Now Pinch Hitting for AV – Walgreen’s!

by John Canfield


    Those of us who have been modeling for a number of years have all had the experience of scrounging around in all kinds of strange places for material we can use and the hobby  magazines are just full of such bizarre esoterica  – “did you know that the tailpipe from a ’55 Mercury is the exact diameter of an O&W water tower in HO?”  But my friends, treasure hunts really do turn up the perfect materials in the oddest places so read on! 

    After producing some limited edition resin kits of the Borden butter dish reefer and Russell snowplow, I decided that a representative member of the “great wooden fleet” might be fun for my next project.  My good friend Walt Kierzkowski sent me numerous photos from his fabulous collection and I finally settled on the 3-doored #542 baggage car as a potentially interesting project and, to the best of my knowledge, one that had never been commercially produced.  Oh, sure, we all know about Ambroid’s beautiful B&M three door baggage car but that one had end platforms and wasn’t really a good fit for Delhi or Sidney so off I went to make up some mold masters. 

    The sides, ends, and floor were easy enough to do from Evergreen styrene and voila! the 542 began to take shape quite nicely.  BCW Kit Bits trucks were a perfect match and after tracking down the queenposts from Precision Scale (18” and accurate!!), brakes from Cal-Scale/Bowser, and some Tichy turnbuckles, drop grabirons, etc. the thing really started to come together.  I was really excited and only the roof remained. 

    I had an old resin roof from somewhere or other that was about the right length but the sides of the clerestory were barren of any kind of vents.  My research and Walt’s photos had shown that these old baggage cars had the plain wire mesh vents so I thought piece of cake!  Between BCW, Walthers, Eastern Car Works, Branchline, or somebody, surely these vents were out there.  All I had to do was dig them up, tack on about 18 on each side with super glue, and my mold master was ready to go. 

    So I began my search - - Walthers, nada.  BCW, not quite.  Eastern, no vents at all.  Branchline, nothing comparable. Precision, Bowser, you name it, lots of globe vents and other roof paraphenalia but no mesh vents.  Having built some of the old F&C early 80’s resin kits (you know, five lumps of resin and a sketch?) I recalled that some of them had these kinds of vents.  I called Sharon at F&C and she said, gee, they hadn’t made those kits in over 15 years but maybe out back somewhere behind the half cans of SAE 30 were still the mold masters in some forgotten corner and she’d let me know.  But she’s a busy lady with all their shows and her kids so no vents from there either. 

    So giving up on any thing commercial, I dove into my junk boxes.  From my 1/24 car modeling, I found some absolutely perfect-sized mesh screen and thought, aha, all I have to do is cut it into the exact size (3/32 x 5/32, if I recall), ACC ‘em on, and I’m in business.  So I measured, used a sharp pencil, got my scissors out, and away I went.  First, did you ever try to see a pencil line on mesh screen?  Even under my magnifying light, after turning the screen this way and that, only the vaguest glimmer of a line showed up but I valiantly hacked away until I had 36 little rectangles, got out the glue, and venting we went.  I marked the roof where they went and diligently glued them on only to discover that with all in place, it was quite obvious to the naked eye that even a 1/64” difference in height or length was a visual sore thumb and that just wouldn’t do.  So I x-acto’d them all off and started again.

     Three more tries proved to me that it was humanly impossible to cut screen that small and that exact so what else could there be?  Mal Houck told me that he had some luck using some old Kemtron tread and then coating a sheet of plastic with MEK, pressing the tread onto it, and then pulling off the tread once the MEK dried and a perfect screen impression remained.  He said lacquer thinner also did the trick.  Well, not having any MEK laying around (seeing as how my experience with such volatile chemicals has often led to disasters akin to blowing off the garage door), and believing that Kemtron tread disappeared sometime in the 70’s after Mr. Kemalyan  (the “Kem” of Kemtron) went god-knows-where, I tried the lacquer thinner but all I got was a swirled image on the plastic that was a pretty fair representation of a Jackson Pollock painting but nowhere near that of a mesh screen.

     Frustrated, I decided that haunting Home Depot and Lowe’s may turn up something – after all, in those two havens of hardware I had turned up tons of stuff suitable for 1/24 dirt car models, hadn’t I?  But alas, the results were fruitless because unthinking manufacturers had stubbornly refused to make any drainpipe, tile, roofing paper, or plumbing hardware that had the exact pattern of a 3.5mm scale mesh screen.  How dare they!

    Frustrated, I had just about given up.  Oh, well, I thought, I saw a baggage car that Bill Schneider had made on the Old Woman in the Back Bedroom web site and ye gods, it had NO roof vents at all so if such an icon of O&W modeldom could get away with that, why couldn’t I? 

    But that expedient shortcut of omission just didn’t set well with me. A couple of days later I was wandering in a Walgreen’s Drug Store and a brilliant memory flash came to me - Hey!  I thought, when I was a kid, I remember using my mother’s Johnson and Johnson medical adhesive tape to bind up cracked ball bats (much to her irritated dismay) and say, didn’t that tape have a fine mesh pattern to it?  Giddy with my recollection, I wandered over to the First Aid aisle and lo and behold, there it was!! But the J&J tape’s mesh was not nearly as fine as I had recalled, being about the scale size of a G scale window screen.  But right next to it sat an absolutely gorgeous roll of Athletic Tape replete with a perfect 1/87 mesh pattern!  And all I would ever need in this or another 100 lifetimes for  $2.39!! 

    So I rushed home, carefully taped the Athletic Tape onto a sheet of .005” plastic, put in a super sharp x-acto knife blade, sharpened my pencil, and laid out and cut out all the little buggers. I glued them all on my old resin roof, made the mold, and out came just about the nicest (not absolutely perfect, but in the absence of anything else, who can complain??) castings of a roof with mesh clerestory vents that anybody could want.  Into my 542 kits they went and so far, the kits have been a big hit.  I have yet to receive the first complaint of “geez, those damned roof vents look like some crappy tape or something!” 

So I guess the moral of the story is never give up because almost 50 years after the hum of the AV shops has been silenced, the tinsmiths at Walgreen’s do just fine!