Friday, January 18, 2019

A New Alcove for Wieland

Another significant step toward completing Wieland was made this week. A new alcove now create a visual separation between the furnace room and the layout.

The first idea was to create a curved backdrop to create a smooth transition. However, our cardboard mockup clearly prooved this solution wasted a lot of space, making the siding too short to hold a 65ft car. Also, the visual gain wasn't as interesting as we first thought. Sure, it was seamless on paper, but in reality, the tight radius created non trivial shadows that nullified the wanted effect.

At the end of the day, a pragmatic approach was taken and a rectangular box built. Louis-Marie also wanted the alcove to be easily removable if the furnace requires maintenance in the future.

Given Hedley-Junction isn't a museum-level diorama, but a working layout, it was a compromise we were ready to do. However, the alcove was enlarged so it wouldn't be too distracting. It must also be noted I don't expect this spot to be a place where we shoot photos. For this reason, I believe it is less crucial. Lighting modulation and scene composition will be used to make sure the hole in the wall isn't the main focus of the scene.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

2019 Challenge - Scenicking Wieland

2019 and the first true work session on Hedley Junction was held yesterday. The program for the next few weeks/months will be to scenic Wieland and improve the track plan according to recent operation sessions.

An ordinary day in Wieland

The fascia is now completely installed, though the final profile will be cut later depending on topology.

The large Rocky Mountains-type cliffs were partially removed. While they were somewhat OK for the stretch of track running along St. Lawrence river, they don't fit at all the old and eroded hills of Clermont. Fortunately, they were built with foam layers with a hollow core. Quite easy to remove with a scissor without disturbing the scenery on the other side. The new hills will be made using the same technique, being not a fan of "wet" methods.

On the other side of Wieland, the alcove will be enlarged and completed. The pencil marks on the wall visible on the picture show you the extent of the final opening. It should take care of unwanted shadows.

As for track plan, it is possible some changes will be done. You probably recall I was on the fence about adding the other wye leg to store locomotives between jobs. We did a few tests months ago, but weren't satisfied. However, it was evident not having a dedicated locomotive storage spot was a little bit annoying in term of operation. Given Hedley Junction is fundamentally operation-oriented, we decided to give it another try.

The locomotive storage area will be left from the electric panel.
Basically, a curved turnout will provide access to this new track that will hold about 3 locomotives, which was common in Wieland. To keep with with policy of mundane scenery, we will keep things quite simple. I always recall the area being completely overtaken by grass and weeds and believe that with careful implementation, this new track won't look out of place in the overall scheme. Achieving visual balance with the scene is the main goal and I'm certainly not ready to transform my vision into a Walthers Catalog's carnival.

Since our tracks aren't ballasted yet, it is still time to experiment. And by the way, the annoying drain pipe will probably be relocated soon too.

And finally, Jérôme summoned up his courage and decided to finally venture seriously into hell... I mean using ESU LokProgrammer. Well, this particular software is somewhat not user-friendly. The learning curve at first is fairly steep and it was evident he was about to abandon the project all together. I must admit I share his view DCC technologies are from another era. Electronics and IT have evolved at a crazy rate during the 21th century, however, DCC seems to struggle in a 20th century straight jacket. Quite baffling to see LokProgrammer looking like a VisualBasic student software from the late 1990s... annoying to have to rewrite all CVs (which take a hell of time) when you only want to tweak one. But fortunately, by the end of the day, Jérôme did figure out LokProgrammer and started to get really interesting results. Given he started the day wanting to thrown LokProgrammer by the window and that a few hours later he was doing function mapping, I guess we can look at a bright future for our locomotives.

Friday, January 11, 2019

A Long Overdue Update

I've been quite silent over the last few weeks and months. No by lack of involvement in the hobby, but rather lack of brain power. As my health isn't stabilized yet, my cognitive capacities are taking a toll. Headache, dizziness and fatigue are plaguing my daily life. Funnily enough, it doesn't seem to impair my capacity to focus on manual jobs like modelling. However, when it is time to do intellectual tasks such as writing a blog post, I quickly hit a wall.

There are a lot of things I'd like to write about, particularly many ongoing projects. Unfortunately after a few paragraphs, I start to lose focus and can't keep my ideas clear. When it is time to conclude a text, I find out it makes no sense... and as you know, English isn't my native language. When I'm tired, I'm prone to making a lot of stupid mistakes. I've have this problem with French now, so imagine dealing with English.

Also, this new year brought some ominous news that my employers are financially in a dire situation. It means it is wise to start planning my next move... and I'm not sure I'm eager to continue to walk down the same path.

Meanwhile, I've started to build my layout room in the basement... I had big projects and finally decided it was better to go back to my initial plan for a modest 17' x 10' room. I know it is not modest, but I've trashed the idea of an around the wall layout and will only build a shelf layout on one wall. It's enough for me and I know too well achieving excellence is all about focus.

Also, while putting my collection in order last Fall, it was clear I had far too much cars in my collection. I trimmed down some stuff I had no use for, then spent the last few months thinking about what could be done. I tried to see which themes were best represented by my motley crew fleet. Quickly, I found out two big groups. Cars that could fit a 1980 CPR/CNR layout and many old time cars that were perfect for early 20th century.

I told myself it was perfect since it fits my interests in early 20th century railroading and 1980 railroads. I bet you recognize my Temiscouata project and the Quebec South Shore Railway. Both are perfect shelf layouts. I've somewhat decided to start with the 1980 layout since I have everything on hands at this point.

I also came to the conclusion I had more than enough projects and it was better to no longer invest in my fleet. Many cars should be upgraded and this is a satisfying way to enjoy this hobby. The same apply to Hedley Junction. For this reason, I started to transform a few blue box kits and Accurail cars to see how they can be improved significantly without going too crazy. My goal is simple, approach car building in a more artistic and impressionist way rather than a technically accurate way. Unfortunately, I've had a hard time writing a post about this endeavour. Fortunately, I took pictures and hope they are self-explanatory. I explored various challenges, including the way to make cast on details look better and which improved details have more impact. Colors and hues played also a big part in that exploration. Yes, I discovered counter intuitive things. For example, that fading a black coal hopper could be done with turquoise blue... As you can see, I'm trying to see things for what they are instead of applying my observation biases. No, faded black isn't always gray and Chessie fans could testify about the C&O hoppers that turned yellow or orange over the years.

Here are a few commented examples:

These old Roundhouse boxcars are notoriously unprototypical. Roof and ends are the most notorious flaws. Improvements include addind door stops, car end vertical posts, new ladders, door latches, correct brakewheel and break housing including chain, metal stirrups and tack boards. While not perfect, these small details add a layer of realism even if the car remain "unprototypical". It is no longer a crude toy.

Old Athearn cars were often fantasy models. However, this UP grain boxcar was extremely accurate, except for the wrong car ends. In my spare parts box, I found two MDC improved dreadnaught car ends to replace the old ones. Details were improved and decals added per prototype pictures. However, I didn't replace the cast on ladder because the risk of ruining the model was real. Instead, I used colors to make them pop up. A very dark brown was used to create shadows and a light color applied on the ladders. The result, they now look slightly detached from the car shell. Athearn also painted the model too dark. Several washes and powders helped to tone it down and lettering add to be cleaned a few time to keep the white color almost intact.

Accurail cars are generally nice. The details are crisp though cast on. Unfortunately, their boxcar stirrups are plain weird and too easy to identify. It's why I replaced them. Also, the roof corner grabirons were replaced by bronze phosphore ones. Why? Because these details pop up against the background. I can tolerate cast on grabirons, but corner grabs only looks good if appropriately modelled. Once again, shadows and highlight helps to bring life to the car ends that generally have a strange look on Accurail cars due to the casting process. Weathered waybills made of paper on tack boards and chalk grafitti give this car a purpose in life helping to improve the realism.

It may not look like this, but this car is now covered in turqoise blue to fade the black. The real D&H car it is based on was extremely faded and took various hues over the time... And be aware this is only the beginning. By the way, this car is a cheap Life-Like one. Reinforcing angles were added on the top cord per prototype, most grabs on the sides were replaced, but the one on the ends were decent enough to warrant keeping. It would have been a waste of time and risky to get rid of them. Each bay received new Accurail triple bay hopper doors. These are nice details and I had a bunch of them from previous kits. This single detail transformed a toy into a real model.

Athearn boxcars are annoyingly easy to spot on a layout... The worst sins are the ends, the doors and roofwalk. Fortunately, I found out ATSF did have almost similar boxcars in their roster. The car ends and roof were correct, so I updated the model. New door and finely crafted door tracks eliminated the toyish look while a new straight sill made it a genuinely ATSF car. Tichy roofwalk and Accurail 8 foot doors completed the transformation, including a Kadee brakewheel. While now perfect, this is now a Santa Fe car and fine details mask quite well the blue box origin.

But it wasn't all. ATSF red boxcars did weather badly. The red paint faded and lots of grime and rust obscured the attractive bright scheme. Working from pictures, I tried to replicate a car as it would have looked in the late 70s-early 80s. Once again, reweight patched, waybills, ACI labels and COTS plates add a layer of reality and life to this cheap model.

In a world where a cheap car now cost well over $25, an average one $30 and a good one $40 or 50$, it is harder and harder to justifiying buying more models. These old kits may be far to be perfect from a prototypical stand points, but at the end of the day, I believe colors, textures and general feel are efficient tools to achieve realism. Not only they cost nothing because our collections are full of them, but they are also a great way to spend quality time actually building, customizing and improving cars. It may sound ridiculous, but to justify these cars existence, I had to do a lot of research so I could make them more than foobies. In the process, I once again learned a lot about car building technologies, changes in AAR policies and working with styrene, brass and decals. These lessons aren't wasted at all and I certainly hope to see these cars running somewhere some day.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

2018 Post Mortem

As the year 2018 is coming to a close, it’s time to reflect on what was learned over the last few months and how it can apply to the next year.

An important thing I’ve learned was that I had little patience for half-baked operation schemes. By that, I mean when the story you are enacting with you train movements is full of plot holes and requires fancy explanations to make sense. In the case of Hedley Junction, setting the era forward in the mid-2000s helped to bring more cohesion to the project. Several operation sessions and JMRI simulations helped to figure out what didn’t work and where we could improve the layout. The answer was simple, scenes added for the sake of visual interest and improved operation were, as is often the case, superfluous and ruining the way we could realistically run trains. Completely rebuilding the peninsula as a yard proved to be a wise decision and enhanced drastically our operating sessions. It wasn’t an easy decision to take, but after a few months, I’m pretty sure my fellow club members also agree we made the right decision.

Setting the layout in a much more modern era (from the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s) was a strange idea that was put in motion when Rapido announced the SW1200RS. From that point, we discovered we could “easily” model LLPX GP15-1s with Athearn Genesis models and customize them to replicate locomotives than ran on the Murray Bay. Not that much thought was put into that and it was impulsive at first. However, the idea existed for a long time in the back of our minds. As is often the case, we were initially against a modern era layout because it would lack diversity, would be boring and not classic CN. We are told by the hobby press to cram as much as possible interesting stuff on our layout. Deprogramming yourself isn’t an easy thing to do. What we found was that modelling a more modern Murray Bay Subdivision made our life easier: information is readily available about CFC, we witnessed it in action as railfans, have lot of pictures, excellent quality models for this era exists, operations are easier to implement on a heavily compressed layout and it makes our layout unique in Canada. As for diversity, we quickly found out rolling stock was diverse and locomotives, even if they looked boring, had a lot of personality. I’ve had the time of my life weathering them as close as I could from the prototype.

Another thing I learned was that my physical health, even if I’m relatively young, shouldn’t be taken as granted. Chronic diseases are always insidious and leave you with obviously limited capacities. While not threatening, I know I’m far to have completely recovered since last summer and I thus prefer to work on manageable projects. It means simpler track plan, simpler scenery and well-focused projects. In fact, it isn’t a bad thing and forces me to strike for what matters. I don’t see it as a reason to take shortcut, but rather to make less but better models.

The final thing relearned once again is how it matters to have a vision for a layout, whatever its size or focus. This is the most complex aspect to translate into words due to its highly subjective nature, however, it is primordial if you want a layout to rise above the bar of model railroading and achieve a somewhat artistic value that expresses your vision of your subject. I’m not fool enough to believe Hedley Junction will ever be considered as a piece of art, but I certainly hope what will be done in the future will have personality and translate our mind vision of that railway.

Now, for 2019, I have not clear goal. A hobby isn't a job or an obligation... we walk down the path at our own pace, stopping here and there at whatever we fancy. However, with technical stuff like track work, wiring and operation paper work almost completely done, I wish this new year will be an occasion to bring forward our vision and give this layout its specific personality so it can be much more than a model railroad...

Happy New Year and Modelling!

Friday, December 21, 2018

Donohue MLW S2 - Part 3

Another motive power project completed before Christmas. After the SW1200RS fiasco and overcomplicated GP15-1s wiring, it's a nice touch to end the year on a positive note.

The biggest challenge with this locomotive was to make the details pop under the black coat of paint. Pure black is notorious to be one of the worst color for scale models. Smaller details and shapes are buried because shadows and highlights can't contrast enough with the surrounding color. This effect is even worst when trying to photograph the model.

For this reason, the black paint was faded in various ways, using oil washes, diluted acrylics and some powders. But even that wasn't enough to bring details back. A subtle oil pain drybrushing helped to highlight the louvers, rivets, fan and grilles. Then, not yet satisfied, I used my trusty color pencils to make specific details even more visible. At this point, I new I had stepped into the artistic side of the hobby. It was no longer about recreating a specific effect by following a recipe, but to build up effects until they toll the story I wanted.

In the case of the trucks, they were painted significantly a lighter shade than on the prototype, dusted and dry brushed to replicate the dirt streaking effect that happens in real life. It wasn't enough. Once again, using a color pencil, I lightly colored the truck sideframe edges to had some highlight and better define them.

Taking this extra step is generally what makes a model full of life. Surprisingly enough, we rarely venture to that point when creating scenery. Several layers of scenic materials are laid one upon another. Rarely we will use paint, washes, powders and various other tricks in our tool box to add depth and variety in the mix. If I had a single goal for 2019, it would be to approach layout scenery with the same dedication I have for motive power and freight car weathering.