Saturday, January 17, 2015

Re-using 'found' items in scratchbuilds

I take great delight in making use of all sorts of everyday items when constructing models. Often, I use something as a component which would be difficult to make without specialist tools such as a lathe or milling machine. Here is a selection of items which I have used so far in my scratchbuilds. No doubt this list will grow as I encounter fresh constructional problems with future

Locomotive components

 Steam dome

After searching in vain for a steam dome of the correct dimensions for my Southwold Railway Manning Wardle 0-6-2T, I eventually tracked down the lid of some after-sun spray which was almost exactly the right size.

After trimming to the correct height and shaping the base to fit the boiler, it was glued into place and filler applied to give the base a tapered look.

The end-result I think belies the origins of this prominent feature of the loco.


The chimney of my Fowler inspired diesel was fairly unique in design and I could find nothing which vaguely resembled what I was looking for on any of the suppliers' websites. The barrel of a cheap ball-point pen proved to be of about the right dimensions and so this was trimmed to size and a plasticard collar applied. This was then given a generous coating of filler........

....... before being sanded down to the right sort of profile for the chimney rim. The rim was then painted with Plasticote brass paint.

Recently, the chimney has been replaced with a taller one, as drivers were complaining about the fumes entering the cab. The same technique was used to make the replacement.


I have scratchbuilt two locomotives so far which have required the construction of cylinders. In both cases, I have used copper pipe fittings.

The fittings were capped with pieces of brass which were soldered into place and then filed to match the profile of the copper fitting.

The ends were then drilled to take the piston rod and slide bars. The cylinders were then clad in plasticard and detailed with plastic bolt heads. With connecting rods and crossheads fashioned from brass strip, the mechanisms seemed to work OK.

Smokebox door

Normally, I would use whitemetal castings for smokebox doors from Garden Railway Specialists, but for my most recent loco build (see How I constructed a Manning Wardle 0-6-0ST), they were out of stock. I hunted around for something domed of the correct diameter. Eventually, I tracked down a set of plastic castors in my local pound shop which were domed and of exactly the right diameter.

The face of the castor was sliced off with a razor saw and glued in place, with a couple of strips of plasticard and a short length of brass rod to act as the hinge.


To add some extra detail to a Fowler-inspired early diesel, I decided to add a compressor on the running plate of my scratchbuild (see How I bashed a Toytrain diesel into a Fowler). The casing for the compressor was scratchbuilt from plasticard with louvres made from Cambrian Models. Various other fittings were made from offcuts of plastic ballpoint pens.

 As were the caps for the sandboxes

Steam pipes

The steam pipes for my Southwold Sharp Stewart were made from a couple of short lengths of Earth cable.

Pressure gauge

The pressure gauge for the same loco was fashioned from the brass ferule of a cheap metal biro which was bought at my local petrol station.

A short length of copper wire was soldered into a hole drilled in the side and then the ferule was flooded with epoxy resin and a dial downloaded from the internet was printed out and glued into place.

How would a scratchbuilder manage without cheap biros we must ask ourselves?

Pressure valve

I normally resort to GRS whitemetal castings for safety valves but when they had non available I decided to improvise. In my local pound shop I found a cheap plastic motorcycle for 50p, which donated its handgrips.

These were mounted on the barrel from a felt tip pen to which had been added a plasticard disc, suitably bevelled with sand paper.

For the spring, a self tapping screw had its head removed and its point filed flat.
A small piece of brass was then superglued across the arrangement to complete the fitting.

Rolling stock components

Log loads

For smaller log loads, I have used plastic mouldings and also short lengths of tree branch, but for a larger log to fit between two bolster wagons I wanted something more substantial looking but without the weight.

A length of card tube was wrapped in tissue paper and then smothered in diluted PVA, scrunched to represent bark. This was then painted with browny-green acrylic paints to give it the appearance of a felled tree trunk.

Plank loads

As I have envisaged there will be a timber yard on my railway, I also needed to include some wagon loads of sawn timber. These were made from various lengths of coffee stirrer, lollypop (popsicle) sticks and some off-cuts of stripwood.

These were held in place with twine.

Lineside components

Signal finials

I decided to scratchbuild all the semaphore signals on my railway as the cost of purchasing kits or readymade signals was prohibitive (see How I constructed some semaphore signals). The majority of each signal was made from wood or brass but when it came to the finials which cap each signal I resorted to 'found' items.

The spike was a cocktail stick, blunted with sandpaper, on to which was threaded a red wooden bead bought from that well known online auction site. The capping for the post was some filler suitably shaped.

 Milk churns

A significant source of goods traffic on my rural railway would have been milk - particularly as it is hypothetically situated in Cheshire which is a noted dairy farming area. Although there are various castings available for the early type of milk churn which would have been appropriate for the period in which my model is located, the better quality models were once more prohibitively expensive for the number of churns I needed. Eventually, my local pound shop provided me with the tapered bodies of the churns in the form of cheap plastic toys for flipping and catching balls.

The bases were cut off at the appropriate places to supply the conical shape needed (I found these difficult to model from scratch). After rims and tops were made from plasticard, the churns were painted silver and handles added from copper wire (see How I made some milk churns).


It is very satisfying to construct something from scratch, but even more satisfying to adapt something in everyday use to meet a particular modelling need. I will certainly continue looking for solutions to modelling problems by scanning the shelves of local pound shops and charity shops for things which I can re-purpose. For me, that is one of the joys of this hobby.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

DIY microstrip from plasticard

Over the years I've often had to produce my own plasticard microstrip when modelling. I used to have a mixed selection of strip which I would raid from time to time but inevitably, I would not have the required width in stock or I would run out midway through a job.

My early attempts at cutting my own strip were a bit hit and miss. No matter how carefully I measured and cut, the strip ended up being slightly too narrow or too wide, or even worse, would taper from one end to the other.

Eventually, I have homed-in on this approach. It is not always perfect, but is a lot more consistent than my previous efforts.
Some of the microstrip detail on a recent coach build
 The most important secret I have learned is to always cut strip from a large sheet. Cutting strips from a narrow strip inevitably leads to problems as the strip flexes under pressure from the blade.

Rather than measuring and marking, I cut a short section of strip the required width to act as a template. This is placed on the sheet and a metal rule positioned against it before being moved to the edge of the sheet.

 This process is repeated at the other end of the rule. And then the whole thing checked and rechecked to make sure the strip to be cut is of consistent width.

Once the rule has been positioned, the thinnest scalpel or craft knife blade is run lightly along the edge of the rule. This is repeated several times. Too much pressure and the blade will wander or will tug the card out from under the rule.

Pressure can be increased once the plastic has been scored sufficiently to guide the blade.

You should then end up with a strip which is consistent and matches exactly the width of the template piece.

Progress Report 56

Now we are entering the winter season, there are fewer opportunities to run trains, but supposedly more opportunities for finishing off construction projects. So far, it has turned out to be more difficult than expected to find time for construction and so progress has been limited. However, there are several projects now on the agenda which I can report on.


Christmas has come and gone and left me with a couple of additions to the stocklist.

IP Engineering Simplex kit

I have been considering for a while making the feeder from the copper mine to the crushers and loading hopper into a 32mm (2') narrow gauge line (see Progress Report 45). At present it is 16.5mm gauge supposedly representing a 15" gauge railway (but nearer to 13") (see How I constructed some Gn15 skips) and as such it will only ever be cosmetic.

 My thinking was that by having a short stretch of 32mm track, I would have some stock which I could run when I visit other people's garden railways. I am also considering building a simple shuttle control system using a Picaxe micro controller. In the meantime, I now have an IP Engineering Simplex locomotive kit sitting in my 'pending' project box awaiting its turn on the to do list.

Guards' / baggage van

  I saw this on a well known online auction website and considered that the price was sufficiently attractive for it to become an addition to the line. At present, I do not have a dedicated guards' van which could be included in passenger trains and thought this might add more operational interest.

 The van itself has been constructed fairly crudely from plywood and mounted on an LGB chassis. This makes it quite heavy when compared to similar stock. The mouldings are mot particularly crisp and the paintwork is far from smooth. I think it will need some remedial work after being rubbed down in preparation for a repaint.
Also, it is taller than the existing rolling stock and I may consider lowering it on its chassis somehow. This is not a high priority on the todo list and so may languish on the shelves for a while before I decide to deal with it.


I've recently taken delivery of another two etched nameplates from Narrow Planet - my preferred supplier. The former Southwold Railway Sharp Stewart 2-4-2T (see How I constructed a Sharp Stewart 2-4-2T) will become Tarporley and the most recently completed former Davington Light Railway Manning Wardle 0-6-0 will become Harthill (see How I constructed a Manning wardle 0-6-0T). I am following the tradition set by the Southwold Railway of naming locomotives after villages and towns served by the railway.

Also included in the order were some works plates. Two sets of Manning Wardle plates for the former Southwold and Davington LR locos and a set of Sharp Stewart plates for Tarporley.

Jackson Sharp coach bashes

I am making slow but steady progress with these builds. One Open coach has been more or less completed, apart from interior detailing, while the modifications to the underframes and body shells for the remaining Open and the Brake are largely done. 
Open Coach based loosely on the Leek & Manifold coaches
 I still need to complete the roofs, windows, lights, underframe detailing and balconies for these two coaches but, by comparison with the work needed to modify the bodywork, progress should now be a lot swifter.
Progress so far on the Brake End L&M inspired coach
 After reading through some postings on the 16mm NGM forum, I have decided to experiment with printing the stained glass window detailing for the opening lights on to self adhesive acrylic sheet from Crafty Computer Papers.

Deltang radio control equipment upgrades

Since the last update I have constructed a new Tx21 transmitter from a kit and taken delivery of two Rx65b receiver/controllers from Deltang.

I decided to invest in a Tx21 so that when I have visitors there's another controller so we can run trains independently. This was certainly an asset when my Australian friend visited in October (see Progress Report 55).

I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to construct the transmitter. The main circuit board was included as a completed unit and all that was required was to drill holes in the case, mount the switches and potentiometer and then solder a few wires from the transmitter chip to the various switches. A few resistors needed to be included in some of the connections but these were relatively easy to solder into place. I'd say the drilling was the most difficult aspect of the build - ensuring the holes were in the right places and correct size.

Over the past couple of years, I have accumulated a range of Deltang receiver/controllers as and when they became available. Some of the early receiver/ESCs were rated only at 1amp which proved to be quite adequate for the LGB motor blocks I was using - but now that the Rx65 3amp receiver/controller has become available, I have decided to standardise.

My most recent loco, the Manning Wardle 0-6-0 has been equipped with one of these receivers and I have been very impressed with its performance. (see Manning Wardle load test video). It seems to be far more responsive and consistent in its smooth running, Whether the Piko 0-6-0 mechanism is responsible or whether the output from the receiver is the major contributory factor remains to be seen - but I will keep readers posted as to progress once the receivers have been installed.

Sound cards

My Australian friend, Greg, came bearing gifts, among which included a few 20 second sound recording chips.

Previously, I have been accumulating the necessary electronic bits and pieces needed to construct my own sound card using a Picaxe chip and a small amplifier. I am intending to follow the guidance given by my Ozzie visitor on his railway's website -

I have also invested in a small sound recording chip similar to those used in greetings cards.

 I am hoping that this will prove small enough to fit inside the Lollypop railcar (see How I Constructed an IP Engineering Railcar)

I still have four locomotives without sound (two steam and two internal combustion) and so, during the coming Spring I intend to construct my own sound systems using a combination of these components. Watch this space for more details.

Track cleaning

One of the great joys I have now is being able to run trains with the minimum of track cleaning and maintenance, compared with that required for operating track-powered locomotives. Recently, after a few weeks with no trains, I decided to have a short running session and was pleasantly surprised at how quickly I could have something up and running compared with the days when I ran only track-powered locos.


Track cleaning preceding a running session used to take a minimum of an hour and on average would take two hours. Once the track had been cleared of debris and encroaching vegetation, I would previously have had to scrub the rail surfaces with an abrasive block and then check for electrical continuity by running a light loco around the track. (see Cleaning the track) If I was lucky, it would manage an entire circuit without stalling. Often, however, there would be a dead spot on the track. This might be caused by the breakdown of the bonding between two lengths of rail (see How I bonded the rails) or could be because the bonding between the rails in the pointwork had deteriorated (see How I improved the electrical continuity of pointwork).


My track cleaning is now a lot more efficient. Clearly, I have to remove debris and overhanging vegetation from the track as before, but that's it. To keep the trackbed reasonably clear, I have taken to sweeping it with a stiff handbrush, which not only removes leaves and branches, it clears away excess moss and encroachment from Mind Your Own Business.

I am hoping for some light snowfall before the end of the winter. Probably because of the hassle associated with using track power, I have, up to now, never taken photos of trains when snow was on the ground. Maybe a light dusting of snow will provide some photo opportunities.