Christopher Brimley updated September 22, 2011

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  • O Scale - A Scratchbuilder's Dream!

    by Bob Turner

    Photos by the author unless otherwise indicated

    Model MM-2 in 17/64" scale was the authors first attempt at scratchbuilding. It has a steel boiler, brass and bronze cab, tender and frames. It has power by NWSL.
    Model Railroading - October 2001 - Page 27

    There are things in life that can be very satisfying - like getting that diploma or degree, or learning how to get along with the opposite sex, for example. But in the category of hobbies, none can surpass the exhilaration of placing a 4-8-8-2 on the track, knowing that you did everything except pour the castings, cut the gears, and design the motor! Well, I remember the first time I rebuilt a Piper Cub. That "first flight" compares! But I just put my fifth scratchbuilt cab-forward on the track, and watched it walk away noiselessly. The thrill has not diminished I am still amazed!

    Why O scale? Well, HO is simply too small - its not a mechanics scale. S scale is still slightly too small, while G and #1 are way too large! Plus, there are a lot of quality parts available in O scale perhaps as many as in any other scale. And best of all, there are some real museum pieces out there that can be purchased for far less than they are worth!

    Southern Pacific AC-8 4189 in Los Angeles, CA, in August 1947. Built in September 1939 and scrapped in December 1956, this was a big locomotive! The last cab forward, #4294, is on display in Sacramento. These were the largest locomotives used on the SP.
    Model Railroading - October 2001 - Page 28

    O scale takes too much room, you say? Yeah, it does! I have a minimum 61" radius, and while my 4-8-8-2 locomotives all negotiate that, my 17/64" scale 4-10-2 will not - it needs a 72" radius; twice the size of most broad curves in HO. But O scalers are usually not motivated to build a huge, complex, fully scenicked railroad. Rather, most of us are fascinated by nuts and bolts, cast iron, the smell of burning coal and hot steam oil, and for all that, old automobiles and airplanes as well! Ours is a special fascination with things mechanical, assuaged with picture books, railroad videos, restored Mustangs, and of course O scale steam engine models. If any of that sounds familiar, do join us! We have lots of room for new members in our very select fraternity! (No, I dont know any women in O scale, but I assure you they are welcome too!).

    Let me share with you a few of my models - my scratchbuilt Nos. 1, 3, and 19. Each of these models fits the description. I did everything but design the motor, cut t he gears, and pour the castings. In several cases, I made the patterns and had the castings poured to my specifications. This isn't something I have been doing all my life! I started dreaming about an SP 2-66-2 in 1960, when a modeler named Carl Builder wrote a series in Model Railroader. I had seen the Back-up Mallies on the SP, but had never seen a true Mallet type (compound articulated - the steam is used twice!). Well, I dreamed and drew pictures from 1957 to 1984, and then I met George Barnes in LA, who said, Bob, just DO it. Start with one piece then just keep working. George has built beautiful Milwaukee Northerns, among other things.

    So I got a hunk of 1 1/8" diameter steel exhaust pipe, a small sheet of .020 brass, lots of small screws, a pair of Lobaugh Challenger frames (still available new in 1984) and some Japanese drivers that needed some machining, and started hammering, soldering, drilling, tapping, etc. After about six months, I hooked up the NWSL gearboxes (the best, in my opinion) with the motor, set the rather plain-looking model (with full rods and valve gear) on the test track and turned on the power! Success! Just like that Piper Cub flight! Needless to say, the consequences of failure were a lot higher in the Piper Cub, but the thrill the pride of accomplishment - is the same!

    SP AC-4 in 17/64 scale is Bobs 19th scratchbuilt model. He says he started this one because he had too many 66 drivers laying around. This model has a "wood block" tender and a Pittmann 9236 motor with NWSL gears.
    Model Railroading - October 2001 - Page 29

    No. 3 is a giant AC-8. I built it out o f frustration. I had been looking for a Lobaugh model (we believe 12 exist the prints are dated December 7, 1941), but couldn't find one at any price! Lobaugh was, from the 1930s on, a premier kit producer in O scale. Rollin Lobaugh made screws and bolts, but rather than furlough his machinists during slack periods, he had them build brass locomotive kits! I did find a perfect Lobaugh model, from Peter Thorpe of Trackside Details, but #3 was almost complete by then. This model was almost as much of a thrill; I had a little trouble with brake shoe lockup (a bit like a Chinese finger-trap between several drivers) but even with the sudden stops, those tough little NWSL gears hung right in there!

    No. 19 is an AC-4. I guess my motivation for this one is that the AC-4 is the only variant of the SP cab-forwards that was not represented in my collection. This one is unusual in that I used a Pittman #9236 motor (absolutely huge!), two spring-belts to drop the motor rotation down inside the frame (my worm shafts are hidden inside the frame) and my favorite NWSL #12536 gearboxes. This model is unique among my cab-forward collection; even the main frames are scratchbuilt, and castings for side rods and tender trucks are from my masters. This thing ran right off the bat, but it wouldn't take my 61" radius curves at first. It took a lot of re-rigging and some remedial track work, but as of right now this model will crawl over any track I have, pulling everything in sight.

    Does it take an artist or an experienced machinist to build such models? The answer is a qualified "no" - I became an artist and a machinist only after I actually built #4207. I now shrink from no job in O scale (or larger); the secret is to start. It took me over a quarter-century of dreaming before I cut my first tube; now more than 15 years later I have scratchbuilt about 30 engines, including a quarter-inch scale Big Boy. If you have this rather strange affinity for steam engines, old piles of nuts and bolts, and antique airplanes and cars, consider my hobby - O scale scratchbuilding! We welcome newcomers - we actually need new blood, to keep our dedicated manufacturers from starving! Give it a try - first, tackle one of those fine plastic model kits from InterMountain or Weaver. Then find an old, beat-up antique engine for cheap, and restore it. Then, after far less than a quarter-century of dreaming, build your own, one piece at a time! Talk about a satisfying experience....

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