Building a layout of any type is an achievement that takes a wide range of skills. Few of us have all the skills required to bring a layout to completion, but most of us have some of these skills and we tend to rely on how-to books, friends and good old-fashioned improvisation for the rest. One of my favourite aspects of layout building is making benchwork and I’ve been able to indulge myself in a modest orgy of carpentry over the last few days as I finally started installing my small portable layouts in the recently refurbished train room. I’ve spent the last couple of weekends re-installing my modelling and machinery benches, sorting through my books and magazines, drawing plans and purchasing timber and hardware. School is out for a couple of weeks so the time was ripe to get stuck into the task of building the permanent benchwork.
I had decided a few months ago that the layout was going to be a fairly modest affair utilizing both of my pre-existing small exhibition layouts, Queens Wharf and Morpeth. I have been working on these layouts on and off since 2003. I had also decided finally, after lots of soul-searching, that I couldn’t fit a continuous run into my modest space, not if the layout and my modelling work-benches were going to have to share the space. It’s not that I wouldn’t like a continuous run, it’s just that any such arrangement would come to dominate the room in a way that I would find unacceptable. The room would have had to be entirely devoted to the layout and in my experience spaces that have nothing but layout in them tend to be underutilized. Maybe it’s just me but I find the novelty of watching trains run in a circle wears off very quickly. If this was all that the room was used for then I know that most of my time would have been spent in another part of the house modelling with only the occasional trip being made to the layout room to test a loco or a piece of rolling stock. Whatever layout I built would be operated and this means that a small shunting layout around three sides of the room was quite adequate to meet my needs. This does not mean that at some future point I won’t find a bit more space, but not in the next few years. I wasn’t prepared to wait any longer. I had open heart surgery in 2007 and this tends to confront you with your own mortality!
If I needed reminding, this past few days has shown me once again that I love working with wood. Having some good tools to work with makes it that much more pleasurable but I enjoyed building my very first layout many years ago and every screw in that layout was driven in by hand: no cordless drills in those days! I’d originally toyed with the idea of building the benchwork from aluminium tube but a couple of things brought me back to wood. Firstly, to get a good price on aluminium I find you need to shop at a specialist aluminium supplier and the best one near me is only open weekdays. This is a bit limiting because I live 2 1/2 hours away on weekdays during term so the only time I can shop and build using aluminium is on school holidays. To build the same benchwork from aluminium, when compared to wood, would have worked out approximately twice as expensive, not so much for the material itself but for the special plastic joiners I use to hold the square tube together. The cross-section of this method of building the benchwork is very thin and that was one of the great draw-cards for using aluminium but in the end the ready availability of good, straight pine and its ease of use drew me back to wooden benchwork. I’m sure the aluminium would have worked just as well if I’d gone that way.
The benchwork for the “Morpeth Branch” (this is the new layout’s official title, as it is no longer just one yard but a line) is quite unusual as it is really just a set of legs to hold the two layouts off the ground at a specified height. As both Queens Wharf and Morpeth are both self-contained layouts in their own right, they don’t need benchwork as such, they really just need a table to sit on. I thought long and hard about what would serve best and I came up with a basic unit that holds two L-girder rails off the ground. These rails are set at the same width as the pre-existing layout segments with the legs formed from pairs of cross braced 2×2 pine. Each keg has a threaded height adjustment foot set into its base in a T nut. These allow for about 35mm of adjustment. I have already discovered a bump in the floor I hadn’t previously been aware of so the need for adjustment is not just confined to exhibition halls.
The last two days have shot past in an enjoyable haze of sawing and driving screws home. It occurred to me that the ice cream container I hold screws in from past layouts has travelled around the state with me over the years and it’s quite possible that some of these 30mm screws have now seen service in anything up to 5 layouts. I never glue anything, relying solely on screws. As I’ve pulled layouts down over the years I toss the screws into this plastic container and when I’m building a new layout it’s the first thing I reach for. If I keep going with this layout I may actually have to buy some more! 🙂
Yesterday as I worked, my high school woodwork teacher Mr Peters came to mind: it wasn’t his great teaching that I was thinking about but rather it’s the methodical way he went about things, the neatness of his workshop and economy of his movements that came to mind. There’s not a lot I remember about high school but I do remember watching Mr Peters sharpen tools on the bench-grinder and then use an oil stone to hone them. The routine was always the same and the result was always sharp enough to cut paper. I still enjoy watching a skilled crafts-person go about their work and I think part of this fascination comes from watching Mr Peters at school. I have a lot to thank him for.