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Moving forward, I’m going to be going to be making a larger commitment to my YouTube Channel.

You can subscribe to it HERE.

It’s taken me awhile to grasp what can be accomplished via video but I’m starting to get the hang of it….slowly. I plan to experiment with a variety of topics and formats. Stay tuned and, if you think there’s something there that will help or inspire you, please subscribe!

Strategic Omission

A key scene on The Downtown Spur is the point where the line crosses 12th Avenue. A major element is the Metrorail line running overhead. However, just because it’s there, should we model it?

My next book will be “Realism Principles For Model Railroaders”. Give me four to six months to get it on the shelves. Throwing a spoiler alert out there, it’s not going to go in the direction you might expect. Here’s one example. It’s counterintuitive, but there is tremendous power in strategic omission. That is, intentionally leaving something out. It’s odd, but the concept is one of “not” doing something to improve your results. Looked at another way I’d call it, “not shooting yourself in the foot”.

Prototype modelers have a tendency to fall into a subtle trap of what I call the “placeholder approach”. We look at a scene, make note of the elements in that scene, and then dutifully try to represent them tit for tat. It sounds reasonable but let’s think it through for a second. Three problems commonly come up. First, a high quality casting for that part may not be on the market. Putting a soap carving on the layout just because Tichy or Alkem doesn’t make what we need is, in fact, shooting yourself in the foot. You’re just checking a box on a laundry list. Second, we may not have the skill to pull it off. For example, there may be very prominent graffiti in the scene but graffiti can be very difficult to model. Finally, the geometry of the element may not lend itself to being represented in model form. A common example is elevated features, such as roads or mass transit lines, running into the backdrop.

Here’s a mockup of the 12th Avenue Metrorail scene on the layout. The point where it meets the backdrop is a total visual nightmare. I made the strategic decision to exclude it from the layout. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

I intend to allocate an entire chapter of the book on developing an awareness of visual landmines so that you can make strategic decisions as to whether you are better off just not trying to model them. Once again, the old adage is “no detail is better than a bad detail”. Stay tuned.

Adding Audio Props to Operations

Pricom’s Dream Player Lite.

When I’m running a solo op. session on my layout I try to visualize what the crew would be doing along the way. This encompasses things such as allowing time for the conductor to walk, setting car brake wheels, three step protection, etc. The question becomes, how do you represent some of those activities? Perhaps the bigger question is, “should” you even try to represent them with anything more than a pause? Over the years I’ve gone back and forth on this and even experimented with props from time to time. For me, personally, the props were something I grew to dislike. You may come to a different conclusion. To each their own.

Is there a middle ground? Is there a way of representing at least some of these activities realistically without resorting to the gameboard approach? In the back of my mind I’ve always wondered if short sound clips were a partial solution. Push a button and a short audio clip plays of a brake wheel being set, calling for three step, etc. Obviously this won’t apply to everything. As an experiment, I bought a sound player (Pricom’s Dream Player Lite), loaded the sound of brake wheels being set/released and gave it a whirl. The results are promising. The key to making this work is to keep it simple. One button push followed by the sound. Stationary decoders have their place but they involve a lot of hoops to jump through to get a result…aka the sound. The more “button pushes” any sound prop approach involves, the less desirable it becomes….in my opinion. One push…instant sound….K.I.S.S.

I just uploaded a YouTube video showing a live version of the experiment.

Working with the Dream Player Lite is as simple as can be. You do need to get the sounds though. To do so I use a free sound editor called “Audacity”. After you have Audacity on your computer, search through YouTube prototype switching videos for the track you want. Play the video and hit Audacity’s “record” button. When finished, hit the “End Recording” button. To save the file to your computer, go to “File” then to “Export” (export not save) and export it in .wav format which is the only format that the Dream Player will accept.

Start your desired YouTube video in motion and when you get to the desired audio hit the “Start” button on Audacity. When finished, hit the “Stop” button.

Next, go to “File” and then “Export”. Export your clip in .wav format. Simple!

Once you have your audio clip on your computer, save it to the SD card that comes with your Pricom player. In order for the player to recognize it, you need to put a “1-” designation in front of the file name. For example save it as “1-ThreeStepAudio”.

Plug the player into some computer speakers, hit the red button, and you’ll have sound! Note that the Dream Player Lite only handles one sound file. If you want several files on one board, you’ll need to get their MK2 player.

At this point it’s only an experiment. Will the sound clips improve the ops experience above the simple “pause and visualize” approach? Time will tell but the tests show promise.

Correction: I made a procedural error in the timing of releasing the hand brakes. They would not be released until AFTER the loco. couples on. Thanks to professional railroader Tim Garland for writing “No, you definitely need to couple to the car first before releasing the hand brake, otherwise it could roll away if the air brakes have bled off during the time the car has been at the industry. Before 3-step was mandated around year 2000 we used to say air and brakes or A& B over the radio. We also had a hand signal for it. On a side note, it is good practice to stop short of a coupling when initially entering an industry to check the car out before coupling. You want to check to make sure they are no wheel chocks in place, the wheels are all on the rails, no dock boards in the cars and that the doors are secured properly. At facilities where they receive tank cars and covered hoppers you want to make sure nothing is connected to the cars and that the roof hatches are shut.” Check out Tim’s excellent YouTube Channel HERE.

The Produce Connection

One of the signature features of Miami are the wall murals. They’re everywhere. This shot was taken on my Downtown Spur layout. You’re looking north up 22nd Avenue. The backdrop starts at the black pick-up truck. The focal point industry is called The Produce Connection and it’s just across the street from Family and Son. The structure was scratch built but it was a pretty easy project, basically a styrene cube. I made a point of getting a good photo of the mural during a site visit and just glued it to the side of the model. The crossing signal is a modified Walthers part.

Skill vs. Decision Making

Creating an eye-catching model of UP’s Anaheim Yard has less to do with skill than effective decision making. That being the case, doing so is within reach for even entry-level modelers.

A world-class musician?  Pure skill.  A PGA golfer?  Pure skill.   Artists such as Vermeer and Hopper?  The same.  Exceptional model railroading results?  Not so much.  Nope, the lion’s share of a model’s visual impact isn’t related to skills that take decades to learn.  In most cases, the necessary techniques are so basic that any first-timer could employ them.  The cost of supplies and tools is minimal.  Creating a great model railroad scene has far less to do with skill than it does with effective decision-making.  (For our purposes I’ll define the term “skill” as anything that requires eye/hand coordination or motor skills. Masterful weathering would be an example). The decisions that are made are what drives the bus.   Those crucial decisions center on:

  • Material selection
  • Color selection & application
  • Element selection
  • Generous spacing between elements
  • Sheen (Flat vs. Glossy)
  • Inserting contrast
  • Basic neatness

Details?  Who doesn’t enjoy detailing a model?  However, the contribution to visual impact is minimal when compared to other aspects.  Detail a model because you enjoy it.  Just understand its place in the visual hierarchy.  Looking at the seven elements above, in every case, an effective decision is as easy, or often easier to apply than a less effective one.

Materials: In the case of man-made elements, choose the parts and kits that have the finest detail and thinnest cross sections.  With structures, look for those appropriate to your era and select ones featuring “ordinary” architecture. Buildings should be ordinary, mundane, and look like they belong.  For soils and ballast use natural products.

Color: Lean on the side of low saturation to account for atmosphere and sun fade. When in doubt go “light, pastel, and faded”. Use brilliant, brightly saturated colors with caution.  Don’t paint overly thick castings and parts (such railings and windows) bright colors

Composition: Spread your elements out.  You are far better off with fewer, widely placed objects, than an overly crowded scene that contains everything but the kitchen sink.

Give everything a dead flat sheen, even those are actually glossy in the real world.  Shine is lost with distance and atmosphere.  Pay particular attention to making sure things that are flat in nature are flat on your layout.  Examples include masonry, wood, tree trunks, etc. (Glossy bricks and roofs are scene busters)

-Light doesn’t bounce off of a model the way it does in real life.  You don’t get the necessary shadows and contrast.  Inserting contrast manually with washes adds snap and realism.

-Basic neatness goes a long way.  If nothing else, it prevents you from shooting yourself in the foot and letting sloppiness detract from an otherwise great effort.

To illustrate the skill vs. decision making point let’s run through a hypothetical thought experiment. Let’s say we have a motivated high school student, totally new to the hobby and talk him through how to pull off the scene.

  1. Use earth toned grout for the soil base. I’d start with a blend of “Bone” and “Neutral Gray” . Once that’s dried, take a slightly darker hue of gray or brown grout and rub it around in spots with your finger.
  2. Track. Use Micro Engineering or the new Walthers code 70. The finer details and smaller spikes are very apparent in photos. Paint the rail with Rustoleum Earth Brown camo. paint. Lay the track directly on the layout surface with no elevated roadbed cork or otherwise.
  3. Use only natural rock based products for the ballast, preferably Arizona Rock and Mineral. Apply it in several light passes. Make sure you have no grains stuck to the sides of the rail or laying on the ties (even if it does on the prototype). Neatness really, really matters with ballast. Go light. Work in layers.
  4. Walthers Clayton County Lumber would work well for the distant building. Paint the walls Rustoleum Light Gray Primer. Once the walls are dry, give them a wash of dilute India Ink and alcohol to insert contrast in the corrugations. Go easy on the roof color, making it even less of an orange than the prototype. Dial the orange back. (Start with a raw umber followed by a dusting of Rustoleum Earth Brown. Finish it off with an India ink/alcohol wash). Make sure that all of the paint has a dead flat finish
  5. There are decent commercial palms on the market. Don’t rely on the pre-colored plastic that they come in. Paint the trees and do so with a dead flat finish.
  6. Note the wall in the distance, boring yes, but a signature element of the area. Include it. It could be modeled with a strip of styrene. Paint it first with light gray primer and then follow up with a light dusting of white primer.
  7. Commercial billboards are easily found. Just make sure that you paint give it a totally flat sheen.
  8. When choosing the signal boxes be aware that not all parts are made the same. Some have much finer details than others. Develop an awareness of that. If you can find them, the old BLMA products are preferred. Note that the boxes aren’t silver. They aren’t grainy silver. They’re pale gray approaching white.

All of the painting could be handled with rattle cans. The cost of materials would be nominal. The good news is that a standout scene can be achieved largely by making the right decisions when it comes to material selection and color treatment. That being the case it’s achievable for anybody.