Thursday, May 25, 2017

House trailers

I still recall another modeler’s comment from some years ago, when I was on a layout tour. The layout we were viewing had a model house trailer back in one corner, amidst the scenery, and the modeler I’m referring to said, “House trailers are probably the commonest thing in America that modelers don’t include.” I was surprised when I heard the remark, but on reflection, realized that there was considerable truth in the comment. I’ve resolved ever since to act on that observation, but until now hadn’t actually done anything about it.
     There have been various models of house trailers commercially available for years. Naturally, some have been better than others. But I didn’t have to choose one, because I had in my stash of potential structures, a very believable 1950s-era trailer casting, one molded in one piece in clear resin by my long-time friend C.J. Riley. I decided to figure out a use for this nice casting.
     My layout doesn’t have space for much in the way of residential areas, and I have on occasion looked to see if I could find a spot where I could tuck a trailer among some trees. But recently I had an idea for a much better use. This trailer could be used as an office or storage space. So I took the clear resin casting, masked all the windows, and used a rattle can to spray it a primer-gray color. You can see its distinctive shape in the photo below.

To me, this is a perfectly in-era model. Thanks again to C.J. for conceiving it, making a master, and giving me one of the castings. I think he may have included this trailer in his line of resin-cast model parts, back a decade or so ago.
     Photos I could find on-line of old house trailers often showed doors of a contrasting color, with the same color sometimes repeated in a trim stripe or in the window frames. A semi-permanent trailer placement often has the running gear hidden behind a false wall around the base, as this model portrays, and this too is often a contrasting color. I also added steps up to both doors, from the Central Valley “Steps and Ladders” set, no. 1602.
     My idea for using this trailer was as a temporary office for my Port of Santa Rosalia. It can be placed near the sea wall and be an additional reminder that the cannery and fishing boat basin I’ve modeled are only part of the activities in the area. The office use would be designated by signage only, and could of course readily be altered to some other use in the future, simply by changing signs. (You can click on this image to enlarge it. The larger sign reads, “Harbormaster, Port of Santa Rosalia.” The smaller sign over the door simply says “Office.”)

     I had a small space near my Santa Rosalia waterfront, for which this trailer was perfect. It sits alongside Willow Lake Road, right across the street from the SP depot. An offshore fog bank is evident in the distance.

With the signs it now has, it can help remind visitors of the waterfront just beyond it. I will probably add a lawn and walkways in front of it, maybe a small parking area. And I’m glad to finally find a good use for my friend Riley’s nice trailer casting.
Tony Thompson

Monday, May 22, 2017

Free-running freight cars

When discussing freight car movements under such topics as waybills, car confiscation, and operations generally, the term “free-running” is applied to some cars. These are primarily box cars without special equipment or assigned service, and similarly gondolas and flat cars (provided they too do not have specialized equipment). When empty, these were available to be loaded anywhere, by anyone, if needed. So a shipper in Ohio could perfectly well load a box car from New England, or the deep South, or the Pacific Northwest, every bit as well as from a railroad with tracks nearby. (This may raise the topic of the Car Service Rules in some readers’ minds, and I will come back to that point, later in this post.) But cars could be sent anywhere.
     Modelers tend to know about this concept, but don’t always grasp what it means. For example, it’s commonplace for a modeler to see a photo of, say, a Western Pacific box car in Richmond, Virginia, and comment something like “that car sure is a long ways from home,” or even say, “What’s that car doing in Virginia?”
     The simple answer is that free-running cars went everywhere with loads, and could be reloaded wherever they ended up, once they were empty. Of course in times of slow economic activity, there might be a car surplus, and unloaded cars would mostly be sent homeward empty. But when cars were needed, which was most of the time, free runners were happily loaded by anyone, regardless of the geography.
     One testimony to the truth of these statements is the Gilbert-Nelson hypothesis. Those two men showed, at least for bridge-route railroads, that the frequency of appearance in train records, of freight cars from individual railroads, simply reflected the relative size of those railroads’ car fleets, compared to the whole nation's fleet. (I have discussed this at greater length in a prior post, which can be found at: .) The Gilbert-Nelson idea can only work if cars really are free-running, that is, if they can and do show up anywhere.
     I try in my own layout operating sessions to ensure that the largest railroad car fleets are represented in the freight cars on the layout. That means Pennsylvania Railroad, New York Central, B&O and Milwaukee, in addition to major Western road Santa Fe and home road SP. What is the basis for this? Shown below are the freight car fleet sizes for the biggest railroads, as I described in an article in Model Railroad Hobbyist  for December 2011 (read or download it at: ). The fleets are shown minus the car types which interchanged less frequently, which means coal, ore and ballast hoppers. I discussed that point in the MRH article.

     Another point to recognize is that there do exist data, remarkable in extent in some cases, to demonstrate how widely free-running cars could and did roam, taking on a wide variety of different loads in the process. A famous example was a advertisement by the Monon, documenting the first 12 months or so of travel by their new PS-1 box car which carried Monon car number 1. The ad appeared in Trains magazine for September 1948. Shown below are the two pages of the ad, first the map of the travels:

On the facing page was the actual record of travel, with dates and loads. Fascinating reading. You may wish to download this for easier reading (you can click on the image to enlarge it somewhat).

You can download the same list from its original on-line location at: .  The corresponding map is also available and for example, can be found at: .
     This was just a single box car, but there is certainly no reason to think it was untypical of the national fleet of free-running box cars. As modelers, we can take advantage of this reality by not only delivering loads on our layouts carried in cars of every railroad (with frequency perhaps guided by Gilbert-Nelson), but also by recognizing that those loads may be in cars from owners remote from the location at which the car was loaded. In fact, in support of the Car Service Rules (described in moderate detail in a prior post, at: ), a very likely car owner for a load arriving from far across the country is in fact your layout’s home road. Yes, maybe that load would be in a car of the home road of the shipper, but there is also quite a good chance that it would be in a car of the home road of the destination consignee, or of a close neighbor of the home road.
     You may of course operate your model railroad as you see fit. But if you are trying to model actual railroading, then this understanding of free-running cars and how they were used is essential to realistic operation.
Tony Thompson

Friday, May 19, 2017

Figures, Part 4: painting

Now I want to talk about painting. I have on occasion seen modelers physically recoil at the suggestion they could paint their own figures. But in fact it is straightforward, and like so many modeling tasks, is really a series of small, easy tasks. I will admit I was one of the “recoilers” until I saw some unpainted figures that really suited what I needed. I decided to buy them and see how it would go. What follows is intended as a simple introduction.
     Metal figures have a natural heritage from toy soldiers, and have been around the hobby from its inception. Here is a single example of such a figure, one of a large range marketed by SS Limited in their “Lil’ Folk” series. They are cast in a soft white metal (maybe a variety of pewter), and so the flash and mold lines are quick and easy to remove.

     On occasion the big companies that make figures sell “economy packs” of unpainted plastic people, and as with metal figures, they too need to be cleaned up. One company which used to sell unpainted white figures all the time (and I think at least some of them looked like Preiser figures), was Associated Hobby Manufacturers, or AHM.  Here are a couple of their figures from a set called “Station Crew.”

I especially like the hand truck, a ubiquitous tool for moving heavy things in the 1950s, when I model. The man with a lunch box is good too.
     Here are a couple of metal figures and one plastic one, which I’m going to paint for this blog post.

The plastic figure has a base, which is handy for holding the figure during painting, but which I will remove later. The metal figure at right is from SS Limited.
     I should mention that I have often consulted a couple of books to get ideas about painting miniature figures, one of them the fine Ray Anderson book I showed in the previous post in the series, Part 3, and the other is the Sheperd Paine-Lane Stewart photography book that I reviewed some time back (see that post at: ). Neither addresses HO scale or railroad figures as such, but both contain numerous intriguing photos of painted figures, which do give me ideas and inspiration.
     Once I have cleaned up a casting like the ones shown above, whether it is metal or plastic, I always begin by painting the face, neck, and hands (arms, if needed). The key here is to have a realistic-looking flesh color, whether for Caucasian or African-American figures. I use Tamiya no. XF-15 (“Flat Flesh”) for Caucasians. I never fail to be struck how much difference it makes to add that flesh color, because suddenly the little chunk of metal or plastic does look like a person, just with white or silver clothing (sort of). Compare the view below to the one above:

I did paint the hat on the figure at left, and the pants at right, using Tamiya no. XF-57, “Buff.” But the flesh tones matter the most. I guess our brains are so accustomed to “reading” a flesh color as a human being, that the effect of seeing just the faces and hands painted is startling.
     Next I start choosing other clothing colors. Here you can choose as you like, and this is one of the strengths of painting your own figures: they need not look like commercial ones at all. I do like to suggest denim pants or overalls, with a range of blue colors, but shirts can be almost any color at all, and pants can be gray or brown or olive. I usually paint shirts first, if there is a coverall or jacket over it, otherwise pants first. Here is my next step with these figures.

I like to paint shoes or boots a dark color, dark gray or dark brown. Here I used another Tamiya color, no. XF-63, “German Gray,” which I use lots of places I used to use Floquil “Grimy Black.” The brown pants are Tamiya no. XF-64, “Red Brown,” and the shirt is Model Master no. 1734, “Green Zinc Chromate.” I let every color dry well before adding another color. Here are the completed figures, each standing on its new base.

     I mentioned repainting also. Sometimes a figure has a color you just don’t want to use. Below I show a Merten figure, on the left in a white uniform, with arm positions I felt desirable to change, and showed that change in the previous post. Here, in the photo at right, is the corrected figure in white, now painted with clothing. Note also here that the original “policeman’s hat” has been filed down to represent a cap. Still far from an ideal figure, but to my eye much improved.

     Let me sum up this way. My recommendation on figures has always been, and still is, that they are not that hard to paint, but be patient, use as small a brush as you have, let each color dry before adding another color, and count on needing to go back and touch up some spots.
      This post has certainly not explored all the ways figures can be improved by painting, but I feel I have made the main points here. I intend to return to this topic in future posts.
Tony Thompson

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Creating a wine tank car, Part 2

In the first post in this series, I described the kind of prototype wine car I want to build, showing how the prototype is built and detailed. I also showed my method for making domes of any size easily from Plastruct tubing (you can read that post at: ). In the present post, I proceed with the project.
     Before going on, I should emphasize that the model I am working on is not intended as a duplicate of the prototype photo shown in the previous post (GATX 1095). I showed that photo to demonstrate the smaller size and different (flat-topped) construction of the auxiliary domes. But I am not building that car. The model I’m going to produce is definitely a stand-in (more on that later).
     In the previous post, I showed the new auxiliary domes completed but not detailed. Each one needs a bolted (“approved”) manway cover, a frangible-disk safety vent, and grab irons on each side. There are several sources for manway covers of this type, including the Tichy tank car detail set, but I chose to use covers salvaged from Athearn 12,500-gallon tank cars.
      [I harvest these when I raise dome heights of those tank car models, by adding a second dome piece on top of the first, to match the dimensions of SP tank cars. That process has been described in more detail in a previous post about modeling the SP cars (that post can be accessed at this link: ].
     Auxiliary domes usually have manway covers in their center, but sometimes are a little offset to one side. I chose to model these with the offset. In the previous post, cited in the first paragraph above, I described the construction of my new auxiliary domes, using 0.015-inch styrene sheet representing the plate tops. Since I need to drill a mounting hole for the Owl Mountain frangible disk safety vents on each dome. I glued a short length of 1/8-inch square styrene strip to the top plate, on the inside of the dome. This greater thickness provides support and gluing surface for the vent. (For more about the prototype and model frangible-disk vents, see my post on the subject at: .)
     With the safety vents in place, glued into no. 68 holes with canopy glue, I also added Westerfield brass wire grab irons to the side of the new domes. Shown below is a view of these domes as completed and ready to add to the main tank car, though first they need to be prepainted aluminum.

     As I illustrated in the first post in this series (link provided in first paragraph of the present post), my tank car to accept these domes is a Walthers (former Proto2000) insulated tank car. The domes were made to fit the diameter of that tank. I decided to do a minimal re-lettering of the stock wine tank car used for a number of recent projects (see my prior post about these cars at:, toward the bottom of the post). With the lettering “patched,” I attached the new, painted domes with canopy cement.

Part of the handrail is silver in this view, due to careless overpainting in “patching” the reporting marks. It will be restored to black.
     The next step was to extend the dome walkway to enough length so a worker could access all three domes. The easy way to do this, and maintain constant thickness, was to fit a strip of Evergreen styrene, scale 1 x 8-inch size, to the full length, on top of the existing walk, then to add strips underneath, at each end, to match the thickness of the existing walk. Here’s a photo showing this walk from underneath, with the two added strips, one at each end (you can click to enlarge):

The idea here is to make the final walk all one thickness, with no visual evidence of the preceding short walk, but without having to remove that original walk.
     This walkway was then glued on top of the original, short walk and a couple of small triangles of the 1 x 8 strip cut to act as end supports. These can be seen just inboard of the ends of the walk.

The walkway still needs to be painted aluminum to go with the rest of the car, and the shiny wheels will need to be corrected also.
     Now I need to re-letter the car, and that has some interesting complications with this modified car, because each of the three domes should be lettered with its capacity (in place of putting the total gallonage on the end of the car), because each compartment is (or can be) an independent cargo. I will return to that part of the project in a future post, along with weathering the completed model.
Tony Thompson

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Figures, Part 3: bigger modifications

In this post I want to continue with a discussion of modifying figures, this time talking about a little more extensive kind of change. Here’s why.
     Some figures are posed with rather extravagant gestures, certainly gestures anyone might make on a specific occasion, but not very typical of how people usually look. I show two below, both from Merten sets, for which I wanted to modify the arm position, an easy change. (I also dislike the clothing colors, and will take up that topic in a following post on painting figures.)

     As I said, these are candidates to cut and move arms and legs. I know this sounds dramatic, but actually it is pretty easy, and modeler’s putty can disguise any errors. I will show below modifications to the figure in white. In addition to arm position problems, the figure in red is wearing a hard hat, not really part of the scene in my modeling year of 1953. I simply file the overhanging sides and back of such a hat, and reduce the crown to a flatter profile. It is then easy to repaint as a denim or cloth cap or, if you also file off the brim in front, to repaint as hair color.
     Here is an example from another set, of correcting a typical German railway worker’s cap, which to an American looks almost like a policeman’s or military officer’s hat. I simply file off the front peak of the hat, while reducing and rounding the shape of the crown, and finally painting as a cloth cap. The photo at left shows the cap, its profile evident in the shadow of the head, before much alteration, the one at right shows the final result.

This happens to be an originally unpainted figure, that I painted to these colors. Painting of figures is going to be discussed in the post that follows this one, in this series.You may note that this figure is modeled wearing a necktie, but since I am not going to use it in a place where that is appropriate, I just painted it the shirt color.
     Sometimes the body parts of a figure are a little unrealistic (giving rise to a passing thought that the figure designer did not quite get it right). For the figure in white, in the first photo at the top, the arms not only have an exaggerated pose but seem overlong. In re-positioning them, of course, it is easy to cut them down a little in length. I plan any angle cut on arm or leg to lie in the plane in which I want to rotate the limb, or the plane on the body to which I will re-attach the limb.
     But in many cases you want to bend an arm or leg, or if that limb is gestured more than you like (the red figure in the photo above is an example), you need to make other changes. This in turn requires an awareness of how body parts change. I have learned a lot about this from a book on dioramas, published back in 1988, by a true artist named Ray Anderson. I show the cover below.

This is a Kalmbach book, drawn from articles in FineScale Modeler magazine, and has been out of print for some time. I recently have seen copies on eBay, however, if you’d like to find one.
     One of the helpful drawings in that book shows how you can go from a static, standing figure to a figure engaged in more action. I show just a small part of that drawing below.

The drawing indicates changes to an arm, a body, or a leg that are the insertion of wedges of styrene, so that a straight limb, or downward arm on a body, can be adjusted into an action pose. Usually I find myself wanting to do the opposite, so I regard the drawings above as showing what to cut from an action-posed model, not additions I would make. Having a little experience with this process, I can say that it is actually pretty easy, and anyway, as I said, modeler’s putty covers a multitude of errors. Here’s that figure in white, with both arms lowered.

I will remove the molded base in favor of my clear plastic base, along with painting the figure. What you see in the photo above is just the factory paint.
     I don’t hesitate to adjust figures if need be. Searching for that “exact right” figure you need may be more trouble than just modifying one you already have. And the ones you didn’t want to use because of their poses are likewise candidates for correction. That includes repainting, which I will take up in a following post.
Tony Thompson

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Figures, Part 2: modifications

In the first post of this series, I talked about my discouragement with the majority of the collections of HO figures on the market, though there are certainly some worth having — or working on, to make them worth using. (Find that first post here: .) In the present post I will begin a description of some of the modifications and changes that I make to commercial figures.
     After fighting with the bases cast onto some figures, and not being happy about how well they could be disguised (so few prototype people stand on little discs), I decided to take another approach. Nowadays I cut off the base of any figure that comes with one, and add my own. And for the figures that come without any base, I add the same new base to them as well.
     My new base is simply a piece of clear plastic sheet, not much bigger than the footprint of the figure, and usually of 0.010-inch thickness. (Evergreen and others sell clear styrene sheet like this.) I always use canopy glue for attachment, as it dries clear and is quite strong. I just add glue to the figure’s feet, set it onto the base, and support it upright till the glue sets.
     I sometimes trim the plastic base to an oblong shape, but usually I just leave it as a rectangle. Yes, you have to use the shiny clear plastic, since a coat of flat renders it non-transparent. That means that in just the wrong lighting angle, a viewer will see the reflection of that little rectangle. But judicious placement on the layout can minimize or altogether avoid this problem, as I have learned by experiment.
     Being transparent, this base is a little hard to photograph, but by angling the light to emphasize the reflection, you can see it.

     One of the figures to which I added a base is one of the June’s Small World people shown in the first post, the middle one of the three shown (figure W5 in their series, described as “man shoveling”). I mention this figure because of the wide stance of the figure’s legs, necessitating a wider base than would be needed for a person standing normally. This high-angle view was chosen to catch the light reflection.

But though the base looks very intrusive when reflecting the light, in almost any other light angle the figure looks like this, with the base really not evident.

     Another modification is to change the tools the figure was made with, or add new tools. One good example is my ice deck crew at Shumala. They are using the two ice tools used throughout Pacific Fruit Express territory, a two-pronged forged steel bar called a “bi-dent,” and a wood-shafted tool with a point and a hook, called a “pickaroon,” designed so you could both push and pull ice blocks with it. In the Jim Morley photo at Roseville,, shown below, the “passer” at left is moving the ice block toward the hatch with his pickaroon, while the “chopper” at the hatch is about to chop up the block as it starts into the hatch, using his bi-dent.

For my model scene, I made the tools from brass wire, and modified suitable figures to hold them.

The ice blocks here are the 300-pound size that was standard for manufactured ice in the West; the crews will break them up before putting them into ice bunkers.
     Here is a close-up of the two tools, which at least resemble the prototype ones you see above in the Morley photo.

     These modifications are fairly simple, and yet readily make figures look better, or make them fit better in the place you want to put them on the layout. And the ones you didn’t want to use, because of their poses, are likewise candidates for correction. That includes repainting, which I will take up in a later post.
Tony Thompson

Monday, May 8, 2017


By “figures,” I don’t mean numbers, and I don’t mean the shapes of men or women. I mean the miniature figures we put on our layouts. These relatively small objects carry a disproportionate weight in the appearance of any scene, simply because they remind us of ourselves, while they populate our miniature world, and I believe that careful attention to the “look” of model figures is a vital part of realistic modeling. What follows, I should warn you, is purely my opinion.
     I have long been disappointed in the appearance of most commercial figures. In an apparent effort to generate huge variety, makers of figures have produced everything from tennis players and baseball players, to children running and oom-pah bands playing, and to such relative improbabilities on most layouts as ice skaters, circus clowns, couples dancing, and working firefighters. What we mostly need are just a few categories of figures: workmen at various jobs, ”civilians” in such roles as passengers or bystanders, and railroad employees. Practically everything else is fruit salad on the side.
     In other words, I think we need ordinary people doing ordinary things. Here’s an example from Roger Nulton’s excellent S-scale layout in Tacoma, Washington (his wife is a major collaborator on scenes like this, all of which are quite well done). We don’t all have “town scenes” on layouts, but this photo depicts a natural-looking scene.(You can click to enlarge)

There isn’t a crowd here, but there are believable people who fit into the scene. Even the walking man at lower right is okay, because he appears to be walking slowly.
     Of course I recognize that an particular layout may host a picnic scene, and thus need picnickers, or may include a church, and be able to use a crowd of funeral mourners or wedding celebrants, or have a mini-scene of road repair and be able to use highway workmen. And there’s that tired old favorite, the police or highway patrol car, pulling over a motorist. Any one of these (and many, many others!) might crop up on a layout, but hardly multiple examples of them — at least on serious layouts which try to portray actual railroading and the real world.
     A further gripe of mine has been the “under-volume” figures often sold at bargain prices. These emaciated individuals might well serve in a hospital scene but are not very realistic otherwise, And most of them are posed in awkward and unrealistic poses anyway. And on that point, figures in real action, such as running, look fine in a photograph, where we are accustomed to motion being frozen in the instant of camera exposure, but a figure so posed statically on a layout looks very odd.
     I admit I like and want to use figures on my layout, so I’ve spent literally hours poring through Walthers catalogs and picking through wall displays at hobby shops, looking for the occasional set that I can actually use. In this post, I will show a few of my findings.
     So in what follows, I want to leave most of the negativity behind and address what is good and useful among the kinds of figures out there. Over the years, there have been excellent figures available from a variety of sources. The most familiar name is probably Preiser, and their painted figures are generally very good, even though for American modelers, so many of their sets are distinctly European. There have been others, too, such as the beautifully done figures from June’s Small World (of Mountlake Terrace, Washington), and the “Crowd Pleasers” from N.J. International.

I have heard that the June’s line of figures had a business connection to Pacific Fast Mail, and of course both are gone today. But I have seen the figures on eBay.
     For the “classic modelers”  out there, I should mention the fairly ancient Weston figures (produced by Campbell Scale Models). They are metal and several of them are useful, even though many of them tended toward rather static or wooden poses (the conductor figure in particular appears mummified). I have a  number of the Weston figures, and just show two below which have some potential.

Long-time hobby shops sometimes have these in stock, and they show up on eBay.
     The figure on the right, above, cries out to have some of the clothing repainted — unless he is posed as a filling station attendant.The left figure, called “Sweater Girl” by Weston, is indeed busty as would go with the period name, but of more interest is the skirt length. This is a 1940s look. It would be as out of place on a 1960s layout as would a mini-skirted figure in a 1940s layout.  This is a warning that not every figure set commercially available would be a good idea for your layout.
     Recently, Woodland Scenics has introduced a wide range of very good figures. Some of them are exactly what I like. I have noticed in a couple of hobby shops that the Woodland Scenics display always has the peg for set A1859, “Train Mechanics,” empty. Now I know why. I finally found one of these sets for sale and immediately bought two. I am delighted to be able to use every figure in this set, unlike so many where a couple of figures don’t really make any sense on my layout. This is their package label, which has an artist’s depiction of the figures. Notice there are six figures but the label says “7 pieces.” The red toolbox is a separate piece.

     These figures come with no base, and that is fine if you plan to glue them in place on the layout. I do glue some figures, but most of mine, I prefer to be able to move around. In a following post I will show what I do to make that work, and I will also add some comments on modifying figures for specific uses.
     There have been lots of other sources of figures beside the ones I’ve mentioned here. I myself have lots of Merten and Faller sets and a variety of unpainted figures for which I no longer remember the origin. But I’m not trying to do a comprehensive review here, just mentioning which ones I find to be of interest in light of the goals I described. I hope that in presenting more about my approach(es) in future posts about figures, that I will provide some ideas of use to others.
Tony Thompson