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March 2017

Model Railroader has been the leading model train magazine for the past 75 years.  Each month, we bring you step-by-step modeling projects, fascinating photo tours of model train layouts, unbiased product reviews, new product announcements, tips from the experts and much more!

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Realism tips for beginners

We all have to start somewhere in model railroading, and every one of us was a beginner at some point. The term “beginner” isn’t one size fits all, however. Many are knowledgeable about railroading but may be beginners from the standpoint that they haven’t had the opportunity to do any modeling. This group tends to want a model of a railroad and, to that extent, some degree of realism in their modeling efforts is important to them. As I encounter these “advanced beginners” (for lack of a better term), they tell me that they feel caught in a catch-22 between wanting realistic results but thinking that they’re years away from the ability to do so. Often this disconnect keeps them from jumping into the hobby.

When the subject of building realistic model railroads comes up, people generally think in terms of prototypical accuracy, superdetailing, and a prerequisite of decades of modeling experience. While this may be partially true, their contribution is minor compared to other much more important factors. Fortunately, these other factors are all things the entry-level modeler can easily learn and employ. Realism simply means believable. It’s creating a layout that looks like what we expect to see. The four cornerstones of the realism foundation are: effectively composing a scene, applying appropriate colors, using the appropriate materials, and effectively handling backdrops. 


Model an aluminum billet load

Center-beam bulkhead flatcars, gondolas, and hoppers are important pieces of rolling stock for many model railroads. Since these cars are open, there’s no disguising whether they’re loaded or empty. However, making your own load isn’t very difficult.

During one of my recent railfanning trips, I saw some center-beam bulkhead flatcars loaded with aluminum extrusion billets. Essentially a raw material in the form of 10- to 15-foot long logs, the 8- to 12-inch diameter billets can easily be placed in layers four deep across the flatcar’s narrow deck, with the center partition providing stability as the load rises in height.


Building a portable staging fiddle yard

My layout is two in one: a steam-era engine terminal and a passenger/express car switching operation. When my Fillmore Avenue Roundhouse appeared in Model Railroad Planning 2015, I assumed I would make another portable staging elevator for the passenger car switching side of my layout. After all, I’d built one for the locomotive and service train staging and I’m very happy with it. It was a good solution considering the limited space I have for staging in my condominium apartment.

However, it became apparent a portable staging fiddle yard would be better. It would be simpler to build and operate. Also, after I looked at how many passenger car spots I have on the layout, there was no need for excessive staging. The fiddle yard allows for setting up passenger and express car consists (it represents the passenger platforms at New York Central’s Central Terminal in Buffalo, N.Y.). For my switching operators, it’s a “help-yourself” affair.

How to model a river channel

At the north end of my freelanced HO scale Boston & Maine RR layout is Ashland, N.H. The community, located along the Squam River, was home to several mills, including the Ashland Woolen Mill and the Squam Lakes Woolen Mill. When the mills were built in the 1840s, the Squam River was made into a channel and a dam was constructed to provide power for these and other mills in the area.

I’m adding the two woolen mills to my version of Ashland. The scene replaces an old yard that I tore out (hence the shadows of the former track locations on the Homasote surface). As I was working on the structures, I realized I could easily re-create the Squam River channel between the buildings without disrupting tracks I’d relaid and ballasted.


Appalachian scenes along the B&O

For me, choosing a railroad to model was easy. I grew up in a small town across the Potomac River from Brunswick, Md. Brunswick was a major hub for the Baltimore & Ohio RR between Baltimore and Cumberland, Md. In addition, my father and grandfather both worked for the B&O, and I worked briefly for the B&O’s successor, the Chessie System. I may no longer work for the railroad, but the B&O lives on in my basement as the 18 x 20-foot HO scale Ridgley Division.

I’d built several layouts before this one. When my family moved from West Virginia to Maryland’s Eastern Shore, my then-current model railroad couldn’t make the trip with us. As we built our new Maryland home, I planned for a basement even though they’re a rarity on the Eastern Shore. With that new basement came great expectations of an even better layout.

Scratchbuild a lumber yard from styrene

Steinman Lumber Co., which once stood at the corner of Nash and Holton streets in northwest Milwaukee, was ­replaced years ago by a post office and a fire station. Nothing of the industry remains. This meant I didn’t have too much to go on when deciding how to model the business for our HO scale Beer Line ­extension project layout.

One reference I was able to locate, though, was aerial photographs. Being a fairly large city, Milwaukee’s growth and development has been documented from the air fairly well over the years. So it wasn’t hard to find vintage aerial photos on the Milwaukee County Land Information Office website.

New England railroading in a small space

A track plan for a 4 x 8-foot layout published in Model Railroader many decades ago has been turned into a highly detailed setting for Dave Mitchell’s HO scale Central Vermont. Dave has always enjoyed scratchbuilding and modifying commercial structures, then developing the perfect spot for them on his railroad. With limited space, it’s even more of a challenge to populate a layout with many different structures and still have them support the overall theme of the railroad.


On the Web
From the Editor
Ask MR

How did sand houses operate?

Step by Step

Model partial loads to enrich operations

DCC Corner

Working with DCC cables

Trackside Photos

Featured layouts from your fellow model railroaders

On Operation

Fulfilling the role of conductor

Index of Advertisers
Trains of Thought

Have a Plan B for your modeling era



Add more operational possibilities to your layout.

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