Sunday, January 1, 2023

A Year In Review

2022 was probably, in hindsight, my most productive year ever as a modeller and I’m not saying it lightly. Listing everything here would be a fool’s errand, but just from the top of my head, it includes completing more than 16 linear feet of scenery on the club layout, including the entire paper mill, replicating a few real houses, experimenting with various carving and weathering technique, customizing over 3 dozens 40ft boxcars, designing a Grand Trunk caboose kit, overseeing the final steps that led to the release of two Canadian National woodchip cars, building the backbone of my future Monk Subdivision layout (including wiring), compiling modelling notes about British-American tank cars, writing a book chapter on weathering and finally, going all out about early Canadian railways modelling. On top of that, starting the adventure of launching a cottage industry of custom parts and kits, which I have no idea where it will lead. My only regrets is not having had enough time to write up a few articles I’ve been asked for by a major publication… something I’d like to do in 2023.

It is probably the first year ever I’ve felt I know what I’m doing, that I’m starting, humbly, to master my art, find my groove and my personal artistic approach to modelling. I see myself less and less relying on others’ work as a template and building more on my skills and experience. It doesn’t mean I’m working in isolation, but rather that I no longer look at other’s recipe, but prefer to understand the logic behind their choices and make what I can out of that. Armour modelling, mainly Martin Kovac’s excellent and entertaining videos, have pushed me to try things without fear. That’s mainly true about weathering which I no longer approach from a step by step process, but rather as an additive artistic process. In that regard, it was inspiring to see Hunther Hughson taking the lead in challenging the common wisdom of model railroad weathering. I think he has shattered many misconceptions and started to freed many people’s mind. That said, it is never easy to go against the grain and often, when I tried to challenge the crowd this year, I could read many comments that wanted to go back to the old ways. Not that I care which way is better, but it is a little bit sad to see that many are too afraid to try, only once, something different and see if it works for them. I’ve always been the kind of person who want things to stay accessible and pragmatic, and when I challenge people, it’s generally because I believe that just changing one or two steps in a well-known process can enable surprising results.


The year has also been full of 3D printing adventures. I was, to be honest, about to simply drop the towel and leave that technology to others, but has I mentioned to Trevor Marshall this week, I’ve finally reached the point where 3D printing is no longer that frustrating one-fits-all solution, but a convenient tool in the toolbox. It’s not the beginning and end of everything, but something that has its place for some stuff. I’ve also learned the hard way the limitation of the machine and resin, which made me confident in developing new products such as the CNR steam conversion mini-kits or, more recently, the old time Canadian freight cars that can be designed in less than 6-8 hours and printed in about 2-3 hours at max. I’ve even been able to print an entire station in one shot, which was a huge confidence boost.


Later in the year, when I knew I had to wait to continue working on Monk Subdivision, I thought about finally building an old design of mine based on a small Quebec railway terminal using a minimal footprint. This is, in some way, the spiritual successor of Connors. Over the last few years, I’ve developed a keen interest in pre-CNR railways in Canada. This theme is generally not covered by the hobby press or even social media which, to be honest, is somewhat surprising. When we think old time in North America, it’s the narrow gauge lines or other fanciful endeavor. The late Craig Bisgeier’s Housatonic Railroad used to do a good job a tackling the subject in a honest way. As for Bernard Kempinski, his work on the U.S. Military Railroad in O scale can be considered top notch museum quality with the caveat of being so well-researched and executed with such talent that it can be intimidating. Also, let’s not fool ourselves, the American Civil War is basically a non-event for Canadians and I’m not sure it is a good vehicle to promote 19th century railroading here in Canada. We know about it, but it doesn’t resonate with our identity and history. However, I tip my hat to Bernard for tackling such a terrible subject with such tact, taste, elegance and talent. Another one to add to this list would be John Ott’s imaginary Miskatonic Railroad, which replicate the heydays of 19th century railroading in the Northeast, but even his work with intricate paint schemes of the Victorian era can be intimidating to any mid-level modeller.


That said, in Canada, the subject is almost taboo as if anything before 1918 was irrelevant for the modeller. Nobody talks about it… except Rene Gourley who, for some reason, has decided to heroically soldier in Proto:87 to replicate the Canadian Atlantic Railway in HO scale. Rene’s endeavor is so frightening and imposing that even him regularly write about how this subject can be crushing! That’s plain madness, the kind of gorgeous madness that provides inspiration and doubt at the same time! Yes, it is!


Strangely enough, Canada was one of the earliest adopter of railways. One of the earliest project was devised in 1830 to provide Quebec City with a winter port on Maine’s coast when commercial railways were in their infancy. During all the 19th century, the talk in town was about trains. Countless colorful companies were created in the same fashion that happened in the United States. However, since most funds and many engineers came from the United Kindgom, our railways had a distinct British flavor that gave it a touch of originality. Americanized Birkenhead locomotives being probably the most eloquent example, or the practice of lining cabs and tenders during the Grand Trunk era. The country was crisscrossed by small rural branchlines, regional carriers and transcontinentals. All built under a fever dream that couldn’t be stopped. We may, nowadays, often forget that most of our key rail infrastructure was designed and built in the mid and late 19th century.


So, for the last few months of the year, I’ve been pondering why nobody was modelling that great era full of hundreds of layout ideas. And the answer I got from online discussions and private chats shook my beliefs. Pre-nationalization railways weren’t forgotten at all. People of all ages still research them… even when they are interested in the post-1918 world, they will often refer to that era in a way or another. In fact, many do model the era… Lettering a GTR locomotive here or building an old Juneco wooden kit there. It seems the hunt for old CDS Lettering dry transfers is also a popular habits among modellers. Yet, nothing of that surface in social media.


It would be easy to blame manufacturers, but they can’t start to provide models when the market simply seems to not be there. Just take a look at Rapido’s Icons of Steam series. The pre-orders dried out the moment it was time to produce mundane small steam locomotives that everybody complain the hobby is lacking. Certainly, many reasons didn’t help to boost sales such as questionable quality control or perceived prices, but it should have been an instant hit. In contrast, Accurail has been releasing Canadian cars in its 36ft boxcar series, including the Fowler car. If you look at their website, all Canadian cars are sold out and some, including Grand Trunk, are in their second release and already sold out. In a recent discussion with an American how commission custom orders of Accurail cars in pre-1918 paint scheme, he admitted that all is run sell almost instantly. For him, ordering a 48-cars custom run of old time Canadian car is a no-brainer. The biggest challenge is picking up the next paint scheme.


Some have argued the biggest problem of old Canadian model railroading is sourcing decals. Black Cat Publishing has done a good service to us by providing a few Grand Trunk sets, but it’s a far cry from CDS catalogue that offered everything under the sun. Someone will have to step in and fill the void… This is something I’m trying to do because I think there is a place for early Canadian railways modelling and currently redrawing and improving a lot of artwork using the historic photos once used by CDS.


Custom decals save the day... maybe there is a market.

As for my own personal journey, I’ve learned firsthand that working with small 32ft-36ft freight cars, 4-4-0s and wooden passenger cars can save a lot of space when designing a layout. Think about it, a 32ft boxcar in O scale is about the same size than a modern 60ft hi-cube boxcar in HO scale. You can complain about the lack of available models, but keep in mind old cars were simply wooden boxes. If you can put together a box with tongue-and-groove styrene, most of the battle is won. Kitbashing current models is also possible and several cars can be sourced from Accurail, Bowser and Roundhouse if you don’t want to venture into the costly and complicated resin world.


Stepping down from my soap box, I can also look forward with the new skills learned when working on the old time Standstead module. This new knowledge will be applied to the Charlevoix railway which, I hope, will continue to progress. At the time of writing this, the Clermont scene is about 90% completed. It’s only a matter of a few months before we can think about taking professional photos of the layout and seriously think about publishing something about it.


I wish you a fulfilling 2023 modelling year. Don’t fear and dare to build your model in unusual ways to develop your own approach. Don’t fear to go artistic and overdo things, because later, you will be able to calibrate your effort on the next project. Take care!


  1. Thanks for sharing your progress, thoughts and prognostications about the future, Matthieu. I find any Civil War (or later) model railways interesting because they are so different from the mainstream.

    It's been great to have you as a blog partner and track your interesting projects and progress!
    Bonne Annee 2023!

    1. Thanks Eric! Yes, it's really a fascinating era! Wouldn't have thought I would love it so much. I used to be a late 1980s CN guy until not so long ago!