The Cruel Sea

Things have progressed sufficiently on the mill structure that I’ve commenced initial work on Morpeth’s fourth and final scenic module: the river/pier module. I’ve been very lucky over the past year or so to have been swapping emails with renowned UK modeller Gordon Gravett, who tells me at one time scratch built ship models for a living. I’ve been sending him photos of my progress and he’s sent back a few of various projects he’s working on, including the following shot of a ship he built at some point in the past.

This photo sent to me by Gordon Gravett was well timed because it confirmed for me a decision I'd already made about the colour of the water i plan to include on my layout.

This photo sent to me by Gordon Gravett was well-timed because it confirmed for me a decision I’d already made about the colour of the water I plan to include on my layout.

What really caught my eye in this photo wasn’t so much the ship model, which is excellent, but the colour and texture of the water. As far as I can gather the base colour of the water is black with a layer of clear gloss “texture” applied over this to provide a ripple effect. I’ve been thinking long and hard about what colour to make my water as over the years I’ve seen lots of different colours applied to reproduce water at depth. However the one “colour” that always seems to me to be the most effective is black (and yes Lindsay, I know black isn’t a colour) ūüôā and I had already decided that I was going to use black as the base colour when this photo was sent to me by Gordon. I love having my prejudices confirmed ūüôā Why black? Well the reasons are many and varied but I have a feeling that the reason black works so well as a “water” colour (well at least for me) is that our eyes tends to delete black when we are looking at it and all we tend to see is the reflection from the lighting and the shadows cast by objects which sit upon its surface. Of course it needs to have a high gloss finish, but the shadow reflected in the surface of the water in the photo above looks very realistic to me and if it’s good enough for Gordon Gravett, one of my modelling heroes, then it’s good enough for me.

I'm about 1/3 of the way through the preparation of the surface of my water in this photo. This shows the river module masked off and after having two coats of spay primer applied. This brings up the divots and gaps in gloious, annoying detail so I've appplied a second round of polly filler (the pe mixed type) to the surface. This will be allowed to dry overnight and I'll come back and sand it all back off in the morning before applying a third coat of primer. This will continue till I'm satisfied that the surface is reasonably flat and dent free.

I’m about 1/3 of the way through the preparation of the surface of my water in this photo. This shows the river module masked off and then two coats of spay primer applied. This brings up the divots and gaps in glorious, annoying detail so I’ve applied a second round of Polly-filler (the pe-mixed type) to the surface. This will be allowed to dry overnight and I’ll come back and sand it all back off in the morning before applying a third coat of primer. This will continue till I’m satisfied that the surface is reasonably flat and dent free.

I spent today working on the wooden surface of the water on the river module. I’ve decided to use spray paint from cans to achieve the base colour of the water and I began today by dragging the river module out to the garage and filling all the holes in the fascia and the water surface, which started life as two small sheets of 6mm ply. Normally I would be pretty slap dash about this sort of thing but I decided that this particular part of the project probably called for a bit of effort and a proper sequence of work in an attempt to get the surface flat and smooth prior to the application of the base black colour, which will be from 2 1/2 cans of Dulux DuraMax Satin Black. I filled and sanded the surface of the ply “water” and then sprayed on a thin coat of Rustoleum grey primer. I lightly sanded this first primer coat after 2 hours, took a trip to Bunnings for more paint and sprayed on another coat. When this dried I applied a second round of spak filler to the holes and gaps around the edges and along the line where the two ply sheets butt up against each other. I’ll never get this surface completly flat and smooth but I can certainly improve on the cratered moon surface that currently exists. As with a train model, nothing drags a less than perfect surface into the cold light of day better than applying grey primer.

So far I’d mark this assignment Gordon G 10/10, Trevor H 2/10 ūüôā

Advertisements

Just A Scenic Break?

I took a big step in the final stages of my J Parker & Sons junk yard tonight by running a base layer of scenery up to the building. I’ve had the space for the building complete, ready to accept the building and various hard landscape items for a while now. You might wonder about why I paint my scenery base in an ochre yellow tone. About 10 years ago a well-known member of the local model railway scene told me my scenery on Queens Wharf was too green. I sort of agreed with him on one level but I wasn’t willing to totally concede to what he was suggesting. My first area of disagreement with him was that Morpeth sits on a river near the coast, it’s not located in the dry central west of NSW so I felt having things a little more green wasn’t out-of-place. I hadn’t made QW really yellow like it would have been if I’d been modelling an area around Parkes but then it didn’t look like Ireland either! I was convinced that my tones were correct for what I wanted to achieve and when photo backdrops of real Australian landscapes came along and I applied one of these to the background of Morpeth I felt that my colour choices had been vindicated. The tones of the layout matched perfectly with the backdrop and I made no changes to my colour palette at all.

This photo shows the building base I will be installing the scene on. It's made from 7mm plywood and extruded foam. The yeloow is a colour matched pot from an original litre can i could no longer buy off the shelf. I seem to remember the original was called Applebox but I just went to my local paint shop and they matched this colour from a sample.

This photo shows the building base I will be installing the scene on. It’s made from 7mm plywood and extruded foam. The yellow is a colour matched pot from an original litre can I could no longer buy off the shelf. I seem to remember the original colour was called “Applebox” but I just went to my local paint shop and they matched the colour from a sample.

The scenery steps I take are a simple standard process I apply to all the scenery I do. I begin by painting the entire base of the model I’m installing with my standard ochre yellow. This colour is applied to the fascia as well and so it runs up the front of the layout and in under the scenery. The reason I paint my base yellow is because I find that the base colour you choose tends to set a background tone to all the scenery applied above it. There are always spots that peek through but if you use a “dirt” colour (read for this chocolate-brown), I find the scenery ends up looking far too dark to my eye. Australia is dry, the scenery needs to have a predominantly yellow tone, however this does not mean that every Australian layout needs to be “yellow”. A colour palette that revolves around the yellow end of the spectrum does not mean that there is no green in the landscape. I drive 70km to work and home every working day through rural northern NSW (there is not one large town between my home and work), so believe me, not every part of the Australian landscape is dry, dusty and parched straw yellow. Where there’s water there’s green and while Australian greens in the south-east of the continent might be a green that’s more on the olive end of the spectrum, it is nevertheless green.

I like my models to sit on something really substantial as they will be travelling a long way in my trailer so I glue them down securely, really securely! The main building was glued in place using construction adhesive. After the models have been secured to the wooden base I place the scenic details around that I’ve prepared to see what works best. In this case I was using a few Rusty Rails castings and a wooden and corro open sided shed that I’d knocked up from scrap leftovers.

This photo shows the building and surrounding yard in the first stages of applying the scenery. This is really just the base cover which is sand and Woodland Scenics blended turf.

This photo shows the building and surrounding yard in the first stages of applying the scenery. This is really just the base cover which is sand and Woodland Scenics blended turf. I think the colour tones from the 3D scenery match the photo backdrop perfectly so I feel vindicated in not taking too much notice of my above mentioned critic.

The next step is fences. I like fences because they are an absolutely critical indicator of human presence, especially anywhere that railways exist. So I will make and apply a fence line to define the space and draw the line along the railway boundary. In this case I used some Model-O-Kits corrugated fence but anything suitable such as wooden paling fence would have done. So with the space defined and the fences in place I decide where I want the main building. You’ll notice that the main structure is the largest scenic item within the yard, it needs to dominate the scene. Also it’s not centred in the yard but offset to one end by about one-quarter of the yard’s total length. Sitting it right in the center of this mini scene would have set it up to look like it’s a model that’s been placed. Of course it is a model that’s been placed but you want to reduce the impression that this is the case, not draw attention to it.

I’ve spent a few nights assembling and applying the loading docks and steps to the three doors that are visible on this side of the building. There was a fourth on the back of the building but I didn’t bother installing this as it can’t be seen and leads directly into the bank at the rear anyway. I began running in the scenery by brushing a fairly thick layer of neat PVA around the scenic items and the base of the building and then I sprinkled on a layer of yellow-ish river sand. I had a small supply of some beautifully fine yellow river sand that lasted me a few years but I’ve recently replaced this supply with some from the local area. It’s not as fine and it has too much brown in it but it does the job. I spray this sand with a sprizter bottle of water lightly and this water of course has the ubiquitous drop of dish washing liquid in it. If I think the sand looks as if it isn’t drawing up the glue I’ve brushed on I bathe the area with more PVA mixed with water and then sprinkle selected spots along the edges with Woodland Scenics Blended Turf. The final stage is to sprinkle very sparing amounts of the Green Turf from Woodland Scenics. After this I resist the urge to start gluing in shrubs and weeds. I like this base cover to be thoroughly dry before I touch it again and depending on the season this can take up to two days.

So is this just an expensive and time consuming scenic break? It does play the role of interrupting the view of the trains but it has enough detail to interest the veiwer in its own right so I don’t think the effort’s wasted.

In A Spin Over Turntables

From the start of my work on Morpeth I was fully intending to install a 60′ turntable I had purchased a number of years ago. This was a good visual representation of a NSWR 60′ table and as it would look at home at a location such as Morpeth I considered it well worth the money I paid for it. I won’t name the company who produced this turntable, anyone familiar with the modelling scene in NSW would be well aware of the company I’m referring to. Especially those 7mm modellers silly enough to buy one along with muggins because the truth is that everyone I know who owns one has had the same problem as me trying to get the thing to operate reliably, or to operate at all.

I've deliberately chosen this early photo to let you get a good look at the turntable in question.  No pretty scenery to doll up the scene.

I’ve deliberately chosen this early photo to let you get a good look at the turntable in question. No pretty scenery to doll up the scene.

I’ve done a bit of tinkering with the turntable and I think I can get it to operate a bit more reliably but to be brutally frank, I shouldn’t have to! This thing cost me well over $AU700 and for that sort of money it should work reliably for years. I’ve barely managed to get the thing to turn a full circle more than once in the time it’s been on my layout and in this sense it was barely used before my plans changed and I uninstalled it from its position on Morpeth. This is not a toy and its price reflects this and as such it should work and it doesn’t! And all my friends who have them have had exactly the same experience: about 6 of us in total! I had assumed that this was confined to the O-scale version of this brand but then an acquaintance recently told me that exactly the same thing had happened to him with the HO version he had of the table and that another modeller had two of them sitting installed on his HO layout, neither of them operated and they were static displays.

The problem for me is not so much the inoperability of the turntable I have but where I can get one that operates for me the way I want it to: namely with a high level of reliability and accuracy? I am slightly less worried about the exact prototypical look of any turntable I use but it must operate. A few weeks ago a few planets lined up and I bit the bullet and purchased a 24″ turntable from Millhouse River Studios a US outfit who claim to make the Humvee of O-scale turntables. At 24″ this table is more like a 90′ NSWR table than a modest 60′ model but to be honest I really don’t care. As long as the thing works and accurately puts my locos where I want them I’ll live with it being a bit big and not quite having a prototypical look.

The table I’ve ordered has been made and is at the time of writing in Florida, on its way to MyUS, a company that batch ships packages in an attempt to avoid extortionate US postal charges. I’m not sure why this works in keeping costs down but I’m assured it does. I’m expecting the package to arrive in the next week or so, all 38lbs of it. That’s about 17 kilos! The thing must be made from iron ūüôā

For me this purchase is a bit of a watershed as it means an explicit move away from the gentle, quiet world of branchline modelling I’ve been in for the last 15 years. You don’t use a 75′-90′ turntable to turn Manning Wardles. Does this solidify the move to modelling a location like Muswellbrook? To be honest I’ll really have to wait and see about that. The reason for the purchase had more to do with a little money coming my way and an attempt to beat the plummeting Aussie dollar than it did with taking on a new modelling challenge. However, as I said in my post on the idea of modelling Muswellbrook a month or so back, I really don’t buy locos to sit on a cabinet display shelf, I buy them to run on a layout. As so much tempting stuff has been coming onto the market recently in kit and rtr form, I feel like if I’m going to own them, I really need to build somewhere to run them. But I also want somewhere to turn them! ūüôā

DAS Ist Good

Perhaps it comes as a result of¬†growing up¬†in the¬†era¬†I did but whenever I think of the word DAS I hear it in my mind with a dodgy German accent delivered by Siegfried in Get Smart or Schultz in Hogan’s Heroes. I’m not sure of the provenance of DAS modelling clay but wherever it comes from I’ve used it¬†extensively in¬†the last three modelling projects on Morpeth over the last 12 months. This can partly be explained by the fact that for me it’s a new modelling medium and I’m still in the discovery phase of what I can achieve with it.¬†However it’s not¬†exactly¬†a “new” medium¬†at all: it was released in this country¬†when I was about 10 years¬†of age¬†and I can specifically remember buying a pack at the time. All I managed to model¬†with it was an impression of¬†the inside of my closed fist and it took me over 40 years to get around to finding a more productive use for this versatile product. And no, I didn’t hold onto the unused portion of the pack for 40 years! ūüôā

The first two projects I’ve used DAS in have employed it as a “smear” medium, where a thin (about 2mm to 3mm) layer of the clay is smeared over a substrate using white glue to help it adhere. This has worked fine but I ran up against a bit of a limitation with¬†this method on the project I’m working on now. The one element of the scenery on¬† the “wharf”¬†module of Morpeth that I’ve been most troubled about is the creek and it’s emergence from the backdrop. I’ve built a number of bridges that were reasonably close to backdrops over the years (the HO Upper Hunter and the creek module on Stringybark Creek being two examples) and I’ve always managed to get the watercourse to merge with the backdrop by painting a¬†representation of the creek disappearing into the distance. To be¬†completely¬†accurate I should say that I’ve always got my mum¬†to do this bit as she’s been a keen painter for years and has way more artistic talent than me. The problem with this¬†plan is that¬†Morpeth has a photo backdrop and I wasn’t all that sure I could get the 3D scenery to marry up to the photo realistic backdrop with the transition being formed by a hand painted creek. Another reason I was hesitant¬†to paint a water course on the backdrop was that I wanted to cram as many structures on this module as possible and having a good 400mm of¬†meandering creek chewing up the available real estate wasn’t part of the programme. So a good while back I decided that I was going to¬†have the creek emerge from a large culvert or¬†set of pipes to allow me to build a bank over the top¬†of the creek onto which I could build a crowded town scene.

With the bridge essentially complete I started to test things out and, as usual, there was less space than I’d hoped for. The distances between the backdrop, the track over the bridge and the edges of¬†the benchwork were very tight:¬†I had to find a¬†credible way of¬†allowing the “water” to flow under the town and yet hold back the banks and¬†landscape with bricks and cut stone. My first attempt at making this work was to place a long length of 6mm thick¬†MDF along the back of the creek forming a wall that would be covered later by scribed brick. As soon as I saw this in place I knew it wasn’t going to work, no matter how good the brickwork looked. I also tested a small length of¬†MDF by coating it with DAS on one side. What I suspected would happen did happen: it warped like a banana. The lesson from this is that you use the materials that suit the purpose and¬†MDF is simply not suitable where any type of water based product needs to come into contact with it. I went out and bought some more of my favourite ply over the weekend. So the Great Wall of Morpeth was a flop.

Fortuitously the August issue of the Gauge O Guild’s Gazette turned up in the mail a couple of weeks before this and I got around to reading it last week. In it there’s an article by John Mileson where he describes the building of a stone barn where small blocks of DAS modelling clay are used as¬†individual stones to form the walls. Bingo! I decided that what I didn’t like about the long MDF wall was the uninterrupted vista of brick. What I’ve decided to do is break this in half: the bottom half will be a stone foundation made from stacks of individual blocks of DAS with the upper half being formed from the smear method of a thin layer of DAS scribed to look like brick. The water will flow through a culvert formed by a square cutting in the based of the foundation.

Having made the decision about the stone and brick surfaces¬†I now needed to¬†choose a suitable substrate for my stone foundation. I didn’t want to use wood to avoid the extra weight this would introduce so I decided to make up the base of the model from rigid¬†extruded foam. I cut two sections of 50mm thick material¬†to size and fitted these into the corners of the space at the rear of the bridge and then lay a¬†“slab” of 25mm thick material over the top of these. The gap formed between the two thicker sections forms the culvert. The exterior sides of these sections of foam will be clad in a wall of DAS “stone” that I’ve formed using a small piece of ply, some strip wood and a rolling-pin: an idea in the Gazette¬†article. Once I had rolled out a small section¬†of DAS to a uniform thickness, I cut up the stones in the soft DAS using a hobby knife: the stones are 10mmx15mm in size with the corner stones¬†being 10mmx17.5mm. When these have dried I will give each a light sand and jab at them with a scriber to give them “patina” and then glue them along the front of the foam.¬†They will sit on a narrow¬†shelf of card I glued to the underside of the sections of foam. To¬†make the job easier¬†I’ll glue the stones on the individual sections of foam separately¬†and only glue these together when I’m forced to. I’ll grout the gaps and colour the stones when everything is glued together in one section.

Describing this is far more complicated than doing it. I’ll post a couple of photos and let you know how¬†I get on.

High Tech Tools

Image

This photo shows the tools I use to apply my ballast. Nothing special but I would specify a glass eye dropper as likely to have a slightly longer life span than the plastic variety. The ballast profile in the background shows an "in progress" stage prior to gluing in place. Gluing tends to darken the ballast as it washes all the dust off from the crushing process the rock goes through in prepartion for sale.

This photo shows the tools I use to apply my ballast. Nothing special but I would specify a glass eye dropper as likely to have a slightly longer life span than the plastic variety. The ballast profile in the background shows an “in progress” stage prior to gluing in place. Gluing tends to darken the ballast as it washes all the dust off from the crushing process the rock goes through in prepartion for sale.

Ballast

I’ve been reading model railway magazines for over 40 years. I’ve learnt a huge amount from these magazines and I’m extremely grateful to the many authors from all over the world who have contributed to my¬†growing skill levels, however¬†there are things I find tend to increasingly grate¬†on my nerves¬†about the content of some magazines.¬†As a sign of advancing years and increasing crotchetiness, and possibly¬†the sheer number of articles I’ve read over those years,¬†am I the only modeller who is over the endless rehash¬†of what¬†can be done with an 8’x4′ piece of plywood? If you read US magazines you’ll know which one is guilty of this.¬†Another¬†personal¬†irritant¬†of mine is the way many writers love to reveal their formula for ballast cement: a 30/70 mix (choose your own proportions) of white glue and¬†water with the secret ingredient, wait for it, a drop of dish washing detergent to break the surface tension of the water and allow it to seep more readily¬†into the ballast. Is there a single modeller in the known¬†universe who doesn’t know you need to put in a drop of dishwashing liquid into this mixture?

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been laying ballast on the centre section of my layout Morpeth. Laying ballast is not what I would describe as the most photogenic or exciting of hobby activities, but I think there is a¬†truism¬†about¬†layout building and this is that a scene is never really complete until the ballast is laid. So it goes without saying that as¬†laying ballast is such¬†an integral part of the railway¬†landscape we must all take it extremely seriously and put a great deal of time and¬†effort into getting¬†its application right. Right? In my experience nothing could¬†be further from the truth. For me, laying ballast, no matter how you mix your ballast cement, is¬†just one step up the enjoyment¬†ladder from hitting¬†myself in the head with a hammer.¬†I would hazard a guess that this is true for many of my fellow modellers. If we took the subject at all seriously we’d probably have come up with a new formula for ballast cement some time in the last 50 years wouldn’t we? ūüôā

So having said all that, how do I apply my ballast and glue it down?¬†Let me start by saying that¬†I do in fact¬†glue¬†my ballast in place¬†with a mix of white glue, water and a drop dish washing liquid. This¬†formula works for me, as it does for many modellers: the ingredients are cheap, readily available¬†and I like the fact that it glues the ballast in place nice and solidly, no small matter on a portable layout that will be bumped along highways in a box trailer. I’ve read of modellers who have used different ballast cements over the years, often arguing for their use on the basis¬†that liquids like matt medium don’t cause the ballast to¬†harden into such a solid, sound amplifying mass¬†as is the case with¬†white glue. This has never really been a problem for me¬†as my trains rarely get up to speeds¬†likely¬†to cause vibration and sound¬†problems.

I have no specific evidence concerning exactly what type of ballast was used on the Morpeth line beyond references to ash ballast being used in the line’s history. I’ve never really found what I would describe as a satisfactory way to represent ash ballast and for this reason I choose to use O-scale¬†Martin’s Creek ballast from¬†Chuck’s Ballast. I have a bias toward grey ballast due the fact that I¬†grew up in a part of¬†Sydney where almost all ballast¬†was grey, and Martin’s Creek ballast is the perfect grey hue to my eye. Another factor¬†in my choice of ballast¬†is that Martin’s Creek is¬†not too far up the Hunter Valley from Morpeth and it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that¬†it was ballast from this quarry which was used on the lines in the¬†Maitland/Morpeth area.

The Morpeth¬†branch was a short, run-down line well past its peak in the 1950’s,¬†the era¬†my layout¬†represents. The photos I have of the¬†Morpeth line¬†show a track¬†profile that is quite flat, with minimum ballast showing and plenty of weeds in evidence. I apply my ballast with a set of “high-tech” tools; a tea-spoon, a soft bristle square end paint¬†brush, a glass¬†eye dropper and a $2 plastic pump bottle from the local reject shop. My ballast cement is stored and mixed in an old marmalade jar, the lid of which always stubbornly refuses to move between sessions of ballast laying.¬†I normally manage to¬†get the lid to shift by soaking the jar upside down in boiling water for a few minutes. I might add here that I don’t boil the water over a heat source¬†with the jar in the water. Rather I¬†place the jar in a soup bowl and then pour the water in around the lid of the upturned jar. As always, safety first. I use boiling water for this operation as I find the water from my hot tap is simply not hot enough.

There’s nothing revolutionary in the way I apply my ballast: I spread it out and push it into position¬†with the spoon and paint brush, give it a spritz¬†with some water from the pump bottle (this water also has a little dish washing liquid in it) and then I flood the ballast with the water/white glue mix. While the ballast is still wet I sprinkle on a very small quantity of Woodland Scenics¬†earth blend ground foam to tone down the newness. In general I like to give the ballast about 48 hours to dry before I do anything else to the layout which might bump the ballast out of position. The one and only iron clad¬†rule in this process is to make a special effort to try to¬†avoid glue getting anywhere near the working parts of the points. This is a rule that is more often than not broken so I tend to spend a good deal of time tweaking the point blades and mechanics to get them to operate reliably.