Thursday, April 27, 2023

Thinking outside the Room - Part 1

A steam freight train in Hokkaido, circa 1968

As Sanstead is coming to an end, it’s now time to think about Monk. A series of discussions with Chris Mears took us to Hokkaido during the last years of steam operation in Japan in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We explored ways to create a series of cameo scenes linked together on a scenic N scale layout using Kato components. The goal was not to build something or to plan for a real layout, but to play with a lesser known prototype which share a lot of Canadian-like feature such as topography, rivers, vegetation and mountains. Sure enough, steam era in rural Japan is an impressive thing. It merges together state of the art late steamers with narrow gauge and layout-friendly features such as steep grades, scenic bridges and tunnels. The locomotives of that era are themselves marvels of engineering; the Japanese having pushed to the limit what could be done with narrow gauge. Fair enough, having seen these brutish 4-6-2, 4-6-4, 2-8-2 and 2-8-4 with my very own eyes, I can tell you can’t distinguish them from their standard gauge brethren if you don’t start to look closely at the rail spacing. In some way, they heavily borrow from big American steamers while keeping specifically Japanese details that puts them, in my mind, in a similar category than Canadian steamers. The vocabulary is the same, but the accent is different if I could say.

A train running in a valley in Hokkaido

Compressing a river horizontally...

A study in elevation

Such a layout doesn’t need to replicate complex operations. As is fashionable with Japanese layout, you railfan your N scale trains on a generally quite simple track plan. In my eyes, it’s an excuse to see nice trains crossing through a beautiful landscape. For this reason, I can easily imagine a single track mainline with two hidden returning loops acting like shadow stations. The visible part of the layout is depicting a river valley and several bridges and tunnels dividing 3 similar but differently framed scenes. It may sound gimmicky, but when you study rural lines in Hokkaido, you quickly discover than in some areas, it was common to find 4 major bridges per miles. In that regard, the old Shiranuka Line provides inspiration beyond your wildest dreams.


A single mainline layout with hidden returning loops

That said, as much as I love late Japanese steam and find Kato N scale locomotives exquisite and reliable, it is very unlikely I will commit to that. However, all these themes of framing scenes about large steamers traveling a rural landscape with some staging are in fact nothing more than what Monk is all about. Once again, good design is universal and can serve several prototypes over continents.


Returning loops in dashed lines

One thing I’ve liked with the Japanese layout is the returning loops used as staging. Many Europeans (and Americans) use that trick to create a sense of going somewhere. It is particularly useful when you want to model traffic between two division points without having to model them or fiddle with trains. The automated reversing ensure traffic moves in both directions. It’s also easy to automate and control trains in a compelling way.


In the case of Monk, there are two options. The first one is to replace my current staging with two loops under the upper level (Armagh). I once explored that idea with Chris Mears and while it’s extremely elegant on paper, it’s a nightmare to build and to maintain. Accessibility is appalling and hiding tack with scenery is a recipe for disaster. It’s not that different from what I have built until now. Trevor Marshall advised me to stay away from hidden staging and tracks that cannot be maintained properly. I’m not sure I listened to him even if I knew he was right. Current maintenance issues on Murray Bay Subdivision do remind me how frustrating dealing with electrical issues is. Mind you, all tracks all accessible and visible on that layout!


Enters option 2, which consist in building the loops outside the room. Not something I was eager to do, but now I’m seeing more and more value to that. Basically, two loops would be built on a table on top of each other. The yard throats would be installed in such a way they don’t overlap, which would make them easier to monitor, repair or maintain in the future.

This option would remove all hidden trackage from the layout which is a good start. But it would also get rid of superposed trackage in some area, eliminating vertical clearance issues. Another good point is that scenery will be much more easier to create since there will be no need for access hatches and other clumsy and annoying contraptions. Also, Armagh scene would be narrower with the elimination of the stating yard that was located being it. More space in the room isn’t a bad proposition.

Finally, the swing gate will only have to deal with a single track and no grade, which will make track alignment easier and less prone to seasonal dilation. Yes, this is a serious issue to keep in my and I wouldn’t mind making the bridge even more simpler.


That said, it means that almost everything I built last year is now completely useless. Is it a big issue? Not really. I’ve learned a great deal about model railroading in the last 18 months, much more than I could have ever predicted. My goals are the same, but I have more sophisticated tools to reach them and it would be foolish to go forward with premises that no longer makes sense and show their limitations.

As extra, here's an interesting sketch by Chris Mears who describes it better than me:

I’m fooling around with this a lot. The progression through scenes (green shade) is not ABC..F but AFC-DBE. An alternation so as the train moves through the room it doesn’t move sequentially from wall to wall with half a train still in each wall-scene but like a series of stages so the visible train is only visible on opposite room sides.

Non sequential scenes (credit: Chris Mears)

But let's stop it for today... more interesting thoughts to share in a next installment!

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Harlem Station Layout for Sale

Just a short post to announce that my Harlem Station layout is for sale.

The layout has been in storage in my house for some year, gathering proverbial dust and not being used. Since I'm about to remodelling the house, I'm putting the layout for sale. If you want to own this piece of modelling replicating faithfully the Erie Harlem Station, please contact me.

The sale includes the layout itself, a carfloat, a tugboat, a kitbashed pontoon bridge and a transfer crane. Since the layout hasn't been used for a few years, expect the rails to need a good cleaning and maybe to solder some wires that could have go loose over time.

Asking price is $850 CAD or $625 USD. To put it in context, this amount barely covers the expenses to acquire the materials and kits to build it, so it's a quite a deal. Also, I can't provide no means of transportation (I have no car), hence the reason why I'm selling it for such a low cost. That said, I won't start to negotiate on the price since a lot of personal time and resources where invested in researching and building it.

Size is about 5' x 7' and the layout can be split in two modules for ease of transportation. That said, if you can move it in one piece, it's for the better.

Feel free to contact me for any question!

Sunday, April 16, 2023

One scene at once..

I suspect long time readers are probably getting tired of hearing me pushing my drivel about grass. It seems the remaining work on the layout is all about applying more vegetation and after some time, it's just a case of repetition. I have, truth to be told, nothing new under the sun to share with you in terms of technical advices on this subject. However, I think sharing before and after picture may provide some kind of genuine interest and show how subtle changes can make a great difference.

The backroad in Clermont was an afterthought. The village scene and Wieland weren't intended to blend together, but at some point in time, it became almost natural they should connect. Hence, the creation of a gravel road. We had serious reservation about that, but I think it worked out fine. Louis-Marie also played with some forced perspective on the backdrop to make sure the asphalt road didn't end in the middle of nowhere. I honestly thought it would be dubious, but his little cardboard cut out just shows he was absolutely right. It will be improve and turned into a permanent feature.

In the vicinity, the hillside is also now completely covered with leaves and grass. Instead of gluing a carpet of dead leaves, I added some death grass and bushes to add more depth to the scene. I consider the results are much better than the rest of the forest and may, in the future, add some spots there to improve the scenery.

On the left, it's just crushed leaves... lacks texture!

Another spot was the locomotive shop in Wieland. It now has a nice parking lot. As with the road, when the gravel is dry, I also use a large 2" paintbrush to add a layer of powered limestone/unsanded grout to add that light dust layer so typical on mineral surfaces.

Brushing limestone powder changes everything!

The old off spot cars siding has also received more dead grass made of jute and various static grass fibers to be closer to prototype. Same thing happened with the ditches. I simply glue more material over the first layer of scenery. It adds colors, volume and textures.

Monday, April 3, 2023

Long Dead Grass in Wieland


Writing posts several weeks after the fact is never an easy task. It seems like all your thoughts are muddled and you lose the subtle ideas that crossed your mind when accomplishing the task. Nevertheless, it’s my duty to write about these things, even if time has passed.


You probably remember that I experimented a lot with grass and texture over the last few months. As expected, this prompted me to revisit the Murray Bay Subdivision and to apply the lessons learned. The was still a lot of open fields that required more texture. Some basic grass had been applied a few years ago, but it wasn’t satisfying. The color was slightly off and it lacked volume. Indeed, dead plants in ditches are much more than simple lawn.

Using Chris Mears proverbial support as a starting point, I started to apply diluted white glue in patches over the first layer of grass. Then, I made a custom mix of very long 12mm grass, 6mm fibers, jutes and smaller grass. It was haphazardly blended together in a random way to have some variation. I dabbed that mix over the glue and started to create clumps here and there. Different mixes were tried to ensure greater variety, but always using the same basic ingredients for a consistent color palette.

When dry, the vegetation was misted with hairsprays and dead leaves and fine green foam were sprinkled over to add more color and textures. These would replicate dead leaves who don’t fall during winter. 

The same approach was used to blend the new photobackdrop with the layout. This time, colors were carefully blended to match the vegetation on the picture. That was crucial to create a sense of continuity between the 3D and 2D worlds.


I still need to add more vegetation to complete the scene, but I must admit I really like the idea that you can build a scene in several steps over a long period of time. I’m not the first one to propose that, but experimenting with it really shows the potential. If you are not happy with the results, just dump more material until it reaches a critical mass!

By the way, I'm also the harbinger of a sad news about Charlevoix Railway. As we are speaking, the yard in Clermont has been dismantled completely after more than a decade of inactivities. It was to be expected, but in my mind, it would just rot and rust there for eternity. The return of freight service on the line was always a pipe dream, but we can now safely say it is no longer even a dream. hat said, no news if Wieland will be dismantled since it was still used by MoW. However, nothing is safe and maybe the old CCF snow plow is about to disappear from the landscape...