Room for context

I’m in a bit of a British railways mood these days – in large part because I’m working on some 7mm (British O scale) passenger cars*. So while poking about my library of railway books, it’s no surprise that I pulled this one off the shelf for another look:

GWR Modelling V3

In the book, author Stephen Williams describes his layout, based on a Great Western Railway branch line terminus. Because it’s designed to take to exhibitions, he made the benchwork as compact as possible so it would be easier to carry and to fit into a vehicle. Then, he makes the following observation, which really struck a chord with me:

However, now the model is complete, I realise I have made a significant error in excluding all the non-railway buildings. Because the model station is surrounded by grass, it looks for all the world like a rural outpost when in reality, it is set within a built-up area. It is probably too late to do much about this now, but more thought at the design stage might have led to the creation of a more convincing model.

What an important lesson!

The author’s layout certainly looks lovely – but it does indeed have a rural flair to it. Given that I know next to nothing about GWR branch lines in general or about the author’s specific prototype, I noticed nothing “wrong” with the layout until I read the above quoted passage. From that perspective, the layout is a success even though it presents as rural instead of urban – because I enjoyed looking at it. But others more familiar with the subject may react differently: They may feel, as the author appears to, that his prototype has been mis-represented. (Or they may fill in the missing pieces – they’re just beyond the edges of the benchwork, after all, and most of us are really good at filling in missing pieces when we know them to be there.)

I should stress that this is in no way a criticism of the author’s layout: I think it’s superb. But I’m glad that he pointed out this oversight so that I and others might learn from it.

In relating it to my own layout, I’m relieved that I included so much space around the railway – especially in the terminal at Port Rowan:

Port Rowan - overview of terminal from meadow
Click on the image to visit my Port Rowan website, where you’ll find lots of other photos of the railway in context

To be honest, I lucked out with this: the terminal includes a turntable, which is approximately 12″ in diameter, and therefore needed a foot of depth in the benchwork. But nothing else needed that space – there are no industries to model around the turnable, or other tracks.

I could have placed the turntable in a blob off the front of the layout and saved myself some space. Instead, I simply kept the front edge of the layout deep enough to accommodate the feature, and filled the rest of the space with meadow and orchard:

First Time Here - 20
This view from a few years ago shows the Port Rowan yard as seen by an arriving train. The second switch along leads off to the right – and you can follow that track through the meadow to the turntable in the distance…

Imagine how different the above scene would look if instead of orchards, I had built large warehouses on either side of the main track – or if I’d added multi-storey brick buildings along the backdrop and a combination of dirt and pavement between track and fascia. The same track arrangement would’ve told a completely different story while remaining functionally identical.

To be fair, I am building a home layout – not something that has to travel – so it’s perhaps easier to include space beyond the railway. Even so, I might have narrowed the benchwork through much of this yard in order to gain some space in the aisles. Having read the highlighted passage from this book, however, I’m glad that I included space for context.

If you’re in the design stages of your layout, consider adding an extra 6″ behind the scene, and 3″-6″ in front of it. Sometimes that isn’t possible – but chances are you can do it without sacrificing comfort in the room, or access to the track for operations or maintenance. This little bit extra is especially important for shelf layouts where those few inches may make a huge difference by placing the railway in the larger scene.

*If you want to know more about the 7mm Great Western Railway passenger cars, click on the book cover in this post.

A retreat? Or a way forward?

Wayne Slaughter is an exceptional modeller who is building the Dominion & New England Railway, an achievable layout in 1:48. (If you have never visited… hit the go button on your coffee maker or plug in the tea kettle, finish reading this, then grab a hot beverage and go spend some time in Wayne’s world. It’s worth the trip.)

Wayne recently posted to his blog that after a sustained effort to attempt to make it work, he’s decided to (in his words) “Retreat from Proto:48″ in favour of O gauge (1.25” between the railheads).

I’m sure it was not a decision that he took lightly – but, I also agree with him that it’s the right one for him. As Wayne explains on his blog, he was becoming frustrated with the added expense and difficulty of regauging locomotives and freight cars – especially any steam engines he would like to run, which would require new drivers to be turned.

St George Freight House
(Wayne’s beautiful model of a freight house in 1:48. The track in front of it is Proto:48 – for now – but will soon be re-gauged to O scale (1.25″). Will that slightly wider gauge make any difference to the scene? Of course not: prototype modelling is less about the technical details and more about the approach. Click on the photo to read more about Wayne’s decision to re-gauge his layout.)

Wayne was also finding that some of the details embraced by Proto:48 modellers, such as realistic couplers, were causing more problems than they solved. I’ve run into these sorts of dilemmas on my own, S scale layout: I gave realistic couplers a fair test over several weeks, but found that they dominated post-operating session conversations, and not in a positive way. I switched back to Kadee couplers and now we talk about other things, which is as it should be.

You can read more about Wayne’s decision on his blog by clicking on the image above. But I’ll add that there’s an important lesson here:

I’m a firm believer that we should try to stretch our skill sets and that if we’re interested in prototype modelling it’s worth striving for accuracy. But we should not let such ambitions kill our enjoyment of the hobby, just for the sake of being “more correct”.

Proto:48 works for some – but not for all. A layout is only achievable if it’s one that you look forward to working on: If it becomes yet another source of frustration in one’s life, it’s going to stagnate. And what do you want out of the hobby? A “100 percent” layout that exists only in your mind? Or a “95 percent” layout that is fully realized in your train room?

Back when I first met Wayne online, he and I were both fans of the Maine two-footers. When Bachmann released its On30 Forney, there was some discussion amongst the On2 community about what this would mean for modelling the Maine two-footers in 1:48.

Some people focused in on the few inches in difference in gauge and said “30 inch gauge isn’t Maine two-footing”. But others – myself included – argued that if everything else was modelled with respect to the prototype, the gauge wouldn’t make a difference. We suggested things like “Use slightly wider ties so the rails look like they’re in the correct spot, proportionately’, “Model prototype equipment instead of using Bachmann’s three-foot inspired rolling stock’, and so on.

An On30 layout built by Lou Sassi has recently started making the rounds in Kalmbach publications and proves that this is a viable way to model a Maine two-footer in 1:48. Lou’s layout is entirely convincing – and the gauge doesn’t matter. By contrast, I’ve also seen On2 layouts that are not convincing because the builder made other compromises that were more noticeable.

I’m glad Wayne shared his thoughts about this change via his blog. It’s not a retreat – it’s a way forward. Based on the photos on his website, Wayne is building an awesome layout in O scale – and it will be “Proto”, regardless of the spacing between the rails. This is an excellent decision on his part, because it allows him to move ahead, instead of having his hobby derailed by 0.073 of an inch.

Can you tell me how to get… how to get to Prince Street?

I sure can!

I recently spent some time reviewing posts on Prince Street, the blog written by my friend Chris Mears. He has a lot of thoughtful things to say about layout design that go well beyond “where to put the track”.

It’s safe to say that nowhere else in the hobby will you find a post about layout planning that includes such observational gems as…

“When we draw this way we leave evidence of our humanity in each line each time that line projects past an intersection with another line and in the smudges on the page from stray graphite caught under our hands as we move about that drawing. Those marks connect us through time to those designers and looking at these drawings you see them as each building’s designers did and you share a moment with them.”

… but that’s just the start. You can read more of this fascinating post by Chris, by clicking on the following image:

I can't find this book

If, like me, you’re a lifelong student of layout design then you might also enjoy Chris’ thoughts on breaking out of the classic, rectangular form. Click on each of the images, below, to read more on his blog – and enjoy if you visit!

Cake post image

Broken View post image

ProtoThrottle: A game-changer

ProtoTrottle and box

Layout designs are influenced by many choices. Typical ones include favourite scale, favourite era, favourite prototype and favourite theme. Sometimes, layouts are designed and built because a manufacturer has produced a piece of favourite equipment – some examples include the many O scale railroads inspired by the Maine two-foot gauge lines, but built in On30 to take advantage of Bachmann’s 2-4-4T Forney locomotive.

I expect that we can now add to those influences, a favourite DCC throttle.

Scott Thornton, Michael Petersen and Nathan Holmes have teamed up to create the ProtoThrottle, which is manufactured and sold through Iowa Scaled Engineering, co-owned by Michael and Nathan.

This is a wireless DCC throttle that replicates common functions on a diesel control stand in a realistic manner. Instead of a speed knob, there’s a throttle handle that provides eight notches plus idle. Instead of a toggle or push button, there’s a three position reverser handle. Instead of assigning a function button to the brake, there’s a progressive brake handle with built-in resistance. Instead of a button for the horn, there’s a spring-loaded handle. And so on. The controls are mounted on an aluminum anodized faceplate with clearly engraved markings, as shown in the lead photo.

These throttles started shipping in early July and mine arrived this week. To connect to a DCC system, it requires one of two types of receiver – one for NCE and Lenz systems, and one for Digitrax, ESU and JMRI installations. (I ordered one of each since I own both an ESU system and a Lenz system.)

What does this have to do with layout design? A lot.

The ProtoThrottle team started taking pre-orders in April, for a run of 150 throttles. (I suspect those sold out quickly. If so, I suspect another run will be done, soon.) Now, people who placed pre-orders are receiving their throttles and hooking them up to their layouts. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

For such a sophisticated piece of equipment, set-up is relatively straightforward. It’s not completely plug and play: depending on your DCC system, you may have to adjust some configurations on the receiver, but the instructions walk the user through that.

And if you’re still having trouble, there’s an excellent online user group. Based on the posts to the ProtoThrottle IO group, there have been a few teething issues – some involving set-up and the tweaks one must make to the receiver to interface it with one’s DCC system, others involving tuning DCC decoders from various manufacturers to optimize how they respond to the ProtoThrottle.

But Scott, Michael and Nathan are part of the user community. They have been wonderful about sharing progress on the development of these, and are now doing an amazing job of helping customers get up and running. They are assisted by the many customers who have successfully set up their throttles – and are now doing a terrific job helping others get onboard. They’re not just answering questions: They’re shooting and sharing videos showing how to set up the throttle or configure various brands of decoders.

The best part is, those who are now running trains using their ProtoThrottle are sharing glowing reviews. As expected, it’s changing the way they run their layouts – for the better.

And this is where layout design comes in.

The combination of this control stand and today’s DCC decoders – which deliver exceptional motor control and impressive sound – kind of screams out for a shelf-style switching layout in one of the larger scales, such as O.

A four-axle road switcher – a GP-9, RS-11, or RS-3, for example – would have plenty of space for a large speaker, and in O scale it would be large enough to really convey the mass of the real thing.

A shelf-style configuration, mounted high on the wall, would ensure that viewers are always up close to the action.

And the use of hand-thrown turnouts (perhaps controlled by garden scale switch stands) and prototype-action couplers (such as these ones offered by Protocraft) would put the operator right in the scene.

What better way to run such a layout than with a miniature control stand?

Proto Throttle - Port Rowan

Even a small locomotive – such as this S scale GE 44-Tonner on my Port Rowan layout – will be more fun with this control stand. While my home layout is definitely set in the steam era, I do have a couple of pieces of motive power run by internal combustion engines – and I think they’ll be seeing a lot more track time once I set up the ProtoThrottle. I’m looking forward to it!

Presentation (McCook’s Landing)

Over on my Port Rowan blog, a recent post – “Roweham 2017” – generated a lot of discussion about how we present our layouts to others. Roweham is a well executed exhibition layout built by my friend Brian Dickey to 7mm scale (British O scale / 1:43). It provides many valuable lessons about presentation that can be applied whether one is taking a layout on the exhibition circuit, or planning a home layout. I encourage you to read through the comments on that post if you have not.

My friend Gerard Fitzgerald sure did. Gerard has given this subject a lot of thought as well, and shared his thoughts with me. I present them here. (Thanks for contributing to the discussion, Gerard!)

 photo Presentation-McCooks-02_zpsscssinzb.jpg

On the question of “professional presentation” I include some photos of McCook’s Landing, the Civil War roadshow layout that Bernie Kempinski and I – plus a few other folks including Paul Dolkos – built to take to some shows a few years back. A great deal of planning went into this freelanced layout, which allowed us to introduce O scale Civil War model railroading to people at a national and regional NMRA convention.

These photos were taken when the layout was set up in my living room a few years back for an NMRA home open house. The layout was designed to be as photogenic and presentable as possible. Bernie’s mom made the curtains and also probably the red white and blue bunting.

 photo Presentation-McCooks-03_zpsp6oz4eao.jpg

Much time was spent on designing a layout that was similar to a British exhibition layout but which captured a very rare American prototype. O scale Civil War is probably even a bit smaller than the equipment used at Roweham and so operations were pretty interesting.

The layout had a small fiddle yard behind the schedule/chalkboard.

We received a great deal of positive attention when the layout was displayed and it was a very big attraction at the Atlanta NMRA National (when people could find the display room).

Putting as much effort into the design and construction of a shadowbox/display layout to make it attractive and presentable – to visitors, other modelers, and potential operators – is extremely important. Why people do not always put that much work and planning into small layouts always sort of baffles me.

One of the Model Railroader editors later said this design gave them some ideas for one of their later project layouts. For some reason I recall that at both my home open house, and the MER convention, a number of non-hobbyists wound up stopping by and were really intrigued and excited by the layout and that was quite gratifying. I must admit the layout was very impressive in person. We sweated the “window” approach with the vertical supports, which made the individual units stronger and lighter. However in operating and observing from the front you just sort of forgot about them. Bernie and I debated that approach for a while and we were surprised the supports seemed invisible after a while.

 photo Presentation-McCooks-01_zpskf2tpsau.jpg

In the USA, for whatever reason some people seem to associate “presentation” more with home crew lounges than small layouts. Not always but one can go to train shows and see some portable and modular layouts that are, for lack of a better description, unfinished. Public shows are about advertising the hobby to some extent, not to mention putting your best foot forward as a layout builder, but the small British display layout approach just hasn’t taken root in the states. Maybe someday … but I doubt it.

Sadly Bernie tore his sections down and the only section left is my Biscuit Run bridge unit, which I have downstairs along with the other benchwork components. And yes, the legs were attached and folded down and there was lighting.

 photo Presentation-McCooks-04_zpsdtvlmqmi.jpg

I need to finally write something up about McCook’s Landing and send it to Model Railroader, which I promised a while back.

You can see lots of photos and there is more information at Bernie’s blog too:

United States Military Railroads…
Home Page
McCook’s Landing category

– Gerard

Gerard J. Fitzgerald
Charlottesville, Virginia

Titus and Gene on the(ir) future

I recently ran across a couple of interesting blog posts that address the future of the hobby from two perspectives.

The first, by Titus (my apologies – I don’t know your last name) touches on a number of issues about which I’ve been thinking a lot lately. And several of Titus’ thoughts are directly applicable to the Achievable Layouts that I encourage others to embrace.

Have a look at Model Railroading, Media, and Trends and join the conversation on Titus’ blog. I have.

The second post that got me thinking is by my friend Gene Deimling, a well-known Proto:48 modeler who in the process of downsizing his hobby. Have a look at OPINION: Getting Older? – and, again, join the conversation on his blog.

Both of these modelers are expressing thoughts about the future of their hobby. In Titus’ case, it’s about the future for everyone, while in Gene’s case it’s about the future for himself. Despite those differences in approach, I feel that both are defining what for them will be an Achievable Layout (or, possibly, no layout at all).

If you want to do this as well, I think the first step is self-awareness.

Be honest with yourself about how prolific you are in the hobby. At the same time, be honest about the investment required (in terms of in time, money and other resources) in order to build a layout to your standards (whatever they are). Then match your layout ambitions to your resources.

I’ve provided several examples on this blog of what, for me, are Achievable Layouts. I’m confident that I could build any one of these, given the space they require, to the standard that I demand of myself. Your milage may vary – but until you do the calculation, how will you know?

Ops with Ryan, David (and Doug)

 photo Ryan-Ops-20151030-05_zps5gfwjfyu.jpg

On Friday, my friend David Woodhead and I hopped the 506 Carleton streetcar across town to visit Ryan Mendell, for an operating session on his lovely (and achievable) Algonquin Railway. It was David’s first visit, and my second. Accordingly, David perched on the engineer’s seat while I took on the conductor’s duties:

 photo Ryan-Ops-20151030-03_zpsehzgpbog.jpg
(Ryan (r) points out a detail on the paperwork for me as I prepare for my shift)

Ryan returned to the hobby a few years ago after a long hiatus, but his layout achieves a realism that even much more experienced modellers can’t match. I think this is because – either by design or by accident – Ryan has trained his eye to really see what’s in the real world, and then learn the skills to successfully interpret it in HO. The good news is, when one pursues the hobby in this way it doesn’t take a lot of layout to deliver challenges and satisfaction.

As an example, Ryan decided on this layout that he wanted to learn how to use photo backdrops. This went beyond buying a pre-made offering: he found a suitable location and season for his prototype, took the photos, cleaned them up and stitched them together on a computer, then printed them out. Then, after mounting them on his layout, he took a lot of care to blend the background into the foreground – even painting a road onto the backdrop in one place where it continues off the back edge of the layout. It’s very effective, and in the process Ryan challenged himself to go beyond his comfort zone.

David was particularly impressed by the small office at the wood lot, and took quite a few photos of it.

 photo Ryan-Ops-20151030-01_zpskvpcd0g0.jpg

 photo Ryan-Ops-20151030-04_zpszrk1qjfi.jpg

It’s a small, simple structure, but I enjoy all the detail that Ryan has added to it – including stacks, vents and a power meter. (Poles and wires will come later.)

The ops session went smoothly. After a visit to my layout, Ryan built his own version of my waybill boxes and generated some half-size prototype-style paperwork to use in sessions.

 photo Ryan-Ops-20151030-02_zpsjdajvpyd.jpg

We had a half-dozen cars to move about, and it took about an hour to perform the work. The session went smoothly. Once the work was done, we spent a bit of time in Ryan’s workshop, looking at some future projects. I won’t reveal them here – Ryan has a blog for that – but his layout can only get better and better.

(Thanks to David for sharing his photos from our ops session.)

Afterwards, we retired to The Feathers where I had an excellent roast beef dinner with all the trimmings followed by Guinness Cake – all washed down with a few excellent pints of Ontario craft beer. Realizing that we had a fourth seat at the table, we called up Doug Currie – another friend who lives close-by – and he joined us almost before I could put my phone back in my pocket.

We had a splendid evening out, and it was a great way to end the week. David and I staggered home via streetcar in the wee hours of the morning, and we’re looking forward to another visit.

Thanks, Ryan, for hosting us on your wonderful layout!

The Hidden Blessing of Constraints (thanks, Lance!)

Lance Mindheim has written a terrific post called The Hidden Blessing of Constraints. I wish everybody in the hobby would read it, and heed it.

Lance concludes the post with several pieces of advice. To this, I would add two points (related to each other):

Select a prototype to model: Learning to model what is there will force you to challenge your abilities in a way that freelancing might not, because when freelancing it’s always possible to adapt one’s vision to one’s skills or available product.

Pick a manageable piece of railway to build, so that as you tackle the various skills required you see real progress on your layout.

There are plenty of examples on this blog that satisfy both of these points. If you’re new to this blog, I encourage you to go exploring…