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Train Sets on the Ceiling: Little Engines That Can

August 29, 1992|PATRICK MOTT

There are only a handful of truly primal forces in life, and I've learned to pay them heed and let them have their way. Love, compassion, death, nature, grief, joy.

And trains. They're as irresistible as fate, embedded into the psyche like a fish hook. Anyone who has ever heard and seen--never mind actually ridden on--the Boston & Maine, the Rio Grande, the B & O, the French TGV, the Flying Scot or the peerless Orient Express has a little shrine in their soul for railroading.

Many kids (boys, mostly; the girls were usually cheated out of this) can remember in microscopic detail the first train set they got for Christmas--how it ran, how it felt, the heft of the engine, the metallic smell of it all.

Eventually, the train disappears at a garage sale. But let a man wander by an operating model train display and he'll stop and stare at it with the purest reverence, awash in fuzzy nostalgia. He could be on his way to pick up the Nobel Prize. It won't matter. He'll stop.

Joe Black counts on this. At his business, Overhead Railways in Mission Viejo, he builds what might be called model trains for adults. To a kid, a model train is something to assemble on a tabletop or on the floor, but because adults are clumsy and tend to trip over things like grade crossings and roundhouses, and because they use tables for mundane things like meals and platforms for Architectural Digest, Black hangs his layouts from the ceiling.

The idea germinated, said Black, nearly five years ago when he visited a model train shop in Brea and was fascinated with a German-made G-gauge train made by LGB of Nuremberg. The trains were, he said, historically and technically accurate, mechanically precise, hardly ever needed cleaning or maintenance and were almost impossible to derail. Black bought a set.

"I'd always thought it would be neat to put a train on a shelf," said Black, but the shelf space in his home was occupied by things that usually occupy shelves in homes. He decided to find a way to hang his layout from the ceiling.

Black didn't want to lay the track on an opaque board, but envisioned the track resting on a frame that would reveal the entire layout to eyes looking up from below. Building curves into the wood was a problem until he threw some of it into his back-yard pool, left it there for three days, fished it out and discovered it could then be bent into nearly any configuration he wanted.

He began to see business possibilities.

To date, said Black, Overhead Railways has installed 233 layouts in homes and several others in such businesses as restaurants, hardware stores, gift shops and even a pair of dentists' offices.

The professionally manufactured layouts hew fairly closely to Black's own original. The large G-gauge track (about twice the size of the more traditional HO) is laid over a see-through varnished oak frame and hung from the ceiling--usually at a height of seven feet so that it clears conventional door frames--with solid brass brackets. Electrical wires are run through a hollow bracket tube into the ceiling or a wall and attached to the transformer, which usually is hidden in a drawer, desk or cupboard, said Black.

Each layout is custom-made to fit the dimensions of the room and the whims of the customer. Early this week, Black and his son and partner, Kelly, were putting the finishing touches on a guitar-shaped layout for the music room of a Lake Arrowhead resident.

Black also sells the rolling stock, all from LGB. He said there are about 270 different cars, both American and European, to choose from. A starter set, which includes a circle of track, a transformer, two cars and an engine, costs $270. More elaborate engines, some of which produce their own railroad sounds, can cost nearly $800 alone.

The price for a standard family room-size layout runs around $3,000, said Black, but some custom jobs have gone far beyond that.

One Yorba Linda woman, he said, ordered a layout that ran through several rooms and involved tunnels cut through walls and even through one kitchen cabinet.

And, said Black, he built one 425-foot layout in a drug store in Alberta, Canada, that he believes may be the largest suspended model railroad in the world.

Black concedes that his particular style of product isn't necessarily suited to the serious model railroader, but rather to the grown-up kid who remembers his first Lionel and has always regretted losing it.

"Our appeal has always been to the person who always wanted a model train, but always wondered what they would do with it and where they'd put it," he said. "For these people, it's a focal point of enjoyment. They look at it and say, 'Isn't that cute!' "

And anyone inclined to miss the point of pint-sized railroading need only watch Joe Black talking about the business he has grown to love.

He's a boy with his trains, and he's actually making money at it.

"It's just . . . " he sighs deeply, smiling a purely satisfied smile, " fun. "

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