Restoring lithographed train cars

If you have vintage tin lithographed train cars made by American Flyer, Bing, Dorfan, Ives, Lionel, Marx, or another make I’m forgetting and some of them are worse for wear, there are a few things you can do to improve their appearance.

Keep in mind these won’t make them new, and they won’t fool anyone. One reason collectors like lithography is because they can easily recognize a touchup. But you can make beat-up cars look better, and that’s what I’m going to talk about today.

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Spray painting tips to paint like a pro

I’ve gathered a lot of spray painting tips over the years but I’ve never seen more than 10 collected in one place. Spray paint is a tool, and using it is a skill you can learn. With a bit of practice, you can get enviable results and make the object you’re painting look better than new.

Whether you’re painting something for your house or for your hobby, here are more than 20 spray painting tips to help you paint with the best of them–in the order you’re likely to need to use them in your projects.

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How to disassemble a Marx 999 locomotive

How to disassemble a Marx 999 locomotive

Disassembling a Marx 999 locomotive isn’t too difficult, and it’s easier than the Marx 666, but it helps to have some instructions.

The nice thing about the 999 is that if you can disassemble it, there’s a long, long list of Marx locomotives that disassemble in pretty much the same way: the Commodore Vanderbilt, the Mercury, the tin Canadian Pacific 391, and the tin steamers 592, 593, 594, 833, 897, 898, and 994.

Marx designed its trains so that a father or older brother could service them, so it comes apart with simple household tools, and you can get most of what you’ll need to service it at the nearest hardware store, with the probable exception of the bulb for the headlight.

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Lessons from my son’s first Pinewood Derby

One of my coworkers, a guy with an infectious laugh named Jamaal, organized a get-together on Friday. My boss asked me if I was going.

“Sorry, it’s my son’s first Pinewood Derby,” I said. I had to explain to my boss what that was–I don’t think he was ever a Cub Scout or Boy Scout–but he was intrigued.

For whatever reason, when I was a kid my dad didn’t take the opportunity to teach me as much as he could have when we built Pinewood Derby cars, but I told my boss the only good physics lesson I ever got in my life was when Dad explained to me how a Lionel train worked. Here’s something cool you can do with math and science, and I never had a teacher show me anything cool you can do with those two things. Read more

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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Speed-painting figures for train layouts in five easy steps

Painting figures for train layouts is a task that few toy train hobbyists relish, but we can borrow techniques from other hobbies to solve that problem. The model railroading and toy train hobbies have solved a lot of problems for hobbyists in other fields, and I don’t think we borrow from those other hobbies as much as we could.

One problem the miniature wargaming hobby has solved is painting large quantities of figures rapidly while getting acceptable results.

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How to fight the City of St. Louis’ red-light scam

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that I’ve never had a traffic ticket. I spoke too soon. Thanks to the City of St. Louis’ new red-light camera scam, I have one.

It’s too late for me to fight it. But since I want others to fight it, here’s what I wish I’d known the day I got the ticket.First, when you receive your ticket in the mail, get a lawyer. Immediately. The scam works like this: They get the picture of you allegedly making a traffic violation (in my case, not making a complete stop when turning right at a red light, which is perfectly legal in St. Louis County). Then they dillydally around as long as possible. A few weeks or a month after your alleged violation, you get the ticket in the mail.

And there’s the problem. A lawyer needs at least three weeks to fight one of these things, and you’ll probably get your ticket right about three weeks before the court date. If you wait a day or five to mull over your options, you’re not going to be able to fight.

And here’s why I say "alleged"–do YOU remember what YOU were doing at 8:27 AM on Saturday, August 25? Without a photograph of you at the wheel (which St. Louis doesn’t have), they can’t prove it was you. And by waiting a few weeks after the alleged infraction, you may very well not remember if you were driving in that area on that day, or if you loaned your car to someone, or whatever.

In my case, the infraction happened in an area I rarely go. I can’t prove it wasn’t me behind the wheel, but I also can’t prove it wasn’t Francis Slay either.

That’s the reason St. Louis treats it as a non-moving violation. If it were a moving violation with points assessed, every attorney would fight it by saying the city can’t prove who was driving. And the attorney would win every single time.

In the meantime, if you don’t want to get nailed by cities changing right-turn laws on a whim (or by the car behind you if you stop at a yellow light instead of blowing through it for fear of a ticket), there’s a company that sells a $30 high-gloss clearcoat that supposedly causes the flash on the camera to overexpose, rendering your license plate illegible. I have no idea if the product works, and frankly, $30 seems a high price to pay for the fraction of an ounce of clearcoat it would take to cover four license plates. (Although it seems reasonable next to a $100 fine for not coming to a complete stop on a right turn with no other cars present.)

If you want to try to defeat red-light cameras and you don’t mind trying something that might not work, try taking off your license plates and giving them a couple of coats of either Future Floor Polish (which is really an acrylic clearcoat, not a wax) or Krylon clear gloss. I’d probably go with Krylon Triple-Thick Crystal Clear Glaze, since it’s glossier than the standard spray. A can of Krylon will cost about $5 and give you enough to spray your license plates and all of your friends’ plates also. And if it doesn’t work, you’re only out five bucks instead of thirty.

I hope it does work though. The City of St. Louis needs to find another way to raise revenue, other than making a stupid law, enforcing it by proxy, charging an excessive fine, and then stringing it along to make it as difficult for citizens to defend their records as possible.

I’ll see you at the hardware store.

And if you just got one of these unjust tickets in the mail, contact a lawyer immediately. A lawyer will cost more than the ticket, but the city is counting on honest citizens just paying the ticket because it’s cheaper and less hassle than fighting it.

And if you’re wondering where the red-light cameras are, they’re at the intersections of Hampton and Wilson (the entrance to The Hill) and Hampton and Chippewa.

How to assemble a plastic model kit

Several months ago I bought a plastic model kit for the first time in probably 20 years. This past week I started to put it together.

I’m doing things differently this time.

Wash the parts

Plastic models have mold release on them, which makes it harder for paint and glue to adhere to the parts, making for a weaker model. The first step to building a proud model is washing the parts with dish detergent. Then avoid handling them with your bare hands as much as possible afterward.

Use better glue

The guys at the local hobby shop argue about the best glue to use, but they agree that the Testors stuff that comes in the tube isn’t it. It’s better to use either a plastic welder like Tenax-7R, or one of the many super glues on the market. Tenax welds the plastic together and actually makes one piece from it. The downside is its nasty fumes (wear a ventilator to save your lungs and your liver–really) and its permanence. Super glues work about as fast but make a chemical bond. The upside to super glue is that if you make a mistake, you can put the mistake in the freezer overnight, and then you’ll be able to pry it back apart and glue it again.

The downside to super glue is that it happily glues skin, so get a debonder from your hobby shop to bail you out if you glue your hand to your model or if you glue a couple of body parts together accidentally–putting your hand in the freezer overnight doesn’t work very well.

Both glues result in a stronger bond than the old tube glues we used to use.

Trim the flash

There’s always extra crud on the edges of your plastic pieces, due to the molding process. Trim that away with a hobby knife. Usually just slowly running the blade across the edge is all it takes.

Putty

When you glue your pieces together, there are always gaps in them. You can get plastic putties that chemically bond with the plastic and those are the best to use, but even a household putty like Durham’s Water Putty is better than gaps. Ideally you want the putty to be a different color than the plastic so you can see your work better.

Use primer

You should always paint your model, even the parts that are molded in the correct color, for reasons I’ll get to. But before you paint, you should prime the model. Use a good-quality primer like Krylon or Rustoleum Painter’s Touch. They are less expensive than hobby primers and they work extremely well.

Primer does several things. Paint sticks much better to primer than to plastic itself, so if you use primer, you can use thinner coats of paint, and you can also use paints like acrylics that normally won’t stick well to plastic. Second, primer can fill in minor flaws in the plastic, and make flaws that need to be puttied more visible. Third, primer makes the detail much more visible, which helps you paint better.

Spray on a very thin coat. It doesn’t have to cover completely.

Paint

Models should be painted for two reasons. The real thing is painted, so your model will look more realistic if it’s painted. Bare plastic looks more like a cheap toy. Second, decals don’t adhere well at all to bare plastic, because they are designed to adhere to paint.

The best paints to use is also a matter of religious debate. I like to use acrylics for the parts I have to brush paint, because acrylics have no fumes and clean up with water. They’re cheap and easy to work with. I can get craft acrylic paints for 60 cents a bottle if I shop around, and the bottles are big enough that they last forever. They’re cheaper than Testors enamels normally sold for models, and I don’t think they dry out in the bottle as quickly.

For the ultimate acrylic, visit a hobby shop that caters to wargamers and pick up some Vallejo paints. They’re thinner than the craft acrylics, so they’re less likely to obscure detail when detail counts. They also tend to be self-leveling, helping to conceal your brush strokes.

I prefer to spray rather than brush whenever I can, because then I don’t cover up as much detail, and I don’t get brush strokes. I can spray a light coat followed by a second light coat and get nice, even coverage. You can get sprays intended for plastic models at a hobby shop, but if you can find a suitable color from Krylon or another hardware store brand, you can use it.

An airbrush is nice, if you can afford its cost and can afford to invest the time required to learn how to use it and keep it clean.

So, should you paint before or after assembling the model? I find it easier to paint what I can before, and scrape the paint off the surfaces that need to be glued.

What if you really mess up the paint? There are ways to safely remove paint from plastic so you can start over.

Masking

When you need to paint an assembled model and you need to keep the paint away from parts of it, use masking tape. Don’t use the cheap beige stuff. Get some good blue or yellow painter’s tape, which is less likely to lift the paint that’s under it.

To keep paint from bleeding under the tape, you can either brush along the edge of the tape with the color that the tape is covering, or brush with some clear acrylic medium (look for it in the artist’s paint section of stores like Michael’s and Hobby Lobby) or, believe it or not, Future Floor Polish. This seals the edge, and if any of it bleeds under, it won’t be visible.

Decals

Dad and I could never get decals to stick right. What we didn’t know was that decals are nothing more than a clear lacquer sprayed on paper with something printed on it. They are supposed to bond permanently with paint underneath them.

So the first secret of applying decals is just to paint the surface beneath them. Decals stick better to glossy paint than flat, so if you don’t paint with glossy paint, apply a bit of acrylic gloss medium or Future Floor Polish (which is actually a clear gloss acrylic, not a wax), let that dry, and then apply the decal to that.

I have some additional waterslide decal tips and tricks if you’re interested in them.

Clearcoat

When you’re done, spray a clearcoat over the whole paint job. This gives a consistent and more realistic finish. A gloss coat is fine if you want your model to look factory new. But for a more typical real-world look, use a clearcoat with a dull finish. Testors Dullcote is the standard.

Before you experiment with Krylon or another hardware store clearcoat, take some scrap plastic, paint it with the same paints you used to paint the model, and then spray the clearcoat over it. Not all clearcoats are compatible with all paints. I once tried Dutch Boy clearcoat on a plastic model and it caused the paint to bubble, ruining it.

Following these tips won’t make award-winning models, but it will make your models look a lot nicer.

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