Thursday, October 31, 2019

CFQ Shops in Wieland

While musing about a personal layout at home, I'm actually doing some real modelling work for Hedley Junction! So far, I'm avidly scratchbuilding two "iconic" structures in Wieland, namely the small barn near Desbiens Street and the CFQ shops.

CFC shops are a converted non-descript ex-paper warehouse

CFQ shops will help to hide the unsightly corner on the layout due to the electrical panel being located there. While we often said we wouldn't add a building there to keep the scene uncluttered, it quickly became apparent it wasn't visually appealing. Something was lacking to balance the scene and give the loco track a purpose.

After some careful measurement, we found out we could model the entire CFQ shops without resorting to unsightly compression. The old 28' x 120' steel warehouse would fit the corner perfectly, albeit we straighten a little bit the piece of track there.

Giving a purpose to a corner

Using scraps of styrene, I was able to put together a decent rendition of the structure in about 3 evenings. Nothing, exceptional, but this mundane structure does give the vibe of representing a busy industrial park. Some detailing such as electric pipes, lamps and vents will be added later, but the main structure is there.

The barn is also almost completely built except for doors and windows. But that's a story for another day!

Friday, October 25, 2019

How Much Layout Do You Need?

As introduced in my previous blog, I’m actually in the process of developing a final vision – or should I say framework – for my Connors layout. I’ve found over the years doing justice about a prototype wasn’t always replicating perfectly a prototype. Some artistic license must be used and this license isn’t about doing going loose and veering toward indulgence, but rather trying to understand what matters and how to push it forward in a coherent fashion.
Framing a subject is a complex and subjective task. No wonder I’ve been pondering a central question this year more than once; how much layout do you really need? I feel this question is absolutely central to our understanding of our hobby as I suspect, for many of us, the railway empire is both an improbable pursue but also one that would thin down our vision of this hobby. It would also be a preposterous assumption to believe everyone shares this goal as if it was a mandatory objective per se. That’s the funny thing about North American values in general, this idea that sky is the limit can be both an enabling force both also a crushing goal to try to reach.

This isn’t an easy question and I’ve never found a compelling answer over the last three decades I’ve been dabbling with this hobby. The only thing I know for sure is it’s better to have some kind of layout rather than none. The physical existence of a layout is a key element to make sure you are actually doing something and not only thinking about doing something. Take away the material manifestation of this hobby and you fell a sad feeling of underachievement. It may not be perfect, but at least it is a canvas to paint on a picture and that very picture is probably not the last one you’ll paint. Indeed, it may lack accuracy but it is a continuous learning experiment.

With that said, I gave a lot of thoughts about my longstanding personal home layout in recent days, revisiting yet again several basic concepts. This prompted me to make a serious distinction between what I can build and want I want to build. More than just a question of semantics, this raises several important issues and my personal way to interact with my hobby.

What would be best? A larger layout set in a dedicated room in the basement, or something smaller and more personal in my office room? What kind of interaction I want with my models beyond simply running them? In fact, the layout appears to be only a cog in a much more complex mechanism.

Until recently, I felt a layout in my office would feel contrived and also out of place. Being a railway modellers since my youth, I know this hobby comes with a despicable reputation and social stigma. I know more than one guy taking great care to hide their involvement with trains and certainly can understand.  Recent conversations about layouts with people of the common taught me the stigma wasn’t that bad nowadays. Trainsets are no longer a staple of childhood and many, due to 3D modelling and video games, are now more open to this craft. It was evident that more people admire the sophistication involved than I initially thought. If they have a good grasp of workmanship, technologies or simply creative arts, they generally recognize immediately the merit of the hobby. It’s not a matter of hiding it, but rather showcasing it in a proper way that makes people fully appreciate this piece of art and technology.

It also made me recognize my own interaction with this hobby. How I often wished the layout would be at hands, ready to be put into action. Small enough to care about details and scene composition while staying achievable. Able to take apart a part of the layout, work on it under optimal conditions then set it back in place.

Also, the layout shouldn’t be far from the workbench and reference material (both books and online). Building and operating are activities going hand in hand. Given these criterions, I feel it is better to build small but in the right place where the layout can be displayed, built and operated eagerly in a comfortable environment rather than waste time hiding it in a subpar and distant room. I have no doubt this could be done with taste and look great both as a game board and an artistic diorama.

Certainly, such advantages come with restrictions. The best spot in the room is on top a set of Ikea Kallax shelves. These have been hacked several years ago and create a nice 102” long 15” wide continuous countertop. While I could use more space, it would look good in the room and the idea of a nice diorama sitting on shelves would be lost. Such space is more than adequate for a small switching layout given a 45” small and unobtrusive cassette can be attach without ruining the room.

Indeed, this kind of setup would be neat for Connors, but obviously, I can’t cram everything there. I must cut some corners and if I do so, better think about what matters. According to various written sources, I was able to trace down a typical timetable for the early 20th century operations. It was both extremely simplistic and yet eye opening. It really put things in perspective in my mind.

Back then, the daily mixed train left Edmunston at noon and reached Connors in the afternoon. The locomotive was then stored in the engine house and serviced. On the next morning, the train came back to Edmunston, reaching the station before noon. Quite simple isn’t it? Certainly, I have no details about it, but given the tight schedule, it seems the small yard and sidings could only be switched in late afternoon since the morning train left Connors quite early and starting a steam locomotive needs lengthy preparations. This simple fact helps to understand what matters if I ever operate a small Temiscouata layout. What does matter in a typical day at Connors? What can fit the bill for a regular 20 to 45 minutes operation session? What fits my interest? What doesn’t? Lots of question I can now start to answer.

If you ask me, I like the look of a locomotive entering a station and performing some work there. Shoving cars here, exchanging others there, rebuilding the train, etc. On the other hand, I have very little interest in servicing locomotives. Also, I’m not that much into building intricate craftsman engine house full of details and far too cute for my own taste. Given that, do I need to model entirely Connors? The answer is no. Connors has irrelevant sections that I don’t care about, add very little to my story and take up space and resources I don’t want to allow them. Maybe some readers will recall Lance Mindheim’s advice to crop a scene and not compress it. Well, I believe he is indeed touching an important point when building a layout. Connors is long but only a part of it frames a well composed scene and makes a compelling stage for trains.

Speaking of scene and staging, modelling must support my story and, according to my own biases, the arriving train in the afternoon is probably the most interesting aspect of this script. The morning train is a dull formality involving no switching and simply backing the train in front of the station after leaving the roundhouse. Given most locomotives were often refuelled before being stored for the night; the morning preparation would lack relief.

Knowing  that, only the trackage pertaining to this afternoon train matters. The rest is inconsequential. Anyway, I have very little good data about the engine house except bad front view photographs taken from a distance and an 1894 panorama leaving many crucial details blurred or in the dark. Remember, since day 1, the Connors station caught my interest and not the engine facilities.

From a practical standpoint, it means only the yard, station, fueling facilities and turntable matter in my story. It easily removes about 4-5 feet of irrelevant layout, providing a more relaxed and better framed scene. In fact, just like Mike Cougill and I discussed, maybe some end parts of a layout are better when they gradually fade away into darkness, leaving the mind to imagine what lies beyond this fuzzy boundary. In a few words, shadows can be used for modelling purpose, the same way they are in theater, museum exhibits, movies and dioramas.

Funnily enough, I recently discovered the old scale model of this layout I made many years ago when exploring this concept for the first time. You won’t be surprised the engine house wasn’t there, only the core project. Once again, my late grandmother would probably tell me “the first idea is always the best”. But I should add, it becomes the best only because other options have been evaluated before going back to the first impression.

Having reduced my scope and knowing I’m only interested in modelling the afternoon train and occasional freight extra, I can now take a hard look at reality. How much layout do I really need? A few technical elements set the track plan: siding capacity must be large enough to run around the train, the cassette must provide enough space for shoving to 50ft coaches. Finally, the leading track in front of the station must provide room to switch about 3 empty and 3 loaded freight cars at the team track. Fortunately, without compression, this can be done in exactly the space available.

Interestingly enough, without effort, most actions on this layout take place in front of the passenger depot, making for a compelling scene. Depending on train composition, a session can be straightforward or slightly more complex. In fact, some days, a coach and a combine will be required to handle sportsman and hunters while on other day, only a coach will do a fine job. Extra freight trains are also an option. Regular mixed freight train can pull from 1 to 4 freight cars, making for a lot of variety. Short 32’ and 36’ cars also help to keep some degree of variety. It is also possible to stage excursion trains from time to time since Connors used to be somewhat of a lesser tourist destination due to the presence of a deluxe hotel near the station.

Finally, the interesting thing about cropping this particular scene according to my available space and intended story is that I don’t have to make compromises on track work. When I asked myself if I could compress Connors, I instinctively veered toward using unrealistic #6 turnouts. Then, doing some maths, it was quite evident the intended #10 turnouts did have their place even if they took about 15” each. On a small layout such as this one, looking closely at operation is the biggest show you’ll see. A cute turn-of-the-century steamer crawling over the rail is a nice show and ruining it with toyish track parameters would defeat this purpose. Take my words for granted on this, my small Bachmann 4-6-0 looks absolutely great on a #10 turnout… Even from a technical standpoint, small steamers do perform better on large radius turnouts. There light and short tenders no longer randomly derail, which can be a real let down when operating with old time locomotives.  Don’t ask me with I know, but I can assure you the idea small rolling stock means small radius is the most laughable principle. Sure it can be done, sure it will look camp and whimsical. Some love that quaint old time look that never existed, but I’m not one. In the same regard, René Gourley was kind enough to remind me of his excellent efforts with prototypical turn-of-the-century modelling based on pre-WW1 Canadian Atlantic Railway. He also has to deal with these pesky issues and takes extensive care to ensure the end results is both artistically attractive and technically sound. Yes, there's is no reasons to take shortcuts when dealing with old time subjects. We wouldn't tolerate it with modern subjects, why settle for less when dealing with the past?

Finally, another neat aspect of the layout is it can be stored easily as modules. I know that at some point, I'll have interests in other eras and locales. I could easily imagine this pre-WW1 layout being used half the year and another one, sharing the same physical parameters taking its place later. Once again, Mike Cougill's concept of dissociating the substructure from the layout seems to be a sensible approach. In my case, the Kallax shelves acting as a structure to support various dioramas/modules following the evolution of my tastes without having do deal with wall anchors and such. Once again, it seems my intuition kind of overlapped with his own, though I'm glad his post made me see the benefit of something that was only a blurry concept in my mind. As they say, nothing new under the sun!

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Framing a Subject...

A great aspect of this hobby is about sharing. And by sharing, I don’t mean that meaningless unboxing carnival that has plagued modelling forums for the last few years, where everyone to ride the proverbial bandwagon in search of cheap attention. I’m talking about sharing musings about the hobby, its goals and philosophy. I recall Trevor Marshall often advocating hobbyists to enter the conversation by means of blogs and other such platform. While a good advice, I only started to appreciate this invitation to the public debate in later years. Writing a blog is a strange thing because you barely know who will be interested in your quests. So far, I’ve been blessed by many people that helped me shape my vision, providing both encouragement but also constructive criticism.

Developing a vision isn't a straightforward process...

Many years ago, I promised I would build a small layout depicting Connors, NB; a lovely Temiscouata Railway end-of-line station set in the St. John River valley on Maine’s border. However, I had a single condition to meet before starting this project: I need a clear artistic vision because I wanted it to be an impressionist piece, a layout with a soothing atmosphere, just like a well-executed painting.

A big part of this condition was conditioned by the way I would frame the scene. Until now, I had serious doubts how to do it, but thanks to Mike Cougill’s recent blog posts (one, two and three) about setting a layout in a room, I feel more confident in my work. That’s the nice thing with Mike, he has done enough in this hobby to be able to question the obvious. By doing so, not only he enable conversations, but also brings with it a level of sophistication we rarely see. Many modellers in the past influenced me and I’ve wrote about them a few time. They mainly confirmed my intuitions in providing coherent visions that shared many of my own observations. However, Mike’s influence doesn’t work like this. He is the kind of nagging little voice in your head asking “are you sure?” He isn’t aware of it, but his little voice guided me through the rebuilding of Clermont since last year. I no longer approach design as a set of steps to follow in order, but I now take a lot of time contemplating my work and looking how to make it better. It could have stalled me in a sort of paralysis; however, it provided in fact a reason to do better each time.

His recent posts triggered me to rethink about Connors as I am looking for a small and manageable home project. Many questions arose: how much layout, what to crop from the scene, how to frame the subject, how to work on it in a practical way, etc.

Interestingly enough, I’m coming close to a vision for this project. Like a professional photographer, I framed the subject from all possible angles, than worked on focus and lighting. I now feel I’m ready to shot the final picture. I suspect this picture will be blurry, kind of impressionist, with not so well defined borders. Light will be uneven, drastically enhancing some details and leaving others in the dark. Colors and textures will play an important role too and trains will be set in such a way they are the main actor on the stage. As you will discover in a future post, the framing goes beyond the scenic nature of this small layout and will also imply framing the action itself. I’m not sure many people attempted this artistic vision with pre-WW1 railways in Canada, but I sure feel it is a worthy pursue…

Friday, October 18, 2019

Rue Desbiens - In Place

The beauty with cardboard (or styrene) roads is they can be set in place in a matter of a few minutes and require almost virtually no excess work.

Now with this key grade crossing in place, we can start to better understand the dynamic of this specific scene. Roads are natural spots where the human world interacts with trains so they must be used with care so they can balance how we frame our subject.

With Desbiens Street, we discovered that an interesting spot right over the hills dividing the peninsula. It's always satisfying to discover multiple angles from a single scene, making the layout appears closer to a real world than a slice of roadbed.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Rue Desbiens

Making streets can be tiresome, but as some people have advocated for years (Mindheim, Gravett), it is often easier to model them at the benchwork using readily available material.

Once again, I'm not reinventing anything, only using a method that brought good results to me over the time. Also, I like when the layout has a visual coherence and for that, using the same materials and color palette helps a lot.

I've often thought roads on North American layouts look too good to be credible. When it's time to paint yellow and white lines, most will use full strength paint, which is far to yield a realistic appearance.

In my case, masking tape is used to frame the future lines. Then paint is kind of drybrushed to get a faded look. You don't want paint buildup along the tape. For yellow, I generally lighten the color with some white. After winter, lines are in bad shapes and not pristine if still visible at all.

When dry, I remove the tape then I use an hobby knife blade to scrape the paint. Don't be shy, the more you remove, the better it looks. Only leaving ghost lines is what we want. It is surprising how very worn out lines can still make a decent contrast with the adjacent asphalt color.

Then, a generous coat of dullcote seal everything while hiding the glossy hobby knife scratches.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Wieland - Scenery Progresses

A few weeks ago, scenery was going forward at a furious pace. Then, our DIY static grass applicator died. Electronics simply gave up and it was clear the cause was the cheap chinese components used to build it in the first place. This applicator was built about two years ago and saw less than 5 hours of use in that amount of time. This unfortunate event meant a forced hiatus that wasn't scheduled.

Green grass is mainly visible along the drainage ditch

However, I could take pictures of a step I rarely document here: how I prepare my ground cover.

Applying grass isn't a straight forward single action but rather the addition of several layers. Except if you want that clean and even look of a tidy green carpet.

Grass often dies quickly near switches due to pollution and drainage

I always start studying prototype pictures before committing to scenery. It's too easy to assume how things are and miss the subtleties of nature.

Before even applying grass, I generally paint a generous coat of brown latex paint to cover the ground. It blends everything together and provides a sound foundation for further scenery work. At this point, I will generally sprinkle some small rocks, debris and other similar junk to provide some roughness to the soil. While not visible under the grass cover, these elements will later provide some texture in the grass, making it more realistic.

The locomotive shed track is poorly maintained and dead grass is plenty.

A first step is generally to add white glue blobs along the ballast where grass has a hard time growing and dies. Tuffs of static grass are then dabbed into the wet glue and let to dry. I don't use an applicator since this dead grass is rarely standing perfectly upright. With the help of photos, I also repeat the same treatment in other areas where dead grass is expected. A rule of thumb would say that higher elevations and spots where water gets drained quicker are generally prone to be yellowish.

The transloading track is also another spot of neglect

After that, I repeat a similar step but this time using quite bright green grass (generally a Spring mix made by Noch is my memory serves me right). This time, still using pictures, I identify spot where grass is much greener. Mainly along the bottom of ditches, but also here and there in a quit of random pattern based of topography.

It is not rare at this point I'll sprinkle greenish ground foam over the new grass but also unscenicked areas. This add texture and relief, further enhancing the idea the grass cover is made of several layers of vegetation. This ground foam looks like very small plants and can truly bring life and color to the final results.

Highway ditches are generally well watered and vegetation thrives there

It must be noted I apply the dead and green grass tuffs before I applying the overall layer of static grass because these colors are quite garish and contrasted. The future layer will tone down the contrast and blend everything together. Later, dead leaves, vegetal debris and weeds will complete this blending into something compelling.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

GP15-1: Ditch and Rock Lights

Time goes by and I can't believe it's been a month since my last post. This fall comes with a strange king of lassitude... even if work on the layout still progresses.

Nevertheless, our pair of GP15-1s are near to completion. Adding LED to rock and ditch lights is proving to be extremely challenging and far beyond what we expected. Installing so many lights can be quite a challenge and unfortunately, we discovered quite late some LED didn't have matching colors. If you think pico LED are all born the same, well it's not the case. It seems quality control wasn't seriously carried on by the manufacturer. Imagine, a few LED were clear white, some had a bluish hue and other a very yellow tint. It was unacceptable and some were removed.

However, the final result is quite impressive and well worth the efforts. We still need to add some fiber optic lenses on the rock light, but 1510 is almost done. At this rate, maybe all our locomotives will be ready to run by Christmas!