Thursday, November 25, 2010

Realistic Looking Windows

The finely-detailed (and realistically fake) interiors
on the M & M Sub. Those are real venetian blinds and
curtains in the second floor windows.

My hat is off to those who meticulously detail the inside of their model buildings—tables, chairs, machinery, people and so much more bring the interiors to life. I am amazed by their craftsmanship.

But what if you lack those kind of skills, as I do? Or if your buildings are mostly flats against a wall?

That’s the case for me, and for the CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Subdivision. Of the over 50 buildings on my layout, only 15 are modelled in three dimensions. The rest are a half-inch deep or less—no room for modelling an interior, even if I wanted to (or could). What to do?

An overall view of the DPM kit with the real windows.

Fortunately, the prototype, as usual, has an answer.

The next time you are driving downtown during the daytime, look into the windows of various buildings on either side of the street. How far inside can you see? Two to three feet, at best, even if the lights are on. After that, it’s just dark.

When I made this discovery, it completely changed the way I thought of modelling building interiors. I realized I didn’t need to worry about making detailed interiors. I just needed to show the first few feet of the inside of the buildings.

A close-up of the windows on two of the buildings; you
can only see in a few feet. Signs on the windows lend
a nice touch.

But how to replicate the prototype? My solution was to take use the real thing by taking photos of building windows. Through a bit of trial and error, I found that I could make HO scale-size windows by standing on the opposite side of a two-lane road (with two lanes for parking) and photographing a building on the other side. After developing the photos (use the glossy format for the best results), I cut out the windows and taped or glued them to the back of my building flats. (There is no clear glaze or plastic in front of the photos.)

Of course, with digital cameras and photo-imaging software, the guesswork can be taken out of this process; I developed it before such fancy gizmos became readily available.

Another close-up; neon signs also show up nicely
using this method, as do posters and plants.

In addition to seeing “inside” a building, you can also get the signs and posters that proprietors place on the windows, along with the curtains, venetian blinds and other window treatments behind them—no need to add those, since they come free with the photographs.

In other words, nobody can look at these buildings and say they don't look real; they are, after all, the real thing!

Even the green double door on the building on the right
is a photo! Note how you also get grafitti using this method.

Mannequins in shop windows look great, too.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Staging Yards on the CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Sub.

The upper and lower staging yards on the M & M Sub.
That's Thunder Bay/Duluth on the bottom, Winnipeg
on the top. The "helix" can be seen between the two yards.

The first rule of model railroading staging is this: You never have enough.

Oh, sure, you may think that you have enough at the start. But you will soon discover it's woefully inadequate.

That was the lesson I learned the hard way on my first layout. I thought two staging tracks would be enough. Not!

Since the staging on that layout was hidden, I ended up adding additional staging from below the layout—not a practice I recommend. Do you have any idea how hard it is to lay track by feel, in the dark, with your hands above your head? It's not any fun at all.

Eventually, I added six additional staging tracks on that layout. And yet, more locomotives and rolling stock kept appearing. It wasn't long before they were filled, too.

I decided not to repeat that mistake on the CP Rail M & M Sub. The point-to-point layout is fed by two six-track staging yards. (Both visible, thank-you; no more hidden staging for me.) The upper level yard represents Winnipeg, and points west; the lower yard represents Thunder Bay, Ont. and Duluth, Minn. and points east and south.

Another view of the staging yards, which are located
in an adjacent storage room. The trains cross the door
on a drop-down bridge; the control and dispatcher's
panels are across the room.

And yet, even that turned out not to be sufficient. Just as with the first layout, more locomotives and rolling stock appeared. (Where does that stuff come from, anyway?)

It was impossible to add more tracks to the staging yards, so I added a third passing siding in Ritchie, Man., a town on the upper level, and a fourth siding in Fort Frances, Ont., on the lower level. Both of these tracks provide open staging for trains.

As for the staging yard tracks themselves, they are controlled by RETC: Ridiculously Easy Track Control. They are all wired into a single block. Track power is thrown through use of cheap light switches; one track is wired through the switch, which is wired to the block control.

Turn the switch on and the track has power. Turn it off, and it's dead. That was easy!

Since the tracks are are stub-ended, I also needed a way to stop trains automatically. A simple dead track accomplishes that; an insulated joiner on one track stops the locomotives dead.

Even though all of my trains are pulled by two units, this isn't a problem; momentum carries the second unit across the gap, which powers the track, and they both roll until the second unit enters the dead track. They they both come to a stop before the end of the track.

Simple, and cheap. Which, as I always say, is good enough for me.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Signature Scene on the M & M Sub.

SD40-2 6027 leads a train downgrade on the CP Rail
M & M Sub. That abutment is more than decoration;
it keeps the ballast on the track!

One of the signature scenes on the M & M Sub. is the steep cliff at the entrance to the layout room. The track at this point is 15 inches above the "water" in the lake below, and 4 1/2 feet off the floor.

Ironcially, this scene wasn't in the original plans. It only appeared when I decided to "daylight" one level of the helix (in the adjoining storage room). When I brought that level out to the layout room, I had to run it up and over and alongside the lower level track. The result is what you see here.

The scene under construction, #1. I used L-girder
benchwork. Two-inch thick Styrofoam was used as
subroadbed on the upper level.

The basic landform was shaped by placing two-inch thick Styrofoam vertically against the benchwork. After patching the cracks with cheap spackling paste, I added tree bark to make the "rocks." A mixture of gray and brown latex paint, ground foam and foliage completed the scene.

The scene under construction, #2: The Styrofoam has
been added, along with the tree bark.

The small brick abutment alongside the track is more than just decorative; it proved necessary when the ballast refused to stay on the side of the track!

An overall view of the completed scene. That's the
town of Ritchie on the top level.
Some people worry when they see trains that high off the ground, with nothing to prevent them from tumbling over the cliff. But in over a dozen years of operation, I have never had an accident at this spot.

A view from above, showing the "water" below.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Future of Railroad Magazines

How do you like to read magazines? On paper, or on your computer?

Railfan & Railroad would like to know the answer to that question. It has posted a digital version of a recent back issue for readers to peruse; after taking a look at it, people are asked to complete a short survey about digital versus print publicatons.

They want to know: Would you subscribe to a digital version? Print? Or both?

You can check it out for yourself at

Monday, November 8, 2010

Who Needs a Roof?

Now you don't see it . . . the roof, that is.
One advantage of eye-level benchwork is that you don't need to worry about roof details—or even roofs at all, as seen on this as-yet unnamed industry in Nance, Minnesota.

Now you still don't see it . . . there is no roof.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Layout Photos Posted

I've been taking a lot of photos of the layout recently. I posted a collection of photos, accompanied by big band music, on YouTube. You can find it at