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A handy N scale uncoupler — good for olives, too

Read this N scale column from the January 2015 Model Railroader

This red plastic sword is just right for uncoupling N scale cars.
Steven Otte photo
If you’re a model railroader, everywhere you go your antennae are out, scanning your environs for anything that might be useful to build with. And that leads me to swizzle sticks.

I was having lunch with a tableful of in-laws at Maggiano’s Little Italy, a popular chain with a restaurant near my home, when my eyes were drawn to the little red stir stick in my beverage. It was 51⁄2" long, shaped like a sword, and had a tip that looked as if it would work well for ­uncoupling N scale freight cars.

I took it home, tried it out, and found it worked even better than I thought it might. Evidently, the design requirements for spearing olives or lemon wedges and opening N scale coupler knuckles are very similar. And the even better news was that I had scored a half-dozen more stirrers from relatives, making it a highly successful evening.

In the months since I have acquired more stirrers from the restaurant, and I’ve also tried some from other establishments. Some work OK, but none quite as well as those little red swords.

If you want something specifically ­designed for model railroaders, Rix makes an uncoupling tool that works very well. It costs $3.95 – I own four – but the little swords work almost as well. And you can arm your layout with dozens on the cheap; the stirrers were free (with drink purchase, of course).

But now I turn to things that weren’t free, ­though they did turn out to be worth every penny.

Most of the coupling and uncoupling on my layout happens in Bakersfield. This is on my lower level, 43" above the floor. I would be the first to agree that this is too low, both for visual and operational reasons.

Because our N scale trains are small, I like them up where I can see them. A height of about 52" would be ideal. But I had to start my N scale layout low, because my trains have a mountain to climb. Because of the low height, Bakersfield is best operated from stools. This is made easier because in N scale, more yard tracks are within easy reach of the layout’s edge and the cuts of cars are shorter than they would be in the larger scales. Operators are bobbing up and leaning forward from their stools quite a bit, but they don’t have to walk around much.

The stools would also be handy on the mountainous part of the railroad. The main purpose of my Tehachapi Pass layout is to run trains up and over the Tehachapi Mountains. This wouldn’t be so tough if the pass had multiple tracks, as do Donner or Cajon, but the Teha­chapi route is so circuitous with so many tunnels that the best the Southern Pacific could do was a single-track railroad with some passing sidings squeezed in.

So, because my mainline train operators are running on a single-track main, they’re going to get sidetracked a lot waiting for an oncoming train – or sometimes several – to come through.

To be prototypical, my engineers ought to be sitting while they wait – that’s what the trainmen are doing in real locomotive cabs. (I once saw an SP engineer with his feet up on the control stand, reading a Zane Grey Western ­novel. Looked pretty ideal to me.)

How nice it would be, I thought, if the crew had portable stools they could carry along with them, or just pull out from under the edge of the layout.
A 2-foot stool is perfect for switching Jim’s Bakersfield yard. N scale yards and trains are smaller, making sitting to switch practical.
Roen Kelly photo
Finding such stools turned out to be a surprisingly difficult 18-month search, probably because I had no idea where to look. Ask most people for leads on stools and you’ll end up looking at bar stools or kitchen stools, or maybe here in Wisconsin, milking stools. Kitchen stools were way too heavy, but svelte compared to bar stools. Most bar stools have heavy legs and footrests, arms, and a back, and seem better suited to hooking marlin.

Finally I found exactly what I was looking for at Target. It was a simple black stool with steel legs. They came in 2-foot and 3-foot heights; the former has worked out well. The price was right, $12 apiece. I bought four. I’m thinking I’ll go back and get a couple of 3-footers to use where the layout is ­higher, namely at the Tehachapi Loop. If I’m going to sit a spell, that’s where I’d like to do it.

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