Lighting Morpeth

On a couple of occasions as a teenager I did some casual work as a “roadie” for a couple of bands working in the Sydney area during the late 70’s. This work tended to come up when someone was too sick or hung over to work so a friend of mine would give me a call and ask if I’d fill in. The money was lousy, it was hard work and, in spite of some wishful, teenage delusions, I never got within a country mile of any “groupies”. Perhaps I should have worked for some more talented outfits 🙂

As the casual labour I wasn’t allowed anywhere near the valuable electronic equipment and tended to be confined to lifting extremely heavy boxes of gear and getting food and drinks for the other roadies. Over a few months I developed a strong interest in the lighting rig and asked lots of questions of the poor bugger who was responsible for running this side of things. I don’t remember the bloke’s name but I do remember him saying to me that the reason bands play in darkened rooms is so the way the audience sees the show can be controlled. He also said something along the lines that the music and musicians are not the only important parts of the show: the lighting is an equally important element and it is the lighting that does the most to add drama. He based this claim on the idea that we get most of our information through our eyes. Well he would say that wouln’t he, he was the lighting guy?

Lighting a layout is one element of railway modelling I take very seriously: I put a good deal of effort and some resources in an attempt to get it right. I feel that good lighting allows our trains to be seen in “their best light” and getting the lighting right is no accident. Recently I’ve been implementing some ideas about design I wanted to incorporate into Morpeth’s lighting rig as I built it. These ideas are based on my experience of constructing and using the lighting rigs for Queens Wharf over about 7 years. Because Morpeth is a portable, exhibition layout the two key criteria I felt I needed to address in the design of the lighting system are:

–  Just like the layout itself, the lighting rig needs to be as light as possible, robust, simple and bright. I like lots of light and I like a particular mix of light.

– I wanted the lighting rig to be effective but I also wanted it to be unobtrusive and have a reasonably professional look.

The overall lighting setup for Morpeth is essentially a development of the one I built for Queens Wharf. The rig for each module is made up of 4 basic components:

1) The light “gantries” that carry the lighting fixtures are purpose-built aluminium “trays” made up from aluminium angle and thin plywood. Each of these three gantries (one for each scenic module) is electrically isolated from the layout and from each other and can be powered up from one standard electic plug. The light fixtures in these gantries consists of a mix of two warm white LED downlights and two minimum cross-section flourescent lights.

2) Each gantry is held in position above the layout by two right angle aluminum brackets that mount into pockets on the back of each layout module. The brackets on Queens Wharf were constructed as solid right angles and were inconvenient to transport. The new brackets can be folded for transport and are a great improvement on the QW variety. I pinched the design of these brackets from those made for Arakoola by my friend Dave Morris.

3) The pockets into which the brackets fit are made up of wood and aluminium. These again are a development over the ones I installed on Queens Wharf in that they are lighter, while at the same time being more robust. While the aluminium brackets on the new layout are made from aluminium with a bigger cross-section than those on QW, I managed to keep the width of these to the same as those on the first layout by using stronger and lighter materials and improving the design.

4) The lighting is hidden behind black curtains hung from lengths of dowel that fit into hooks on the light gantries.

The lighting gantries for QW work extremely well but one or two things about them always bothered me. The first of these was the use of halogen downlights which produce a great deal of heat, thus creating a fire risk to my mind. The use of LED downlights in the new lighting gantries overcomes this heat problem, in addition to the fact that the back of the lights are sealed and don’t protrude above the lights with wires exposed in the way the halogen lights do.

The second feature of the lights that always bothered me was being unable to fold the brackets away for transport and storage. The Arakoola light brackets overcome this shortcoming admirably. I’m not sure if it was Dave Morris who designed these brackets but they are a beautiful piece of work and a brilliant idea. In the brackets that Dave made for Arakoola he used a slightly heavier gauge aluminium than the standard 1.2mm walled material I’ve been using. He was worried about the ability of the thinner material to carry the weight of the lights over their 750mm wide layout. The width of Morpeth on the two wider scenic sections is 680mm and there’s been no problems with the aluminium distorting or cracking as yet. I’ve left the test rig up pretty much permanently since I made it 3 months ago and nothing has broken yet even though the gantries are quite heavy.

I’ve spent the last few days working on installing the pockets on the back of the layout and I’m now half way through making the brackets to hold the light gantries up. I’ve used 25mmx25mmx1.2mm black aluminium square tube for the brackets. The other aluminium sections you can see in the photos is cut from lengths of 3mmx20mm and 3mmx25mm aluminium flat bar. The light fixtures I’m using are 1.2m long mini fluros that my friend Keiran Ryan picked up for me years ago from an unknown source. I actually need two more of these lights and will have to track down a suitable stand in as I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to source the same brand of fixtures 7 or 8 years on. The down lights I’m using are Atom AT9012 13w LED downlights in warm white. I find the “flat”, even light from the flourescents, mixed with the warmer yellow of down lights, gives me the right mix of light for both photography and direct viewing. I bought my first two down lights from a local lighting shop but purcahsed the next four from an Internet retailer for a considerable saving.

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