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[whitespace] Locals gear up to share passion for railroad modeling

Cupertino--Ken Lunders often spends up to eight hours a day on a boxcar. But the Cupertino resident is not rail hopping Jack Kerouac-style. His time is spent completing an actual scale model of a railroad boxcar.

Lunders is a member of the local chapter of the National Model Railroad Association (NMRA), whose members rolled into town last weekend for the 65th Annual National Train Show at the McEnery Convention Center.

According to Nancy Richison, spokesperson for the convention, the train show, operated by the NMRA in cooperation with the Model Railroad Industry Association, is the largest train show in North America. Different cities take turns hosting. The convention garners worldwide attention, with attendants from as far as Canada, Japan and Germany.

Richison attributes the popularity of model railroads to the hands-on aspect that kids and grown-up kids enjoy. The hobby's appeal is shown in how it's withstood the test of time. "You always picture a model railroad around the Christmas tree. It's an enduring picture," said Richison.

Lunders travels back in time with his models to reflect on the train's place in history. "It's an opportunity to research and to look at the influence the railroad exerted on the communities, and how they led to their own demise," he said. His layout of locomotives and boxcars is in a constant state of construction and reconstruction. "I will never finish it because if I'm not satisfied with it, I redo it," he said. He relies on toothpicks, pins and Exacto blades to perfect his miniatures, which are also in the HO scale. Careful attention to details is a must in this field. "Well, that's a nice way of putting it," Lunders said.

Lunders said he could be working on several models at a time, preferring to go for the complex kits. The hobby isn't easy on the wallet, and as such Lunders says young would-be modelers sometimes are deterred.

When the yearly national train show doesn't roll into town, members rely on chapter meetings to learn from one another. Every three months, the local chapter holds a mini convention, during which members volunteer to give clinics and hold auctions to swap parts. "Any man's junk is another man's prize," says Bill Nickels, a collector from Sunnyvale.

The opportunity to work with his hands is the reason Nickels enjoys model railroads. "I had a natural talent as a machinist tool and die maker. It's in my blood," he said, Nickels has enjoyed his hobby for the past 40 years, modeling in the HO gauge, which is 3.5 millimeters to the foot, or 1/87 of the real deal. He says shows such as the one in San Jose offer enthusiasts the opportunity to trade information and tips with fellow modelers. "You get lots of ideas. For example, How do you collect shrubbery?" Nickels said.

Actually, Nickels already has his technique for replicating trees down pat. After all, he's been working on his current layout of a scene of the Midwest, circa the 1950s, for the past 10 years. As a retired software engineer, he has a lot of free time, but he says he only spends 10 percent of his waking hours working on his hobby. After all, a man needs varied interests to make retirement fulfilling. As for making his landscape, he was willing to share his method for generating redwood trees. A cut and rounded roof shingle makes a suitable trunk. Nickels drills holes and places air ferns from the craft store to simulate the green stuff, putting the short stubs on top and the longs ones at the bottom. Other times, he goes to his backyard for his raw material.

Inspiration for a layout can strike at any time. "I go through a design and put it on paper. Usually, it's a doodle on the back of an envelope," he said.

Nickels says he is reluctant to spend money on expensive features because he wants to make his layout accessible to his grandchildren. "If it's too expensive, my grandkids wouldn't want to touch it. I want it so my grandkids can run it," he said.

Don't look for Nickels to put his miniature 1950s Americana around the Christmas tree any time soon. "Modelers say that if we ever finish, we start over again," he said.

Nickels agrees with Lunders' statement about the cost affecting the popularity of the hobby. "I heard from the NMRA that the average modeler is 63 years old. That says kids aren't that interested," he said.
Michele Leung

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Web extra to the August 10-16, 2000 issue of Metro.

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