Thursday, October 27, 2016

A Five-Year Annivesary

Today is the day, 5 years ago, that I hosted the first 'official' operation session on the Onondaga Cutoff.  Six guys got together for a night of model operation and a few beers, and it was a great time that started a long line of sessions that will continue as long as we are able.

I did a quick post on the session that night, which you can find in the archives here on this date in 2011.

For the record, though, here's a shot from that night after the session - five years ago and a different time in some ways.  I'm excited to see what the next five years bring!

Here from left to right we have Scottie, John, Nick, Jack, myself, and Mark.  Thanks, guys - more to come!


Tuesday, October 25, 2016

More Backdrop Progress

The first photo backdrop installation two weeks back on the Onondaga Cutoff led us quickly to the second, which included the backdrop behind the Island Yard.  As we learned the tricks for this effort, we were looking forward to doing the next one.  The Island is challenging, as it has only a few inches between the backdrop and the track closest to it.  As a result, the effect here is very critical to giving the scene some depth.

Here's the results!

The backdrop here allows the eye to immediately focus on the locomotives waiting for their call to duty as opposed to my simple efforts to paint the backdrop.  I feel it's just as effective from other viewing angles, as seen below.  First, a broadside view:

And, now a quick view down at the bumper block.  These views were completely amateur just a few days ago, and now appear to be part of a layout that is nearly fully sceniced.  

As we worked to hang this backdrop, I took a quick overview shot at Jason's suggestion.  It's neat for how it shows the change in progress.  You can see the rubber cement spread on the masonite backdrop, and the thick wallpaper-like backdrop in the process of being hung.  The cement is strong enough to hold the backdrop while the glue cures.

The immediate visual impact of the backdrops dramatically changes the feel of the layout, and is an incredible change for the better.  It also is the last major step that has held back other foreground scenery progress on the layout.  As you can see, installation requires me to clear all equipment and structures from the layout due to the cantankerous nature of that process.

It's a busy and exciting time for the Onondaga Cutoff, there is a lot of progress coming in a short time!


Tuesday, October 18, 2016

A Sweeping Upgrade

Last night, we hung the first of the new photo backdrops on the Onondaga Cutoff.   This marks the beginning of the installation of the large, 12' long photo backdrops, the final step in was has been a 2-year process of planning, re-planning, research, design, and purchasing.   Backdrops are about the most visible, and least appreciated, of all the components of a layout, and I wanted to make sure that what I was installing was exactly what I would be satisfied with in the long term.

We started the installation on the M&E, since the backdrop here is stand-alone and not connected to other sections.  Better to make beginner's mistakes on an isolated area!  First, I moved all the rolling stock out of Euclid Yard, and then removed all the structures and building flats that had been in place for several years.  None of the scenic elements had been glued in place, as I expected that I'd have to move it all eventually for this process.

The original backdrop here is better than nothing, but is very primitive - I'm no artist painter!  Images like this are what made me take a hard look at my progress.  By 1980's standards, these backdrops would have been sufficient - not perfect, but good enough to match the quality of the models and other scenery.  With detailed and weathered models rolling on quality scale track, with scale ballast and foliage, the backdrops became an increasingly crude part of the scene.  Too much effort has been put into the rest of the railroad to settle for simple painted backdrops in shallow scenes.

The areas for the backdrops were measured very carefully, 3 different times on different days, to ensure the numbers were correct.  Jason and I cut the backdrops to fit, again measuring 3 times before making any cuts.  With custom prints, a wrong cut would be very difficult to deal with - there are no backups here!  

Since this was the first try, we unrolled the whole sheet for a test hang with some painter's tape.  The measurements were correct and we were ready to begin.  I followed the directions posted at - we were careful to think through each step and have a 'job briefing' before starting.  As suggested in that article, I used Elmer's Rubber Cement.  I brushed a 3-inch strip of cement vertically, as well as a 3-inch strip horizontally at the top, middle, and bottom of the painted backdrop.  Working foot by foot, we fastened the left side first, and then I unrolled and gently pulled the backdrop along while Jason used a new, try 3/8" nap paint roller to push the backdrop into the wet cement.  We had to re-adjust several times as we started to get the perfectly level installation, and the cement allows for that since the paper was such a heavy grade.

As we worked along, it quickly became apparent that this was going to be a sweeping, dramatic improvement to the scene.  Once we started, it was a continual process to spread glue, unroll, press into place, then spread more glue, etc.  It went quickly once we began - the planning had paid off!

After it was unrolled, we stood back, and it really impressed us.

Suddenly, this scene developed a depth and level of detail that would have been virtually impossible with paint.  The paper was nicely adhered to the backdrop, and so I put some structures and foliage back on the layout, and moved the cars back in - and the results are really something else.  Here's a view looking railroad south towards the Peter Doelger Brewery:

Even with no additional ballast or foliage work, the 'finished' look of the scene is very apparent!  With that level of detail, my simple mock-ups for the brewery itself have been replaced with some simple flats temporarily until I make time to assemble the brewery structures, weather them, and install them permanently.  

 Finally a close up view of some equipment in the yard, again showing how the backdrop alone takes this scene from a simple, unfinished view to a view with unlimited depth, allowing focus to fall on the stars of the show - the rolling stock.  Even this old Model Die Casting flat car that I built in high school looks good!

I'm excited with this, and this really gets me inspired to keep the ball rolling and get the rest of these backdrops up this fall and winter.  Jason will be helping with the cuts and the installations, so watch for more of those soon.  It feels like we have turned a corner on the Onondaga Cutoff - now, with this in place, the 'final' versions of these scenes come into focus and will be moving forward.  This is an exciting step in the right direction and a top-notch compliment the operation!


Friday, October 14, 2016

Scenic Progress - the Interstate

The route of the Onondaga Cutoff roughly follows Interstate Highway 481 south of Syracuse, through Ram's Gulch, and over towards Fayetteville and Dewitt.  Including a piece of it was a key way to link that part of the layout to a prototype location, increasing the authenticity and sense of place.

Thanks to the skills of a buddy of mine, the Onondaga Cutoff has a new scene that dramatically transforms one of the most visible parts of the layout.  Jason W., a fellow HO scale modeler that has attended a few operating sessions and is skilled at building model roadways, generously offered to construct a scene I had planned in front of Iroquois Paper.

We measured the location and built a scale plan, and Jason then built the scene on his workbench. Once it was constructed, he moved it to the layout space, and we built a support system to mount it on the benchwork.

Jason build the base for this out of thin plywood sheet, then used foam roadbed to build up the height of the road surface, which was constructed from sheet styrene, then painted and decaled to produce a very realistic roadway.  He finished the scene with various details, correct signage, and even painted expansion cracks, suggesting an older highway with concrete underlay, similar to many highways in the Northeast.

One of the best parts of this is the new scene covers the mainline loop east of CP294, where it happened to run alongside the mainline east of CP277.  Since the locations are 13 miles apart, we needed something to provide the illusion that the only mainline track here in this scene is the track adjacent to Iroquois Paper at MP 276.9.

I'm thrilled with how this turned out!  As you can see, it is not finalized - currently it is set in place, pending final installation of photo backdrops and surrounding scenery base.  Once the backdrops are in place later this fall, this scene will be fastened down, and the rest of the surrounding scenery will quickly blend this scene into the layout. This scene will only get better, but it was time to show you how much it has improved already!


Friday, September 16, 2016

A Few Snapshots

As usual the end of summer and beginning of fall are busy times that don't allow as much time for working on the layout.  I'm still making progress here and there and setting up for the big backdrop installation project, which will begin soon.

Operating sessions themselves are a real highlight of the hobby these days, a great chance to bring guys together for a common goal.  And, before the session, a nice diversion from construction continues to be the preparation for the operating sessions!  We had one just last weekend on 9/10/16 and I thought I'd put a few images here for your enjoyment.

The session started at 1750 'fast time' on our 3:1 fast clock.  Darkness came quickly and most of the session was run while the sun was 'down'.  Here, Conrail SD40-2 6437 leading train SEIN (Selkirk, NY to Indianapolis, IN) slowly grinds through the interlocking at CP280 and heads west on the South Runner to make his pick-up.

Earlier in the session, Conrail B40-8 5088 led train SEEL (Selkirk, NY to Elkhart, IN) west passing the old, abandoned tower at CP282.  He was putting his train back together after making a pick-up.

Here's a typical scene at the east end of Onondaga Yard at CP280, with the car department's truck waiting to give a brake test to WADE-30 once DE-30 is put together.

These night shots capture some of the feel we go for on the Onondaga Cutoff - long, cool-but-humid nights along the former New York Central in the days of Conrail.  Things will be getting busy soon with installation of the backdrop, all of which is now on-hand, so stay tuned for some updates on that process!


Friday, August 26, 2016

Backdrop Update...and Keeping Busy

Well, I took the plunge, and finally ordered a photo backdrop for all of the Onondaga Cutoff!

After extensive research online and discussing with other layout owners, I decided to work with Backdrop Warehouse ( due to the quality of their base photographs and their ability to allow a 'mockup' on their website so that I could roughly see how things would come together.  The backdrop will run over about 90 feet of existing Masonite.  I chose scenes that blend in with photographs of the area, and compared that to the Google Earth street views as necessary.

I decided to call the printer directly, using the number on the site, and spoke with Neil several times to get the order put together the way I needed it.  He was able to build transitions for me between scenes based on actual photographs and it will add tremendously to the atmosphere in the layout space.  The lead time is several weeks - I will update this blog with entries on installation here soon.  Exciting developments!

While we await the arrival of the new backdrop, I have taken time to work with Jack to finalize the track layout on the Cazenovia Industrial Track.  Once it was set, I glued the track in place and installed all the wiring needed to power it up.

Here above we have the west switch for the runaround track.  I used old, beat-up switches I had in my scrap box for this project, and glued the track directly to the painted plywood.  This will be buried in mud and ballast in spots, suggesting an old and lesser-maintained piece of railroad.

Using older switches saved me a lot of money and also allowed me to model track that has seen better days.  In this photo the switch is installed and weathered with Rail Brown spray paint.  After this photo was made, I used a Caboose Industries ground throw with the built-in single-pole double-throw electrical contacts, so that I could power the frog.  Slow speed means more potential for stalls, so extra work is needed to prevent that.

This view above shows the  main line up to the left, looking east towards Fayetteville, and the industrial track coming out beneath it.  Once the new backdrop is up, scenery here can begin in earnest, especially since all track is now in place.  It was a nice change of pace to get back to track laying.  After 8 years, there isn't too much more track to lay!

This is a view looking the other direction at the same spot.  The switch to the left will be the spur for a scrap and recycling dealer.  A photo backdrop will greatly enhance this location.

Staying busy laying track and dropping feeders for each rail has filled a week already, and will be work I am glad is done once the backdrop arrives.  I am looking forward to the dramatic change that a photo backdrop can provide.  Get ready for a big upgrade on the Onondaga Cutoff!


Monday, August 15, 2016

Back to Ballasting

It has been a nice hot and humid August so far in New Jersey, and despite outdoor chores and family commitments that makes for a good reason to spend some time in the cool and dry basement.  Recently I spruced up some of the scenery near the Iroquois plant by adding ballast and some basic scenery.

Worth noting here is how much the color of the ballast changes during the installation process.  The image above is how it looks once it has been installed and glued in place, and then left to dry for 24 hours.  The final product here is a nice approximation of the color mix on the Chicago Line.  However, getting to this point took some experimentation.  The mix is dusty out of the bag and looks too white, and then during the process to set and glue the ballast, it looks too dark - see below!

With the dramatic changes in color, getting started with ballast was a leap of faith as it would have been a big setback to have to remove the entire track structure to re-ballast it should the color have not worked out.   As a review I have settled on Arizona Rock & Mineral 'UP-Silverton Grey' mix, with a bit of 'NYC' limestone mixed in for some variety.  The cinders are from the 'Southern Pacific Yard Cinder' product, and they make a nice blend along the right of way.

Here you can see the difference between freshly ballasted track to the left, and weathered-but-unballasted track to the right.  This is the location of a highway scene coming soon, which will be installed over the unballasted track, hiding it from view at this location so as to add distance to the mainline run.  The temporary cardboard view blocks here will (thankfully) disappear with that installation.  

In other news, the new spur down to Blue Circle Cement is going in, and so far has turned out well.  I have a few more switches and lengths of track to glue in place and we will then be able to wire it up for operation within the next few weeks.  

Backdrop research continues and a purchase will be made soon, starting that process for the fall. The installation of the backdrop will be a startling visual change for the entire layout area.  I'm looking forward to it!