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Philosophical Discussion: Modular On30

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  • #31
    Hey Mario, good to hear from you. Yes, it was you who first introduced me to the aluminum framing idea. Now, too many years later I am finally taking the ball and running with it...Your website certainly provides all the inspiration one needs.

    Your current project looks like you are off to a good start. The in-progress shots are very helpful. I can see I want to rethink a couple things around my design.

    With regards to your comment about planning, no sweat there. It is what I like doing most - sometimes to the detriment of the project. However I get a charge out of a well-engineered project. Since space is limited (as to how much scenery you can build, floor space at a show, and in method of transport) modular projects offer a lot of opportunity for clever engineering. I think this is why they appeal to me so much. I am glad to hear that I am not the only one that builds test loads to make sure the plan works as intended.

    As for the project, today’s questions are about fascias.

    Solid smooth colors, textures, or something else?

    Most folks seems to say pure smooth black or some solid color that matches the overall color theme of the display. I see some projects use finished wood (sort of like picture frames) and others use something else. I know a few years ago when I was a regular on this forum there was a gentlemen building a small switching display (I believe of a New York harbor scene (sorry I do not remember the name). He made his fascia resembled hot-riveted steel plate. It was a nice touch and added to the “industrial” feel. He also made the panels that attached for protection during transport resemble a shipping crate. Some people feel that this type of treatment detracts from the layout. Thoughts?

    I spent a very enjoyable couple hours Saturday evening perusing Laurie Green’s site where I found numerous links to other’s works such as John Hunter and your work Dan. I see on your Stumpy Creek that you used a weathered siding look with corrugated iron roofing. How did this go over? One idea I have been considering is a weathered wood shingle look for the upper fascia and some type of darker weathered wood siding for the lower fascia. I have to admit though that smooth black seems to create a very clean feel to the display.

    On a complete side note, two miscellaneous questions:

    Frist, Dan what is the little vertical boiler wood framed loco I see in a couple of those photos? Looks like a very interesting little loco.

    Second, these superb layouts coming out of Australia have superb looking trees. I recall that it has been mentioned in some of the magazine articles but I don’t have one within reach at the moment. What kind of wood is it that you use to get these great looking trees? The crinkly bark looks perfect and I am not sure we have anything here in the U.S. that has that fine a texture.

    Thanks all, this is a very helpful discussion.

    Dave K in NB


    • #32

      Believe the harbor scene is By Tim Warris of Fast tracks fame, think the name was "New Jersey Shore" or something close to that.

      Sitting along side the orignal Central Pacific Rail Road.

      Home of The Great On30 Barn Meet, that will be held May 16th 2015


      • #33
        Thanks for the reminder John. With that info I managed to find the thread using search. For those of you who have not seen Tim's Bronx Terminal layout...

        Dave K in NB


        • #34
          Hi Dave,

          The little verticle boiler (Climax Goldbug I think it was), was a loco by a Sydney modeller by the name of Wayne Weatherstone, who was exhibiting at the same show with the "9 Mile" layout (if you are familiar with that at all), and was just borrwed to see how it looked running through the bush on my Stumpy Creek layout. Funnily enough, I only ran it the length of the layout and back just the once, yet it still managed to appear on Laurie's website. It was entirely scratchbuilt, mech and all, using rosewood as the timber I believe, and ran superb. Wayne has done some wonderful little loco' alas, not one of mine.

          As for the different roof/valance, I was trying to give the impression of a rustic old Aussie shed (rotting timber, rusty iron etc), just to make more of a display, rather than just another layout. The original plan was also for an old barrel out the front of the layout, with a few old logging tools/blocks, and maybe even some fake ferns (but ran out of room for the extra theatrics in the trailer!). The iron sheets worked well...they were held to an upper aluminium support bar with velcro straps, and the aged timber end angles were hinged pieces that just flipped down onto the module roof for transport. Only took a few minutes to throw up, and certainly changed the profile of the layout compared to most others at exhibitions (which was the goal).


          Used by many of us down here now (Red Stag, Mount Ash, Charging Moose, a number of Mario's pieces, Stumpy Creek just to name a few)...Sheoak, or I think it might be called Ironbark in the US from some other threads I think I read about similar tree bark textures. If weight is an issue (because the tree limbs can be a bit heavy as an accumulative bunch), a balsa trunk, split in half with a threaded bolt running the length of it is another method I've tried for additional roof support. The balsa just has to be textured up well. The large Sheoak trunks generally need to be glued or screwed top and bottom to prevent them wobbling too much, especially in transit, so probably work better it the roof is incorporated into the module, and not so with the independent roof/backscene framing like you have designed.


          Dan Pickard


          • #35

            Thanks for starting this great thread. I stop to consider my own philosophy at every turn in planning my own layout.

            You brought up fascia color. I use black, partly based on my experience in theater (what is a model railroad but an electrified puppet stage?). Black sets everything off, and suggests the dark shadows of sun bright illumination even when the display is under bad lighting.

            I use black automotive carpeting glued to my 1/4" plywood fascia structure. This is the felt-like stuff that's used on professional traveling speakers and road cases. When tightly glued to the sides, and rolled under and stapled to the bottom edges of the modules it actually adds strength to the modules when handled in transit. I travel with pairs of modules that are mounted face to face using plywood end plates and 1/4" machine screws. The featherweight modules can be easily carried and stacked on their sides like cordwood. Other than the slot between the modules the exterior is all carpet and plywood. When I set up I use a large lint remover to clean the fascia, and lift off the dust and loose scenery that accumulates on the carpet. If you use this carpet, just remember to lift the modules apart in handling, because it has a very high level of friction when stacked on other carpeted surfaces. Sliding the modules against each other can pull hard enough to tear the carpet off the underlying surface.

            One of the reasons I prefer a low character surface for a fascia is that any "interesting" material such as wood grain will have a definite scale. Wood grain, shingles, galvanized or pieced metal each confirm a 12" to the foot scale, inappropriate and distracting when bordering a 1/4" world.

            Howard Zane created most of his permanent layouts fascias with a broken off rock face look, often tangled with scale vines and scrub growth. Even though they form vertical precipices, which are unnatural, they look appropriate in his flinty mountainous world. If wood was used, perhaps an endless wall of coffee stir sticks, complete with scale bolts for dead-men would be more appropriate.

            You mentioned bridge tracks; The Berrett Hill Modules have rails that end at the module end plate, and my modules work well and set up quickly. Having said that I will say that rails-to-the-end construction has enough drawbacks that I would not casually recommend the technique for use between modules of different owners. It works well within sectional groupings with a single owner, because each section has to meet only one other section. Minor alignment issues, both vertical and horizontal can become amplified when the track is permanently attached at the end plate. Troubles can be crippling unless very stringent construction standards are created. This CAN be done, and is how the Sipping and Switching Society of North Carolina operates. I modeled my efforts on theirs, but still enjoyed an extended learning curve. The details on how I built the Berrett Hill Modules is in the spec at

            The old idea of the bridge track is much better replaced with bridge rails, commonly only 2" long, and installed in a loose pair above faux ties. Joiners are slid onto both ends. Adjustments for length if necessary can be made with track cutters, and a loose piece of rail can be carried for an instant batch of longer replacements.

            I use Andersen PowerPole connectors and attach them in a stacked arrangement so that red always mates with black. They are EXTREMELY sturdy. The red connector is attached to the right rail as viewed from the module end. Always install a terminal strip, and use pigtails with the connectors attached. The white Euro-Style type is far more vibration proof. The terminal strip will allow fast field repairs, and when well attached, will prevent a mishap from un-wiring your entire module. Carry spare pigtails. Write-up and photos are at the Berrett Hill website under "Papers"

            You mention the Euro style display, with backdrop lighting and valence. I heartily agree that this is the best way to plan a display for presented appearance, and several displays of this sort show up at our shows here in Maryland. I believe the reason that these are generally less popular than the open-top design is that they take twice the room or more in transit, so you have to show fewer feet of main for a given amount of cargo space.

            My modules are double faced, kind of FreeMo style, so they can be viewed from both sides, and can be turned end for end. Note that the Texas Outlaw style modules you are discussing DO NOT have tracks running 6" from the front; They have tracks running 6" from the front or the back, depending on how they are displayed. A number of Outlaw modules are built with "S" curves crossing the center so they have track at the front on one end, and track at the back on the other.

            Anyway, the nature of proscenium theater type modules with a backdrop is philosophically different from the theater-in-the-round approach of FreeMo modules. The proscenium stage allows better control of lighting and sight-lines, while the exposed nature of two sided modules focuses attention on the models as objects on display. Open modules also prevent the operators from being isolated from the viewing audience, so a better social environment is typical. Theoretically the audience can view a point to point from either side, but in practice they never do, except at a modeler-to-modeler meet

            I operate at about 50 inches to the railhead, but I'm sure to bring step stools for the little people. I run the sound at a modest level so that you can hear the trains come and go, so the height is necessary to be able to get near the trains. I have no railings, but perhaps because of the height, I don't have any problem with children touching. I DO have a problem with the grey haired children feeling that they can drop 80 pounds of elbow weight on my featherweight modules. No tragedies so far.

            When designing my own modules, I chose a narrower 12" width for a typical mainline module, because I wasn't interested in building and modeling, for each foot of main, an extra square foot of woods or farmlands, typical in our area. I like to point out that much of my best modeling is just off the edge of the layout.

            One local club has made their lighting even and bright by requiring a single brand of black drafting lamp be clamped to the backdrop every few feet. I am planning some self supporting custom featherweight halogen lighting that can be attached to the module sides. At the moment I'm trying to develop a design that won't bounce when the layout is bumped; swaying lights can create instant nausea!

            It sounds like your interest is in the controlled environment of the presented scene, so your biggest hurdle is to minimize the freight dimensions. Or buy a really big trailer. I'd plan on a walk around throttle so you can mingle with your crowd. I hope to keep an eye on your progress so that I too may build a "Puppet Stage" model some day.

            Kevin Hunter




            • #36
              Well I was hoping that the next time I posted I was going to be able to show you my new module frames but alas, my framing material did not get delivered on Friday so I am still waiting . Have a day off work today and we got our first snow last night so today would have been a perfect work-in-the-shop sort of day. Hopefully the framing will arrive this afternoon. Keeping my fingers crossed.

              Once again thanks to everyone for the continued feedback.

              Dan, thanks for the info about the loco. I suspected it might be something like that. Looked too good to be something commercial. And, thanks for the info about the trees and fascia. I have done a little poking around looking for Sheok/Ironbark here in the U.S. Apparently there are two species of trees here in the Ironbark family but the few photos I have found lead me to believe the bark texture isn’t as well suited for modeling as those you have in your part of the world. I am still researching though. Being that I will be modeling the Northwest U.S. I will need a lot of cottonwood, birch, aspen, Douglas fir, and cedar. I will likely end up scratch building most of them.

              When I attended the NNG in Portland OR a couple years ago a gentleman from here in the Seattle area gave a great clinic on building pine trees using rope and glue. He models Sugar Pines form California and they look fantastic. I have some ideas on how to use his method, but using string instead of rope. I am getting ready to try a couple test trees. I’ll share the results when the time comes.

              Kevin, thanks for the information and thanks for the links. The spec pdf is very clear and easy to understand. One of the better I have looked over. Plenty to think about there on running track to the end of the module. Also enjoyed the links with the layout photos.

              Your comments about the fascia and using 1:1 scale details next to 1:48 models got me thinking… Do you think using 1:48 details (such as corrugated or shingles) on the fascia would solve the scale issue? Before everyone jumps on the “that’s crazy talk!” bandwagon, remember this is just a philosophical discussion of ideas . I am inclined to think that the sheer volume of material needed to do this would be impractical yet I do wonder how it might look.

              I have a confession to make, you are right I am leaning towards the proscenium theater type module. I have seen a few of the freemo style modules and they never really grabbed me. That being said, I find myself really liking the modules in your photos. You mention that your primary interest is not in the modeling and your scenery is minimal. It looks like you have plenty of mainline running. Also, I bet your modules are very easy to transport. The shear bulk of the completely integrated modules does concern me when thinking about transportation and storage. That is why I am taking the approach of “try this once and see how it goes” realizing full well that I may change my mind for the next project.

              I am curious how many of you guys have seen/heard of the Totternhoe Mineral Railway?

              You can see pics here:

              Ok, I know this is a million to one shot but I have to ask. This link is to a flickr site for “Dan’s Stuff”. By any chance are these photos yours Dan? Given the theme of these photos it seems conceivable and after all you are the *only* guy named Dan involved in this hobby, right?

              I am glad I am typing this up. I just went out to find the link and discovered more pics since the last time I searched. The link above gives you a good overall view of the layout. It is an On15 project (O scale models running on N scale track). It sort of combines all the things we have been talking about:

              - Minimalist modules size for easy access on both side (although operators are intended to be on one side and viewers on the other)

              - minimalist scenery

              - open feel for easy interaction between operators and viewers

              - minimalist backdrop approach that facilitates photographic possibilities yet does not overshadow the layout or create access issues

              - integrated lighting

              - black theatrical presentation

              - free form layout profile

              - I bet it breaks down into a very small package for transport

              - And for my own personal interest – being an odd scale (On15) I would likely have to scratch-build just about everything.

              I have been fascinated by this idea ever since I first saw it. It is almost the “best of all worlds” for what I like with one exception. I do enjoy building large structures and that is not realistic for a project like this. However, there is a certain appeal to the challenge of building in such a tiny environment – after all my past is in N scale. I have a few T-Trak modules in my train room (each module is 8.5x11 inches, the size of a sheet of paper).

              I also really enjoy small rolling stock but I will admit to being a little intimidated by attempting a loco project like this. I know from experience that a well running loco is worth its weight in gold – especially at public shows. I am confident that I can get a loco to LOOK the way I want to but I have much less confidence in being able to make sure it runs as well. My biggest hurdle is how do you make a very finely detailed loco that is still easy to work on/maintain without damaging the detail work. Have you guys conquered this issue or is it simply a matter of compromise?

              Here in the Seattle area there was a narrow gauge modeler named Jim Noonan who was building a very nice HOn3 version of the RGS. His railroad was beautiful and his trains looked great. I asked him one day how he liked HOn3 and was surprised when he told me that if he had it to do over again, he would not go HO because it was too difficult to keep the locos running well.

              I know from my N scale experience that the newer N scale mechanism run really well, if not fantastic. However when you go to narrow gauge you start dealing with 4 wheel diesels and 2 or 3 axel steamers. Even with the newer N scale mechanisms, it is a challenge to keep these running smoothly and dealing with issues like running through switch frogs without stalling. Any of you folks have experience with solving these problems?

              Anyway, I would be interested in your feedback on Totternhoe. It is the only one of its kind I have ever seen. Would you find a project like this interesting if you encountered it at a show?


              Dave K in NB


              • #37

                You're correct in guessing, tha is actually my Flickr site, and the photos there of Totternhoe Mineral Railway are from the Sandown Exhibition earlier this year. It still remains one of my favourite layouts of all time, and I think its coming on 15 years old. Eammon Seddon built the layout while living in England, so some of the older UK members on the forum may have seen it many years ago. Eammon has been involved with many of the presevation railways around the world, and moved to Australia when he was given the job to get the Tasmanian West Coast Wilderness railway going again. He has now moved on from that project, and is the current CEO for Puffing Billy.

                The points you list about the layout are exactly what I enjoy about it. If you look at it carefully, it almost has a free-mo feel to it, as far as the irregular flowing minimal scenery effect. What makes it so unique is the theatrical side of how black is used to mask out everything else but the ribbon of scenery that the track runs along, and the dramatic spotlighting of different scenes. It may not show up well in these photos, but part of the layout also includes its own black curtain backing (behind the operators), so in a sense, it is like one large boxed diorama, with a couple of 1:1 humans stuck inside it, who also normally wear black as well so as not to distract from the layout. Overall, its just different I guess. Its actually quite difficult to photograph well, but to the eye, its quite a stunning piece. The subject matter is very simple, yet presented in a way to make it very interesting, and for a layout that is genrally a bit operation based (not so much shunting since it link & pin coupling) in the method of passing different trains in the front yard, it can hold a crowd of fascinated viewers for some time.

                As far as how well the layout all packs down, that I haven't seen properly before, because we were usually packing down our own layout at the same time. It does fit neatly into a trailer though. I can't recall whether the modules come out of the actual legs/lighting frame or not, but it does have a welded steel leg and lighting frame.

                This layout is pehaps though, a perfect example of how well a viewers eyes can be directed to only the modelled scenes, which is also the reason I like the whole boxed style presentation. Limiting the viewing field seems to force the viewers concentration much more. Perhaps as an experiment... take a photo from your files of a free-mo module, put it into photoshop and black out all the surrounding parts of the image that aren't actually the module (ie no views of people, other layouts, traders, general venue etc that distract from the modelling subject), and see how close it look to Totternhoe Mineral Railway.


                Dan Pickard


                • #38
                  Got a nice surprise tonight. It is snowing here today. First REAL snow of the year and the roads are getting treacherous. Unfortunately, this generally creates mayhem in the Seattle area and today is no exception – gridlock. So I was a bit surprised when the UPS man showed up this evening with my framing material. So, provided I have power tomorrow I may get some shop time (now they are expecting wind).

                  Dan, great photos! The one that shows the behind the scenes view and the other showing the underside of the lighting valance are especially helpful. The other photos I have are from years ago and they were not using the black curtain behind the operators and the operators were not dressed in black. I like this look even more.

                  You mention the display being hard to photograph. Is that due to the lighting and extremes between the models and everything else being black or does it have to do with the height of the backboard or some other thing?

                  The layout looks like it is roughly 1000 mm off the floor. Would you estimate that the layout sections are roughly 24” to 30” (600-800 mm) deep from the front edge to the back (including the staging tracks used by the operators)? I am talking the black table-top like sections. The irregular shape of the landscaped areas make it bit challenging to estimate from the photos. Since you have been fortunate enough to see it in person I am hoping you might have some educated guesses on these dimensions.

                  Thanks for putting up with all the questions…

                  Dave K in NB


                  • #39

                    Questions are no trouble mate...

                    I say diffficult sometimes to photograph due to the contrast of the lighting. The 12v halogen spots create some fairly dramatic warm spots along the line, and can make it a bit diffucult to get a nice exposure, but with a tripod and a bit of fill lighting, photos would come up ok I imagine. When on public display, it looks fine, but a quick exhibition happy snap can be less than rewarding. Height is no issue, neither is the black surrounds...purely a cameral light metering issue.

                    As for size, your guess's are probably about right. Maybe 400mm deep for the viewing side, only about a narrow 200mm staging yard (the O9 track and locos don't demand a wide ROW). The black "backscene" (or staging yard block I guess) would only be about 200mm high. I maybe would have made this a little higher myself, but it does create a bit of mystery about what the operators are up to back stage. You can tell they are fiddling with something a little bit intricate, but just cant see exactly what they are up to...bit of a tease really, that can generate a bit of suspense about what train is running out next.


                    Dan Pickard


                    • #40
                      Hi Dave, and Dan,

                      Well I have opperated the layout when Eammon and John Baxendale had just finished the layout, I was wanting to book the layout for our show, Just when Eammon got his job on the other side of the planet, he would have a long way to come back. The boards were about 2ft deep and the track only modeled between the fences, the track was rased about 1/2in above the base and painted black.

                      Eammon worked as a stage manager before working for the ffestinog railway, so he developed his lighting efects from the stage.

                      At the time I modeled OO9 so I was use to trains running with small 0-4-0s and 0-6-0 N gauge mech's

                      the fiddle yard had space for about 6 trains I think, If it had been around a bit longer I think I would have changed to O9 and not gone to model British Midland Railway O gauge (Hammerston Wharf and now Newfield my own layout) before starting Purgatory Peak our first On30.

                      Totternhoe was a layout that made you think, and give you ideas of your own.

                      So I will be going to see the new On30 at Wakefield the weekend, and snow forcast for the weekend on the tops going over to Yorkshire.

                      Cheers for now


                      Macclesfield Model Railway Gtoup
                      Neil F in Stockport



                      • #41
                        Hi Neil,

                        Interesting to hear the story of how well travelled this one layout is.

                        "Totternhoe was a layout that made you think, and give you ideas of your own." - very well put, and exactly what my first impression was when I first viewed it.


                        Dan Pickard


                        • #42
                          Neil, thank you for the additional comments.

                          Eammon sounds like a very interesting guy who’s career path has been rather unique: from stage management to railway restoration. I assume (hope) he is following his passion. His model railway is certainly unique.

                          Would you gentleman mind helping me make sure I understand the scale designations being discussed?

                          Is 009 4mm scale running on 9mm track?

                          Here in the U.S. this would be HO scale running on N scale track, referred to has HOn30 or HOn2 1/2. Outside the U.S. this is HOe correct?

                          09 is 7mm scale running on 9mm track?

                          So this is closer to O scale running on N scale track and is referred to as On15 here in the U.S. Totternhoe is 09.

                          Is my understanding correct?

                          Neil, the Purgatory project looks so much larger than Totternhoe even though technically they are both O scale correct? I know the rolling stock is smaller on Totternhoe, are the structures really that much different in size?

                          I have to admit that now that I am looking over the Totternhoe project again, once more it is grabbing my attention and piquing my interest as a possible direction for my project. I would do it as a small narrow gauge coal mining railway from the northwest U.S. It so happens there was something like that operating nearby in the 1800’s.

                          Each time I try to get started on this project though I stumble on real-estate requirements. I think maybe the next logical step is mock up a couple O scale structures so I can really see how much space I need. I am finding this a little tough to “imagineer” without any practical experience in O scale. I have built only one 1:48 model (a Mack truck project on this forum a couple years ago). It looks so big compared to what I think I am seeing in the Totternhoe photos...

                          Thanks guys,

                          Dave K in NB


                          • #43

                            I think your scaling is correct...I hate trying to interpret some of those different combinations of letters and numbers sometimes.

                            As far as real estate requirements goes Dave, here's where these smaller, quaint if for a description, narrow gauge lines can get a lot in. Generally, when talking these small shortline sort of operations, the infrastructure kind of matched the size of the railway. Buildings were more like sheds, not imposing landmark structures...we are not talking about a 5000 tonne coal hopper being serviced by a little 15" line.

                            Look at the photos of a layout like Totternhoe, and see that even though it still has a small loco service facility for example, the shed is in proportion to the needs of the loco (ie small). A pedestrian doorway is still going to be 6-7' high, but clearance for a loco that size isn't going to be much bigger. Roof height on that sort of shed still only needs to be 9-10', as opposed to maybe 14-16' in the large On30 loco demands...get my drift.

                            If you want to do something like a smaller fictional US based shortline mining operation, maybe like On20 say, it would easy to still portray a busy operation, without having a 3' high stamp mill long the line...think more like a backyard rustic cobbled together setting, and it will still present as very believable, and possibly have a bit more charm because its not so overmodelled (sorry to all the Rio Grand fans out there!). If its something different and unique perhaps to the exhibition scene in you area, go for a google on some of the smaller UK and European style lines for ideas...some are really quite quirky, loaded with character, and present a wealth of creative modeling opportunities. It wouldn't be as easy as cracking open a green box from Bachmann and having an instant narrow gauge empire, but believe me, the modelling time will be so much more rewarding, and if carried out well (like I've seen a few of your past models turn out), I imagine it would also be appreciated by viewers at shows (as long as they understand what they are looking at!).

                            Dan Pickard


                            • #44

                              Well, as the saying goes "It's time to fish or cut bait". I have been sitting on the fence with this project for way too long. It is time to get started.

                              I want to say thank you for the discussion. This has helped me get some thoughts straightened away and get this project out of the gates.

                              This will be a long term project and I want to keep a journal of progress here on the forum so I am going to start a fresh thread dedicated to the project and continue there.

                              For those of you interested in following along look for a thread titled “The Red Dog Mining Project”.


                              Dave K in NB


                              • #45
                                As far as scaling down a mining operation, you could always use an arastre operation like this one. While it would not be real feasible for a large operation, it could keep a few prospectors busy while working a small find.

                                Don\'t push me bureaucrat, I\'ve got a bit of hangover