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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Cheney Lumber Drying Shed 1

I’ve been working on the Cheney Lumber scene for the better part of a year, and the only major item left was the drying shed. The photo above is the image I’ve been working from, and gives a good view of the shed construction. I have an aerial photo of the mill, but this is the best image for details.

I had the pad and lumber stacks in place, so I had to build the structure in situ. I also thought there was a good chance the building would be destroyed if I tried to build off-site and then put it in place.

The building appears use untreated lumber in a simple post-and-beam construction. The roof appears to be fairly new corrugated sheet metal. It’s a bit hard to gauge the lumber dimensions, but 1/16″ basswood looked about right. This is a 10 x 10 in N-scale, so probably a bit oversize, but not objectionably so.

There appear to be five support beams. The roof has a very shallow slope, so I cut the posts accordingly. The plate has parts for the support beams and braces. I couldn’t find anything small enough for the braces, so I cut them from 1/16″ sheet balsa. During assembly I’d cut those in half by eye.

The support assembly line. The balsa sticks are actually tools with markings for post spacing and beam spacing on the pad. White glue for everything.

Footer plates. It was going to look odd if the posts rested directly on the pad without any attachment. This is 1.5 mm ‘L’ channel cut 1 mm wide and coated with grey primer.

Support beams assembled and ready for weathering. The outer beams are at top, inner in the middle, and center beam at bottom. I didn’t bother with the rafter notches. The footer plates are fastened with CA.

Weathering the wood with powdered black pastel applied with a brush.

Support beams in place. I didn’t put footer plates on the interior posts.

Framing complete. Before putting the stringers in I test fit some cardstock to check the roof pitch. It wasn’t quite enough, so I put another 1/16″ ridgepole in place. The braces on this side and the dock side had to be put in place after the roof stringers were up. Even with a removable backdrop and taking the boom off the crane, it was not fun. Not particularly hard, just really fiddly while trying to preserve scenery. I’d add plate detail at the upper joints if this was a bench project, but it’s not nearly worth the effort here.

I cut some cardstock to mock-up the roof. I have some styrene corrugated sheet metal, but it’s on 0.040 stock. That’s much too thick, so I’m looking for better ways to simulate the material. I also wasn’t completely sold on having a bright white roof in a small scene. The roof looks new in the photo, but I was concerned it would be a bit overwhelming. After living with the cardstock roof for a while I decided it looks OK.

Once the roof is sorted, I’m considering putting a chain link fence between the track and the log pile. I’m pretty sure the prototype would want to keep logs off the track, but I’m concerned about breaking up the ‘flow’ of the scene. The logs on the track thing does bother me, though.

Making It Official

I’ve had a metal Northern Pacific logo plate for a couple of years, and decided to go ahead and mount it to the layout, already.

The layout is hinged, so like the 4077th, it can in theory be moved. I needed just enough space to get the clamp in place, but first had to literally block traffic:

While the glue was setting, I noticed there was a fair amount of ballast piled up from ballasting the track, so I recycled it back to the ballast bag.

A fallen flag raised.

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Trackwork and Scenery

As the car weathering is winding down, a few more projects on the Northern Pacific Project.

Replacing a Turnout

The point rails on the interchange turnout had become bent, and it was easier to replace the turnout than try and fix the existing.

NPP replacing turnout 1

The Peco track shop has prefabbed the turnout and delivered it. You can see the bent point rails on the old turnout. A wet paper towel laid over the turnout for a day loosened the ballast.

NPP replacing turnout 2

I was able to loosen the turnout enough to slide the joiners off and then scraped the roadbed clear.

NPP replacing turnout 4

The new turnout in place. Prior to ballasting I ran the persnickety Ten-Wheeler through the trackwork until it was satisfied.

Rather than try and match the old ballast, I treated the operation as regular track maintenance on the railroad. I didn’t weather the turnout, and laid new ballast along other improved areas. The local Class II Portland & Western recently relaid their branch to the lumber mill, so I got to see the prototype do it.

Cheney lumber is nearing completion, so I took the opportunity to refresh the scenery in the area a bit. This was mostly touching up ballast and re-laying ground cover.

NPP replacing turnout 5


Static Grass

I’ve been wanting to try static grass for a while. Many modelers get very nice results and it adds a lot of texture to the scenery. And like a lot of folks, I was having a hard time getting around the price tag for the applicator. That’s a locomotive. Then I came across Ken Patterson’s What’s Neat This Week column in the July 2014 Model Railroad Hobbyist. In the video segment he demonstrates how to make a static grass applicator for less than a pint at your local.

NPP static grass machine 1

It’s the (in)famous bug zapper method. Like Mr. Patterson, I got mine at China  Harbor Freight. I’d bought the sifters in a two-pack at the dollar store when I started doing scenery, but I’ve never used them.

NPP static grass machine 2

You can watch the video and see how it’s done, but there’s nothing hard about it. The most time consuming part was finding a suitable piece of wood in the garage. The alligator clip was lying around.

NPP static grass machine 3

The business end. I cut the tangs with a cutoff wheel in a motor tool, and used a small grinder to cut the tang slots in the wood block. Epoxy holds everything together. I used the small sifter because it’s a small scale.

NPP static grass machine 4

Ready to zap some grass. I tried it on some cardboard, and it worked.

And it does work, as you will find if you touch the sifter while holding down the button. There’s 1000V at the sifter, and while the amperage is next to nothing, it will be unpleasant. As manufactured the zapper is reasonably safe; modification makes it unsafe. It would probably be a good idea to put a guard on the sifter. Or just don’t touch it.

NPP static grass first application

The 2mm static grass on the layout. It’s, um, green. The texture is nice, but it’s too even and too bright for the environment. I’ll play with this for a bit and see if I can make it look good without scraping everything up. I was happy to see the static grass in action, but it’s a technique I’ll need to to practice.





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Scrapheap Challenge

The operating cycle called for a gondola spotted at Sanford Scrap for loading.

NPP Switching Sanford Scrap

Astute readers will note that a mill gondola would be an unlikely candidate for a scrap job, but that’s what I have, and the regular gons have been designated and detailed for sawmill duty.

I’ve been working on open-car loads this year, and the scrap loads were the last remaining. I’d been a bit ambivalent, as I thought they’d be the most interesting and the most difficult. My experience with the scrapyard was that random scrap takes an inordinate amount of time to model. Well, time to fill the gon.

I looked through my workspace and came up with everything scrap. I was happy about getting rid of a bunch of junk. In truth, I knew I’d need this stuff just for this project for a while, and like everyone else I saved it.

NPP scrap load starting material

A fair start. I planned to make three loads: two long and a short if a standard gon was assigned. I cut up some random styrene sheet to represent sheet steel, along with whatever structural shapes I had. Arranging the parts for painting:

NPP scrap load painting scrap 1

A shot of Flat Red to simulate red lead primer, then Flat Black, and a wash of Rust in acrylic:

NPP scrap load painting scrap 3

The pieces on the left are simulating galvanized roofing, and will be toned down later.

The idea was to use a 0.030″ styrene sheet painted Flat Black for a base and then build a styrene form the size of a gondola interior around that.

NPP scrap load forms 2

After the scrap dried I put it into a cup, shook a bit to mix, then poured into the forms placed on a scrap of cardboard. I was looking for a random loading effect, but of course adjustments have to be made. After arranging things, I soaked the whole stack, forms included, with wet water and diluted white glue.

After drying, the forms were easily separated from the scrap stack. I found that the method sort of worked. I ended up gluing things together with CA, and a lot of it. These would be handled regularly, so had to be robust. After things were reasonably tight and I’d adjusted the height of the load, I dressed the sides with an emery board. I wasn’t worried about exposed edges as they’d be hidden by the car sides.

Test fitting:

NPP scrap load fitting 1

That looks pretty ‘scrappy’.

The loads press-fit in and are removed with a hobby knife. After fitting I dusted them with earth-tone and black powdered pastels, then sealed the deal with a matte finish.

NPP scrap load final 2

NPP scrap load final 3

When not used the loads live in the load box:

NPP scrap load storage

Happy to finish that project.

Coal Trestle Detail

While looking for scrap I found a piece of ladder left over from building the Cheney Lumber crane. I’d wanted to add a ladder to the coal trestle for a while; people were complaining about access. As I was painting a bunch of parts for the scrap load project, I figured I’d whack this project in, too.

I cut the ladder to length and added four pieces of styrene to simulate anchors and hold the ladder away from the wall.

NPP coal trestle ladder 1

After painting I used CA to attach the ladder to the wall.

I also added a figure. I’d bought the Model Power 72-figure set a couple of years ago, and looked through it to see if anyone suited. I found a guy in a green uniform with an implement. I changed the pant color, then dragged him through a bag of coal for that working look.

NPP coal trestle ladder 2




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A Look at Ops on the NPP

The layout after a recent operating session:

NPP Operation Nutshell 1

The Mill Job has collected empties from the mills along Commencement Bay and is preparing to switch them onto the car ferry pier. It’s October, so the fuel dealer is getting the first shipments of the season on track rarely used the past few months.

NPP Switching Sanford Scrap

The local also left a couple of boxcars at Pacific Distributing for unloading, as well as a gondola at Sanford Scrap.

NPP Operation Nutshell 2

The local and its three mtys to be exchanged for the three loads in the interchange. Cheney Lumber on the left and the future Wheeler-Osgood plant on the right await logs from the Peninsula.

And that’s pretty much operation on the layout: logs ferried from the Peninsula are distributed to mills, the mills ship to the interchange, and the interchange supplies loads for businesses on the waterfront. A full operational cycle with both trains would take a little over an hour; I usually run one-half of one train’s work, and that can be 10 – 20 minutes depending on switching and how much I want to watch the train run.

There’s usually 15 – 20 cars on the layout at any given time, and the freight car fleet is about 2 1/2 times that, so a fair amount of variety and able to keep home road cars serving shippers. Flat cars are about a third of the roster. Trains run 3 – 4 cars, occasionally five, but five-car trains are really the maximum the space can handle.

Operations are governed by industry size. Each train is assumed to run once per ‘day’, or operating cycle. Larger industries might get served every cycle, while smaller ones may go three or four cycles. There are seasonal variations. I know there are very easy ways to structure operations; I’ve been too lazy to do it. There are a number of cars with duplicate road numbers, so that has to be addressed before any operating scheme can be implemented.

Overall, I’m fairly satisfied the layout provides about as much operational interest as can be had in 10 square feet.



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