Post holiday blues? … not a bit of it!

September 7, 2011 § 1 Comment

I have just returned from holiday in Poland, suitably inspired and ready to crack on with my model making. We only managed one trip by train (to Pszczyna or Pless in German, the home of the Polish Piast dynasty and their large 12th Century Castle/Home), but it afforded me a chance to soak in a little of the atmosphere of the residential tenements backing on the railway that I hope to eventually incorporate into my model railway. It also gave me a closer view of Katowice and Bytom’s industrial decline, not so easily visible from the road. I do not completely intend to capture the feeling of decay evident in Poland, but the architectural style here is very similar to Berlin. Unfortunately due to an accident with a bottle of water damaging my camera, I was unable to take any of my own photos. Mind you had my camera been working, the kind of photography I would have liked to indulge in would still have been difficult with the rest of the family in tow.

I was dismayed to discover that as part Katowice railway station’s redevelopment, its unique concrete hyperbolic paraboloid vaulted roof had been demolished. Admittedly although Wiki’s photo shows it in its best light (the dark!), the station and its environs were in serious need of work. Most people probably thought is was an ugly building, and would not have realized the significance of the structural solution it employed, but it was a notoriously unsavory place to be particularly at night.

On my return to England I was passing my local charity shop and was pleasantly surprised to find these lorries in the window all for the princely sum of £9. Curiously although they are by German manufacturers (and HO scale rather than the more common British OO) the graphics are predominantly English, yet all but one of the models are still left-hand drive. It was a little indulgent of me to by all of them, particularly as Like most things, there is no shortage of them on my dad’s layout. In keeping with my habit of finding new projects before I have finished the current one, I intend to eventually use these to experiment with weathering and possibly even re-branding with some of my own graphics.

On the Road to Nowhere …

May 28, 2011 § 1 Comment

More music references in my blog titles! I am not particularly a Talking Heads fan, but it is a well-known song (to people of a particular generation), and it is quite apt.

Where is this blog going? We are not half way through the year and I am struggling with my resolution. I honestly thought I would have both done more work on my layout and had more time to write about it. There have however been distractions.  At home there are always other jobs that need doing, the most recent of which was replacing rotten doors to the back porch and garage. On the plus side it has meant more father-son bonding with Matthew; as I have previously mentioned he is fascinated by tools and my DIY abilities. I had planned to make more productive use of my lunchtime at work for blog writing, but recently getting some fresh air and exercise has always seemed more attractive than another hour spent in front of a computer screen.

Having said all this there is progress to report, albeit not much. As with previous posts there has been a huge time-lag between doing the work and writing about it. This is possibly the most boring subject for most railway modelers, but this month (or last month, or whenever it actually was) I have been mostly painting roads. Again Google Maps has proved invaluable for providing photographic precedent. Hours have been spent examining aerial photos and Google Streetview of Berlin. This is where I start to sound really nerdish and if you haven’t already, you will either start to lose interest or be bewildered by the obsessive levels of detail I am going to. If you take the time to look you should notice a wide variation in the styles of road-markings between different countries. Not only that, there is also many differing types of tarmac finishing and guttering and kerb details, not to mention different philosophies on junction design. It is attention to detail at this level that I hope will set my layout apart and make it feel like part of Berlin.

Very few things outdoors are ever a consistent flat colour, particularly when it comes to the built environment. Even if they start off that way, the effects of nature soon take their toll. If you look closely, concrete, tarmac, brickwork and stone all have a rich texture to them. Plastic kits do not always reproduce this very well straight out of the box. The skill of weathering is one that all modelers will at some point try to turn their hand to, and I am no different. If you look closely at the town hall model you should see the stonework is a mixture of various colours, mixed and over-washed with varying degrees of translucency. You will see here the same technique applied to my roads.

The base colour is a flat grey from a sampler pot of Dulux emulsion. This was actually much harder to apply than anticipated due to the low quality of the supplied brush. This was followed first by an overwash of black, and then by an overwash of white. The white was very difficult to apply evenly, but I think this contributes to the weathered effect. I may at some point add joins between tarmac day-works joints or even road repairs due to potholes or where the road has been dug up to maintain services.

The final stage is road-markings. On previous layouts when I was younger and less patient this was done freehand without much thought to scale or prototype. This time I have been a little more careful! Not only have I paid much more attention  what a pedestrian crossing looks like in Berlin (they do not use zebra markings), but I have also tried to correctly gauge the length of broken centre lines. I also made a stencil to ensure consistency. My first attempt was to use the stencil as a mask and paint directly through it. This did not provide a clean enough edge; the stencil only being made from thin paper distorted with the moisture from the paint. I ended up using the stencil to draw the edge of the markings with a pencil and then to infill paint them afterwards. This was a more tedious job, but I am much happier with the results.

I have read other articles where modelers obsess to this level over trackwork, and will build their own track and turnouts because the proprietary track available does not have prototypical ties/sleepers/guard rails/turnout geometry for the locality or era they are modeling.

Now if I am to have something to write about next month, I really must do some more work on the layout …

A Question of Scale

April 19, 2011 § 1 Comment

Here is the prototype for my next building on the layout.

Chorzów Poczta

This is my own photograph of the Post Office in Chorzów, Poland, close to my wife’s hometown of Radzionków. I designed and built the previous Town hall model from a single photograph taken personally. The above photograph was taken in a hurry as we were on our way somewhere else, and I had two small children to look after at the time. While it is not a bad photograph, it does not show the complete building, and some of the details particularly around the base are obscured. But times have changed. Unlike 16 years ago, this photograph was taken digitally, so I had some idea that the image was of good enough quality to capture all the brick detailing;this is the essence of the building that I really want to convey on my model. The other big development since I started the Liberc Town Hall model is the advent of the internet, particularly Google maps. Now with a single mouse-click I can transport myself back to the middle of Chorzów, look at other people’s photograps of the same area and fill in any gaps I have.

All of a sudden you no longer have to visit a place and photograph it perosonally in order to build a model! But this is slightly missing the point of how most people choose the theme for their layouts.

This time you get the pleasure of seeing the work as it progresses. Here is a test piece, to see if my modeling skills can adequately replicate the style. I doubt this will actually make it into the final model, as you can see my brick painting skills are a little rusty. I am mostly still in the planning stage but I do have an area on the layout earmarked.

Obviously the painting, cutting, gluing skills etc. are all important, but I feel one of the real skills, and the one that is key to the success of a layout is in the design and planning.

I have already discussed that without a huge amount of space a model railway will very rarely be an exact scale representation. A standard continental coach is 26.4m long, and an average express train length is about 10 coaches. Working at HO (1:87) scale would require a platform length of  3.2m to accomodate it. And then there is the question of curves. Most people work with trains less than half this length. So not only does an object itself get scaled down mathematicaly, but reality itself also gets scaled. Model manufacturers often added their own tricks as well. Before Roco introduced it’s ‘Exclusiv 1:187 Exact’ range in the mid 1980s, modern carriages were more often than not modeled out of proportion. The profile and track was 1:87 but the length was typically 1:100 making the carriage proportionaly shorter and therefore more managable on small layouts, particularly around tight curves. Going back further particularly to early tin-plate models, they are no more than a stylistic representation of the prototyope. Both locomotives and carriages would not only be much shorter than exact scale modeling would make them, but also the number of windows or even wheels could be ‘scaled’ in order futher reduce the size.

I think it would be fair to say that most railway modelers primary interests are trains and their immediate environment. Anything else will be to provide a little bit of context and atmosphere; shops town-halls, churches are the popular choices. These often particularly in England are rarely in the locality of the railway station. If these were to be modeled exactly to scale, particularly with adjoining roads and civic spaces, they would often dwarf the railway which is supposed to be the primary focus. So simillar tricks need to be applied to the modeling of the built environment too. Towns get condensed to edited highlights, and the the buildings that are modeled get abreviated too.

You can see the  effect of this abreviation on my town hall model. So architectural features get reduced in size and number, and often just the number of windows is the first casualty. The height and number of floors are also prime candiates for being reduced. I am having to use all these tricks again for this model of  Chorzów Post-Office, so do not be surprised when the final model is not an exact replica. On further trick I am also having to employ is mirroring. As it stands the original will not fit neatly into my planned road layout, so I am building the model as a mirror image.

Some visible progress to report

August 27, 2010 § 1 Comment

Before I was actually able to put Stanley-knife to fibreboard, one evening was spent up to my neck in tracing paper with a full-scale printout of the layout plan, calculating the most efficient use of the board that I had, with one eye on how I might build a frame to support it. My choice of prototype meant that from the beginning this would always be a two level structure, and somewhat more complicated than the simple rectangular example in the Sundeala instructions. As I also wanted bridges over roads, building the upper level was not just a simple matter of cutting it out of the lower level.

Empty Saturday afternoons are a rarity when you have children, and when one came along I  grabbed the chance with both hands – repairing the rotting back-door window frame would have to wait. The sight of daddy with power-tools is a source of great excitement to any young boy, and Matthew is no exception and the construction of the frame turned into a great father-son bonding session. Not so long ago the only reaction I could get out of him was shrieks and nos and running away. This time he was only too keen to help and was exceptionally well-behaved on the unplanned excursion to B&Q to by more wood and Stanley-knife blades. In the end the basic frame came together without too much fuss, and more quickly than anticipated:

The frame

With a bit of help from Matthew

It did however spend a week on the bedroom floor disrupting wardrobe access before being fixed in place. I made the mistake one night of working too late on the upper level construction, causing silly measuring mistakes that threatened to disrupt progress. Physical progress was slowed sometime round this point when work also finally commenced on the blog.

The upper level takes shape

The final baseboard

When she finally saw the completed baseboard, it was a revelation to Ania that it was on two levels. Had she not been listening whenever a told her about my ideas? The above photos are already out of date, as it has since been covered with wallpaper to provide a smoother surface to model on and protect the soft fibreboard from degradation.

Proper Planning Prevents …

August 21, 2010 § 1 Comment

… poor performance.

I always knew I would find it difficult to meet my wife’s target of starting to build before the end of June – due mainly to the aforementioned reasons that the materials she thought I might use were entirely unsuitable, and if I was going to do it then I was going to do it properly – even if I did have nearly three months. I did however need to show Ania I was serious. So the first step was to get some proper baseboard.

Most of the German periodicals on the subject show plywood as the material of choice. My dad’s layout baseboard, was some sort of soft fibreboard similar to what is used for noticeboards, and covered the walls of my university architecture school’s studio walls for pinning drawings to. For display layouts designed to be dismantled and moved arround between exhibitions, plywood is the stronger and more durable choice, it is also cheaper and more readily available but it is more difficult to work with. The more common choice at least among layout builders in the UK is fibreboard. This is much easier to work with but is not without  its problems. The first being availability. It is not the sort of thing you find in your local DIY store. It is not something I had seen in any of my local model-shops (not that there are even that many of them) either. After much searching on-line (the internet must have hit the model-railway periodicals’ advertising revenue hard) I eventually found a company called Sundela that made exactly the product I was after, it was even marketed under the name Hobbyboard. Their distributor list is not exactly extensive so after much deliberation I decided that mail-order was preferable to a 70+ mile round trip on a saturday morning. Its arrival (over two weeks) later caused much excitement with my son Matthew, although I think he was a little perplexed when, after mummy had said the big parcel was for daddy’s trains, it was eventually opened to reveal 3 large plain-looking grey boards.

In the mean time I got busy with some proper planning. I read various blogs and forums describing  in meticulous detail the relative merits of code 75 and 83 versus code 100, and various manufacturers adherence or lack of to such and such a country’s standard practice concerning guard rails on turnouts,  and I now know the difference between flat-bottomed and bullhead rail. Considering the number of other compromises one has to make when building a model railway, I found some of these arguments about prototypical practice when it comes to track work slightly pointless. If you want to emulate prototypical running then your average Inter-City train would need to have at least eight coaches, or more on the continent. If each coach is a foot long then your average station platform needs to be somewhere near 3m in length or longer, and few people have this sort of space, even in their lofts. In the end it was all academic as my final choice of track system was governed more by how the turnout geometry would fit into the proposed space (and that my dad still had miles of unused Code 100 track in his loft). I had a little help from some planning software called AnyRail, freeware that comes complete with libraries for all the major manufacturers track systems. This was a major leap since the last time I tried any sort of layout planning about six or seven years ago, when the quality of available CAD tools designed specifically for this purpose lead me to believe I could do better myself by building my own blocks in AutoCAD.

I have often found in my experience both as an architecture student and as a professional computer software developer that the more simple and elegant a design or solution looks, the more effort has gone into it. You will learn from this blog that I am a bit of a perfectionist, and it was quite tricky getting a design that I was happy with. Here are some of my first attempts.

There were many considerations. Primarily I wanted to maximize the Stadtbahn element, that is why I chose a curve to get the longest run of railway arches. I was never going to fit an entire station in the space I had, and I did not just want a model of a station. This  pushed the station onto the shorter side of the curve. Curves on model railways are always much tighter  than they would be in reality, this means that track spacings have to we wider to compensate for larger overhangs when a long carriage is placed on a curve. While curved platforms are quite common, particularly in Britain, they look very poor when modeled. most of the work went into minimizing the wasted space between tracks around the station throat in order to leave more space for other models. Other considerations were the locations of bridges over roads so they would not conflict with under-board point motors.  So here is the final design, with some notion as to where the roads might be.

The more observant or knowledgeable among you will notice a large concession to the prototype. The Berlin Stadtbahn is four tracks, two S-Bahn suburban, lines and two Fernbahn lines.  Once outside the station my stadtbahn has only two. The real art of model railway building is knowing where to compromise and making the best use of the limited space you have.

Space … the final frontier!

August 16, 2010 § 3 Comments

The previous post was cut short due to the demands of parenthood, but I decided to publish anyway just to get the momentum going. There is still more that I feel I need to fill you in on before I get into any serious detail. Firstly I need to say a big public thank-you to Ania my wife for giving me the push I needed to get started, and for allowing me space in the house to do it.

Due to my Dad’s interest, trains and model railways were an integral part of my growing up, and once I bought my own house I always intended to build my own. Well it has taken nearly ten years to get started. There has always been some sort of obstacle, first and foremost being space. The traditional place where men have built their model railways has been in the loft. The first house I grew up in had the ideal loft space: high, long and due to being of traditional purlin construction relatively unobstructed. It was in a detached house and therefore reasonably well ventilated. My Dad’s model railway layout was huge, literally the stuff of childhood dreams. It had at least four stations, two levels, a large engine shed with turntable and seemingly miles of track. It allowed non-stop running and almost endless possibilities for shunting.

Unfortunately when I was eight we had to move house, and space for the layout was not the only consideration in the choice of new one. While the new house was much larger in terms of floor space, the roof was a trussed rafter affair with a very low pitch, rendering it useless for the purposes of a model railway. Of course the house did have other benefits, the garden was a quarter of an acre, and my childhood memories are full of long summer afternoons and evenings playing football, cricket and pitch and putt golf. The model railway was more modest than what we had been used to, Mum And Dad having given up nearly half of their bedroom to accommodate it. It still had a four track main line, that split onto two levels and roundhouse but just one main line station, and could only accommodate less than a quarter of a rolling stock collection that was continuously growing. The layout has undergone various revisions over the years as my younger brother Matt and I practiced our model-making skills, but has recently shrunk again after it had to be dismantled and rebuilt so the bedroom carpet could be replaced.

So when it came to building my own layout I always had high hopes in terms of size and operational complexity. The original plan was to put it in the loft, but my house is a Victorian terrace, where the loft ventilation is poor. It is freezing in the winter and like a sauna in the middle of summer. My dad will tell you that our old Loft layout suffered the same problems, but I also have less faith in the fabric of my roof and the structural integrity of the ceiling. There are also extra props bracing the purlins that obstruct the space. After the guest bedroom the final spare room would not accommodate the my grand schemes, and the basement is now full of bikes! This does not leave much space left, and Ania is insistent that I do something, however small  as an outlet for my latent creativity. You may by now have guessed that the new layout I am about to build is going to follow the general shrinking trend described above. So where do you think I am going to build my new layout? A corner of my own bedroom of course! So here it is, the space earmarked for my grand project.

Not even enough space for a single loop, let alone a full size station or engine shed! I am however going to finish this post on a high. This venture is being carefully planned to showcase my model-making skills, and I have not been idle for the past ten years. So here is an example of the quality of work I hope to be exhibiting on this post and on my layout over the next ten years! It is not quite finished but it is all scratch built by my own fair hand and not a plastic kit in sight.

Words do not come quickly, and it is getting late so I will leave the history and inspiration behind this model for another day!

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