Posts Tagged ‘sci-fi’

I didn’t really know what I was doing when I set out to make my first space train, so I just kind of jumped right in. Here are some things I learned along the way.


Unit HH-78 #15 Mad-Max style model locomotive

* Do a Google image search to get ideas and what style you are attracted to. A consistent style helps sell the realism, even on a fantasy train.

* Choose your genre – fantasy, sci-fi, steam punk, apocalypse, etc. Post apocalyptic is best for straight up Mad Max style.

* Familiar yet different. If things are too wild and crazy, people won’t be able to relate to it. You’ll want to start with something that resembles a train at it’s essence, but is different enough to suggest it comes from another world or era. For North Americans, models from other countries can look, well, foreign. Continental Europe models can be a good place to start looking.

* Asymmetry is your friend. Nothing says “last minute addition” like a piece off-center, or on just one side of the vehicle. You have 3 axis of possible symmetry. Abuse them all.

* Stick to earth (muted) tones and the predominate color on your planet. Similar pieces can be painted different colors to give the impression they come from different “sets” or locations..

* Add sheets of metal (I used Evergreen corrugated) for defensive protection.

* Add crude weapons of offense like guns, spikes, bombs, etc.


Profile of a science fiction model train engine HH-78 #15 with upgrades in place

* Not all pieces will fit. Chop them off to make them fit, or just have them take a precarious position. This can give the impression that the builders had to make do with what was at hand.

* Think outside the box – horizontally as well as vertically. Armaments and supplies just tacked onto the sides especially give that rough-and-ready feel. Most people forget about expanding out over the track. Watch your clearances if you plan to operate your model.

* Always keep an eye out for little containers, covers, tops, from around the house like your kitchen or bath. By now you have recognized the back of the disposable razor heads on my model. Stationery supplies are also possibilities.

* Check the toy section of your favorite store for specific add-ons like guns, lasers, robots, etc. Some movie branded items can be quite expensive and may not be worth it. The local dollar store and charity shops have provided some nice finds.

* Matchbox accouterments can be quite good. Construction vehicles can be especially useful. Don’t be afraid to chop or take apart a new model. Hot Wheels has some wild stuff, but I find Matchbox more “realistic”. Hot Wheels with some modifications might fit your genre.

* Less is more. Don’t add too many different things that might detract from the overall look.

* Most of my “upgrades” I added with the body attached to the frame. This helps fragile pieces from falling off. Test that you can remove the shell again for cleaning and maintenance.

* Don’t be afraid to try something or damage your model on the outside. If something breaks, it might be for the better. That’s an opportunity for an aged piece or even a patch job.

* Graffiti gives that rag-tag feel. I keep mine minimal, general, and non offensive. Decals or free-hand, up to you.

* Weathering counts and can tie everything together. Do it in “layers”, each after a set of pieces has been added like might happen in the prototype. Standard techniques apply: dry brush, air brush, chalks, and washes.

* Appropriate figures can help bring the unit to life when you have finished or for photography.

* Have fun!

Sci-fi Train locomotive engine

Progress on the science fiction locomotive for the Mines of Xenon model railroad

2017 was a year of stabilization on one front and expanding horizons on the other.

First it was time to finally redo and finish the asphalt pavement areas on the West end of the Southside Industrial district. The plaster drying and painting process seemed to go slow and took a few of real-time months.

Southside Industrial District industrial switching

Paving on the Southside Industrial District industrial switching model railroad

With a new and improved back drop as a blank canvass, I applied the background photos and finally got the structures set back to their allotted positions for the first time in the new basement. Work began on the final detailing for structures.

Southside Industrial District model railroad switching layout

Southside Industrial District in its place


Then I approached a fork in the road, so I took it.

Mines of Xenon

Getting started on the Mines of Xenon science fiction model railroad layout

The idea for the Mines of Xenon layout was birthed. That set of months of research, planning, Googling and even playing. I decided on a simple 4×6′ space mining layout and build a 2×4′ diorama as practice. My daughter would help and get an introduction to model railroading.

Mines of Xenon sci-fi model railroad

Mines of Xenon track plan sketch

Scenery, rolling stock, and motive power (and the odd robot) were stock piled. The last part of the year was spent finishing the space loco kitbash and diorama to place it in. Scroll through last year’s blogs for details and photos.

Mines of Xenon sci-fi model train layout overview

Running trains on the Mines of Xenon


So, what’s up for 2018? The theme for the year seems to be finishing. We all know a model railroad is never finished, but here is what is on tap for this year:

  • Finish the Sothside Industrial District with detailing buildings and a simple operating scheme
  • Finish the Morden diorama with a station re-do and a reasonable facsimile of an Underground platform
  • Finish the Mines of Xenon layout with the main mountain and detailing
Mines of Xenon model train family play

Xenon is a family affair

I would also like to have a go at getting some new projects underway:

  • Finalize plans and prep for the new train room
  • Get a jump on starting the Morden exhibition layout


In the short term, the Mines of Xenon is the highest priority, so keep checking the blog for progress.

Sci-fi Model Train Play tunnel

Goal for 2018: Play with trains!

Service is now running from the village sub-terra station to the mine.


The futuristic turbo train departs for the mines of Xenon on Rich Erwin’s sci-fi model railroad

I’m writing a mixed-bag status update today. I’ve painted and put in place, at least temporarily, the passenger line from the village to the mine. The configuration is a loop and the plan is to have a station at the mine (underground, hewn out of rock, etc.) to the “village” where miners live and the extracted minerals are processed and loaded for shipment.


Overview of The Mines of Xenon science fiction model railroad


The village station (approximately where the turbo train is in the picture above) will be a “sub-terra” (that is, subway) station, also within rock.  Available space will determine the size of the stations, but I’d like to have a pretty substantial one as in my practice diorama.

This is the steel track included in the Tyco Turbo Train set plus a couple of extra pieces I surprisingly found in my scrap box. The steel is used because the Turbo Train uses magnets to maintain contact with the track. I painted the passenger line white to set it off visually from the freight line. I’m also considering using the vertical spacers that come with the train set to make it appear more like an elevated passenger track. I think the contrast is nice, but I still have to paint the re-railer / power section which is a bit quirky.


I’m getting ready to do some body work on the diesel roster. I have a box full of shells (most of which are courtesy of Jack Hess of the “Colony 5” work in Railroad Model Craftsman) and I am quite enjoying stripping the paint off. Just soaking 2-3 days in 91% alcohol and scrub with a toothbrush. Jack had already started some work, and I continue to imagine what a heavily kitbashed alien engine might look like.


Remember, the layout depicts the early hours after the AI mechs are attacking and the humans must scrounge for raw materials for protection. Think Mad Max style trains. The idea is that I will take the bodies of disparate engine styles and cram them together for something that is recognizable, yet foreign. This could be fun if I don’t stress and let the process come.


A secondary technique is to leave the paint bubbled as a weathering effect. I’m looking forward to using this in the future, but for now I’m stripping everything off.


Next up is ballasting. Again I wanted something familiar, yet different. Typical model railroad ballast would be just too ordinary. I considered kitty litter or aquarium pebbles. A little research and I thought both those items would be too large for HO scale (but probably acceptable if nothing else could be found).

I’m pursuing using construction sand that I snagged from a friend. It comes from a big box store and I got about two pounds worth. I dried it out and the sample seemed to have a pinkish hue. I had in my mind something darker and more red. So I painted it. I simply dropped some of the same paint from the baseboard stage and mixed in a red party cup. Let that dry and voila!


Dried construction sand on the left, painted sand on the right


The sand clumps slightly as it dries, which turns out is a nice effect. The grains themselves are a bit small for a ballast (although who knows what they use on Xenon 3!) so the larger clumps work out nicely.

I’m happy with the results and think I’m going to go with the painted sand. This turns out to be quite a versatile and cheap method. You don’t need very much paint and I guess acrylic would work as well as the latex house paint.

I ballasted two small sections of track – one with the original sand and one with the painted. I’ll have my little helper give the final verdict with a little input from dad.


Finally I’d like to share a nice little find. I was looking for plastic containers to hold the diesel shell parts (window glazing, handrails, horns) while stripping paint. I went strolling down the aisles of my local grocery story and found some cheap lunch containers with sections. Neato and I think I’ll be using these again and again for various projects to come.


So now it is on to installing a couple of bridges and securing the ballast and track.


Work has begun in earnest on filling the swamp. I had already coated the bottom with joint compound, sanded and painted it. Light green on the outside, blending to a black in the middle represent depth.

I had also fashioned a couple of industrial pipes from PVC and a prescription pill bottle and added toxic drainage. A how-to video by Wyloch can be see here:

Now it was time to add some detail to the area. I cut a dollar-store toy dinosaur in half for the “swamp monster” emerging from the pool of blech at the waterline. Paintbrush bristles and Noch static grass were glued in to represent whatever type of wild reed grows on Xenon 3. I also added part of toy dinosaur skeleton tail.

Next I poured the resin. About 20oz of both resin and hardener were enough to lay down a layer of about 1/4″ inch thick. I let it cure and harden at least 48 hours.

Next comes the magic. The resin dries incredibly clear. Every fault from the plaster and paint can be clearly seen.  The resin, as poured, needs some texture and color variation to get the light to play and bounce. This can be achieved by adding some acrylic paint to the resin pour, but it was too late for that now (note to self: add some color to the resin next time. Fluorescent or glow in the dark?)


I remembered technique of making water of nothing but coats of Mod Podge by long time Model Railroader Magazine contributor Dave Frary. The effect is stunning and explained on Dave’s Youtube page here:

Even though the effect of building up the coast of Mod Podge is amazing, the bottom layer of paint also counts for a lot as well. Again, a lesson for the main layout, but now time to start laying down the layers. As the video states, blotching is key. Thicker layers are better, but tend to cause air bubbles, which destroy the effect.

This is a fun task where you can get a little help from your assistant. You can do at least 1 coat a day, two for the thinner ones.


On the backside of the diorama, which is the underground sub station, I started placing in the various elements, The platform and bulkhead are basically finished. I tested coloring the ties white to differentiate the passenger line. I made some other pieces out of sci fi gaming textures from the Internet. I still need to add some details to get a grungy, sci-fi, post apocalyptic feel, as well as a futuristic train or locomotive, low level lighting, and passengers on the platform.


Over on the main layout, it is time to start laying track. I have put in place the cornerstone pieces (basically the switches) which will key the placement of the rest of the track. There will 5 electrical blocks (standard DC block wiring), so I mocked in some curves and identified where the feeders will need to be.


I drilled the holes and will start laying the track for real next week. Soon trains will be running on the Mines of Xenon!



Lots of progress the last couple of days, mostly on the diorama. Subway station 8C is getting bulkheads, doors, a platform and track. The main bulkhead is corrugated cardboard with one paper side removed. Doors are sci-fi textures downloaded from the internet and glued to foam core. A few things left there to finish up.

The swamp is coming along, too. I touched up the bottom and believe the industrial piping to be done. I’m gathering scatter and junk to function as flotsam, and we’ll start gluing those down shortly.


The base coat is down on the layout, and next I’ll spay on a few coats from rattle cans to give the terrain some texture. The test on the diorama seemed to come out well. Track laying is imminent.



Last week, a tradesman came to the house for a service call. I moved the Southside Industrial District so he could access a utility space. While moving the layout, the legs became unstable, so I’ve spent the last week repairing and strengthening those. They’ve been on casters for several months now and I love that feature of the layout. But it has forced a slight digression from working on The Mines of Xenon 3.

Speaking of Xenon 3, I bit the bullet there, too. I wasn’t happy with the strength of the so called benchwork, so I built a proper frame from 1×4’s.


I had laid all the track out with the final trackplan, so before starting, I marked the location of the track. Since any marks on the foam would be painted over, I keyed on the two main turnouts and outlined them in the foam by applying a little pressure with a pencil.

There was also a wee bit of warpage, so I flipped the layout and put weights on it for 48 hours or so, so it would lay flat.


Instead of placing the layout (1″ extruded foam over 1/4″ plywood) directly on top of a completed frame, I turned the layout over and built the frame around it. This resulted in the top of the baseboard lying flush with the top of the frame. For the first time in building benchwork, I laid the cross members horizontal. This gives more surface area for the plywood to make contact (since I can’t practically nail through the foam) for gluing, as well as making space should I decide to add hardware for folding legs. The result is a strong and sturdy benchwork durable enough for leaning or the likes of an 8-year old.


Work continues on the diorama. I decided not to try and smooth out the layers into a standard hill formation that we see in model railroads. The resulting layers appear to accent the stratifications that would result in a mining operation. Well, on Xenon 3, anyway! I used SculptaMold to give some texture to the flat surfaces. I layered on ruddish colors of spray paint to give the final look.


The bottom of the swamp has been painted, and some industrial pipes created to dump sludge from the mining operation into the pit. Various shades of green were used, with the color getting gradually darker towards the center. Next, I’ll glue some weeds and debris to the bottom before pouring over a resin.


Work is also going on on the backside where the underground subway station is. I’m working on using corrugated cardboard for the bulkheads with doors and access made from printed texture glued to foam core. I’ll add some expanding squirt foam insulation for effect. There are lots of possibilities here.

The foam is painted on the main layout, and I have been acquiring the switches for the control panel little by little. Just a bit more base scenery, and hopefully, trains will be running soon!


20170705_180832Yes, OK, so it is Xenon 3, not Mars, but we are having a practice go at a making foreign world. I used the left over 2×4′ section to start making up a diorama that will resemble the final Mines of Xenon train layout.

I wanted to get some practice using the extruded foam (XPS), shaping it, painting it and working with it in general. Also wanted a trial run at the slime pit swamp. That will give us some training using the planned resin as a medium for making the swamp. We’ll work on the color scheme and scale.


Eventually, on the diorama, we’ll also build an industrial building to scale and map out the mine structure, as well as textures for raw materials. But that is still to come.

On the main layout, I think I’ve decided on a track plan. I wanted lots of features, but when in doubt, keep it simple. The Tyco Turbo Train runs on (magnetic) steel track, but had some trouble traversing turnouts since it essentially a slot car mechanism. (Have I said it is lots of fun, though?). So I made a simple loop to go around the perimeter of the benchwork.


The mining branch is another independent loop with a passing siding on one end through the mountain. That allows for an empties/loads operating sequence. There are also two spurs which lead to the barracks and freight depot. All curves are 18″, number 4 turnouts, code 100 rail, with 5 block sections.

I’m not happy with the support, so first thing is to shore that up with a benchwork frame made of 1×4″ dimensional lumber. We’ll do that in parallel as we continue to work on the diorama.