From Maine On2 to Port Rowan in 1:64

This morning, I received an email from a reader who had discovered some of my On2 work online and had some questions. He wrote:

I just watched a video of your old On2 layout and loved the models, scenery, and music. It is rare for me to sit through many model rail vids but you got me. Thanks.

My pleasure! I’m glad you enjoyed the video. For those who haven’t seen it, I’m pretty sure this is the one to which he refers:


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

The reader continued…

As much as I like your S scale layout it makes me wonder a couple of things like, “How long have your been building layouts?” and, “Why the switch?”

I’ve written about how I got started in 1:64 in a series of posts at the very beginning of this blog. The links have been gathered into the “First Time Here?” page and if you haven’t read them, that’s a good place to start. Go ahead – I’ll wait here…

Me and the Big Big Train
(The railway’s General Manager, surveying the line…)

To answer the first question, I’ve been building layouts off and on – mostly on – for 40 years. I started young, and then had the usual break for part of high school before coming back to the hobby in university. At a guess, I’ve built about a dozen layouts over that time, to various states of completion. The early ones were horribly conceived and executed – a product of ambition over understanding – but they were valuable learning exercises and I don’t regret undertaking them.

In my current home, I’ve built four layouts based on three prototypes/themes:

– An HO scale layout based on the Boston & Maine Railroad’s Claremont branch in New Hampshire. I described that layout in the March and April, 2002 issues of Railroad Model Craftsman magazine.

– Two iterations of a freelanced Maine two-footer layout in On2 (not On30), inspired by the slate-hauling Monson Railroad. I built the first, smaller version in the space now occupied by my workshop. The second version is the one shown in the video above. It was in the space currently occupied by my Port Rowan layout and was to incorporate the slate mill from the first layout, but I abandoned that project before the mainline reached the quarries.

– The current, S scale layout featuring the last three miles of the CNR Simcoe Sub to Port Rowan.

In addition to these, I have explored a few other ideas for my layout space. Some were merely planning exercises, while others were themes I wanted to build but abandoned when I decided I didn’t like the layouts I designed for my space. (The problem of, “If I only had five more feet…”)

The answer to the second question is more complex. Part of the answer is in those first posts about Port Rowan in 1:64.

Primarily, I found that living in southern Ontario it was pretty lonely to model a Maine two-footer. A few of my hobby friends in the area understood what I was doing – but it was just too foreign for most. My hobby is primarily a social one, and I got tired of having a layout that was difficult for others to appreciate. That’s not their problem – they simply didn’t have the reference.

Coupled with this, and equally important, is that because few people in my region knew about the Maine two-footers, I had very few local sources of information about any aspect of them. I couldn’t draw on local knowledge for very much. By switching to the CNR, my local support group got a whole lot better – for everything from equipment to operations. I was spending more and more time with terrific, fun modellers who knew a lot about Canadian railways running in southern Ontario – and nothing about Maine two-footers. Why is that important? Well, working on a layout to which others can relate is important if you’re in the hobby for the social aspects of it.

It’s also important if you want to build skills.

For example, I’m learning to modify brass locomotives with the CNR 3737 project. This is happening because another hobbyist in the area, who knows a lot about doing this kind of thing, also has a brass 2-8-2 to modify into a CNR prototype. Nobody I know in the Toronto area is doing a major modification on a brass SR&RL Forney to convert it to a Monson Railroad prototype. So, if I was still working in On2, I would be figuring that out by myself. I could do that, I’m sure – but the work sessions on the CNR 2-8-2s have become a great social event for me, too.

In the same way that the best advice to anybody considering their first DCC system is, “Buy what your friends use, because you’re going to need help and no feature on any system beats the benefit of local knowledge”, I’ve benefitted enormously from local hobbyists now that we’re moving in the same circles.

With the Maine two-footers, my local knowledge was at least 12 hours away by highway, and across an international border. (And, it has to be said, that border has only gotten more onerous to cross in the years since I modelled the Maine two-footers.) That meant my research trips were expensive, in terms of time and money. They involved at least two days on the road, plus at least two nights in a hotel. So I could only do occasional trips. It’s hard to find the answers to questions when that much travel is involved. Yes, the Internet is wonderful, but there’s nothing like going and seeing for oneself to really get an understanding.

By contrast, Port Rowan is two to three hours away, depending on traffic. I can make a day trip, any time I like.

Dogs outstanding in the Port Rowan yard
(I can even take along my wife and dogs, and make an outing of it.)

It’s much easier to be inspired when I can walk the Lynn Valley hiking trail to see the bridges, or visit with the person who ran the feed mill in Port Rowan – and do the round trip in a day.

As well, I’ve pursued both prototype and proto-freelance modelling, and I definitely prefer the prototype approach. Railway Prototype Modelling meets are among my favourite hobby events, and I never felt comfortable displaying my On2 models at them – even though they were prototype models in everything but the lettering. (And I can tell you, my displays got blank stares at RPMs in the Toronto area.) Again, it’s about how one engages with the hobby. I like Port Rowan in 1:64 because my local community can relate to the prototype, even if they’re more used to seeing the CNR modelled in HO. The difference in scale is a conversation starter – not a killer.

There are more reasons, but those are the main ones.

To the person who got in touch – those were great questions. Thanks for asking!

Full Throttle Steam on TrainMasters TV

The current segment on TrainMasters TV features my CNR 10-wheeler #1532, fitted with a LokSound decoder and loaded with Full Throttle Steam:

DCC Full Throttle Steam

Click on the image above – or follow this link – to start watching. You need to be a subscriber to TrainMasters TV to see it, but membership is quite reasonable.

(UPDATE: ESU has now released the first Full Throttle Steam file – based on SOO Line #1003, a 2-8-2. It’s at the top of the on ESU’s steam download page. For future reference, note that Full Throttle steam – and diesel – sound files are noted by the “(FT)” at the end of the name. Thanks to Matt Forsyth for alerting me that the first file is now publicly available.)

Layout size and reluctance to learn

Old Ways Are Best
(Fun for a wedding, or when on holiday. But if you want to enjoy the many advantages of a modern car, you have to learn to drive)

When I look at the model railway hobby and compare it to what I’ve experienced in other hobbies, I am often surprised at how much resistance people in this hobby offer up to the idea of lifelong learning.

Emphasis is often placed on finding quicker, cheaper, easier ways to do things – rather than better ways to do things. Concepts that promote mediocrity are embraced and spouted as gospel. A good example of this is the “Three Foot Rule” – the idea that as long as something looks good from three feet away, the project is a success and no further work needs to be done.

I’ve often thought about why we do what we do, and there are several posts about this on my blog. But today, while drinking my morning coffee and sharing thoughts with a couple of friends, I approached the problem of “reaching for the middle” from a different angle.

I wonder if the reluctance to learn has something to do with the nature of layout building? In other hobbies, project timelines are much tighter.

A golf game lasts a few hours – and then it’s done. The next game is a new beginning. It’s a new opportunity to do better. Some would say the whole point of golf is to improve one’s score, for the bragging rights.

Building a piece of furniture takes a few weeks or months – and then it’s done. The next piece is a new beginning and can be related to the first piece, or can be radically different. New techniques, materials, and tools can be explored. The resulting piece of furniture doesn’t have to blend in. It doesn’t have to match the previous output.

Military modellers build individual models – not entire fleets of ships or divisions of tanks. Each project stands on its own merits. And each new project is an opportunity to do better.

But in our hobby, we rarely look at each locomotive, or structure, or tree as a model unto itself. They’re usually part of a larger project – a layout – so we spend less time reviewing the project just completed. We tick the box – “That’s one more for the layout” – and move on. We don’t review what we’ve built and ask, “What could I do better – either next time, or right now?”

Old Ways Are Best
(The process of continuous review and improvement is why you’re not reading my blog on one of these)

I’m guilty of this. I have cut corners on many of the projects that comprise this Port Rowan layout. I have stand-in freight cars… background structures… and other compromises. I added them to the layout and then I moved on. And now, every time I look at my layout I see things I could’ve done better. (That said, I also acknowledge that if I had done them better, they probably would’ve taken longer and I would have less of the layout built by now. Would that be a bad thing? Maybe not.)

At least I recognize that I’ve made those compromises. And I also know that since I have a relatively modest layout – one that has taken me a few years to build, not a few decades – I have plenty of opportunity in the future to revisit those compromises and make them better. That’s my plan, anyway. And in order to achieve that, I am actively working to acquire new skills or upgrade as the hobby evolves. For example:

I’m learning to work with brass, through the CNR 3737 project.

I’ve upgraded the decoders in my steam locomotives not once, but twice in five years. Currently, I’m tearing out decoders and replacing them with Loksound decoders loaded with Full Throttle to take advantage of ESU’s sound reproduction and motor control.

I’ve upgraded my DCC system to take advantage of more powerful throttles and more advanced features.

I think sometimes people in this hobby get stuck in the mentality of, “I’ve built that. It’s done. It’s time to move on.” I get that. When building a large layout, one can’t keep revisiting the completed sections – there are still so many uncompleted sections to tackle. And if one has mastered a technique, and it worked on those completed sections, why consider doing things differently the next time?

Old Ways Are Best
(Okay when camping, or in an emergency… but do you really want to give up indoor plumbing for this? Old ways aren’t always the best)

Sadly, this means the resulting layout often looks like the builder’s skills froze in time the moment they started construction. If the first piece of the layout was completed in the 1970s, and the builder mastered the use of dyed sawdust and zip texturing, then that 1970s era scenery is likely still on display today (worse for the wear of being untouched for the past 40 years). And when the layout is viewed by those who have mastered more modern techniques – say, the use of static grass – they’re not going to leave feeling inspired.

I’m sure this isn’t something the builder wants. We all want to put our best effort forward, don’t we? To take pride in our work and inspire those who visit to see it? I sure do.

For those just embarking on a layout, perhaps the biggest favour they can do for themselves is to ask if they honestly have the energy, time and commitment to not only maintain the layout they’re planning, but to continuously improve it. And if the answer is “No”, it’s okay to scale back one’s plans…