Friday, June 27, 2008

Courthouse Part 2

Compromises for compression and time

A couple of detail shots of the courthouse reveal some great classical motifs. This stone work with the architrave, engaged pilasters and Corinthian columns are fantastic - but hard to carve in a reasonable amount of time. The model has always been thought of as a background piece that lends flavor to the museum layout, so I swallowed my fanatical tendencies towards exactitude in design and execution in order to get the model done without going any more crazy than necessary.

So the main features with as accurate flavor as I could get out of a chisel was the goal. A student of mine started the process on the side panel doing a tremendous job at transferring the depths of the original to the scale model. She nailed the overall feel of the detailing so that there was no doubt what the building was, even though several bays were omitted and prominent details like the capitals had to be generalized.


A jewelers scroll saw and wood hand saws were used to cut the blocks of Balsa Foam to size. (A piece of cardboard was used as a drop cloth to make cleanup easier.) I used several different Dremel tool bits to grind down the major shapes, and smaller carving bits to do some of the details. Chisels were employed to make the cuts and evacuate material for the relief items like the windows and pediment as well as various dental picks and odd tools that had different sized pointy ends. A metal ruler was used as a guide to scrape the straight lines of the rustication and main features with a sharp pick.The detailing in the architrave was accomplished by cutting a round wood dowel in half and sanding to size, then just poking the end into the Balsa Foam (see below). The image above shows the two stages of doing the side walls as well as the roughed out dome.

I jumped in to complete the model after the first side was done, and tried to do as good a job as my student. (I came pretty close, but I think her efforts were better.) Her side is shown below:

Messy work

As you can start to see in the lower left of the above image, working with Balsa Foam is pretty messy. The material is very fine and the shavings are powder, which means they float around like orange dust. Wearing a mask when doing any sanding is a must, and don't have a fan blowing on your work surface. There is still a fine layer of this orange dust covering everything in my workroom, and it will take some time to get it off all the books, and equipment in the room. It cleans up really well, but you should wipe any metal objects fairly promptly to keep it from rusting. I had to sharpen the chisels once during the process because of the grittiness of the material. Next time I plan on using some plastic sheeting hung from the ceiling around my work area to keep the dust better contained.

Logging Railroad Branch

Inspirational Photos of Logging Operations in Washington State

I've been working with a client on an N-Scale layout over the past several months that includes a small logging branch. We are tweaking the plans now, and he is trying to firm up ideas for logging scenes. These are a couple of inspirational pictures I just sent him that show a cable hoist system for negotiating a steep incline in order to get the log cars closer to the action. These images are from a great book that I highly recommend, Logging Railroads in Skagit County by Dennis Blake Thompson, Seattle: Northwest Short Line, 1989.

Handcarved Courthouse Model Part 1

McLennan County Courthouse

Custom model for the Mayborn Museum in Waco, Texas

I was asked by a friend of mine to construct a model of the courthouse for an HO scale model railroad layout at the children's museum in Waco, Texas. The layout depicts Waco, and has several loops of running trains with representations of several of the buildings in town. The courthouse, which would measure about four feet long at actual HO scale, had a spot of about 11 1/2" x 8" reserved for it. Heavy compression led to a caricature model, as I call it, that has all the elements of the original courthouse without the heavy footprint. A perfect strategy for layouts on a diet.


First a drawing was made of two faces, the front and a side (shown above). This was done in Adobe Illustrator by tracing over a photograph and then scaling it down to fit the footprint. The third of three sides was the same except for the addition of stairs and an entry door, which was added on the fly without a drawing. The fourth side is left open, as the model will be up against a backdrop about 10 feet from the viewer. This was then overlaid onto a 1" thick piece of Balsa Foam II, and the drawing transfered with a pounce wheel. The Balsa Foam can be acquired from Dick Blick's art supplies among other places. It is a Phenolic foam which has no memory characteristics and will hold an impression so it can be "dented". It is flame retardant and self extinguishing - just in case. It accepts all water based and most solvent based glues and paint finishes, and it comes in several hardnesses depending on your application. I used the 12lb density, but next time I will try the softer 7lb density, which should make carving easier.

Next posts will show some progress shots and discuss techniques used to carve and finish the Balsa Foam.

The Marshall Amp of Track Plan Books?

book ad

Model Railroader has gone where no track plan book has ever gone.

It has surpassed 100; it has reached a new "volume" level for the occasion when you have gone through 101 track plans and need just a little more track planning "to make that extra push over the cliff"; it has simply become the "11" of the model railroading track plan book world. It goes to 102!

But seriously, it probably is worth checking out. I haven't seen it, nor held it in my hands, but it looks to follow the standard format for all of Model Railroader books: aggressive typography, scenery-rich track plans, composed color photos, and some supporting text. Usually good "glossy" fare from the first name in model railroad publishing.

The cover has an interesting topic: "Design your own detailed drawings". If you parse that, it means that you are designing the format of the drawing, not using a drawing to design a layout, which is probably what they mean.

Track planning books are good for a couple of things:

If you have never built a model railroad, finding a "neat" track plan and building a layout to learn what the hobby is all about. Then, when you have learned what you like and don't like about the plan (and/or hobby) go design your own layout according to your own particular set of needs and desires.

When you are designing your own layout, you can appropriate ideas and situations from many different layout plans to incorporate into your own. Sometimes you can start with a track plan that generally fits your conditions, and then modify it accordingly. (I don't recommend this - it is like starting with a house plan from a House Beautiful plan book and making the garage a little bigger, shifting the entry orientation to the side, turning a Georgian house into a French country house...)

Simply fun to look at and ponder what you would do differently and why. What could be better on a lazy Sunday afternoon, or while you are waiting for the bus? The eye candy is usually pretty good in these books, so I would suggest having it after your meat.

If you get this book, let me know what you think of it.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


my drafting table

Another Model Railroad Blog

This one's about designing model railroad layouts! (And maybe some other stuff, too...)

So, it seems everybody has a blog these days, and like a cell phone, a computer, a typewriter, a telephone, and the thigh bone from 2001: A Space Odyssey before that - I had to have one to properly keep up with technology's incessant advances on using up our free time. But, having said that, this will allow me a place to organize some thoughts about my world in model railroading. You are invited to peak in whenever the mood moves you.