The Geologically Improbable Railroad, Mountain Division

Scenery Upgrades

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I had installed much of the hardshell on the GIRR Mountain Division in preparation of scenery in the mid 1990's. However, not much happened on the bulk of the scenery until 2008 when the town actually got finished. What did happen was that all of the trackwork got installed, all the wiring done for cab control then was superseeded by DCC. All the rolling stock was acquired and updated with LGB couplers and metal wheels. All the locos got converted to DCC. Some of the stock got weathered. Broad expanses of white plaster hardshell remained untouched.

There were three problems with the scenery. The first is that I was never confident in my ability to build good looking scenery. The second was that I was really busy with other things for a long period of time and I just couldn't build up the motivation to do something that was hard for me. Third, much of the background scenery had poor access (due to poor planning) which made working on it even harder.

After I retired in late 2007 I managed to get back to work on the railroad. I figured that any scenery was better than white plaster. Further, scenery is something that could be updated by covering the older layer with new stuff as I got better at it. This turned out to be true. I could just take a whack at it, learn some new skills and redo the stuff that is less than acceptable.

The town was fairly easy. I had designed good access to that area from the front and back and it was mostly flat so it was easy to do. The areas outside to the town were a different story. I had literally built myself into a corner. While there was some access to some of the area, it wasn't good enough to do the necessary work so I stalled again.

Then I discovered that I could reach these areas if the scenery was built on lift out sections such that a frame could be built and fitted and then removed to where it could be worked on in comfort. I planned on five lift out sections on the "west" end of the layout (right and upper right on the layout diagrams). The most difficult one would be the one that encompasses the tunnel portals for the upper loop where is turns under the stairs at the very upper right of the layout diagrams. This area is high and deep with some access from the back. Another area was a little easier to get to and would require some sloping terrain. Another two will hold most building flats in sections between sidings and a wall. The last one will also be a flat, but it will have landscape painted on it.

Instead of attacking that hardest one first, I worked the method on an easier piece that still required physical terrain.

18 Oct 09

091018_girr_mtn_hillside_frame_in_place_7795.jpgThis is the area that I elected to work on first. There are rather hard features that cannot be moved. The concrete block wall that was built inside the original foundation and part of the original foundation is here. I assembled a frame from 3/4" x 3/4" clear pine square molding and drywall screws. I built it up a little at a time and kept fitting it until it all fit in place. Toward the back, it the really dark area, is where the concrete block retaining wall raised up one block worth. I had spray painted that whole area black so that it would fade away but it still needed to be textured a little closer in. The outer loop runs along that wall, through a dark colored foam tunnel portal and then turns along the next wall to run through the stairs. The frame reaches nearly to the portal.

The working area is constrained by a long reach and completed scenery in front. This includes the trolly tunnels, a stock corral, and some fruit trees planted into the middle of outer wye track. The working height is constrained by the shelf that holds the upper loop.

091018_girr_mtn_hillside_frame_webbed_7798.jpgThe frame was then removed and webbed with cardboard strips held on with staples and hot glue. The webbed frame was then put in place for a fit check and a photo.

091018_girr_mtn_hillside_frame_hardshelled_7799.jpgThe frame was then removed and placed on the basement floor for application of hardshell. The hardshell was made from Hydrocal gypsum cement (essentially pure plaster) and Rags brand heavy duty paper towels. I forgot to add more support for the paper towels with masking tape placed between the strips so that the paper towels sagged a bit between supports. This was fixed later by adding a layer of Structolite to level the surface. Structolite is a slow setting plaster mix that is much lighter by volume than Hydrocal, but not nearly as strong. It has much longer setting time in it's thick state so that it is easier to use to patch mistakes and it can also be carved before it sets fully hard. Hydrocal sets up in about five minutes and can be painted and textured in an hour. It is fully hard in 24 hours. For lightweight structures, it can be used at only one paper towel thickness and it will retain it's shape under it's own weight. For areas that get pressure applied, two overlapping towel thickness is required with perhaps an overcoat of another layer after the first layers have set up.

23 Oct 09

091023_girr_mtn_lift_out_in_place_7802.jpgAfter the Structolite had set up overnight, I test fitted it again and made the necessary changes to get it to fit right. At this point, the thing was about as heavy as I could allow it to get. I decided to forgo adding rock molds cast in more plaster to keep the weight down.

091023_girr_mtn_lift_out_with_texturing_and_trees_7803.jpgThe piece was then painted with a earth color latex house paint and then textured with sifted decomposed granite (two grades). The first layer of texture is applied right over the wet paint. Much of it will stick right to the paint. Years ago I had made up bags of the dyed sawdust by dying them with RIT fabric dye of various earth tone colors. Then the dyed graded sawdust was sprinkled over the dirt texture and sprayed with adhesive. I used to use an adhesive called matte medium but this stuff is expensive and hard to find. It is also overkill for this job. Quikrete Concrete Bonding Adhesive diluted 50/50 in water works just as well indoors. This stuff is $10/gal at Home Depot in the masonry department.

The trees are Bachmann HO scale trees. I didn't have the height available for taller ones. These HO trees come in boxes of 6 for about $6 a box if you look around. They were "planted" by removing the base from each tree, drilling a 1/8" hole in the hardshell and then squirting some hot glue in the hole. Then the tree was simply mashed into the hole.

091024_girr_mtn_hillside_liftout_completed_7805.jpgThe original hardshell between the track and the wall was similarly textured. Then the whole works was then lifted and placed into position on the layout. There is a visible overlap at the bottom, but that will be disguised later with some weeds or bushes. I only added trees to about half of the piece as the rest of it tends to fall into darkness anyway.

The little cabin is a very old Jigstones project. It happened to fit on the scenery. I also added the angry bear which I found in my figures box.

The unfinished end of the piece will be covered with another very small set piece. I didn't finish the end because I needed to be able to grab and hold the end frame member to be able to muscle the whole thing in place.

24 Oct 09

091003_girr_mtn_upper_framing_before_mod_7766.jpgThe next project was more difficult because it was harder to get to. Above and to the left of the previous liftout are two tunnel portals for a reversing loop on the upper level. While the layout was being originally built, I notched a header beam to allow clearance for the trains. I could get away with this because the header is a 4x10 beam that spans only 6 feet. It only supports an interior wall so it was way overkill. I could afford to remove 4".

I had set two Aristo foam tunnel portals in place and spray painted the area of the drywall that showed through the tunnel portals black. The Aristo portals were light and easy to work with. The one that goes here needed the portal opening trimmed to allow clearance as the track that goes through it is on an R1 curve.

I also modified the support for the upper loop. The piece of 1x2 that is painted blue on the end has been moved to be less obtrusive.

091018_girr_mtn_upper_frame_in_place_7797.jpgThen a simple frame of the square molding was made to fit within the "access" opening. This opening was actually useful as I could reach through it from behind to set the portals in place, but I planned to change that anyway. The uprights on the frame are there to hold a piece of door skin plywood that all the scenery in that area will attach to.

091024_girr_mtn_upper_loop_tunnel_portion_liftout_7806.jpgDoor skin is a three ply 1/8" plywood, usually with one good side, that is pretty light and fairly stiff. It usually comes in 3' x 7' sheets for less than $10. I cut the sheet to fit and then marked where the portals were and cut clearances for them. This piece was fitted and trimmed until everything fit. Eventually, I added some diagonal supports from the door skin sheet to the frame below to stiffen up the whole assembly.

091024_girr_mtn_upper_loop_tunnel_liftout_in_place_7809.jpgThe tunnel portals were then glued to the doorskin and fitted in place. Clearance tests revealed the need to trim the left one a little more so that was done. The whole assembly indexes nicely so that I won't have to worry about the tight clearances anymore.

091024_girr_mtn_upper_tunnel_frame_webbed_7810.jpgThen a webbing of cardboard strips and masking tape was added to the frame to support the hardshell. The portals were completely masked in blue painter's tape.

091025_girr_mtn_upper_loop_hardshell_fitted_7811.jpgThe tape ws necessary due to the nature of wet plaster getting everywhere. After the plaster had set for about an hour, another test fit was done and some more adjustments were made to the Homosote roadbed at the left portal. I had added a strip of cardboard around the end and I knew it was not going to fit without some more adjustment.

To place the assembly in this position, I need to grab it by the left tunnel portal an the furthest extension of the frame and then lift it up to the track on the upper level. I have to stand on a step stool to get it that far. Then I duck under the layout to get behind where I can reach the assembly from the back. I then lift it through the "access" hole that it sits in and nestle it into place. Getting it down is the reverse of that processes.

091025_girr_mtn_upper_loop_liftout_painted_and_textured_7812.jpgThe lift out was then taken down and textured with paint, decomposed granite and dyed sawdust. I stripped off the painter's tape as soon as I could so that it would not adhere too well to the portals. There were some flakes of that came off and that will require a little touch up with dirty black paint. The whole assembly was then left alone to allow the plaster to fully set up and to allow the paint and sprayed on glue to dry. Eventually, I will paint the rest of the backboard with more mountainside and some sky. I may also trim the left edge along the profile of edge of the mountain and then paint the wall behind it. I have good access to that area from the inside of a building block along the backside of the town.

19 Nov 09

091119_girr_mtn_upper_loop_tunnel_insert_7888.jpgI planted some trees on the liftout and put it in place so I could get it out of the middle of the floor. It still needs the backboard painted with some mountainsides, sky and maybe clouds. That will come later.

30 Jan 10

100130_girr_mtn_div_small_liftout_webbed_8276.jpgThere was a break in the work on the GIRR Mtn Div for Christmas and a cruise. In late January 2010 I got back to work. The end of the long insert show above looked pretty ugly. I needed another small liftout to transition from that one to the next, which will be a row of industrial building flats.

I built a frame about a square foot in size to fit. This is the view of the frame with the cardboard and masking tape webbing in place. I use masking tape to fill the gaps between the cardboard strips because it is much easier to apply than the cardboard and it is strong enough to support the plaster soaked paper towels until the plaster sets. The small spans between supports prevents the towels from sagging between the strips.

The three sections all lift out. The building flat comes out first, then the transition section, then I can get the initial section out.

100130_girr_mtn_div_small_liftout_working_on_seam_8277.jpgThis new section butts up against the previous section and there was a very visible gap with just the hardshell in place. I filled the gap in place with Sculptamold. Sculptamold is a mixture of plaster, some kind of fibers and probably clay. It is really goopy and depending on how it is mixed with water, can be sticky. It can be molded in place and it will retain it's shape. It can be carved easily for about an hour and sets fully hard in a day. It is light and quite strong because of all the fiber. It won't shatter like most plasters. It is also sort of expensive, at about $6 for a 5 lb bag.

It won't stick to masking tape so that I masked the end of the existing section and then pressed the Sculptamold into the gap, fashioning it flush against the masking tape. After 15 min or so, I pressed it in again to make sure that there was no gap left. After an hour, I removed the new section and the Sculptamold released from the tape. After I removed the tape and put the piece back, the gap is hardly visible. Once painted, the gap will almost fade away. Some vegetation placed at the gap will hide the rest. After this picture was taken, I also did this at the bottom where the piece hangs above the existing hardshell.

100131_girr_mtn_div_small_liftout_8279.jpgThis is the insert in place after it was painted, textured and trees and bushes added and the lower gap filled. The whole painting and texturing process took less than half an hour.

6 Feb 10

100206_girr_mtn_div_texturing_8283.jpgThe next weekend I was at the cabin again and I did some more stuff. First, I "fixed" the gap along the lower end of the long liftout section, now it look less obvious. I discovered an interference issue with the Shay and the liftouts so they came out again to get the offending spot ground off and repainted. Then I mounted the doorskin backing sheet to it's frame and fitted it to the small section. I have just enough PV sheet material to make the 70" long row of building flats that will go along the siding. They will be the back sides of industrial and warehouse buildings, some place to load and unload freight.

But before I started assembly of the flats, I painted and textured the whole area in front of them all the way down to the front of the layout. Next to the tunnel opening, I added a bunch of rock molds to a nearly vertical surface and then I ballasted all four tracks that run through that section. That area had not received any attention in 15 years. I did check and relevel the track before ballasting it.

25 Mar 10

100325_girr_mtn_div_building_flats_finished_8319.jpgIt took me about 6 weeks of calendar time (3 weekends) to turn the flat expanse of doorskin in the last photo into a row of building "flats." They aren't exactly flat because there is a loading dock built out from the flats. This area is supposed to represent the back of four businesses and their loading docks. All that is left to do is to make up some signage and to paint the roughly foot square area on the left as some sort of backdrop. The flats are primarily painted PV sheet with 1/8" doorskin as a backing material. The two windows on the 2nd floor are set up to be illuminated, but no lighting has been installed in any buildings on the GIRR Mtn Div yet.

24 Apr 10

100424_girr_mtn_div_upper_backdrop_panel_8587.jpgThis weekend I had planned a simple project which essentially took all weekend. I installed a piece of doorskin to form a backdrop behind part of the upper loop. Like the other backdrop pieces I have been building, this one is removable with some effort. It hangs on some pieces of 1 x 1 molding that I glued to a part of the original foundation for the house. It just fits during installation if I twist and contort it just right. However, the plan is that it will come out just one more time to be painted and then go back in place for the duration.

I am going to work my way around the wall behind the upper and outer loops with similar structures that will eventually be painted once I figure out how to paint a acceptable background scene.

28 May 10

100528_girr_mtn_div_bare_backdrops_8631.jpgI put the second piece of doorskin on the wall behind the upper loop. It doesn't look like much but at least it hides the gas pipe. I have to get more doorskin to do the next wall.

June 15, 2010

100625_girr_mtn_div_north_back_drop_panels_8694.jpgTwo more sheets of doorskin provided the materials for the last of the removable backdrop panels. There are four panels on the upper level, three on the lower level. The gap between the tops of the lower panels and the upper benchwork will be filled with a long sheet of roofing paper painted sky blue. It will be attached to the bottom of the upper benchwork and curve against the wall behind the backdrop panels. I plan to trim the upper edge of the panels to follow the distant mountain range that I intent to paint on the panels to disguise the upper edge of the panels.

July 17, 2010

100717_girr_mtn_div_view_block_8856.jpgThe area behind the stock pen has been painted black for awhile to hide the track back there. However, I finally installed a physical view block, painted black, to fully block the view of the "hidden" track that goes along the wall and out through the stairs. The top edge of the view block, a sheet of doorskin, can barely be seen above the stock car. The piece is removable and may eventually get painted with a backdrop scene, but for the foreseeable future, this is the way it will be.

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© 2009-2010 George Schreyer
Created 25 Oct 09
Last Updated July 17, 2010