Skip to content
Home ยป polystyrene


No, the government isn’t going to come take your trains

Friday’s news that the Department of Health and Human Services have added formaldehyde to the list of known carcinogens and styrene to the list of potential human carcinogens caused a rumble in some of the circles I run in.

Let’s calm down, everyone. This doesn’t mean the government is going to send FBI agents to your door, guns in hand, confiscating your plastic trains and toys. The bottom line is that there is some danger for industrial workers who are exposed to the raw chemicals, but comparatively little danger to the consumers who posses plastic products made from those chemicals.
Read More »No, the government isn’t going to come take your trains

The truth about DVD recordables

I read Jim Louderback’s column from this week on DVD recordables with interest, but it was disappointing.

The most useful information in this column: Generic recordable DVDs don’t necessarily cost less than the brand names.

The rest of the column is just about hazing and an incomplete description of how he did various things you’re not supposed to do to DVD discs and then tried to see if they still worked.Since he did lots of things that you’re not supposed to do and many of the discs still worked immediately afterward, he came to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter what discs you buy.

Well, I used to do lots of things you’re not supposed to do to floppy disks. Sometimes I got away with it, and sometimes I didn’t, but since they weren’t repeatable experiments, that experience means nothing. And I didn’t try to present any of that experience as useful information either.

There is some advice that pertains to pretty much all recorded media and I’ll go ahead and repeat it here.

Buy the brand/type of media the drive manufacturer recommends. It’s not fair to say that, for instance, Verbatim discs are junk based on one bad experience with a Verbatim disc in one particular drive. Some combinations of disc and drive work better than others. That’s not to say that untested media won’t work, but it does mean you don’t know what you’re getting into. It’s better to know what you’re getting into.

This is why some people swear TDK is the best media and Verbatim is the worst, while someone else may say (with just as much passion) that Verbatim is the best media and TDK is the worst. I guarantee that the two people doing the arguing don’t have identical DVD burners.

Make at least two copies of everything. If the data is worth something to you, it’s worth the dollar or less it costs you to burn a second copy. Store it in a jewel case in a cool, dry, dark place. Why? Heat, light, and moisture are the three things aside from physical abuse that cause discs to break down most quickly. The jewels will protect the disc from physical abuse. Ironically, polystyrene jewel cases intended for CDs are more fragile than the media they protect, but in a way that’s a good thing. It gives you fair warning that you’re handling it too roughly.

If possible, store the second (or a third) copy offsite. A locked desk drawer at the office is a good candidate, but be careful if the owners of your office turn off the air conditioning during the weekends. Or store it at a friend’s house, and return the favor by storing a cache of discs for that friend.

And if it’s super-duper important… If the data absolutely has to be right, burn it at the slowest speed your software allows, and walk away from your computer until it’s finished. Discs written at the slowest speed are slightly more reliable than discs burned at high speeds, as are discs that didn’t require buffer-underrun protection to write.

It’s extremely rare for either of these things to make a difference, but if you’re paranoid, keep it in mind.

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.