Modelling what might have been in southeast BC and northwest Wasington

Rock colouring “Rosetta Stone”

I am getting back to installing rock casting along a couple of steep slopes near the staging yards. I have been unhappy with using dilute washes of acrylic paint to stain the plaster rocks, as it is hard to control the colour you get, and any differences in plaster density show up as unnatural variations. This is especially noticeable when a different material is used to fill in between the plaster castings, such as spackling paste or some other filler. Patching between casting is necessary to blend the rock work into one seamless continuum, and any indication of where the joints are is very distracting. I had experimented with mixing special blends of different plasters to achieve the right density so that it would absorb the stain equally to the cast in place rocks, but this approach never really worked well and it was a lot of hassle.

Example of using up old pre-coloured bits with filler in between.

A much better way was found during some searching online. I remembered that Joel Bragdon uses a plastic foam material for his “Geodesic Foam Scenery” approach. This hardens to a plastic that does not accept stain at all, so I figured that he must have a different way of colouring his rock castings. While I do not use his foam material, I thought the idea would be worth pursuing.

Joel has posted on his web site a very good article about how to cast foam rocks, install them, and colour them.

He says that because the foam will not accept stain, it is necessary to paint it with thin washes. The trick here is that he first primes the castings with artists “Gesso” before applying the washes.

He explains further why this is the best material for the job, because, basically, this is exactly what it was designed for – acting as a base to receive paint and other materials. I figured that this should also work for basic plaster rocks castings, and pretty much any other material, as the colour goes on top of the Gesso. Long story short, it works very well, and the bonus is that anything can be used as a filler for the castings, without having to worry about how porous it is (or is not!). And, if everything goes completely wrong with the colours it is very easy to simply apply another coat of Gesso overtop of everything and start afresh.

One small problem popped up with applying white Gesso to white plaster. It is not easy to see if it is all covered when you are looking at brilliant white on white. A simple solution is to spray a very light coat of brown acrylic paint wash on the castings to give them just enough colour to tell where the Gesso was. Any colour will do as it will not be seen. You only need enough to give a bit of contrast with the pure white Gesso. I tried tinting the Gesso but found that it messed with the wash colours too much. Best to have pure white under the washes.

Upper rocks have Gesso covering the brown wash, most of lower is yet to be covered.

Ok, so now I have a great way to colour the rocks, but what colours to use? Everyone says to use photographs of the rocks you are modelling, and that is a great idea, but how do you achieve a specific colour if you are not an artist? Well, the engineer in me said that I need some formulas to follow, so I made a sample casting and set about to colour it in a patchwork quilt of colour combinations so that I would know what worked well and what didn’t. 

The casting was primed with Gesso in the usual way, and then stripes of colour were applied horizontally and allowed to completely dry. The next day I added the same set of colours going across the first set of stripes, so that I ended up with a checkerboard of colour combinations to use as a reference. Some of the combinations are completely useless to what I am modelling, but some other combinations look pretty good, and they are combinations that I would have never thought would work. This just goes to show how bad I am at judging colours!

An interesting observation is that for squares that have the same two colours applied, the end result can be quite different, depending on which colour was applied first. The last layer tends to puddle in the cracks and corners and imparts an extra measure to the overall look. Cracks tend to be in shadow and should therefore be darker, so it seems that the best approach is to always add the darkest colour last.

First coat horizontally.
After second coat vertically.

These two photos are a good example of just how difficult it is to capture specific colours reliably. Both of these photos were taken in the exact same place, under the same lights with the same iPhone, and yet the colour of the manila file folder beneath the casting is very different between them. All I can imagine is that the automatic white balance of the camera was affected by the different colours on the rock. The first is the more accurate colour, whereas the second has a very blue cast as witnessed by the grey stripe being almost purple on my monitor.

Now all I have to do is find the square that matches the overall colour that I want, and I’ll know the formula to achieve it. I can always add a third layer (or more) in spots to add subtle highlights, and this can be done at any time in the future, because it is just paint on the surface and not a stain that soaks into the plaster.

And, by thinning the acrylic paint on the brush by simply dipping it in water without a specific dilution will result in a natural variation of colour intensity, which is also a good thing.

Now I have about six feet of rocks to paint, so I better get busy!

Ballast adhesive research

Now that we have the ballast neatly placed between the ties and not on top of them, we need to fix it with some sort of adhesive.

The traditional material is good old PVA white glue, diluted with a bit with water. You mist the ballast with so-called “wet water” and then dribble on the solution to soak the ballast and then let it dry. Various tools can be used to apply the mixture, but the slickest is a rubber ear syringe as it holds plenty, and is very easy to control.

Wet water is another area of great debate, as the traditional wetting agent is dish washing liquid, but Isopropyl alcohol (IPA) or Kodak Photo-Flo can also be used. The simplest for me is the automatic dishwasher drying agent liquids, as it is just a surfactant and does not contain and real cleaning agents. I use 1/4 teaspoon in 32 oz or one litre, based on an article online somewhere by Joe Fugate.I did try to mix white glue with IPA and it formed a gooey blob and did not dissolve at all. I am not sure how well it will dissolve in a water – IPA mixture, so I don’t use that.

In recent years the press has been talking about using artist’s acrylic matte medium instead of white glue, as it is not as water soluble after it dries. This all sounded good to me, and I had been using it to fix the main ground foam scenery on the layout. When it came time to do the track ballasting, it was supposed to work there as well, so I used that. Well, at least for me, this was a big mistake. No matter how much I tried to soak the sand to make sure the solution penetrated throughout the material, it ended up very fragile and crumbled very easily. Not what you want on your track work! So, of course, more controlled tests.

I tested fixing small piles of sand on a wood base without any track to prove a point. Even with the sand completely soaked with wet water and then mixed thoroughly with matte medium mixture to the point that it was a slurry, it still didn’t hold.

By the next day, after it had completely dried and look good with no visible glue residue, it still easily crumbled with the press of a finger.

So, back to try the old trusty Elmer’s While Glue and water. Cutting to the chase, after repeating the exact same process, this time it resulted in a very strong bond that could not be broken with a finger. There was no hint of a white residue as some have reported with white glue. As for any residual shine, I did another controlled test to see how shiny the white glue really was. When using matte medium, it is recommended to mix it with water and then let it stand for about a week to let the white powder settle out. This is reported to be talc that gives the medium its flat finish, however it can also leave a white residue behind, which we don’t want. The interesting thing is that once you separate out the white powder, what remains is just the clear acrylic medium, and it is glossy. So as a friend said, why not just start with gloss medium and save the extra decanting step. So, I tested both decanted matte and gloss medium and found both to be weak at bonding the ballast. As to their shininess, I let puddles of all three materials dry on a dark coloured plastic lid.

Surprising to me, the decanted matte medium was the shiniest, followed closely by the gloss medium, and then the white glue. The glue looked positively matte in comparison to both of the acrylic mediums. 

I then did a small section of track to prove out the white glue approach, and while it looks awful when wet, it dries perfectly clear with no residue nor shine.

So, I am concluding that the white glue approach is still the best, in spite of more modern materials. 

One caveat that I should mention is that the glue I am using is the original, standard Elmer’s “Glue-all” white glue. I have no idea if the results will be the same with any other brand of white glue. I’ll leave those tests to someone else.

Ballast application technique

The tools

I am finally getting to ballasting the track on the layout. Much of it has been down for a few years now, and has been well tested during various operating sessions, so it is now time to ballast it and make it look complete.

Ballasting track seems to be such a simple process that there should be no need for any great details nor research. But, alas, such is not the case it seems. Everyone has their way of doing it, with better or worse outcomes, so this is just a small treatise on what I have figured out that works for me. If you have a different way and are happy with it, just keep on doing it. There are oodles of “how to” videos online that show all sorts of techniques. This is just what I do. I have no patience for using a small brush to push individual grains into place to make it look “perfect”. I need a technique that is simple, easy, repeatable, quick, and good enough for photography, and this fits that bill.

The basic process is pretty simple, but the details is where it gets interesting. I am using commercial track, so the rails are already in place when the ballast is applied. If you hand lay your track, then it gets easier because the ties can be ballasted before the rails are spiked down, which makes it much easier to do a neat job.

After the track is installed and tested, and has had some time to settle and reveal any issues, ballasting involves simply spreading the grains of material between the ties, and soaking it with some sort of glue.

f only it were that simple.

The first big question is what to use for the ballast. Commercial products range from crushed walnut shells (or something similar), to real crushed rock. Colours are all over the map, and as usual should match what you are modelling.

A long time ago I thought I would use Woodland Scenics ballast, as it seems to be the most popular and readily available. My first attempts with it were less than satisfactory, and cutting a very long research story short, I have changed to using some form of real sand instead. The biggest problem with the WS product is that it is not actual rock, but I’m told is ground walnut shells. While it looks nice, it is very hard to apply it so that it will lay down between the ties as it should. Being something other than rock, it is very light and tends to float once the area is wetted with water and glue mixture. Even misting it with water tends to easily disturb the particles, resulting in a lot of clean up work afterwards. And, the dye used to colour the material seems to soak out a bit and leave light coloured stains on the tops of the ties if the grains are removed.

Based on visits to friend’s layouts where they had used real sand and it looked great, I decided to experiment with that instead. I weighted equal volumes of WS ballast and sand and found that the real sand was 2.5 times as heavy as the WS stuff. It tends to stay put after application even when it is wetted and glued.

Cost is not really a factor, because this is a hobby after all. I did find the sand to be much cheaper, with the best deal being from our local landscaping centre were I got a 5 gallon pail full that I could barely lift for under $2.00. Such a deal! Another source is paver sand from a home improvement centre. It is all quite different in colours so it helps to search a bit and then get enough to last a while.

I also experimented with some other commercial products that are real crushed rock, but I found them to be far too uniform in colour, which may be suitable for some railroads, but certainly is not for where my prototype was. Also, it seemed to have a kind of unnatural sheen, almost translucent, under some lighting, that I didn’t care for.

OK, so how do I install it?

Instead of a spoon, or other open container, I use a small squeeze bottle with the tip cut off to pour it over the ties. After a bit of practice you can estimate how much to pour so that it will fill in between the ties without overtopping them. To spread it, I first use just my dry fingers to run back and forth along the tops of the ties. If there is too much to nestle neatly between the ties, I use a coarse paint brush to move some of it along. With the brush held vertical, the bristles will sweep down just a bit between the ties to remove some material. This will leave some grains on top of the ties, so a finger is again used to push them off into between the ties.

Most prototype track of the transition era had the ballast just a bit lower than the tops of the ties, rather than right up to the top. By working to arrange the ballast this way, a bit of room is left to easily push errant grains off the tops and into the space between the ties.

The one problem with your finger is that is is rounded, and does not completely get into the corner between the rail and the tie. For a final tidy up I use a cosmetic wedge sponge that I trimmed to just fit between the rails. This slides along the tops of the ties and pushes the last few grains into the inter-tie spaces.

Some videos show tapping the rails to settle the ballast off of the ties, but that doesn’t seem to work for me with the sand, I suspect due to its weight. It may work with the lighter materials. Try it and see how it goes.

Once the ballast is all nicely applied where it needs to go the next step is to fix it with a dilute glue mixture of some kind. Again, the issue of what to use comes up, so guess what, more experiments!

But that is the subject for the next post.

Here is the final result.

Installing switch machines in staging

I have been working on the layout while we are self-isolating at home. The staging track yard ladder switches are made by Peco and have an internal over-centre spring to keep the points aligned. When I installed all of them way back when, I decided to just go with the intrinsic power routing that the switches provide, and that has worked well. However, I didn’t provide enough separate feeders to sections of the yard ladders which resulted in one needing to align switches way beyond were you are in order to get power. This has proven to be a continuing problem, especially for guest operators. 

I decided after VanRail to fix this problem, and after considering the overall situation where the power routing is dependant on the points, I decided to retrofit the switches with my usual powered frog solution using microswitches for reliability. This meant that all of the track switches would have to be lifted in order to drill the necessary holes for the point throw wires and to reconfigure their electrical connections, but in the end they will all be fully powered and operate exactly the same as the others around the layout. Brian helped lift the track a while back, but I never got around to installing anything until this week.

The first step was to prepare the toggle switches for the main throw mechanism, and then install them under the staging plywood.

Here are some of the switches after modification:

I now have all of the upper staging track switches back in place, and all but two of the switch machines installed under the plywood. My back will only let me do a few each day because there is very little room between the upper and lower staging decks. Working slow and steady, with constant checking has proven to get them installed and working correctly. They still need all of the microswitches for frog power routing, but that will come.

The switch machines for the lower staging yard are easier to install because I can get underneath the layout, but re-installing the track switches was a pain. With only 10” of separation between the levels, there is barely enough room for my head to be able to see to reconnect the rails and replace the track nails. What fun!

Relaxing role matching to cars during restaging

After a lot of thought and a bunch of playing around with the code and running many tests, I have come to the conclusion that trying to have a prioritized order to the car attributes will not work. The thought was that if we could figure out the right order from most important to least, then we could start to relax the matching specifications by first ignoring the least important one, and so on with increasing importance. This would help to “force” a close-enough match during restaging.

The main problem with this idea is that there is really no intrinsic relative importance to these attributes, so that we could ignore the attributes in a fixed sequence of increasing order of importance. Such an ordering does not exist in general, because what may be safely ignored in one situation might not be the same in another. For example, is the car owner more or less important than its length? I think the correct answer is “it depends…” We may have roles that must have CPR cars because there is a contract to supply them but they don’t care about the length, and we might have other roles that must have a certain car length to fit at a loading dock but don’t care who the owner is. Neither is always more important than the other. A better way is needed to indicate what is optional and what is not.

Here is what I came up with, at least for now. Taking car length as an example, currently the program will accept an input of blank or “*” to indicate “don’t care”, or a list of one or more specific items to indicate that any one of them is acceptable. For example, a role with a length specification of “*” means that any length car is acceptable. A specification of “40|50|60” means that a car length of 40, or 50, or 60 feet is acceptable, but nothing else.

I am proposing to extend this approach and allow for something like 40|50|*, which would mean either 40 or 50 feet to start, but if there is no match, then the length can be relaxed to “Any” for a subsequent attempt. Exactly how this would apply when there are multiple attributes that include an “*” is not clear to me yet, but I’m sure something will emerge. The issue is that if a role has say three attributes that all can be relaxed, which one (or more) do you try first? How many attempts do you try? What order do you relax them in? As a start to implement the basic idea of being able to make some attributes optional, I will just have it be all or nothing. The first pass should match exactly or not, and a second pass will simply ignore all of the “relaxable” attributes.  Maybe we should call them “Optional” attributes if they include an “*”?

The end result is that each role can include some specifications that are not optional and must be matched (they don’t include an “*”), and some that are optional and may be ignored in order to keep the cars rolling. I think this should provide enough flexibility, at least for now.

Car attribute priorities

Some thoughts on the relative importance of various car attributes that can be considered when restaging cars.

The issue came to light during a phone call I had with Colin about his waybills and how he selects them for a particular car. I need to try to duplicate the mental process he goes through when resetting the layout, if at all possible.

At the moment, I have identified the following attributes, or characteristics, of a car that can be used when selecting a new role for them in staging. The list now includes the reporting mark initials and number, plus the owner railroad. I have listed them in a suggested order of most important to least to be considered when matching a car to a role, along with one sample for each attribute. Note that not all attributes will apply to one specific car. Most obvious is a gallon capacity for a boxcar. But, they are all available to be used as appropriate. 

  • – Initials: CP
  • – Number: 123456
  • – Type: Box
  • – Length: 40
  • – Subtype: Insulated
  • – Class: Rough
  • – Door: 8 feet
  • – Capacity: 6000 gals
  • – Owner: CPR

The order of these has some significance when we consider what to do when there is no match. The current program can handle a sequence of either-or values so that more than one attribute value can be considered to be a match. For example, the car length spec can be shown as “40|50” which means either a 40 foot or 50 foot car is acceptable and will match the role.

But what happens if no roles match a car that needs to be restaged when using this approach? Colin said that he often has to “substitute” cars for waybills so that the car can remain on the layout and have a role to play. We obviously want this substitution to be as close a match as possible, and as an example we will readily substitute a 6 foot door for an 8 foot request, as that will be barely noticeable. However, substituting a tank car for a box car would not be a good idea! So obviously some of the different attributes have more importance than others, with the primary car type being very important.

My idea for the program is that if a match can’t be made, then a second pass will be made, this time ignoring one of the less important attributes. If still no match, then we repeat this process until we have gone as far with substitutions as we are willing, and give up and store the car. It is this ordering of importance that I am trying to figure out.

Role selection without sufficient suitable cars

My process to restage cars in staging by finding a role for each car relies on being able to find at least one suitable role for each car that is restaged. If no role can be found the car must be removed temporarily to storage. This approach works well when there are enough suitable roles to select from for a given car, but it breaks down when there are not. Too many cars may end up in storage when the entire point of the exercise is to run trains! A solution to keep cars moving is to substitute roles that are not a perfect match and carry on. Colin mentioned that he and Gary often have to do just that when using their traditional paper car card and waybill system. I’d like to capture some of the ideas behind how this “forced” matching is worked out and implement it in the program.

There are obvious things we can do in some cases. For example, if the particular car to be restaged has 6 foot doors but there are no roles asking for a 6 foot door, only 8 foot, then we may decide to send the car anyway, even though its door is narrower than what is requested and a real shipper would be angry because their forklift truck would not fit. The basic notion here is that there may be some parts of the car spec that can get ignored to help find a match, without causing too much grief. In this case we ignored the door attribute because it really doesn’t matter, nothing will actually be loaded. Maybe there is an order of things that we can ignore in the hope of finding a match so that the car does not have to get pulled off into storage. For example, if we don’t find a match to start, first ignore the door spec, if still no match, then ignore the car class, and so on until we run out of things we are willing to compromise on and the car has to be moved to storage. I suspect that people go through something like this in their minds when selecting paper waybills. I’d like to try to capture that in some simple rules that I can implement in the program.

Role “Legs”

In addition to the Car Specification, a role also defines where the car goes on the layout to fulfil the role. Each of these segments of the car’s journey are currently called a “Leg”. This probably needs a better name, but it will do for now.

A leg includes the type of car bill, the destination track, the load, and the wait time after arrival for loading or unloading, or whatever.

Typical types of car bills are “Empty Supply”, “Freight Waybill”, “Empty Return”, and so on. I call them all “waybills” even though that is not technically correct, but so be it.

Loads will normally be specified only for the freight leg of the journey, but it can be anything that makes sense to the user. A car could be used to deliver one load and back-haul a different load.

The notion of legs can easily be expanded beyond the typical waybills to include extra car moves such as for icing, cleaning, custom’s inspection, and so forth. There can be any number of legs in a role. Each leg also includes the wait time that a car must remain at its destination before being eligible to move again. Usually this is about a day, but could be as short as a couple of hours for icing, etc. Again, it depeneds on the desired effect.

To help visualize all of this, here are a couple of example roles, expressed in English:

Role One:
– Suitable for a Boxcar, 40 feet, Rough, with 8 foot doors, at CPR Staging.

– Empty Supply to Shipper A;
– Freight Shipment of Lumber to Receiver B;
– Empty Return to CPR Staging.

Role Two:
– Suitable for a Boxcar, any length, Clean, any width doors, at GN Staging.

– Freight Shipment of Appliances to Receiver C;
– Empty Return to GN Staging.

Roles also include a weighting, or a kind of priority, that is used to influence the random selection from all suitable roles. Roles with a higher weighting will have more chance to be selected, while roles that should only be picked on occasion should have much lower weights.

There are all sorts of ways that this concept could be improved going forward. I can see having some of the legs optional with some sort of probability, so as to reduce repetition and boredom. And, it might be possible to have roles that are continuous for cars in captive service that just go back and forth between two locations. Lots to think about.

Roles and car specifications

Ok, so now we have a bunch of attributes that describe a car, but how do we use this when restaging cars? The things that will make use of all of this car attribute stuff are called “Roles”. A Role includes basic shipment information, but it also contains the entire life-cycle of a car from staging, on to the layout, and eventually back to staging. Some of the phases of that life-cycle have the car being moved empty for supply or return, so there really is no shipment for those parts, hence the new name “Role”. Roles now replace the earlier primitive shipment model that made too many assumptions and caused a lot of grief.

Every car in staging that is about to return on to the layout requires a role that governs all of the places that car will go. For every car being restaged, the program searches through all of the available roles to find those that are suitable for that car by considering all of its attributes. Roles contain a Car Specification that gets tested for a match to the car. A very simple example role might say that it wants a “Boxcar:40” and is silent on the other attributes, so they are considered as “don’t cares”, and only the Car Type and Nominal Length of the Car will be considered. In this case, every 40 foot box car waiting to be restaged would be a match.

This is all part of the process that we go through manually with paper Car Cards and Waybill systems during restaging, I just want to capture the essence of the process and automate it.

Roles usually specify a car type and a couple of the other attributes, but the process of matching cars to roles can get quite complex when we start to think about more subtle issues. What if a shipper can accept cars of different lengths, but not just any length, say 40 or 50 foot, but no longer. And how do we handle roles that apply only to specific individual cars and no others, even if they share the same attributes? A good example of this would be captive service between two industries. And of course there is the owner railroad, and reporting marks to consider. The combinations can grow to be quite complex in order to handle all of these special cases, but we still want the system to be easy to define for the much more common simple cases without becoming so complex that it is hard to understand.

This sounds like it is getting very complicated to set up the data, but please remember that all of these fields can be left blank or filled with just an asterisk (*) and they will not be considered during selection. Only a few of the fields will be routinely used, such as Car Type and Nominal Length. 

My solution is to use a series of “Specifications” that each contain a description of which car attributes are “acceptable” to the Role for that piece. The combination of all of these specs is referred to as the Car Specification. So, what is a specification? In simple terms it holds zero or more car attributes that can be matched to a specific car to see if they match or not. The whole notion of a “match” is non-trivial, as we must handle multiple acceptable values, an empty list that signifies that we don’t care about that particular car attribute, and cars that have empty attributes.

Some examples should help makes this clearer. Let’s consider a car’s nominal length. If an industry can accept only 40 foot cars due to loading dock spacing, that would be specified simply as “40”. If it can handle 40 or 50, but no other lengths, it would be specified as “40|50”, where the “|” (vertical bar) signifies “either”. A specification list can hold as many alternatives as needed. In this case, when the role is being considered for a particular car being restaged, it will be included as a possible candidate for any car with a length of 40 or 50 feet. Other actions will affect which role finally gets selected, but it first must be a candidate role that matches the car. The overall selection process does this matching for all non-empty specifications.

On the other hand, if we don’t care about the length of the car, for say a team track, then the specification becomes a simple asterisk, “*”, meaning “don’t care”, and the role will match any car length.

A more complete example would be for a Boxcar, 40 or 50 foot, Clean or High class, with 6 or 8 foot Doors, but we don’t care about a Subtype, or a Capacity. The car specification for this would be:


The complete specification will also include more don’t cares for the initials, number, and owner railroad, but these have not been added in yet.