Before it housed a smoothie shop and an SAT prep building, the island on Shattuck Avenue and Center Street was a bustling train station. The trains and streetcars that ran along the avenue for decades gave way long ago to cars and buses, but one man is bringing them back — in 1/160th of their original size.
Berkeley based software engineer Darby Johnston will debut his 3D-printed Grizzly Peak Model Trains at the Maker Faire at San Mateo Event Center on May 17-18.
Johnston’s is a distinctly 21st-century spin on the classic hobby. The East Bay native, who grew up visiting the Western Railway Museum in Suisun City and playing with model trains at home, is a user experience software engineer at Lucasfilm. About a year ago, in hopes of expanding his digital dexterity, he began thinking about a project that would allow him to experiment with computer-aided design (CAD) software.
“It struck me that designing model trains would be an interesting way to combine something I’d been interested in since I was younger and something I’m doing now as a professional,” Johnston said.
When Johnston picks a particular train car to model — a Southern Pacific electric Red Car, say — he first does extensive research, digging up articles and photographs in train collectors’ magazines and history books. Once he has a clear idea of what the car looked like, he begins sketching the “wire frame” in a CAD application. Eventually, he does the “surfacing,” turning the sketch “into a virtual solid object inside the computer,” he said.
When he’s satisfied with the CAB work, he sends the files to Shapeways, a 3D printing service in New York. He specifies his preferred materials — an opaque white nylon plastic and a transparent acrylic plastic — and sits tight until they mail him the physical object.
The process is rewarding for someone who until now has never been able to physically hold the fruits of his labor.
“It’s really exciting working on movie special effects, but it’s always been virtual,” Johnston said. “Everything you create on a computer feels like it’s locked inside of it. The first time I was able to transform something inside of the computer to a physical shape was, for lack of a better word, magical.”
Johnston has nine finished products, most models of Northern California trains, that will be on view at the Maker Faire. There are passenger and freight cars from Southern Pacific, Sacramento Northern, Key System, and Northern Electric lines, and a San Francisco Muni street car.
So far Grizzly Peak’s collection includes only a tiny sample of the vast network of trains and streetcars that used to run along Berkeley’s roads.
The first two train lines arrived in the city the 1870s, said Phil Gale, mechanical engineer and treasurer for the Berkeley Historical Society. The Berkeley Branch line, which later became Southern Pacific (SP), ran from what is now Emeryville to downtown Berkeley, and was later extended to Vine Street. The other early line was a Union Pacific train that ran from 3rd Street to Delaware Street. Shortly after, the first street railroad was built on Telegraph Avenue. In the following years additional lines were added elsewhere and companies began to electrify their lines around the turn of the century.
When Francis Marion Smith arrived on the scene at the very beginning of the new century, “he was looking for new worlds to conquer,” Gale said. He created the Key System, building an electric line that ran parallel to the SP steam line on Shattuck, and adding new lines on Dwight Way, Ashby Avenue and elsewhere. To compete, SP electrified and expanded their own lines.
Berkeley’s population more than tripled in the first ten years of the 20th century, Gale said. Train construction boomed, accommodating the new residents — and then “the whole thing came crashing down in 1913,” due to major financial and legal problems throughout the system, Gale said. Streetcars and some trains ran until the 1940s and 1950s, until they were gradually replaced by buses.
Johnston admits he didn’t have much of an appreciation for the history when he visited train museums as a kid, but he developed one as an adult.
“I’ve been really interested in the local history and the amazing public transportation system that Berkeley had,” he said. “A lot of it has been replaced by more modern systems, but not necessarily better systems.”
The Maker Faire presentation will be Grizzly Peak’s first formal showing, although photos of the models have already received a positive response.
Last year’s Maker Faire was the impetus for the project, Johnston said.
“It was eye-opening for me, all the things people were doing on their own, hobbyists or DIY or very small-scale businesses,” Johnston said. “It really catalyzed the idea of trying to experiment with 3D printing and making something tangible with it.”
Johnston is expecting his initial audience to be largely made up of collectors and historians, but he hopes to eventually tear kids away from their digital distractions and reintroduce them to the classic pastime. Eventually, he hopes to collaborate with current transit agencies to make models of contemporary trains. He made himself a model of a BART car, which he keeps in his pocket as a lucky charm when he takes the train to work.
In the future, Johnston also hopes to work with young people, training them to use the design software to make their own 3D-printed creations.
“This is something that was only available to people with a lot of experience and education,” he said. “Now the tools are so readily available that I’m hoping there’s an opportunity for a lot more people to get involved.”
See Johnston’s model trains in the flesh. Berkeleyside has a pair of free tickets to give away to one day of the Maker Faire which takes place Saturday and Sunday May 17-18. To win the two tickets, simply email firstname.lastname@example.org using subject headline “Maker Faire.” We will pick a winner at random and contact them directly with instructions on how to claim their tickets.
[Disclosure: Siciliana Trevino, co-founder of Grizzly Peak Model Trains, is Berkeleyside’s sales executive.]
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