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Mine Scene

The hoist house and shaft house are across a canyon from each other that spreads out the scene. The left rock formation is made in layers set back from each other for a natural effect.

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Choosing Roadbed & Rail

Choosing Roadbed & Rail is the start to make your perfect layout on a good start. Then you need the best ballast from ARMballast.

Choosing Your Roadbed

Once you are satisfied with your model railroad track arrangement, you can start gluing down roadbed, working on one section at a time. The roadbed is commercially available as cork or foam and is manufactured in various scales in 36” strips. It can be separated down the middle into 2 long strips. When you are sure of the proper placement of a section of your model railroad track, you can make dots on the sub roadbed between the track ties with a felt-tipped pen.

Then lift the track off the layout, and glue down one of the ½ strips with the inner edge lined up along the dots. (The beveled edge of the strip is the outer edge.) Then glue the other half of the strip lining it up along the inner edge of the first ½ strip. After you’ve glued down 1 or 2 sections of roadbed, you can then set the track back down on top of the roadbed.

Choosing roadbed base

Modelers use plywood on home layouts, as well as foam for portable layouts, both work well. Under the track, some use laminate flooring underlay. This paper-based product is cheaper than homasote, cuts easily with a knife, and is about ballast thickness for HO. Lay it right across the track area and then cut it to the correct profile after the track has been laid. It is not affected by soaking with dilute PVA for gluing ballast. This has shown to have no effect when soaked in water. Seal the top surface with cheap acrylic varnish as I find it holds spikes better.

You also have many choices for your roadbed. Some tracks, like Bachmann EZ Track, comes with an attached roadbed which you can mount directly to your sub roadbed. Other manufacturers offer similar products. You can use Homasote. This a time-honored way to build a layout but there are misgivings about it. Homasote expands and contracts quite a bit as seasonal humidity levels change. That can make for major problems with your track because the metal rails and plastic ties move very little. Cork is much more dimensionally stable, inexpensive, and easy to use. I suggest that you give cork some serious consideration. There is a similar plastic product (expanded vinyl). Modelers who have used expanded vinyl wallpaper have found it to be exceedingly easy-to-use, attractive, and durable.

Roll-out Sticky Roadbed

There’s also a roll-out sticky roadbed. It’s relatively thin so it won’t look like high iron but it will hold itself and your track in place. You can get away without ballasting (the rock, cinders, etc. which holds the track in place on 12 inches to the foot railroads) some model railroad tracks, like cork or the ones which already have plastic ballast or something just for children who won’t care as long as the trains go at light speed. However, you MUST ballast the sticky stuff because anything else which touches it will stick to it and that will lead to a cruddy-looking railroad. The other ways of doing roadbed (plastic, cork, homasote) should be ballasted for appearance. Yes, that applies to the roadbed attached trackage, too.

Choosing Roadbed & Rail

Choosing Rail – Track

A question that always comes up first is – What type of model train track should I use? There are several different brands and sizes available. Mostly what you use is a personal preference. One thing to remember is that the size of the rails is reported as the code. For example, the code 83 model railroad track has larger rails than the code 55 track. The smaller rails are often used for branch lines and the larger codes are for mainlines. This is often the way they appear in the prototype (real life), so you can simulate that on your layout if you wish.

A caveat to this is that you have to make sure that when you make the transition between different codes on the same layout, you have to line up the rails properly so there won’t be any derailments. You may have to use small pieces of wood underneath the railroad ties on the adjoining end of the code 55 track so that the rails of the code 55 track will line up properly with those of the code 83 track. Also, another point to remember is that sometimes branch lines may not have much roadbed, if any, under the track while mainlines almost always do.

The model railroad track is sold as sectional track, i.e., small sections of either straight track or curved track that come in 2-3 different standard radii, or as flex track, a very flexible 3 ft piece of track that can be curved to whatever radius you want. Sectional track, but not flex-track, can also be purchased with roadbed attached. Some model tracks have more realistic appearing railroad ties than others

More info

Many brands have black ties that are far apart. These are probably less realistic than the ones that are brown or gray and are closer together. Of course, hand-laid track ties are probably the most realistic. Also, the ties can always be painted to look more realistic. Varying the shade of color of the ties is always more realistic than having them all be exactly the same color. This would be tedious and probably not really that noticeable in the smaller scales, but it would make more of a difference in the larger scales.

Modelers generally use the sectional track for the most part (without the attached roadbed) in places where the straight track is required, and when curves with the standard radii are needed. However, flex-track is better if you need curves with nonstandard radii, or if you are making s-shaped curves. Many model railroaders use flex-track for the whole layout except for the turnouts. One note of caution when making s-shaped curves is that you should always have at least one car-length of straight track between the 2 curves. Otherwise, you will likely have derailments.

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The Death of Craft Trains


A long time ago, in the last century, there was a hobby called Craft Model Trains. It received a jump start in the 1930s with the first publication of Model Railroader Magazine. The Craft Train hobby peaked out about fifty years later in the mid-seventies. What are the Craft Trains? First of all, we need to identify the word “craft”. The dictionary uses the words; Skill, ingenuity, dexterity. An art, trade, or occupation requiring special skill.

trades men
Craft Trains reaching

A craftsman is one who practices a craft and is an artisan. From this, we could surmise that it means someone that works with their mind and hands to create and build something. Since the beginning of time, children learned their parent’s craft and then passed it on to his sons. A kid could also learn a different craft than they parent by working for an artisan for some years as an apprentice.

After they became proficient in the trade, they became a journeyman and could work on their own and employ others as appendices. That was the way goods and services were until factories came about.  For example, a wooden chair is made by several people collectively where each person does a specific job. On man cuts the wood to length, another runs a lath to turn the legs and one forms the seat while other assembles the parts. Man has found something lacking in this form of work as he now functions as a mindless machine.

There are still many that work in craft trades such as electricians, plumbers, cabinet makers and so forth. Sometimes the trade is learned the old way, and however, many where taught in our school system. How about the others in our complex society that work as teachers, doctors, lawyers, accountants. They found satisfaction in life by starting a hobby. It could be anything such as woodworking, photography and developing the film, metalwork, hot rods, sewing, knitting and more.

What is Craft trains?

In the ’50s, a high school friend invited me over and eventually, he showed off his fathers layout in one of the attic bedrooms. The hand-laid track, wood ties and bridges, cardboard buildings, gravel ballast and dirt scenery impressed me. Then I watched him run a train and switch a few cars. I knew then and there that someday the time would be found to build one of these contraptions. First, there were a few Hot Rods to build, important hockey games to play, songs to sing, finish my education, get a steady job, get married and build a house. Ah, house means basement, that must mean model railroad space and time.

I started in the hobby in the late ’60s when it was near its peak. The hobby shops had cork roadbed, flex track, freight car, kits, engines and presto, a layout was built in a few days. A few months went by when the realisation hit that this did not resemble the layout in my friend’s attic.

I tore it out when I moved and a start building a new one. Hand laid track and turn-outs, scratch-built structures by myself and others, Campbell Scale Model kits and home-made scenery. Some of this stuff is still on my layout thirty years later. Some consider this concept of modelling as a form of “art”. Like my father, I was an automotive mechanic, and his hobby was painting pictures, I chose three-dimensional art. The most important part of all this is that my father taught me how to work with my hands and mind.

End of an era

In the last twenty years, I have observed a steady decline in all hobbies among the people in America. As a hobby manufacturer, I asked many of my customer stores about their sales and what folks are buying. They said; ready-to-run items that can be taken out of a box and placed on the layout. Do you get what I mean now, Craft Trains is dead. So, why has this happened? Time, money, ability and drugs.


I know many folks in the hobby business that work as manufactures, shop owners and distributors. Some are in their seventies and have not even started a layout yet or have made very little progress. I don’t get at all as they tell me that someday they will take the time. Hey, model railroading is supposed to be a lifetime hobby, why are you waiting? All went into the business because they like the hobby but they never participated for themselves. In general, Folks have less time because we move more than our fathers. The divorce rate is much higher and single parents don’t have time for the children except work, eat and sleep. How about the greater distances commuting for work. The result is that folks want instant gratification in whatever they do and this translates into buying everything instead of making it for yourself.


A single-parent household has less cash. Many of the “good” jobs have disappeared because of computer and robots. I have seen many “Middle Manager” positions eliminated because of the computer. These are the folks that made a few extra bucks and could afford a hobby. The middle class is slipping back into the ranks of the working poor. Overall, wages have not kept up with inflation. Compare the cost of a gallon of gasoline with your wages twenty-five years ago. If you were making ten dollars an hour then, are you now pulling in sixty?

If you fall into the category of limited cash resources, Craft trains are the way to go because one can scratch build many things for the lowest cost. Now, the result of your work becomes unique and resembles a form of art. I like to have my railroad look like something I did rather than an assembly of components from the Walthers Catalog.


Have we stopped handing down our craft talents to our children? We do most of our learning in the first few years of our life. Someone said,” we learn almost everything we need to know in life in kindergarten”. Something you learn includes watching your parent do things. If parents come home every night, pops open a beer and vegetates in front of the TV, guess what the child learns. I used to say that, “mechanics are born, not created”. Some kids proved me wrong at the Fred Harvey Garage at the Grand Canyon when I was the Lead Mechanic. The rascal’s name is Jeff. He came to work for me about age thirty with very little mechanical experience. He ended up being a fairly good “wrench”. We all have dormant gifts hidden in us that can be developed and blossomed to fulfilment.


Drugs are the most serious problem we have in America today. Think about it. It takes from us; quality time squanders the money and impairs the ability.

The end?

The reports have been coming in for years that model railroaders are getting older. It’s the same thing as saying that young folks are not coming into the hobby. The numbers are getting smaller because they are dying off, just like the magazine subscriptions are doing. A customer of mine about twenty-five years old attended the last NMRA convention in California and stated that ” there didn’t see to be anyone there even near my age”.

If you like the concept of craft trains, you better hurry. The problem is that the manufactures who make all those neat scratch building parts and kits for the hobby ain’t going to be around much longer because sales are way down. I have personally spoken with a few of them and they’re about ready to pull the pin. Armed with this knowledge, I placed some big orders with them to make sure I got mine. Do you have yours?

Phil Anderson



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Downtown Deco

Thanks to Downtown Deco for this kit as it allows an opportunity for modeling urban scenery. I grew up on the streets of Calumet, Michigan, and the downtown buildings had already suffered the effects of the Great Depression. It was a prosperous mining town in its day as the red metal was in abundance and found in its purest form. The copper could be hammered out of the rock and drawn directly into the wire with little smelting. Money from Boston funded the operation as well as influenced the town architecture. In the early 1960s, when I was about twenty years old and planning my future, my father said, “Get out of this town because it’s dead.” The mines closed a few years later, and I have to say, dad was right. The first President, George Bush, declared it a historical district during his last days in office. Now the Feds have taken over the landmark mining company offices of the Calumet and Hecla, and little is being done to restore the town. Whatever negative statements I have made are based on fact, however, home is home, and there are exciting stories to tell with text and modeling.

Sunday morning in the slums, I don’t have anyone in the streets, so it must be Sunday morning. After all, it’s a neighborhood of drunks, dope addicts, and pickpockets. They disappear just like cockroaches in the daylight and won’t come out again until night. Rust stains (#1400) are overly evident on our concrete from the storm sewer drains, and maintenance hole covers made from cardboard.

Bringing life to the scene

Expansion joints were scored with the tip of a razor saw every 12 scale feet. Add joints down the center of the street. Random scores were made to represent cracks in the pavement. Diluted India Ink was seeped into all the scores to help define them. You can see darker black areas in some cracks where the street repair crew squirted tar in them. This was done with a brush and Acrylic paint. Storm sewer grates, utility hole covers, water covers, paper trash, and weathering the pavement bring character to the scene. Trees, people, and vehicles bring the action of life.

#1340 green sand was applied thinly on wet Mars Black acrylic paint for a weathered and worn roof. A clay chimney flue was made from card stock paper and painted orange from our pigment #1410. I was quite pleased the way this model turned out, but then after some time, it seemed dull.

Overdoing a model with signs and junk on the roof is something new to me. The task of building a model just to look like the picture above was always good enough for me in the past. That is a lot of work in its self. Now that the hard work is behind, adding detail is the fun part.

Taxi Pete’s Parking Garage was scratch built to provide personal interest in my first Downtown Deco block. Taxi Pete bought all his new cars (Plymouths and Chryslers) from my father. When dad sold his business after forty years, we rented space from Pete to park our vehicle in his garage during the winter. Pete Sarkisian came from Armenia as a sixteen-year-old orphan after the Turks killed his parents in 1918(?). You could always count on Pete being at the train station meeting the passengers from the daily Milwaukee Road train in Calumet.

The left roof is #1381 ballast for a pitch and gravel roof with openings in the rear wall for scuppers. Weathered tar paper was modeled for the right tent. The roof divider wall was made from plaster stones that I make for projects such as this. Clay flues were made for the chimneys at left. A couple of open windows have curtains blowing out and made from cigarette papers. Now the roofs await further detail.

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Building Concrete Slabs for Street & Highways

I’m beginning to favour the technique described below as it gives me more modelling options. At any rate, I don’t end up with overly antiseptic look working with plastic.

The cardboard I use is from an old Priority Mailbox because it’s the thickness that works best. Using a carpenters square, I cut my slabs in rectangles 2′ X 2 1/2″. Sidewalks made first, and you can make them with thicker cardboard, Masonite or even soft pine paint stir sticks. The above picture has thicker cardboard. The gas station below was built on a thin Masonite base that includes the sidewalks, and the buildings to the right have paint stir sticks. Working with six slabs at a time, coat the layout base with Carpenter wood glue and press them in place. Because the cardboard will curl, now cover the top of the carton. Use a cardboard scrap to trawl the glue flat for both applications. Now sprinkle the #1290 Concrete powder on the wet glue. Use a pallet knife to trawl the powder flat. When the dust gets to gluey from the glue below, hit the area with a light water spray to make it workable. An occasional slab can be shimmed up slightly on one edge to model a frost heave, but don’t overdo it.

Before the glue sets hard, clean out the joints with a sharp tool. I use an angle piece of brass as a corner tool for curbs and gutters after everything is dry, sand away any lumps and rough edges.

To model large cracks, I’ll cut some of that unfinished cardboard in random jagged pieces and then install in the method described above.

I photoed the scene before everything had a chance to dry and couldn’t sweep up the loose powder on the street. It does show how deep cracks in the concrete looks.

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Don’t let anyone tell you building scenery is easy. This section of rock work took all day and just to get it done, I started slopping on the plaster.

I used some pre-made castings from my “Basalt Bluffs” scenery kit. Most of them were sawed in half to make low ridges of rock. This effect gives you steps in the mountainside as seen at the base. The tall castings from the rock kit are in the center of this picture. Our #1270 Gray Granite Rock Powder was brushed on the castings and then Zip Texture was applied with our other scenery materials. This camera angle doesn’t show many definitions in the rock forms but gives you an idea of how it fits into the rest of the scene.

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A while back, I got rid of my plastic Heljan turntable and replaced it with a 14″ Bowser unit. I removed the plywood table top base that comes with the unit as the pit fit perfectly in the hole cut for the old Heljan unit. The motor runs way to fast on 12 volts so I cut the power down to about 6 volts. 

For now, one of the roundhouse doors is operated with a Scale Shops turnout motor. An additional 6 stall roundhouse is being added to the scene with hours of scenery work remaining.