Graphics software for Windows revisited

My girlfriend was asking me about graphics software today. She’d been trying to use Paint Shop Pro as an inexpensive alternative to Adobe Illustrator and, predictably, was disappointed.

The GPL alternatives to Illustrator still lack at least one crucial feature (bitmap pattern fills) but I remembered reading about Serif DrawPlus.Serif is a manufacturer of cheap desktop publishing/graphics software. By cheap, I mean they aim for the $99 price point for their flagship product, then they give away older versions, and, at least sometimes, when you download the older version they offer you a somewhat less-old version for $10 or $20.

So I downloaded DrawPlus 5 and played around with it. It’s a bit basic, but it has all of the fundamentals. After about five minutes of playing around I was able to do some nice effects with text–for example, I was able to add a border to the edge of the letters, add fills, and even add a transparency effect. Cool.

Standard polygon and circle tools are there too, and you can combine multiple shapes into more complex shapes. If you can picture something as boxes and other simple shapes, you can draw a scaleable image of it with this program.

Why yes, I do think I’ll be using this to draw buildings and such for my Lionel layout. How’d you ever guess?

It’s not as powerful as Illustrator, but for a lot of people it’ll do what they need. Someone unfamiliar with vector graphics might be more comfortable with a simpler program like this, then switching to the higher-end software after running up against the simpler program’s limitations. (For years journalism schools taught desktop publishing by teaching students Pagemaker first, then QuarkXPress, since the latter is much less intimidating once one is familiar with the basic concepts.)

Check it out at Serif also offers a raster image editor (a la Photoshop) and a desktop publisher under the same plan.

Free graphics software for Windows

Even people who use Windows exclusively have probably heard of The Gimp, which Linux and Unix users often proclaim as the “free alternative to Adobe Photoshop.” While Photoshop is in no danger of being displaced in the industry, Gimp is certainly more than adequate for most use.

But installing it in Windows has never been easy, unless you knew a well-kept secret: the URL for Installers for Gimp for Windows. (The Windows page at is pretty intimidating.)All you need to do is download both files, the GTK+ 2 toolkit and Gimp for Windows. Install GTK+ first, then install Gimp, and you’re golden. Although the current version 2.0 is still pre-release, it’s much nicer than the “stable” 1.2 release–it has more features and a better user interface, and frankly, I don’t find it any less stable.

You’ll almost definitely want to keep the link to Grokking The Gimp handy. It’s a professionally written book that’s freely distributable, or, if you prefer, you can buy a print copy. Gimp is easy enough to understand if you have a guide, but you need a guide. Given that book, even a drawing klutz like me was able to do some drawings that turned heads. (Paper buildings on a model railroad layout, in my case.)

The copy of GTK+ on the Installers for Gimp for Windows site is also the secret to getting the Win32 port of Sodipodi up and running. Sodipodi is a free vector drawing program, similar in function to Adobe Illustrator, Macromedia Freehand, or Corel Draw. While not as full featured as the current version of any of them, again, it’s good enough for most casual use. Don’t be put off by its low version number; its primary author is a perfectionist. It’s at least as stable as most of the commercial low-end graphics programs I’ve seen for Windows.

There is no equivalent to Grokking The Gimp yet for Sodipodi. This Sodipodi Guide will get you started.

If you want to play around with graphic design and can’t afford to buy Photoshop and Illustrator (even the educational prices can be a bit high for some people), playing with Gimp and Sodipodi is a good way to learn the basics in order to see if you even want to learn more about drawing with a computer. Who knows, the current or some future version may even prove to be all you need–saving you from ever having to buy the commercial software.

More tips for playing with toy trains

As you can probably guess from the length of time between postings, the Lionel has proven to be quite the distraction. A welcome one, but definitely a distraction.
I’ve picked up a few tricks along the way.

Clean old plastic buildings quickly. My buildings had accumulated a decade or so of dust and grime sitting in a box, and they probably weren’t clean when they were boxed either. The solution? Put a dab of hand soap and a small amount of laundry detergent in a bucket, then fill it with warm water. Just put in enough soap and detergent to make some suds. Disassemble the buildings and drop them in. Let them soak for a few minutes, then scrub with a toothbrush. They’ll look almost new. Note: Don’t do this if they have decals, or if you deliberately weathered the buildings. If you don’t know what weathering means, then go get your bucket.

Cleaning severely rusted track. To clean severely rusted track, give it a thrice-over with a drill’s metal brush attachment. It’ll mark the track up badly, but it’ll clean it up fairly nicely and may allow a dysfunctional train to run again. Don’t worry about ruining a prized collectible; used Lionel track sells for 25-50 cents a section at a hobby shop. This also means you shouldn’t put a lot of time and effort into salvaging rusty track–especially considering the new stuff sells for a dollar.

Lubricate your cars’ wheels for smoother operation. Unlike the engine, WD-40 is fine for this. Put a small quantity of oil into a bottlecap, then use a toothpick to apply it anywhere that the axles come in contact with other parts of the car. After doing this, your train will run more quietly and smoother, and your locomotives will be able to pull approximately 30% more weight, so you can feel free to add another car or two.

Buildings on the cheap for the nether regions of your layout. If you have some kind of structured drawing program (Adobe Illustrator, KDE Kontour, Macromedia Freehand, or even something like Visio) you can draw the basic shapes of buildings, print them out on heavy card stock, and cut them up and glue them together. Get started by taking measurements from an existing building and use that as a guide to help you learn the height of a door, window, and floor. Export the file to some kind of raster format (JPG or PNG) prior to printing and use GIMP or Photoshop to add textures if your drawing program doesn’t support it. For added realism, cut out the windows and glue in pieces of transparent plastic (kitchen plastic wrap is fine but cutouts from clear plastic bags are nicer). It doesn’t take any longer than assembling and painting a plastic model, the results are surprisingly convincing–the only advantage plastic offers is more realistic texture–and you’ll never beat the price. And if something happens to the building, you can always print out and reassemble another one.

Polystyrene sheets for scratchbuilding plastic models on the cheap. Once you’ve built some paper models and want to move up to building plastic buildings from scratch, you can pay $7 for a small sheet of polystyrene at a hobby shop, or you can buy 88-cent Beware of Dog signs from the nearest hardware or discount store. It’s the same stuff, only bigger and printed on one side. Put the printed side on the inside of the model and cover it with paper if you want to keep your secret safe. If you live near a big city, I’ve heard that plastic distributors sell big 4’x8′ sheets of polystyrene for about $7. A square foot of material makes for a good-sized building, so a 4×8 sheet will probably yield more than 30 buildings.