Building Locomotives

As an adult I’ve been modelling for a little over 22 years. I’ve been interested in model trains since I was a small boy, however my involvement as an adult really started in about 1989, when I was browsing in a newsagent and happened to pick up a copy of the Australian Model Railway Magazine. I credit the purchase of this single issue of AMRM with the start of an enjoyable lifelong hobby, and an empty wallet. I gave up smoking in September of that same year so I was probably looking for something to do with my hands! 🙂

The sheer variety of tasks one can undertake in this hobby, and the endless list of things I’ve learnt over the years, is probably what keeps me involved. However, like most railway modellers, I have a couple of favourite things in the hobby I like to do. I really enjoy the process of designing and building layout benchwork and I have a real passion for building structures but, if I had to choose a single part of the hobby over all others, it would have to be building locomotives from scratch and through assembling kits. This may come as a bit of a surprise to those modelling friends who know I’ve only built two locomotives in the last 10 years!

There are several reasons I work in O-scale and I’ve already discussed some of these in earlier posts. However probably the most significant is the fact that I’m drawn to the weight and heft of standard gauge locomotives in 1:43.5 and the way they move through pointwork. Because the key driving force for moving into this scale was the desire to build locomotives with the volume and weight inherent in this larger scale, for me the issue of curve radii and building an empire was a secondary consideration. Building layouts in this scale has never been an insuperable barrier to me, they simply became an enjoyable design challenge.

My locomotive building career started in the same place as many other Australian railway modellers: building a whitemetal and brass kit of Australian outline produced in the UK by DJH. My first loco kit happened to be a Footplate NSWR (C)32 class steam loco, quite possibly the biggest selling Australian outline kit of all time. When I think back on the crimes against metallurgy I committed upon that poor, unsuspecting kit I still cringe with horror, wondering how I ever got it to run: but run it did and it continued to run till the day I sold it on Ebay after switching scales.

It’s been 18 years since I assembled that kit and I can say without hesitation that from that time building locomotives is the one activity in this hobby that absorbs me like no other. However, while I’ve learnt a great deal in that time and had a great deal of fun doing so, I’ve had a growing realisation over the last few years years that I want to move into scratchbuilding locomotives in a serious way and there are limits to what I can do with hand tools. I’d been considering upgrading my workshop through the purchase of some bench-top metal working machinery for quite a while, but this year I finally took the plunge and purchased a bench-top milling machine. I have every intention of getting a lathe in the not too distant future.

I can’t say exactly why I decided to splash out and buy the mill now, but perhaps turning 50 in 2011 had something to do with it: none of us live forever! After a lot of Internet price comparisons and looking at Youtube videos I ended up buying myself a Sieg X2 minimill. This model is sold widely in the US under a range of brand names such as Grizzly and Micro Mark, but it’s essentially the same machine as the one I purchased through Ebay. I joined a Yahoo! group devoted to this machine and I’ve spent a lot of time getting to know it and set it up to try getting it to do what I want it to.

I started this blog with the primary intention of writing about the building of my new layout and constructing locomotives: well the purchase and set up of this mill – and later the other machinery I intend acquiring – is a significant element in this story. Perhaps I should be up front and admit that the extent of my metalworking experience consists of one semester of high school metalwork in Year 7 in 1974. I’m a secondary English/History teacher by profession, so when I say I know nothing about this sort of machinery I mean it! Has this stopped me? Not on your Nelly! If anything, the fact that I know bugger all is a good motivator to get in an do a bit of learnin’.

The quality of the X2 mill could at best be described as fair to middling: for the price I wouldn’t really expect anything else. Straight out of the box (look on Youtube, there’s a video of a guy unpacking one) it has some fairly bad habits that make doing the sort of precise work I want to carry out pretty hair raising. For instance, it has quite a bit of “play” (the model engineers call this backlash) in the feed adjustment and this is a result of the less than perfect engineering standards incorporated into the mill. The milling head also has a tendency to drop a couple of millimeters at inopportune times that can be quite alarming, leading to damage to the part you’re working on and the very expensive cutting tools installed in the mill at the time.

But all is not lost: by working around some of the machines idiosyncrasies I’ve managed to complete a few small jobs on my mill that have come out very satisfactorily and today I completed the installation of a fairly simple upgrade kit from an outfit in the US called Little Machine Shop. I’ll set up a link in the next day or so on my blog. This kit replaces the torsion spring that comes on the mill with an air spring that is attached through drilling and tapping some holes in the mill. I have to admit that this was a very scary exercise at first because there seems so many things that I could have stuffed up! But it worked out alright in the end and you can see the result in the photo I’ll post. The air spring sticks out of the top of the mill and carries the weight of the cutting head.

The improvement in accuracy was immediately apparent and the installation was a good learning and confidence raising exercise. I’ll make some posts later when I actually use the mill to do some modelling.

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