How My Railroad Came to Life
This was it. I had finally decided to get busy and build my DG&N Railroad. Somehow during the 15 years I had been dreaming about the freelance pike, it hadn't materialized out of thin air. The countless issues of Model Railroader, N Scale, and other publications too numerous to mention had been followed by hours and hours of perusing videos on how to build a model railroad. No doubt that I was read...or so I thought.
Step 1 — Track Plan
As an Engineer by trade, this part comes naturally. Engineers love to plan things to death before doing anything, so it only took around 7 years from my first scratchings to a real track plan. With a Christmas present from a sibling of RailCad several years ago, John Armstrong's Track Planning For Realistic Operation, and Lord knows how many published track plans and planning guides at my disposal, I'm surprised that I actually made up my mind at all. The final track plan was developed (at least the final one for now) and printed out on trusty 8 X 11 sheets. Unfortunately the layout is 6' X 17', so it took a LOT of paper and tape. Need I say that the latest track plan barely resembles my original scratchings?
Step 2 — Benchwork
Now for something to put my hands on! Real wood, screws, glue, table saws, cut fingers, splinters..oops, I digress. It's surprising how heavy a 1" thick, 4' x 8' 11-ply sheet of plywood weighs. Mental note..get help on second trip to lumber store, I'm not as young (or as strong) as I used to be. Thank goodness the 2" foam board was easy to maneuver (at least until it got sideways in 20 MPH winds). But the payoff..Yea!, I'm actually building something! Thankfully RailCad had allowed me to draw up the benchwork while the track plan was underway, so again, I had a good drawing to go by (there's that Engineer thing again). To make a long story short, the benchwork was built in 3 sections as this was the only way to get it upstairs into the family room. After completion, I realized that it might be slightly overbuilt for N scale, as I could probably drive my car onto it without damage. I had learned one lesson though. A neighbor helped me move the sections upstairs, and I gladly gave him the six-pack of beer I promised.
Step 3 — Tracklaying
For track, I am using Peco Finescale code 55 track on 3/8" plywood splines on top of 2" foam. Don't ask me how in the world I came up with this combination. I must have seen it SOMEWHERE. Cork subroadbed was glued to the splines and the track was tacked to the cork with superglue. I keep a bottle of superglue debonder handy just in case. For me, not the track. This part was uneventful, except for the last minute change in the track plan (so carefully thought out years earlier) while the track was being put down. Lets see..take this out..add this..move this over. Since the layout has 2 areas (one town and one industrial) for switching interests that would interfere with building scenery in a couple of places, I decided to complete most of the tracklaying, wiring and start the scenery before laying track in those 2 areas.
Step 4 — Wiring
My plans are to go DCC, but I wanted to start simple, so after an exhaustive and unproductive search to find my old DC powerpack, a new Tech II powerpack was purchased. 20 AWG solid wires are used as feeders every 18" or so and are tied into a 14 AWG buss wire. Luckily for me I still had a spool of this wiring left over from wiring my garage. A total of 3 bus wires were run to different areas for overcurrent protection, but temporarily tied together. After reading Allen Gartner's web page on Wiring For DCC, I modified a tester I had to troubleshoot the wiring. This proved invaluable as wrapping the 20 AWG feeders onto the 14 AWG busses was a little difficult since I ran out of one wire color close to the end of the wiring job, and my enthusiasm for seeing a train actually running on the track was clouding my judgment. Lets see..did I run out of red, and then use green? Or did I run out of black and then use green? Drats.
Step 5 — Run Trains (Intermediary)
Once all of the wiring was debugged, it was time to hook up the powerpack and watch those trains run! Well, at least that's what I thought as I watched the first loco lurch and wobble it's way down the track. Mental note 2..clean locomotives if it has been over 8 years since they have been run. Fortunately, once cleaned and properly lubricated, the little SW1200 glided down the track smooth as silk. Success! Although it was running on unballasted track on a sea of blue foam, it was running and running well. It had taken almost 8 months from the time I printed out the "final" track plan to make it this far, and I was pleased with the result. Time to take a break and enjoy running different trains before the next step, scenery.
But how long could I run trains before getting to the scenery? Quite a while, in fact. 3 months of digging out engines and cleaning them up, finding cars that run well, then building trains and watching them run seemed to fly by. OK, I must confess, this was the stage at which two previous attempts to build a layout on a smaller scale had succumbed to being another pile of lumber and partially laid track. But I was determined that this time, scenery was going to happen. The advice from many publications was to start scenery in one area, instead of trying to do the whole thing at one time. This turned out to be the best piece of advice I had read. First things first, I had to find any scenery materials that had been purchased over the years, determine if they were still usable, and then get to work.
Two weeks of digging through the storage areas under the eaves of my home brought forth quite a number of Woodland Scenics tree kits, turf, and the most curious collection of now worthless odds and ends. Off to the not-so-local hobby shop to pick up additional supplies to begin my layouts' transformation!
Step 6 — Basic Landforms and Plaster Cloth
Since the model magazines always showed this part in only a couple of pictures, it had to go fast, right? Not a chance. I ended up using a combination of carved foam scraps and malleable screen wire for the mountainous area, and ½" thick pink foamboard as the backdrop. On to putting the plaster cloth over the combination and creating real mountains. Of course, usually making a mess is fun, and this was no different. Mental Note....change into old clothes before slinging plaster! Thankfully I had covered the track with tape and the floor with plastic sheeting. The plaster cloths' packaging says "Covers 10 Square Feet". I have news for them, it doesn't. Another mental note — determine how much plaster cloth you need and DOUBLE IT! But at the end of 2 more weeks, I now had mountains . . . sort of, actually more like big bulges of white plaster. Lets see, how do I add the wonderful detail I've been reading about for years — of course, rock castings!
Step 7 — Rock Casting and Lightweight Hydrocal
Back to the hobby shop for some boxes of lightweight Hydrocal, a rock mold and more odds and ends. Since I don't plan in getting into trouble with my wife by using her measuring cups, and the instructions show a roughly one to one and a little bit ratio, I determine that mixing by eye and maybe being a little off wouldn't hurt. Wrong again. Most of the castings go real well, but with others, the mix sets up before I can pour it, and yet some take 2 days to solidify. Lesson learned. On my next trip to the hobby shop to get more Hydrocal (now on third box), I stop by a Family Dollar store and pick up two 4 cup plastic measuring cups. I also made some castings using an alternate plaster from Wal-Mart and some Sculptamold that I had on hand.
Now armed with many castings, I start the task of trial fitting them in place. Immediately I realize "How in the world can I keep them in order?" Simple solution, put a number or letter on the back of each casting and on the part of the mountain it goes on. Doing only 5 or 6 castings at a time, this goes very well for the first couple of days. Each casting is blended into the one next to it with additional Hydrocal. On day 3, I notice that the previous castings are taking on a pinkish hue. "What in the world?" Then I remember, I used a red marker for the letters, and since plaster is porous – DUH!
After letting my first now-complete and getting-redder rock face dry for several days, I decide its time to start the staining stage. Careful review of The Clinic Video from Woodland Scenics leads me to gain much needed confidence. The stains are mixed up and applied randomly to the rock face, immediately followed by a thin black wash. My hopes leap upward as the reddish hue disappears and is replaced by a good looking grayish tint. Earth colored stain is used on the top of the mountain area where grass will eventually be, and then matte medium is sprayed over the entire mountain to fix the stains. I let this sit for a week to see if the red would reappear, and luckily for me it did not. On to the next rock face.
This one went much better until I put the stain on. One big casting just wouldn't take the stain like the others and stood out like a sore thumb. Some of you have probably already guessed it – yep, it was a casting made out of the alternate plaster. This was my lesson that all plasters are not created equal. Add one day to separate all of the Wal-Mart plaster and Sculptamold castings to the schedule, one day to dig out and replace the carefully applied casting and yet another to stain the new casting to match the rest of the rock face.
By now I was noticing that those little 2 lb boxes of Hydrocal were disappearing at a rapid rate. After much discussion with the Budget Foreman, it was decided to make a bulk purchase of Hydrocal. Woodland Scenics promises 20 lbs in their bulk package, and they didn't disappoint. Soon 27 lbs of it appeared on my doorstep, along with quite a collection of grass, turf and clump foliage. It turns out that the Budget Foreman has a good eye for what looks right and what doesn't, and she in turn chose the colors and textures for the weeds and bushes. I am also wondering at this point if Woodland Scenics is on the stock market as I believe I am single-handedly keeping them in business!
The weeks pass by as I make even more castings (with additional molds won in a now-you-have-it, now-you-don't gift exchange), set them around tunnel portals and make even more rock faces. I stand back and review my work so far. I'm again pleased with the results. It may not be Reid Brothers quality or John Allen's awe-inspiring scope, but for a beginner, it isn't bad. Time to pull up the tape, clean the tracks and run some more trains before putting down some foliage and trees. Anyone need some Hydrocal?
Step 8 — Earth and Foliage
My plan was to take up the non-stick masking tape, clean the track and run some trains, but I decided that while the track was protected, I might as well go ahead and try my hand at putting down dirt and some foliage. At least this is the reasoning I used to finish off the Woodland Scenics Landscaping Learning Kit I had purchased before. Then I'll do the track and find out if the locomotives will clear the tunnel portals and if I've missed any spots of track-covering plaster.
Following the instructions of the kit (to the amazement of the Budget Foreman), I mixed up the earth stain and covered the remaining white plaster areas. Fine soil turf was flyspecked onto the rock faces, and fine green blend turf was used to cover the area that had just been stained earth color. The turf was applied at different thicknesses to vary the color and grass effect. Then other color fine turf was applied in random areas. Next weeds (heavy turf) and finally bushes (clump foliage) were applied, paying attention to where they would normally be found in the landforms. The clump foliage was glued to the layout with Hob-e-Tac, a rubber type cement. A side note on this adhesive — whoever came up with this stuff is evil. The bottle says "Bonds on Contact" and they aren't kidding. Get some on your fingers, and every piece of clump foliage you try to place on the layout will find it's way to your fingers, and it won't let go! A layer of Scenic Cement was applied over the entire scenicked area, which was now about 2 feet by 3 feet. The cement was allowed to dry and minor touch ups were completed. The Budget Forman played an important part here by letting me know what looked "right" and what didn't. Now it's time to clean track and run some trains!
Step 9 —Track Cleaning
As I carefully pull up the non-stick tape, I notice little black lines arranged neatly on the underside of the tape. Uh-oh. It seems that the paint I used to carefully weather the track has an affinity for the non-stick tape. Well, it appears that I will have a chance to hone my airbrushing skills once more. This is also the time that I notice some of the tape is buried under 1/8" of plaster in some areas (of course only visible from certain angles that weren't used when applying the plaster). Another mental note – find out where all that plaster is going before adding more! A brightboy cleaning block and emery paper was used to clean off the rail tops and to clean up the turnout points. Dental tools were used to clean plaster from between the ties and to reform the ditches that were accidentally filled with plaster during mountain making. Careful vacuuming removed the errant plaster chips and other debris. Oopppps! Was that some weeds and shrubs that just disappeared into the vacuum cleaner?
Step 10 — Run Trains
The good 'ol DC powerpack was hooked up and several days of running trains took place. Although the portals located on curves are a tight squeeze, everything clears. I can see how this could be a problem for folks running big diesels or articulated steam locomotives, however.
After running trains, I repeated the above steps 2 more times (with lessons learned) to expand the scenicked areas and rock faces to approximately 18 square feet total, about 1/3 of the layout. It is hard to explain the feeling of accomplishment I felt as I watched the trains go through the newly scenicked areas. Although I was originally worried about how it would turn out, I finally took the plunge to try scenery, and it has really paid off. Hey, if I can do it, anybody can!