No. 156: Track Laying and Track Scenery on Hermitage Road

Over the last weekend my daughter Kirsten and I drove up to the lovely German town of Boppard, on the south bank of the Rhine River, for a little Klettersteig hike. It was a fabulous, warm, sunny day and there’s no better way to escape the utter stupidity of covid than with a great hike along the Rhine.

There’s no English translation for Klettersteig, but it is a method of hiking along rock faces in mountains along fixed-rope climbing routes. The routes are much better known in the Italian Alps as “Via Ferrata”–which literally translated means The Iron Way. Basically you walk along cliff faces wearing a harness, which you clip into wire ropes along the way, to prevent you from falling to your untimely death. See below.

This route wasn’t too demanding, but there was one climb, about 100 feet straight up, that was quite a challenge for this old man.

One of the best parts of the hike was the view from the start, where I could see the Deutsche Bahn hard at work on their busy, electrified Mannheim-Paris main track.

With that said, lets get to the HO railroad. Here’s how Hermitage Road looked in the end of February. The roadbed is a sheet of 3 millimeter cork laid on Styrodur, which is a German product much like American pink or blue Styrofoam. Styrodur is light and very sturdy.

The turnouts are all Code 70, and the track is all Code 55 flex track from Micro Engineering. I cut the fourth or fifth tie out of the web on the Code 55 flex, and repositioned all the ties to be a little wider. Man, that takes a lot of time but I like the effect.

I glued the track down with good-old American Elmer’s white glue, full-strength. I positioned the track using pins, and kept it down with old switch locks until the glue was set.

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I’ve mentioned this in previous posts, but I used a lot of track details from Proto87 Stores, Details West, Grandt Line, and Keyser Valley Models. It took a lot of extra time to add all these details, but the layout is small—only 6 feet, ten inches long and 17 inches wide, and is built at sit-down height—so it was easy to take my time and install all the details in comfort.

Here is a view of some of the detail parts. The joint bars at the bottom left, and the tie plates, are Code 55 from Proto87 Stores. The joint bars at right are Code 70/83 from Details West. They are the best-detailed product on the market, but they cannot be installed on the inside of the rail.

Once the details were set, I painted the ties with a base coat of Testors Rubber. Then I went over each tie with various colors of tan, gray and light brown to simulate some aging. I painted the rail and tie plates with Mr. Color Red Brown, which I think is an excellent color for lighter-duty rail.

Here’s the result, before cleaning the top of the rail of course.

And here’s another view of the track with all the varied tie colors.

Once the paint was dry, I ballasted the track cinders I collected from the site of the Pennsylvania Railroad roundhouse in Richmond, Indiana. I dug up a couple of buckets of dirt back in 2014, sifted it, and demagnetized it, and have been using it ever since. Because it’s real dirt and cinders, it looks like real dirt and cinders.

Here’s the painted track, with the cinders installed, prior to gluing down the ballast. I use a variety of brushes to keep ballast off the tops of the ties, and out of the inside of the rails.

Here’s the stuff I use to secure the ballast. I mix about 20% Elmer’s glue, 70% or so water, a little bit of rubbing alcohol, and a few drops of dish soap. The latter two ingredients break up surface tension, keeping the ballast exactly where I want it.

Before gluing the ballast, I give it a good soaking with rubbing alcohol from a spray bottle.

While the ballast is wet with alcohol, I use a pipette to apply the ballast glue. I try to keep the ballast glue off the rail or on top of the ties. Doing so tends to change the color of the ties, and sometimes–by capillary action, I think–brings ballast stones up on the ties and rail and glues them in places I don’t want them.

I tried something different while applying the ballast glue. On a couple of the tracks, I tinted the ballast glue with water-based Tamiya black paint. The idea was to apply black glue to black ballast. Why would I want to apply white glue to black ballast?

The experiment worked well, and I’d do it again if needed.

Here’s the track when ballasting was complete. Some nice variation in tie color and ballast color. The extra tie spacing cut into the flex track can be clearly seen now.

Here’s a close-up of on the turnouts, with the Proto87 frog, track details, and ballast installed. Not bad….

I’m way behind on the blog. Here’s a photo from just a couple of days ago. As you can see the layout is already operational. I’ve been running little operation sessions for a month now, but the layout is far from what I’d consider “complete”. I’ve still got a lot of factories to build.

Below, I filtered this picture to look like all the Kodachrome slides I took in the 80s. Too much green and yellow. Thank goodness for auto-exposure cameras.

There’s much more to come…just need time to get it all in the blog. – John

No. 155: Turnouts on Hermitage Road

Last week I received a few locomotives I bought from my friend Jim Dick in Minneapolis. Here’s one of them: a second-run CNW GP-7 in as-delivered paint. I figure this model was run around 2003. That makes it–what, 18 years old? The paint still looks great.

As soon as I got the engine out of the box I removed the original DC underframe and replaced it with another one I had rebuilt with sound/DCC that I’ve been using on a PRR engine. The 1601 will get a few prototype-specific details as soon as I can find the time.

Earlier this week I sent the photo to a private online group we informally call Ron’s Train Club. Everybody came back and asked me about the track and track details. So here are a few comments on the track and detail parts I used on the new Hermitage Road layout.

There’s a whopping total of four turnouts on the Hermitage Road layout. Two are old Code 70 Shinohara wyes, and two are Micro Engineering Code 70 #6s. All the track is Micro Engineering Code 55 flex track.

I extensively rebuilt all four turnouts at the workbench. I put a lot of work into the Shinohara wyes. First, to make them “DCC friendly” and improve electrical connectivity, and second to improve appearance. Here’s is a short photo essay that explains what was done to the Shinohara turnouts. The photo below shows one of the two wyes right out of the box as I started the rebuilding.

The first thing I did was remove all the ties around the points rails, and remove the point rails and the throw bar. I unsoldered the point rails for re-use, and discarded the plastic and metal throwbars parts, and all the plastic ties. The white thing at the top of the photo is a piece of .010 styrene, which will be used to align new ties to the model.

I made a new throw bar using PCB ties from Fast Tracks. I cleaned up the original point rails and re-used them. The photo below shows, after measuring the spacing for the point rails, how I taped everything into perfect alignment on the workbench, and then soldered the rails into position.

Next I re-attached the point rails using Code 70 joiners. Joiners provide a much more solid connection, and much better electrical connectivity. Then I glued the styrene to one of the remaining plastic ties on the turnout (the one on the far left). Then I glued a tie to the stock rails to the right of the points to keep everything in alignment. Then I slowly slid ties underneath the rails and glued them to the styrene. Once they were in place I trimmed the ends of the ties.

You can also see that I cut a notch in the throw bar to electrically isolate both sides of the point bar.

Below. After completing the tie replacement around the point rails, I cut off more of the original tie strip–about ten ties at a time–and replaced the ties one-by-one. I did this three or four times and worked my way from one end of the turnout to the other, replacing almost all the original ties. I retained about four of five of hte original ties to keep the track aligned properly. You can see them if you look close. They’re the ones with the big spikes and wood grain detail.

I secured the rail to the ties, and the ties to the styrene sheet, with simple ACC. Once the turnout is put in place I spike the rails down to keep everything in place.

You can also see that I replaced the original Shinohara frog with a #4 frog from Proto87 Stores. The rails are physically isolated on each side of the frog.

Here are a few of the parts I used to decorate, or detail, the turnout. These Code 70 joint bars and tie plates are all fromProto87 Stores. I cut them out a bunch of these at a time and fix them to the turnouts in the right places with ACC.

Below. A closeup of the replacement frog and tie plates. Can you pick out the remaining original Shinohara ties?

Here’s a photo that describes some of the detail parts used.

Here is one of the two wyes installed on the layout. I just had to glue it down with Elmer’s Glue and that was that. The holes seen at the diverging rails are where wires were soldered.

I lightly hand-painted the track and turnouts with Testor’s Rubber. Later I went back and painted almost every tie with slightly lighter shades of brown, tan and light gray.

Finally, below, is one of the rebuild wyes after cleaning, wiring, ballasting and weathering. The weathered ties are subtle but you can see the differences in color. The grass is a combination of static grass and Woodland Scenics stuff. I take my time and try to never get any scenery material on the top of the rails or the ties. I’ll cover track scenery later.

Here’s a closeup of the switch block while applying ballast. I have added a few turnout rail braces from Details West at the point rails. The bars running across the rails are styrene rod simulating Gauge Rods, which used to keep track in gauge around hard-beaten areas. The joint bars are visible, as are some of the tie plates. Some spikes are visible showing where the track had to be spiked to maintain correct alignment. There are also straps made across some of the ties; those were occasionally used by the real railroads to keep the ties in proper horizontal alignment. I added them for fun.

The ballast is stuff I picked up from the old Pennsylvania Railroad roundhouse site in Richmond, Indiana back when I lived in the U.S. I sifted it down and baked it, and removed all the metal particles with a magnet. It makes a great cinder ballast–because it’s real cinder ballast. Trimming them also makes them look a little more rough-cut, which was common in the 1940s.

One of the two installed Micro Engineering switches is shown below. I didn’t modify these turnouts very much, other than replacing the frog with a part from Proto87 Stores and and adding detail treatment like was done with the wyes. I didn’t replace any ties.

Here, below, can be seen the difference between the frogs. The Proto87 Stores flog is much cleaner, and tighter, and improves the performance and the appearance of the switch.

In the lead photo of this article you can see one of the frog with a lot of bolt detail added. Here’s an under-construction view. On this frog, I simply added bolt heads to the side of the frog. I used Tichy nut-bolt-washer castings, sometimes called N-B-Ws. The few joint bars seen are from Grandt Line, and the fasteners for the guard rails are from Proto87 Stores. Many of these details disappear when the track is painted, but they show up again in photos.

And one last photo of one of the Micro Engineering turnouts in it’s natural habitat. Again, it’s easy to super-detail track and turnouts like this on a small layout, and even easier to do it at a layout like Hermitage Road that’s built at sit-down height.

I hope you enjoyed this. Here’s a view of the layout from my first operating session last week. There’s a Seaboard VO-1000 working hard behind the backdrop. The industry in the left foreground is the Alcatraz Paint and Varnish Company, which is almost entirely scratchbuilt. I’ve already replaced it with a much larger industry, the Sitterding-Carneal-Davis Contracting Co. More on those changes another time.

Hope you all have a blessed week! Begone, Covid! – John G

No. 154: Hermitage Road Update, Feb 2021

Traditionally December and January are big modeling months as most guys are trapped inside for Winter. Not so here, as my family kept me busy and out of the attic train room until about mid-February. I also had a double-laptop meltdown, which precluded any work on the blog along with a whole lot of other stuff.

In the last 20 days I’ve been able to get a huge amount of work done on a lot of projects, and also on the Hermitage Road layout. The layout is now at the point where all the track is laid, operational, and scenicked. Fascia is painted and re-installed. All that’s left now is construction of a few buildings and finishing the backdrops.


A long-term goal remains construction of a traversing table for staging instead of a traditional fiddle yard. I’ll insert a drawing as soon as I can make one. Right now the plans are all in my head.

In January and February, with what little time I had, I was able to paint, detail and weather the beautiful Seaboard VO-1000 that I leased from John Moenius. This is a Stewart-Bowser model that I upgraded with various wire parts, cab details, and a whole lot of weathering and overspray. John already had DCC and sound installed and it runs like a dream. It is my new favorite engine and I hope you like it too.

Here’s the prototype at Raleigh, North Carolina in 1949. Photo by Wiley Bryan.

SAL 1402

Here’s the model I’m using:

I’m also working on an old Proto 2000 PRR GP-7 to run during a PRR scenario. I really like the early PRR 8550 series GP-7s with the top-mounted air tanks, steam generator and antennas, so that’s what I’m building. Yes, that’s a passenger engine but I really like the look. I’m sure even the prototypes were used for local chores every once in a while.

Here’s the prototype I like:

Other engines in the queue are a Milwaukee RSC-2 and—thanks to my friend Jim Dick—an as-delivered C&NW GP-7 that I am crazy about.

Meanwhile the layout is progressing well. Here’s a view today of the industrial track ladder.

In the next few posts I’ll back up and discuss track-laying, “moving a track”—which I had to do to make more room for the coal yard—and distressing the track, which is one of my favorite sub-hobbies.

I tried a few different things when laying and ballasting track. One of the things I thought up was coloring the matte medium I use to secure ballast. Yep, I added black paint to the Elmers Glue/water/soap mixture and the results were very interesting.


Finally, I’ve been putting some finishing touches on my friend Eric Reinert’s New York Central box car. You might recall that I’ve been working on this car for quite some time. I wrecked the original kit that Eric sent, and got a new one—and here’s where we are today. I salvaged the underframe and one of the ends from Eric’s original build, so it’s a Frankenstein of sorts.

Here’s a photo I took on the layout the other night. I just applied the right filter from my iPhone and this was the result. Not bad.

Much more to follow and with God’s glorious blessings may we all come out of this covid mess quickly, and with our health, and with our freedoms intact!

Next: Turnouts on Hermitage Road.

John G

No. 152: Hermitage Road Construction


As of today, Hermitage Road is wired and mostly operational. The photo above shows the future SAL 1402, an engine leased–literally–from my friend John Moenius. John had two of the engines and wasn’t going to use them, so I offered lease one from him, just like the big railroads do. Lease Terms: One Dollar, but I’ve gotta decal, paint and weather it. The engine is equipped with a SoundTraxx Tsunami 2 DCC/sound chip and is the best runner I’ve got.

I was able to go from “wood to wired” and running trains in about 45 days thanks to using a lot of stuff leftover from the last layout, and getting organized before beginning construction.


I planned, and did some focused buying, and collected everything needed over a period of about 60 days. Then, around November 1st, I started building.

Below. Most of the lumber for Hermitage Road, not including the backdrop fascia. Most of it is recycled from the old Ackley layout. I cut it about a month before I started construction.


Below.  I went to the local German hardware store and they cut up a massive piece of masonite for me.  Free of course–service comes with the price.

I mocked up the layout on the floor before beginning construction. I went through dozens of iterations, trying to get in everything I wanted while keeping it under 2 x 8 feet. Here’s one of the earlier five-feet-long mock-ups, below. The Richmond Cinder Block Co. is represented by the O scale boxes at the back right. The current track configuration is very close to this.


Layout Constraints

The first constraint I faced was there is only about 15 feet available for a layout, with the back of the layout against a sloped ceiling.


Second, because of the sloped ceiling, the layout is built at sit-down height, with the track elevation at 37 inches from the floor. Layout legs are simple–I’m re-using the Ikea Finnvard sawhorses from the Ackley layout, set at the “second peg”, making the Finnvard height 31 inches.

Backdrop height is 14 inches high to maximize as much space as possible against the sloped wall.

Benchwork was built in the traditional box-structure, 6-feet, 10 inches long and 17 inches wide. The subroadbed/layout base is made of a German product called “Styrodur” which is much like US blue styrofoam. Styrodur is more sturdy but is more brittle. I glued the Styrodur to the box frame and then screwed it down where possible to make sure of a secure fit.



Used 4mm cork sheet for roadbed. I ordered it from (“German Amazon”) and it was here the next day. I completely covered the Styrodur with the cork. It was simple and fast, and prototypical as most of the industrial tracks in this area were sunken into the ground over time.


Track and Turnouts

I used a combination of kit-bashed turnouts and Micro Engineering track. I used the Code 55 flex for almost all the tracks, but used all Code 70 turnouts. Two of the four turnouts are partially rebuilt Micro Engineering Code 70 #6s, and two are Shinohara #4 wyes that were almost completely rebuilt. I wanted to build all Code 55 turnouts but didn’t want to wait another 30-40 days so I could build them.


All four turnouts were rebuilt with frogs and detail parts from Proto87 Stores and Details West. The photo above is of one of the two rebuilt Shinohara wyes. I basically used the track, replaced the frog, and replaced everything else. Now it is DCC-friendly. The tie plates are from Proto87 Stores.

I’ll talk more about track in a later post.


Fascia and Valence

The fascia was cut from 3mm Masonite, once again left over from Ackley layout projects. I curved the fascia up at the ends about three or four inches from each end. See the photo below. I wanted to give the illusion that a few of the tracks continue past the valence and beyond the layout.

The light valance has two LED tube-lights mounted on the backs-side. These are German fixtures running at 220V.



Once again, I used almost everything from the Ackley layout. I bought some new feeder wire, and a 50-pack of suitcase connectors on Amazon. That was it.

I wired the layout up via the standard method, soldering feeders every three or four feet and in the appropriate places on the turnouts. I also installed Tortoise switch machines for all four turnouts. I powered three of the frogs through the Tortoises and one using a Tam Valley Frog Juicer. I still like using switch machines; they keep hands out of the layout, but take a lot more installation time and fiddling during installation. Like the last Ackley layout the switch machines are controlled in front using small toggles.


Above. Testing the turnouts for power-routing problems. If there’s a problem, I mark it with a red pin and come back it to later.

Below. Under-layout wiring in progress. It’s messy work but was done in about a week.


All wiring and plugs come out of the right side to make convenient connections the power system and the staging yard. Train control is my trusty NCE PowerPro.

Below. The wiring process in action!


That’s it for now.  A not-very-exciting post but this one is important for archival reasons.  Meanwhile the trains are running…


…and the track crew will be finishing a few more things to get ready for scenery.


I hope you have a wonderful weekend. God Bless America! – John G

No. 150: Hermitage Road

In October, 2019 my family and I moved from my house in Albersbach, Germany to a much more modern and efficient house closer to work. Doing so meant I had to dismantle my point-to-point M&StL Ackley, Iowa layout and move it to the new place. That wasn’t a big deal as I built the layout to move.

Above. The Ackley, Iowa layout nearly complete in 2017.

As I related in an earlier post, moving the layout did go so well. Most importantly, Ackley did not quite fit in the new layout space so I carefully stored it in the garage. As I contemplated building a new, smaller layout for the new space I thought it would be wasteful to buy things for a new layout when I already had all those things on the Ackley layout. Moreover, the Ackley layout got a little bashed up in the move. Eventually I decided to scrap it, and salvage it for parts, and move on.

I considered a lot of options for the new layout. I have covered in exhaustive depth my plans to model The Milwaukee Road freight house in Mason City. At the same time I also considered building a small layout based on the Illinois Central freight house in Champaign-Urbana. I also looked at the Illinois Central freight house in Decatur, and even planned a layout based on the huge Milwaukee Road freight house in downtown Minneapolis.  None of the plans worked out to my satisfaction.

Below. The back end of the IC freight house in Decatur. With the main line out of the picture on the right, and a few more industrial sidings on the left, I thought this area would make a great small switching layout.


Allow me to back up a little bit. The genesis of this small layout concept is something I have called The Factory. The Factory concept is a small, 2 x 8-foot layout featuring a single industry that had a little bit of everything and offered just enough for a 20 or 30 minute ops session. I found a few factories that would work, such as Decatur Soy (in Decatur), and the American Radiator Company in Litchfield, Ill. I’ll do posts on both of these places later.

An example of The Factory is below–the American Radiator Co.–with map courtesy of my best friend Lonnie Bathurst. The plant was in Litchfield and was served by the Big Four. The plant had a need for coal (gons and hoppers), sand (gons and hoppers), fuel and lubes (tank cars), machinery and raw materials (box cars), and out-shipping in box cars. Probably some stuff on flat cars too, as there is a gantry crane seen in photos. That’s lots of different kinds of cars to handle. It’d make a nice, small layout–perfect for a 30-minute ops session.


The American Radiator Co. concept worked, but it just didn’t scratch the itch.

Finally, one evening in October, while looking at railfan slides and some maps of the RF&P and Seaboard switching districts on the north side of Richmond, Virginia, I found a switching area that had just about everything. There wasn’t one large industry, but a layout based on a variety of small rail-served customers in this area offered an opportunity to use a lot of different freight car models. The area was pretty generic so I felt like it could be Anywhere USA, just as the old Ackley layout was.

The area is located right behind the old SAL yard, alongside Hermitage Road. Thus, “Hermitage Road” was born.

Below. This is another Bill McCoy photo of Hermitage Yard in north Richmond. The tracks at the far left are the RF&P and ACL main tracks to Richmond’s Main Street Station. The tracks immediately below are the SAL main tracks to the RF&P Acca yard, which is in the far background. The area being modeled is behind the engine shop at the far right.

SAL 1474 - 1470 Hermitage Yd., Richmpnd, VA 12-57 - Copy

Unlike every other layout I’ve ever built in my life, Hermitage Road doesn’t follow an exact prototype arrangement.  Instead, it combines features of four different industrial tracks and puts them into one place.  I call it a “composite layout”.

Below. Here’s an aerial that shows the basics. SAL’s Hermitage Yard is at center. The big wye is the ACL-RF&P connection to Richmond’s Main Street Station, which is just out of view at the bottom right. Hermitage Road is the four lane road crossing at right from top to bottom next to the old baseball grounds.

Hermitage Yard Aerial

The layout is 6 feet, 10 inches long and 17 inches wide, with room for a staging yard less than six feet long. Hermitage Road has just six industries and a team a team track–at most 13 spots. There is no run-around and no complex track or features. There are only three tracks, one with a short switch-back. That’s it.

As you can see below, the layout is well underway and all the track on the visible layout has been secured. The staging yard will be built when the visible layout is completely wired and operational.


The six industries selected represent the wide variety of customers served behind Hermitage Yard.  Actually a few of them were just off of Ellen Road, and I thought long and hard about naming the layout Ellen Road as a tip-of-the-hat to a favorite English football club, Leeds United, who play at a stadium called Elland (with a d) Road.  For the layout, I like using the word Hermitage better—it is more descriptive, and I like the association with the old Seaboard yard and also the word’s Christian heritage.  So, Hermitage Road it is.

In early Christianity, a hermitage was a place where Christian men lived on their own to escape the temptations of the world. According to Wiki “…these retreats were caves or small buildings in deserts, mountains, forests or on islands.” In a way, Hermitage Road is my place to escape the world to relax and play trains.

Below. I’m hoping Hermitage Road will look something like this. This 1991 photo was taken in a SAL-Southern Rwy switching district on the south bank of the James River.

VA RR Photos, Jun 2005 (40)

Here’s a short breakdown of the industries and tracks:

  1. The track nearest to the aisle includes an unnamed grocery warehouse, an unloading ramp/team track, and the Southern Fuel and Oil Co.  Five spots total.  The grocery warehouse can take refrigerators, box cars and ventilated box cars.
  2. The center track serves one customer, the Hermitage Coal Co.  which can accept hoppers and gondolas, and even box car loads of coal.  Two to three car spots will be available.
  3. The track farthest from the aisle has two industries, the Alcatraz Paint and Varnish Co. and the Richmond Cinder Block Co.  The Richmond Cinder Block Co. is the largest of the industries on the layout; it receives raw materials via hoppers, gondolas and covered hoppers and can ship out blocks in box cars or gondolas.  About four car spots total.  The Alcatraz Co. can take box cars and tank cars–one of each.  Alcatraz also had an asphalt side-business so that will drive a demand for an additional tank car when needed.  

This variety of industries allows me to use box cars, tank cars, flats, gons, hoppers, vents and reefers.  For a freight car modeler, it’s perfect.

Below: The concept photo for the small Hermitage Coal Co.


The layout is designed to be somewhat like an English cameo layout.  English cameo layouts usually feature a very simple design and an operating area entirely framed by fascia top-to-bottom.  Hermitage Road is framed in a similar fashion. It is constructed of lightweight materials and will be easy to bring downstairs for parties or to RPM meets or other events.

Here’s what the little layout looked like a few weeks ago, below, as I was still mocking up structures. As of today the layout is completely wired up and operating.

I hope you and your families had a wonderful Christmas celebration, and are looking forward to a great year ahead. I am! – John G

No. 140: New Turnouts for a New Layout

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I spent all last week in Mezraya, Djerba Island, Tunisia, leading U.S. participation in a small international airshow.  Djerba is a sleepy report island in southwest Tunisia near the border with Libya.  It was a great experience and as always the Tunisian people were friendly, happy and grateful.  It was a long week—many 12+-hour work days.

The photo above shows a few of the jets we brought down.  In the foreground is Air Force KC-135, at center is an Air Force C-130J, and farthest away—with the number 426—is a new Navy P-8.  The team and I flew down on the C-130.

Below.  Here is a photo of me with one of the Tunisian C-130 crews before the air show started. I’ve been working with these guys for a long time and they’re my friends.  The Tunisians consider themselves “European Muslim” and they don’t get into all the jihad crap.  They love America.  Their military is full of well-trained, well-educated women too, like Capt Lajnef at center.  They all speak Arabic, English and French.  My French—all 25 words of it—got a serious workout.

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I won’t bore you with all the stories from the airshow but it was a great event and we met a lot of great people from 28 countries.  Our hotel on the beach was nice too…


…and no visit to Tunisia would be complete without a visit to a nearby grocery store to stock up on red wine and olive oil.

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I brought a model along but had little time and no energy to assemble it.  However, over the last two months I’ve accomplished a lot of new work on track for the next layout.  Here are some photos of the work.

On my late Ackley, Iowa layout I built turnouts using Central Valley tie strip and Proto87 Stores parts. I used Printed-Circuit-Board (PCB) ties for throwbars.  If the turnouts had any weakness it was the throwbars, as it took a whole lot of work to repair or replace a PCB throwbar.

Turnouts for the new layout—whatever that layout will be—are already being built.  Until I decide what to build I’m building a large variety of switches using mostly items I have on hand, knowing I will be able to use some or all of them.


This time, I’m building turnouts using three different methods:

  • Scratchbuilt using CV ties and P87 Stores parts
  • Kitbashed using a Micro Engineering turnout with replacement frogs and P87 Stores parts
  • Kitbashed using Shinohara turnout as a starting point, and replacing almost everything

I’ll start the picture show with the Shinohara turnouts.  You know Shinohara turnouts aren’t DCC-friendly and the details are not up to today’s standards, but they’re cheap and plentiful and are the only way to get a wye unless you want to use a Fast Tracks or other system.

Below is a totally rebuilt Shinohara Code 70 #4 left.  From left to right, I added a few Central Valley ties, then replaced the Shinohara throwbar with a Micro Engineering Code 70 #6 throwbar set trimmed to fit.  I attached the throwbar to the closure rails with Code 70 rail joiners to provide a tight fit and better electrical connectivity.  The white metal detail parts are from Details West.  The joint bars are from Details West and Grandt Line.

The frog is a replacement part from Proto87 Stores.  It was easy to cut and dig the original frog out, but I had to be really careful when it came to trimming the rails to fit the new frog.  I added a few more detail parts from Proto87 Stores and also a few more Central Valley ties on the diverging rails.  The work took about 2-1/2 hours.


Here’s a much more complex rebuild.  This is a Shinohara Code 70 #4 Wye.  About all I kept was the rail.  I have replaced most of the ties, and the frog and throwbar are all completely new.


Below.  Here’s a closeup of the throwbar.  I replaced the ties in front and behind with Central Valley ties.  To do this, I first installed an underlayer or .005 styrene and then slid each tie in position one by one.  The throwbar is a PCB tie from Fast Tracks, soldered to the point rails that were originally installed on the turnout.  The header ties are Micro Engineering wood ties.  The detail parts are from Details West.  The tie plates are from Proto87 Stores and are applied to wood ties that have no detail.


This one isn’t finished yet of course.  I just recieved the replacement #4 frog from Andy Reichert at Proto87 Stores a few weeks ago and haven’t had time to install it yet.

Someday soon I will rebuild this Shinohara Code 70 #8.  I originally installed this turnout on a small layout I built in my first house in Charleston, South Carolina way back in the early 1990s.  I don’t know if I’ll ever use this turnout, and it’ll take a whole lot of work to complete, but it’ll be nice to have in case I ever need it. 


I’m also building turnouts using Central Valley (CV) tie strips.  This is an easier process but usually requires that I file my own point rails, which is time consuming.

The turnout below is a Code 55 #5.  Not commercially available of course–hence the challenge.  The tie strip is a Central Valley product, and the rails are all cut, filed and fit by yours truly.  The frog is from Proto87 Stores.  Like the Shinohara turnout above, I used rail joiners to join the point rails to the closure rails.  To provide a level track surface using the rail joiners I use a miniature round file and file a divot in the ties underneath the joiner.  The ties are each end are Central Valley.


Another Code 55, #5 is below–this one a left hand.  I have added some details to the throwbar.  From Zero to Finished and Totally Detailed, the build for these turnouts takes about 2-1/2 hours.

Below.  Here’s what the workbench looks like when I start.  Gotta have the Lego horse–that’s a top priority.


Here is the Code 55 throwbar and point-set after construction.  It probably takes 10-15 minutes to file the points to shape.  Then I use masking tape to secure the point rails in place on top of the PCB tie—ensuring the rails are completely 90-degrees vertical (that’s VERY important!)—and then I solder them in place.  The line cut between the rails is done with a motor tool with a cutting disk to isolate the rails.


Here’s another Code 55 turnout.  This one has a few more details installed.


This photo shows one of the Code 55 turnouts with Proto87 Stores joint bars installed.  The joint bars disappear when the turnout is painted, but magically reappear in closeup photos.


The hardest part of building these turnouts is getting the frog in the right position, and it’s not all that hard, really.  I lay both outside rails and then position the frog so that it is in alignment with both outside rails.  The Central Valley tie strip is built to make this process easy.


Below.  Here is a Code 70, #6 turnout built from Central Valley tie strip and mostly Proto87 Stores parts.  The frog is a re-used part from the Ackley layout.


The easiest turnouts to rebuild are Micro Engineering switches. On Micro Engineering turnouts I replace the frog with Proto87 Stores frogs and add some detail parts, and that’s it.

Below.  The turnout on top is a Micro Engineering Code 70 #6 right out of the package.  It’s a great product.  Below it is a rebuilt Micro Engineering turnout with a Proto87 Stores “Manganese Frog” and some additional detail parts added.  No header ties are installed yet.


The advantage to using Micro Engineering turnouts as a starting point is the detail level is good, and the throw bar is durable.  Digging the ME frog out is easy.  Here, below, is  Code 70 #6 right with a replacement “Manganese” frog from Proto87 Stores.  The new frog was glued into place with Gorilla Glue.


Although I didn’t get any modeling done on my latest work trip, I was a little productive online after hours.  I agreed to write three articles for a friend’s blog, agreed to provide material for a manufacturer who wants to release a new model, and planned four more blog posts.  I’m also still helping just a little bit with St. Louis RPM, and am finishing six freight car models for another friend.  All that in addition to the three of four builds of my own on the workbench.  The rest of March is going to be quite busy!


Be sure to stay away from that darn Corona Virus!  – John G


No. 134: New Layout Considerations – The Milwaukee Road’s Mason City Freight House

In my quest to find a great place to model, I’m refining my focusing on an area I consider to be “home”.  Home is the area between the south end of Minneapolis and the north end of Mason City.  I never lived there but I spent a month up in Chanhassen, Minnesota visiting relatives each summer.  I learned very quickly to love life there.

The Milwaukee Road terminal through Mason City was cool.  The Milwaukee had all the basics in Mason City, some of which can be seen in the map excerpt below.  In addition to the small yard and roundhouse, there were crossings with Chicago & North Western, Chicago Great Western, Minneapolis & St. Louis, the Mason City & Clear Lake electric line, and Rock Island.  A secondary Milwaukee line up to Lyle, Minnesota originated here, and there were connections to large cement plants.

The area I’m considering is in the inset, below.  This is Milwaukee’s short branch into the city that served the road’s freight house and other customers downtown.

Below.  The Milwaukee Road map is courtesy John Greedy via Frank Hodina.

IMG_6940 - Copy

Here’s a great photo, below, from Clark Propst’s extensive collection of Mason City photos.  We’re looking directly east.  The branch to downtown can be seen at the bottom left.

If you’re looking for a small yard to model–a yard that has everything–this is it.  About ten yard tracks, some industries on each side, and interchanges on each end–with more industries just out of sight at the interchanges.  Don’t forget the little branch into town.  Perfect!

Globe-Gazette photo/ E. L. Musser, Oct 24, 1952 Milwaukee RR yards.

Below.  Here’s the entire Sanborn map series for the downtown branch below.  At bottom, the track curves off the mainline and stub-ends at the lumber dealer immediately below.  We all know that Sanborn maps aren’t entirely accurate when it comes to railroad tracks, but they’re close.  In this case, you can see how short the branch was–just a few city blocks.

Mason City Sanborn 1948 4

Mason City Sanborn 1948 3

Mason City Sanborn 1948 2

Mason City Sanborn 1948 1

Below.  Clark provided this great aerial photo showing the freight house at bottom left and some of the other customers downtown.  The powerhouse at center was also served by the Milwaukee although the tracks aren’t drawn on the Sanborn map.

SL4761, 9/17/38.  Roosevelt Stadium. Night football photos (ALSO AERIAL VIEWS)

Below.  A grainy closeup reveals a few more details.  The freight house is at left center of course.  The track that curves off to the grocery warehouse at the top of the photo can’t be seen, but the right-of-way can—note the triangular-shaped building at the top left.  Tracks served all the large buildings in the photo.  The L-shaped lumber yard can be seen.  The track to the powerhouse curved toward the gas tank, then switched back into a car-dump adjacent to the powerhouse.

MILW, CNW, RI freight houses 9-17-38 - Copy.jpg

Below.  Here is an excerpt from the Milwaukee company map.  It shows the tracks beyond the freight house in detail, including the switchback to the powerhouse.  Those tracks aren’t depicted on the Sanborn map.

Mason City Sanborn 11

Here’s a nice photo, also from Clark, showing the freight house from the power plant.  It’s a nice view, but why would anyone ever take such a photo?


One more note about the photo above.  According to Clark, prior to 1935 there were streetcar tracks all over this area.  A car shed can be seen in the left foreground.  The tracks were torn up sometime in 1935.  Cars lined up at the freight house can be seen below in this 1930s view.

Milwaukee freighthouse 1-35 1 - Copy

Clark Propst Collection.

Over on the Proto Layouts list I had a long conversation with Clark and a guy named Bob Drenth (we all know him as “Railroad Bob”).  Bob is a retired Milwaukee Road guy and shared some stores about operations in Mason City.  Here are some words from Bob.

Hi John,

Coal was delivered to power company between 1935 and 1960 by the Milwaukee.  There was a curved track off of the lead that went in the alley behind Gambol-Robinson [one of the large building adjacent to the freight house].  There’s a building, which still exists at Corner of 5th St. and Federals, with a “notch of the NW face of the building so the MCCL electric line could make the turn into People Gas & Electric Coal yard. That build is a three story building, while Gambol-Robinson was a five-story warehouse, and the building next to it was a beer warehouse.  All are part of the Zilge’s Appliance store now.

The cement dealer across from the freight house was gone by 1969.  I expect that company only dealt with bag cement in it’s day and not bulk cement we have become use to now.

You asked about crossing sheds and crossing guards.  I’m not sure what to expect in 1950s but by 1969 there were no crossing guards.  Our switch crews flagged as needed.  I recall 5th and 6th Streets were both one-way streets and Very busy (as U.S. 18 used them to get through Mason City).  Also busy was Federal Ave.  That was a four-lanes-wide highway and part of U.S. 65, running north-south through Mason City. 

Old heads had stories of standing in middle of 6th Street trying to flag traffic and cars driving around them just in front of the move.  One old head claimed he put his lantern through the front windshield of a motorist–but the driver never slowed down or stopped!

You should find the only runaround track on the very left side along Delaware Avenue.  This was part of the “lead” between 8th Street and 6th Street.  Again, I don’t recall ever being on it.  Old heads told of spotting beer cars there; the distributor (Hamm’s) had a building on the west side of the street and I heard they rolled kegs across the street to his warehouse.  But you’re right it was easier to line up deliveries at the yard on the scale track and take them downtown on correct side of engine.

There was no “interplant switching” either.  You either delivered or pulled a car from it’s location.  In other words, empty cars were not reused. 

From Dr. Marty’s photos [those photos are included at bottom] you can see Milwaukee had customers on the switchback.  You had to shove by Gambol-Robinson toward Woodford Wheeler’s Lumberyard, then reverse back into the lead that went in the alley between Delaware and Federal.  Just south of 6th Street was a four-story warehouse that handled International Harvester Parts. 

John Deere had their parts house on a spur track near the yard.  To reach it crew needed to cross 6th St. twice–we had to block the street only once.  It burned one Saturday afternoon in August 1969.  I could see the smoke miles away, as I drove to work the Afternoon Switch engine.

The longest yard track at the main yard in town held 40 cars (between Federal and South Carolina Avenues).  The switch lead would hold about 25 cars plus an engine.  There were three crossovers between the main track and the #1, or “Straight Lead” through the yard.  Many customers were located on north and south sides or the ends of the yard.  I’ve done some math; you’d need almost 90 feet long by six feet wide to model the complex exactly.

RR Bob

Thanks Bob!  Man, that is priceless information.

Below.  Here’s a fun photo, showing a B&O M-53 at the freight house that got pushed too far, and went across the street.  Railroad Bob mentioned Woodford Wheeler’s Lumberyard; it can be seen in the background where that MP double-door car of lumber is being unloaded.

SL17263, 10/23/47.  Freight cars run rampant, 5th st. SE.  Safford Lock photo

This Soph Marty photo, below, shows the local switcher at work across the street from the freight house.  The beer distributor building is to the right of the engine.  The building in the background is the bottling plant.  Thanks to Clark Propst for sharing these photos from his collection.


Below.  Same location, a few minutes later.  Love those Baldwins!


Below.  This photo below shows the switcher moving between the grocery warehouse on the left and the bottling plant on the right.  The stacks in the background belong to the power plant.


Man, this would make a nice layout.

For now, the Ackley layout is stored; it’s fate to be determined later.  Here’s one more shot from the last ops session in September.


The future is exciting.  I’ll sketch up some track plans and get them out to you guys soon.

Merry Christmas!  – John G





No. 130: Moving from Albersbach, and Maybe to a New Layout

Labor Day

In my last post I whined about how hard my summer has been.  It was, but today I’m happy to report I’ve still got all my fingers and toes, and the rebuilt shoulder is better than ever.  I played soccer the other day for the first time in 5-6 months and came away unscathed.  The family is doing great.  What is there to complain about!

Trip to Dwingeloo

To accelerate some relaxing, last month, over Labor Day weekend, I got away with my kids to the northwest corner of the Netherlands near a place called Dwingeloo National Park.  This is a lovely, quiet area, with clean forests, hiking, and plenty to do, and the locals are very friendly and speak excellent English.  This isn’t the kind of place where “Ami’s” (Americans) tend to vacation.

One afternoon we visited a small town called Giethoorn.  Giethoorn is near the coast and naturally, there are canals everywhere.  The main attraction here is an intricate system of small canals that run right through the center of town.  You park your auto outside of town and walk into the town center, and if you want to get anywhere you can walk—or—take a boat.


Naturally, we took a boat.  The kids and I rented a ship with an electric motor and boated around town for a couple of hours.  The little canals go all over the place; the locals even have private canals up to their houses, like driveways, with little boat-houses.  No cars or garages.  I had to resurrect old boating skills but managed to navigate the canals without causing any accidents.  The whole experience was too cool for words.


Meanwhile I am under more stress these days with the move from our old, very large, very overwhelming rental house in Albersbach to another place closer to work.


In my current house I have a big upstairs den, roughly 22 x 22, for all my modeling stuff. The new rental home will have a much smaller modeling area—just half of a 13 x 13-foot room.  I will take only two 13-foot walls, maybe less.  My workbench will have to go in a closet in another room—that’s not a big deal—but the Ackley layout at 21 feet will definitely not fit.

The great thing about the new room is it’s on the main floor near the family room.  Half will be “the train room” and the other half will be an office/study/computer room.  I like playing trains in the same room where the kids are studying and internetting, so this works out perfectly.  No hunkering down alone in the basement.  I’ll be right there with the family where I should be.

Thoughts on the Next Layout

I have been considering a new layout for about 18 months.  Ackley was 95% complete and I was running trains a few times a month, but it had some problems.  Chief among them:

  • I’m tired of point-to-point; I’m a fan of continuous running and want a loop
  • The layout was too wide, requiring a whole lot of extra scenery work.  I did not heed Bill Darnaby’s advice to make the layout as absolutely narrow as possible
  • The layout was still too heavy and unwieldy to be moved reliably
  • I was unhappy with the scenery; I really wanted the scenery to be “cleaner”, like what I see built by Chris Nevard, the famous British modeler (as seen below)

If you haven’t spent any time looking at Chris Nevard’s work, check out his site at  Go to his Flickr site–there are folders for each of his layouts there.   Be sure to allocate plenty of time for this–you will be impressed and inspired.  Photo below used courtesy Chris Nevard.


I also considered a city switching layout, like this—the Terminal Railroad Association’s West Belt Line in central St. Louis.  Look at all those tracks and industries!  This is a 1958 photo.

RI Belt Line Large

I’ve also put some thinking into building a small British layout, and even something smaller, but bigger–like something in 1/35th scale.  My 1/35th scale inspiration comes from seeing the German Feldbahn layouts here, and also those seen on Claus Nielsen’s Flickr site.  Look at and go to the Nystrup Gravel folder.

I’d like to build them all someday, but for now I’m considering replacing the Ackley layout with a similar layout that offers more in less space.  Ackley was close; I’d like a similar layout but one with turnback tracks on each end going to a loop of track behind the layout. Much like the show layouts you see here in Europe.  Here’s a drawing…

New Layout Map

This kind of design isn’t anything new or innovative, but it allows continuous running.  The scenicked layout at around 16 x 1-1/2-feet would be smaller than the Ackley layout but the whole layout itself would take up a lot more space than that.


Before we found the new rental home my thinking had focused on repalcing the Ackley layout using about the same footprint, hence the drawing above.  I was looking at Farmington, Minnesota; it was close to our summer home and I had a family connection there growing up.

Farmington is about 25 miles south of the Twin Cities on Milwaukee’s single-track, north-south Iowa & Minnesota (I&M) Division, and was sort of a grand junction of Milwaukee Road lines.  The Milwaukee’s east-west Hastings & Dakota (H&D) line crossed there, and a branch to Mankato originated there too.  I liked the notion of a crossing and also a branch line connection, as that can drive a lot of interchange and connecting traffic.  Rock Island used the I&M to reach Minneapolis so the line also hosted many RI freight and passenger trains too.  Who doesn’t like the Rock Island!

Here’s a postcard view below of Farmington circa the late 1930s.  Love that WP single-sheathed car on the left!


Farmington would make a pretty attractive small-town layout.  Mainline Milwaukee Road passenger and freight trains, Rock Island passenger and freight run-throughs, Mankato branch mixed trains, and lots of local traffic.  Yet, despite my best planning efforts, I wasn’t able to get all the major features of Farmington into the old Ackley layouts space, which was 16 x 2.  It just won’t fit.  And it definitely won’t fit in the new 13 x 2 space.

Still Thinking

I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, as I’m still a month away from being in the new house.  This photo of the Milwaukee Road in Minnesota, from the Milwaukee Road Archives site on Flickr, is giving me something to think about.

Minnesota Lake Town

Maybe something like this would work.  A station on the left, an interchange on the right, 18-inch radius curves on each end to behind-the-backdrop-staging and loop tracks.  The whole layout could be kept around 38-inches max, with the scenicked layout no more than 16-18-inches deep.  And a 48-inch radius mainline curve on the scenicked area, of course:


I know you’ve got ideas for two walls, each about 13 feet long, so send ’em!  As always I will learn a lot from your advice.  – John G

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