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Sunday, September 25, 2022

New Digs

We're reaching the point of unpacking and settling into our new home when I can begin to set up my workbenches.  Yes, workbenches, plural.  During the lockdown I had set up a small bench in our bedroom in order to have a quiet space in a full house.  My main workbench was in our long living room, shared with our boys' gaming computer, my wife's workbench for her crafts*, our television and seating area, all adjacent to the dining room and kitchen.  Quiet, focused time with a model was rare unless I got up early or stayed up late, so having that small bench in a room where I could shut the door and put on some music to drown out the world for a while was critical to my sanity.

Garage bench slowly coming back to life.

Now in our new home I have the blessing of a detached garage.  Yes, despite the challenges of model building in a non-climate controlled space, it is a blessing.  I suspect it will become better with time as I insulate the space, but for now it presents the same challenges as the previous attached garage - too hot in the summer afternoons and likely too cold in the winter.  Also, while California is dry most of the time, it is our proximity to the sea that gives us the cool overnight temps.  However, this brings with it moist air, and our winters are wet.  So where can I find a space in the house to work?

 New bench beneath the window used to be my wife's crafting table.

In the new house there's a 'den' or 'family room' at the back of the house where I can set up a small bench - larger than my old bedroom bench, but not large enough for spreading out a big project.  I'll be sharing this space with my boys' computer again, and a TV, but this time in a smaller room.  Just like the last house, my bench will be under a window and next to a sliding glass door leading out to the back yard and in this case, the garage.  In the old place there was an area for parts, tools, etc. and train magazines along a wall next to the workbench.  So too here, but instead of old dorm-room pine shelves from Ikea, we've ordered new finished open shelves for books and a central display cabinet with glass doors -  for models, of course - also from Ikea.  We like Ikea.  

Hopefully in a few weeks I'll be able to show off the new spaces as I expect them to look when fully operational.  First up on the den workbench will be Star Wars Legion figures in need of paint, and in the garage, the Milk & Mail train continues with the Combine car.   What's on your workbench these days? 

*My wife's craft space, by the way, is now in its own cabinet but in the living room at the front of the house.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Diorama Design and Composition

I'm not a professional artist with training or any formal education in the subject, but I know what I like.  That is to say, I have an idea of what a scene could be or might be before I begin building it, and I learn whether or not I like that idea as I build the scene.  As various elements like buildings or major land forms or trees are brought to the space the idea might shift and change.  That was certainly the case with my Walthers National Model Railroad Build Off 2022 diorama.

Click on the image above then open in a new tab to see a really BIG version.

At first I wasn't even going to enter the contest simply because I was already building a railroad and had a good head of steam and didn't want to lose momentum on that project.  But when I figured I could build a diorama using elements that would find a home on the railroad, and potentially win a little cash to fund the hobby, well, it wasn't hard to commit to the endeavor.  So I set about I making a few sketches of a scene that might easily incorporate models I knew I'd want on the railroad that I already had on hand.  I chose the structures based on how long it might take to build them the way I like them considering the four month time frame of the contest.

Once the structures were selected I could consider their arrangement.  I've always liked intersections and streets, especially the way they relate to the structures alongside them and the way they fit into or shape the natural setting.  Add a railroad to the mix and it gets really interesting.  In this case I decided to keep the freight railroad element to a minimum - a spur for the mill - while giving more emphasis to the horse-drawn street railway, a unique element less commonly modeled.  I considered running streets and tracks parallel to the diorama edges at first, but migrated toward an offset angled configuration to allow more room to develop the grounds of each structure and set it in its context.

The "quadrants" of the scene, defined by the major streets, are not evenly balanced yet the structures and scenic elements give them appropriate weight.  The large Purina building occupies a smaller area than the two smaller structures diagonally opposite.  Think of a beam scale, how the smaller weight slides along a long bar to balance the heavy weight on the other side.

Elements like the farm field, the orange grove, the family garden behind the cottage or the Florida scrub habitat could all be modeled in part along the diorama edge and the angled orientation would give the impression they continued on beyond the edge of the diorama.  A parallel orientation might give the idea that the field or grove ended at the edge.  We assume the streets continue even when perpendicular or parallel to the edge because that's a more commonly seen trope on many model railroads.  Still, I believe even they benefit from the angled treatment.   

Structure roof-lines were also considered in the composition of the scene.  Strong parallel lines like rails running down the brick street give the eye a path to follow.  Other elements interrupt that flow while some reinforce it.  Roof lines can do either or both.  Natural elements like the orange grove can be parallel to the street and reinforce the motion while creating rhythm.  The dirt road breaks the rhythm and lets the eye jump across the street to a different area.  The billboard is set at an angle to the road and is the only man-made element oriented that way; the rest are parallel or perpendicular to each other.

Note the color, texture, and the way the elements interact with the edge.  We know that driveway keeps going and turns toward the back porch.  So too the lawn and garden continue.  The strong roof lines direct the eye through the scene and the colors of the house both reflect the tans and reds of the scenery.

Color was a major element considered in the composition.  The bold patterns and patriotic colors of the Purina Mill really stand out against the greens and browns of the landscape.  So too the white billboard.  Across the street, however, the colors are more subdued.  Yes, the fruit stand is garish, but the yellow, orange and green are echoes of the orange grove.  The colors for the Queen Anne style cottage were chosen from actual home colors used in the period.  The maroon and tan on the cottage echo the brick street and sandy soil.

Perhaps the most important color on the diorama was the street itself.  I chose a dark brick color with blue tones to simulate the over-fired bricks used on streets in Florida from that period.  The tan earth of the sandy dirt roads and driveways contrasts with the brick, as does the bright green grass.  I found several photos showing the sand blown onto the road and wanted to highlight this effect.  The other major color consideration was the foliage, from the faded lime green of the palm fronds to the deep dark green of the orange trees and every shade in between.  Florida is a green, lush place, and the foliage needed to reflect that vibrancy.

From the muted dark green of the Oak behind the cottage to the vibrant bright spring green of the lawn, I hoped to capture some of Florida's lush and diverse foliage, both in color and texture.  Look closely and you'll spot the Azalea in bloom.  Liriope lines the front path.
The final element I considered in the composition was the placement of figures and mini-scenes.  That topic will get a post of its own.  Thanks for reading and feel free to comment or ask questions.  I hope these ideas help you create interesting scene compositions on your dioramas or model railroads.

Sunday, September 4, 2022

A Better Purina Building

... or, simple upgrades to make a classic kit into a stand-out structure.  This post is yet another in the series about how I built my diorama for the Walthers National Model Railroad Build Off 2022.

I've always admired the Suydam Purina Building with its bold checkerboard graphics.  During the course of building mine, I discovered that the checkerboard pattern dates back as far as 1903-4, and the further back you go, the more elaborate the pattern becomes.  Back then the checkerboard was painted on just about any surface from wagons to walls, and whatever wasn't red and white check was a deep blue.  As time passed the amount of surface area covered in the ubiquitous checkered pattern diminished so if you're modeling a more recent structure, less is best.  However, for my 1914 diorama, the building as printed fits right in.  Even the typeface is a great match for that era and beyond.

The kit reflects the standard of the time (mid 50s? - HO Seeker shows it in the 1956 Suydam catalog), with window frames printed on acetate, die-cut walls and overly large-section stripwood.  The few metal castings for the roof details are nice, but you're set up to fail with the heavy copper wire that must be bent carefully to become piping and soft flat metal strips for struts.  I tried, and failed to achieve a result I was pleased with, eventually using bits from my scrap box to cobble together the support.  Your mileage may vary.  The platforms and steps were simple wood shapes meant to be painted to look like concrete and the kit included "skylights", more akin to clerestory roofs, made of similar wood shapes to be covered in paper.  I chose not to use this detail, but a skylight from Campbell would make a better substitute.

To begin the upgrade, I substituted Tichy windows for the printed acetate.  All that was necessary was to widen the die-cut openings ever so slightly and paint the window frames brown to match the lower wall sections.  Next I made new freight doors from old plastic Ertl box-car floors since they were scribed with wide board detail.  Some cross braces completed the transformation.  For the main door and office door I found two metal castings from my collection, probably from Sequoia and Dyna Models, respectively.  Since one freight door would be posed open I created a simple floor and walls for the warehouse area that might be seen through the opening 

The card roof in the kit was simply coated with a piece of 220 grit sandpaper which was painted and heavily weathered to resemble tar and gravel roofing.  The corner trim and wall cornice was made with the stripwood from the kit augmented with some finer sizes from my supply.  The printed walls were left unmodified but the corrugated walls were marked with a pencil and scibed to created the illusion of individual panels.  After the building was assembled these were lightly weathered to further that effect.  A note here - brace, brace, BRACE!  No, we're not crashing, but even with the bracing I added to the roof it still managed to warp a little.  This isn't noticeable unless you look for it and the problem would go away if I were gluing the roof to the walls but I wanted to leave it removable for future interior detailing.

The front porch was made by layering scribed paneling to the sides and individual boards to the top of the wood block provided in the kit.  The metal roof is the kit roof, again marked and scribed to simulate individual panels, over a stripwood frame.  For the side loading dock I scratchbuilt a simple structure from scale lumber and stained it to look like treated wood that had begun to bleach in the sun.  This structure, like the others on the diorama, is not intended to look that old so the weathering was restrained.  One interesting detail on the dock ramp is the cleats running up one half of the ramp.  This is a detail I observed in old photos but have never seen modeled before.  Another oft-forgotten detail is the downspout.  I created two from square styrene stock and painted them brown, applying them to the sides near the front porch.

As for additional details and figures I added a few carefully selected details rather than a buckshot smattering of junk.  Near the loading dock I placed two old pallets, a trash can and a dolly loaded with sacks.  At the base of the ramp are four large barrels.  A horse is tied to a hitching post - a lovely cast metal part whose origins are unknown.  On the front porch is a scale, but the main area of interest is the loading dock where three figures are posed.  One man sits on the dock listening to another tell a tale while a third has just emerged from the loading doorway to see what's going on outside.  Perhaps he is wondering why the work has stopped.

Is this kit overused?  Maybe in a previous era.  Peruse any year of Model Railroader from the 60s or 70s and you'll likely spot one in the Photos section or on a layout.  John Allen had one, so there's that.  It is colorful and stands out in a scene.  But today's prototype modelers are more interested in modeling "the ordinary", or what George Sellios called "boring".  I tend to agree with him and yet, there was a time in our history when such structures as this were the prototype and there was nothing ordinary about them.  Give this kit some love and it can be a stand-out structure on your railroad too.

Monday, August 22, 2022

The Post-Project Blahs

Recently I noticed something I hadn't paid much attention to before.  After completing the National Model Railroad Build Off diorama I got mildly and briefly depressed.  Not enough to require medical assistance or psychological intervention (no shame to anyone who needs help from either) but enough to make me take notice.  I had heard Adam Savage speak about this feeling he gets following the completion of a big project, and sure enough, that was what I was feeling.  He talks about it at length in this video:

Here's what I can add from my recent experience; my post-project depression reminded me that I really enjoyed the process of making that diorama.  I loved all four months of that work and part of the depression was knowing that after the work was done I'd be occupied with the greater life project of moving from one house to another, helping my Mom move in with us, and all the reorientation that goes along with that change of address.  Not only was that diorama done, but making similar models was on hiatus indefinitely.  That I am now even more excited to begin work on the next project is a good sign.  Success breeds success and joy builds on joy.

To those folks out there who might say this is just a bunch of psychobabble because "It's just a hobby"...sorry, that's selling it short.  That loaded phrase probably has a hundred reasons for why a person would say it and any time you hear it - whether from someone else, or echoing in your own head - don't believe it.  I can't speak for anybody else, but this hobby is important to me.  I feel great satisfaction being creative.  Anything we create, great or small, is an expression of ourselves.  While we do take a risk investing our resources, time and energy into such an thing that will be viewed by others, the work is worth the risk for the joy of creating.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Cable Car Conversion

This post is the fourth in the series about how I built my Walthers National Model Railroad Build Off diorama.  In the first post I described how I made the brick street.  Next I discussed the thought process behind kitbashing a vintage plastic kit.  Last week I talked about some of the lessons I learned designing and composing the diorama itself.  This time I'm going to show how I kitbashed a Bachmann Cable Car into a horse-drawn streetcar.  

Here's the cable car during deconstruction and conversion.  I've been to San Francisco many times and I rode the cable cars years ago.  On a more recent trip my wife and I spent more time riding the buses, but I digress.  Next is a photo of the initial reconstruction.

In the above image the roof has been shortened and tacked together and the ends are being modified.  The donor car is, admittedly, pretty cheap but I think it has great potential.  They can be found on eBay or at train shows for a decent price.  Originally I planned to build a streetcar as a decomsissioned vehicle now placed as a tourist attraction at Strickland's Store on my late 20s era Pine Branch Park layout.  This is, ultimately, where this model will end up.  But for this diorama it needed to be in service.

The body shell has been given a coat of primer and the gaps from the roof reduction filled with putty and wet sanded.  The frame was scratchbuilt from styrene with end plates and railings in brass, soldered.  The bearings came from a Selley old-time passenger truck and the wheels are O scale spoked speeder wheels from Wiseman Model Services drilled to accept the axles from the Selley wheelsets.  The horse is a heavy metal casting, probably lead, of what I think is a circus horse; see the pointy thing between his ears.  This was carefully filed away and the head reshaped.

Here is a prototype picture I found.  There are many designs for streetcar bodies and most are similar, resembling a short coach body with clerestory roof and open platforms.  This particular prototype matches very closely the Bachmann cable car body, right down to the gentle arches in the windows.  Had I not been pressed for time, I may have modeled more of the lovely detail on the end platform railing and panel.  Mine is far simpler but still conveys the essence of the thing.

Lettering was done mostly one letter at a time using an alphabet sheet from K4 decals.  I chose Orange Avenue because it fit neatly using the yellow letters I had and helped set the scene in Florida.  The paint scheme was chosen after looking at several preserved horse drawn streetcars.  Yellow and brown seemed to be a popular combination, and the Tuscan Red roof is a classic choice.  I painted the horse as a big Palomino draft horse.  I already had dark brown and medium brown horses and a gray mule on the diorama, so it seemed a good choice.  

The tackle was mostly cast onto the horse but the reins are made from black electrical tape.  The swingle tree was scratchbuilt from styrene and wire with scale chain superglued into an arc behind it.  These bits are fiddly but the result is worth it in terms of realism and a fine scale look.  The driver is a Weston figure and the passengers are two seated townspeople from the Lytler & Lytler Ragtimers series.  The car body is removable to allow access to the interior.

This last image sets the streetcar into the story.  The woman hailing the car is from Preiser.  I didn't submit this shot due to the obvious wrinkles in the sky, the poor lighting, and lack of focus at various depths.  Still, I like it for the story it tells.  Three mini-scenes are visible in this one shot, and they will be the subject of a future post.  I had a great time kitbashing this little car and using it to paint a picture of life at the turn of the previous century.

As always, thanks for reading, and feel free to leave your comments and questions in the field below.

Thursday, August 4, 2022

Lessons Learned

In this post I'll share a few lessons I learned from building a diorama for the Walthers National Model Railroad Build Off contest.  While building a diorama may seem like a simple, straight forward thing to do, it really challenged me to think differently.  The process also made me realize a few things about myself and my approach to the hobby; beliefs I had held but never clarified into solid ideas. 

This is a BIG image if you'll click on it, then open the picture in a new tab for the full size.

First off, this diorama taught me that I could fully scenic a 2'x4' space in only four months, from ground cover to scratchbuilt trees, four feet of brick street, two feet of hand-laid track, three craftsman structure kits, a kitbashed structure, a Jordan vehicle, a kitbashed streetcar and numerous figures, all hand painted.  My current model railroad is only 4'x6' - that's just three times the area of the diorama.  Plus, the Purina Mill, Strickland's store, streetcar, billboard and orange grove all have spots already marked out on the railroad once I decommission this diorama.  If I were to work at half the pace I did to get this diorama done, I could have the Pine Branch Park railroad scenicked in two years or less, to a very high standard of detail and realism.*

Four feet wide

In this contest the focus was strictly on two parameters as defined by the rules; creativity and skill.  I set out to tell a story about a place in central Florida in 1914.  My model railroad has a similar goal, but is set in the late 1920s and includes operating trains as part of the storytelling.  Both use creativity and skill, but the diorama is a more limited setting.  Instead of operating the trains to provide action that tells the story, the setting itself has to do that task.

Why is this man sleeping behind this sign?  Some stories raise questions.

In truth our models, apart from the ones that move, all face the same challenge; how to imply action without motion.  While building my horse-drawn streetcar I realized one possible reason for why more folks don't model this mode of transport; it can't be made to move realistically.  A powered streetcar pushing a lifeless horse down the street would look odd, yes?  Some modelers don't like to use figures that are in an "action" pose, as if time is frozen, because it looks strange next to a train that does move.  On a diorama with no moving trains this matters less, if at all.

Is this a train?

Another challenge I faced was whether or not to use a backdrop.  Modules or home layouts often include a backdrop and the Walthers contest did not require one.  However, the contest submission form called for photos of the "front", "left" and "right" sides of the diorama.  Oh.  I hadn't considered front or back, left or right when planning the scenes.  It was a diorama to be viewed from any angle, and engaged with by the viewer from any direction.  This arrangement made it difficult for me to designate a "front" of the diorama. 

You can't see this from the front.

As someone with an "island" style railroad (see more about that here) I've always built structures with an eye to how they'll look when viewed from all sides.  On a layout where the views are controlled structures and other scenic elements can be built to take advantage of that, omitting back walls for example, or only detailing what will be seen.  On my diorama different views and vistas would open or close as the viewer moved around the scene.  This is how I had begun to imagine the elements on my layout so naturally it is how I placed these elements on the diorama and why all sides received some level of detail as appropriate for the scene.

Did my design choices hurt my chance of winning the contest?  Perhaps.  Most of the entries that made the final cut were pretty clearly arranged with a defined front and back, though not all.  What about the railroad elements?  None were required for the contest, technically, though a train did need to be shown in the final photos.  I think a horse-drawn streetcar is a train and though I had no freight car on my spur at the feed mill, one of the finalist entries showed no train at all.  And the era?  Or locale?  Perhaps.  Very few folks model Florida and nobody I've seen models Florida in the teens or twenties.  This is new territory in our hobby, and sometimes the familiar scene will win out over the unfamiliar.

Figure provided for scale. ;)

Would I do it differently if I were to enter again?  Maybe...or maybe not.  My design choices were deliberate even though I wasn't fully conscious of all the assumptions influencing my choices.  A viewer can't see it all from any one angle, just like real life.  It tells a story through the composition of elements and placement of details.  The setting is unique and hasn't really been explored before.  It demonstrates skill and creativity.  But most of all I'm happy with the diorama I built - it makes me smile whenever I look at it. 

Thanks for reading - feel free to comment below or ask questions.


*Completing the current model railroad will likely take longer than two years.  As of this writing I'm still unpacking boxes and sorting my garage, and won't be doing any more work on the railroad in situ until I know the roof won't leak and rats won't be chewing the scenery.  I'll be following Bruce and Janet Chubb's example from their early modeling days, building models at the kitchen table until the train room is ready.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Kitbashing Speedy Andrew's

This is the second installment of my "how-I-did-it" articles chronicling the development of my NMRBO22 entry diorama.  For part one, see the previous post on how I made a brick street with track for a horse-drawn streetcar.  In this post I'll show progress pictures and discuss my thinking behind turning an AHM "Speedy Andrew's Repair Shop" into my "Strickland's Speedy Service and Souvenirs".  For some interesting history on the original structure, and other fun kitbashing ideas using these kits, see JD Lowe's 30 Squares blog and search for "speedy" or just click the link.

In the photo above you can see some of the kit parts laid out alongside my mock-up and a few other parts I had in mind to use.  The mock-up was made by photocopying the kit walls and gluing them to cardstock.  In the end I didn't use the brick card or the pre-printed shingles but did use the metal doors and shutters.

Here are the original kit parts.  I like to use as many of the walls as possible, even if they don't make it as walls.  Not pictured is the wood textured "ramp" you were to place at the garage entrance; that part became the two signs over the drive-though bay on my model.  Speaking of which, that was the element that made my redesign click.  That big false-front entrance wall is the dead giveaway for the kit origins.  I had to do something to disguise that, so I re-imagined it as a sign above two pillars, using cut-offs from the walls to add bulk.  The "interior" wall from the kit became the drive through ceiling.

Another trick I used to hide the kit's origins was to eliminate the "L" shape of the building and reorient the main entrance in relation to the big sign.  The weakest elements of the kit, in my opinion, are the windows and doors.  I subbed two metal doors (either Dyna Models or maybe Sequoia, I can't be sure) and added Tichy shutters to the windows.  On this wall I shifted one window a bit towards the door so they'd be symmetrical and used the shutter to hide the gap that created.  The little bump-out at the back of the building is the sort of thing that just happens organically during kitbashing.  Once the main building is set, those remaining pieces you haven't used just cry out to be used somehow!

And here's the finished structure, showing the final elements I used to hide the kit's origins - the standing seam metal roof in place of the cast shingles and the signage.  DISTRACTION!  If I'd only used the main sign with the lovely arch in the top it might have been too easy to say "oh, that's that old AHM kit I've seen before".   The two signs on the sides perpendicular to the main sign, centered as they are over the drive-through, create a sense of weight and bring balance to the structure over and against the main building with its side-entrance and porch.  

The building in situ, with a mini-scene to tell the story.  Strickland stands on the porch welcoming the dapper gent, who has just pulled up in his brand new 1914 Austro Daimler 18/32 Cabrio.  Jeb and the kid look on, wondering just how much this man will buy.  No doubt they have a hundred other questions they'd love to ask him.  If he stays long enough maybe they'll get to.  He's just the sort of tourist they've been seeing more frequently ever since the county paved Orange Avenue, opening their part of central Florida to the rest of the state, and beyond.

The other side of the building, with more signs.  The brick paper I did use came from Walthers - from the middle of the last century.  It was the right balance of red, orange and gold to suit the colors I had in mind for this building.  The large signs were created in Gimp, the ads are from JL Innovative and other sources.  The smudge pots don't look too dirty or rusty because they're new.  They're resin castings from California Model Company and are the right style for the period.  So too the gas pump - it came with the kit, and is actually a pretty close match for the ones used in the 19-teens.  The more common glass-top pumps didn't become popular until the 20s and 30s.  

Leave any questions or comments down below, and thanks for reading.