Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Layout Design Musings

My last visit at the club layout was a strange affair. It seemed everybody was kind of disheartened by the news our CFC SW1200RS project would go back on the shelf until all the missing parts are collected. Work was slow and I only managed to partially paint a few derails and wheel stops in a faded yellow color…

The reason for this lack of enthusiasm is grounded to a deep frustration with locomotives in the DCC age. Lighting, decoder, sounds… it is a never-ending task of tweaking, fiddling and tuning, with no results guaranteed.  Talk about fun!

To change my mood to something more positive, I felt I would operate a little bit with a locomotive a reliable locomotive in good order. From the glass display shelf, I grabbed a custom decorated Bachmann GP9 with an old Tsunami decoder. Nothing shiny, just a passable stand-in for the real things. Like all my locomotives when I was a kid.

No surprise, the locomotive stuttered and stalled every inch… making for another round of what could be a very tiresome evening. But I wasn’t in the mood to be defeated and the urge to run some trains won in the end. My trusty MDF board covered in 600 grit sandpaper would polish these dirty rails and probably restore some semblance of flawless electric conductivity. It was late and only the Donohue plant and Clermont yard were cleaned.

It was now time to set my newly weathered boxcars, departing quickly D’Estimauville and reaching Clermont rather quickly. No switchlist, only following my instinct, I decided to only pick up empty boxcars and switch the newsprint warehouse… Minimal work at best, but something that was a common occurrence on the prototype… 4 loaded cars where picked up at the factory, the off-spot boxcar was placed inside the factory and the new 5 empty boxcars were spotted, leaving two of them outside the warehouse, until a next working shift.

Back to Clermont, the locomotive spotted the loaded cars on the departure track then proceeded to Wieland where it was shut down and stored for the night on the wye north leg... It was now time to call it a day. I had my fill and felt much more positive than when I started.

It is in these moments I start questioning how we design our projects and their final size. We often frame the question from an outside perspective. We ask ourselves “how to make the best out of what we have in front of us”. A room is available, and we really want to make a statement, create a compelling vision, as if we were producing a piece of art or an engineering marvel to present the world. This approach can mean we will fill a basement with extravagance. In other times, we will fill it with restrain, going for subtly. The idea is generally to create something we fill coherent with our vision. Unfortunately, we often forget we are the sole spectators of our creative endeavour. This does matter.

Given a layout is a generally a self-serving project, it is interesting to see how we take too often in consideration design goals that aren’t really required (thought quite neat). Basically, a neat idea isn’t necessarily the best idea in a given situation. Hell is paved with good intentions, and I can assure you my professional practice proved me this old saying more than once.

As a matter of fact, in the case of Hedley-Junction, I would probably be more than pleased with Clermont. If I had to start again this project, I would probably keep only one room, ready to sacrifice almost half the layout. And while it’s not my intention to back track on what has been done and which I’m proud of, I must recognize some patterns in how we handle our hobby.

So far, it seems to me we rarely stage large operation sessions. Funnily enough, we often go solo when handling trains. One of our members has a urge to run some trains, grab a DCC power cab, then start switching Clermont while others work on the layout. Sessions last from 30 minutes to 1 hour most of the time, which is generally considered a decent time for one person. I have yet to wonder why I never thought about this cold hard fact when designing the layout…

Why it does matter? Because I’m trying to figure out what can be done with my future hobby room. I know operation will probably occur as small and short switching sessions. Staging must be quick, self-evident and cleaning fast and efficient. It also means if the layout is a continuous run, each segment doesn’t need to be a statement in itself. You probably recall when I compared layout design to a song structure last year. The sequence of generic but thematically strong scenes and small burst of intense interest not only provide focus from a storytelling point, but also make a rational use of time, resources and space.

I’ve yet to explore more this idea, but it is really starting to shape – once again – my perception of what makes a layout truly achievable.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Custom J.M. Huber Covered Hopper

J.M. Huber covered hoppers were a staple of CFC in the 1990s and 2000s. The iconic blue Huber logo has taken root in my memories and I wanted to model a better version than what I did a few years ago.

This time, instead of using a crude Athearn BB kit, I decided to purchase a few Atlas nicely detail cars that were on sale at some online shop. To make my life easier, I selected plane Jane cars. The reason is simple, using Solvaset it is possible to easily remove the unwanted lettering while keeping the paint job intact. In the case of J.M. Huber hoppers, a light coat of white paint was required which was made easier with the light gray factory paint.

Decals were custom made using pictures of cars that actually ran on CFC. Various other web resources provided more information. I can't vouch they are 100% accurate, but in all fairness, they are about 98% correct. Logos were redrawn from photos too.

As for weathering, I made it very, very light. My prototype pictures show these cars were extremely clean and well maintained. No graffiti, rust or dirt. Simply some road grime here and there and some very subtle rain patterns on the sides. I could have easily gone overboard and it wasn't my goal. I only wanted the weathering to give the impression these cars are made of steel.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

CP Stanbridge Subdivision - Railfanning & Layout Ideas

A recent surge in layout planning due the hobby room being almost completed lead me to resurrect my old layout concept about a derelict CP branchline in Southern Quebec during the 1980s.

This time, Stanbridge subdivision running for about twelve miles south from Farnham to Bedford and Stanbridge Station caught my attention. For once, without distorting reality, I was able to find a prototype branchline that handled all the freight I wanted, provided the possibility to fully replicate the railway operation and having mundane yet interesting "railroady" details.

Since last weekend was long due to Canada Day, I proposed to Louis-Marie to make an impromptu railfanning trip to Farnham area. He jokingly suggested to bring my passport in case we would want to railfan further in the United States... Little did I know I would venture into Marty McGuirk's territory and railfan some parts of Richford! Now I know why he choosed such a fabulous area!

The funniest part was telling the border agent at Morse Line that we were going to Richford for tourism... The best part being when he replied it was the first he ever encountered someone going to Richford for such a reason!

Here's the full rendition of this railfanning trip (part 1) and the possible implications for a future layout.

To be noted, I'm on the hunt for information and photos of Stanbridge Subdivision. It can be trains, locomotives, structures, depots, industries, etc... I highly suspect RS3 and RS18 were used as motive power.

So far, I've been able to locate a few pictures at BAnQ, but not enough to go forward!

Monday, July 1, 2019

Weathering a 50ft Boxcar Fleet

Today I completed my week-long weathering marathon. The goal was to have all my remaining older 50ft boxcars ready for layout use. The fleet mainly consist of various ribbed boxcars used in newsprint service.

I could have pushed the weathering process a little bit further, but my goal wasn't prize-winning models, but rather to blend together cars that come from various manufacturers. Also, video and picture evidences of CFC show most boxcars in newsprint service weren't rust buckets and generally in good shape. That makes sense since newsprint is generally considered a top commodity in railroading and must be handled with care in good condition rolling stock.

Given my late 1990s and early 2000s operation era, some could argue I should have included some graffiti. At that time, they started to be more common on freight cars, however, I recall not seeing a lot of them back then when railfanning CFC. It would took a few years before it became predominant. I don't feel it would be a wise move to add graffiti and lock my fleet in a very specific time frame.

And now the models. Weathering is a classic mix of fades, washes, oils, acrylics and weathering powders. My procedure is extremely standard and not worth explaining here since I've documented it more than once. The only specific trick I used was selectively spraying some flat areas with a different tone of brown to modulate the main color as it happens so often in real life.

One point I may improve in the future are the roofs. Maybe I was a little to shy to weather them too much. I can foresee some touch up in the future.

  • Old Athearn Blue Blox 50ft boxcar (custom paint)

  • Old MDC/Roundhouse FMC 50ft boxcar (custom paint)

  • Retooled Athearn FMC 50ft boxcar 

  • Athearn FMC Combo Door 50ft boxcar 

  •  Athearn 50ft boxcar 

  • Walthers Proto2000 NSC Newsprint 50ft boxcar 

  • Atlas Precision Design 50ft boxcar 

  • Fox Valley ex-Soo Line 50ft Boxcar 

  •  Atlas Precision Design 50ft Boxcar (custom paint)

  •  Atlas NSC Newsprint 50ft Boxcar

  • Walthers Proto2000 NSC Newsprint 50ft boxcar 

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Why Rapido Undecorated SW1200RS Are Crap


I generally stay away from controversial topics in my hobbies simply because they are meant to bring joy and happiness. They are safety valves from real life stress. However, some aspect of this hobby can be both frustrating and excruciating... Dealing with our own shortcomings is something... dealing with others shortcomings, when they boast all day long and you pay for it it something else entirely.

I take no joy in trash talking about a manufacturer, particularly when I'm generally satisfied by their RTR products, but at some point, truth must be told both as a cautionary tale but also for the manufacturer itself to improve its game in town.

The story:

Two years ago, I was dumb enough to pre-order 3 undecorated Rapido SW1200RS. My hobby dealer told me it would be a pain in the proverbial ass to assemble them and that if I wanted to back up from the project, he couldn't sell them to other modellers because most people hate doing actual modelling and prefer to stack dozens of expensive RTR models on a plywood sheet. Well... I should have taken his advice... he was so right! Lesson learned I guess!

Why was it a bad move? For a large array of seemingly trivial irritants that built up to a big pile of you know what... Back in the day, buying an undecorated version was a smart move. You saved some money, didn't have to waste time stripping paints and breaking details by accident. In short, you started on a clean slate...

Now enters Rapido's definition for "undecorated" kits... which means paying the SAME price as a decorated and fully assembled and tested unit, being left with no basic instruction except a low quality cryptic part diagram from the 1990s, a semi-decipherable part list where nothing has a meaningful part name and bags full of intricate details of which many are already missing direct from the factory or simply badly cast. When I say bad, I meant bad. Imagine having to deal with delrin parts devoid of pegs!

I simply don't care Rapido send me replacement parts without asking question... particularly when they sent me the wrong parts or not enough to cover my needs. Worst, I'm still finding defective or missing parts up to this day. And no, while I can replicate a few of them myself, including missing metal handrail, I'm not in the mood of doing Rapido's job when I actually paid them to do it.

I'm tired of trying to figure out how to assemble these models using poor reference pictures online... I'm tired of stumbling on insignificant road blocks at each time I complete a step.

Worst, I'm still trying to figure out with the undecorated version that requires LESS human resources to assemble are sold the same price as a fully RTR unit. Particularly when it is evident the dude in China didn't care about making sure all parts were in the box during the quality check procedure.

This is not serious at all and I must stress it is quite sad because the model is well engineered and beautiful...

So, in the end, I paid a lot for crap. With taxes, this is about a $1000 going down the drain because a manufacturer is too lazy to do minimal quality check at the factory...

I should just have bought a RTR unit, removed the lettering and repainted it... It would have taken a few days at worst, maybe a weekend at best.

By the way, I had the same experience with Rapido's undecorated meat reefers last year... Once again, a beautiful model and the worst experience trying to put it together. And I've heard an extremely talented modeller tell me he would have prefered to scratchbuild the car rather than assemble another Rapido undecorated kit.

I sincerely feel Rapido should simply pull out the plug and stop producing undecorated kits. Visibly, this isn't their cup of tea and they don't have enough volume to put care in quality check for these. Better focus on what they do right and let this foolish dream die.


Now, where am I left with these half-built models? In the middle of nowhere. Many broken parts can't be easily replicated. God only knows if Rapido can send me more missing parts given the models have been out for a while and it already took several months to get a few of them.

I've lost about any remaining interest I had working on these models except for slamming them on the wall.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Clermont - Blending Together The Scenery

I'll be short this week because almost everything was said about techniques I use. Photos better render the sense of progress in Clermont.

A good coat of brown latex paint and mud were used to blend together scenic elements.While mud is used to smooth landforms, it is also used to create more realistic embankment, including details of collapsing banks.

The culvert is also in place, completing the peninsula scene nicely. Next step consist in ballasting Wieland and starting to add ground cover and modelling the small creek. It isn't far fetched to imagine this will take all summer.

Powdered Glue: Assessment

I'd like to give a significant advice when using powdered resin glue to set ballast in place. First, while it works, you must ensure the glue is perfectly mixed within your ballast. To be honest, this is very hard to achieve due to difference in granulometry. My ballast grains are about 1mm which means the glue has a tendency to gather in some part of the mix, mainly the bottom of the crate. Even if I constantly stirred my container, it seems I couldn't succeed as best as I wished. It means some areas dried darker as if the ballast was still wet. Overall, I also think the ballast is darker than if I used straight white glue.

I've yet to find a solution to make my ballast a lighter shade. My guess is simply to use the powdered stone residue left from sifting the ballast and brush some over the roadbed. A similar experiment coudl be done using chalk powder or other fine material.

However, even if the result isn't yet what I hoped for, I noticed the powdered glue gives a wet look to ballast. It means that someone wishing to model a wetter scene would get a very nice effect using this technique.

This brings back to my mind an advice from Lance Mindheim who experimented with this type of glue a few years ago. The finer the ballast, the better the mix will work. Meaning that it would work better with very fine ballast and dust for roads and parking lots.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Clermont - Ballasting the Yard

Some steps really feel like real achievement. Ballasting tracks is one of those and making what is basically an assemblage of material into a real railway.

Long time ago, I used to hate ballasting. The process felt tedious at best, using my fingers to spread the material around the ties. The day I started using a large 1 1/2 inch paintbrush, it made my life much more easier!

Cleaning tracks while ballast is still wet

Since I covered this subject a lot, I won't dwell on my technique. Basically, my ballast is a mix of locally sourced stones that match the prototype. I then mix some powdered DAP Weldwood glue into the mix. Put the ballast in place then spray everything with a mix of water, alcohol and white glue.W Works well for me and it's quite quick. Interestingly, this time I used a professional spray bottle instead of a cheap Windex bottle. Let's just say it made a terrific difference. I certainly would advise any modeller to purchase such a bottle instead of wasting their time with unsuitable material and getting frustrated beyond belief.

Difference in level tells a story about the railway

While some set their ballast in a mechanical way, Jérôme and I worked from Clermont yard photos to identify things that gave character to the place. We observed many small details we tried to replicate. 

First, it was clear the yard was ballasted using only one type of rock. It is quite uniform in size and color. However, the way the ballast job was done vary greatly from one track to another.

A uniform look, until weeds and grass application

For example, the short storage track is slowing sinking into the ground and the ties are buried under ballast near the wheel stops.

Partially buried end of steel

The siding along the hill is completely buried under ballast. Pictures ranging from 1998 to 2018 show it has always been the case. Thus, we buried out tracks too. With a small brush, we made sure ballast didn't hide the spikes head though.

The mainline is well maintained with ballast quite clear of weeds and flush with the ties. This track is also slightly higher on the ground than other track due to better maintenance and road bed construction.

Tie colors differenciate main line and sidings

Finally, the outer siding is quite low and poorly ballasted. On the outside, ballast covered is thin and you can see the ties ends.

Finally, I'm quite satisfied how the tie color looks good with ballast. I used very light colors, which is quite rare in model railroading. However, doing so really makes the ties look like real weathered wood. Also, the darker shades on the mainline replicate well creosote seeping out of ties.

Now, I only need to ballast Wieland and the layout will be back in operation after almost 10 months of intense rebuilding. Scenery will be a walk in the park compared to that!

Monday, June 3, 2019

Clermont - Painting tracks - Part 2

Painting track in Clermont is a long process, but a rewarding one. Last week, we started applying the oil paint wash over the primed ties. While I expected to complete the task in a single application, it took much more time than thought.

In term of pigmentation, I tried to alter my initial recipe to better fit what can be observed on the prototype. My initial experiment in Villeneuve was quite brownish, which was OK, but not for Clermont. While it's true creosote gives a deep brownish tint to ties, in the case of Clermont yard, most ties were old enough to appear a light gray in colors. For this reason, I tried to create a greyish hue similar to the one I used when creating old weathered wood on my kitbashed Revell plastic barn and telegraph poles.

I think the results speak for themselves and show how giving attention to such details is a good way to both enhance realism and tell a story. It would be foolish to treat every tracks on a layout as a single block. In the case of Clermont, I want to streamline the yard by emphasizing the mainline while making the sidings "disappear" into scenery as was the case on the prototype. This difference helps to create a hierarchy of use, making it easier for operators to tell tracks appart.

If you've been following how were rebuilt Clermont, you will understand this differenciation is achieved by taking into account multiple parameters. All tracks have a different elevation and roadbed profile, tie spacing, tie color, quality in ballast and vegetation grow. While this is done to strive for realism, I must admit my ulterior motive is to make the main line the focus. This is an optical trick so the layout looks longer than it really is, particularly given the weird configuration of this yard in the middle of a peninsula.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Clermont - Painting tracks

Painting track is far to be on top of my list, mainly due to the 3-step process I use. However, all the time invested in this step do pay off later on and it can be fixed later. Thus, it was time to move forward and paint all the shiny tracks in Clermont.

First, tracks are primed in white. To make sure primer will stick during the next step, it is let to dry and cure for about a week.

Then, ties are completely masked with 1/4" tape, leaving only the rails and tie plates visible. When done, a coat of Krylon camouflage brown is sprayed over and the tape removed.

Mask and ventilation required!

Unfortunately for us, it seems our tape was a little bit old and not that much sticky. In some areas, the tape lift and overspray happened. Also, some white primer on ties did lift up.

With a small brush and white paint, I touched up every annoying brown spots until I was satisfied.

Jérôme cleaning up the track... A crucial step!

Jérôme, using MDF blocks and very fine grit sand paper cleaned and polished the rail heads. To make sure we didn't miss any spot, we took our most capricious locomotive - a Rapido 6-axle GMD-1 - and ran it over very piece of track at step 1. Quite slow is you ask me, but only a crawling engine can track every issue with trackwork.

Now, all this paint will be left to dry another week before we apply several oil paint washes to create a convincing weathered wood effect. This step is really worth all the efforts!

Meanwhile, Louis-Marie have been working hard on the topography. He did a terrific job and with minimal sanding, we now have realistic rolling hills and a nice set of streets. Still a lot of work ahead, but the most complicated areas are now done and ready for scenery.

Speaking of scenery, we started to fill all the gaps in scenery with mud (Celluclay + water + flat latex paint). Can't wait to ballast and add vegetation. I'm growing tired of seing plywood and foam. It's time to bring back some life to the layout!