Category Archives: Garden Trains

Visible Computer Complete and New Garden Train Point-to-Point Device

Once again, its been a bit of time since I have last posted.  Work and other things have intervened in workshop time again…and even more into my time to post here.

Since I last posted, my son and I completed the “visible computer” project.  It turned out very well and has met all of our expectations, and it was fun too.  It has become my primary PC at home.  I’ll probably build all of our computers from now on, rather than buy them.  I like the control over the design that it gives, even without any price advantages…and it is not hard to do.

After the completion of the PC, I went back to trying to complete the new point-to-point garden railway line in our backyard.   As I noted in a previous post, I had installed all of the track and then tried to use an old analog LGB point-to-point electronic circuit to control the train.  The device just would not operate properly, and I eventually decided that it was defective (it had not been out of the box in probably 7 years or more and so was way out of warranty).

A little Internet research turned up a fellow tinkerer and a fascinating guy named Dave Bodnar, just on the other side of Pittsburgh, who is doing some amazing things with micro-controllers for garden trains.   He recently published articles in Garden Railways Magazine and in on using these small, inexpensive programmable devices in railroading.  He is a fan of the UK-based PICAXE-type controllers in particular.    In his recent article for LSOL, Dave presented his new BARC (Basic Auto-Reverse Controller) point-to-point controller for G-scale trains.  He explains how to build them if you like electronics, but he also will build them for you and sells them through his website I have found Dave to be a wealth of knowledge that he freely provides, and he gives excellent support for his products too.   While I wanted to build one, to save time I bought one of Dave’s for now.   It works great!  Far more features than the LGB model, easy installation and overall better design.  I am very impressed.

Dave has inspired me to try and build up my very limited knowledge of electronics, and I have read a few basic primers in recent weeks to scrape the rust off of the knowledge that I do have.  I’ve added “learn to build with micro-controllers” to my ever growing list of future projects.

I “helped” Dave to refine the design of his BARC a bit, by screwing up the first one that he sent me for him (I’m good at that).  Apparently “electronically noisy” train engines (i.e., not well made) can cause electronic feedback to travel back along the rails and into the outputs from the BARC.   This apparently can scramble the BARCs brains and ruin the unit.  After some emailing with Dave, we determined that my Lionel brand G-scale Thomas the Tank Engine was causing such noise and had destroyed the first BARC.  Dave immediately shipped me a new unit, and he has now added a small capacitor on the back of the BARC that will prevent this occurrence on his future models.  The BARC now runs perfectly.   You just can’t get that kind of support from a big manufacturer.   That’s why I love working with fellow tinkerers whenever I can.

I also added three of the perforated aluminum “tunnels” to the track where our plants threaten to overtake the rail line.  I came up with this technique at our old railroad at the other house, and it worked great.

Just buy the approximately 3’x3′ decorative aluminum sheets that are sold by Home Depot as covers for old-fashioned hot-water heat radiators, and bend them into a tunnel shape and place them over the rail.  The perforations in the aluminum (they come in many patterns and several colors) make the tunnels look very much like some kind of arboretum or station enclosure, and they will never rust.  I will post photos here shortly.

New Garden Railroad Point-to-Point Track

A few posts ago I wrote that I had ordered a batch of Aristocraft track for this year’s garden railway expansion.  It arrived and I mounted it on the treated lumber "shelf" that I installed a few weeks ago along the back fence.   We now have a 90′ shelf of straight G-scale track along the back fence.  This will be our second "line" and will not connect to the original loop of track.

I have been trying to get an old analog LGB point-to-point accessory unit to work on this track so that it can operate like a point-to-point trolley line until I get the time to install the "turn-around" loops on either end of the straight track to form a dog-bone style layout, but no luck so far.   I love LGB, but their instruction manuals are truly awful and always have been.   They have a US subsidiary, so I don’t understand why they have so much trouble making useful manuals.  In any case, I think that I have installed the point-to-point until correctly, so maybe it is defective.

The old LGB unit just sends the engine to one end of the track until it hits the bumper and then it spins until I turn it off…or it launches itself into space if the bumper is loose! I need to troubleshoot this when I get some time.

I really like the Aristocraft track.  It is cheaper than LGB-brand track and it seems just as good.  It also fits together perfectly with LGB track without adaptors…so it is easy to mix brands  Aristocraft track will be our new "standard" track except for the turnouts that will remain LGB.  The LGB turnouts still seems to be better quality and worth the money.

2006 Garden Railway Expansion Breaks Ground

This past weekend we "broke ground" on the Spring 2006 expansion of our garden railway.  As I noted in an early post, we intend to run our second line from within our detached garage, through a small hatch, and then along the entire length of our backyard fence and then returning via a reverse-loop type arrangement. Probably in the neighborhood of 130 feet of new track total.

This weekend, we installed a treated wood 2x4x8 vertical ledge with a 2x6x8 horizontal treated wood trackbed onto our existing treated fence about a foot and a half above the ground.  This forms a shelf that will be the straight trackbed. We’ve installed a total of about 88 feet so far.

Last night I ordered 90 feet of new Aristocraft-brand straight track from Trainworld to mount onto the new trackbed.  The plan is to start with this straight "point-to-point" type operation while I make and install the two reversing-loops on either end using the "ladder method" that I used last year.

I went with Aristocraft track rather than LGB brand track to save money on the expansion this year.  I have never used anything but LGB track, so this will be a bit of an experiment.  I hear that the Aristcraft track is every bit as good as LGB, but it stays shiny brass colored longer.  I like the dark weathering of LGB track, so hopefully the shine doesn’t last too long.

A little bit of shop time, and spring fever.

I finally spent a little time in the workshop this past weekend, but not much.   After fixing the humidifier on the furnace and repairing our vacuum, I got to spend a little bit of time working on the band saw box project again.

I cut two S-curved pulls for the drawers out of some of the ebony that I had purchased for the pegs on the desk project.  The pulls turned out very well.  I like the ebony a lot. I attached the pulls to the drawers on the band saw box, and the entire box is now ready for final sanding and finishing.  I am pleased with how it looks considering it is my first project of this type.  I hope to do the final sanding and finishing in the next couple of days.  I think I will use a clear danish oil finish on the box.  I’m also going to try to "flock" the interior of the drawers with green-felt flocking.  This will be my first attempt at flocking.

I also spent some time in the yard yesterday getting spring fever, and planning the garden railroad expansion for this spring and summer    I want to extend the small loop of track that we installed last year by running a straight run of track for most of the entire length of our back fence to the left of our garage.  This will be about 120 linear feet of track with a small loop at one end to return the train to the other direction (on a single track).   The other end of the track will enter the garage through the small "hatch" that we had built into the wall when we built the garage, and then a small turn-around loop will be placed between the two cars in the garage (right on the concrete floor).   The "straight" run of track along the back fence will be suspended about 2 feet above the ground on a shelf attached to the fence.  I think I will make the shelf out of pressure-treated lumber for simplicity and low cost.  The far loop of track will use the raised "stringer" method of trackbed that I installed last year and talked about previously in this blog.  I have been very pleased with how the loop installed last summer performed through the winter.  This seems to be a very stable and weather and heave resistant construction method.

My goal will to have the new rail line built by June.  The two lines (last year’s line and this year’s line) will be able to run independently, so we will be able to run two trains at a time without conflicts.

Great, Great customer service from LGB of America!

LGB has once again exceeded my expectations for customer service.  I recently sent back the engine that came with our starter set more than 5 years ago for service.  It had stopped running after much hard use and was years out of warranty.  I instructed LGB that I was willing to pay what it took to repair it (it has sentimental value).  It came back in the mail yesterday with a new decoder, new motor shaft and new pick-up brushes…..and zero dollar bill!! Not even a shipping charge.

LGB products are not cheap, but they are very good and their customer service is top-notch!

I will remain a loyal customer.

Garden Railroad Wiring Complete

Completed the permanent wiring for the garden railroad as described in the previous post over the weekend.  It all worked out as planned.

Picture above is of the control box on the inside of the garage wall (just inside from the layout).  It is an old tool box that has been fitted with the MTS unit and the transformer inside for extra protection.  The 2-foot piece of track is used to place an engine on for reprogramming.  The power strip powers the  layout on and off with one switch.

Had a little trouble with what turned out to be a bad piece of wire, but otherwise went easily.

Photo below is of an outdoor phone-style jack next to the operator’s bench.  All the operator needs to do is connect the phone-style cable off of the handheld MTS controller and the layout is ready to run.  Unplug at the end of the day and the layout is weather-proof.

Garden Railroad Wiring Plan

Now that the garden railroad has its first function loop of track installed, I need to formalize the installation of the track power and control system.

I want to require very little equipment to have to be taken into the house after a train operation session. So, all of the equipment needs to be protected from the rain and from theft.

I am using the LGB MTS system for track power and control, and none of the parts of this system (except the trains and track) are weather-proof. So my plan is to install the transformer, control box and associated wiring into the garage that adjoins the outdoor railroad. This way when the garage is closed, the system is secure and dry.

I will run the power wires from the LGB system in the garage through a small hole that I will drill in the wall of the garage (I am very lucky that my wife doesn’t get nervous when I say things like this!) to permanently attach the power wires to the outdoor track. The transformer in the garage will be permanently plugged-in to an elecrical outlet in the garage via a powerstrip with a switch on it so that the railroad can be easily turned on and off.

I will then run telephone cord from the LGB MTS box in the garage through the hole in the garage-siding, underground out to a fence post near the seating area in front of the garden railroad (phone cord is what LGB uses to attach their handset controls to the base station). I will mount a standard phone jack in a weather proof outlet box on the post. This way, all the train operator needs to do is unplug the handset from the phone jack on the fence and carry it inside at the end of the day. Everything else stays outside and is dry and secure.

This is the “plan” anyway.  Maybe this weekend I will install everything listed above.

Bill Logan’s Garden Railroad Trackbed Method Modified

My son and I installed the first complete loop of garden railroad roadbed and track over the weekend. Bill Logan’s flexible trackbed method works great (see early construction picture above)! I am going to paint the white part of the trackbed a dark rust color in the coming week.

I made one significant change to Bill’s method. I could not find the recycled HDPE (high-density polyethelyne) material that he uses locally, so I searched Home Depot for a comparable product and found a product called “Never-Rot”. It is sold as a white, expanded PVC-based trim material for houses made by Royal Mouldings. It is sold in many profiles and sizes and the basic rectangle 1″x2″x12′ size is perfect for the side rails in Bill Logan’s system…no cutting required! I used pressure-treated pine porch-rail stakes for the middle blocks (also Home Depot). They are cut into 1.5″ lengths and screwed in place just as Bill did. I also used these stakes as the “stringers” that elevate the trackbed off of the ground.

Total cost is less than $2.00 per foot of finished trackbed (excluding the cost of track).

The whole system works great, and the rails can be flexed to any radius curve without cracking. Installs VERY quickly. I’d like to see someone try this method for an indoor “overhead” system. Maybe I will someday.

I will post more photos as I refine the installation.

Changing Gears and Garden Railroad Breaks Ground

I temporarily converted the woodshop into a metal/machine shop over the 4th of July weekend for the lathe milling attachment project and the garden railroad trackbed. These projects are a little off-topic for this blog, but they are both being produced in my "shop" so they will be included in this blog.

We began to break ground on the new garden railroad. As you can see on the site, we had a garden railroad at our old home, but since we move 3 years ago the railroad has been in storage while more high-priority projects were completed (we run mostly LGB equipment).  I intend to start small and get a loop of outdoor track running, and then grow from there.

The test pieces of flexible trackbed that I made a few weeks ago were installed and work great (based on Bill Logan’s design). Stable, flexible…looking good. I now need to make another 60 feet or so of trackbed in the shop before we can hit the yard again. We are probably two weeks or so from running the trains on the new trackbed…I’d say a target date would be the weekend of July 30th.

Additionally, I began to cut the metal rails for the lathe-attachment milling machine. They are made out of 1" square tubing from Home Depot. The tubes cut easily with a metal cutting blade in the reciprocating saw and then they are ground smooth on the grinder. Overall the rail frame will be 36" long and about 6" wide at the base.

Finally, my son and I painted the Adirondack chairs and put them in the yard, they look good.

Three projects going at once!  (not counting the desks that are on hold for the moment)….I like it like that.

Return to the Shop and Garden Railroad Trackbed Jig

Its been a few weeks since I have been able to spend time in the shop…vacation (rainy at the Outer Banks), sick kids, the usual.

My birthday brought me a JDS Air Cleaner for the shop from my wife. I have not installed it yet, but it looks like a great unit. I will report on how it works when I get it mounted on the ceiling.

Several projects are now ready to hit the shop at once:

* continuing the two Greene and Greene Desks
* build three more oak Adirondack chairs for our backyard
* build the new “ladder-style” roadbed for our outdoor garden railroad (another of my hobbies)

I did manage to finsh a jig for the garden railroad roadbed during my “break from the shop” over the past few weeks. The jig should make it ease to turn out the volume of roadbed that I will need much faster.

I’m also having problems with my chop saw (a ten year old Craftsman 10″)…not sure yet what is wrong with it. Maybe bad motor brushes. Makes a horrible noise. I need to spend some time on it between projects.