A Year in the Life of a Model Railroader

The Town of Here

The Town of Here

The HO model trains in this display were collected over the course of one year by a gentleman we’ll call “Gunney.”  Gunney lived in Bellingham, Washington, with his devoted wife, Violet.  He suffered from a debilitating lung disease (COPD) over the last few years of his life which severely limited his ability to move around and exert himself.  The thing that gave him his greatest pleasure and reward over the last year of his rich life was model railroading.  “It made his life count,” says Violet.

Gunney served his Country over three decades in the Korean War and Vietnam, retiring as a Sergeant in the Marine Corps. He worked as a carpenter and other professions using his agile hands and sharp mind.

As Gunney’s illness progressed, he went on disability and searched for life experiences to enjoy: He bought an ATV with the intent to go to the backwoods, find a promising stream and pan for gold; unfortunately the hike into the wilderness proved to be too taxing. Then he acquired a fishing rig; this also became too difficult to manage with his breathing problem.

In his youth, Gunney played with model trains, like so many others boys of his generation and since. Later in life he would recall his boyhood hobby as something he might want to do again, but was reluctant to spend the money. When he mentioned this to Violet, she encouraged him to take up his hobby again. Violet saw that model railroading made her husband smile, and was a perfect fit for him in this stage of his life. And so, in the last year of his life, Gunny got into model railroading with a passion.

Gunney"s Train Washing Station

Gunney’s Train Washing Station

He constructed over three dozen HO scale model building kits of every description, paying close attention to detail and setting. Violet describes her husband as eagerly heading out to his “train shack” to spend the better part of each day working on the buildings which made up his sizeable layout. He built (with the help and support of his many Veteran friends) chest-high train tables, and placed the buildings as a realistic scenic railway. Some of the buildings, like the train washing station, were scratch-built to scale by Gunney using parts and imagination.

Gunney collected roughly 80 pieces of rolling stock over the course of the year. He purchased instructional books, magazines and DVDs. He acquire “miles” of track, cork road bed, modeling tools, landscape materials and people figures to populate his village, which he christened “The Town of Here.”

As Gunney grew weaker, he became bedridden. Gunney never got a chance to lay any track before he passed away.

So, as a memorial, Violet and all his friends gathered together for a track laying ceremony: Violet laid down the first section of track; then each of his buddies laid down another section of track one at a time until the entire route through “Here” was complete.

Gunney will be long-remembered by his family, his Brothers-in-Arms, his friends and neighbors, and strangers like you and me as, in the words of his memorial, “a committed Marine, a devoted husband, a loving father, a selfless mentor and an unconditional friend.”


The Ins and Outs of Doors, Part 2

It was a dark and stormy night.  Without a sound, the study door began to slowly swing open until it struck the wall with a soft “clunk.”  A rush of cold air entered the room, sending chills up my spine.  Was this the spirit of a long-dead lodger, a disembodied specter, or the ghost of Christmas bills past due?

Doors seeming to open or close of themselves might be the source of at least some if not most of the reports of ghosts and hauntings over the many centuries to the present.  It’s a common phenomenon with a cause based squarely in the world of the living.  It’s even got a name:  ghosting.

Part 1 covered the ins and outs of properly installing an interior pre-hung door.  This post covers some of the idiosyncratic issues associated with doors, their diagnosis and repair, and how to retrofit a new door slab to an existing jamb.

Doors that ghost are leaning, perhaps imperceptibly, as a result of shoddy installation or natural movement of the structure over time. Fixing doors that ghost can be a bit of a project, but worth the effort to eliminate the annoyance and potential embarrassment of a door opening unexpectedly, especially a bathroom door…

Believe it or not,  I have two doors in my home that ghost open.  And, yes, one of them is a bathroom door.  The other is a bedroom door.  The bedroom door also does not latch when closed against the stop.  We’ll fix that, also, but first let’s exorcise the ghost.

Fixing a door that ghosts can be as easy as removing the middle (or top) hinge pin, supporting it between two scraps of wood and striking it with a hammer.  This action puts a slight bend in the pin; when reinserted in the hinge, the bend creates just enough friction to overcome the tendency for gravity to open (or close) the door.  Because of its simplicity, it’s worth trying a second hammer blow to make a larger bend; just don’t take it to the extreme of bending it into a “C” or “U.”

If the lean angle is significant, the above technique might not work to stop the door’s movement.  Now comes the fun part:

Carefully pry the casing away from both sides of the door and remove it.  You’ll want to slice the paint seams with a razor knife to avoid tearing away paint, etc.  Taking time and care to do this will avoid damaging the trim pieces and allow you to put them back neatly when done.  Remove nails from the jamb; the nails that stay in the molding can be reinserted in their holes when replacing the casing.  (Hey, I made a rhyme…)

Now you have the area around the door jamb exposed.  If there are issues with the door slab not touching the stops evenly all the way around (see Part 1), now is the opportunity to fix that as well.

Note which way gravity is causing the door to swing.  Move both jamb legs to make the door plumb; use a long level to find plumb.  It should now not ghost.  You might have to split and remove shims to free up the jamb to move.  Keep the nails in place; they will hold the structure and bend enough to move the jambs plumb.  Replace the shims snugly, add a new nail or two, replace the casing and take the dog for a walk.  Good boy!

The bedroom door doesn’t latch because the bolt doesn’t line up with the hole in the strike plate.  The easiest way to make them line up is to take off the strike plate, make the hole in the jamb larger in the location it needs to be, cut the mortise for the plate in the new location with a utility knife and/or sharp chisel and attach the plate with screws in the new location.  (Old screw holes causing problems?  See below…)  You can dress up the old mortise cut with wood filler.

On the other hand, it would be a great learning experience to remove the problem door from its rough opening and reinstall it following these guidelines in Part 1.  There is no better teacher than experience.

A replacement slab door should be sized precisely based on the old door it is replacing.  Measure the height, width and thickness of the old door slab.  The direction of swing and “handedness” (left or right) can easily be determined by simply backing your rear end up to where the so-called butt hinges are on the jamb and noting whether the door swings to the left or right.

This is called the “butt-to-butt” method for obvious reasons.  When you put in the order for the new slab, this information will save mistakes and misunderstandings.  Also, a picture is worth a thousand words:  Make a plan drawing (“bird’s-eye view”) of the room and door and take that with you to the door store.  (Whoops, I did it again…)

To digress:  The absolute simplest, fool-proof way to ensure an accurate replica of the former door is to give it to the fabricator/lumber yard/door store which is supplying your new door.  Then, it’s all on them and nothing can be lost in translation.

If you are doing the mortises for the hinges, measure their locations carefully on the old door and duplicate them on the new door slab.  The lockset borings will probably also be duplicated, but check the specs (there I go again) that come with your new lockset hardware.  A spade bit is used to bore the bolt hole in the edge of the door, 7/8″ or 1″ diameter depending on the specifications of your lockset.  The handle hole requires a hole saw of the correct diameter, usually 2 1/8″.  Start the big hole on one side; bore through until only the pilot bit comes through the other side.  Now cut the hole from the other side using the pilot bit hole to avoid blowing out (splitting) the wood when the hole saw emerges.

Hinge mortises can be drawn with pencil and cut out free-hand with a trim router set at a depth equal to the thickness of the hinge leaf.  Use a straight bit of the same radius as the corners of the hinges to route the round corners easily.  Square corners can be cut out after routing with a knife or chisel.

The face plate on the latch assembly requires mortising as well; this is best done with a razor knife to cut the outline, and a sharp chisel to remove the wood to depth.  No face plate — just a round insert?  Skip this step.

Bore hinge screw holes with a drill bit smaller than the hinge screws; the screw holes should not be deep or large to ensure the screws get a good bite on the wood.  I’ve install umpteen doors that came from the factory with screws that were spun in their holes from overzealous workers using a drill motor to tighten the screws on a Friday afternoon trying to finish up before the corner bar fills up with hockey fans watching the big game.  Oh Canada.

If you encounter a screw or two (I can’t stop myself) that spins as you tighten it, the fix is easy and reliable:  Grab some wooden toothpicks from the local bar; remove the loose screw; add copious amounts of carpenter’s glue to the hole and toothpicks; jam the toothpicks tightly into the hole; break or cut off the toothpicks; replace and tighten (not over-tighten) the screw; go back and finish your beer.

No Disassembly Required

No Disassembly Required

A door that rattles when closed needs a simple fix;  the bolt and strike plate are mismatched.  Look inside the strike plate hole; see the metal tab?  If it has a slot, take a slot screwdriver and gently pry the metal tab  “out” a tad.

No Slot

No Slot

No slot?  Remove the strike plate and use pliers to bend the tab a tad (that’s more alliteration than rhyme, but who says poetry has to rhyme?)  The door should now close with a little shove and a soft “clunk.”

(If a door opens by itself in an empty house, does it make a sound?  Yes.  Clunk.)

Finally, here is a short list of related issues that will keep your interior doors working perfectly long into the future:

  • Avoid hanging anything on the door, like clothes racks and children.  Sagging and loose hinge screws will ensue.
  • Lubricate moving parts occasionally.
  • If the door begins to rub or stick, fix it right; don’t butcher the door with a saw!
  • Declaw your pets; better still, train them, except cats, which is impossible.
  • Keep a key or unlocking tool handy to avoid having to tear down the door to free someone like that guy at the Olympics.
  • On painted doors, install with a bit wider reveal to prevent sticking as you add more layers of paint over the years.
  • If your bathroom door opens by itself unexpectedly, keep the lights off while you’re in there.

More on doors (this is getting old) later.

Cheap Tools: Getting What You Pay For

Years ago when I was young, poor and not-so-savvy (now I’m no longer young…), tools had a peculiar mystique.  I realized to do a job right, whether working with wood, repairing a car engine or fixing a leaking toilet required the “right tool for the right job.”  Problem was, I couldn’t afford to outfit with the thousands of tools necessary for the hundreds of handyman tasks out there.  So I acquired a few basic tools adding to my tool box from time to time, and improvising what I needed but didn’t have.  I got by, but life got a lot easier as I built up my collection with better and more specialized equipment.

My Dad was no handyman.  I inherited (or learned) my skill set from my grandfathers who were both Jacks-of-most-trades, tinkerers and – poor.  My Grandpas each made the most of what they had through their ingenuity and resourcefulness.  Harry back in the fifties bought up old wooden wall telephones, gutted what few innards they had, and installed new-fangled AM radios hidden inside.  Suburbanites snatched them up to decorate their new homes with a retro look and cutting edge sound  technology (!)  Lesley repaired everything and anything around his house – and beyond.  He was a dam engineer, for goodness sake!  And a good dam engineer!  There wasn’t a dam thing he couldn’t fix to keep the dam thing working right.  Grandma had a cartoon cut from a magazine framed on her kitchen wall:  Against a backdrop of various antiquated stuff in the yard (a Model – T, a ringer washer, a velocipede…) an Old Woman holding a broken toaster says to her Old Man, ” I KNOW you can fix it; I WANT A NEW ONE!”

Dad did know quality, though.  Back when Sears’ tools were pretty much the gold standard, he gave me a Craftsman socket set for my birthday.  Although I’ve added metric sockets and other accessories over the years, I still rely on those sockets and that innovative push-button wrench whenever I’m forced to do car repair.  The chrome is still intact, the reversible wrench still works and the sockets still grip the bolt head.  And that’s been forty years.

Unfortunately, not all tools (including Sears’ brand) are built to last these days.  Fortunately, there are some tell-tale warning signs of cheap, cheap tools (think:  baby chickens…)

Ten tell-tale warning signs the tool you are considering buying (or just bought) is a Baby Chicken Brand:

  1. The name of the store selling it rhymes with Arbor Eight.
  2. When you pull the motor trigger you suddenly understand the meaning of  “cacophony.”
  3. Other brands of the same tool sell for three times the price.
  4. Measuring twice doesn’t help.
  5. Little flecks of toxic chromium get jabbed under your fingernails.
  6. The battery runs down twice  a day.
  7. You decide to build a trapezoidal box because you can’t cut a right angle.
  8. A hare-lipped beaver could gnaw through wood faster.
  9. Three words:  Made in China.
  10. You see sparks and smell burning during normal operation.

I could go on, but you get the idea:  Most tools are made “overseas” these days which equates with backward quality control and lower quality.  My guess is  Chinese manufacturers in their rush to fulfill the West’s growing compulsion to transfer our treasure have focused on production quotas over quality control.  You don’t have to look far to see the standards in imported tools resemble those of the United States in the 1930s when our industries were just getting the hang of making stuff well.  Of course, not all imported tools are crappy, but enough fit the description to be wary when spending your hard-earned yuan on new tools.

Do your homework first.  Rather than race to the box store, or, worse, Arbor Eight, google information about the particular tool you need and can’t live without.  Believe it or not, some brands of drill motors have plastic gears, believe it or not.  Plastic gears can’t be as durable as most metals used for drive and reduction gears.  How repairable is the brand of tool?  Senco pneumatic tools can be rebuilt forever:  kits are readily available. Try to find a replacement O-ring kit for a Central Pneumatic air nailer.  I did.  It’s “no longer available” for this  currently-advertised tool.

Generally, some brands are reliably reliable and durable.  The following list is based on subjective use experience, trial and error and a cursory search of intermet chat posts:

The Good

Senco, DeWalt, Hitachi, Bosch, Porter Cable, Makita, Fein, Delta, Milwaukee, Grizzly, Shop Smith

The Bad

Craftsman, Bostitch, Ryobi, Ridgid, Skil, Black and Decker

The Ugly

Central Pneumatic, Chicago Electric

While I do suffer from xenophobia, I don’t want to get pegged as an anti-Sino-ite:  obviously, some of the “Good” are made in China, because, thanks to “free trade” and stupid government policies over 30 years, most brands have moved “offshore,” to put a politically correct point on it.  (Kind of like a pinhead has a point…)

Do your due diligence when shopping for tools.  Not only do you want to get a good deal on price, but you want a tool that will last a lifetime  (or two.)  Ask friends and family; talk to professionals about good (and bad) products they’ve used.  When you have learned what you need to know to decide on a particular tool, shop for the best price; sometimes, especially in a down economy, quality tools in good condition can be had at a discount from pawn shops and other second-hand sources.  Of course, you probably won’t get a warranty, but some manufacturers go the extra mile to keep you coming back.  I once bought a DeWalt chop saw (used) and used it until it broke.  I contacted DeWalt about repairing it, admitting not only did I not have an original receipt, but I wasn’t the original owner.  A local tool store shipped it to a distant city for repair; DeWalt repaired it with OEM parts, then, at my request, shipped it to a third party (my son), all at no cost to me!   As the Frankenstein monster would say, “DeWalt good!”  Bosch also replaced an out-of-warranty pad sander at no cost.

Finally, I agree wholeheartedly with the following anonymous quote gleaned from one of those intermet chat rooms:

“I don’t buy any tool based on brand name.  The vast majority of names have some good tools and some not-so-good tools…Grizzly, Craftsman, Delta, Jet, GI, Shop Fox, Steel City, PC, Ridgid, Makita, DW, etc.  I prefer to evaluate the important tools on their own merit and go from there.”

May all your tools be self-lubricating and trouble free forever and ever and ever…  Amen.

A Cut Above Average


“Measure twice, cut once” is an old carpentry saying you’ve undoubtedly heard at least one old carpenter say.  That old saw is part of the wisdom of the ages.  Trouble is, unless you know how to measure, you might find you’ve “cut it twice, and it’s still too short!”  The world cries out for a reliable wood stretching tool but, to date, the technology eludes mankind.

I am reminded of a high-end cabinet installation I worked on with the lead finish carpenter.  The design called for a 12 foot wide arch over the window at the kitchen sink.  The wooden arch spanned the distance between flanking wall cabinets, a precise dimension.  When the custom arch arrived, the carpenter attempted to install it only to discover it was 1/8 inch too long for the space between the cabinets.  He decided to make an “executive decision” and neatly removed wood from the center of the arch, replacing the missing wood with a wooden carving to disguise the repair.   Then he installed the furniture-grade “arch” on the wall.  The owner came home, looked at the “arch” and said, “That’s not an arch!”  True enough, when you remove the center of an arch and put it back together, the curvature of the arch appears “broken.”  The owner demanded it be removed and replaced with the original design – an arch.  The designer reordered the (very expensive) part; when it finally arrived, the carpenter measure its width, just to be sure.  It was 1/8 inch too short for the space.  Upon being informed of this by the carpenter, the designer fumed, “Well, can’t you just cut 1/16 inch off each end?”

Measuring can be tricky business.  Some basic tape measure lore will help ensure your projects are the correct size and wasted time and materials are kept to a bare minimum.

The spring tape measure, patented in 1868, replaced the carpenter’s folding ruler as the favored measuring tool in the 1920s.  Made of curved metal, it is designed to stand out when extended to allow control when measuring long dimensions.  The tang on the end hooks the tape to the board as you pull out the tape.   The tang also floats (moves) back and forth a distance equal to its thickness, to provide both inside and outside measurements that are accurate.

Whether measuring inside or outside dimensions, an alternative method to ensure accuracy is to “burn an inch.”  To use this technique hold the tape with the 1 inch mark  lined up with one end of the distance to be measured;  over longer dimensions this step requires the assistance of a helper with a good eye and steady hand.  Pull the tape to the other end of the measurement and read the tape, subtracting the 1 inch you “burned.”

When you’ve got your measurement using either method, measure again.  “Measure twice…” at a minimum.  Repeated measurements improve accuracy and skill.  Who knew “pulling a tape” was a skill?

Your choice of tape measure(s) should be considered as carefully as any other selection of the “right tool for the right job.”  Not all tapes are created equal.  Some are too narrow to stand out (extend) very far without collapsing.  Others have incremental marks that depict dimensions as small as 1/64 inch, which are extremely difficult to see  and mark accurately.  1/16 inch gradations are adequate to just about any measuring task; if you absolutely need to measure to a 32nd of an inch, it’s not difficult to interpolate between the 1/16 inch marks.  Tiny marks on a tape measure increase eye strain, especially if you are using your tape measure repeatedly.  European cabinet accessory manufacturers sometime specify dimensions to the half millimeter, believe it or not; this is about the width of a grain of salt.  The 1 millimeter mark on a metric tape measure roughly equates to a “fat” 32nd inch.

A “fat” 32nd inch?

Some woodworking tasks require exacting dimensions, meaning you cannot choose convenient dimensions like when you build a jewelry box of your own design.  Examples include installing any kind of finished trim wood to other existing structures, like cabinets.  Your measurement might be accurate, but “accurate” is a hair’s-breadth longer (or shorter) than your tape measure’s smallest mark.  In this case, good practice is to call the measurement a “fat” 16th (or whatever), cut the piece long (fat) then test fit it. You can “sneak up on” the correct dimension by repeatedly shaving off a few microns until you get an exact fit.

By the way, the width of a typical circular saw blade “overhang,” also know as “side clearance” (the outside edge of the kerf), is on the order of 1/64 inch to 1/128 inch. On a miter saw, move the piece of wood to be trimmed to touch the flat part of the blade body (not the teeth) and then bring the saw into the wood; you can shave off tiny increments with each pass.

The easiest “rookie error” to make is to cut on the wrong side of the line you marked when measuring.  It goes without saying you have just removed the width of the saw kerf  from your original dimension.  There are at least two ways to make this embarrassing mistake:  using your circular saw line guide incorrectly; and forgetting which side of the cut is the keeper and which is the waste side.  (A third related way is to use your circular saw line guide correctly, but to begin the cut from the wrong end of the pencil line, which puts the saw kerf on the keeper side instead of the waste side.)

Laying out studs when framing a wall can be done easily with a fat, flat framer’s pencil, the kind you sharpen with a small hand axe.  On the other hand, finish woodworking, also known as fine woodworking, requires a more delicate touch.  Whatever lead hardness you like to use – HB, No.2, etc. – make sure your pencil has a sharp point at all times.  Look directly over the mark on your tape measure and draw a narrow mark on the wood in line with the line on the tape.  Repeat this procedure on the opposite end if you are setting up a straight edge or scribing a pencil line to follow with the saw.

You can improve accuracy and precision by honing your skill at using a sharp pencil point to make your mark and setting your straight edge “right on the mark.”  Trial and error will be a good teacher as to where the best match is between your pencil mark and the edge of the saw blade or the saw guide.  If this sounds like splitting hairs, it is.

The placement of a straight edge saw guide relative to the line you want to cut is easy.  Carefully measure the distance between the edge of your saw’s shoe on the wide side to the saw blade kerf.  When you measure the size of the piece you want to cut, subtract and mark  this distance on the wood.  Do the same on the opposite end.  The two marks are then used to locate the straight edge so the blade cuts on the outside (waste side) of the line as the shoe follows the straight edge.

It  goes without saying all tools need to be set up and maintained for accuracy.  Follow the manufacturer’s guidance for squaring up blade, table and fence; setting miter and bevel angles and stops; and any other adjustable parts of the tool.  Check these routinely to discover and correct problems that arise from normal use.

Specialized measuring devices include calipers (inside and outside), scribing tools, squares (framing, rafter and adjustable), compass and story poles.  A story pole is usually  built for a particular task, like measuring vertical dimensions for a stairwell installation, such as minimum headroom.  A scribing tool is used to scribe (draw or scratch) a line on one board that duplicates the shape, profile or edge of another board (or the wall), the objective being the two will eventually match when cut.

Finally, measuring is both a skill and an art:  creating a finished piece of woodworking that looks perfect to the eye doesn’t happen overnight.  Until you have become proficient at measuring and using your measurements confidently to build stuff, make trials and errors on scrap wood.  If Carnegie Hall was the ultimate destination for a woodworker like it is for a singer or musician, you’d still get there the same way:  Practice, practice, practice!