Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Mini Wheel Pasta Fans

American Chop Suey was the original plan. But the grocery store was out of elbow macaroni, so I looked for something close to substitute, and chose these little mini-wheel pastas. They looked like they might have some model railroad potential as gears or big HVAC fan units. Two mini-wheels were spray painted silver. An 8-nub Lego block was turned upside-down, with a piece of styrene to cover the open Lego bottom (now the top). The Lego block was spray painted HVAC green. The mini-wheels were glued on top. Placed on top of a building, the Lego nubs space the HVAC unit up off the roof a bit. Another bit of styrene on the side suggests an electrical disconnect box.

Mini Wheel pasta

All the ingredients.

Finished HVAC unit.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Scouring Pad Hedges

These rectangular scouring pads make nice hedges to go alongside your structures. Measure, cut, glue in place. Makes the structures look like they belong there, instead of just being plopped in place.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Architectural Vehicles

Architectural vehicles on an HO layout

Here is how to populate your layout with lots of vehicles for a fraction of the cost of "real" HO vehicles. On eBay, look for "Architectural Vehicles". This search should get you there. The secret: these were never intended for model railroads at all. They are intended for architectural models, where architects have to fill up parking lots and street scenes with lots of generic vehicles to show clients.

The two primary architectural scales are 1:100 (good for HO) and 1:200 (good for N).

Take the scale designations with a big grain of salt. Here is an alleged 1:100 vehicle. I put my scale ruler on it, which says it is 14 feet long in HO. Then I went outside and measured my actual Kia Optima, a mid-size vehicle: 14 feet 8 inches.

14 feet long

These are NOT highly detailed models. They consist of three pieces: a black chassis/wheelset (wheels are molded in place, and do not turn), a clear window insert, and a body. You can snap them apart easily if you wish to paint the body a different color. You can improve their looks by painting the headlights and taillights, and a license plate.

three pieces

homemade taxis

All train stations need taxis. I made some by painting some cars yellow, adding a bit of styrene to the roof for a TAXI sign, and then adding a black stripe with a mini brush.

Cheap, but slow 

typical eBay listing

The bigger the lot, the cheaper they are! Look for the 25 or 50 packs. You can probably get 50 vehicles for less than $20. These are mailed direct from China. It takes about 3 weeks to arrive in the USA.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Simple Car Cards & Waybills

Here is a simple, inexpensive car card and waybill system for freight car routing; which minimizes handling and makes routing obvious for old forgetful operators like me, and for new operators on your layout.


  • Baseball card toploader sleeves. Toploader means the opening is on the shorter side. (Amazon
  • Car cards, cardstock cut to baseball card size (3 1/2” x 2 5/8”)
  • Waybills (cut from 3x5 index cards)
  • Channel: vinyl outside-corner molding used for bathroom tile, UPC 70673 85883 (Home Depot)
  • Elastic hair bands 


Create a list of standard abbreviations to include all possible freight car destinations on your layout. Use the same abbreviations consistently. I use three-letter abbreviations. Here is the list of abbreviations on my layout.

BOL Bolton Railcar Maintenance Facility
COM Commissary
CPR Chronicle Printing, Marias
CSH Cascade Section House
DAS Davis Passenger Station
DAV Davis Classification Yard
EEE EEE Feed and Supply, Marias
FRT Freight House and Team Track
GCF Glen Cove Fuels, Glen Cove
GCM Glen Cove Signal Maintenance Yard
KEL Kenton Electric Fabricators, Kenton
KEN Kenton Yard
KFF Kenton Freight Forwarders
LMS Leslie Marine Services, Marias
MMT Marias Machining & Tool, Marias
NPO North Portal Interchange
PAM Pamola siding
PSH Pamola Section House
PTC Precision Tooling Corporation, Marias
QUI Quinn Intermodal Yard
SPO South Portal Interchange

Install a channel all along the edge of the layout to hold the sleeves. It is helpful to label the destinations on the channel itself. The channel comes in 8 foot lengths, so it easy to just mount channel everywhere all along the edge of your layout. The channel has a flange which allows you to tack it in place from below, so no nails will be visible. Or you can just run a bead of adhesive on it and glue it in place.

channel material: vinyl outside-corner tile molding

car card/waybill rests in channel

Each freight car gets a Car Card. These are cut to baseball card size and show the reporting marks, car type, and destination for the car when empty. The Car Card is inserted into a baseball card sleeve,

car card in sleeve

Each sleeve/Car Card will always stay with its associated car.

When on the layout, the sleeve rests in the channel in front of the car.

When in transit, like the prototype, the waybills go along for the ride. A recycled margarine tub next to the power pack works well.

When off the layout, keep car and sleeve together by using an elastic hair band. These are soft and won’t mar your cars, and they won't dry out like rubber bands.


Waybills are half-size cards which have a destination written on both front and back. The destination abbreviation is written in big red letters for easy viewing, so you need not pick up a card to read the destination. The waybill is inserted in the lower half of the sleeve so it is visible in front of the Car Card. With only two destinations written on the waybill, it is a 2-cycle waybill. You can also write the load information on the waybill if you wish.

waybill inserted


There is no car “storage” on my layout. Every car on the rails is in the process of going somewhere else. (The cars go in/out interchange tracks to/from a rolling storage rack, which represents all destinations beyond the layout). The abbreviation shows where the car is going NEXT. When setting out a car at a destination, the operator places the sleeve in the channel where it will remain.

car at destination

At the end of a session, all the cars are hopefully at their destination for the day.  After a certain time has elapsed (typically, in between sessions), it is time to advance the waybills to prepare the cars for their next move. In each sleeve, turn the waybill over so the next location is showing. Now replace the sleeve in the channel, but place it standing UP to indicate the car is ready to be picked UP.

car ready for pickUP

To indicate an empty, just place the waybill BEHIND the car card so it cannot be seen, which reveals the empty routing instructions written on the lower half of the car card.

no waybill indicates empty car

Now when the train comes by, it is obvious to the operator which cars have recently been set out (the sleeves are horizontal, and waybill abbreviation matches the car’s current location); and which are ready to be picked UP (the sleeve is standing UP, and the waybill abbreviation shows a new destination).

This makes it easy to check that you delivered all your cars during the session. If you see any sleeves still standing UP, you still have work to do!

Making up trains

A length of channel can be mounted on the top of the layout in front of a sorting track, so the yard operator can clearly see which car is going where, and rearrange/block them in an efficient order as a train is made up. I just set the cards in correct order first, then shuffle the cars until they line up with the cards.

making up a train

Multiple tracks

Multiple channels can be mounted in front of multiple tracks, so the sleeves are arranged in the same pattern as the cars.

How complete is your railroad?

by Rick Mills

It is said that a model railroad is never finished, and sometimes we get discouraged at a perceived lack of progress. Measuring progress can be very elusive and subjective. 

Here is a little tool to estimate the level of completion of your railroad. 

There are ten categories. Rate each category from 0 (nothing done) to 10 (complete). Then add up the scores to find the percentage of completion for the entire railroad. 

Category Possible My score
Backdrop 10
Lighting 10
Benchwork 10
Trackwork 10
Track wiring & control 10
Scenery 10
Locomotives 10
Rolling stock 10
Structures 10
Small details (figures, signs, etc). 10
Total 100

This gives you a very rough estimate - since no attempt is made to weight the amount of effort required to complete each category. However, it can be used as a personal tracking and goal-setting tool. Say you are at 60% and wish to complete it in four years. You can strive to increase your completion by 10% per year by chipping away at the various categories that number less than 10. Perhaps make a New Year's resolution to take a "measurement" every January 1!

Friday, March 20, 2020


What to do with that little piece of leftover layout? A cemetery can fit any size space. Adjacent to a church is a logical place. Gravestones are bits of styrene painted various shades of grey (good use for bread bag closure tabs). Crosses can be cut from white plastic canvas material (I use 7 mesh, which is 7 squares per inch).

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Weed Sprayer

Here is an easy-to-make weed sprayer for your M.o.W. crew.

  • Materials needed:
  • Life-Like track cleaner car
  • Matchbox Rainmaker irrigation tractor
  • Two small brad nails
  • Decals: Microscale 87-1012
  • White (Elmer's) Glue
  • BB shot

Obtain a Life-Like track cleaner car. These are readily available on eBay (try this search) or swap meets. Remove the cleaning pad from the bottom, and the sidewalls on either side of the tank. Put a squirt of white glue into the tank, and add BB shot to get the weight up to spec (4 oz.) Then another squirt of glue, and tip the car back and forth so all the BB shot is glued in place and won't roll around. Paint as desired. Remove the caboose section temporarily to add window glazing if desired. 

Obtain a Matchbox Rainmaker irrigation tractor (try this search). Remove the two spray arms.

Drill two small holes through the deck of the car for the hinge pins, which are two small brad nails inserted up through the bottom and glued in place. Add a short piece of wire in the first stake pocket to act as a retainer to hold the spray arms closed which car is in transit. Slide the spray arms into place, and that is all!

"Weed Spray" decal can be found in Microscale set 87-1012.

Push the weed spray car along your track tank-end first, so the operator (in the cupola) can see to operate the spray arms, and retract them from obstructions.

spray arms in closed position

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Blue Flag Protection for your layout

If you use panel switches to control blocks of track, this is a familiar problem. You come to the train room, turn on your power pack, and - surprise! A locomotive starts off down the layout unexpectedly, because you left a block switch engaged last time around. This can be a big hazard, as the locomotive can head off for big trouble before you can react to stop it.

Here is my solution: a modified form of “blue flag protection”. It consists of a vitamin pill bottle, a toggle switch, a blue LED, a 1K resistor, and a 9 volt battery. The switch just turns the LED on, that is all.

The concept is that the lit LED indicates a possible unsafe condition. When I begin operating, I turn the LED on and place the device at the exit of the train area. When finished operating, I see it on my way out; and the rule is that I cannot turn if off until all locomotives are secured - in other words, all panel switches set to neutral so any locomotives on the layout are disconnected from the power packs.

This ensures that on power-up next time, there will be no runaway trains.

(This is conventional cab control, using DPST switches controlling each block). 

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Easy pipe load for Tyco flats

You've seen the Tyco 40' flat car with its three giant pipe sections. They are wayyyyy too large to be believed, and they tend to roll off anyway.

photo: eBay seller nikiship

Here is how to make a more believable - and stable - removable pipe load for this car. It will rest just inside the molded tray.

1. Trim off the vertical divider tabs in 4 places. A utility knife will slice them off. Don't worry about neatness, those spots will be covered by the new load.

2. Obtain some 1/4" ID PEX plumbing tubing from your home improvement store. It comes 5 foot lengths, in grey or white. Grey is preferable, but white can be painted. A 5 foot piece is enough to make loads for two cars.

3. Cut the PEX tubing to length: 5 pieces @ 4 1/2". This is a somewhat soft plastic, you can cut it with a utility knife and cutting board. Score the tubing all the way around and gradually work the knife through it. 

4. If there is printed lettering on the tubing, rub it off using 91% isopropyl alcohol. 

5. Set up the bottom layer - three pieces tightly side by side, and run a bead of hot melt glue along the two joints. After it hardens, run two more beads, and stick the remaining two pipes on top.

6. Now the pipe load is stacked. Trim off any hot glue that oozed out. Paint if needed. I used a stick and masking tape for a painting handle to paint my white tubing grey.

7. Apply banding. I used 1/8" automotive pinstripe tape.

Now you have a nice removable load!