Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Quebec South Shore Railway - Mark IV: Resurrecting an Old Idea (again)

Several recent conversations with Chris Mears resparkled my interest in exploring shelf layouts as whimsical explorations of possibilities in model railroading. Since I’m cleaning the basement in hope of building new partitions for a storage room and a staging for Monk Subdivision, it gives me some time to dabble in that experiment yet again. Also, since it’s a big cleaning, I getting rid of several building supplies which I have no longer any use for and clutter my basement. These include scraps of foam, old cork rolls, various pieces of wood and plywood leftovers. Giving them a second life before the landfill or recycling makes sense and they cost virtually nothing. Track is recycled too from the original Monk staging which was recently dismantled.


As you know, I’ve designed and built several small layouts over the last decade. It’s a pet subject of mine which is rooted in nostalgia, desire for design challenge and probably a remnant of having been starved for space when I was a teenager living in a very small house. That said, I don’t see small layouts has a limitation because they drive you to understand how train movements work and how much real estate they require. These mathematical equations thus become ingrained in your mental muscle memory and can be put into action when designing larger layout.


My most recent explorations included Donnacona, which I still have in the back of my mind and St-Pie, a farming locality in Southern Quebec that used to be served by CP and later, by the infamous MMA. While extremely interesting project, both of them were bulky even if they footprint was 6 feet long by 15’’ wide. I used traditional carpentry to build them and thus, they were quite heavy, making them less than perfect for something that was supposed to be easy to move around. I may revisit these ideas, but what Chris is doing with his current shelf project (see his wonderful Prince Street blog for more info) kind of gave a second life to my desire to have a small plank for whimsical operation at my desk and photo opportunity.


Chris has been exploring ways of building fast, building cheap and building lightweight. He used ½ foam that he layers and glue down cork with double faced carpet tape. McDonald’s napkins are glued as a scenic base with latex interior paint and he starts pouring scenic materials right away. Let’s just say it outright, Chris and I share the same issues: we are both enthusiastic about everything train and impatient. Fortunately, there is a reliable backbone to this madness which is our love of mundane railroading. At a meeting earlier this year at Hunther Hughson’s house, he demonstrated a slice of that layout building technique and let’s just say we were all impressed with the results. In his proverbial humility, Chris downplayed a little bit the system, but it’s certainly a viable option for many people. And he handled these little pieces of layout very roughly over the years, including several trip in his backpack, to make sure it could last… and sure it did.


Another experiment that impressed me was my own photoshoot module I completed earlier this summer. It was built several years ago using a piece of 1’’ foam framed with some pieces of wood. It was cheap… dirt cheap and was left for years in Louis-Marie’s basement, exposed to humidity and temperature variation. I was pretty sure it would warp badly, but it did survive… Better, it’s feather light, making it perfect to move around depending on lighting conditions for pictures. Certainly, I could use something like that for a layout. At that point, I knew I had enough meaningful information to make a decision. And I certainly set myself a goal that it wasn’t a permanent layout, but only an experiment to push as far as I could.


The track plan was derived from the classic British tradition, which means a passing track (loop) and a siding. I know I have a strong hatred of overcomplicated staging devices, so I gave myself the challenge of making sure all the actions would fit within the layout boundaries, except a short shunting lead.


The footprint was based on dimensions that I felt would be easy to move around between my train room, my office and my workshop. 6 feet long is nice, but 5 feet fits perfectly my Ikea Kallax shelves and my desk. Also, it’s long enough to feel immersed within the scene. It may seems short, but it’s enough to handle a 4 cars long train and a locomotive, which is plenty enough for a single industry layout.


Depth is also another crucial parameter and I elected to keep it at 12’’. It’s a standard measure and makes for a layout that is easier to handle. At 16’’, it can be an issue under some conditions. Since the Kallax shelves are 15’’-16’’ wide, it leaves enough room at the back to keep decorations and objects displayed on the wall were they are.


Now, what’s the theme? Nothing more than the old Quebec South Shore Railway from years ago with the small feed mill. I reworked the track plan to be tighter, but everything else is the same, including the ubiquitous Highway 20 concrete overpass used as a scenic break. I always loved the simplicity of that design and felt it was worth revisiting once more. It’s also suitable for various eras, from the 1950s up to the 2020s. It can be a MMA/CMQ line were larger modern covered hoppers are shuffled around, or something older where 40ft reefers and boxcars are running along B/A tank cars, stock cars and coal hoppers.

At the moment of writing this article, which is about 3 days after construction started, I can confirm it’s taking shape. At first, I built a light pine frame covered with a melamine shelf. I quickly discovered it was far too heavy and replaced it with ¼” lightweight plywood. I haven’t reinforced yet that baseboard, but I may be tempted to add some braces underneath. It would then be easy to convert it into a torsion box if ever required. It must be stressed the great quality of Chris’ modus operandi is to refrain from using wet products on the baseboard, preferring glues and carpet tape to protect it from humidity.


This basic baseboard was covered with 1’’ thick foam secured with No More Nails adhesive. This protect the plywood from wet scenery process and provide enough depth to carve ditches and play with topography. Cork roadbed isn’t glued but kept in place by double face carpet tape. The same tape is also used to secure tracks to cork. This is not an ideal technique because you can’t move around the tracks were there are secured to the tape. It’s almost impossible to move it again if you pressed it firmly onto the tape. The bond is almost instantaneous like CA glue which can be seen as an advantage and a serious caveat. Nevertheless, I had so little track to install it was manageable.


More to come as I continue developing this small layout concept. I have also several other designs in mind, including another British-type micro layout based on a 32" x 9.5" floating shelf.

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