Buying a Mini Mill

Way back in my early teens, my interest in model railroading progressed from a casual pastime to a much more serious sort of pursuit. As I read about railroads and their equipment I swiftly came to realize that my models, even the reasonably accurate (for the 90’s) Athearn Blue Box GP50 in BN’s Tiger Stripe scheme (my pride and joy), were not actually that accurate. I noticed all the usual things: the flat metal handrails, the thick inset window glazing, the horrible (or complete lack of) draft gear. However my main hang up was always the frame. It seemed like every model I could afford (brass being so expensive it might as well have existed solely on the moon) had a frame that made absolutely no attempt to simulate what was actually there on a real locomotive.

Though cutting plastic wasn’t exactly easy, it didn’t take long for me to figure out how to modify a locomotive shell. Cutting a pot-metal frame was a different story though. I eventually figured out how to use a rotary tool and file but I was never satisfied with the results or the amount of time and energy it took to achieve them. Having no experience with metal work and not being the sort of kid that took shop class in school (much to my current self’s disappointment) the path forward remained murky for years. At some point though I became aware of a machine called a “Mill” that could quickly and accurately cut metal. After that I learned that a mill could cut more than just metal and that there were much smaller versions of the giant Bridgeport machines I’d seen pictures of. Finally, the clouds parted and I discovered that other model railroaders had these little machines and were doing exactly what I wanted to do with them. That’s when I decided that someday, as soon as I had both money and a place to put one, I would buy a mill, I would learn how to use it and my models would finally live up to my expectations.

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Building a Model Railroad – Part 7: Baseboards

The layout as of the end of February 2021

For the last couple of months I’ve been slowly cutting and gluing the baseboards for the layout. I needed to do this now so that I would know for sure where the bottom edge of the backdrop should be. I’m a little over half done but that’s enough to let me start hanging the backdrop, so I figured I’d write this up now before I change tacks.

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Goals for 2021.

This was probably a more appropriate post for last month but I really wanted to get the F7 project off the bench and out of my mind before I started thinking too much about what lies ahead. This year I hope to start on a number of things that I’ve been planning to tackle for a very long time. Most will not be completed by December 31st but as long as I’ve made some progress and have momentum I’ll be pleased. Without further ado, in 2021 I want to:

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Upgrading an old model.

#101 fitted with it’s new front coupler box and desperately in need of a good cleaning.

I don’t think there’s any question that I’m a better modeler today than I was a decade ago. That’s probably true for anyone trying to be their best at something. Our “best” is a constantly moving target that changes with every new skill mastered and bit of knowledge gained. So, with that in mind, I decided that it was time to take a second look at my model of Seattle & North Coast F7A #101, which I began way back in 2007 and didn’t complete until 2014. This model has always had a few annoying issues caused both by inexperience and not having the proper tools and I figured that at this point I was ready to make a second attempt.

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Building a Model Railroad – Part 6: Benchwork

If you’ve been following along since I began this series on my layout build, it probably appears as though I spent three years dawdling over the basement remodel then magically had the benchwork built and installed over the course of a month while simultaneously caring for a new baby.

Though this benchwork system is pretty quick to build, it didn’t quite happen like that. In fact the components have been complete (but un-assembled) for well over a year now and the main tables were in use as a flat surface to build the basement wall panels on. All I really needed to do was screw the various tables and modules together.

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Building a Model Railroad – Part 5: Finishing the layout space.

This update is clearly way overdue but the summer modeling doldrums hit hard this year and I ended up spending most of my free time working on outdoor projects and other things I can only do when the weather is nice. That said, I did manage to complete the basement renovations and am only one small push away from getting the backdrop hung on the wall.

A lot of the stuff I’ve been working on was identical to the stuff I highlighted in previous posts so this update will be shorter than normal but there were a few unique challenges to solve and hopefully this will be a good capstone to this phase of the layout.

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Building a Model Railroad – Part 4: Setting up the workshop.

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We’re in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic as I write this.  My wife and I are healthy and almost completely isolated at home.  We’re fortunate to be able to work remotely and so far haven’t experienced the financial worries that so many others are faced with.  In other words, we’re doing fine.  For the moment.

I sincerely hope you’re all well and able to get by.  If you happen to be a first responder, or working in a hospital, or employed at some other “essential” task (like say, driving a delivery truck full of toilet paper), you have my undying gratitude.

Anyway, as promised, here’s the next installment in my layout build saga.  Still no actual layout but the prep work continues apace.  This month I’ll go over the fitting out of my new workshop.  It has turned into a terrific space that I’m really happy with.  As you can see from the photo above, it’s a big improvement over what I had before.

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Building a Model Railroad – Part 3: Renovating the basement.

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After all the planning in the last two updates I can finally share some actual work.  As of this writing the basement is around 75% complete but I’ve already got too many photos for a single post.  So this month we’ll start at the beginning and work up to the point where I was able to move into the workshop.  Next month we’ll go over the fit-out of said workshop and the month after that we’ll finish everything up in the layout area.

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Building a Model Railroad – Part 2: Layout Design

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Last month I started what I hope will be a monthly series on the construction of my layout.  Knowing my penchant for procrastination and the ease with which best laid plans are upset by life and other obligations,  I made sure that I had enough material to cover at least the first few months of posts.  So here’s the track plan, right on schedule. Continue reading

Building a Model Railroad – Part 1: Planning

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UP K-SEMN rolls south across Bridge 14 at Steilacoom, WA. Photo by Robert Scott.  Used with permission.

Well another year has come and gone with very few posts from me. But after three long years 2020 looks to be the point where I can finally begin to put time and money into building a layout. In fact, the benchwork is 90% complete though at the moment it’s not in its correct configuration and is serving as a series of work tables for the last bit of construction in the basement. If everything goes to plan I’m hoping to have the prep work done and be hanging the backdrop and valance over the next couple weeks. In the meantime I thought it might be worthwhile to fill you in on my plans.

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