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!)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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:

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(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.

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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.

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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…

First visit to the Algonquin Railway

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On Sunday, I hopped the 506 Carlton streetcar and headed east for an operating session on the Algonquin Railway – a terrific HO scale shelf layout in a spare room that’s being built by Ryan Mendell. (Ryan recently visited my layout for the first time and was keen to return the favour.)

Ryan is doing a terrific job. He has a great eye for detail, and is obviously an accomplished modeller. What’s particularly impressive is that he’s only been back in the hobby for a few years after a long time away from it for all the usual reasons. From his layout design, to the equipment, to the structures and scenery, everything looks like the product of a modeller with decades of experience under his belt. Well done!

I’ve recently been working on trees for the St. Williams area of my layout, so I was particularly interested in Ryan’s tree-building efforts. Click on the image, below, to visit his blog and learn how he makes those terrific Eastern White Pines:

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The afternoon gave me some great ideas for filling in the space under my taller trees with saplings and other plantings to give my forested areas more bulk. I predict another visit to the craft store in the near future to pick up some craft brooms and other materials. And I’m going to build a few of those pines, just because they look great.

The Algonquin Railway runs very nicely and we spent a most satisfying hour or so switching out typical railway customers in northern Ontario, aided for part of the session by Ryan’s young son – who will one day make a fine railway modelling enthusiast, I expect.

After our session, we retired to The Feathers for lamb and ale stews, pints, and more conversation, and I had much to think about on the streetcar ride home.

Thanks for the great afternoon, Ryan! I’m looking forward to our next get-together…

The Green Line

Two posts on other blogs caught my attention this week.

To start, Marty McGuirk shares a few of the lessons he’s learned from building four large model railways over the past two decades. Click on the image, below, to read more…

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I suspect Marty’s post is, in part, the result of a conversation he and Bernard Kempinski had recently about how layout size/complexity affects happiness in the hobby. Bernie has created a terrific graph that illustrates the relationship. Again, click on the image, below, to read more…

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I’m definitely on the “green line” on that graph – and I suspect most people in the hobby are too. In North America, many publications (and their advertisers) promote the “bigger is better” (red) or “large and complex is the only approach” (blue) lines of thinking. That can lead the new hobbyist to attempt layouts that are beyond their skill level or too demanding of their time, energy and money. There’s nothing quite as discouraging as spending several hours working on a layout and then realizing that the progress made was insignificant, compared to the whole.

Less complex layouts can be of any size – my home layout occupies 15 by 30 feet and if I had twice the space I’d do the same layout. Yet because they’re less complex, they offer measurable rewards after every work session.

I remember building two turnouts in an evening, and realizing I was 1/4 of the way to having all of my turnouts done. That encouraged me to build the remaining six over the balance of the week. Had I been faced with a project requiring, say, 100 turnouts, I might have defied Marty’s observation that “There’s nothing worth watching on television” and spent my time avoiding the task instead of tackling it with enthusiasm, knowing that there was an end in sight.

Why trees are important

That may seem like an odd title for a post on a layout design blog, but bear with me…

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Over the past week, I’ve been building trees for the Lynn Valley area of my home layout. (If you want to read more about this, visit my Port Rowan blog.)

I enjoy building stuff – it’s why I’m in this hobby as opposed to, say, a collecting-driven hobby such as sports cards, coins or stamps. And it’s a good thing that I enjoy building stuff, because there are more than 50 trees in my model of the valley – so far. I’ll need at least that many again to complete the scene:
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With the exception of a few evergreens that I acquired from a friend, I have built all of these trees from basic materials: wire, flexible modelling paste, poly-fiber and leaf material.

I don’t do this because I’m trying to save money on trees, although I just did the calculation and each home-made tree cost me less than $2.50 to create so there’s certainly an argument for doing it oneself.

And I certainly don’t do it to save time because each tree takes one to three hours (spread over three or four days because there’s a lot of drying time involved in crafting the armatures).

Rather, it’s a matter of personal preference.

I’m fussy about trees. I appreciate that to be cost effective, commercial offerings need to be mass produced. But I’m underwhelmed by most commercial trees – not only the ready to plant ones, but also the kits. So to get the trees I want, I have to build them myself.

What do I want? For starters, I feel that each tree has to be custom-crafted to fit the space. What height does it have to be? What shape? Is it in the middle of a forest, or at the edge? Is it near water, or a field, or other open space where it can grow sideways as well as up to catch more sunlight? And does it have a practical role to play on the layout, such as hiding a non-prototypical tunnel or the spot where a river hits the backdrop?

I also feel that trees need to be big – much bigger than we typically model them. And I feel they need to be well done because trees tell a meaningful story to the greatest number of people who see my layout. In fact, I would argue that they tell a more meaningful story than my locomotives. That’s because few people could look at my locomotives and determine whether they’re accurate models of the real thing:

– For those who are not in the hobby, or who know nothing about CNR steam locomotives, the most they could say with certainty is, “Yes – those are steam locomotives”.

– For those who know something about CNR steam locomotives, the most they could say with certainty is, “Yes – those are CNR steam locomotives”.

– Only those few who know a lot about CNR steam locomotives could say with certainty, “Yes – that’s a CNR 2-6-0”.

– Even fewer still could say “Yes – that’s how CNR 80 looked in the era that’s being modelled”.

By contrast, everyone who sees my layout knows what a tree looks like.

– An arborist or avid gardener might look at my trees the way a CNR steam expert looks at my locomotives. And they would probably find fault with my trees, which – I’ll freely admit – tend to be generic.

– But most visitors will find them convincing – more convincing than if I’d followed a quicker, easier method to create my forest. (I know this from the reactions of visitors, as well at how people react when I post scenery pictures to my layout blog or other online fora.)

There are many people in this hobby who will argue that convincing trees aren’t worth spending the time on. I’ll only say that’s a personal decision – and let my tree models argue in my favour.

There are lots of articles telling us how to cover scale acres of landscape with forest using techniques billed as “fast” or “easy” – or both. Again, whether one is satisfied with the results is a personal decision. But for me, trees are a no-compromise item. A convincing tree is worth the time invested.

However, they do take time.

As I noted, I’ve built almost 50 trees for the Lynn Valley area of my layout. That means I’ve invested 50 to 150 hours to build these trees – and yet I’m only half done. Then there are the other areas of the layout, which will probably require another 50 trees – at least, because as every layout builder who has planted trees knows, it requires an astonishing number of them to make a forest.

Not everybody pursues craftsmanship in this hobby. But I try to – and one of the advantages of designing and building an achievable layout is that it has allowed me to invest the time required to build the things I need done right. For me, that includes building convincing trees to frame the scenes through which my trains run.

Along the way, I’ve learned a new technique that has added to my satisfaction with the hobby – a technique I would probably have rejected out of hand as “too time consuming” had I been trying to build a huge layout.

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The wrong way to think about “minimum”

Yeah – “wrong” is a strong word and it’s bound to cause some grief.

But I’ve been designing layouts for myself and others for about 40 years, and based on that experience I would argue that most people in the hobby think about the wrong things when they think about the term “minimum”.

I saw examples of this in several threads I followed online this week. The discussions were on various fora and newsgroups – and they dealt with various scales, gauges, eras and so on. But they all shared a common thought:

The person who started the discussion was trying to figure out how to get away with using a smaller minimum radius or a smaller minimum turnout size for their layout.

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(The largest turnout on my S scale layout – a Number 10 at St. Williams, Ontario – is large enough that it looks like a turnout on a real railway. If ever I build another layout, I will use more of these. My minimum turnout is a Number 7 – a size I only use for freight-only spur tracks.)

Presumably, the people who started these discussions want to maximize the fun factor of their layout by maximizing the amount of layout they can fit into their train room. The theory is that the more track one packs into the space, the more fun the layout will be.

(Track manufacturers certainly like this theory because they sell more track that way. And many of their layout-building customers demand Number 4 and Number 6 turnouts – so those are the most common sizes produced. Fewer manufacturers offer a Number 8 – and I don’t know of any that offer a Number 9 or larger as a ready-to-use product.)

But quantity isn’t the only way to measure the fun in a layout. Instead of trying to determine the minimum radius one can get away with, a better approach – I believe – is to determine the maximum radius one can accommodate. If one insists on considering a minimum, here’s a good place to start:

What’s the minimum amount of trackage I really need to create a satisfying layout?

Real railways maximize curve radius and turnout sizes. Broader curves and larger turnouts translate into higher track speed and less wheel wear. At the same time, real railways minimize the amount of track they build, paring it down to the essentials – because track costs money to build and maintain. A real railway will never use two turnouts where one will suffice.

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(The Number 10 turnout for St. Williams – under construction. Look at how long that frog is, when compared to the caboose.)

Those who are interested in building train sets will continue to focus on minimum track standards, to pack the most track into their available space. But what they’ll end up with is a train set. Even the largest layouts will look like a train set if the curves are too tight and the available real estate is packed to the edges with ties and rail.

At the other end of the spectrum, those who are interested in replicating a real railway in miniature would do well to pay more attention to maximizing their track standards – and minimizing the amount of track they plan to build in their layout space.

There are many good reasons for this approach. But here’s one to think about:

Nobody ever tore down a layout because the curve radius was too large, or the turnouts were too big.

But lots of layouts have ended up in the bin because curves and turnouts were too small.