A letter from Copetown (2006)

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A decade ago – in February of 2006, to be exact – I visited the Copetown Train Show and saw the modules built by the S Scale Workshop. I was working in another scale and gauge at the time, but a seed was planted that today has resulted in the layout featured on this blog.

It was the Workshop’s first exhibition of their free-mo style modular layout and it impressed a lot of visitors at Copetown that year. I headed home and wrote a letter to Bill Schaumburg – then editor of Railroad Model Craftsman magazine – about the show, and the debut of the S Scale Workshop on the southern Ontario exhibition scene.

Here’s the letter… which Bill printed in the June, 2006 issue as part of his Editor’s Notebook feature. After you read it, I’ll offer up some observations…

Hello, Bill:

Greetings from the Great White North! Although I must admit it’s not really white in Southern Ontario these days, despite it being the middle of winter. It’s cold, but the ground is brown and the roads are dry, which makes for easy driving (always a concern at this time of year).

But even if the weather outside IS frightful, many enthusiasts (myself included) brave the elements at the end of February and hit the road to the Copetown Train Show, which takes place in a small town of the same name just west of Hamilton, Ontario.

Copetown has never been a typical train show, but rather a showcase for fine model building with a focus on Canadian prototypes.

Copetown does not attract the usual train show crowd of families and casual punters (not that there’s anything bad about shows that do, but not every show has to cater to every taste). Instead, it draws many of the same people one meets at Railway Prototype Modelers meets such as Naperville, Cocoa Beach, and the others you regularly write about in your monthly column. Word is, about 400 people attended this year’s event, and I even saw some old friends there who had driven a good six hours to attend. (That’s particularly impressive when one considers that Copetown is only open to the public on Sunday: Exhibitors set up on Saturday and then get the chance to visit each other’s displays, buy stuff, sell stuff, socialize and so on. The day ends with a dinner, followed by an evening of slide shows and/or clinics. All in all, it’s good incentive to become an exhibitor: I’ll have to do something about that.)

Copetown features photo dealers, Canadian railway SIGs and Historical Societies, booths about area club layouts, tables staffed by manufacturers of Canadian-prototype rolling stock, structures or other details, authors or dealers of books about Canadian railroads, and layouts that exhibit a high degree of craftsmanship, usually based on a Canadian prototype.

There were a number of layouts on display this year, but I think it’s safe to say that the one that created the biggest buzz in the hall was a modular layout created by seven members of the S Scale Workshop. This layout is built to the Workshop’s own version of the Free-mo standard, which allows groups to build modules of any size and shape and then link them together in any number of ways to create large free-form layouts (the concept is described in detail at www.free-mo.org).

The members of the S Scale Workshop began building their modules in earnest just a few months before the show, yet managed to assemble an astonishing 93 linear feet of model railroad in a large, lazy U-shape that worked its way through the main exhibition space.

The modules assembled into a single track line with a staging yard at one end, a model of Port Dover, Ontario at the other (actually, part of one member’s home layout), and a passing siding in the middle, with a couple of spurs still to be built. Using wireless walk-around DCC throttles and a small fleet of sound-equipped S scale Canadian National 2-6-0s built from etched kits by S Scale Loco and Supply (www.sscaleloco.com), the layout kept visitors entertained all day.

Some of the modules were unfinished at show time – one was still at the pink Terra Foama stage, while another had nothing more than green garbage bags stapled to each side of the roadbed to prevent any derailed trains from making a 50-inch plunge to the floor – but the potential was readily apparent and I’m sure this group will impress us all over again the next time they do a show.

It was particularly enlightening to see an S scale, craftsman-quality layout up close and personal. Interesting things are happening in 1:64, and it’s worth looking into (as if I need ANOTHER distraction). I can understand the attraction, especially if one’s modeling subject is a modest prototype, such as a branch line patrolled by small engines pulling light trains of 40’ steam-era cars: The “slightly larger than HO” nature of S would give small prototypes a presence and heft that HO just can’t accomplish, without having the overall scene overwhelm a layout room.

It was also interesting to watch the crowd’s reaction to both S scale and the free-mo nature of the layout. One could almost see the current hit the mental light bulbs. I predict that in the next couple of years, I’ll be seeing many more Free-mo style layouts at Southern Ontario shows – mostly in HO, of course, but in other scales too.

While most of the Copetown attendees have invested serious amounts of time and money into their chosen scale/gauge/era/theme, building a Free-mo style module would give many of them an opportunity to explore an avenue of the hobby that lies beyond their primary interest, and who knows where that could lead? Only to great things, I expect.

The builders of the HO scale Ontario & Eastern sectional layout (which was the cover story in the February, 1998 RMC) started the show several years ago. After a long and successful run, the O&E members decided to retire their exhibition layout to devote more time to their endeavors at home, and they passed the show’s organizational duties onto the Canadian Association of Railway Modellers (with a double “L”, since that’s how we do things here in Canada).

So, Bill, that’s the story. I hope you can make it to Copetown some year – weather permitting, of course. But to be fair, I should warn you that by the end of the weekend you may end up horse-trading your Nevada County Narrow Gauge equipment for some CN moguls, eight hatch reefers, and other signature models of Canadian railway history.


– Trevor in Toronto

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I was an outsider to S scale when I wrote that, but I find it interesting that my initial reactions to the scale were, by and large, right on the money for me.

– “(as if I need ANOTHER distraction)”
It turns out I did. I was unhappy with what I was doing in the hobby, and it was time for a change. It took me about five more years to realize that.

– “I can understand the attraction, especially if one’s modeling subject is a modest prototype, such as a branch line patrolled by small engines pulling light trains of 40’ steam-era cars.”
Well, that’s pretty obvious, since that’s what I’ve ended up modelling on my Port Rowan layout.

– “The ‘slightly larger than HO’ nature of S would give small prototypes a presence and heft that HO just can’t accomplish, without having the overall scene overwhelm a layout room.”
This is definitely something that I’ve appreciated as I’ve been working in 1:64 over the past few years. I’m a junkie for detail, and as I wrote way back near the beginning of this blog, I originally tried to design an O scale layout to fit my space. It didn’t. S did, while still giving me most of the presence that I love about O. It’s not “in your face”, but it’s also not “way over there” either.

– “I predict that in the next couple of years, I’ll be seeing many more Free-mo style layouts at Southern Ontario shows – mostly in HO, of course, but in other scales too.”
This has also happened. Since 2006, several Free-mo groups have launched in the region. I’ve even been involved in a few of them. Some have folded, others have remained quite small, but there are also some quite large groups that are very active.
I’m glad I read the crowd right that day.

– “Copetown does not attract the usual train show crowd of families and casual punters (not that there’s anything bad about shows that do, but not every show has to cater to every taste).”
This is still the case, 10 years later – and it’s one of the reasons that Copetown continues to be a terrific show for the “serious” hobbyist.

As a show, though, it remains a novel experience in Southern Ontario – an exhibition with a specific focus, instead of a general train show. Other good examples of “focussed events” in the area include the Ontario Narrow Gauge Show and the Great British Train Show, organized by The Platelayers Society. Both are well worth attending – in large part because of their unique focus on the hobby.

There are several local shows each year that pretty much present the same thing as every other local show. The same layouts are featured. The same vendors show up. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all – so there’s not much point in attending. Some of these local shows are failing. If they want to turn around their fortunes, they could look at how to make their shows a unique event instead of offering up more of the same.

It’s been 10 years since I wrote that piece, and The Copetown Train Show continues. So does the S Scale Workshop – which will be celebrating the 10th anniversary since it first exhibited those Free-mo style modules, as it exhibits at the 2016 Copetown Train Show. Workshop member Jim Martin has written about this on The S Scale Workshop blog. We’ve included a couple of early photos from 2006, as well as a layout plan for this year’s exhibit and information about attending the show.

Check it out, and I hope to see you in Copetown on Sunday, March 6th!

In-street turnouts for Regan

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(The finished turnouts, ready for Regan’s layout. Click on the image to read more)

In my last post, I mentioned that I’d been working on a project for a friend’s layout. The project was a pair of in-street turnouts for a layout I designed for Regan Johnson. They feature full-length guard rails and a single point.

Click on the image above to read more about the turnouts, and the layout design, on my Achievable Layouts blog. Enjoy if you visit!

A new project: Roy

As they say on social media, “So this happened:”

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My wife and I braved potential white-out conditions to drive to the Owen Sound area on Friday and bring home eight-week-old Roy “Batty” Marshall: Our third (and for now, final) Border Collie. I’m very excited about this dog. Not only is he great fun, but he comes from a strong herding line. (For example, his grandmother is an international competitor with my herding coach.)

The kitchen has been transformed into a living space and puppy play centre while we get Roy reliably house-trained and comfortable with the other dogs.

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Our first dog, Mocean, has been a saint with Roy:

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(“That is not a tug toy!”)

Our second dog, Jack – not so much:

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But Jack is already showing some improvement and he’ll get over himself soon enough.

I’ve been doing a lot of model-building in the kitchen (and do have a project or two to share when I get the chance), but since Friday I’ve realized I can’t really work on things while wrangling Roy. So I will be taking another, very temporary, hiatus from being active in hobby: I’ll join the ranks of the Armchair Modeller – but only for a couple of weeks.

Meantime, I also have some thoughts about the hobby to share and some events to attend that’ll I’ll report on here. Also, I’m using the time to plan my workshop and solve some hurdles to starting the last of the major structures on the layout – including the feed mill and station in Port Rowan.

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Notes on decals and strip storage

I’m posting this here mostly so I remember it myself. Two items on the web came to my attention recently that will be useful for my modelling.

First, Al Ferguson at Black Cat Publishing now has a website. I knew this was coming – Al asked if he could use some of my rolling stock portraits for the S scale section of the site – but I’d forgotten that he was doing this. This is great news: It’ll make it much easier to search for and order the lettering essential to modelling a Canadian railway- in 1:64, 1:87, 1:48…

Click on the Black Cat logo to visit Al’s site:

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Second, I’m in the process of designing a new workshop and I’m compiling a list of things I want in it. One of those things is good storage for strips of styrene and wood. These can be up to 24″ long and I’d like them sorted into sizes so packages are easy to find. I also need to be able to see partial lengths, because I have a habit of cutting into a new 24″ piece of strip wood when what I really need is the 3″ piece at the bottom of the bag.

That’s where Terry Gaskin comes to the rescue. Terry models the Chicago Transit Authority in O scale and recently posted to his blog about how he modified an IKEA “Alex” six-drawer unit (catalogue number 502.649.27) for organizing his long strip styrene. Click on the image of his layout, below, to visit his blog and read the post:

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Thanks for this, Terry: I’m adding Alex to my workshop!

(If you want to know more about Terry’s modelling, he was our guest on Episode 41 of The Model Railway Show podcast. All episodes are still available for your listening pleasure!)

More on the scale house

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Further to yesterday’s post about the scale house project, I have some more progress to share.

Having sprayed the entire scale house with CNR mineral red, I let that dry and then I brush painted some pale grey on the back wall and the ceiling, to lighten up the interior somewhat. (It’s easier to see the scale mechanism now that it’s not so dark inside.)

I also painted the scale and stained the floor:

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I mentioned the ventilator pipes in a previous post. They’re scratch-built from styrene tube sized to match some HO scale white metal castings for mushroom-style roof vents from Scale Structures Limited.

Finally, I added a latch to the door, made from a rectangle of paper (cut from one of the “Train Shop Wish List” pads from a local hobby shop, which I thought was entirely appropriate) and a bent-over Details Associates eyebolt:

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Still lots to do, but I wanted to get a good start on the project so I would have something to show at Hunter’s place this past Saturday – and the in-progress model was well received. I’m looking forward to tacking the next piece of the scale house…

An evening at Hunter’s

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(That’s Hunter Hughson at left, then – clockwise – Robin Talukdar, Chris van der Heide, Pierre Oliver, Roger Chrysler, Ryan Mendell (blue sleeve at right) and Steve Lyons with his back to the camera. Not in the picture, but still present: Bob Fallowfield, Ron Brajer and Paul Bellmore.)

My friend Hunter Hughson marked an important birthday recently and on Saturday night, he invited several notable modellers (and me) to help him celebrate. It was a low-key affair at his house – and a lot of fun. There was good food, excellent company and a chance to share current projects (some of which can be seen in a photo on Hunter’s blog).

We also ran a few trains on the first stage of Hunter’s home layout. Hunter plans to model several railroads that ran through North Tonawanda, New York, and started his layout by modelling on a large paper mill that was served by the Penn Central:

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(From the front: Steve, Hunter and Chris check out the switch list for the paper mill)

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(The paperwork. We’ll have to come up with a better place to put the clipboards…)

This is a brilliant approach (well done, Hunter!), because it allows Hunter to get something up and running fairly quickly, that can then perform several functions while he works on the rest of the layout:

1 – It’s a test-bed for techniques – everything from laying track to testing scenery concepts.

2 – It’s a place to road-test locomotives and rolling stock so they’re all in good running order.

3 – It’s fun to operate, and allows Hunter to host sessions while he’s working on the larger portion of the layout.

I brought along my in-progress scale house to share with the group:

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(Click on the image to read more about the scale house project)

I also brought along my HO scale CNR 2113 – a Bombardier HR-616 – to test-run:

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(Click on the image to read more about this model)

This was less than successful – for two reasons. First, I had forgotten to clean the wheels after weathering the unit. Second, I had neglected to install a current keeper when I put in the decoder. I rectified both situations on Sunday morning:

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The unit sounded great with that big speaker – and adding the current keeper was easy, given the amount of space available under the hood.

It was a great time, with a lot of laughs – and I’m sure Bob is still having visions of Caboose Industries ground throws. Look, Bob: There’s another one!

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Scale House project underway

Having recently completed a second CNR scale test car, I’ve decided it’s time to start on a third aspect of this project – a scale house:

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Back in the summer, I acquired a Moffett Models kit for a CNR scale house. I thought I’d get to the project sooner, but other things came up. Regardless, this project is now on my workbench (or, more accurately, my kitchen table).

The kit is very nice, but consists largely of cast-resin pieces and I prefer to represent wood with wood. So after careful consideration I decided I would use the pieces as patterns to scratch-built my own structure. I’ve used the kit’s laser-cut window mullions, but in my own walls, building them up board by board.

The kit is based on a CNR scale in Brantford, Ontario. I also worked from a photo of a similar structure in Palmerston – this one showing clapboard on the rear wall, with novelty siding elsewhere.

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I built up my own clapboard, using a piece of clapboard styrene sheet as a sub-wall, to which I glued individually distressed boards. The styrene clapboard creates an excellent guide for laying in the boards. I also created my own novelty siding by scraping and sanding down the top edge of each board to represent the narrow edge that goes underneath the board above. These were glued to thin plain styrene sheet. The window frames and the door were built from pieces of stripwood of various sizes.

I built each wall as a flat. Then, I carefully introduced each wall to the spinning disc on a workbench sanding station to bevel the sides of the five walls that make up the front of the structure, so that I could glue the angled sections together with tight corners. After the six walls were assembled, I equally carefully sanded the angle into top of the structure so I could attach the sloped roof. (I must admit this took nerves of steel and very steady breathing…)

I airbrushed the assembled structure with Scalecoat CNR mineral red, while the roof is a piece of thin styrene sheet covered with masking tape brush-painted grey-black to represent tarpaper. I cut microscope slide covers to size for the window glazing, and secured them in place with Microscale’s Krystal Klear.

With all the windows in this structure, some representation of an interior is called for. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Volume 12 of the Railway Prototype Cyclopedia includes a terrific feature on weighing freight cars – complete with drawings of several track scales. I worked from this information to fashion the visible portion of the scale using styrene rod and strip, brass bar, Details Associates eyebolts, and two queen posts from a Grandt Line set for O scale, RGS boxcars:

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It doesn’t look like much in its raw state, but when it’s painted and installed inside the scale house it’ll do the trick nicely…

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The lead photo for this post shows that I’ve added two stacks behind the scale house. These are often mistaken for stove pipes – but are actually the ventilators for the scale pit. I’ve also fabricated the tops of the concrete pit walls from strip styrene, and added a door next to the scale house to provide access to the pit for maintenance. Scrounging in my Home Hobby Shoppe turned up some O scale boxcar door hardware and hinges to detail the door.

I will build the top of the scale pit – including live and dead rails – on a piece of styrene that will fit between the tops of the concrete walls. This will make it easier to secure the rails without damaging the structure.

There are still a lot of details to add to this track scale, including working lights to the scale operator can read reporting marks on the equipment being weighed. As I work on these details, I’ll ponder what to do with my scale house. I still like the idea of creating a small module for the S Scale Workshop exhibition layout. Meantime, I’m enjoying learning about these important pieces of railway equipment.

Doing my part for the NMRA

The Globe and Mail – Canada’s national newspaper – ran a story last week about a problem with the renovation at Toronto Union Station.

You can read the full article on the Globe’s website, but the gist of it is that clearance under the old train shed roof is too low to accommodate planned electrification of the area’s commuter train services. And the agency responsible for the renovation didn’t factor that into the plans – with the usual consequences of cost overruns, delays, yadda-yadda-yadda…

That sounds like bad layout design to me.

I realized this was a golden opportunity to give the hobby a shout-out, so I wrote a letter to the editor – published in today’s edition of the Globe:

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Just doing my part…