Modelling what might have been in southeast BC and northwest Wasington

White glue comparison

I always thought that all Poly Vinyl Acetate (PVA) “white” glues were equivalent. Here in Canada the most common brand is LePage “Multi-purpose white glue”, while in the USA it is probably Elmer’s “Glue-All”.

I have both and was interested in which might be better for gluing ballast and scenery materials. To see if there was any obvious difference, I poured a small amount of each onto a plastic lid and let them dry. After one day, I was surprised to see a very marked difference between the two glues. You can see it in the photo.

Both were peeled off of the lid and flexed. The LePage immediately snapped in two, while the Elmer’s simply bent. I left them for a few more days to see if the Elmer’s would dry out some more and become brittle, but after many days it is still very flexible.

Exactly how this will affect their use as a scenery glue is not clear to me, but I would think that a little flexibility for scenery would be a good thing, so I’ll keep using Elmer’s as long as I can get it.

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!

November 30th work session

Another great session on Saturday. The scenery around Curlew is looking great thanks to the guys.

November 23rd work session

More work on the 23rd. See photo captions for details. Progress is great.

November 16th work session

The gang continued on on a number of fronts, refer to the captions for details. Thanks guys!

Noxious fumes

Now that all of the new track at Carson and Curlew had been tested by VanRail and other operating sessions, it was time to paint it before we start on the scenery.

I have been using a spray paint made by Rust-Oleum called Specialty Camouflage – Earth Brown. It is very flat and covers well, and seems to stick to the plastic ties.

I clean the tops of the rails after it dries with a special tool I made from a simple piece of aluminum with one end sharpened with a file. The aluminum is softer than the rail, so it does not scratch it, but the paint peels right off with very little effort. The tool needs to be sharpened a few times, as the rail wears a groove in it. I found that if I tried to wipe the paint off while it was still wet, I would manage to hit the ties as well, messing up the nice finish. Also, by carefully using the tool, the tops of non-running rails such as guard rails can be left brown.

Rail cleaning tool.

I have not bothered to try to paint the rails a different colour, as I just don’t have the patience for that. I find that the dark brown colour of the paint seems to make the track just recede from view, and once it is ballasted, it looks fine to me.

Mainline track at Grand Forks after ballasting.

The only problem with this painting method is the fumes. You can’t really take the layout outside to paint it, so the room quickly fills with noxious fumes. I close the door to my workbench area which closes off both it and the layout room from the rest of the house, and I use a respirator when spraying. Afterwards, I run my paint booth exhaust in my workbench area for about 24 hours to clear the air. One window elsewhere in the house is left open a bit to let in fresh air, and it seems to travel through the heating ducts to the train room to replace the air that is being exhausted. This works well and we don’t smell the paint elsewhere in the house.

Curlew masked and painted.
Carson done as well.

While the spray paint works well, I really need to find a suitable acrylic alternative and learn to spray it before I need to paint future track additions.

Measure three times, cut twice

When “Measure Twice” is Not Enough

Fascia on the layout. It is a very important aspect that helps make a layout look finished, and it has to be good otherwise everyone notices. As one of the last construction steps before VanRail in September, the fascia around the corner with the Morning Star Mine was installed on Saturday with the help of my trusty Saturday gang. Everything was installed just fine, and it was left for me to drill out the three large holes for the switch control pushrods and guide cups. Due to the very tight space along that section of the layout with the track near the edge, there is no room for normal length pushrods. They are so short that there is no room for error and things have to line up well or it won’t work. So, I did a lot of careful measuring up, down, left, right, etc., etc., and made copious notes so that I could position the holes very accurately on the fascia, which is what I did. Or so I thought… I forgot to include the amount that the fascia sticks up above the plywood roadbed, so when I positioned the holes down from the top edge, they were in fact too high.

Oops, the push rods should line up with the centre of the holes.

Then, after remounting the fascia, and noticing my mistake and immediately knowing why, Suzy came along to inspect and tried to push the plastic control cups in and found that they hit the plywood. No problem, as the holes are too high, so that is to be expected, right? Well, it turns out that even if I had positioned them where I had so very carefully measured, it still would not have been right, as I had neglected to allow room between the cups and the switch mechanism attached to the bottom of the plywood. The track is so close to the fascia at that point that the cups have to be even lower than normal to clear the mechanisms.

Notice that the cups are hitting the switch mechanisms on the bottom of the plywood.

The solution was to install offset push rods that lower the rod so that the white cup can be below the switch mechanism and all will be well.

Now the cup can be lower and miss the switch mechanism.

So, even if I had “measured twice” and “cut once”, it still would have been wrong. I needed to measure “three times” and “cut once”. This is exactly what I did on the newly purchased second piece of fascia hardboard the next day. Tom was a huge help in coming over mid-week to help get it installed, and this time everything lined up correctly. We also decided that since we had a new piece of hardboard to play with that we would cut some significant undulations in the edge to add more scenic interest. So, in the end, it all worked out even better than had I done it “right” in the first place. Thanks Tom!