Thoughts on the forest

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In the comments on a previous post about progress on the Lynn Valley forest, Mike Cougill asked:

With the addition of the trees, how are you and your guest operators adjusting to the view?

It’s a great question and I felt the answers deserved more prominence on the blog, so I’m copying them from the comments on that previous post into this post.

To start the ball rolling, here are my impressions as the layout designer and builder:

This area has developed rather quickly. It’s gone from a very spare scene dominated by grass to a forest…

That said, I planned from the beginning that this area would be forest. I felt it would offer me a different modelling challenge than the open areas of Port Rowan and St Williams. And when operating, I’ve always envisioned this area to be full of trees. Therefore, my perception of the area hadn’t undergone much by way of adjustment.

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Hunter Hughson operated on the layout a couple of weekends ago, and offered these observations:

The new forest makes a huge difference…

When I most recently operated on the layout, I felt that there were three distinct locales emerging on the layout – Port Rowan, Lynn Valley, and St. Williams. One very important factor contributing to the realism of the layout is that the entire train is within a single locale while work is being done there. For instance, work at St. Williams involves stopping for waybills and spotting cars on the team track accordingly. The locomotive and train never move into the next scenic space do any of that work. The same is true for the Lynn Valley and Port Rowan locales.

Each locale is comprised of a number of intimate scenes. The Lynn Valley, where Trevor has most recently planted trees, serves to break up the flat farmland/flatland scenes of St. Williams and Port Rowan. The locale is comprised of a number of engaging and well-planned vignettes. The branch line operating speed affords the crew some time to enjoy the subtle variety. None of this feels forced or rushed because the landforms, river bed, and forest canopy are comprised of natural and familiar lines, colours and textures. The visual effect of all of this is amplified by the soundscape, featuring cicadas and a range of bird species.

Trevor was still in the process of building and planting trees, but it was clear to me that the Lynn Valley is in the process of being transformed from a transitional space between two locales to a locale with its very own strong sense of place.

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Chris Abbott, who took part in last weekend’s operating session, used the question posed by Mike to make some observations about the role of trees in every locale my layout represents:

Port Rowan’s trees, which most properly dwarf the trains, provide an analogue of urban canyons with its silent looming structures – but in bright green & gold instead of drab brick, grimy cinder block, and rust splotched corrugated iron. The semi-transparency of the delicate foliage allows the simulated sunlight to vividly dapple the equipment as it rolls through a lush countryside strongly reminiscent of the rural setting of my boyhood home.

The effort of accurately capturing the lackadaisical droop of the willow and stark white of the birch trunk (amongst a myriad of other details) instead of the vague and unsatisfying caricature presented by popsicle sticks and garishly dyed reindeer food is a welcome visual treat offering rich texture and depth not present on the vast majority of layouts in this or any other age.

Currently, the actors enter the stage through an evergreen curtain to trundle along the edge of a hinted-at vast field of tobacco (a crop prominent at my childhood locale), cross the distinct separation provided by a wide public road, and stop under an almost ethereal canopy providing shade to the St. Williams station platform. The arrival of the train greatly entertains wide-eyed children peeking from their impregnable treehouse nestled in the boughs above a tidy row of neighbouring homes.

Returning once more into the full light of day, the equipment arrives at the St. William’s siding – parenthesised as it is by the grove encompassing the station and the bold edge of the Lynn Valley’s forest. Shunting activity is greatly eased by depicting only gently rolling terrain and a low stand of corn between operator and track.

Continuing on towards the Lynn Valley, the train plunges headlong into a shadowed tunnel of leaf laden, arched limbs to quietly disappear behind a stand of massive trunks, affording only tantalising glimpses of our lead player as it rounds the broad curve therein. Bursting back into the light only moments later, it coasts over the low trestle spanning the tranquil river.

Our protagonist drifts along as it approaches the water tank, largely ensconced by a towering backdrop of primeval forest stretching off towards a dark and foreboding distant sky. More winding water under the girders of a characteristic bridge leads the eye to a herd of cattle obtaining refreshment from the flow and respite from the harsh sunlight in the cool shade of the trees edging the river banks.

Itself replenished, the train surges forward once more, thumping mightily over the aforementioned bridge deck, exiting yet again into the stark brightness of the summer’s day. Wending its way through a reverse curve, it approaches the organised splendour of an orchard of apple trees which, in appropriate contrast to the wilds of the virgin forest and in consideration of the manual gathering operations of the time, is pruned to permit harvest via step ladders and a ubiquitous pickup truck.

Once through the orchard, wide expanses of low grasses (studded liberally with wildflowers and hiding an array of local fauna) offer excellent and unimpeded access to the (relatively) extensive trackage of the Port Rowan terminus and its associated rural industries.

While it remains for more trees to be added to this end of the layout, careful placement will retain access to all necessary points of uncoupling while likely creating yet another scenic break between the team & coal track areas, and the station & Co-Op zones proper.

The addition of the trees to date has already created, to my mind, 7 visually distinct zones on the layout. If the terminal peninsula were to be visually split, (as suggested above) there would then be 8 such zones. Quite an achievement considering the small footprint of the benchwork, all without resorting to the threadbare artifice of diving through backdrops or making mountains out of molehills.

It’s interesting to see how different people interpret the same scene – and I’m pleased by how my friends are reacting to the evolution of the Lynn Valley. Hunter and Chris have done an excellent job, I think, of analyzing the role of the forest – and they’ve definitely picked up on the design goals I had in mind for the forest when planning the layout, which tells me that my plan is working as it should.

Hunter, Chris – thanks for your thoughts on this. And Mike – thanks again for asking the question!

“The Right Number”

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Last night, I hosted a mini-meet of the S Scale Workshop as three fellow members – including one who travelled quite a distance – paid a visit to my layout. And I received a lovely surprise, too…

For the past five years, Jamie Bothwell has been travelling from Pennsylvania to southern Ontario at this time of year to take part in the annual Paris to Ancaster Bike Race. He stays with our mutual friend Andy Malette – and this year, our calendars aligned and allowed the two of them to visit my layout. I invited Chris Abbott along as well, knowing that the four of us would have much to talk about.

It was a long day for me – one that included a morning sheep-herding lesson with my Border Collie, Mocean, followed by braving the weekend-long closure of a major highway in the Toronto area to attend the funeral for Oliver Clubine in Brantford. Normally that’s a 75 minute drive, but it took about two hours due to traffic chaos. It was well worth the trip, however: The service was packed to overflowing with people from many aspects of Oliver’s life. He was much loved and respected, and will be sorely missed.

Knowing that the trip home from Brantford would take a long time, we scheduled our gathering for 7:00pm. We started the evening by introducing Jamie to Harbord House – which has become a tradition for first-time visitors to my layout. Andy very generously picked up the tab – thanks, Andy!

In the layout room, I gave a quick update to my guests on recent projects and some future plans. Then Chris and Jamie formed a two-person crew – handling conductor and engineer duties, respectively – and we set to work. (I had a second train ready to run in case Andy wanted to get some track time, but he was happy to just – as he put it – “Drink it all in”.)

After a number of problems during operating sessions, the layout ran perfectly last night: no derailments, no stalls. I assumed that Chris had worked the conductor’s position more often than he had, so it was good for him to get some experience with the paperwork and I’ll be sure to give him more opportunities in the future. Jamie has DCC experience, but was new to Lenz. However, he picked up the throttles very quickly and was running Mogul 80 like an Old Head by the time the session wrapped up. A fine time was had by all.

As for the lovely surprise…

Jamie reads my blog and he was taken by my work on modelling tobacco kilns, and he liked my blog posting about sending thank you notes to layout hosts. So he put his talents to work and presented me with a lovely watercolour as a thank you for letting him visit. I found a place for it in the kitchen this morning – in a high-traffic area where I’ll get to enjoy it several times every day:
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Jamie called his painting The Right Number, after the thinking behind my decision to model three kilns on the tobacco farm in St. Williams.

Thanks so much, Jamie: What a treat! I hope today’s race goes well for you and I look forward to a return visit. Andy, Chris – great to see you both, as always. Perhaps we can make this an annual event…

Morest Forest

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I’ve been working at the west end of the Lynn Valley – adding more trees and adding canopy to some bare tree armatures that have been in place for a while. In all, I’ve finished more than a dozen new trees for this area. It’s making a big difference.

New additions include some smaller trees on a peninsula between the track and river, just west of the trestle:
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The area around the Lynn Valley Tank has filled in nicely…
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… although I still want to add more trees between track and fascia. (Not too many, though – I still want to be able to enjoy the water tank!)

The scene around the steel girder bridge is also filling in nicely…
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… although more trees are needed in the foreground here, too.

Finally, I’ve started adding trees to the transition area between the west end of the Lynn Valley and the east end of Port Rowan:
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With the additional trees, I feel the views are richer and reward more careful observation. There are scenes to “discover” in the Lynn Valley now…
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As noted, I need more trees – particularly in the foreground. I’ll add those as fast as I can twist armatures, add bark texture and create canopies.

Oliver Clubine

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Sad news today – for me, for the other members of the S Scale Workshop and for the S scale community at large.

Oliver Clubine passed away at 6:00 this morning, just two days past his 77th birthday. He leaves behind his wife Sandra and son David – also an avid S scale enthusiast – daughter-in-law Laura, and grandchildren Conner and Abby.

Oliver was a founding member of the Workshop – and while he had been in declining health for several years because of a heart condition, he was always keen to take part in Workshop exhibitions and it was always, always a pleasure to see him. (His grandson Connor will be yet another generation of hobbyist too I’m sure: He’s a keen and thoughtful operator whenever he joins the Workshop at shows in southern Ontario.)

On a personal note, Oliver is responsible, in part, for my participation in S scale. That’s because his company – Ridgehill Scale Models – produced the beautiful S scale resin kits for the CNR cabooses I use on my layout:
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Several years ago, I became associated with Oliver and the rest of the Workshop through my friend Chris Abbott. Chris needed space to work on a module and I had some space, so we did that at my place – and I picked up a Ridgehill CNR caboose with the thought that, one day, I might build a module of my own.

Then, a couple of years ago when I was tired of On2 and trying to decide what to model next, it was that caboose model that encouraged me to look at S as a possibility for a home layout. (Some consolation for S scale enthusiasts is that Ridgehill Scale Models was a father+son enterprise so it should continue to service the S scale community under David’s direction.)

Oliver only got to see my layout once – a visit with David in January 2013 – but I remember it vividly. I’d set a stool in the inside corner of St. Williams and Oliver perched there while David and I worked a freight to Port Rowan and back. We thoroughly enjoyed the day and Oliver was so pleased to see my approach to the scale he loved. We also had an insightful discussion about the state of S scale in general – and of S scale resin kits in particular. (You can read more about that in my blog post, A Visit from Oliver and David.)

Oliver and I also put our heads together on the Port Rowan station and how to model it in 1:64. He had some good ideas about getting the windows right. And I’m sorry I won’t have the opportunity to compare notes with him as I tackle that station – sometime in the future.

I’m really glad I knew Oliver. He was always a gentleman, and the best kind of person in this hobby. I’ll miss him.

Ops and Talks with Hunter and Steven

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I had a most enjoyable day yesterday as my friend Hunter Hughson visited and brought along a friend of his, Steven Lyons. (Great to meet you, Steven!)

Steven is building an HO scale layout based on the CNR’s operations in Owen Sound, so we had a lot to talk about. The three of us settled in for an engaging discussion over coffee, then headed to the layout room for an operating session.

We used the same locomotive that had given Hunter so many problems the last time he visited – and I’m relieved to report that it ran fine yesterday. There was one derailment, as it headed through the diverging route of the turnout to the turntable in Port Rowan. I’ll give that a look to try to determine what’s up. Otherwise, things went smoothly – with Hunter wearing the conductor’s hat, Steven at the throttle, and me looking after couplers and doing the hand-waving exercise that layout owners often do when showing off their work to new guests. We talked about small steam, layout/environmental sound, tree-building, the interesting discussion of the Chelthenham grain building (seen in the background in the above photo) and more. And we even managed to deliver one car and collect four during an ops session that spanned five scale hours at 4:1…

I’ve run the layout many, many times on my own – and just like any experienced crew familiar with the territory, I’ve figured out a process to do the work efficiently. It’s not the only process – there’s almost always more than one way to do something on a railway (real or modelled) – but it’s a way that works. Therefore, I really enjoy watching others tackling the switching and figuring out their own solutions. In short, it’s neat to see one’s layout come to life for others, and the three of us had a lot of fun.

After our session, we retired to Harbord House for an early dinner and more discussion. Hunter and I are like-minded modellers who value this hobby’s ability to tell stories and preserve and present history – and I get the impression that Steven is too. Plus, the three of us enjoy building things.

Our discussion touched on several subjects – from how to present the hobby as a mature pursuit worthy of serious attention (in other words, how to combat the infantilization of the hobby – the public’s perception of it being about “Big Kids Playing With Toys”)… to how to respectfully present difficult subjects (for example, modelling a railroad set in the southeastern US during the height of the civil rights movement)… to parallels between our hobby and the Maker Movement and whether we should be looking to the Makers to recruit new people into our hobby by highlighting the many sophisticated computing technologies that model railway enthusiasts routinely employ.

Plus, the food and drink were yummy (as always).

In other words, I had a great time – and I’m looking forward to our next get-together!

Halfway through the tree-eating Lynn Valley

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(Click on the image to enjoy a larger version)

As anybody who has planted trees on a layout can tell you, layouts eat trees at a frightening rate. There are approximately 50 trees in the above image – most of them scratch-built by me, using my variation on the techniques I learned from the Gordon Gravett tree books. And yet I’m only about halfway through adding trees to the Lynn Valley area. I’ve basically done the trestle scene on the Lynn River.

That said, I think trees are important and must be convincing on a layout so I’m very pleased with the progress on this scene. For the longest time, the “grass and occasional evergreen” in this area made it look more like something in the western mountains. The addition of so many deciduous trees to this area conveys the desired feel of Southern Ontario. What’s more, their height and placement – including trees between viewer and train – help disguise the fact that I was forced to use a fairly tight radius through the valley.

Still to come: more trees – a lot more trees – to the right of this scene as I head towards the water tank and Port Rowan. And I see a few spots in this area where I can add some bushes. But for now, I’m enjoying this transformation on the layout.

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Trees and trestle

I’ve been doing more work around the trestle in the Lynn Valley – and I’m really impressed by the difference all the new trees make to the scene. Here’s a sampler:

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More words in the fullness. But I’ve burned through a Wallin-sized bottle of extra-hold hair lacquer and despite running the paint booth while doing this, the stuff has given me a headache. Plus – every time I shake my head, Selkirk Leaves fall out of my hair.

Time to get outside.

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!

Willow weep for me

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I built this weeping willow yesterday, using techniques from the excellent Modelling Trees – Volume 1 by Gordon Gravett. I crafted a wire armature then filled out the branches with strands cut from a cheap “Elvira / Morticia Addams” style wig purchased last Hallowe’en, knowing that eventually I would put it to good use. The leaves are by The Selkirk Leaf Company. The tree took about 2-3 hours to make, plus drying time.
(For more on trees, check the Tree Category on this blog.)

I designed this tree to soften the transition between the Lynn River and the backdrop. It leans over the river, almost touching the water, where the river makes a sharp bend to disappear from view:
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I’m pleased with the effect – and with how this scene is coming together. There are a lot more trees to build, but I have several armatures twisted and ready to coat. Fortunately, my general forest tree doesn’t take nearly as long as a willow!
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“Running Trains” with Chris

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Chris Abbott visited yesterday and since it was one of the first really nice days of Spring, we spent the afternoon in the layout room. Well, we’d planned this get-together a couple of weeks ago and that’s just the way it goes…

I’ve had some problems recently with derailments, so I invited Chris for a work session. The idea was simple: We’d run a couple of trains and look for problems. We wouldn’t worry about prototype paperwork, proper switching procedures or any of the stuff that we employ during a normal operating session. Rather, we’d cover the line, using the “Mother may I?” method of dispatching and working through all the spurs and other secondary tracks in the process. If we found a problem – a repeatable problem – we would stop and fix it.

Having another person help me with this task would accomplish two things:

– First, Chris was a second set of eyes and fresh opinions about the nature of any problems.

– Second, I would be less likely to overlook or downplay a problem that would require a major rework. (An example of this might be the need to pull a switch point and fabricate a new one. I hate doing that – especially when working over finished scenery – so I’m more likely to wonder “What’s on TV?” when I run into that kind of repair.)

The good news is, we each ran a train to the end of the line and back, working through various sidings – shoving and pulling cuts of cars – and only encountered one problem: A derailment during a backing move through the turnout in front of the Port Rowan station. What’s more, we were unable to repeat the derailment. It could be an issue – or it could’ve been a bit of dirt or loose ballast in the frog. We don’t know. But we left it alone and will keep an eye on that turnout in case it causes more trouble.

For now, it looks like I’ve managed to fix the derailment problems that were plaguing me earlier this year.

And while we didn’t uncover any major problems, it wasn’t a wasted effort: We had a lot of fun – not holding an operating session, but just “Running Trains”…
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Chris and I did other things, too:

– We discussed plans for adding a hand crank to control the sector plate. Chris has been thinking about this since we built the plate, but many other things have gotten in the way and it’s never been a priority for either of us. But Chris would like to tackle it now so he double-checked some measurements and has retired to his work shop to build the mechanism. Stay tuned.

– I solicited his input on some plans for future scenery projects in the Lynn Valley and I can now proceed with those. Again, stay tuned.

– We realized that Chris had never tried TouchCab – an app that allows one to use an iPhone or iPod Touch as a wireless throttle. He was impressed, and it was good for me to get reacquainted with the system. I’m going to make a point of using it more often.

– I introduced Chris to Night Train – a dark ale from Junction Craft Brewing. It went down very well.

My wife joined us as we wrapped up the day with a visit to The Caledonian – an always-fun Scottish pub. It’s about a 20-minute walk from home but owners Donna Wolff and David Wolff always make the place feel like a second home – and the walk encourages one’s appetite.

Sundays at The Caledonian mean a traditional roast beef dinner – and this Sunday was particularly special as The Caley celebrated Tartan Day. The whisky-tasting was sold out and the place was busy but Donna found us three spots at the bar. There were Highland Dancers to entertain the crowd – and we had three pours left in our bottle of Edradour Caledonia 12-year-old behind the bar, so it was all good.

(Thanks for the great day of work and fun, Chris – I look forward to the next one!)