Thursday, September 22, 2022

Donohue & Wieland - Adding Small Details

A new greasy concrete fuel pad buried in grass

The layout, until now, never reached that level where adding small details such as oil drums, buffers, fueling tank and other stuff like that. Arguably, I've never been a "detail modeller" that much. I like to have the right amount to bring life to a scene and make it relatable, but overcrowding the place with junk has never been my cup of tea. Here I have in mind the ubiquitous superdetailed roundhouse interior that is a classic of railway modelling. That said, I do admire that work and some techniques inspire me greatly.

An old rusted oil barrel by the pulpwood unloading bay

Recently, we have started adding these details. I found myself spending a few hours painting and weathering very small parts that takes a few minutes or hours to complete. Being able to do so much in so little time is extremely rewarding and a good way to practice weathering techniques without going crazy over an entire locomotive.

Greased ties on turnouts with weathering powder on rail sides

I have still a few ones to add to the layout, particularly around the loco shop in Wieland and the lumber transload area, but it's already a good start. As always, I tried to implement a few weathering techniques presented by Martin Kovac on his excellent YouTube channel (Nightshift).

Diesel fuel tank at Wieland CFC shops

Custom Athearn NSC Boxcar Conversion Kit

 As I grow older as a modeller, I sense I'm no longer interested in purchasing higher end cars except for a few notable models. Not only because costs are rising at an alarming rate, but also because I derive very little enjoyment out of unboxing stuff that goes right on track. Working on a model and painting them is enjoyable, particularly when it is in pursuit of acquiring skills and being able to replicate the reality around us.

It's no secret I've been on a quest of improving old plastic kits of the past for more than a decade and half. I have in me that fascination of seeing what can be done with these crude models. What are their redeeming factors, what are the tooling mistakes that make them harder to improve. In that regard, I've learned over the time that Athearn 40ft boxcars are a decent starting point while old Roundhouse ones are more challenging for less favorable results.

Be it Bachmann Quad Hoppers, Model Power Insulated Boxcars or any other byzantine project of mine, I've tried it all and enjoyed it immensely. This long experience have made me genuinely aware of how these very humble things can become much more than good enough models. At first, I thought about replacing everything with wire and delicate parts, then tried to find a balanced recipe where the returns on investment were maximum while keeping realism as a reachable goal.

NSC-1 ends (work in progress)

I'm proud to announce that this work as culminate this week into the production of a very convincing National Steel Car built 40 ft, 10'-0" high boxcar out of our good old Athearn friend. You won't win a prize with this kitbashed and improved model, but it will be as good as if Irv Athearn did tool a specific Canadian steel boxcar from the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Parts I've made are done following Athearn's own tooling parameters, albeit a little bit more finer, with the goal of providing easy to assemble yet very sturdy models. I have no fear a car modified using my part should providing excellent reliability during operation, which may be of interest to some people with that mind set.

NSC-2 ends

All parts are design to fit Athearn and, by extension, Roundhouse boxcars. Thus, they share the discrepancies these old toolings had. These compromises are relatively minimal and impossible to discern without a calliper and some good eyeballs. However, it means you don't have to fiddle, fill with putty and try to match the surrounding details.

Suitable CNR prototypes built with NSC between 1937-1938:

-472000-472999 (11/1937-2/1938)

-475300-475999 (6-7/1938)

Please check to identify the renumbered cars over the years. It's a fascinating subject!

The kit provides the following parts:

-1x NSC-1 style B End with 8-rung ladder

-1x NSC-2 style A End with 8-rung ladder

-2x 8-rung Canadian style ladders

-2x 6 feet Youngstown doors


-2x 10'3" Youngstown doubles doors for Automobile boxcars

I don't provide new brake wheels, but do recommend using Kadee ones which are excellent and well worth the investment.

It is also recommenced to use Accurail 40ft wooden roofwalks and their underframe brake rigging which can add another layer of realism. Don't forget Tichy roof corner grabirons and Yarmouth eyebolts. In my eyes, they really enhance the appearance of a car.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Further Experiments with Improved Athearn and Roundhouse 40ft Boxcars

Earlier this year, I experimented with the idea of finding an efficient way to upgrade Athearn 40ft boxcars without breaking the bank. The idea was not about turning these cars into prize winning or finescale model (because at the end of the day, almost nothing would remain from the original shell), but rather to erase their ubiquitous lineage so they can merge seamlessly into a fleet.


While my experiment went well, I also encountered a problem: the lack of suitable detail parts, more precisely doors. As you know, the Athearn doors are quite wrong and far too short. Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, gimmicks such as operating doors were all the crazed due to O scale influence. Oversized door tracks and claws were inevitable and for this reason, the doors were smaller than they should have been. Add the fact the detail wasn’t great, and you have more than one reason to scrap them completely.


The door before adding rivets and hardware

Unfortunately, finding suitable 10’ high 1937 AAR doors is now a fool’s errand. Both Atlas and Intermountain parts are getting extremely hard to find and they cost quite a lot for what they are. For these reasons, I decided to design my own doors using Atlas, IM parts and pictures as blueprints. The process was fast and about 30 minutes later, I had a nice door ready to 3D print. Given the part height, it’s about 90 minutes to print, which is more than reasonable.


Later, I decided to convert other boxcars, namely Roundhouse old 40ft tooling which wasn’t that great when compared to Athearn. Their later retooled efforts with fixed doors from the late 1990s and early 2000s were much better. That said, I decided to do something different and make them early CNR steel automobile boxcars. These were built in 1936 by NSC and CCF with Murphy flat panel steel roof and a 10’-0” interior height. By 1946, they were raised by 6 inches to increase capacity. Since the Roundhouse cars need a lot of work along the sill, I felt they were perfect for this project since the dubious details had to be removed anyway.


CN automobile boxcar (credit: Chris van der Heide collection,

I selected the ECC cars since they had Dreadnaught ends with the same 5/4 rib pattern than the Roundhouse cars. NSC had they own distinctive rib pattern (NSC-1) which would be cool to replicate but using a much better plastic shell has a starting point.


Filing down raised panels is easier than you would think

For the roof, I did a compromise. Since I didn’t want to cut the shell apart, I simply cut and filed down the raised panels. Real Murphy roofs have a very different way to be attached to the boxcar sides, but I overlook that detail since it’s not the goal of this project to be 100% accurate.

Finally, I need a pair of double doors and decided to tweak my previous 3D design. It took about 15 minutes to get it right with the correct hardware and the same time to print.

Another detail that bothered me was the cast on ladders. Athearn ladders are decent for what they are, but the Roundhouse ones are thick and looks wrong at first glance. Also, the lower rung is missing. I gave it some thought and ask myself if it was efficient to remove a ladder and replace it or if it was better trying to upgrade it by adding the missing rung. I didn’t want to waste A-Line stirrups if possible.

Roundhouse ladders are just plain wrong and unsalvageable...

I tried to improve the molded ladder but results were poor and it was a slow process. In a word, it was counterproductive. Then, I chiselled the ladder off and found out it took about one minute per ladder, which was much more efficient. Now, it was time to design a replacement ladder with 8 rung and an attached stirrups has was customary in Canada back in the days. To keep the car level of detail consistent, I used the same design parameters that Irv Athearn set for his boxcars 70 years ago. I could have made very fine ladders, but what I needed were ladders that would blend with Athearn and Roundhouse cars. In my mind, you can’t have finescale ladders with chunking ends. Make it all the same and it will look better. If you go all in with prototypicalness, embrace it. If you want to stay middle of the road, be consistent too.


Designing the ladder took about 5 minutes at best… it was a breeze. The result was nice because now the boxcars had that distinctive Canadian vibe as if Roundhouse had released, in the 1970s, a real Canadian automobile boxcar.


I won’t pretend these cars are prize winning models, but in a fleet, they do a fine job. In themselves, they have no merit, but you can convert about 4 of them over the course of a few evenings without turning mad or loosing hairs.

Furthermore, they may be a little bit incorrect, but they try to stay true to prototype as much as possible. And finally, the key is to bring them to life by applying realistic weathering. As I get more experience in this hobby, I’m learning everyday that right colors and right weathering should be among the first criteria to attain realism. Realism and accuracy are somewhat different in my mind. They work together, but I would say that realism is what makes a model plausible while accuracy is the measure by which the model is close to its prototype. There is no hard line between both concept and each has to chose what is adequate for his purpose.

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Donahue - Stunning Progress!

The Dohonue yard relatively empty by a warm day of May

Once in a while, we surpass ourselves without knowing it. It seems that several months if not years of discussion have finally yielded results. As I move forward with scenery, I finding my own language using various media such as ground foam, gravel, dirt, grout, static grass and dead leaves. When looking back at what I considered my best work one year ago, I can see a huge difference. Surfaces are no longer treated as carpet, but have a lot of variation in cover, color and texture. These progresses wouldn't have been possible without the strong influence of Chris Mears whose experiments modelling grassy tracks seem to have percolated into my work (to my great pleasure).

The electric pylon in the background add dynamism

At this point, I consider the end of Donohue yard is now completed. Some ground work is still required at the other end, near the warehouse and office, but for the most part, we can consider that the only things to do are adding small details to add life to the scene and finish some buildings.

Grass is a complex assemblage of textures...

Lessons learn with this project will certainly be applied elsewhere on the layout, with my intended goal (unlikely to be reached), to finish ground cover in Donohue, Clermont and Wieland by Christmas. At that point, the only parts of the layout to be left unfinished will be the Villeneuve and Maizerets scenes, which have been on hiatus for a few years now and need some love.

Sunday, September 4, 2022

Donohue: No More Ballast... or Almost!

Work is resuming on Murray Bay Subdivision after a longer summer hiatus than anticipated. Always hard to make predictions about a layout construction schedule isn't it?

On a positive note, the first session was extremely positive. First, Louis-Marie has been able to reset the DCC system and locomotives. So far, it seems the control issues have been almost completed resolved and the Rapido CFC SW1200RS switchers are back in service. This is a major step since we built the layout to run these specific locomotives. To be honest, it's quite nostalgic to see these moving on our layout. And I may add that as much as the GP15-1s are quite interesting locomotives, they don't have the aura of real CFC ones.

On the scenery side, we have also completed terraforming the right side of the village in Clermont. Foam is shaped, covered in universal mud and painted. A few curbs will be added later when dealing with ground cover. That another thing behind us. Regular readers will probably know it took years to finally reach that point with that scene.

Finally, the big news: ballasting is completely done. No more gravel to glue, no more custom blends that takes hours to sift. It's done... at least in Charlevoix, because some more ballast is required at the cement plant in Villeneuve. I'm quite happy because it opens new opportunities to move forward with vegetation, layered ground cover, details and finishing touches. It also means I'll soon start to complete structures such as the woodchip unloader and the warehouse interior. Who could have thought we would see the end of that endeavour.

On a negative side, the summer was extremely wet in Quebec City and the photo backdrop wrinkled quite badly. It's probably the last time I used a photo backdrop printed on a material vulnerable to humidity. I'm not looking too much at the sky when operating the layout, but on picture, the wrinkles create nasty shadows that must be Photoshopped which is a shame... I'm starting to wonder if we should have been better to cut the backdrop at the horizon and simply keep the painted wall for for sky... Lesson learned I guess!

Thursday, September 1, 2022

East Angus - Revisiting a Good Old Design

Late summer has been busy with a progressive return to modelling and the construction of Monk Subdivision staging yard. Interestingly enough, this sparked me to revisit a very old concept based on several of my recurrents ideas: a mainline for railfanning, a very small town, a paper mill and some depiction ot topography and hydrography.

As you may remember, the original concept for the basement layout was based on East Angus, QC. It's a small locality on Quebec Central Railway that developed around a paper mill located along the St. Francis River. It has always fascinated me because this paper mill was both compact yet visually attractive. Indeed, it was a brick industrial canyon located by a beautiful multiple span deck bridge.

That said, what prompted me to revisit this design is mainly my work on building and wiring Monk Subdivision hidden staging. I've always had a justified fear of hidden trackage but can understand their use and wanted to see what could have happened if it was an accessible surround staging as designed by Trevor Marshall for Mike Hamer's famous B&M layout.

First version, with a single track main line

A surround staging for a layout such as East Angus makes sense because the paper mill act as a low height screen that hides it without impacting too much access. It also removes grades, which are generally a less than desirable thing on model railways. It's also a fun build from a modelling perspective. Lots of interesting and varied scenery involving trees, hills, rock faces, complex river bed, fields, etc. It's also a neat structure challenge including a neat brick paper mill built in several phases and styles. Add to that classic railway structures such as the depot, the feed mill and speeder shed. And finally, the pièce de résistance, a very long and impressive bridge.

While the layout is based on Quebec Central, truth is that it could find many different North American railroads or simply be generic.

And now, for the big question... would I trash Armagh to build East Angus? Maybe yes, maybe not. Both have different purposes and goals. So far, I'm eager to give Monk Subdivision a shot because of its universal appeal. I know I'm not that much of a solo switching operator. That said, if Monk ever fails for whatever reason... I wouldn't mind to try my hand with East Angus. I know from operating our Murray Bay layout and Hunter Hughson's paper mill layout that modelling a small and achievable paper mill is always a winning formula. And in this case, that beautiful setup is what welcomes you as you enter the room!

Second version, with a double track main line