Tuesday, December 31, 2019

New Year's Resolutions are Overrated

The holiday season, especially coming at the end of our calendar year, is an ideal time to reflect not only on family and times past, but to look forward with anticipation to the months ahead. And here at The Valley Local it's a perfect time to take stock of what's been accomplished in the past 12 months and set some goals for the upcoming year.

This would be a bit different than last year's post. Coming at the end of a tough year for our family, I got a bit philosophical about goals for 2019 - which is to say, I didn't make any.

Nope - no New Year's Resolutions. And, ironically, in reviewing the past year, it turns out 2019 was one of my most productive years so far!

Who woulda thunk it?

But since I rely on these New Year's posts to provide a "temperature check" on the layout, I feel compelled to do at least a little review - as well as (with some trepidation) set some goals for further progress for the next 12 months.

So here's where we left off at the end of 2018:
  • Gra-Rock building in Wethersfield got started
  • Route 15 overpass was completed, but no scenery around it
  • Cape Cod house (across the street from John Wallace's house) started
As well as a few lingering goals (as in, goals that had been set at the start of 2018 - two years ago - and hadn't even been started):
  • Building John Wallace's house
  • Hartford skyline backdrop
  • Finish East Berlin, including Stan-Chem plant, station, backdrop, and scenery
  • Finish Saybrook
  • Finish Wethersfield
  • Finish Class J 2-8-2 #3022
Turns out, not setting goals cuts both ways: on the one hand, no matter what you do (even if nothing at all), you "win." On the other hand, you have no way to really evaluate whether you made any progress. Nevertheless, despite not making any New Year's Resolutions for 2019, look at what I accomplished:
With the benefit of hindsight, I realize there are a few notable reasons I was able to make so much progress in 2019 - and 2/3 of them have to do with having the help of friends.

Firstly, despite the Missus losing her grandmother in June (and the associated cleaning up and closing of the house), 2019 wasn't nearly as busy with family stuff as 2018 was. Heh - that's not saying a lot, but it made a lot of difference.

Secondly, the layout got a HUGE infusion of progress & motivation with the acquisition of a number of amazing structures "re-homed" to the Valley Line from Bill Maguire's layout. Not only did I get a perfect model of the Dickinson warehouse in Essex, but also 2/3 of the buildings in East Berlin, almost all of the structures in Middletown, as well as the Lace Factory building in Deep River and Pratt & Reed (which is presently doing duty as Middletown Meat Packing). Getting those buildings - and the associated effort required to absorb them into the layout - gave my progress a huge boost.

Finally, Dave Messer seems to have taken on Valley Line structures as a personal mission. He first got involved as a way to help model his childhood town of Wethersfield, but his efforts have gone way beyond that to include not only the East Berlin station, but all of Hartford Rayon as well. And he's currently working on the structures for East Haddam. Suffice it to say, without him and BillM (as well as BillS, who did all the structures in Rocky Hill & Saybrook way back when...), there'd hardly be any structures on my layout at all.

Of course, this isn't even to mention the help I've had from others during the past year. So a big thank you to BillS (again), Jim, Pete, Pieter, and Randy. The Valley Line wouldn't be anywhere near as far along without the generosity of their time and effort.

So, what's ahead for 2020?

Given how much progress made in 2019 without any New Year's Resolutions, I'm a little leery of making any for the upcoming year. But, as I mentioned earlier, since this annual post is my annual "temperature taking" I'll go ahead and list a few things I'd like to see done by this time next year:
  • Wethersfield done - final structures, some details, photo backdrop, scenery. Yes, this goal has been on my list for a while now (as in, years) but the start of a new decade is as good a time as any to finally get it done (and by "done" I mean a look of "completed-ness." One can always add more detail....)
  • East Berlin done - This should be relatively easy to accomplish since all that's left to do is pour the river, weather the road, weather the station, and add a few details.
  • Dividend done - Working south on the RR, and since Rocky Hill is done, adding the chemical tank unloading facility, backdrop, scenery and details shouldn't be too heavy a lift.
  • Saybrook done - Saybrook is the first scene folks see when they come down the stairs, and it's lingered in its current state for far too long. Mainly, the Rt. 1 overpass (which anchors the left end of the scene) needs to be done, as well as the signal bridge (which anchors the right end). Other than that, it's "just" ballast (still need to decide what to use) and backdrop.
So much for the "main" goals. In addition, I'd still like to try and accomplish the following in 2020:
  • East Haddam - Dave's working on the structures, so the main hurdle here is creating a convincing backdrop. The orientation of the scene is looking east, with the river behind the buildings and on the backdrop. Complicating this is the fact that an iconic opera house and swing bridge need to be on the backdrop too. Once I get the backdrop figured out, the rest is "just" scenery.
  • #3022 - The Air Line local needs its iconic motive power. For far too long it's relied on borrowed equipment which, while plausible, isn't ideal. It's been easy to put this on the back burner since none of the Air Line section of the layout is prototypical, but it'd be nice if at least the engine was. Plus, it's a cool engine.
  • 2 DEY-5s: Speaking of motive power, for Autumn 1948, I need two Alco S-2 engines to hold down the Shoreline locals. MikeR produced the distinctive NHRR cabs for these locos, all I need is to assemble, detail, and paint them. Oh, and "somebody" needs to produce suitable delivery-scheme decals . . .
  • More ops sessions - When reviewing 2019, I was actually surprised that I had 6 sessions during the year, so I averaged one every other month. But the reality is that many of those were "two-fers" where I did multiple sessions within a few weeks of each other. So there were LONG dry spells in between. I'd like my sessions to get on a more regular schedule.
WHEW! If you've made it this far, thanks for reading. And I fully acknowledge - based on last year’s experience - that setting all these goals risks actually accomplishing nothing. But as I've mentioned, these posts are frankly more for me than anything else, though I do hope that there's something here that will encourage and/or inspire you to get to the basement (or the train room) more in the upcoming year. Sure, it's "only a hobby" but I can attest to its value in helping me clear my mind, relax, and focus on creating something unique. I think we're most human - our truest selves - when we’re engaged in a creative pursuit that we're passionate about.

Unpacking that last sentence could be the topic of a whole other post (or blog). But for now, just remember the main takeaway of this post:

Don't let the making of New Year's Resolutions keep you from pursuing your goals.


Monday, December 30, 2019

Monday "Modeling" - PanPastel display/storage

As I mentioned in my last post, one of the things I got for Christmas was this cool Pan Pastel storage rack from Motrak Models . . .

It comes in kit form as pieces of laser-cut Masonite. So while it's not a railroad kit per se, I think putting any sort of kit together qualifies as "modeling" - at least a little bit.

So follow along as I put it together - start to finish took less than 30 minutes. . .

Here are all the parts laid out. In addition to what comes in the kit, you'll want a sturdy, flat surface to work on, some wax paper, clamps, and - of course - wood glue.
I have a large piece of plate glass on-hand that I like to use as well. It's certainly not required, but is handy for creating a surface which is perfectly flat. Bonus: it also protects my nice wood table.
Might be overkill, given the glass, but I went ahead and added some wax paper on top. The paper alone would probably be sufficient protection for whatever surface you're using.

First thing I did was lay out the parts. The instructions claim everything goes together only one way, and they're right. You really can't mess up. But one thing to note - especially if, like me, you plan to glue both back parts together along their common edge - is to make sure the bottom piece is oriented correctly. Note the alignment of the bottom slots/tabs in the pic above. Not right.

This is more like it. The orientation of all the other parts is dictated by the slots/tabs. Just be careful to be sure the separators (the triangle-y parts) are attached with the tall edge toward the top/away from you (assuming you're assembling the rack with the top away from you as I did).

I tend to be a bit OCD when it comes to glue application, so I squeezed some wood glue into a bottle cap and used a large/micro (?!) brush to apply the glue sparingly where ever the parts would come into contact with each other.
The instructions suggest putting everything together at once - and given how quickly such small amounts of glue start to set up, you'll want to be sure and move right along briskly. In the photo above, I've glued in all of the small separator parts and am preparing the front parts for assembly.
As with the small separators, I worked from back (top/away) to front. Here I'm adding the front parts. 

Once all the front parts are added, it's time to add the sides. For the left side, I applied the glue to where I knew it'd contact the other parts.

Once the left side was attached, I rested the whole assembly on that side and applied glue this time to the edges of all the parts rather than to the side part (as you can see, I'd started to apply the glue to the side as before, but decided to try this alternate method)

Once the two sides are attached, you turn the whole thing over onto its front and add glue first for the back splice part . . .

attach the splice and then add glue for the hangar reinforcement at the top . . .

Once those last two parts are attached, clamp it all together as shown and add some weight to the splice (which you can't really clamp).
And that's it! Once the glue cures, you'll have a very nice way to store and display your Pan Pastels for ready reference and access.

Just need to use those included anchors & screws to hang it up nice and sturdy… And yes, that is in fact an extra part. Truly - just in case you lose one.
Thanks to Jeff Adam at Motrak Models for coming up with such a neat idea and designing such an easy-to-build kit. Even though it's not a freight car or structure, the act of building anything is a fun and relaxing way to spend some time.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Sunday Santa/Christmas Booty

Happy Holidays from the Valley Local! Here's hoping you and yours had a wonderful Christmastime - or whatever holiday you celebrate. As long as you were able to spend some good time with family, as I was, anything else is gravy.

But, that said - what'd Santa bring you?

I got a lot of wonderful things, but here's the railroad-related items, in no particular order...

I expect to be doing a lot more scenery in the new year, and I'm beginning to like working with foam a bit more, so I figured it was high time I got a more versatile foam cutter. I also really enjoyed Lance Mindheim's clinic at the MARPM this year, and his book "Model Railroading as Art" was already something that was on my list since he puts into words a lot of the concepts I've only been toying around with.

In addition to scenery, I also expect to have a lot of structure building in my future so a book on kitbashing will come in especially handy. And even though "the forties" looks black and white to us for the most part (since that's how 99% of the photos look), it's great to have a reference for how things looked back then in color - so the "Classic Railroad Scenes" book will be super helpful.

Finally, and going waaaaaay back to Christmas 1982 when all of this RR stuff started for me, mom & dad got me a book on the Illinois Central RR. Long story short (though you can get the full story here), my great and great-great maternal grandfathers both worked for the IC - the older of the two actually worked the same division as John Luther Jones and knew him as an acquaintance. So it'll be cool to learn some of the history and background of this storied railroad - and get to know a bit more about my grandfathers' jobs way back when.

As I said, I got some other really neat things as well, but this being a railroad blog I figured I'd limit it to railroad stuff.

So - what did YOU get for Christmas?

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Word(less) Wednesday #296 - MERRY CHRISTMAS!!

Here are some pics from my Christmas layout to put you in the holiday mood. Hope you enjoy them and hope, even more, that you and yours have a Wonderful and Very Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 20, 2019

East Berlin Backdrop

One of the easiest - and hardest - ways to add a LOT of depth and "scenery" to a scene is to install a photo backdrop. It's really hard (at least it is for me) to choose just the right photos for a particular area - and that's even more difficult when you're a committed prototype modeler and know how the area's supposed to look. Unfortunately, unless your modeling era is "the present" and you live close by where you can take photos of your chosen locale, it's hard to get the perfect photos. Heh - in 1948 everything is black and white, and very little looks the same nowadays anyway.

So, unless you want to wait to find photos that probably never existed, you have to be willing to compromise - to use photos which look as close to what you think the scene should look like as possible. In the case of East Berlin on my layout, I know that Berlin Street went up a slight hill and that there were (and are) homes up on that hill behind the station. And unfortunately, there's no way to get photos of any of that from a proper vantage point. Besides, did Berlin Street look in 1948 anything like it does today? I also have to try and blend in the right end of the Rt. 15 overpass, which on the prototype is MILES away - but has to be located here due to my space constraints.

What I do know is that there were at least a few trees behind the station and in front of those houses. So I figured a "treeline" backdrop along with a road "going off in the distance" would suffice. Fortunately, I have a bunch of treeline photos I've taken during Septembers and Octobers past (I model early/mid Autumn) and I even made it a point to take a few "roads into the distance" photos during those same time periods.

Unfortunately, finding/taking suitable photos is only the first step (although it may be the most difficult). Next, you have to get them into backdrop form. That means not only stitching them together (relatively easy, if you have enough photos of the same long scene that you took in sequence), but also photo-shopping them as needed to blend together photos that weren't taken together (as in the case of my "road" photo which needed to be blended with my "trees" photos). Oh, and you need to remove any anachronistic details - especially power lines.

There's a reason some folks command good money to do this work. You're a lucky guy/gal if you have a friend that'll do it for free. I'm lucky to have a couple such friends, but I fear relying on them too heavily, so I decided to try to learn to fish a bit myself instead of always having to ask for a fish. The photo-shopping process is way beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say that it wasn't quite as difficult as I thought it would be.

I started with a total of 6 photos. The left-most four were all part of a sequence that I easily stitched together. The fifth one was the road photo (a version of which I'd been using in this spot for a while - see the photo at the top of this post). The sixth/last photo on the right was another "treeline" photo, chosen since it was close to the same look as the right side of the road photo.

I'm not sure how long it took to blend everything together since I did it off and on over a few weeks and didn't keep track of time. My biggest tip though is to Save Many Versions of your work along the way. That way, even if you screw up something and don't know how to fix it, you can go back to a previously saved version and pick up again from there.

The photo above shows the six photos, printed out on my home printer on regular sized paper, and taped together to check scaling and coverage.

Here's another tip (though maybe I'm just not doing it right....): I couldn't figure out how to get Photoshop Elements to print a "banner." It kept printing out just the center of the image I'd created. The only way I could get the pages printed out to tape together was to save the image as a PDF and then use Adobe Acrobat to print that PDF version of the image as a banner. Acrobat divided up the image into the regular-sized paper and I was able to get my test print for sizing/scaling.

Now here's where folks that have read this far get the payoff....

Once your test print is the size and scale you need, save it again as a PDF (maybe include the word "final" in the filename) and take it to your local Staples store (or equivalent) on a thumbdrive. They print banners all the time and, at least in the case of Staples, will give you at least two choices of vinyl - indoor or outdoor.  The outdoor is thicker, but the indoor actually looks clearer to me (less distortion from the texture/thickness of the paper itself). BONUS - the indoor is less expensive as well, especially if you choose the matte polypropylene (which is all you really need). Comes to about $3.50 per square foot and is done while you wait (you may be able to get it a little cheaper if you wait overnight).

In my case, a 40" long backdrop, 9 1/2" high came to under $10.

Once I confirmed all was well and fit as planned, I cut out all the sky - leaving a bit over the road for depth (my cut followed the top edge of a cloud).

I've used glue stick to adhere previous backdrops, but those were smaller - and it was still a bit messy. This time I decided to use vinyl wall adhesive typically used to secure wallpaper seams. I temporarily taped the backdrop to the wall and made some light pencil marks on the wall along the top edge. I then brushed the adhesive directly on to the wall, keeping short of those marks. Once I placed the backdrop onto the wall and smoothed it out, where ever I needed a bit more adhesive along the top edge, I just applied it to the back of the paper with a small brush.  Keep a damp cloth on-hand to clean up any adhesive that may squeeze out.

One challenge I had was that my backdrop didn't go low enough to meet my riverbank. And if I'd made the backdrop image that low, I'd be wasting lots of image hidden behind the scenery base. No worries - I just painted this blue area to match the surrounding scenery (which you'll see in a later photo).

Another challenge - figured out during the testing/fitting process - was to make sure the road on the backdrop matched the road on the layout. Some work and patience paid off here. By the way, my road is a piece of foamcore - and I just peeled off the paper revealing the foam (and its great "concrete" texture).

If I don't say so myself, you may want to be sure to click on this image to enlarge it since I think it came out pretty nice. I painted the foamcore with acrylic craft paints to match the color in the photo (I still need to to a bit of shading/weathering to match it perfectly), and as I mentioned earlier, I painted that strip of blue above the river to match the surrounding scenery. Covering this area with brambles and bushes will make that seam even harder to see.

As I said way back at the start of this post - adding a photo backdrop is the easiest way to add a lot of "scenery" and depth to a scene. Yes, it'll take some work - maybe a lot of work - but I daresay the result is always worth the effort.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Throwback Thursday: Mattabesett River Scene

Today's post qualifies as a "Throwback Thursday" since these photos were taken a bit ago, but - as I mentioned in my last post - I'm just now getting around to posting them. Since a "blog" is a web-log of my layout's progress, I figure it's never too late to do an update. At least it's getting chronicled here. Having said that though, I am trying to catch up so that my posts are more real-time.

Now that things are really starting to shape up at the end of the Berlin Branch, it's time to turn my focus to the main scenic feature of that line - the crossing of the Mattabesett River.

For the longest time, the area looked like this:

The bridge has been in place for ops sessions, but it had to be removed to work on the area. So, for the time being (and still, as of today AAMOF), the Berlin Branch is OOS.

First step was to try my  hand at coloring those white hydrocal rock castings I got from Pete. In the first photo, you see that I chose them for their shape and how they'd look in the scene. In the photo above, you see the results of my coloring effort. Nothing innovative here - I just followed the tried&true Woodland Scenics technique of "leopard spotting" different colors with a sponge brush.

  • Spot 1/2 with burnt umber wash
  • Spot 1/2 with yellow ochre wash
  • Brush overall with black wash
  • Repeat as necessary to get the effect you want
Even with this left-brained recipe, the technique is still decidedly right-brained. You just keep at it until it looks "right." I got a few compliments on the rocks at the next ops session, so I think they must look right to at least a couple other folks than just me. So I'll take that as a win.

Once I placed the rocks where I wanted them, I needed to focus on the river and banks.

This was a (dare I say "fun?") multi-step process of using ground goop to "plant" the rocks, then applying various colors and textures over the goop (mostly ground up leaves, with some fine "burnt grass" ground foam mixed in as well). I fixed this all in place with pipettes of diluted glue, and misted with 70% IPA.

Somewhere in there I also painted the river itself using my main dirt color as well as some black (actually, "grimy black" - yes, I had a quart of latex paint colored to match the PollyS color). The technique I used is one I read about where you use one brush and dip in into one color, brush it on, then dip the brush in the other color, and brush it on, blending the two together as you go.

Longtime readers know I'm definitely too left-brained to have much artistic ability, but I was really psyched at how easy this technique was and how effective the result - it's amazing that it actually looks like there's some depth there, with the banks fading "down into" the water. Well, at least it looks that way to my eye.

To be honest, the process here went over more than just a few days. I'd add some color & texture, fix it in place, then wait until the next day to (re)evaluate things and add more color & texture, building it up as I went. On the one hand, I found the process very enjoyable. On the other hand, I sometimes found it harrowing (my favorite word lately, apparently) since I knew I needed to continue the process but didn't want to risk messing up what I'd already done.

Case in point was the river itself. Though I really liked how the blending effect had come out, it looked a bit too even/perfect (I think The Missus actually said it looked like a road). So out came the paints again - and this time, I "unevened" the banks a bit.

And in conjunction with that, I also added some uneven texture along the banks to help the effect.

The area's really shaping up - and definitely looks a WHOLE lot better than it did when I started. That's not saying too much, I know, but more than a few mentors have told me "it's just scenery, you can't mess it up" and while I don't quite believe them yet, it's turning out to be true. So far at least.