Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Additional Bog Photos

Following is a small batch of pictures (close-ups) I took mostly for myself — to get a look at things and make note of what might need to be addressed, etc.

I've already mentioned the bog's rather "abrupt" trackside edge. This would have been relatively simple to fix had I noticed it before I poured the EnviroTex® water . . . but, alas, I missed it. The pour is the last thing you do in this process, and all the detritus and plants and things have to be secured in some fashion (or they'll float up as the resin is curing). Once everything is in place and you begin to do the pour, it's just too late to make any changes.

I'll point out some additional boo-boos the photos brought to my attention, and philosophize a little about the hobby in this post.


Here's a hint for beginning modelers: Watch your track spikes. As we look down toward the bog, at track-level — and this shot isn't all that bad — what screws it up are the two track spike-heads clearly evident beyond the crossing. I'll slap a little light gray over these in due time but the point is that this kind of thing should be avoided. Why are they here? Well, for the most part I use small brads to secure my track to the roadbed, and the ballast covers them up. But once in a while I use something that goes a little deeper into the sub-roadbed (in this case the Dow-Corning pink insulation I use) because I'm using Atlas flexible track, which sections are three feet long, and so I need slightly longer nails at times to more firmly secure the track on curves . . . and these nails or brads have larger heads. You really don't notice them from the slightly elevated view we generally have, but at this level they stick out like the proverbial sore thumb(s).

What I get a kick out of in this photo is the reflection of the gondola in the "water," at bottom right. What I don't like is that my ballasting leaves a little to be desired, more often than not. Fact is, ballasting track is a major P-I-T-A. It's tedious and boring, but it has to be done. Commercial track is available that is "pre-ballasted" but it looks so toy-like as to be almost funny. The next time you're around any railroad tracks take a close look: the ballast (which is busted-up slag that comes from blast furnaces, btw) will generally be up to the level of the tie itself. It won't be on the tie but will be level with it. Here too much of my ties are sticking up above the ballast. To fix this will require an afternoon of additional tediousness. Can the solution be a thing as simple as paying more attention when first putting down the ballast? Yes, but who wants to do that? You want to get it over with . . . and you say, "I'll tidy this all up later."

Who looks that close? is a good question, too. But the person who asks it isn't a model railroader, probably.

They're those who say, "Oh, look . . . toy trains . . ." I've written previously about so-called "rivet-counters" in the hobby and have said I'm not one of them. But the slope is very slippery, to be honest. And, believe it or not, while there aren't
arguments about this in the hobby (the kind that end up with people standing with pistols at ten paces), there are discussions about it. It's the debate between the "I'm-having-fun,-leave-me-alone" crowd versus the "If-you're-going-to-do-it,-do-it-absolutely-right" crowd. When you sit for a few hours or a few days making something from scratch — something as minor as perhaps a fence that you could just as easily purchase commercially for a few dollars — you begin to think about a few things. One of them is to question your own sanity. But if you find the activity enjoyable you can get past that. The next question is about the fence itself: what does a fence (a wood one, say — a picket fence) really look like? Can I do this to some more or less realistic degree in 1/87th scale? What do I remember about these kinds of fences? And so on.

The "reeds" need to be more various in color. The dusting of the pines (a dry-brushing with one color) needs to be addressed. I'll take a darker green and go over the places I've already lightened . . . perhaps with a brown or a black and a light touch.

The ballast at the far right of this photo is close to being good; that in the middle much less so. Do you see it?

A few things . . .

I'm going include the same photo but in black & white, next. Compare and contrast, as the saying goes. It says a lot, including how we see the world, or how we imagine it in our memory. And the devil is in the details, yes?

The blue CSX gondola here is what's known as a "shake-the-box" freight car. This means you get it at the hobby shop, bring it home, and it's ready-to-run. A car like this will cost about $15 to $18 and these days comes with a knuckle coupler and, often, metal wheels. (Metal wheels are the modeler's savior, but more about that another time.) The car even comes with the four rolled steel coils — bonus. But its details — grab-irons and ladders and so on — are part of the mold, and while they're no doubt in scale they're not very realistic.

On the other hand, the Erie Lackawana gondola is a kit. It comes in a box in pieces and you have to assemble it. The pieces are myriad, including grab-irons. It's not rocket science to put one of these kinds of kits together, but it takes about an hour or two and, in this case, I added my own grab-irons (even though the kit supplied them — the ones I use aren't plastic but metal; you buy little packages of them for a few dollars). Now, if I'm
not a so-called "rivet-counter" why would I do this? (And when I put my own grab-irons on a car the distance between the car surface and the grab-iron is without doubt out of scale.)

I do it for contrast. I'd rather have an observer feel or sense that the grab-irons and ladder stiles are "realistic" to them — have depth and contrast — than not. Few people are going to pull out a micrometer and measure.

Next: color. The EL gondola has been "weathered." I use powered chalks for this. I bought a set of weathering powders from a guy in Southern California and they are the best, though a bit pricey. His powders seem to "stick" or adhere to surfaces better than home-made. (I make these by scraping a knife blade over commercial chalks, shaving them onto a piece of paper and dumping the shavings into little containers.)

No freight cars in the steel mill environment are "clean and shiny." They're old; they're beaten-up, abused: most of them are a mess, frankly. Toys are clean and shiny. Will I get around to "dirtying-up" the CSX gondola? You can bet on it.

Here's the same photo in black & white —

The CSX car doesn't look so bad here . . . though it will need a good dose of weathering, eventually, regardless.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Bog-building 101

When it comes to model railroading and water, suffice it to say that they don't mix. Not REAL water, anyway.

On one of my layouts when I was a youth I decided once that I wanted water. Unfortunately I'd never seen it modeled. An inventive — if not slightly misguided — 11-year old, I decided to take the bull by the horns and came up with something . . . that, well, didn't quite work out. That's a minor understatement but remember, I was eleven (for Godsakes). This first "water feature" consisted of some sort of roundish shape made out of tin-foil that I painted a shade of blue that doesn't exist in nature and then embedded in the landscape beneath a mountain.

There were two problems: the first was that I had no way of putting my "pond" actually at ground level or a little below and the second was that I used real water. The ground level business didn't seem to bother me — when we're young we give ourselves a lot of latitude. The pond sat up about a quarter inch from the surrounding terrain, and I addressed that by pushing a sort of 1960s version of Sculptamold® (papier maché) border up around it. The water, though, was puzzling — it didn't look right. Strange, eh? Real water doesn't seem for some reason to fit to "scale." There was also the matter of evaporation. I'd placed my little pond in an area that was difficult to reach without my shirt cuffs, or just my arms and elbows, having a Godzilla effect on the town's buildings, and so after the first bit of water evaporated and I realized how difficult it was going to be to keep the thing "fresh," I left it to its own devices, a scar on the landscape.

Thus for many years after I nixed water as a factor on any of my layouts. So be it.

When I began building my latest layout, though, I'd seen water modeled by others and knew it could be done effectively and (relatively) easily, so I decided to try it. My first dealings with this (a waterfront/wharf area at the town itself combined with a stream that runs under some trackage at the "west" end of the layout) turned out relatively well, all other things being equal. I'll post some photos of that area eventually.

There are a lot of choices available these days for modeling water, though I won't get into any detail about them. You can choose the "easy pour," one-step method offered by Woodland Scenics, for instance, or you can use a mix-and-pour epoxy material known as EnviroTex®. I've used both on this layout. (Woodland Scenics also offers a product they call E-Z Water® which consists of little pellets that come in a bag: you heat these on your stove in a can till they melt and then you let 'er rip . . . but IMHO the few dollars saved using this vs. their Realistic Water® or EnviroTex isn't worth the hassle. Mixing EnviroTex is a much simpler matter than the attention needed for something that must be heated up then rushed over to the layout and poured before it starts to cool, etc).

I have three (perhaps there'll be another) "water features" on my layout: the previously mentioned town waterfront area and associated stream; a small bit of water at the ore dock; and a swamp or bog. I'm not much of a naturalist in the strictest of terms, so am not entirely sure whether to call what I made a swamp, a bog, or a marsh. They're all different on some technical level, but I'm too lazy to look it up. Perhaps what I've made is more of a marsh or a marshy "area" than anything else, but I've decided to refer to it as a bog. Sue me.

There was a corner at the mill area (ground level) on the layout and I'd decided early on that I'd put a bog there — to use the space in an interesting way and also because I had seen something called "Reeds & Cattails" in a
Scenic Express catalog that was reasonably priced and difficult to resist. For twenty bucks you got everything you needed to make a small marsh or swampy area: reed and cattail material; 8 oz. of EnviroTex; soil and sand; moss and weeds; and lily pads and deadfall. I thought, "Perfect, a bog in a box," and ordered it. This was two years ago and I finally got around to doing the scene earlier this year. Fact is, while I might have wanted to have used the lily pads (having once built a real pond of my own) it turned out to be far and away too tedious to cut the pads off their background with an X-acto knife, and I never used those . . . and the other materials I could have gathered up on my own, but we live and learn. It was all there in one "kit" and convenient, so what the heck . . .

What follows, then, is a sort of step-by-step primer on swamp, bog, or marsh-making. I'll comment above the photos.
One of the advantages of using pink or blue foam (insulation panels made by Dow-Corning, for instance) over a plywood base is that you can dig down into it. And that's how I began shaping my bog . . . by doing an outline and then carving out the shape with a moto-tool (the drawbacks to this way of terra-forming is that you end up with teeny little bits of electro-statically charged foam flying everywhere and sticking to everything . . . you
do need to keep a vacuum close and use it often).


I've done the outline of the bog here.

I've put up a block to keep the foam off the tracks and have used a Dremel tool to carve the shape of the bog.

The end result

(A few photos are slightly out of order, time-wise, sorry.) What I've done here is to make a background for the area, a border, using ceiling tiles that I find here and there. You break them off into pieces and they end up doing decent duty as stratified rocks. Not perfect, but decent.

A shot of my cattail-making. A good friend of mine asked me about the sanity of anyone making HO-scale (1/87th) cattails. I thought it was a very good question and I didn't have a very good answer, other than to say that if you're going to do it you might as well do it the best you can. These look more like Q-tips than cattails, and I should have done the tops either in white or in brown, but I was having a "moment." I don't like these two shades of green and eventually I'll bend over the layout here and address this however I'm able.

Another shot of the background "wall." I used plaster molds for the top of this, which you can see in the foreground. Then I use a variety of "washes" (diluted acrylics) to color the tiles and the plaster rock molds.

The wall coming together. As an erstwhile woodworker I learned the magic of clamps. Clamps are important. If duct tape is the secret of the Universe, clamps run a close second, and you can never have too many clamps. This bit of business was bonded with Woodland Scenics Foam Tack Glue, which is more or less like a commercial latex caulk.

It's beginning to have a "look." One of the drawbacks of using pieces of ceiling tile like this is that you end up with parallel horizontal lines that really don't exist in nature. You try to cover that up, or cover over it, with foliage and ground cover and so on, but . . .

I found a package of these pines for eight bucks at a craft store and thought they'd be just enough for this space. There were different sizes of trees and I tried to arrange them in a decent way above the bog and at ground level. My cousin Judy Johnston, an art teacher, suggested that I might want to dust the trees with a variety of greens and blues, and I did so later but I don't feel I did the best job possible and will readdress this another time. (The "cliffy" backdrop was a module that I built off the layout, which is why it's not in place in the following few photos.)

I've used my airbrush to begin to color the bog. Like many modelers, I'm not yet entirely comfortable with an airbrush. They're wonderful things but a bit difficult to learn how to use with skill. I don't claim to have much skill or grace with the instrument yet, but to shade and attempt gradations of color they're what one has to learn how to use.

Feathering in a little green . . .

Then some blue. (A note here: the trackside border of my bog was too abrupt. I should have or could have shaved that down but at the time I simply didn't "see" it. And this is one of the most positive things about taking pictures of ones own work. It isn't so much to be all joyous about whatever minor thing has gone on but rather to see the mistakes . . . which I'm not at all hesitant to point out.)

Shades of a bog-to-be . . .

Beginning to add a few things to the mix . . .

No water yet, but I'm getting there. What I really wanted in my bog was a grocery store buggy turned upside down in the water, but I've never seen one in HO scale, so I settled for a tire. I dropped some rocks in there, put in a few dead trees, and so on.

Could one sit on the edge of the rock face here on a summer night and listen for frogs while the trains pass?

Perhaps . . .

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Blast Furnace Area — "No Perfection" Philosophy

I've found in the relatively short time I've been doing this model railroading blog that one of the more interesting aspects of it is simply deciding what to post. A friend of mine who shall go unnamed (but you know who you are, if you're reading this) recently made an observation about me (to me, in an email) that I felt compelled in my own defense initially to dispute but realized I couldn't — and that was that I'm a perfectionist. While this has little to do with whether I ever achieve anything even remotely close to what might be deemed "perfection" — which goes without saying — after some thought about the matter I decided that for better or worse my friend was right. For a writer this can be a real problem, and for a poet a potentially destructive problem — but that's what one has to learn to deal with one way or another.

In model railroading, where the standards might seem to be different — in some ways less demanding (it's supposed to be fun, and so on; no one's standing over you with a whip, as I sometimes feel, regarding poetry, that the ghost of Keats or T.S. Eliot is standing over me) and yet in others more so — the decisions about what to make public and what to keep to oneself can become difficult — particularly for the so-called "perfectionist."

For instance: I've talked already about posting a track-plan of my layout. I know this would be a boon to any follower(s) of my blog if only in the sense that when they see certain photographed scenes they'll know where they are in that "world", etc. I'm aware myself that while I very much enjoy close-ups and limited perspective photos of other modelers' work, I also am always curious about the bigger picture. A track plan is nearly always provided, for instance, in featured articles on individuals' work in magazines such as Model Railroader. But, interestingly enough, often there are no "bigger picture" shots: it's as if either the editors of MR or the owner/builders of the railroads don't want the spell of the "fictive dream" to be broken or interrupted. Writers know that anything they do which causes a reader to step back, even for a moment, and move
outside the story or poem, spells a kind of doom or at the very least indicates that something's wrong with the writing. (On the other hand, were a reader to step away from his or her reading because they might have been distracted by something that moved them deeply in some or another way, or because they wanted to see how a writer had affected some particular move, some particular sleight-of-hand . . . any writer would no doubt be flattered by that.)

While I don't have these
same sorts of fears regarding my modeling efforts, I'm still concerned to some degree about presenting my work in the best possible light. Thus though last week or the week before I did, indeed, draw a track-plan, it's hopelessly amateur and pitiful. One might say, "Well, who cares? Let's see that baby . . ." and so on. Frankly, I care, and this is my blog, and so such business is simply going to have to be put on hold till I can find a way to render a track-plan diagram in a way that pleases me. And readers of the blog are going to have to wait a while before they can see the bigger picture. (Might I add, though, that one needn't hold ones breath. Notwithstanding with whatever efficiency I might eventually manage to do this, my railroad is small and seeing a wonderfully rendered diagram of it I guarantee will change no ones life.)

In the meantime, the photos below are various shots of the blast furnace area, which is on a slightly raised level from the rest of the pike. Originally this hadn't been the case, but once I had decided to "build out" enough that I could have at least one continuous run of track, I ran into space and design problems. I solved this by elevating the whole mill area itself, an area about two feet wide by about seven feet long. I used a "view block" to isolate two areas in this part of the layout (more later about this) and, for the most part, have been pleased by how it has worked out — both design- and operation-wise.
An "observer" confronting what I've done can fill in the blanks. Modelers count on this: suggest enough or represent enough accurately and the person looking will fill in the rest. (Writers count on this as well, of course — particularly poets. I and my poet friend Melanie Reitzel have long gotten a tremendous kick out of a bit of comedy by Eddie Izzard where he talks about Dr. Heimlich and his invention of the eponymous maneuver that has saved many lives over the years. Izzard "acts out" Dr. Heimlich's early [humorously failed] struggles to perfect his maneuver, and at one point has him saying, "Well, it's not really a
maneuver yet . . . it's more of a gesture." A lot of modeling is more or less a gesture, too — and so much of it never perfected nor even approaching that point. But we learn by doing, and by doing we learn.)

Some photos then, here, of the upper mill area — blast furnace and cast house.

(Note: the background on the view block is or was an experiment for me in painting a backdrop. I am no more a painter than I am a draftsman. One can purchase backdrops or background scenes and they're not very expensive, but in keeping with my need to teach myself things and learn from the experiences I decided to ask a cousin of mine, Judy Johnston, an artist and high school art teacher in North Carolina, to help me do "clouds" with acrylics. She did the best she could from a distance and I did the best I could in following her guidance. Oddly enough, I found working with acrylics fascinating, and a new adventure. The results of these first attempts I'm not so sure about, but the view block is removable and I can redo and work with a little more diligence in the meantime on the this background "sky.")

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Note on Digital Command Control

Digital command control (DCC) had already been on the scene for a while when I began working on my most recent railroad, and I knew from the outset that I was going to avail myself of this newer technology. For those following my blog who aren't modelers, here's a quick and dirty primer on DCC.

Back in the day one ran trains with one or more DC power packs (rectifiers) feeding electricity to the track. This was all well and good, but the problem was that if you put two locomotives (or three or four) on the track at the same time both (all) would "respond" to the juice flowing through the rails, and move simultaneously (and if their motors' polarity happened to be different then they'd run in opposite directions simultaneously). Most inconvenient, to be sure (and shades of Gomez Addams . . .). The only way to get around this was to electrically isolate sections of track into "blocks" by having the power routed first to double-pole/double-throw (DPDT) off-on switches and from there to the track blocks. You could connect two power packs to the tracks then and by alternatively allowing power to be sent to this block or that block (by toggling the DPDT switches) it was possible to run more than one loco (thus trains) at the same time. Obviously things could get a little complex, and the wiring was a chore, to put it mildly. And if you had a large railroad the number of "blocks" could become unwieldy. Additionally, running trains was often an effort in memory and concentration, as you would have to make sure that train A (loco A) didn't accidentally drift into a block where train B (loco B) might have been under power, and so on. People back then used (bought or devised) all sorts of ingenious electrical circuitry to facilitate easier running of trains in this fashion, but the fact remains that it was tedious and cumbersome — a pain in the butt, frankly. All of my railroads from when I first began getting serious about the hobby, in the early 80s (and I built four of them in that decade — two rather large) till '05 were done using this method . . . standard DC. (Suffice it to say that nothing I'd done when I was very young involved much complex wiring at all . . .)

I won't get into the history of digital command control here, but will say that most modelers are probably grateful for its appearance on the scene. The basic idea is that instead of 12-volt DC current going to the tracks (in whatever roundabout fashion) digital information (sent in packets) is passed along simultaneously with that current. Each locomotive is equipped with a chip (a decoder) that responds only to the signals (the "address") it's set up to respond to. That's basically it. Locomotive A responds only to the signals recognized by its own decoder, loco B the same, and so on. You can have as many locomotives (thus trains, if you care to see it that way) as you wish on the tracks at the same time . . . or as many as your command unit will allow you to address. So now the power packs are actually little computers, small digital switching devices, basically, that also provide the 12-volt DC current; and you "dial in" locomotive A, or B, or whichever you choose, and move only that one around. Brilliant. Ah, technology.

Most basic DCC systems allow you to control at least ten locos in either two- or four-digit addresses. You program the decoders individually, giving them whatever numerical address you desire (many use the numbers on the locomotives, for instance, for the sake of convenience or expedience). Additionally, standards have been established by the NMRA (National Model Railroad Association) across the board to ensure that one company's decoders will work with another company's command systems, and so on. For instance, I use the Digitrax Zephyr, an entry-level system, but I may buy decoders for my locos that happen to be made by another company.

DCC allows, as well, multiple "cabs," or individual control and throttle units that are not themselves power sources. These can be corded (tethered) or wireless. In the case of the former, "plug-in" panels are placed at various spots around the layout. In operation, disconnecting the control unit ("cab") from one panel and re-plugging it in elsewhere doesn't disconnect power from the locomotive — so you can walk around looking for another panel closer to where you might wish to be and your loco or train will continue running. The only hitch here is that you cannot change the address of either the main control unit or any external cabs or throttles "on the fly," as it were. You must let go of the train you're controlling and reselect another loco by unplugging the cab, dialing in the new address, then re-plugging in. Perhaps in the future manufacturers of these systems may find a way to allow one simply to dial in another loco's address without removing the cab's plug: the act itself of changing the address would suffice to deselect one loco and select another, etc.

DCC has allowed, in addition to all this great stuff, the introduction of on-board sound. For a premium you can now buy locomotives equipped with sound chips and a small speaker (or the owner can add these after the fact). The sounds include such things as the proper diesel rumble for whatever model the loco might happen to be (which "rumble" increases in volume and intensity as the loco accelerates and vice versa); coupling sounds; dynamic brake noises; horns and whistles (again, appropriate to the particular engine); and even wheel flange squeals . . . among other things.

This is, again, the quick and dirty low down on DCC. But as with everything digital, things can get more complex and involved. Suffice it to say, though, that DCC allows one the flexibility to "keep it simple, stupid" or grow the system as the railroad itself may grow. (Note: one may still use a DC locomotive not equipped with a decoder [address 00] but the unit will make a high-pitched whine or hum, called "singing," something that's a bit distracting, if not altogether disturbing to the ear.)

Below are snapshots of the components of my very basic Digitrax Zephyr system . . .

Zephyr's DCS 50 main unit

Digitrax UT4 tethered cab/controller

Plug-in panel (I have two on my small layout)

Panel and throttle/cab controller