Scratch-Build a Two-Story Trackside Structure in HO Scale

Two story balsa Maple Valley Supply Co building h finished.

This is the Maple Valley Supply Company. It sits on the line that brings passengers from Midtown to Maple Valley on The Old General. The two-story structure is scratch-built in balsa. The windows and doors are plastic models purchased at a model railroad swap meet.

I drew plans for the structure on card stock. I built each of the walls by cutting, gluing and pinning balsa pieces on the wax-paper covered plans.

I love the way the framing looks on the wall interiors.

The gables and the front wall are two stories tall. The back wall is off-set by a scale 12 inches, so the walls were built separately. The end rooms are single story.

Balsa two story building without roof.
Two story balsa structure.

The siding pieces are cut from 1/32″ balsa sheeting. Since I have stud framing, it is easy to cut and glue individual lengths of siding for a more authentic appearance. Each siding piece is 3mm tall. Some modelers stain the balsa before gluing, but I choose to paint the finished structure.

Balsa building with roof trusses and decking.

I build roof trusses and individually glue them to the walls. I admit it’s difficult to build a bunch of balsa trusses that are exactly the same, but I get pretty close. As my middle school band teacher used to say, “It’s close enough for jazz.”

When the roof truss glue is dry, I apply individual planks the same way I attach the wall siding. My roof planks are all the same length. I don’t apply any covering other than paint.

The loading dock on the front of Maple Valley Supply Company is approximately 3 scale feet high and 4 feet deep with a ramp at the end. There is a double door on the far end and a single door in the center. The small storage room on the end has two small windows and a door.

Side view of balsa Maple Valley Supply Co outside town of Maple Valley.

I use acrylic paint diluted with water and mixed with a small amount of matte medium. With a little more scenery work to do around the structure, I think the Maple Valley Supply Company is ready for business.

Make Your Own Static Grass Applicator for Realistic Scenes

This definitely has to go in the category, “If I can do this, absolutely anyone can.” I made my own static grass applicator that really works!

I’ve been working steadily on the scenery of The Maple Valley Short Line Model Railroad. I’m creating scenes with more detail than I have on any other layout. On my previous model railroads I was happy with paint and some turf sprinkled here and there. The Maple Valley Short Line will probably be my last layout, so I’m doing it right.

I visited many sites showing modelers using static grass applicators, but when I looked at the cost I decided standing weeds weren’t necessary. I changed my mind. I started looking for videos showing how to make a static grass applicator and found several.

Blah Flag electric bag zapper and small strainer.

The self-built models are all pretty similar. It wasn’t difficult to find the parts. It was harder trying to tell myself I could actually do this and have it work.

The Black Flag Hand Held bug zapper I purchased for $10.95 at Home Depot promised to deliver 2750 volts of shocking power to any little critters that happened to get too close. It also delivered a powerful shock to my finger!

I found a small Farberware plastic strainer with a metal screen mesh to use as the grass spreader.

Separate pieces of bug zapper and small strainer.

I first removed all the screws from the back of the handle. Three screws held the zapper screen in place, three more screws were in the battery compartment. Once the screws were removed the pieces came apart easily.

Electric bug zapper wand wires exposed.

There were no screws in the wand, so I forced a screw driver blade into the seam to break the pieces apart. A red wire was soldered to the inner screen, a blue wire was soldered to each of the outer screens. I snipped the wires off at the screen. The two blue wires came from the same point on the control board, so I removed one.

Bug zapper handle opened to show control board.

After the extra blue wire was removed from the control board, I soldered a long green wire to the blue wire. I soldered a short red wire to the red wire from the board. The red wire carries power to the wire mesh basket. The green wire is attached to the area where the static grass will be applied. Static electricity is created by the field between the wire mesh and the surface of the layout.

Hand strainer with handle cut off, holes drilled to match screw posts. Red wire soldered to screen.

I held the strainer next to the zapper handle to see how much of the strainer handle would fit and cut off the remainder. The handle of the Farberware strainer is about the same width as the zapper handle. I held the cover of the zapper on the strainer handle and used a small drill bit to make pilot holes for the screws. I then used a larger bit, the size of the screw posts in the zapper handle, to carefully drill out the pilot holes. The handle of the strainer fits perfectly over the screw posts.

Hand strainer with holes drilled placed on screw posts in zapper handle. Red wire soldered to red wire from control board in the handle.

After tinning the wire, I poked it through the screen, made a loop and poked it back through the mesh. I twisted the wire with itself and soldered it, creating a solid connection.

Simple contact button on the side of the bug zapper handle.

The simple contact button on the side of the handle has to be held to create the static field between the two leads. The applicator is powered by two AA batteries.

Finished static grass applicator showing long green wire soldered to green wire on control board.

This is the finished product. The strainer handle fits tightly inside the zapper handle, thanks to the three screw posts. The cost of this static grass applicator was about $15.00.

I have already discovered using a static grass applicator takes some practice. I purchased some short static grass at Rider’s Hobby Shop, and I can see it’s too short. Taller grass will look more realistic in scenes where there is not much activity.

It’s best to use the static grass applicator on one small area at a time. A thinner white glue solution works better than glue right out of the bottle.

Good luck with your own static grass applicator construction. If I can do it, you can do it!

By the way, I wasn’t kidding about getting a shock. Make sure to keep your fingers away from the screen while you’re working on your scenes. You’ll find out quick, like I did, why bugs don’t like zappers!

More Scenery Details on the Maple Valley Short Line Model Railroad

I love looking at photos and videos posted by fellow model railroaders. I have learned a great deal about scenery by watching others do what they do best.

I recently discovered I’ve been making a mistake. When I go into my train room, I tend to look at my whole layout from one end to the other. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed because there is still so much to do, and I lose sight of the best part of this great hobby. The work is really never done!

The secret I uncovered is that expert modelers often just work on a small part of the layout at a time. They take a small scene, like the one above on my layout under Three Tower Bridge, and create a masterpiece.

Just in this photo I can see several things that need more work:

  1. The base of the little shed needs to be blended with the surrounding ground cover.
  2. The foliage material around the first tower is too big.
  3. Obviously, this is a section of track that is awaiting ballast.
  4. The towers and the deck could use some weathering. Maybe some weathing powder would be good.

What I should do is focus on this piece of the layout, as if it were a module. For me, it might be a good idea to lay some plastic over the surrounding area so this part is all I see. I probably won’t do that.

I like this small section near Maple Valley. The two tanks on the stand need paint. The sign on the end of the freight shed is blank. I’ve never seen a small work shed with an orange roof.

I’m learning as I write. Looking at small photos of my layout is a great way to figure out how to improve the scenes.

Ballasting is an ongoing project. None of it has been glued in place yet. I’m still using my clear plastic ballast spreader and I’m running out of material, so I’ll have to make another trip to the hobby shop. Yesss!

This track section is the line that carries passengers on The Old General from Uptown to Maple Valley. Maple Valley is a popular tourist destination which is also the focus of a scandal that began over a year ago. A local resident, Sylvia Meisner, disappeared. Her burned car was found under Three Tower Bridge. The caboose on the right is almost directly above where the wreck was discovered. (You can read “Scandal at Maple Valley” on my blog – just click on the menu.)

Getting back to scenery progress, the freight dock on the left is terribly bare. I want to get a static grass applicator, or make one. The dock needs weeds, stacks of stuff, weathering, and workers.

Lots of work to be done here, and I don’t mean by the guys in the scene. The edges have to be blended with ground cover. The tower and small sheds need paint and weathering. Many weeds are needed, the ground cover needs help. A little more brown will look better.

The brush lichen along the curve is too big. I’ll pull it apart and replace it. I still have a lot of ground cover to finish between buildings in Maple Valley.

I still have a bunch of trees I made that are ready to have leaves applied. It’s been a busy summer and the layout was a little farther down the list.

Happy model railroading!

Painting Beautiful Backdrops for Your Model Railroad

One of the beautiful things about model railroading, and scenery in particular, is that beauty is in the eye of the creator. If you think it’s incredible, then it is. We all like to be told our work is terrific, but the truth is you are the only one to please.

I pondered backdrops for a long time before I actually started working on them. In fact, I kept putting it off because I just didn’t think I could do it. In addition to having no real artistic talent, I have a condition known as essential tremors. If I hold my hands out in front of me it’s difficult to see any trembling. But the minute I try to do something small or detailed, like just signing my name, I have difficulty controlling my hand.

I considered painting right on the cinderblock wall but finally decided against it. I was afraid the mortar lines would show too much. I also thought about using posterboard. Our daughter, the real artist in the family, said the posterboard would wrinkle. I used foamboard which has a very smooth surface and it is about 3/16 of an inch thick, which gave the paintings a little bit of extra depth.

As I said, I’m no artist. Thank heavens for YouTube! I found a basic list of acrylic paint to use on my backdrops. I collected a bunch of platic containers with lids because I knew there would be a lot of mixing involved.

I began by deciding how high I wanted my backdrops to reach. My model railroad terrain is a blend of mountains, hills, and rocks. I didn’t want the backdrops to overpower the scenery in front of them. I drew a rough pencil outline of the mountains on the horizon. I then cut the foam board in the same general outline, and inch or so above the pencil line.

I used a light mixture of blues and titanium white with some matte medium to prevent a glossy appearance, and painted sky in varying depths along the top of the foam.

The first layer of mountains on the horizon is a gray-blue mixture to promote the illusion of distance and haze.

The secret to creating distance is to remember the most distant areas are the lightest. Each layer of color is gradually darker as the trees get closer. For forest areas, the greatest distance is the lightest green. Be careful to avoid following the same outline as the color above it. Don’t hesitate to allow part of a color layer to rise above the edge of the color behind it. In the middle photo, the outline of the treetops rises above the outline of the mountains behind it.

Experimenting with color mixtures is the best way to create the scene most pleasing to you. Use some scrap foam pieces and paint some mountains and trees. Let the paint dry, then start on the real thing.

Blue-gray paint creates mountain range.

A real challenge for me was painting a river to connect to my Maple Valley River running under four bridges, including my scratchbuilt trestle. I put that job off as long as I could. For non-artists like me, a little practice with vanishing points is necessary. A vanishing point is the spot on the horizon where all lines meet. If you stand on a road and look to the horizon, the road seems to disappear, although you know the road is just as wide four miles away as it is where you’re standing. Where the road disappears is the vanishing point.

The white inverted “v” shape in the photo above is the area will the river is painted. The wide area in front is closest to the viewer. The narrowing will indicate distance.

Another trick to help create the illusion of shape and distance is to indicate a light source. By dabbing some lighter paint on the left side of the trees, it appears as if the sun is shining from the left. All light source direction shouild be consistent throughout the paintings.

Painting individual pine trees was another learning experience. I started with a straight line with brown paint. Using a fan brush, I dabbed a green mixture unto the trunk on each side. Larger branches at the bottom, smaller at the top.

Light paint dabbed on side of the trees indicates sunlight coming from the left.

I tried my hand at painting a cabin in the woods. The road leading to the cabin has some distance by being wider at the bottom, narrow at the top. The cabin and shed lines also have vanishing points to eliminate a flat appearance.

Painted river with rocks on the bank.

I’m happy with the final outcome of the painted river meeting the epoxy river at the back of the layout. The bridge will carry vehicle traffic. I removed a track girder bridge to give a clearer view of the river.

Paint colors should match at the corners.

To make corners less noticeable, it is important that color layers match. Different shades of green meeting make corner lines more obvious.

Acrylic painting of large rocks with shadowing for depth.

I am really happy with these rock formations. The shading definitely gives the appearance of a light source on the left and shadow on the right, also giving the illusion of depth. For an audience of one, I am thoroughly pleased with the artwork.

The Maple Valley Short Line Model Railroad backdrops are complete. I did have one hiccup after the painting was finished. The foamboard curled when the paint was completely dry. I placed the foamboard, paint side down, on the floor. I placed a straight-edge on the foam board perpendicular to the direction of the curl. I pulled the foamboard up, making a slight crease. I was afraid the paint would crack, but it didn’t. The effort straightened the boards and they were ready to be glued to the wall.

I glued the paintings to the wall with a hot-glue gun. I placed the boards on the wall to mark exactly where they should be positioned when glued. I worked quickly after applying the hot glue to keep it from drying and hardening too fast.

Scandal at Maple Valley – Episode 25: Finding Sylvia Meisner

Everyone loves a parade, and the good folks in Maple Valley are no exception. When news quickly reached everyone that Sheriff Pete Terkinberry would soon patrol the three streets of town in a new squad car, excited anticipation of a parade swept like a wind-blown grass fire.

From one end of town to the other, neighbors gathered in the streets to watch the sheriff drive by in his new car. They waved, shouted, laughed, and a few cried. The dream of Maple Valley having its own police car finally came true.

The patrol car isn’t new. The Maple Valley council purchased it from the Chicago Police Department. It only has 61,000 miles on it, so folks here believe it was a good investment. Sheriff Pete is happier than anyone else. He’s been patrolling in his own car since he took office fourteen years ago when his father, Sheriff Wilton Chase Terkinberry passed away after thirty-four years as Sheriff of Terkot County.

Folks in Maple Valley are happy with any reason to have a parade. Believe it or not, last summer there was a parade because Hazel Wiklaten’s spaniel, Gertrude, had twelve healthy puppies. They were loaded into the bed of Berton Pilshur’s old pickup truck and before he reached the end of First Street, crowds of people stood on their porches waving as the twelve grand marshalls rolled by.

That parade went a long way to support rumors that Berton has eyes for Hazel. His wife Nellie passed away eight years ago. Hazel has been alone since her husband, Maxil Ned Wiklaten III, went on to his barn in the sky nine years ago. A year after Nellie died, neighbors saw Berton talking to Hazel over the fence. There’s been talk ever since.

With the arrival of the new police car, there seems to be more determination to find Sylvia Meisner. Certainly, with this fine new used patrol car, there won’t be any reason why answers to this year long mystery can’t be found. Sylvia is sure to come home now.

It’s good that the arguing over the cost of sending the sheriff and mayor to Chicago to pick up the new police car has ended. The vote to send the two officials was a tie. Since the mayor holds a higher office, he said his vote carried more weight, thereby causing the motion to pass. Well, that brought some of the folks attending the meeting to their feet. A few walked out. Nothing unusual for Maple Valley council meetings.

Using Balsa Wood to Scratch Build Structures for Model Railroads

Lap desk, cutting board, protractor, scale ruler, and balsa pieces.

My Maple Valley Short Line Model Railroad is looking really good, if I do say so myself. In previous posts I wrote about making printed buildings with cardstock and balsa. I have many of them. I decided to try scratch building.

The first thing required is a dedicated work space. Mine is a lap-desk and a piece of foam where I can measure, draw, cut, pin, and glue while binge-watching “The Mentalist.”

I used my scale ruler to measure some of the structures on my model railroad to be sure my plans for new buildings are accurate. I use the ruler and a protractor to draw pencil outlines on cardstock.

I like all the printed buildings I have, but they don’t look as convincing in mountainous areas surrounded by pine trees. I need small rustic cabins.

On the HO scale ruler, 3.5 mm equals one foot, so the 10 mark on the ruler is approximately ten feet. I cut the stud pieces at 9 so that when glued to the top and bottom plates, the wall is a scale 10 feet. I cut all the balsa pieces first.

Balsa wood is very light and easy to work with. Art supply stores and hobby shops have great supplies of balsa wood in many different sizes, making it easy to create terrific structures.

I pin the wall plates to the drawing on edge, then glue the first and last studs to the plates and allow them to dry. Placing pins on an angle from both sides of the scale 2 x 4 holds it in place.

Two wall frames and two wall outlines in pencil drawn on cardstock.

This cabin has longer walls so I glued a middle stud in place to be sure the plates stay true while the glue is drying.

Four wall frames and two trusses, pinned and glued.

When the outer frames are dry, I then begin gluing the remaining studs in place. I make my windows 3 x 5, doors are 3 x 7 on the HO scale ruler. When all the studs are dry, I glue the window and door upper and lower frames in place.

My roof trusses are a “trial-and-error” exercize. After gluing trusses on a small cabin frame, I decided it looked goofy so I cut the roof off and started over. A lower pitch looks better on a small structure.

I decided to try using overlap siding because I like the way it looks. I cut strips from very thin balsa sheets. Starting at the bottom of the wall, I glued each one in place, overlapping the next piece above it. To frame the windows, I glued short pieces from the wall ends and between the windows. I left a small edge of the frame to allow window trim to be added later.

To create finished corners, on opposite walls the siding pieces are 3mm longer at each end. This also allows for much stronger gluing surfaces.

Two sizes of balsa cabins showing inside stud assemblies.

These are my first two attempts at making scratch-built balsa cabins. I really like the way the walls look on the inside. The siding looks great, but doing the overlap is a lot of work. These will look terrific nestled into the pines on my model railroad.

This is the small cabin with the second roof attempt. The lower pitch is much better. I used the same process to make roof trusses as with the walls. I measured, drew the outline on card stock, cut the pieces with the appropriate angles for the pitch, then pinned and glued the scale 2 x 4s in place.

Obviously, the glued pieces are stuck to the cardstock after the glue dries. I use an X-acto knife to carefully cut the balsa pieces away from the cardstock.

Scratch building is a learning curve. On this cabin I used flat siding. It was much easier to frame the windows and allow plenty of space for trim pieces. I started these walls by placing a vertical board on the ends and then measured between them for the siding.

I cut the gables out of balsa flat stock then made grooves indicating wood slats using a small piece of basswood.

Sharp 1:87 scale workshop painted dull gray inside and out, ready for roofing.

This will be a workshop in Maple Valley. I used vertical slat siding glued to the balsa wall frames. After gluing the three solid walls together, I added the roof support beams and the front post with the angle pieces.

Trimming the windows was actually easier than it looks. I painted very small pieces of balsa with white acrylic. I put a little glue along the window frame, then held the painted strip in place and cut the end off. For the window pane I cut a piece of balsa and glued it on the inside of the window frame.

As my work continues on the Maple Valley Short Line Model Railroad, I am convinced more scratch built cabins will be perfect for blending in among the pines. These little cabins are sturdy and good looking. I have a little more painting to do, and I have several more structures under construction on my laptop workbench.

I don’t consider myself a master modeler by any stretch. Learning is the key to model railroading that provides years of enjoyment. Before the days of the internet, modelers had to rely on hobby magazines, and there are still many good ones. Today, with YouTube and innumerable websites, model railroaders of all scales can find help with any project.

Why go to all the trouble of scratch building? There is something very satisfying about making my own buildings, one small piece of balsa at a time.

How I Created My Own Backdrop Factory

Backdrop Factory pieces leaning against the wall

I started working on my backdrop factory two years ago. I don’t have enough space on my layout to use the factory as a free-standing kit. I started by cutting the pieces down so they could be glued together side-by-side. I have four inches of space between the wall and the rail siding.

I was not satisfied with making the factory a totally flat backdrop, so I brought the center portion out three inches for depth and so I could put lights inside the building. Gluing the pieces together was the easy part, especially because of the terrific industrial backdrop painting I purchased to go behind the factory.

Building the backdrop factory included a lot of starts and stops. I stood the pieces up against the wall so I could imagine how the factory should look. The most obvious feature of the factory is windows. I decided to block many of them.

Collection of 6v and 12v lights

I finally decided to tackle the backdrop factory job once and for all. I glued the remaining pieces together, leaving the factory at a whopping fifty inches long. My decision to include an array of lights meant I had to figure out how to display them from various windows offering separate views. I didn’t want to just put a light bulb behind the facade and hope for the best.

I have lots of wires and lights from my previous layout. I first had to refresh my understanding of wiring lights in series or parallel. I have a few bulbs that are 6v, most are 12v. My accessory power supply is 12v, so I wired 6v bulbs in a series of two, dividing the voltage in half. All the other bulbs are wired parallel.

Here’s an over-simplified explanation. Light fixtures have a positive and negative lead. In series, the fixtures are wired lead to lead, the beginning wire and the last wire are connected to negative and positive leads from the power source. Every light bulb drops the power feed by the voltage of the bulb, saving 6v bulbs from being burned out by a 12v feed.

In parallel, all negative and positive leads from each bulb are connected to the negative and positive feeds from the power source. Hint: That doesn’t mean if you have twelve bulbs you have twenty-four feeds going to the power source. The negative wires can be connected together, and the positive, then connected by two feeds to the power source. This is still parallel wiring. When wired parallel, each of the 12v bulbs will receive the same power from the source.

I love foam board! I pondered ways to make the light sources appear different so the windows don’t all look the same. I decided to make small boxes out of foam board and glue them to the back of the factory backdrop.

I still was not satisfied with just putting lights in different size white boxes. I thought about painting the inside with varying colors. Nope, not good enough. I decided to print color pictures of factory and workshop interiors and glue them to the inside of the boxes. So, the entire box interior is colorful.

It wasn’t until after I glued the boxes in place that I realized I blocked too many of the windows and it was almost impossible to see the beautiful interiors of the lighted boxes. So, I cut open the boxes from the back and took out some of the material covering the windows.

After taping light fixtures and wiring in place on the back of the factory boxes, it was time to test the lights for the first time. I was pleased to see every bulb working perfectly. I stood the backdrop factory up and looked in the windows. Beautiful! Granted, the windows have small panes, and the backdrop factory will stand against the wall on the back of the layout, so it will be difficult to see detail, but I know it’s there.

I securely taped all the wiring connections and also connected two long leads to the positive and negative feeds to the lighting system. I fed the two leads through the layout bench surface to be connected to the power source below.

One area of the factory backdrop has a blank brick wall that needed something. I printed some 1:87 scale signs. I rubbed the color print with sand paper to “weather” the signs. I cut several of them out and glued them to the wall.

The top of the boxes glued to the back of the facade provided nice support for the foam board roof that I made for the backdrop factory. I mixed some light gray and black acrylic paint with some matte medium and painted the rooftop. It was now time to permanently place the backdrop factory on the layout.

The Maple Valley Short Line Railroad is coming together. I still have a long way to go, but when I look back at all the photos from the beginning, it’s amazing how good the layout looks. The addition of the backdrop factory is an important accomplishment.

Model Railroading from Start to Not Finished

Model railroading starts with a fascination with trains. I guess that’s obvious. But why trains? What are trains? Aren’t they just huge semi-trucks with steel wheels instead of rubber, rolling on rails instead of roads? There are one, two, maybe five or six or more incredibly large engines, pulling anywhere from ten to one hundred and more huge cars loaded with items bound for destinations around the world.

Why not model semi-trucks? Does anyone have a “layout” made of winding roads full of trucks pulling trailers? I don’t think so, or maybe. But millions of model railroaders build layouts, large and small, with tracks carrying scale engines pulling scale trains. G scale, O scale, S, HO, N, and tiny Z scale provide a very wide range of opportunities for enthusiasts to live in their fascination with trains.

A model railroad is a work of art that begins with a blank canvass. The canvass may be a room measuring twenty-one feet by seven feet, like my own train room where I am building a shelf-style model railroad. It may be a larger room with only enough space for a four by eight feet layout. The important thing is the canvass is anywhere you choose, and will hold any dream you build.

Building a model railroad is identical to writing a novel, only different. Some people begin writing a novel with an idea but the characters are born and develop as the story is created. Other writers know their characters inside and out before the first word is penned. Still others begin with a blank sheet of paper and the story and characters create themselves. Sometimes characters do things the writer didn’t expect. Main characters become belligerent and demand freedom to change story lines on their own. Model railroads do that, too.

My Maple Valley Short Line demanded benchwork that would be strong enough to carry my own weight. I’m not a small man, so that was no easy task. The wall brackets were fastened to the cement blocks with three-inch masonry screws, after I drilled pilot holes in the wall. The drill bits in my impact driver had to be changed after drilling just three holes.

I attached the brackets to the wall leaving no more than twenty-four inches of space between them, which increased the strength of the bench. These brackets were used on a previous layout which was only twenty-four inches deep at the center. This layout is thirty-six inches deep at the middle, so the bracket arms had to be lengthened. I chose to attach a 1 x 3 inch board to each side of the arms, making sure the boards were tight against the wall, increasing arm stability. To provide even more stength, I attached a 2 x 2 inch support between each bracket, making sure each was level with the top of the bracket arm.

A good novel has layers of subplots adding suspense and apprehension about what the resolution might bring. Model railroads do the same. A layer of 3/8 inch plywood was added and attached to the bracket arms as the base of the layout. A layer of 1 1/2 inch extruded foam became the visible base. This is the same kind of insulating foam builders use in new house construction. Foam is a popular base as it makes attaching additional layers easy. I attached the foam pieces to the plywood with Liquid Nails.

When the base layer of foam was securely fastened in place, the obvious next step in the story was to build a bridge. Ahh, the first subplot. Who could have known the Maple Valley Short Line included mountains and a river when only a flat pink surface was visible? Every artist sees far beyond the simple strokes with which a masterpiece begins.

After completing a perfectly wonderful bridge, the next logical step was to build a larger trestle-style bridge, and then another. At this point in the story, characters begin to ask questions of the writer who created them. They start conversations with each other without asking permission.

In a novel plot there is a rise in the action. Trains will have to rise four inches to the height of the bridge decks. The solution to the problem of taking trains from the surface of the layout to the deck of a bridge is styrofoam risers. Grade percentage is an important consideration when choosing a riser. I wanted my locomotives to be able to pull many cars to four inches without difficulty. The result is sixteen feet of 2% grade. However, reaching the bridge height is not the only problem. Bringing the trains back down to the surface is also necessary, requiring another sixteen feet of 2% grade. Problem solved.

The next task was digging a river in the foam so the trestle-bridge would look terrific spanning it. Having never done it before, I decided the best way to create a river was to just start hacking away at the foam with a utility blade. I scraped, sliced, pealed, scratched, dug, and gouged until I was somewhat satisfied with the appearance of my foam riverbed.

I had to be careful to dig out a convincing river without exposing the plywood, so I only had 1 1/2 inches to use. I then used plaster-saturated paper towel to line and shape the riverbed, making sure the plaster material was thick enough to seal the surface and prevent epoxy from seeping through.

For a couple of months, I battled with how best to secure the trestle-bridge to the riverbed. I tried to avoid cutting down to the plywood, but ultimately for fool-proof stability, I did just that. I held the trestle in place and marked where the posts touched the riverbed. I then cut a rectangle a quarter inch wide, and just longer than the width of the posts. I glued basswood pieces, one at a time, in each of the gaps until they were the exact height needed to support the trestle. I was pleased to find the trestle rested securely on the footings. I glued the trestle permanently in place.

At this point in the novel, the characters were behaving themselves predictably. They stood back and let me do the work. The risers were finished, the trestle was rock solid. All eyes were on the process of laying cork roadbed on the track lines. I am suspicious when characters are quiet. Sometimes I don’t trust them, but please, don’t tell anyone I said that. Every writer and model railroader knows the thin line we walk between working a plan and a plan working us.

I avoid things I’m worried about. I’ll put them off until I can’t go on without dealing with the problems first. I don’t like being backed into a corner. When my plot included rise and fall, which all good plots do, I was trapped by the need for realistic gradual fall-away from the top of the risers to the surface. This is the point where I started listening closely to ideas from the characters. Some of them were stupid. Others caught my attention. Finally, a solution was found.

I cut strips of cardboard twelve to fourteen inches long. To determine the height of the strips, I measured the height of the riser from the point where cardboard would be attached, to the point it would end. On the cardboard, I marked the shorter measurement on one end, and marked the longer measurement on the other. I drew a line between the two points. I cut the carboard one inch beyond but parallel to the line. The extra inch creates a gradual, more realistic, fall-away from the top of the riser.

I placed the strip on the floor, then using the corner of a piece of 2 x 2 to hold it tight, I pulled the length of the strip under the corner edge of the wood to crush the cardboard cells. This makes the cardboard more flexible, especially helpful on curves. I then folded the the carboard on the line.

On straight sections of track, using masking tape, I secured the straight edge to the top of the riser. I taped the angled edge to the foam surface. If I was not happy with the angle, I repeated the process, but increased the height measurement until the fall-away angle met my approval.

On curves, there are a couple more steps. On the straight edge of the cardboard, I make a cut one quarter each deep, every half inch, the length of the cardboard strip. On the angled edge, I cut an inverted “V” about an inch and one half deep. This allows the cardboard to follow the curve and still maintain the same fall-away angle from the top of the riser.

When the cardboard was secured, it was now time for huge sloppy messes. Lots and lots of them. But that is a story for another day.

“I want to talk about it now,” Bertrand said.

“No, I’m done writing, I’ll write more later.”

“When?”

“When I want to.”

“Who put you in charge?”

“I created you, didn’t I?”

“Ok, I’ll stop now,” Bertrand said.

“Good idea.”

Easy Floral Wire Trees for Your Model Railroad

I recently discovered a surprising fact on my model railroad. I don’t have enough trees! After setting about thirty more pine trees, I took a good look over my scenery, and, sure enough, I have to make more trees.

Thanks to so many great modelers who post terrific videos on YouTube, I have learned how to easily make amazing looking trees in a relatively short amount of time. I use Luke Towan’s procedure for making floral wire trees, but mine are a little less detailed than his, which works fine for me.

I use 26 gauge, green floral wire. A word of caution, even though 26 gauge is not stiff, the ends are still sharp and will easily poke into your skin if you’re not careful!

You can tell this floral wire is quite old – $1.57 at Walmart. I recently paid about $2.50 for a two-hundred fifty foot roll.

  1. Cut 14 pieces of wire, about 13 inches long. (If you want your tree trunks to be thicker, use more wire. But remember, more wires will make them more difficult to twist.
  2. Fold the wires in half.

3. While gripping the end, and placing your index finger between the two strands of wire, begin twisting the two strands together tightly. (Since the wire is so thin, the twisted wires will easily hold their shape.) As you can see on the HO scale ruler, the trunk of this tree will be about 14 feet tall.

4. Divide the wire ends into three strands, approximately the same number of wires in each.

5. Twist the three strands individually, making three main branches. (If you want to have more branches from the trunk, separate the wires into smaller groups before twisting them.) My branches on this part of the tree will be about eight feet long.

6. Divide the wires coming from the three main branches into two strands, each with approximately the same number of wires.

7. Twist the new strands of wire, making smaller branches. Using this example, you now have six smaller branches extending higher into the tree.

8. Fold the end of each strand back over the branch, leaving a loop on the end. While holding the loop tightly, and holding the wires against the branch, twist the loop so the wire ends wrap around the branch.

9. Repeat the process for each of the strands of wires.

10. Using a good hobby wire-clipper, cut each of the loop strands.
11. Using a pair of pliers, grip the wire ends and twist into small branches. (Some of the wire pieces may come off, but that’s okay.
12. Adjust the branches until you’re happy with the look of the tree.
13. Using the pliers, grip the bottom loop of the trunk and flatten it. (Luke Towan, on his Boulder Creek Railroad Tutorials, cuts this loop and creates roots which will be secured in place on the layout with plaster. You may want to use that detail as well. I choose to drill a hole and glue the trunk in place.)

14. When you are satisfied with the shape of your trees, it’s time to cover them with liquid latex rubber. I purchased this jar at craft supply store. Using a small paint brush, cover the entire tree with latex. Once dry, you will want to add at least one more coat to the trunk and heavy branches to reduce any chance of wires showing through.

You are nearing the end of the project, and you can already see your trees are looking great! Just a few more steps and they’ll be ready for placement in your model railroad scenery.

15. I use Acrylic Burnt Umber to paint the entire tree. I have several here that are ready for foliage.

16. I have used a couple brands of spray adhesive, but am happiest with the results of this brand. Wearing latex gloves, spray the branches of the trees, being careful not to get spray on the tree trunks.

17. While the spray is still wet, dip your tree into a bag of foam foliage. Twist the trunk in the foam, and pinch the foliage onto the branches. Shake the excess foam loose and set your completed tree aside. Do the same process with each of your prepared trees.

This is an easy way to make lots of great looking trees for your layout. I will have to make many more until I’m completely sure my model railroad, The Maple Valley Short Line, is fully saturated with trees.

Happy model railroading, everyone!

Adding Trees to the Maple Valley Short Line Railroad

When you’re making plans to build a model railroad, scenery is going to be a big part of it. If you want your layout to be at all convincing, and I can’t imagine starting a project like this without deciding to make it as realistic as possible, trees are going to play a huge role.

If your benchwork is already complete and your track is in place, now is the time to start planting trees. That is, if you already know where your buildings are going to be. You have spent plenty of time in the hobby shop, and you know tree kits are quite expensive. If you don’t plan to use a lot of trees, maybe a tree kit from the hobby shop will work fine. Otherwise, you’ll want to find trees at swap meets – the model railroader’s best friend.

I was lucky enough to find two complete pine tree kits, about thirty trees all together. The first job is to twist the tree armatures as they are flat in the kit. I hold the top with a pair of pliers, and twist the trunk until I’m happy with the look.

As you can see, the trees have a small tip on the trunk. They come with a plastic base, allowing you to stand the trees without making them permanent. Don’t bother with the stands. You want your trees to be permanent.

The kits come with a bag of dark green foliage. Many of my conifers are covered with a home-made light colored foam. I prefer the lighter color to the dark foliage in the kits. I have many trees of both.

When I finish twisting the trees, it’s time to spray them with adhesive. I only spray as many as I can complete in a few minutes, while the spray is still wet. Yes, the adhesive is still sticky when it dries, but it works a lot better if the adhesive is wet.

After I spray the branches, being careful not to spray the lower part of the trunk, I dip the tree into the foliage bag and squeeze the foam onto the tree. I shake off the excess and the tree is finished.

I completed all of the trees in the photo in about an hour.

My layout has semi-mountainous, rocky scenes with both conifer and deciduous trees. I planted most of the deciduous trees in areas where my houses and buildings are. The mid-section of the Maple Valley Short Line is an industrial area with a few trees along the painted backdrop of hills and trees.

I made many of my deciduous trees with floral wire. They are easy to make, and anyone can do it. I start with fifteen pieces of 26 gauge floral wire, about 12″ long. Wire length determines the height of the trees. Holding all the wires together, I fold them in half. Then I twist the folded end, making a tight loop. I separate the wire ends into branches of about five or six wires each, leaving about 1 1/2″ of twisted wires as the tree trunk. I twist the branches tightly, leaving about two inches at the ends. I then fold the branch ends in half and twist them, making a loop. I cut the wire loops, making the ends of the branchs.

I twist the heavy loop at the bottom of the tree as tightly as I can with a pair of pliers. I then use pliers to crush the loop, leaving a straight trunk. Some modelers divide the wire pieces at the end of the trunk to make roots that will sit above ground and be secured in place with plaster. I choose not to do that. Instead, because I use 1 1/2″ extruded foam as a base for my layout, I simply poke a small hole in the foam where I want the tree to be planted.

When I’m happy with the shape of the tree, I paint the entire tree with latex. More than one coat is needed on the trunk and large branches to cover the twisted wire. After the latex dries, I paint the tree with burnt umber acrylic paint. Then I follow the same procedure I use with the tree kits.

I poked holes in the foam base, then marked the holes with a piece of balsa. Rather than planting one tree at a time, I found it easier to mark several holes and place four or five trees.

To permanently plant the trees, I first tried white glue. I immediately found the time it takes for the glue to even begin to dry is far too long. I decided to use a glue gun instead, and it works great. I simply apply hot glue to the base of the tree and plant it in a hole. About thirty seconds later I have a permanent tree, firmly planted.

So far, I have planted at least fifty or sixty trees on the Maple Valley Short Line. I can see it’s time to make more.