Friday, March 31, 2017

Spam Roundup, March 2017

There's spam, and then there's spam so oddly written it's somewhat amusing. Here's a roundup of some of the "best" comments I received this month from spambots around the world.

All preamble, no constitution

- Your article rocks also as being a legitimate wonderful understand !??! [That comment is wonderfully impossible to understand.]

- I drop a comment each time I appreciate a post on website or if I have something valuable to contribute to the discussion. It's a result of the passion communicated in the post I read. And after this post, I was excited enough to create a thought. [And that thought is... ?]

The Land of Awwws

- Aw, this was an incredibly good post. [Bless my little heart.]

- Ahaaa, its nice conversation concerning this article here at this blog. I have read all that, so now me also commenting here. [Ahaa. Me glad.] 

 - Incredible points. Sound argument. Keep up the amazing effort. [Yes, we're all you could want in a blog -- and more.]

There it is - the toy that influenced the net.

"Lumbering along" conquers the web

My short post about vintage Japanese tin toys keeps attracting the spambots. The Straco Express Layout, Part 23 - Lumbering Along remains inordinately popular. The following two comments, read together, show just how important this post has become!

 - May I simply just say what a relief to find an individual who genuinely knows what they're talking about on the internet. You certainly know how to bring an issue to light and make it important.

 - You've made some decent points there. I checked on the internet to learn more about this issue and found most individuals will go along with your views on this website [When it comes to most insignificant of topics, I'm a major influencer]

A call to action!

And finally, the most action-packed comment I've received in a while. I'm not quite sure what the spambot was supposed to be saying, but I'd definitely pay to see the movie.

 - Relatively than merely providing in, he struggles totally free, only to battle through a pair dozen much more lackeys on his way to hijacking a helicopter.

That's all for this month. May you remain totally free in your struggles.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Kerll and Fux Requiems Reflect Darkness and Light

This release features two works with many similarities and some clear differences.

Both are settings of the requiem mass. Both were written by composers not only working in Vienna but at the same cathedral, the Stephansdom. Both used a five-voice choir with instruments. And there the similarities end.

Johann Caspar Kerll most likely composed his Missa pro defunctis around 1689. Kerll's music has a strong Italian influence and set the tone for sacred music in the German late baroque. Both Handel and Bach borrowed material from Kerll for their own choral works.

Kerll's Requiem is solemn and somewhat dark, favoring the low voices throughout. The thick texture of the music gives the work additional gravitas.

But it's not a lugubrious work. Kerll's melodies are quite beautiful and expressive. Listening to this work, I easily heard connections to Bach and Handel.

Johann Joseph Fux was of the generation following Kerll. His Kaiserrequiem favors the upper voices, giving his requiem a lighter sound. Fux, the author of Gradus ad Parnassum, was a master of counterpoint, and there's plenty to be found here.

Fux's requiem reminded me of the work of his younger contemporary Marc-Antoine Charpentier. The music has a similar elegant transparency to it.

The liner notes try overly hard, I think, to make the case that Mozart's Requiem was inspired by -- and blends together -- the styles of these two composers. But that doesn't really matter. These are two beautifully crafted works by master composers and can be enjoyed on their own merits.

Johann Caspar Kerll, Johann Joseph Fux: Requiems 
Vox Luminis; Scorpio Collectieff; L'Achéron; Lionel Meunier, director 
Ricercar RIC 368

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Lio's Meta Snooze

It's a comic strip convention that's been around for about a century -- but until it's pointed out to you, you never see it. And that was the point of a sequence Mark Tatulli used in his comic strip Lio, published August 24, 2016


Z's in word balloons denote sleep in comic strips. Tatulli turns that idea around. Instead of the Z being generated when the character falls asleep, it's a physical object that actually causes the character to fall asleep. And note how Tatulli saves the payoff until the last panel.

When Lio retrieves the balloon, he's holding it face down so the reader can't tell what it is until the reveal in the last panel. You can tell we're seeing the back of the balloon by the way the smaller balloons overlap.

That attention to detail we don't notice consciously, but without it, the gag doesn't work. This is real comic strip artistry.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Diabelli Project 147 - Duet for Clarinet and Bass Clarinet 3

The Diabelli Project is about offering my weekly flash-composition sketches freely to all. Like Antonio Diabelli's theme, these sketches aren't great music. But perhaps (as in Diabelli's case) there's a Beethoven out there who can do great things with them.

This week, another installment of a Duet for B-flat Clarinet and Bass Clarinet. Even before I put pen to paper I knew I would be sketching a middle movement. And so here it is: something, slow and simple, with a lot of parallel motion throughout.



As always, you can use any or all of the posted Diabelli Project sketches as you wish for free. Just be sure to share the results. I'm always curious to see what direction someone else can take this material.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Line Mar Match Box Construction 045 Telegraph Pole

I found a Line Mar Match Box Construction Set from the 1930s, complete and with instructions. The box claimed the set made 100 different toys. I decided to test that claim -- one toy at a time. You can read all the posts for the Line Mar construction project at 100 Toys.

045. Telegraph Pole

As you can see, the completed toy doesn't look much like the illustration. Some of it had to do with the artistic license the illustrator and/or the designer took. And some of it had to do with the practicality of construction.

The illustration shows the collars mounted on very short dowel rods. No such dowels came with the set. I had the option of cutting the shorter dowels in half, but then I wouldn't have them available for the rest of the series. So I made do as best I could without altering any pieces.

The wooden collar connecting the two post dowels is in a different position than shown. As noted in last week's post, the collars don't fit very tightly, so I have to make sure the bottom dowel is secure. And that meant threading it through both the top and bottom openings of the metal piece. 

Also, the upper dowel as illustrated falls between two available lengths supplied in the set. In order to be true to the directions, I needed to trim one of the longest dowels.

So below is as close as I could come to the illustration without altering any pieces.


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Holbrooke - Symphonic Poems, Vol. 2

Josef Holbrooke (born Joseph Holbrook) had his first success in 1900 with the premiere of his orchestral poem "The Raven." Before that, he'd been an accompanist, music teacher, and itinerant conductor kicking about the UK.

But the recognition went to his head. Although frequently performed in the era before World War I, Holbrooke didn't make many friends.

He often attacked critics and even his audience. "Mr. Josef Holbrooke steps forward somewhat adventurously... to an apathetic public, and hopes to receive as few blows as possible (with the usual financial loss) in return," he wrote for a concert program.

After the war, his music was seen as increasingly old-fashioned. And without supporters, it soon disappeared from the English concert repertoire.

So how does Holbrooke's work sound today? It's definitely music of its time -- but some of the best-constructed music of that time.

The 1906 "Variations on "Auld Lang Syne" are quite imaginative. Inspired by Elgar's "Enigma" Variations, Holbrooke created twenty variations, each a portrait of a friend. While not on par with "Enigma," the variations do go in unexpected directions. They remind me of Charles Ives' treatment of "America," as some variations have a hint of music hall and other popular music. I'm surprised this hasn't become a classical radio staple for New Year's Eve.

A 1917 review of Holbrooke's violin concerto claimed, "Here the composer was at his best: the music may almost be said to be overflowing with milk and honey." The harmonies are certainly rich enough. And while the melodies are sweetly beautiful, the violinist is presented with plenty of challenges. Violinist Judith Ingolfsson's exciting performance keeps the milk and honey to a minimum, letting the structure of the work shine through the sentimentality.

Holbrooke's breakout composition, "The Raven" reflected his love of Edgar Allen Poe. I think it's the weightiest work of the album. Holbrooke was once called the "Cockney Wagner," and there are echoes of "Tristan and Isolde" in this work.

Like Wagner's score, there's an underlying sense of disquiet and tragedy running through the score. A disquiet that's in tune with the timbre of the poem. Of the three works on this release, "The Raven" was the one I returned to most often.

Josef Holbrooke: Symphonic Poems, Vol. 2
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 59 "The Grasshopper"; "The Raven" Poem No. 1 for Orchestra, Op. 25; "Auld Lang Syne" Variations No. 3 for Orchestra, Op. 60
Judith Ingolfsson, violin; Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt; Howard Griffiths, conductor
CPO 777 636-2

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Judge Parker - Sophie's Crash, Part 2

Last week I shared a major development in Judge Parker. Writer Francesco Marciuliano and artist Mike Manley are past masters at the art of newspaper comic strip storytelling. And it is an art.

Since the  1950s, real estate for comic strips has shrunk. For editors, it allowed them to put more strips on fewer pages -- but it also meant leaving less room in each strip for art and text.

Gag-a-day strips managed the transition, but adventure and dramatic (soap opera) strips struggled. For a continuing story strip, each daily installment must provide a synopsis to get readers (both old and new) up to speed and significantly advance the story. Here's an example from Judge Parker from 1952.


Note the level of detail, particularly in the background. The first panel sets the scene and provides the synopsis. Mr. Santo has an incriminating letter, and he needs to see the judge. The last panel shows us the men who want to stop him and promises danger tomorrow.

By contrast, here's Judge Parker today.


In order to have any dialogue at all, Manley's forced to use two panels instead of three. There's no space for a synopsis, but the caller's dialogue sets up the situation. And the picture of that angry father with a shotgun should encourage readers to come back tomorrow to see how this will play out.

As for the art, note the thinness of the lines. Manley uses simple block shadows instead of cross-hatching and textures. There's a reason for that.  Look at what happens to our 1952 example when shrunk to modern dimensions. The text is difficult the read, the drawing details just make the panel look cluttered.


Despite these restrictions, Marciuliano and Manley excelled in November 2016. In addition to the Sophie storyline, Marciuliano kept three other storylines in play.

1) Neddy, Sophie's adult sister was building a clothing factory to produce her fashion line.
2) Judge Parker, retired and now a best-selling author, was working on a screenplay for his most recent book.
3) His son Randy (also a judge) and his wife April are expecting their first child.

Then tragedy struck all four story lines simultaneously. And the week after Sophies' crash, these daily strips followed.

Neddy's factory collapsed into a sinkhole, leaving her to face the consequences.

Sophie's body is missing from the crash site, so her adoptive parents don't know if she's alive or dead.

The screenwriting project is stalled, leaving Alan Parker to doubt his abilities to write, Plus, their daughter-in-law April is missing.

April's father and his associate (both with espionage backgrounds), head for Europe on the trail of April. 

It was a powerful week of reading if you (like me) had been following all these story lines. And they're not yet all resolved. But there's still plenty of incentive to keep me reading every day. I can't remember another instance of a comic strip -- current or vintage -- that had more than two story arcs going at the same time. 

Genius.



Diabelli Project 146 - Duet for Clarinet and Bass Clarinet 2

The Diabelli Project is about offering my weekly flash-composition sketches freely to all. Like Antonio Diabelli's theme, these sketches aren't great music. But perhaps (as in Diabelli's case) there's a Beethoven out there who can do great things with them.

A few weeks ago I posted the flash composition sketch for a duet for clarinet and bass clarinet (see: Diabelli Project 145).  The next sketch after that also turned out to be for these two instruments. And this time, there's no mystery. It's definitely part of the same work.

I'm not sure how many movements this duet will have. I know they'll be pretty short, and I want them to be fun to play. Beyond that, who knows?

In the sketch below, I've started off with a ground. Traditionally, variations would play out over top of that recurring bass, but with only two instruments, it seems unfair. Why should the clarinet get all the good parts?

So to continue, I'll need to have both players keep the ground going while spinning out the variations, both individually and together. Three lines of music for two single-line instruments. Should be fun.



As always, you can use any or all of the posted Diabelli Project sketches as you wish for free. Just be sure to share the results. I'm always curious to see what direction someone else can take this material.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Line Mar Match Box Construction 044 - Bird House

I found a Line Mar Match Box Construction Set from the 1930s, complete and with instructions. The box claimed the set made 100 different toys. I decided to test that claim -- one toy at a time. You can read all the posts for the Line Mar construction project at 100 Toys.

044. Bird House

This was definitely a challenge to build. Some of the pieces in this set are starting to become worn. In some cases, that's a good thing. The dowel rods are slipping more easily into the metal pieces, for example. But it can also be a problem 

The wooden collars aren't fitting as snugly as they used to, which makes constructions like the bird house difficult. The upper dowel rod (and everything attached to it), is basically balancing on the lower dowel, partially stabilized by the wooden collar.

That's the reason the lower dowel isn't as exposed as it is on the instruction sheet. I really needed it anchored securely in the metal box.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Artyomov's Gentle Emanation is Powerful Music

How to describe the music of Vyacheslav Artyomov? Imagine combining the structures of Arvo Pärt, the ethereal sound clouds of Kaija Saariaho, the intensity of György Ligeti, and the deep spirituality of John Tavener.

Artyomov has a unique compositional voice that, while sharing elements with the afore-named composers, communicates in a musical language that's all his own.

When I first heard Artyomov, I was enraptured by his mystical world of tones and colors. Unfortunately, my introduction was through an old Melodiya CD with no liner notes. All I had was the music -- and really, that was all I needed.

Artyomov's music isn't tonal or atonal -- it's beyond those considerations. Rather, there's a strong internal logic that dictates the unfolding of the music. Every note sounds like it's exactly where it should be -- even in the passages free of tonal centers.

These new recordings of Artyomov's music from Divine Art are welcome, indeed. The performances are more solid and assured than those of vintage Melodiya releases. The Russian National Orchestra plays cleanly and precisely -- two essentials for the impact of Artyomov's music to be fully realized.

The liner notes (in a language I can read) are welcome, too. It helps put the works in context. I was aware that "Gentle Emanation" was part of his larger "Way" symphonic tetralogy, but I didn't know that it was the third in the series, or that it was based on the Book of Job. According to the composer, this work represents  "the facets of one soul in its aspiration to overcome challenges [to] find a way to the light."

The album's companion piece is his 1997 "Trista II, fantasy for piano and orchestra." It features a reader reciting a poem by Nikolay Gagol. Spoken word in a piano concerto? It works -- and it works well. The rhythm and inflection of the poetry become a contemplative melody. And it retains its emotional power even when the listener (like me) doesn't understand a word.

Vyacheslav Artyomov
Symphony: Gentle Emanation; Tristia II, Fantasy for piano and orchestra
Russian National Orchestra; Treodor Currentzis, Vladimir Ponkin, conductors
Philip Kopachevsky, piano; Mikhail Philippov, reader
Divine Art dda25144

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Judge Parker - Sophie's Crash, Part 1

Comic strip writer Francesco Marciuliano is responsible for the innovative changes to Sally Forth (as I've noted many times). When he took over the writing assignment for Judge Parker. things changed for those characters, too. Storylines became less predictable and so more interesting.

When teenaged Sophie wanted to travel with her band to an out-of-town gig, the stage was set for a major plot development.


Young drivers on a mountain road at night in the pouring rain. I, like most readers, had an idea of what would happen next.


Especially when alcohol was added to the mix.


This storyline started in July 2016, just two months after comics page readers saw a horrific -- and fatal -- car accident in Gil Thorp (Gil Thorp - Death in Comics). But just as the wreck that took high school athlete Boo Radley's life in that strip happened in an unexpected fashion, the events in Judge Parker also played out in an unusual way.

Note the masterly pacing of Mike Manley's art.


The moment of impact is represented by a solid yellow panel. From there, we slowly pan back as a disoriented Sophie gradually sorts out where she is and what just happened.



The dreaded call comes to Spenser Farms. Sam Driver and Abby Spenser, Sophie's adoptive parents, race to the scene. And this is where things take another unexpected turn:


Notice that we don't see the girl's face. We assume that it's Sophie -- but it's not. 

I usually wait until a sequence has run before commenting, but in this case, I couldn't. This storyline is still continuing in February 2017. Marciuliano changed things up -- the major event in the story arc wasn't the wreck, it was the aftermath. The girl the police recovered was Honey, not Sophie. Sophie and the other passengers had disappeared. 

Who took them and why is only now being revealed. But that's not where this part of the story ends  -- as we'll see in part two. 



Monday, March 13, 2017

Duet for Violin and Percussion - Part 3

As part of my Diabelli Project flash composition series, I wrote four sketches for violin and percussion. They seemed to have potential, and so I'm expanding them into a larger four-movement composition. And I decided to document my progress on this Duet for Violin and Percussion (primarily to keep me on task).

Sketch score finished!

The last time I posted about this work, I had just completed the first movement. Well, the other three followed in rapid succession (I was kind of surprised myself). 

Second movement

In contrast to the up-tempo first movement, this one's a little slower. The percussionist plays both marimba and glockenspiel, providing a 2-against-3 rhythmic pulse. The movement's in an AB form, so it doesn't return to where it began. Don't worry, though -- that opening percussion figure will appear later on. 



Third movement

Although this movement has a slower tempo marking than the second, it probably won't seem that way to the listener. There are fast runs all over the place providing a sense of energy and (I hope) urgency. 

The percussionist plays tympani, which is a tuned membrane instrument, and snare drum, which is an untuned membrane instrument. This movement's in ABA form, with a greatly abbreviated A'. 



Fourth movement

The final movement is a fast and furiously played. It's in an ABACA rondo form. As the movement goes on, motifs from the previous movements reappear. Some just make a cameo, others get reworked. 




Next steps

I already see flaws in the percussion part I want to fix, and some parts I'd like to tighten up, but I won't. Not now. Now I'll just put it aside and revisit the work sometime in mid-April. That will let me approach it with fresh eyes (and ears). And in the meantime, I'll be subconsciously thinking about those details I don't like.

Next week I'll post another Diabelli Project flash composition sketch (which I still do almost every week). I've already started work on another piece, but I'll share the details when it's a little further along. 

Friday, March 10, 2017

Line Mar Match Box Construction 043 - Street Sign

I found a Line Mar Match Box Construction Set from the 1930s, complete and with instructions. The box claimed the set made 100 different toys. I decided to test that claim -- one toy at a time. You can read all the posts for the Line Mar construction project at 100 Toys.

043. Street Sign

Construction of the street sign was pretty simple. Because the instructions only show one view of each toy, I sometimes have to make guesses about how things actually fit together. In this case, the upper part of the sign was pretty simple. The horizontal dowel in the sign board determined how far up the vertical dowel could go. 

The drawing shows the vertical dowel at just about maximum length, which meant it couldn't extend very far into the base. So there's nothing securing the two base pieces together. The whole assembly is just sitting on the flat foundation piece. Fortunately, it was stable enough to get the photo. 


Thursday, March 09, 2017

Poul Ruders' Fiery Fifth

In one sense, this release of Poul Ruder's Fifth Symphony isn't much of a bargain. The entire album clocks in at 26:30, far below the average of 72 minutes for a classical release. But folks who shop by cost per second of playing time aren't the audience for this music, anyway.

Rather, this release is for listeners who values quality over quantity. They'll appreciate this Bridge Records offering.

Poul Ruders almost gave his three-movement symphony the subtitle "Ring of Fire." Like the famous Pacific ring, the calm middle (representing the ocean), is bounded by two explosive movements of orchestral pyrotechnics (like the volcanoes surrounding the Pacific). While this isn't a programmatic work, the analogy fairly describes the form of the work.

The opening fanfare originally came from Ruder's 2011 "Sonatas," but here it's been substantially reworked and gets extensively developed. Ruders is an innovative orchestrator, and while the movement crackles with drama, it does so with small groupings of instruments rather than hammering away at the listener with the full weight of the orchestra.

The serene second movement is a study in suspended sound. Souring, delicate melodies float above a thinly orchestrated background. The abbreviated finale comes crashing in, disrupting the calm with a return of the storm. And yet the work doesn't end in a cataclysm. Rather, the music seems to break apart, losing bits of energy and force before simply... stopping.

When I heard the finale, I understood why Bridge Records chose to release this symphony without any "filler." Any additional music would dilute the force of the ending, and perhaps the work as a whole. This is a symphony that needs to be heard on its own terms, without additional context.

And, yes, I think it's well worth the price.

Poul Ruders: Symphony No. 5
Odense Symphony Orchestra; Olari Elis, conductor
Bridge Records

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Straco Express Layout, Part 55b - Straco Steam

The original Straco Express train (l) and the
newer steam loco version (r).
Read all the installments of the Straco Express layout project here.

Last fall I wrote about a Straco Express variation I found (see: Straco and the Mystery Train 2). There appeared to be another version of the Straco Express with differently lithographed cars.

I was able to purchase the set and do my own first-hand comparisons. You can read about the unusual steam loco that came with the set in Part 55a. It had some surprises.

And detailed comparison of the rolling stock yielded an insight.

At first blush, it looks like the only changes to the rolling stock was the lithography. The yellow NYC gondola car was instead an orange Michigan Central/NYC gondola car.

The blue, white, and red US Mail box car was instead a a red, white, and blue State of Maine box car. Both based on Lionel 6464 box cars, apparently.

The Japanese State of Maine box car has the number 8864-275. Lionel's has the numbers 6464-275. Straco used 3428 for their Mail car. Lionel used 6428 for theirs. A little too close in both cases for coincidence, I think.

Original Straco box car (lower) and newer box car (upper).
 And those "borrowings" can help date the sets. Lionel offered their State of Maine box car from 1957-1959, and their US Mail car from 1960-1961 (and again in 1965-1966).  F. J. Strauss & Co. filed their trademark in 1960. I think it likely that both sets were made around 1960, when both Lionel box cars would still be on the market.




The black and silver Santa Fe caboose was instead a yellow Union Pacific caboose. And it had an important clue. Note the embossed window outlines. Their identical for both cabooses. The Santa Fe caboose's lithography has windows that fill the embossed frame. The UP caboose does not.

Original Straco caboose (lower) and newer caboose (upper).
That suggests to me that the Straco Express with the diesel locomotive and Santa Fe caboose was made first. The steam set with the Union Pacific set came later, I think, because the stamping doesn't match up. It was a design placed over the existing form, rather than being developed with the form as the original Santa Fe lithography had been.

Since the "borrowed" Lionel box car numbers suggest a very narrow time frame, I believe that what I call the original Straco Express was manufactured in 1960, and the steam set either later in 1960 or possibly 1961.

I still have one question about this set. F. J. Strauss imported the first set, and had it branded with their name. The steam train set has no such branding. So was this set also made for Straco to import, or was in imported by another firm? The set box may have the answer.

But whether it's an official Straco set or not, this little steam train decided looks good on the display layout -- even with its tendency to jump the tracks.




Layout construction:
  • Pegboard: $4.95
  • Flathead Screws: $0.40
  • Molding: $2.49
  • SilClear: borrowed from a friend
  • Green Paint: leftover  from another project
  • Wood Screws: $3.60
  • Felt Pads: $1.99
Power Pack: $5.90
Small Houses: $3.00
Testor's Gray Paint for road: $1.29

Bandai Areo Station: $8.99
2 tinplate signs: $1.00
4 tinplate signs (with train) $5.99
Cragstan HO Light Tower $20.49
4 nesting houses $4.99
Tinplate gas station: $5.00

Vehicles:
  • Two Japanese toy cars: $2.00
  • A.W. Livestock truck: $4.99
  • Taxi: $2.99
  • Ambulance: $2.99
  • Two Japanese patriotic cars: $6.99
  • Haji three-wheel sedan $3.00
  • Haji three-wheel tanker $5.00
  • 1950's sedan $2.99
  • LineMar Police Car $9.00
  • LineMar Pepco Truck $8.50
  • LineMar Bond Bread Van $8.00
  • LineMar Fire Engine $4.95
  • LineMar Dump Truck $12.99
  • LineMar GE Courier Car $10.98
  • LineMar County School Bus $9.99
  • Nomura Red Sedan $5.00
  • Nomura Police Car $2.52
  • Nomura lumber truck $3.48
  • 6 Nomura vehicles $16.99
  • Orange Sedan $10.99
  • King Sedan $9.95
  • Indian Head logo sedan $4.99
  • Indian Head (?) convertible $18.00
  • Yellow/red Express truck $9.99
  • Red limousine FREE
Total Project Cost: $238.35

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Straco Express Layout, Part 55a - Straco Steam

The new Straco set on the display layout. There's something
missing for sure.
Read all the installments of the Straco Express layout project here.

Last fall I wrote about a Straco Express variation I found (see: Straco and the Mystery Train 2). There appeared to be another version of the Straco Express with differently lithographed cars -- or where there?

A set became available on eBay, and since it was in my price range (less that $30). Many times eBay listings are wildly inaccurate -- it's not from an intention to defraud, but simply one of ignorance. I've seen mismatched pieces described as a "set" before, and I wasn't sure I wasn't seeing it again.

The train consisted of a Pennsylvania steam locomotive, a Michigan Central/NYC gondola car, a State of Maine boxcar, and a Union Pacific caboose. What I didn't see was a coal tender behind the loco (and I have thing about that). Was this set indeed complete?

Consultation with my colleagues in the Sekai Toy Train Group (specializing in vintage Japanese toy and model train sets) confirmed that it was complete. This steam engine never had a tender. Like the original Straco Express, it had a locomotive and three cars.

The original Straco Express (l) and the steam engine version (r).
When the set arrived, I did some basic lubrication and tried it out on the layout. It ran fine, but the engine had a tendency to jump the track after doing three quarters of the loop. I'm not sure why -- but that's a problem to solve on another day.

In examining and comparing the two sets, though, I made some surprising discoveries.

I removed the locomotive's shell to examine the works and got my first surprise. This loco could actually puff smoke!


The heating element is the grey plastic cylinder mounted in the shell.
The clear plastic bellow is attached to it.

As you can see in the photo above, there was a small heating element that was attached to a clear plastic bellow.

The L-shaped arm in the front of the chassis moves back and forth to
pump the bellow.

The electric motor powered the rear wheels via a drive shaft. A second larger eccentric gear pushed an arm back and forth. This arm pumped the bellow, causing the engine to puff smoke. It's an ingenious mechanism, especially for such an inexpensive toy.

Original Straco Express diesel (l) and later steam engine (r).

With the exception of the smoke mechanism, the drives for the diesel and steam locos are pretty much the same. I think they both have about the same draw, which explains why both sets have the same number of cars (and therefore, why there's no tender).


Still, it's a well-made piece. Note that the ladders have individual rungs, and how solid the front of the loco is. Also note how many individual pieces its composed of. All of those are attached with tabs bent by hand.

Despite the Pennsylvania RR designation, I suspect the loco was based on a Japanese prototype. Still, it's an appealing little engine. And as you can see, makes a nice addition to the Straco display layout.

So what about the cars that came with the set? They yielded another insight, as I'll explain in the second part of this post.

Layout construction:
  • Pegboard: $4.95
  • Flathead Screws: $0.40
  • Molding: $2.49
  • SilClear: borrowed from a friend
  • Green Paint: leftover  from another project
  • Wood Screws: $3.60
  • Felt Pads: $1.99
Power Pack: $5.90
Small Houses: $3.00
Testor's Gray Paint for road: $1.29

Bandai Areo Station: $8.99
2 tinplate signs: $1.00
4 tinplate signs (with train) $5.99
Cragstan HO Light Tower $20.49
4 nesting houses $4.99
Tinplate gas station: $5.00

Vehicles:
  • Two Japanese toy cars: $2.00
  • A.W. Livestock truck: $4.99
  • Taxi: $2.99
  • Ambulance: $2.99
  • Two Japanese patriotic cars: $6.99
  • Haji three-wheel sedan $3.00
  • Haji three-wheel tanker $5.00
  • 1950's sedan $2.99
  • LineMar Police Car $9.00
  • LineMar Pepco Truck $8.50
  • LineMar Bond Bread Van $8.00
  • LineMar Fire Engine $4.95
  • LineMar Dump Truck $12.99
  • LineMar GE Courier Car $10.98
  • LineMar County School Bus $9.99
  • Nomura Red Sedan $5.00
  • Nomura Police Car $2.52
  • Nomura lumber truck $3.48
  • 6 Nomura vehicles $16.99
  • Orange Sedan $10.99
  • King Sedan $9.95
  • Indian Head logo sedan $4.99
  • Indian Head (?) convertible $18.00
  • Yellow/red Express truck $9.99
  • Red limousine FREE
Total Project Cost: $238.35