Wednesday, June 25, 2014


A few brief comments first -

As much as I would like to update my blog more, there just isn't time of late.  I've gone from busy to super busy to super nova busy with my business.   Sixteen hour days, seven day weeks have been the norm of late to barely keep up.  Besides all our local work, and there is a lot of that, we took on five shore projects this spring.  Three were done by the Memorial Day deadlines but two are still ongoing.     Three of the houses were beachfront and two bay front so the views were great, but that can be a double edged sword when you are swinging a hammer for hours watching others relax  (ok we really don't swing hammers a lot as we have a dozen or so nail guns)   I'm trying to hire another carpenter or two, which isn't as easy as it sounds.  There are plenty out there, but out of every 100 carpenters only a half a dozen or so have the skills I need and the work ethic, and of those half are in business for themselves and the other half well paid elsewhere.   It's ironic that two of the best prospects I'm looking at right now, both have college degrees from good schools, but have been under employed or not employed for the 3-4 years since graduating and are looking toward construction as a viable alternative to traditional college career paths.  Both have excellent mechanical and craft skills, which is why I'm talking to them, however, I get calls almost daily from customers and other contact looking for basic laborer jobs for there college grad kids that have been sitting home for months or years watching TV and sending out resumes.  Construction laborer positions will pay better than most retail or service industry jobs.   And yet there is the continual brainwashing that a college degree is a panacea for improving your life, oh and don't worry about the mortgaged sized loan with credit card interest,..... I'm not against college mind you, I have a degree, I just don't think it's a fit for EVERYONE, and I think within the next ten years or so you will start to see a dramatic shift in that college degree vs high school degree lifetime earnings comparison.      Anyway, enough ranting, but this does bring me to my next subject -

This blog is not a public forum or bulletin board,..etc..  It's my blog and my opinions.  I don't consider myself a brilliant thinker, so about half my opinions are probably wrong or misguided, maybe more.  This is basically a stream of consciousness (if you haven't figured that out already) so I say what's on my mind.  Since I haven't been doing much work on trains, but still buy a book or two, I've taken to posting frequent book reviews.   My review, as it should be, is what I think of the book from my, possibly misguided perspective.   Some of my recent reviews garnered a lot of hate comments - I switched to moderated comments and didn't post the nasty stuff, but after thinking about it, I'll post all comments, except for the dude in India that wants work as a consultant.   These comments coincided with my FU to the steel mill group, well more precisely,  the Youngstown Industrial Tea Party and associated sycophants (i think there is a Buffalo branch too), so that might have precipitated the volume of hate mail.   My favorite comment was "Jim - your fat"    This guy must by auditioning to take over that Captain Obvious TV commercial role.    So if I don't like a book, that's my opinion, and if you want to call me (or my mama) fat, go ahead.

Now fun stuff - I've been thinking of purchasing a 3d printer, laser cutter, or small CNC machine for the past two years, but have been hesitating of the cost vs value equation with these things.   Either the resolution sucks or the machines are ridiculously expensive.   I think that the common 3d printers using ABS plastic filaments have limits in terms of resolution - all that money and time printing and you still have a lot of clean up and probably need to make RTV molds and cast the part in resin anyway so you can paint it.   There is a startup, and I forget the name, making reasonably priced printers using liquid resin - I think this is the future for modeling small parts, but I'm not sure I want to get in at the ground floor - wait a while for the machines to improve and prices to drop ( I remember a customer of mine purchasing a 42 inch plasma TV back in the late 90s for over $10,000) He was the only one that had it then, but,.....

I started to think of priorities,  i.e. how would one of these machines make my modeling easier and more importantly better?    Some priorities -

  • Repetitive cutting
  • Accurate and consistent measurements
  • Speed
  • Ability to cut styrene sheet, which I use a lot of 
I was looking at some CNC machines but the concern was that the spindles would melt the styrene while cutting and due to the round bits, not have the precision or sharp corners that I would like.    There are some people on the internet using them for styrene cutting, mostly in Europe, with some success, however, a much cheaper alternative presented itself to me.  It's far from perfect and can't do everything I like, but based on first impressions I'm excited.  
Machine at work

This machine is the Silhouette Cameo.  I'm came across it on a few British model train sites, as well as Star Trek modeling sites and electronic prototyping sites.   It's original market was for scrapbookers, so your local Michaels or AC Moore should have it - I purchased it online.  It's a cross between a printer and a CNC machine - similar to a large plotter.  The moving head takes a small pivoting cutting blade - it can also take markers .   I believe these type machines have been used for a number of years by vinyl sign people, however, this is I think, the first home version.  The price is right at $265 and the software that operates it is a free download.  I downloaded the software and played around with it a bit before ordering - this is important as any type of machine can only execute what the computer tells it to, so you need to be able to use the software if you expect good results.  
The cut

For a cutter, you can make incredibly detailed cuts, and hurray, it will take styrene, although, you won't see that material listed anywhere on the box or any advertising for the product.   You are limited on thickness as the blade is very tiny.   Here is what I was able to do on initial testing - 
  • Cut .010 and .015 styrene through completely
  • Score .020 styrene - easy clean breaks along the score lines
  • Score .030 styrene - straight line cuts are nice clean breaks but curved and tight details will need some light cleanup
  • Score .040 styrene - sweeeeeeet - a little more clean up, but think dead-accurate multiple parts
  • of course card stock, paper, etc - this is what the machine was designed for.
  • It also does temporary tattoos - I don't know much about this but it was mentioned on-line that this is similar to a decal and might be useful there - something to explore. 
  • Vinyl lettering - think control panels - side of your truck - want to put 12" high letters that spell out Pennsy on your fascia,...etc..  
  • Billboard or building lettering - you could cut adhesive paper and use as paint masks
I'm super psyched about the .040 styrene - most sites said you couldn't, but I think they were trying smaller parts - I'm looking at building walls etc.    The high line project stalled because of the tedium in cutting out the six individual styrene parts for each bin x 20 or 30 more bins to do.  The machine would do all this - all I would have to do is insert the styrene sheet and click start and then break out parts and a light sanding.    
The free drawing/cutting software - very easy to use

Forget the pain in the ass circle cutters - it takes two seconds to draw a circle or ellipse to the exact measurement you need.   
First test parts

You can see my first test run - I spent about 10 minutes drawing these parts and then put in a piece of .015 styrene.  The parts separated cleanly and most of the cuts were all the way through, or at lest 95 percent of the way.   You can see from the one piece that I was playing around with a railing design and notice the finer verticals and horizontals that I was testing to see if it could do.  The truss design was simple and quick - Im thinking off building up multiple layers.    Also a window and some small circles.  

I'd like to come up next with an industrial roof truss design with several layers of .010 and then strip styrene flanges.    Stay tuned for more of this machine....


Steve Watson said...

Geez, and spouse & I just ordered a Shapeoko for about 3x that price.

Oh well. We'll see how it does.

Rick Bickmore said...

Looking very promising, Jim....I'm paying close attention.

Jon Ruehle said...

Hi James, I read your blog often, always great information! You are SO right about finding skilled labor with a work ethic. It's nearly impossible.

I am very interested in this cutter that you have found. To the point that I may just get on myself.

Like you I model in HO scale, but how do you draw things to scale with the software provided?

Jim Musser said...

Jon - Try the software first as it's a free download. Play around with it and see what you can do. The drawings are measured so to scale you would have to convert all your HO feet/inches into actual inches and go by them. My next post, to appear very very shortly, shows how I scaled a truss. Very easy to adjust or draw to scale.

Jim Musser said...

Steve - That looks like an interesting machine and actually something I would have probably purchased already if I'd known about it. Would cut out thicker styrene real good. I think they would both have their uses. For example, the latest blog entry shows a roof truss I did. I'm not sure the Shapeoko could cut out the sharp angles involved to the precision that the Cameo can, however, for other components and for the walls of the building, the Shapeoko would be better. From a software standpoint, the Cameo might be easier as you just draw and click to cut. On the Shapeoko you need to master a CAD, a CAM, and then a G-Code program to go from drawing to part - this was a consideration for me as I don't have the time to spend learning all these programs and then retaining what I learned. The real plus of the Shapeoko is you can do 3-d shapes - the Cameo is strictly 2-d. Please keep me posted on how that machine works out for you as I might get one. Thanks, Jim

Jon Ruehle said...

I downloaded the software. How easy it is to use.

I completely understand the scaling thing, so that part's no issue. I just need to figure out how to break a line....


Jim Musser said...

Hi Jon,

There is a knife tool that can separate the lines, or the eraser. I use these a lot when cleaning up the overlapping lines - If you break each end then you can just click and delete the remainder of the line. If you zoom in a lot like I do it's easy, and don't worry too much about some slight imperfections like slightly overlapping lines etc. I had a few spots where it laps but no big deal, just cuts twice or more those spots - can't tell when you break out styrene.