Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Merry Christmas 2015!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!

Chicago North Shore & Milwaukee combination coach-baggage # 256 (Jewett Car Co., 1917) delivers Santa and his presents across the city. Meanwhile, the single car Chicago Transit Authority Normal Park shuttle (4000 series "Baldie", Cincinnati Car Co., 1914) slowly rumbles into the station. Merry Christmas!

And, from prior years:




Saturday, December 19, 2015

Progress for Mid December 2015

With the holiday season in full swing, time to work on the various layout projects has diminished. However, I've managed to make some small steps forward ...

First off, I've revamped some of the lighting on the new currency exchange building. I will be adding detailed interiors to the second floor of this building, but until I can finish that, I've added some window signs and some frosted paper behind to block the view.

I'm using Woodland Scenics' LED lighting kit to light this (and the station house for the Sheridan Road station) building. It's somewhat pricey, but very easy to install and being able to dim each light is nice.

Further down the line at the Sheridan Road curve, I've added some additional details to the apartment buildings there.

I still need to add ground cover in the above scenes ... but at least the buildings are mostly done.

I've also glued in the windows to the apartment building and added glazing and some shades.

This is really supposed to be a building on a main street, but it does fit here. I guess it was just poor planning on the part of the developer to face the facade of the building right onto the elevated tracks. Best that you keep the windows closed in the summer.

The reinforced concrete brick structure behind the station has been finished to a point where it can be put back on the layout:

I'll be adding some signs to the side of the building to break up the large expanse of brick.

In the car shops, the trucks have finally been placed under the Northwestern motor that I finished painting (well almost, still need to add the black to the anti-climbers) last month. Its slow but steady progress.

I also got semi-ambitious and decided to clear the cobwebs from underneath the structure. I have to do this from time to time as it does take on the look of a haunted house after some time.

And lastly, I tried to slip my Iphone onto the Southport Station platform, and using the front facing camera, take a few photos. Its harder than it sounds as you can't really see what you are taking ... but a few turned out ok.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Updates for early December 2015 ... or the motto is: don't give up!

With the holiday season in full swing and all the obligations that come with that, modeling on the layout has slowed somewhat. However, I decided to work on a few different things ...

First up ... 

Behind my Sheridan Road station and behind the Uptown Theater (my very simplified version that is wayyyy out of place) I had a cardboard / paper mock up of a building. I've decided to replace this with a more realistic structure. I've decided to model a concrete reinforced brick building.

This being O scale, this is a rather large structure (18" high by 12" wide by about 6" deep). By making the building concrete reinforced, I can minimize the amount of brick sheeting to use and eliminate any joints in the brick.

And, as this is so large, I decided to make the core of the building out of some scrap 3/8" plywood I had laying around:

This will prevent any warping as the size is rather large! I may leave the roof of the building off as I am thinking of hiding some home electronics equipment (cable modem, router and home network switch) inside as these currently reside on a shelf above the station.

Styrene strips were cut to make the concrete reinforcements using the score and snap method. Once one was cut, it was used as a template for the other sections.

For these larger buildings that typically reside in the background, I am continuing to use the brick sheets offered by JTT Architectural Detail Parts. You get two 7.5" 12" sheets for approx. $6.50. The detail is good and the bricks take mortar very nicely.

For foreground buildings I will still use the brick sheets from N Scale Architect as the quality is better and the consistency of their bricks makes stacking (for added brick details) much easier. The cost, however, is more than double so that is why I try to use these less expensive sheets for background buildings.

To attach the sheet stryene to the plywood core I used 3M spray adhesive which seemed to hold very well. The styrene "concrete reinforcements" have been added to this styrene base:

Since this building will reside behind the Sheridan Road station, details have kept to a minimum on this building for now. 

As for details, my philosophy so far has been to keep time consuming details to a minimum so that I can build somewhat faster. At this point, I'd rather get multiple buildings built, rather spend all my time super detailing one structure at the expense of overall layout progress. I feel that as time progresses, I can always return to these structures and then add more details. But, in the meantime, they can act as adequate background buildings.

And ... as the title of this post states ... don't also give up on either stalled or less than perfect projects. They can often be saved or recycled!

Case in point ...

Over two years ago I began construction on an apartment building that was supposed to be placed on my Sheridan curve module. I made the building from N Scale Architect brick sheeting (so a decent investment in modeling funds) and attempted to add as much detail as possible to the structure ...

I initially built the structure as just a flat with about 1" of depth on the sides. All details were added before painting (this is an important note!).

But, alas ... there were a few problems that stalled this structure and almost sent it to the dumpster ...

  • I realized that the structure blocked the view of the TV from my workbench. Since the "workbench" is more like a desk, I sit rather low. Definitely a bad thing!
  • I built the styrene core of this building from a larger sheet of 4' x 8' styrene that I purchased on-line. The cost of this gigantic sheet was phenomenal ... I think is was less than $10. HOWEVER ... the sheet came rolled in a tube. And, as such, the styrene maintained a memory of being rolled up. Substantial bracing was required to keep the sheet flat for model building. I did that for this structure, but the building still warped badly.I have since added additional bracing, but there still is some warp.
  • When I built this, I didn't account for adding sides and a back. Therefore, when I tried to add the sides, it wouldn't have been a clean transition.
  • I unfortunately dropped the building a few times onto the concrete floor, damaging a few sections.
So, having the above issues, the building was removed and almost thrown away. But, like any good model railroader, I really can't throw anything away (luckily).

Over two years passed, and having the new elevated extension I decided to attempt to "resurrect" the building. I figured I spent too much time and money to just throw it away.

So ... last few weeks I have finished painting it and started adding the windows:

I still need to add additional top cornice details, but I can add and paint that separately.

But with any project, I always try to learn things and especially from mistakes. Some items I learned from this project are:

  • Do not skimp on the core of a building, especially O scale. Due the size, always try to minimize the chance for any warping. While the roll of styrene was very economical, the memory of the "roll" it maintained made for later headaches.
  • If a previous foreground project doesn't turn out as expected, it can always be relegated to the background.
  • Details: When I built this, I added all the stone details (lintels), the front entryway and door, and the brick relief BEFORE I painted and added mortar to the structure. This was a BIG problem. It just made adding mortar much more difficult as I couldn't get into all the recesses and made painting more tedious. A "best practices" approach would be to add all details or brick depth AFTER painting and mortaring. It makes for a cleaner and easier process.
  • Never give up on a project ... it can usually be salvaged!
So, once almost thrown away, the apartment building is now a background building for my newest L extension...

Who knows ... I may even add some interior lighting! Arisen from the ashes, so to speak.

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 Amazon.com. 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.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Building Detailed L structure, Introduction, part 1

One of the most frequently asked questions I receive is how to build elevated structure. As you can probably guess, this isn't an easy question to answer and of course there are many ways to build elevated structure. I've decided to tackle a long term project of documenting how I envision building well detailed O scale elevated structure. This isn't a particularly complicated modeling endeavor, but it is time consuming and will incorporate several different modeling disciplines including styrene scratch building, 3D printing and resin casting.

Ravenswood style of elevated structure, made from MDF
I envision this process, from start to finish, taking anywhere from six months to a year. This is mostly due to other projects I am working on and budget limitations. Therefore, posts will be somewhat sporadic as time and other modeling allow. But, this is a project I've been wanting to start (building structure is really my favorite aspect of traction modeling) so I figure now is the time to begin.

One takeaway is to understand that no one size or style of construction fits all applications. I will be focusing on the Chicago elevated (for which there are numerous structure styles) but I think the principals are easily translatable for different prototypes.


The goals that I envision for this project are:
  • Highly detailed structure. This will include rivet detail, near scale flanges, internal girder bracing and any ornamentation.
  • Easy to produce. Simple components (girders and cross girders) will be scratch built from styrene and more complex shapes will be created via 3D printing. Molds can then be made of these items for rapid reproduction.
  • Easy to assemble / modular in nature. Thought will be given as to how the individual components will go together to ensure that construction will be easy and quick. Thought will also be given to make the structure modular in length. That is, an assembled piece of elevated structure should not be longer than three feet in length. Any longer and undue stress on the model and is very unwieldy. There will be a method of attaching multiple sections.

I'm envisioning a complete system, that once all the component pieces are constructed, rapid assembly of a significant stretch of structure can be built. Since all parts are interrelated on how they will be assembled, I'm going to give significant thought to easy of construction and casting as I progress through the steps.


As mentioned previously, I will be focusing on the elevated structure found in Chicago, and Chicago's elevated system has multiple types of construction. My layout currently consists of two types of Northwestern elevated structure: center column structure (as found on the north/south mainline and outside column structure that is found on the Ravenswood branch). For this project, I've decided to focus on the following three types of structure:
  • Loop Elevated: An obvious choice as this is the type that is most commonly associated with Chicago elevated. This consists of lattice girders and outside support columns. This will be the most difficult to construct due the lattice style of the girders.
  • Lake Street Elevated: Solid girders and columns spaced almost on the curbs. I've decided to focus on this style (found on the eastern portion of Lake Street) rather than center column structure found on the western portion just for easy of construction at this time.
  • Metropolitan Elevated. This is a center column, solid girder and lattice column structure.
The types of structure I wish to model:

Loop Elevated, Wells Street
Lake Street Elevated, photo taken from Google Street View

Underside of Lake Street Elevated, also taken from Google Street View
Metropolitan Elevated, original structure that is still standing mostly unmolested.
Photo taken from Google Street view

My layout currently does not have any streetcar or street based structure so the Loop elevated and Lake Street elevated will give me more options in the future for either expansion or modular additions where I can include street tracks under the structure.


My prior methods of building L structure included MDF girders, basswood and various styrene shapes and a combination of cast girders and individually built columns.
Some thoughts on these prior methods:

MDF Style -

The MDF style of construction is currently used on approximately 75% of my layout.

  • Easy to built. Not very complicated in construction. View my prior blog posts for construction photos.
  • Quick to build. Assembly moves rather rapidly once the component parts are assembled
  • Low cost. MDF is inexpensive, additional components such as basswood and styrene as also inexpensive.

  • MDF. Cutting MDF is pure misery due to the very, very fine dust created. Dust will go everywhere so cutting inside, especially in the layout room, is not recommended.
  • Details. The structure lacks finer details such as rivets and lattice columns or girders can't be created
  • Tools required. In order to cut the MDF into the 1" wide strips a table saw is required. In addition, a miter saw was needed to cut the girders to length. I had these tools prior to the start of layout construction fortunately.
MDF Elevated structure in the style of the Northwestern Elevated main line.

MDF girders with basswood flanges. Columns are basswood with
styrene applied for details. Braces are styrene.

Cast Resin / Scratch built columns and cross girders with some 3D printed components

My newest stretch of structure consists of this type. The girders are cast resin, styrene strips are then added to the girder castings to make the flanges. All columns and cross girders are scratch built individually.

  • More detail: All the girders and columns have rivet detail. The girder flanges are more to scale, and the column support braces are fully detailed.
  • Easy to assemble. Gluing styrene to styrene is easier when appropriate plastic cement (I use straight MEK) can be used.
  • Speed of creation of girders / column support braces via resin castings. Molds were made for double sided girders (flanges were not included) and the column support braces. Once made, multiple copies could be made quickly.

  • Lack of assembly forethought. When I made the masters for the girders, I did not add the top and bottom flanges. Therefore, for each girder (which consisted on an outside casting and an inside casting) I had to cut a strip of styrene for both the top and the bottom of the girder to act as the flange. I made these too wide and could not buy a commercially available piece of strip styrene and therefore had to cut each strip from sheet styrene. In addition, on the inner girder masters I didn't account for cross bracing. It was more difficult to add cross bracing to the structure as some of the details on the girders were in the way.
  • Scratch built cross girders. Since the section of structure I was building had cross girders with different lengths due to future station, this wasn't a big issue but it did slow construction and required additional amounts of styrene components.
  • Scratch built columns. Each column was scratch built with individual rivet details added to each column. This took a substantial amount of time and material. I'm still not 100% finished with these columns as I still need to add the footing support braces to some of the columns. Each one is built individually.
Northwestern Elevated n Ravenwood style
Girder masters (top and bottom flanges added AFTER molds made).
From top to bottom: Met top two, Northwestern next four and
an old Loop elevated resin casting I acquired awhile ago.

Cross girder detail and 3D printed corner bracing.

New structure (I'll call this version 3.0):

Using the knowledge I've gained in building the previously discussed two styles of elevated structure, my expectations for version 3.0 will be:

  • Girders: Girders will be scratch built from styrene, with appropriate rivet detail and bracing. I will model these as close to the prototype (depending on the style of structure) as possible. Girder flanges will be included in the masters and mounting methodology to the cross girders will be thought out before the masters are made. These girders will be fully detailed on both sides (two masters made - outer girder face and inner girder face). However, the inner girder casting will have accommodations made for cross bracing for the two girders that support the track. The girders will consist of two halves to make casting easier.
  • Cross girders: These too will be scratch built from styrene and molds made for casting multiple copies. Additional thought will be given to attaching the longitudinal girders for optimal strength. I may have some cross girders 3D printed to maximize rivet detail or lattice detail.
  • Columns: Depending on the style, the columns will either be scratch built from styrene (for a solid column) or 3D printed for lattice columns. Solid columns will be the hardest portion of this project as they will most likely require a two part mold. The lattice girders can be cast flat as a column would be made of multiple components.

I envision the project flow / steps to be:
  1. Create outside girder masters
  2. Create inside girder masters, keeping in mind any cross bracing that will need to be added.
  3. Create any support brackets via 3D printing.
  4. Create the cross girders
  5. Create the columns either via scratch building or 3D printing
  6. Make molds of all the components

This ends part one to the introduction. In the next post in this series I will discuss research methodology, resources and tools needed. I will try to document the building process as much as I can along the way to share this information.