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.

Jim Dufour’s B&M Cheshire Branch

This is one of my all-time favourite layouts, and definitely qualifies as achievable. Jim Dufour is building a slice of the Boston & Maine Railroad’s Cheshire branch through New Hampshire in HO scale.

Jim’s layout is basement-sized, but doesn’t fill the basement. There’s plenty of space for people as the layout hugs the basement walls. Jim resisted the temptation most people would have to pack the space with large yards, roundhouses, and major towns. Instead, he is modelling – very, very well – a couple of smaller places on the line.

At the west end, there’s Joslin. A depot, a passing siding, and a spur behind the station. Heading east, there are a couple of spurs before reaching a passing siding and station at Webb.

Continuing east on reaches the main town on the layout – Troy. Here, one finds a depot, a couple of other railway structures, and a couple of spur – one of which acts as a team track. There’s also a lap siding and double-ended siding serving the freight house. All very modest.

Next up is Fitzwilliam, with a siding and two spurs, surrounded by a depot, freight house, and a section house.

The last location modelled is State Line, with a depot and freight house on a passing siding. From there, it’s back to staging.

Notice the consistency from town to town: each has a depot, some have a freight house. Some have a spur or two for switching.

As you’ll see in the videos below – shot by our mutual friend David Haney during a recent visit to Jim’s layout – the places look right. There’s space where space should be. There’s great attention to detail. And the best part is that since this is still a layout under construction, there’s much more to come.

Jim’s layout is proof that an achievable layout can also be an excellent one. I always look forward to following Jim’s progress.

Curving a straight prototype

In the comments on another posting, a reader wondered how far one could deviate from a prototype while still calling it a model of a prototype. For example, if the prototype location is straight, can one curve it (say, 90 degrees, to model the location on an L-shaped shelf)?

As with so many things in this hobby, for me the answer is, “It depends”.

On my Port Rowan layout, my rendition of Port Rowan, Ontario is straight (like the prototype), although compressed somewhat. But while the railway’s line through the next town up the line – St. Williams – was straight, my version of St. Williams is L-shaped. It also features a structure I scratch-built based on a prototype in Cheltenham, Ontario – 174km away.
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(The west end of St. Williams is a product of my imagination – and I can live with that)

St. Williams plays an important role on my layout – but it’s a supporting role. My real interest was in modelling the activity in the terminal at Port Rowan.

What’s more, I only have one prototype photo of St. Williams, showing the area around the station. I would not put the station on a curve (although I did move the siding switch closer than on the prototype):
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(Not 100% accurate – but it works for me)

That said, I also know that I have designed St. Williams to operate like the prototype. St. Williams had one double-ended siding and one stub-end spur, so that’s what I’ve modelled – even if I have monkeyed with the physical arrangement somewhat. Building St. Williams with a lap-siding, or a wye, or a yard, or a diamond crossing with the Lake Erie & Northern, or even a couple more stub-end sidings – all in the name of “enhancing” the operation – would also change the character of the place so much that it would no longer be St. Williams. At least, not to me.

So, it depends. It depends on the prototype. It depends on one’s tolerance for variation from the prototype – keeping in mind that sometimes the variations are necessary if one wants to build the prototype in the space on has. It depends on what prototype photos one has – what scenes one wants to re-create.

And it depends on what scenes one wants to enhance. I would argue that the curve through St. Williams actually makes my modelled version more interesting, visually, than the prototype. I love the look of the main and siding swinging around the cornfield in the first photo in this post – a view I could not enjoy if I had built St. Williams more faithfully.

“Explaining” Your Layout

I’m borrowing the title for this from well-known Southern Pacific modeller Tony Thompson. The latest entry on Tony’s blog is called “Explaining” Your Layout and it articulates something I’ve thought about a lot with my own layout projects – namely, that most of the people who see our layouts are probably not members of the hobby. They are our non-hobby friends, our spouse’s friends, our family, colleagues from work or school, the guy who arrives to fix the furnace, and so on.

For a layout to be successful, I think – really, really successful – it’s those people that we have to impress.

Non-hobbyists won’t know the difference between a 2-6-0 and a 4-6-0 – or a GP-7 and a GP-9. But they sure know the difference between a 1950 Chevy and a 1980 Toyota. They also know the difference between a Maple and an Oak – and that neither of these look like a clump of lichen stuck on a toothpick.

That’s why on my current layout – representing Port Rowan, Ontario in the 1950s (in S scale) – I have invested a lot of time and effort (and a fair bit of money) to try to build convincing scenery.

Trees are tall:
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(Click on the image to find out more about my trees)

Fields and orchards consume a lot of real estate on my layout and require a lot of plants to fill. But I think they’re big enough to convince a casual visitor that they’re looking at a farm, not a garden:

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(Click on the image to find out more about the cornfield)

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(Click on the image to find out more about the apple orchard)

And so on.

It’s also why I’ve paid attention to scene composition – especially, to leaving space between structures and scenes. I haven’t packed the space with track. Instead, I’ve set the railway into its environment:
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At least, that’s my goal. My layout is very much a work in progress and there’s a lot to do still. For example, I need to build more trees for the Lynn Valley – a lot more. But so far, I’m pleased with how it’s working out.

Great post, Tony – thanks for sharing it!

“If I had more space…”

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(Mixed Train M233 arrives in Port Rowan on my S scale layout. Would more space for the layout make this event any different? No. Click on the photo to visit my layout blog.)

“More space” is a wish almost universal in the hobby. Everybody would like more room than they have for their layout.

I’m quite happy with the space that I have, but I certainly would not object if I walked into the Trainment one morning and discovered another 50, 25 or even 10 percent more room.

If I’d had more space before I started my current, S scale, layout… I would not be working in S scale. A couple of years ago when I was contemplating a clean sheet of graph paper and a change of layout, I hoped to fit a finescale O (Proto:48) layout into my space, representing portions of the steam-era Southern Pacific’s Friant Branch. But O scale was just a little too big for my long but narrow space. Curve radii was the big issue and if I’d been working in a wider space that issue would’ve been solved. So, O it would’ve been – and SP instead of CNR.

But, the space I had encouraged me to look beyond my Proto:48 goals, and I ended up doing the CNR’s Port Rowan branch in S:
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Upon reflection, I’m really glad I did. It’s been a great decision – not only for my layout space, but also for the social side of the hobby. I’ve strengthened some friendships and made new friends as a result of the scale and the layout. No regrets.

Knowing what I know now, if I were to acquire larger space (and it’s not in the cards) then I would continue with my present theme. In fact, I’d build pretty much the same layout. I’m really happy with the arrangement of “Staging – Intermediate Town – Terminal” and feel no desire to add to it with, say, the yard at Simcoe – or even another online town such as Vittoria.

In the case of Simcoe, the extra operational benefits would be offset by the need to build and maintain a fairly extensive yard and set of industrial spurs, plus another turntable. It would require a lot more structures. It might even require more people to operate prototypically. No thanks. I’ve come to realize I don’t need more trackage to have fun with the layout: I’m having buckets of fun as it is. And a place like Vittoria, while another dot on the map, would not add anything operationally to the layout. It would just eat up space I could put to better use.

How? If I had more space, the first thing I would do is increase the minimum radius. Currently, it’s 42 inches and that works, but could be better. Freight cars and small steam are really happy on 42 inch curves. Passenger cars manage it, thanks in part to the 15 mph speed restriction in the CNR time table (and enforced on the layout through custom speed curves for the locomotives). But the varnish does look a bit toylike on those curves. They’d be happier – and I would too – if I’d had the space for curves of 60 inch radius, or even 72 inch radius. So, that would be the first priority.

In line with that, I’d also increase the turnout sizes. I’m already using longer turnouts than typically employed on a model railway. My spurs have #7s, while the runaround track in Port Rowan and the west siding switch in St. Williams are #9. The turnout by the St. Williams depot is #10 – and I love the look. So, if I had more space, I’d bump up the turnout sizes – I’d use #9 on all spurs, and #10 (or even #12) for the double-ended sidings.

Next, I would add more open running space. The layout works fine as is, and the feeling of Going Somewhere is quite strong, I think, on the mainline between St. Williams and Port Rowan. But that feeling could be enhanced:

I would start by adding mainline running between the staging area and St. Williams:
Test-fit field photo Tobacco-BackField-02_zps828739c8.jpg

I would add more houses to the area around the St. Williams station – for example, on the east side of the road crossing, which is currently occupied by the tobacco farm. This would push the tobacco field and its related kilns further east, towards Simcoe. I’d do my best to make the transition from town to farmland less abrupt. From an operations perspective, this would give the engineer opportunity to get out of the staging area and up to speed for a bit of open country running before having to worry about slowing for the road crossing and station stop at St. Williams.

The second place to add running room would be between the Lynn Valley water tank and the apple orchards that mark the entrance to Port Rowan:
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As with the issue in St. Williams, a crew barely gets up to speed after stopping for water before it’s time to slow down again to enter the yard. In addition, while I’m happy with the transition from forested river area, through meadow, to orchards, I think this area would’ve benefitted from more breathing room. I think it would also be a great spot to add a level crossing. I only have one on the layout – at St. Williams. (The orchard crossing in Port Rowan doesn’t count – it’s a farm track, not a public road.) It would be nice to give crews another place to practice their level crossing whistles – preferably on a section of straight track. As it is, a crossing in the meadow to the east of the orchards would look contrived, especially since the main line is on a tight curve through the scene. I want to de-emphasize the curves – not draw the eye to them.

Finally, I would revisit St. Williams to see if I could model it more faithfully to the prototype:
M233 at St. Williams west photo M233-StW-West_zps28961473.jpg

The real St. Williams had a short double-ended siding and was straight – not curved as it is on my layout. The single spur is correct, but it did not branch off from the siding. Rather, it was down the main from it – towards Port Rowan, and a facing-point move for westbound (Port Rowan-bound) trains. Operationally, I can replicate work at St. Williams, and the area around the depot will look reasonably accurate when compared to the single photo I have of the railway through this town. But it could be better.

To reiterate: I would build essentially the same layout again if I had more space. I would focus on making the layout even more relaxed, with broader curves, larger track switches, and more open country running. What I would not do is add towns, yards or complexity – not even additional spurs along the way.

I’m really, really happy with my layout as it is. It’s the right mix of challenges and fun, I can enjoy frequent operating sessions on it – by myself or with friends – and building and maintaining it does not suck up all of my spare time.