Winter Park Resort Shuttle Buses

The whole Middle Park region is served by these gray-and-blue buses

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So, you may have gathered by now that I’m a committed model railroader.  I have a layout that takes my half of the garage (my wife parks her car in her half, something I actually understand on cold mornings when I must scrape frost off my windshield).  The setting is the rail line between Denver and Winter Park.  Turns out there’s a ski resort at Winter Park.  I know, I was surprised too.  And this ski resort is the hub of a vast, if scattered, array of condos catering to skiers.  And these skiers like to ski, which is done up at the resort.  Which means they have to get there. Which brings us to the subject of this post: the fleet of shuttle buses known as The Lift.  See what they did there?  It’s a play on the concept of ski lifts, which is something skiers need to get to the top of the mountain.  Very clever.  Especially since the skiers need the buses to get to the bottom of the mountain.

We first discovered these buses in 1993, the occasion of our very first trip on the erstwhile Ski Train.  Unlike the regular Amtrak trains, the Ski Train disembarked passengers right at the base of the ski mountain.  So who needs the bus, if you’re already at the resort?  We did.  Because, we’re not downhill skiers; we were headed down valley to the (also erstwhile) Idlewild cross-country facility.  Enter the shuttle buses, literally.  The whole Middle Park region is served by these gray-and-blue buses, which are free for the using.  The system has been funded by a consortium of businesses, headed by the resort itself.  From what I can gather, it’s been in place for about 30 years, though the system contracted somewhat in recent years, trimming the routes down to Granby and possibly others.  When we first became acquainted with it, the buses were uniformly of the school-bus variety, sans yellow paint.  As time progressed they added a few different, and more comfortable types, but the International buses have remained.  The one at the top of this post was pictured in December 2004.  More recent photos show that they’ve dispensed with the signage on the sides, but the overall scheme remains essentially the same.

So, back to the model railroad. A prominent feature of my layout is the Winter Park area, including part of the town formerly known as Hideaway Park (now simply Winter Park). Since the buses are such a prominent feature of the area, I thought that I should like to model some to decorate the layout.  Accordingly, since the mid-1990s I have slowly accumulated HO-scale school buses, with the intent of repainting them.  A year or so, I finally got around to it.

DSC_2085
Two models of buses, prior to application of signage so you can see the signboards. Note the ski racks below the signs.

There are a few considerations that must be dealt with before one busts out the airbrush. These include:

  • Source photos. These are remarkably hard to come by, unless you make a trip there and photograph some.  And then, all you’ll get is contemporary views. As it turns out, the best photo I could find is a slide that I took myself (at top, again).  Google images will get you three or four more, and that’s about it.
  • Graphics.  The buses had a sign on each side and a modified version on the front above the windshield, a red stripe, and all the usual safety markings.  You’re not going to find any of this stuff from the usual decal vendors (except the red stripes).
  • Sign Boards to support the signs.  Notice those ribs on the sides of the buses?  Yeah, they cut a piece of sheet metal and bolted it on, so that the signs would be flat.  You need to do that for these buses.
  • Ski racks. On the door side there are racks for stowing skis so people don’t have to wrestle them down the aisle.

Fortunately, a few years ago I discovered the Testors decal system, and am fairly good with Photoshop Elements.  Basically, in the proud tradition of Colorado, I rolled my own.  I created all the “The Lift” graphics, stripes, Emergency Exit and Emergency Door signs, no-right-turn sign, and license plates.  I printed all this on white-back decal paper.  Next time I am doing a sheet of clear decals for something, I’ll do the bus numbers too (4 per bus).

Once I’d cobbled together some ski racks and signboards for my buses, I disassembled the bodies and primed and painted them.  The bodies are medium gray and the roofs are dark blue– my shade of blue is very dark, but I don’t really care that much.  I also masked the grilles and the lights.  Once the paint was dry, I peeled the masking and applied the decals, and voila!  Resort Shuttle buses.

Buses at the Hideaway Park condos
A pair of buses, going in opposite directions, are seen in upper Hideaway Park. The Bluebird bus on the right is pulling out of the parking lot after making a drop-off. Over to the left some residents are viewing a large outdoor nativity.

Of course it’s a little more involved than that, especially since the decals aren’t separated like typical commercial ones and you have to trim them right down to the art, no border allowed.  But I mass-produced three of them so it wasn’t horribly difficult.

The Lift drops off some passengers
Side view of one of the buses, a Bluebird. In the left background, an International passes by.

Incidentally, the numbers on my license plates are accurate for specific buses.  Yeah, I’m that OCD.

Now I have three buses in the motor pool, just about right for the amount of scenery I have to cover, and I’m tickled at how they turned out.

Three Buses
Here’s the three buses I painted and decaled for service around Winter Park.

Incidentally, if you are interested in painting some of these for your own needs and need the decals, drop me a note in the comments and I can help you with that.

actionroadlogobang

Midway to Another Obsession, III

Here in my final installment of my series on building the USS Midway, we will get to the finishing touches of the model.  So far we’ve researched the history of the ship and its various rebuilding phases, and had a go at identifying and installing the important modifications.  This time we put on all the stuff that makes the ship come to life (in 1/800 scale, more or less).

When we last spoke, I was saying how it was time to have a thought about the air wing components before we attach the deck to the hull. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s go back and build the ship.  Sounds reasonable? I thought so too.

So you’ve decided on your phase of the ship.  Assemble the hull per instructions, with the following considerations:

  • The flight deck and up, and the hull below the flight deck, can be considered separate sub-assemblies and you can build in either order. Last time I talked a lot about modifications to the island. If you build those first and attach the island to the deck before building the hull, that’s OK– but I would install all the deckside catwalk assemblies first.
  • Omit the outboard rudders. The Midway was built with only two, and always had only two. They were enlarged during one of the later rebuilds, but the number remained the same. File off the mounts for the extra rudders.  (Yeah, I didn’t discover this until it was too late.)
  • If you’re modeling anything post-1977, omit the three 5″ guns.
  • Build platforms for the Sparrow launchers and (post-1985) the Phalanx units. The Sparrow boxes are simply squares of .040 styrene with some notches cut in them to represent the launch tubes; the Phalanxes were carved from bits of sprue to shape.
  • Don’t install the deck-edge radio antennas.  See comments below.
  • Refer back to my instructions for installing the hangar deck.

Once the hull is done, see my remarks about paint colors. Those apply to everything above the waterline.  Paint that area first.  Everything below it is an anti-fouling red, with a black waterline stripe. Here my model railroading materials came in handy. Southern Pacific Scarlet is a pretty good shade for the red.  I masked at the waterline and sprayed the red. Once it was good and dry I applied some fat black railroad stripes along the waterline, then overcoated everything with a semi-gloss clear spray.


Now, onward to the air group research!  Thanks to the interwebs, I came across a website that has that exact information.  Since I have chosen to model the ship as she appeared in Desert Storm, I had a look at the page and came up with the following squadron list for the ship:

  • VFA-151 Vigilantes (F/A-18A)
  • VFA-195 Dambusters  (F/A-18A)
  • VFA-192 Golden Dragons (F/A-18A)
  • VA-185 Nighthawks (A-6E)
  • VA-115 Eagles  (A-6E)
  • VAW-115 Liberty Bells (E-2C)
  • VAQ-136 Gauntlets (EA-6B)
  • HS-12 Wyverns (SH-3H)

To distill that down for you, for 1991 you need the following aircraft types:  F/A-18, A-6E, EA-6B, E-2C, and SH-3H.  Fortunately, the stock sprue with the kit includes all of these.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t have nearly enough.  Fortunately, I had some leftover F/A-18s from helping my friend model the Kitty Hawk, so I managed a convincing-enough deckload of aircraft for my purposes.  Feel free to source these from other places– in fact, one can buy aftermarket planes (such as the 1/700 ones by Trumpeter) that are of much better detail than the ones included in the kit.  I didn’t bother.  Incidentally, refer to the prior discussion about the fuzzy scale of this ship– I think the 1/700 planes would look just fine here.

Now, a word about the Navy’s aircraft tactical paint standards.  As it turns out, 1991 was a transitional period.  A new, darker gray tactical protocol had been in  place for a couple of years, but if you look at photos of 1991 not all aircraft had been repainted.  I decided to mix the schemes in my air group.  I can’t tell you which squadrons were still in the old paint, so I just arbitrarily picked some for each scheme.  The leftover F/A-18’s from the Kitty Hawk were already in light gray anyway, so I simply painted the ones that came in my kit into the darker tactical scheme.  My A-6’s are about a half-and-half mix; the EA-6’s all got the dark tactical scheme.

The next thing to consider is that each squadron is allowed one “show bird”, typically flown by the Squadron commander or the CAG, with a flashy colorful paint scheme (the rest of the birds in the squadron will have a shades-of-gray rendering of the design).  Now, painting a show bird in 1/800 is a challenging exercise!  I decided to do the CO’s plane for the VFA-195 Dambusters (F/A-18A, green/yellow), the VFA-192 Golden Dragons (F/A-18A navy/yellow), and the VAW-115 Liberty Bells (E-2C).  I also painted the two SH-3H choppers differently: one in the 1980’s light gray and the other in the later tactical gray.  Now, finding what these “show bird” schemes looked like in 1991 is challenging, but I made my best guess again on this.

And finally: carrier aircraft have folding wings in nearly all cases; definitely all cases for my timeframe. But the tiny little planes provided in the kit do NOT have folded wings.  Considering that wings are nearly always folded except when in the take-off cycle or when landing, this means that the modeler gets to spend a lot of effort chopping and re-attaching tiny little wings onto tiny little aircraft.  Rather than get specific, I’ll merely counsel you to do your photographic research on where to cut them and how to install them properly.  And if you believe that you’re a real badass modeler, fold the rotors on the choppers, correctly.  It took me one try…

USS Midway Deck Activity
The busy deck of a carrier must be run like a well-oiled machine. In this shot, we see the Golden Dragons’ CO ship being directed towards the catapult. Other planes are moving into position under the watchful eyes of aircraft directors. To the right, the catapult crew are stepping away as the Dambusters’ CO readies to shoot.

OK.  Now that you’ve decided your era and sorted out the appropriate aircraft, process a couple of them by folding their wings and painting them, and cement them to the hangar deck just inside the elevator door.  I put a drop of gel superglue on each landing gear and then position them.  I really don’t recommend using the MEK for this; too much can go wrong.  For one thing, if it comes loose inside the ship, then what do you do?


OK, let’s assume that the modified island has been installed, along with the crane and all the superstructures; you’ve attached the deck; you’ve mounted the Sparrows and Phalanxes; you’ve installed all the other hull details in the instructions; you’ve cemented the deck onto the hull.  Now is a good time to do the rotable deck-edge antennae.  Last time I suggested waiting till later to install them, recall?  OK, now is the time.  But do this: trim off all the antennas from the mounts, and throw them far away.  Keep one for reference.  After seeing how chunky the stock antennas looked in my test photos, I replaced them with styrene .022 X .022″ posts. Even this is a little heavy, but the styrene attaches more securely than using steel wire so I chose to go that way.  For the double antennas, cut a small rectangle of .010 sheet and cement the posts to that, then install the mounting tab under the catwalks, then cement the antenna assembly to the tab at an angle parallel to the horizon.  Consult photos. Paint these light-medium gray.

USS Midway
USS Midway, bow view. Note the folded antennae.

Oh, a funny thing about the Midway’s paint. As she appeared in 1991, her deck was a typical dark gray shade (mine is too light, but oh well); her hull was actually a lighter shade than most other carriers in the fleet, and her island was actually a darker shade of gray than most other ships. I ended up using Model Master Medium Gray for the island, and mixing my own lighter shade for the hull.  Also notice how the front end of the island is painted black, as is the port side below the catwalks, and all superstructure above the level of the stacks.

USS Midway, stern
USS Midway, stern view. Note the landing signal array and the supporting hanging gallery.

There’s one detail that I initially was going to omit, mostly because of the work involved, and that is the little gallery under the flight deck astern.  The vertical optical landing assist array (not sure the exact nomenclature here, but it’s the 2-piece orange assembly that hangs down behind the landing deck centerline) is attached to this.  But after I had basically completed the ship, the omission kept bugging me and I finally caved in.  It’s basically a square box that hangs down, with equal openings on each side.  A catwalk connects to the fantail, supported by a couple of struts.  Refer to the photos.  I installed that, then fabricated some strips with bumps on them, and installed all of that.  The gallery gets the light hull color, and the strips a yellow/orange shade.

Blast Deflector
Scratch-built blast deflector behind the port catapult.

Another detail I really wanted was the jet blast deflector(s).  To model one I cut a piece of .010 styrene in a suitable rectangle, figured out where it should be mounted (note: do NOT trust the markings on the Arii model’s deck), and cut four tiny pieces of .022 square strip to support it at the right angle.  Consult real photos, and mine here, to get the idea.  Since I was modeling a launch cycle with part of the foredeck cluttered with aircraft, only the port-side catapult is in use and I could get away with making just one. Incidentally, on the real ships the deflector drops into a recess on the deck, but I wasn’t going to carve that out.  Instead I just painted a lighter rectangle to represent the recess.

Elevator No. 2 Detail
View from starboard aft, showing Elevator No. 2 and adjacent details. Note the placement of the mobile crane and the tractors behind it. Also note the aircraft on the hangar deck, visible below.

Don’t forget about the mobile crane and the two donkeys. The real ship had a swarm of these low plane-handling tractors, but the kit only includes two. Paint them in the same safety yellow shade as the landing array– I used Accuflex D&RGW Yellow, a railroad color that’s basically School Bus Yellow.

Also- let’s chat about the decals. The Arii kit has raised marks that correspond with the decals (for the most part). There are a couple of things to note, before you apply them.

  • The landing deck center stripe was far too orange on my decal sheet– it should be closer to yellow. However, I just gritted my teeth and used it anyway.
  • Post-1986 the Navy omitted that long arrowed line that starts across from the island and goes to the bow. This is a guideline for Harrier jets. The deck has it molded in; again, grit your teeth, or sand it off before painting.
  • The “foul lines” on the forward deck are molded on but no decals are provided.  I used a fine brush and some white calligraphy ink to spot in each stripe for these lines.  Painstaking but not as hard as it sounds.
  • The large “41” deck numerals are the wrong style for my period. Correct ones are available from aftermarket vendors. I just gritted my teeth.  The molded ones on the deck are not a perfect match, either.
  • The raised numerals on the sides of the island: whiskey tango foxtrot?!?  I’m wearing my teeth down to stumps now.

I use Microscale Micro-Sol to set the decals into place.  This dissolves most of the film leaving the graphics behind.  Just be really careful and don’t touch these while processing; they look dry when they are NOT.

After all of your decals are in place, overspray the deck and island with matte or flat finish. Mine’s a little too shiny but I’ll just pretend it’s raining…


At this stage of construction, the ship itself is essentially complete. Now it’s time to bring it to life.  We do this with the aircraft, and– yes– with people.  Tiny, tiny little people.

Having decided on our era, and having identified the composition of the air group, it’s time to decide what they are doing right now.  This gives you a lot of latitude.  For instance, the ship could be just cruising right now, with planes stowed all over the deck. Or it could be running limited patrols.  Or it could be in port (go back and cut off all those horizontal antennas and mount them vertically!).  Or it could be in a launch cycle.  Or a landing cycle.  Or the second or third launch cycle of a major raid.  Or the second or third landing cycle.  Each situation can be depicted by how the planes are spotted, and by what the deck crew are doing.

(I’m assuming that, like me, you will permanently mount your planes so that they don’t get lost or anything.  If not, ignore the bits about glue that follow.)

Overhead view
USS Midway, view of a launch cycle just underway.

Since my era is Desert Storm, I decided to set things up during a launch cycle, probably a second or third one, where a followup strike is being sent into Iraq. Some of the planes landed from earlier strikes have been stashed forward, so only the port catapult is available right now.  An A-6 is being fueled near the No. 3 elevator, and another is being armed across the deck from it.  One of the choppers is preparing to take off for plane guard duty.  The Dambuster CO is on the catapult, engines at full military power, while other aircraft queue up to launch. A pair of E2-C’s and a second chopper are parked by the island.

Jet Fuelers
Aircraft fuel crew in action. Purple shirts are the oilers, and the safety observer is in white.

What brings this scene to life is the presence of the appropriately-colored and appropriately-sized crewmembers around the deck.  These I discovered online, and just had to have them.  They’re made by Eduard, a Czech company, and are 1/800 scale etched metal. Each one is painted in one of the correct deck uniforms for a modern US carrier.  I paid about $13, which seems a lot, but there are plenty of pieces provided to outfit several ships.  I mounted around 45 of them and there are many more remaining.

Port View
Center of ship from portside. The island details show up well here, as well as the crowded deck action. Note the starboard comms tower just forward of the No. 1 elevator. This I scratchbuilt.

A note about painting the aircraft: these were all done by hand. Some were airbrushed while on the sprue for the overall color, but I had to hand-paint the canopies (navy blue) and any other details that required it, especially on the show birds. Note the EA-6B above in the center– I tried very hard to get the multiple windows right.  Given the tiny size, the shakiness of 56-year-old hands, and the magnification involved, I thought they turned out pretty well.  Same thing on the crane and the tractors.  Aircraft national emblem decals came with the kit and they are helpful, but not very accurate for the later tactical schemes since they are too prominent. I used them anyway.

To attach planes and people, I use gel superglue, applied sparingly to the the contact points (the landing gear for the planes, the legs for the crew).  I had to use high-powered magnifiers to do the crew successfully, as well as a fine set of tweezers.  I also had to be super careful to not knock down previously-added crewmembers when putting on more tiny little dudes. Occasionally I had to prop them up while the glue set.  Even with that I had a couple of instances of “man overboard” (yet another reason I was glad the Eduard set had many extras).

USS Midway
Aerial view from port. The finished ship, showing off her unique lines and her ability to project power from the sea and air in the defense of freedom.

And there you have it.  The project that kept growing and growing has been finalized at last.  Enormously satisfying, after four years of wanting to reach this point.

Done.  Right?  Well, what’s a carrier without its battle group?  Destroyers and cruisers and frigates and even subs…

Stay tuned as I build the cruiser USS Bunker Hill in 1/700-ish!   actionroadlogobang

Midway to Another Obsession, II

In my previous post I described the lead-up to my shipbuilding project, the USS Midway in 1/800 scale. This time we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of the project.

So, as mentioned, my starting point was to use an Arii 1/800-scale model kit.  And also as mentioned, I soon discovered a few issues and challenges.  Not surprising when your target is in constant motion.  My original goal was to build the model in the post-1986 configuration, but the kit is much closer to 1971.  Once I figured that out, it became a matter of ferreting out which features were added, changed, or removed– and when.  Oh, and there’s that other minor matter: I had to decide when enough was enough.  Just how picky did I want to get with the accuracy?

For the first, the ferreting of features, I figured that photos were far and away the finest and fastest way to find diFFerences (couldn’t think of any synonyms that started with F, sorry).  But it turns out that there are official US Navy drawings on the interwebs that shows the whole 1986 project in fine detail.  Just a simple matter of comparing photos and drawings to the out-of-the-box model, right?  Well, sorta.  I’ll explain in a bit.  But  that’s the basic idea.

For the second, deciding on the level of accuracy and detail, that’s driven by the following factors:

  • Difficulty, i.e. just how many lifetimes would it take to execute the change?  Did I want to widen the hull?  Did I want to get every single bump on every single catwalk correct?
  • Cost.  Do I want to buy frets of aftermarket brass railings, additional aircraft and such?
  • Size.  How fine can you model with styrene in 1/800?

I have lots of styrene structural shapes and in varying thickness of sheet material, so I felt confident I could fabricate most things I needed to do.

Midway’s island as it comes in the kit, starboard side. Here’s where most of the major modifications take place.

Basically, I ended up deciding to focus on the island modifications.  There are major things going on there, as compared with the as-built version– and the 1971 version is not all that different from the 1945 appearance, really.  I also decided to do a few things with the weapons on the sponsons, as mentioned in the previous post.

So: a simple matter of determining the conversion factor between the drawings and the model so I could build the add-ons, right?  WRONG.  I carefully calculated the ratio and measured out parts, painstakingly assembled them to the island, and… and… they just looked wrong.  Something wrong with my arithmetic?  I started measuring stuff again.  Then I’d measure in a different place.  Then I’d reference the empirical measurements on the blueprint.  Nothing added up.  So I started measuring different dimensions on the model and comparing to the blueprint, calculating the scale.  And, guess what?  Depending on the measurement, I got scales ranging between about 1/710 through 1/790.  Um, that’s a 10% variance in some cases!  Guess what, people?  This model is far from being a 1/800 model, or really any scale at all!  Basically it’s too tall for its length.  And that’s being generous in a generalized way. If one were to draw a line down the middle of the points on the graph, best guess is somewhere around 1/755 in average, give or take.

Well, heck.

What this means is: basically build stuff so it looks more-or-less right, and adjust it so that it fits in the available space.

If that’s not enough to make you throw your hard-won eBay prize in the ashcan, we’ll keep going.  Actually knowing that took some of the pressure off, because one of the things I do best is carving and filing.  Okay, that’s two things.

Here’s what you need to add to the island structure, taking the large view:

  • The radar room and platform (as originally built), on the starboard side of the funnel. (There’s one included in the kit, but it’s not right.)
  • The comms room just ahead of this.
  • The upper comms room that sits on the island just forward of the funnel.
  • The radar room / deckhouse structure aft of the island, including its legs and cross-bracing.
  • The radar tower itself (bwahahaha!)

And one other thing: if you think I’m giving you all the dimensions, think again.  Download the drawing and go through the agony yourself!  You’re no better than me.

 

 

Modified island, starboard side. In this image, the forward leg of the aft radar structure and the adjoining boxy addition are not yet installed. Note the hole in the deck for installing the crane; this will be plugged when the crane is moved outboard.

So, refer to the photos above and below.  The white stuff is the stuff I added.

Island, port side (i.e. facing the flight deck). Note the bracing on the bottom side of the radar room, and the struts on the back side of the large radar antenna.

 

Island, view from forward. Note the overhang of the comms rooms to starboard (to the left in this view).

Here’s where I will stop and point out the one single thing I’m most unhappy about: those two projecting comms rooms on the starboard side of the island.  They’re definitely oversize, especially the aft room.  I couldn’t decide whether it was enough of an overage to cut them off and start over, and eventually decided just to keep them.  Oh well.  Once all the other details are added to the superstructure, they’re lost in the clutter somewhat anyway, or at least that’s what I tell myself.

I originally started to rough-in some railings, using trimmings from .010 styrene, but I jumped the gun.  Should have done all of that last.  A lot of them got knocked off with handling.  If you want to spend a couple dozen dollars you can get brass railing material in 1/800; I didn’t bother.  It’s that choice we all have to make about what is good enough for us.

So here’s a few comments about the construction.  I used sheet .020 styrene for all the flat surfaces, which is a great material because you can cut it with scissors.  The legs under the radar house are H-column trimmed to fit.  The radar tower (a challenging sub-assembly) is four legs of thin styrene rod, I believe 1/16″.  Crossmembers are HO-scale 2X2, which is .022 X .022″. The three decks on the tower are .010″ styrene.  The front-right deckhouse leg consists of two laminated strips of .020; the inboard piece extends flush to the deck whereas the outboard layer overlaps the deck edge.  The radar antenna was scored with my Exacto in a crosshatch pattern to simulate the gridwork.

DSC_0525
Island add-ons, from port quarter.

I added most of the stock details from the kit; a few are excluded due to later mods.  For instance, after the guns were removed there was no need for a gun director and so it was also uninstalled. There is a section of starboard catwalk that must be trimmed off to make room for the passage at front right of the radar room/deckhouse.  I replaced the radar on the mainmast with the one that would have gone on the lateral radar platform (trimmed slightly on each end to fit).

DSC_0521
Completed island, starboard.

There are a couple of relocations that become necessary.  First, the secondary (aft) mast does not get installed in its original location but is shifted to the left and is attached to the port wall of the Radio & ECM Room just forward of the funnel.  Second, the main crane must be shifted outboard to clear the new superstructure elements.  When I did this, I carefully trimmed off the mounting post and used it to fill the hole in the deck, then just cemented the crane to the new location.  I strongly suspect that this was moved on the real ship in the 1966 rebuild as well. A truly great modeler would have taken the time to ream out the spaces in the crane girder, but I lean slightly to the impatient, lazy end of the spectrum (my family would disagree) and I did not go to that trouble.

Side note: my styrene cement of choice is methyl-ethyl ketone (MEK).  Plastruct sells it in a bottle with a brush applicator, but I refill my bottle from a can that I bought at Ace Hardware at a fantastically-reduced price per ounce.  Just be careful that you don’t overdo it or you can ruin delicate parts– and especially paint.

But First!  (Don’t you hate it when you hear that?)  Don’t attach the deck just yet.  The kit comes with an option of installing the No. 2 (starboard side aft) aircraft elevator in the up or the down position.  I decided to go with down, which meant having the hangar doors open (i.e. omit the kit part), which meant, having to install the hangar deck.  I installed some supporting members and cut a piece of .040 styrene for the hangar deck.  Since not much of it’s visible I only did a portion of it.  This also means that you should prepare a couple of aircraft now so you can install them inside the elevator opening.  At this point you want to skip ahead to the discussion of eras and the appropriate air groups for your chosen era. That discussion occurs in a future blog entry which hasn’t been written yet, so I suggest you either wait a bit, or become clairvoyant.

Now, back to the ship.  There are a few other comments I need to make about the construction.  The kit’s instructions have you install the deck-edge whip antennae at a rather early stage of the construction.  If you want the ship rigged as if it is in port, then go ahead.  If you want to show it in operation, read on.  While at sea these antennae swivel out and are basically parallel to the ground… um, water.  This is for obvious reasons.  But the kit doesn’t mold them that way.  So you must cut them and reattach the whips at a 90-degree orientation. This makes them more delicate (ask me how I know).  If I had it to do over again, I’d just wait until nearly everything else is done before tackling that part of the assembly.  I also had to replace three with pieces of .018 wire since they mysteriously vanished. The wire antennae looks so much better than the chunky plastic ones that I wish I had just replaced all of them!  Oh well, maybe some other time.


And speaking of some other time, this blog post has become rather lengthy, so I will address the painting and finishing, and the aircraft complement, in a third installment yet to come.  I must go attend to a family matter (funeral of my mother) next week, so there may be some delay, but fear not.  actionroadlogobang

Midway to Another Obsession…

The USS Midway was a one-of-a-kind ship for her last two decades. Perfect for a modeling project!

As I have hinted at, my modeling endeavors do go beyond model railroading.  Going back as far as pre-adolescence, I’ve had a fascination with military models, including aircraft and especially navy ships.  However, I hadn’t built a model of one since I was a teenager.  And in fact, many of my models met rather dramatic ends.  (One involved a motorized version of the Franklin D. Roosevelt, which took its final cruise on Viele Lake in Boulder carrying a cargo of firecrackers and a slow-burning fuse.  A sudden loud bang and the ship was simply… not there. These days you’d be arrested for that.)

As an adult, there was an understanding in our marriage that I should limit the number of hobbies I allowed to dominate my time, with which terms I fully concurred. I tend to go off the deep end.  However, with time and more prosperity and fewer children in the home, these restrictions have been relaxed.  The first foray back into shipbuilding was initiated by a decision to do a solid for a buddy of mine.  His father had served on the USS Kitty Hawk during the late 1970s, and I decided to surprise him with a kit of said ship, and help him build it.  Since I wanted it to be a companionable enterprise (so to speak), I decided to build a ship of my own.  My own interests favor the WW2 era, and I scored a kit of the IJN Kaga from eBay.  For those who don’t remember, she was one of the six Japanese aircraft carriers taking part in the Pearl Harbor Raid, and one of the four that was sunk at the battle of Midway some six months later.  As things turned out, I couldn’t wait for schedules to align and actually built the Kaga before we ever started on the Kitty Hawk.  So, I got a kit of the USS Enterprise (CV-6) and built that alongside its later, newer cousin when we finally got our timing worked out.  Those ships are for another post to come later.  (Not coincidentally, it was planes from the Enterprise that sank the Kaga.)

Meanwhile, I had gotten to take a tour of the actual USS Midway, now a museum ship in San Diego harbor.  Dude, if you ever get the chance to visit her, DO IT!  It’s a rather mind-blowing experience for those who haven’t served in the Navy.  In 2001 I had toured the USS Lexington at Corpus Christi, but the Midway was more impressive, mostly because of her larger size.  I also had a digital camera, and took a couple hundred photos.  From that time in 2013 I had vainly haunted the internet looking for a kit of her in her later configuration.  Finally in late 2016 I spotted one on eBay, a 1/800 scale model made by Arii, and basically paid whatever it took to win the auction.  Don’t ask me how much, that’s a closely-guarded secret, but your whole family could eat well at Olive Garden and leave a substantial tip for the lucky server, too…

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USS Midway Museum in San Diego.

Thus the background.  This spring I finally cleared the schedule and got out the kit of the Midway.  I had been plowing around the internet for images for quite a while, and I began studying them– as well as my own shots– and I slowly began to realize that this was going to be a bigger challenge than I had realized.  Because, as it turned out, the Midway was sort-of the Navy’s own 1:1 scale modeling project.  Not only had they completely rebuilt the ship twice, they never stopped twiddling and tweaking her.  Much like many railroad projects, a modeler must ultimately select an era or even a date and then build the model to match that timeframe.  This is either really frustrating, or really challenging and satisfying, depending on your commitment and personality.

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USS Midway’s three major phases (left to right): As built in 1945; as modified in 1957; as modified in 1970.

Let’s take a step back and answer the question: Why model the Midway?  Maybe some historical perspective would help.  There are many good references out there (e.g. Navsource Online), but here are the high points.  The Midway was designed as the lead ship of a new class of aircraft carrier, first laid down in 1943 and completed a week after the Japanese surrender. It was far larger than any existing carriers; indeed it was the largest ship in the world of any kind for a full decade.  When it was designed, the idea of the angled (“canted”) deck had not yet been floated, as it were, so Midway’s deck was straight– meaning, takeoff operations on the bow, landing operations on the stern, with one shot at landing.  Only in the 1950’s were some carriers retrofitted with an angled deck that allowed aircraft to touch-and-go in case they failed to snag an arresting cable with the tailhook.  This also allows plane-launching to carry on simultaneous with landing ops, something impossible on traditional carriers. Midway received that modification in 1957, which also included an enclosed “hurricane” bow, relocated elevators, and stronger catapults.  In this configuration she served during the early parts of the Vietnam war.  Meanwhile, newer classes of “super-carriers” were being developed that could outperform the Midway class and their older cousins, the modified Essex-class ships.  Midway was thought to be large enough for additional modifications, so she went back into the shipyard in February 1966.  When she emerged in January 1970, after massive cost overruns, her flight deck space had been increased to four acres, along with many other improvements.midway-1979-10-io

It is roughly this stage in her history that the Arii kit reproduces.  Unfortunately for us modelers, it was not long before more modifications cropped up.  In rough order, these were: removal of the three remaining 5-inch guns; addition of a radar sponson on the starboard side of the island structure; construction of a new radar room and tower abaft the funnel (and eventual removal of the radar array from the previously-mentioned addition); construction of new communications rooms atop and on starboard side of the island; addition of Sparrow missile batteries on starboard bow and portside aft sponsons.  Dating from 1970 her seakeeping was worse than before– too much weight and spread on that 1943 hull, even though it had been widened somewhat.  In 1986 the ship went back into the yard for wider hull blisters to try to correct the problem, but the engineering was faulty and the ship’s dramatic roll speed actually increased.  Studies were done to correct the issue, but funding and time ran out.  The grand old lady still served up through the Gulf War, where she was flagship in the Persian Gulf, and the following year she assisted in the Subic Bay evacuations after Mount Pinatubo exploded.  That was it; she was retired in 1992 after 47 years of service.  She was reborn as a museum ship in 2004.

The Midway was a one-of-a-kind ship for her last two decades.  The other two ships in her class never received the later upgrades.  She bears a distant resemblance to the larger “supercarriers” built from 1958 forward, but any close examination quickly reveals her unique characteristics.  Perfect for a modeling project!

So, you get an idea of the modeling challenge: one must basically pick a year and learn everything about that time that one can.


Taking the kit out of the box, I jumped in happily and started cementing things together.  I got as far as installing the 5″ guns when I happened to realize that I could not recall seeing these in any photos.  Research quickly revealed that they’d been removed in the late 1970s (summer of 1977, as it turns out).  I thought it over and decided to remove the guns, since I wanted to model the 1980’s configuration.  I cut them off and started to scratch-build Sparrow launchers, when I noticed that the aft sponsons (below the flight deck) didn’t seem to be shaped anything like the photos.  Back to the research.  This is where I discovered that nasty bit about the 10-foot-wide blisters installed on each side of the hull.  Widen the hull?  How was I supposed to do that? The more I thought about it, the more impossible it seemed to do it right.  And thus was born a compromise: I would focus on the topside modifications and basically not worry about the hull.  It had other problems anyway, and it just wasn’t worth the extra man-hours to try to fix it.  So I installed the Sparrow launchers, and roughed up a couple of Phalanx batteries for the starboard and port quarter sponsons (I had to add platforms for these), and just called it good.  Sue me.

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Sailors form a message of farewell on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS MIDWAY (CV-41) as the ship heads out to sea after leaving U.S. Naval Station, Yokosuka, Japan, for the last time. The MIDWAY, which has been based in Japan since 1973, will be replaced by the aircraft carrier USS INDEPENDENCE (CV-62) as the Navy’s forward-based aircraft carrier.

All of this led me to put a halt to construction and spend a bunch more time researching the ship.  Google Images. Wikipedia. Air group histories.  Midway veterans websites.  And I realized that I needed to pick a date and stick to it.  Once confronted with that decision, I realized what I really wanted to do was capture the ship’s final blaze of glory, Desert Shield/Storm.  The Gulf War was the era I wanted. actionroadlogobang


NEXT UP: Building the USS Midway as she appeared in 1991

Just Another Day Working on the Railroad…

I may not be a smart dog, but I know what roadkill is.

 

So you think your job is tough.

Every now and again, one observes a situation that reminds us that the word work used to mean doing something physical.  Over the first weekend of May 2017, we got to watch from on high as one such situation played out.

By way of background: I decided to “invite” the family out for a little near-wilderness camping in the BLM lands west of Grand Junction.  In our case, this meant that I pulled our Hi-Lo camper trailer over six miles of ghastly roads to a remote campground overlooking the inner gorge of Ruby Canyon.  Not coincidentally, the Union Pacific has a rail line down at the bottom, the former Rio Grande mainline.  The spot where we parked the camper had a decent view of a stretch of track between McDonald Creek and the next curve to the east.  This is about a mile or so east of the Utah/Colorado state line.

12:07 PM
On Saturday, I was out for a stroll when I heard the noise of a train coming down the canyon.  Sprinting as fast as my out-of-shape 56-year-old legs would allow, I got back to camp in time to grab the telephoto and snatch an image of the front end just before it passed out of view.  Not having time to get down to the actual rim (so I thought), I contented myself with snapping photos of the train from where I was.

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Head end of the MNYRO (UP 5922 on the point) approaches McDonald Creek. The “hill” that obscures the front of the train is actually the top of the 300-foot high bluff above the tracks and river.

12:09 PM
It was a westbound manifest freight– which simply means a mixed freight train, for those of you not into rail subjects.  It was a long one, and after a while the rear end snaked into view with a single remote locomotive hanging on the back.   (It totaled out to 131 cars, 3 locos up front, another on the rear.)  I snapped a couple more photos and prepared to go about my business when suddenly I heard a lot of squealing and banging.  The visible part of the train was decelerating rapidly, and within seconds was at a complete stop.

Well, to quote Jim Varney, I may not be a smart dog, but I know what roadkill is.  Hurriedly hustling down the intervening benches, I soon found myself peering over the 300-foot precipice at a scene guaranteed to redefine the term “bad day at the office”.  Directly below me the train was broken in two.  54 cars stretched out to my left and around the curve across McDonald Creek; the lone SD70ACe remote locomotive sat at the end, idling in a bored manner.  To my right, the balance of the train reached all the way past the east switch of Utaline siding.  In the middle was perhaps a quarter mile of empty rail.

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The rear end of the MNYRO, severed from the rest of the train by a broken drawbar

By the way, the pictures illustrate that this is a fabulous location from which to observe a railroad problem!  If the train had to break somewhere, this was the perfect spot for me.  My luck was spectacular.  On the other hand, for the crew it was about as bad a location as could be.  Inside a tunnel might be a worse spot, but not by much.  The luck of the guys managing the problem was, well, somewhat less than perfect.

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Here’s the gap in the middle of the train (front end is at top of image)

Thankfully I had remembered to grab the scanner as I left camp, enabling me to garner the actual details of what followed.  Before long I spied the conductor, a bearded fellow in a florescent yellow vest, walking back from the locomotives to check things out.  He looked things over and called in a status report.

Conductor: “Yeah, it looks like the drawbar came out of one of the flatcars.”
Engineer: “Ah crap…”

They identified which car it was (UP 217030), then the engineer asked where the drawbar had gotten to.  The conductor hiked back to the back half of the train and eventually located it, under the sixth car from the break.  The cars had rolled over it as the train went into emergency after the air line parted.

For perspective, keep in mind that the drawbar is a 4-foot steel structure weighing a couple thousand pounds, with coupler attached.  It was resting between the rails, perilously close to the southern (river-side) rail, and the conductor was not confident that the train could pass over it without snagging something important.  They were actually lucky that it didn’t come down on an end and make the first car pole-vault over it.  (** but, see update below, with photo **)

The engineer remarked that they were in a bad location for radio communications, but they finally managed to raise the dispatcher and explain the situation.  Dispatch pointed out that Amtrak No. 5 was due from the east before long, but please take as long as they needed to work safely.  Meanwhile the conductor tied down several cars on the broken section (i.e. set the handbrakes).

12:51 PM
Ultimately, they decided that they must set out the broken centerbeam flat in some siding to the west– I never heard which location was chosen but speculate it was Utaline siding. The conductor began his long march back to the head end, and we decided to go do something fun for a while.  We hiked back to camp and drove out to take photos of flowers and lizards and dinosaur fossils.  Meanwhile, based on visual evidence and conversations heard later on the scanner, the crew kept busy with the following:

  • Moved off west to set out the broken car
  • Returned to the scene of the crime (backing from wherever they went)
  • Conductor walked back to the gap
  • Decided to cut the train again and uncover the wreckage of the drawbar by pulling the cars off of it forward.  Since it was under the sixth car from the break, they coupled on and cut the train again behind the sixth car, carefully moving forward until the drawbar was exposed.

5:23 PM
At about this point I returned to observe the doings.  The engineer asked where the drawbar was, and the conductor replied, “Oh, it’s outside the rail now, toward the river.”  The engineer sounded pretty surprised by this, as was I– I am still trying to figure out how he accomplished this feat.  Perhaps he had a prybar back there and managed to lever it over the rail.  I did see some other tools, so I suppose it’s possible.  Regardless, once it was reported clear the engineer brought the train back and coupled on to the rear section.

Oh, and did I mention that it had been raining for a while now?

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Looking down on the front end of the train. You can clearly see how limited the space is in this location.  Note the slide fences on poles alongside the track.
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Looking down at McDonald Creek bridge. The decks of these bulkhead flatcars are shiny and slick from the steady drizzle.
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Here’s the conductor again, inspecting the train.  I hope he remembered to collect his yellow spade before he went back to the locomotive.

5:43 PM
So, after rejoining the train, they just throttled up and headed for Utah, right?  Wrong.  After this kind of event they have to perform a complete air check (i.e. air brake integrity and functionality) of the rear of the train.  More conversations with dispatch about this; the engineer estimated another half hour to complete it.  The conductor released all the handbrakes he’d set earlier and went off to inspect brakes, while I called it a night.  An hour or so later I noticed that the train was gone.

** Update**  See the photo below and its caption.

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See that object on the ground just ahead of our intrepid conductor?  That’s the offending hardware that he’d been referring to as a “drawbar”, but actually just a coupler.  That explains something he said about the retaining pin being bent out on the car…

All throughout this process I kept wondering about the Amtrak train trapped behind this mess, and all the irritable passengers griping about the four-hour delay.  I know it was weighing on the mind of the dispatcher, and I’m sure the train crew was brooding about it as well.  But nobody from track maintenance ever showed up to help– indeed, how would they get there?  There is no access road for some distance in either direction, and no hi-railers ever made an appearance.  The train crew were basically on their own, which really meant that the conductor was on his own to do all the physical work.

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7:23 PM: The westbound California Zephyr finally makes its appearance

. . .

Work.  Ponder that concept.  While most of us sit in our air-conditioned offices and do what we call work, there are those out there in the world who are still performing work in the very manual sense of the word.  My hardhat’s off to them…  actionroadlogobang

When Natural Disasters Strike…

Sometimes, a proper Risk Management plan will call for the eradication of a species

I hereby interrupt my extensive hiatus from blog posting with this digression.  Last time I was talking about backdrops and how to convincingly create them.  This time I am discussing the proposition that sometimes, a proper Risk Management plan will call for the eradication of a species.

In this case: the common house cat.

By way of background, we are actually “dog people”.  We had dogs, exclusively, from 1985 through 2011.  That’s a reasonable track record.  Not that I necessarily had anything against other species, but allergies to cat hair on the part of wife and daughter prevented us from ever getting any of the species felinus terriblus.  Plus, the dogs found cats to be a tasty pre-supper treat.  They even come with their own floss for post-prandial hygiene.  This is important to the well-groomed dog.

But, things change.  As time went by, all the members of the canine tribe died off one by one, the last in 2011. Contemporaneously, the spouse found that she had lost the cat allergy, and the daughter was no longer living at home and so granted her permission for us to acquire cats.  So we got one.  A small, beautiful, cuddly black short-hair kitty who sleeps on my neck at night.  No problem.

BIG problem.  What hasn’t been mentioned is the other daughter and her enormous ball of fuzz that joined her household while away at college.  This would be Mister Darcy, a 19-pound Maine Coon cat with a vast halo of fur.  Why does this cat matter?  Because he’s now living with us, that’s why.  Now, with a name like Mister Darcy, one might expect him to be a perfect gentleman, if initially  skeptical of Elizabeth Bennett.  But what Jane Austin didn’t bother to tell us is that Mister Darcy has a penchant for sneaking into the garage and wandering around, jumping up on work benches and model railroads.

Yes, dear readers: my model railroad inhabits the garage.  It’s rather large, and extensively scenicked, and rather beautiful.  But, oddly, when I built the landforms around tunnel 30, I I didn’t think to build them to withstand direct asteroid impact nor to survive the pressure of a 19-pound cat.  Silly me.

What’s the one proverbial truth that everyone knows about cats?  Answer: that they should never be let out of a bag.  Which, if one does, is a blunder only slightly less well-known as not getting involved in land wars in Asia, because there’s a second proverbial truth about cats having to do with curiosity.  The funny thing is, I had always thought that it went as follows: “Curiosity killed the cat.”  However, I have recently learned that it’s more accurately rendered as “Curiosity destroyed the model railroad,” followed by “… and then its owner killed the cat.”

You can see where this is headed, can’t you.  I have a terrible habit of foreshadowing.  Well, one fine day after an interval of inactivity I was starting to run some trains.  The first train downhill from Winter Park encountered some kind of obstacle in the hidden helix.  When I investigated, I discovered that the entire hillside above Tunnel 30 was collapsed into the helix!  Plaster chips and model trees littered the landscape.  Disaster!  Mayhem!  How did this happen?  Could I fix it?  And most importantly, who could I accuse of the crime?

And that’s when I saw it.  A tuft of fur, gray fluffy fur, snagged on the top edge of the masonite backdrop.  J’accuse!  The CAT did it!  All 19 pounds of him, that innocent-looking Mister Darcy with the deceptive moniker had destroyed my 1/87 kingdom!  A towering rage seized me and I went in search of the culprit, murder in my eye, bent on exacting retribution.  Well, a cat this size can’t hide very long in a house like ours, and within moments I located the villainous creature!  I reared back to deliver judgment, and– and– aw, look, he’s so cute and fuzzy!  Hi, buddy!  Here, let me pet you under your chin.  Can I get you a treat?  Feed you, perhaps?  Let you back out in the garage to play?  Sign over the deed to the house to you?

Yeah, that’s right.  I’m a chump.  Besides, the evidence of this specific crime was merely circumstantial; the hair could have been left on a previous visit and not been related to the earthquake.  Plus, I had taken a bit of a nasty fall right in that area while taking down boxes of Christmas decorations, and Mister Darcy’s Chief of Staff (my daughter) maintains that I was the culprit and not her dear cat.  The jury was unable to reach a verdict and a mistrial was declared.

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Don’t let the innocent expression fool you.  This cat is his own class of natural disaster.

How did it all turn out?  Well, happily I was able to re-install the broken mountainside with much greater success than I initially assumed.  One can barely even see the damage now.

But I’m still installing security cameras.  And electrified fencing. actionroadlogobang

Backdrop Painting 101

How many of us just nail up a piece of hardboard and start slinging paint at it?

Most model railroads do not exist on an infinite plane.  Rather, and especially with modern layout design philosophies, they represent something closer to a series of dioramas placed end-to-end.  Personally, I fell in love with the diorama concept as an impressionable lad on visits to places such as the Denver Museum of Natural History, or the visitor centers at Mesa Verde and Dinosaur National Monument.  The Denver museum’s dioramas tend(ed) to be rather larger in scale, but the concept is the same: a foreground consisting of a three-dimensional recreation of the subject, and a two-dimensional backdrop painting to convey the illusion of depth.

Depth is what we’re after, here.  Whether you’re building a display for a naval vessel, a B-17G, an Astin Martin, or a model railroad, the backdrop is key to making the eye believe that the exhibit exists in a larger world than it actually does.  Accordingly, it behooveth the one who modeleth to acquire certain skills that pertaineth to creation of said backdrops.  And that is our purpose in this series: to learn how to create convincing backdrops behind our model scenes that enhance (not detract from) them.

In this installment we’ll start at the beginning of a backdrop project.  Next time we’ll have a look at the application of these concepts to a specific situation.  You non-train people, bear with me and just substitute language applicable to your discipline in place of all the railroad-related items.  The principles are the same.


As always, I start with certain assumptions.  First, I assume that you are not a professional artist of some kind.  I assume this because, if you are such, you will probably tear me to shreds, and frankly I’m not sure I can bear that.  So, for our purposes you agree to at least pretend that you are not already an expert artist.  Good enough?  Good.  Second, I assume that you are capable of holding a paint brush or at least a pencil.  Third assumption is that you have some idea where your railroad exists in the world– even if your world is imaginary.

Now, for the steps.  Planning is key, not to state the obvious.  But how many of us just nail up a piece of hardboard and start slinging paint at it?  Before you go any further, the first step is to put down that there paintbrush, pardner!  Set back a spell and listen to a tale from a man called Jim…

First thing you need to do is to stop, think, and visualize your scene.  You’ve built some benchwork, laid and electrified your track, maybe even crafted some landforms.  This tells me that you’ve decided on a location for the scene.  It’s on the plains.  Or it’s in the desert.  Or it’s at milepost 23.6 on the Moffat Line.  Wherever it is, you have defined where the scene exists.

Now that the scene has been located in space, you need to locate it in TIME.  This may or may not be obvious to you, so let me elaborate.  Take a moment and look out your window.  Now, what time is it?  Where’s the sun?  It’s causing objects to cast shadows.  Where do they fall?  How long are they?  What’s the sky look like today, and how’s the weather?  What time of year is it?  Now, step away from the window, picture your scene, and write down its time-based attributes.

Sadly, or perhaps fortunately, the weather doesn’t change much on most model railroads.  On mine it’s always winter, so I designed my scenes to reflect typical December-to-February conditions.  Your choice will have a lot to do with how you proceed with your scenicking, not just how the backdrop will appear.

Once you select a time of year, I’d strongly urge you to gather a selection of photographs taken around that same time.  Even if you’re not reproducing a real scene, find or take some photos of something similar, for the rules of light and shadow are the same regardless.  If you are building a real scene, it is even more imperative that you do this.  Obvious?  Probably, but there are practical reasons for this.  More on this later.

Next, you must build the physical structure of the backdrop.  There are a few choices you can make, so let me discuss my efforts for a moment.  I have built basically three scenes on my layout requiring backdrops.  Two are corner scenes and have curved backdrops; one of these was later extended so I had to add on about 16 feet of additional scenery.  Options are driven by requirements; the curved sections were built using Masonite (hardboard); the extension of the Moffat Tunnel “diorama” was built using foam-core board, and after my sad experience with that, I went back to Masonite for the Front Range section.  For that part I also chose to try jigsawing the horizon and placing skyboards behind it.

So, what are the requirements that drive your options?  I’ll enumerate a few; you can probably think of even more that apply to your situation.

  • Distance from the average viewer, and height of that viewer’s eyes.  This influences the height of the backdrop (i.e. if it’s set back 36″ from the edge of the layout, you may need to make it fairly tall).
  • Support options.  Will it attach to a wall, or must it be free-standing?
  • Shape: flat, or curved?
  • Budget: how much do you want to spend?
  • Domestic: are you able to hammer, saw, screw to walls, and otherwise disturb your household and/or neighbors?  If you live in an apartment, your landlord may have something to say here.
  • Width of scene.  If it’s less than the width of available materials, you might choose a pre-cut material such as foam core rather than a more elegant lumberyard solution.  (Joining backdrop sections can be challenging.)

Back to my experiences.  First of all, using Masonite for the curved backdrops was entirely satisfactory.  Just be sure you have adequate framing to secure it.  It also proved to be good for the long Front Range backdrop– I cut the top edge, you may recall, and that gives my mountains a hint of three-dimensionality that is sometimes hard to get from a flat painted surface.  Masonite is durable and flexible.  Just be aware that it can get rather heavy in large pieces, and can chip or separate with handling if you’re too rough.  Foam core, on the other hand, seemed a perfect solution for a huge section that was wall-mounted.  That is, it was perfect until I airbrushed it with diluted Acrylic paint for the base colors.  The next day when I inspected the dried paint, I found that the moisture had caused the boards to curl over!  It’s like un-ringing a bell; it can’t be undone.  Well, almost can’t be done.  It turned out I had some pieces of 1/2″ trim in my spares pile, and nailed these along the upper edge of the warped foam-core boards to bring them back into a semblance of flatness.  Misting the boards with water helped them relax a bit.  Moral of that story: don’t get foam-core very wet, and I strongly recommend that you secure all edges of it until your paint is good and dry.

Okay, now that you’ve decided on a material, cut it and attach it to the backside of your benchwork.  As mentioned, curved pieces must be securely attached.  However, remember what I said about requirements and options?  My Front Range section actually goes down the middle of my garage, and I thought it wise to make it removable.  So, I built some slots on the back of the scene and slid the backdrop down into them.  This is easy since I can walk right up to the back, but there’s an unexpected implication of this: when building your foreground scenery, you cannot attach to the backdrop.  Plastered hills cannot “lean” on the board, although if you’re good you can shape them to touch it when everything’s installed.  Did I mention that I’m good?   🙂

I did say that we’d do a project in the next installment, so I will try not to get ahead of myself too far here, but there are a few general things you’ll do anyway.  The first of these is to prime the surface.  I’d use a white latex wall primer.  This way your colors will work when you get to that step, and you’ll also be able to see your sketch lines.  Next, referring to your photos or sketch, draw the outlines of major landforms or skyline features such as tall buildings.  Anything that’s a major terrain feature should be sketched, but the most important one is the horizon.

And this brings me to a discussion on point-of-view and how that influences your backdrop.  Any good painting essentially displays the subject from a particular spot, or point of view, and all the picture’s perspective supports that.  (Unless you’re trying to screw with the viewer like in some Escher drawings!)  But a backdrop on a railroad can be seen from any of a number of vantages, and this is a real disadvantage, so to speak.  Here’s the problem.  Let’s say you have a structure like a ski lodge or a row of storefronts.  The facades do not present much of a problem, as they are probably parallel to the surface of your backdrop.  But what about the side walls?  The roof?  Draw it so that it looks right from one angle, and it will look wrong from another!  Go back and look at the header image of this article.  The tops of the ski lodge buildings are painted to look right if one is a certain height– like mine– and if I’m standing so that the physical structure to the right is presented at the same evident angle.  But if a small child views it from below, then he cannot see the top of the blue building whereas the tops of the brown building stick up awkwardly.  It detracts from the realism, and there is no perfect solution for this.

If you’re interested in my opinions, here they are.  First, do your best to find what you think is the most common viewing angle, and design the perspective from there.  Second, if there’s a way to make the painted structure tall enough that the roof can’t be seen from any angle, so much the better.  Third, if at all possible, place such structures as far into the distance as possible; this reduces distortion of the perspective.  If that’s not possible, I would suggest that you cut the facades from foam core and fix that to the backdrop, giving a hint of three dimensions, and not show any side or top surfaces.  I’ve done this with the pillars on my model of Union Station and it is surprisingly convincing.  But just realize that no backdrop can perfectly represent three dimensions in two, as viewed from every angle.  This is my strongest argument against using enlarged photo montages for backdrops.

Okay, so now we have the primed backdrop installed on the layout.  Now it’s time to have another discussion on what you will paint, before you paint it.  This discussion can be summarized as:  Light is Everything!  Everything.  Absolutely… everything.  Remember talking about the time of day and year and stuff like that, up above?  Now it’s time to get really really specific.  You must decide where the sun is, at this moment.  That will dictate which sides of objects are highlighted and shadowed.  It dictates where shadows fall on the ground (yes, you will paint those!)  It decides how bright, and how sharp, your scene is.  It also influences how you place your layout’s floodlighting, which is a subject for possibly another post.  The only way to avoid this decision process is to decide that it’s night.  So, go get a bucket of black paint and use it on the backdrop.  You’re done.  Wasn’t that easy?

Oh wait.  It’s daylight.  Dang it.

So, did you ever wonder why sundials aren’t perfect tellers of time all year long?  Or why that one scene in National Treasure, where they find Benjamin Franklin’s glasses behind a brick at Independence Hall, just doesn’t work in the real world?  Because of that whole the-axis-of-the-Earth-is-tilted phenomenon.  In other words, the Sun is not at the same angle at 9:00 AM in January as it is at the same time on June 20th.  Not even close.  And this is why you must decide on a season, preferably a month, and a time of day, for your scene.  A funny characteristic of light beams: at our distance from the sun they are effectively parallel.  This means that all shadows hit the ground at the same angle. This is actually a good thing, because you can make a template to help you judge this.  Easiest thing in the world, so long as you know how high in the sky the Sun is, and what angle relative to your backdrop it is.  Do a little three-dimensional geometry (see previous post on the usefulness of geometry) and cut out a right triangle with hypotenuse cut at the sun’s angle).  Use that when you start painting shadows and such.

Oh, and one other thing.  Which direction is north in your scene?  All else hangs on that.  (South, if you’re in the southern hemisphere…)

I made a few references to perspective above.  In case you never had Art Class in 7th grade, I’d suggest that you google up the concept of perspective and get more familiar.  As it turns out, there are two very different types of perspective that we will utilize in our scenes.  One is what I will call the vanishing-point concept, and the other is that of distance perspective.  So, the vanishing point refers to a place in the far distance where all lines parallel to our line of sight converge.  It’s Infinity, kind of a visual black hole.  Turns out that drawing objects is a little more complicated than that– there may be two or more such points arranged along a horizontal line, for example– but it will help you get things closer to real appearance.  Look at any photo and you will observe this.  See the header photo above and study the brown lodge for a moment.  I purposely shot the photo standing in a location where the perspective was most convincing.

The second concept, distance perspective, is simply the recognition that the further things are away from you, the more air there is between you and it.  Air is not clear.  Big surprise, huh.  Being about 78% nitrogen, it’s actually quite blue, and sometimes contains other particulates or vapor that make it even more murky.  That’s why distant ridges covered with green trees actually look blue, or gray, or black.  Your distant palette will be in faded blues and grays.  Nearby forests and objects will be much closer to true color, so for those you would break out the ocher and reds and greens.  Again, see the header photo and you can see how I utilized this concept.

Now, go back to the scene you’re building.  Study your photos if you have them, and decide on the depth of the scene.  How distant is the horizon?  How close are objects in the picture?  A deep but distant scene will have relatively flat perspective. A close scene will have noticeably different object sizes from foreground to background.  You will use the vanishing-point technique to get the sizes and positions right.

So that was a rather lengthy introduction to the subject.  Next time we’ll bust out the paint and brushes, and make a mess.  Stay tuned.  actionroadlogobang