Snow fencing in RMC

I have a feature in the December 2017 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman magazine about how I build rolls of snow fencing for my layout. While the subject is in 1:64, this could be done in other scales as well. The technique I describe can also be used to create lengths of snow fence to install along fields, near bridges, and so on – wherever drifting might occur.

Snow Fence - Section House

Click on the cover, below, to go to the RMC website.


Roll-by inspection

A member of CNR’s section gang pauses on the siding in St. Williams to give a roll-by inspection to a passing freight:


Roll by

Roll by

On Wednesday, my friend Stephen Gardiner visited for an operating session – and left me with a nice present. Stephen had drawn up a speeder for a 3D print job in HO scale, and wondered how it would turn out in S. So he revisited his drawings and the result is what you see above. While I’ve posed it on the siding in St. Williams, Stephen’s modifications for printing in 1:64 included providing pockets for extendable wooden handles so the speeder can be posed with a figure hauling it on or off the rails, if I so desire. Thanks Stephen – what a great little detail!

The ops session went well, considering that I haven’t run the layout in a while. Stephen took on the conductor’s role, while I clambered into the engineer’s seat on CNR 80. We had one derailment – possibly due to the freight car truck seizing up a little since it hasn’t been moved in many, many weeks.

Our biggest problem came from misaligned couplers – my fault, for not stopping ahead of coupling to let Stephen do a visual inspection. I don’t use the centring spring that comes with the Kadee 808s – I don’t like how it makes the draft gear bounce in and out, and I don’t really mind that the couplers sometimes need to be aligned manually. I just need to remember that all-important and most prototypical pause before attempting coupling.

Of course, I also need to run my own layout more often: I was pretty heavy-handed on the throttle and was guilty of some pretty hard couplings as a result. I’m sure that the conductor is going to give me a proper dressing down for spilling the coffee in the van!

A few days earlier, I’d updated the files in the LokSound decoders I use – from a beta file to the full production file for SOO 1003, which is my current sound file of choice. The 80 sounds better than ever, although I need to tweak a few volume settings and substitute a different air pump sound file. All in good time…

Stephen is currently planning a new, prototype-based switching layout for his home office space, and is writing about it on his blog. You can following the link to his latest post on the Liberty Village layout – and I highly recommend that you follow along.

Stephen and I have been talking about traffic density a fair bit – specifically, about finding the right balance between realistic appearance and sufficiently engaging operations on a small layout. It’s often tempting to fill a small layout with track, but there are other ways to boost the play value – which is something I’ve been demonstrating (I hope) on my model of the line to Port Rowan. It’s a medium-sized layout, at approximately 14×30 feet, but has just eight turnouts and lots of space devoted to a single track running through the landscape. It doesn’t work for everybody but it does for me.

Ops paperwork and throttle - 2017-11-08
(The work desk at St. Williams: The switch list shows there’s a lot of traffic today)

Because of these discussions, I set up the layout with a bit more switching than I normally do. In addition to several cars to drop and spot, I placed an off-spot car on the run-around in Port Rowan, which added some complexity to our switching duties. I’m pleased that even with the extra work, the session went smoothly and we had a fun time.

Afterwards, my wife joined us as we retired to Harbord House for dinner and drinks. The newest item on the menu – dill pickles breaded in cornmeal and deep fried – are out of this world delicious.

Great to see you, Stephen – and thanks so much for the speeder!

“Go on, what’s the THIRD verse?”

Well, look who’s moved into the neighbourhood…

Calvin - Hobbes - Tree Fort

This is a story four years in the making.

Back in November 2013, I built a tree fort in one of the trees behind the station in St. Williams. You can read about that project by clicking on the photo, below…

Tree Fort in St Williams, with GROSS sign

… but at the end of that post, I noted that I was inspired by Calvin & Hobbes, and wondered where I could find a suitable tiger.

Fast forward almost two years, and in October 2015 my friend Stephen Gardiner surprised me with a model of Hobbes, which he had designed, 3D Printed, and painted. Again, clicking on the image, below, will link you to that part of the tale (or, tail?)…

Hobbes by Stephen Gardiner

Since then, I’ve been keeping my eyes open for a suitable figure that I could modify into a Calvin – but without any luck. There aren’t any nice models of S scale kids around – and certainly nothing with Calvin’s Peanutsy proportions.

Still, when Stephen got in touch and suggested we get together for lunch, adding, “I have something for you”, it never occurred to me what that might be. So I was completely gobsmacked – and delighted – when we met up yesterday and he presented me with a 3D Printed Calvin:

Calvin model by Stephen Gardiner

I carefully added a pin to the bottom of his foot, and placed him in a patch of light in the backyard.

Everybody sing along with Calvin!

Calvin - Hobbes - Tree Fort Comic

If Hobbes ever lets Calvin into the tree fort, he’ll have a good view of the passing trains:

Calvin - Hobbes - Tree Fort

Thanks Stephen – what an awesome surprise!

The visit was grand: We went for lunch at Harbord House and had a great conversation about a number of subjects.

We discussed the announcement on Monday from Rapido Trains that it would be producing HO scale models of the iconic Canadian diesel switcher: The SW1200RS. Stephen was at the launch party, and had a lot of details to share. This is huge news for the Canadian hobby, and Rapido notes it is their most-requested model. The good news is, the Rapido Trains SW1200RS is more than vapourware – the company had test shots from the tooling on display, and a running sample. The models are due early next year, and already I know a number of people who are considering switching scales back to HO just to take advantage of these. The SW1200RS certainly figures prominently in a number of the Canadian prototypes I’ve covered on my Achievable Layouts blog.

After lunch, Stephen and I ran a freight extra to Port Rowan and back. Stephen took the engineer’s seat in CNR 10-wheeler 1532, while I headed for the conductor’s desk in the van. The layout ran well, with only a couple of misaligned couplers to contend with. It was Stephen’s first experience with ESU’s Mobile Control II wireless throttles – a combination of Ambroid tablet computer and throttle with physical knob and buttons. I switched to this system late last year and it’s been a terrific experience. (Stephen was suitably impressed, I think – but I’ll let him provide his thoughts if/when he reads this.)

All in all, a terrific day – and let’s do it again!

Backus trucks

Here’s a detail I’ll have to create for the team track at Port Rowan:

Backus trucks
(Photo taken 1956 or 1957)

Backus trucks
(Photo taken in the late 1950s)

“Backus” is an important family name, closely tied to the area I’m modelling. And the family’s lumber and feed company was a key customer for the railway.

I’m grateful to John Backus for sharing his family’s photos on the Stories and Legends of Long Point and Port Rowan Area group on Facebook, and for giving me permission to share these photos via this blog.

The information I received with the first photo notes that the railway delivered the lumber stacked on the truck in the middle. That will make a great scene on my layout.

I’ve done a similar scene before. Several years ago when I modelled a Maine two-footer in O scale, I built a lumber truck for a team track, using a white metal kit for a Nash Quad from McKenzie Iron & Steel. Here’s a rather grainy photo showing the truck at the site of a future team track on that layout:

O scale Nash Quad

I always liked the look of the lumber overhanging the truck, so I’m looking forward to recreating this using a 1950s era truck in S scale.

(Thanks for sharing the photos, John!)

Fresh perspectives and little details

This morning I needed a photo to illustrate something on my layout in an email, and while I was in the layout room I decided to try to find some fresh perspectives from which to shoot images. I was particularly pleased with the two images here – both taken near the station in St. Williams.

Turnut study - St Williams

Turnout study - St Williams

In both, it’s the little details that stand out for me: The red waybill box on the station wall. The door handle. The telegraph service sign. The rail braces on the stock rails of the turnout.

Often, I overlook these details when I’m running trains. But they show up in photos, so I’m glad I made the effort to include them.

I have many more details to add to the layout. Some will require a fair bit of time and effort to build. But it’s photos like these that remind me why I want to include them.

“S” is for “Scarecrow”

 photo Scarecrow-2009_zps86ypaat0.jpg
(I built this detail for a friend’s S scale module, well before I started my own layout.)

An email this week from Charles Malinowski reminded me of a project I did several years ago, and have always meant to repeat.

At the time, I was helping my friend Chris Abbott work on his module for the S Scale Workshop and – while planting a farm field – I realized that making a scarecrow for the scene would be a nice detail (and a nice present for a friend who had helped me on so many things, and still does). So, I got in touch with Jim Martin, another buddy who works in 1:64, and asked if he had a poorly rendered plastic figure of a standing person that I could take off his hands. From there, I built this neat scarecrow.

The figure gave me the correct dimensions – I didn’t have any of my own, and I didn’t have enough experience in S to have a sense of the scale.

I wanted a plastic figure so I could do surgery – cutting and rearranging the arms, for example.

And I wanted something poorly rendered, if possible, because I was going to cover it anyway: Basically, I’d be saving an awful figure from the scrap box, or from being sawn in half to create a “car driver” (top half) and “mechanic working under the car” (legs).

The fellow at the top of this post is the result. He’s a classic scarecrow – I remember being inspired by the ones in the Family of Blood episodes from Season 3 of the rebooted Doctor Who.

To make him, I wrapped the re-arranged figure in scraps of facial tissue, spot-glued in place and painted brown (the paint would stick everything together nicely without overdoing the gluing). The straw was cut from rope. The face was done with a fine marker, and some thread provided ropes to tie the scarecrow in place on a rod.

I wrote a feature about creating this figure for Railroad Model Craftsman. It was was published in the September 2009 issue. (I know many of my fellow enthusiasts working in 1:64 will have a copy, because it featured an S scale layout on the cover.)

Since I have farm fields on my current layout, I’ll have to build another scarecrow. I’ll add it to the “projects” list…

(Thanks for the reminder, Charles!)

Tigers are mean! Tigers are fierce!


Hobbes in the Tree Fort
(The Tree Fort is occupied!)

A big shout-out to my friend Stephen Gardiner, who surprised me with a wonderful gift during last night’s meeting of our monthly supper club.

Stephen remembered that a couple of years ago, I had written on this blog about building a tree fort for St. Williams. My model included a copy of the hand-made sign that graced the tree fort in Calvin and Hobbes and at the end of the post, I asked,

“And where can I find an anthropomorphic tiger?”

Well Stephen – being the talented sort of guy that he is – made me an S scale Hobbes:

Hobbes by Stephen Gardiner

Stephen crafted Hobbes as the stuffed toy that adults see, and hand-painted him. Thank you, Stephen: he’s wonderful! And he looks right at home in the tree fort:

Hobbes in the Tree Fort

I’m sure I can find and kit-bash a suitable Calvin to stand at the base of the tree, singing the password…

Calvin Hobbes Tree Fort Comic

If I was a tiger, that would be neat!

Establishing Shot

In movie and television production, an Establishing Shot conveys the context for a scene. It gives the audience important information about where and when the subsequent action and/or dialogue is taking place.

For example, if a film is set in Paris, it’s a good bet that the Eiffel Tower will be featured on the skyline – even if the subsequent story does not take place in the 7th Arrondissement. For the same reason, a movie set in Toronto almost always features the CN Tower in its establishing shot. Other clues within the shot – such as the vintage of the vehicles – can help convey era, while clothing styles and weather can help convey season.

Today, Port Rowan has a large town water tank in the area where the rail yard used to be. But as far as I know, in the 1950s it did not have a signature tower of any sort – certainly nothing that first-time visitors to the town would immediately recognize as being uniquely Port Rowan.

Since I’m modelling the branchline to Port Rowan set in the summer in the 1950s, how do I help convey that information to first-time visitors to my layout?

Today, I completed a key component of my Establishing Shot:

 photo LongPtBillboard-01_zpsniewdol4.jpg
(“Are we there yet?” A tourist hauls his pride and joy – an Airstream trailer – with the promise of summer fun ahead. Click on the image to read more about the trailer.)

This scene – still a work in progress – is located at the very end of the Port Rowan peninsula, which is the first thing one sees as one enters the layout. I have no idea if there were billboards in Port Rowan to advertise Long Point. But I don’t care either – because I’m pleased that in much less than a square foot of layout real estate, I’ve managed to convey a wealth of information, including:

– We’re close to a place called Long Point.
– Long Point is on Lake Erie.
– Long Point is a summer destination, with cottages, beaches and campgrounds.
– It’s the 1950s: The vehicles tell us so.
– It’s summer, because the driver of the grey car has his windows down and he’s pulling a camper.

Note that the scene does not, specifically, convey that we’re in Port Rowan – only that we’re close to Long Point and Lake Erie. As the visitor moves further into the layout – about three feet to the left, to be precise – they well encounter the railway’s impressive station, complete with “Port Rowan” signs. The Establishing Shot doesn’t have to tell the whole story: subsequent shots can fill in more of the details even as the action and dialogue commence.

I built the billboard from a laser kit I picked up from Barry Silverthorn, who used to manufacturer and market 1:64 structures and details under the Grand River Models brand. (While Barry is no longer running that business as a going concern, he has quite a few of these still in stock.) It’s not obvious in this photo, but I enhanced the kit with nut-bolt-washer hardware on the frame and support legs.

For the sign, I found a suitable vintage image online – it’s actually from the 1940s if I recall, but I plan to add some weathering to the billboard so it appears to have been in place for a while. I added my own text in PhotoShop. I then asked Barry about the size of his billboard so I could adjust the image – and Barry not only resized it for me, but he also took my text and did a much better job of laying it out on the image. (Thanks, Barry!)

This scene still needs work. I plan to add static grass, flowers, weeds and bushes – and possibly even a tree behind the billboard. But already, this little scene is playing an important role in telling layout visitors where they are – and when.

(I’m interested in hearing from others about their Establishing Shot. Use the comments section of this post to share…)

(For those of you who participate in the forums at Model Railroad Hobbyist magazine, there’s also an active discussion of this subject over there…)

TV Is The Thing This Year*

 photo TV-Antenna-01_zps2rdgydlp.jpg
(The farmhouse at St. Williams has all modern conveniences for 1953, including a television. Somebody is doing well on sales of tobacco, it seems!)

Little details often go a long way to setting the year on a layout – especially for those who are not in the hobby or not familiar with the railway being modelled.

For example, I know that 2-6-0s ran on the branch to Port Rowan until sometime in the mid-1950s, when a bridge at Caledonia was rebuilt to allow larger power to cross. By 1957, Port Rowan trains were hauled by CNR 10-wheelers. Somebody who is only generally familiar with railroading may see steam locomotives and be able to guess that the layout is set before 1960 – but they would need more clues before they could even pin down the decade.

Vehicles help. Even if one can’t tell a 1953 Ford from a 1955 Chevy, there are certain signature styles that say “1950s” versus earlier or later decades: Nobody will mistake that 1953 Ford Crestline Victoria for a 1935 Ford Phaeton.

But little details also help tell the story. Like a TV antenna.

As the lead photo shows, I’ve used an HO scale photo-etched antenna from Gold Medal Models. I glued this to a length of phosphor bronze wire (not included) and added a block at the bottom from 0.040″ square styrene strip. I painted the block and wire black and then glued the antenna assembly to the side of the chimney. I added a loop of black E-Z Line around the chimney to represent a strap of metal, securing the antenna to the brick work.

The signal has to get from the antenna to the TV, so I used more black E-Z Line to add a cable. I threaded an eyebolt onto the line, and glued this into a hole drilled on the wall below the eavestrough, as shown below. Next, I drilled a hole in the siding next to the parlour window and glued one end of the cable into this. I then pulled the line tight – but not too tight – and glued the other end of the cable to the bottom of the antenna mast.

 photo TV-Antenna-02_zpsniismoeq.jpg

For most North Americans, a roof-top antenna defines a period from the launch of broadcast TV in the mid-1940s to the widespread adoption of cable TV services in the 1980s.

TV came to Canada a little later than in the United States. Canadians living along the border had been picking up American signals since 1946, and thousands of TV sets were watching ABC, NBC or CBS from border cities like Buffalo, Detroit and Seattle.

The first Canadian stations – CBC Montreal and CBC Toronto – signed on in September 1952. That year, it’s estimated that some 85,000 sets were sold, 95% of them in Ontario. Most of these – 57.4% – were sold in the Toronto, Hamilton and Niagara Regions as people took advantage of clear signals beamed across Lake Ontario.

St. Williams and Port Rowan are a fair distance from Toronto so picking up CBC would’ve been impossible until further affiliates were launched. But they are right along the shore of Lake Erie – and from a broadcast signal perspective they’re in clear view of Buffalo. Could they have received television signals from there? Would they have bothered?

WBEN-TV signed on the air in 1948 and WGR-TV joined it in 1954, so signal or two existed. But televisions were expensive and the signal quality would’ve been dicey. That said, TVs were also a status symbol. It seems that my tobacco farmer in St. Williams is keen to impress the neighbours with a television in the parlour. Or maybe he just loves The Howdy Doody Show?

Regardless of reason, the antenna adds a nice bit of rooftop clutter that helps define the era.

*Dinah Washington’s recording of “TV Is The Thing This Year” was released in 1953 – one of the years I use for operating sessions on my layout:

FYI, Diane Reeves did a great version of it on the soundtrack for “Good Night and Good Luck”: