Yard Work

November 13, 2018

Yard Work

Work has been progressing very gradually but nicely on the Bryson yard. Last night I finished getting the two “A/D” (arrival/departure) tracks in and noticed that, with the cars that were somewhat randomly sitting on the track, it sort of made an interesting scene. There’s something about a yard – the parallel tracks, cars at various depths – that’s much different than your usual car-on-mainline. It’s obvious to say, but when you’re building a layout it’s fun to see it emerge.


Signs of Signals

November 11, 2018

SE8C with SMBK.

I’ve been helping Mark install signals on his layout, essentially working as the assist to the Chief Signal Maintainer, Rick. The system we’re using on Mark’s layout can be summarized as:

  • JMRI - the brains
  • Digitrax BDL168s - block detection
  • Digitrax SE8Cs - LED signal drivers
  • Digitrax SMBKs - the signals, painted silver and black
  • Tam Valley Signlets - switch control

I started out knowing very little about any of this ended up understanding the system pretty well, thanks to Rick. Turns out you can learn a fair amount simply by running wires and what is essentially data entry in JMRI’s tables.

I’ve been wanting signals on my layout(s) for years now. Thankfully I haven’t considered the technical aspects to be much of a barrier, but it always seemed so expensive. That all changed with the introduction of Digitrax’ “Plug’n’Play” signals for HO scale, the SHABC and others, for about $20-25 per plant! They’re nothing fancy – essentially a black PCB with surface mount LEDs – but they’ll get the job done and over time I can either replace them with more realistic signals, or mod them to look more realistic (silver paint, hoods for the LEDs, ladders, that sort of thing).

The combination of affordable, simple entry level signals and relatively affordable control hardware have finally made it possible to implement signaling on the Murphy Branch (never mind that the Murphy Branch was probably never signaled, as far as I know). It’s certainly not cheap, mind you, but it’s within reach. Going into the particulars of my setup is best left for a dedicated future entry (once it’s done or half working, at least), but suffice to say that a single BDL168 and an SE8C are sufficient to run the signals for my entire layout.

The photo above shows my SE8C driving an SMBK, the N scale equivalent of the SHABC signals. The SE8C includes one of these N scale double-headed test signals, which Mark is using on his layout (after a careful application of black and silver paint). I’ve built a basic “signal board”, shown below. Ribbon cables will come in from each “plant” to the SE8C on the left, and current-sensing feeders to the BDL168 on the right.

Signal board.

A little while later I set up one of the SHABC signals and made a simple video. In the video the signal aspect is being controlled manually using JMRI.

I’m presently working on wiring up blocks and putting in a few signals – among several [dozen] other projects. More to come!

Briefly: switch commands and track power

The instructions for the SE8C walk you through sending switch commands to change the signal (which is how I made it show yellow over red here). When I frist tried it, however, it didn’t work very well: the signal LEDs flickered, and the status LEDs on the boards lit up red for a few seconds. It turns out this is sort of a known issue with Digitrax command stations when the track power is off. From the JMRI docs on LocoNet:

Turnout command rejection when track power is off

Some more recent Digitrax command stations will refuse to accept switch commands when track power is turned off. This can result in a “storm” of repeated switch messages on LocoNet if track power is off when switch messages are sent. This problem can be avoided by ensuring that track power is on when switch messages are to be sent.

Groan. I actually figured this out by checking the LocoNet Monitor in JMRI, which allowed me to see that my switch commands were not getting acknowledged and were being rapidly retried. Searching on that led me to those JMRI LocoNet notes – thanks to the JMRI folks for documenting it. At least I know my equipment is working “as expected”.

Technical bumps aside, exciting times for the railroad!


Clouds Forming (in a good way)

September 20, 2018

Clouds over the turntable.

As I mentioned in my last post I’ve been wanting to get started on scenery, and adding some nice Appalachian mountains to the backdrop seemed like a good idea. Using Dave Frary’s scenery book as a guide, I conducted a brief and ill-fated experiment with backdrop painting. I learned that I have a lot to learn about mixing paints. I resolved to take my sky blue color to the paint department and pick out colors for hazy background mountains and less hazy foreground mountains, rather than trying to mix those colors. Then I’ll try mixing paints again to do the trees. It takes a lot to get me to the store, though, and I really need to get some good reference photos first. So that will wait a bit.

In the meantime, on Saturday morning I was feeling pretty motivated to get something done, and so I decided to try my hand at clouds. The Frary book briefly discusses making clouds using white spray paint and templates/masks. As luck would have it I already had some flat white spray paint. I didn’t have any cloud masks, but I did have scissors and card stock, so I set to work and made a few test clouds.

Quite frankly I was amazed by the results. The technique is to hold the mask about one to two inches away from the backdrop and spray, keeping the nozzle a good distance from the template. Having an appropriate respirator mask and ventilation is also key. As I’ve worked with spray paint more and more over the past year I’ve found that there’s a technique to it. It takes some finesse to not end up blasting pools of spray paint onto your subject. Practice.

Over this past week I proceeded to paint basic clouds over the entire backdrop of the railroad. This is a great “break” task if you have small chunks of time. Open the window, turn on the box fan, put on your respirator, get a glove for your hand, cover the layout (there are a few prep steps, but they go quickly), and spray six feet of backdrop.

I had some mistakes – somehow I sprayed enough at one point in the above scene to almost form a drip line. Yikes! I let the area dry and the next day applied 220 grit sandpaper. With some care most of the thick paint came up and I was able to re-spray it; you’d never know it happened if I hadn’t written a paragraph about it here. I also found that if you get some splatter from the spray can nozzle and you’re quick, you may be able to simply wipe it off the backdrop.

I made about four different templates. They tend to get pretty wet with paint (oftentimes you are just letting the overspray mist the backdrop around the template), so it’s helpful to be able to set them aside and keep going with a different one. Of course, different templates help keep all of the clouds from looking the same. If you’re thinking of adding clouds, I highly, highly recommend this technique. It’s inexpensive and with a little bit of practice and care gives great results.

I may wait until I get the mountains in before doing another (final) pass and build up some of the clouds (not the pictured ones, though – they are done). One thing I haven’t tried yet is adding a light gray underside to the clouds. It seems like a good idea but I don’t think it’s necessary at all. I’ll test it.


An Experiment in Focus Stacking

September 9, 2018

A common “tell” in model railroad photographs (and all macro photography, I suppose) is a shallow depth of field. Back in the early 2000’s my friend Chap and I put a fair amount of work into simulating this effect with both a real tilt-shift lens (Chap’s), and Photoshop filters.

When I take photos of a model railroad, however, I’m either trying to get a good representation of what I see, or I’m trying to make it look real. Frequently, conditions require that I use a relatively shallow depth of field, either with my iPhone’s camera, or shooting without a tripod. Depending on the shot, this can lead to disappointing results: in a photo of an oncoming train, only a small part of the train will be in focus.

Base photo, one of six.

Note that only about three quarters of the locomotive is in focus; ideally the whole train would be, but that’s simply not possible with phone cameras. (It should be possible with my dSLR, depending on subject distance, lens, etc. Good followup post topic?)

There is however a technique called focus stacking that uses image processing to combine photos with of varying focal plane settings into a single, [almost] tack-sharp photo. I was reminded of this while working on Mark’s layout – Daryl had come to take photos and he mentioned that he was going to be focus stacking. I resolved to try it out. (Another benefit of working on other people’s railroads!)

Six photos, focus-stacked.

This photo is made up of six different photos taken on my iPhone, using Camera+ as the camera app, for better control the manual focus setting while keeping exposure constant. Affinity Photo’s built-in focus stacking feature was then used to combine the images, resulting in the image above. Certainly not as simple as snapping a photo, but worth it for a shot/scene that I care about.

While it is satisfying to have found a good way to take better photos, this post really serves to underscore the need for actual scenery on my railroad!


September 2018 Update

September 5, 2018

They're all out working, clearly.

It’s been a busy summer on the railroad! My uncle visited in August and there’s nothing like a visiting dignitary to get you motivated.

The Roundhouse

One of the exciting parts about moving to HO scale was that I would be able to 1) afford and 2) have room for a roundhouse and turntable. I decided to make this one of my first projects on the railroad, despite the fact that this is one of the more complicated structures I expect to build. As if it weren’t a big enough project, I also decided to light the interior.

Making decisions is one of the hardest parts of model railroading, which is why I chose the roundhouse/turntable as my first project. Why? Because there’s very little to decide! Sure, you have to decide how many stalls (five) and what model manufacturer’s kit to go with (a vintage kit from Heljan), and what color temperature LEDs to buy (warm white). But more importantly and relevant to my point, there is really only one way for the roundhouse, turntable, and the track that connects them to be laid. In other words, it makes a good module to work on, because it doesn’t affect much outside of itself.

Quiet night in the roundhouse

I’ve still got a good bit o work to do yet (the undisguised wires are mercifully not visible in the above photo), but I’m happy enough with the progress that I’ve moved on to other things for now.

Filling out the roster

I’ve put a fair amount of time into researching operations on the Southern Railway’s Murphy Branch. For the uninitiated, I’ll translate: what trains were run on this railroad and what was their purpose? By answering these questions I can better model them, or at least be a little better informed if I decide to freelance the trains I run.

Passenger service on the Murphy Branch ended in 1948, but in the 1937 timetable there were a total of four passenger trains. Two eastbound and two westbound. Since my tentative plan is to model the 1940’s, four passenger trains a day sounds pretty good to me. As such I have begun to acquire a few pieces of “varnish”:

Southern Varnish

I was pretty happy to find these. The price was right and as far as I can tell they are a good match for the kind of coaches that were run on the Murphy Branch. Once I find some baggage cars I’ll be set.

I’ve also been thinking about how an operating session on the layout might work. How many people could it support? (probably four) How many trains would there be? Would a session be a day long, or half a day? How closely should I follow the employee timetable?


A lot of work has been going on elsewhere on the layout, including building a scenic divider between Bryson and the grade from “Asheville” (staging), roughing in mountains along that grade, hanging track lighting, building structure kits, and mocking up track layouts.

I’ve also been doing a fair amount of work beyond the Murphy Branch, helping out my friend Mark on his N scale Feather River Route, along with Rick, the Chief Signal Maintainer. If you’ve never worked on someone else’s layout you might think, “Hey bub, imagine what you could be getting done on your own railroad in that time!” The truth, however, is that working on someone else’s layout is so rewarding that it’s beyond worth it. Beyond the fun of working on something as part of a team, when you come back to your own pike you are inspired to do more, and sometimes we all are in need of a little inspiration and motivation. My uncle’s next visit won’t be for a while!