Sunday, November 13, 2016

A Light Bulb Moment

Although the title of this post would suggest that I have come up with a rather bright idea, sadly it’s not the case, but I am a sucker for a catchy title and a good pun, and there is some light bulb content to come, so the title is relevant none the less.

To start with the most recent blogworthy event, after being involved with the Central Coast Wednesday Night model railway group for coming up to twelve months now, who generally meet each Wednesday night at a members house, it was nice to finally be able to host a meeting last Wednesday afternoon. Due to various circumstances including renovations, the train room has been somewhat less than ideal for hosting a meeting, but as of a couple of weeks ago everything that was in there that didn’t belong in there was removed, leaving it not only more spacious, but giving an uninterrupted 360° view of the layout.

Being part of a group with a common interest is always enjoyable, and attending quite a few meetings at different members houses and getting to see their layouts has been a great source of inspiration and a lot of fun. So for me it was good to be able to contribute and give something back to the group, and to have the guys around to not only see, but to give feedback on what has been done so far. It was a most enjoyable afternoon, with lots of train related chat, and thanks to my wife a lovely afternoon tea spread with lots of yummy food, overall a very pleasant way to spend a Wednesday afternoon.

The afternoon also included a bit of a win, in regards to getting my Mac laptop to talk to my NCE Power Pro DCC system. I have only in the last week or so managed to get the Power Pro, laptop and Wi-Fi modem mounted where they belong, so that I could begin using the JMRI software which includes Decoder Pro, as well as being able to run WiThrottle which allows for wireless operation using an iPhone/iPad.

The Power Pro has a serial input, so I purchased a serial to USB cable as suggested, but no matter what combination of settings we used we could not get a connection happening. In the end we used the NCE USB adapter that I had previously used with my Power Cab that was connected to a small test track which was operating successfully with WiThrottle. Ultimately this is not the way to go as it is said that using this USB adapter will not allow a lot of the Decoder Pro functions to work properly, but for the meantime at least it allows for wireless operation.

After doing a bit of research, it might be that I need to download a specific driver for the serial cable, information on thiss stuff is always a bit fuzzy, but I will give it a shot and see what happens.

As well as getting this connection working, the wireless transmitter for the Power Pro system was mounted above the layout and connected up, so once I put some AAA batteries in the Pro Cab and Power Cab hand throttles they will also now work wirelessly. I had the old Power Cab hand throttle converted to a radio throttle by the Model Railway Craftsman at Blacktown.

Going back a week or so, my Dad came for a visit for a bit over a week, so we spent a bit of time in the train room with the soldering iron cranked up. As part of one of the previous build sessions, the main heavy DCC bus wiring was already run around both levels of the layout, consisting of pre-twisted red and black 11 gauge AWG wire, purchased from DCC Concepts in Perth, Western Australia.

I spent quite a bit of time researching what wire sizes were required for reliable operation, and not surprisingly opinions varied quite a bit, but in the end it seemed to me that it is possible to go too small, but not to go too big within reason and common sense (i.e. car battery cable probably IS too big!).

The main bus on the top and bottom decks are around nineteen metres each in length, and the top and bottom decks of the layout are each made up of eight modules, each of which will have its own power supplied from the main bus.

I have chosen to use the light bulb method to both indicate when there is a short circuit, and to stop the whole system shutting down if a short circuit occurs. To do this I have used the 1156 style automotive bulb, the ones I ordered were 21 Watt from memory, and I ordered some in clear white, orange and red, and will experiment to see which ones look the best when lit up, so far the orange has the nod.

To mount the globes I searched around until I found what I thought were the most suitable bulb holders, these look to have the most substantial wiring coming off them, and it should be relatively simple to mount on the layout. I haven’t decided exactly how or where the light are bulbs will be mounted, but there is enough length in the wiring where they joined to the main bus that I will not be restricted in where I can place them.

The wiring from the bulb holder is soldered to the main bus wiring, and on the other end is a pluggable terminal strip, which I also purchased from DCC Concepts.

Having a pluggable terminal from the main bus feed makes it very easy to supply power to each module, that is quick and easy to disconnect and connect when required. It also means that in the meantime I can use these power feeds from the main bus to test by simply attaching wires into the plug.

The beauty of having each module individually powered and protected by the light bulb is that if a short occurs only that module will shut down, and the rest of the layout will not be affected.

I am also considering mounting a simple on off switch in line with the light bulb so that if a short does occur, power to that module can be turned off while the short is investigated, as although the light bulb visually warns of a short it does not remove it, so a secondary system of cutting power to each individual module is a good idea.

Going back a little bit further (this post is all going in reverse for some reason!), I always had it planned that the DCC system, power supply for the point motors, and the laptop would all be mounted in the same area, so when the cabinet work was built around the room, a space was left at the rear under the bench top for a suitable set of shelves and drawers.

The guy who did all of the cabinet work was able to build an insert that is divided left and right, which features a sliding shelf at the top on each side, and a sliding drawer underneath on each side, and then open space below.

Getting everything neatly organised in its place is still a work in progress, but for now the laptop and Wi-Fi modem/router are sitting on the top left sliding shelf, and on the top right sliding shelf is a power board, with the DCC system and the power supply for the point motors.

This allows the laptop to be slid out when it is needed and stored away neatly when not in use, the power board makes it easy to switch everything on from one spot, and the DCC system and points power supply are easily accessible by sliding the shelf out, but again neatly out of the way for normal operation.

I think for now that is probably enough information for this post, so until next time it is bye for now.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Gunnedah Gets A Silo

It's a little hard to believe it's been 4 months since my last update, time certainly flies when you're having fun, or even when you're not it would seem!

Progress on Gunnedah yard has been slow the last few months, mainly because of extensions to the house going on which have made access to the shed challenging at times. But with building work nearly completed, life should get back to normal (whatever that is) and hopefully work will commence on the layout again.

My dad visited a couple of months ago, and we spent quite a few days down in the shed, and got a fair bit of work done which was good. We mainly concentrated on getting dropper wires soldered to every set of points, of which there are about twenty-four in the Gunnedah yard part of the layout.

It's amazing sometimes how much time it takes to complete what sound like simple tasks. Even though each set of points had already had a dropper soldered to the frog, meaning that only two more wires needed to be attached, by the time you measure and cut forty-eight pieces of wire, strip the insulation of each end, tin one end, and then carefully solder each wire to a set of points, quite a lot of time is consumed.

As well as getting all of the dropper wires soldered to the points, we also managed to get all of the point motors mounted to the points. This was another of those seemingly simple tasks that once multiplied by twenty-four was a time-consuming task.

The good thing is that we are basically at the stage where we can start putting the foam underlay for the track and points for Gunnedah yard, then holes can be drilled to run all of the wiring through, and once the track is permanently in place, each module can be pulled out, flipped over, and all of the wiring for that module can be done. This will be one of those jobs made far easier by the modular construction method I have used.

I have been on the lookout for a silo for Gunnedah, regretting somewhat not purchasing one of the Auscision ones when they came out, but fortunately one popped up for sale only a few suburbs away, so I grabbed it without hesitation.

Even though Gunnedah has a S041 silo and the one I have purchased is a S024 style, I am not terribly worried. The positive aspect is that the S024 has a narrower footprint which will fill the available space much much better.

So a bit of a lacklustre update this time, hopefully in the coming months some more progress will be made and a more interesting update will follow.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Vision Becomes Reality

Update time again, and whilst I have a few more technical related subjects to cover on the build, this one is simply focusing on the current visual state of the layout.

When I first started visualising what "Gunnedah and Beyond" would look like back in 2008, a lot of the final details were not locked in place, but one thing that I always wanted to achieve was the "shadow box" effect, created by utilising black fascia panels with the lighting mounted neatly behind them, so that with the room lights off, the focus is completely on the layout.

Fast forward to May 2016, and whilst the layout is a long way from "completed", the last build session saw the middle and lower fascia panels mounted completely around the layout, as well as given a couple of coats of satin black paint.

Anyone who has built a layout, can probably relate to the fact that certain parts of the build are more enjoyable than others, some parts take a fair degree of time and effort but upon completion are merely another task that needed to be done that doesn't really give you a sense of achievement or satisfaction, however, other parts of the build are definitely the glory jobs, where upon completion you step back and just go "wow"!

Getting all of the fascia panels mounted and painted, definitely falls into the category of glory job, not because it was necessarily easy or enjoyable, but because when completed, the reward is huge.

With the room lights turned off, and the layout lights turned on, the achieved effect is exactly what I had pictured in my mind all those years ago. With the satin black cabinetry underneath the layout, then the matching satin black fascia panels of the layout, it creates an almost seamless transition, and the two levels of the layout with their individual LED lighting appear to almost float between the layers of black.

Okay, I might be getting a little carried away with my description, but it is merely an indication of the satisfaction and happiness that this whole thing is coming together and is actually happening.

As a prelude to the next part of the build, we temporarily laid out about twelve metres of track and connected up the NCE Pro Cab, and then put a couple of locos and some rolling stock on the track to do some "testing"!

My mate, who has been responsible for the physical aspects of the build, and who openly stated at the beginning of the project that he was not a "model train" person, is now well and truly across the appeal of this hobby. The tipping point was hearing the first sound equipped locomotive, a Trainorama 48 class, go through its start-up sequence, the diesel motor cranking into life and then sitting there idling away, and then as the throttle was opened up, hearing the engine notching up and the loco slowly building speed, and then as it was brought to a stop, hearing the engine note decrease and then the brake squeel as it stopped simply blew him away.

Needless to say, over the past week the 48 class with a small mixed goods, and the Garratt with its rake of four-wheel wagons have done quite a few trips up and down the line, all in the name of testing of course!

Anyway, the following photos will illustrate where things are at, and once again my little scenic module was simply placed in front of the Garratt to give a little foreground detail instead of the plain foam module surface, if nothing else it helps to give an idea of how the appropriately coloured and textured foreground scenery will blend with the back scene when it is all done. Also a couple of videos of the first train to move on the layout, even if it is on temporarily laid track.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Let There Be Light

This latest blog post is the 4th one detailing the construction of the layout, the 1st one detailing the construction was on February 19, so we are basically two months into the build, and I have to say that I’m very pleased with the progress that has been made so far, and particularly after this last three days of work, which has seen the layout transform.

In the previous post we had managed to get one of the Haskell back scenes in place, now the complete top level has back scenes the whole way around, which equates to just under 20 metres worth. These back scenes are extremely high quality and look brilliant once in place, but due to their length of either just over or just under 3 metres each, installing them in place is quite a tricky job.

I chose two different styles of back scenes, so as to give both sides of the layout a slightly different feel. The scene behind what will be Gunnedah yard is more of a hilly landscape, with the other side of the layout that will be the location for the abattoir and coal siding which are on the outskirts of Gunnedah is a much flatter landscape.

Obviously with two different styles of backdrop there could potentially be an issue where they joined together, however the two scenes managed to join together without clashing a great deal. Careful placement of some foreground trees should almost completely mask the transition between the two scenes.

Due to the construction of the shed, both side walls have a protrusion because of the framework behind them. We debated but the best way to deal with this in regard to the back scene, but in the end the decision was made to curve the back scene around the protrusions, which from most viewing angles very much disguises them and keeps the back scene flowing as best as possible.

With the back scenes in place, it was time to tackle the LED lighting. When I had decided to go with LED lighting, it all sounded pretty simple, by some five meter LED strips with power supplies, install the strips in place, plug in the power supplies and bingo, the layout is lit. The reality is somewhat more complicated.

The LED strips that I have chosen, consist of a combination of warm white, and RGB colour adjustable strips. Warm white strips give off quite a yellow hue, and cool white gives off more of a blue hue, neither of which look right. However, the combination of the two together very much cancel out either undesirable trait. Using the RGB adjustable colour strip gives even further adjustability in the lighting, being able to dim them slightly, and also being able to dial in slightly different colours where you may be able to replicate to a degree things like dusk or dawn, or even going a very blue shade which can go a way to giving the impression of night-time.

The biggest factor with the LED lighting, is that each five meter strip is rated as needing six amps, and whilst you can order of the strips with a six amp power supply, a quick bit of mathematics throws up the following:

To go around the room is just under twenty metres, there are two levels, and each level requires two different LED strips, which means sixteen five meter LED strips are required, and thus that would require sixteen six amp power supplies!

Adding to the complication, each RGB strip need a colour controller, and the colour controller they come with can only handle six amps, which would require the use of eight colour controllers. This was all beginning to sound a little bit nutty, and quite frankly a lot more complicated than it first seemed.

After spending a considerable amount of time looking into the RGB thing, I was eventually able to find some components that would make the installation a little bit easier, or at least slightly simpler with less components.

In the end I settled on using four thirty amp power supplies, and managed to find RGB colour controllers that could handle twenty-four amps, meaning that I only needed two of these to control the eight RGB strips.

Doing it this way meant that we only need two power supplies and one RGB controller on opposite sides of the room, much better than the sixteen power supplies and eight RGB controllers initially needed.

In keeping everything as easy to use as possible, a simple switch box is mounted underneath the bench work on two sides of the room, each has two switches on it which turn on and off either the warm white or RGB strips for half of the layout.

For the lower level, we mounted the LED strips on panels made from thin plywood, that were attached to the timber strip that runs around the front edge of the layout, using small 90° metal brackets, which we were then able to bend outwards so that the LED lights would project down on an angle making sure that the front edge of the lower level modules are lit properly.

For the top-level, the LED strips are mounted on a piece of triangular shaped timber (similar to a piece of quad with a straight and not curved section) so that they shine down at about a 45° angle. The combination of the two LED strips gives a more than adequate amount of light, and really makes the back scene come alive.

Standing in the room and looking around with the completed back scenes in place and LED lighting 95% finished was quite a big moment in the build. The basic layout looks good, but it now has a real sense of purpose, and if I may say so myself, looks absolutely awesome.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Blue Skies, Smilin’ At Me

Once again it’s only two weeks since my last update, but again some serious progress has been made on the construction front, with my mates once again putting in some solid hours on the layout.

To slightly sidetrack for the moment before getting into details on what has been done, as a basic overview, construction up to this point has probably taken around ninety hours of labour. This includes the odd trip to Bunning’s for materials, but due to careful planning these “time wasting” trips have been kept to a minimum.

The reason for pointing out the amount of hours that the layout has absorbed so far, is to highlight something that is probably not often thought about, and that is how long it will be from the beginning of construction, until you actually get to put down some track and see trains running.

It might seem like pointing out the bleeding obvious, but the end goal of any layout is to see the collection of model trains running around and doing their thing. The actual building of the layout to a certain extent is just a means to an end, and whilst there is a degree of enjoyment in the construction, it can start to feel like the actual running of trains is just never going to happen.

Because of this, it would be very easy to stop construction on some of the niceties that in the end will make the layout present very well, and simply begin laying track and getting trains running, even in a very basic way. The trouble with this is, that once trains are running, motivation for finishing off the actual construction of the greater layout can fall by the wayside, and this is where the dreaded “Plywood Central” can end up being a long-term result.

Don’t get me wrong, I am as keen as mustard to hear my collection of sound equipped locos start-up that the first time and move under their own power, and even better when they are pulling various wagons around and earning their keep, but I am also determined to make sure that the layout even without track and trains is finished to an acceptable standard first.

Continuing on with that in mind, the last few days of construction has seen solid progress on that front, with the presentation aspect of the layout taking another large step forward.

The “sky” has been painted on both levels, the paint colour chosen was derived by cutting a small sample off the sky section on the back scene that I am using, taking it and getting as near as a colour match as possible.

The “sky” is made up of 7mm thick plywood, which has been screwed directly into the metal brackets that supports the whole layout. Taking into account that the layout is approximately twenty metres around the room on two levels, it was neither a simple or small job for my wife to put on a couple of coats of sky blue paint. The sky on the top level is about 175cm high, and the lower-level sky is about 125cm high (I must get an exact measurement one day), and both levels have their challenges when trying to paint upside down.

As well as the “sky” being painted, the complete back scene boards on the bottom level, which are made of 6mm MDF, have been painted in the same colour blue. Because the lower level was always going to be more of a staging level, and due to it’s relatively small viewing angle, in a standing position you barely see any of the backdrop, and even at a comfortable sitting height you still don’t see where the backdrop meets the sky. The lower level may also see quite a bit of low relief industry and buildings placed against the backdrop, so for this reason no actual scenic back scene has been planned for the lower level.

The upper level however, will use a combination of various Haskell backdrops ( ), which to my eyes look fantastic, and very much reflect the typical country New South Wales scenery. These backdrops are printed on vinyl with an adhesive backing, and whilst in theory is simply a matter of peeling off the backing, lining it up and sticking it to the back scene boards, the combination of its length, the awkwardness of the position on the layout which happens to be in a corner (just to make it even more challenging), and the stickiness of the backing made it a slightly challenging task for my mate and wife to fit into place. However, the reward for the effort involved is huge, even without the dedicated LED lighting in place to really show it off.

The simple addition of a blue sky and background made a huge change to the way the layout looks, and the section that had the two strips of LED lighting temporarily attached looked absolutely brilliant when lit properly. I grabbed my small test diorama and placed an out-of-the-box Trainorama BWH wheat hopper on it, and took a couple of photos. Even with just a plain blue background, the effect is quite impressive.

The next task was to get the LED lighting panels mounted for the lower level. These panels which are also made of plywood, are suspended below the middle level, and are attached to the timber framing which runs around the front edge of the middle level by small metal 90° brackets. I say 90° brackets, but each panel will end up being tilted so that the LED lights project slightly downwards, the small steel brackets are flexible enough to be able to be bent to get the right angle for the lighting.

The last item of construction to be completed, was to fabricate, fit into place and paint the fascia that goes around the top edge of the layout. This was constructed from 9mm MDF, and is attached to the top arms of the steel layout brackets using a simple 90° steel bracket. Once the fascia was in place, a small piece of quad was fitted to each corner join, and then it was treated to a few coats of low sheen black paint.

Once the paint had dried, the effect was very impressive. The black fascia absolutely frames the top of the layout, and the contrast between it and the orange colour of the walls in the room is very effective. Once the middle and lower fascia panels go on and are painted black, the finished result should be quite awesome, and whilst it is tempting to get them done straight away, in the logical order of construction a few things need to happen before they can be put into place.

I’ve included a photo of the end section of the layout, which quite graphically shows like those old cutaway drawings, the make up of the layout. You can clearly see the “E” shape steel bracket which is screwed to the benchtop, the 38x19 framing underneath the foam panels, the plywood sky, the MDF back boards, the plywood LED boards on the middle level, the MDF top fascia panel, and the 75mm wide piece of timber which runs around the front edge of the middle layer, which as construction goes on becomes a far more important item than it might appear.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Modules, Back Scene and Sky Boards In Place

Two weeks on from my last update and I’m extremely happy to report that construction of the layout is ploughing ahead. From my point of view, the progress made has been nothing short of phenomenal, taking into account that apart from verbalising what is in my mind and how I think it should be built, the actual construction has been the sole effort of a mate of mine.

Making this even more impressive (to me anyway), is that until this project started my mate has had nothing to do with model trains at all, so building a reasonably large double level semi modular layout as an introduction to the hobby is no small feat.

For those of us in the hobby, building a layout starts with a picture in our head of exactly what we want, therefore from the beginning we have a fair idea of what we are working towards and a pretty good idea of how we will do it. Trying to explain in enough detail to somebody else exactly what is in your mind, so that they can visualise the finished result and then construct it, is not as easy as it may sound, and again I can’t thank my mate enough for the effort involved in the mental translation of my thoughts and ideas into an actual physical, practical and functional layout.

As for the actual progress, as the layout sits at the moment, all of the individual module assemblies that make up the lower and upper levels have been completed, the back scene boards have been completed around the entire layout on both levels, and the boards that are essentially the sky have also been completed for both levels.

Like a lot of things the photos probably don’t do justice to the amount of work involved in getting to this point, but I would estimate that from bolting the steel brackets to the bench top, to where the layout currently is, has taken six, ten to twelve hour days, so sixty to seventy hours in total. If you put that into typical “hobby time” terms, where you might spend an hour a day every day, or maybe four to six hours over the weekend, this would represent around ten to twelve weeks of work.

At the end of the final day’s work, we temporarily attached a piece of timber with two five meter strips of LED lights, one warm white strip and one variable RGB strip, illuminating a section of the bottom deck, just to get an idea on brightness, and how the variable colour RGB strip could be adjusted to give an acceptable hue, as getting a fair representation of natural sunlight is always a challenge with conventional lighting.

Without any actual scenery or trains in position I cannot say that I have found the correct mixture of lighting, but after having a short fiddle with the RGB colour palette, I am fairly confident that I will be able to find a setting that is more than acceptable.

The reason for choosing to use two separate LED strips, one being a variable RGB strip, is that the ability is there if you really want to, to get a representation of a sunrise or sunset hue which is typically slightly orange, or at the extreme, a night time hue which is typically represented with a blue colour.

The next phase of construction will probably centre around figuring out exactly how we are going to mount the fascia panels that the LED light strips will be mounted on, what mounting angle of the LED strips gives the best spread of lighting across the modules, and determine where power supplies will need to be positioned around the room to power the LED strips. Like most things there is a considerable amount of time thinking about these decisions as opposed to actually doing it, but the extra time taken in thinking these things through thoroughly is well worth it if you can do it once and it works perfectly.

If I had to make a few key points on the construction so far it would be the following.

The use of the steel brackets that the layout modules, back scene boards, sky boards and fascia boards will attach to, whilst being somewhat unconventional, are extremely strong relative to their size, as there is no way timber brackets made from only 25mm x 25mm sections would be strong enough to support what the steel brackets do.

Building the layout with each section as a modular assembly using the compressed foam panels with a light timber frame, produces an incredibly strong and very light assembly, that is very easy to lift into and out of position. This will also make working on each module extremely easy, no working upside down under bench work to do wiring, and being able to have the module in the centre of the room when working on it gives access to all sides, which will make constructing scenery that would normally be hard against the backboard very simple.

Modular construction also means that if at any time a section of the layout might want to be changed, it is a very simple process to remove and replaced with another module with different track layout or scenery, and while this is not something that would happen often, the option is there to do it very easily.

Another option would be the ability to take various modules that form a section of the layout to an exhibition, there are probably not too many permanent style home layouts that you could do this with.

That’s about it for now, but I hope to be able to report back in the not too distant future with some more progress reports.