No. 98: New Scenery for Ackley’s South Side

I came home from St. Louis RPM full of motivation to finish up some important things on the layout.

The primary area of concern was the south side of my 16 x 2-foot layout.  I was unhappy with the photo backdrops I was using so while I was in St. Louis I took a couple of hundred pictures out east of the city in the farm country around Litchfield, hoping that some of those photos would work for backdrops. 

Below.  Here’s what I started with when I came back home.  I removed all the trees, buildings and detail parts from the layout and got to work.


Below.  With everything out of the way, I decided to install new concrete blocks that held the control rods for the mechanical interlocking system.  The mechanical interlocking was gone in 1940–I model 1950–but I thought it would be interesting to add the blocks.  I used Evergreen styrene strip for the job, measuring six inches by 12 inches, and then cut a whole bunch of them using a NWSL Chopper.


Then I made a little jog to install them at the right height and distance from the rail.  It would’ve been much easier to do this before applying any scenery.


Below.  Nevertheless, I was still able to install them all at relatively the same height and distance from the rail.  I continued installing the pads on all the tracks within about 200 scale feet of the interlocking.  I painted them with Tru Color Concrete.

You can also see the photo backdrops I was using originally.  That was my first-ever try at using photo backdrops.  They were an improvement, but I wasn’t happy with them.


Next I re-ballasted the IC mainline track per the 1940-era photo below.  The ballast profile on my layout as seen above just wasn’t prototypical.  The steam-era ballast profile is very prominent in the prototype photo:

  • Ballast up to the top of the ties in the middle
  • Exposed tie ends 
  • Shallow ballast profile out to six feet

Isn’t this a great shot?  You’re looking down the IC towards Chicago.  The IC – M&StL transfer (interchange) track is just to your right.  This photo was provided by Doug Harding, courtesy the Ackley Historical Society.ackley tower looking east 047

The ballast used on the IC line on my layout is Woodland Scenics N scale light gray ballast.  I don’t know if it is prototypical but I wanted to create some contrast between the IC and M&StL lines.  

I simply added more ballast where I wanted, wetted it down by spraying it with a fine mist of rubbing alcohol, and then applying ballast glue.  My ballast glue formula is about 25% Elmers Glue All, 25% rubbing alcohol, a few drops of dishwashing soap, and the rest water.  This formula works good and doesn’t leave behind any white residue.


I also touched up the scenery a little bit here and there, and added a little more ground foam and static grass in a few places, and in general cleaned up a lot of minor problem spots in this area. 

New Backdrop Photos


The photo above shows some of the new backdrops photos I’m using after some of the IC line details and a few trees were reinstalled.  Here are three of the photos I used in this area, all of which were taken around Staunton, Illinois (near Litchfield).




When I was shooting the “backdrop photos”, I tried to follow a simple set of guidelines that I learned from the first round using backdrop photos:

  • Take photos of an entire scene from end-to-end.
  • When possible, include in photos an area that include a transition, such as foreground trees with a corn field in the background.
  • If taking pictures of trees or other tall features, include the whole tree–don’t chop the top of it out of your photo. 
  • Take some pictures that have diagonal land features.  We railfans tend to take pictures that are always nicely boxed in, or 3/4 views.  Note the photo above–see how there’s a diagonal transition at the bottom right?   Those features break up vertically-stacked scenes, and come in handy for creating backdrop transitions, so “think outside the box”.

To use the photos, I simply printed them out on an 11 x 17-inch sheet of legal printer paper, in landscape model, and that was it.  Then I cut out all the sky around the trees, test-fitted them, and then glued them on the backdrop using Elmer’s Glue-All.

Because I took series of photos I was able to easily match up different photo prints end-to-end.  The photo below is much improved!


I worked my way around the entire south end of the layout, slowly adding the photocopied backdrops. 

Below.  This is one of the three road crossings in downtown Ackley, Iowa.  This picture was taken in downtown Litchfield, Illinois.  It worked out nicely.  The large black line in the left center is a separation in the Masonite backdrop; this is where the two major benchwork sections separate (for moving and transport).  I needed to cut the backdrop photo several times to lay it over that break in the backdrop.  I also need to match the road color to the photo. 


Below is another photo of the new backdrops.  Behind the cement dealer there is a transition from foreground trees to a background soybean field, hidden by a couple of 3-D puffball trees. 

I added the dead tree to attract the eye away from the backdrop.  That tree was cut from an ornamental bush I found alongside a highway in Switzerland.  I got a giant handful of them before the family knew what was going on.  I dried it and painted it gray and that was it.


I’m happy with the new backdrops so far.  They are not very “Iowa Cornfield” but this area did have quite a few trees in the 40s and 50s, so the backdrops are prototypical although not quite representative. 

I continued to touch up grass, ballast, plant trees and add details as I worked my way down the layout.  I don’t want to install too many trees, but rather use a few trees here and there to provide a 3-D effect. 

Speaking of trees, Jim DuFour explained how he made trees in one of our many conversations at St. Louis RPM.  I finally got a new box of Super Trees shipped so I’m going to give his methods a try soon.  Jim told me he wasn’t happy with puffball trees.  I’m not either, although there are a couple still on the layout as you can see in the photos. 

By the way, if you ever need motivation to do better scenery work, look no further than Jim DuFour.  The photo below on Jim’s layout is an example of how Jim mixes model trees, photo backdrops and ground cover into a perfectly natural scene.   It was photos like this from Jim’s layout–and meeting the master himself at St. Louis–that got me motivated to get to work.


A few additional details and trees later, everything was back to better-than-normal.  There’s more work to be done but I really wanted to get some trains running again.  The work can wait.


One last photo–down by the depot–just for fun. 


I hope you guys have a blessed week!  – John G


No. 83: Lighting Up – Lights on the Ackley Layout

The final light fixtures for the Ackley layout were installed last weekend.


You may recall that the layout is built at sit-down height under a sloped ceiling.  I placed LED lights in a triangular-shaped valance and installed the fixture on the sloped wall above the layout.  Then I installed a 4-1/2-inch Masonite fascia in front of the valance to clean everything up.  I still want to paint the fascia green to match the rest of the layout fascia and will get to that as time permits.

Looks like I’ve got a little bit of “mission creep” above the fascia on the valance at left.  


Below.  I went to out neighborhood Lowes-look-alike, called Obi, and bought a thin piece of Masonite and had them cut it into 4-1/2-inch slices.  No muss, no fuss, and no charge for all the cuts.  They were happy to do it.  Gotta love that about Germany.


Below.  The valance for the center section of the visible layout is seen below.  I made a triangular-shaped fixture and screwed it into the wall, installed the LED light inside, and ran the wires down the sloped ceiling with conduit.  This center section of the layout is hidden behind a chimney and it’s very dark back there without lighting.


Below.  Here is the valance with the new 4-1/2-inch fascia installed.  It looks a lot better.  I decided to run the fascia all the way to the skylight window at left.  I did not install lighting across the window opening, however, hoping that enough ambient light will get in from outside to keep everything well-lit.


Then I installed the last fixture, below, on the left side of the layout.  The south side staging yard is to the left.


Below.  Here’s a general view as you enter the room.  I get a little extra light during the day.  I get a whole lot of extra light during the summer months.  We’re up at 52 degree Latitude and the sun comes up at 0400 hrs and goes down after 2200.


Below.  This is a whole-layout view from the other end of the room.  You can see the entire visible layout, the chimney (which I have surrounded by cabinets) the lighting valance, and my workbench at far right. 

As a reminder the sloped wall is 21-1/2 feet long and the “visible” or scenicked portion of the layout is exactly 16 feet.  At each end of the layout is a 2-1/2-foot “curve module” that is covered by fascia; the main track curves behind each of the curve modules to reach a small staging yard on each end.


I did not intend to run the fascia all the way to the wall–just to the edge of the visible layout.  However, I ran it all the way to the wall on the left side and I think it looks pretty good.  So now I have to run it all the way to the right wall as well to satisfy my OCD.

Below.  This is the South Staging Yard.  There’s about 12 feet of wall space here, and I’m thinking of installing a small city-themed layout above it.  I’m thinking of a British-style traveling layout with a valance on each side, just small enough to fit into the family van.  More to follow on that later.  Right now I’m thinking of an industrial layout…somewhere in St. Louis…


I spent the rest of the week working on freight cars and made some significant progress and finished three cars and got a few other weathered.  Here’s a photo of my P48 WP car, below, which just needs Dullcote and couplers to be “done”.  I’ll cover all this as soon as I can get some computer time.

Looks like I need to re-install the grab under the placard area before we’re ready for Prime Time…


Hope you all have a blessed week.  – John G


No. 79: Ackley Layout – South Side Scenery

Being broke from ski trips, swim team trips, car repairs and Christmas expenses, I tried to stay home in January to “decompress” and recover the bank account.  My son managed to get away for a week in Prague for a school event, but apart from that we spent a much-needed month at home.

Photo Backdrops

During January I got a lot of modeling work done.  One of the last great hurdles remaining on the Ackley layout is installation of photo backdrops.  Inspired by a photo sent by Jim DuFour, I printed off a number of photos and cut them out and installed them on the south side portion of the layout, which is the part of the layout by the IC crossing and interchange.

Here is one of Jim’s images, and it’s the Gold Standard.  Man, everything just fits perfectly.  The colors, the models, the clean track and ballast, the trees and backdrop, and the road and the depot–everything fits just right.  


The process of installing photo backdrops was easy.  I did not over-analyze the process–I just did it.  I simply printed the pictures, cut out the “land” portion of the photos, measured and fit the photos, and glued them to the backdrop.  I used a few photos I took over the years, and also a few photos I found online.  Here is one of the photos I used–you’ll see it again on the layout. 

Backdrop 1 (4).jpg

Generally I tried to use only photos that were sharp, properly backlit, and of the right season (late Spring to early Fall).  I set the horizon at two inches above the benchwork and tried to maintain that around the south side corner, although if you take out a few trees you would notice that I didn’t quite get it right in a few spots. 

Below, here is that photo again with the sky cut out.


And below is a photo of it glued to the backdrop.  I used multiples of the same photo and didn’t worry too much about making the seams perfect, because this area will be covered with trees.  It doesn’t look great, but it doesn’t look too bad either.  Then I feathered the edges with the backdrop paint to blend it all together.


I was also inspired by this Clark Propst photo (below) on his new M&StL layout.  The backdrop is so subtle that you almost don’t notice it’s there. 


I picked a low-horizon photo and used that behind the corner on the backdrop where the second farmer’s field is located.  Here’s the photo…

Backdrop 1 (6)

…and here it is cut out and installed on the backdrop.


That’s not too bad.  Then my daughter Kirsten added the farmer’s field.  I chose Silflor soybeans again, late summer colors, because they’re easy to install.  We just laid down a bead of glue and installed the rows neatly, and that was that.


Here’s the “After” photo below, with a train in the way for effect.  That’s a little better.  The interlocking tower and all the junction buildings and stuff will go in the foreground.


Making Trees

Next Kirsten and I built some trees.  I’m no expert at this, so I asked my daughter Kirsten–who has a pretty good eye for these kind of things–to help.  We set up a little tree-building area on the floor of the train room and got to work. 


Above.  We used mostly Woodland Scenics tree trunks because they’re simple and relatively inexpensive, and they’re pretty easy to work.  I bought two packages of WS TR 1122 3 to 5-inch tree armatures, and two packages of WS TR 1123 5 to 7-inch tree armatures.  I painted them light gray, then brushed-stroked each trunk lightly with a dark brown paint (Testors “Rubber”).


I also prepped and painted a few weed branches I picked up along the side of the road somewhere in Switzerland this summer.  I thought they looked alright and painted up they looked a little better.


Once the trunks were dry we began building trees the time-honored way, by pulling apart Woodland Scenics green poly-fiber , spraying it with glue, and adding leaf material.  Specifically we used Woodland Scenics FP178 green poly-fiber, unscented hair spray for the glue, and used Scenic Express Super-Leaf material for the leaves.  Once everything was built-up we hit the outside of the tree with more hair spray to seal the leaves in place.  It was easy and fun and I got to spend more time with my little Kirsten, which is always a win.



The result looked something like this:


During the process we pulled up a couple of photos on the iPad and compared our work with the photos like the one shown below.  This photo is from the Woodland Scenics site. 


After looking at that photo we weren’t happy with a lot of our trees so we rebuilt about half of them.  Even then, we were only satisfied with about half of the total trees we made.  Then we ran out of poly-fiber.  We had a lot of fun and learned a lot, and we’re looking forward to making the rest of the 40 or so trees needed for the layout.

To put everything together, once I had added the photo backdrops I went back and planted the trees.  That process was simple–I used a reamer to punch a hole in the Hydrocal shell, added a small dab of hot glue to the bottom of the tree, and planted it.  I tried to plan the trees a little randomly, and the scenery is not too perfect or overly complicated, but I just wanted to get something done.  I can always go back later and rebuild it.



Below.  A photo for fun. 


I hope you enjoy and I hope you have a wonderful week!  – John G



No. 76: 2018 Projects and Renewal

Happy 2018! 

I’ve always found the New Year to be a great time to reorganize and reprioritize life goals.  Getting organized and setting goals within the hobby is important too, so I always take a little time to set new hobby goals and priorities for the coming year.

Getting organized is the first step to setting goals, so I spent a few hours on December 31st and New Year’s day doing a lot of cleaning, organizing, and goal setting in the layout room.  Below is a photo of what the layout looked like a year ago.  

IMG_4545 - Copy

Thanks in some part to goal setting, it looks a little better today…except for the little derailment thing…


I also maintain a list of current projects, including categories such as

  • Kits New in Box
  • Models Under Construction (with list of parts needed)
  • Models Ready for Paint
  • Painted Models Ready for Decals
  • Decaled Models Ready for Finishing (Weathering, etc.)


Having a solid list of projects helps me organize the projects I want to complete, and organized how I can pay for certain things.  It also helps me to decide if I should or should not buy any new things. 


I also completed an inventory of all my rolling stock.  Establishing an inventory helps me decide if I want to sell anything, and/or what I want to add.  The boxes shown above hold 130 layout-ready cars; about another 30 completed cars are on the layout.  The layout can use about 35 cars comfortably, so as you can see I have more than enough cars.  With 52 or more or more rolling stock projects in the box, or under construction, I need another freight car like I need a hole in my head.


A few years ago I completed a very thorough roster of layout-ready freight cars.  Ideally the car distribution for my railroad should be a little over 50% box cars with hoppers and coal-carrying gons a close second.  I was pretty close to the target.  I’ll complete a review this in early 2018 and see how things are going.


I went through other boxes of materials as well.  In the photo below I was cleaning out and organizing a travel box full of track and wire, and switch machines and electrical stuff.   My cat Scooter decided to jump up on my shoulders and settle in.  He’s a great animal–he will often accompany me to the train room in the evening and follow me around, and try to find a way to get attention.    


After all the organization, here are my big goals for 2018:

  • Complete the Ackley Layout (it’s at 90%)
  • Complete 50% of on-hand rolling stock models (new kits and those already under construction)
  • Rebuild and expand the “bump out” on the layout to add two industrial customers
  • Consider building a new layout (A small switching layout, city/industrial theme)
  • Start writing articles again


Final Comments on the Portage Project

Meanwhile my friend Mike Moore received the box I sent with the Portage Tower model, and tool houses, and a few other things.  Mike sent a few quick photos of the models on his layout.  Love those Burlington red engines–they’re among my all-time favorites.  Looks good, Mike!



Blessings to you and your families in 2018! – John G


No. 75: Douglas Street Crossing at Ackley

The Douglas Street crossing, or “center road” as I call it, was started last December during the Winter Offensive.


I wanted to model Douglas Street as a dirt road since I expect the real road was hard-packed dirt in 1950.  Below, here is a close up from the 1970 aerial photo of Ackley that has been shared previously.  It kinda looks like a dirt road…

Ackley 2

I began construction of this road the same way I did with the other roads on the layout, by first building a subroaded base of HO scale cork roadbed (below), and then covering the subroadbed with Hydrocal from Woodland Scenics.

Middle Road 1- 251

In case you’re wondering, the “Stacked” glass is from a favorite burger joint in St. Louis.

I also used Hydrocal around the area to complete other scenic landforms.  I used a thin cork material I bought at a German art store as the subroadbed for the town site, trackside industries, and so forth, and planned on painting that with the dirt-colored paint and calling it complete.  After giving the cork a coat or two of paint, however, it just didn’t look right.  I went back later and covered it with a very thin layer of Hydrocal and then reapplied the paint, and that turned out a lot better.

Middle Road 1- 252

Douglas Street crossed four tracks—the main track, a short passing siding, an industrial track, and a team track that ran behind the depot.  The team track also served the Standard Oil distributor, and M&StL’s trackside dock, and probably was the site of the REA pole yard at some point (mentioned in M&StL 1930s documents).  I included the spur so I could model Standard Oil and the dock, but then the track turns, runs across Douglas Street and continues into the abyss of the aisle. 

Below.  This is a picture from last December, which isn’t very notable except it does show the Douglas Street cork roadbed and the siding that trails off to the left in the photo.  The real track ran behind the depot to a stub end. 


I don’t know if the track behind the depot was used by 1950 so I have modeled it as an out-of-service track.

I painted the dirt road with this German paint I’ve been using, a Mocha-colored home interior paint.  I know I’ve mentioned this repeatedly in past blog posts.  The color reminds me of dirt you might see in Georgia or Minnesota—maybe not so much in Iowa.  My buddy Clark Propst tells me that Iowa dirt is “black”.  I know what he means but modeling that is tough.  Initially, below, I tried a darker paint to try and simulate the “dirty dirt” you’d find on a dirt road in Iowa.  Not black, but dirty.  It didn’t turn out well.

Middle Road 1- 256

Above.  A whole lot of sanding and filling and shaping finished the road.  After it was painted, I sprayed a darker color, Testors Dark Tan, down the middle of each lane to simulate packed dirt on the tire tracks and loose sands and pebbles between the tire tracks.  Then I went back with different colors of tans to try and streak the road a little bit.  The darker colors between the rails happened naturally when I was cleaning the track with a Bright Boy.


The crossbuck is an old thing I’ve had on hand for about 30 years.  I have no idea who the manufacturer is.  I specifically installed the crossbuck on the other end of the road off-center.


The telephone poles are a kitbash.  I used poles from the outstanding Rix telephone pole set and crossarms from the Walthers Electric Utility Pole set.  In some cases I have mixed crossarms on the same pole per the prototype.  I really want to improve my telephone pole models and when construction comes to a close on the layout I’ll have the time to go back and get some of those projects done.  Showcase Miniatures has some cool accessories that can help with that project.

Middle Road 1- 261

Photo backdrops will complete the scene.

New Rolling Stock Projects

December was a very, very busy month with work, kid’s activities and Christmas celebrations, but I managed to take some time to clear off the workbench and get two new projects started. 


The first project is not quite a new project, but it’s one I need to finish.  This is a Bachmann Russian Decapod that I’ve had since 2002.  Yep, that’s 16 years.  I generally don’t keep projects around that long but this is a must-have model for fans of the transition-era Seaboard Air Line.   

I’m detailing this model to represent SAL 501, which was an original Russian that ran on the railroad until 1951.  The photo below is a little messy but it shows the engine disassembled into it’s major components for detailing. 

Interestingly the electric motor has Buhler stamped on it.  Not Buhler as in Ferris…but Buhler as in the outstanding electric motor company.  Who knew.


I finished the tender about ten years ago and have finally begun detailing the locomotive.  When the fun work is done I will attempt to install a TCS-WOW DCC/Sound system in the tender.  



Below are a couple of photos of Gainsville Midland 206 as it was being prepped for display in Winder, Georgia.  206 was originally SAL 518 and it is really, really close to the Bachmann model right out of the box.  If I were to start again I’d stick with the 518–it’d be a lot less work.

These are Bill McCoy photos, used with permission.

GM 206 Atlanta, GA 1965

GM 206-2 Atlanta, GA 1963

Second is a freight car project for Frank Hodina’s Resin Car Works blog.  Frank sent me special parts and decals to build a C&IM USRA wood gondola—a car I’ve been interested in modeling for a long time.  Frank asked me to do an article on the car for the blog so when you finally see the car it’ll be on the RCW site at  Eric Hansmann runs this blog for Frank and it is a great site.  It’s worth your time to check it out.

Happy 2018!  – John G








No. 73: Informal Ops Session

Merry Christmas!  I hope you all and your families had a wonderful Christmas celebration!

My wife’s brother and sister and all their kids came to visit us in Germany for Christmas.  We took them to Ehrwald, Austria for a week of skiing.  It was a wonderful trip and we got back in time to celebrate Christmas at home.  Below is a photo of my son, Jacob, at the top of the mountain at the Ehrwald ski area.  The scenery here was spectacular in every direction and we practically had the entire ski area to ourselves.


I wasn’t able to do any railfanning on this trip, but we drove to Garmisch-Partenkirchen one day to ski and visit the Christmas market there.  On the way we paralleled the S-bahn passenger line for a short time and Jacob was able to catch a photo of a snowplow at work on the line.  It was moving the opposite direction but he did a good job shooting through the windshield as we zoomed by.


Informal Operating Session

When we got back home on the 23rd, all the young boys came upstairs to run the trains.  The little boys got their turns first.  Here, below, Zuri is in the foreground at the throttle and Reid is getting a lesson on how to control switches and uncouple cars.  I told Reid he was the conductor and the conductor is “the boss”.  Zuri didn’t like that notion very much!

IMG_1119 DAsh 2

The little boys had fun and did well.  I didn’t give them any lessons on switchology or how to run the trains; instead I just threw them at the layout and helped them at every step along the way.  After all they just wanted to have some fun.  Zuri was a more patient motorman and was respectful of the delicate models; Reid seemed to grasp the complexities of how to run a railroad a little sooner.  They took turns being engineer and conductor and they had a good time.

Later that evening my nephew Stuart wanted to run so we came upstairs and I set up an informal operating session for him.  Stuart is 15 so I explained what the layout represented in a little more detail , and I explained how to run the engine, and how to work the switches, and so forth.  I served as his conductor.  He did quite well and he enjoyed it.  We ran for about an hour.

This morning Stuart asked if he could run the trains again so I got everything powered up and went over a few details, and then I left him alone with the layout.  He ran for about two hours, moving cars back and forth to the industries, building trains in the staging yards, making mistakes, learning, overcoming, and enjoying the process. 

Stuart is a very bright guy and I deliberately left him alone so he could have fun and learn on his own.  Occasionally I would come upstairs and asked if he needed anything.  One of the things I mentioned to him along the way was “It might be helpful to look at the layout as a two-dimensional logic problem” and I could swear I saw the light bulb switch on.  At that point I went into a little more detail about how to run the railroad, and we discussed how to make a switching plan, how and why to use the two run-around tracks, and how to switch cars efficiently from both ends of a train.


After another hour I came back upstairs and built a few trains in each of the off-layout staging yards.  Then I ran a few opposing trains at him, forcing him to stop his work and clear the main line so my train could get through.  That threw a wrench into his logic puzzle, but each time–after my train left town–he got right back on the main line, rebuilt his switching plan, and got back to work.  Smart kid.  


Below.  A short while later my son came upstairs, took the second throttle, and started running trains too.  


The boys had a good time learning about railroading but after a while things went downhill.  My son talked Stuart into a train race and before I knew it they were racing RS-1s side-by-side on the main line and the passing track.  The races were nothing like you’d see on old Top Gear episodes though–those momentum-equipped RS-1s are pretty slow starters.  Anyway I left the room and told the boys “I’m leaving because I don’t want to know what you’re doing!”  Jacob knows everything about the layout and I trust the boys enough to have fun without destroying anything.

I’m happy to report that the layout ran well with very few hiccups.  One car had a coupler problem and was removed, one car had an apparent wheel-gauge problem (it seemed to derail in unusual places), and one of my Atlas RS-1s stalled a few times.  I didn’t think the Atlas RS-1 was capable of stalling…

By the way, I had the kids run almost exclusively with a Proto GP-7 which was retrofitted with a Tsunami 2 DCC/sound system with Keep Alive.  That engine runs like a dream.

The boys ran for over two hours today.  I’m sure they will want to run again so when I get off the computer I’m going stage a few trains for another ops session.

Completing the Portage Tower Project 

You may recall that I am building a few structures for Mike Moore’s new layout, which depicts the Illinois Central, Chicago Great Western, and Burlington lines in Iowa, circa 1965.  A central feature of the layout is the junction of the three railroads at Portage, Iowa.  Clark Propst and his crew of scurvy mates from Mason City built the layout and I offered to build Portage tower and some other buildings for the Portage scene.

The buildings have been complete for some time but I had a heck of a time trying to complete station signs for the tower.  I made three attempts and finally—on the third try, just before we left for our ski trip—I was able to makes signs that were acceptable.   


I made the station signs by printing out the name of the station (I used Calibri font, 11-point) and gluing the paper to a .010 styrene back.  The purpose for adding the styrene back was to provide some rigidity to the paper signboard. Then I built a frame made of styrene shapes around the signboard, and that was that. 

The first step is shown below; I used a dab of Gorilla Glue, spread around with a Q-Tip, to secure the paper to the styrene.


Next, below, I painted .010 x .030 styrene strips with Testors Black and applied them to the signboards.  This was a whole lot harder to line up than it looks.  I used heavier styrene strip on a few previous attempts and those signs didn’t look quite right. 


Then I secured the completed signs on a piece of scrap plastic using tape, and painted around the frame on all sides, per the prototype.


When it was all dry, I the completed signs looked like this (below).  They look a little beaten up, just like prototype signs do…although I didn’t do that on purpose…


The finished tower model isn’t perfect.  I didn’t have time to add the screen door, the outside porch, and a few other details that were found on the real tower.  The chimney isn’t quite right, and I did not add an any interior detail.  The model captures the look of the prototype, and the tool houses that I also built will add a little interest to the scene.  It was a fun project and Mike is a great guy and a good friend and I’m honored to be able to contribute something to his dream layout.  

May God bless you and your families this Christmas!  – John G

No. 72: Ackley Layout – South Side Scenery Work


This is a long overdue post but I felt it was important to make a record of the work that was done in September and October 2017.

My layout depicting the M&StL main line in Ackley, Iowa has a 16 x 2-foot finished area with a 12-foot staging yard on each end.  As of mid-September, I had installed landforms and basic scenery on about 20-22 square feet of the layout.  In early October I began installing landforms and scenery on the last 10-12 square feet of the layout, which depicts the south end of town.  This area of the layout features the IC crossing at grade and leads to most of the industry tracks in town.



I began the scenery process by completing the ballast on all trackage, which included the M&StL main, the IC main, and the industry leads.  On the M&StL main I used a home-brew mix made of light gray N scale ballast from Arizona Rock & Mineral Co. with some home-made ballast mixed in.  The home-made ballast was sifted from dirt I collected at the site of the former PRR roundhouse in Richmond, Indiana.  That stuff has a neat combination of dirt, coal cinders and soot that I think looks pretty real…because it is real.  I also like the idea of using stuff that blew out of the stack of a PRR T1 or a Q2.

Below.  A close-up of the ballasting in progress.  On top is the Richmond dirt-ballast; at bottom is the home-brew ballast mix.


On the secondary tracks I use my home-brew ballast on everything, which is realistic for M&StL as they often used cinders for ballast.  I have a hunch the stuff I’m using is a lot darker than that used on the real railroad during my modeling era.

On the IC main I used Woodland Scenics N scale light gray ballast.  The area in the foreground is where the interlocking tower and tool houses will be installed.  The farmer’s field is in the background up against the backdrop.


With scenery base complete, I added Silflor 2-mm and 4-mm static grass to the area.  My daughter Kirsten did a lot of the initial grass-laying work.  We tried to leave a few areas bare, especially the areas where I will install the interlocking tower and the three IC section houses.  I can scratch in a dirt road when the buildings are installed.


We also did not install grass on the hill across from the interlocking tower where I will install a farmer’s field, in a small area on the bump out where a second grain elevator will be “planted”.


I was not satisfied with my initial installation of landforms along the IC main track.  This photo below shows that my roadbed was too high compared with the photo of the interlocking tower.  I added a second layer of Woodland Scenics “Smooth It” on all four sides of the crossing to bring the landforms up closer to the top of the ballast.  I made a huge mess doing it and destroyed some of the scenery I had already installed, but the adjustment was worth it.


Above.  Note the height of the IC main track, as compared to the prototype photo below.  My model of the track was too high, so I laid down an additional layer of Hydrocal.  I damaged the ballast in the process but was able to easily fix it.

ackley tower looking east COPY


I also added concrete pillars for the old mechanical interlocking in the appropriate places.  For this I cut small Evergreen styrene pieces and installed them along the right of way, about five feet from the end of the ties, with the top of each pillar at the same height as the top of the ties.  The signal relay box is a Showcase Miniatures product.


Below.  A few views of the finished scenery on the south end.  I need to do a lot of detail work, but the hard part is done.



More to follow as I complete the scene.  Below.  Here’s where I was last November, so we’ve come a long way.


Sunshine Models ACL Ventilator Box Car

Before leaving for Italy over Thanksgiving I took a little time to paint the Sunshine Models ventilator box car that I built in 2015.  This is an all-time favorite car and I’m happy to have the model.


Below:  Here’s the completed model all ready for sandblasting.


I used ScaleCoat II PRR Freight Car Color for my car and Testors Gloss Black for the underframe and trucks.  I did not put a primer on the car first and obviously the car will need a second coat.


I think the ScaleCoat PRR FCC is the closest match to the color Coast Line was using in this era.  I want to simulate a car that has been repainted in the then-new 1948 “Small Gothic” lettering scheme, with a 1949 or 1950 shop date, and moderate weathering.

Here’s a nice view of a recently-painted Coast Line car, circa 1951.  Compared to the NYC car next to it, ACL 21003 looks like it has a very rich freight car red color.

ACL O-25 ACL Color Guide

Below.  I finished this ACL car around 2012.  I used Scalecoat 2 PRR Freight Car Color.  Chad Boas cobbled the doors together using an Intermountain door with Union Duplex Rollers from an old Sunshine Models kit.  He sent them to Mont Switzer and I and we finished our cars together.   This is an Intermountain model with an AMB wood running board and Jerry Glow decals and a few extra details here and there.  I sold this car prior to moving to Germany.


Next up: Finishing and sending the Portage models, and continued work on the layout.

– John G


No. 70: Ackley Layout Progress, Nov 2017


After 45 days of working on rolling stock and other projects, I returned to working on the Ackley, Iowa layout just before Thanksgiving.

I know, Thanksgiving 2017 is already old news.  I was busy at work and out of town again over the holiday, and the kid’s busy schedule keeps me busier than I deserve, so haven’t been able to post any updates for about three weeks.

In the 45-day period that I spent away from the layout to finish other modeling projects, I got a lot done.  I rebuilt my sandblaster and blasted about 25 built-up models to get them prepared for painting.  I painted and finished a number of other models, plus I worked on a few projects for my layout and a few projects for my friend Mike Moore’s layout. I was not able to get much done as work and kid’s stuff ate up most of my time each day.

There are three large projects remaining on the layout.  These aren’t large projects for most layout owners but for my small layout, they’re big ones:

  1. Construction of two road crossings
  2. Installation of the backdrops
  3. Completing the scene at the Illinois Central crossing, which includes construction of a number of custom-built buildings.

Lincoln Avenue Crossing


Above.  A view of Lincoln Avenue before the road was built.  Below, one of the road crossings on Tom Johnson’s layout.  My thanks to Tom for allowing the use of this photo, and also for the never-ending inspiration.


I model 1950 so I chose to depict Lincoln Avenue, the road that passes next to the depot, as a dirt road.  During initial construction of the layout I laid down a subroadbed for the station road using cork roadbed. I covered the subroadbed with Hydrocal but kept the Hydrocal off the tracks so I could model a timber crossing.


Above.  I shaped the Hydrocal as best I could while it was wet, and when it was dry I sanded and shaped it a little more.   Then I painted it with the same German house paint I have been using for all my landforms and roads.  I was not happy with the results. The road was not smooth and I was unable to get the contours right.


To fix the problem, I tried a special product, called Smooth It, which is made by Woodland Scenics.  I sanded down the entire road and tore up a lot of the completed scenery in the process, and then vacuumed off everything, and then put down a thin coal of Smooth It over all the road surfaces. I let that dry and then sanded and shaped everything and I was much happier with the results.



Above.  Much more smoother!

I repainted the road again and then installed a wood crossing that I built from wood pieces I had in my scrap box. I painted the wood with Testors Rubber. I kept the vacuum cleaner with me and kept the whole area cleaned up as I worked.


Then I attacked the scenery at the road crossing. First I repainted the ties, then reapplied some ballast where the road meets the track. When that was dry, added some Woodland Scenics fine green grass blend to the area, and in some cases I even added a little ballast on top of the turf to blend everything together.

I let all the dry for a couple of hours and then went back later in the evening and added some static grass. I used a blend of Silflor 4mm and 6mm Late Summer grass. I threw some of the Woodland Scenics turf on top and sealed it with hair spray.



Once that was done I vacuumed again and then called it quits for the day.

Next, I need to weather the road and install the backdrop and some details, and weather the timber crossing, and we’ll be done.  I don’t expect my scene to look as nice as Tom’s, but it looks a lot better than last July (as seen below).


Tangent Tank Car

One of the last freight car projects I worked on as November ended was weathering the white, Staley Tangent tank car I picked up at St. Louis RPM last year.  This is the most beautiful model I think I have in my collection.  It is a magnificent model in every regard.


First I disassembled the model and replaced the kit trucks with Tahoe Model Works 40-ton trucks.  I sandblasted the trucks so they could be painted, and then airbrushed them with Testors Semi-gloss black.

Next I painted the model with a few light coats of Dullcote so the weathering material will have something to stick to.  Then I did some “highlighting” with Testors light brown (the stuff in the tiny little bottles) using a brush.  I just wanted to get the rivets, corners and details to pop out a little bit.  Francois Verlinden popularized the “highlighting” technique in the 1970s and you can find more about it by just Googling “Verlinden” and “highlighting”.

Note to Self: Be careful not to Google Barbara Verlinden.  She’s a female MMA fighter…unless you’re into that kind of thing…

Below.  Prepping the brush for highlighting.  I dip the brush into the paint and then remove about 95% of the paint, and then go over the details with light strokes.  The details and corner surfaces pick up just a hint of the color, providing a nice contrast-weathering look.


Next I used AIM dry powders to weather the underframe, trucks, couplers, and wheelsets.  I still need to secure the weathering with another shot of Dullcote, and polish up the wheelsets and coupler faces.


Above.  The results of a little highlighting and dry-brushing with weathering powders can be pretty dramatic if it’s not over-done.  I took my time and it thing the car looks pretty good.  The photos above and below show the detail of the TSM model.  Dave Lehlbach is about the only guy in the industry that delivers a good-looking coupler pocket (as seen below).  Wow!


I’ve got another three posts written and just need to get them formatted and posted.

Meanwhile I hope you all had a blessed Thanksgiving!  – John G

No. 64: Modeling the Marshall Canning Company of Ackley, Iowa, Part 2

Recently my friend Doug Harding traveled up to Ackley, Iowa to visit the Ackley Heritage Center, which is located in the former Illinois Central depot in the bustling metropolis of downtown Ackley.  The Center had several dozen photos of the Marshall Canning Co. and other industries in Ackley and they were happy to share with Doug.  Doug scanned them and sent them to me the next day.  

The best photo I have of the Heritage Center is below, taken on my one-and-only visit to Ackley in 2015.  One of my daughters took this one.  I guess I forgot to follow up with a good “roster shot”. 

Wonder why the flag was at half mast?

IMG_1550Doug is a Methodist pastor and a wonderful guy but he didn’t go Ackley to do research just for me.  Doug has a large basement layout and models a portion of the old Iowa Central lines during the M&StL era, which includes Ackley.  We have shared a lot of research material over the years.  The photos reveal a lot of detail that Doug and I—and a lot of other guys interested in the M&StL lines—have been looking for.  My thanks to the Center for giving me permission to post a few of the photos here.


A recurring conversation among modelers is How much information do I need before I can begin building a prototype model?  For some, this indecision induces “Analysis Paralysis”, which means a guy won’t build anything until he has photos and blueprints and a complete understanding of the prototype and its operations.  Personally I think a lot of guys use analysis paralysis as an excuse to stay online and avoid building anything. 

Certainly there is some risk involved in building a model without all the answers but I prefer to get building NOW and when more information comes to light, adapt and continue forward.  I have built two nearly-complete versions of Marshall Canning for two layouts, and with this new information I can’t wait to built a more accurate version. 

Just this week Tony Koester wrote an article on Analysis Paralysis for Eric Hansmann’s Resin Car Works blog.  It’s a great read and it can be found at This is a great blog and Tony’s article is very insightful.  

I don’t have any regrets building a model without all the answers.  These new photos give me–and a lot of other modelers—information to build more accurate railroad prototype models.  This is what we do!


1 - 1952

Photo Courtesy of the Ackley Heritage Society of Ackley, Iowa.

This photo, circa 1952, is the most important photo for me because it is nearest to my target era of Summer 1950.  My model looks nothing like this.  A major concession I made during construction was using windows with exterior sashes and frames, not the correct type of windows which were inset in the brick.  I thought that cutting 40 precision holes for inset windows would take too long.  Now I wish I would’ve taken the extra time to do it.  I also don’t have room to model the three-story addition so I simply ignored it.

The biggest problem with my model is that I ignored the lean-to building behind the main building which included part of the coal-fired plant.  You can see the new addition in the proto photo-it is built separately and behind the coal plant, not next to it as I have modeled.  So that will need to be fixed.  My loading doors are all wrong too.  There are things I can add, like the fire escape and the loading door in the front, and the flagpole, and I can also clean up my building a lot.  No tall weeds on the property either!

THE “1950s” PHOTO


Photo Courtesy of the Ackley Heritage Society of Ackley, Iowa.

This photo was so-named because we don’t know when it was made.  Doug’s notes indicate that in 1952 a dry pack operation was added which included a new warehouse and enclosed loading dock on to the north end of the warehouse (north of the boiler room).  Maybe the car can help date the photo.

My new model, below, doesn’t look like the real one very much…


Things to notice about the real building:

  • Coal smoke!
  • Loading doors are on ground level, so some sort of conveyor device was used to load cars
  • There are now two warehouses north of the original building
  • The conveyors and equipment for the coal plant are prominent
  • Note the railroad right or way-we’re not talking PRR mainline track here

Doug writes:

I have been examining the area between the original building and the warehouse addition.  There is a steel structure located there and I wonder what it is. We speculate this may have been the location for the plant to receive coal. The smoke and smoke stacks tell us the power plant is just north of the original building.  There is a lift mechanism, looks like the type seen at ash pits, perhaps used for dumping ashes into gons, or for lifting coal.  There also appears to be an A-frame conveyor between the old building new warehouse.  I wonder if this is how they moved finished product up and over the boilers.  My photos from 2007 show a continuous wall, but upon closer examination, the white sheet metal covers the gap between buildings.  A closer look shows what appears to be gas meters or regulators. That tells me the plant converted from coal to natural gas sometime after 1970, i.e. probably when the boiler room was replaced in 1984. I assume at the time of conversion, or soon after, the smoke stacks, conveyors, etc. were all removed as no longer needed.

Doug also sent along a number of photos like this one below.  While there is not much modeling value to these photos, I enjoy studying them.  I like to look at the faces, shoes, clothes and hair, and expressions, and wonder what life was like 80, 90 or 100 years ago.


Photo Courtesy of the Ackley Heritage Society of Ackley, Iowa.


3 - 1957

Photo Courtesy of the Ackley Heritage Society of Ackley, Iowa.

The 1957 photo above shows a lot of changes from the “1950s” view:

  • Coal smoke, indicating a coal-operated power plant
  • Building additions
  • The parking lot on the site of the old cattle pen
  • The tool house on the railroad
  • The track looks a lot better!

Doug also copied this photo, below, which was obviously taken from the top of the concrete grain elevator which was built in 1957.  Here’s the original.  The photo below it is cropped a little. 

4 - 1957 Aerial View

Photo Courtesy of the Ackley Heritage Society of Ackley, Iowa.

4 - 1957 Aerial View - Copy

Photo Courtesy of the Ackley Heritage Society of Ackley, Iowa.



Photo Courtesy of the Ackley Heritage Society of Ackley, Iowa.

5 - 1970 Aerial View

Photo Courtesy of the Ackley Heritage Society of Ackley, Iowa.

The 1970 aerial view shows a lot more detail.  Neat things I noticed include:

  • Additional buildings have been added since the 1957 view
  • The coal plant has been converted to burn gas
  • The office building has been added at the front of the building
  • The loading door at the front of the building can clearly be seen


Above.  The original Marshall Canning Co. on my layout in Illinois didn’t look very much like the real thing either. 


Well, it’s freight car month so I’m not doing anything other than working on rolling stock.  This old Red Caboose car, which was seen in an issue of The Keystone Modeler about ten years ago, got some work recently, along with a bunch of other models.  


Meanwhile…my model of Marshall canning adequately performs its intended function.  Right now I’ll plan to complete the rest of the layout and when that’s done I’ll rebuild the cannery.  I’ll keep the current building and use it for other scenarios, like when I want to run B&O or NYC or Milwaukee Road equipment.

Doug also sent a number of vintage photos of the Ackley interlocking tower.  I’ll post those later when it’s time to build the model.  That’ll be a fun project when the time comes

Blessings to you and your families!

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.  1 Corinthians, 15:58

No. 61: Ackley Clean Up and a New Project

I’ve been working on the Ackley, Iowa layout for 14 months straight since I began construction on 4th of July, 2016.  Meanwhile a whole lot of freight car projects have been stacking up and there are a lot of models in need of repair and upgrade, so I have decided to take the next 60 days (all of September and October) to complete rolling stock projects.

Cleaning Up

The first thing I did was clean up the layout so it would be presentable.  I had been doing a lot of scenery work and the room and the layout were trashed.  It took a solid 2-3 hours to clean and organize everything.


A funny thing happened when I got the layout all cleaned up.  Instead of getting going on those freight car projects, I kept working on the layout.  It is a great example of my old “playroom” theory I used to explain to my wife.  I have an old theory about kids and playing: When kids go to a clean, organized play room, it’s like putting a blank canvas in front of an artist.  They play and build and create like crazy.  But…if you put a kid into a playroom that’s dirty, disorganized and stuff is all over the place, they won’t play there.  That’s like giving an artist canvas that’s already painted, and telling him to paint over it.  So the same thing happened when I got the layout all cleaned up and organized.  I was motivated to get working on the layout again.

While I’m finishing up freight car projects I’m planning on completing some much-needed detail projects for the layout.  The plan is to finish timber crossings on two of the three road crossings, build crossbucks and finish telephone poles, detail some buildings, and knock out some other things.  Here’s one of the Showcase Miniatures kits I picked up, below.


I am going to try using these wigwag kits to make regular crossbucks.  Dan Kohlberg turned me on to Showcase Miniatures and he was right–they make great stuff.  Hopefully they’ll be at St. Louis RPM next year.  Frankly I don’t think anybody markets a good-looking steel crossbuck.  But these Showcase Miniature kits include a ton of parts and some great-looking graphics that I think will do the trick.  You can check out their website at


Freight Car Projects

There are quite a few freight cars on the shelf that need attention.  About a dozen cars are decaled and need Dullcote, another dozen are built and need paint, another half-dozen need to be built-up, and about 25 are still new kits in the box.  Plus I have about 20 P48 models–about six in some stage of completion.

Below.  This Tangent car needs new trucks and “P88” wheelsets.  How do you weather a white car without it looking terrible?



Above.  A small number of kits that are on the front burner.  Interesting that each kit has a story.  The M-15 and tank car came from my friend Lonnie Bathurst, the NP war emergency car is from Aaron Gjermundson, and the Central box car is from Craig Zeni.  The B&O GP-7 is from my friend Ebay.

Below is an old Sunshine car that was finished two years ago when I still lived in Illinois.  It still needs its roof painted and weathered.


I have 3-4 P48 models that are 90% done and need to be completed too.  Plus about four engines that need work.  And most of the models mentioned need a trip through the sandblaster.  I haven’t used the sandblast since before I moved to Germany (November, 2015) so getting that process going is long overdue.  There’s a lot to do.

Portage Tower

Meanwhile…a good hobby friend of mine, Mike Moore, is building a layout at his home in Albert Lea.  My friends Clark Propst and Bob Gretillat have been traveling up to Mike’s place in Albert Lea every week to help Mike build his layout.  Mike is modeling the CB&Q-CGW-IC line through Portage, Iowa and I offered to build the tower there and some section houses and tool houses for the layout.

Cocoa Beach 06 Photo

Here’s a photo of the Iowa boys—and me—from the 2006 Cocoa Beach RPM.  Standing, from left to right, is Doug Harding, Clark Propst, Stan Rydarowicz, John Greedy, Mike Moore, Me (John Golden), and Ed DeRouin.  Kneeling, left to right, is a fellow I recognize but can’t recall his name at the moment (!!!), Chet French, and Mark Vaughn.  Hard to believe this was 11 years ago already.

Anyway back to the tower.  I was lucky to have just the right things on hand and the tower and tool houses are already under construction.  I was fortunate to have two packages of Evergreen Scale Models Novelty Siding (#4062, .060 spacing, .040-inches thick) on hand here in Germany.  I have enough styrene for the tower and all the tool houses I’ll need for Mike’s layout and my layout.


The tower is an easy build.  I am building the 1960s-era tower; it was apparently re-sheathed sometime in the late 50s that eliminated most of the windows, I believe to make heating and perhaps air conditioning more efficient.  As built it looked like your typical Burlington, steam-era interlocking tower with lots of windows.  Thankfully I didn’t realize it had an interior staircase until I committed to doing the job, otherwise it would’ve taken me forever to build.

I didn’t have dimensions available so I decided on dimensions of 20 x 15, and am modifying some really old Tichy windows I had on hand.  It won’t be perfect but it’ll be close.  As Clark told me “Anything that looks close will be fine.”


Below, the tower is underway.

FullSizeRender (2)

My thanks to the boys on the Yahoo Proto-Layouts list, who rallied to get me all the photos and everything I need to get the project moving.  You guys are the best.

Monon, Orleans, IN.JPG

Hope you all have clear tracks ahead!  – John G