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DIY Thomas & Friends Buffer

The other day my son was begging for a buffer to put at the end of his track, so that the trains would not roll off.

My first thought was that SOMEONE must sell such a thing, but that by the time you added the cost together with the shipping, the price would be pretty cost-prohibitive. If you decide that you want to go this route, you can visit TrainsGalore.com, which is an awesome website with almost anything you can imagine for Thomas-type trains. Here is their link to order buffers: http://www.trainsgalore.com/Search.aspx?k=buffer

I once ordered unpainted Thomas wooden railroad cars from them and had kids decorate them as party favors at my son’s birthday.

The car I designed (that the dog promptly ate).

The car I designed (that the dog promptly ate).

I chose the cheap, crafty route and fashioned a buffer out of a spare piece of track that we already had and some popcicle sticks.  I also used an exacto knife to saw through the wood, and an engine to make sure the dimensions seemed appropriate.

Supplies I used to make a Thomas buffer

Supplies I used to make a Thomas buffer

I glued it all together with some wood glue and allowed to dry away from tiny, excited hands. I added two dots of red paint (any old paint you have laying around) to signify reflectors. Here are pictures of the finished product.

Finished buffer

Finished buffer

Close-up of finished buffer

Close-up of finished buffer

My son was so excited that he wanted to show the completed buffer to everyone. He even told me, “Mommy, you are the best mommy.” I don’t get that everyday. I actually get that never!

I will admit that this design may be best suited to use on a train table environment. My son plays trains on the floor, and the buffer tends to not handle being stepped on by humans or dogs very well. But, we just glue it back together again. You might also think about trying a more triangular design, which might have more stability.

The few minutes of crafting I did were worth this very happy boy.

Happy boy

Happy boy

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EXPOSE`: Thomas & Friends

Thomas is a pimp (not really)

Thomas is a pimp (not really)

So, my son REALLY likes the children’s television series Thomas & Friends. I have watched A LOT of episodes over the past three years. I have watched many of the SAME episodes over and over again.  And I have come to notice a few things. Maybe it is just my distorted view of things, but maybe you will agree too.

Emily Photo: ttte.wikia.com

Emily
Photo: ttte.wikia.com

On the island of Sodor, all women are bitches. The only female engine that was in the cast for a long time was Emily, the dark green engine. She is the definition of a bitch.

I will set the record straight. None of the engines ever does what they are told to do. It is actually a really bad example to set for kids.

But every episode that Emily is in, she bosses the other engines around. She wants to tell them how to do their jobs, sometimes even telling them to change what jobs have been assigned to them.

One episode, a popular soccer team was coming into town. Emily was all excited because they were her favorite team. Every engine got assigned a task. Emily was assigned the task to haul dirty laundry. Emily was disgusted by this. She wanted a more important job, perhaps maybe even carrying the team to the game. The lesson we were supposed to learn from the episode was that the laundry was for the team, and it was important for her to take care of it.

What?

The lesson was that the only way a woman can be of use is to take care of the laundry? Oh no they dih-ehnt!

Other female engines that have been introduced since had not fared much better. Belle is seen overwhelming Toby with her outspokeness and eagerness. Rosie is shown as a tag-along. She feels like a kid-sister for Thomas in the limited number of episodes she appears in. Molly is a big yellow engine. In one of her earlier appearances, she is picked on by another engine. Any guesses who? If you said Emily, then you are correct.

Victor Photo: ttte.wikia.com

Victor
Photo: ttte.wikia.com

Then there is Victor, who is an engine from Cuba who works at the Steamworks, fixing Sir Topham Hatt’s other engines. I imagine that Victor is gay. Maybe it is the accent. Maybe it is his “partner” Kevin, who seems to live with him at the Steamworks.  Kevin always calls Victor “Boss”, and has a very large crane arm.

I always imagine Victor, in his foreign accent, saying things to the other engines like “Oh, I will make you over, my little friend. With a new coat of paint, I will make you look FAB-u-lous!”

Ferdinand Photo: ttte.wikia.com

Ferdinand
Photo: ttte.wikia.com

Oh, then there is Ferdinand. He is one of the Logging Locos from Misty Island. He is big, kinda dumb, and has a gap-toothed smile. He has a very wide nose. His catchphrase? “Dat’s right.” Ferdinand just comes across as an African American male talking ebonics. I don’t mean to insult anyone with that comparison. If anything, I am offended by the show designers creating him that way.

Do your kids watch Thomas and Friends? What strange things do you notice after too many viewings?

THOMAS-sheds

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Beginner’s Luck (The Post With The Thomas Cake)

I have beginner’s luck. I may have first realized this while bowling.

I make it a policy never to throw warm-up balls when I bowl, because all the throws after that will be worse. So I save those for my first few frames that count. It works every time. I always have a better score in my first game, than any game that follows.

My son turned two recently. We were to have a Thomas & Friends-themed party. I was counting on this to be the case with cake-making as well. I think I assumed correctly.

I have never made a layered, sculpted, shaped, character cake or used fondant before. May I present to you, the most elaborate birthday cake I have ever made in my life.

My finished Thomas The Tank Engine cake

Once I came up with this idea in my head, I just knew that a flat sheet cake with a Thomas picture or toy on it just wasn’t going to do. I must give credit where it is due. I would never have attempted this if I had not found a great Thomas tutorial online by Wendy Lindsey at http://thomasthetankenginecake.blogspot.com/ .

I did make some deviations from her directions, mostly due to budget constraints. Then I was dead-set on using fondant, so I probably spent any money I saved on that:P

This is what I used for my recipe:

2 boxes of Duncan Hines yellow cake mix
2-3 boxes of Wilton Buttercream Icing Mix (more on this later)
2 boxes (24 oz each) Wilton Rolled Fondant, pastel blue
2 dowels
1 8″ lollipop stick
1 very strong cake board or several weaker ones bound together
wax paper
aluminum foil
fondant shaper
food coloring in yellow, black, and red
clay shaping tools
small paintbrush
toothpicks
Crisco
powdered sugar
rolling pin
1970’s aluminum cake decorator w/tips (feel free to substitute piping bags and tips)

I highly recommend if you are going to make this cake to study Wendy’s 14 pages of highly detailed directions and tips. What follows is my experience and deviations from her great work!  All measurements given in inches. (Click any picture to see it larger.)

The picture I used for the face and the toys I used for the body

This is what I based my cake off of. Thomas is a little different in every toy, so that can drive a person nuts.

This is Thomas’ face made out of fondant. Make it at least 4 days ahead of time so it has time to dry.

First I made Thomas’ face out of fondant. I didn’t want to have to color my fondant to be blue later (which would have been impossible anyway), so I only purchased blue fondant. I knew that after adding black, the face would look gray and not blue. I was sure to put the stick in before the face dried. Because I was being cheap and didn’t buy any white fondant, I finished the eyes, mouth, and pupils later with buttercream icing. I made the face on Tuesday for a Saturday party.

9″X13″ metal cake pan with paper pattern

9″X13″ glass pan with paper patterns

I don’t have a sheet cake pan, so I baked two 9″X13″ cakes. I created paper patterns ahead of time to visualize how I would stack my four layers. I used these patterns to score the cakes before I put them into the freezer, wrapping them in wax paper, then covering with several layers of foil. I baked and froze the cakes on Wednesday for a Saturday party.

Assembling the frozen cake

On Friday, I prepped my cake board. I taped three 14″X14″ boards together, covering the top with wax paper for easy removal of stray frosting and crumbs later. I lined the edge with blue electrical tape because, well, that is what I had in the house.

Here you can see that the third layer is actually made of two long pieces

Then I removed the frozen cakes from the freezer and assembled them according to my pattern. Using two 9″X13″ cakes did not leave me very many scraps to work with. But you will see I did have enough to make a funnel and steam dome. These are fragile, small pieces. Note that I made my third layer out of two long pieces of cake. It would have been more stable if that layer had all been one piece.

My kitchen floor slants downhill, therefore my oven does as well.  I was too cheap to buy a cake leveler, but now I see that a cake that is more level will yield a better result (and be easier to stack).

Crumb coating

Then I covered the whole cake with the buttercream icing, to form a crumb coat.

After days of watching Cake Boss to try to figure out what the f*** to do with fondant, I attempted to cover my cake. I have never used fondant before. I have never eaten fondant before. I have never even seen it used IN PERSON before. Frosting would have been more cost effective and perfectly acceptable. But in my head my Thomas had a smooth finish I knew I could never achieve with icing.

I used Wilton pre-made rolled fondant. I have no idea if it was good or not because Wilton codes their expiration dates. (If someone knows the decoding secret, please let me know. Thanks.) I bought them at Hobby Lobby. Never having used fondant before, I have no idea if it was the right consistency, but it seemed very stiff to me and I didn’t know what to add to fix that. At this point I was glad I bought the fondant pre-colored, as there is no way I could have kneaded it enough to have ever added my own color. I almost sprained something trying to roll it out with the rolling pin. Even then, it was still a little thicker than the 1/4″ inch thickness it was supposed to be. I wished I had one of those rolling machines that the Cake Boss uses.

Because the fondant was so thick, it cracked when I put it on my cake. A LOT. I made many patches using Crisco and powdered sugar and additional fondant, which actually turned out REALLY well. I was afraid of losing my funnel and steam dome putting on the fondant. If you just frosted a cake, I don’t think they would cause any problem. If I had modeling chocolate like the Cake Boss, I think that would have been a better solution for my fondant-covered cake.

And here is the result…

Fondant covered cake. After it set up for a few hours, I used a paint brush to dust off the excess powdered sugar.

It wasn’t as smooth as the Cake Boss, but I think damn good for a first try!

At this point it was late and I was tired. I was unsure then (and still am unsure) what I was supposed to do with the cake once it was covered in fondant. I put it in the fridge uncovered overnight, and then took it out in the morning to finish the decorating. (If that was wrong, someone let me know.)

Side details with colored buttercream icing

This is where I was glad that I had an extra box of buttercream icing mix. I probably could have gotten by with only using two, but one of them I mixed too thin, and there is no way I could have used it for the fine detail of decorating. (And be sure to leave out your margarine or butter to soften ahead of time! That almost bit me in the ass at the last minute.)

I just decided what details were important to me to include and which weren’t. I actually put in more than I had planned. Being budget conscious and lazy, I also tried to control the amount of colors I needed to use. I only decorated with black, red, and yellow. The wheels on the toys I have are actually blue, but I liked the ones on the cake as black (and I didn’t have to mix up any blue!).

I was too cheap to buy piping bags & tips, so I used my mom’s ancient aluminum cake decorating kit that I last saw her use in 1982.  The frosting holding part of the tool blocked my vision sometimes, so that is why some details are a little messy.  (Yes, that is my excuse.)

The face, with white and black buttercream icing added

Here is the face, with the eyes, eyebrows and mouth filled in with icing. The face really does make the cake. Mine almost came out too big, so that should be a caution to the next person who tries to make this. When the lollipop stick got trimmed, it got cut too short. It is important that the bottom of the lollipop stick touch the cake board, so that it can support the weight of the face. (I didn’t fully understand this until I reached this step.) I ended up cutting another small piece of stick and taping it to the too short face stick with white electrical tape. (I LOVE electrical tape!)

I was afraid to put the face on because I thought the weight of it would make it fall forward into the red frosting. I didn’t buy any piping gel (which I was supposed to use to stick on the face), so I just used buttercream frosting instead. It stayed on just fine!

Top view

Back view showing the roof, the coal, and the rear light

Here is the finished cake. It ended up being approximately 10.5″ long by 5″ wide by 6″ tall. The face is approximately 3.5″ across.

Finished product next to the toys I used as a guide

Here is Thomas after the party…

CAKE!

The fondant was kind of chewy. As I have never had it before, I am unsure if that was due to the age of the fondant, not enough kneading, too thick, improper storage, or if that is just normal.

After we cut off the rear, I realized that by turning it upside down, it looks like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle!

Raphael?

So, I guess if you want a Ninja Turtle cake, just turn Thomas upside down. Hahaha.

It was a lot of work, but I think it was worth it to prove to myself that I could indeed do it.

Unfortunately, this all made me have lots of anxiety and I had trouble eating or sleeping the last two days of cake making and party preparation. Every year, I ask my husband if he wants to have a birthday party for my son. He says yes. I tell him he will have to do all the work. And then I make all the food and clean the house and drive myself crazy trying to make it all as seamless as a television sitcom.

It is stressful trying to live by television standards in the real world. Thank God for my beginner’s luck.

Anyone else out there gotten in over their heads with a birthday cake?

Behind the Scenes: The Riley Sisters Series

I can’t wait to tell you about my next project. But before I go gung-ho on that, I had an idea for another Riley sisters post before I put them to bed. Not that I will stop talking about them completely, because (hopefully next month) they will still make up three out of four books I have available. But I thought this would be a nice way to bring a little closure to them by sharing some behind-the-scenes factoids.

  • The Wind Could Blow a Bug was always called that. I tried to rename it, but I couldn’t find anything else that fit better. And I really loved how the title came from the story, and was really the essence of it. People often comment on it, which gives me a great opportunity to explain it.
  • When You Least Expect It was first known as Kiley’s Turn. I had never intended for Miley or Kiley to be more than background characters in Bug, but then I wrote the scene where they go to the mall with Jane, and that started me wondering what their future lives might look like.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For was originally called Miley’s Muddle. My son is very into Thomas the tank engine, and there was a story called Milkshake Muddle, which is where I got the alliteration from. Imagine if Miley had been covered with a milkshake in her story? Her and that movie star Mark got down doing some pretty funky things. Who knows, maybe she did!
  • US223, that is mentioned in Bug, really exists. It is the main road through Lenawee County, Michigan. I have traveled on it almost every day of my life. I could drive that road in my sleep. My mother had to travel on it to give birth to me!
Real road sign

Actual road sign

  • Dave from Expect is really my dog. She is an orange Lab/Chow mix with lots of personality. I love her to pieces and when a dog showed up in my story, it just happened to be her. Note that that book is also dedicated to her. How many crazy authors dedicate a book to their dog? Probably only me.
My Dave dog

My Dave dog

  • The worn orange counter at the convenience store really exists! I worked at a Mobil station while I was in college. I used to have to wipe down that counter every night. The store has gone through several ownership changes since then, but he counter remains. I am so happy that that store got to play such a big part in Expect.
  • Blake and Luke, workers for Travis’s catering company in Wish, were originally named Parker and Dave after my dogs. (I am really bad at coming up with names for characters.) I had already used them both previously, so they got renamed after popular country music singers, whose personalities fit the dialogue I had already written quite well.
  • The messenger bag I picture Jane carrying in Bug is the one that I had made to advertise my blog.
Official limited edition INSY messenger bag

Official limited edition INSY messenger bag

  • Alva University was named in part after my dead dad.
  • I specifically named Travis’s cafe Taste of Travis because I thought it sounded really dirty. 😛
  • There is no such place as Oakley, Alabama. I made it up. But it lives on in my heart.
My version of Oakley.

My version of Oakley.

Follow the romantic entanglements of The Riley Sisters in my books:
Be Careful What You Wish ForAVAILABLE NOW!
When You Least Expect It THE CONTINUING ROMANCE!
The Wind Could Blow a BugWHERE IT ALL BEGAN!

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