The importance of a role

At work the other day we were having one of those team-building sessions, led by an external ‘facilitator’ to help us get the best out of ourselves. A little cheesy at times, but there was one part that really made me sit up and think. At the beginning of the session he asked each of us to briefly tell us our role. We dutifully went round sharing our job titles, in my case a Web Developer. Once we’d all contributed, he said “No, those are job titles. What’s your role?” So then we started thinking about what we actually do, in my case making websites. Again, he challenged us: “No, that’s a to-do list. What’s your role? Why are you here?”

It wasn’t intended as an existential question about the meaning of life, but there is some cross-over I suppose. What he meant, it turns out, was to get us thinking about our purpose in the business, to think more conceptually about what we bring to the table, without all the jargon and technical terms that others might not understand. It’s actually quite difficult to completely separate my purpose from my output, but I’ll give it a go.

As a ‘senior’ developer in a team of creative people, my role isn’t just about producing websites – we have others who can already do that. I’m here to help improve our collective capability and expertise, teaching new skills and sharing best practice. I’m here to mentor the other developers and help them improve. I’m here to transform ‘good’ into ‘excellent’. I do make websites as well, of course, but even there I’m assigned to websites that need to be really good, better perhaps than they might have been without me. Boiled down, my role here could be described as “to make things better”.

What’s interesting about taking this approach to defining myself is that it’s less precise, and yet arguably easier for everyone to understand. Others in my team might have roles such as “to transform ideas into reality”, and “to make sure everything happens”. People outside our team don’t need to understand how we achieve what our role promises, they just need confidence that it will happen.

And all this got me thinking – could I apply the same principles to other areas of my life too? What is my role in the family? What is my role at church? What is my role in the other groups I’m involved in? And is my role distinct, i.e. do I bring something to those contexts that no one else does? Or am I just another cog in the wheel? Food for thought.

What about you? What’s your role? Feel free to comment below!

Two words that changed everything

Yesterday I was idly reading the latest posts on the Model Railway Forum, as you do, and found myself on a post about a wiring diagram for a DC layout. Nothing too extraordinary there. Until someone commented the following:

I see nothing wrong with that as a starting layout. As you expand , then cab control make moving trains easier.

Cab control? I hadn’t come across that term before. Google launched into action, and about half an hour later I began to realise that there was a far better way of wiring up my own layout, and I might have to rethink it.

For the uninitiated, like me, here’s a quick summary of the concept of cab control. The layout is divided into distinct functional blocks, electrically isolated, and the power for each block is routed back to a control switch to toggle which controller should be providing power to it. It means that every control can control every piece of track, but each piece of track can only be controlled by one controller at a time.

For my own layout, I had intended on using just one of my two controllers, because it was only small, and isolation would be provided purely by the position of the points. Don’t get me wrong, this works, it’s just not as flexible or ‘clever’ as cab control.

This Christmas my family were generous enough to give me all sorts of model railway bits and pieces (thank you everyone!), including a soldering iron and various LEDs, so there’s an expectation that my layout becomes more electrically competent anyway. So perhaps now is a good time to implement cab control too, before the track is laid too permanently. The plan as it stands now is to add insulated rail joiners to created five isolated sections of track (see coloured diagram), use a common return rail to save some wiring, create a control panel with five SPDT switches, connect up my dual Gaugemaster controller, and use the accessories output to power my streetlights and other LEDs that will go inside other buildings. Still to be worked out is where in the circuit the track cleaner accessory needs to go. And of course I’ll need to teach myself to solder again.

Base coat of brown

Here are a few photos of the latest progress on my railway layout. I’ve given the entire layout a base coat of brown acrylic paint, and then added a layer of green on top in a few places. It’s still a little thin, so especially on the areas that are covered in newspaper you can see the writing underneath, so I might need another layer or so there. And of course eventually I’ll be adding scatter grass on top as well to add a bit more texture. But it’s a good start. And I don’t miss the blue at all.

Sticking with GWR

After much dithering, I’ve taken the plunge and started glueing my styrofoam base together. There’s no going back now! I’ve also decided on a GWR colour scheme for the layout, and have started repainting some scenery in readiness.

I’ve spent quite some time refining the styrofoam boards, adjusting them a millimetre at a time to ensure smooth gradients (as far as possible with my meagre skills). I’ve always seen these styrofoam boards as something of an experiment, since most people just mount their track directly to a smooth wooden surface. So it has taken some mental effort to persuade myself to remove all the track and actually stick it down. But it’s done. I bought a big tub of PVA glue, applied it neat to the areas that needed attaching, and fixed the blue sheets down. The layout is in a garage, which is cold this time of year, so it’ll take a while to dry. I’ll also need to go over some of the edges with some paper mache to hide the gaps.

Once that’s done, everything will need painting. I’m planning on basically covering the entire thing in a base coat of earth brown acrylic paint. The grass will need the brown underneath, the bare earth will be brown, and even the tarmac roads could easily be painted over brown. I’ve bought a couple of large tubes of acrylic paint to get me started on this job, and I’ll “borrow” my kids’ paint brushes.

Meanwhile, in the warm of my home, I’m sorting out some other details. I’ve been playing around with cardboard models, in an attempt to create my own custom-made buildings. So far, though, they look a little too cardboard, and I’m not entirely satisfied with the results. More practice is needed, methinks. In the meantime, I’ve had a go at repainting the buildings I’ve already got, to add a bit more detail and to establish a consistent colour scheme across the layout. I was originally planning on making up my own colour scheme, but for realism it’s probably safer to go with something that is already established, so I’ll be using the GWR colours this time – cream and light brown.

I already had a Hornby platform shelter from my previous layout, which came as a plain yellow plastic mold. Not exactly realistic. But with the application of a little acrylic paint in some strategic places, it’s come alive. You can see the before and after below. I’ve also repainted my old signal box, which was previously adorned with green details, and has now been GWRed. It’s still missing a staircase (no idea what happened to that), so I’ll have to make something if I’m going to keep it.


Scenery paint test

Today I started testing out some paint for my model railway scenery. I bought a little pack of acrylic paints off eBay last week – not nearly enough to cover the entire layout, but enough to test out a few colours on an offcut.

Bottommost on the picture opposite is green, applied pretty much neat to the blue styrofoam. As you can see, it’s come out rather lurid! I did also try applying some fine sand to the mix to add some texture, but I don’t think that’s worked very effectively.

In the middle is a road, which is just black paint. It’s only one layer thick, and it’s cracked in a few places where it’s particularly thin, so if you look carefully you can see the blue underneath. On the other hand, it does give the impression of some texture. The white lines were done with a white pen I found in Hobbycraft at the weekend, and the kerbs are white acrylic paint applied with a brush, slightly watered down.

At the top you’ll see another experiment, which worked out rather well. It started off as an earthy brown, but was put on a little weak and didn’t look particularly convincing in one layer. So then I stippled green on top, which resulted in a pretty good grass effect. It’s flat, obviously, but as a base it’s quite acceptable. I do have some scatter grass left over from my old layout, which I’ll experiment with at some point, but the paint will provide a good starting point.

What I haven’t done yet is work out a good base for the track bed. I’ll need to do some more experimenting. In the meantime, I know that I’ll need a lot of brown paint, as I’ll be using that as a base coat underneath pretty much everything. And a big brush, otherwise it’ll take forever. I think it’s finally time to start sticking the styrofoam boards down and get painting!

Landscape refining and engine oiling

Another successful evening in my garage saw a host of subtle improvements to my styrofoam landscape, smoother running from my Smokey Joe 0-4-0 thanks to some sewing machine oil, and a slightly longer siding to accommodate a two-carriage DMU.

I have to say, the blue is starting to get to me. It really needs painting. But before that can happen I need to refine the shape of it and figure out a seemlingly endless list of other details. Before I started work on it this time, the sheets of styrofoam were plainly obvious, and far too square to be believable. So I hacked away some more, taking off edges, introducing more randomness, and smoothing things off. It’s a subtle improvement. I think I shall probably still have to hide a lot of the edges underneath hedgerows and trees to make it even less obvious, but at least now it’s looking a bit more like a landscape and less like 4 sheets of underfloor heating insulation.

The most important refinement though was to the inclines underneath the track. I had previously hacked out the channels using a steak knife, so it wasn’t exactly smooth. Today I took a different approach, filing instead of sawing, extending the length of the inclines a little and smoothing out all the bumps. The track still needs persuading to lie completely flat, but once it’s actually pinned down it should look great and be nice and smooth and even.

A similar technique was used to create the road bed. I’ve planned out a road, coming in at the back and off again at the side, crossing the track in two places, and giving access to the car park behind the station. I could have just painted it on, but it occurred to me that since my entire floor is mouldable I could do an even better job by actually sculpting the road. It’s now got a slight camber to it at the edges, which has the dual effect of creating a defined edge for the curb of the pavement. Once painted up, this should look a treat! I also cut out some pieces of cardboard to experiment with the level crossings. I’ll probably use a more solid piece of card eventually, and embed it into the road a little.

Also, while I was in town, I bought some sewing machine oil. Nice and cheap from a local wool shop, and is perfect for lubricating locomotives. Smokey Joe was a little jerky, and sounded rough, so I took the top off and oiled all the moving parts. After a few laps to settle in, it’s much better. Still not perfect, but from what I read on the forums that’s typical of 0-4-0 locos due to the limited options for electrical contact.

While I was at it, and I also got my green Lima DMU out. It’s a three-carriage passenger loco, and I hadn’t planned on using on this layout simply because it’s rather big. Leaving out the middle coach it will fit on the main station, but is still too long for the top station. One option is just to live with it and assume that the DMU doesn’t stop at the top station (it’s technically a ‘halt’, after all). Or, if I’m feeling adventurous, I could scratch-build a station with a curve in it, so that it’s long enough to accommodate two long carriages. I’d worry about the clearance though, what with the overhangs on my tight radius curves. Either way, it looks good and drives well, so I’ve increased the length of one of my sidings so it’s long enough to hold those two long carriages.

Landscaping with styrofoam boards

I want a hilly landscape for my model railway, sculpted from polystyrene foam (styrofoam). I went for a super-cheap solution – under-floor heating insulation!

There are many forum posts and YouTube videos recommending various approaches to creating rolling landscapes for model railways. Most of them still rely on the track itself being directly attached to a wooden base board, or perhaps using something like Woodland Scenics pre-made inclines. A few people, though, have had great success in sculpting their hills directly out of styrofoam. I thought I’d give that a try.

My local model shop sells sheets of modeling styrofoam. It’s the extruded polystyrene we’re after, which is manufactured as a solid block, rather than expanded polystyrene, which is little balls of polystyrene packed together. I priced up the quantity I thought I wanted, and it came to over £75 – ouch! Time for a re-think. Even with taking the complexity of the landscape down from my ambitious first draft, it still came to around £35. I phoned ahead to the model shop and asked whether they had 14 sheets in stock, and they said they’d have to order that quantity in specially. At that point, I started to wonder whether I was barking up the wrong tree.

And then I stumbled across a few posts recommending getting your styrofoam boards from your local builders’ merchants. It seems that the exact same styrofoam boards are used in housing construction for insulation and under-floor heating. Exact same material, but at larger sizes, and much lower cost. I got my under-floor heating insulation sheets from an eBay seller for about £15 – less than half what it would have cost for the same thing but branded as a modeling material!

I’m pleased to say that I’ve had great success so far. I’ve spent a couple of evenings out in my garage sawing away at my blue polystyrene with a steak knife (yes, that is the general recommendation!), and while there’s still lots of refining to do I have made significant progress. I have a hill. I have smooth (ish) slopes for the track to transition from one level to the next. I have smoothed and rounded the edges so it looks slightly less like rectangular blocks (still some work to do here though). I have planned out where the road will go and made slopes for that too. And I’ve laid the track out on it and checked that the train can still traverse the incline.

It’s still a long way off completion, but it’s already looking far more interesting than a flat board. Next job will be further refining the landscape to make it look less manufactured, further smoothing out on the track inclines, and some sculpting on the roads. Only when all of that is done will I be able to glue everything together and start painting it.

Track laying

Having planned out my model railway layout in theory and built my base board, it’s time to put the two together and see if it works!

I already had all the track pieces planned out, so it wasn’t actually too hard to put it into practice. And because I had mapped it out on the computer beforehand I knew it would fit. What I didn’t have was enough points, so those went on order from eBay. Before long I had my track roughly laid out, and very satisfying it was too. I took all the fishplates out so that I could check them and then reinstall them, replacing any that were beyond hope – they had previously been painted brown, so some were stuck fast and took some persuasion (and in some case deformity) to remove. Thankfully I already had some spares.

Then I started actually connecting the track up properly. This was an insightful step, because it took out the vagueness somewhat and showed me where my calculations were slightly off. I had to cut one of the tracks up a bit because it was too long, and another I had to replace with a different combination of straights to get exactly the right fit. Still, it all went in.

Next came the electrics. Every joint was tested with a multimeter to make sure there was a good electrical join, and fishplates were replaced where necessary. In a couple of cases I had to take a screwdriver to the edge of the rails to scrape off the excess brown paint so that there was actually some bare metal to make use of. Eventually, though, all the track was connected and tested. Of course, I needed some way of hooking up some actual electricity to the track, so I bought some Hornby power clips (yes, I know, not as good as soldering, but I don’t yet have a soldering iron), some 7/0.2 wire, some toggle switches, and once I realised I needed them I got some crimped pin terminals to go with the power clips. eBay is a wonderful place.

It only took an hour or two to connect up all the wires, plumb them in under the base board, connect them up to my controller, and get an engine running around the track! Hooray!

Of course, then came a whole lot of cleaning, both of the track and the engine wheels. Sadly, at this point I began to realise my error in building such a compact layout. My favourite locomotive, a Bachmann 57xx pannier tank in GWR green, doesn’t like the new points or the tight curve radius, and keeps popping off the rails. I tried all sorts to try to persuade it to stay on, but you can hear it scraping its way around the curves. It’s just not built for R605 (radius 1) curves. Very sad. I did do a whole load of research one evening and found that Hornby had made a cheap version of a 57xx, with far less detail. Interestingly, that had flangeless centre wheels, which presumably help it to get round the tighter corners. I briefly considered whether I could take the Bachmann apart and replace the wheels, or grind down the flanges somehow, but I love it too much to tinker with it. It’ll just have to sit in a cupboard until my next layout…

In the meantime, I’ve been getting my Smokey Joe saddle tank in better working order. Being an 0-4-0 (that’s a ‘four wheeled locomotive’ for us laymen), there is apparently very little that can really be done to make it super-smooth, because there are only four potential points of electrical contact, which means things can very easily get stuttery. Still, I cleaned up the wheels, took the body off and cleaned up inside, and I’ll probably oil it too when I find some suitable oil. I also did some detailing and weathering on it, not with these expensive weathering paints and pastels you can get, but with my kids’ pencil crayons – worked a treat! It now has faded lettering, rusts spots and water staining in appropriate places. The same principle has been applied to some of the trucks and the engine shed, covering them in a layer of black pencil to make them look a bit dirtier. I also found that increasing the weight in the trucks meant that the engine had to work a bit harder, which weirdly made it slightly smoother. I’m thinking of getting hold of some lead fishing weights to cram into Smokey Joe’s bodywork, as that should help it keep in contact with the track too.

The next step is getting the polystyrene foam board to start making the landscape. I can imagine that taking some time…

Base board built and installed

Bank holiday weekends are the traditional time for DIY.  So, not wanting to disappoint tradition, I set out on Saturday to my local DIY store to buy lots of wood.  And nails.  And tools.  And then put them all together to make a base board for my model railway.

I had fairly carefully planned out my layout already, so I knew exactly how big I would need the base board to be.  I also knew that the total surface area of the board would be bigger than I’d fit in my car, so I deliberately bought it in two sheets of chipboard rather than one.  My plan also included a supporting structure underneath to provide rigidity and a little more height, and I bought some wood for that too.  So on a hot Saturday afternoon, I constructed my base board.

Sunday afternoon saw me back out in the garden, this time attaching legs.  For anyone else wanting to do likewise, Ikea sells table legs individually at £2.50 each.  And, at the Bristol Ikea at least, they have an area in their car park where they put all their ‘waste’ wood – from items that have been broken or damaged – which they’ll let you take away for free.  I picked up a few pieces, and I’ve used that to make the corner pieces that the legs screw onto.

So after a lot of hard work, including teaching myself how to use a circular saw (thankfully no accidents!), I now have a model railway base board installed in my garage, ready and waiting for the next step in the process.  The garage looks tidier now than it’s ever done.  I’ve got some more track pieces in the post too, to fill in the remaining gaps, and then I can start thinking about wiring!

Track redesign

In my previous post I shared how I had found a layout plan that looked interesting, and I’ve been developing that idea further. I’ve got nearly all the track pieces already to achieve it (minus the points), and when I laid it out on the floor it turned out to be slightly smaller, which would make it easier to fit into the garage, which is another plus. So I’m now going full speed ahead with that idea.

I’m using AnyRail to play around with track plans, though you’ll notice I haven’t bothered tweaking the layout to fill those gaps at the bottom – there should be just about enough flex in the track to allow me to connect all that up. We’ll end up with two stations, a main station and a countryside halt in amongst the trees. I’m still planning on the back section being raised slightly to add variation, I’ll just need to be careful about the gradient to ensure that my trains can climb the hill. The branch line at the top of the layout will be a timber yard of some description, prepping logs fresh from the wood to be transported to a sawmill bottom right.

There are some isolated sections too, which took some careful figuring out. On the diagram above the isolated track connectors are shown as little triangles. The sidings at the bottom each have a small section of isolated track at the end, allowing me to store more than one engine on each siding by switching those sections off. The points will isolate the other sections, so I’ll be able to leave trains in either station while a freight train makes the journey from the woods to the sawmill. I haven’t quite figured out where the road is going yet, but I’ve put in a level crossing ready for it.

I’ve also been thinking about the construction of the base board. I mulled over the idea of using old wooden pallets as a substructure, seeing as they’re really strong and some businesses give them away for free. But in the end I decided against them, on the basis that they’re really heavy and probably overkill for my little railway. So I’m now erring towards a custom-built table, using six legs I’ve just bought from Ikea, a timber frame, a 12mm chipboard base, and sheets of extruded polystyrene foam on top of that. At least that’s the plan today.

In preparation for the build, I’ve done a load of clearing out and organising in the garage, which had been fairly haphazardly strewn with stuff on the basis that it didn’t matter. Well of course now it does, so order has had to be imposed. A few items went to the local recycling centre, others have been reorganised into tidier piles. A load of old cardboard boxes nearly went into the recycling too, until I had a brainwave and decided to weave them into the inside of the garage door to provide some insulation. It’s all cut to size and wedged in, not a strip of duct tape to be seen! That should make life in the garage a bit more bearable come winter.