Gesso: Brushable, non-toxic primer

The best time to paint figures is when it’s over 50 degrees, because the first step is spraying them with a coat of primer, which requires a temperature of above 50 degrees. The problem is that when it’s that warm, that’s when you’re busy keeping up the yard and other stuff. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could prime your figures with something safe to use indoors?

It turns out you can. I’ve searched years for a brushable, non-toxic primer (preferably acrylic and water-based). Such a thing exists; I was just calling it the wrong thing. What you need is called gesso. You can order it online from Amazon or you can buy it in craft stores like Michael’s, Jo-Ann, and Hobby Lobby and use a coupon. If all they have is white, mix some black acrylic paint in with it (which you can get there as well) to darken it. Or mix in any other color you wish.

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How to light the underside of your train table

There are few things worse than fumbling around in the dark under a train layout. So I mounted a ceiling-mount light socket underneath my train table to create a work light so that I could see when I’m working on my wiring. It’s another one of my 15-minute projects, one that pays dividends by making future 15-minute sessions more productive.

I did most of the work with stuff I had on hand. If you want to duplicate my project, you’ll be able to get everything you need at your nearest hardware or home improvement store, and the materials will cost less than $10. I provided Amazon links for everything, so you can see what these items are. Some people know what a wire nut is before they know how to read, and some people may be well into adulthood before they undertake any kind of electrical project. Yes, this is an electrical project. As long as you check and double-check all your connections and don’t plug it into an outlet until after it’s done, it’s safe. Respect electricity, and you’ll find there’s less reason to be afraid of it.

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Model railroading as fan fiction

Model railroading as fan fiction

Dan Bowman sent me this a couple of weeks ago, and I found myself agreeing with it: Model railroading is a form of fan fiction.

It seems like a good way to look at it. Every model railroad is a compromise. By my rough estimations, it’s 4.1 miles from Dupo, Illinois to Cahokia, but even if you model in Z scale, you’ll need 97 linear feet to model that line. I would think it would be very difficult to build a Z scale layout of that size–it would take a huge basement–and only put two towns on it. So, at the very least, people put their towns closer together and use a fast clock to make up for the compression. Some people compromise a lot more than that. Read more

The bitcoin-train connection

Ever since Bitcoin came into prominence, there’s been a great deal of speculation about the shadowy creator, Satoshi Nakamoto. Newsweek thinks they found him: A semi-retired engineer who dislikes banks and the government and the fees and difficulty associated with importing model train parts from England and Japan.

Well, if you’re going to invent a cryptocurrency, what better thing to spend it on than model train parts? Read more

Looking back at Sam Posey’s Playing With Trains

I finally got around to reading Playing With Trains (here’s a Nook link), sportscaster Sam Posey’s 2004 memoir of 50 years as a model railroader.

Of course I was mostly interested in the first couple of chapters, where he talks about growing up with Lionel trains. It’s more a personal recollection than a complete history, which was his intent, but that’s good. The history of the consumer perspective often gets lost. He and his mother regarded American Flyer as more realistic but flimsier; Lionel was rugged but ran on unrealistic 3-rail track.

Here’s another interesting tidbit: Growing up in the 1950s, your big toy was either a train set or a fort playset–normal families couldn’t afford both. I was vaguely aware that the fort playsets existed but didn’t know that about them. Read more

“It’s your happy place.”

Someone told me today that she didn’t quite get the appeal of model railroading, that it must be a male thing. And that’s fair: Model railroads were first invented by a dollhouse maker so they would have something to market to boys. That company still markets trains, but no longer markets dollhouses, so I guess you could say it was successful.

Here’s how I summed up the appeal.

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A collection of old photographs to help your model-making

It’s hard to make models of old buildings without knowing what they looked like in the past. Over a period of about 30 years, Charles Cushman, an exceptionally gifted amateur photographer, took about 14,000 slides of everyday life, mostly in color. After his death in 1972, his family donated the slides to Indiana University, which digitized the collection and put it online. Key in what you’re looking for–buildings, automobiles, people, whatever–and you can study photos taken from 1939 to 1969. Then you can make your people, buildings, or cars look like they did during the time period you’re after. If you like a particular city, you may even be able to find pictures of that city in the collection.

I love driving through the older parts of St. Louis and imagining what the city looked like in the past, but sometimes it’s not easy to imagine what’s behind the boarded-up windows, and what the streets and sidewalks would look like with people milling around. Seeing the Cushman photos makes it easier to imagine what the buildings that survive today looked like in their glory days.