Archive for the ‘Modeling’ Category

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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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

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

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

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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.

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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.



Modeling the other side of the tracks need not send you to the poor house

Simple details help set the scene on the Southside Industrial District HO scale switching model railroad

When you model the rough side of town, there are some businesses you might consider representing. I’ve chosen to include three on the backside of my layout. Commerce Street includes a car title loan business, a soup kitchen, and an abandoned apartment building. These buildings have been mostly cobbled together from extra parts and lived as glorified mock-ups in the background of my layout for a few years now. It was time to add some window glass, signs, and details to give these shops some character.


The TitleMax building is painted a dark color with modern signage and placed on a back alley

Every depressed section of town needs a payday pawn shop. The source material for this shop came from an eBay lot that including what I finally identified as a Wathers Wallschlager’s Dealership. It is literally on a back alley on my pike, so I painted it a dark brown with no mortar to keep it simple and in the shadows. Other than that, I basically just added some signs from the internet, with some on the inside of the windows looking outward.


Some left over wall pieces and a cardboard roof covered with sandpaper make the TitleMax building


Simple details help the TitleMax building blend into the background in this alley scene on the HO scale Southside Industrial District

City Mission
This building is a deconstruction of the Art Curren “A. Frugill Co.” from a magazine article in the 1980’s. I originally built the building per the article’s instructions, but it wouldn’t fit on the current switching layout, so I took it apart and made two buildings out of it. The other building is a camping supply store on the front of the layout. Again, I didn’t have to do much more than add some window glazing, signs, graffiti, and clutter to the front of the building to turn this into a downtown soup kitchen. When searching for logos, I found a nice clear billboard, so I added that to the roof.


An Art Curren kitbash from the 1980’s gets re-purposed as the Salvation Army city mission soup kitchen

Greenmont Apartments
This, too, is a leftover from an Art Curren project. I bought 3 of the Life-Like apartment buildings for his “Flatt Iron Co.” project the I ended up not building it and using two of the kits for Silvan Foods. The final kit I used for the Greenmont Apartments. I wanted to get some extra height beyond the three stories, so I added a half story basement from the Life-Like factory, which is the same size. I also used the backs of the three stories to create another story on top. I again choose a simple, dark paint color to keep the building non-assuming in the background.


The Life-Like Belvedere hotel is used to model the back of an abandoned apartment building

The added height of the ground floor posed a problem with access to the front door. I eventually found some stairs in a junk box, but there was still not enough room to reasonably come out to the sidewalk. So, I rotated the stairs 90 degrees and left them a bit short of reaching the entrance. I decided this would be the abandoned backside of the building and the main entrance would remain unmodeled on the other side. It seems to work.


Left: The back of each story was removed and used to create a fourth story. Wall sections from another Life-Like kit were used to make a split basement and give more height. Right: Boarded up windows, broken glass, screen mesh, and graffiti all contribute to making Greenmont Apartments feel abandoned.

I also wanted to add some tell-tale signs of an abandoned building. I used a few different modeling devices to achieve this. I boarded up some windows and doors, both from the inside and outside. Other windows were covered with screen mesh. Still other windows were broken, or left with no glazing at all. I added a few awnings, but not on every window. Everything was weathered with dry brushing, washes, and powders. Some graffiti and event posters can be found near the street level. A couple of construction workers sit on the steps eating their lunch, while a pick-up basketball game has started near by.


More graffiti and event posters on the side of Greenmont Apartments. A basketball hoop will be added later.

These building were really cheap to do. They were mostly leftover walls and items from the scrap box, but even the complete structures I bought would be considered budget purchases. It is amazing what a few signs can do and just goes to show that you don’t need to spend a lot of money to give your town a bit of that “lived in” character.

Windows, signs, and details help a background building blend in

Homemade signs and scrap box pieces bring an old downtown store front into the 21st century on the Southside Industrial District HO scale switching layout

All across the country, Main Street is coming back to life. Turn-of-the-century buildings are being renovated by boutiques as well as the big national chains seeking that homey feeling. It is not different down on the Southside, where model kits meant for the transition era are being brought into the 21st century.

The Southside Industrial District is a modern era industrial switching layout set in an office park on the what is now the outskirts of a major metropolitan area. The region has seen better days and now new and old exist side by side as the District tries to survive.


In this overall view of the Southside Industrial District, the old time five and dime department store stands out in the background, lacking proper windows, signage, and details

I had been photographing my layout and the unfinished retail store in the middle of Commerce Street kept appearing as a big white blob in the background. I’ve known for some time that I wanted a modern dollar store to go in there, so now was the time to jump in and do it.

The model itself I’ve had for a while from a winning lot auction on eBay. I had to lookup the specific building and it turns out it is a “JC Nickles” from DPM. I has been sitting on the layout for several years now with side walls (mostly unseen) from what I think is a Gruesome Casket Co from IHM and a red sandpaper roof. I had already painted and lightly weathered the model to my liking.


The original DPM “J.C. Nickels” from an online auction lacking windows and detailing

The first step was to add glazing for the windows, which up until this point, had made the store front stand out and look incomplete. I found some clear plastic and sprayed one side with a matte finish to cloud up the windows. This makes them look dirty in the industrial setting, as well as hides the fact that the building is empty on the inside.

Next I searched the internet for signs for the type of business I wanted. I grabbed a few, as well as window signs and stickers, resized them for the appropriate space, and printed them out on a color printer with regular paper. I looked at real photos of stores and got signs that were typical. I even shrunk down the current week’s ad flyer! I simply affixed the posters to the back of the windows looking outward with white PVA glue that I knew would dry clear.


Signs captured from the internet and printed on a color printer. Printing several sizes of each sign gives some flexibility when it comes time to add the signage to the building

The main sign is mounted on a piece of styrene cut to fit and glued in place with super glue. The canopy is from a scrapped Tyco #7885 freight depot from the 1970’s (that was a good investment!). A slightly newer Suydam Purina Chow feed mill donated the roof vents.

As suspected, the yellow sign was too bright and dominated the background. I toned it down by smudging some black and white acrylic paints over it with my finger. I found a few figures and placed them on the sidewalk in front of the building to set the scene.

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The finished dollar store in place with details and figures. If you zoom in, you can even see the store hours on the front door window!

It was nice to have a straightforward project for once that was completed in a week of stress free modeling in the evenings. By identifying some easy wins I was able to gain some motivation to head down to the basement. I even had a couple of quick operating sessions to keep my skills fresh.

So, if you are having trouble making progress on your layout, find a quick and easy project that is fun to give you some momentum.


Rich Erwin checks the status of his battery powered, radio controlled locomotive

It only took forty years, but I am declaring this project finished! Who said that these kits were “shake the box”!?

Six months ago, I wanted to switch a few cars on my Southside Industrial District, so I took out my re-purposed Athearn SW1500 (actually, an SW7 – but we’ll go with the manufacturer’s original mislabeling). This was a unit I had converted to battery powered radio control a few years ago (See SIDX Radio Active). To my disappointment, the Lipo battery had died and ol’ number 703 wouldn’t budge.


Management puts the updated SW1500 through its paces. Number 703 has an upgraded prime mover and new radio control installed.

So, under the hood I went. Yup – the battery had died, and now it was time to replace it. Good news was that The On30 Guy had made some advances in Lipo battery packs and now had a 2S unit for sale as a single entity so I didn’t have to “roll my own.” Bad news was, I had hard wired the battery into the circuit, so in order to remove it, I had to get chopping and soldering. This is not my favorite thing.


Radio controlled Athearn SW1500 with its original documentation and parts sheet

I ordered another battery and got to work making the cell replaceable in the circuit with JST mini connectors. A few splices later, I had it. A quick test confirmed everything was wired correctly and functioning. Unfortunately, as I was placing the board back in the body, I must have shorted some contacts because the board would not work any more. Doh!


Here you can see the Stanton truck, Del Tang radio receiver, on/off switch, and LiPo battery. Note the red and black leads for connecting the locomotive’s head lamp

So, I ordered another Del Tang Rx60 chip. Some back order issues halted the project for a couple of months. Finally, I went to replace the board (more cutting and soldering!) and found out I once again had left my batter in the “on” position and it had died! I couldn’t win for losing.

Another battery (easily replaced this time with the new connectors!) and soldering repeated itself and a few more snafus followed. The more I worked on it, the more connections came loose – some mine, some from the manufactures. At one point I was just going to throw in the towel and go back to straight DC for this unit.

But I was oh, so close! I set the loco aside for a couple of weeks and worked on other projects. Finally with patience, resolve, and new eyes, I came back and got it all working. Coming this far, I had to go all the way. I also managed to wire up the power to the original manufacturer’s headlight. Yes, the original grain-o-wheat bulb that came in the box!


All components nestled snugly inside

Another design flaw I had introduced in the original upgrade a couple of years ago was attaching the NWSL Stanton truck to the body, not the frame. This worked, but made the unit difficult to service. So now, I epoxied an S-shaped bracket to the frame in the correct position and this worked much better. Now I could remove the body to work on the unit as with any standard model engine.

Truck side frames were added at the start of the project. To finish, I weathered the body, added original window glazing, handrails, and the little switcher bell. I placed an engineer on the front platform for interest to complete the model. I felt like driving a golden spike!


Battery powered radio controlled SW1500 ready to roll

In the process, I’ve learned so much, especially about batteries and their ratings (not to mention sharpening my soldering skills!). I was researching batteries and discovered an off-the-shelf 9v alkaline battery from the drug store is rated at 500mAh or so. Through some tests, I discovered my little guy is pulling about 200mA under normal conditions. So I made a connector for 9v battery and that will give me about 2.5 hours of running time. The 9v cells are readily available so in exhibition conditions, I can just have another ready for a swap out and off we go. A 9v lithium battery is rated at 1200mAh, so that would give me about 6 hours before I need to swap out. Not bad. For this model, the fit was a bit too tight and I decided not to push my luck and go with a 2S 350mAh Lipo battery.


Comparing a 240 mAh 2S (7.4v) LiPo,, standard alkaline 9v 500mAh, and 300 2S LiPo batteries

I really enjoy dead rail with radio control. Without the need for complex wiring or cleaning the track, it offers lots of possibilities. But this specific method may not be worth it. This is definitely not just plug and play. There is a lot of fiddling and DIY. For dead rail to go mainstream these issues will have to be addressed.


Perry the lead engineer looks on as number 703 makes one last spot to finish the day

I love my little switcher and I’m going keep using it as well as researching power-on-board and radio control for HO scale. I think I’ll try another system to compare the two. Here is what I’ll be looking for.

  • Integrated (magnetic reed) on/off switch
  • integrated battery or at least integrated cell connector
  • Easy install to industry standards
  • charging from rails
  • robust components
  • DCC option
  • Sound option (low priority)
  • HO scale applications
  • Reasonably priced
laser tower 00

An ominous laser cannon tower defends the planet on the Mines of Xenon science fiction model railroad

With a fleet of star ships at the ready, it is now time to turn our attention to defense systems.

When I was in the dollar store a few months ago and saw a toy tank, I immediately knew I wanted to use it on my Mines of Xenon sci-fi model railroad layout. The detail was surprisingly well done and it came with lights and sound – a great interactive feature I could employ to add operational interest.

When it came time for the build, I knew I wanted something akin to the Death Star laser tower from Star Wars. I did some quick research and based my piece on Dave Goldberg’s model here. David is a professional prop builder and includes templates that really helped with the wall proportions and panels. I guess I really did download the plans of the Death Star!!!

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The laser cannon and turret

I started with the toy tank and cut the cannon away from the tank body. The cannon assembly included the turret, LED lighted gun, battery housing and speaker. A little clean up was required to confirm the lights and sound worked, as well as secure the battery to the rest of the fixture. I doused it with a coat of red oxide primer, then dry brushed a couple of details including some hatch doors. Then came a “salt weathering” with a top coat of metallic silver. I tried a new method and used sand instead of salt. It didn’t really work. When cleaning off salt with water, the salt will dissolve. Not so with the sand, so some of it gunked up and various portions of the body. I managed to work most of it off and the remains I decided to use as rust points. In the future, I’ll stick with salt.

After that, I did an ink wash and then dry brushing to bring out some details. I set that aside to dry as I moved onto the tower module.

I sized by eye the Goldberg templates in Microsoft Word. I did’t do the complicated turret version – just four identically sized walls but with differing paneling. I choose two of the wall templates and mirrored them left to right so the panel patterns would not appear that obvious.

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tower sides with template and panels

I printed out the templates and applied to a single layer of foam core with spay on Elmer’s Glue. I did the same to a sheet of styrene. The styrene is the back of a “for sale” sign I got at home box store – I would guess about .040″. The sides were trimmed, beveled, and hot glued together, keeping the paper templates visible.

After what I consider an earlier failure in bashing together a spaceship from household items, I knew the importance of panels on the side of the model. I don’t have a laser cutter as in the reference article, so I carefully cut the styrene panels by hand. Due to the thickness of the styrene, the sides are a bit short but that turned out to be a good thing as it gave me working room for the panels. For each row, I started on the sides and worked inward for exact placement. I could space out the panels to fit the area and that seemed to work. At least 3 panels on each row gave the most flexible spacing options.

Then came time to add the bits on the sides. I went back to the reference photos for inspiration. I wasn’t too concerned with duplicating the tower from the movie exactly – just something with a similar feel. Again, familiar yet different.

I had a few pieces already identified and my scrap box did not disappoint. I did want to include a door, balcony, and ladder for a subtitle reference to the original movie version. I chose a blast door from the Maelstrom’s Edge terrain sprue. For the balcony, I went back to the driver’s cage from a dollar store bulldozer. I cut off the seat section and with a bit of serendipity it fit perfectly with the blast door, so I had to use that. The ladder was from a Matchbox firetruck that I had set aside for the purpose.

laser tower 02

tower complete with greebles and ready for painting

Other bits and bobs came courtesy of left over pieces from science fiction rail modeler Jack Hess that had donated to the cause. I also found use for a woman’s razor cover, a broken piece of my dishwasher rack, and the center to a cassette tape spool. The door of an HO scale Belvedere Hotel on the lower level allows access for space marines and maintenance workers. After positioning the pieces and trying different configurations, I glued everything on with super glue (CA).

I made a top platform with the same method of styrene over foam core. The tank turret has a bit of a piece hanging down in the middle, so I cut a hole to fit that and the battery assembly. A similar hole was cut in the styrene and the pieces all glued together.

Then I blasted everything with light gray primer. I dry bushed a few of the greeble details including the ladder and the access door. I gave a couple of ink washes to get into the nooks of the details and between the panels. Then I dry brushed acrylic browns and rusts for weathering. I placed the cannon assembly on top and touched up a few paint mistakes. Finally I glued the balcony to its ultimate position and placed a couple of HO Preiser figures to add interest and establish a sense of scale. The tower is a single unit and can be moved around the landscape as the situation calls for.

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supervisor and guard discussing the recent developments

This was a fun and straightforward project and came together well. The addition to my Mines of Xenon layout adds a nice touch and sets the scene with a nod to a classic. The sound and synchronized “laser” surprise visitors and add a neat wow factor. So, if you need to defend your starbase, go ahead and build yourself a laser cannon turret tower. They’ll be glad you did.

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finished laser cannon turret and tower

The best train layouts have a backstory. They model a point in time and space. They convey a history.

When developing the content for The Mines of Xenon science fiction model railroad, I wanted to do a little bonus feature on its in-universe story. Since it is a little out of the mainstream to begin with, it needs a some explaining of the events that lead up to what you are seeing.

My original idea was to have a comic book style or short graphic novel set the scene. I had a few images in my mind and was wondering the best plan of execution.

Test 01

The Mines of Xenon comic book style

I contemplated and even started on drawing some images myself, but the learning curve was too great for the amount of time I had. I also thought about having a friend do the work. I would have to do a story board treatment and block out some images, but there still would not be a guarantee that I would get what I wanted. There was also the issue of time and money.

I had some photographs I was using as reference images and started looking for concept art filters to apply and eventually send to an artist. Then I came across a set of filters that could be used straight away for a comic book effect.

Problem solved with Deep Art Effects. It is quick, cheap, the results are more than adequate, and I can keep control of the creative process.

So, off I went. Here are the first proof of concept images on some reference photos. At the moment, some of the styles are intentionally mixed, and I did not shoot any thing specific for this format. The filters are really forgiving and even the Matchbox car on my workbench taken with an average smartphone meets the standard.

Test 06

Turbo train hauling workers back and forth to the mines

I transferred all the photos I thought had potential to my smart phone and used the Deep Art Effects app. Mostly I’ve settled on Epoch, Eye, and Wolf as the top choices. I’ll gladly spend the more than reasonable $3.50 to upgrade to pro and remove the watermark.

Below you can see the results of the first pass.

Test 02

Heavy mining equipment on Xenon

Test 09

Crash of a crew transport on the Mines of Xenon

I hope you can enjoy my initial efforts and don’t forget to be on the lookout for the final product!