A decision on kiln numbers

I was flattered to have so many thoughtful responses to my posting about the number of tobacco kilns I intend to build for St. Williams. To recap, I originally planned for five kilns in this scene, but lately I’ve been thinking about doing just three.

Many of you offered an opinion and with some very sound reasoning to support your thoughts. Thank you!

As I mentioned in my January 30th post, I planned to play around with the mock-ups a bit more to determine whether three or five worked best for me.

While shooting the video I posted yesterday of Extra 80 East through St. Williams, I realized that I should go with just three kilns for this scene. There are many reasons in favour of three (and of five, for that matter), but what cinched the decision was an experiment I did with photography and video angles with the kilns.

Here’s the set-up for three kilns. Note the space between the right-most kiln and the road crossing:
Kiln Test - 3 (Set-up) photo KilnTest-3-02_zps68ce2fb6.jpg

Now, here’s the set-up for five kilns. (Not all are shown – I simply moved the three mock-ups on hand to the relevant positions.) Note how much closer the right-hand kiln must be to the road crossing in order to fit five kilns:
Kiln Test - 5 (Set-up) photo KilnTest-5-02_zpsb65c9a84.jpg

While it doesn’t seem like that much – it’s one kiln length, so only about 4.5 inches. But note also in the above two photos that I’ve had to reposition the camera in order to shoot the station scene without it being blocked by the corner of the right-hand kiln. With just three kilns in the scene, I can successfully shoot a photo of the station that looks up the mainline, under the trees, and including the tree fort:
Kiln Test - 3 (Result) photo KilnTest-3-01_zps93bbce83.jpg

If I reposition the camera to shoot past a five-kiln scene, and still capture the entire station structure, here’s the best I can do:
Kiln Test - 5 (Result) photo KilnTest-5-01_zps5fa06280.jpg

It’s not a bad photo, but I like the first one better. (And of course I can shoot that second photo in a three-kiln scenario – but I can’t shoot the first photo with five kilns in the scene.)

The St. Williams station scene has become a favourite for me and it would be a shame to limit my photo-taking opportunities by placing a kiln too close to the crossing. And I don’t want to create removable structures so I can shoot past them, because that presents opportunities for accidents involving scratch-built structures and the train-room floor. So – three it is.

Thanks again to everyone who commented on the original posting. It’s difficult to offer an opinion when you don’t have the whole picture but every observation – in favour of three, five, or another number – gave me stuff to think about and helped with my decision. A number of you raised possibilities I hadn’t considered, or made me think about the scene in a different way.

It’s now time to resume building my kilns – with confidence!

A prime number of kilns

Having recently started my models of the tobacco kilns for St. Williams, I’m now paying more attention to the kiln scene on the layout. And I’m pondering whether five is the right number of kilns to build. I might only need three.

It’s not a question of shirking from the task: I enjoy building structures. But I moved the mock-ups around on the layout a bit today and took some photos – this is the advantage of mock-ups, after all – and I’m of two minds.

I still like the look of five better. It helps convey the impression that this is a big-time tobacco operation – the sort that might take advantage of rail service via the team track in St. Williams:
Kilns - Overview - 5 photo Kilns-5-01_zps5221811d.jpg

But to achieve this look, I’m forced to place the kilns much closer together than they are in real life. For the five-kiln arrangement, the kilns are spaced “one kiln-length” apart – like this: K # K # K # K # K. Here’s a photo showing the spacing:
Kilns - Close-up - 5 photo Kilns-5-02_zpsd3e17052.jpg

When I measured my prototypes (in Scotland, Ontario a couple of years ago), I also measured their relationship to each other, and they were spaced “two kiln-lengths” apart – like this: K # # K # # K # # K # # K. While more prototypical, this creates a much more relaxed view as the two photos below demonstrate.

On the plus side of the “three kiln” argument, the spacing allows one to see more of the main track behind the kilns:
Kilns - Close-up - 3 photo Kilns-3-02_zps025375c9.jpg

On the negative side of the ledger, the overall scene looks too small to my eye with just three kilns:
Kilns - Overview - 3 photo Kilns-3-01_zps7f289992.jpg

I won’t do four, since identical objects look better to me when they’re clustered in odd numbers. And I must also be cognizant of the practical purpose of these kilns, which is to serve as a view block and distraction – drawing the eye away from the train as it exits the layout and enters my open yet unlit staging area.

I expect I will still build five kilns, which is what I’ve started. But it’s something to think about, nonetheless…

A very brief moment of weakness

Valley Mallet portrait photo SP-1767-05.jpg

While Hunter Hughson and I waited for Mark Zagrodney to arrive for yesterday’s ops session, layout design discussion and dinner, I hauled out some of the Proto:48 equipment that I’d acquired for a planned Southern Pacific layout. Hunter is a musician as well as a modeller, and we had been talking about the shortcomings of trying to push full-sized locomotive sounds through the tiny-and-therefore-tinny speakers that we’re forced to install into our models.

I thought Hunter would enjoy hearing what can be done when one has the space for a decent-sized speaker. And even in a small prototype, such as this SP 2-6-0, there’s a veritable cathedral of space inside the tender. In this case, I was able to fit a 1.77″ diameter High Bass speaker. As this brief video from a couple of years ago demonstrates, the sound is pretty spectacular compared to what one is used to in HO – even captured through the condenser mic on my camera:

The detail on the O scale locomotives in my collection is also impressive. I take no credit for it – it’s all the work of the builder (Boo Rim) and the importer (Glacier Park Models):
A study in piping photo SP-1767-06.jpg

Cab light photo SP-1767-03.jpg

Back-up light photo SP-1767-04.jpg

And the couplers – retrofits from Protocraft coupler kits – are as realistic as one could want. They even operate correctly: to uncouple, one uses a dental pick to lift the cut bar, which in turn pulls the pin.

After playing with the locomotives and some other equipment for a bit, we went onto other things – but it got me thinking about whether I’d picked the right scale (S) and the right prototype (CNR) for my current layout. Did I make a mistake?

So this morning I re-read one of my earliest postings, called “Why S Scale?” I reflected on my observation from more than two years ago that, as I put it:

When trying to draw an O scale plan for my layout space, I always came away unsatisfied… (and)… my two primary objectives for the layout were in conflict.

That took care of the waffling – and serves as an example why it’s useful to document one’s progress in the hobby. Re-reading my blog this morning, I was able to cast the hard, cold light of reality on yesterday’s moment wistful nostalgia for O scale. 1:64 is definitely the right scale for me – for this layout room, at least.

I also had a look at my entry about the SP Friant branch on my Achievable Layouts blog. In that post, I included a rough sketch of an S scale SP layout for my space. It reminded me that in O scale, the already-compressed scenes in that plan wouldn’t fit at all:
SP Friant Branch Layout in S scale (space test) photo SP-FriantBranch_zps8053816f.jpg
(Click on the plan to read more)

That said, I’m going to hang onto my O scale models, which slumber in a display case in my home office. I enjoy looking at them – and I really enjoyed running a couple of them on a simple test track yesterday.

Maybe – someday – I’ll figure out how to use them as the basis for a layout:

It might have to wait for a move and a bigger layout room.

Or perhaps when I get the S scale layout a little further along I can think about doing a UK-style exhibition layout: Another advantage of those big speakers is that the sound the generate can actually be heard in a public hall.

Failing that, maybe I can find space in my current house for a shelf switcher. It may seem counter-intuitive but when the trains themselves are so big, even a simple “Inglenook Sidings” style of layout can be entertaining.

Well, we’ll see. It’s a hobby and I’m in no rush to make a decision on this. But in the meantime, yesterday’s fun also reminded me that I still have to install DCC and sound in some of these locomotives, a procedure that includes a second decoder to provide independent control of headlight, back-up light, class lamps, illuminated number boards, and cab interior light. Working on these will be a nice project when I need to a break from Port Rowan and recharge my enthusiasm for layout-building.

It’s all good!

The space between

I’m catching up on other people’s blogs and while working my way through recent entries by Lance Mindheim, I found myself nodding in agreement with his thoughts about scene composition. Lance’s blog doesn’t index by post, so you’ll have to follow the link and scroll to the following post:

October 26, 2013 – What we want / How to get it

Lance notes that scene composition is the primary driver of realism. And he notes the biggest mistake modellers make is that they put elements too close together. They don’t leave enough space between features.

For those trying to model a real place, as I do, a lot of the hard work has already been done for us. Most features in real life have plenty of space around them so if we’re modelling a real place, all we have to do is copy what we see.

My terminal in Port Rowan is a good example:
Garage-Overview photo PtR-Garage-Construction-04_zpse6dfab7f.jpg

I resisted the temptation – it’s always a temptation – to pack more stuff into my layout space. I devoted almost 1200 scale feet to the yard – from the first switch to end of track. This compares favourably to the prototype yard, which measured roughly 1700 feet from first switch to end of track. And as a result of not compressing things too much, I think I’ve captured a realistic representation of the space between things. There’s space in the above scene between the four structural elements you see – the garage, the section house and turntable (barely visible over the far peak of the garage) and the small barn next to the team track.

How much space? Good question – and a quick trip to the layout room with tape measure in hand provides some answers. The following distances were measured between closest points – not from the centre of each element:

Garage to Turntable: 35 inches
Garage to Barn: 51 inches
Turntable to Section House: 17 inches
Section house to Barn: 15 inches

And while it can’t be seen in the photo, the coal dump is behind the last passenger car in the train, which places it at similar distances from other elements. It should also be noted that each of these elements is quite small, averaging 4 by 6 inches (the turntable is longer, but narrower, so it occupies roughly the same amount of visual space).

Now, don’t obsess about the measurements. There isn’t a magic formula that says, for example, “the space between two elements should equal the sum of the square footage of each element”. I provided the measurements because it’s sometimes hard to appreciate the space between when looking along a scene like this. It’s obvious the barn is some distance away – but how far? Is it 35 inches? 42 inches? 68 inches? I think that knowing it’s 51 inches from garage to barn helps one put other aspects of the image into perspective.

The structures draw the eye – so in between each, I try to keep the scene composition relatively neutral. That’s not to say that it’s dull: I’ve used big expanses of meadow, and the meadow is filled with wild flowers, shrubs and other natural features. But the eye tends to gather all of this visual data together into one concept – “meadow” – so it’s easy for one’s perception so slide across this space from one signature element to the next.

I think this scene is effective for two reasons. First, I based it on a prototype. Second, instead of asking, “How much can I fit into this space?”, I asked, “What do I really need, and how great a space can I devote to it?”

Obviously, there are times when cramming elements together actually enhances a scene’s composition. For example, running tracks between retaining walls and in the shadow of skyscrapers conveys the sense of a big-city union station – while having the track hug a narrow ledge between canyon wall and rushing river helps tell the story of narrow gauge railroading in the mountains of Colorado. But most railroad environments are not that extreme and a layout too tightly packed may do many things well but will also come off as train-setty.

Something to keep in mind if you’re at the design stage. But even if you’re already well underway, remember that course corrections can always be made…


In a recent comment, reader Brian Termunde wrote,

I’m curious as to your layout height: I tried to do a search, but I can’t seem to find anything. Would you satisfy my curiosity?

I haven’t actually addressed layout height on this blog because my experience is that it’s very much a personal preference. Some prefer layouts to be quite high – others want them comfortably low.

I can see advantages and disadvantages to both. Fortunately(?), my layout height was pretty much pre-determined for me by my layout room.

My layout is built in a basement room – and I must deal with the main heating ductwork that runs lengthwise down the middle of the room. It’s boxed in for a nice appearance and dust-free environment – but it still made a huge impact on the design of my layout.
Ductwork-Room Entrance photo Duct-02_zpsec014a85.jpg

Ductwork-Lynn Valley photo Duct-01_zps864893d8.jpg

My basement floor undulates a bit, but the average height from floor to railhead is 48 inches. The ductwork in the photos above is 69 inches above the floor. When drawing layout plans for my space, I determined pretty early on that standing under this ductwork would not be a comfortable experience. Therefore, the only way to use the space effectively was to build the layout under it. Port Rowan is aligned below the ductwork in the room, as shown here:
Ductwork-Port Rowan photo Duct-03_zps7bbc78ac.jpg

The railhead height of 48 inches works fine for me. It’s high enough that I’m not stooping to view the trains, but low enough that I can comfortably reach in to uncouple cars in the Port Rowan yard. And with a valence drop of approximately 16 inches from the ceiling, or 5 inches below the ductwork (to shield one’s eyes from the layout lights), I still have a decent “window” between fascia and valence through which to view and operate the layout.

Brian – thanks for asking the question. It was a good one!


When Pierre Oliver visited yesterday he also brought along a stack of custom labels for the fascia, which he acquired from an online sign-making company. When we finished with the valence support project, we installed these.

Labels are useful for new operators to figure out layout controls. They also help operators and visitors orient themselves. I decided to get engraved plastic labels in two colour schemes:

- I chose white on blue for information related to operations (such as station signs and switch stand labels).

- I used white on black for identification purposes (such as road crossings and bridges).

Here are couple of photos of the labels in the fascia:

Switch Label photo Fascia-Labels-01_zps655faee2.jpg
(West siding switch in St. Williams – white on blue)

Station Label photo Fascia-Labels-02_zps39a38c75.jpg
(St. Williams station label – white on blue)

Feature Label photo Fascia-Labels-03_zpsc1ad1976.jpg
(Bridge label – white on black)

Since I’ve transported a chunk of the nearby Lyn Valley into my Port Rowan branch, I simply made up milage figures for features in the valley that I’ve identified with a sign. The station mileposts are correct: St. Williams at 13.53 and Port Rowan at 16.92. The bridge names are the names used for the bridges today, as part of the Lyn Valley Rail Trail. They will help visitors who have walked or ridden the trail to identify the bridges.

The layout continues to establish its sense of place. These labels certainly help with that.

“If I had more space…”

M233-Arrival-Port Rowan photo M233-1532-Arrival_zps1d382ef9.jpg
(Mixed Train M233 arrives in Port Rowan. Would more space for the layout make this event any different?)

“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.

I’ve just written a post on my Achievable Layouts blog to discuss what I’d do with extra space. Click on the image below to read more:
Achievable Layouts Header photo LayoutDesign-Header01_zps895b085f.jpg

Waybill bill boxes in LDJ 50

Issue 50 of the Layout Design Journal – the excellent quarterly publication from the Layout Design Special Interest Group – arrived in my mailbox this week and it includes a short article I wrote called “Design Considerations – Realistic Waybill Boxes”.
Layout Design Journal 50 photo LDJ50_zps5e86285f.jpg
(Click on the cover to find out more about the Journal.)

While some might feel a discussion of waybill boxes is more of an operations issue, what I address in this article is how Chris Abbott (who built the boxes for me) and I had to alter the design of the prototype boxes in order to make them work in a model environment. The boxes themselves are smaller, they’re mounted lower to the ground than most prototype boxes, and they’re in a layout room – a place that’s typically less well lit than the great outdoors.
Waybill Box: Port Rowan photo WaybillBox-PtR.jpg

Chris: Thanks again for building these for me!

I’d also like to thank Tony Thompson, whose writings about bill boxes on his blog – Modeling the SP – inspired me to use realistic bill boxes on my own layout. Tony also generously permitted the Layout Design Journal to print a couple of his photos of prototype bill boxes to help illustrate the article.

And since I’m thanking people, I’ll tip the hat to LDJ editor Byron Henderson, who worked with me to ensure that this article would be relevant from a layout design perspective. Byron’s doing a fantastic job of putting together a thought-provoking magazine on a quarterly basis. Well done!

I’ve said it before on this blog, and I’ll say it again: the Layout Design SIG is a great organization for anybody who wants to design (and, therefore, build) better layouts. If you’re not a member, why not start by joining the LDSIG Yahoo Group and ask about the benefits of being part of the SIG?

(While I don’t, personally, get many chances to take advantage of the many LDSIG events organized at national and regional conventions, I get plenty of good reading and interesting ideas out of the Layout Design Journal and feel that even on its own, this magazine is well worth the modest cost of membership.)

Fascia Labels

You Are Here photo You-R-Here_zps1804f07b.jpg

I’ve been thinking about labels for the fascia. Real railways love putting names to things – and labels help visiting model railway enthusiasts find their way around a layout.

I’ve looked at a number of layouts online, to see what sort of labels people are using. And I’ll do some research, locally, to find an engraver and work with them to pick a sign style, font, colour, etc.

The question is, “What should I label?”

Here are my thoughts in the order they appear on the layout as one heads towards Port Rowan from staging, with notes below:

- Charlotteville Street
- St. Williams ON (MP 13.53)
- Hammonds (Grain Bin)
- Stone Church Road Bridge (MP 14.04)

- Lynn River – Robinson Bridge (MP 14.87)
- Lynn Valley Water Tank (MP 15.49)
- Lynn River – Pennington Bridge (MP 15.51)

- Farm Crossing
- JL Buck & Son (Coal Dealer)
- Section House (MP 16.57)
- Turntable (MP 16.65)
- JC Backhouse (Feed Mill)
- Port Rowan ON (MP 16.92)
- Bay Street


- I would include Mile Posts for railway-related structures since that’s one way railways identified their physical assets.

- I have interpolated Mile Posts for the structures and features that were not part of the original branch (such as the Stone Church Road overpass and the Lynn Valley tank).

- The bridge names are modern – from the rail trail – but I like them so plan to use them. It’s nicer than saying “trestle” and “deck girder”.

Further to the question, “What should I label?”…

- Do I label track switches with the name of the track they access? (e.g.: In Port Rowan, these would be – “Coal Track”, “Turntable Lead”, “Team Track” and “Siding”)

- Do I bother with labels for the Section House and Turntable in Port Rowan?

- Do I bother with labels for the non-railroad structures (e.g.: the Coal Dealer and Feed Mill in Port Rowan, and Hammonds in St. Williams)? Does it look odd since most of the carload customers do not have private sidings and use the team track for shipping and receiving?

I’m open to suggestions on these questions… and thoughts on other fascia labels that would be useful.

Achievable layout: CNR Pine Street, Thorold

At one time there was a great little rail-served industry in Thorold, Ontario that would make a perfect, achievable layout – something along the lines of Mike Cougill‘s Indiana and Whitewater, Jack Hill‘s New Castle Industrial Railroad, or Greg Amer‘s Industrial Lead.

I’ve written more about this industry-as-layout on my layout design blog. Click on the image below to read more about the Canadian National Railway’s operation on Pine Street – and enjoy if you visit.

 photo CNR-PineSt-PD-01_zps5f517eaf.jpg