Thursday, March 17, 2016

Poor Man's MLW M420 Kitbash - Part 7

Here's some update about this project, which isn't lingering as much as people may think, but only progressing slowly due to lack of available time.

I'm still wondering if I'll pre-assemble the shell all together before final installation, but it doesn't mean I can't paint and decal the unit.

So far, to make the stripping effortlessly, I decided to cut individually each decal stripes to get rid of the useless transparent film. It means less chances to get silvering and air bubbles, thus a better end results.

To be noted, the roadnumber wasn't picked randomly, but was carefully choosen to represent a real M420 that was assigned to Murray Bay Subdivision for a while. This particular unit was quite damaged when it was wrecked against a rockslide and plunged into St. Lawrence river back in 1993.

As much as I could, I adapted the paint job to be closest as possible to this unit, including the silver headlight.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Bulkhead Flatcar Lumber Wraps Library

Chris van der Heide embarked on a great endeavour: providing means of reproducing prototypically exact lumber loads for bulkhead flatcars. Since the start, I've been impressed by the very interesting way he model the load. Sure it is time consuming, but the result is amazing and it doesn't need outlandish skills to achieve.

Wrapped lumber bundles are a typical sight on many railroads across Canada and United States for at least the last three decades. In this respect, Chris have made printable files of many lumber companies spanning the mid-80s to nowadays and covering many companies small and large. He even give well-written instructions to make your own loads.

Recently, Chris kindly pointed out he found out a new picture on Railroad Picture Archives website displaying a load of Donohue's lumbers. Must I say I was delighted at the idea it was now possible to make truly realistic loads for the layout. But the best surprise was to find out Chris made a PDF file to build it.

My schedule is quite busy recently, but this is now a top project on my list. If I can build it by the end of the year, I'll be more than happy.

Once again, a big thanks to Chris for sharing these treasures with us. He is indeed helping a lot modern era modellers.

Clermont: A Panorama

I stitched together a few pictures to see how the scene in Clermont evolved as a whole compared to the original appearance back in April 2014 when I was clueless about what to do with the peninsula.

The original peninsula had a tunnel hiding an annoying reversing loop and very sharp curves. The entire scene was a collection of vignettes, often contradicting themselves.

The new scene now have broader curves when possible and has a much more coherent topography that flows naturally together..

Monday, March 7, 2016

Rural Electrification


When I’m looking at various layouts – even great ones – I always look for details that make a real difference in term of realism and telling a story. Most people will think about adding a lot of details to bring life, but most of the time, it is in the “cute” category: trash bins, park benches, oversized traffic signs, cute fences, people bathing in a nearby creek, etc. While these details aren’t bad in themselves, they rely heavily on anecdote and hardly tell us how this world works.

Many people have mentioned over the time how road vehicles could be the most damaging liability for a layout. You can fool most people with the wrong trains, but you won’t a lot of them using cars from another era. Nobody will believe a scene from the 1990s looks right with 1950s cars in it. Why? Because vehicles are obvious part of a specific era (size, color, design, etc.). And when adding vehicles, you can’t start to cherry pick which model you like the most. In this department, Hedley-Junction is lacking! Most of our cars should be boxy designs from the mid-70s and to mid-80s. You would mainly find large American sedan and a few Japanese economic and compact cars. Most of them should be painting in black colors like tan, metallic gray, light blue, white and black.  I recall an era when cars were everything except garish. Sure, you’ll find one or two muscle cars, but not that much. It was the post-oil shock era after all.

Well, talking about vehicle brings me to another subject we started to tackle on the layout and it is telegraph and power poles. Many people overlook these details. They are everywhere, but almost insignificant and our brain seems to erase theme while treating our eyes input! But you really understand how important they are when you start adding them to a scene.

When we started to install telegraph poles on our layout, we set a rule. They will follow the prototype practice in term of design and location. On Murray Bay Subdivision’s western part, telegraph poles were only used to carry two wires for grade crossing protection. It means poles were only found on each side of a given grade crossing and linking relay boxes from the detection system. On the layout, because of selective compression, it was decided 6 telegraph poles would be found on each side of a grade crossing on a distance of about 5 feet. This is the area corresponding roughly to the whistling post. You can quickly see where I’m going with this. It means each time your locomotive reach the first telegraph pole, you know you need to whistle… and start the grade crossing flashing signals.

To make these telegraph poles, I went the easy way and kitbashed trusty Atlas telegraph pole. I remove the two upper crossarms and kept the lower one. Only two insulators were kept. To make the pole more realistic, I added texture by sliding metal saw teeth on it. This method is highly effective to add realistic wood texture to plastic. Also, I slightly bent a few poles just like on the prototype. I hardly remember straight poles as a kid, they were all on the verge of obvious disrepair.

On the other hand, on the eastern part of Murray Bay Subdivision, the telegraph line seems to have been almost continuous. This is probably due to the obvious isolation of this inaccessible area. This is why, starting from Dominion Textile up to Clermont, our telegraph line is continuous. Also, a few different pole designs existed there to conform to the ingrate topography. We did reproduce that particularity.

The next step was to add power lines. This is the detail I feel most layouts needs. My approach to Hedley-Junction evolved and I now think about scenic elements in such a way if they don’t support the scene, I barely see why I should add them. I won’t put it if I only find it cute or interesting. It needs to have a specific purpose. It is true for grade crossing signals, telegraph poles, street and railway signs, etc.

Last Saturday, after making the last missing telegraph pole, I started to see if I could reuse the remaining Atlas crossarms I previously dissected. The answer was to bash them into electric power poles.

My idea was to make a realistic tree-phase poles following typical North American practice. The first scene to be electrified would be Clermont which obviously lacks scenic details. Each pole was made from bamboo skewers. Each skewer was tapered to be more realistic. To do this, I install the skewer on a Dremel tool (just like a lathe), I removed the excess material with a sanding block. Very easy and it only takes a few second. Also, it removes the unrealistic bamboo texture from the pole.

After this, I bashed the crossarms so each of them would be 8 feet long and I only kept two insulators. They were glued on the skewers and small flat metal wire was used to make the metal crossarm braces (in fact, we used LED legs that were cut in the grade crossing project).

A special pole was made where the power line branch off to connect the propane dealer. This line runs along the dirt road and ends at the dealer. The last pole of the line also reflects a typical arrangement with three transformators, meaning the propane dealer use 3-phase current, which is indeed correct.

Finally, a pole near the farm house got a single transformator to feed it. These details are extremely simple, but they tell a lot. I don’t plan to add wire, but when you see a pole with a transformator,  your brain implies there is a connection nearby.

Planting the poles was a matter of a few minutes. At first, I installed them at each 12 inches increment, but I found the selective compression didn’t work well. Just like cars, our eyes really pick up such visual discrepancies, thus I installed them at 16 inches increment and it definitely looked more realistic. A few structures were added to the propane dealer to complete the scene and see if everything works well together. The short answer is yes.

Overall, the new painted road, the new river bank topography and power lines really give character to this simple semi-rural scene. Except ground cover, vegetation and a few signs, I think there is no need to add more. An unexpected result of the power lines is that they structure the scene and frame it. It tricks your eyes because, just like in real life, they follow the pole lines instead of focussing on the background. This is excellent to make you forget the backdrop is just a plain paper sheet.

In the end, I consider power lines shouldn’t be considered a fancy detail but one of the most important one for most layout. They frame scenes, they set the era and support the story you are telling. Given they can be bashed from readily available material, cost almost nothing and can be built by any average modeller, there is no reason to snob these little guys. But be careful to follow the prototype practices (spacing and dimensions), because you won’t trick nobody.

For reference, you can use Google StreetView as a good source for inspiration. Most of the time, consider poles should stand about 30 feet over the ground. Crossarm are generally 8 feet long and when multiple crossarms are required, they are often 4 feet apart. For any special pole, follow prototype pictures. Using the 8 feet-long crossarm as reference, you’ll be able to figure out most other dimensions easily.

By the way, we installed the last fascia board and the result is excellent. It’s a shame I didn’t take a picture of it! Also, I found out even if scenery isn’t done yet, painting roads with a neutral grey color is an excellent way to bring life to a scene. Not only is it cheap, quick and easy to do, but it is a terrific way to validate your design. If the road location is wrong, paint it over and start again. The more the layout progress, the more I’m convinced using temporary scenic elements is a good way to figure out complex composition issues, but also to get the impression the layout is truly progressing. Nobody ever said plywood and foam was supposed to stay unpainted!

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Underestimating the Foreground

I’m well-known in my architectural practice and layout design to advocate a “less is more” approach. While this could lead people to think I believe in doing minimalistic things, it doesn’t mean I’m supporting mediocrity for the sake of it or that I’m against any form of figurative art. On the contrary! But I’m always keep in mind to keep a balance in what I do following in that a mindset that goes, at least, back to Antiquity when such principles as “soliditas, commoditas et venustas” (solidity/strength, functionality and beauty) were seen as the attribute of a well-designed architectural endeavour. I truly believe it does apply to model railroading because, like architecture, it is an art medium which have a practical purpose, must stand the effect of time and abuse, and still be elegant

When I first design the benchwork, I tried to be pragmatic and didn’t see any purpose in making the foreground larger than required to keep rolling stock and locomotives from falling and meeting their demise on the floor.

This was in part because many layout textbooks ingrained me with this “only model the right-of-way” approach and because I had very little experience in scene composition (which I’m learning as I build this layout). That approach isn’t bad in itself, but fail when you try to apply it to a larger layout in which scenery is part of the story you try to tell.

I can see it plainly with our layout. In D’Estimauville, Villeneuve and Donohue (industrial and switching areas), foreground doesn’t play a great role in defining the place and is somewhat a nuisance if too deep.

On the other hand, when you move to Charlevoix (mainly the peninsula), foreground helps to trick your eyes the track is following a large river and cliffs. As the layout was design, you had the impression the track was just following the fascia contour rather than the topography. It made the trains overwhelm the scene instead of being dwarfed by it. Anyway, all this is now a thing of the past since we enlarged the peninsula scenes by 6 inches while installing the  1/8" thick MDF fascia.

The existing fascia in Donohue and Rivière Malbaie area was moved and the scenes were extended accordingly. It means the river and parking lot are much more wide they used to be, which looks far better.

Among the big improvement are the area near Clermont grade crossing. The road used to run along a sharp cliff in the most unrealistic way. The same argument could also be used to describe the stretch of roadbed linking the yard with the railroad bridge. Addnd more depth to the benchwork there provided more room to make the road flow more naturally. I originally built the scene from memory, but when looking at actual pictures of the area, I quickly found out there was more land between the river and the track than I expected. Well, the brain is good at capturing the unusual features and making them memorable, but that cherrypicking isn't always a good thing we recreating a scene. At least, the area is now less dangerous if a derailment happen.

More depth means more realistic photos.

Finally, the last part of the layout that benefited from the benchwork improvement is the peninsula itself. I think pictures speak of themselves on how the scene now flows more realistically. This is in part because the shore is wider, but also because the fascia is no longer a set of angled MDF planks. The original geometric benchwork made pictures hard to frame. Worst, since the shore width varied from place to place because of the angled nature of the original fascia, the scene looked to be broken in many small vignette instead of a single large one.

In the end, I believe adding substantial width to the foreground will pay a lot when doing scenery and was well worth the effort. So far, even without scenic material in place and benchwork full of holes, the improvement is already discernable. I can't wait to complete the fascia next session.