same period, this one), you are seeing something of more than normal interest: this is a cameo of British Railways before the Beeching Axe fell. Steam has four years to run yet in revenue service; the Chatterley ban is still in force, and women wear white gloves in Pullman cars, while men run locomotives in frock coats. You might be forgiven for wondering what decade it is - because it's one of those moments where things are in the process of going two ways at once.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Night Mail

Here's a unique little find - "The Night Mail," a famous British documentary from 1936 that followed the passage of the "Down Postal" from London to Glasgow over the line of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway.

Here it is, in three parts:

Part 1:
Part 2:
Part 3:

The poetry is an Auden piece, commissioned specially for the film. The scenes are slightly shocking, in the way films of the past always are: they dressed so differently, and they did things differently, too: no special protection before you duck under a train in those days, and no computers - those men working in the signal towers are manipulating primitive lever-operated mechanical interlocking machines. It was still a world firmly in the steam age.

There's something touchingly tragic about the organization and the technology that's on display here - they're superificially impressive, but already a bit outdated: when The Night Mail was made, the first jets were less then ten years away. This was an England that was passing slowly away: Stanley Baldwin was Prime Minister for the elderly George V (whose cipher you can see on the mail vans: "GR"), and George Orwell was somewhere out there in the dark in the Midlands gathering the material for The Road to Wigan Pier.

So all that being said, how on earth do you improve on a classic like this, while simultaneously conveying some impression of how the world has changed since 1936?

Easy - you do it with Legos!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Midland Terminal video

Here! No doubt about it - looks like it's all post-WWII, with the majority of the footage of the ex-Army 2-6-0s. But plenty of footage of the ex-CM steamers, in the District and on Ute Creek Pass - the closest you'll ever get to seeing authentic color footage of the Colorado Midland Railway.

Friday, July 16, 2010

(Almost) Completed engine

So here it is: not a bad little engine, really. I did decide to leave the handrails in their raw brass form (and substituted brass wire to get the full effect), thinking that might be a good look for a well-kept turn-of-the-century express engine, but I'm not wholly satisfied by the look: it's a little toylike, I think. But the trailing truck worked out well. It required no modification; in fact, the engine ran much better with it than it did with the original truck, probably because that bar I thought I might have to replicate on the replacement truck shifted too much of the engine's weight onto the lead driver. I have to admit that I never counted on the simple possibility that the design might be bad, but it worked out well, and the engine is no longer slippery.

As initially built, it ran poorly - it shook, and the gears ground, so I disassembled the engine and removed the motor, gearbox and motor mount. Then I slipped a small piece of notebook paper, folded over, between the motor and the mount, and this cut the vibration and noise way down. Now it runs well, and creeps right along; at some point I have to paint and weather the motor mount, but I'll get to it in good time; for now, it's just nice to have it running.

A few other improvements: I'm going to replace the lead wheels with spoked wheels, which always add a certain period flair. The arch-bar trucks on the tender are going to go, too - I'm waiting on some PSC 4 wheel NYC-style fabricated Commonwealth trucks that look appropriate for passenger service, and I'm considering taking a mulligan on the tender paint job: I'm not totally happy with the decaled lining-out, although I do like the look. I have a spare MDC tender shell, and I periodically consider redoing it - although that might put me on the wrong side of the borderline between nitpicky and neurotic.

I also made some fairly small modifications to the boiler that greatly improve the look of the engine. First and foremost was the bell; Roundhouse engines generally come with an integrally-cast bell that has neither bracket nor hanger, and looks like a small pen cap sitting on the boiler. A good bolt-cutter will take it right off, and you can file the sprue flush. Once that was done, I bored out a hole where the sprue had been, and a very simple Cal-Scale bell and hanger assembly made a big difference. I also bored an .020" hole in the right side of the cast whistle, and fabricated an actuating arm out of a small piece of brass wire. Before I installed the cab, I bored .010" holes on either side of the backhead space, and ran two pieces of .010" brass wireout of them. Then I installed the cab, clipped the wire to length, and glued it to the bell assembly and the whistle actuating arm, taking care to put a very slight curve in both (a very tiny touch of ACC secures it nicely to the dome, retaining the curve). Then I used an 000 brush to paint the wire a slightly different shade of black, so that it stood out just a bit against the boiler. This was not hard to do, but it added some nice visual interest to the model. I bored a pair of holes in the smokebox ( the rivet pattern and the handrail lines allow you to space them correctly), installed some black-painted classification lights, and replaced the stock pilot truck wheels with some PSC 33" spoked wheels - which give a much more elegant front end, reminiscent of the early Western Pacific ten-wheelers.

Modeling the modern.... not generally something I care much about. I'm moved mostly by the things I see in museums, not Silverliners. And yet.....when I saw this website, I have to admit I felt a bit of a twinge. I've climbed on a Silverliner at 30th Street more times than I can count - and their dinginess always feels a few steps removed from the weary wooden coaches I love, or even the South Shore car I rode as a young boy, back in 1982, when they were just weeks way from the deadline.

And yet....seeing these, it's hard not to think of what you could do with them, and how they would look on a model of the Northeast Corridor.