Making an animated outhouse

Time for a break.

My layout is coming together and the majority of the features are now in place, including the water wheel and blacksmith.

Looking at the far righthand rear corner, however, I realised it needed something a little extra. This corner is home to the longer sidings of the Inglenook puzzle and has a small goods shed at the rear but little else to engage viewers.

After a little thought as to what else would be appropriate and would fit into the space, I decided a small animation would do the trick. It needn’t be large or attention-grabbing in itself just enough to entertain anyone taking a look.

And its location on the layout led naturally to what the animation would be.

As mentioned, this corner is occupied by a small goods shed. It’s one of a number of sheds, offices and buildings next to the sidings and around which workers can be seen coming and going. But on reviewing it, there was nowhere for these workers to, erm,  relieve themselves.

The far side of the goods shed would be the ideal location for a discrete out-of-the-way outhouse.

And having the door accidentally swinging open to reveal a workman, from now on known as Joe, caught with his trousers down would be entertaining, appropriate and perfectly fitting for the location.

After much thinking, trial attempts and experimentation in the last few weeks, I’ve created my own animated outhouse.

Every few minutes, the door swings open to reveal an embarrassed workman sitting on the loo. It stays open for a few moments before swinging shut again to save his modesty. After a random period of time has passed, the cycle repeats itself. Poor Joe isn’t having a good day!

Making the shed

The outhouse building was made from scraps of wood-effect Styrene (Plasticard) I had lying around.

Three sides and a roof were cut and glued together and onto a base — another square of Plasticard. A seat, complete with a hole, was fixed in place a small OO gauge seated figure (from the Noch 15278 set) was then repainted and placed on the seat.

At this point, however, I realised my first mistake.

The first version, with an obvious error.

I had the roof sloping down forwards. But on reviewing old wooden outhouses — via Google Images —  the roofs always slope to the rear or sides. Obviously, really, why would anyone want it forward where the rainwater runoff will fall onto anyone coming or going?

First model down the toilet…

I re-made the model this time with the roof leading to the right, as the building will be against the wall of the goods shed on the left although I didn’t glue the roof in place so as to allow access for fittings and the hinge mechanism, which I’ll come to shortly.

A toilet seat was added, the figure was then inserted and the ends of some planks were broken off to give it a look of thrown-together / broken-down construction.

For the first attempt, I used a seated figure from the Noch 15278 set but I wasn’t happy with this. There’s nothing wrong with the figure but it’s a standard seated figure, not someone sitting on a loo (his trousers weren’t down) and even at this scale, looking through a door, it was obviously wrong. 

For the second attempt, I found another Noch set, the Noch 15560 ‘toilet stories’ set. This had a suitable figure, complete with trousers around his ankles, and even better he was reading a newspaper — just as some would be when seated on a loo.

The only issue was that the front pages of the newspaper the figure is holding were blank as seen in the photo here.

I’ve no idea why Noch left the print off the paper as it spoils the look of an otherwise nice figure.

To rectify this, I scribbled some lines of print onto them using a .5mm mechanical pencil. If you click on the picture below or play the video above you can just about see this. I think it looks much better!

Outhouse v2 is much better.

Given the ‘water’ and ‘fertiliser’ that would be around a toilet in this environment, I figured the wood would be damp and ripe for climbers and vegetation growing around the sides so I glued on some greenery around the base and side,  where the outhouse meets the wall of the shed.

A sponge dipped in olive green was dabbed around the lower third of the planks to give the impression of lichen and moss growth, while white and yellow dappling around the base of the seat was added to further give the impression of ‘water’ damaged wood and salt deposits.

Looking at my reference photos, outdoor toilets often appeared to have buckets near them — I don’t want to ask what they contained — so as a final touch, I added one to the right-hand side of the door. This is made from a cable tie in a similar manner to the flower pot for the miniature roses but this time painted metal grey colour with a rust effect was added.

It was a quick build but works well as the base for the animation it houses and looks a lot better than the first version.

The mechanics of a moving door

The biggest challenge with this mini project of course is the opening and closing of the door.

I’ll get to the servo and control of that shortly but for me, the biggest conundrum was the mechanics of the hinging mechanism.  How to make the door swing open and shut and connect this mechanism to a servo under the baseboard in 1:76th scale suitable for this 009 railway?

After a lot of thinking and a few further failed experiments, I settled on fixing the door to a vertical shaft that runs in the inside corner of the outhouse on the left hand side. As the shaft rotates, the door swings open and closed. This shaft is be secured at the top and bottom of the structure with washes –  glued to the plasticard – before going through a hole in the baseboard to the servo.

For the shaft, I used piano wire that I use with Tortoise point motors and know it can handle the torque forces of being rotated.

As mentioned, this slides through washers that were glued in place at the top and bottom of the door frame and under the baseboard to hold it in place as it rotates.

With the hinge in place, the roof was attached and the building itself was complete. It was then positioned so the tail of the piano wire fed through a pre-drilled hole in the baseboard. Next came the motor and the control system.

What motor to use

The outhouse door needs to open roughly 45 to 90 degrees, in a single precise but slow movement. For this, I opted for an SG90 servo.

In contrast to DC motors, which are ideal for continuous rotation (as in the waterwheel animation) but can’t be used for slow precision rotation, the arc and speed of the turn can be precisely controlled with a servo. They’re commonly used in remote control cars and plans and are also ideal for small movement control on model railways. Many people use them for point motors.

They are also very cheap, starting from a few pounds.

The piano wire from the building passes through a hole in the baseboard and then fixes into the servo. In turn, this is mounted to the baseboard with a frame produced on a 3D printed.

Controlling the motor – Arduino

The server was then wired to an Arduino. This is a programmable chip on a board with appropriate inputs and outputs for sensors, lights, motors and the like that can be used for all manner of automation and electronics projects.

I’ve used them a lot elsewhere and wiring it up to the SG90 and writing the small program to control it was simple, and wired as shown below.

ARDUINO SERVO WIRING

There’s nothing remotely unique or special about this wiring arrangement. It’s been done thousands of times before and identical wiring diagrams for the servo to Arduino’s can be found across the web. I’ve only shown it here for completeness.

Those who have used DC motors will note that, unlike DC motors which have two wires, servos have three wires; two for power and one for the control signal. This control line went to pin 9 on the Arduino board and would be used by the program, coming in a minute, to control the rotation angle and speed.

With the physical aspects in place, I connected the Arduino to my laptop and wrote a small Sketch file that was uploaded to the chip.

On power up, this moves the Servo to the door shut position as a staerting position and waits a random period of time before slowing turning the servo to an open-ish position, opening the door to the surprise and horror of Joe, our loo inhabitant.

There it stays for a random period of time, between 5 and 10 seconds, before the servo rotates back to its original position, closing the door and saving Joe further embarrassment.

The program then repeats, waiting a random period of time before giving the already mortified worker another heart attack.

It’s a very simple Sketch file that’s listed here for anyone wanting to use it.

#include <Servo.h>

Servo myservo;

int pos = 45; // Servo position, default position closed.

void setup() {
myservo.attach(9); // attaches the servo on pin 9 (outhouse door animation)
delay(5000); //initial pause, 5secs
myservo.write(pos); // set servo to default position; closed.
}

void loop() {
//open door.
for(pos = 45; pos >= 0; pos -= 1){
myservo.write(pos);
delay(15);
}
myservo.write(0);

//wait random period with door open.
delay(random(1000, 5000));

//close door.
for(pos = 0; pos <= 45; pos += 1){
myservo.write(pos);
delay(15);
}
myservo.write(45);

//wait random period and repeat.
delay(random(3000, 10000));
}

The Arduino will keep the program in its memory, even when powered off, so once uploaded, I disconnected the laptop.

To activate the animation, it’s just a matter of applying power to the Arduino — which was from the layout accessory circuit with a switch to turn it on and off, like the other animations and electronics on the layout.

It’s a small animation and probably not worth the time spent on it but it was fun to do and adds interest to an otherwise quiet corner of the layout. I’m aware using an entire Arduino Uno board for this simple animation is over the top. I’ve used it here because I’ll also be using it to control other electrics around the layout later and this board has pins for further servos and sensors. More of this in a future article.

The video of the outhouse in action is shown above.

If you want to have a go at making this yourself, you’ll need:

 

> This post is part of a series on the construction of a lifelike model railway for exhibitions. To read other posts in the series covering its development, track work, scenery and model building making, see building an exhibition model railway.

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2 comments
  1. Sadly – I could not get the video to work so I just have to imagine the door opening. This exposing event happened to a friend of mine in the Northwest Territories (Canada) when he was using the outhouse way out in the boonies. They stink, so he had the door open while he did his business. A passing canoe got an unwelcome eyeful….

    • That’s a great story, having someone look across as the door opens would make a fun little extra to the story on the layout. Now to figure out making a little figure who turns to look at the outhouse as the door swings open… Sorry you can’t get the video to work, if you’re on Instagram, the video is there too where hopefully it will work better. Andy

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