Sunday, November 22, 2015

Building Detailed L structure, Introduction, part 2

In this post I will discuss some of the research methods I use, resources on building elevated structure and some of the tools and materials that will be needed.

A view down the tracks, with a Jumbotron in the background!

The best research I've found is just to view the structure in person and take lots of photos. Luckily, there are still numerous areas of the system that haven't been updated or modernized so it's pretty easy to find unmolested examples of original structure.

However, in this day and age of heightened security awareness, taking detailed photographs of public transportation infrastructure may cause issues (however innocent or unintentional) with local law enforcement. So, either be very cautious in one's photography or search for other's previously published photographs for reference.

Close up of station support bracket ... taken on the "sly"
Old Lincoln Ave ( NOPE- Clark Street! Thanks for the catch, Don! ). station, taken from the 2011 Illinois Railway Museum Snowflake
Special charter
Damen Avenue station, taken from the 2012 Illinois Railway Museum
Snowflake Special Charter
Lake Street Elevated, taken from the 2013 IRM Back to the 60's
2200 Series Charter
Orignal Met structure canopy support, Damen Ave
From same 2013 IRM Back to the 60's Charter
Wabash Avenue L, junction with Van Buren
From same 2013 IRM Back to the 60's Charter
Wilson Avenue station, from same IRM Back to the 60's charter

Therefore, some other options are:
  • Historical photographs from books and publications: These can be a great resource for viewing original structure. However, most photographers focused mainly on the trains rather than the structure so sometimes details can be lacking.
The "L": The Development of Chicago's Rapid Transit
System, 1888 - 1932 By Bruce Moffat ... a must have
  • Flickr: I've found a lot of close up photographs that people have taken via a search on Flickr. These then can be downloaded for future study. Quite a few folks like to photograph Chicago elevated structure as a study in urban art I gather. I highly recommend the Chicago Transit Authority group on Flickr for some good close up photographs.
  • Google Street View: I've found using Google street view to be one of the best resources available. I can closely view most of the details of the various lines without having to deal with security concerns or less than friendly neighborhoods. 
Original style Met structure from Google Street View
Harrison Street under Rush Medical center
South Side elevated, 318 E 45th street


Before tackling any project concerning building elevated structure, I highly recommend reading Eric Bronsky's series of articles on building Chicago elevated structure.

These include:

Farewell to the Old El; Mode Railroader, April 1976
Modeling Elevated Rapid Transit Lines, Model Railroader, October 1978
Casting Parts in Polyester Resin, Model Railroader; November 1981
Born to Raise L's; Model Railroader, October 1984

These four articles I believe constitute the "bible" of creating elevated structure and rapid transit modeling and are an absolute must have for any modeler. These articles can be obtained from Model Railroader / Kalmbach Publishing.

A few other useful resources can be found by searching Google Books. Interesting articles include:

Some Features of Construction of the South Side Elevated Railroad; Journal of the Western Society of Engineers; October, 1908
Reconstruction of the South Side Elevated Railroad, Chicago; Electric Railway Review; August 21; 1907

I have barely begun to scratch the surface of the amount of literature available on Google Books and their copies of the Electric Railway Review but it is worth a look.


The tools needed for this project  are rather simple. To build the masters, I plan on using just basic model railroad tools such as:

  • Xacto knives / hobby knives: I recommend buying blades in packs of 100 from I do try to change blades frequently. All sheet styrene is cut via the score and snap method. The best styrene scoring tool I've found so far is to use the back of a now dull Xacto blade. That is, instead of using the sharp side, drag the blade backwards. If you make a screeching sound, you are making a good score. For 0.040" sheet, I like to make four or five passes before snapping. If you feel your straight edge move, stop scoring and just proceed to snapping.
  • Metal Rulers: Not so much for measuring, but more for cutting styrene. And, luckily I have several rulers that are 1" (four scale feet in O or the proper height of a solid girder) wide and another that is 1.25" (five scale feet in O or the proper height of a loop style truss girder) wide ... these come in especially handy when cutting girders out of sheet styrene.
  • Glass surface: I use a tempered shelf from an old refrigerator. It makes a flat cutting surface and clean very easily with a single edge razor blade.
  • MEK: For gluing styrene I use straight MEK bought from my local home improvement center. I just keep filling an old Plastruct cement bottle that has a brush built into the lid. I go through a can about once a year, and most of that is used up via spills.
  • Rivet dies: This is the one tool that will be difficult to find. I purchased these a few years ago from a German arts and crafts website based upon a recommendation via a post from the Freerails model railroad forum. Unfortunately  I can no longer locate the site where I purchased these from (they changed URL's) and the instructions are in German, which I do not speak. I used these dies on my resin / scratch built section of structure.
The die set. Styrene is sandwiched between the two piece then an exactly
spaced rivet pattern can then be punched into the styrene.
  • NorthWest Shortlines' The Chopper III: This tool is a must have for reproducing  similar parts in styrene. The length of the Chopper III is a must for O scale. The normal Chopper with the smaller base will be too short.
The Chopper III ... a must have
  • Foam tool holders: I take old pieces of pink scenery foam and cut small squares. I then wrap the foam in duct tape and stick my tools and knives into the foam. These are especially handy for knives and glue bottles. Knives can be stuck into a square to prevent accidental stabbings and the square for the glue bottle acts as an anti-tip base. All it takes is spilling a full bottle of MEK to learn that lesson.
Basic tools: Files, rulers, glue (ACC glue store in a jar) and foam bases


For the longitudinal girders and cross girders, I plan on making all parts from styrene.

Flat cross sections of the girders will be made from 0.040" styrene with a rivet embossed overlay of 0.010" styrene.

Raised rivet strips, flanges and vertical stiffeners will be made from standard dimensional Evergreen strip styrene 0.010" thick. I've managed to create a list strip sizes that work well in creating details and these sizes will be discussed in later the design oriented posts. But, I prefer to use pre-cut styrene strips as much as I can for consistency. No matter how carefully strips are cut, they can never be as accurate as pre-cut Evergreen strips.

More ornate details such as support braces, lattice columns and other complex items will be 3D printed. I've already printed several versions of corner braces and have 3D models created for Metropolitan lattice columns.

3D model of a Ravenswood style support brace
Test 3D model of an ornamental cross girder that would be found
on the Metropolitan elevated structure
3D model of Metropolitan column and cross girder assembly

The next blog post in this series will discuss designing the girders.


  1. Lincoln Avenue? Do you mean Clark?

  2. Rookie research mistake on my part! Good catch Don! I've updated the caption.