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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains™ and Garden Train Store™

Thomas the Tank Engine® and James the Red Engine® are copyrighted images and registered trademarks of Britt Allcroft (Thomas) Limited

The Thomas Chronicles

Book 2: Building Things to Take with Us

In Thomas Chronicles Book 1 we described the invitation from Holden Arboretum to present some "how-to" sessions on Garden Railroading. We were also asked to use Thomas The Tank(r) and his friends to interest the younger visitors.

I rewatched some old Thomas videos from the library so I could remember what the settings looked like, and I bought a Thomas, a James, a backup Thomas, and three cars for them to pull.

The windmill I was looking at for $50 in May went down to $30 in July. Click for a bigger photo.Since then, I've spent a lot of time in preparation for the other aspects of the demonstration, including building a trestle, cutting pressure-treated lumber for a raised roadbed, and so on. So I didn't have a HUGE amount of time to devote to Thomas and his friends.

While I was making those preparations, Holden Arboretum contacted me and told me that they had permission from the publisher to use photographs of Thomas and his friends in their marketing materials, but we couldn't build a railroad that looked like the Isle of Sodor. Of course, there was no danger of that, given our time and budget.

I did want to represent one "scene," so to speak - the viaduct that Thomas crosses no matter where he's going in all of the earlier videos, the one with a windmill at one end. I got back to WalMart just as they were marking their solar-powered windmill down, so I was able to get one for $30 that looked just as nice as it did when it was $50. To create the viaduct, I thought I'd use an inexpensive material that I've seen other folks use for viaducts with some success - insulation foam. While I was buying lumber for my raised railroad, I also bought a piece of 2"x4'x8' Dow Corning pink insulation foam (Modular 150, if that helps).

Sorry, I don't have a bigger photo handy, so clicking here won't buy you anything.  You know what it looks like, anyway, I'm sure.I figured if I bought the 2" stuff, it would be wide enough to look decent when I doubled it. The foam piece had "snap lines" running lengthwise at 16", 24" and 32" from the edge. These are 1/4" grooves that you can deepen with a knife to snap the form to a width appropriate for house framing. When I got the foam home, I used a knife to deepen the 24" snap line, broke the board in half, and stuffed it under the deck so it wouldn't blow away before I got back to it.

I also worried a little about how I was going to cut the shape of a viaduct into the foam. Cutting styrofoam with many tools results in a very hashed-up looking edge. I know lots of folks who have those styrofoam cutters that use a heated wire (like an oversized cheeze slicer), but I didn't have one, or know where to get one big enough for this job quickly. So, while I was at the hardware store getting some more screws for my wooden roadbed, I picked up a new set of saw blades for my hand-held Black & Decker jig saw. I got the ones with the most, tiniest teeth I could buy - it was labeled for "coping" and "scrolling."

Click for bigger photo and more information. In the meantime, I inventoried the track I'd be able to take. I had a loop of 10' diameter track and six straight 5' pieces from a previous demonstration. I also had two loops of 4'-diameter tracks and several other odds and ends that wouldn't make that much difference. Almost all of the track was AristoCraft, so I knew it would be dependable and the pieces would hold together and conduct electricity, even if it was fastened in a hurry. I decided I would use the big curves for my demonstration railroad and use some of the small curves for a Thomas display. I bought and cut up the lumber I would be using for my "raised roadbed," which I was going to build as part of the demonstration. (See the Simple Raised Roadbed article for details on that process.) Then I decided to cut enough lumber to put Thomas' little railroad up in the air, too. That way I'd have someplace to put the viaduct when it was finished. I cut a bunch of 4"x4" post pieces to 24" each and cut up some of 5/4"x6" decking into 10"-lengths to use as bases.

Back to the viaduct. I thought that if I made it 5' long, it could fit under one of the 5'-long pieces of track once the roadbed was raised. But then I realized that I wasn't taking the posts into account, nor the "plates" (the connecting pieces under the main roadbed). I'd really only have four feet and some inches to work with. So I cut one of the insulation boards in half lengthwise and started figuring out how to design a 2'x4' viaduct that would get the idea across, without exactly being a faithful copy of the Isle of Sodor's viaduct. For one thing, I wasn't planning on reinforcing the foam like I might for a permanent installation, so I knew I couldn't make the "legs" of the viaduct too long and narrow without risking a break that might be hard to fix three and a half hours away from home. Also, each piece still had a "snap" line running lengthwise, eight inches from the edge. I decided that, if nothing else, I would turn the pieces so that the snap lines weren't across from each other - otherwise there would be a built-in weak spot in the finished structure.

If I'm boring you, sorry, but a few days later, lots of folks asked how I built the thing, so I figured I'd better describe it in detail at least once.

In the basement I had several coffee cans I was planning on using to store something, although at the moment I don't remember what it was. I took a coffe can, a Sharpie (fine-point permanent marker), a yardstick, and a framing "sqare" to the back yard. I kept repositioning the coffee can and trying to visualize what the final result would look like if I used the can's 6" diameter to measure out four or five cuts in the 2'x4' piece of foam.

After several tries, I figured that if I had five posts (four cutouts) that would give me about the right width of posts as well. I also figured out that spacing the 6" arcs five inches apart (OD) would leave enough space on the ends to keep the end posts from being too fragile. So I drew a line that divided the 2'x4' board in half lengthwise. I used the "snap line" on one side to line up the center of the arcs, then I drew a guideline three inches "above" the snap line where the top of each arc should be. I spaced the arcs 5" No, I'm not making little tombstones, at least not on purpose. Click for bigger photo.part (which meant that the arcs closest to the center were each 2.5" from the center line). Then I used my framing rafter to draw straight lines between the snap line and the "base." (Yes I know that many viaducts widen toward the base, and if I do this under less of a time crunch in the future, I may add that detail.

When I was certain I had marked one properly, I put the "scrolling" blade into my little jig saw and started sawing. To my surprise, it not only cut through smoothly, it also left no mess, except for a small hail of tiny bubbles that the wind quickly blew under my deck for a future home-owner to wonder about. (Later I learned that my dad had used the same sort of blade on insulation foam he had cut to build a mountain on his HO railroad decades earlier, so I'm probably telling most of you something you already know.) In fact, my jig saw tore through the material so fast, I actually messed up a couple of the curves, because I slightly overshot them. Also, although I had my B&D jig saw set to make a 90degree cut, it was a couple degrees off, so the cut was deeper at the back than at the front. If I get around to using the rest of the foam board to make another viaduct, I'll spend more time tweaking things before I start cutting. But I was running out of time to get this ready for Thomas.

Thomas' viaduct spent the night on sidewalked pinned down with bricks until the glue set. Click for bigger photo. Next I flopped the cut piece over and used it as a template to mark the other piece of foam board. (Again, I "should" have marked the second piece more carefully; and I'm sure you will when you do this.) I carved up the second piece, turned the pieces around several times trying to find the best "fit," then glued them together with Elmer's Waterproof Carpenter's Glue. Then I weighed them down on our backyard's sidewalk with some used bricks. That night it rained, but it didn't hurt anything that I could tell. The next morning I used a broom to sweep the grass and dirt off of the viaduct. Then I stuck it into the garage for a day.

This photo shows the interior edges after the 'stone lines' had been scored by the pizza cutter. Click for bigger photo.The next night, I brought the viaduct into the house to carve the "stones." Again, attempting to carve styrofoam with a knife and many other kinds of tools just results in a big mess, because the knife doesn't cut through the foam as much as it tears through it. So I was trying hard to think of something that wouldn't have the friction problem. Finally I realized that my wife's Pampered Chef pizza cutter was exactly the right tool for long strokes - the blade would roll through the foam rather than trying to cut through it.

I carved some more-or-less horizontal lines with the pizza cutter, then used a knife tip to make the shorter vertical lines. In retrospect, a wood chisel exactly the width of the horizontal lines I needed would be the right tool to make an indentation without trying to cut through the surface.

I then painted the foam with two coats of acrylic house paint (spray paint will make it dissolve). Wanting to get a more weathered look, I did try a little spray paint on when I was sure the foam's surface was sealed. But the foam dissolved slightly at several points where the house paint apparently hadn't quite sealed it. So after it stabilized, I wound up giving the viaduct another smooth coat of house paint. Maybe next time, I'll try to find an acrylic spray to do the "weathering."

In the meantime, I had built a small trestle while I was working on my Trestles 101 article. I made it two feet tall, thinking that I would use it under the demo raised railroad after I got it built on Sunday. (Saturday would be a demo of a ground-level railroad.)

While I was testing out everything I was taking, I discovered that the fairly powerful power pack I was going to take for Thomas had stopped working between the last time I used it (December, 2006) and now. So I put two starter set power packs (the kind you get when you buy a Large Scale train) into my box of things to take, hoping at least one of them was still working.

The Holden Arboretum gave us a very nice area in which to work, which we immediately cluttered up with everything we and our friends from the area had brought from hour homes.Eventually it was time to take trains, trestles, towns, track, tools, viaduct, and about 300 pounds of lumber to Kirtland, Ohio. Since I was bringing two family members with me, the middle seat had to stay in the van, but it WAS crowded. We went up on Friday morning (the 13th, if you believe that), unloaded the lumber, oversaw the delivery of 4 cubic feet of crushed gravel and about 4 cubic yards of mulch. Then we rearranged the trains, trestles, towns, track, tools, and viaduct back into the van for security. On Saturday morning, we unloaded the trains, trestles, towns, track, tools, and viaduct and got to work. We had a "meet the donors" event at 12:00 and we were supposed to start the presentation at 1:00 so, we needed to get everything we could set up by noon.

Yes, I know this is Thomas, not James, but I don't have any photos of James on this loop for reasons we'll describe in Book 3. Click for bigger photo.Holden Arboretum had given us a nice pavilion with a bunch of folding chairs and a big tarp at the front where we were supposed to "install" the railroad. We weren't going to be allowed to actually stick anything in the ground. Actually, that turned out to be a good thing, as the ground was so hard (from weeks of drought) that some of the other presenters had to borrow a screwdriver from us so they could create "starter holes" for their tent stakes. Now that's hard ground! After seeing the "lay of the land," we thought we'd set a 4' loop of track out on one corner of the tarp. That way we'd have someplace to set whichever "Isle of Sodor" train we weren't running at the moment. So we set out the microscopic ground-level railroad in the title photo. The arboretum people loaned us some great little tree-shaped shrubs and some groundcovers in pots. We used them by burying the pots in mulch - the end result was actually rather impressive, considering it took only a few minutes to put together.

To get Thomas up where kids could see him through a crowd (and to demonstrate the 'simple raised roadbed' method) we raised Thomas' roadbed about 25 inches off the ground with 4x4 posts. Click for bigger photo.Then we started what was supposed to be Thomas' raised railroad. We nailed 10" pieces of decking to the bottom of six 4"x4"x2' posts to make a basae; then we stood up the post-and-base pieces up like upside-down Ts. Then we laid the 4'-diameter roadbed pieces across the top, and added two 5'-long sections to support the 5'-straight pieces we were putting between the ends of the loop. By the time we were done, of course, the 5/4" bases and plates had raised the actual height of the roadbed to about 26.4" off the ground, not 24.

I decided to fasten my hastily built trestle under one of the 5' straight pieces across from my hastily carved and painted viaduct. Unfortunately, I couldn't get the trestle to stay fastened under the 5/4"x6" without the "caps" trying to pull themselves out. So I turned the trestle upside down and shot several small wood screws I had bought for another project through the caps into a 4'-long piece of decking, then turned the whole thing right side up. George Kuzner, one my helpers from NOGRS, held the thing in place while I shot down short decking screws from above. Then we used mulch to disguise the fact that the bottom of the trestle was actually hanging in the air by a half-inch.

Using mulch to hide plant pots and gaps. Left-to-right are Paul, George, Molly, and Shelia. Click for bigger photo.On the other side, the viaduct also had too much vertical space. I had brought some 2"x8"x16" concrete blocks to use for foundations for my houses. So I set two of those under the viaduct, which put some pressure on the thing and almost pinched it in place. I didn't trust the wind, though, and I shot three 4.5" deck screws in from the top to stabilize it. In a permanent installation, I'd be tempted to drill a long hole through it and shoot rebar into the ground, but that wasn't an option here, anyway.

We also used the little AristCraft track screws to screw all of the pieces of the track together. When we had the little railroad mechanically stable, Molly and Shelia set out some buildings George had brought, as well as some plants from the Arboretum, then used mulch liberally to dress up and disguise things.

Finally, George found the 3M very fine sanding pad I use to wipe my tracks and got the track nice and clean (on top, anyway) for Thomas. The track had been fairly clean when we started, but it was getting dusty, and there was no sense leaving conductivity entirely to chance.  Click for a bigger photo. About then, it was time for the Race family to take a walk to the donor luncheon, which included a nice box lunch and meeting many nice people. George got a sandwich and sat down to keep an eye on things while we met the nice people under the shelter house. When we came back, we would know whether our preparations for Thomas and James would be enough.

Click here to continue to The Thomas Chronicles Part 3: A Pretty Good Railroad .

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