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Making trees from wire, plaster and lichen

I like this tutorial because it uses common materials and works for almost any kind of train: Making detailed oaks and maples.

It doesn’t hurt that the results look good too.I don’t think there would be anything wrong with using these trees on a tinplate prewar O gauge, Standard Gauge, or 2-inch Gauge (Carlisle & Finch and the like) layout. I don’t know if hobbyists were using these techniques 100 years ago, but the materials were all available then.

Lichen is available at craft and floral supply stores. You could also buy floral wire there to use in the project in place of electrical wire. Plaster is available at craft and hardware stores. And you can paint it with craft acrylics, available at craft stores and even some discount stores.

A lot of projects require a good hobby shop close by, and not everyone has one of those anymore. Living where I do, there are three good shops within 15 minutes of home (one is only about three miles away) but some projects require specialty items those stores don’t have. About a year ago I went to the estate sale of a model railroader who was extremely good at building and superdetailing kits. Virtually everything he had came from a hobby shop much further away.

The first thing I thought when I saw this project was that I could probably go out and buy everything I needed to make some of these even if I was visiting my in-laws in southeastern Missouri. And I might not even have to drive 30 miles to the nearest Hobby Lobby to get what I need.

It might be the first project I’ve ever seen where this is true.

Fifteen minutes a day

I’ve been spending entirely too much time on train forums lately. So have a lot of other people. Places that used to be good for learning things have turned into cliques, or worse yet, hateful arguments over stupid things like whether Lionel O gauge is more popular than HO scale (something that hasn’t been true since about 1957, and I’m shocked anyone has believed otherwise since about 1960).

A few months ago, someone actually posted something helpful: a suggestion that you spend 15 minutes a day working on your hobby instead of talking about it.

Read More »Fifteen minutes a day

Is it OK to sell gifts on eBay?

This is a followup to Friday’s post. I really should let this go, but the journalist in me loves a great story, and this story has lots of twists and turns and weirdness.

I wrote on Friday about several people giving gifts to someone they thought was a disabled Gulf War II veteran who was getting into the hobby. As parts of his story began to fall apart, there was a falling out. For some people, the biggest slap in the face came when the gifts they had sent him showed up on eBay.I don’t want to delve into whether the recipient of the gifts was a war veteran, except to say there are enough inconsistencies in his story that some people began to question everything, even up to and including whether he even was a real person. He had either told me or posted in a message on the forum that he was disabled and walked with a cane, but in my digging I found a craigslist posting looking for odd manual-labor jobs, such as cutting down trees. It was in the right town, he was willing to accept Lionel trains as payment, and the writing had the same mistakes in capitalization, punctuation, apostrophe usage, and grammar that I was used to seeing in his messages on the forum. I’m pretty sure it was the same person.

War veteran or not, this illustrates a willingness to change his story if it might gain him an advantage in his situation.

After the trains showed up on eBay, one person contacted the owner of the account. She said she was letting him use her eBay account to sell them, and said she had some awareness of the situation but didn’t want to say anything else other than they were gifts, so wasn’t he free to do anything with them that he chose?

And that really got me thinking.

I guess selling gifts on eBay is becoming more common. I tried to see if Emily Post had written anything about reselling gifts but I couldn’t. I know my friends and I used to snicker at the Ben Folds lyric in "Brick" that went, "Then I walk down to buy her flowers / And sell some gifts that I got."

The way I was raised, for the most part you kept gifts out of respect for the gift-giver. Exceptions were clothes that didn’t fit, or duplicate gifts. And hopefully, as you enjoyed those gifts, it reminded you of the giver and your relationship with that person.

I’ll admit, a lot of the toys I received as gifts as a child ended up in a garage sale. I was 13, I had a room full of toys I’d outgrown, we were moving, and it was time to move on. They’d had a good, long run.

The other exception for me was post-breakup. After a relationship ended, generally I would get rid of the things the ex-girlfriend had given me as part of my moving on process. The stuff would end up at Goodwill, where hopefully someone would get some benefit from it.

One could make an argument that in the case of these trains, the conditions were similar to the post-breakup. But I don’t think so. The first item that showed up on eBay was a Lionel 1501 Lackawanna 4-8-4. That locomotive had a story. It started with him being invited into an elderly man’s basement, where he saw a giant O gauge layout, and this gentleman saw how much he appreciated the layout and the collection and gave him several gifts, including the Lackawanna 4-8-4 and a Lionel ZW transformer. "I will always cherish the Lackawanna 4-8-4 I received from my friend," he wrote on the forum.

"Always" ended sometime before 12 July 2007 at 05:18:30 PDT, when the cherished locomotive sold on eBay for $150 using buy-it-now. The eBay listing said there was nothing wrong with the locomotive, it was just too big for his layout so he decided to sell it.

The gentleman who gave him the locomotive had nothing to do with the falling out he had with his other train buddies. According to the story he posted on the forums, this gentleman died less than three weeks after he gave him the locomotive.

When he died, there was no fanfare, no tribute. Just a brief, matter-of-fact statement, something like, "With his passing, I’ve been wondering what will happen to the trains." Then someone asked if he had died. The response was simple. "I’m sorry I wasn’t clear. Yes, he died."

That’s pretty insensitive.

Of course, one possibility is that the gentleman who gave him this locomotive was a fabrication and he received the locomotive a different way. If that’s the case, then he isn’t insensitive. He’s just dishonest.

A lot of other people sent him trains because they wanted someone less fortunate than them to be able to enjoy their hobby. Spending time together in person wasn’t realistic, but maybe as he ran those trains in the basement, he’d remember the people who gave them to him, enjoy them, and the bond could grow that way.

When those trains ended up on eBay almost immediately after someone pointed out how he had told two people different stories about himself that contradicted each other, they came to a conclusion: This man had been telling stories to take advantage of them for financial gain.

Trains aren’t especially easy to pack and mail, and they aren’t cheap to send. It’s a lot cheaper and easier to send cash. Of course, giving him money wasn’t the idea. The idea was to introduce someone else to the hobby you love, in hopes he would enjoy it as much as you did. Send someone cash, and for all you know, the money is just buying beer.

Seeing a price on those trains was like seeing a price on your friendship. And in the case of the "treasured" Lackawanna 4-8-4, the price seemed arbitrary, and perhaps even insultingly low. I found one and only one locomotive like it in eBay’s recent sales. It sold for $281.

Cars (as in vehicles) for train layouts

I was at Kmart today, and as I usually do, I wandered down the toy aisle on the off chance I might find some cars that might work on my train layout.

I did a lot better than I usually do–Jada and Maisto came through for me.I won’t talk about HO and N scale trains because for those scales, you can walk in to any hobby shop in the country and find pretty much anything you want. Us Lionel and American Flyer fans have it a lot tougher.

Lionel O scale is roughly 1:48. You won’t find 1:48 vehicles anywhere these days, but you can find 1:43 and 1:50. Some people fret that 1:43 is way too big, but sometimes you can hold up one maker’s 1:43 vehicle next to a similar 1:50 vehicle from another make and find they’re just about the same size. Maisto and New Ray are two makes of cars that size.

Lionel and Marx O27 is 1:64, more or less. Maisto, Jada, and Ertl make lots of 1:64 cars. Some Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars are close, but most are closer to 1:72, which is a bit small.

American Flyer O gauge trains made after 1937 are 1:64 scale, and all American Flyer S gauge trains are 1:64.

Since I run O27, I have lots of vehicles to choose from, but the problem is finding something era-appropriate. Contemporary vehicles are no problem to find, but if you want something old, it’s hard to find much other than a ’57 Chevy. Well, you can find a handful of late ’50s cars of various makes, but it tends to lean towards the late ’50s, and from looking at the stuff in the diecast aisle, you would think Ford and GM were the only two companies making cars in the ’50s. Want a Studebaker or a Hudson or (gasp) a Dodge? Good luck.

Of course I had to make things more difficult. I like really old trains, so a ’57 Chevy isn’t exactly going to cut it. I need 1930s and 1940s cars.

Maisto just happens to be offering a 1:64 ’36 Ford Coupe as part of its G Ridez series. It has homey-ized rims and thin tires, but other than that, it looks pretty stock. Hot Wheels has offered a ’36 Ford since I was a little kid, but it was always a hotrod.

Maisto also offers a ’37 Ford, but it has a prominently chopped roof

And Jada is offering a 1:64 ’39 Chevy Master Deluxe as part of its Dub City Old Skool line. Like the Maisto, it has thin tires and weird rims, but aside from that, it looks stock, and it’s black. This is a very nice car to have because it’s a late 1930s station wagon–a family car. It looks just like the cars you see families using in the movies set in the ’30s and ’40s. I hope I can find a few more of these because it’s the kind of ordinary car that will look natural even if I had several on the layout.

So if your toy train preferences lean towards American Flyer S gauge or Lionel or Marx O27, a trip down the toy aisle at your local Kmart or Target would probably be a good idea.

One thing I’ve learned is that I have to be patient. Usable cars are out there, but there may only be a handful of them issued every year–including anything Mattel releases under the Hot Wheels or Matchbox brands, undersize or not. I take what I can get. But improving the layout a little bit at a time over the course of years is part of the hobby’s appeal. At least it’s supposed to be.

My $8 secondhand Lionel

I hear stories all the time about the Lionel train that someone found at a garage sale for $10. Or sometimes it’s a Marx. The one that bothered me the most was the story about a 65-year-old American Flyer locomotive for $10, and the guy who got it didn’t even like O gauge.

Whatever. Today was my day. I found a Lionel starter set from 1999. The price marked on it: $8. I didn’t haggle. I handed over Alexander Hamilton, scooped up the train set, grabbed a couple of Washingtons, and headed to the car with a train set under my arm.For $8, I didn’t expect much. But I knew the locomotive alone was worth that. I got it home this afternoon and looked it over.

It was a set Lionel made for Keebler: The Keebler Elfin Express. Nope, no real railroad names on this set. The locomotive was cast from the same Scout mold that Lionel has been using for its starter sets since the early 1950s. But this one had a 4-wheel truck up front, making it a 4-4-2 Atlantic.

The cars are traditional 6464-sized: a boxcar and a flat car. The boxcar advertises Keebler products, and the flat has a cardboard load of, you guessed it, Pillsbury products. Nope, more Keebler.

The same traditional SP-style caboose that Lionel has been using since the early ’50s brings up the rear.

It didn’t look like the set had seen much use. The instructions were long gone, but a lot of the accessories are still on the plastic sprue. The lockon was on the track and the transformer was wired to it, so I knew it had been used a little. I set it up on a loop of O27 track and let it rip. It ran nicely. To my surprise, the locomotive has smoke, and the tender has a whistle, so the train smokes and whistles. Not bad for 8 bucks.

A couple of the track pieces were bent, as if they’d been stepped on. I can fix them. For the price I paid, I’m not going to complain. I’d be able to get clean used O27 curves for a dime or a quarter each at the Boeing Employee Model Railroad Club show in September. But I’ve got plenty of O27 curves in my basement. Those things breed.

It took me forever to find the lockout switch for the reverse on the bottom of the locomotive. At first I figured it had no reverse, but looking at the underside, I noticed it had a lot of electronics in it–far more than would be needed just to convert the AC current from the transformer to the DC current the can motor needed. (Yes, Lionel builds a lot of inefficiencies into its modern equipment to keep it compatible with the old stuff–and that drives up cost.) Finally I found the switch, unlocked it, and the locomotive gained neutral and reverse capabilities.

I don’t mess around with modern-issue Lionel much. I like the old stuff. But for 8 bucks, I won’t be picky.

Recapturing the charm of someone else’s dad’s American Flyer train

My buddy Todd brought over his dad’s American Flyer train today. It had been a gift from his dad on his first Christmas. It was from 1938.

That was a peculiar year, because it was the first year that A.C. Gilbert, of Erector fame, built American Flyer trains. Previously American Flyer had been an independent company in Chicago.

This model was a Gilbert design, and at most produced from 1938 to 1941.Late last year, Todd had asked our mutual friend Tom about how to go about getting the train repaired. Tom referred Todd to me, since 3-rail O gauge isn’t Tom’s specialty. Of course Tom knew the answer: Marty Glass, of Marty’s Model Railroads in Affton.

So Todd took it to Marty earlier this year, once the Christmas rush had died down. Todd called me yesterday and said Marty had finished it. He brought it over.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but he brought out an intricate 4-6-4 Pacific. It had far more detail than anything Marx ever made, and far more detail than any O27 locomotive Lionel ever made too. It had an intricate set of linkages, which turned out to be its downfall because they got bound up on us once. Marty had run the train for Todd when he picked it up–I suggested Todd have him do that, since 68-year-old trains always need some adjustments after they’ve been repaired. It ran fine on Marty’s layout.

Before we ran the train, I fixed the light in the Pullman car Todd brought over. He hadn’t taken that to Marty. The wire had come loose from the pickup on the underside of the car, and the light bulb was rattling around inside. I fished the bulb out, examined it (it looked fine; the old light bulbs in these trains is almost always fine, even after being shipped across the country), put the bulb in the socket, and re-soldered the wire to the pickup. I solder like a plumber, but judging from the pickup on that train, so did the Gilbert employee who built it.

With the car ready to go, I put it and the locomotive and tender on the track. We quickly found that the oddball American Flyer link and pin couplers didn’t line up right. Time for some more adjustments. I finally got the coupler heights adjusted correctly, then I hit the power, expecting since it had run in the store, it would run just fine on my layout.

Not so much. It ran for a few feet, then stopped in a shower of blue sparks, leaving a buzzing sound on the layout that I’ve come to associate with a short circuit.

The handrails were the biggest problem. There are two holes in the cowcatcher assembly that the handrails are supposed to slide into. Had I been doing the design, I would have made the rails longer, so they could be bent further underneath. But that’s irrelevant now. With the handrails not in the holes, they were pushing the cowcatcher down low, there it could short out the third rail. S gaugers can gloat that this wouldn’t be a problem on 2-rail S gauge track, but they really ought to respect their elders.

So I fixed the rails, and put a dab of solder on the underside to hold them in place (solder won’t stick to the zamac boiler). I noted the Phillips head screws Marty used to put it all back together. I’ll have to give him a hard time about that the next time I see him. Phillips screws didn’t come into widespread use on toys until the ’50s.

With that problem taken care of, it ran, but then it locked up hard. I gave it another thorough examination, and found that some of the intricacies on the drive rods had come misaligned, causing it all to bind up. I had to take it apart to free up enough space to realign everything. I took off the front truck, then the cowcatcher, guided everything where it was supposed to go, and reassembled everything.

And what do you know… It ran. It was a bit herky-jerky at first, but in my experience, old motors are always that way when they’ve been sitting for decades. They seem to need to get some running time in before they get used to running smoothly again. Todd told me that Marty said the motor was fine; the only problems he found were structural. From the sound of the motor, Marty obviously had lubed it–they tend to squeal a lot after 50 years, let alone 68, and this motor sounded like new–but I guess that’s all it had needed.

I found out the hard way that this locomotive (an American Flyer 531) really hates O27 curves. It derails every time, even on curves where you lead into the O27 and back out with a wider curve. So we moved it from my inner loop to my outer loop, which is mostly O42 except in one corner, where I had to do O34 to make everything fit. It made me nervous on O34 curves, but it did manage to stay on the track. It was much happier on the O42, which makes sense, because American Flyer O gauge track was 40 inches in diameter, just like its S gauge track.

Once we were confident it was running, we packed it back up. Todd was going to go surprise his dad with it. It’s been a long time since its last run. I hope he’ll enjoy seeing it roam the rails again.

Now that I’ve seen some of the late prewar 3/16 scale American Flyer up close and personal, I have a new admiration for it. I own a number of the Flyer freight cars from that period, but none of the locomotives. The detail is very good, and they run smooth and are geared low, so they have plenty of pulling power.

I’m sure Todd’s dad will be happy to see it running again. I know I sure enjoyed fine-tuning it.

Excuse me while I go check eBay…

European O gauge train layouts

O gauge is the size of train that most Americans associate with Lionel. It was actually invented around the turn of the century in Germany, although whether it was invented by Marklin or one of the many johnny-come-latelies is open to debate.

After World War II, O gauge faded very quickly in Europe, although in the United States it experienced a resurgence that helped make Marx and Lionel two of the biggest, most profitable toy companies in the world.

I’ve seen some pictures of European O gauge. You’ve got to see this stuff.The second picture on this Dutch page is extremely impressive. Bayko was an architectural toy made of Bakelite (an early plastic), available both before and after World War II. While the scale didn’t necessarily match O gauge precisely, it was more than close enough to the 1:43 scale used in the United Kingdom and 1:45 in Continental Europe, and it allowed the construction of a wide variety of very colorful and attractive buildings. It makes American Plasticville look downright monotonous.

Between the various construction kits available, buildings made by the train manufacturers themselves, the huge variety of 1:43 vehicles and figures, it was possible to build a miniature world that the American product lines just couldn’t match. And yet it died. I guess it fell victim to the smaller houses in Europe, which were much friendlier to HO and TT scales.

If I ever go to Europe and run across any of this stuff, I’m going to be in trouble.

Aliens on my train layout

I bought a couple of aliens for my train consist today. At the annual TCA Ozark Division train show at Lutheran South that happens every December, I spotted some lonely American Flyer bodies sitting neglected on a table. There were two steam locomotives, a gondola, a boxcar, and a caboose. I looked at the locomotives but there wasn’t any way I could remotor them with parts I had available. I did buy the boxcar, and then came back for the gondola.

I spent a total of $3 for these artifacts from 1958. Not bad.The problem for me is, they’re from 1958. American Flyer was doing S gauge in 1958. I’m into O gauge.

But that’s OK.  S gauge is 1:64 scale. O27 (which is the flavor of O I like, because it’s what I grew up with) is supposed to be 1:64 scale. Hold an American Flyer S gauge gondola up next to a Lionel or Marx O27 gondola, and they’re awfully close to the same size. Sure, there’s some difference, but when you look at real trains, not every boxcar is exactly the same height, and not every gondola is exactly the same height and length either.

K-Line took some criticism when it dusted off the old Marx O27 molds, outfitted them with S gauge trucks, and tried to market them to S gaugers because the Marx boxcars are taller than the American Flyers, and when you measure the Marx car with a scale ruler, it’s a funny length. But most people don’t notice. When I put a Marx O27 boxcar next to my Flyer 805 with O27 trucks on it, the difference wasn’t as pronounced. You can tell the Flyer is shorter, but something about the O gauge trucks makes the difference harder to notice.

It took me about 10 minutes to outfit the Flyer gondola with some spare Lionel trucks I had kicking around. Then I decided I wanted a conversion car, so I put a Marx truck on one end and a Lionel on the other. It looks good with my Marx and Lionel gondolas.

It took me considerably longer to get the boxcar in running order, since I had to fashion a frame for it. So I grabbed a bunch of junk from the scrap box and I fashioned a frame. That ended up taking me a couple of hours to do (I can do it a lot faster when I’m doing several at once and I have all my tools and materials in order). For what I make per hour, I could have bought several nice boxcars, I know. But this was more fun than what I get paid to do, and besides, nobody was offering to pay me to do anything today. And besides, rescuing a lonely boxcar off the scrap heap is a whole lot more meaningful than just plunking down some cash.

Once it was all together, I grabbed Dad’s old Lionel 2037 and put it on a loop of track on the floor with the Flyer 803 and 805 and a Marx boxcar that I rescued from a similar fate about a year ago. I had to work out a few kinks of course, but it wasn’t long before the consist was running smoothly.

I know a lot of people who run 1950s trains tend to do so homogeneously. It tends to be all Flyer or all Lionel or all Marx. But all of them have their strengths. For one, all of them did cars that the others didn’t. While American Flyer’s locomotives are amazingly smooth runners–even their cheapies–I don’t think American Flyer made anything that has all of the positive attributes of the Lionel 2037: It’s no slouch in the smooth running department itself, it’s a great puller, it’s reliable, and it’s common as dirt so you can easily find a good one for around $70. And as much as I like Marx, Marx never made anything quite like the 2037 either. The Marx 333 can’t pull with a 2037, it’s nowhere near as common, and these days it’s more expensive too.

But Marx and American Flyer made plenty of cars in plenty of roadnames and paint schemes Lionel never made. And when they did overlap, there tended to be some differences, just like you see in real life. So turning some dilapidated American Flyer cars into O27s was a nice way to add some unique rolling stock to my roster.

I’m happy. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for more American Flyer cars that need running gear.