Sunday, April 1, 2018

Try wood burning for tunnel portals!

E. L. Moore published 2 articles about using a woodburning pen as a modelling tool: Burn those models in the May '55 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman, and Modeling with a burning tool in the July '62 issue of Model Railroader. The second one includes a photo of an EVRR stone tunnel portal as an example. That being the case I figured I'd pull out my woodburning pen and try making some N-scale tunnel portals.
I haven't used the pen in quite awhile. I think the last time was on one of the very first projects in the E. L. Moore in the 21st Century series. 
I decided to practice by building the river and road portal that appears under the EVRR's Rocky Ridge. The portal was sketched on a piece of 1/8 inch thick balsa and the openings were cut out prior to burning.
After burning in the mortar lines this is what it looked like. You can see it's more of a caricature of a portal than a true scale representation. Likely I could do better with a more precise initial sketch and a finer pen point, but this a model railroad in the old folk-art-style of construction, so I think it'll fit in.
After a bit of dry-brush painting with greys and browns, voila!
Then there was a little test fitting over the Rocky Ridge inlet and once satisfied that it fit, it was on to the mountain portals.
I printed out the MR '62 article and found that when I placed my loco on the image it was about the same size as the loco in the photo. From that and studying other photos of those stone portals I came up with some dimensions.
Both portals were drawn side-by-side with the intent of slicing them apart after burning. The track clearance is on the tight side given the clearances on the layout. If the rolling stock were longer than the old-time pieces that this layout uses, the portals would not be wide enough to accommodate them.
I had started the mountain portals I had gotten the hang of using the burning pen and things went a little faster. Once again, this is a caricature of a portal and not a model. 
For all the portals I used the 'pen' tip in the burning tool as it seemed to have the finest point of the lot I had on hand. Its edge was used to burn in the block sides.
After burning, the pieces were cut out in preparation for gluing on the abutments, which were made with the techniques shown above. 
As I worked on this little project I started to think that the woodburning pen is close to being the ultimate tool for folk-style model building. 

Let me backup a bit. I think E. L. Moore was the last and the best of what might be called the folk-art-style model railroaders. That approach to model railroading leans heavily on non-specialized materials and tools that can be found around the house or easily obtained at nearby stores. It doesn't completely forsake specialized components produced by the model railroading industry, but it's not dependent on them. 

The woodburning pen allows you to create, as E. L. Moore put it in his Model Railroader article, shingle or shake roofs, clapboard siding, brickwork (foundations and chimneys), stonework (foundations, chimneys, portals, bridge sides), platform planking, board siding, plank floors; simulating cracks, knotholes; aging surfaces; making sheathing for coach, caboose or boxcar.* With that capability you don't need to buy a lot of things on offer in the magazine ads. That makes woodburning economical, and a bit subversive as you're saving money, which was important for Mr. Moore as he had modest means, and bypassing the messaging of the advertisements. These go against the prevailing culture.

I've often received feedback that finescale approaches, their materials, tools and practices, are the ones to be admired and pursued, and others, like those exemplified by E. L. Moore, are of little concern, and if continued, represent a regression and lack of understanding concerning what the hobby is about. Myself, I think there are different approaches or styles. Finescale and the desire for high fidelity is one approach - a very admirable one - but there are others. Frankly this idea of different styles didn't dawn on me until I was deep into the E. L. Moore story. I realized he was driven to express his thoughts and experiences of early 20th century life and railroading, but he was on the low end of society's slippery economic pole, so he got on with things with what he could readily access, but he didn't forsake making things as good and accurately as he possibly could - that wasn't abandoned or ignored. He was driven to express what he had to express for some reason known only to him. Would his work qualify as museum quality artifacts that could represent objective historical facts? No. Does that matter? 
[I've known for awhile that the back stretch will need to be widened with a piece of foam glued to the back edge. This proves it.]

Ok, I did take a stab at thinking about styles , although I didn't exactly think of them as styles, well before the E. L. Moore journey. Looking back, I don't completely agree with my original assessment in that post as the journey has taught me a lot. I didn't know folk-art-style existed and was a legitimate approach. I'm not happy with the term 'folk-art-style' because it conjures up images of basket weaving and hippies, but it's not far off from the stuff categorized in the mainstream art world's folk art category, so I'll hang on to it until something better comes along.

A question that I ask myself is if the so-called folk art style is actually a legitimate style, or just a historical phase that the hobby went through. It was the dominant style at one time because to proceed that was what one did, so it's historical origins can't be denied. Today we have options even though it doesn't seem that way from many of the companies or publications. I'm still pondering this one.

So, if one isn't predisposed to buying a lot of specialized model making materials, developing skills with the woodburning pen is a good thing. Although, I imagine woodburning techniques work best in HO and larger scales; but for caricatures, they're ok in N. 


* The brick walls of E. L. Moore's Firehouse model were made by scribing a brick pattern into sheets of balsa. Did he use a woodburning pen? Maybe, but I don't think so. Here's a detail shot of the brick pattern. It looks a little too clean for woodburning.


  1. Did ELM woodburn the bricks on his firehouse? Remember, there are multiple tips that come with woodburning pens. He must've used a finer point and was very neat.

    On your tunnel portal wings, I notice ELM made his blocks "step down" instead of conform to a nice smooth angle. You could still whittle a little away, down the sides, and it would contribute to the individual block look.

    To my standards, I've had success without a woodburning pen. I scribe into soft balsa with a sharp pencil. This works on stone abutments and log cabin walls. I've also used my metal scale ruler to push in clapboard profiles into soft balsa, scribed against the grain for shingles, with the grain for clapboard. I think I learned that tip from an old Kalmbach how-to book.

    I agree with the folk art philosophy. It has its place and can be quite charming. To some degree, even the purists dabble in it: True-to-scale bricks would not have a noticable indent in the mortar, shingles would not have a discernable thickness, corrugated metal would barely register in the texture dept. and rivets on freight cars would not have any significant height. So once the modeler agrees texture is more important than scale fidelity, he ventures into folk art.

    But don't get me wrong; it has its advantages. Our brains want to distinguish textures and the modeler helps magnify it. Plus, if we printed on textures instead of making them 3D, we run the risk of having shadows go the wrong direction. Not to mention that correct-scale textures are really hard to produce.

    That aside, there's a cuteness that pops up if you take it too far. I think there's room for some cuteness; N scale is far cuter than HO or O. But we don't want women gushing over our models; our rugged coal mines were not meant to be "adorable"! I think we need to balance it correctly, enough to give texture to the models without going overboard.

    There was a time I was in modeling paralysis; every project had components that needed researching and ordering. One day I decided enough was enough, I'd go ahead and finish things up with only what I had on hand. That's when my practical side emerged and ideas poured forth! And outside of a couple items I purchased when I ran low on supplies, the models were completed and looked far better than I imagined. The make-do attitude forced me to compromise at times and I discovered new methods along the way. The cheaper I accomplished something, the more satisfied I became. Still, I maintained standards and these models bring me pleasure to this day.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts!

      Debra often informs me that women better not gush over my models :-) Although, it does seem to be unlikely.

      Yes, I am thinking of stair-stepping the abutments, and I think I'll repaint them once they're installed and have mountains surrounding them.

      In the valley it looks like there are a pair of wooden portals - maybe some sort of logs stacked on their sides. That'll likely be the next project once I can dig up some clear photos of the area.

      I think the bricks on the firehouse were scribed with something other than a woodburning pen. Although, he doesn't say in the article and I don't have any photos of unpainted areas on the model to know for sure.

    2. Knowing ELM, he might have figured out how to convert an X-Acto blade into a wood-burning tip.

    3. Yeah, he probably could have.

      When I bought my woodburning pen I also bought 2 X-Acto blade tips for it. Back in the '70s I kept reading in Car Model magazine about guys using X-Acto 'hot-knives' - basically an X-Acto blade tip in a woodburning tool - to cut styrene - usually 1/25 scale car bodies for customization. For some reason I thought that was the coolest thing, but never had the cash for one or seen them at the not-so-local hobby store so I never got one. Well, fast forward 40 odd years and yes I bought one. I tried it on a styrene project, but didn't have the knack and turned it into a molten pile of plastic. I need to look up one of those old Car Model projects that called for an X-Acto hot knife to figure out what I did wrong.

  2. Ditto to VBDi's comments on perfectionism and the finescale approach. I think that's the slippery slope of detailing models. I'm at that decision point now with my current projects - to what degree do I want to push for realism, or representation. Acknowledging that its is ALL a representation of reality (we're building models after all) allows me to step back and decide where I want to draw the line on detailing.

    As for the folk art style, Jim, you know my appreciation for it. I have seen highly detailed models that I can admire for their excellent craftmanship and meticulous attention to the finer points in construction and color, weathering, etc. But sometimes they lack the charm and character of a model built in the folk art style. Why is that? I'm still not sure, but my guess is that it has something to do with our minds ability to engage a work that is a representation of a thing without much detail, and to fill in the details in our minds eye. I don't think this is a conscious thing, but something instinctual, like how we recognize a blurry shape to be a house, car, dog, cat, etc.

    Anyway, good thoughts all around.

    1. I can't say why the folk art style can at times have more impact than a highly detailed, fine-scale equivalent. I think I'd need to look at a lot of examples. One thing I will say though, and I've mentioned it before, photographic technology of the previous era (taking the pictures, processing them, editing and printing / displaying) doesn't do the models justice. The models were far better than their images - with some notable exceptions like John Allen.

      I've been thinking about detailing too recently. I want to build a couple of skyscrapers for the Alta Vista TC, but I don't think they need high levels of detail because from street level that wouldn't be seen. I need to think about how these buildings should be represented to give the impression of being 'real' even though they aren't highly detailed. Likely the focus will be on shapes and contrasts, but we'll see.