Articles - Telegraph/Telephone Poles
08/21/2011
I did some research on the Internet and in the books and magazines I have for some guidelines for building telegraph/telephone poles that were found along the railroad tracks. Most information I found was to start with some plastic model or another and upgrade it. However, I was looking to scratchbuild them. I eventually used the article in the November/December 2005 issue of O Scale Trains magazine (freely available on the publisher's web site). On page 60 of that issue is an article about utility poles. The author Garry Woodard describes how he scratchbuilt the poles. More importantly, he gives you all the key information about dimensions, size, and difference between telegraph and telephone.

For my Pennsy Branch I have a number of old prototype photos that I found on the Internet showing these poles. There were some with one crossarm, some with three crossarms, and a few with as many as eight crossarms. My conclusion was that any configuration might have been used in the era I model, so I decided to build mine such that they looked good and not necessarily follow the prototype exactly on these. I settled on three crossarms. As in garden design, odd numbers always look better than even numbers, hence three rather than two or four. I also want to string wire between them, so the more crossarms, the more wires are needed. Keep that in mind as you design yours.

The first order of business was to acquire all the necessary materials. From reading the above-mentioned article, I decided on using scale one-foot diameter poles. I had seen other articles about using 8-inch diameter poles, but when I held up a dowel that size next to the track and the trains, they seemed "wimpy". In S-scale one foot equals 3/16", which are dowels that are readily available at any craft store (I got mine at Hobby Lobby). The insulators that sit on the crossarms can be modeled with beads. According to the article, green, brown, and clear beads are the ones you want. I decided to use only clear and dark-red beads (couldn't find brown). The clear ones are used for telephone wires and green or brown beads are used for telegraph wires. I found the beads in the custom jewelry making section of a craft store. I already had strip wood in my inventory. I also already had green florist wire in my inventory, which is used for the small "V" crossarm support brackets and possibly for attaching the beads. For coloring the poles I used MinWax "Red Oak" stain, india ink and alcohol mixture, and acrylic white paint for weathering. For glue I used yellow carpenter's glue and the ever-present superglue. For tools I used a pair of needlenose pliers, cutting pliers, a fine-toothed handsaw, sandpaper, a drill, and my table saw (more on that later). I started the actual construction of the poles by cutting the 3-foot wooden dowels down to 7.5 inches (about 40 scale feet). My plan is to have the poles stick out 35 feet above the ground, so the remaining 5 scale feet will be used to hold the pole in place in the scenery base. I am building nine poles right now for the part of my layout that is ready for them. Using the razor saw shown in the photo above, I exaggerated the grain by running the saw lengthwise along the poles. The extra little bit of dowel near the bottom makes it easier to hold the pole and not worry about having to treat that part as well. I also cut the poles at a slight angle at the top, which is to help drain rain water from the top of the pole. I then sanded the top smooth, which gave it a bit of rounded effect. This made the top of the pole look more slender.
Telegraph/Telephone Poles
I wanted to cut a thin groove into the dowels where each of the three crossarms were going to be positioned. The problem with cutting grooves in a round piece of wood is that it is hard to keep the dowel straight, and this is made worse by having to repeat that for the number of crossarms you want (in my case three). The grooves have to line up perpendicular to each other and be in the same plane from each other. Cutting this by hand is almost guaranteed to not work. I decided to use my table saw. The groove was going to be determined by the width (i.e. kerf) of the table saw blade. I made a simple jig from a piece of 1/2 MDF and applied several strips of double-sided tape to one side of it. I then lined up each of the poles so that their tops were even.
Telegraph/Telephone Poles
On the first pole I marked off where the cuts were to be. The top crossarm should sit at about a scale foot down from the top of the pole, and the each subsequent crossarm should sit about two feet below that. I then adjusted the height of my table saw blade to just make a groove in the dowels. I actually adjusted mine a touch too high, so the groove was a bit too deep. Something to keep in mind, and it might be worth doing a test run first. However, the point is that the grooves are now all perpendicular to the top of the poles, and they are all evenly spaced. Note that I did press down on the poles as they ran through the table saw, because the tape isn't strong enough to keep them attached to the jig. The tape just keeps the poles from rolling around and keeps them aligned at the top. If you model in a scale smaller than S, you may want to consider using a hand saw to make a thinner groove. If you model in a scale larger than S, you can make several passes to make the groove wider.
Telegraph/Telephone Poles
Here comes a decision point. I didn't follow the above-mentioned article to a tee, so I made a mistake. The issue is related to how to attach the beads to the tops of the crossarms. If you make poles with only one crossarm, this is not an issue, but if you make them with multiple crossarms, you have to think about this and make a decision at this point in the construction. If you are going to use florist wire, or brass wire, to serve as the mounting rods onto which the beads are slipped and attached, then you will need to be able to drill a matching hole in the tops of the crossarms. This becomes impossible once the crossarms are attached to the poles (you can't get a drill in there straight from above). I was so focused on making sure the crossarms were perpendicular to the poles that I didn't think about the beads until it was too late. However, my solution was to simply superglue the beads on top of each other and forego the florist wire rods altogether. It seems to work for me. However, if you want to use some sort of rod to attach the beads, you must install those now before attaching the crossarms to the poles. I will continue to document the way I did mine. For crossarms I used 3" x 6" scale lumber, because that was what fit into the grooves I had cut. Now that the grooves have been cut perpendicular to the poles, the trick is to get the crossarms to line up nicely so that they are perpendicular to the poles and that they are in the same horizontal plane to each other once the poles are in the ground. I decided to use an entire 12-inch piece of stripwood for the crossarms rather than cut them up beforehand. There was a bit of play in the grooves for my poles, so I had to make sure that the crossarm was indeed perpendicular to the poles. I placed five poles up against a set of straight weights (I only have four of them), and then placed a piece of stripwood in the top groove. I made sure that everything was square and even. There is no glue involved here; it is just a dry-fit. The first strip of wood is used as an alignment tool only. The key is to pay attention to the spacing between the poles. I wanted my crossarms to stick out 5 scale feet on either side of the poles (for a total crossarm length of 11 scale feet). This meant that I needed more than 10 scale feet of space between each pole, and at least 5 scale feet at either end of this set-up. These measurements will determine how many poles you can line up in one setting depending on your modeled scale.
Telegraph/Telephone Poles
Next, I used a toothpick and carefully applied yellow carpenter's glue into each of the remaining grooves in the poles (again, the top one is not glued yet). Be sure not to apply too much glue, because that might ooze out and it is very hard to clean later (and it will affect the ability of the wood to take stain afterwards). I then placed a full strip of wood in each of the grooves, making sure that they lined up with the top strip wood so that I have the spacing right. I then put some full bottles of paint on the joints to act as clamps. After these dried (about 30 minutes for the glue I use), I applied glue to the top groove and glued that piece of strip wood in place, again using the paint bottles. Since I was building nine poles in this session, I had to do this again for the remaining four poles.
Telegraph/Telephone Poles
Once the glue was dry, I cut the crossarms down the middle, making sure that each crossarm stuck out at least 5 scale feet. This first cut is just a rough cut to separate the poles from each other. Be sure to do this with the crossarms face-down so that you don't put pressure on the glue joint and get a nice straight cut.
Telegraph/Telephone Poles
It was then just a simple matter of marking the crossarm lengths to 5 scale feet and trimming them on the Chopper. Each crossarm is now about 11 scale feet wide.
Telegraph/Telephone Poles
Next, I cut 1/2" pieces of green florist wire and put a 90-degree bend in them. I then superglued the "V" brackets to the crossarms, as shown in the photo. I started doing this before I had stained the poles. However, I quickly stopped and stained the poles first, because the superglue kind of acts like a barrier to the wood stain. So I'd recommend staining the poles first before attaching these brackets.
Telegraph/Telephone Poles
So, I first stained the poles. I used MinWax "Red Oak" as the stain. I didn't wipe the stain off after it was applied, because I wanted to get a rich, dark color (I have not yet found a good match for creosoted wood). After the stain dried, I finished gluing the florist wire brackets, which is what is shown in the photo.
Telegraph/Telephone Poles
The two poles in the center of the photo show what effect the superglue has on the wood if the glue is applied to the wood before you stain (the right of center), and applying the glue after stain has been applied (left of center). You definitely want to stain before gluing.
Telegraph/Telephone Poles
Next, I wanted to weather the poles. The photo shows a freshly-stained pole on the top, and a weathered one on the bottom. I weathered the poles using a stiff brush and dry-brushing acrylic white paint over the poles and all sides of the crossarms. You can vary the degree of aging by the amount of white paint you apply. However, make sure the brush is almost completely devoid of white paint, because it is easy to overdo it. I practiced on a separate piece of dowel that I had also stained. After the white paint had dried, I used a soft brush and liberally applied india ink (mixed with alcohol) all over the poles and the crossarms, and let that dry overnight. The india ink will settle in the grooves of the poles and adds to the aging effect.
Telegraph/Telephone Poles
In this extreme close-up photo of the beads being installed on the crossarms, you can see the three stages I used to apply them. According to the article, there should be two scale feet of space between the edge of the pole and the first insulator. After that, each insulator is spaced one scale foot apart. I decided to apply the full set of insulators to all of my crossarms (the prototype only used as many as they needed, so not all crossarms have to be populated with insulators). On the top crossarm you might be able to make out the pen marks I made to indicate where the beads are to go. As I mentioned above, I decided not to use florist wire for the rods onto which the beads are to be mounted. Instead, I just superglued a bead to each location on the crossarm, and then came back and added another bead on top of that, again using superglue. It is tedious work, and because superglue usually grabs immediately, you can get some of them to be a bit crooked. You can see that in this extreme close-up photo, but out on the layout it is not noticeable, unless you look for it. For my layout, I decided to use the clear beads for the bottom crossarm and the red/brown beads for the top two crossarms. I was worried that only using superglue to attach these beads might make them fall or break off easily, but when I had one in the wrong location, it took quite a bit of force to break it off! So, this solution works for me. Down the road when I get around to installing the wire between the insulator beads, I will just superglue the wire in the spot right in between the two beads.
Telegraph/Telephone Poles
After I sprayed the beads with a quick dose of Testor Dull Coate, I marked with a pencil where the 35-foot length is from the top of the pole, and drilled a hole in the layout. Make sure that your longest car or engine clears the pole (especially important on curves). I used a drill bit the next size up from the diameter of the pole. Make sure to hold the drill straight otherwise you wind up with a crooked pole, which just doesn't look right in a model (although in the real world they do lean - on purpose in some locations). I used five-minute epoxy to actually glue the poles in the ground. A series of weights, blocks of wood, or whatever I could find were used to hold the poles in their near-perfect vertical position while the glue set. In the real world the crossarms were positioned such that for one pole the crossarms face left and for the next one they face right, etc. I placed the crossarms such that they are perpendicular to the track. Any glue residue still visible after the poles are in the ground can be covered with scenery ground foam.
Telegraph/Telephone Poles
This was a photo taken shortly after I got started stringing wire between the poles. I am using Clover House black nylon wiring. The wire is glued to the "insulators" using Eileen's Tacky Glue (superglue doesn't work).
Telegraph/Telephone Poles