Some other commitments kept me from fully achieving my goals for the past year, but I made some good progress, nonetheless.

I tackled two main modeling projects. First was a diorama modeling a metaphor of the “Approach to the Cave” stage of the story form known as the Hero’s Journey. The cave, hillside, and landforms were all carved out of 2″ XPS foam, complete with lava pit. The hero, now leveled up and separated from his allies, plans to enter the cave of his heart where he must confront his darkest fear – himself.

Dollar store action figures are used to represent the hero, his allies, and enemies, as well as a dragon in the depths of the cave. He must get past the dragon, as well as the shadow of his own self, seize the sword, and abscond with the treasure. The landscape is laden with snares and traps to trip him up.

Approaching the cave from the Hero’s Journey
The Hero scopes out the land and what stands between him and the threshold
Confronting what’s inside the cave of the heart
Seizing the sword
Threshold guardians

Second was continued work on the mini layout of Portorosso from Disney Pixar’s Luca. I worked on the beach and buildings, as well as getting a trolley running point-to-point with a circuit from Azatrax. I really like it and it was easy to hook up. The infrared detectors are a little sensitive, especially when working around scenery. Water from the beach and shallow dock area is 2-part epoxy tinted with acrylic. The pier pilings were hand made using a technique from Jason Jensen. Again, all landforms roughed in using XPS foam. Structures all scratch build using foam core with the paper removed. Next up is the city hall. Details from various manufacturers.

Next up? For the coming year, I’ll continue to work on Luca and build out the town. It could involve custom 3-D scanning and printing to get some more details. I’m also hoping to complete a graphic novel to go with the Mines of Xenon space layout.Finally, is the year I hold an open house? It could also involve some train room and workshop prep and investment, which also got some attention this past year.

The port of Portorosso is coming together. This view shows the electronics of the underside of the top layer.
Making roof tiles
A block of businesses and buildings down by the waterfront
Overhead view of the port
Building Julia’s house from foam core with the outer layer of paper removed
Another view of the port. The 3-D printed figure in the center will become the town’s water fountain.
Julia’s house
Portorosso: theirs and mine
Julia’s house: theirs and mine

In preparation for 2023, I can believe I didn’t do a year in review for 2021. Has it been that long?

Here is a quick look back of some of the things I tackled during the year.

A few more details got added to the Southside Industrial Districting HO switching railroad. The Morden diorama was polished, detailed, and finished off. The Mines of Xenon sci-fi model railroad got to essentially a completed state and work began on documenting the layout in graphic novel form.

I started a new job and splurged by purchasing a Minuetto in Leonardo Express livery from ViTrains. This model is out of production and after several months of hunting, I found the manufacturer had 1 remaining and shipped direct from Italy. Score!

Disney / Pixar releases the movie Luca. It is a cute little production that our family just fell in love with. Instead of moving on to create the dream model railroad, I get sidetracked and start a mini layout based in the fictional Mediterranean town of Portorosso. Work starts in earnest, and I even have a place to pose my Minuetto! Construction will be using foam insulation for the land forms and foam core for the custom structures of the town.

Enjoy some scenes from throughout the year.

The Southside Industrial District HO scale switching layout

Morden Underground station on London Road
A London Underground station
The survivors “borrow” and digger from the Xenon Mining Corporation
A buddy bot comes in useful both down in the mines as well as on the surface of the planet Xenon III
The pilot and his trusty sidekick
Heading off to relax after a hard day’s work
Moving tonnage at the Mines of Xenon
The Leonard Express runs between Rome’s Fiumicino Airport and the downtown Termini train station
Town of Portorosso from Disney/Pixar’s movie Luca. Copyright belongs to original artist and owner. No infringement is intended.
Starting my own port town for the Luca mini layout
A study in building structures with foam core. HO scale San Francisco from Bachmann.

Quick DIY Buddy Bot

Posted: July 9, 2021 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

Whether you’re a super hero or space pirate, moisture farmer or dark lord, every one needs a friend. That’s why I’ve built my own buddy bot.

This is a really easy project and one you can do in an evening. I was inspired by the orb outside the Mos Eisley cantina, which I still don’t know exactly what it is. I was buiding my own cantina scene in roughly HO scale (1/87) and started looking around for some base parts I could modify. Something about the size of a ping pong ball, but I wanted more features and texture that was already molded into the surface.

The bottom half of the prototype looked a bit like a cap from a 2-litre cola bottle, so I started going in that direction. I got a cap, but it was a bit too blocky and not rounded quite enough. It look like, well, a bottle cap. Then I found in my junk box a small cap that I had set aside because it looked a bit like the cockpit of an old WWII bomber. The question was what was the original source and could I get more?

Ah yes, it came from bottled water. So went on a trek of all the convenience stores I frequent, in search of the specific brand. I soon found it, along with a new product the cap of which could potentially work as the other half. I secured several plastic bottle tops and went to work finding the best combination to create something realistic, yet other worldly.

Voila! The medium clear cap fit perfectly within the large cap to make … a thing. The fit was almost perfect. Serendipity showed up again. It seemed a little large for the scale of my existing model and it needed some extra bits or greebles placed on the side to give it some character. I tacked on some more pieces from my junk box and it looked pretty good. When I placed it beside my completed cantina, it was a little large.

It looked better sitting beside one of my 3-inch figures. What if I made this a campanion robot? Something was still missing. That sense of anthropomorphism was lacking. I needed something to give a human-like appearance like arms, legs, or a head. I browsed through some articles about making mechs, but it all seemed too complited. Taking some more inspiration from the Gonk droid, I would keep it simple and just add some legs. I knew I could fashion my own from bits and pieces, but could I find something that was almost complete so I could repeat it.

I remembered back on some space marine models I had that just might fit the bill. Sure enough, a trip to the dollar store yeilded a playset series that would work. I bought a multi-pack so I could have some options. The figures are sectional and the legs come off as a unit. I was going to glue each one to a side of my cluster, but keeping the structure of the leg assembly worked better. They come with a small nub and I simply cut a hole in the bottom of my new creation and the legs stay in with friction. The legs are jointed and can be posed for various positions. I didn’t glue the assembly, so I can swap out legs from other figures for variety.

I primed the main assembly with a black bomb and then did a second coat of classic “space beige” (ivory). The added-on details were dry brushed various colors, then rust weathering added, followed by an Indian ink was to dirty it up and bring out the details. I didn’t paint the legs, other than dry brushing a contrasting color to fill in the nooks and crannies.

Since the component pieces are “stock” from readily available sources, you can make variations quickly and easily. I did manage to get one with the cola cap. The extra bits and pieces come from the junk pile, so each one ends up being unique. Add a “head” unit, eyes, or arms if you wish. Swap out the legs or have one model with no legs.

The first model I did worked well, but the glue didn’t hold on the second one I tried to make. I found the following order gives the best results: glue the pieces including greebles, prime with a black paint for plastics, then cover with the final color, and dry brush the greeble details if desired. Finish with weathering washes and powders to suit.

I was really happy with the results and it is one of my favorite models. Sometimes I pull him from the diorama and set him on my desk for fun. His name is Robbie.

2020 Year In Review

Posted: January 1, 2021 in Uncategorized
Lockdown 2020 comes to the Southside Industrial District

I actually made some progress in the year that was 2020, either because or in spite of, the lockdown and some changes in my personal employment. I got several projects to what I consider the completed stage.

Working on the railroad – Southside Industrial District

As for the Southside Industrial District, it is pretty much finished, except for the inevitable tweaks and detailing. There may be a sign here or a figure there to add, but there won’t be any major developments going forward.

Cover proofs for the “Building The Southside Industrial District” book. I’m going with the one on the left.

In a related note, I finished the content and proof printing of my book “Buiding the Southside Industrial District – How I Made an HO Scale Urban Switching Model Railroad.” A few format changes and I hope to print the final copy in the next weeks. This book is mainly for me to record the creation of the switching layout for my own use.

A day in the life of the London Underground at Morden Tube Station with four fabulous guys in the crosswalk.

With a 3D printed London Underground stock carriage, I also wrapped up the Morden diorama. I completely redid the station building from a printed cardstock kit to a scratch built styrene and acetate plastic window glazing model. It was my first attempt at a 3D object (designed by another and bought by me on Shapeways) and it is definitely a static as opposed to a working model. It is good enough for the diorama, but next I would like to acquire some proper running stock. Making some adverts for the platform was fun and a few more details and figures concluded the work on the diorama.

Ballasting the Turbo Train line on the Mines of Xenon Sci-fi Model Railroad

Xenon, the sci-fi model railroad set in space, got a little bit of attention near the end of the year. Mostly, I just laid the white ballast and prepared to make the last structures and rolling stock.

Graphic novel; comic; sci-fi model railroad
Mines of Xenon sci-fi turbo train

Finally, with so many projects coming to a close, I started dreaming and working on the next layout. The space and track plan is in my head for a passenger oriented railfan layout. I got to work by purchasing a few kits to start on a mixed use renovated harbor scene based on the power plant in Baltimore.

The Power Plant at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor inspires the next layout

Broad goals for the upcoming year include getting a final print of that book, finishing the structures on the sci-fi layout and potentially a related book, and starting that next layout, perhaps with a diorama. The beginnings of a possible project were hatched this past year with the idea of taking a layout to share with ill or disadvantaged children. We’ll see where that goes.

When things got dark, I would head to the basement to run some trains. Sometimes the circumstances called for slow motion industrial switching and sometimes the soothing rhythms of running in circles was the ticket I needed. Here’s to wishing you a great year where you can play with some trains and all your dreams come true.

switching layout

What does the future hold for the Southside Industrial District?

End of the Line?

They say a model railroad is never finished. I know I have a lot of plans bouncing around in my head for changes, additions and upgrades for the Southside Industrial District. But we all have a limited amount of time and my interests are starting to expand. As a typical model railroader, I want to get onto the next thing and build something new.


Several buildings need a few things to finish them off, whether it be window glazing, signs, or interior modeling. There are lots of details to add, too. Adding details can bring a scene – as well as the entire railroad – to life. For several years now, I’ve saved signs from the Internet, just waiting for some extra time to print them out and hang them.  Figures add interest and give a sense of movement, if even frozen in time.


The Southside gets a visit from a subway car coming from the newly connected passenger line

There is also lighting. I’ve just now been playing around with lighting inside structures and there is a whole world to explore there. These days, you can animate as well as light up those detailed interiors. Of course, I will have to photograph all this modeling when it is complete.

More Layouts

I used to have all kinds of ideas and wondered how I would make them all fit onto my layout, and how they would look together. Now I’ve learned that I do better with smaller, focused layouts that can have their own identity. I can build one thing and move on to the next. Not only does it limit the scope of what I am doing so I can achieve a completed state, but I can keep moving from project to project so I don’t get bored.

Morden Tube station

London Underground diorama

Right now I am pretty far along with a layout that will take me half way across the galaxy, as well as the OO scale (1:76) Underground diorama that finds me below the streets of London. Naturally, I will document everything along the way, so that’s another book right there.

I’m also planning my next passenger-centric layout (bigger and better, of course!) and the London Underground exhibition layout to build with a friend.

It has been a good journey. I’m happy to say I think the layout turned out even better than I could have imagined when I pulled those boxes out of storage more than nine years ago. And I’m still learning along the way.

Who knows? Some day you might see a sleek, modern tram pick up some weary workers on their way home from the Third Street Deli on the Southside Industrial District.

space train

The turbo train heads to the mines on the planet Xenon III

RIP 01

The RIP track on the Southside Industrial District

A great space saving “industry” for a small model railroad, a RIP track is a fun way to cram a lot of action into a compact area.

“RIP” stands for Repair In Place and is the area designated by the real railroads to do light maintenance without having to haul rolling stock back to the main car shops. Typically, they are adjacent to yards, but they can be located anywhere traffic volume or operations warrant it.

RIP 02

The RIP track sits on on the edge of the District with businesses in the background.

I think RIP tracks make great modeling subjects for several reasons. First, they don’t demand a lot of trackage. As few as two car spots is suffucient to get some traffic movement during an operating session. Second, they don’t require a large structures or real estate and can fit in any shaped area or corner. Third, since all equipment eventually wears down and needs repairs, literally any type of car or motive power can be spotted there. Finally, the open-air maintenance facilities are ripe for modeling those rough and tough details.

RIP 03

An out of service caboose functions as an office and crew hangout

The RIP track on my own Southside Industrial District is right at the front of the layout and doubles as the on-set staging for operating sessions. An out of service caboose is used as the office. The RIP track has a crane, spare equipment, and junk strewn about making a nice detail scene for visitors to focus in on. If I ever want to operate the module as part of a larger layout, I can remove the crane and use the front track as a mainline for through traffic.

RIP 04

The RIP track is a hive of activity and the source of some great modeling opportunities.

I enjoy swapping out maintenance-of-way equipment as I acquire new pieces and look forward to seeing what colorful rolling stock will be set out for repairs.

RIP 05

A gondola sits waiting for service on the RIP track at the end of the line on the Southside Industrial District

ops 01 crop

Switching cars on the Southside Industrial District model railroad.

I sit all day in front of a computer at work. The last thing I want to do when I get home and head to the basement is to do a bunch of paper work because “it feels more prototypical”.

I participate in my hobby because I enjoy it and it is a change from what I do all day long. And I won’t apologize for keeping it simple and having fun. I have two goals for when it comes time to run trains on my small industrial switching layout. First, I want some form of structure and second, I try to keep it as simple as possible.

track plan for industrial switching layout
Southside Industrial District trackplan

A little bit of order goes a long way when running a small layout. The task of simulating the movement of products rolling on two rails of steel is called operations and shouldn’t need an advanced college degree in order to be enjoyed.

The literature on operating a model railroad is plentiful and I won’t review it here. Without a continuous run option, switching layouts like the Southside Industrial District need an operating scheme to get things moving.

CTC Texax
Sitting at a dispatcher’s desk shuffling papers is not my idea of fun after a long day at the office photo: Robert Yarnall Richie, DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University

Car cards and waybills are a popular option (see Model Railroader’s operating session for the Winston-Salem Southbound project layout), but for me, even that is too much work.

I operate almost exclusively solo, and occasionally with a friend. I want to walk into the train room and start running trains with very little setup. And if I’m explaining to a friend who has never held a throttle, I want to be able to do it in less than ten minutes.

For car forwarding, I’ve settled on a system called modified wheel reports. The system is simple, flexible, and can be as expanded as desired.

ops 3a
Without space for an adjacent staging yard, my freight car storage is a disconnected table-top and chairs with no turnouts or wiring. Cars are selected from here based on a wheel report card and moved by hand to the RIP track on the layout. You could do away with the track all together or switch cars in a proper operating yard and drive the train to the area to be worked.

The basic principle is that there is 1 card per train (I use 3”x5”) which lists how many of each freight car type are delivered to each industry. Any car will do and there is no need to track individual reporting numbers. Pickups are optional unless the space is needed for a drop off. The local train crew decides how the cars should be switched.

That’s pretty much it. Of course there are some details that come into play on each pike. Let’s see how it plays out on my particular model railroad – the Southside Industrial District.

The Layout

The Southside Industrial District is a 30”x88” HO scale industrial switching layout set in the present day. I run one switcher with modern cars along with some older 40-foot equipment. The track configuration is loosely based on John Allen’s Timesaver with a run-around track and six spurs plus a RIP track. There is no fiddle yard attached, so I use on-set staging on the RIP track at the front left portion of the layout.

The Industries

I have six spur tracks that can receive cars: one each for National Transfer and Storage, Sylvan Foods, and Ames, as well as 3 tracks for DuPont. Each DuPont track is considered a single “industry”.

Southside Industrial District wheel report.

Each industry can technically receive any type of car, but I try to keep it fairly realistic to simulate the flow of raw materials and finished product. The tool company doesn’t get reefers and toxic chemicals don’t get dropped off inside the dry storage. When I designed my layout, I planned for a set of industries that could receive a mix of types of rolling stock. Also, there is no movement of cars directly from one industry to another – all car movements originate and terminate at other industries off-stage via an unconnected staging yard.

The Cards

Cards are created in a grid format with industries down the left side and car types across the top. You could use official AAR car designations or make up your own like I did. The cells hold the total number of cars of that type for that specific industry. Add up all the cells and that is how many cars are in the train. You can create the cards right before each session (they literally take just seconds), or have a pre-made stack to draw from.

ops 03

The Setup

To start, the train master or conductor picks one of the pre-made cards, then selects the number of cars for each type and places them on the RIP track in any order.

In the photo you can see a wheel report with the cars marked to be set out and the total number of cars circled in the bottom corner. Cherry picking IS allowed. Pick your favorite or most colorful car. Enlist the help of youngsters and have them choose some cars.

A single locomotive is placed in a starting position. I use the run-around track in front of the “Southside Industrial” sign as a sort of home base for my loco.

ops 05 crop

The Play

Crews consist of one or two members. Once the setup is complete, the crew first decides the actual location of the drops, as well as any pickups. For example, the train might have two boxcars to set out  – one for Ames and one for DuPont. The conductor can select either car to go to either industry, it doesn’t matter. If that spur is full, at least one car (any type) must be removed to make space for the new car.

There is no writing. Everything is done from memory. With only a few cars to move, it is not difficult to keep track of.

Then the crew gets busy actually switching the cars.  Pickups are placed back on the RIP track in any order to make a return train. The motive power is returned to its original position. These cars are removed from the layout by the old “hand of God” 0-5-0 switcher method before the start of the next sequence. Refreshments at the Third Street Deli soon follow.

That’s all there is to it.

This is a single sequence. With the on-stage fiddle track cleared, more sequences can be strung together for a longer operating session.

ops 08


If you want more of a challenge or your operators have more advanced skills, you can always tighten some of the rules to your desire. For example, you could simulate unloading of freight by having removable loads or require “sure” spots at loading doors for specific types of cars. Increasing the number cars as well as their length also increases the difficulty level. The good thing about this system is that you can start simple and add as much complexity as you want.

If your module is part of a larger layout, you can still put wheel reports to good use. Instead of specific industries on the wheel report card, industries get replaced by towns along the line. The crew still decides locally at each stop which cars to switch at what destinations. Your train will be longer and you can have a separate crew make up and break down trains in the yard with actual switching instead of using a fiddle yard.

Remember, wheel reports are for organizing the movement of individual freight cars, not entire trains. Depending on the size of your layout, you may want to combine the wheel reports (or whichever car forwarding system you decide on) with a method of systematically tracking train movements. As my layout grows, I plan on scheduling series of train movements with sequence lists.

So that is my version of what I call wheel reports. A small layout doesn’t need a complex system to make it run in an orderly fashion. If I want a quick 10 minute session, or if I’m giving a primer on the basics of model railroad operations, wheel reports fit the bill. In no time you can be moving some serious freight around your miniature empire, no matter how large or small. So, if you’ve been considering adding operations to your layout but have been hesitant to take the plunge, give wheel reports a try.


I finally got around to making a track plan for my Southside Industrial District model railroad.

track plan for industrial switching layout

Southside Industrial District trackplan

I made one several years ago with Atlas Right Track software. The program was free then, but it looks like it has been replace with a pay version now.

I dug around in my old files and was able to find a jpg export of the original plan, so that is where I started.


The Southside Industrial District as produced by Atlas software program

I imported that into a graphics manipulation tool and just used the Atlas plan as a base, doing most of the drawing free hand. Converting the snap track to single lines streamlined the plan and made it less clunky. I added several layers of ground, ballast, building, titles, and even trees. By using layers, I can hide different aspects of the plan for different purposes.

I think I didn’t come out half bad for my first attempt. I can now include the plan when describing various things in articles on my blog.

When I made the original track plan with the Atlas software, I also made a few other modules of different shapes and sizes. I printed those out and glued them onto some card stock and can move them around like puzzle pieces when planning updates and extensions to the layout to get a better feel of how things go together.


Planning a layout using different configurations of modules built with the Atlas Right Track software.



I found some pictures of my first three layouts I built as a young lad growing up. As far as I can tell, the earliest is from 1977 or before, all the way up to what my last layout looked like in about 1986 before I dismantled it sometime around 1991.

flashback 01

The plywood pacific loop I inherited from my brother. I tried to break up the monotony by adding some land forms. Circa 1977

flashback 03

The Plywood Pacific first layout. Note the kinked 15″ radius track. Yes, that is a Tyco F7 on the elevated track. 1977

flashback 04

Layout #2 based on Linn Westcott’s HO Railroad That Grows. It joins a revamp of Layout #1 at 90 degrees. Circa 1979

flashback 05

Skills and techniques continue to improve with layout #2 based on the book HO Railroad That Grows. About 1979

flashback 07

A diorama or staging table built for photography, circa 1980.

flashback 08

The start of model railroad empire #3. Starting to use more pro techniques – open grid benchwork with risers, broad curves, #6 mainline turnouts, double ended yard, and block cab control able to run 3 trains. Circa 1982

flashback 09

Layout #3 with foam scenery, separate mainline and yard control panels, and a loads/empties in/out industry combination with the coal mine and power plant. All rolling stock equipped with Kadee couplers. Craftsman, kitbashed, and custom built kits. Several kits and all rolling stock still in use today. Circa 1986

flashback 11

Layout #3 with the freight yard in bottom right. 1986

flashback 13

Layout #3 in its most complete form. 12’x12′ HO scale. 1986

workbench 20190624

A quick coat of paint and some decals update this Chessie Bachmann GP40 just like the prototype

It may seems like I’m not making any visible progress on the Southside Industrial District model railroad, but there is a lot going on behind the scenes.

I’ve decided to put a “bookazine” together of my blog entries about the small switching layout, so I’ve been going back several years to 2011 and gathering all the resources and putting them together. The early articles I just wrote as blog entries – not to be put in print – and there was a lack of photos that accompanied them.

Also, the railroad is more complete now and I can show finished “after” scenes which just looks better.

Any modelling I’ve done, is to fill in gaps for photography or illustration purposes.

The Southside is in CSX country, but I had not one locomotive so designated – all of them are Chessie System models literally from the 80’s. But I did have some extra shells, so I painted one up over a weekend to place in pictures.

It was a quick and dirty job: the blue striping isn’t quite right and I only put decals on one side. Also for now there is no glass in the cab windows. I just wanted something to place on the background in the layout to give a rough sense of time and place.

DuPont pickup 20190624

A GP35 still wearing Chessie System colors pulls a well car out of DuPont shipping track #5 on the Southside Industrial District

So, I’ve been detailing as well as going back and cleaning up and augmenting previous articles. Also, an article on operations is in the making and on the way.

I’m finding out that making a book of even previously written material is a lot of work, but I think it will be worth it to save and reflect on the best portions of my experience.