Lessons in Forced Perspective

Most model railroaders are familiar with the idea of “forced perspective” – selectively resizing scenery elements to create the illusion of greater distance. I recently modeled a new road, using forced perspective to make it look a little longer than it really is.

My partner in the project, The Superintendent, forced my perspective a little, too. He had some firm ideas about the scene and we disagreed a bit, but seeing it from his perspective made this project special.

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Last fall at a model railroad show, The Superintendent spotted a grade crossing with working lights and gates on an HO-scale module. He insisted on one of our own. I couldn’t shoehorn in the mechanism necessary to actuate the gates, so we compromised on a new stretch of road with a grade crossing and working lights.

Here’s how we did it:

Shrinking Roads

The FCFL is a narrow layout – just 10 inches wide for this scene – so creating convincing roads is a challenge.

Just east of Salvation Point, there was an existing rural road with an underpass beneath the mainline. Our new road is a spur from that road.

The Superintendent dubbed it Arizona Highway V. Arizona state highways are numbered, not lettered, but what’s that to a six-year-old?

“I want it to be Highway V just because I do,” he explained.

We made Highway V by carving a right-of-way into the scenery, sanding it smooth, and paving it with lightweight spackling compound. We paved right over the mainline tracks, then immediately cleaned out the flangeways with a toothpick. Once the spackling dried, We sanded it and finished the road with another coat, again clearing the flangeways immediately.

I wanted to model precast concrete panels across the tracks, but The Superintendent insisted on asphalt all around, with no roadway markings of any kind.

“It looks cooler that way and more real,” he said. “I want it to look like the street we live on.”

Fair enough. Unmarked asphalt it is.

Both the old road and the new road are a scale 28 feet (about 2-1/8 inches) at the front of the layout, and taper to about 1-1/4 inches at the backdrop. This helps fool the eye into thinking the road is longer than it is.

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Shrinking Signage

We installed two signs along the roadway. They are a nice detail to the scene, help place the layout geographically, and further aid the forced perspective.

The nearest sign is an Arizona highway sign copied from the Internet and modified to show “V”. The highway sign is .2 inches wide – a scale 32 inches.

The second is a speed limit sign, which we made .15 inches wide. The speed limit sign  is mounted on a shorter post that is half the width of the nearer one.

Looking down the road at the two signs enhances the illusion of depth:

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The speed limit sign shows 55 mph. To me this looks like a 35 mph zone.

“I like going 55,” says The Superintendent. “And that’s the speed limit on country roads.”

Tough to argue with that.

Shrinking Vehicles

Finally, all the way against the backdrop, is a Z-scale logging truck that I kitbashed from a cast metal container truck.

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The viewer compares the N-scale SUV up front to the Z-scale truck in back, and the road appears longer again.

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The Superintendent wants a long line of N-scale vehicles waiting for the train, which would ruin the whole illusion. We’re still sorting that one out.

This was a fun project. I think we successfully stretched the road using forced perspective, and it was good to stretch my imagination to see things my son’s way, too.

Next week – a guest blog from the FCFL’s signals chief (my Dad) about how we make the lights go blinkety-blink.

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Signs, Signs, Everywhere There’s Signs

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Signs are everywhere, and including them on your model railroad is essential to realistic scenes.

I went on a little sign binge on the FCFL recently and I’m pretty happy with the results.

There’s nothing groundbreaking or difficult in my approach to sign making: I went online and searched images of the signs I wanted, pasted the images into Word, resized them to N-scale, and printed them on my inkjet printer.

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According to The Internet, the accuracy of which I trust unwaveringly, standard sign sizes are:

Speed limit signs – 24″ x 48″, 36″ x 72″ or 48″ x 96″.

Stop signs – 18″, 24″ or 36″.

I divided the dimensions by 160 (N-scale) and told Word to resize 24″ signs to .15″ wide, 36″ signs to .23″, and 48″ signs to .3″.

I printed most of the speed limit signs 36″ wide. I think they’re a little big but I’m going to live with them awhile and see what visitors think.

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The 36″ stop signs I printed were way too huge, but I found the octagon shape got distorted if I printed them much smaller. I went with 24″ stop signs mostly, but I had to fix the shape when I trimmed them.

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To simulate the primed aluminum most road signs are made of, I laminated the white printer paper to gray or tan colored construction paper using Elmer’s spray adhesive. I carefully trimmed the signs out with sharp scissors.

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My signposts are mostly scale 4×4 basswood, but in a few cases I used some 28 gauge and finer wire. I glued the signs to the wood or wire with CA, then cut the post a good inch long or more. I drilled matching sized holes in the scenery and secured the signs with white glue.

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I may come back at a later date and weather some of these with an India ink wash. For future signs I might also soak the basswood signposts in an India ink/alcohol solution to make them look aged. These all look brand new, and they don’t look pressure treated.

This is a fun detail project that doesn’t take a huge amount of time, skill or materials, but the added realism is immense.

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Tabletop Layout for a Closet Model Railroader

Nine Christmases ago I made this little N-scale layout for my step-father-in-law. It suffered some wear and tear and never really lived up to my vision, so this year I stole it, updated it, and regifted it back to him.

overall view

Years ago John told me about his childhood train set. He remembered the thrill of watching the steamer come around the curve and the way he described it, I knew: He was one of us.

I try to encourage John’s inner model railroader, and sharing the hobby with him has opened up some common ground and allowed us to know each other better.

See? It’s not just about playing with trains.

The Layout

The layout is a plywood box about 26″ x 18″ x 4″. The terrain is several layers of carved foam insulation. The track plan is an oval with one siding, and is operated by a DC powerpack.

overhead

Two things stand out when I consider the man my kids call “Grandpa John”: A love of sailing and (like most sailors) an affinity for fine spirits. He is also an incredibly kind man who treats people with generosity and grace. But sailboats and booze are easier to model.

Accordingly, the single industry is a backwoods distillery called John’s Hooch. Out back I made an illegal-looking still from a thumbtack, a short piece of metal tubing and some wire.

Thumbtack still

2013 Updates

I always intended the central scene of the layout to be a lake with sailboats, but when I first built the thing I had neither the budget nor the time to pull it off. I settled for a dry creek bed and a Design Preservation Models building on the bank.

This year I filled the creek with layers of hydrocal. When the plaster dried, I sanded it smooth and filled any holes with lightweight spackle. I brushed the surface with black laytex paint, then feathered in some tan near the beach area.

The boathouse is an Imex model. I cut a sheet of styrene the width of the building and about an inch longer. I made a dock out of the overhang by covering it with scale 2x6s. I glued the first plank on a 45-degree angle across the dock using CA cement. When it was set firm, I simply worked my way across the dock one board at a time, letting them hang over the edges. Once I had all the boards in place, I trimmed them with a sharp hobby knife and a straight edge.

I then glued the building to the styrene foundation with CA.

Lengths of round toothpicks serve as the pilings and the roof support.

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I glued the building assembly to the layout with white glue, then graded around it with fine ballast secured with diluted white glue.

The sailboats came from Wiking sets. They are supposed to be rowboats. I trimmed the oarlocks from the top of the gunwales, then drilled holes in the front benches for masts I made from the sprues the boats came on.

The boat at the dock got a stowed sail sculpted of Squadron White Putty. The sail on the other boat is a piece of clear window glazing painted white.

Once the boathouse was in place and the boats were ready, I filled the lake with water. I used EnviroTex Lite, a two-part clear resin.

After the resin had set for about two hours, I floated the boats. They sank straight to the bottom, which fortunately was shallow enough that they still look afloat. EnviroTex takes 12-18 hours to fully cure. I’ve used it only once before and I like it, but still don’t have a handle on when to put things in so they don’t sink.

Finally, I went around the layout and updated the foliage. I added a few new Woodland Scenics trees and some ground foam where the old scenery had chipped.

This little layout was an OK diorama to begin with, and now I think it’s pretty good. It won’t win any contests, but it gives a latent railroader the thrill of watching his own trains.

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Athearn Continues to Disappoint this N-Scaler

When a string of six brand-new Athearn ethanol tank cars won’t roll on their own down a 2-percent grade, was it worth the 18-month wait?

I pre-ordered two three-car runner packs online more than a year ago, and pretty much forgot about them. Recently I got an e-mail and phone call that they were ready to ship, but the credit card on file had expired. I debated spending the approximately $135, but ultimately decided I had wanted them at some point, I might as well take them.

Out of the box, I was excited to see metal wheelsets. I’ve become a fan of them ever since I started using code 55 track – metal wheelsets track perfectly through the finicky turnouts that routinely trip up plastic wheels. Metal wheels also offer much less rolling resistance, carrying cars along the rails with the slightest push.

The Athearn units, however, seemed to have the brakes set hard. But rolling resistance isn’t the only problem.

The distance between the sideframes is so inconsistent that some wheelsets barely turn, while others are ready to fall out.

The trucks are mounted on a post and held in place with a screw. Loosen the screw all you want, it hardly adjusts the play – the trucks yaw, but they barely pitch and roll. That makes the cars prone to derailment, and derail they do.

I’d like to say these are anomalies, but two or three years ago I purchased a set of three Athearn Bombardier bi-level commuter cars. They were an un-runnable mess. So poorly were the trucks mounted, one set of wheels hovered 1/32″ above the railhead.

Coupler height does not a quality model make, but it is the most compelling visual to demonstrate the shortcomings of the Athearn models, compared to other makes:

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Athearn ethanol tank cars

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Athearn bi-level commuter cars

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Atlas covered hoppers

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Micro-Trains trucks with short-extension couplers

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Kato Superliners

The shame of it is, the models aren’t bad. The paint and lettering are decent, the grab irons and other details are nicely done, the carbodies are well made.

I could go through the hassle of sending them back, but more likely I’ll try to fix them. I’ll probably replace the wheelsets, and if they fit I may replace the trucks with some from Micro-Trains. I should be able to get them running how I want if I tinker with them enough.

But I shouldn’t have to.

With N-Scale equipment available in such high quality today, it’s disappointing Athearn hasn’t caught up.

ModelStory: Attitude Adjustment

“That was the last day I took pride in my job,” Russ Herefeldt says, setting down his coffee. “After that it was just punching a clock.”

A bold disclosure to make to the guy who runs the railroad, but the burly man with the salt-and-pepper beard sits across from me and folds his arms, unapologetic.

I’ll miss that.

He’s retiring after 43 years, and our little breakfast together is a standard parting gift.

(“Gift heck,” he snorts. “I earned it.”)

Indeed.

Russ started with The Five Lakes Railway in 1970, 23 years old and unsure what to do with his bachelor’s of fine arts. He started washing rolling stock, learned to weld and torch, and worked his way up to retire as foreman of the Milwaukee car shop.

The day he lost pride in his job was in 2001.

See, Russ is an artist by calling and a repairer of railcars by necessity. He’s produced a respectable body of work in oils and plans to split retirement between family and canvas.

Not that he didn’t love his job. Russ is the kind of guy who sees the art in a job well done, and can look at something as utilitarian as a boxcar and appreciate it as a thing of beauty.

So it was a big deal for him when, in 2000, management asked him to sit on a committee designing the look of the 80200 series boxcars.

It merged his work with his passion, and should have defined his career.

He worked with the advertising department, produced sketches and life-sized mockups, and even rode the company jet to a meeting with a consultant in Los Angeles. He felt valued and excited to be part of something visible and important for the company.

The pinnacle, he says, was the day the committee presented their recommendation to the board. He wore his only suit and sat in the large, cherry-paneled boardroom.

“We brought beautiful mockups of our design,” he recalls as we leave the restaurant and amble across the yard toward the shop. “It was simple and I think elegant, and after all the meeting and consulting and revisions, looked a lot like my initial vision. It was very satisfying.”

The design – his design – started with a color he mixed up called “Inland Sea.” To the left of the door was the railroad name and tagline, and to the right a blue silhouette of the Great Lakes. A patch of Four Corners blue on the end was a nod to the cooperative arrangement the two roads shared at the time.

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“…After all the meeting and consulting and revisions, it looked a lot like my initial vision. It was very satisfying.”

Russ even did two paintings to show the board: a portrait of a single unit, and a landscape showing a railyard with rows and rows of Inland Sea equipment.

He says he almost teared up when they approved the project. It meant his color and his design would become the face of the railroad, seen nationwide.

It was a heady day for a kid who started out washing freight cars.

Now Russ stands by one of his boxcars and shakes his woolly head.

“Four,” he says, holding up calloused fingers. “We managed to get four of them through the shop before they pulled the plug.”

In the shaky times after 9/11, the Four Corners and the Five Lakes decided to solidify their cooperative relationship. Russ admits the merger was the right thing – people kept good jobs, the health insurance was cheaper – but his vision of rows and rows of Inland Sea freight cars was not to be.

“After only the fourth car, they told me to just make them legal,” he laments. “Get reporting marks and data on them and move them out. We had a couple dozen cars in primer, waiting for paint and lettering.”

Coupled to the gorgeous Inland Sea car is another from the 80200 series, it’s drab, mud-colored primer decorated only by those reporting marks and data.

But right of the door, dingy from a decade in the sun, is a silhouette of the Great Lakes.

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“In forty-three years, that was my one act of insubordination.”

“In forty-three years, that was my one act of insubordination,” Russ smirks. “We used up the vinyl graphics we had in the shop. My last thumb in the eye of change.”

There are a half-dozen boxcars still out there with Russ’ unauthorized artwork on them. He hates seeing them – says they remind him of his powerlessness, of being just another cog in the machine.

Russ always wanted to be recognized as an artist, and that recognition may not be far off. He has some leads on galleries willing to show his paintings. There’s talk of some commission work.

But he won’t let himself get excited.

“I’ve heard things like that before,” he says.

Gondola Abuse 101

I recently posted my process for making quick and easy scrap metal loads. The loads are ragged and rusty, and need equally distressed gondolas to haul them. Here’s how I add years of abuse to my gondolas – in under two hours:

This one started with an Atlas 52′ Thrall gondola.

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After removing the trucks, I carefully pressed a hot soldering pencil to the inside of the car walls, between each of the ribs. (This should be done in a well-ventilated area.) It takes a little practice to do enough melting without doing too much. Here’s a short clip of the “melting” process:

This process leaves a stringy mess inside the gondola and a few holes in the sides.

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I cleaned up the inside using a Dremel tool with a burr bit. (Wear safety glasses and a dust mask whenever you use a high-speed rotary tool.)

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Next I used a pallet knife to apply a thick layer of Squadron White Putty inside the car.

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The putty fills any holes that were melted in the car sides and leaves a smooth(er) surface inside the car. I don’t want the surface to be too smooth, however. We are going for a rough, abused look.

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After the putty dried (about 30 minutes) I returned with my Dremel tool to knock down any severe angles on the outside of the car, sculpting the melted mounds into more realistic looking bulges and dents. I used caution not to obliterate the ribs, but a few gouges in them adds to the effect.

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When I was satisfied with the look of the car sides, it was time for paint.

At this point you could spray the car with a coat of a new color. In this case, I wanted to preserve the data and other markings. Plus, I’m a huge fan of patch-outs. So, I brushed flat black over the areas I roughed up with the Dremel. Where the BNSF reporting marks and road number were, I carefully brushed a square of dark green. I gave the entire inside of the car a coat of flat black.with patch

Floors of gondolas are usually covered with enough dirt that it’s not uncommon for weeds to sprout. I glued some brown fine ground foam randomly to the floor, adding a few sprigs of green ground foam here and there for weeds. I also added a few scale boards. Any other debris will look fine, just make sure there’s still room for a load to sit flat.

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I was not happy with the Atlas trucks, so I replaced them with my standby Micro-Trains 100-ton roller bearing trucks and 36-inch Fox Valley Models metal wheelsets. I weathered the sideframes with powders and painted the wheels rail brown.

Finally, I applied FCFL reporting marks and road number decals, then did some quick weathering with the the techniques I described here.

Loaded with scrap, FCFL 791905 is ready to haul!

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Would this one-of-a-kind gondola look good on your layout? Like FCFL Railway on Facebook by December 15, 2013 and you’ll be entered in a drawing to win it!

UPDATE – December 2013 – Congratulations to Justin Cesar of West Pueblo, CO, USA for winning the gondola drawing!

Realistic Scrap Metal Loads – Quick and Easy!

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These gondolas were loaded with realistic looking metal scrap in about 20 minutes each plus drying time.

Scrap metal loads are lively things – jagged fingers of rust pointing this way and that over the sides of battered gondolas, swaying in the wind and jostling with the bumps.

The cast resin loads on the market don’t cut it. Here’s how I made my own, for cheap, and in only about 20 minutes apiece (plus drying time).

I started by making a base plate of styrene to fit the bottom of a gondola. For 50-foot gons that is 3-11/6″ x 9/16″, for the longer 52-foot mill jobs extend it to 3-13/16″ with the same width.

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The best way to simulate scrap is to use scrap. Every modeler has a collection of styrene odds and ends, and this is a great way to use them up. I looked for structural elements, like the struts from an old fueling platform kit, corrugated sheet, and anything else that looked like scrap metal. I cut these into random shapes, and made sure to “shred” some pieces into curly fingers with a scissors.

I used CA to glue my scrap to the base, starting with the most boring pieces first. I then built up a few layers of scrap pieces at random, jumbly angles.

early details

As the pile took shape, I added smaller pieces with more detail. I drilled some 1/8 and 1/16 holes in sheet styrene and cut them out. I also used some of my wife’s scrapbooking punches to make more interesting shapes – like a ladybug. Once I cut them up, the intricate shapes looked like scrap from CNC machines. Finally, I added a few pieces of very thin styrene that I was able to crinkle like discarded sheetmetal.

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When I was satisfied with the content of the load, I test fit it in a gondola. Then I secured it with tape to a wood block and carried it to the garage for paint.

My technique for painting rusty metal is to use a can of flat black and a can of red metal primer, and spray the piece with both at the same time. For the scrap loads, I made sure to cover every angle and really soak the piece to obscure any white.

paint cans

When the rust/black paint dried, I came back with a fine brush and gave the crinkled sheetmetal pieces a coat of silver.

silver highlights

When the silver dried, I gave the whole load a heavy spray of dullcoat. This is key to the final rusty finish. Once the dullcoat was dry, I gave the piece a liberal wash with my diluted alcohol ink solution that I described in this post. The alcohol reacts with the dullcoat to develop a hazy, rusty finish when dry.

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And that’s that. Another time I’ll describe how I make my gondolas look abused. For now, I’ve got scrap to haul.

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