Sunday, September 22, 2013

E. L. Moore's Legacy in the 21st Century: Balsa, cost, a handcar shed and organic veggies

I shall tell you what I used in the way of building materials, and in spite of what the editor may insinuate, I do not grind up balsa and mix it with my breakfast cereal, and as for grits the balsa might improve them... but I’ll admit to a weakness for using balsa for almost every building purpose. (E. L. Moore winding up on materials for his Small MFG. Plant project; Railroad Model Craftsman, June 1965.)

{2 Jan '14 update: This is the 2nd instalment in a multi-part series. The other posts can be found here.}

E. L. Moore was well known for using balsa wood in many of his projects. He also frequently made a point of emphasizing that his builds cost very little, often only a dollar or two. At first I thought balsa and cost would be separate things to post about, but the more I thought about it, the more I started to realize they were interconnected.

Eyebrows may be lifted when I state my choice of material, so we’d better have that out right now. It’s balsa....When this trestle was completed, I balanced a 3x12 board across the middle and loaded it down with a couple of bookends, a jar of birdshot, and a jar of pennies - a total weight of just over 20 pounds  concentrated on 3” of track - with no creak or groan. So don’t worry about the “weakness” of balsa. Balsa also makes the difference between pleasure and work when it comes to cutting and fitting. (E.L. Moore schooling the reader on the virtues of balsa in Timber trestles, in Bridges & Buildings for model railroads, 1965)

Mr. Moore wasn’t the first to use balsa wood as a primary construction material for model buildings. It had long been used prior to his first article, and many scratch-builders still use it today – me included. I believe his work became heavily associated with balsa because he was a relatively high-profile writer in the model railroad press who continued to use it rather extensively in his projects even though other wood products and styrene came into their own, and became de facto mainstream building materials, during his time. Although he never used balsa to the exclusion of other materials, it remained a mainstay of his technique throughout his articles.

Author’s balsa model, almost ready for final assembly, weighs less than two ounces yet supports a ten pound weight place in center of span. (Editor’s comment above a photo of partially assembled bridge accompanying E.L. Moore’s build a Covered Railroad Bridge project; Railroad Model Craftsman, June 1962.)

When Mr. Moore used balsa for a building’s walls, he typically used 1/16 inch sheet. In his smaller projects he often stated that only a few pennies worth of the stuff was needed. A penny isn’t much of a penny anymore. This year in Canada, the one-cent coin was retired from circulation, and stores round net purchase charges to the nickel when customers make cash payments. I hadn’t purchased balsa sheet in a while, so I went over to one of those mega-craft stores whose name starts with ‘M’ that are located in big-box malls all over Canada and the U.S. - maybe elsewhere too for all I know - to buy some since that’s probably one of the most common and easily accessible places to buy it these days. I usually purchase supplies such as these at a locally owned hobby store near my house, but for this little experiment in micro-economics I chose the most common provider. No doubt, deals and better prices are likely found online, and at speciality brick-and-mortar stores after some investigation - for example, the aforementioned hobby store I frequent sells it for less.

{That's balsa on the left, and basswood on the right. The basswood has a much finer grain.}

I bought a 1/16 in x 4 in x 36 in sheet of Revell branded balsa for $4.99 CDN, and a 1/16 in x 4 in x 24 in sheet  (they didn’t have a 36 in length for sale) of Revell basswood for $4.69 CDN. Doing a little arithmetic, this works out to $5 CDN per square foot for the balsa, and $7 CDN per square foot for the basswood. Clearly, the balsa is more economical even today [1].

My first introduction to an E. L. Moore project was his Bunn’s Feed and Seed Plant that appeared in the August 1973 issue of Model Railroader. In it Mr. Moore claimed the whole project could be built for around $2 (US dollars that is). The wall substructure of the ‘metal clad’ part of the structure is 1/16 inch balsa sheet. Figuring out what the cost of the needed balsa would have been for me back then is a little tricky, but assuming that the US and CDN dollars are roughly at par then and now, and making use of some online inflation calculators that suggest that it takes $5.40 US 2013 dollars to buy the same as $1 US did in 1973, so to buy the 1/16 x 4 x 36 sheet specified for the project might have cost around 90 cents in 1973 (another assumption here: the relative cost of  balsa then and now is the same). So, yeap, it only might have cost ‘just a few pennies’ as he claimed, although it takes considerably more of them today [2].

It seems that of everything I build I eventually get around to making two, and this is my second station of this type, having built my first one some ten years ago, then in a weak moment selling it and now finding I need another. It fits so well on a certain curve on my pike that the only change I made was that the first was built of capped siding while this one is made entirely of balsa. You can build it in two or three evenings and the cost is negligible. Most modelers these days will probably prefer to use Northeastern capped siding. (E.L. Moore’s opening paragraph to his Branch Line Station project; Railroad Model Craftsman, April 1964)

Balsa isn’t used that much these days in 2013 even with its favourable economics. It’s soft and has a relatively coarse grain compared to other hobby woods like basswood. But, it’s softness makes it easy to work with: it’s easy to cut into shapes with just a hobby knife and a steel ruler. And you can use everyday white glue to stick it together.

Built it in less than ten days according to the marks on my wall - that is, in 24 working hours, which figures eight evenings; and if you can’t do that well, you are in need of a little motivating. Built it at a cost of about two dollars in inflationary money (It was balsa and economy and an innate sense of fun right till the end. In Mr. Moore’s last article - published a few months after his death - he once again elaborates some of his basic principles in A firecracker factory, Model Railroad Craftsman; July 1980.)

Well, arithmetic is a lot drier than balsa, so I thought it would be interesting to try my hand at building one of Mr. Moore’s more-or-less purely balsa projects. To me, one of the quintessential model railroading buildings is the hand car shed. I built a few a long time ago, but none have survived, so I thought I’d try E. L. Moore’s version that he published in an article called A Handcar and its shed from the February 1964 issue of Model Railroader [3]. In that article he discusses how to scratch build an HOn3 gauge handcar, and, a little surprisingly, a handcar shed for HO gauge track. 

The handcar shed is basically just a little balsa box, but it has some virtues: it’s nice to work on a simple project from time-to-time as a refresher from bigger projects; for beginners, it isn’t an intimidating build and the result is a charming little building; one can learn some new building techniques – well, some ‘new’ old-school ones :-) - with a low stress project; and it also illustrates some core concepts from Mr. Moore’s repertoire of building techniques  in one neat little package.

{Brand new woodburning tool. The factory installed tip is the one Mr. Moore describes in his '62 article as the one he used most often. This set comes with a small selection of other tips.}

The part of his article that describes how to build the handcar shed deals almost exclusively with forming the walls and roof and not much else. In fact, in that section Mr. Moore refers to his July 1962 Model Railroader article, Modeling with a burning tool, for guidance on how to scribe the board-and-batten siding pattern into the balsa. I didn’t own a woodburning tool, so I took this as an opportunity to go buy one and give it a try. Well, it turns out in the ’62 article he doesn’t show how to scribe the board-and-batten, but demonstrates how to scribe clapboard siding and shingles into balsa. However, from that introduction, it’s fairly easy to extrapolate how to do board-and-batten. So I did.

{Here's the board-and-batten pattern that was scribed into the 1/16 inch sheet balsa with a sharp 4H pencil}

Problem is, even after practicing a bit, I wasn’t skilled enough to scribe the fine lines he shows on his handcar shed. Further on in the handcar shed article he mentions that he also scribed the roofing material pattern with the woodburning tool, but notes that a pencil or an awl could also be used. I thought I’d give one of those tools a try for the board-and-batten pattern. There’s an article in the April 1962 issue of Model Railroader called Rail-truck terminal by Allen E. Miller where he mentions that he used a sharp, hard pencil to scribe the siding pattern into the balsa he used for the walls in that build. I sharpened up a 4H pencil and gave it a try. Worked like a charm.


Here are the walls cut from the scribed sheet of 1/16 inch balsa.


And here they are all glued together. White glue was used. I've added a little bit of bracing on the inside with 1/16 square balsa strips and some slivers of balsa to give a hint of interior framing. You can be much more scale-like if you wish.


Now for some rhubarb logs. Since rhubarb is seasonal, it won’t be found on the shelves except  during spring and early summer, but no matter - just cement together some balsa to 1/2” square, with perhaps some smaller, making each piece about 14’ long...Half a dozen logs should be sufficient, except for large operations. (My wife can vouch for the realistic appearance - I dropped a section into a bowl in which she was cutting rhubarb for a pie, and she hacked away for a few seconds before she realized it was a hoax) (E. L. Moore explains how to make giant rhubarb ‘logs’ from balsa - I can only speculate if they were organic :-) - for Rube’s Rhubarb Plant; Model Railroad Craftsman, July 1974.)

{The vegetable stand at Vicki's Veggies as seen from the road.}

Making buildings from balsa needn’t be limited to projects from the pages of old magazines, they can still be applied quite effectively to new builds. 


Debra and I try to drop-by Vicki’s Veggies once or twice each year. Vicki’s Veggies - the name alone sounds like the title of an E. L. Moore project - is an organic farm in Prince Edward County[4], and it’s a gold star location on our mental map of great places to buy organic vegetables. We dropped by again this summer, and while there I photographed their roadside ‘stand’. 

{No, it isn't the leaning tower of veggies :-) I held my camera at a weird angle.}



There are many outbuildings of this size and shape in the county, but I’ve had an interest in this one for a long time. As you can see, in terms of size and shape, it’s not that much different from the handcar shed, and I thought I’d build a simple model - using the techniques applied in the handcar shed project - for my Lost Ocean Line.

To get started I worked out some front and side elevations to determine the dimensions and placement of the various elements. All dimensions are guess-work based on the cars and people in the pictures. The sketch on the far right was the one I used for the model.

Once I settled on the front elevation, I worked on the side. 

I found the woodburning tool worked much better creating this siding. I simply scribed lines in a piece of 1/16 inch sheet balsa roughly spaced 9 to 12 scale inches apart. Go slow as the tip cools during scribing and it needs to remain hot over the course of an entire line. And be careful, the package says the tip operates at 50C.

Here's what the walls look like after they've been cut from the scribed sheet. As always, use a sharp blade when cutting these things out.

I glued some 1/16 inch square-section strips to the inside surfaces to provide some extra stiffness. The plan was to provide for a removable ceiling so I could get access to the interior for future detailing and lighting.

Now that the walls for both buildings were cut-out, I went about gluing them into buildings and adding some trim prior to basic painting. The trim pieces for the handcar shed were made by slicing thin slivers from the 1/16 in sheet balsa, cutting them to size in accordance with the pictures in Mr. Moore's article, and gluing them in place with white glue. The shutters were made from several slivers.

The side entry door was also cut and pencil scribed from a scrap of 1/16 sheet balsa.

The roof panels were made from two pieces of 1/32 inch sheet balsa glued together with their grains perpendicular to each other. Some 1/8 inch balsa was used to make the rudimentary trusses. The roof is designed to be removable. Mr. Moore's article shows the roof covered with some sort of tar paper; however, I chose to use the woodburning tool again and scribe in wood shingles as described in his '62 woodburning article. I scribed the shingles into the 1/32 inch balsa before gluing up the roof panels.

And here's what it looks like with the roof on - it isn't glued on, only placed there temporarily for this pre-painting beauty shot :-)

Here's what Vicki's looks like once the walls are glued together. Unlike the handcar shed, the walls will be painted white before the green trim is attached.

Looks fairly square from the top. Those upper strips will hold the ceiling / attic floor.

I used 1/8 inch sheet for the roof and scribed it using the same procedure as used on the handcar shed. The prototype has asphalt shingles, not cedar ones as I've modelled. Also like the handcar shed, the roof is removable and is held together by two, 1/8 inch balsa trusses.

Those trussed are quite clear in this view of the roof unit.

Here's the pair before painting.

And here they are after painting. I used Tamyia acrylic bottle paints for all painting on this project. They're good quality, readily available, have virtually no odour, and clean-up with water. Raw balsa soaks up paint like a sponge, so coats need to be light and thin to minimize warping. If some warpage does occur, as it did for me, I just carefully worked the warped sections back into shape with my fingers. I also inadvertently painted the handcar shed with paint that was a little too aged and gloppy. When it dried I had to do some re-scribing of the board-and-batten pattern to restore the lines that had been filled with paint. On Vicki's I made sure I didn't fill all the burned in lines with paint in order to retain the shadowed and aged wood look they lend to the building.

The handcar shed roof was first painted in a splotchy manner with a thinned light tan paint and then loosely washed with Tamyia smoke paint. I wanted the roof light coloured, since the walls were rather dark, in order to give some contrast to the structure so it didn't turn out looking like a dark blob on my layout's landscape. On the other hand, I painted Vicki's roof a dark colour - basically, full strength Tamyia smoke paint - because the walls were white.

I cheated when I built the base for Vicki's: I used a piece of 1/32 inch basswood instead of balsa. The only reason was that I had a small piece in my scrap box that I wanted to use up. It's been roughly painted with some dark brown Tamyia paint and then scrubbed with some light grey shavings from a pastel.

I cheated with the handcar base too. I used a piece of sheet styrene from my scrapbox. Pictures in Mr. Moore's article seem to suggest the building has a dirt floor, so this being the situation, I like to use plastics as bases for landscaping material since there is usually lots of glue and water involved bonding materials in place, and balsa seems to warp too much for my liking. So, for this version of the handcar shed, I simply superglued two rails to a scrap of styrene sheet.

Here's what the base looks like after it's been landscaped.


These are the handcar shed doors. As with the trim and shutters, they're glued up from slivers of balsa sheet. They're left permanently open.


In this shot the doors have been installed in the handcar shed. Both still need windows, and Vicki's needs doors and trim too.


Like the handcar shed, the trim are slivers cut from 1/16 inch balsa sheet, but in this case they have been pre-painted with light green paint. I wanted a trim colour a little brighter than the prototype, but it turned out too bright. To fix it up, I lightly sanded all the trim pieces to knock back the intensity, and then washed the trim with a thinned mixture of light green and white.


The window glazing was cut from the top of a box of chocolates saved from last Christmas. 


Mr. Moore made many of his windows - and the handcar shed is a good example - by drawing the frame pattern on clear plastic with India ink in a ruling pen. I cheated and used a black, permanent ink Sharpie pen.


Cutting and installing the inked plastic glazing was the last step in the handcar shed build. It's waiting for a handcar or two, and some tools, people, weeds, and other details.




The doors for Vicki's were made from a sandwich of two pieces thin cardboard for the wood frames and clear chocolate box plastic glazing. Keeping with the old-school vibe on this project, the door frames were cut from the cardboard backing of an old cheque book.


The door frames were painted red like those of the prototype. The window framing was inked in with a permanent ink red pen. They're a little hokey, but since the doors will be glued into a permanently open position, they won't be too noticeable. I think if the doors were to be closed, I'd work on building up the window frames from card or balsa slivers.


I didn't have a pen with the correct colour to ink the window frames on Vicki's sidewall, so I dug up an old drafting set an uncle passed on to me and got out an old-fashioned ruling pen.


I mixed up some light green and white paint with a little thinner to better match the colour on Vicki's trim. The pen was loaded up and lines were ruled. As a guide, I drew the window frame pattern on some paper and taped a piece of clear plastic over top.


Here's the finished window installed in the opening.


It's done! Although not clear in this picture, the doors have been glued into position.


These are the three major components that make up Vicki's. The ceiling / attic floor is another piece of 1/32 inch basswood. It lifts out for accessing the interior.


Before we wrap up, let’s go back to cost for a minute. Some very rough calculations suggest it cost around 80 cents in balsa for the handcar shed, and $1.75 for balsa and some basswood for Vicki's. Not pennies as it was 50 years ago, but still economical in some sense; however, this doesn't take into account paint, glue, having the necessary tools on hand, and the fact that I bought a new woodburning tool. 

In the end, the cost isn’t the main point of these sorts of builds, it’s more the feeling of accomplishment from making something interesting from scratch using simple materials. I find the early stages of measuring, drawing, cutting the walls and roofs and floors, and the initial assembly in these types of projects rather calming. One must focus and concentrate on the tasks at hand in order to make things accurately, so all the mental distractions that have built up during the day get pushed aside as I work. I find that restful. Then as the project is coming together and starting to look like a building, that feeling of satisfaction with the work will kick in. To, me those are the main goals of these simple builds. That aspect is timeless.

This is the 2nd instalment of a multi-part series. The first part can be found here.

The 3rd instalment can be found here.


Digressions

[1] But what about sheet styrene? A common thickness to use for walls is 0.040 inch. This stuff I can’t find at ‘M’, so I went over to my local hobby store and bought a 12 in x 16 in sheet for $2.99 CDN. That translates to about $2.25 CDN per square foot - far less expensive than either balsa or basswood. However, things get somewhat pricier once one starts to buy styrene with embossed or moulded in textures for simulating various types of siding. With wood, one can texture and stain its surface somewhat to create some credible simulated sidings without increasing material cost.

[2] Another way - and maybe it’s the more accurate way - of determining the price of balsa back in the day is to simply look up some ads for it. 


I have a few old issues of American Aircraft Modeler, and in the January ’72 issue I came across an ad from Sig Manufacturing that was offering 1/16 in x 3 in x 36 in balsa for 35 cents, and 1/16 in x 6 in x 36 in for $1.08. On average, this works out to around 60 cents per square-foot. In the ad, Sig compared their prices to a mythical ‘Brand X’ to show how deep discount their offerings were. Turns out, doing the arithmetic on Brand X balsa, I get an average price of 67 cents per square-foot. So, I suspect that back then 1/16 in balsa for building walls could be had for somewhere between 60 and 90 cents per square foot. Mr. Moore’s “can be built for pennies” claim was probably true.

[3] While looking for handcar shed projects, I came across an interesting one by Gary L. Wincott in an article entitled, Tool and handcar shed, in the December 1971 issue of Model Railroader. Mr. Wincott claimed that it can be easily built in a weekend, and is based on one John Allen designed which appeared in a Varney ad on the back cover of the March 1953 issue of Model Railroader. The handcar part is more of a car-port affair rather than an enclosed garage.

[4] Prince Edward County is a peninsula jutting into Lake Ontario to the south of Belleville, Ontario. Settlements there were heavily influenced by the United Empire Loyalists: a community of pro-British people who left the US after the revolutionary war. Prince Edward County might be an interesting setting for a fantasy model railroad that combines both British and North American rail practices given its history. It’s a beautiful agrarian locale with lots of potential for agricultural and tourist venues along with small-scale steam or traction railway equipment.

2 comments:

  1. A fascinating and very thorough article which I enjoyed enormously. I was in a model shop a few weeks ago and bought some balsa on impulse, because it was there, really. You don't see it, or model shops come to that, very much in the UK. Anyway, I found it a joy to work with after the traumas of trying to hack windows out of .040" styrene! I wonder where the balsa comes from, whether it is a rain forest wood...must look it up. Anyway, thanks for a great and informative post!

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    1. Thanks Iain. I think balsa trees grow in Ecuador, but I need to good and look around wiki-pedia. I used to have an old issue of American Aircraft Modeler from the early '70s which had an article by a correspendent who made an 'expedition' to a balsa saw-mill - I need to see if I still have it.

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