Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Mobile Hobby/Craft Station

The Situation:    In addition to my larger scale projects I also dabble in small scale stuff; literally; like 1:87 scale in the form of HO-scale model railroading.

The Issue:     Assembling a branch-line railroad station that measures something like 8" x 3" and stands less than 4" high does not mix well with projects like a 10' x 10' greenhouse with a 7' peak, or even a 4' x 2.5' kitchen island that stands 40" high. The tools aren't the same, little scale parts that took hours to assemble get stuck to the bottom of full-sized paint cans and disappear forever, and whole miniature buildings get crushed to little splinters by a single dropped 1:1 scale drawer. (Go ahead, ask me how I know these things, I dare you!!)

The Solution:     Build a dedicated Hobby Station

The Criteria:     It will hold all my modeling crap, or at least the majority of it. It will be on castors and rolled around the barn to where needed when needed, including the ability to roll through standard sized doorways in case I want to work in the air-conditioned living quarters during the summer. It will have lots of partitions to neatly store all the little bits and pieces that my hobby requires, plus include a 'workbench'. It will close up tight to protect everything when not being used. Oh, and it needs to look good in the process.

I've always been attracted to self-contained and portable things and I'm old enough to be drawn to what nowadays we call 'mid-century' chique; you know, that good stuff from when I was a boy un-jaded by an excess of years and a few aches and pains.

Initially I thought of something that could pass for one of the old camp-kitchens, but quickly realized that was not going to be large enough for all my modeling crap, (Besides that tiny little tripod stool looks about as comfortable as the original hard-shell seat that came on my bike!)

so I switched my concept over to those old steamer trunks used by the privileged when they traveled via luxury cabins in the steam-ship and passenger-train era, the kind of trunks that were really a portable walk-in closet, the epitome of self-contained and portable.

I started the project by acquiring a variety of plastic  drawers that I can store all sorts of little parts in and have at least one chance in hell of finding them again!

I know, I know, really? plastic?!! But the hard truth is that would be lighter, frankly less expensive, and take a whole lot less effort, than if I built 39 (Yep, count em, 39) of my own wooden drawers from scratch, so give me a break!

Once I had my collection of drawers in hand and knew the sizes I had to accommodate, I fired up SketchUp and designed a 'trunk' to go around them that includes space along one side for long, skinny things like sections of track, and a drop-down work surface to - well, you know - work on.

Then it was time to build the thing.

The carcass of the trunk was actually pretty straightforward. A couple of open-fronted boxes with appropriately placed shelves and dividers

that I built out of two sheets of furniture grade plywood.

I then installed a total of 8 castors, decent castors, (Nothing worse than trying to move something around on cheap-ass castors!) four to each box, and gave the carcasses a good finish of primer inside and out, topped with semi-gloss white on the inside.

At this point I could have just finished the outside of the two carcasses with the same white semi-gloss, slapped on some hinges and a couple latches and called it done, but apparently it's not in my nature to do things the easy way. (I know - but I think maybe it's a disease.)

In an attempt to keep them light, (Presumably in case there was no cheap labor handy to shlub them around.) steamer trunk bodies were usually made of pressed paper or, for the more elite, leather, and relied on braced strapping for structure. In my case I clearly didn't need this strapping, but since I was going for the look, leather and strapping it is.

For my own personal version (read cheap and on a budget) of expensive old leather I stared with a base layer of shockingly bold red paint with a suspicious hint of pink to it, (Yeah, I know. I was questioning my artistic decision making process about this time too!)

then 'stippled' over that with a black glaze to get something that, if you use your imagination anyway, looks like antique dyed leather.

I'm not sure if it actually came out looking decent, or if I was just so invested in the process by this time it had to look good, but it looks good doesn't it!

I will point out that the 'official' stipple brush for this process costs a whopping $26!  Being a cheap bastard I went one aisle over and bought three $1.50 brushes that, to my eye and touch anyway, used the same sort of bristles as the expensive sucker, and with a few cents worth of electrical tape to bind them together, made my own stipple brush.

I had the top of one of those big old wooden dining tables squirreled away. You know the kind, with thick, heavy turned legs and wooden slides to open it up for the leaf.

Unless it's a true Pennsylvania or some such antique, most of these have been made someplace in Southeast Asia of an Asian hardwood, and this one was no exception.

So I turned some of that table-top into strips that I then milled into pieces that would eventually become 'straps' for my trunk.

Through the milling and sanding process I made sure to leave some, OK, a lot, of the toolmarks and added a bit of my own distressing with a variety of heavy objects applied forcefully.

Though the straps in this photo are still raw, I did apply a three-step finish, starting with a light coat of clear poly. The poly helped keep the generous slathering of black walnut stain that came next from soaking into the grain too deeply. I partially sanded away the stain once it was dry so what was left emphasized the grain, tool marks and defects. The final step was a pecan stain/finish coat that evened things up and gave the straps a warmer glow as seen in the next photo.

With a little careful measuring, glue and pin-nails, I fastened the strapping to the carcasses.

But I wasn't happy with the large un-strapped expanse across the backs, so I milled and finished a bit more strapping to break it up as can be seen in some of the photos below.

The next step was a real puzzler for a while. Normally trunks like this have corner braces wrapped around the corners (Duh, where else would you wrap a corner brace?) of the strapping to hold everything together. I found these nice looking reproductions but they were something like $8 each and I needed 16 of them!!  Sorry but that's not going to happen on my budget!

So I cheated.

I started with a roll of left over galvanized flashing I had laying around.

Played around with some patterns until I had one I liked and was simple enough for me to fabricate,

then used that to make a wooden template and used the template and a awl to mark the shape on 18 small pieces of the galvanized flashing. (A couple extra just in case.)

The sharp edges of the flashing make this a process not without it's dangers. (Hint: that's not paint on the template!)

A trip to the bandsaw followed by the drill press and I had the raw material for my corner braces, but it's stating the obvious to say that they looked a little flat. (I'll leave it to you to decide if the pun was intended or not. . .)

Under the raw brace in this photo, hard to see against the black metal of my bench-mounted pattern maker's vice, is a small sheet of 1/4 inch thick hard rubber. The slightly malleable rubber let me beat the crap out of the pieces I had just formed, leaving them with a vaguely hand-forged appearance.

Now of course shiny bright galvanizing has no place on an antique steamer trunk, but not to worry, I had a plan.

Not wanting to get into the whole hot-blackening treatment thing with boiling oil and tongs and flames and all, I followed the abuse-by-hammer step with a sprayed on copper colored undercoat

and finished that off with a thick application of the same black glaze I used on the carcasses.

A careful bend in the middle and the same blackening treatment on some screw-heads to represent the rounded rivets that would have been used back in the day, and for about two hours of work and a few pennies each, I had my corner brackets

Now the trick was to join the two seperate carcasses into a single trunk.

Same story on reproduction hinges; way too much money for my budget.

So I got some plain old strap hinges from the hardware and promptly beat the crap out of them, this time on top of an old oak stump down by the tractor barn, to give a vague impression of hand-forging.

Again with the copper and black glaze routine

and the carcasses could finally be joined into something looked a little bit like a steamer trunk.

In this photo, if you look close at the bottom, you can see how the adjacent castors under the center of the trunk, admittedly barely visible, are spread out far enough that they don't interfere with each other when - well - castoring. Each pair can spin a full 360 degrees without getting tangled up with each other.

I'm not terribly happy, in fact not happy at all, with the latches I was able to come up with so I think I'll be making a trip or two to architectural salvage places trying to come up with something better.

If I end up with some screw holes showing after replacing these latches with something I like better I'll just blacken the holes and call it the effects of wear and repairs over the years.

 A few remaining details, like mounting some full-extension draw-slides with a bracket assembly fastened to them to support the drop-down work surface, (No, I wasn't playing poker out there in the workshop. I use the playing cards, each of which is slightly more than 1/128th of an inch thick, as temporary shims when trying to get something aligned just right, such as when mounting the drawer-slides parallel to the fixed shelf above them,)

installing the work-surface and hanging a couple cheap battery powered touch-lights,

and my mobile hobby station is ready to go at a moment's notice.

And when it isn't that moment, the whole thing quietly curls up out of the way, doesn't need feeding and never craps on the floor.

In the end, the proportions of the trunk are a little off for a real steamer trunk, It's just a little too wide across the hinge line for the height, but that was dictated by the size of the various plastic bins and apparently the designers of said bins didn't bother consulting with me before settling on dimensions.

Maybe changing out those whimpy latches for something more period and adding some big leather strap-handles will help, but I'm not sure I really managed to pull off the steamer-trunk look here.

But hey! So far it functions just as hoped and that's a good thing.


I've been happily using my mobile hobby station for nearly 4 years now, but I am still putting up with the crappy latches! . . .

But I did ditch the cheap "closet lights". They may be just fine for picking out the right frock to wear for the day, but they just weren't up to the task of lighting up a work-area.

I replaced them with a single LED strip light. I don't remember anymore how many lumens it is, but it is significantly brighter than the two closet-lights.

There are temperature choices with LED's and I went with a color temperature of 5000K which is pretty close to mid-day sunlight. This helps with getting the right colors laid down when painting stuff because, if I ever do actually manage to build a model railroad layout of my own, it will be lit with 5000K LED's.

To avoid getting tangled up in a power-cord and then having to mess around with tucking it away  every time I want to close up the hobby station I also added a power inlet to the side.

Now the power-cord stays on the outside and away from my feet when sitting at the work surface.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Steve. So far the modeling station has worked as hoped.

      I'm currently in the middle of two more projects, one moderately ambitious and the other just friggin' insane! If I make it out the other end I'm sure I'll post something on both.

  2. Just found this, while looking for a mobile hobby station to build for my daughter. Really, an amazing project. Thank you for sharing.

    1. You're welcome. This one continues to live out in the barn and has held up remarkably well. I don't use it everyday but it gets used often enough.