The Val Ease Central Railroad

Taking Z Scale to the Public Around the World
(Text and photos Copyright Jeffrey MacHan)


Last Spike: Lighting the Great Xmas Tree

Excerpt from the Val Ease Buggle (pronounced beeooogle 'round here)...

"Xmas Tree Lighting Wows Valeasians" by Mike Ruffone, special correspondent

An enthusiastic crowd of Val Ease East citizens braved the nippy evening air last night to witness the annual lighting of the Great Tree atop Val Ease Terminal and to usher in the Festive Season.

The ritual lighting was ably performed by Hizzonner, the Mayor, who only needed two tugs on the lever to throw the switch and send electricity surging to the top of the magnificent blue spruce poised majestically high above the shivering crowd below. Luckily, Hizzonner was unhurt as his fall from the podium was cushioned by several less fortunate bystanders. The Mayor was overheard speculating that this year's batch of 'toddies' was "mighty potent". This, of course, was music to the ears of the ladies auxiliary of the Val Ease Historical Society who were kept busy for quite some time ladling out generous portions of their "secret" recipe to the many revelers who had come to watch Hizzonner light the Great Tree.

Captain Paddy Wagonn was happy to report that fewer citizens than last year were overnight guests of the constabulary recovering from the aftereffects of our celebrated "toddies". According to Dr. Ben Itchenn, the number of cases of frostbite were up 54% from last year although no serious injuries were reported to the Val Ease Medical Center.

See the special insert in Wednesday's Buggle for the calendar of Festive events across Val Ease County. Note: there are still a few openings for contestants in the Val Ease Peak two-man downhill barrel race. Big cash prizes to all survivors!

The Great Xmas Tree atop VEC Central Station
The Great Xmas Tree sits proudly atop VEC Central Station.

Adding color and visual interest to a scene is often easier done than said! In the Great Xmas Tree case, I used a relatively inexpensive flashing LED circuit, a short strand of fiber optic material and a resin Xmas tree picked up on the decoration rack at a local discount store.

Not being especially handy with a soldering iron, I am always on the lookout for any commercial product that might be usable on the VECRR with little or no modification or investment. The Bachmann series of N scale structures includes an oil storage tank adorned with a flashing red beacon. The circuit is easily removed and the tank recycled as a gift to a young modeler in the family or a dog dish. The red LED flashes at one pulse per second which is perfect for a warning beacon or a Christmas tree. The LED is much too large to be used as is. I needed to use a piece of fiber optic (FO) to conduct the light to the top of the tree and to act as a lens making the flasher visible to visitors even in full room lighting.

Preparing the fiber optic strand:

I used a 1 mm thick strand of fiber optic material from an experimenter's kit. I did not cut the strand to length to start with. The first operation is to bend the neck of the strand and to form the lens using the heat from a hot 25 watt soldering iron. The hot iron was securely fastened to the work bench so that the tip was above the surface. I then gripped the FO strand in a pair of tweezers and held it below the hot tip of the iron a few millimeters away. The heat from the iron softened the FO and I quickly made a neat 90 degree bend where the strand was held by the tweezers. The reason that I started with the uncut length of FO is that I wasn't too sure that my technique would work right off the bat.

Next, I cut the FO strand about 1.5 mm from the bend. Time to form the lens. Still clutching the FO in my tweezers, I held the short end next to but not touching the flat tip of the hot iron. The heat rapidly melted the end which flared out to form a nice round lens. I put my finished FO strand and lens aside and tackled the next part of the project.

Preparing the tree:

The resin tree needed some surgery to implant the fiber optic lens and to accommodate the LED in its base. The first step is to remove enough material in the center of the base of the tree to be able to fit completely over the 3mm wide LED. The LED would be permanently attached to the top section of the station building while the tree would be removable so that I could close the lid of VEE for shipping. For a "normal" home layout or module, the LED could be glued into the base of the tree if desired.

I used a drill bit slightly wider than the LED and drilled just far enough into the resin tree base so that the tree fit comfortably over the LED. Step two in the tree preparation required the use of a razor saw!

I wanted to have the lens of the FO strand centered in the star perched atop the Xmas tree. In order to do this I had to drill a 1mm hole in the star where the lens would be positioned. Once this hole was made using a pin vise, I gently removed the star from the top of the tree using a few strokes of my razor saw. Putting the star aside for a moment, I then used the same pin vise and drilled down the center of the resin tree from the top toward the hollowed out section in the base. I made sure that the FO strand fit through this hole.

Next step is to thread the FO strand through the star and position the lens as close to the surface of the resin as possible. Using a sharp hobby knife blade, I removed a small portion of resin from the back of the star to make enough room to lay the FO strand flat along the back. Before gluing the FO lens from the back I made a couple of test fittings to make sure that the star and FO would sit well on the top of the tree. Once I was happy with the fit, I glued the FO in place with a dab of AC cement. I would touch up the back of the star and cover the FO with yellow paint later.

The final step in the FO assembly required cutting the strand to the proper length to fit inside the Xmas tree. The end of the strand should just butt up against the LED in the base. This is not a critical measurement. In fact I had some wiggle room because I used a ring of putty around the base of the tree as a light seal which also raised the tree slightly from the roof of the station building. I glued the star to the top of the tree with AC and did my paint touch-ups using a good coat of acrylic paint, basically using whatever was at hand and easiest to clean up.

Time to test the flasher...it worked great but the star wasn't quite as bright as I had hoped. I fixed this little problem by forming a lens on the inside end of the FO strand so that it picked up more light from the LED. This did the trick.

The nice thing about having a removable tree is that I can replace it with a similar FO beacon in the form of a radio tower or lightning rod. To be honest I happen to like having the holiday season year round. As a result, time has come to a complete stop in the mythical community of Val Ease and the Great Xmas Tree blinks on and on and on and on...