True 1:48 O scale autos

Scale-oriented O scale enthusiasts often bemoan the lack of true 1:48 O scale autos to go with their O scale trains. Often they go so far as to call 1:48 automobiles non-existent. That’s not entirely the case. There are 1:48 scale automobiles out there. Finding them just requires some creativity and imagination.

1:48 scale vehicles suitable for O scale train layouts fall into two broad categories: ready made diecast vehicles, and plastic model kits, which require assembly. The model kits tend to be costlier but allow a greater level of detail.

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Marx train sizes

Over the years, Marx made electric and clockwork trains in no fewer than seven sizes and two gauges. Depending on how you count Marx train sizes, you can say it was more than that. Here’s an overview of what they made.

If you go to sell Marx trains, correctly identifying the size definitely makes them attract more bids.

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The greatest European tinplate train collection in the United States is on display

Two years ago, Jerry Greene made a splash when he attempted to put his huge, one-of-a-kind train collection up for auction. He had quietly amassed 35,000 train items, and only a handful of people knew about it.

Transporting the collection to Sotheby’s let that cat out of the bag. It became the subject of a short feature in the October 2012 issue of Classic Toy Trains, and relentless speculation on all of the major online toy train forums.

The collection, now known as the “Jerni collection,” didn’t sell–it was a one-buyer-take-all affair–so now portions of it are on display at the New York Historical Society. Read more

A Lionel Fastrack review

How Lionel Fastrack compares to traditional tubular track and competing O gauge track is a common question. I own both, so I can probably make a comparison.

For the most part, it’s not bad. But it’s not perfect. For some people, the drawbacks are easy enough to overlook. For others, they could be showstoppers. You’ll have to decide for yourself.

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Cars for trains

Vehicles are a frequent topic of discussion on the various O and S gauge train forms. At times these discussions can get rather heated.

Since use on train layouts is rarely the objective of the companies making various diecast vehicles, there’s no true right answer to what one should or shouldn’t use. This is my personal philosophy. Take it for what it’s worth.

I run prewar and postwar Lionel and Marx trains on my layout, primarily. Most of them are undersize O27; I only have a handful of American Flyer cars that might perhaps approach proper 1:48 O scale.

Prior to the early 1970s, Lionel paid no particular attention to scale. Therefore I see little need to break out the scale ruler and be anal retentive about what vehicles will and won’t go on my layout. A Lionel 6014 Baby Ruth boxcar is very close to 1:64 scale, although it’s riding on trucks that are very close to 1:48. The famous Lionel 6464 boxcars are about 1:55 scale. Marx had a whole line of 1:64 scale O gauge trains; its cheaper plastic cars are also very close to 1:64. Some of its “deluxe” cars were closer to 1:60–somewhere in between the Lionel 6014 and 6464 in size. Maybe making them bigger than the 6014 for about the same price made them seem to be a better value for the money.

And for that matter, while A.C. Gilbert’s American Flyer division paid more attention to scale, Gilbert wasn’t shy about shipping off-scale stuff with the American Flyer name on it either. The trains themselves were pretty close to scale, but many of the accessories and buildings were too large or too small.

Needless to say, it doesn’t bother me then that a Matchbox VW Beetle is 1:55 scale but a Matchbox model of a larger vehicle, say a ’57 Chevy, will be 1:64 or perhaps even a bit smaller. If it’s the right era, I’ll use it.

Besides, park any of them outside a Plasticville house, and it’s clear to anyone that it’ll fit inside that garage. Therefore, it will look believable.

I do pay attention to era. Even a casual passer-by can tell the difference between cars from various decades. And I do think era sets the tone of a layout, so I draw my line at 1949. Postwar fans have it easier, as there are tons and tons of great vehicles from the 1950s and 1960s available. Since I stick to pre-1950, generally speaking I can only count on each manufacturer of Hot Wheels and Matchbox type cars offering one or two vehicles per year that I can use. If I drew the line later, I could probably find a couple dozen cars per year to buy.

Many cars have to be modified to suit my purposes, since I want everyday city street scenes, not a hot rod convention. In the case of the Hot Wheels ’32 Ford Delivery sedan I picked up at Kmart tonight (along with baby formula and a cordless phone–you gotta love it), the car is pretty tame. No jacked up wheels, no overly funky colors. It does have flames. Remove the flames with some nail polish remover or purple cleaner on a cotton swab, and I can probably pass it off as stock to a casual observer. Other times, it’s necessary to drill out the rivets on the bottom, swap out the wheels for more conservative ones, and maybe even strip and repaint the vehicle.

According to a car buff on an S gauge board I read frequently, prior to WWII cars tended to be painted dark shades of green, brown, blue, red, and black. Fenders might be a different shade of the body color. After WWII, the colors lightened up and two-tone paint jobs became popular.

The need to swap wheels means sometimes you have to buy cars just to get their wheels. So I’ll look for cheap vehicles with conservative-looking wheels to use as donors. This adds cost, but consider some people pay $20 and up for each vehicle on their layout. Compared to that, it’s still cheap.

Some people get irritated at having to modify vehicles before using them on the layout. It doesn’t bother me all that much. I think it’s part of the fun, and the result is that I have vehicles that don’t look like anyone else’s.

Cheap, effective terrain scenery

Most traditional toy train layouts feature painted scenery: After plopping the 4×8 sheets down on some 2x4s to make a table, the hobbyist grabs a brush and some dark gray and green paint and paints roads and grass on the board.

If you want something that looks a little better than that but doesn’t take a lot of time, here’s my method, which takes 2-3 hours to complete.This method works well for traditional toy train layouts and for wargaming scenery, where ultrarealism isn’t paramount. You can also mix the method with modern model railroading methods if you wish, if you’re modeling flat land or flat areas.

First, buy enough 1/8 inch 4×8 hardboard sheets to cover your area. If you go to Lowe’s and ask for Masonite, you’ll get what you want. If you go to Home Depot, you’ll have to ask for hardboard (Masonite is a brand name, and Home Depot doesn’t carry it). A lumberyard should also have what you need, if there’s one near you that the big-box home improvement stores haven’t run out of business. When I bought mine, a 4×8 sheet cost about $6, so this project costs a lot less than those Life-Like grass mats that some people use. And unlike those mats, these don’t shed.

I had the boards cut into smaller boards ranging in size from 1×2 to 4×2. I can then arrange the boards on my tables, leaving six inches between them for roads, and then I have curbs and stuff on my layout. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I took the boards outside and painted them. Don’t worry if you’re a horrible painter; you don’t have to be any good to use this method. I used random spray paints (whatever I had) of various shades of green, yellow, and brown. The greens I had on hand had names like Hunter Green, Forest Green, and Meadow Green. All of these came from garage sales and estate sales so they cost me very little (25 cents per can, usually). Cheap spray paints from Dollar General and other private-label brands are just fine for this project if you don’t have it on hand or you don’t make a habit of visiting every single garage sale in your neighborhood every Saturday like I do.

Here’s an unpainted board.

Next, take a shade of green and spray it. Don’t go for total coverage. Don’t think of it as painting the board; just try to stain it.

Here’s a board with one coat of green on it.

Now spray a different shade of green on it. Again, don’t go for total coverage. You’re making the green look less uniform and more random. But leave a little brown still showing.

Now dust some yellow and/or brown over the board. Basically spray the yellow above the board and let droplets fall where they may. This breaks up the monotony a bit and gives the illusion of texture. As you can see, my yard isn’t a uniform shade of green either, especially not in March.

And here’s a closeup of what a board will look like when finished.

Let the boards dry out in the sun for a few hours, then you can take them inside and use them.

This method is similar to what British train manufacturer Hornby must have used to produce its scenic panels, which it sold before WWII. They’re quick and easy and cheap, and if you vary the shade enough and lay on enough yellow and brown, the result doesn’t look like the surface of a ping-pong table.

If you want, before you lay the boards on the layout, paint curbs and lay down sidewalks where appropriate. To paint the curb, get a good-sized brush, mask off about 1/8 of an inch from the edge, and then paint the edge and that 1/8 inch from the side with acrylic paint. A bottle of Delta Ceramcoat from a craft or discount store, at a price of about a dollar, ought to be enough to do the trick. You could mask and spray the edge with white or gray primer, but I find I can do this part about as fast with a brush, and using a brush and acrylic paints lets me do this part indoors.

If you want more realistic scenery, you can get boards and then paint a base coat on them, then spread glue on the surface and sprinkle Woodland Scenics materials on it. The result is quick and easy and portable scenery that looks a little more realistic.

Take the boards inside, arrange them on the table, lay down some material for roads, lay down your track and ballast (if desired), and you’ve got very quick, easy, and inexpensive terrain for your layout.

How to get that dusty old train running again

It’s the weekend after Thanksgiving. The time of year when nostalgia runs high and ancient toy trains come out of the basement or the attic and get set up again until sometime after the new year.

Well, hopefully they make it that long. Here are some tips for getting old Lionel, American Flyer, Marx, and similar electric trains running again.

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Tin litho buildings for a traditional pre-war train layout

Note (1/4/2017): I wrote this blog post many years ago after deciding to try something different.

The approach to train layouts has changed a lot over the years and I assumed in the 1930s it was similar to the 1950s. I’m no longer certain it was. That said, if you want to know about how to make a 1950s-style layout that looks prewar, I have blog posts about vintage tin buildings and newer tin buildings that describe what I found after years of searching. If you want to know what’s available for you to buy for your own layout, check out those two links.

If you want to hear my questions that started my research, read on below.

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More video editing

I’ve been playing around with the public domain films at The Internet Archive. The movies in this collection are generally old industrial films, newsreels, promotional films, and amateur movies, some from as early as 1917. There’s a ton of old WWII and Cold War footage. The quality varies, of course, but much of it is very good, and very interesting to an armchair historian like me.
If you just want to watch old short films, the streaming RealAudio and downloadable Divx files are fine.

If you’re wanting to make your own videos using this footage–one could very easily make corny war movies using this stuff–I recommend using the MPEG-2 files rather than the Divx files. MPEG-2 is a less-lossy format than Divx, plus the files are higher resolution. They’re also about 10x larger, but worth the extra trouble if quality is important to you.

Adobe Premiere won’t allow you to do anything with the large MPEG-2 files out of the box, but don’t let that stop you. I found a freeware MPEG-2 codec. I have no idea how long this link will be good, but give this link a shot. Gatermann warned me about doing a Google search on that specific filename–it brings up some pretty disturbing content. Try searching on things like MPEG2, Win32, and codec, rather than the specific filename.

The MPEG-2 files don’t play back well on your computer because they’re interlaced, but they’re beautiful in Premiere and on a composite monitor.

Another hint for using this archive: Don’t download the files with your browser. FTP into ftp.archive.org. A separate FTP client will download the files much more quickly than your Web browser. Make sure you’re using binary mode. You can find a free GUI FTP client here if you need one.

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