Open up!

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I’ve been asked several times to open my layout for tours, and I rarely do. My layout is medium-sized but the layout room is fairly tight. Get more than a few people in the space and it gets uncomfortable. And since the layout is designed for walk-around control, with turnout and turntable controls mounted on the facia, it can also become impossible to operate if the aisles are plugged.

But Ian McIntosh from the Toronto Chapter of the Canadian Association of Railway Modellers has been asking me for many years now if I’d host a tour. (In fact, his first request was back when I was still modelling the Boston & Maine in HO scale.) And earlier this year, Ian suggested that he and his wife Joan – also involved with the local chapter – could schedule members into time slots, and keep the numbers to something that my layout could manage.

So, I said “Yes”, and I hosted about a dozen people on Saturday afternoon, divided into three 90-minute windows.

Normally, people who visit my layout have a good idea what to expect. Sometimes, they’ve known me for ages and I’ve already shared my work with them. Other times, they’re regular readers of this blog so they have a solid understanding of my layout and my approach to the hobby. Some of my guests this past weekend have read my blog. But for most, I think, it was a brand new experience.

There was a lot to experience, and I’m always interested in what ideas people take away from my layout.

Having had several visitors over the years since I started building Port Rowan in 1:64 in October of 2011, I know that some features are always popular:

The garden scale switch stands I use to control turnouts always generate a lot of discussion. So do the tools I’ve mounted on the fascia to help operators simulate setting brakes and pumping air.

Visitors always comment on my use of environmental audio – the birdsong and other noises that help place the viewer in the scene. My decision to light they layout with 12v Halogen landscape lighting is also often discussed.

I know my approach is a track less travelled. I’ve built a very simple layout in a rather generous space, giving it a relaxed feel that’s not often seen in the hobby. And of course it was a real temptation during the design phase to add more track or choose busier locations.

But I’m glad that I built the layout just the way I did. And it proved itself again on the weekend, as I was able to operate the layout – solo – for my visitors while still holding conversations and answering questions. At no time did I feel stressed by the experience.

I had a couple of DCC-related incidents – possibly caused by something touching on a locomotive and causing a short – but nothing that stopped the show. I’m investigating the issue and hope to have it resolved quickly. Also, I had just two derailments – not perfect, which is my goal, but both caused by (my) operator error so I’ll mark that up as a “win”.

And of course, there’s often a discussion around S scale. For many people, mine is the first layout they’ve seen built to S scale standard gauge. I had many conversations about how I ended up in S, and how I find it to be a sweet spot between the size of the models, and compatibility with a medium-sized space. For me, it really does combine the mass of O scale with HO’s ability to model the space around the tracks, too.

I never try to convince others to model in S: choice of scale is a personal decision, and what works for me won’t work for you. But I suspect a few people left with a new appreciation for 1:64.

(Thank you, Ian and Joan, for arranging the tour. And thanks to everyone who attended. I enjoyed sharing my layout with you!)

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Roweham 2017

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(The passenger train – an auto coach pushed by a 14XX class 0-4-2T – arrives at Roweham)

Those who have read this blog for some time now know that I’m a fan of smaller layouts. I’m far more impressed by a small, thoughtfully-conceived and expertly executed model railway than I am by a half-baked basement-filler. The hobby is not about quantity for me; it’s about quality. In fact, I have a whole other blog devoted to what I call Achievable Layouts.

So it’ll come as no surprise that last Saturday, I was delighted to help my friend Brian Dickey exhibit his 7mm (British O scale – 1:43) masterpiece, “Roweham”, at the annual model railway show organized by the club to which he belongs. Also on hand was my friend Pierre Oliver – who, like me, helped Brian exhibit Roweham at last year’s show. We were joined this year by Ross Oddi. (Great to meet you, Ross!)

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(Ross, Pierre, and Brian on deck)

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(Ross deploys Brian’s version of the Galvanick Lucipher to break the train as engineer Pierre prepares his next move. Brian’s layout uses prototypically-correct three-link couplings, which add to the play value)

For me, Brian has really hit all the targets with Roweham. The modelling is excellent, and careful. The design is realistic and relaxed – perfect for a branchline terminal in a Green and Pleasant Land. The locomotives and rolling stock are appropriate for the modelling subject, and run flawlessly. (We had one derailment during the show – the result of buffer lock between a longish 2-6-0 and a short wagon. Brian immediately removed the mogul from service so it would not detract from the presentation.) And the presentation is professional – from the skirting, to the fascia, to Brian’s handsome waistcoat complete with brass GWR buttons. (Since I’m part of the exhibition team, I’ll be happy to follow Brian’s lead and pick up a waistcoat from his supplier.)

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(An overview of Roweham, from the terminal end)

In short, it’s clear that Brian has made an effort to reward the public for their $5 admission fee – even as he enjoys this layout at home. This also informed Brian’s wise decision to have three people help him exhibit Roweham. He wanted to make sure he could talk to visitors even as the layout continued to operate, and he wanted to make sure everybody had a chance to take a break from operating – a much better situation than one person, standing on his feet for six hours, trying to explain the layout to guests and keep the trains moving.

While it’s a modest design, with just four turnouts, Roweham is already finished to a level rarely seen at exhibition in these parts, and Brian continues to add details. New features this year include a cattle dock, a water tank, a brick workshop, some tractors, and more.

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Meantime, Brian has taken a second pass at things, especially equipment, to give it a tasteful weathering job. All in all, Roweham will only get better each time it’s on display. Here are some more shots from the day…

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Most modellers I meet are obsessed with quantity. They talk about the number of locomotives they have, or the number of freight cars, or the size of their layout. The first question often asked is, “How big is your layout?” – with emphasis on “big”. How different the hobby would be if we instead started with the question, “What story are you trying to tell?” – and then gauged how well the layout accomplishes that.

Brian’s layout tells a very clear story, and that’s why it succeeds so well.

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Thanks again, Brian, for letting me be a part of your exhibition!

Cab ride to Port Rowan

I continue to experiment with my video camera from Replay XD, which rides nicely on a flat car.

Having had a successful test run on the S Scale Workshop layout over the weekend – with two videos shared to the Workshop blog – I’ve now also done a test-run on my Port Rowan layout:


(You may also view this directly on YouTube, where you may be able to enjoy it in larger formats)

This trip is looking into the sun, so everything is somewhat backlit. I will do an eastbound trip – with the sun at my back – when time permits.

I’m still learning about what this camera can do, but I’m enjoying the results so far…

Stafford’s remarkable layout

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(A remarkable influence on Canadian modelling. Click on the image to read more about Stafford and his layout)

John Longhurst, who writes an excellent blog about his adventures in the hobby, this week reminded me of just how influential Stafford Swain has been on the Canadian modelling scene. Click on John’s image of Stafford’s layout (above) to read his post.

My first encounter with Stafford’s work was in print: I remember seeing his layout featured on the cover of the January 1979 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman magazine, and being astonished by his HO scale rendition of the scenery of the Canadian Shield:

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I was equally impressed by how much “negative space” he’d incorporated into his layout. While the layout featured a yard with engine terminal and other more typical model railway scenes (all very well executed), a huge portion of the layout was devoted to a single track that twisted its way between rocky outcroppings, past trees, over fills, and across bridges.

At the time, I thought, “I’d probably fill that with another town, or a coal mine, or a coal mine and a power plant so I could do ‘loads in/empties out’ operations”. But I was much younger and measured a design’s success by how much track had been packed into the space.

These days, I realize that the sense of distance that Stafford created – the sense that the trains on his layout were actually going somewhere – is one of the themes I have been trying to portray on every layout I’ve built in the last 15-20 years. And I realize that Stafford’s layout is probably the first example of that sense of distance that I saw. Thanks for that, Stafford!

Stafford’s layout was dismantled a few years ago, but Stafford has had a huge influence on Canadian modelling – including my own – that goes well beyond his scenery work, or indeed his HO scale empire.

Rather than repeat that influence here, I encourage you to read John’s post – Stafford Swain’s CNR Whiteshell Subdivision Re-Visited.

(Thanks for the reminder, John!)

A visit from Jim and John

Earlier this week, my friend (and fellow host of The Model Railway Show) Jim Martin visited, along with a long-time friend of his, John Morris. It’s been a while since I’ve seen them – John lives in Manitoba and visits Jim regularly but it’s been a few years since we got together, and Jim’s been pretty busy with things that have prevented him from coming into the city.

We had a great couple of hours in the layout room. It was John’s first visit to Port Rowan in 1:64, so I gave him the quick tour. And it’s been a while since Jim saw the layout, so there was a lot of catching up to do.

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We talked about many things – among them, my use of mock-ups as stand-ins for structures. I like mock-ups not only as place holders but also as a way to test my plans for a structure. Since I’m modelling a specific place and time, most of my structures are based on real building and it’s important to make sure I’ve properly captured proportions, roof angles, and so on. It’s far easier (and cheaper) to modify cardboard than it is to re-work a model in styrene and strip wood. And because I know that some of these mock-ups will stay on the layout for some time before I get around to building the structures that they represent, I feel it’s worthwhile to invest a little bit of coin and build them using good-quality artist’s board in appropriate colours. Some of the mock-ups on my layout have been in place now for about three years, and they still look good.

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Of course, we ran a train – although I did not haul out waybills and put the guys to work. John has built and painted many HO scale steam locomotives for Canadian prototypes – he’s well-known in the community for his excellent work – and I knew he’d enjoy seeing these larger models of tiny prototypes put through their paces.

The layout really came through for me too, with no derailments or stalling. Other than one or two missed couplings, it was a perfect session. We talked about that, too – and agreed that flawless operation is a goal worthy of pursuing. It’s also achievable when one focuses on a smaller, easier to manage layout like mine – and I think that any perceived trade-off in pursuing a simpler-is-better approach is more than made up for by the enjoyment of realistic and reliable operation.

(I remember causing a tempest in a teapot on a newsgroup one time by declaring that this was my goal. I was told “It can’t be done”, and “Real railroads have derailments too”, and other such excuses. But having experienced flawless operating sessions the On3 layout built by my friend Dave Burroughs I knew it could, in fact, be done – and I’m determined to achieve that in my own layout room.)

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Smaller, simpler layouts also free up hobby time to pursue special projects that may require a significant investment in modelling time. An example is the “Someday Spreader” I wrote about previously on this blog:

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(Click on the image to read about the “Someday Spreader”)

My visit from Jim and John occurred the evening before I stumbled across the model that inspired that post. I admire John’s work in brass and I realized, while talking with him, that the biggest hurdle to tackling such a project is convincing oneself that one can do it. I suspect that our conversation the night before tipped my hand to purchase the Jordan Spreader and commit myself to building one in 1:64. Thanks for that, John!

When my wife finished work, she joined us as we retired to The Caledonian – a terrific Scottish pub in my neighbourhood – to wind up the evening with more great conversation over good food, and a promise from Jim that he’d come for a visit more often. (John – you’re welcome too of course, whenever you’re in the area!)

Chance meeting with Brian and Dennis

I was pretty busy with work on Monday so Jack and Mocean did not get their morning walk until mid-day. Eventually, guilt set in and I took them for a quick spin around the neighbourhood. We have a short walk we do when I have things to do – basically, around a long block – because it only takes 15 minutes:

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(Jack and Mocean: Judged by the tension on the leads, we’re making good time – which is not always the case…)

Timing is everything, however – and when we reached the half-way point I passed two guys who looked familiar but I couldn’t quite place them. (This happens when people are out of context: I remember seeing a woman at a neighbourhood party and having this same problem. I solved it by asking her and as we worked through our various possible connections we discovered we both have dogs: Problem solved! “Oh – you’re Obie’s mum!” But I digress…)

The two gentlemen were having the same problem – I looked familiar, but I was out of context.

Of course, the context is train-related: Specifically, the annual S Scale Social organized by Jim Martin – because that’s where I’ve met both Brian Walsh and Dennis Rowe.

Brian and Dennis were in the neighbourhood to visit a friend and were just heading back to their car when we met on the sidewalk. We got talking and since my place was just a block away, I invited them in to see the layout:

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(A flagman protects Charlotteville Street as Extra 80 West creeps through St. Williams)

Dennis makes some really nice trees – and had these samples on display at last year’s S Scale Social…

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… so we had a good chat about the ins and outs of building convincing trees in 1:64.

The visit wasn’t long – Brian and Dennis had to rescue their car before their parking expired, and I had to get back to work. But it was a lovely break in the day and I’m really glad we ran into each other.

Great to see you both – and I hope to see you at this year’s S Scale Social in a couple of months!

Photos in context :: A visit with Fredrick

Sometimes, things just fall into place…

Last Thursday, my friend and fellow member of the S Scale Workshop, Fredrick Adlhoch emailed with a last-minute request. He and his partner were going to be in town Friday morning – could they drop by, briefly, to see the layout?

As it turned out, I had a 9:00 am meeting at home on Friday, and needed to leave by 11:30 for a lunchtime appointment – but I had a 90-minute window and it dovetailed nicely with Fredrick’s free time.

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(Readers will recognize many of my favourite mini-scenes in this overview of Port Rowan)

I’m glad it worked out, because it was Fredrick’s first opportunity to see the layout in person. One of his comments that stuck with me was the observation that seeing the layout in person helped him put into context the many vignettes that I’ve shared via photos on this blog.

In the above overview photo of Port Rowan, one can see the apple orchards, the elevated coal delivery track, the section house and its oil shack, the turntable, the barn at the team track and – near the end of the peninsula – the mockups for the station and feed mill. When I photograph the layout, I tend to focus on these areas.

I have favourite compositions, which I have discovered while peering through the viewfinder on my camera. These are the combinations of scenery, trains, lighting and camera position that tell a compelling story. And I tend to photograph variations of those favourite compositions. It’s not that I ignore others – I’m always looking for new ways to view, photograph and share the layout – but that they are the ones that I find most convincing.

As such, I rarely take overview photographs. The exceptions tend to be photos used to illustrate something related to ergonomics or lighting. I also share overview photos on the anniversary of starting the layout, because they help document my progress from year to year.

But I should try to take more context photos in the future…

Great to see you, Fredrick – come back when you have more time and we’ll run some trains!

A visit from Simon and Hunter

Last night was an important night for me and my hobby. That’s because my friend Simon Parent was in town for work – which gave him his first chance to see my layout.

Longtime readers and fans of S scale will know Simon’s name. He’s the designer and builder of the CNR 2-6-0s and 4-6-0s that are the backbone of my roster. Like this one:

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In fact, it’s fair to say that without his fine work I would not be modelling the Port Rowan branch – or, even, modelling in S scale. The story of how I ended up in S scale was one of the first posts I wrote on this blog, and a pair of Simon’s beautiful CNR 10-Wheelers plays a pivotal role in that tale.

So, it was with some excitement that I was finally – after so much time and progress – going to be able to give Simon a tour of the layout that he inspired.

Since three is always more fun than two and since Hunter Hughson and I had planned to get together this week, I suggested that he join us. The three of us had a great time and for the most part the layout did not let me down. That said, there were a couple of issues, including this …

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… and this …

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We also experienced a couple of DCC system gremlins:

One of my Lenz throttles, which had a cord replaced on it a while back, refused to respond. I suspect I should just bite the bullet and buy a new throttle.

No worries, I thought: I’ll deploy the TouchCab App and an iPod – a nifty solution I’ve written about on this blog several times in the past, and one that I know Hunter really enjoys. Unfortunately, I got an error message and while I was able to select an existing locomotive in the throttle stack I was not able to add a new locomotive address to the app. I’ll have to investigate what’s going on with that.

The lesson – one I’ve mentioned many times here in the past – is “run the layout more often”. Frequent running often keeps things flowing as they should, I find. Frequent running also allows one to stay on top of issues as they arise, rather than have a whole bunch of them to address as happened last night.

That said, we had a lot of fun and I enjoyed showing Simon and Hunter some of the little details on the layout.

After our operating session, I introduced Simon to the tradition that is Harbord House, where I enjoyed a much needed pint or two.

Simon, Hunter – great to see you both! And I hope you both come back soon. Meantime, I have a “to-do” list to start working through…

A visit from Paul and Linda

On Tuesday night, our friends Paul and Linda Dolkos came over. They live in Virginia, but took a detour to get here – arriving via Vancouver on board The Canadian. It was a short stop in Toronto – Paul and Linda were flying home the next morning – so I’m flattered they made time to visit and it was great to see them both.

Paul was quite enthusiastic about my layout It’s always nice when someone as accomplished as he is in the hobby says nice things about my efforts – and to its credit (and my relief), the layout performed flawlessly.

I’m really glad I did all of the new trees, too. (In case you missed it, over the past couple of weeks, I’ve finished 49 wire armature trees. Yes – I counted the trunks.) They made a huge difference to the layout’s presentation, and helped convey to Paul the story of steam-era railroading in southern Ontario…

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Paul was very interested in the various operations aids that I’ve employed on the layout – including my large-scale handbrakes and air hoses, the large-scale switch stands for turnout control, and the pull-out work desks for conductors.

Paul is well-known in the hobby. I first met him in the late 1990s, when we were both modellers of the Boston and Maine Railroad. He’s now modelling several railroads in the Baltimore area and like his old B&M layout, this new one has been used to illustrate several stories in the Model Railroad Planning annuals. He’s also a regular feature writer for Model Railroader and one of the company’s go-to guys for layout photography.

I too moved on from the B&M – first, in 2003, to model the Maine two-footers in On2, then to a flirtation with Proto:48 before embarking on my current project (well documented on this blog) in 2011. But Paul and I have kept in touch through the changes and see each other occasionally – with or without our wonderful wives.

It’s always a great time when we get together and swap tales of layouts that we’ve visited and hobbyists that we’ve known. (I’ve been a huge beneficiary in this regard. It was through Paul that I had a chance to run trains on the On3 Denver South Park and Pacific layout built by Andrew Dodge. That session, in 2007, introduced me to the idea of using a working telegraph network to OS trains – something I’ve finally been able to incorporate into a layout. And I’ll forever be in Paul’s debt for arranging an operating session, back in 2002, with John Armstrong on his legendary Canandaigua Southern layout. It was John’s many superb features and books that fostered in me a lifelong interest in layout design, so that was an unforgettable day.)

We toured the layout while waiting for my wife to get home from work, Then the four of us walked up the street to enjoy a lovely dinner at The Boulevard Cafe – a nearby restaurant that’s become a neighbourhood institution over the past 35 years.

Thanks for visiting, Paul and Linda – I look forward to visiting your new layout at some point!

Layout feature in “The S Scale Resource”

I’ve written a feature on my layout layout – and it’s the cover story in the February-March 2015 issue of The S Scale Resource magazine. This is a free, digital publication. Click on the cover, below, to visit the magazine online:

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You’ll find February-March 2015 issue under the “current issue” tab – if you’ve visited the page before you may have to refresh your browser.

Once you’ve opened the magazine online, you can download it too: Look for a set of buttons near the top of the screen. There, you’ll find one with a PDF symbol, and options to download individual pages or the entire magazine.

This article was tremendous fun to write and shoot – the result of a most enjoyable visit with co-editor Daniel S. Dawdy late last year.

I hope you enjoy this look at my layout – I think it’s a great introduction to what I’m doing and I plan to use it as such. Feel free to share the URL with others who may be interested.