Building an up-and-under layout with a K-Line trestle

Taking the advice of several people, I worked on my train layout yesterday. I disassembled my L-shaped layout of two 4×8 tables, rearranged them to make an 8×8 area, and now put down a combination of Lionel and Marx wide-radius track.

As always, there was something to learn.I made an up-and-back-down loop with a modern K-Line 24-piece trestle. I think K-Line makes the best trestle on the market today and it’s the one to get, unless you happen to find a used Lionel or Marx one and can get it cheap. (Make sure all 24 pieces are there!) The K-Line trestle is intended to sit right under each track joint. Lionel and K-Line track ties actually sit right on the trestle. Marx ties are spaced just far enough apart that the trestle fits snugly in the gap. Neither arrangement causes a problem. You place the trestle piece, then drop two metal clips in place and screw them down tightly enough to hold it together.

But when you have a mixture of Marx and any other track, those track joints cause a problem. They’re too close together for the trestle to fit in between, but too far apart for them to sit securely. The problem is most pronounced on curves. So what I ended up doing was turning the trestle slightly to get more available area to hold the ties. It worked.

Another possible solution is to get out a slotted screwdriver and start prying up tabs and moving ties around. I opted to dink around with the trestle pieces instead.

A compelling toy train layout with animations done on the cheap

Layouts featuring Lionel, American Flyer, and other O or S gauge trains don’t have to be expensive. Joe Rampola has lots of ideas for creating a good-looking layout with lots of animation (aside from the trains) using mostly inexpensive items. His site has lots of pictures and video clips.

His work has been featured in both Classic Toy Trains and O Gauge Railroading magazines.Among his better ideas: Lay a loop of HO gauge track, then put 0-4-0 mechanisms from cheap HO scale locomotives in the frames of 1:43 scale die-cast cars and make streets for the layout. This is a similar approach to K-Line’s new Superstreets, but Rampola did it years earlier, and his approach is a lot less expensive for those who can live without instant gratification. His approach also allows you to use any vehicle you want, so long as you’re willing to modify it.

He also has plans and instructions posted for lots of inexpensive animations he did using the cheap unpainted (and unfortunately, discontinued) K-Line figures from the classic Marx molds of the 1950s. Sometimes you can still get lucky and find a box of unpainted K-Line figures hiding on hobby shop shelves.

He even has his animations controlled by an old Timex Sinclair 1000 computer. He gives enough detail that I suspect someone good with homebrew circuits could adapt his circuit and his program to another computer, such as an Apple or Commodore. Even a 3.5K unexpanded VIC-20 ought to be up to the task, let alone a behemoth Commodore 64.

I’ve always bristled at the thought of adding electronics to my traditional layout, because my trains are my escape from computers. But using a real computer–real men only need 8 bits–to control parts of a layout does have some appeal to me.

Cheap ground foam for trains

Ground foam is a commonly used scenery material. You can use it to simulate grass and other ground foliage, and people often use it to make trees as well.

But there are two problems with it. What are the odds of you running out when working late at night when all of the hobby shops are closed? Too high. And it’s expensive. But I found two explanations how to make your own.You can see them here and here.

I’ve seen a similar method used where someone used cheap kitchen sponges from dollar stores. The source of foam doesn’t seem to matter. The materials you need are pretty much all the same: an old blender from a yard sale or thrift store, about a quarter cup of water, a bottle or two of cheap green acrylic craft paint and another bottle of a darker color to tint it, and some foam to grind up.

Cheap model railroading supplies can be hard to find sometimes. It’s nice to see one.

A train layout photo

A number of people have asked me to post a photo of some trains, so here’s a photo of a train, with some scenery, mostly hand-made by Yours Truly.

You’ll have to click here to see it, as it’s larger than my blogging software allows.Gatermann will notice that the tender is facing the wrong direction. Just pretend I’m auditioning for Ebay.

The train is a Marx. The locomotive is Marx’s CP locomotive, a gift from my fiancee. It’s one of Marx’s more desirable locomotives because it’s attractive, but common enough to still be affordable. It’s called a CP because it’s loosely based on a Canadian Pacific locomotive of the 1930s. With the exception of the Pennsylvania Merchandise Service car, all of these Marx cars are worth between $3 and $5. The Pennsy car is worth a bit more. It’s not particularly rare, but Marx made a lot of variations of it, and collectors like to get all the variations, which drives the price up.

The tiny gas station on the left is my design. Yes, the sign reads “Farquhar Oil Co.” Now you know the source of some of R. Collins’ fortune. This was one of the first paper buildings I tried to design and I think it turned out OK.

The confectionery and penny store are based very heavily on a series of building-shaped candy containers made by West Bros. around 1914. They were a lot of work but I’m pretty happy with how they turned out. They are paper as well.

The buildings on the right are free downloads from a company called Microtactix. They specialize in wargaming. Those two buildings happened to be about 20% undersize compared to mine, so I blew them up a bit and used them. Not quite the look I’m going for, but they’re close enough for now and they were easier than designing my own.

The tin lithographed train station in the distance was made by J. Chein, probably in the late 1920s. Chein made a lot of tin litho toys; I don’t know if their trains were windup or if they were strictly pull toys. It’s in terrible condition but putting it on the back of the layout obscures that somewhat. Guys like me are conditioned not to worry about scale too much; the Chein station is close enough, looks the part, and cost me a fraction of what a Marx station would cost, which in turn would cost a fraction of what a comparable Lionel would cost.

The block signal behind the confectionery is Marx, as is the red tower. The “snow” is white tissue paper, and the streets, which aren’t very visible, are a cobblestone pattern printed on paper that I cut out and affixed to the tissue paper with tape. Not very traditional and definitely not durable, but it worked.

It’s not much, but it’s a decent start of what I’m envisioning. I think if I draw a neighborhood of buildings in the style of those West Bros. ripoffs, it’ll make for a nice layout reminiscent of what a good toy train layout could have looked like in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as reminiscent of city neighborhoods that are rapidly vanishing forever, to make way for more convenience stores and Walgreen Drug Stores–oops, they don’t call them that anymore.

How to build and paint miniature buildings (and make kids have fun with what they learn in school)

I found this tutorial on building a miniature building and a companion article on painting. The intended audience is wargaming, but the same tricks work for buildings for train layouts, or for kids to build cities for their Matchbox/Hot Wheels-brand cars or their action figures.To me, the gem was the technique on painting windows. I have never figured out how to draw or paint a glare on a window that looked the least bit convincing.

The most convincing way to get a glare or reflection on a window is to cut out the window, cut a piece of slide glass–or, in a pinch, plastic packaging–and glue it into the window. Or if you’re not going to detail the interior of the building, cut a piece from a gallon milk jug. Nothing looks more like a window than a window.

But for those times when that’s impractical, or for those times when you want a bit more of a toy look, the technique in this article is exactly what you need.

Don’t discount this as a fun craft for kids. Kids get bored easily, but this allows them to use their creativity, and it teaches them hand-eye coordination, problem solving, and it’s the only fun and interesting application of math I’ve ever found. If a child is struggling with division, like I did, here’s a motivation.

How do you turn this into a math lesson? Instead of eyeballing the size, encourage the child to figure out how big the building ought to be. If the building is intended for die-cast cars, measure a toy car. Then measure a real car. You now have a ratio. (Most die-cast cars scale out to somewhere between 1:64 and 1:76 scale). So, figuring that a one-story house is about 12 feet tall, multiply that by your ratio to figure out how big a floor should be. Measure doors and windows and multiply that by the ratio to figure out how big those should be.

The result will be toys that look better because some thought went into their proportions, and your kids might learn to enjoy math a little bit. I know I would have paid a lot more attention in math class if I’d realized I could use it to make cool toys.

At some point you might want to head down to Radio Shack to pick up some miniature light bulbs and teach your kids a little science lesson too. Horror of horrors, they might find they like that too.

Or, if your child is very inclined towards math and science, and hates art class, this might be a way to give them a bit more appeciation of what they learn in those classes.

The story of MTH vs. Lionel

Inc. Magazine published a story about the MTH v. Lionel lawsuit which ultimately led to a $40 million judgment against Lionel.The article has a lot of good information in it, including insights on how Lionel and MTH came to be such bitter rivals. There’s lots of hearsay out there but aside from combing through very old magazine articles I never found much about the MTH/Lionel relationship that existed in the 1990s. This article isn’t a complete picture either but it gives details that I hadn’t seen elsewhere.

The article mostly paints a sympathetic picture of MTH, at one place saying “[MTH owner] Mike [Wolf] is not sparkling lily white in all this,” but not really elaborating. But I can’t blame the author for this.
Mike Wolf and MTH are willing to talk and Lionel isn’t.

It’s a story of industrial espionage and the downsides of using (or being) contractors, outsourcing, and overproduction, and the rise and fall of the American Dream. The question, yet unresolved, is whether it’s Mike Wolf’s American Dream that’s falling, or Joshua Lionel Cowen’s. Or both.

Side note: Speaking as a journalist, this article is a good reason why it’s good to talk to the press, even when your lawyers may not want you to. You have to win, or at least compete, in the court of public opinion as well as in the court of law. Run what you say through the lawyers if you have to, but make sure you say something. If you decline comment, the next-best place for the writer to get information about you is from the other side, which is the last place you want information about you to come from.

In this case, to look less like the bad guy, Lionel wouldn’t have had to say much of anything that damaged the case. Make some general statement about the case. Even if it’s rehashed from a press release, it looks better than “Lionel and its owners declined to comment for this story.” And then go in for the kill. “Why don’t you ask QSI what it thinks of MTH?” QSI is a former MTH subcontractor currently engaged in a separate lawsuit. QSI might not say much, but now the writer has some dirt on the rival to go chase down. It might have only resulted in one more line being in the story, something like, “Ironically, MTH, years after being a Lionel subcontractor, is now engaged in a separate and unrelated lawsuit with QSI, one of its former subcontractors.” With that information in the story, Lionel still doesn’t look like a poor, innocent little puppy (it isn’t), but it makes MTH look less like one (it isn’t either).

Making a Marx run like a Marx again

After a couple of marathon days at work, I unwound on Martin Luther King Jr. Day by refurbishing an old Marx Canadian Pacific-style tinplate locomotive.

At first, its problem wasn’t obvious.The usual prescription for a misbehaving Marx is to remove the motor from the locomotive frame, douse it in contact cleaner (I got some zero-residue contact cleaner from Advance Auto Parts for $1.99, which is the best price I’ve seen) to remove or at least soften the decades’ worth of grime and no-longer-effective aged lubricants, then conservatively re-lube, applying some sewing machine-type oil to the axles and bearings, and some light grease to the gears.

I did that, and the thing still would only run about three feet at best. It smoked better than most modern Lionel locomotives do, but the problem is, this particular train doesn’t have a smoke generator. Ahem. I get worried when a non-smoking locomotive smokes better than my smokers.

Since this CP came from a store, I took it back whence it came–to Marty’s Model Railroads in Affton. Lionel (the co-owner, not the train company) flipped it over, took one look at the wheels, and pointed. "That’s either steel wool or cat hair." Sure enough, there was lots of hair wound around the axles next to the gear-bearing wheels. Marty took a look at it and decided the wheels were too tight, so he broke out his wheel puller and pulled the wheels out a fraction of an inch from the frame. The locomotive mostly came to life. The e-unit still buzzed, so he grabbed a can of special lubricated contact cleaner and blasted a couple of squirts of that into the e-unit. He warned me to make sure I let it evaporate, otherwise I’d see a really big spark and maybe some smoke. Then he oiled the axles for good measure. It ran. Not like a Marx usually runs, but it could make it around the track under its own power for several minutes at a time.

The locomotive was still running hot though, so I attacked the hair wrapped around the axles with a #11 Xacto blade. I can’t really describe the process other than cut, pull, repeat. Work the blade until it feels like you’ve cut something, then see if you can use the side of the blade to pull it out. Lots of old hair came out. When I couldn’t get any more, I ran it on the track for a few minutes, first in forward, then in reverse. That would usually loosen things up enough that I could yank more hair out or at least cut some more.

After about half an hour of this, the locomotive was to the point where it could run on its own power for 10-15 minutes and only be warm to the touch afterward. That was a huge improvement; earlier it could only manage a couple of laps before the motor would be too hot to comfortably touch.

I ran it for about 20 minutes. At some point the locomotive suddenly sped up and didn’t slow back down. Some piece of debris had worked itself loose from the running, and suddenly it was running like a Marx again. The cheaper (or older) Marx locomotives were geared really high, and they basically only had three speeds: off, fast, and so fast it’ll fly off the track (and not pick up any speed from gravity while falling).

Most people who had Marx trains set the track up on the floor temporarily, ran the trains, then took the track back apart and boxed it back up. That’s why it’s so common to see 50-year-old Marx sets still in their original boxes. But setting the trains up on the carpet meant all sorts of stuff could find its way up from the carpet into the gears and wind its way around the axles. Some of my more experienced Marx buddies tell me almost every locomotive they buy has this problem.

So, if you’ve got an old train from your attic or basement and you’ve set it up and it just won’t budge, flip it over and take a good look at its axles under a strong light. What you find might be what’s keeping your train from running.

XTrkCad model railroad track software is going open source

XTrkCad, one of the many model railroad track planning programs–and the only one I know that has both Windows and Linux versions–is going open source. This also means the program is now free.

You can’t download the source code yet but you can download binaries, enter a registration code, and play with it. I’ve been doing just that.One thing I noticed right away when I started trying to use it to plan a layout using Lionel and Marx O27-profile sectional track–which it doesn’t support directly, so I had to enter the track, confusingly, using the “custom turnout” tools–is that the model railroad and toy trains people measure track differently.

A Marx or Lionel O27 curve isn’t an O27 curve in XTrkCad. It’s a curve of radius 12.5 and angle of 45 degrees.

Here are some measurements. Keep in mind this is what they’re supposed to be. Manufacturing tolerances and the effects of age sometimes cause these measurements to be off. Some of my vintage track is off by 1/8 inch or more.


I happen to know that O27 and O34 tubular track use a 45-degree angle, and that Lionel and K-Line O42 tubular use a 30-degree angle. Unfortunately I don’t have a piece of K-Line O54 or O72 sectional tubular track to measure.

Since O42 track is supposed to be 12 sections per circle, and 180/12=15, I believe to calculate the angle measurement of O54 and O72 you can divide 180 by the number of O54 or O72 track sections in a full circle, then multiply that result by 2. The math works for the O27, O34, and O42 track sections I have, but since I don’t own any K-Line O54 or O72 track I can’t be certain.

Also, confusingly, traditional O gauge switches are straight turnouts in XTrkCad, even though one leg of them is curved. Here are the parameters I got by measuring a Lionel 1121. The measurements are close enough to represent Marx or Sakai O27 switches:

Diverging length: 8.5
Diverging angle: 45
Diverging offset: 3.75
Overall length: 8.75

And here’s what I measure on a Marx O34 switch.

Diverging length: 11.375
Diverging angle: 45
Diverging offset: 4.5
Overall length: 11.188

I believe the diverging angle would be 30 degrees on a Lionel or K-Line O42 switch, but since my vintage Marx and American Flyer locomotives won’t make it through modern O42 switches, I don’t have any of those to measure.

I’ve already used the software to draw a layout using Marx O34 track that will allow two-train operation with room on sidings for three additional trains. It’s much easier than setting up track on the floor and measuring it to see if it will fit on the table. And you can do your layout and then print an inventory to compare what you have with what you need. Not having enough track to mock up a layout isn’t a problem anymore.

On the computer some of the things I want to do don’t quite fit; if the track measurements are slightly off, the solution is to cut a section of track to move things a bit, or, if they’re off by less than a quarter inch or so, force it. O27 track has a lot of give, and, like I said, manufacturing tolerances and the effects of time can cause real-world track to not match the published standards.

Now that’s customer service

In this day and age, I’ve come to expect lousy customer service. Even when my employer pays thousands of dollars a year for customer service, I’m used to getting someone halfway around the world with questionable knowledge of the product, even less command of the English language, and I’m used to being kept on the phone half the day trying things that I’ve already tried.

And then there’s Lionel.I am one of the few who ordered my Polar Express train set early. And on Monday I got it. Happy early birthday to Dave. Woo hoo! I excitedly unboxed it, forgot about everything else I was going to do that night, and set up the loop of track around my living room. I loved it. The locomotive smoked, it whistled, and it was the smoothest running train I’ve ever seen.

I ran it for half an hour. Then I made dinner. Then I ran it for another half hour before I realized I was just watching a train go around and around in a circle. So I did other things for a while. Then before I went to bed, I wanted to run it one more time. I plugged in the transformer and… uh oh. Where’s my green light that tells me it’s plugged in and on? I tried it without an extension cord. Nothing. I tried a different outlet. Nothing. Dead.

I grabbed a transformer from the 1950s I had laying around and plugged it in. It was great.

My brand spanking new Lionel CW-80 transformer was dead.

So I e-mailed Lionel. I told them what I had done. I said the set worked fine with a postwar transformer. I asked if there was anything else I could try. This was about 11:30 at night.

First thing the next morning, I had a terse response: Mr. Farquhar, please send us your address and we’ll send you a new transformer. Reference this e-mail. –Lionel

I was expecting it to take a week to get back to me, and then to have to do all sorts of pointless things, but no. Send ’em my address, and they’ll send me a transformer.

Three days later, the transformer showed up. I opened up the box and found a transformer box inside. It was already opened. I guess they tested it for me before they sent it. Inside was an invoice with my problem description and the words "no charge." I plugged it in and it worked.

This used to be the way every company acted. Now it seems like most companies have legions of managers who try to dream up ways to torque off customers while saving four cents a day. I guess Lionel figures that while they’re pinching pennies, pinching pennies on customer service isn’t wise because chances are if people get good service, they’ll buy something else from you.

If that’s what they’re thinking, they were right about me. I was disappointed that the train didn’t work, but they didn’t waste much time making it right.