Flat Car Decks and Lumber Stacks

Some ongoing activities on the Northern Pacific Project:

Rolling Stock Weathering

I bought some Pan Pastels last month and was hoping they’d allow better weathering results than I’ve enjoyed. I’ve read good things about them from folks who’ve used them and the results look good. Model Railroad Hobbyist has a pay video service where the pastels are used and there are some videos on the Net. I haven’t seen the MRH videos, and the ones freely available were uneven.

NPP Pan pastel

I prefer my weathering supplies to be ‘extra sauve’.

My go-to weathering method has been powdered stick pastels applied with brushes, and while underframes are OK, sides and tops give me problems. I decided to have a go with the Pan’s with cars as they came off the layout after operating sessions.

I like them. The various applicators and the fact the powder is mixed with a binding agent allows a high degree of control. And a little bit goes a long way, especially in N. Weathering rolling stock isn’t high on my list of fun hobby times, but the Pan’s make the job more enjoyable.

Weathered and unweathered gondolas:

NPP weathered unweathered gondolas

Flat Car Decks

Along with weathering cars I’ve been looking at flat car decks, or how to improve them. About a third of the NPP’s car fleet are flat cars, and it could use a few more. Flat car decks are highly visible, and there are a lot of them on the NPP. I tried using printed texture on a couple of flats a while back, and while I thought the appearance was improved, the color balance was too light.

Since the cars were going through the weathering mill anyway, I decided to have another go at the decks. After reviewing videos and photos I decided my skills weren’t up to hand-weathering flat car decks to any convincing degree. I turned to another preferred modeling method in printed textures.

Some time ago I purchased a fence model from Clever Models. They specialize in cardstock models and printed textures, and it occurred to me the fence might make a good starting point for a flat car deck.

NPP old fence

The fence in the background

I opened the file and a couple of graphics programs and got busy. The first effort wasn’t quite what I was looking for:

NPP Flat car deck test 1

I printed the texture on plain paper and cut to size. After letting the cars sit for a few days, I decided that while an improvement over molded plastic, it wasn’t quite there. I scaled the resolution so the board texture would print out at about 6″ wide N-scale, then used various settings for hue, saturation, and gamma to make test articles.

NPP Flat car deck test 2

The lower car is one of the earlier efforts

NPP Flat car deck test 3

NPP Flat car deck test 4

I let each batch sit for a few days while I got a feel for how the textures looked. Some were glaringly wrong. What very few images of prototype flat car decks I found showed the wood much lighter than might be expected.

After selecting a couple of acceptable deck shades, I added NBW detail with a suitable rusty brown color. At this level the eye can’t tell a square pixel from a round bolt. I also cut up and rearranged the texture for variety. Some flatcars aren’t decked over bolsters and draft gear, so I made some decks to reflect that. I debated whether to add stake holes to the textures, but decided for this iteration I’d just open them with a knife tip before inserting the stakes.

Rather than glue the textures down as I’d done last time, I wanted to try using sticker paper. This is just what it sounds like: paper on which stickers are printed. I got the idea from an ad I saw in MRH from an outfit that does exactly this: sells sticker textures of flatcar decks. I do not know anything about them or their product other than I saw the ad. And I thought I’d give the idea a try.

After setting the printer and software to the highest resolution, I printed test sheets on plain paper to check that everything was correct. The sticker paper isn’t cheap, and this type of printing sucks up ink.

NPP Flat car deck paper proofs

NPP Flat car deck paper proofs bolster

NPP Flat car and deck

NPP clamping flat car deck

NPP flat car decks installed 1

Three ‘new’ cars and and an ‘old’ one

NPP flat car decks installed 2

NPP flat car deck installation comparison

Decked and undecked cars

I think it’s an improvement, although the shade still looks too light. We’ll see what some weathering  and a shot of Dullcote will do.

Cheney Lumber

I’ve been working on the lumber stacks for Cheney Lumber, and have done all I care to do:

NPP Lumber stacks and flat cars

Only the perimeter stacks in the foreground drying shed are modeled, but all of the stacks on the loading pad are individually assembled and wrapped. There’s another half-cup of cores left, but I think the effect is convincing enough. After aligning and gluing the stacks, only the drying shed and pouring the water remain.

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The NPP Purchasing Dept. has been active recently.

Harbor Freight hobby saw

A hobby saw from Beijing Outlet  Harbor Freight. $40. I gave this a flyer because I needed a way to cut wood for the lumberyard, and $40. The saw is grossly underpowered and uses a non-standard blade. It’s like they had some parts laying around the factory and needed a way to get rid of them. It *will* cut thin stock if you’re patient, but the kerf is a mile wide. Nothing a new motor and blade won’t fix.

New freight cars 170605

A whole bunch of new cars, including seven Milwaukee Road boxcars. Tacoma was the Western terminus for the Milwaukee road, so I’ve wanted some representation for a while. The other boxcars and gondola are western roads while the flatcars and caboose are Northern Pacific. I needed another caboose because the layout will support two operators and a new engine is coming soon. Nothing’s going on the layout yet because of another purchase.

Weathering supplies 170605

A trip to the art store. As operations have become more active I’ve been more frustrated by my initial weathering efforts. They are better than nothing, but unattractive. I’ve read articles in the hobby press on the virtues of Pan Pastels, so I bought some in the usual weathering colors along with some applicators. I’m curious to see how this will go. I’ve got a batch of cars fresh off the layout interchange to start with.

The T-square has a metal blade so I’m hoping this will be a more accurate tool. The stripwood is 3/8″ basswood. I tried cutting balsa for the lumber yard stacks and it was disappointing. The denser basswood should yield better results.

Well. That should keep me busy for a while.


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Trains Large and Small

I took a trip on Amtrak last week between Portland and Seattle. I’ll post on the trip at Fixed Points, but there were some things that fit better here.

Amtrak’s Cascade is the regional service for the Northwest, scheduled between Eugene and Vancouver, BC. Rail service is between Portland and Seattle; everything else is by bus. Compared to driving, the schedule between the Rose and Emerald cities is a good hour faster, and compares favorably with door-to-door air travel times.

BNSF GP-38-2 21 May 2017

BNSF GP-38-2 #2276. Not that I have a great interest in modern power, but wanted to record the weathering. I noticed much of the equipment along the way had a similar dusty white coating. Weathering is one of the weakest parts of my modeling game, so as cars come off the layout I’ll have another go.

Puget Sound aggregate pipe over track

At the southern end of Puget Sound there’s this large pipe over the tracks. It’s an aggregate loader for ships.

Seattle Amtrak shops

Amtrak’s Seattle shops located adjacent to and south of Safeco Field. King Street Station is about 1 km north (behind).

Among the rail equipment nearly everything was home-road. Tank cars and hoppers were leased and not a lot of foreign-road equipment. Boxcars were uncommon. It’s a busy line, and if you were to camp by the tracks you’d see several trains an hour.

Local Trains

PNW Adair Village 22 May 2017

Portland & Western’s GP-39-2 Adair Village running through Hillsboro with a train from the lumber mill.

The (Incomplete) History of the Western Railroads

HIstory of Western Railroads

Saw this book in a bookstore. There is this map:

HIstory of Western Railroads map

There appears to be something missing. Like maybe the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, better known as the Milwaukee Road. A history that omits an entire transcontinental railroad can hardly be called ‘complete’.

Back to the layout

I’ve been working away at the lumber stacks for the Cheney mill. I have enough to where I could start to see how things were going to look:

NPP Cheney lumber stacks 1

That’s a little disappointing. With 35 stacks done and five in the production pipeline, I’m going to need a lot more. I have material for another dozen stacks, but that won’t be enough. I really need more ‘hero’ stacks. The pad in the foreground will be roofed, so I’m using unadorned plinths as stand-ins in the middle, but the loading dock is open.

I’m not really happy with my chosen modeling method: dimensional wooden cores wrapped with printed texture. It’s time-consuming and not totally effective, but it does provide a nice look from normal viewing angles. It’s convincing enough. I’ve discovered that models of stacks of 8′ studs appropriate to the 1940’s aren’t really available. I need to find a way to model this relatively efficiently because I figure with my interest in Northwest railroads this is going to come up again.

Operating on the NPP

As operations grow I’ve discovered that the interchange track is getting more of a workout than envisioned. My thinking was that on a layout this small ‘shipper-receiver’ relationships would stretch credulity. Everything comes from or goes to off-layout. Now that the sawmill side of the layout is taking form, all that product has to go somewhere, and it isn’t the Peninsula. The interchange track was laid with expansion in mind, and I’m considering adding a drop-leaf yard.

Along the waterfront:

NPP switching waterfront 170523

The empties from the mills have been spotted on the pier for the ferry ride to the Peninsula, and the engine is about to run around the two empty cars on the left. After putting the train together and checking brakes, the crew will head for the interchange track. The warehouse is modeled after a prototype in 1948 Tacoma.

Turnout sizes

I downloaded and printed turnout templates from the Fast Tracks site. From top to bottom is a crossover with Nos. 6, 8, 10, and 12 turnouts. I’m planning my next layout with minimum No. 6 turnouts, so the templates are a good way to see how much space track work takes.

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Noodling around with some things on the layout:

Lumber Stacks

I’m still experimenting with lumber stack analogues. I’ve mentioned that I need stacks of lumber for the mill loading dock, but don’t need detailed models for interior stacks. I bought some 3/8″ x 5/8″ basswood sticks because the cut dimensions were close to what I needed for the stacks; I just had to cut them to length.

A short time later I had a pile of cores:

I used white glue to make stacks of four, then applied the printed texture to the sides and top. A look at how things, um, stack up:

The loosely stacked foreground pieces are raw cores, while those behind have texture applied. It appears I only need detailed stacks for the first couple of rows; the rest can probably be raw wood. This particular pad will be covered, making detail even less important. Right now I’m looking at just cutting a slab of wood the right shape for the interior stacks.

Track Re-alignment

Only one section of the layout remains to be detailed, and given that I need a destination for cars arriving from the Peninsula by ferry, the choices are limited to wood product industries. Fortunately no lack of those in 1948 Tacoma.

My concern was that I’d laid the siding on a curve, and it appeared likely the industry would be crane-served. I’m not really looking forward to building another crane, but may not have a choice. I decided to straighten the siding to accommodate a crane.

The original siding with a straightedge:

There’s some weed detail I hoped to preserve. After soaking a folded paper towel and laying it on the track until the towel was dry, I used a putty knife to pry up the ballast and track:

The track came up fairly easily with most of the ballast attached. I probably won’t bother re-ballasting in keeping with the industrial setting.

New Cars For the NPP

As I’ve operated the layout more, I’ve noticed a need for certain types of cars. Nearly every industry uses boxcars, and there’s a crying need for flatcars and gondolas. I really need flats and gons lettered for Northern Pacific, as I figure those cars would be in nearly captive service shuttling Peninsula logging to Tacoma customers.

I was in The Hobby Smith recently browsing their N-scale freight cars, and found some keepers.

The Northern Pacific gondola is from Trainworx, and a very nice model. Really nothing to do but weather it and put it in service. Even the trip pins are blackened. While I mentally knocked $4 off the price for the metal wheels, it’s a near-indulgence.

After coming to grips with buying the gon, the boxcars were easy. The C & O car is by MT and the CB & Q car is an Atlas product. An Eastern-road car wouldn’t be a common sight on the West Coast, but it makes a nice contrast to the heavily West/Northwest roster on the NPP. The more ‘foreign’ it feels, the better the job the NPP does representing the region.

Sanborn Maps

Any modeler who’s been in the hobby long enough to need prototype information has heard of the fire insurance maps produced by the Sanborn Map Co. I found that the Multnomah County Library has digitized and uploaded the maps, so anyone with a County library card can access the downloadable maps online. I don’t live in Multnomah county, but I do live in a county with a reciprocal lending agreement. The maps don’t cover every part of the cities they serve, but for the parts that are mapped, they are original source material. If you have a modeling need in an area covered, they are invaluable.

Fun Anecdote:

The Portland State University has the maps on microfilm, and anyone can walk in and ask for them. When I got to the appropriate desk and asked for the film, they knew exactly what I wanted. The Sanborn maps are a fairly esoteric request for some random person to make, but it turned out an Urban Studies professor had required the maps as course material a few years ago.

Operating on the NPP

Switching the Cheney Lumber Co.

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The Stacks

With the input side of the sawmill taken care of, I needed product. Cheney Lumber specialized in building studs, and photos show a lot of them:



I wasn’t going to model nearly that density, but I still needed a convincing amount. Looking to the market, I bought a couple of Details N Scale’s ‘Yard Lumber Kit’ (DTD 300-12) from a local hobby shop. $14.98 ea. The kit is manufactured by a local supplier with no fixed production schedule, and comes in 8,12, and 16 foot lengths.

A few weeks after I ordered two of the 8′ kits a couple of the 16′ kits showed up, and I took them. I was finishing up the crane and was ready for some lumber.


These are the original lumber stacks as they come out of the bag, and after each 16′ stick was cut in half. The kit also includes thin strip wood for dunnage. The 16′ stack is 30 mm long; scaling to 15′, and making the 8′ stacks closer to 7′ after cutting with a razor saw. Close enough.

The pieces are nicely finished but not what I was looking for. The ends are OK, but the the layers of veneer on the sides were too jarring to my eye to be believable scale lumber. There are some faint parallel lines marked on the other faces to suggest lumber, but they are too wide for 2 x 4’s. I did have up to 96 stacks of 8′ studs, so I thought about how to remedy the kit pieces.

I figured I’d treat the kit pieces as cores and wrap printed texture around them. The plan was to draw and print two sides and a top, with the top joined to one side. The crease on the larger cover would align it, and gluing the other side separately would eliminate errors in width on the top. The covers had to be drawn, but it’s just straight lines so nothing hard there. After a bit of experimentation I had results I liked.


The lighter top color was scanned from the kit piece, so the cover would match as closely as possible. Lumber is drawn to scale on the covers with slightly darker shades of brown, and that created the darker side color. This doesn’t look objectionable, and the contrast makes folding the cover easier. For the other side I printed a sheet of just sides. Everything is on standard printer paper.

Major cuts were done with a media cutter, and trimming with scissors. Because the covers were larger than the cores, I wasn’t too worried about micro-trimming, but I did want to make sure the core was covered with texture.


Cores on the left, textures on the right. The top middle pile is the top/side piece, while the pile below are the single sides. In the middle is a bone folder, used to get sharp creases in paper and cardstock. It’s a little pricey for a piece of bone, but I’ve used it on other paper texture projects and there is no substitute. The covers are attached with straight white glue spread in a film with a toothpick. White glue allows some working time to get the covers straight, but I found they went on fairly well. I clamped the covers in place using my work bench pile ‘o shims to apply even pressure.


Covered and uncovered cores:



The forklift is from a set of printed models I painted and weathered last year.

I think there’s enough of a difference to justify the effort. For stacks atop each other I only have to cover the sides of everything below the top. Because I’m going to need scores of lumber stacks, I’ll experiment with ‘filler’ stacks so the ‘hero’ stacks can be used to best effect.




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Raising Crane 6

Attaching the mechanical house to the boom was the last major assembly step. The house has two main support beams where the boom sits, and until I installed the backstays, would be the only attachment point. I used epoxy for this joint, because I wanted the strongest adhesive I had available. Somewhat surprisingly the house fit right into place with a minimum of adjustment. I let the epoxy cure for 12 hours.

With the structure upright and braced by a motley collection of shims, I added the backstays. These are two short pieces of 1.5 mm I-beam cut to fit and tacked in place with CA. After the glue set I ‘welded’ the upper part of the supports with MEK. A piece of scrap 0.030 styrene maintained clearance between the boom and the house. Not as finicky as I’d feared, but still required a steady hand. If there’s a more difficult way to do this, please let me know in the comments.



The backstays anchor the boom, so the adhesive is under tension: not adhesive’s strength. I left space at the back of the boom to add weight, and may yet do so.

The smokestack for the Diesel is from a variety pack I bought some time ago and painted Flat Black. The smokejack for the heater is 0.50 mm rod. I ran a length of 0.50 mm rod painted black along the underside of the boom to represent the support wire for the electrical cable. Both the electrical cable and the hook cable are carpet thread coated with CA and allowed to dry to stiffen it. I put the bends in the electrical cable with the nose of a pair of hemostats. The ‘stats were very helpful in compressing the thread horizontally so the loops in the cable stayed. Attachment was with CA while the boom was upside-down.

This structure took over a month to build, and I didn’t want to ruin it with a ham-handed weathering effort. I lightly brushed the crane with Black pastel, and added more Black pastel on the platform over the rails to simulate locomotive exhaust per the photo. Shades of Brown pastel were brushed onto the under-frame, and everything was sealed with Dullcote. The wheels of the base were CA’d to the crane rails:



The hole in the base was a bit too large to hold the upper section pin tightly, so a bit of electrical tape solved that. While the base is glued down, I wanted to be able to remove the top section for access and when the layout moves.




The hook is from a crane kit I put together last year for the scrap yard: I’d substituted an electromagnet. Two pieces of styrene sandwich it for the block, and the cable is stiffened carpet thread.

The log pile is a bunch of 2.5 mm bamboo skewers painted and cut to length. The bag of 80 skewers yielded nearly 900 ‘logs’, and about 750 of them are in the pile. I laid a row or two daily, and in about two weeks the logs were complete. The remainder will be fashioned into freight car loads. The larger logs in the soon-to-be millpond are 5 mm dowel cut to scale 24′ length.

The prototype reference photo for comparison:


This was the most challenging scratch-building project I’ve done, and it took a while. The NFL playoffs, in fact. I mostly enjoyed it, and I think the result is worth the effort. The scene is coming along. Next I have to find a convincing representation of metric tons of fresh-sawn lumber.




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Raising Crane 5

The crane trolley was the last sub-assembly for the sawmill crane, and I expected it to be the least difficult. There isn’t a very clear image of the the trolley in the crane picture, so the construction is somewhat notional. I used images on the web for guidance.

After making some rough sketches to work out how the trolley would be assembled, I cut a rectangle of 0.030 styrene for the base and put a rectangular hole in the middle for the cable. A couple of lengths of 1.5 mm I-beam for the support beams, a piece of 0.080 styrene rod for the cable drum, and a couple of lengths of 1/16″ rod to represent the drive and winch motors complete the assembly. The winch drum could probably stand to be slightly larger in diameter, but the next size rod I had on hand was too big. Everything was fastened with CA.


For reference those are 1/2″ squares.

Not highly detailed, but once attached to the boom only the suggestion of components is necessary. After painting with Flat Red and Light Aircraft Grey, I used a black marker to color the winch. I used the same marker to simulate grease along the trolley track on the boom.

Attachment to the boom was with four pieces of 0.030 styrene cut to 3 mm x 6 mm rectangles and painted. I glued the supports on one side to the trolley, and after those dried I laid the boom on its side and glued the other two supports in place. A scrap piece of 0.030 styrene acted as a spacer between the trolley and the boom.

The major crane components:


Next is final assembly, detailing, and weathering.


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