Backdrop in LDJ-52

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The latest issue of the Layout Design Journal is in the mail to members of the Layout Design Special Interest Group, and it includes an article on how I used fabric for the backdrop and valance on my Port Rowan layout.

In this five-page article, I discuss the rationale for using fabric, some tips for dealing with a 70-foot length of material, and offer ideas about things to do and things to avoid to get the best out of a fabric backdrop and valance. I hope you find it an interesting read.

(And don’t let the $12 cover price fool you: The Journal is a bargain, because you receive four issues as part of your LDSIG membership. The Journal really is a valuable addition to the library of anybody interested in improving their design skills so that they can build a better layout.)

Best of all, LDJ-52 debuts a new look for the magazine – including full-colour printing. I’ve seen a proof of my feature and the colour makes a huge difference. I’m really looking forward to seeing the rest of the issue.

The Oliver Ouchless

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It sounds like the name of an ergonomic screwdriver or newfangled bicycle seat – but as the picture above shows, I’ve been installing the fabric valance over the layout. Named after my friend Pierre Oliver (who suggested I take a theatrical approach to framing the scene), The Oliver Ouchless won’t bash my skull when I lean in to work on the layout.

All photos in this post were shot at my eye-level, so they show the layout as a typical operator would view it.

The photo above shows St. Williams to the left and ahead, and Port Rowan to the right. Putting the operating aisle in shadow like this really throws the attention on the layout. I’m very pleased with the effect, which will be even better when I paint the fascia black to match the valance.

My wife and I are sewing the valance in sections to fit around various ceiling fixtures such as pipes and ducts. We have most of the major sections done, which have a 16.5″ drop from the ceiling. There are a few smaller pieces to do between these large sections.

Sections are attached to the previously-installed valance supports using Velcro. I’m also putting short strips of Velcro at section ends to link the sections together: This keeps light from leaking between them.

And since the valance is sewn from a doubled-over piece of fabric to ensure that the layout lighting does not bleed through it, it’s also easy to insert a length of chain into each section to weight the valance. This helps the valance to hang straight. I bought some chain to test this and I’m happy with the result. Some of the valance sections are so-weighted: Others will get chain tomorrow, when I pick up more at the local hardware store.

More photos below. Thanks for the idea, Pierre – The Oliver Ouchless is perfect!

Looking east at St. Williams
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East end of the Lynn River scene
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(This area will benefit from a lot more trees)

West end of the Lynn River scene, and the water tank
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(Note how little of the backdrop is visible when valence and trees are in place)

Port Rowan
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Setting the stage (valance fabric)

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There’s a good reason theatre stages and museum displays are typically draped with black cloth. It focuses the eye of the audience on the intended subject. In the theatre, that would be the actors and the setting. In a museum display, it’s the artifacts and antiquities.

On a model railway, it’s been said, our scenery and structures are the setting while our trains take on the role of actors. To tell the story effectively – to focus a visitor or an operator on the play, as it were – it’s important to make the distractions disappear.

As I’ve written in a previous post, my friend Pierre Oliver visited this week and we installed the supports needed to hang a fabric valance. I discussed colour choices with Pierre and he suggested that the valance be a solid, dark colour – and I should paint the layout fascia to match. The result will direct all attention to the layout itself. (I certainly wasn’t intending to use a bright checked pattern, despite taping a tea towel to the valance supports to gauge the effect as shown below.)
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While installing the valance support I ran out of Velco. So yesterday, while running errands, I picked up more from Designer Fabric Outlet. While there, I also grabbed several yards of a black poly-cotton blend fabric. This came in 110″ width and I’ll be able to get all my valance needs out of my purchase. Today I cut a strip off the end of the roll and pinned it in place over St. Williams to see how it looks. As the photos at the top of this post show, it’s quite effective. (I think it’ll be even better once it’s hemmed to smooth out the jagged bottom edge. I’ll also extend the valance above the sector plate to reduce glare from the window in the distance.)

I had many positive comments about the fabric valance idea. One thing I did want to mention about it is that care must be exercised to mount the fabric so that it won’t come into contact with any lighting. I don’t know if there’s much risk of setting the valance on fire – but why take that risk?

In the photo below, I’ve added a yellow line to show the distance between valance and light fixture. In addition, there’s a wooden support for the lighting system between the valance and the light itself, so there’s no way the fabric can touch the fixture or bulb.

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As I mount the valance, I will determine whether further measures are needed – such as adding a shield. This can be as simple as screwing a square of masonite to the lighting support so that fabric can’t fold around it and get tangled in a light.

Safety must come first – always!

Valance support installed

My friend Pierre Oliver visited yesterday – and I took advantage of his fabrication skills (and second set of hands) to install the required supports to mount a fabric valance above the layout.

Fabric was Pierre’s idea – picked up from his experience in the theatre. Pierre refers to it as the Ouchless Valance because it won’t leave a scar if you bump your scalp on the bottom edge. I think that’s a great idea.

The support is pretty straightforward. We marked the location of tangent lengths of valance and installed 1″x2″ boards on the ceiling. For curves, we used lengths of thin Masonite panel. These drop about half the height of the finished valence. In the photo below, I have taped a tea towel in place (right side) to illustrate the depth of the finished valance. Note how the bottom edge will be slightly lower than the lighting support brackets on the ceiling.
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Also note the black line where the Masonite meets the ceiling. This is Velcro. It runs the entire length of the support, and is how I will attach the fabric valance.

While I haven’t yet acquired my valance fabric, it’ll be something in a solid colour – like the fabric backdrop. It will not be a checked pattern, like the tea towel. But the towel, shown below, does provide a good sense of how the layout will look when the valance is in place. The photo above was taken from low to the ground, looking up at the ceiling, so the top edge of the backdrop can be seen. The photo below was taken from my eye level so it shows how the layout will look during an operating session. Note how the valance hides the top edge of the backdrop – and how little of the backdrop is actually seen once trees and other foreground elements are in place.

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My roll of Velcro ran out about halfway along the valance support, so I’m off to acquire more from Designer Fabric Outlet and will look at fabrics for the valance while I’m there.

Thanks for the work, Pierre – a great time as always!

More bushes in Port Rowan

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Today felt like a day to do something positive and creative, so I built and planted bushes in Port Rowan – in the meadow and along the backdrop.

I made my bushes from Super Tree material and my sadly-dwindling supply of Selkirk Scenery leaves. I then glued them into the scene with Weld Bond. Occasionally, I would poke a hole in my foam board terrain for the main stem of the bush, to keep it upright. But mostly, the glue will hold them upright in the static grass.

I’ve now finished the line of bushes behind the team track, between the orchard and the station. I’m really pleased with how this softens the line between layout and backdrop.

(Click on photos for larger versions.)

The view across the meadow to the coal dealer:
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Meadow near the orchard, with the turntable approach track at right:
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The Port Rowan team track. Note how the bushes behind the cinder drive soften the line between layout and backdrop:
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What a difference a backdrop makes

Taking a break from work related matters this weekend, my wife and I cut and sewed a backdrop.

Yes, cut and sewed.

Fabric isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of backdrop materials, but fabric is used in the theatre all the time. In fact, it was a conversation with my friend Pierre Oliver – an experienced builder of theatre sets – that got me thinking about this.

Pierre advocated the use of fabric to create an “ouch-less valance” to shield layout lighting from view. It makes sense – if an operator leans forward they connect with forgiving fabric, not a skull-scraping edge of Masonite. As I thought about this, it occurred to me that a fabric backdrop would solve several problems for me too: I will need occasional access to the back of the peninsula on which Port Rowan is located. This is 42 inches deep – too deep to lean into the scene to do scenic work or repairs to details and background structures. With a fabric backdrop, I can simply duck underneath it. This is a far better solution than removable panels and the seams they would create.

I picked up a roll of medium blue fabric from a local store. It was a remnant (which I find amusing since it was almost 70 feet long) which means it was quite inexpensive – certainly a fraction of what I would spend on enough sheet material such as Masonite or styrene for a backdrop. I also picked up two rolls of one inch wide velcro – a roll of hook, and one of loop – each with self-adhesive (peel and stick) backing.

To prepare for the backdrop, Chris Abbott and I cut and installed backdrop supports using 1″x2″ lumber, with strips of Masonite curved in the corners. To this, I secured the hook portion of the Velcro. My wife and I then attached the loop Velcro to this, in a continuous strip, starting at staging and ending at the end of the peninsula. We cut the loop material to length, tore it free from the hook material, and had an exact measurement for the backdrop fabric.

My wife and I cut and sewed a 25″ wide strip of fabric as follows: We hemmed one end, then hemmed the top of the entire roll of material. We then went back and attached the previously measured and cut loop Velcro to the hemmed top – first with the peel and stick, then through the sewing machine to secure the Velcro to the fabric with a mechanical joint as well. The Velcro ran out about 50 inches before the end of the fabric, at which point we measured for a hem, cut the fabric and hemmed it. At the bottom, we simply cut the fabric with pinking shears and ran it through the sewing machine to add a zig-zag stitch, to keep it from fraying.

I will need to go over the backdrop with a fabric steamer to steam out the wrinkles, so keep that in mind as you look at the photos. As well, the valance is not yet in place – when it is, layout visitors and operators will not be able to see the top edge of the backdrop in normal viewing. Pierre has also suggested adding a chain pocket along the bottom edge of the backdrop, which will help pull out the wrinkles caused by twists in the fabric. (Good idea, Pierre – thanks!)

With those notes, here’s an overview photo of the fabric backdrop. At the left end, it has puddled on the deck for the sector plate. (Chris and I will cut a strip off the deck next time he visits so the fabric can fall naturally between the deck and the wall.)

Backdrop - Overview.

The backdrop hangs about two inches above the base of the benchwork, as shown in this photo of Port Rowan. This is about four and a half inches below track level:

Backdrop - Port Rowan.

For the fabric backdrop to work, it has to hang naturally, which means it can’t touch the scenery. Therefore, when I build up the ground contours I will leave an inch or so between the back edge of the scenery and the backdrop. This will create a soft edge – further softened by the addition of trees, bushes, fences and so on. This long-range view of the Lynn Valley area of the layout demonstrates how the fabric backdrop frames the scene:

Backdrop - Lynn Valley.

The lights will be hidden by a valance, which will also hide the top of the backdrop. And as previously noted, the backdrop needs to be steamed to remove the wrinkles in the fabric. But compare these photos of the backdrop to previous images I’ve shared – including the image below – to see what a difference the backdrop makes:

Lighting System.