Sunday, May 31, 2015

Model-nomics 101: E. L. Moore’s Branch Line Station in N-scale

I started this project because the more I looked at the introductory picture of the finished build in the April 1964 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman the more I envied the character resting on the chair, leaning back against the station wall and not worrying about the day. My work days are far from that. Also, it’s one of the buildings on the Elizabeth Valley Railroad, so it would get used when I starting laying track on that project.

But, once I jumped in and got going I realized there’s a hidden story within the main story and it's about cost. From the article’s photos it’s pretty clear that Mr. Moore built this using his standard techniques: shingles made by scoring balsa sheets with a wood-burning tool, siding made from pencil scored balsa, and windows from ink-lined clear plastic. But, the article’s text emphasizes that commercial Northeastern siding can be used, as well as specifying that commercial castings can be used for all windows. There’s sort of mixed messaging going on.
[The Branch Line Station is tiny. In the background is the HO-scale Mineral City Depot and the blue station in the middle is the N-scale Grizzly Flats.]

Cost seems to be the elephant in the room in a lot of published projects. Many just ignore cost altogether. Often it seems like there’s a “if you have to ask about the cost, then you should move on” vibe. This was not the situation with many E. L. Moore builds; usually he was upfront about cost, and it was a point-of-pride about how low-cost he could build some relatively complex project. When I got interested in model railroading, and model building in general, back in the ‘70s, cost was a very big thing to me. One reason I liked E. L. Moore projects was that they clearly stated what the cost was, and with good plans included, I could figure out how to use other stuff I had around the house – cardboard, paper, leftovers from other projects, straws, and so on – to make substitutions if I had to without going to the store.
[The digital camera is a cruel mistress. It's clear in this view that the roof overhangs the back wall a little too much; however, with 'normal' viewing - seeing the whole thing with your actual eyes - the model looks ok.]

After E. L. Moore passed on in ’79, Art Curren rose to become a major figure in mainstream model building construction. He was made a staffer at Model Railroader not too long after Mr. Moore’s passing, but he had published numerous articles prior to that throughout the mid to late ‘70s. In retrospect, his work seemed to be the successor to E. L. Moore’s. However, his approach was quite different:  he specialized in building unique structures from the components of a number of plastic kits where E. L. Moore built buildings from scratch using simple materials. Maybe this could be read as a sign of a further shift from the earlier ‘folk era’ of model railroading to our more consumer-oriented times.

Mr. Curren’s building projects were fascinating and I loved reading them. I also liked the newer presentation techniques that Model Railroader used to show how they were built. However, I never built any. For me, the problem was cost. Back then it would be a stretch to buy one kit let alone two – or possibly more – so kitbashing buildings wasn’t an option for me. I also had this weird conceptual thing going on in my head: I thought making HO scale buildings from plastic kits was somehow cheating, but kitbashing plastic automobiles and airplanes kits into dreadful monsters of my imagination was ok :-) Well, plastic car kits usually tended to be much cheaper than plastic buildings, so there was that cost aspect again.
Back in ’64 when Branch Line Station was published, lots of people wanted to build things fast and easy just like people do today, so I assume the Railroad Model Craftsman editors wanted to make sure those people didn’t punch out when they saw this project. But, going the fast and easy route usually means using special commercial products, so building costs go up even though assembly time goes down. I figured an N-scale version could be built for next to nothing from leftovers I had on hand given that the building is so tiny. So, I decided to just use what I had available, go as old-school as possible with construction, and not buy new stuff; however, I succumbed to temptation on a couple of occasions :-) I’ll try to point out where I went astray to give a better sense of what it cost to build this station.

Spoiler alert: it wasn’t easy to figure out the true cost of this project, and it was more expensive than it appears :-)
The loading dock is cut from two scrap pieces of 1/16 inch balsa and joined with white glue. If you could buy just scraps of balsa, or a friend would give you theirs, this would be dead cheap to make, but the reality is that the scraps are leftovers from standard size 3 inch x 24 inch balsa sheets I bought one time for other projects. The cost saving only comes about from collecting cuttings instead of throwing them out. 
The next step was I panelled the balsa base with scale lumber. This is not cheap at all. A couple of years ago I bought a selection of Midwest brand scale lumber packs because I was thinking about building a number of HO scale wood structures and I thought I'd try my hand at prototypical construction methods. That never happened, so I had all that high quality basswood in my storage bin. So, in the spirit of using stuff up, I pulled some out and used Midwest #8003, .0208 x .0625 lumber to panel the deck. This size was chosen because it 'looked right'. A cheaper substitution would be 1/64 inch balsa strips. It wouldn't match the basswood exactly, but would be a fairly close approximation. Another alternative, is just to leave the base as is and maybe scribe in boards with a hard, sharp pencil.
At this stage all the scale boards are glued on - again, using regular, household white glue - and are waiting to be trimmed so the deck has nice, clean edges. That extra long board is a thin strip I had to sand to shape to fit into an odd shaped gap that arose because I didn't lay down all the boards with a lot of precision. 
You can see that the deck doesn't look too bad after the boards are trimmed. The walls were then cut to size according to the published plans from 1/32 inch sheet balsa scraps.The wall siding was scribed into the balsa with a sharp, 2H pencil. Window frames were made from #8001 Midwest basswood lumber - shavings of balsa from the edge of a sheet scrap could be used as a substitute.
Some 1/16 x 1/16 balsa sticks were glued to the inside of the long walls as reinforcement, and then all four walls were glued up into a box shape.
After the glue dried I placed the building on the deck to see how things were shaping up.
I went back to work on deck and added legs cut from 1/16 x 1/16 balsa strip - these aren't too scale-like, but have a chunky solidity that doesn't look too bad - and some trim around the perimeter cut from Midwest scale lumber. Some 1/64 inch balsa could substitute for the lumber.
Once the legs were completely dry, I lightly sanded the piece - legs down on the sandpaper - so that it stood evenly and firmly on all legs. That part went well, but then I did something dumb and blew away my good work. Mr. Moore suggests painting the base with a wash of raw sienna, so I figured I'd do the same. What little was left of my bottle of paint was completely hardened, so I bought a new one - extra cost here, but raw sienna is such a foundational colour, it'll get used again - thinned some out and washed it on. I figured since the wash was so thin, warping, if any, would be minimal. Wrong. After a few hours it was badly warped - it was raw wood after all - and I had to get out the industrial strength de-warper:
After much cursing, careful bending of the pieces back into shape with my fingers and re-gluing of snapped wood, it was placed for drying under the heaviest books I had. After sitting overnight, the loading dock was more-or-less back to normal....
.... more or less. To deal with the less part I dug up some scraps of 1/8 x 1/8 basswood strip and glued pieces to the underside to force it flat. I used super-glue for this part. Now it's flat and rigid and back to normal. If I hadn't been so cavalier with painting this thing I wouldn't have had this problem. My recommendation is: don't paint the base, but reinforce it with those underside strips and come back later with some pastel powder and weather with that.
On the other hand, painting the building went just fine. Likely because the wood was thicker, already reinforced a bit on the inside with strips, and I used thicker, acrylic paint. The inside was painted black to make the walls less translucent. You can see my wonky attempt at scratch building stairs from balsa shavings. This is why I left off the second set of stairs from the end of the long section of the loading dock. I need to practice this, or maybe just buy some N-scale stair castings. 
The bay window is made by first drawing the walls and windows onto a single, foldable piece of clear plastic scrap. I used one I saved from the lid of a box of Christmas chocolates. What I did was cut out the drawing, fold it into shape and hold it that way with some balsa trapezoids glued to the inside surfaces, and then finished by sticking all the trim and panels onto the outer surfaces.
To make sticking on trim less messy, I took some pre-painted strips of the thinnest Midwest lumber sticks and stuck them to a piece of transfer tape. Using a sharp knife, I traced around the stick, and when it came free it had a thin slice of transfer tape stuck to its back. Transfer tape is a gummy, thin double-sided tape. Well, it's more just a glue carrier than a tape. The lumber can then then be stuck in place by peeling away the paper carrier and then pressing in place. Sounds easy, but I found it a little tricky. I used this method to add the trim to the Grizzly Flats depot and it seemed to work ok. The pieces are still stuck on. On the economics end, a small roll of this tape cost $10 at an art supply store. I have a lot left, so it's good for many more projects, but for better economics, I'd recommend some medium thickness super glue - but, applying with glue could be tricky too. Maybe the actual message is that the bay window is rather tricky to build in N-scale using old-school methods, and the RMC editor's recommendation to use 3 commercial windows to build up the bay is better advice.
I didn't take any pictures during bay window assembly. I found it tricky and only did a few minutes work on it over several evenings. I didn't get it quite right, but in the end, I can live with the result - I've still got lots to learn about building things in N-scale. The photo above shows a test fitting of the building on the platform after the bay window was glued to the front wall.
After gluing the building to the platform, I installed a tiny 12v light. I had to buy a light - for an outrageous $2 at a hobby store because I wanted one immediately - because I had used up my stock on Caleb's Cabbage Company and building a fancy lighting fixture for The Noir. The yellow doors were again just scrap balsa that were cut to size, scribed, painted and glued in place.
With the warping platform experience fresh in my mind, I decided to make the roof panels from a scrap of 0.010 inch styrene sheet. Unlike Mr. Moore's model, I didn't make the roof removable. Before installing on the building, I painted the eaves and drilled a hole for the chimney. 
Like the Grizzly Flats depot project, I used brown wrapping paper to cut strips of shingles for gluing to the roof panels. E. L. Moore used balsa panels for his roof, and etched the shingles in with a wood burning tool. That green piece in the centre of the photo is the bay window roof panel.
Absent-minded shingle cutting lead to one of those rare model building related accidents that are talked about only in hushed settings :-) The x-acto knife rolled off my table, landed blade down into my leg, and then bounced to the floor. So, add one pair of pants to the cost of this build!
When everything was finally glued into place I used some pastels, ground out on a foam sanding block, to brush on a little weathering. A little goes a long way with these colours, so just apply a small amount at a time and build up. I bought these sets many years ago and only use a little at a time, so they could last the rest of my life. But, if you went out and bought a box for this project, it would be a pricy extra for this little build, but over the course of a lifetime hobby it becomes more economical. And I guess that maybe gets to the hidden message of the article: if you've been model making for a while, and have some scraps and leftovers and paints and tools and such on hand, then you've got the momentum to build new things with little additional expense. I've been model building and such on-and-off for around 12 years now, and have a small collection of leftovers that I'm always dipping into. Basically, there's 3 plastic storage bins with leftovers.
There's a long, flat one for wood and paper stuff.
A square, flat one for plastics.
And a large, rectangular one under the workbench with parts left over from plastic kits. I should be more organized, but this three box system has got a certain internal logic, and I can find stuff when I need it, so I don't get too obsessive about storage.
A gentleman I was put in contact with, who at one time was an employee at a hobby shop in Raleigh, North Carolina, were E. L. Moore bought his hobby supplies, told me that Mr. Moore bought very little when he came in: a few dollars worth of balsa and such and maybe a grain-of-wheat bulb or two. He wasn’t a big spender. I suspect he likely had his own stash of leftover stuff to help keep ongoing costs low.


  1. Excellent exercise. I enjoy your excursions with E.L. Moore.

    Do you think that when the hipsters of today enter the hobby in 20 or 30 years, folk era modeling will see a resurgence? Could that movement influence modelers today?

    Their artisan aesthetic and search for 'authentic' production of consumable products seems in line with Mr Moore's sensibilities. However, thinking through it a little, the hipster artisan would be more inclined to create scratch built models with very high quality, expensive materials instead of scraps. Never mind.

    1. Thanks Riley.
      Maybe it would be some sort of hipster / shabby chic hybrid - the combination of that search for authenticity with making stylistic statement about the desirability of using cast-offs. It's anybody's guess. It seems that these days revivals of styles, either in the hipster vein or some other approach, is that there often seems to be a dose of irony or archness in the mix. ELM's work doesn't have the modern forms of those things - he was at times sly, sentimental, crafts-like, nostalgic, and serious.

  2. Nice build on the branch line station J.D.. Been meaning to write to you and thank you for your blog on O.W. Wilson's "The Model Railroad Right of Way". I bought one after reading your bit and have enjoyed it greatly. Also picked up a copy of Raymond F. Yates' "Making and Operating Model Railroads". Another great book from the infancy of the hobby. Love those early days and the authors that helped shape our hobby.
    Thanks again for a fine blog.

    1. Thank you for the kind words. I'll have to see if I can find a copy of the Yates book.

  3. Thank you, again, JD, for such a candid romp through the build process. You have turned out a neat little structure without any varnish.

    As to the hipster comment above, I wonder the same thing. Will there be (or is there) a resurgence in honest creation with found materials and limited funds? Is that a great leveler in sifting out those with talent vs. those who can buy nice things? How many folks have the real potential to be excellent, skilled modelers turning out high caliber models, but never reach that potential because they aren't challenged to make do with what they have? That is one aspect of Mr. Moore's writing that I enjoy - the challenge to build without letting a lack of materials or funds slow you down.

    I certainly enjoy building what I can with what I've got, but every now and then I just have to purchase something that will either save time or make modeling a little less frustrating. But I will rarely, if ever, pay full price for an item. Cal Scale K brake rigging, for example. Found a stash on eBay a while back that should last me for another dozen cars, at least, for near the price of one set now. I could build brake gear from styrene, or turn it down from brass rod, etc. but there enters the time and frustration factors. Fiddling with those bits is already frustrating and time-consuming enough! But gosh darnit don't they look good when the car rolls by!

    1. I do admit to buying lots of stuff myself: photoetch 1/24 scale auto details, lots of commercial window and door castings, brick papers, fibre optics, LEDs, and other stuff I've forgotten. I'm good with that - I'd probably try 3-D printing if it were cheaper. But, I find it interesting to build with simple stuff too. The more I find out about E. L. Moore though, going the inexpensive route wasn't only an option, it was go that route or not be a modeller. He didn't have much choice, but it didn't seem to limit him. I admire that. As to hipsters. I can't fault people for wanting to follow their own path. If someone(s) decide to follow the ELM path, I hope they follow on with a spirit of invention and goodwill and make some developments of their own. I don't want to say one path is good, and the other is bad, just that there'e lots of possible paths for exploring. I think that's good to know.

  4. I might have missed it, but where did the original article that spawned this build appear? I think this would be a perfect structure for my ride-on outdoor railroad.


    Chris Cardinal

    1. It originally appeared in the April 1964 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman. That model was in HO

    2. Please send me a photo when you've built you model, it sounds like an interesting project!