NPP Milestone

NPP layout basic scenery complete

Much work to be done (and in progress) on the Wheeler-Osgood scene at left front, but the Northern Pacific Project has reached a basic level of completion. There’s scenery everywhere!

41 months and about that many hundreds of dollars after beginning, it’s starting to approach the original vision. Reaching the desired level of completion by year’s end looks reasonable. Progress has been slow, but the layout’s been operable for a good long time, and been very enjoyable.

Immediate projects are to finish Wheeler-Osgood (posts anon), complete the buildings on the city side, and add some people. Intermediate projects are to detail the cabeese and NW2, and experiment with cut bars on the rolling stock. The only other project planned for the layout is building a Northern Pacific S-4 Ten Wheeler, but I expect that to take most of next year.

I’ve enjoyed the layout and the hobby, and am looking forward to many years more.

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Doing the Research

monthly rr mags 180329

As my modeling focus has concentrated on prototype modeling, I’ve joined several railroad historical societies. For the past couple of years I’ve had the pleasure of membership in the societies for the Milwaukee Road and Northern Pacific, and joined the Great Northern society last year. Apparently Northwest railroading is my thing.

The photo is this quarter’s collection of magazines.

NZ Model Railway Journal

The top-left magazine is the Journal of the New Zealand Railway Guild. The Guild appears to be similar to the NMRA in the US but I don’t believe the Guild does standards. Sort of like a national model railroad club. They focus exclusively on New Zealand prototypes, and the modeling is superb. Trains are trains. Kiwis tend to work in larger scales than US modelers, and while 3D printing has made life considerably easier for the NZR modeler, it still takes a level of ability to faithfully replicate that prototype. Manufacturers aren’t falling over themselves to produce models.

I joined the Guild when I was looking at modeling a New Zealand prototype for a change of pace, and New Zealand offers some excellent model railroad scenes. After looking at the reality, I decided against an entire NZR layout. I model in 1:160, and while Z-gauge track is very nearly scale for NZ’s meter-gauge, such New Zealand equipment as exists in N-scale is 1:150. I didn’t want to spend years working on something that wouldn’t be interchangeable on US layouts.

However, New Zealand Rail did/does have some cool stuff. I’m toying with the idea of building a model (NZ prototype, of course!) for one of their contests, but you really have to have an ‘A’ game to compete with those guys.

The Milwaukee Railroader

The organ for the Milwaukee Road Historical Association, and the railroad that got me interested in the transcontinental railroads of the Northwest. The magazine tends to focus on Lines East, and that’s not real handy for someone who’s never even been to Wisconsin. My interest in the railroad is in the electrified territory, and that operation is not as well covered. There is good information on equipment and structures used across the line. The magazine is photo-rich, mostly in color, including somewhat unusual (and valuable) color photos of steam. The Hiawathagram newsletter is also included.

The Association’s website is, um, a little sparse. On-line resources could use improvement, and there’s not much for the modeler. The magazine is a good resource, but on-line is something of a prairie.

The Mainstreeter

Published by the Northern Pacific Historical Association. My current layout is ‘inspired’ by the NP, in that the Northern Pacific is the home road and I run NP equipment. The track plan is convenient to the layout and not the prototype. I chose the Northern Pacific because it had operations of the type and in the area I wanted to model.

The Mainstreeter content tends to run to scholarly articles on NP operations. There’s a fair amount of modeling information, and the always fun Mystery Photo. I never have a clue about the photo, but it’s interesting to read about it in the next issue.

Where the Association shines is on-line. The website has scads of information useful for modeling the railroad. If they don’t have something, they can tell you where it is. I’m fairly convinced you could build a nice Northern Pacific layout just with the information available at the Association’s site. If management decided to put their resources into the digital library rather than the paper one, I’m on board with it.

The Great Northern Goat

Courtesy of the Great Northern Historical Society. I joined this society last year because I’m looking at the Great Northern for my next layout. The magazine proper is something of a glorified newsletter, but that’s not what you’re looking for. Every issue includes a Modelers Pages and at least one Reference Sheet. The arrival of the Goat is a bit of an event. More than the other two, GNHS caters to modelers.

The Modelers Pages have GN-specific new product news, books, and model photos. There’s a modeling article and a Q & A. Available for back-order.

The Reference Sheets are detailed looks at some aspect of the Great Northern railroad. There are hundreds of them. Fortunately also available for back-order, and for members, many in the $2 – $3 range.

The Society’s on-line resources are good, if not perhaps on par with NPHA. There is a fair amount of NP information on the GNHS site, along with BNSF. The official site is well-supplemented by several individual efforts that fill big gaps in the Society’s on-line library.

I need to stop reading and get back to the railroad.


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Wheeler – Osgood Pt. 1.5

Which was going to be Part 2: Laying Track, until I started mocking-up the scene.

I pretty much know what I want to do with the space between the spur and the backdrop, but the space between the spur and what-passes-for main needs something. I’d hit upon the idea of putting a steam plant in the space, and had bought a turnout for the additional spur.

It’s a down-to-the-foam remodel. The ditch on the left is the slough.

Craft store brown acrylic paint to hide the white.

The really dry season in Tacoma. Or Mars. It seems that for modeling a dry wash this wouldn’t be a bad start.

View of construction from the parking lot.

“What’s goin’ on at the mill, Jim?”

“Dunno, Vern. Ain’t been a train in over a week.”

To make ground transitions for Cheney Lumber I’d used 1/8″ mat board. I’d cut the pieces for the W-O scene and glued them in place, but they’d been compromised when I soaked the track for removal. I needed something flat, thin, and impervious. That describes a lot of things, but I wanted cheap if possible. I cruised the usual suspects in craft and art supply stores, as well as home improvement and hardware. I found this at a large orange big-box:

Sheets of replacement glass and Lexan in various sizes and thicknesses.

Lexan 8 x 10 sheets: one of 0.093 on the left and two of 0.050 on the right. They were less than $5 each and depending on where you shop, cheaper than sheet styrene.

Trying out placement. The thick Lexan is to ease the transition to table level, and the 0.050 will go on the right.

I played around with the track and warehouse until I got an arrangement I liked. I’d made a floor plan for the steam plant, and had used it for the footprint. I wanted to mock-up the building, and it just so happened that the current (March 2018) issue of Model Railroad Hobbyist has a downloadable power plant drawing by Nick Muff. After getting the file and adjusting the size to fit the footprint and height, I printed it out on 110# card stock. A quick tape job and I had a crude but serviceable mock-up. I grafted on a print of the type of front doors I had in mind.

That is just not going to work. At all. As much as I was looking forward to building the steam plant (and I was), it’s not going to happen.

So what to do with the space? I had a brand-new turnout, and didn’t want to waste it. I toyed with the idea of modeling the space where the steam plant used to be as an over-grown concrete pad with the spur used for storage. Sort of an homage to an idea not realized. After looking at it, even the footprint of the plant crowds the scene. I’m probably going to go back to a variation of Plan A and install the spur, with a gantry crane spanning both tracks to unload log flats. If I go this route, I’ll likely get a kit for the crane, as I don’t think I’m really up for scratch building another crane. And this treatment will maintain the low, open look of this side of the layout.


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Wheeler – Osgood Pt.1

In which I dive into the Wheeler – Osgood scene.

Now that I had an idea what I wanted to do with this corner of the layout, I went ahead with it. I want to get this area done because 1) I’m curious to see how it comes out, and 2) the layout isn’t operable until I’m fairly far along with this. I can shuffle cars around if I want, but I can’t operate while this scene is under construction.

So I needed a warehouse for wood products based only on a plan from a fire insurance company map. Some room for interpretation. I went with a clapboard-sided frame building with a timber deck for the dock. Because of the way the scene was developing I decided on a piling foundation. The layout is set in and around the Tacoma tide flats and I’ve seen many buildings in similar areas on this foundation.

The foundation parts. The drawing is the foundation plan. The parts are dimensional balsa wood, and the bracing on the right side of the plate are cut scale (hah!) 2 x 4’s for bracing.

The foundation jig. I tried building the jig in such a way that the joints were unencumbered, and this worked well. The wood is weathered with Pan pastels using Burnt Sienna, Raw Umber, Grey and Black.

I wanted to use printed textures for the building. I’ve tried this a couple of times with indifferent results. I had Light Tarpaper and Grey Dock Boards from Clever Models, and bought the Dirty White Clapboard texture for this project. I’ve found that the N-scale textures are often not correctly scaled, so I adjust the density until I get what I’m looking for. I printed the textures on 110# white card stock.

The building base is 0.040″ styrene sheet while the walls are 0.030″ styrene. After cutting the parts and painting the interior surfaces Flat Black I glued the texture to them.

This is what happens if you use a water-based glue like PVA. The water-based ink discolors. I could live with the floor because nearly all of it will be inside, but the walls had to be redone. I had to find a way to glue the textures, and tried spray glue. A large can of the good stuff isn’t cheap, but it does work very well. Perhaps a bit too well, as you really have one chance at it. Once the paper is down, it’s down. I put alignment marks on the reverse side so I’d have a guide and the textures wouldn’t be crooked.

I have a number of small balsa blocks left over from Cheney Lumber, so I used some to act as alignment blocks for the walls. I figured they’d act to hold the walls straight and level, and this worked pretty well.

Testing different doors. I drew the doors and tried various textures to see what looked best. The door tracks and trim are 0.030″ x 0.040″ styrene strip weathered with Black powdered pastel.

The warehouse serves a door and sash plant, so I figured I’d better have some doors and sashes. I got pictures of both from the internet, and scaled the images to N-scale. The doors came out OK, but the sashes are too small for me to cut reliably, so on this day only doors will be shipped out.

I found that a standard manila folder is about the right color to represent new wood, and the thickness is nearly scale for a door, so I cut a bunch of door-sized pieces and glued them together with the door texture on top. I cut some lengths of small strip wood left over from a lumber load kit for the stacks of doors to rest on. It occurred to me that I’ve spent a lot of time modeling stacks of wood products for this layout.

Building interior with view blocks and door stacks in place.

I was going to use shingles for the roof, but when I put the roof in place it seemed a pretty fancy roof for an auxiliary warehouse on the back lot of a large plant. Tar paper seemed the more appropriate choice.

 The various roof samples. Top and bottom center is Clever Models Light Tar Paper, on the left is the same texture at 1.15 gamma, and on the right is the texture at 1.3 gamma. The center pieces are a felt roof texture I downloaded as an image and tiled and adjusted.

I printed a complete roof on regular paper for each of the textures and mounted them on manila folder. I didn’t spend a lot of time trimming the pieces; I just needed a mock-up to see how it looked. It was a couple of hours to do this, but the building is going to be on the layout for a while, so maybe worthwhile to get things right. The pieces are on my glue press, which is a couple of shelves from the computer desk on which the NPP is built. They feature smooth, finished surfaces, weigh about five pounds each, and are very good at pressing flat stuff together.

I attached one half of the roof to the center view block/ridgepole, and the other half is taped to the first half. This held the roof in place so I could draw reference marks for trimming.

Tar paper at 1.3 gamma.

Felt roof texture.

I decided that the Light Tar Paper texture at 1.15 gamma looked most like aged tar paper, so went with that. The rejected roofs served as test articles for trimming and fitting, and it turned out that having several pieces was a good idea.

The roof is printed in two parts: one piece of card has the roof texture, and a second piece is printed in an off-white color sampled from the clapboard texture. I glued the pieces together back-to-back and after trimming dusted the edges with Black pastel. The top seam is hidden with a piece of  0.030 x 0.040 styrene strip painted Flat Black and dusted with Grey pastel to simulate the ridge vent. I considered adding structural detail under the truck dock roof, but decided against it as scale 2 x 4’s are very small, and that would be a lot of fiddly work for something not really viewable from normal angles. I did add some nominal bracing to the rail dock roof because the building looked a little off without it.

I also considered adding gutters and downspouts, but I have seen a number of this type of building without any rain control at all. There are a lot of rainy days in the Northwest, but those looking for gutters on a structure of this type overestimate management’s zeal for spending money.

For the rail side dock roof I used CA to glue a styrene strip across the wall so the roof would have something to attach to. The corner boards are 1.5 mm styrene angle.

With the roof sorted it was time to attach the foundation. Unlike every other building I’ve done the floor on this one was above grade, so I had to paint it Flat Black. I used a correction pen to make the alignment lines for the timbers. After attaching the pilings I added the bracing.

After the glue dried, I used a pair of Xuron scissors (PL4440) to trim the braces. I recently acquired this tool, and like it. A light dusting of pastels to cover blemishes on the pilings and dock, and done.

One nice thing about printed texture is the ability to print the weathering right on the texture. Other than trim pieces, there is almost no physical weathering required. This building did take about 30 hours to build, which is a bit long in my opinion. Fortunately the scene only requires two buildings, but I expect the steam plant will take half again as long as this one.

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Evolving a Scene

The NPP has gotten to the point where completion is in sight, and I’ve been working on the last quarter of the layout. I had a fairly clear vision of the warehouse area, and Cheney Lumber was built from a prototype, but one area has vexed me for the last three years.

NPP Operation Nutshell 2

I knew I wanted a wood  products plant in keeping with the layout theme and a destination for my fleet of flats and gons, but I didn’t know exactly what to put there. Ever since scenery started this has been where materials have been kept, proving no layout is too small to also serve as storage.

I needed an industry that would take raw logs and provide finished product, and there were any number of those in 1940’s Tacoma. Most industries used Commencement Bay as a millpond, and few wood industries shipped in raw material by rail. Cheney Lumber was a fortunate find.

I decided to use the Wheeler-Osgood plant in Tacoma as inspiration. This was an absolutely massive complex that manufactured a variety of wood products. While perusing a 1950 Sanborn map of the plant, I saw that there were a number of rail spurs; some of which might be useful. While the plant was actually served by the Oregon-Washington Railroad and Navigation Company, here it’s the Northern Pacific. The Sash & Door plant had a couple of attached warehouses for shipping, and the spur serving them winds its way between buildings. The company offices were catty corner across the tracks with a parking lot so that fits. There was also a wood yard for the slab wood from which doors and sashes were made, but for modeling purposes the plant will have to make do with logs.

There was also the problem of separating this scene from Cheney Lumber. I decided to model an industrial slough that is common in this area. More recent construction actually includes these features for runoff mitigation.

Sanborn maps may include notes on building construction, and in this case the only clue was the inclusion of the poles supporting the roof. That and what photos I could find of the W-O plant and wood plants in general suggested that the warehouse was wood frame construction with clapboard siding. The map also noted a 4′ high loading dock around the building but no indication of construction. I’ll go with wood.

The warehouses were entirely rail-served, but for scenic reasons I included a truck dock on one side with parking lot. I put the wood yard adjacent to the warehouse. I could have put it in the space between the siding and the main similar to Cheney Lumber, but companies like to keep process distance as short as possible, and I didn’t think it plausible that the wood would be stacked across the track from the intake.

Something I’ve given considerable thought to was how to get the logs off the rail cars. Most prototype photos of an operation this size show a pillar crane, but I’ve built two cranes and wasn’t keen on building another. Modern facilities would probably use a boom lift, but I couldn’t find any from the 1940’s. I did find some images of large forklifts that could probably do the job, so I’ll use that.

With the W-O plant roughed out, I had to come up with something for the space between the siding and the main. I hit on the idea of putting a steam plant in place, as steam was commonly used for space heating and the wood product industry uses process steam. While I couldn’t model anything nearly large enough to be believable as a primary steam plant, I could rationalize an auxiliary plant built to handle peak loads (and keep the bosses across the tracks warm). I’d also get another rail-served industry.

My initial thought was to have the plant Diesel-fired in keeping with the back-up nature of the plant. I’d just have to model a tank car unloading station, as I’d assume the tank was underground. But there were some problems with this.

Every photo of a steam plant I could find showed them to be coal-fired. Even if a back-up plant was Diesel-fired, the layout is set in 1948, and WW II not long finished. I couldn’t believe that the Federal government would allow private industry to requisition car-loads of Diesel for steam generation when that same fuel could drive a tank across Europe. So given the scenario the plant would likely have not been operated during the war, and if a company could get by without a facility for four years of war production, they probably didn’t need it post-war.

I briefly considered modeling just that: a dis-used plant. But that’s about as much effort as modeling a working plant, and denies a car spot. After I cobbled together some mockups, I liked the steam plant idea.

NPP WO steam plant mockup 1

I was a bit reluctant to add track; the layout works well as is, and I didn’t want to clutter the scene. I think this will work, as the scene represents a small piece of a much larger complex, and as industrial sites grow stuff gets shoehorned where it will fit.

NPP WO steam plant mockup 3

Slough on the left, parking lot, warehouse, and wood yard. The steam plant is foreground. There will be a fence surrounding the plant perimeter inside the main track.

After experimenting a bit I found the largest footprint for the steam plant I could get away with.

NPP WO steam plant mockup 4

That’s barely legal, but does include all the vital components and won’t look completely implausible. The chimney will be to the rear, and the area in front will be paved and connected to the parking lot next to the warehouse.

NPP WO steam plant mockup 5

I decided to add some interior detail to the building, as these plants tended to have large windows and at least the car door will have to be open. I don’t plan on winning a contest, but a couple of boilers, a coal pit, some walkways and piping, and a bridge crane shouldn’t be too difficult. Man, I’ve still got to build a crane.

Now that I know what I’m looking for, I’ve started assembling materials. Looking forward to getting this scene done.






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Working on the Chain Link

The NPP serves an urban area, and there are fences. Chain link fences are ubiquitous, and I’ve modeled a couple. I recently completed a project that needed another chain link fence, and wanted to find a way to model these structures reliably and effectively. My efforts to date:

NPP chain link fence team track

The team track fence, modeled a couple years ago from a kit. The posts are too thick.

NPP chain link fence warehouse

The truck yard fence built about a year ago. The posts and gate are 0.5 mm styrene rod and the ‘chain’ is grey tulle. Better, but not there yet.

I came across a method of soldering 24 ga wire to form the posts and stringers, detailed on this site. The author works in N-scale, but the method described is generally applicable. If you have a need for chain link fence, I’d suggest this method. It works as advertised.

NPP chain link fence jig

My fence jig. The author uses a yardstick, but this is what I had laying around. My only other fabrication departure was I used 0.015″ piano wire I had in stock rather than 24 ga wire. The piano wire is a bit thinner than the 24 ga and scales to a bit less than 2.5″ in N-scale, and is likely as close as I’ll get to scale.

Once all the pieces are cut, fabrication is fairly quick. After painting the frame primer grey I attached the tulle per instructions. I didn’t add barbed wire as the fence is on a parking lot. I left the corner posts and every third post long for mounting pins.

NPP Parking lot fence 2

I like it.

Parking Up

The fence was motivated by the addition of a parking lot to a corner of the NPP. I’ve been looking at aerial photos of the area around the Cheney lumber mill to get ideas on how to finish this side of the layout. There were parking lots in the area so I decided to put one in by the interchange track.

NPP Parking lot 5

After scraping up the ground cover I slathered on earth-tone oil and acrylic paint. I was looking for color and texture that was not white Styrofoam.

NPP Parking lot 4

I use #110 craft card backed by 0.20″ sheet styrene for asphalt. I laid the card along the track and cut along the crease where it met the ballast line. I tried testing cinders on the surface to simulate macadam, but the cinders were far too large.

NPP Parking lot 6

Spray adhesive to affix and clamps and shims to adhere.


Now folks have a place to park and maybe do a little train watching.

Experimenting with Grass

When I laid track for the layout I put down basic ground cover. Anything looks better than bare bench work. Some of that ground cover is approaching three years old, and as I’ve worked on this part of the layout I’ve tried static grass on the vacant areas.

I’m still experimenting with static grass, and looking for the best methods and combinations of material to get the effect I want. I bought some 2.0 mm Brown and 2.5 mm Marsh Green grass and have been having a go with that.

NPP static grass and ground foam

The right side of the track is original ground cover, while the left side is a combination of different lengths and colors of static grass and ground cover. I think thing are moving in the right direction, but observation of the plants along the local prototype shows the grass 2 – 3 feet high. I expect to obtain some 4 – 5 mm static grass and see how that looks.

Some Operation

After working on the railroad, it’s fun to play with it.

NW2 #106 shuffles cars around the warehouse district. Tight trackage sometimes prevents the crew from spotting the caboose where the conductor would like.

Spotting a load of coal in late afternoon. It’s peak heating season and busy times for the fuel dealer.

Man Bites Dog

And train stops for cars. While driving in Beaverton I crossed the P&W track right before the warning sounded. After turning I could see a short mixed freight headed by GP 39-2 Sheridan come to a near stop as cars tried to clear the crossing. That particular section of track crosses two busy roads at grade in about 400 yards, and trains are infrequent enough (though regular) that some drivers will edge the crossing at the light. Heads-up by the crew to be aware of that.



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Cheney Lumber Drying Shed 2

NPP Cheney drying shed top 1

While agonizing over the drying shed roof, I tried several methods of simulating corrugated metal roofing. There’s a method of casting the material in PVA using a styrene sheet as a mold.

NPP Glue on substrate 1

NPP White glue metal siding 1

On a 1/2″ grid. This works well, but I needed single pieces larger than I could reliably make. I also looked at using tinfoil, but that method is better suited for representing smaller pieces.

I tried some printed textures, but details like the corrugations were significantly affected while trying to get a good color. Unless I wanted to build a texture from scratch, that wasn’t going to work.

I noticed on the prototype there appeared to be a wood frame running along the roof edge. I figured I could use an earth-tone stick pastel along the edge of the styrene sheet to simulate this, and that worked well enough.

The top cap is a strip of #110 cardstock and the roof was very lightly weathered by dry brushing a minimal amount powdered black pastel in the direction of the corrugations, then removing most of that with a damp wipe.

I did have to add a non-prototype detail with the addition of ‘No Clearance’ signs on the right corner support.

On the prototype the tracks ran straight, but in model world that’s not the case. The clearance is a bit tight, so per prototype practice I put up warning signs.

Dock Ramps

What doesn’t travel on the NPP in gons and flats moves in boxcars, and there are several places around the layout for house car activity. I’ve wanted to add dock ramps for a while, because forklifts without a way to access the car are useless. The first thing to do was find out what dock ramps from the 40’s looked like.

That looks like a very printable detail part, but as far as I can tell, no one has yet done so in N-scale. I scaled the ramp and made a drawing.

The platform is 0.015 sheet styrene and the frame is 0.010 x 0.030 styrene strip. Paint is whatever appropriate colors were to hand.

The underside prior to final paint. The frame is beveled toward the end and the vertical stops are cut to 2 mm.


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