Thursday 31 December 2020

The Obligatory 'Recap Of The Year' Blog Post...

2020?  Well wasn't that just a burning rubbish bin of awfulness?

Seriously, I rang in the last New Years, and said goodbye to 2019, by being violently ill with Norovirus, which in hindsight seems quite prophetic... 

Anyway, it seems fashionable for model-making blogs to have some sort of review of the work produced over the year, so let's get on it like a car bonnet;


It started so well.  During the carefree days of Summer 2019 I'd finally called in to the Anglesey Model Village, achieving something I'd wanted to do since the early 1990's (so a poor timekeeping/goal-achievement even by my standards).  It had been so long in fact that the place had closed, become derelict, then reopened and been refurbished.  

Anyway, I visited in my capacity as occasional contributor to "Garden Rail" magazine, and wrote a glowing article on the place (which I genuinely loved).  I got my first lead feature in a model mag, and a cover photo to boot!  God, but 2020 was off to a good start, and an article promoting the place could see lots of extra visitors flocking to them during the summer of 2020.  What could go wrong eh?  

Meh, there was something on the news about a virus in China, but bloody hell, that's miles away and it sounds like it's under control.


Early in the new year saw me do a build for the planned garden railway; I was designing and building models in G scale, so it seemed reasonable to plan to have a layout to photograph the models on some time soon.  I built the above for an article for GR, partly to try working in plasticard.  Lacking a railway of my own, I headed up to the Dales to photograph the model out on location, always something I enjoy doing.  

Oh, and I vaguely remember that day, whilst we were sat in the car eating our sarnies, them saying on the radio that a few people in Europe had this weird virus, and that the Chinese Government had been lying about how bad it was and were losing control.  But meh, we're one of the richest countries in the world, we've an established health system, and are ruled by a Government that wants to close borders like it's going out of fashion.  We should be able to cope.


Well, I should go into politics myself with my ability to predict the future.  Stuck at home (in one of the nicest Springs on record to boot), needing something to do when the Homeschooling of The Childs had finished for each day, I decided to do some more garden railway builds.  

I love the Ffestiniog Railway, and especially love their locomotive "Welsh Pony".  This long-neglected relic, that I'd climbed all over when I was little, was finally being restored to service.  I'd been looking forward to going to Wales to see it, right at the point they sealed the border and told us all to Remain Indoors.  Unable to go in person, I decided to build a model.

This was very much an exercise in experimentation, and seeing if I could build something using improvised components, as pretty much all my modelling materials were inaccessible with me staying in my house, and all the model shops closed.  OK the resulting model isn't the most accurate in the world, but as a reminder of those early dark (but paradoxically sunny) days, it'll do.


One of the contributing factors to my need to improvise with model builds was that, just as lockdown hit, our winged squatters returned to our loft.  One doesn't argue with 40-plus bats, and being as I'm not a nocturnal crime-fighter, I leave the batcave well alone.  I did decide to reference it though with the first set built for the very comics that accompany this blog...


Being a frustrated railway modeller with Three Childs in the house, I did what any sneaky chap would do, and built Younger Child a train set so I'd have something to play with.  To be fair, she requested it, as she likes trains.  This has been a joint project for a while, and Lockdown One saw the layout frequently out for a bit of work and a lot of play.  More nostalgia with the background appearance of the dragon puppet- must mean it's meant to be a Welsh railway.  God I miss going to Wales.  Apparently, it was the hottest place in the country as I took this photo, stuck in Yorkshire.


Tempted by the draw of working in something of a smaller scale than the garden stuff, and missing Wales, I decided to have a crack at doing a layout based on Ivor the Engine, the more sedate approach to sentient steam engines compared to the increasing lunacy of the Island of Sodor.  It's basically meant to look like the illustrations from the books and series but made 3D, and hopefully my Ivor project will be appearing in print soon (fingers crossed).


Hah, bet the Doctor doesn't end up locked down.  Oh wait she did, there was a whole online-only bit of content about it.  How boringly pedestrian.  Anyway, gave me more of an excuse to shoe-horn my love of the show into this blog.  More on that later...


This is probably my favourite station, and what's more, it's relatively local.  This is good, as it meant that when Boris decided to let us out of the house for more than an hour a day, and the curtain-twitchers stopped judging you for daring to be out in the fresh air, I could go see the resurgent Keighley and Worth Valley Railway operating.  I hadn't realised how much I rely on railway photography as a stress-reliever until I was banned from doing it...

I decided to approach Railway Modeller with an article based on the station, for their layout planning section, and they agreed to print something.  Of course, I needed to do some pictures, and decided I didn't really have the space to build a full layout, so knocked-up a quick mock-up so I could produce...

...some artwork.  In theory the article should be appearing in early 2021.


Apparently it's still dangerous to use the real trains, so I bet the little witches and wizards going off to Hogwarts were having fun trying to social distance on the train.  If it's anything like the one time I tried to use Northern Rail during the summer, they'd have found it an utterly ghastly experience.  

With my usual spectacular timing, I decided to write some articles about the world of Harry Potter just as JK Rowling split the fanbase with some very controversial opinions, and dragged the whole shebang into disrepute.  Nonetheless, I reviewed a garden-size train set, then invented several new swear words trying to convert it into a useable item for the garden railway, both articles appearing at the tail-end of the summer in good old "Garden Rail".


Having appeared four times in "Garden Rail" magazine this year, but still lacking an actual garden railway, I rebuilt the temporary set I made in order to have somewhere to photograph "Welsh Pony".  The result was something that could act as a photo-plank for my models, be removable and transportable, and that could be stored away from the neighbourhood cat-toilet that is our garden.  Hopefully an article on both the above loco, and the layout itself, sometime during 2021 in "Garden Rail".


I swear, I'm as guilty as anybody else in this nightmare of looking backwards to more comforting times.  The model railway company 'Graham Farish' celebrated their anniversary in the summer, and I decided to finish off a long-stalled project to recreate my childhood model railway, and photograph some of my vintage N models made by Grafar, for the RMWeb model railway forum.


Wow, remember when it looked like we had the bloody plague under control?  When they actually let us holiday in places other than your own drive?  Whilst other people were heading off to gestate terrifying new strains of the virus in Spain and Italy, we went to exotic Snowdonia, where North Wales were grudgingly tolerating English tourists for a bit of the summer.  Amongst the pleasure was some business, and a long-running project where I nick The Child's Airfix Quick-Kits to do some photographs with in the great outdoors.

The eventual destination for this large project is the Customer Images section of the Airfix site, and I managed to get quite a few shots done whilst we were in Wales...


Also undertaken whilst we were on holiday was the next layout planning article intended for Railway Modeller...  the Holyhead Breakwater.

...more design work...

...but this time a simple, scenic diorama that could be photographed on location.  Except that the intention was to take the model back to photograph at the real Holyhead Breakwater at the end of the summer hols, but all that Government-endorsed fun we'd been having came back to bite us in the arse.  I ended up getting the above shot at a reservoir a few miles from home when the Welsh border was shut again.  This of course still being the time when you were allowed to travel a few miles from home for fairly frivolous reasons...


The last thing I expected with the UK Arts Scene in terminal decline was an exhibition opportunity, but sometimes life springs surprises.  My wife has shown work with a gallery in Sunny Scunny in the past (2021 Visual Arts Centre, Scunthorpe), and they advertised an open call for a show redesigning the cover of the novel "Jack's Return Home", better known latterly as "Get Carter".  Amy was entering a piece of digital art, but I decided to do something with miniatures...  The starting point was a modified, repainted Britains figure from the Model Village Project...

...and the grotty underbridge set built for the "Observe to Preserve" project.  Not being allowed to travel, luckily my local town looked sufficiently run-down and 1960's-enough to pass muster as a backdrop.

That said, a combination of technical issues, and the increasingly odd atmosphere of being Out Doors put a damper on shooting the project on location, and I resorted to bluescreen and photo-stacking.  The curtain-twitchers must have been thanking their lucky stars, the virus was getting worse, and they had an excuse to judge people for daring to be outside again.  Is photographing a model at 6am Vital?  No, but I was safely socially distancing, and the resulting piece got exhibited.  Shame nobody, myself included, could go to the exhibition.  My spectacular timing strikes again.


So if photographing outdoors was becoming unpleasant, it was time to retreat to photographing inside, which has the benefit of being near a kettle, and allows you something to do whilst you're self-isolating when someone you know has caught the dreaded illness...

  Hornby were running a competition for the best model photographs of 2020, and rather than get a straightforward shot of their latest model, I went off-piste with an over-the-top, atmospheric shot where you couldn't really see the (twenty-year-old) model loco properly.  Unsurprisingly then it didn't make the shortlist,  but I liked the picture, I enjoyed the shoot, and it was nice to get the old 'Cakebox Challenge' competition entry out of mothballs and re-use it.

I ended up doing a few shoots, trying different lighting techniques and the steam generators to create effects, as I found the whole process quite relaxing what with the whole world-going-to-hell business.  


A project to end the year, developing the lighting/steam techniques from the Hornby shoot, but something a bit more Sci-fi in honour of the return of the metal pepperpots on New Years Day.  Ah Daleks... suddenly the whole 'being locked-inside a hermetically sealed shell, on a dying, polluted, germ-laden planet, whilst screaming in mad hysterics' things makes sense.  Very much a no-budget shoot (seriously, that Standard Science Fiction Corridor is a laundry basket), done for a bit of fun, but submitted off to "Doctor Who Magazine" to see if they bite.

Seriously, that isn't even all the work done during this plague year, but it's been nice to have something to focus on besides home-schooling, self isolating, illness, and general screaming anxiety and paranoia.  By my estimates I've around nine articles lodges with various editors awaiting publication or approval.  Hopefully print media will weather the storm, and there'll be people well enough to go to the shops to buy some of these mags, and shops to sell them.

Here's to 2021.  It can very easily be worse than this year, but let's all try like hell to make sure it isn't eh?

Oh yeah.  Peak nerdiness, with a Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy reference to see-out the New Year.

Sunday 30 August 2020

Hogwarts Express

Today on the blog, a bit of garden-scale railway modelling.  Hornby have released a large-scale set of the Hogwarts Express from the Harry Potter film series.  It's made by Lionel in the United States as part of their 'Ready to Play' range, and imported here by the good old Margate toy behemoth.  I was quite intrigued by it when I saw the early pics, and The Childs are into the books and films, so I thought I'd pre-order a set; they'd get something to play with, I'd be able to do a couple of articles for "Garden Rail" magazine with it...

First, the obligatory comic.  Yes I know Wizard is misspelled, it's a nod to Rincewind in the Pratchett books.  Two literary references to do with magic in one blog?  How academic of me.  Ish.

Hooooo boy, is my timing as good as ever...

Addressing the elephant in the room (or Hippogriff in the Astrology Tower -and yes, I made that poor joke in the review article), the JK Rowling Gender Identity Controversy.  I don't want to get bogged down into the arguments over this frankly.  I don't agree with what she says, I know a lot of the Harry Potter fanbase are calling for her books and merch to be boycotted in protest; I ordered this set before the worst of this recent controversy kicked off, and at the end of the day I'm a model-making train nerd, and I don't want the blog to descend into being a place to discuss controversial gender politics issues.  I'm just going to stick to the trains and poor comics.

I rather wish that the whole gender argument thing is the ONLY problem encountered with this particular project; no, problems of a rather more frustrating but practical nature reared their head here...

So this is the set.  A rather nice caricature of the Great Western locomotive that was repainted to be the Hogwarts Express in the films; not unlike 60's Triang models really.  Chunky, seemingly quite robust, sound effects, and surprisingly responsive remote control.

Here's what you get in the box, for around 135-ish pounds depending on where you shop.  Loco, tender, controller, two MK1-ish coaches, and an oval of track.

The track is where the problems start.  Traditional garden railway modelling in much of the world takes places on track 45mm between the rails, known as Gauge 1 (1:32nd scale) or G Scale if you're doing narrow gauge prototypes.  Lionel USED to produce this set to run on G Scale tracks.  Then they re-tooled the set to run on wider tracks of their own devising, which is what is in the shops now.

Lionel are pretty much the masters of large-scale railroading in the US and the reason for widening the gauge seems to be commercial in motivation, to make sure their trains cannot be used on other manufacturers track.  I've heard some other reasons too, but to save antagonising a company from a nation that thrives on litigation, I'll keep my head below the parapet.

Sufficed to say, as the above pic shows, the train will not run on G scale track, and the little oval of flimsy plastic track won't cut the mustard.  Time to re-gauge this thing... 

Unscrewing the baseplate beneath the loco reveals that Lionel widened the gauge by making the steel axles longer, and manufacturing extended axle bushes.  In theory, a simple enough job to do to narrow the gauge.

Hah hah haaaaa... Here's where the trouble starts.

The ends of the wheels need drilling out to expose the axle ends.  A pillar drill would be rather useful, but being in lockdown, I didn't have one to hand so had to make do with a regular electric hand-drill.

Izzy Wizzy, Let's Get Busy, with a magical hammer.  In theory, at this point, you should be able to tap the wheels with a hammer and suitable device (I'm using an extension piece for a screwdriver, that has a hollow-centred cylinder on the end) to slide the wheel along the axle.  Speaking to a garden railroader in the US who'd already performed this operation when the sets were available Over There, this sounded pretty simple.

The problem is that the Canny Company seems to have cottoned on to garden railroaders reverse-engineering their efforts to bypass the need to buy Lionel track, and have thus made some modifications.  The metal axles are RIDICULOUSLY tight on the wheels.  Look at the size of the ridges on the coach axles!  Sufficed to say, that with a lot of hammering and swearing it is possible to move the wheels along, but by God does it take effort, and you skirt a fine line between snapping the plastic and making it move at all.

You also need to brace the opposite end to the one you're hammering against a firm surface, as I found out the hard way.  I ended up using two miniature G-clamps and a steel bar.

Here's one I buggered up earlier; the plastic boss securing the motion to the centre driver shattered whilst I was trying to move the wheel along.  Repairing and replacing was a further nightmare.

The exposed axle ends need trimming down.  My contact in the US suggested a slitting disc.  Being as I was working at the opposite end of a kitchen table to three home-schooling pre-teens, I decided risking them being hit by high-speed metal shrapnel was a risk too far, so used a razor saw.

The bogie wheels on the loco are hard to do, as you cannot dismantle their housing easily.  The tender wheels on the loco were even harder, as one shattered quite spectacularly.

Ten minutes trying to re-gauge the first of 16 wheels on the coaches, I snapped (snapping nearly as quickly as the tender wheels did) and took the sensible approach of buying some very reasonably priced replacement wheels from Binnie Engineering.

The Binnie wheels are a bit smaller, but do the job nicely and saved sooooo much time.

Hurrah!  With a little further tweaking of the wheel back-to-backs, the ensemble will now run on G-Scale track and actually becomes a useful toy for garden railway use.

Is it do-able, and worth the bother?  Well I was slightly bodging things, being in lockdown and without access to a proper workshop.  With better tools, it might be do-able a bit easier.  At the end of the day it's rare to find a decent garden-sized set to a UK prototype, even if it is a mad mis-match of scales and gauges like this one.  It has conversion-fodder potential; I know of at least one modeller doing cut'n'shuts of the coaches to make scale-length Mk1's for example.

Lionel appear to have cottoned on to modellers doing this sort of conversion, and newer issues of some of their American-outline locomotives have been further engineered to stop this sort of bodgery (if you can call super-gluing it all together so you cannot dismantle it 'engineering'), so be warned, if you fancy having a go get in quickly.

It's such a pity, as Hornby could so easily have used this to be the foot in the door into the garden scales.  With Echo Toys, Playmobil, and so on pulling out of the toy railway market, there's a gap they could have occupied.  Imagine this set in BR (Western Region) green!  But alas, no.  The weird wide gauge stops it being readily useable on pretty much any existing garden line and thus limit the value of the set for introducing people to the joys of trains in the garden.

Still, it should sell by the bucket load at the Harry Potter Experience Gift Shop (I know, I'd have happily bought one when I visited last year), as long as JK can avoid pissing off the fanbase any further.  A couple of pics from our visit here, about two years back.

The real thing; very literally the real thing, as "Hogwarts Castle" ("Olton Hall") is stuffed and mounted at the Harry Potter Experience in That London.  I was glad we got to see it, as we'd meant to see the loco on the mainline in Bingley but the fire-risk that summer saw it replaced with a decidedly less-magical diesel loco, to the disappointment of The Childs.  Interestingly the Americans have carried out a bit of 12in to the Ft model making for their theme parks, with some nice replica versions of the loco instead from fibreglass.

The first piece in Garden Rail, the review, though slightly narked that Phil the Editor put me Hufflepuff House.  Really?  I know I'm not evil enough for Slytherin or Try-Hard enough for Gryffindor, but Badger-Cuddling House?  I didn't realise I'd hacked him off so much recently.

Hornby also featured some pics from this on their Twitter feed too.

The re-gauging article, somewhat dripping in sarcasm (as I wrote it straight after completing the practical process, and was thus feeling very ill-disposed towards a certain American toy company and their sneaky manufacturing skills) will be in the October Issue, and will go into rather more nauseating detail than this blog.

So yeah, anyway, go buy Garden Rail.  Even if Mister Parker doesn't do a good job as the Sorting Hat (yeah, still annoyed about the Hufflepuff dig) he edits an excellent magazine, and more people should buy it, so go on, both of you who read this blog.

Either more trains (in the Top Left Corner of Wales) or Airfix quick-kits out on location shoots next time, probably.  Depends what gets published first.