Monday, April 6, 2020

Modelling CN SW9 & SW1200 Switchers - Part 1

As stated, I've been in self isolation since early March and it will continue up until early May according to Quebec provincial government. It provided me with more free time even if I still work from home. I recently discussed about modelling in difficult time and this new project is a study case of what can be done with less than perfect models, parts, supplies and paint. I better times, many parts would have been sourced from hobby shops and online stores. Unfortunately, shipping times from Ontario to Quebec are now about 2 weeks and stocks are depleting at a fast pace. This can no longer be considered a viable option which is why I've decided to do as much as I can myself in the old fashion way.

CN 7034 as handpainted about 20 years ago and damaged by storage.

The new project started when rearranging my ever growing collection of motive power and rolling stock in new storage cabinets in the hobby room. I discovered an old pair of Athearn Blue Box SW7 once bought in the late 1990s with the goal of kitbashing Chemin de fer Charlevoix iconic SW1200RS. However, as you can surmise, I was a teenager and when I compared the prototype pictures (which were extremely scarce) to the models, I quicky concluded it was far beyond my skills. Also, at that time I already had a Proto 2000 locomotive and I was absolutely dejected by the atrocious running qualities of my new Athearn locomotives. Later, I thought about using the drive and trucks to create QRL&PCo electric steeple cabs. The idea was simple: find Roundhouse boxcab shells and bash them. I had a hard time finding the shell (pre-Ebay era) and couldn't order MDC's 3-in-1 kits featuring the shell. Thus, the project died.

CN 7007 was never completed and lettering wasn't applied.

Later, I simply repainted the switchers with in a CN livery, assigning them number 7007 and 7034. I recall my choice was based on a Microscale decal sheet... I simply used numbers that were close together on the sheet, limiting the number of parts to piece together! You see I'm lazy!

Shoddy craftmanship: I simply glued the lift bar on the pilot, without eyelets.

However for this project, I'll keep these numbers because they have been part of my roster for so long and both offer different challenges. CN 7007 was a SW9 while CN 7034 was a SW1200. One will be painted in the early all black CN noodle scheme and the other one will have the later all-orange cab scheme. Interestingly enough, both locomotives had different sets of handrails, their air horn and bell location differed too. Better, they both had the classic CN spark arrestors.

CN 7007 in classic "wet noodle" scheme (credit: Gord  Hilderman,

I'm well aware these blue box kits have serious limitations, but given I have them and most parts required to bashed them into decent models, I'll do it. It is both practice and amusement, but also a way to improve my skills, including soldering brass parts which I never did before. Also, I'll upgrade various parts, including the stanchions.My goal here isn't to make a funny half-baked project, but really to see, with my actual skills, how far I can go to improve outdated tooling to the best level I can using limited resources. This is the old fashion way: if it doesn't exist, do it.

CN 7034 with modified paint scheme (credit: Jack Smith,

The Athearn shell isn't half bad, but it has big issues due both to tooling and the fact it is based on a SW7: the front radiator grill isn't right, the door arrangement on the hood doesn't match, the headlight are far too small, the cab windows are out of scale, the running board skirts are correct, etc. Name it, you have a endless amount of work on your plate. However, with some exception, these can be addressed. At this point, I will only point out, I'll accept the cab windows are wrong, that doors on the hood aren't correct and that headlights are somewhat dubious. Everything else will be improved though.

CN 7007 shell after a dip in 90% alcohol and a bath of SuperClean.

The first step was to stripe the paint. Alcohol and SuperClean did a great job on 7007, but for some reason, a layer of Floquil CN orange acted as a primer on 7034. Don't ask me why I brushed painted a thick coat of orange under a black model back then, I can't recall, but it was a weird choice to make. Floquil don't stripe easily, so I used my air eraser and baking soda. After one hour, a lot was gone, but orange paint was still there around the details. I knew it would look atrocious when repainted. Then, I decided to applied some Testor Universal Enamel Thinner with a stiff brush and scrub the surface. The paint lifted in a matter of a few seconds! Armed with this new knowledge, striping the paint only took a few minutes and I ended up with two clean undecorated shells.

CN 7034 before scrubbing with enamel thinner.

It was time to think about a kitbashing and detailing strategy, which will be covered in future parts to be published here.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Negative Foundations For Structures

Generally, it is known among hobbyist that to get realistic structure foundations, you must embed them into the scenery. SOme with use sealed MDF, styrene, wood stripes or any other suitable material to lay a footprint and build scenery around it. Basically, it is the most efficient way to get buildings that look to be really part of the layout. Fellow Ontarian modeller Stephen Gardiner is recently experimenting extensively with this method with his excellent Liberty Village layout. I had the chance to visit Stephen's layout back in early February this year and you can now follow his progresses in the recommended website list. More on his compact yet fascinating layout in a future post.

Basically, this method is excellent when working with structures with a foundation and a superstructure. However, what do you do when your human element doesn't have a dichotomy of materials? Such as a concrete highway overpass. Depending on your prototype, you may not be able to create a separate foundation. Worst, you don't want any obvious gap between the model and the scenery. And as much as possible, your structure should stay separate and movable for maintenance and scenery work.

My suggestion is simply to create a negative foundation; slots in the scenery in which the structure will nest itself into, laying below the ground surface and hiding any possible gap between both elements. I decided to test the idea with the Glassine Canada diorama I'm actually building in my hobby room.

Using illustration board, I created a series of plank with a hole fitting each overpass pillar. They are snug enough to fit without leaving obvious gap, but they should also allow the structure to slide without effort into them.

Then, I laid them on the layout and installed the overpass. When everything was aligned as wished, I glued the cardboard parts into place. When dry, I removed the overpass and was left with a series of perfectly located holes. I must admit I feared the illustration board would swell with all that water and applied a bead of carpenter's yellow glue on the perimeter of each cardboard element to seal it.

Sculptamold was used to blend the new negative foundations with surrounding ground. While still wet, a first layer of gravel, limestone powder and fine sand was applied and glued down with alcohol and diluted white glue.

Once dry, it was time to test if the overpass would fit again in the hole. Answer? Yes! And it's realistic as can be. I've been convinced this is a viable technique and will use it again for the main building featured on that layout.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Modelling In Difficult Times

Over the last few days, I've been redetailing a pair of junker Athearn SW7 I once painted back in 2000 if my memory serves me well. These locomotives were purchased in 1998 with the goal of replicating CFC SW1200RS. After closer inspection, it was evident the conversion would be too complicated to handle for me as a teenager. Thus, I dropped the project. Circa 1999, I thought I could use the drives and slap a kitbashed Roundhouse boxcab shell to create a QRL&PCo steeple cab. Not a bad idea if you ask me. But at that time, finding boxcab shells was hard and I didn't have access to Ebay or other flea markets/train shows to find the part. Thus, I whimsically painted them in CN colors, handbrushing Floquil paint and decalling them with Microscale CN switcher lettering. The drives were horrible and at the end of the day, I simply boxed them with no intent to ever use them. One was CN 7007, a SW9 and the other CN 7034, a SW1200. Back then, I had very little knowledge about variations among SW-type locomotives.

But now, with self-isolation being the norm, businesses shutting down and postal service running at a snail pace, these botched locomotives gain a new value: they are excellent to provide hours of meaningful occupation. The goal itself isn't to build winning-contest models, but try my best to capture the essence of a SW9 and SW1200. Starting with Blue Box Athearn models mean a lot of compromises have to be dealt with. The question isn't about creating a perfect replica but rather what elements must absolutely be addressed and which can be accepted as is. At this point, we are entering artistic license territory. We are dealing with a completely different beast.

For the sake of entertainment, I've posted my process on Facebook so it could provide a meaningful diversion to many people while enticing others to start doing actual modelling. Many well-meaning posters pointed out I should purchase better detail parts, replace the cab or buy other stuff so my model would be perfect. While I perfectly understand their point of view, I feel they completely miss was is my goal by projecting their own standards on my work. Honestly, I don't care that much. It can provide an interesting exchange and I take it for that.

However, I feel many are completely oblivious about what's going on with the world nowadays. From an economical standpoint, investing so much in these locomotives make no sense. I feel it is an utter waste of money to buy so many detail parts for a cheap and inaccurate shell. The total amount would far offset the cost of a correct model at this point. Buying a Walthers SW1200 with sound and DCC would be a better choice at this point. Should I be out there purchasing new models when my weekly revenues are cut in half and our dollar is taking a serious plunge back to what it was back in the late 1990s?

For this reason, and given the actual world conditions, I don't feel it is a logical choice to start purchasing various detail parts at premium price, from dozen of sources and wait for weeks, if not months to get them. My goal is to have fun and make sure I keep myself occupied during confinement. Until a week ago, I had absolutely no interest in modelling a pair of CN SWs. I do with what I have on hand, recycling extra parts, salvaging broken details and parts myself. Crafting details by myself is a good way to get better with my tools, lean skills and become a better modeller. Anybody can slap dozen of commercial parts on a model with glue. Shaping doors, handles, exhaust, fuel filler cap and such other things is much more rewarding, even if the result won't be as slick as a thin wall Cannon & Co cab (discontinued), a Rapido shell (pricy) or any other option available on the market. 

And let's not fool ourselves. With RTR becoming the norm in the hobby, hunting detail down parts is getting harder and harder. Detail Associates is a semi-inexistant entity which most useful parts are never in production at the right time, Cannon & Co. too, Detail West is getting scarce too and others aren't better. Basic commodities such as eyelets are selfom produced... Try to find them (not in plastic or photoetched), good luck! Canadian hobby shops (real location and online) have long depleted their stock and purchasing detail parts from the US is a sad joke. As I posted on Facebook, buying a set of KV Models SW grilles would cost be $51! At that price, I can find a neat Proto 2000 SW900 and repaint it! Worst, these grilles aren't correct for a SW1200 with horizontal louver, so I'm back to scratchbuilding! Who in his right mind would take such a decision.

Worst, Canada Post is paralyzed by the large influx of mail and parcel. I've ordered PSC stanchions from Ontario for this project 10 days ago. Didn't receive anything yet and generally, it take 2 days. Should I rely on such delay when my goal is to keep me occupied? No. So back to the basic, do it yourself!

So let's face it, you change only a few parameters in how the world is run, and what was the best option 2 or 3 weeks ago has now become impossible. As much as possible, I try to source parts from other canadian modellers via the various market pages on Facebook. Not perfect, but together, we can help each other improving our modelling without going broke. Shipping delays are still there though. On a positive note, I've found modelling older CN SW9 and SW1200 is quite interesting. A lot of variation within the fleet. We often only think about the cool SW1200RS with all their Canadian-style details, but the rest of the fleet isn't boring at all!

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Improving Sidewalks

Sidewalks are often modelled with less regard than other elements of our layout. While some modellers will indeed pay attention to the details, scribing joints between concrete slabs or adding finely detailed curbs and manholes, I often feel the painting and weathering is quite plain.

Some of the top European modellers however will carefully weather their sidewalks until they get a very realistic look. I'm not at that level, but I thought it could be easy to level up my game in that regard.

Typical sidewalks in Canada (Quebec City)
After looking at various sidewalks in my area, it was evident snow plowing takes a serious toll on concrete structure, which is amplified by freeze and thaw cycle. A particular effect is the degradation of slab sides which start to delaminate. After a while, sizeable part of the surface is completely removed, exposing the aggregate. Also, the plow scraping creates whitish marks on the concrete sidewalks and granite curbs where the steel enter in contact with the surface. To be honest, I've never seen anybody modelling that commong pattern and decided I should.

Many media could be used to render this particular weathering effect, but I felt color pencils were the right tool since they create granular lines similar to exposed aggregate. A brownish dark gray pencil was used to create the exfoliated concrete while a light gray pencil provided the whitish scraping marks.

Pencils give you a lot of control over your work and that's their greatest quality as a dry medium compared to wet medium such as paint. I'm well aware someone could carve and sculpt the crumbling effects directly in the sidewalk material, particularly when dealing with larger scale. However, the pencils give quite a convincing effect without loosing your mind. Also, since my sidewalks are made of illustration board, carving them could create a fibrous surface which wouldn't look very realistic. If made of styrene or plaster, it would be another story.

I also decided to use pencils to try to create the crumbling asphalt effect common on grade crossing where moving trains induce a stress into the pavement. This is relevant when modelling older grade crossing that weren't equipped with rubber plates. I'd say it is less convincing upon closer inspection than the sidewalks, but from a normal viewing distance, it works wonder. Once again, it is all about suggesting weathering pattern, as film makers and theater staffs would do it. We want an impression.

If you are interested in these techniques, I can only recommend Gordon Gravett's books on scenery published by White Swam in the UK. His "Modelling Grassland and Landscape Detailing" is worth every penny invested.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Route 138 in Wieland

It seems respected modeller Jim Dufour really enjoyed my technique on modelling roads. Knowing how Jim's work is outstanding, I must admit I'm humbled by this. And he's lucky I've been working on other roads recently for our club layout.

Route 138 was the "mythical road" modern road that opened up Charlevoix to the rest of the province back in the 20th century. While the railway did help a bit in 1919, it was still slow and not that much of help for people that lived many miles away from it. As a modern 4-way highway, it was the achievement of a project that traces its roots back in the French Regime. Ultimately, that road proved fatal for the railway, stealing a lot of business and cutting the travel time of passenger in half, if not more.  Now, Quebec City was only 1 hour away from Baie-Saint-Paul and about 1.5 hour away from La Malbaie. Even under perfect condition, trains can't hardly take less than 3 hours due to the serpentine nature of the line imposing severe speed restriction.

But well, as much as I can "despice" that dreaded road for having killed the train in the long term, it is a part of Murray Bay subdivision. The railway line and road stand side by side from Quebec City to Beaupré, then from Clermont to Pointe-au-Pic. From a railfan standpoint, everywhere both are parallel, you have a chance to see the train. Outside these area, you better be creative and plan your trip accordingly!

With that said, I can announce that road and a public utility shed have been successfully modelled and installed on the layout. These were the last items required before I can move on with the final steps of vegetation. As you can see in the pictures, the road is parallel to the track, but both are oblique to create a sense of dynamism in the scene. It is an old graphic trick to make a composition suggest speed and movement. I was curious if it would work with a layout and the answer is a resounding yes! I think this is another trick we can use to easily create more interesting scenes.

This time thought, instead of using illustration board, 1/8" thick MDF was used. Interestingly enough, it works as good as illustration board and takes paint very well. Painting and weathering was done with various spray paints and automotive primers (mainly grays and concrete) then weathered with airbrushed washes of a pale dirt colors followed by a subtle mist of very thinned down alcohol and India ink mix as Lance Mindheim used to recommend before switching to photos.

Road markings were defined with Tamiya tape after the road dried a few days. A this point, you don't want the tape to pull off your hard work. I worked carefully using Google Earth and Ministère des Transport du Québec (Quebec DOT) guidelines to make sure the width, length and pattern were accurate. Honestly, we underestimate the space between discontinued lines. It's about a ration of 1 part line, 2 parts empty space.

These lines were painted with a sponge. I think it works best and is less messy. Airbrush is also a good solution. If possible, weather you yellow with some white to make it a little bit faded.

I immediately removed the tape once done and using an Xacto blade, I started to scrape the fresh paint so it looked worn up. Theses lines, in North America (particularly in Canada and northern United States) never stay in good shape for long. Worst, most DOT have the habit of repainting them in late summer or fall, meaning they start to disappear the moment snow plows hit the roads.

Don't fear scraping too much paint. In fact, I always find myself redoing it twice or thrice until I'm satisfied. Then, it time for black color pencil. Using again Google Street View, I planted myself in the middle of the road, exactly on the spot I'm modelling and studied the cracks in the asphalt. These are intricate patterns that aren't random at all. They follow the invisible joints when the pavement was applied by working crews and also how the loads from cars and trucks put stress on the road. Most cracks will be parallel with the road markings and define the lane. Others are right in the center of lanes while perpendicular ones seems to appear due to expansion and contraction of asphalt due to temperature variation. Be careful, study pictures and you'll be extremely pleased by what you will create. Just make sure you keep you pencil very sharp.

Once done, a good coat of Dullcote will seal everything and provide a rugged surface that survive abuse better than plaster roads which are a pain to build and paint without getting messy. Except how I paint these lines, I've invented nothing, but I feel this method yield better result because you can bring the road to the workbench, sit and take time to make it the best you can. Basically, you are treating your road with the same care you do with rolling stock and structure.

Given most people have a more comprehensive understanding of how roads look like than train, failing to address this particular modelling challenge is a major flaw. Can't go cheap with them. And honestly, getting decent results doesn't take that much effort. Once you've done one, the others are a breeze to create. In that regard, Louis-Marie surprised me by recently making the most complicated road on the layout which is more than 10 feet long and curves in all direction. More on that later thought!

Keep safe!