Cheap ground foam for trains

Ground foam is a commonly used scenery material. You can use it to simulate grass and other ground foliage, and people often use it to make trees as well.

But there are two problems with it. What are the odds of you running out when working late at night when all of the hobby shops are closed? Too high. And it’s expensive. But I found two explanations how to make your own.You can see them here and here.

I’ve seen a similar method used where someone used cheap kitchen sponges from dollar stores. The source of foam doesn’t seem to matter. The materials you need are pretty much all the same: an old blender from a yard sale or thrift store, about a quarter cup of water, a bottle or two of cheap green acrylic craft paint and another bottle of a darker color to tint it, and some foam to grind up.

Cheap model railroading supplies can be hard to find sometimes. It’s nice to see one.

Refinishing without refinishing

As I was walking through the paint section of my local hardware store, I spied a product on the shelves that claimed to work miracles. It was called Howard Restorafinish. The can shows a picture of someone wiping a door or tabletop that has scratches, water marks, and other nastiness and making it look brand new.

Too good to be true? Probably. But it was about five bucks. So I bought a can.I have a grandfather clock that belonged to my dad. A family friend built it for him in 1978. To most people it would be nothing special, but for whatever reason it meant a lot to my dad, and he lost it under some questionable circumstances and ended up going to a lot of trouble and expense to get it back.

Since then it’s endured four moves, and it’s spent the majority of the past 10 years sitting in basements. It sustained some damage in at least two of the moves, and in the last move it got some nasty scratches. Scratches is probably putting it nicely. I want it in my combination study/den, next to my wall-size bookcase, where I think it’d look gorgeous, but not with those huge gouges in it.

Since the clock needs to be sanded down and refinished anyway, I figured this stuff couldn’t do any harm, and I figured it was worth my five bucks to find out. So I took it home, grabbed an old sock, took the Howard Restorafinish and the sock down to the basement, and went to town.

The results were mixed. It really does seem to make minor scratches disappear. It also seems to help tired, faded color. I don’t really know how to describe it, other than spots that seem dry and lifeless. It also seems to do a good job of eliminating dirty buildup that turns the wood almost black.

The parts that were passable before now look bright and shiny–better than I ever remember it looking.

At first I was really impressed with what it did with the gouges. It recolored them. After 24 hours, I’m a bit less impressed. The cherry tint it put down is too dark. It seems where there’s no finish left to restore, its results aren’t as good. But I have to admit it still looks much better than before.

I found a few other light spots that it wasn’t able to do much of anything with. They’re minor. I can live with it.

The verdict? It didn’t exactly work miracles, but it made the clock look more than presentable again. I might need heavier-duty artillery for the spot that gave me trouble, but in all honesty I might be the only one who’ll notice it. I’m glad I spent the five bucks.

At some point I do need to sand it down and restain and refinish it. I’m sure I could sand it down, stain it and lacquer it and spend less than $100. But I really don’t have the time right now to do it. I can easily come up with five bucks and half an hour.

So I wouldn’t buy it expecting to make thrift-store furniture look like it came from Neimann Marcus, but for a scratch or a watermark on a kitchen cabinet, a piece of furniture, or a hardwood floor, it might save you a time-consuming refinishing job, or at least let you put that off until a more serious accident.

I’ll be buying the oak and walnut varieties to see what it can do for a couple of spots on my hardwood floors and my kitchen cabinets.

Thoughts on backups

Backups have weighed heavily on my mind lately. When you have 125 servers to tend to at work, chances are one of them is going to fail eventually. Really what seems to happen is they fail in bunches.

One of my clients has a problem. He’s out of capacity. And that’s gotten me thinking about backups in general.You see, my client’s golf buddies are telling him nobody backs up to tape anymore. Backing up to disk is the hot thing now. Here’s the theory. Your network is fast, right? Why make it wait on the tape drive? Back up all your servers to disk instead, and they can all back up at once, and hours-long backups take minutes instead, and restores take seconds. And no more paying $3,000 for tape drives and $6,000 for a rotation of tapes for it!

Now here’s the problem. A CIO hears "disk" and he thinks of that 400-gigabyte IDE drive he saw in the Sunday paper sales ad for $129 with a $60 mail-in rebate. (It wasn’t really quite that big, and it wasn’t really quite that cheap, but these things are always better on Monday morning than they were the day before.)

No enterprise bases something as important as backups on a single consumer-grade IDE disk. For one thing, it won’t be fast enough. For another, they’re not designed to be used that heavily, that frequently. An enterprise could get away with something like HP’s $1200 entry-level NAS boxes, which use cheap IDE drives but in a RAID configuration, so that when one of those cheap disks fails, it can limp along for the rest of the night until you swap out the failed drive. The chances of one drive failing are small but too large for comfort; the chances of two drives failing at once are only slightly better than Ronald Reagan winning the Republican primary this year. With Abraham Lincoln as his running mate.

One can set up some very nice backups on a Gigabit Ethernet setup. Since Gigabit’s theoretical bandwidth is about 3 time that of Ultra320 SCSI’s theoretical bandwidth, you can back up three servers at once at full speed. Drop in a second NIC, and you can back up six. In reality, the disks in the NAS box can’t come close to keeping up with that rate, but the disk can still back up everything much faster than tape will. Even a lightning-fast state of the art 200/400 GB LTO drive.

Frankly, with such a setup it becomes practical to back up your most important servers over the lunch hour, to avoid losing half a day’s work.

But you don’t get it for $129.

And in reality, no enterprise in its right mind is throwing out tapes either. If they back up to disk, they spool that backup to tapes the next day, so they can store the tapes offsite for archival and/or disaster recovery purposes.

How important is this? I remember about a year ago getting a request for a file that was changed in the middle of a week, and the person wanted that copy from the middle of the week, not from our Friday backups that are archived longer. Even with a tape rotation of 40 tapes, I couldn’t get the file. The tape had been overwritten in the rotation a day or two before.

While rare, these instances can happen. A 40-tape rotation might not be enough to avoid it. Let alone just a couple hundred gigs of disk space.

But what about home?

Consumer tape drives had a terrible reputation, and based on my experience it was largely deserved. The drives had a terrible tendency to break down, and the failure rate of the tapes themselves was high too. The lack of comfort with enterprise-grade tape that I see in my day-to-day work may stem from this.

The last time I was in a consumer electronics store, I don’t think I saw any tape drives.

I suspect most people back their stuff up onto optical disks of some sort, be it CD-R or RW, or some form of writable DVD. The disks are cheap, drives that can read them are plentiful, and if floppies are any indication, the formats ought to still be readable in 20 years. My main concern is that the discs themselves may not be. Cheap optical discs tend to deterriorate rapidly. Even name-brand discs sometimes do. We’ve had great luck with TDK discs ever since Kodak took theirs off the market, but all we can say is that over the course of three years, we haven’t had one fail.

The last time my church’s IT guy called asking about backups, we happened upon a solution: a rotation of USB hard drives. Plug it in, back it up, and take the drive home with you. It’s cheap and elegant. Worried about the reliability of the drives? That’s why you use several. Three’s the minimum; five drives would be better. Use a different drive every day.

It’ll work, and it’s pretty affordable. And since the drives can be opened up and replaced with internal drives, it has the potential for cheap future upgrades.

How about the reliability of hard drives? Well, I have a box full of perfectly readable 120-meg drives in my basement. They date from 1991-1993, for the most part. I bought them off eBay in the mid 1990s, intending to put them in computers I would donate to churches. The computers never materialized, so the drives sat. I fire one up every once in a while out of curiosity. The copies of DOS, Windows 3.1, and the DOS Netware client that were on them when I got them are still there.

Some technology writers have observed that modern IDE hard drives seem to have a use-by date; they just seem to have a tendency to drop dead if they sit unused for too long. I see this tendency in a lot of devices that use inexpensive electric motors. Starting them up every once in a while and giving them a workout to keep the lubricants flowing and keep them from turning glue-like seems to be the best way to keep them working.

At this stage, I’m less worried about the long-term viability of hard drives than I am about optical discs. Ask me again in 20 years which one was the better choice, and I’ll be able to answer the question a lot better.

If you’re stuck using optical discs, the best advice I can give is to use a brand of media with a good reputation, such as TDK, make multiple copies, and store them in a cool, dark, dry place. The multiple copies should preferably be stored in different cool, dark, dry places. Light seems to break down optical discs, and cooler temperatures as a general rule slow down chemical reactions. Dryness prevents chemical reactions with water and whatever the water might manage to pick up.

Some painting tips for around the house

My mom and girlfriend and sister spent some time this past week painting my house. I can paint a little, but it’s not something I enjoy as much as they do, and I’m definitely not as fast as they are.

I made a couple of small contributions. It was strictly a case of me applying things I’ve learned from model railroading. So there is some tangible benefit to that time I’ve spent playing with trains after all.

So here’s everything I know. (This is gonna be a short one.)Remove latex paint drips and spills with rubbing alcohol. Latex paint is water-soluble, but alcohol does even better. A rag dipped in alcohol makes quick work of the nasty stuff.

Don’t paint wall plates and registers with latex paint! In a lot of older houses, you’ll run across these things, painted in a misguided attempt to make them match the room color. The result always looks like crap, because latex paint is intended for drywall, which is porous, and plastic and metal aren’t. The result is you get a thick, gloppy mess that peels really easily.

If you want to paint those metal registers or plastic wallplates, paint them with a paint designed for a nonporous surface. Find a can of spray paint whose color is a nice complement to the room color (you probably won’t find an exact match). First, prime it with two superthin coats. Spray a thin coat that just puts a colored haze over the surface and let dry. A few hours later, put on another thin haze. Next, paint with the desired color in the same fashion. About 3-4 of these coats will cover it with a very nice, smooth, durable layer. People who’ve been doing this much longer than me say Krylon is the best brand.

What to do if someone already ruined your register with several thick coats of latex. I had a return vent cover that was covered with about three thick, ugly layers and the texture of a poorly done ceiling. I took it out to the garage, chucked a wire wheel into my drill, and ground off all that paint, all the way down to the metal. For stubborn spots, I used my Dremel rotary tool with a grinding bit chucked into it. I then primed and painted it. The result doesn’t look quite new, but it looks far, far better than it would with any coat of latex paint on it.

For plastic wall plates, it’s not worth the effort. Buy a 25-cent one and paint it the color you want. But saving a vent cover is easy.

Free stuck and painted-over screws with a pair of locking pliers. Lock a pair of pliers (I use the Vise-Grip brand) around a stuck screw as tightly as it will go, and turn. You’ll have to re-lock and turn several times but if you work at it, the screw will come out. To clean off the paint so you can reuse them, you can just carefully chip off the paint–you’re more likely to injure yourself than the screw–or soak in alcohol. I cleaned out two slotted screws by sawing along the painted-over slot with a small razor saw intended for hobby use. After just a little convincing, the paint just lifted out. I guess slotted screws have one advantage–just one–over Phillips screws after all.

For rusted screws, try soaking them overnight in a glass of cola. The phosphoric acid in the cola attacks the rust. You could also try chucking a bit of aluminum foil in your drill or rotary tool and polish it. Aluminum oxidizes much more quickly than iron, so the aluminum rubbing against the rust will de-oxidize the iron and give you a shiny surface again. Drive the screw into a piece of scrap wood and then paint it to keep it from oxidizing again. Then remove the screw and re-use.

Pretentious Pontifications: R. Collins for President

R. Collins Farquhar IV, Aristocrat and Scientist.

To the directionless American people.

Greeting:

As my most recent endeavor received little appreciation, it is my great delectation to announce my decision to devote my considerable talents to solving the world’s problems.George W. Bush is in the back pocket of large corporations in a time when there are only two corporations, Intel and Microsoft, who are worthy of any trust. John Kerry is in the back pocket of labor unions and other leftist organizations.

Matters such as war and the economy are best left to the aristocracy, and not to amateurs such as these men. And, being an aristocrat, I have adequate means to support myself for eight years, so I can work without the distraction of trying to tread water above the poverty level on a meager $200,000 salary.

Therefore I am running for president.

John Kerry says he will reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil but he does not say how. This is because this is a popular idea to which he has given no thought. Some political consultant told him this is what the rabble wants to hear. As even a simpleton like my brother David knows, the way one reduces dependency on oil flowing in from countries that hate you is by increasing your dependency on oil flowing in from countries that do not. Alaska has oil. Alaska is not even a foreign country. Venezuela has oil. We already buy oil from Venezuela. We should keep doing that. Russia has oil. We have money. We need oil. Russia needs money.

I will not state the rest of the obvious.

Now let us tackle the difficult matter of war. Being of rich Scottish heritage, and being descended from warriors who nearly succeeded in overthrowing the King of England except for a minor technicality of being betrayed by the French, I know a few things about war. I know more than a few things about winning a war.

I suppose only an aristocrat would notice such things, but it is very appropriate that our troops wear green camouflage, for many of them are not battle-tested. This is part of the reason why we are not winning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is painfully obvious to my aristocratic eyes that our troops need more seasoning before we send them off to fight in either of those two countries. Therefore, I propose we declare war on France in order to give our troops an opportunity to learn how to fight a war and gain confidence by absolutely trouncing an enemy. This trenchant and sonorous victory would give our troops confidence and rid us of a distraction. While routing the French army would not provide total preparation for facing the much better-trained guerrilla troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, it would certainly give them confidence, and confidence is 90% of everything.

The economy is easy to turn around. The aristocracy needs to spend more of its pin money. And when unemployment increases, the aristocracy needs to take on more manservants.

There remains but one problem, but hear me out, for I am going to turn that problem into a tremendous advantage: My age. The reports are true that I am but 29 years of age, which is well short of the 45-year requirement. However, I am in possession of an evil twin brother, who, incredibly, is also 29 years of age. Our combined age of 58 is well over the legal requirement. The advantage is that my brother, whom some consider more personable than myself, can take to matters that make presidents popular with the populace, such as jogging, drinking coffee at McDonald’s, looking at trains going around Christmas trees, signing books, making appearances at sporting events, dedicating libraries, granting interviews, and other such examples of woolgathering. He obviously will not know what is going on, but that is okay, because it will make this presidency appear peccant and naive, but such are the hallmarks of recent U.S. presidencies. Meanwhile, I can be tending to vade me*censored*presidential affairs, such as having my manservants bathe me, and then I can tend to a grueling 4-hour workday, whose tasks will include turning around the economy, bringing jobs back to the United States, and winning wars.

With an identical twin frolicking about the country acting as an aegis, it will be impossible at all times to know my whereabouts. So my misguided fans who like to give me fan letters soaked in alcohol and set on fire, or give me a 21-gun salute all by themselves, will not only have to get past the Secret Service, they first will have to figure out where I am. The additional Secret Service agents needed to protect two co-presidents will help the economy, offsetting some of the abstruce disadvantages of having such an ignoramus in such a prominent and redoubtable position.

My vice president, of course, will be none other than Jacques Pierre Cousteau Bouilliabaise le Raunche de la Stenche. He will, of course, be my main deipnosophist, and act as a fountain of yeasty jeremiads.

My time has come. My country needs me.

Not only do I appreciate your vote, I deserve it.

Visiting the house where my ancestors grew up

I went to a family reunion this past weekend. You typically need rosters at my family’s family reunions, because my grandmother had 13 brothers and sisters. I don’t know why, but before I got into genealogy, I just couldn’t keep everyone straight.

Now that I know how people are connected to one another, it’s somehow easier to keep it straight.

At the end of the day, my aunt drove me out to the house where my grandmother grew up.Along the way, she told me my great grandfather, Tom Kimrey, didn’t buy a car until after World War II, when he bought a surplus jeep. She said she didn’t know if he ever learned how to drive it, although several of his daughters did. We pulled onto Kimrey Lane and drove all the way to the end. It was cool to see a street named after one of my ancestors, even if it was on the edge of a booming metropolis of 74.

The house was a humble affair. It’s a four-room house, with a kitchen, living room and two bedrooms. The living room doubled as the master bedroom. There was no running water. The house had a tin roof and tarpaper on the sides. A brick pattern was etched into the tarpaper. My aunt showed me where the pot-bellied stove used to be, and where my great grandmother Sallie Groves’ pump organ used to sit.

The whole house was probably smaller than my kitchen and my study put together. And Tom and Sallie raised 13 kids in it. (One died very young.)

I guess standards of living have changed a bit over the course of four generations.

At any rate, seeing that old house gave me some idea of why my grandmother and great aunts and uncles were the way they were about some things. Sharing a bedroom with six other people changes your perspective about things, I guess.

The quest for BBQ in St. Louis takes me to Smokin’ Al’s

I’ve written many times before about my never-ending search for BBQ in St. Louis. It’s a lot easier to find now than it was 10 years ago. And, although it’s still not up to Kansas City standards, I do have to say it’s getting better.

This weekend’s adventure took me to Smokin’ Al’s, which is on Hampton, just north of I-44 and south of U.S. 40, within earshot of Forest Park. It’s in the city, so be sure to pack your concealed weapons.

I’m kidding. That part of St. Louis is safe, and Smokin’ Al’s seems to be popular with the police anyway. But what’s it like?The first thing I noticed was the prices. They’re very reasonable–higher than McDonald’s but no higher than, say, Subway. My girlfriend got the BBQ hamburger with fries and a drink. Posted price was $4.99. I got the BBQ brisket sandwich with fries and drank my usual water (I don’t drink caffeine after noon). Posted price was $5.75, I think. Our total came to $11.99.

Like a true BBQ joint, Smokin’ Al’s has a napkin dispenser on the table. On a recent BBQ excursion, someone handed me a single napkin. I held it up and told whoever would listen that this was a perfect example of everything that’s wrong with BBQ in St. Louis. If you can clean up afterward with a single napkin, it wasn’t BBQ.

When the food arrived, it came with reason to hope that the napkin dispenser would be necessary. It had BBQ sauce on it! Amazing!

Like the classic Kansas City joints, the brisket sandwich was served on Texas Toast. The girl at the counter was much friendlier than the people at the counter at Gates or Arthur Bryant’s though. (They make rudeness an art form at those places. It’s part of the atmosphere.)

The quality of the meat was very commendable. It wasn’t dry or tough, and it was about as lean as you’ll ever find at a BBQ joint. You could tell from looking at it that it was cooked the way it’s supposed to be: long and slow. And there was a lot of it.

The sauce is their own homemade blend. It’s a bit different. It wasn’t quite as spicy as, say, Gates, but it wasn’t sweet. I doubt there’s a lot of honey or molasses in it. It also wasn’t tangy like a lot of BBQ sauces. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s pretty good, but it’s not much like anything I’ve had in other parts of the country. Maybe that’s what they mean when they say "St. Louis Style BBQ"–that’s what it says on the sign. And I know they don’t mean pork steaks, because those weren’t on the menu.

And yes, during the meal I went through about five napkins.

Best BBQ I’ve ever had? No. Best BBQ in St. Louis? Well, you’ve got me thinking, and I’ll grudgingly admit that the title of Best BBQ in St. Louis is no longer like the title of Tallest Building in Topeka. I might give a slight edge to Super Smokers, but Smokin’ Al’s is cheaper and the portions are a bit bigger. Best BBQ value in St. Louis? Absolutely.

So how’s it rank on the All-Time scale? It’s not quite in the same league as Gates, Arthur Bryant’s, or Smokestack, all in Kansas City. Second tier is Biffle’s in Concordia, Mo., Carson’s in Chicago, or Trotter’s, an old chain out of Springfield, Mo., which during its prime was as good as anyone’s but whose quality dropped off very quickly in the early ’90s. It disappeared soon after. But I remember it fondly.

I rank Super Smokers a notch below those two levels. I’ll put Smokin’ Al’s in that same category. But one must remember, both of these chains are mere rookies.

The quality of life in St. Louis just went up a notch. This Kansas Citian will be back. Especially seeing as it’s about a 10-minute drive from work, making it suitable lunchtime fare.

I can’t think of a higher compliment I could give.

Insulating electrical outlets

I’m a notorious tightwad, so I just did something today that’s guaranteed to save me pennies per month: I insulated my electrical outlets and light switch outlets on my outside walls with some foam inserts I found at the local closeout store.In actuality, I don’t know how much money they’ll save me. Probably more than a few pennies per month, but I doubt if it’ll save me much more than a dollar or two. But still, two packages cost me $3 apiece, so even if they only save me a buck a month on average, they’ll pay for themselves by next fall. And I’d rather spend my money on basically anything other than energy.

I suspect you can get those inserts at most hardware stores. I just happened to find them at Big Lots a day or two after someone told me about them.

The idea is pretty sound: There isn’t a lot of insulation around those outlets, which allows warm and cool air to escape through the empty space. The uninsulated outlets on your outside walls probably isn’t quite as bad as keeping a window cracked year round (I’m not an energy expert, if you haven’t figured that out yet), but the principle is the same. Stick a piece of insulated foam behind the outlet cover, and you’ve reduced the amount of space your inside air has to escape.

More energy saving ideas

I’ve done a number of other things to help me save energy over the years. Most are pretty inexpensive. I installed thermal blinds and thermal curtains. Then I insulated my hot water pipes. I added child safety plates. Of course I also use LED bulbs.

My electric usage dropped 19 percent in 2011, so these things work.

Status update

I’d like to say I haven’t been posting because I’ve been busy migrating the website to new spamproof software. Actually I’ve been busy at work, and I’ve been holding back so Steve DeLassus won’t have ever-changing content to migrate.
Here’s what I can say: The new software is good. Very good. It’s faster than b2. When you post comments, you can title them. The search engine blows everything else I’ve seen out of the water. Not only is it fast, it also searches posts and comments separately, so when a thread veers off topic, it’ll still find it (and point you to the right place). You can limit your search to certain categories, and you can specify whether you want an exact phrase, all words, or any of the words. If you vaguely remember me saying something four years ago about optimizing config.sys in DOS, you’ll be able to find it pretty fast with this new stuff. A lot of blogs out there have tons of great information in them, but finding it can be difficult. I may not have quite as much great information, but what I do have will be easy to find, and I’m hoping that once you find something you like, finding more stuff like it will be easy as well.

Popularity is based solely and entirely on page reads. I think this is more scientific than the karma scores, and it may cause some old, forgotten stuff to be unearthed thanks to search engine traffic. We’ll see.

I’ll be able to close certain threads off to comments. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m sick to death of the Mormon thread. My sanity needs that feature.

And finally, registration will be required to post comments. You create a user ID, you tell the system your e-mail address, and it e-mails you a password. I know this won’t be a universally popular decision. I see it as a necessary evil, to keep spambots away. It’ll also tend to discourage people who come here and snipe. The upside to that is the system doesn’t make e-mail addresses public. You can e-mail other users, but my system sends the mail, so you never see the person’s address. This may or may not be easy to disable, and I’m torn on whether it should or shouldn’t be.

Overall, I think it’s going to be a huge improvement over the status quo. The speed will be good, and the lack of spam will be good. And if I’m not having to deal with spam and abusive people, I’ll have more time to generate content–both from not having to go delete the stuff and chase people away and from a lower level of frustration. I think that’s a good thing.

It’s not quite ready yet. But I’m hoping to make the cutover sometime this weekend.

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.

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