Scenery on The Roadshow – on TrainMasters TV

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(Chris Abbott looks on as I add leaves to what will become a whole mess o’ shrubs while behind us, a CNR intermodal train hauling a single-height stack of containers is barrelling past outside)

My layout gets a lot of compliments on the scenery – especially the large meadow around the turntable at Port Rowan. Those of you who want to see how I create meadows will enjoy the final, regularly-scheduled instalment of The Roadshow, currently playing on TrainMasters TV.

With my friend Chris Abbott in the studio to help, I demonstrate how I do basic ground cover, then add grass, bushes, weeds and flowers. The segment runs about an hour and covers all of the steps, step-by-step, to create basic yet convincing scenery, ready for super-detailing. While I model a railway set in the 1950s, I think my meadow-building techniques would make for a good start on the overgrown railway land bordering a modern right of way – the kind one sees right outside the TrainMasters TV studio.

Thanks, again, to TrainMasters TV brass hat Barry Silverthorn for letting me be a part of his terrific show.

Click on the image above – or follow this link – to start watching. You need to be a subscriber to TrainMasters TV to see it, but membership is quite reasonable.

Cooking show scenery

Yesterday, I visited Barry Silverthorn at the TrainMasters TV studios in Belleville to record another instalment of The Roadshow series. I was joined by my friend Chris Abbott, and we spent a delightful few hours in front of the cameras to craft a video on creating a meadow.

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(Barry and Chris look on as I lay out four work-in-progress boards, finished to various stages. Note the backlight on the cabinet, and the camera mounted on the ceiling)

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(Barry ponders a helicopter shot as Christian Cantarutti looks on. The monitor between them allows those on-camera to see what the ceiling-mounted camera is shooting. It takes a lot of people – and equipment – to make great TV)

To prepare for shooting day, I created four 12″ by 12″ demonstration pieces out of foam board insulation. These, I finished to various stages, each building on the previous stage:

1 – Plain foam, roughed up on one surface.
2 – Sculpta-mold applied to create some rolling terrain.
3 – Base coat of paint, plus various scatter materials, glued in place with dilute Weld-Bond.
4 – Static grass applied and airbrushed.

Chris and I used these as our starting points to demonstrate various techniques. (For example, we added scatter material to board number 2 and static grass to board #3.) On a layout, this work can take several days – mostly spent waiting for the previous step to dry. But when doing this on camera, it needs to be done in hours, not days. So the approach is similar to a cooking show, where recipes are prepared to various stages. Rather than wait for the glue to dry on a scenery board (or for the chicken to roast in the oven), we can simply move to the board that represents the next stage, and demonstrate what happens next.

Also like a cooking show, where recipes are tested and perfected before the camera rolls, doing the scenery boards ahead of time allowed me to think through what I wanted to demonstrate, what tools and materials I’d need for each step, and so on.

The result is that shooting the segment went smoothly and the final board looked really good. It received flowers, weeds and bushes on top of grass and basic ground cover, and I think TrainMasters TV subscribers will enjoy the process and like the results, when this segment airs this summer.

We even had a couple of great meals as part of the day. Chris and I started with breakfast at Fran’s – a Toronto institution since 1940. For lunch, Barry took us to The Boathouse for fish and chips: Yum!

Thanks, Chris, for coming along – always fun! And thanks as always, Barry, for allowing me to be a part of your awesome show!

Houses set the scene

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(A single house at St. Williams provides an important clue that there’s a town here somewhere)

A reader recently got in touch privately to offer some observations about my layout, having read my article in the February-March 2015 issue of The S Scale Resource. He wrote, in part…

In my mind there are a couple of areas that help to “set the scene”. One is the use of houses, making it seem so natural that folks actually live there. Too many times we modelers only include structures that somehow are directly related to the railroad in some way. By your including houses, you set a scene of community.

Thanks! That’s a great observation – and it tells me that my use of houses is working because that’s exactly what I hoped they would do. For me, the houses provide a clue that the train is serving two towns – as opposed to two industrial districts, or two cities, for example. They also suggest that somebody from “around these parts” might be riding the daily-except-Sunday mixed train, at least some of the time.

What’s interesting is that conveying this sense of community doesn’t have to require a lot of real estate. On my layout, I have a single house in St. Williams, and two in Port Rowan. (Actually, one house and one mock-up at this time, as the photo below illustrates…)

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Those looking for railroads that exist in seclusion can find plenty of examples – from Shay-powered lumber lines to more modern examples such as the Plaster City Railroad, a three-foot gauge line operated by US Gypsum:

(Modern, but with a moonscape vibe. You can also watch this directly on YouTube, where you may be able to enjoy it in larger formats)

But beyond resource haulers and other specialized lines, railroads exist to serve communities – with a varying mix of people and businesses depending upon them. It pays to represent that – to put the railroad in context – in our miniature worlds.


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“Steady” is a vital command when working a Border Collie on sheep – and nowhere is it more useful than at a pen. There are two keys, I’ve found, to penning sheep:

First, do not try to force the sheep into the pen – they’ll squirt out like you’ve stomped on a ketchup package. Instead, the handler and the dog must work together to close off all other avenues the sheep might take, so that going into the pen looks like an escape route.

Second, one must let the sheep figure this out for themselves. They need time to look at the pen and decide it’s less of a danger than either the handler or dog.

Working sheep is exciting for a Border Collie, and penning is a task that requires a lot of restraint and subtle moves.

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It can be a nerve-wracking exercise for the dog, who either must remain still or make only minor adjustments to its position. This is where “steady” becomes important, because it’s a command to the dog to slow down or stop in its tracks. (Some handlers use “stand” or “take time”, or just “time”.)

The handler in these pictures is having a good run at Judge Farm: The sheep are checking out the pen – and they’re aimed at the hinge on the pen door, which is the best possible position to minimize their chance of either turning back (towards the handler) or squirting between the far side of the opening and the dog. The dog is on the hips of the sheep, ready to cut off escape to either side as commanded by the handler. And if the sheep do enter the pen as hoped, the handler is ready to follow along behind and swing the door shut.

But they’d better complete the pen soon. If a train goes by, all bets are off…

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For the Judge Farm module, I wanted to model something relevant to my other passion – working my Border Collie on sheep. I picked the penning task because it would give me the opportunity to model the pen itself – an interesting structure built from four panels, linked together by rods at the corners. It’s also a scene in which everybody is at rest, which also looks better on a model railway than modelling action frozen in time.

The railway now has more greenery on the right of way. I wrote about reducing the ballast slope in an earlier post. In the photos here, I’ve also added static grass, and installed (but not yet stained) RoW fence posts.

The sheep are from The Aspen Modeling Company. I painted them and added some weathering powder to muddy them up a bit.

The handler is a figure from Arttista. He started life as a “Man with Pry Bar” (Item 718). I tossed the pry bar, adjusted his hands, then bent up a shepherd’s crook from wire and put it in his right hand. It can be seen in the lead photo.

The dog is an HO scale wolf figure – I believe from Woodland Scenics. It’s the right size and general shape for a Border Collie. I bent down the tail further (Border Collies hold their tails down when they’re calm and “thinking”, while the tail tends to fly up when they’re excited). and then gave the wolf figure a repaint into classic Border Collie black and white. I used my dog, Mocean, as my model, checking things like how high the white fur goes on his legs and so on.

I think he got fed up with the attention…

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“Leather Brown”

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Today I airbrushed the rails on two four-foot sections from the Judge Farm module that I’m building for TrainMasters TV.

“Rail Brown” is hard to find these days as traditional railway hobby paint lines dry up. Instead of fretting about this, I grabbed a bottle of “Leather Brown” from Acrylicos Vallejo – item 70871 in the “Model Color” line – and used it instead. These paints spray well and dry dead flat – and I think it worked just fine. I’ll have to grab another bottle, though – the one I have may run out before I finish all the track.

Sharp-eyed readers will note the joint between two rail sections in the foreground rail, just to the left of centre. I notched the top of the rail head with a fine saw before applying the joint bars to either side of the web. The paint gets into the notch and does not get removed when cleaning the top of the rails after airbrushing.

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These two sections aren’t yet finished – there’s a lot more scenery work to do. But they’re now close enough to finished that I can show them as part of the S Scale Workshop modular layout at The North Shore Train Show in Laval, Québec in a week and a half.

That’s the good news. The bad news is I still have two more four-foot rectangle sections – plus four small trapezoids – to wire. And then I have to sling scenery, ballast and more “Leather Brown” paint. I’ll get there – and my friend Chris Abbott is coming over tonight so we can work on more wiring together.

But I’m going to spend a lot of time in the workshop between now and next Friday morning when I hit the road…

“And such an instrument I was to use…”

“Is this an Olfa knife which I see before me / The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.”

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(Chris recites the Olfa knife soliloquy)

Over the weekend, Chris Abbott joined me in the TrainMasters TV studio to demonstrate some best practices and neat ideas for wiring the two modules I’m building and documenting for the show. We covered a lot of ground – from installing drop feeders and track power mains… to using Anderson Power Poles for connections… to building our own cables for the throttle network and mounting the throttle panels… to adding strain relief to all wires and cables.

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TrainMasters TV brass hat Barry Silverthorn captured the process in electrons and seemed most pleased with our presentation, too. He even bought us lunch! (To be fair, he does that for everyone who takes part in the show…)

And of course, there are always trains to watch, since the studio is located next to one of the busiest mainlines in Canada:

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(Me and Barry, taking a break from making TV)

When we got home, my lovely wife invited Chris for dinner and – knowing that wiring is thirsty work – she’d even slipped out to grab some Cameron’s Auburn Ale for us. (Yay – beer!)

I’m really pleased with how the day went – and, it gets me closer to being ready for the exhibition at which I’ll join other members of the S Scale Workshop to entertain the public for two days. Thanks again, Chris!

The time is running out, however, so I’ve been working ahead. Today, I added ballast and started on basic ground cover on the two four-foot sections that are now wired:

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(Brown areas will receive crops while some of the green areas will be further enhanced with static grass – and a lot of fence lines will be required…)

I don’t consider this anywhere near finished, but if I get all sections done to this point they will at least be respectable enough to show.

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(I will have to go back over my track to scrape the ballast off the tie tops once the glue has dried: A single-edge razor blade makes a great scraper)

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(I opted for a gravel road through the underpass: The surface needs more work but this is a good start…)

I may have to cover some scenery-building techniques after the exhibition – fabricating dioramas as needed to demonstrate various approaches. We’ll see how things go.

Chris is coming over this week to help me with the wiring on the rest of the module sections. With luck and focus, we’ll get it done in an evening. That will give me some breathing space to demonstrate some basic ground cover during my next visit to the TrainMasters TV studio.

The clock is ticking…

The woods are lovely, dark and deep

With apologies to Robert Frost…
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I’m waiting for some detail parts to arrive for my tobacco kilns, so I’ve set them aside for now. Instead, I’ve been working at the other end of St. Williams – the west end where (on my layout, at least) the line passes over Stone Church Road then plunges into the Lynn Valley en route to Port Rowan. With time on my hands this weekend I pulled the wire tree armatures from this area and turned them into finished trees, following my usual take on the Gordon Gravett method.

This area has looked pretty much like this since last summer:
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Now, it looks like this:
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Much, much better, I think.

Before planting any trees, I added fence lines between the road overpass and the trestle. The white-painted boards and posts near the overpass nicely frame the scene:
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I did not bother adding the white boards at the other end of the fence as it’s out of sight – and I’m not going to add fences between here and Port Rowan because I feel they’ll clutter the scene unnecessarily.

Once the fences were in place, I added bushes along the fence lines, then shorter trees behind those, then taller trees behind the shorter trees. My tallest trees are about a foot high and create a leafy canyon through which the line runs. In effect, it’s a short tunnel – a view block to separate St. Williams from the Lynn River and give operators the feeling of going places:
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At the other end of this new stand of trees – near the trestle over the Lynn River – I planted trees in arrangements that would disguise the point where the river meets the backdrop:
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Since the forest here is supposed to continue beyond the fascia, the tall trees at the front of the layout have leaf canopies only at their top. The branches in the forest are devoid of leaves for the most part. This provides an interesting view of a train as it rolls through the valley:
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(Note the ferns on the forest floor. These are HO scale details from JTT-Microscale and I’ll be planting more throughout the forest.)

Finally, I added a visual reinforcement of the ambient audio in this area by installing a mated pair of cardinals in one of the trees. (These are from the same source as the Redwing Blackbirds in the meadow at Port Rowan.) Now, when people hear a cardinal call, they’ll be able to see the source:
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(Hmm: It looks like there’s another male in the distance at right. Get ready for a noisy territorial sing-off!)

This newly scenicked area will give visitors a better idea of my plans for the rest of the Lynn Valley. That said, I planted about 20 trees here over the weekend and based on that I expect I’ll have to build another 80-90 trees to complete the valley scene. Fortunately, the armatures – which take the longest – can be twisted while watching TV, minding a pot of stew in the kitchen, etc., so it shouldn’t take that long.

Besides – I’m inspired now, and keen to see the completed valley!

Cattails at the trestle

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I haven’t had much time to work on the layout this month but over the weekend, I made some time – just enough to get started on planting cattails along the banks of the Lynn River.

I ordered 10 packages of HO scale cattails (plus other goodies) from JTT Microscale – the same folks who make the HO scale corn I’ve used in St. Williams. Each package has two dozen cattails in it, and over the weekend I used six packages to create three stands of cattails along the stretch of river near the trestle:
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I’ll use the remaining four packages to add some cattails near the twin-span steel girder bridge, then decide if I need to buy more. Each grouping of cattails is located on the inside of a curve in the river, where the water is a little slower: I avoided outside curves since water tends to erode riverbanks in these locations. The water flows left to right in these photos, so at the sharp curve near the trestle I located the planting after the curve, in the lee of the flow.

To plant the cattails, I drilled holes in the scenery base using a Dremel tool, dipped the end of each plant into a blob of Weld-Bond, and stuck them into the holes: easy-peasy. The Magic Water I used for the river drills extremely easily. But the sand I used as part of my ground cover does a great job of ruining drill bits – it’ll take the point off a bit in no time, and I wrecked two bits while planting six packages worth of cattails. The lesson: Use cheap bits in readily available sizes.

Keep in mind that this is early days – I have a lot more vegetation to add along the banks of the Lynn River, especially in this stretch that flows under the trestle. I will need to create many, many bushes and small trees to line the banks – but these bulrushes will add a different texture to the scene. I think it looks better already!

UPDATE: I originally called this post “Bullrushes / Cattails at the trestle” and used the term interchangeably. As reader Neil Froese notes in the comments, they are in fact very different plants. So I’ve updated the post accordingly. (Neil: Thanks for this – and it’s one of the reasons I write the blog. Now I know more about cattails and bullrushes. Cheers!)

Greener Scene

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I decided, after much consideration, that my summer scene was just too hot and dry. The grass was baked to a golden straw colour – more reminiscent of California than Canada. So yesterday, I addressed the problem: I airbrushed the layout.

Having had great success using acrylic artist ink to tint the resin when I poured the Lynn River, I returned to this particular well. Sap Green from Daler Rowney was perfect and airbrushed beautifully right out of the bottle: no thinning necessary. (During and after spraying, I ran the paint booth – which is co-located in the layout room – and wore a mask.)

I added green in random splotches and stripes, being careful to not hit the backdrop or the river surface. I shot between the weeds and other plants and didn’t worry about complete coverage – this was weathering on a layout-sized scale.

My focus was the large expanses of meadow in Port Rowan… the banks of the Lynn River… and the larger areas of grass in St. Williams. But anywhere that I thought looked too burnt and dry got a spray. After leaving it alone for a few hours, I went back and buffed the rails to remove any ink that settled on them.

The green has helped blend everything together better, and the layout looks more like southern Ontario now. I’m glad I took the trouble to do this!

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