Mucking around with Photo Backdrops

In my constant efforts to improve my skills and learn things, for the Canyon Road Diorama, I am experimenting with a photo backdrop on part of the diorama. The curved area on the right side which provides a backdrop for the view under the bridge photo I am trying to create, should have the Niagara Escarpment in the background. This was why I put in the curved backdrop in the first place, so this shot can be taken without it just being the end of the diorama into space. There are a number of ways to achieve this. I could try to paint something on in the background, and may come back to that, but part of the challenge is converting the geography and grade changes of the real world into something believable in 22″ that has no grade change. Part of the issue, is the alignment of the railway and the escarpment means that it is very visible looking one way down the diorama, but should be less so if you view it from the front (the pictures below will hopefully help this make sense).

Looking from a more front view, the escarpment shouldn’t be visible beyond the clear plastic cap. The other two shots show what the test piece of backdrop looks like compared to the real world.

I bought a commercial backdrop recently, I figured $20 is a small cost to experiment. I have cut off a chunk as you can see, where the treeline in the image is a bit too sloped to work for the escarpment which is reasonably straight across the background. I have lots of material to work with, this piece is for messing around with, I’ve test fitted it, and generally, I actually like the look it creates. It is a bit too vibrant for something that should be off in the distance, but I have some “haze” flat paint that I am hoping I can airbrush onto the backdrop to tone down the colours and make it look more like it is in the distance. Along the main backdrop, the trees/brush/telegraph poles and wires will hopefully help hid the eventual blend into the ridge behind the tracks.

As they say, time will tell, but so far, so good with at least the experiment of trying photo backdrops. At the end of the day, I may hate it and bin the thing, but Nothing ventured/nothing gained right?

Building and Rebuilding a Bridge

For my modern diorama of Canyon Road, the centrepiece is going to be the scratch built wooden farm crossing that still exists over the CPR Galt Subdivision. I looked at various commercial bridges that are out there, and decided that nothing I could find made me happy, but I did find one that would work as a bit of a design guide/aid that I could buy cheaply. There is a Rix Products wooden bridge kit, its an older kit that’s been out there for a while, and is only single track. That said, it gave me something to look at for wooden bridge design, and to use to help me make templates for my own bridge built from stripwood. I pre-stained my strip wood for this project, using a couple of different Hunterline Stains and a isopropyl alcohol/India ink mix. This got me a variety of wood colours, and those colours into the wood before gluing anything together, that means there aren’t areas that won’t stain because the wood has been impregnated with glue. This is something I’m sure I’ve seen written about, but I learned the hard way building wood kits or scratch-building that you need to stain before you glue!

Pre-stained strip wood, home made jigs for a bridge and scratch building the bridge decks and trestle bents with them.

As you can see in the pictures above, i built two jigs using scrap styrene sheet and styrene angles. I used the Rix Bridge as a rough guide for beam and bent spacing, but also made tweaks to get the bents in particular to look like my photos of the actual bridge. The deck jig was set up to let me build up to a 40′ long deck (could probably do longer the way it is set up, but my base only let me add dimensions that far. The deck of my bridge is about 32′ across to clear the two tracks. The bents (legs) on either side are really close to the tracks and edge of the loading gauge in real life, and I wanted to replicate that in the model. Even with the jigs, before I built anything, I used some scrap cardboard to build a mock-up to look at spacing and dimensions. I hang onto a fair bit of scrap cardboard for painting and mockups, its a good practice to have some as it is a cheap and easy way to see if what you see in your mind translates well into 3D before you start actually building with more expensive materials.

Building Bridge Version 1.0. Working through the design and visualization, then building. But yeah, those ramps are a bit steep.

So, with the prep work done, and the diorama reaching a stage where the landforms to support the bridge were in place, I got going with the bridge. Slowly but surely, building sub components, the deck, the ramps, the bents, and getting them together and continually going back and forth from the workbench to the diorama to check fit and appearance. As I was working, the angle of the ramps started to gnaw at me, but I was so happy with the overall look of the bridge, I busily went about convincing myself that it was OK. It wasn’t until the bridge was “finished” and I shared a picture with some friends, one of who’s first response was “gorgeous but those ramps look really steep” did I finally go yeah, I’ve been trying to convince myself its OK and I’ll be happy, but the more I looked at them after that, the more I knew I would not be happy. The good thing is, as I have been moving slowly so I had not gone so far in the ground cover that it would mean undoing work to raise the hillside at the back and reduce the angle of the ramps. The ramp on the front side is shot and doesn’t land, so it would just be a take apart and adjust angle to match the change on the other side.

Rebuilding the ramps and raising the hillside to provide a more gentle ramp onto the bridge. Using a level that mounts into a camera hot shoe to check the bridge levelling.

Once I had confirmed that the ramps had to go, I started looking at how to best fix them. First looking at just making the side that reaches the ground on the back longer, but the more I looked at that, the clearer it became that what needed to happen was raising the hillside a bit so the ramp could stay around the right length while getting a gentler slope. To do this, out came the hot wire tool to carve off a piece of foam, and carve it to a shape where it could be glued on top of the existing hill, and blended in with the Woodland Scenics plaster cloth as I did for the rest of the scenery. With the hill increased in height, it was pretty straightforward then to get the angles cut on the ramp underframe beams and get it into place. All the different pieces then where re-assembled/adjusted and the bridge rebuilt.

With the bridge now approaching “done” in terms of the basic form, I was able to build the jacking that was installed beneath the bents at some point to raise the bridge to clear taller modern equipment, as opposed to building a whole new bridge for the farmer. These where built using HO Scale pre-cut wood ties, stained, and glued together. These actually are really handy for me, as they let me ballast the track without the bridge in place, as the bents sit on top of the risers, so my bridge can stay removable for a while still while I do scenery around it before eventually gluing it into place when I am done doing things that are easier without it there.

Finishing off the rebuilt bridge, getting the footings in (at some point the bridge was jacked up on site and raised to clear modern higher height equipment with large timbers under the legs, and ballasting the tracks.

At the end of the day, scratch-building made it really easy for me to take apart and re-do the things that didn’t work. I have some added details I want to add to the bridge, in terms of bolt castings for where boards meet to add a bit of detail, but, given the pre-staining of the wood I did, I am already really happy with it having the weathered appearance I want. Next up, getting started on the ground cover on the hillsides and telegraph poles.

Starting Scenery on Canyon Road Diorama

One of the reasons among the many that I have started on a side project diorama of Canyon Road was that I have learned so much in the nearly two years of building my Liberty Village Layout, that I wanted to re-enforce and build upon the scenery techniques I have either had to learn, or refresh my past experiences and build upon them. Liberty Village is pancake flat urban industrial area, which while the how of creating that can be used elsewhere, there are lots of other skills in scenery that don’t get used on it, so the diorama offers a chance to expand on my scenery skill set, in an achievable sized space.

The start of scenery, plaster sheet on the carved foam landforms, paint, and soil cover.

With the foam carved and to what I thought was the right shape and landing point for the wooden bridge at the left of the diorama, I wanted to experiment with creating the final ground form in a different way. In the past, I have either done nothing on my first layouts, or used sculptamold. For this, I wanted to try something different, so I bought a roll of Woodland Scenics plaster cloth. It comes in different widths, I bought a 3″ wide roll given the narrow areas I am covering. You cut it to length, quickly dip it in water to get it wet and activate the plaster, then apply it and smooth it out. You can create shapes and texture. It hardens to a hard cover, which protects the foam, and provides a good surface for paint and texture.

For the first coat of colour, I used another Woodland Scenics product, but one that I’ve had for nearly 20 years, a bottle of Burnt Umber Pigment. I don’t know why I bought this, I think I was using it and a green product they had to stain wooden baseboards before applying ground foam… I’ve come a long way in doing scenery! This was actually a more correct application for the pigment. I think, being honest I should have applied it while the plaster was still “wet” so it would soak in, but it worked. At the end of the day, this is all going to be hidden beneath soil, grass, shrubs, trees and the like. Its really a backstop against unsightly white poking through the upper levels of scenery.

Once that was dried, as you can see I’ve had the track protected with painters tape as it was already painted and weathered, it will probably need some more, but no point in destroying the work already don. As with the layout, I am using Scenic Express fine soil for the dirt cover to give any open patches of ground some earth like texture. I am really happy with this product and how it looks on the layout, and I was able to be more, delicate with the application here. On the layout it is being used a bit as filler to bring ground level to the level of tracks and curbs and such, here, it is more a fine coating on the hill slopes. To do this, I found that applying a fine sprayed coating of my thinned glue of choice, Weldbond (at least 50/50 with water), then sprinkling on a light coat of the soil gave it some bite to apply a slightly thicker cover to make sure everything was covered with soil and then wet it and spray on a top coat of glue to soak through with the wet having broken the surface tension.

Jumping ahead and around other things since this is about first scenery, getting the track ballasted. Those with sharp eyes will notice the landform on the left has changed. I’ve got another post to write about the bridge where I’ll tackle that.

With the first bit of ground cover down, the next step was to ballast the track so it starts to nicely blend together with ballast over soil. Pretty standard ballasting, lay it down, wet it, and dribble in thinned glue, the water breaks the surface tension and lets the glue work its way in. Then go and add ballast once the first coat has tried for anywhere that there is thin spots showing through and to build it up along the verges and between the two tracks.

With the ballast, I also installed the signals. The two signals are going to be permanently mounted, so I wanted them in and the wiring buried beneath the ballast so they would blend into the ground as the real ones do. I have a signal electrical cabinet to install now that the ballast is down, I just realized I never got around to finishing painting is so I will be getting some aluminum on it in the paint booth this weekend.

Lots to do still, static grasses, long grasses, telegraph/power poles, making trees, finishing the bridge and so forth, but as always with my projects, forward progress is the goal.

Painted & Decalled “Painted” Wall Signs

Continuing to make progress on the structures I have built for the layout, one is finally seriously nearing completion. With the windows painted on the Brunswick Balke Collender factory, the next step was the three large painted signs that adorned the southern facade of the factory. Once these are done, I can move on to weathering and getting the building with a good coat of mid 1950’s soot that adorned all of Toronto back then.

First stop, the paint booth with decals for the black part of the sign printed on our injet, and spraying the white blocks for the text onto the walls.

For the signs, there are many different ways to do them. My chosen way is to paint the white onto the walls, and make decals for the black portions. I have clear decal sheet for doing this kind of thing. I know you can get white decal paper, but my past experience with it is that you get white around the edges when you trim your decals to size and apply them. Using clear paper, means that if there is clear carrier at the edges, it can blend away.

To make the decals, I used good old Adobe Photoshop CS3 (I don’t have a computer capable of running anything more modern, nor the inclination to pay a monthly user fee forever and ever) to produce them at 1:1 size for my structure after measuring it. The top sign has been restored, the lower two were not when the building was recently renovated, but I fortunately have a single shot I took in 2005 where you can mostly make out what the two lower signs said. Between that, and some internet investigative work on Brunswick Balke and their old drawn images on corporate letterhead, I am confident that if anything is wrong, its not very wrong.

Decals going on. They are so long they need to be done in two parts. After the first half was down, I trimmed the second half to minimize overlap while leaving myself clear alignment points at a letter to match the halves.

For the decals, once they are printed, the need to be sealed to actually go in the water and slide on. I have an old rattle can of Testors Decal Bonder spray from my first efforts at making decals years ago. A little goes a long way. To be honest, I probably even in my couple of light coats applied too much, but given the size of my decals, a thicker coating so that would hopefully not tear (spoiler, they did not tear) seemed wiser than thin and having to fix issues.

2005 compared to my model. Now it just needs weathering. Somewhere between the pristine look the model currently has and the completely weather-beaten pre-restoration look of 2005.

The signs have worked out pretty much perfectly. The white paint shows the brick pattern clearly, and the black home made decals have mostly settled in to find the nooks and crannies to also look like they are paint and not a decal. They need a bit more work in a few sports with a pin and some microsol to get in underneath and finish the job, but walking into the layout room (or just down the hall toward it), this building is very prominent as you enter the room, and every bit of movement forward re-affirms my decision to build this first and work on advancing this area of the layout as seeing it continue to move from vision to reality keeps me motivated on the numerous other projects, even if I haven’t been getting as much done of late on the layout as I might want to with my focus being spent on my “distraction diorama” that I needed just to do something different for a bit to feel refreshed and re-find motivation for layout projects. After all, the 80+ windows of Hinde and Dauch are still waiting for me to cut the openings and cast the windows before I can do the next set of painted wall signs there, which are much bigger than these ones are!

An April Sunday Night Omnibus Update

I realized I haven’t written about anything I’ve done or been working on for over two weeks, and while that’s not really all that long, its been a weird, though productive couple of weeks, even if sometimes it doesn’t feel like that to me. So with that in mind, here is a kind of “month end” omnibus edition post on most everything I’ve been working on (there is one thing with a post upcoming I’ve spent a lot of time on that is not for this post), as I’m not feeling motivated to write a lot of words on one thing, but some pictures and a few words on a bunch of things feels good and again drives home that sometimes, you are making progress even when you don’t always see it! A lot of my writing is not just to share the joy model making gives me, or to share techniques, but to keep me motivated by looking at what I am doing and seeing concrete progress by putting it in words and pictures.

First up, a project that came so close to being “finished” in March, but dragged into April for decals and dull-coating. A pair of Canadian Pacific 10′-6″ interior height NSC AAR box cars. Similar to the two CNR ones I finished other than weathering in January, these are Intermountain undecorated kits built with National Scale Car mini-kits to get the correct doors and ends for Canadian built cars. These are all done other than weathering and any adjustments to make them good runners on the layout. Of course, no sooner do I finish two kits than two more from Yarmouth Model Works arrive to go in the queue. I see a pattern here!!

A pair of CPR Box Cars in final decaling and then dullcoated and on the layout.

Next up, another quick project that has happened on a whim in April! Way back in 2004, I took my first vacation from work, I’d been working for about a year and half after finishing university, and took two weeks to go to England and just do railway stuff. On that trip, I bought a 1/4 scale replica nameplate at the North Yorkshire Moors Railway of LNER/BR B17 61648 Arsenal. This class of locomotive was known as “Footballers” because they were named after English football teams. Early in April, I saw a crazy sale on a Hornby B17, but with the wrong name/number. That is a situation easily fixed. On a Sunday I ordered a locomotive and then replacement etched nameplates and number decals from Fox Transfers, and a couple of weeks later they both arrived across the ocean. A couple of hours of work with isopropyl alcohol and a toothpick to remove the wrong numbers, prying off the factory nameplates, and some carefully gluing, and a quick project I’ve wanted for years, a model of Arsenal to go with my nameplate was done. Didn’t advance the layout one iota (though as you can see, the layout doesn’t do too badly for photographing British Models!)

Voila, from 61665 “Leicester City” to 61648 “Arsenal” in a couple of hours. The replica nameplate can be seen in the background.

Another non-layout project is what started as a”Blank Canvas“, aka an Ikea shelf! I have been busy on this too, working on other scenery skills I don’t necessarily need for the layout, but which are good and where I felt I needed something different to work on to break up working on the layout scenery which is very much samey across the layout. Since I last posted, I have been working on learning to use a Hot Wire Foam Cutter to cut and trim the foam base for the terrain on either side of the tracks, along with laying and painting the track, and building the signals. I have gotten it to the point where the track and roadbed is down, the foam is carved to shape and glued in, and the signals are built and almost finished being painted and assembled. The Hot Wire Cutter probably deserves a post of its own, and I may take some pictures of me cutting a mock-up pieces to do that. Its definitely one of those things I’ve seen people write about over the years, and while I haven’t built much scenery, the difference between my rough carving the block of foam and the mess that made vs. using the Hot Wire is immense. Now I get it!

Going from a 3″ thick chunk of foam to formed terrain for along the tracks and to support the wooden bridge (currently in fancy cardboard mockup form). The GO Bi-Levels are the closest I have to AAR Plate C modern freight cars in size, so not quite tall enough, but they are a great help for making sure I have clearance. As always, any available heavy items including a “Heritage” Don Valley Brickworks brick are used to weight down track when its glued!

My layout has no signalling, but the diorama kind of needs them to make the scene I am building an homage to. Now, having built two signals that don’t even change aspect (I’ve built them with single colour aspects showing for photography), re-affirms that I don’t have the patience or wiring skills to do more than that! I ordered the kits from a company called Showcase Miniatures, and they are awesome, even if I’m no good at wiring. If you are looking for signals, I can highly recommend their kits based on my experiences thus far. What they have also illuminated, is how lucky we were pre-pandemic to just pop out to the hobby shop. I am constantly finding things I don’t have, that will then take weeks to get potentially, like the discovery that I don’t in fact have a sheet of black lettering for the signal ID boards, so I’m kinda ground to a halt, though luckily one of my local suppliers TMR Distributing had them and some other bits and pieces I need for various projects, so I may have what I need this week if the post office cooperates at all (not that I have much faith in Canada Post).

Images of signal building. Multiple aspects of this probably deserve their own post, and who knows, maybe I will get motivated to do that! Simple things, like tiny balls of blue sticky tack in the light openings while painting to protect the LED’s. Sometimes the simpliest things get the best results.

Back in December, I was briefly super excited by my progress in wiring a decoder and programming it into a second Alco S-2 for the CPR side of my loco fleet, then, I blew up the decoder with a wiring short. I managed to not throw the loco, and this weekend made some progress on painting and decalling. This locomotive is going to be in CP’s early maroon and grey “Block” lettering scheme. I have been offered by a friend to do the 2nd go round of the DCC install for me, and I am going to send the locomotive to them in a few weeks once the shell is finished, so that they can do the installation, and when it comes back to me, hopefully I won’t have to take the shell off anytime soon, and won’t risk shorting it out again!

Masking and painting the maroon parts of a CPR Also S-2 switcher. Needs a quick shot of clear coat for the decals, then I can apply lettering.

Just to prove that not everything I’ve been doing is not advancing the layout scenery itself, the last few things have been small, but important painting and learning on the buildings.

Continuing work on painting buildings. Masked and painted windows on Brunswick Balke, working on some “Natural” red sandstone details on 60 Atlantic, and testing Roberts Brick Mortar on the Brunswick power house. The super salmon pink colour on 60 Atlantic will be, toned down! The brick mortar looks better in pictures than I think it does in person. I haven’t quite got the application technique down yet for it to be subtle. Hopefully when I apply some pan pastel weathering it tones it down to the sweet spot in person and in pictures!

So, as its been said before, probably even by me, a little bit of time every day turns into big progress. I have lots of things on the go, things I am working on, things I could be working on, things I think about working on, things I should be working on instead of coming up with new distractions, but all put together, some of that scatterbrained projects all over the place is a part of my hobby as much as making progress is. I don’t know about others, but for me, hitting a point of “oh hey, that worked and looks really good” just seems to sneak up on me from periods of not feeling like I am actually doing anything.

Sometimes Little Things go a long way

Last weekend I had the big can of sky blue paint out for the “Blank Canvas” to paint the newly built backdrop. While it was out, I took the opportunity to touch up the backdrop on the layout. In a few spots where track is close to it, and where the roads meet it, I have made a mess with airbrush over-spray or remnants of drywall compound road material. It took less than 5 minutes to take a brush and go around the layout and fix all the obvious ugly spots. They will probably need more touchups before things are said and done, but it makes a huge difference in a few spots to get rid of ugly marks on what should be my neutral sky.

You can see the fresh touchups in the pictures looking more white than blue, but as the paint dries, it finds its colour and blends into the backdrop.

Is this a project that makes the layout? No, but its one of those little things that took no time or effort really, and which makes me feel better when I’ve walked into the room and don’t go “ugh those marks are terrible, I was so sloppy painting/installing the roads”. Like I said, sometimes its the little things that go a long way on a big project like building a layout.