Learning about scratchbuilding the hard way

I haven’t had a lot of free time the past couple of weeks, and as you’ve probably gathered, I haven’t been spending a lot of it in front of a computer. I’ve been in the basement, learning how to make stuff for the train.

Along the way, I’ve learned a few things, mostly from experience rather than from books. I still have a long way to go.Not all paints and finishes are compatible with one another. When I tried to spray one brand of glossy finish atop a different brand of black paint, the paint crinkled. Spraying paint thinner on it would have done less damage.

Aside from the hard lesson on paints, clones of the old 6-inch 4-wheel Marx train cars are very simple to build. That must have something to do with why they cost 59 cents when they were new.

The look of lithographed tin can be reasonably approximated by printing a design on, of all things, plain paper, then spraying it with the same glossy finish that ruined the paint job on the first car I built. Attach said paper with spray adhesive, and only the very observant will notice your car isn’t tin litho.

Styrene plastic is very easy to work with. You can build simple things from it very quickly, so long as you use an MEK-based solvent, rather than the cement that comes in tubes. Solvents give a stronger bond, and after holding the joined piece together for two minutes, you can continue to work with it.

Aluminum is essentially free, and can be cut with scissors, but joining it is a pain. Joining two pieces with solder is very difficult. Epoxy is easier, but it’s harder to work with than the plastic solvents.

Tin and brass are extremely easy to solder. I now know why so many hand-built metal models are made of brass. It’s strong, reasonably easy to form, and not terribly expensive.

Sheet metal is dirt cheap at onlinemetals.com, but the $3 worth of brass that it takes to make a train car will cost $10 to ship, even if you have them deliver it by stagecoach UPS ground.

It’s very easy to end up paying $12 for a rustbucket Marx train car on eBay, and it’s more satisfying, if you have the requisite ability, to watch cars you made yourself go around your track than to watch cars you sniped with four minutes left. (I’ve only done that once. The rest I bid the way nice people do.) So most of the time you’re better off with your $13 worth of brass, whether you bought it online or at the local hobby shop.

You can fabricate your own Lionel- and Marx-compatible axles using 3/32-inch brass rod from a craft or hobby shop, cut to 1 3/4 inches in length for Lionel, or 1 7/8 inches for Marx. Put a dab of solder or epoxy half an inch inside to keep the wheels from going in too far.

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