The tie jig

This week, the posse consisted of just Jim and myself; Julian being stuck down a hole somewhere, and Andrew being off chasing the ghost of the Northern Pacific. Between this and a previous session with Andrew, we have most of the ties laid. The trick to placing ties quickly and accurately is a tie jig, which my daughter helped me build a couple of months ago. It could hardly be simpler, but it saves a lot of faffing with glue and individual sticks of wood.


A couple of construction notes:

  • My jig is about two feet long because that was the length of the plywood scrap I made it from. You could probably handle a three-footer (1 metre), but beyond that the strips of masking tape with ties on them will appear to become self-aware, and try to confound you by getting tangled.
  • The Kappler ties I’m using are at least a decade old, and there is tremendous variation in the width. I understand that you don’t see that nowadays. I wish I’d built my jig with a wider tie in mind, as I had to discard quite a few ties that didn’t fit in the jig and that upsets the Scottish side of my nature.
  • Andrew reminded me that you don’t want the jig too tight as that makes it difficult to get the tie strips out later.

Because some of the ties are a bit tight in the jig, the tie strips don’t fall out easily. I wind up prying them up with a ruler so only the ends of the ties are still in the jig. Then the strip comes out without further resistance.


Note that the ties are laid on top of the masking tape, rather than the other way around. I don’t know if this is important or not, but when Tom Hood showed me how to use a similar jig when I was a teenager, this is what he did. I think if you put the masking tape on top of the ties, it’s likely to sag between ties, and the resulting spacing will be inaccurate.

I mark the middle of the occasional tie before I place them on the masking tape (mark down); these marks help to place the strip on the centre lines we laid out before.

I also used the jig to lay out the ties through the leads of my turnouts. The frogs and points will get special treatment, but the lead is basically plain track that happens to overlap. To make this easier, I wrote the tie lengths on the jig; then it was simply a matter of controlling the piles of ties and plunking them in the appropriate slots.


When all is said and done, we need a little less imagination to see where the tracks are going to go. You can see now that there is not much space at the end of the ties before the embankment drops down into the river. Indeed, Jim pointed out that they’re under-cut for a short ways. That is accurate for Pembroke, and we will have the head-block ties of a couple of turnouts sticking out in thin air.


One final note: make sure the glue is dry before taking the masking tape off!

Turnout Ties

This week, after a short hiatus to visit my family, I’m doing more figuring on how a Canada Atlantic turnout must have looked. “What, can’t we just pull some standard drawings from the AREA and use those?” I hear you asking. Well, no, we can’t and for that reason, we also can’t use the excellent kits from the Proto:87 Stores either.

Figuring the ties for a turnout

Of course, we know relatively little about the track in Pembroke. We know that the tie spacing was 24.75 inches. This typically would be the spacing through the lead of the turnout. If we tighten the ties up to 20″ or less, it’s going to look like someone plunked a more modern turnout into the yard. So, we’d better have that spacing.

We also know that every Canada Atlantic joint bar in the photographs is centered over a tie, rather than spanning two ties, as is typical today. Assuming the frog was not built on site, we can guess that the toe and the heel of the frog would have been supported by ties, as the frog point would be too.

At the other end, I don’t know how the heel of the switch works. On the one hand, it could be supported by a tie as with the other joints. On the other, it could be in the space between ties, which is how you’d build it today. I’m going to go with the former.

I started trying to figure out all the leads and spacing on paper, and finally decided I should just cut some ties and lay it out on one of the Proto:87 Stores templates (thanks again Andy). Seeing it mocked up on the template enabled me to affirm that it’s going to look okay.

I started by placing the ties for the heel of the switch and the toe, heel and point of the frog. Through the frog, I simply spaced the ties by eye. There are two between the toe and the frog point, and three between frog point and the heel. They are about 20″ on center.

The lead is all regular spacing until three ties from the heel of the point. There they get closer again. Looking at drawings for other turnouts, this seems to be a common location for tighter tie spacing. Possibly there is some extra force near the heel of the switch, or perhaps the designers work like I do, and simply find a place to accommodate the desired lead length and the tie spacing.

I didn’t bother with the switch itself. I am considering printing these complete with rail braces. But more to point, I was out of ties, and it’s time for bed!

Printed Turnout Parts?

Working with Julian Watson on his Victorian Railways modules ( we came across the problem of how to represent VR switches. His branch had a delightful lack of tie plates, and so, the first problem was how to reduce the thickness of the ties to allow for the slide plates. The second was how to represent the peculiar VR rail braces.

Victorian Rys Points PoC

The Proto:87 Stores ( sells some very nice museum-quality rail braces and etched slide chairs, but the rail braces won’t match the VR, and we would still be left with the problem of accurately reducing the tie thickness.

I had been thinking for some time about 3D printing the ties for a switch complete with rail braces and slide plates. So we decided to give it a whirl on Julian’s layout. We started with official VR drawings, along with some good detailed black and white photographs, which Julian had. In an evening, with Julian and Andrew watching, I worked up a SketchUp drawing of the ties and rail braces.

We then uploaded the drawing to Shapeways and a couple of weeks later had the casting shown in the photo above made out of their White Strong Flexible sintered nylon material. Unfortunately, the WSF didn’t quite resolve the rail braces, and so, most of them have disappeared. Their White Detail material will probably give a better balance between detail and cost, and so, we will try that next time.

For the proof of concept shown above, we glued the rail in place with Pliobond. The switch rod is PC board, and the points were hand-filed on three planes to a rather dodgy, but workable profile (the pukka ones from Proto:87 Stores would be better).

Notice that the prototype’s diverging stock rail bends near the tie before the points. This is a critical detail, and provided it is replicated, the points sit tight enough to the stock rails to work nicely. Overall, we declared the experiment to be an interim success, and with a little further refinement of the model, we will go ahead and print all of them for Julian’s model.

I also worked up a standard gauge version based on a CPR drawing. This one has a printed switch rod, which is meant to slide beneath the head blocks. Unfortunately, the tolerances are too tight, and so, it doesn’t really slide. It also incorporates a detente to hold the points over firmly, but I made the switch rod too well, and that doesn’t work either. It shows promise, though, and is pictured below.

Standard gauge switch

Pembroke II Benchwork Nearing Completion

Starting in January, the Proto:87 Posse has upped its activity level here in Vancouver. Julian Watson had been hosting us about once a month through the fall of 2012. We increased this to bi-weekly in the new year because, well, we weren’t making sufficient progress. Then in March, we started cutting out the pieces for my layout, Pembroke II. The sketch below shows the plan.

Pembroke II Plan

Frankly, I’m amazed at how quickly we’ve gone. The first evening was a little disappointing, but since then, we’ve started each visit with a job list, and we’ve rarely had an idle hand. Consequently, the benchwork is all but finished. We’ll be doing a lot of the work in my garage because once this layout is installed, it’s going to be hard to get in and work on the track.

The benchwork is entirely plywood, either left over from renovating the basement, or recovered from the demolition of the old basement. Indeed, apart from two boxes of screws, and a little bit of beer and chips, I’ve not spent any money on the layout so far. There are two sections, one twelve feet long, and the other six (north and south, respectively. The depth of the benchwork is at most 24″, but it is designed to overlap the ledge at the top of my foundation, and so, the full depth of the layout will be as much as 30″. It’s open-frame construction, with two layers of 1/2″ ply for the roadbed.

By the end of the evening, we were missing only one section of the second layer.  Actually, we cut it, but for some reason (probably haste), it turned out wrong, so I’ll have to find another scrap.  Below you can see Julian surveying the state of affairs before heading home.

Test fitting the sections together

Proto:87 Posse Builds Turnouts

Last night was a hideous night for driving to Langley. The roads were deep and shining with rain, and in traffic my windshield wipers could barely keep up. As with most North Vancouverites, I rarely go across the Second Narrows, much less the Port Mann Bridge, and so, of course we missed our turn and overshot. Fortunately, Julian had his phone with him and was able to redirect me back to the true path.

Jim Peters was our gracious host for the evening. And thrust drinks into our hands as soon as we were in the door; that helped to cool our nerves after the drive.

Jim has started benchwork for his model of a chunk of Prince Rupert yard. The yard throat will be to scale, although he’s elided a few tracks. He will also replace the western-most turnouts with a sector plate to save a little more room. In an unusual solution to prototype modeling in a small space, the mainline will curve across two of the yard tracks so it can avoid disappearing out the window, and follow the walls around to a small staging yard behind his drafting table.

Jim’s not quite committed to Proto:87 yet as he’s unsure if he can build track that will work. At the last meeting we realized that most of the Posse are in the same boat and have never built a turnout before. So we brought along Brian Pate, who has built more track than anyone I know. With Brian, we had a little hand-laying mini-clinic right in Jim’s train room.

Brian provided some short instruction and then a couple of us sallied forth with soldering irons blazing. Key takeaways for me were that Brian only uses PC board ties through his turnouts, rather than mixing PC board and wood as many people do. He tins all his ties as well as the underside of his rail.

He builds all his turnouts on full-size templates off the layout; the template is affixed to his favorite piece of plywood with Lepage spray on adhesive, and the ties are glued down with Lepage Hobby Cement. These both dissolve with lacquer thinner when he’s finished the soldering and ready to move the track to the layout. Between turnouts, Brian uses flex track.

Unfortunately, we hadn’t room for everyone to sling their solder, and so, most watched and listened. I built a curved number 7 because Chris declared he couldn’t understand how to make curved turnouts work. Brian already had a turnout under construction.

We take different approaches to building turnouts. Brian uses the method that I was originally taught many years ago: lay the two stock rails, and then joggle the frog around until it is in perfect gauge relative to the stock rails.

Brian’s is the easier way to build track, but it typically results in the point of the frog falling wherever it wants to, rather than on a specific tie as per the prototype. Since people started nit-picking my track, I’ve been gauging the frog to one stock rail, then laying the other stock rail to the frog.

Unfortunately, I didn’t bring anything to pin my rail down with as I was soldering it, and so, the gauge on the diverging route got kind of wonky. In particular the flangeway was much too wide, and we got a good demonstration of why that is no good when I ran a truck through. The main route was perfect, however, and a truck ran through nicely without a guard rail.

I think everyone finished the night with a little more knowledge and inspiration to try out handlaying themselves. Next meetup is tentatively schedule for Julian’s place. I’m hoping for every extra month I can get as my basement is nowhere near ready to host the posse!

Passenger Car Finished

My passenger car is finished and packed ready to go down to Sacramento to show in the NMRA national show next week. To support my display in Sacramento (and likely in Burnaby this fall, and who knows where else), I threw together a quick 20-page Blurb book on the project. It is laid out like an NMRA merit judging form, and I’ve pasted the bulk of the content below:


Surely I could have chosen something simpler for a first passenger car project. Surely I could have found a car where we have actual drawings if not clear photographs. Surely nobody would mind, even, if I bought a kit for a passenger car, lettered it for the Canada Atlantic, and challenged anyone to call me a liar.
I would mind.
The prototype modeling path is a personal choice, and we all must decide how far down the path we will go. For myself, there are so few resources showing the Canada Atlantic as it really existed, that I feel I must replicate ever one of them as closely as I can.
My current modeling project is the town of Pembroke, Ontario, and we have four photographs of the same passenger car on the line. This, then, is the car I need. Substituting another car would be akin to ignoring one of my sources in prototype modeling, and ultimately diminish the total effect.
So, without drawings, photographs, incontrovertible dimensions, without even a car number, I set off to replicate the car and the train, pulling into Pembroke sometime around 1905.


My model of Canada Atlantic #2 is based entirely on four photographs that show a combine on the Pembroke Southern. From the photos, it is impossible to discern the number; however an undated roster from the Grand Trunk Railway shows two 1st/2nd/baggage cars that were inherited from the CA — numbers 2 and 4. Assuming our Pembroke Southern car was leased from the CA, which was the operating railroad, and assuming it survived until the GTR roster was compiled, the PS car was either CA 2 or 4. We have a clear photo of CA 4, and it does not match the PS car. So, if all our conjectures are true, then the PS car was CA 2.
Having said that, by the time of the roster, the GTR car was clearly different from the PS car. Notably, on the GTR car, the windows were double, not single. This seems a major structural difference, but all the other dimensions match. It is possible that the car was modified by the GTR or that the roster was incorrect. In any case, this model represents the Pembroke Southern car, which was certainly leased as the PS had no passenger equipment of their own, and the CA seems a likely lessor, and CA #2 is a likely identity.
The length of the PS car was drawn from the photo of the train at Golden Lake and the known length of the bridge spans at Golden Lake. Dimensions such as height and width were standard on the CA to within three inches, and so, I used those standard dimensions where they were applicable.
Where I had no data for the PS car or for the CA, I resorted to industry information. The CA built many of their own coaches, but they also bought cars from Crossen in their earlier years, and Pullman later on. We are fortunate that Ted Rafuse has written an excellent book on the Crossen Car Company, and this served to furnish some typical details.
Further information on typical car construction was gleaned from the Voss book on Railway Car Construction, especially the chapter on a NYC&HRR day coach. The cross-section of the clerestory was especially helpful in getting the roof correct, as was the body bolster drawing. Many other details were pulled from the White’s book on passenger cars and from a visual dictionary for car builders.
Finally the question of colour took months to resolve. Obviously, we have no colour photographs of CA rolling stock. There is one colorized post card that may show some of passenger cars, although the cars are on the Canadian Pacific’s track, and so they are just as likely the CP’s. We also have a newspaper account suggesting that CA passenger trains were “Turkish Rouge.” This note lead me on a lengthy mission that ultimately culminated in replicating an antique cosmetics recipe using the original ingredients; the key ingredient is Alkanet, and it has a beautiful pinky-red colour under some light. I’ve never seen a colour change so dramatically from one light source to the next, however, and the colour of the model depends heavily on the light under which it is viewed.


Roof and Body

The hard part of passenger car modeling is the roof, specifically the end where it is all compound curves, and not a straight line in sight. As I pondered how to create these ends, I became aware that 3D printing was becoming increasingly capable and within reach. So, I resolved to print the roof.
A common failing of passenger cars, especially those with separate roofs is that the ends of the letterboard are very fragile and never properly engage with the ends of the roof. Printing the letterboards along with the roof meant that the colour separation would have to be masked, but the parts would mate perfectly. Once the decision to mask the letterboards was sealed, it seemed obvious that I may as well print the whole body.
So that is what I did. Working from dimensions pulled from photographs and prototype practice, I developed a 3D computer model of the body and roof. The resulting model contains some 31 thousand vertices, and includes details such as door handles and flag holders. This model was then exported and printed using stereolithography. The stereolithograph required cleaning and sanding to remove evidence of the production process, especially on the roof.
Sadly, the stereolithography process does not facilitate very thin sections, and so, the window sashes could not be printed. However, because I had a computer model, it was a simple matter to create a pattern for a laser cutter, and cut these out by machine. The grooves where the real sashes ride were included in the model, and the laser-cut sashes ride in these grooves as per the prototype (they are fixed in place, however).
For a while I thought I would leave one of the baggage compartment doors open on the model, and to support the thin cross-section, I laser cut these at the same time as the window sashes. As long as I was laser cutting, I also cut all the glazing as well.
The roof was dressed with a number of scratchbuilt detail parts such as the baker heater expansion tanks and stacks, the lamp jacks and the toilet vents. I created these separately rather than integrally with the model either to facilitate colour separations or so that they wouldn’t get in the way of finishing the roof.
The only details left off the body in the computer model were the handrails. The flattened ends of these were included, but the handrails themselves were too fine to print, and so, they were built up in brass.

Underframe and Platforms

The core of the underframe is a 1/8” thick piece of steel, cut to fit precisely into the body. This provides almost the correct amount of weight as well as super-strength to what could be a troublesome floppy piece of modeling if done in wood or styrene.
The steel underframe is covered with a wooden sound-deadening ceiling that I built board-by-board. The needle beams and body bolsters were incorporated into the ceiling as, being frame members, the ceiling would have been built around them.
The platforms, steps and end beams were stereolithographed together with the interior, ensuring that they are straight. They are somewhat vulnerable out there, however, and so, my next car will incorporate more of the steel in the platforms.
Various details, such as the brakes, levers, train line and so on were glued straight to the sound deadening ceiling or between the frame members under the platforms. These details are all made from commercial parts or fabricated from plastic, brass or steel, as appropriate.


The interiors for the two passenger sections were also stereolithographed, complete with seats, toilets, sinks, baker heaters and partitions. Even the door handles on the interior doors were printed. The figures are from Preiser.


I airbrushed the body, roof and interior. Because the colour reference – a reporter’s impression of the colour – is so imprecise, I used Polly Scale Pacemaker Red straight from the bottle after comparing all my reds with my Turkish rouge sample.
The lettering was drawn in Corel Draw, working from some distant shots of CA coaches along with a crisper Grand Trunk car that seemed to exhibit similar lettering. From this lettering, I produced dry transfers, and installed on the letterboards and on the sides.
The lining was a nightmare. At first, I thought I would use a paint pen from Sharpie. While my initial tests on scraps went fine, I couldn’t manage a consistently fine line on the model. I wound up stripping the side and taking a mulligan. The successful technique employs coloured pencil, and is convincingly understated. When you see photos of CA cars in the nineties and early 20th Century, the lining is barely there.
The interior was brush-painted with acrylics, as were the passengers.
The underframe is mostly wood, stained before installation. To obtain clean colour separations, the brakes and other parts were painted before installation.
The underframe along with the roof received the bulk of the weathering. On the underframe, this consists largely of dry-brushing and an overspray with the airbrush. On the roof, I used chalks and weathering powders.

Now Available in Paperback

I’ve just published the story of Canada Atlantic Number 10, my first scratchbuilt locomotive on Blurb. This is a compilation of progress emails I sent to a couple of email lists over the course of four years as I was completing the model. I got my own copy, and I must say, I quite like having this memento of the construction process. While the web page is always good for shock factor when someone starts to ask me about my hobby, there is something about seeing your words and photos in print that makes you feel accomplished.

I’m going to bring the locomotive and the book with me to Sacremento next week, and if you’re there, you’ll find them in either the big display or in the RPM room. More likely it will be the latter, where you’ll also find me on Wednesday and Thursday and whatever part of Friday I spend there instead of at the train show.

Clerestory Lights Installed

I’m not overly excited about them, except to say that they’re finally done, per the plan.

The windows in the clerestory are framed deeply for some reason, and the openings were screened over. The only screen material I ever saw that was convincing was some that my friend Brian Pate salvaged from an old anti-glare screen for a computer. And, I don’t know how I would have cut so many little rectangles of that stuff. Perhaps I could have etched them, but I doubt I could have got them fine enough to be convincing.

In the end, I printed some clear blocks that are shaped to fit in the holes, and scratched the suggestion of a screen on the fronts of the blocks. It’s not bad, but it’s not good either. Maybe on the next car I do, I’ll come up with a better alternative. Here are the blocks before installation

You’ll also notice that I’ve fixed the lining. The new lining is done with a coloured pencil. It reminds me of the tale of the first space pen that Nasa spent countless dollars developing; the Russians sent their cosmonauts up with pencils. Anyway, the pencil is very easy to control, and makes about as fine a line as I could want. I was even able to reproduce a little filigree in the corners.


Well, the lettering turned out quite nicely, but who let me near this model with that awful Sharpie gold paint pen? The practice runs looked good, but when I went to line the model itself, there was no way I could get anything nearly fine enough. The air turned blue as I tried to salvage it, but the more I did the worse it got. It’s definitely a repaint.

End railings etc

Here also are the end details. The railings are made by sandwiching the uprights between the top rail, and squeezing it all together. Then I filled them in with solder and filed to shape to make a railing that was round where it was vertical and flat where it was horizontal. The chains are an etching from Athabasca Scale models. I’ve always felt that the real chains are too heavy for most HO applications. Certainly on end railings, they are too coarse. These neat etchings solve the problem elegantly.