A Messy Model Railroad is a Happy Model Railroad

Before you get upset and say something you might regret later, let me explain. I’m making progress on my model railroad and I’m excited about it. It’s been a long time since I spent more than an hour with my layout. In the last few days I’ve probably spent fifteen hours with The Maple Valley Short Line.

I don’t claim to be an artist so mixing paint colors has never been a familiar task. To me it’s a matter of meeting a need and mixing until it looks presentable. There is also the challenge of the paint’s response to plaster and how it will look when it’s dry. So far so good.

Model railroading is a lot of fun and there are many rewards on the path to a finished layout. Part of the excitement is that a layout is never really finished, at least not for me.

This piece is the result of my first use of a latex mold. I think it turned out pretty great. I’ll paint it with a grayish wash and touch it up with some highlights of darker and lighter shades. What I’m not sure about is how many of these I can get away with using. I have smaller molds as well so I’ll mix them around the layout

This model railroad represents several firsts for me. I have never modeled a river before and I have already made some mistakes. I made the river area too wide for my bridges so I had to adjust the width in a few areas. I also had no idea how expensive the water-pour mixtures are. Ugh! Oh well, I’ll work around it. I’m going to use a deep-pour clear mixture. I left chunks of plaster on the river bed which should be visible through the hardened water material.

I’m also in the process of building another bridge. Because I didn’t leave enough space between the beginning of my incline and the end of the decline, it’s necessary for me to place two #6 turnouts end-to-end so I can move trains from the outside to the inside mainline, and vice versa. They will come together over the river! (Another mistake.)

These are my tools for building bridges and just about everything else. I use a lap board with a measuring-cutting pad. To begin construction I use a piece of 1 1/2 inch foam about the same size as my lap board. I pin and glue the basswood and balsa piece by piece. We have enjoyed several Netflix series while building great scenery items!

Back to my messy model railroad. I like busy-ness. I like stuff. I’m not good with tools because I have a terrible habit of not putting them away. I leave them where they were needed, so I have about a dozen screwdrivers. I like the look of a mess as long as there are good things happening.

Some day the paint, plaster, brushes, containers, tape, and all the other clutter will be gone. What remains will be a fantastic model railroad. Just after I drive the golden spike I’ll start thinking about how I can change the layout to make it better. That’s the way model railroading works.

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Where’s my coffee?!

Model Railroading Beats Covid Stress

Model railroading is a terrific way to lose yourself in details that have absolutely nothing to do with the media, bad news, worse news, health scares, or Covid.

It’s been almost four months since I worked on my model railroading project, The Maple Valley Short Line.

Part of model railroading, at least for me, has been anticipating but not being upset by the feeling of hitting a wall. My motivation to build disappeared. Today I reactivated and found it.

Even as I stood in front of my layout, it wasn’t until I actually started measuring, cutting, and gluing that I began to feel motivated.

I discovered installing scratch-built bridges is difficult. Making sure the bridge deck is the same level as the cork roadbed which means boring holes in plaster and foam takes time. When it’s done, it will be fantastic.

Plaster is a necessity in model railroading if you’re seeking for realism in your scenery. It takes time and is messy, but well worth the effort.

I have been challenged by the need to cover my styrofoam risers and blend them into the scenery in a way that looks realistic. I’ve thought about covering crumpled paper with plaster, but wondered about mold forming on the paper from the moisture.

I thought about using cardboard strips with plaster, but with one to four inches across thirty-two feet of riser, that is a lot of cardboard to cut and cover. I’m still working on it. I think I’ll use a combination of paper towel and pieces of foam dipped in plaster.

Gluing cork roadbed is time consuming but so rewarding! Covid stress floats away like a crumpled leaf in the wind. Cork roadbed is a model railroading task that you start and finish even though the layout still has a very long way to go.

The river I decided to dig across the middle of my layout added a tremendous amount of work, but I’m excited about how it’s going to look. This will be my first time using the epoxy mix that becomes “water”. I’ll paint the plaster first then pour the magic liquid.

Model railroading is a lot of fun. It provides a great opportunity to see what can be done. Everything is changeable, there really is no such thing as a mistake.

I can’t wait to see my steam locomotive rumble across this bridge. The extra work setting and leveling this scratch-built model is more than worth the time.

I can start placing my nickel-silver flex-track any time. That’s when the layout really starts looking like a railroad. I’ve been working on my model railroad for a long time already. Every step has its own rewards.

I’m looking forward to the day when I can start setting all the houses and buildings I spent last winter creating. Trees, grass, weeds, junk, sticks, fences, rocks, stones, lights, signals, backdrops, ballast, and more junk. Love it.

All this makes me want more coffee. Model railroading and coffee. Inseparable partners.

Foam Risers or Not? Cork Roadbed or Not?

Photos and Blog by Dale Parsons


My first layout was a learning experience, as I guess they all are. There was a lot of “what not to do.” I planned carefully, and even had trains running on sub-roadbed and track that was tacked temporarily. It was not until after the track was permanent that I realized some important mistakes.

The most costly mistake I made on my first layout was that my inclines were too steep. I created them by estimating the space I had and how quickly I wanted the train to return to ground level. That’s fine if you have a ton of space, but it will mean steep inclines, as it did for me, if your space is limited. My layout was a “L” shaped reverse dog bone design. I like watching trains going over and under each other. My steep inclines meant my engines could only pull a small handful of cars.

That layout was never completed because we moved. I completely dismantled it. The only parts I kept were the track, buildings, and trees.

My second layout was single-level. No climbing or descending. No hills or tunnels. No inclines to worry about. It was basically a switching layout with a full loop so I could run trains constantly, which I prefer.

When I dismantled that layout because we were moving again, it was a much easier task. Virtually everything was salvageable. Even though I glued and nailed the track down, it came up very easily. I kept all of the pieces.

The track has been through the mill. When I took the first layout apart, we moved to a house where there was no room for any railroading. All of my track was in a box in our barn. After a few years, I took it out. Most of it was covered with everything mice leave behind. I considered tossing it, but then I thought about how much nickel-silver track costs. I bought a couple of track cleaning blocks and started scrubbing. I’m still using that same track with no problems.

We moved to the house where we presently live. Hopefully, the last time we will move. My new layout is basic, no clever design schemes, just two mainlines for simultaneous train operation and some sidings. There is a long branch line that runs from one end of the layout to the other. The destination is Maple Valley. The train running the line will be a vintage model engine like “The General” and a few cars. Passengers will board the train at “Little Town” on the opposite end of the layout for the ride to Maple Valley.

My first big decision was whether or not to use Woodland Scenics risers. As you can see, I did, and I am so happy I chose to use the 2% incline/decline. A 2% incline means I need 16 feet of space for the track to be lifted four inches. In the middle of the photo, you can see where the incline and decline comes together with about two feet to spare. It’s just enough room for turnouts from both directions so I can choose to move trains to or from the longer outside mainline.

My next question was how to attach the styrofoam risers to the extruded foam base. I chose undiluted white glue which I bought in a gallon jug. I pinned the riser where I wanted it and drew a line on either side of the riser with a black marker. I removed the pins and the riser. I brushed white glue on the foam base the length of the first riser. I then replaced the riser, pinned it in place, and weighted it down with anything I could find. I left it overnight to dry.

I have seen some videos where modelers put masking tape over the riser before installing the final roadbed. I started to do the same but removed it because I was afraid if the tape came loose the roadbed would be loose as well.

The next question was whether or not to use cork roadbed, and as you can see I chose the cork. I didn’t use it on my last shelf layout. I ballasted the track without cork and it turned out alright. I’m glad I chose to use cork this time as it looks more realistic to me.

I used undiluted white glue to attach the roadbed, using the same method I used with the foam risers. I first drew my track plan directly on the pink foam using exact radius templates for the curves, and a yard-stick for the mostly-straight areas. I lined the inside of the cork against the track line mark and made another mark on the outside of the cork, and also marked the end of the cork piece. I removed the cork and applied glue to the foam. I pinned the cork down with 1-1/2 inch “T-pins” on the bevel. Once I had both sides in place, I weighted the cork. I laid as much cork at one time as I had weights for. I then left it overnight.

I didn’t buy turnout foam, instead choosing to cut the cork to fit the turnouts. I might regret that, we’ll see.

My next task was making a curvy 4 inch riser to meet the ends of the two 2% inclines on either end of the layout. I chose to make my own rather than buy an additional package of risers from the hobby shop. It was a lot of work but I’m confident it will work fine. Since I took this photo, I have cut two tunnels through my homemade riser.

The riser is two pieces of 1-1/2 inch foam plus a 1 inch piece between. I drew the design on a large piece of paper, cut it out 2 inches wide. I placed my paper template on the foam and cut it with a razor utility knife. I then glued the three pieces of foam together with white glue, weighting them heavily.

When I was happy with the way the risers turned out, I glued them to the foam surface and pinned them in place. I weighted them and left it for a couple of days.

I have about ten or fifteen more feet of cork to apply, then I will be ready to start laying track. I have to decide where my blocks are going to be and plan my wiring lines accordingly.

Model railroading is a fantastic hobby. It is especially fun to take photos and videos as steps are taken so it’s easy to see how much progress is being made. I’m learning that slow and steady is best. Now that I’m retired, slow has taken on a whole new meaning.

I need more coffee.

How to Build Strong Model Railroad Benchwork

Blog and Photos by Dale Parsons

Your dream of a beautiful model railroad will ultimately be no better than the benchwork holding it in place. Any model railroad worth building is worth the time and effort it takes to build unshakable benchwork.

My first permanent HO layout was built on open-grid, I-girder and truss benchwork. I followed Lynn Wescott’s old book detailing how to build, step-by-step, open grid benchwork. His drawings, lists of materials, measurements, and photos made the work easy. I have to admit, however, I was disappointed with the way my benchwork turned out. I found the open grid design made scenery building far more difficult.

How to Build Model Railroad Benchwork, by Lynn Westcott, who was a master in model railroading and everything that goes with it, is a terrific manual for building a great layout.

Since my plywood sub-roadbed was only about a 1/4 inch wider on either side of my cork roadbed, it didn’t leave enough room for attaching the strips of cardboard for the foundation of my ground and rock scenery. I made it work, but I wished I had built it differently. I have not used open grid since then.

In my opinion, no model railroad is ever finished. At least not for me. There is always something more to do. I find that scenery and detail is just as fun as running trains. On this my third layout, I plan to use more detail than I ever have before.

Model railroading is a great learning experience. I have already made several mistakes on my third layout, but I’m not starting over. The most important mistake I made is the narrowest part of my benchwork is 36 inches. The ends are 54 inches. My original braces weren’t long enough so I had to attach additional 1×3 pieces to both sides so the brace arms to extend them to the edge of the bench. Leveling everything was a challenge. The two sides of the arm had to be level, and the brace itself had to be level with the next brace arm, and so on.

My new train room is twenty-one feet long, and I’m using every inch of it for my layout. The room has the same shape as the train room in our last house, which is kind of cool. This room is longer, but more narrow. The opposite side of the room is lined with shelves with mostly stuff we don’t need. Just as long as I have room to get from one end of the layout to the other, it’s fine with me. One great thing about shelf layouts is the room it creates underneath. Lots more storage area.

Attaching the braces to the cement block wall was tough. But they’re not going anywhere. I used an impact driver and 1/4 inch cement screws that are 3 1/2 inches long. I went through several drill bits. I drilled through the 2×2 inch leg brace with a wood bit that made a mark on the white cement block. I then used the cement drill bit to make the hole. The impact driver fastened the legs to the wall very easily.

To accommodate my choice of 26 inch radius curves on each end of the layout, the benchwork is 54 inches deep. I am pleased with my progress so far, but the benchwork really is too deep. Reaching across to work on scenery is going to be difficult, but I will manage.

When I was satisfied with the benchwork framing, it was time to put on the plywood sub-roadbed. I had some plywood pieces from my previous layout so I used them, plus some additional new 3/8 inch plywood. I measured and cut the plywood so the ends come together between the two sides of the 1×3 inch brace arms. I then drew lines on the plywood indicating the brace arms. After drilling counter-sink pilot holes I used 1 1/2 inch screws to fasten the plywood to the brace arms.

These are photos from my first shelf layout. It was only 24 inches wide in the middle, and just wide enough on the ends to hold a 22 inch radius curve. I run parallel mainlines so I can operate two trains simultaneously.

My next post will include details about applying sheets of foam to the plywood.

Thanks for reading.

Dale

Discover Prompts Day 23: Notes

Obviously, that’s not me. When I’m sleeping I look rather hideous, so I chose to use this guy. He didn’t care. The prompt for today is Notes. I’m supposed to start a diary, which I’ve started many times and have never kept for more than two or three days.

Something else I’ve never done is keep a note about dreams. Usually, I can’t remember anything but bits and pieces, but last night I had a vivid dream and I remember it.

My wife and I were going to catch a flight to Amsterdam. I was driving us through the terminal on a green golf cart. At the gate area she got off the cart and went with a ticket agent to get a boarding pass. In the mean time, I was following instructions and driving the cart up a short ramp to the jetway. I went down into a musty dark basement to get my boarding pass. My wife wasn’t there. I went back up to the gate area and the plane was gone. I assumed I missed the flight and my wife didn’t. I found some other Amsterdam passengers and discovered I was looking at the wrong plane. I was still looking for my wife when I woke up.

I imagine some important reason we were going to Amsterdam. I was going to speak at a major conference on model railroading. Crowds of people were waiting to hear me share my notes about building benchwork strong enough to sit on. Sitting on the benchwork makes it possible to do detail work on the other side of the layout when you discover the bench is too wide to just reach across.

Another possibility for the trip is that I was going to demonstrate the fine radio controlled airplane skills I have gained in seven years of flying. No concerns about the fact I can’t fly anymore because of essential tremors. I can’t control the radio sticks well enough to keep the plane from crashing. That probably wasn’t it.

Maybe I was invited to come to Amsterdam to talk about the fine art of blogging. People want to know how to build a huge number of followers. Someone said, “You’re not a leader if you turn around and no one is following.” I wouldn’t think it would be necessary to fly to Amsterdam to talk about the vast number of followers when, at this moment, I have around one hundred. (I’m really thankful for each reader and follower. This really is a lot of fun.)

I have lots and lots of notes about all kinds of things. Now, since I can’t write with a pen or pencil anymore, I do all my writing on a tablet or laptop. So, taking notes about something and then printing it is a pain. So usually, my notes are only two or three words. More like thought prompts to remind myself of something. For example, “Dr 10:00”.

I had no idea how much I have taken hand-writing for granted. It was always there, hiding in the shadows, ready to use at any moment. For thirty years, all my sermon notes were written by hand. I knew all my scratches, arrows, underlining, explosion marks, exclamations, question marks, and doodles. They all meant something important. Not any more. When I retired I threw files and files of my notes away. When I was a pastor I never used sermon notes more than once. Certainly the same topics, but not the same notes.

Notes are important. If we keep notes we might be able to keep ourselves out of trouble. If we look back over our notes when trouble comes, we can read about what we did last time and not make the same mistakes again. Someone said, “If we don’t learn from history we’re doomed to repeat it.” That is not just true for a country, it’s true for individuals.

Ah, here’s a note I wrote to myself earlier today. “Drink another cup of coffee.” Good idea. I think I will.

Discover Prompt Day 6: Hands

I never dreamed there would be a time when playing the piano would no longer be a huge part of my life. The time is here. Essential tremors make it very difficult for me to play, especially when it involves people watching and listening.

Nervousness has always been a struggle, something to overcome every time I sat down to play. Essential tremors has nothing to do with nervousness, but any kind of adrenalin, as in playing for a crowd, makes the tremors much worse.

I sought treatment for many years, with little effect. Two neurologists prescribed medications that carry possible seizures as a side effect. Thankfully, I never suffered a seizure. The medication, however, did not bring lasting or significant results and I wasn’t willing to take more massive amounts. I decided, aided by consultation with my primary care physician, it was time to quit.

It has now been five years since I stopped taking medications. Although I can still type with no problem, I have great difficulty doing other simple things. Sometimes just putting a key in a lock is a real challenge. Model Railroading is my hobby and detail work is very important. I have had to find ways to accomplish tasks I want to complete on my railroad layout.

I flew radio-controlled model airplanes for several years and loved it. I can’t do it any longer because of inability to control my fingers on the radio posts. It’s so frustrating to have to give up flying! I’m not willing to risk destroying my planes with stubbornness.

It’s really kind of a crazy sensation. Sometimes my individual fingers shake, as in trying to fly a RC airplane. At other times it’s my entire hand shaking. Sometimes my arm.

I taught myself how to print with my right hand so I could continue to function. Although not as bad as my left, my right hand is trying to catch up.

I spent many years playing the piano, most of the time playing for others who were singing. It’s a real disappointment not being able to do it anymore. I took it for granted for so long, it’s painful not to have it.

I’ve read lots of information about various treatments for Essential Tremors. I went to a university hospital for a screening for deep-brain stimulation but was told I was not a candidate. There are other possibilities I have just begun to investigate. We’ll see.

For now, I’ll play my digital piano with my headphones on so no one can hear what’s actually happening. Sometimes it still sounds pretty good. With a little reverb it sounds like I’m playing in a huge auditorium again. Lots of great memories. I imagine the applause and it makes me feel good. I’m thankful for many good years sitting at the piano.

Model Railroad Therapy

Why would anyone go through all the work of planning, gathering, re-planning, gathering more, designing, deciding you haven’t gathered enough, redesigning, feeling discouraged, realizing gathering more would help you feel better, wondering whether you’re losing your mind, understanding that you’ll know you haven’t lost your mind when you see the things you continue to gather are soooo cool, completely changing your design, deciding the house you live in isn’t quite big enough to properly house the empire you are about to build, and finally settling on a manageable layout that satisfies you? Because it is great therapy. No, you don’t think of it that way, but it is. Model railroading is a microcosm of life the way we wish it was, or the way we think it used to be. No one builds a model railroad duplicating everything the way it is because as soon as you’re finished you realize something changed and now you have to rebuild. Model railroading works because you are in charge. No surprises, nothing unexpected, your opinion is the only one that matters. Reality isn’t like that at all. Model railroading is completely safe.

The secret to being satisfied with your work is not to compare yours with others. You can learn a great deal by watching how-to videos, reading books and magazines, but the bottom line in model railroading is deciding that what you have created is good. Not because it won an award, or was featured in a model railroading magazine, or your track-side photos had a million likes on social media, but just because you created it.

If you don’t have room to build a permanent (just kidding – no model railroad is permanent) layout, make that table-top empire great with what you have. Your imagination will work wonders with sectional track, snap-together buildings and plastic trees if you use it. When you’re done, put everything away and start dreaming about your next layout.

Okay, everyone, get started on that model railroad empire!