Standard Signal Tower

Publication: Railroad Model Craftsman
Publication Date: July 2007

By Don Spirro

Who remembers railroad signal towers? In the pre-scanner days of railfandom, signal or interlocking towers were the one stop source for what was happening on a railroad. With an operator on duty, towers were a personal connection to the railroad and most times you could count on a friendly interaction with the tower operator. You could find out what trains were due and when, what locomotives you might see and what you missed. If you were lucky, you might even get invited up to spend an enjoyable time between trains.

I remember in the early seventies, those dark, waning days of the CNJ spending quite a few pleasant Sunday afternoons at Shore Interlocking Tower on the east end of Newark Bay Bridge and Causeway. A pizza or similar "take out" in hand assured free roam and visitation rights, and on a few occasions, I was even able to line switches for the local freight or the Bayonne Scoot coming off the Causeway. They were distant and memorable afternoons, more so today in a day and age where railroad towers are few and far between. The personal connection, which made towers special, is now long gone. Like water tanks, crossing shanties, train order sheds and telegraph poles, towers have just about vanished from modern era railroading,

Happily there are tower models available in all scales which enable us to recreate this warm, charming and informative structure on our model railroads. BEST Models, short for Bollinger Edgerly Scale Trains, manufactures a line of fine laser-cut wood kits for a variety of railroad, commercial, non-commercial and maritime buildings. For this review, I received their kit No. 1 BE-HB-1001 Standard Signal Tower. The tower is a two-story clapboard structure based on original 1912 blueprints from the MEC which were copied from an earlier Boston & Maine design. Open the box and there is the familiar sheets of precisely laser-cut, wood components, two bags of white metal detail castings, various sizes of strip wood, acetate windows with shades printed on them, peel -and- stick shingles, and a booklet of instructions.

The instructions are informative and thorough with only a few gray areas, which I'll mention as they arise. All necessary tools and adhesives are listed in the beginning of the instructions. At the end of the instructions is an illustrated section on techniques for distressing and weathering the finished model, sometimes you don't see often in kits, a very nice tutorial touch. BEST tells you up front that they design their kits "for beginners and expert model craftsman" and after building the kit I wholeheartedly agree with their claim. I would not hesitate to recommend this kit for a beginner.

At the outset, a choice of painting the components before or after assembly is left up to the modeler. I like to paint everything prior to assembly; so I painted the walls with Polly Scale Aged Concrete and the trim with Polly Scale Mineral Red, a combination similar to the B&M.

With beginner in mind, I decided to build this structure with as few modifications as possible. One change I did make and I do recommend this for any structure is interior bracing. Whenever I build wood structures, be it a kit or a scratchbuilt model, I like to brace the corner joints and walls with 1/4" square basswood strip. The basswood strip will give you a strong gluing surface on the corners and will straighten any warping that is inherent to wood siding when painted. It will also prevent warping later on should your layout room be damp and subterranean. The kit does not contain Basswood strip but most hobby shops will stock this "meat and potato" item. Two lengths should be more than enough for this kit.

The first step is constructing the roof. The roof is made up of a flat wood base, two clapboard end walls that fir into slots in the base, laser-cut card stock sub-roofing and peel-and-stick shingles. I glued the ends into the slots on the base and used two short lengths of Basswood cemented to the floor at the bottom of the side to brace and hold the side at 90 degrees to the base.

The sub-roof is made of clapboard. I cringed at first as I don't trust card stock as a building medium. But hey, I said I wouldn't make many changes, so I stuck with it. If like me, cardboard causes you some angst, the cardboard sub-roof can be used as templates for cutting new roof pieces from .030" sheet styrene. The cardboard piece fit with usual laser precision, but I did run a bead of cyanoacrylate on the four sloped seams where the front and back piece of roof met the sides. This would hold the seam in place when the shingles were applied.

The peel-and-stick shingles are fantastic, they're laser-cut and are pre-colored a dark brownish black. The instructions are very informative on how to stagger the rows of shingles and apply them in a correct manner. I found I could let the strip run one shingle too long on either end and when I had a few rows laid up, I cut the edge with a pair of decal scissors. Some careful cutting and fitting of single shingles is necessary when the side roof gets to the clapboard end and meets the overhang of the main roof. Not difficult whatsoever tough.

Once all the shingles were on, I made seam and peak caps out of strips of masking tape and painted them grimy black with engine black tar seams on all edges. I finished the shingles to look like slate by first painting them all Polly Scale Oily Black and then dry brushed them all with Testors Modelmaster Jet Exhaust. This is an easy technique to get that silvery sheen to slate shingles.

I replaced the cast metal chimney with a plastic one produced by Modeler's Choice No. 205. The chimney in the kit is cast for a sloping roof, with an angled base. There's a square opening in the roof which this casting will fit into but I decided to save that casting to use on a structure with a sloping roof. The Modeler's Choice brick chimney, which has a flat base, will fit the opening with a little careful widening on the roof on all four sides.

The upper window assembly is next, and as towers were all windows on the second level, BEST uses a clever "sandwich" technique to model the windowed walls. There are four top walls with the frame openings cut by laser. There's a pane sheet that peels and sticks to the inside of the frame sheet. Remove the backing from the pane sheet and apply the acetate onto the backs of the panes wall. Be careful to line up the shades within each window. Sounds more complicated than actually doing it and the results are fine looking windows with a minimum of fess.

I found that cutting 1/8" off the ends of each of the panes wall before sticking them to the frame walls will allow for an easier 90 degree joint to the upper half of the building later on. I painted the assembled frame and pane walls Mineral Red before applying the acetate glazing. This is a must to keep paint off the acetate. Before I applied the glazing and rubbed off any finger paints on the clear portion of the acetate with a soft old T shirt.

The four first-story walls were painted the Aged Concrete, two coats covered well. At this point, I skipped ahead and followed the weathering techniques later on in the instructions adding stressed boards and nail holes. Like the peel-and-stick shingles, adding all the nail holes can be tedious-in fact, mind numbingly tedious. Try the technique though and use a small T-square or angle to get nicely lined up nail holes. The little nail holes and distressed board detail is well worth the effort in a much higher level of realism in the finished results. Windows and doors on the first level are peel-and -stick construction as well.

Before assembly, I painted the frames Mineral Red. The frame goes onto the outside of the window opening and the sashes/panes stick to the frames from inside the structure. The laser-cut frames and panes are very fine, so much so that even when stuck together, I could easily push them out of the opening. To make the thin joints on the edge of the windows more permanent, with a length of fine wire, I ran a thin bead of cyanoacrylate to the inside edges of the window where they meet the sides and along the edge of the frame and window. Once that had cured, the window was painted Mineral Red and the acetate glazing cemented inside the panes. Door assembly is similar and the completed doors and windows very fine in appearance.

A strip 1/4" basswood strip was cemented onto both inside edges of the end for more gluing surface on the corner joint when joining the ends and sides walls. A 1/16" X 1/16" square piece of stripwood was cemented to the ends of the side walls. This side walls are further braced inside with basswood. I cemented one side wall to one end wall, repeated on the other end and side and then cemented the two subassemblies together to form the basic box.

When the box is complete, there is a stripwood T-strip that must be cut at a 45-degree angle. This T strip is cemented to the top of the side and end walls and the upper level is cemented in the recess along the top of the T. I used a NWSL Chopper Two to cut the 45-degree angles in the T halfway, but it was enough of a cut to be a guide for finishing the cut with a hobby knife.

When you measure the length of the T for the 45-degree cut, be sure to measure from the inside of the side wall so the T lies flush to the top of the first story all around. I had mentioned early on to remove 1/8" from the upper level pane strips, you'll see why when you assemble the upper story walls. Removing that small amount allows the corner joint to be square, remember the end wall always joins to the inside edge of the side walls on any structure.

Because the walls are so thin, the peel-and -stick adhesive is not robust enough at the upper story corners to firmly hold the walls together. I attached the upper story walls starting with a side and end and adding one more wall as I went along. With a side and end wall in place in the recess of the T trim, I carefully aligned the corner joint and run a thin bead of cyanoacrylate on the inside of the joint with a piece of wire. I repeated this with each corner joint until the upper walls were together. The finished roof fit snugly into the second story. Now the tower has a lot of character.

There are a lot of windows on the upper story; so visitors can easily see into the tower in spite of the clever drawn shades printed onto the acetate. This makes the tower a prime candidate for interior detailing with a floor, Armstrong levers, a desk, chairs, a few figures, and your imagination will soar with all that blank space. I didn't add any interior details for this review, rather I painted the interior Pollyscale steam Power Black and this cut down any views of unfinished wood inside.

Rafter tail details were next. The kit includes 2" X 6" or thereabouts, strip wood. The pieces in my kit were very fuzzy and rough. I replaced the wood with Evergreen 2" X 6" strip styrene. I made one cut to fit with a 45-degree angle on both ends than used that one as a template to cut 29 more identical tails. They line up with slots in the top of the second story walls, up under the roof overhang. The corner rafter tails are longer but easy to cut to size. The instructions are a bit vague on rafter tail details but use the diagrams and photos to guide you. When finished, the rafter tails add more character to this structure than anything other than a detailed interior might. It takes awhile to carefully cut and apply them to the model but the effort is worth it.

Final details include a box covering the control rods on the side. This is a single piece of wood cut to shape and covered with leftover shingles. The semaphore assembly looked to be delicate. Again I deviated slightly and built the mast from styrene, instead of strip wood in the kit.

I cut a 45-degree angle where the mast meets the arm of the bottom for a stronger joint rather than rely on a butt joint. The prototype was added with 2" X 2" strip styrene to further brace the 90-degree joint. The prototype photo shows more detail as well as a small platform at the bottom of the mast.

One could add there details as the mast is overly simple. A small square opening is cut into the side wall according to the photo and the mast glued in place. It is reinforced inside with some additional strip styrene.

No instructions as to how to paint the blades is given. This is an oversight, as there aren't a lot of semaphores today to reference. Check your favorite prototype is my best advice for painting the blades. Black and white or red and white seem to be the most common colors, I used black and white. A drop of Testors Modekmaster British Racing Green Metallic, Turn Signal Amber Metallic and Stop Light Red Metallic filled in each of the depressions for the Fresnel lenses on the Semaphore. More adventuresome modelers may want to drill out the openings and use MV lenses or Marker Light Jewels to make the Semaphore lights.

There is a length of wire, rather thick to be bent to shape. The instructions refer to this wire as a "paper clip" but there is no such thing in the kit. I replaced this pole support rod with more delicate and scale .015" brass wire. Holes are drilled into the roof for this wire and small squares of masking tape are used for flashing where the rods entered the roof and on the side wall where the mast passes into the tower. A light overall wash of Polly Scale black in alcohol brought out the nail and distressed board details, and some dry-brushed earth along the bottom walls and trim and chalks finish off the mode.

There are quite a few detail castings including barrels, drums, cable, reel electrical hook-up box cinder block pile, two figures and a crate to be added once the tower is sited in a scene on the layout.

This is a fine model with excellent instructions and components that truly makes building the tower a most enjoyable and rewarding experience. The finished kit looks fantastic! As its prototype was in a Northern climate, the stairs are inside and not modeled, a nice aesthetic alternative to all the tower kits with the stairs outside and exposed to the elements. B&M and MEC modelers will revel in having a true prototype structure available commercially. Though simple, it is a delight to look at, the little details like rafter tails and nail holes yield a scratchbuilt look to the finished tower.

Assembly is fun and straightforward with enough modeling "challenge" to enable a beginner to raise their skill level measurably once the kit is finished. As I mentioned, all that window space on the second story begs for an interior. I did a Google search on Railroad Tower Interior Photos and came up with a number of examples of what the inside of a tower looks like for reference. SS Ltd. Makes fine castings of interior details like desks, chairs, typewriters, radiators and other appropriate tower details. The finished model looks so right regardless of prototype learnings. BEST has produced a first rate kit of a fantastic looking tower, I highly recommend this model,Kit No. 1001.

-Don Spiro


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