A Bridge Too Far?

On occasion I have had cause to say that I prefer having modelled to modelling. By this I mean that it’s always enjoyable to see a model on your layout no matter whether it’s a piece of rolling stock, a static model such as a building or some scenery. However I have a guilty secret: occasionally I strike a modelling project that really drives me barmy (to use a phrase my English father uses on occasion). I’ve recently struck such a project in the form of an etched 24′ girder bridge kit from the Waratah Model Railway Co. To be accurate I should say that I actually assembled three of these kits and this is what will be illustrated in the photo I’ll post of my progress so far. This is not going to be a rant about a dud product: rather it’s going to be a look at how I overcame my own stubbornly ingrained patterns of thinking and modelling and also how I go about developing my sometimes dud modelling skills. I have a couple of minor quibbles with the design of the kit however the parts all fit as they are supposed to and it has resulted in a very nice model.

Over the course of many years of involvement in this hobby I have come to the conclusion that there are three basic ingredients needed for making some progress on hobby projects:

1. I find that regular modelling is essential to making any progress. By this I mean I make time for modelling in any average week, no matter how busy I am. The day you stop modelling is the day progress ceases and it’s amazing how quickly 6 months pass.

2. I have one iron clad rule in modelling that suits my personality: I never start a new project when the one I’m currently working on gets a little difficult. I think and plan and swear my way toward a solution to a problem. It is far too easy to flit from one project to another and never get anything finished.

3. I believe there is almost always a modelling “process” that suits a particular task and that once you have developed a process that suits you and what you’re building then you can repeat it over and over again fairly easily. Tasks such as backdrop painting, wiring, point building etc fall into this basket.

What I found difficult about these bridge kits wasn’t so much their complexity but rather the repetitive nature of the tasks required. Each kit requires you to construct two I beams from etched brass and then strips of rivet detail of three or four different types need to be soldered to these. Fairly straightforward but there are lots of little bits of detail that need to be applied to each I beam and I had six to complete. Enough to drive you barmy! 🙂 I’m a fairly experience wielder of the soldering iron – I have three different irons for different jobs – however I admit that after getting the I beams together I was struggling. Following on from iron clad law of modelling  No.2 I didn’t switch to another project when I started to run into difficulties, I just slowed down and found other things to do when I’d usually be modelling: interesting jobs like ironing and mopping the bathroom floor! 🙂 The problem wasn’t so much my modelling skills but rather my bad habit of not reading instructions and my refusal to admit that I needed to try something new.

I hate to admit that a woman might be right about something but do you think the fair sex might have a point when they tell us to read the instructions? My better half doesn’t really have any hobbies: she has children to raise, gardening and running to fill her time but surely these qualify as torture, not as hobbies? However, what on first sight might seem to be a hobbyless existence, is spiced up by her habit of thoroughly reading of instructions of everything she buys. She finds nothing sets her up better for the day than reading the labels on food packaging! She even reads the manuals that come with the cars she buys! Of course I know why she does this: it is so, when I’m sprawled on the loungeroom floor trying to get our latest piece of consumer electronic gadgetry to work, she can pose knowing questions about the blah blah frequency or the gab gab adjustment. And secondly when I head off to bed in defeat after hours of struggle, she can get the bloody thing working in about three minutes in a vain attempt to soften the blow to my male ego! As if I won’t notice the gadget working the next day! 🙂

I did read the instructions for the bridge kit but I suppose I could be accused of not taking sufficient heed of the words. One of the “recommended” tools was one of those hold and fold thingys you can buy to help fold brass etches accurately and consistently. I had got along perfectly well without one of these for several years, why would I need one now? Well the simple answer to that question was because I’ve never put an etched kit together that required so many little parts to be accurately folded and fettled before they could be soldered into position. After trying to fold just two of the most numerous parts in the kit, a small strip of rivet detail that sits inside the web of each I beam, I sent off to an online hobby store for a hold and fold thingy. It worked a treat! So the take home message from this is that if a set of instructions “recommends” the use of a particular tool you can read this to mean: it is possible to assemble this kit without this seemingly expensive bit of kit, but not if you wish to retain your sanity. Without said tool you can have either the completed kit or your sanity but not both 🙂

As is so often the case with these things my struggle with these kits wasn’t confined to just one part of the assembly process: it included a second phase of difficulty, one that I had a ready solution to if I was willing to rethink the way I was trying to go about the project. Being a sucker for a new tool, I had purchased a resistance soldering unit (RSU) a number of years ago after reading of these little wonders in the UK magazine Railway Model Journal, in my opinion required reading for anyone who takes their modelling seriously. The model I purchased was a unit from a local Australian supplier: it arrived and I tested it but for some inexplicable reason I couldn’t get it to work. And yes I know what you’re thinking, I did read the instructions! 🙂 It worked in the sense that the lights came on and I could make some sparks, but I couldn’t get the flaming thing to actually solder two pieces of brass together. After a couple of attempts I stuck the thing under a workbench where it lay unused for about three years until along came necessity in its role as the mother of invention.

It turns out that I simply had to be a bit more persistent: I knew I was going to struggle to get the detail applied to the bridge I beams using a traditional soldering iron so I got the RSU out and tried again but with one crucial difference. I’m not sure when or where but someone had recommended to me that I try Carr’s 179 solder cream instead of the solder paste I’d been using. The solder cream requires a good deal less heat than the paste I’d failed with. I carefully cleaned up two pieces of scrap brass from the kit, applied the cream and the thing worked first time! Fantastic! I didn’t bother with any of the fancy base plate techniques recommended in the material I had read on the use of these units: I just clamped the alligator clip onto the workpiece and applied the carbon probe to the joint. Red glow, puff of smoke and it worked like a charm. So the take home message from this second experience is that you really need to persist if you want a result: the Poms might have their problems, like pale legs and pretending a Scot is an Englishman just because he wins Wimbeldon, but they do know their onions when it comes to soldering! 🙂  

I’m not suggesting that this type of kit is an easy road to take, especially for a beginner: in spite of some of my friends’ conviction that the etched brass process is the answer to all our prayers, there are those of us who will never be much use with a soldering iron. However there are many good things that come with having this technology available to the hobby market. Without it many models of our favourite prototypes would be beyond us. We simply need to keep in mind that there is a learning curve to any new technique and it helps to persist if we wish to see results. Oh, and it can sometimes help to give the instructions a passing glance 🙂


4 thoughts on “A Bridge Too Far?

  1. Great piece Trevor,
    You also indirectly highlight how this great hobby can accommodate so many different styles of modelling….
    I always read instructions, but don’t always follow them, and always work on multiple projects, I like the variety, and sometimes you just need to do something else whilst the glue or paint is drying.
    They do all get finished but some take longer than others.

    • John,
      You’re right but perhaps I might have exaggerated my level of uninterest in instructions. They are often so poorly written that they lend themselves to being ignored. I have a couple of friends who have 10 or more containers with half finished kits in them. I find moving onto an easier task while a more difficult one simmers for a while is a bad habit that is very hard to break once you get into it.

  2. Hi Trevor

    Very nice looking bridge, well worth persevering with.

    I guess this goes to show that we should never be afraid to experiment and try new techniques – often this happens when a problem brings progress to a screeching halt! I learned a whole lot about how to machine whitemetal (or, more to the point, how not to :-/) when I took on manufacturing a cast whitemetal turntable kit that had been created by someone else. Sharp tooling and lots of light oil won the day, but I have a heap of scrap metal to testify to how long it took me to learn.

    179 solder cream is magic stuff; pity it is so expensive, but a little bit goes a long way. I have tried to use Carr’s 188 solder paint but I found that small parts were very easy to knock off, whereas with 179 solder (only wire, not cream) the same parts are there to stay forever – when you look up the data on all the different types of solders, it is one of the strongest commonly available.

    A question concerning your bridge-soldering efforts: Prior to trying the 179 solder cream, did you pre-tin both parts to be joined, and if so, with what type of solder?

    Paul Woods
    Whangarei, NZ.

    • Paul,
      Yes I did pre tin the parts but I didn’t really try to apply the details with a traditional soldering iron. Because of the difficulty I’d experienced, when I reached the point of applying detail, I got the RSU out and made a determined effort to get the thing to work. After it worked I never looked back.

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