Friday, March 18, 2016

Blue Skies, Smilin’ At Me

Once again it’s only two weeks since my last update, but again some serious progress has been made on the construction front, with my mates once again putting in some solid hours on the layout.

To slightly sidetrack for the moment before getting into details on what has been done, as a basic overview, construction up to this point has probably taken around ninety hours of labour. This includes the odd trip to Bunning’s for materials, but due to careful planning these “time wasting” trips have been kept to a minimum.

The reason for pointing out the amount of hours that the layout has absorbed so far, is to highlight something that is probably not often thought about, and that is how long it will be from the beginning of construction, until you actually get to put down some track and see trains running.

It might seem like pointing out the bleeding obvious, but the end goal of any layout is to see the collection of model trains running around and doing their thing. The actual building of the layout to a certain extent is just a means to an end, and whilst there is a degree of enjoyment in the construction, it can start to feel like the actual running of trains is just never going to happen.

Because of this, it would be very easy to stop construction on some of the niceties that in the end will make the layout present very well, and simply begin laying track and getting trains running, even in a very basic way. The trouble with this is, that once trains are running, motivation for finishing off the actual construction of the greater layout can fall by the wayside, and this is where the dreaded “Plywood Central” can end up being a long-term result.

Don’t get me wrong, I am as keen as mustard to hear my collection of sound equipped locos start-up that the first time and move under their own power, and even better when they are pulling various wagons around and earning their keep, but I am also determined to make sure that the layout even without track and trains is finished to an acceptable standard first.

Continuing on with that in mind, the last few days of construction has seen solid progress on that front, with the presentation aspect of the layout taking another large step forward.

The “sky” has been painted on both levels, the paint colour chosen was derived by cutting a small sample off the sky section on the back scene that I am using, taking it and getting as near as a colour match as possible.

The “sky” is made up of 7mm thick plywood, which has been screwed directly into the metal brackets that supports the whole layout. Taking into account that the layout is approximately twenty metres around the room on two levels, it was neither a simple or small job for my wife to put on a couple of coats of sky blue paint. The sky on the top level is about 175cm high, and the lower-level sky is about 125cm high (I must get an exact measurement one day), and both levels have their challenges when trying to paint upside down.

As well as the “sky” being painted, the complete back scene boards on the bottom level, which are made of 6mm MDF, have been painted in the same colour blue. Because the lower level was always going to be more of a staging level, and due to it’s relatively small viewing angle, in a standing position you barely see any of the backdrop, and even at a comfortable sitting height you still don’t see where the backdrop meets the sky. The lower level may also see quite a bit of low relief industry and buildings placed against the backdrop, so for this reason no actual scenic back scene has been planned for the lower level.

The upper level however, will use a combination of various Haskell backdrops ( ), which to my eyes look fantastic, and very much reflect the typical country New South Wales scenery. These backdrops are printed on vinyl with an adhesive backing, and whilst in theory is simply a matter of peeling off the backing, lining it up and sticking it to the back scene boards, the combination of its length, the awkwardness of the position on the layout which happens to be in a corner (just to make it even more challenging), and the stickiness of the backing made it a slightly challenging task for my mate and wife to fit into place. However, the reward for the effort involved is huge, even without the dedicated LED lighting in place to really show it off.

The simple addition of a blue sky and background made a huge change to the way the layout looks, and the section that had the two strips of LED lighting temporarily attached looked absolutely brilliant when lit properly. I grabbed my small test diorama and placed an out-of-the-box Trainorama BWH wheat hopper on it, and took a couple of photos. Even with just a plain blue background, the effect is quite impressive.

The next task was to get the LED lighting panels mounted for the lower level. These panels which are also made of plywood, are suspended below the middle level, and are attached to the timber framing which runs around the front edge of the middle level by small metal 90° brackets. I say 90° brackets, but each panel will end up being tilted so that the LED lights project slightly downwards, the small steel brackets are flexible enough to be able to be bent to get the right angle for the lighting.

The last item of construction to be completed, was to fabricate, fit into place and paint the fascia that goes around the top edge of the layout. This was constructed from 9mm MDF, and is attached to the top arms of the steel layout brackets using a simple 90° steel bracket. Once the fascia was in place, a small piece of quad was fitted to each corner join, and then it was treated to a few coats of low sheen black paint.

Once the paint had dried, the effect was very impressive. The black fascia absolutely frames the top of the layout, and the contrast between it and the orange colour of the walls in the room is very effective. Once the middle and lower fascia panels go on and are painted black, the finished result should be quite awesome, and whilst it is tempting to get them done straight away, in the logical order of construction a few things need to happen before they can be put into place.

I’ve included a photo of the end section of the layout, which quite graphically shows like those old cutaway drawings, the make up of the layout. You can clearly see the “E” shape steel bracket which is screwed to the benchtop, the 38x19 framing underneath the foam panels, the plywood sky, the MDF back boards, the plywood LED boards on the middle level, the MDF top fascia panel, and the 75mm wide piece of timber which runs around the front edge of the middle layer, which as construction goes on becomes a far more important item than it might appear.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Modules, Back Scene and Sky Boards In Place

Two weeks on from my last update and I’m extremely happy to report that construction of the layout is ploughing ahead. From my point of view, the progress made has been nothing short of phenomenal, taking into account that apart from verbalising what is in my mind and how I think it should be built, the actual construction has been the sole effort of a mate of mine.

Making this even more impressive (to me anyway), is that until this project started my mate has had nothing to do with model trains at all, so building a reasonably large double level semi modular layout as an introduction to the hobby is no small feat.

For those of us in the hobby, building a layout starts with a picture in our head of exactly what we want, therefore from the beginning we have a fair idea of what we are working towards and a pretty good idea of how we will do it. Trying to explain in enough detail to somebody else exactly what is in your mind, so that they can visualise the finished result and then construct it, is not as easy as it may sound, and again I can’t thank my mate enough for the effort involved in the mental translation of my thoughts and ideas into an actual physical, practical and functional layout.

As for the actual progress, as the layout sits at the moment, all of the individual module assemblies that make up the lower and upper levels have been completed, the back scene boards have been completed around the entire layout on both levels, and the boards that are essentially the sky have also been completed for both levels.

Like a lot of things the photos probably don’t do justice to the amount of work involved in getting to this point, but I would estimate that from bolting the steel brackets to the bench top, to where the layout currently is, has taken six, ten to twelve hour days, so sixty to seventy hours in total. If you put that into typical “hobby time” terms, where you might spend an hour a day every day, or maybe four to six hours over the weekend, this would represent around ten to twelve weeks of work.

At the end of the final day’s work, we temporarily attached a piece of timber with two five meter strips of LED lights, one warm white strip and one variable RGB strip, illuminating a section of the bottom deck, just to get an idea on brightness, and how the variable colour RGB strip could be adjusted to give an acceptable hue, as getting a fair representation of natural sunlight is always a challenge with conventional lighting.

Without any actual scenery or trains in position I cannot say that I have found the correct mixture of lighting, but after having a short fiddle with the RGB colour palette, I am fairly confident that I will be able to find a setting that is more than acceptable.

The reason for choosing to use two separate LED strips, one being a variable RGB strip, is that the ability is there if you really want to, to get a representation of a sunrise or sunset hue which is typically slightly orange, or at the extreme, a night time hue which is typically represented with a blue colour.

The next phase of construction will probably centre around figuring out exactly how we are going to mount the fascia panels that the LED light strips will be mounted on, what mounting angle of the LED strips gives the best spread of lighting across the modules, and determine where power supplies will need to be positioned around the room to power the LED strips. Like most things there is a considerable amount of time thinking about these decisions as opposed to actually doing it, but the extra time taken in thinking these things through thoroughly is well worth it if you can do it once and it works perfectly.

If I had to make a few key points on the construction so far it would be the following.

The use of the steel brackets that the layout modules, back scene boards, sky boards and fascia boards will attach to, whilst being somewhat unconventional, are extremely strong relative to their size, as there is no way timber brackets made from only 25mm x 25mm sections would be strong enough to support what the steel brackets do.

Building the layout with each section as a modular assembly using the compressed foam panels with a light timber frame, produces an incredibly strong and very light assembly, that is very easy to lift into and out of position. This will also make working on each module extremely easy, no working upside down under bench work to do wiring, and being able to have the module in the centre of the room when working on it gives access to all sides, which will make constructing scenery that would normally be hard against the backboard very simple.

Modular construction also means that if at any time a section of the layout might want to be changed, it is a very simple process to remove and replaced with another module with different track layout or scenery, and while this is not something that would happen often, the option is there to do it very easily.

Another option would be the ability to take various modules that form a section of the layout to an exhibition, there are probably not too many permanent style home layouts that you could do this with.

That’s about it for now, but I hope to be able to report back in the not too distant future with some more progress reports.