Five-Year Gas Station Build

IMG_3046Something like five years ago I obtained (I think it was a Christmas gift?) Walther’s “Al’s Victory Service” kit. I remember putting the walls together and then cutting the whole thing apart to rearrange it before putting it back together the way it was originally, then doing some very basic weathering before getting distracted.

The unfinished structure bounced around the workbench and the layout for the last half decade and – uncharacteristically for me – the rest of the pieces remained safely in the box and tucked away in a spot I actually remembered.

Recently I had some downtime and finally finished this little project. I am particularly proud of my little “live bait” and soft drink signs, the mechanic rolling out a set of tires, and the yuppie with the Porsche cleaning his windshield.

Don’t give up on your unfinished projects – like good wine they are more satisfying with age!





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.


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.

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.


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.


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.


Check yer Neck

What’s a model railroad without a couple of hillbillies? Here’s how I transformed a “stock” Atlas Ford F150 into this jacked-up monster.


Check yer Neck.

The project begins with disassembly of the stock model.

The body of the truck is conveniently molded in two pieces: the cab/front clip and the bed. To give the truck a more authentic “redneck” feel I sprayed the front half with gray primer and the back half “bomber tan.” Any drab, ugly colors will do. I then added a coat of dullcoat and finished with a wash of india ink and rubbing alcohol.

Next is the chassis work, which is what makes this model distinctive.

The stock wheels are easily removed by simply pulling the axle out of the molded pockets on the undercarriage. I then cut two lengths of Plastruct 3/64″ tee styrene strips to span from the front of the front axle pocket to the rear of the rear one. I glued these in place to create frame rails.


Styrene frame rails added to undercarriage.

I then made four shock absorbers out of doorbell wire. I stripped about 1/16″ of insulation, cut another 1/8″ of wire above that, and repeated the process until I had a set of four.


Shock absorbers made from bits of wire.

I then used CA to glue the shocks into the axle pockets.

Next I made suspension arms with more of the tee styrene. Rather than measure, I simply found the middle of the frame rails, held one end of the strip there and cut where it met the bottom of the shock. I secured these in place with plastic cement at the frame rail and CA at the shock. I then used a round jeweler’s file to notch the bottom of the arms to accept the axles I made later.


Suspension complete.

I painted the frame rails and suspension arms competition orange and set the chassis aside to dry.

While the suspension was drying, I made a transfer case from a small block of styrene. I drilled a 1/16″ hole in the center of one side, and another on the other side offset to the driver’s side. I then used CA to secure driveshafts made of wire, then secured the assembly to the undercarriage with plastic cement.


Transfer case and driveshafts in place.

I made the axles by cutting lengths of spare railing from an old engine service terminal kit. Any round styrene about 1/16″ in diameter will do. I cut two pieces to 5/8″ lengths.

I used the white metal cast rear wheels from two old straight truck models. I used white putty to fill in the groove between the dual wheels to make one wide tire. I then sanded them smooth and sprayed them with Pollyscale grimy black. When the paint dried, I drilled a hole into the center of the back of each wheel and secured them to the axles with CA. I then painted the rims flat black and put a dot of silver on the hubs.

Next I glued the axle/wheel assemblies to the ends of the suspension arms with plastic cement. I then bent the wire driveshafts to meet the axles and trimmed them to length. Then I used white putty to sculpt differential housings around the axles and driveshafts. When the putty dried I painted the housings black with silver covers.

A redneck pickup is not complete without rednecks, so I crafted Zig and Lerline from a couple of unpainted Model Power figures.

Zig was a hefty gentleman wearing a coat, tie, and for some reason a ball cap. I cut his torso just above the waist, then used a jeweler’s file to remove the molded clothing detail. I then carved a buddha belly and flabby chest. I filed his ball cap down to a bald head. I then mixed up a sunburn color with white and Rock Island Red and painted him, making sure to give his neck an extra coat. A few dabs of rail brown were added for a goatee and nipples.

Lerline was another odd Model Power figure of a chubby woman wearing a slinky dress. I trimmed her above the waist as well, then painted her with the sunburn color, brown hair, and a red bikini top. After the paint dried I glued Zig and Lerline into the seats molded in the chassis.


Zig and Lerline.

The stock window glazing would not fit above their heads, and I wanted the windows open anyway, so I trimmed the windshield and rear windows out of the glazing. I accidentally cracked the windshield, but I think that’s a happy accident.

Before final assembly, I used some more styrene tee strips to make a rugged-looking brush bumper, and glued it in place with plastic cement. Then I put the body back on and placed the model on the layout.


Heading out of Salvation Point for a day on the trails… Y’all.

Another time I might make a set of roll bars for the bed of the truck. I also might add a whip antenna, a flag, or a dog. Oversized mirrors and exhaust stacks would also be a nice touch. For now the model does a nice job helping establish Salvation Point as a recreational hub on the edge of the desert.