Friday, February 5, 2021

Donnacona - Crafting a Narrative

I’ve taken my sweet time to update my work on Donnacona. With an increase workload but also due to a lot of online conversations with other modellers, mainly about his project, it kind of killed my inspiration to write. It seems there is a limit to the number of channels on which you can share your ideas before they start to distort themselves and falters! With that said, let’s move on!


 As I previously mentioned, Donnacona is based on an experience at railfanning a typical early 20th century paper mill. The word railfanning is important because I wish us, the spectators, to approach this layout from a certain distance. Yes, we operate the layout, but in such a way we still are the lurkers. We can’t see everything from our vantage point, online what is accessible to us without trespassing the property. This is, truly, a timeless experience most of us can relate...

We have all – at least most of us – witnessed real operation at a plant. While we can understand what is happening, a big deal of the action is often out of our sight and only the sound of a roaring engine let us know something is happening. Walking down a road, we try to track familiar noises to locate our target. Then, it makes its entrance…

A 0-4-0 switcher at St. Anne Paper Co. (credit: Bill Grandin Collection)

To achieve this goal, two big challenges must be addressed: 1) the subject must be framed, 2) the scene composition must guide our sight. These two key elements must then blend together into a coherent picture, just like a neat painting.

For years, I have admired Chris Nevard’s work on small British layouts. Chris isn’t a prototype modeller in the sense he doesn’t replicate real locations and most of his diorama are quite compressed. However, he informs his work on reality, working with shapes, colors and textures to create a realistic and compelling world. For this reason, he is able to create organic compositions that work flawlessly.

Railway bridge in Stanwardine in the Fields, UK (credit: WikiCommons)

As mentioned, the main trick with small European layouts is to hide the layout ends. With its overbuilt environment and impressive railway infrastructure, this is easily achievable with such prototypes. The same could be said of many Asian railways too. In these countries, bridges, overpasses, ditches and tunnels are a common occurrence and you can see many of them crammed along a single mile of track. In North America, except in a few very select places, such infrastructures are qui rare. Most railway lines don’t have tunnels. Farms have plain gravel grade crossings and not fancy brick or stone overpasses (and if it is the case, they are underpasses). It’s at this moment that Donnacona starts to shine.


Indeed, the industrial canyon created by the mill and its boiler house is perfect to hide the right side of the layout if you are looking south. The boiler house height creates a natural transition with the front and end of the layout which frame perfectly that part of the scene.


At Donnacona, freigh cars disappear between industrial structures (credit: BaNQ)

On the right side, the tracks on the prototype were running parallel to a small cliff. By having the cliff in the foreground, similar to what Mike Cawdrey did with his Calais, ME layout, it helps to make the sidings disappear into staging gradually. This is a useful visual trick because it provides a place to hide and park the locomotive. When the layout power is turn on, you can hear the locomotive, but barely see its chimney or domes above the grassy hill. More on that later. Then, what to use to frame the exit to staging? A bridge won’t do and tunnel neither. However, Donnacona used to have a series of pulpwood conveyors moving logs from the St. Lawrence shore to their piles behind the mill. These conveyors can then be used to cleverly hide the staging and frame the right end of the layout. A small reservoir or some other structure or object is used to hide the spot were the conveyor hits the backdrop.


Donnacona's GE switcher running parallel to the cliff (credit: Massey F. Jones)

The next element is scene composition. This layout, like a written sentence, is read from left to right. From a virtually unbuilt environment toward a highly industrialized site. This gradient creates a vertical diagonal that draws our attention toward the mill.


To this is superposed another narrative drawing inspiration from the railfanning perspective. In Donnacona, the office building was located right next to the warehouse, by the sidings. Small and quaint, this ivy-covered brick structure had all the hallmark of a house; a place where humans live. In this industrial mess, this is probably the closest place to our daily experience, making it the perfect point of entrance. The boiler house on one side and the grassy hill on the other one both frame our view toward that office which is even more emphasized by the presence of an access road. In some sense, you could say the layout is composed of three separate parts. From left to right, the grassy hill (nature), the office building/access road (humans) and the boiler house (industry). This is an interesting progression from nature to industry, following a common tripartite trick used by photographs and illustrators since eons ago.


The homely ivy-covered office acts as an anchor (credit: unknown)

As a railfan, after walking the access road nearby the office, you try to hear some locomotive noises… You can’t see it, but behind the grassy hill, you can unmistakably hear the sounds of an idle engine ready to work. Your keen eyes can see the chimney puffing smoke and the top of a dome or tow. Slowly, you climb the hill, walking on top of its crest until you can see the locomotive in all its glory. After waiting a while, it starts moving on the steel rail and disappear beyond the conveyor… you can no longer see what’s happening, but it can only mean they went to the nearby yard to pick up some cars.


Framing the staging entrance (credit: Matthieu Lachance)

After emerging again under the conveyor, a fresh cut of cars is ready to be switched at the plant. The crew runaround its train, disappearing again far beyond the grassy hill. Then, they start their job. Switching the boxcars at the warehouse is quite straight forward and the access road provides a great viewpoint on the action… However, when the start to shunt the boiler house, almost everything become invisible behind the large brick structure.

The boiler house is another way to frame trains.

Knowing cleverly that boiler houses are real life infernos, you venture in the gravel lot and try to spot moving cars through open doors and windows. Certainly, the place is filled with boilers and pipes, but it’s still possible to get a good idea of what’s happening. The acid building platform is wide opened, offering a rare glimpse on a tank car spotted at the unloading dock.


Scene composition: suggesting and framing the action (credit: Matthieu Lachance)

Then, the locomotive and its crew run back to the yard with loaded boxcars and empty coal hoppers. They parade in front of you, whistling at the grade crossing and probably annoying a few office workers nearby! It then proceeds to disappear for a while… Maybe 20 minutes later, the locomotive emerges from beyond the conveyor and stops by the grassy hill as always. A crew member then jumps off the tender platform and take a large hose to fill up the tender again until the next work shift. It’s time to go back home… They won’t move until much later this afternoon when the monstruous mill will have consumed a few tons of coal and churned out tons of newsprint bound to New York City.


  1. I love the narrative, and the sketch, posted last, goes some way to explain your thoughts on framing, well done on putting this across so eloquently.
    I too have found that creative energy is best focused with a few rather than spread widely, as that can cause a pause, or faltering... if you can hold on to that emotional narrative of what your aiming to achieve here I suspect you will be fine, amd build a very successful and enjoyable model.

    A few reflections...
    I know in the past you’ve talked about a skyline opening up from the left to right, but I wonder if a narrow letter box view would work too... the contrast between each end would still be very obvious and the straigh top edge would make lighting much easier to control, an important consideration on such a compact and structure intensive layout, so there are no shadows on the backdrop.
    What is the ‘background’ to the scene? Are you viewing at eye level, so can get away with a big sky, or slightly above the track so some sort of back scene will be necessary? I love the sketch, but the parallel nature of the rear of the office and other buildings will leave a gap to fill... I’d be tempted to use a few of Lance Minheims tricks on framing views along that portion, married to some other view blocks and trees...

    Sharing this plant with us all is wonderful. I’ve never heard of the prototype but the GE switcher and period photos almost generate enough of a response to model it, that’s a wonderful gift alone, thank you.

    1. The proscenium opening hasn't yet been fully explored, but I can say at this point the letter box format, close to actual movies, is what seems to work the best. For a few weeks, the last feet of layout (on the left) have been blanked out with a piece of foamcore and it looks quite good. More to come...

      As for the GE 44-ton, if only mine performed better, that would be a weapon of choice. Maybe in the future.

  2. Excellent use of your own sweet time! I think we might be seeing the end of the Model Railroader-type mega-layout. My eyes dart to the overall layout size if I`m not sure of the layout size based on the schematic. So often it's 38x46, 28x50. Give me something under 11x10!! Something I can use that represents most layout house-settings!

    Thanks for sharing,

    1. Modellers come in all shapes and forms! We need variety in the footprint we need to use. I'm often surprised how the common 11'x10 room is more used as a starting point for most layouts.

  3. It's interesting how the modeling scales impacts our perception of a scene. Five to six feet is the sweet spot for you, while that seems small for quarter-inch scale. The size of the models, the amount of space the track occupies suggest a greater length for the view.

    Having said that my warehouse cameo proved that the right scene properly framed is perfectly adaptable to a view of four feet or less in width. It truly does depend on the subject and how we present it. This is a long overdue discussion Matt.


    1. Exactly, it's not a one size fits all. Had the subject been slightly different and a whole new format would have been required.

  4. I love these paper mill layouts you design. Almost always, and again here, I get to this point on your notes and my eyes start wandering toward blank walls here in our home. From East Angus (I still love that plan) to Donaconna I really need a space to build one.

    I like the way your post has moderated a conversation between details of the prototype and how it can be modelled. Too often we write about a prototype and do a superb job of listing it’s qualities and suitabilities as a layout subject but then wander off just as the story starts to invite us in. It’s wonderful to see how this opportunity connects to you and what, treating it as a muse, offers you as a creative person. Not just how will you model these things but what other craft techniques or presentations can this platform host.

    And, I’ll say it again and again: that view through the warehouse! I’m never going to get tired of that. Imagine, we’ve just convinced ourselves to build up the courage to visit the office and confess our intersect in exploring the mill. Views like this would be our firsts as we start to roam around. Can you hear it? Let’s go see if they’re over here.


    1. Once again, you are reading my mind, because the next post will be about the mill and specifically the boiler house its framing qualities.