six to nine

I’m a very big fan of making up little, layout agnostic, studies of work. Sometimes they’re role is to explore a way of making things that’s been on my mind and sometimes they’re a place to focus my mind when calm is, at best, an alien shore. I have a layout project in mind and the layout is as much about an extract of railroading that I want to model and run trains on as it is a series of things I want to try doing, design questions I want to explore, and processes I want to change.

I love the idea of a slender layout on a shelf between six and nine inches deep. 

This isn’t derivative of scale but of how I see a layout, of any size, integrating into its space. This “six to nine” absolutely does not need to cling to the security of the wall and could, and should, relate to the wall like waves on the beach. It also changes decisions about how the structure is framed. This narrow extract of railroad is small enough, limber enough, to need only a fingertip’s purchase. Gone are heavy structural forms and welcome are methods of lighter framing.

I hate plaster. 

Some things, like wiring a layout, I have a strained relationship with because of the way I choose to do the work. If I wasn’t so damn sloppy with how I wired a layout I know I’d feel better about it. I can change that. Unlike wiring, I doubt I can change my attitude about plaster and model railways. Plaster feels like junior high school me, approaching my first love: impatient, cold, clumsy. I need something more natural feeling to work with. I’ve done a lot of papier-mâché in my lifetime and it’s almost there but leaves a question of working time. I know I’ve just complained that plaster is too fast and now I’m complaining about papier-mâché being too slow. The porridge will all be too cold if we wait long enough.

You’ll recognize familiar foam and cork roadbed. These are hacked from half inch sheet scraps I have. They’re bonded with low temperature hot melt glue. I love the sense of creation, in the moment, of this flow: I cut, I glue, I keep moving. With the basic forms created I painted on some white glue and laid some napkins onto it. Then I mixed some craft paints, white glue, and water and painted that overtop. As certain forms appeared within this, I found it helpful to bundle some scraps of napkin to build new forms over which I laid more napkin “sheets” and glue-paint. The whole process moves quickly and there wasn’t any waiting. This is not about being in a hurry but about maintaining that sense of creative energy and its expression. If I’d had my tub of scenic supplies handy I could start adding ground foam or other basic textures without waiting since the common element here is all variations on cheap white “school glue”.

High at the front sweeping downhill at the back. 

A lot of my design dumped things downhill toward me and I want to explore reversing that and tilting the plane of the layout back. Somewhere in last night’s session this beautiful little swale appeared and that’s going to be fun to explore. Not pictured is a road crossing at the other end. That’ll be a paved crossing.

This is being done to explore the design of a HO scale, standard gauge layout, set along a fourteen foot shelf in our home. With this basic form made I’m excited to return to the grass and early winter snow from last year. Experimenting with agile methods of building up the layout:

  • Hot melt glue instantly bonds sheet goods
  • Reactive carving starts with a picture in my head but refines things as they appear
  • Paint-glue to stick down a surface of paper towel means I now have a sealed surface ready for scenic textures or further refinement

A lifetime ago I bonded foam sheets with panel adhesives that took “overnight” or longer to dry. Plaster added more time. Doing and making feel so satisfying but that keeps being interrupted by unnecessary wait times. Life’s too short and the creative spark too easily damaged by hammering it into glue drying wait times. I’m making this study as much to evaluate process as to have a form I can leave in place and consider as a finished structural element added to the room. Six inches wide by a foot, or so, long is a summary of each section of the much larger layout. If this works, than the recipe is just scaled up, teased out, and gotten on with.

Categories: How I think, model railway design, model scenery

9 replies

  1. The opportunity of embankments in modelling is that subtle contrast between man and earth. Yes the track atop is the ultimate impression of man’s hand in the land, but the embankment itself is not natural and as such has a distinctive form and varied vegetation.


  2. I love this idea of progressing from nothing to fully developed scene without stopping to wait for things to dry. I’m keen to see the materials and techniques you invent. Maybe more people would get their scenery done if it were a more dynamic and fluid process.

    • Thank you. Sometimes I think projects grow cold because of those breaks while glue dries. I think we should work until we feel the last breathe of creative energy is expressed and not be interrupted by glue or a something that won’t participate. In that break I think I’m vulnerable, as the work, to discovering things that should stop the work or at least reasons to facilitate that stall.

  3. The comments regarding embankments got me thinking about the way we design/present our layout scenery.
    My schooling has me thinking about “9 box grids”……you know…..x and y axis etc.

    When we present a scene to our viewers we are trying to bring some drama to it…..(at least some of our scenes)
    A good example is “the embankment”……..low scene in the front…..rising to the roadbed on the embankment….and then falling away in the background. For me, there is some drama here……
    The forground is high……dropping down a steep embankment to the bottom of the cut where the trackage lies and then back up again to another steep rise in the background…..again, drama.
    One of my favorite places to railfan the C&O /CSX was a deep cut at Moss Run, Virginia…..just before the Allegheny tunnels. You stood above the engines as they roared upgrade…..pure drama!

    So I think now about our 9 box grid………Low, Medium, High scenery against Foreground, Mid-ground and Background……some of the combinations could be a bit “plain jane”……Mid, Mid, Mid etc. but some are pretty dramatic……..

    I wonder if John Allen, with his “floor to ceiling” scenery might have been thinking….”drama”…………

    • I love where you’re going with this.

      We look to the prototype perhaps too myopically as a data source to guide the decisions about what needs to be in the scene, like a grocery list for the store. We could look to the prototype for how we behave when we’re outside, anywhere, and also when we’re watching or photographing trains or just exploring where they roam.

      You mentioned Moss Run and I think of places here in Nova Scotia like the bridge over the Truro yard or the cut in Bedford, before Rockingham. In those places I’m above the trains and it does feel so different. Equally, standing by the Kingston Sub., when I lived in Bowmanville, in a big flat field, where trains roared past in true mainline fashion.

      Visiting with Matthieu, last October, we talked about how they were using negative scenery to not just model a fill or like raised track but raised track to establish a focal point. It’s interesting that while that track is still clearly on an embankment it doesn’t always read like that and instead looks almost across a field. It’s a fascinating visual trick.

      Canting the layout, to wash down toward the backdrop, I think creates some neat opportunities. We struggle with that seam where backdrop meets tabletop and then our typical design aesthetic actually elevates that seam to really draw attention to it. Lowering it might hide it? Plus I think it creates a place you feel you want to explore—that sense of “What’s in here? Over there? Behind that?” and triggering those senses of play and curiousity seems like a really good thing.


  1. six by eight – Prince Street
  2. three of three – Prince Street
  3. study four – Prince Street

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