Becca Jane St Clair

Personal Blog

LJ Idol Re-Post: Building Trains

[I got a lot of good feedback on this post both from people reading it through therealljidol and my friends in the garden railway world. I thought it was worth a re-post.]

For Christmas last year, my husband gave his little brother a thin, narrow length of steel (it looked like a ruler), a sheet of brass, a steel cylinder, some rods of assorted length, width, and shape, and a set of plastic couplings (“choppers”). He would have given me the same, but I joined the party a little later on. We gave the same gift to a friend of ours, and my husband had some for himself. We are going to make steam trains for the garden railway*.

Now, I’m a crafty person. I love beading, sewing, and scrapbooking. I used to have a (pink) toolbox and I could fix basic things around the home. I think the most complicated thing I did on my own was fixing the toilet at my mom’s house. But stepping into my husband’s workshop put me in a whole new world.

In 2009, my husband finished renovating the small brick building to the side of our house that had formerly seen life as a washing house and an outdoor loo. I helped him install two long workbenches down either side and hang a wall of shelves in the alcove that once held a toilet. Entering the workshop, your nose was assaulted with smells – the pine of the shelving, the white paint from the walls, the dampness of the building, the metallic smell of butane mixing in with the sharp bite of methylated spirit. A small heater hummed in the corner, and the room was punctuated with bursts of lighting from the three clip-on lights scattered around the room.

The workshop had a narrow aisle between the two work benches, but somehow we managed to fit three people into it. In front of me was the bench that was used for putting things together and Tim had screwed down a large, heavy clamp. The bench behind me held all of the workshop appliances – an angle grinder, a tall drill, and the lathe. Under both benches were shelves holding all sorts of delights – smaller clamps, delicate pliers, oil to grease the machines to keep it going, and various bits and lumps of metal waiting to be made into something.

I was given a set of safety instructions for using the workshop that included the following: Always wear boots and goggles, take off your rings, take off your necklace, and tie your hair back and tuck it into your collar. My eyes grew wide with fear as Tim began to tell me stories he had heard of people getting hair stuck in the turning lathe, or getting a necklace snagged and it strangling them. This was a piece of machinery to be feared. I wasn’t looking forward to using it.

We each have our own plastic box labelled with the name of our eventual loco and where we can keep all our bits and pieces separate. I have named my loco “Orion”, as a dedication to my father. The boxes contained the Christmas present pieces and were just waiting to be cut, drilled, soldered, and bent into shape.

The first thing we had to do was make the base for the engine, called the frames. The frame makes a box that everything will sit on top of or be attached to. Making the frames involved taking the bits of steel that looked like a ruler and sawing them down to size. Then came the painstaking task of filing down the rough edges to make both sides even….but don’t file down too far or you will have to start at the beginning again. It took me a half hour to saw through the metal, and just as long to file the cut side, and I had to do it for four sides. There also are some holes you need to drill in the pieces, as well as filing away a notch, but I hadn’t gotten that far yet before I wound up in the hospital and had surgery on my arm, which left me out of the workshop for a while. My husband and his brother have completed their frames, and moved on to the next part.

My husband and his brother were attempting to cut the wheel blanks one day over the Summer and had agreed to cut everyone’s since it was taking them ages just to saw one. They admitted defeat after two hours and only three wheels to show for it, so Tim rang a friend of his who offered to cut them for us in his workshop.

Of course, having the wheel blanks doesn’t mean we have wheels. They need to be turned on the lathe to be shaped into a train wheel. Unfortunately, our lathe broke while my brother-in-law was working on his own, so we have had to stop production while we search for a new fuse for it.

Even after we have the wheels done, we will all be a long way away from having a finished product. We have to make all the fiddly bits that go into a model steam train. Loads of terms that I don’t understand now, but I’m sure I’ll become familiar with them as we build our engines. Things like a boiler, lubricator, and regulator are all foreign words to me. The only piece of our engines we will be buying pre-made are the pressure gauges. Everything else will be handmade.

We still have a pile of tin, brass, and steel in the workshop, but I’ve got my eye on the end result. Here’s the instructions we will be following just to give you an idea of everything that needs to be done:

We all started work on our engines in early 2011. Maybe one of us will get one finished in 2012!

*Just in case you were wondering, yes, we have a railway in our garden. We model in 16mm to the foot and have models of narrow gauge trains, so our track is 32mm wide. We have small steam trains that usually run off Butane or meths, with a few adventurous souls making tiny coal-fired engines. If you’re interested in finding out more, you can check out the Association of 16mm Narrow Gauge Modellers here:

[This has been an entry for therealljidol Week 12 – Some Assembly Required]

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