The State of the Layout Report

My work schedule has been a bit….different these past few weeks. But even with longer days, and odd shifts, I have still managed to start a few projects on my model railroad. There has been a road to be paved, trees to plant…and more trees yet to plant. And did I mention I am needing more trees! I vastly underestimated how many trees a small layout needs.

Once the scenery is complete, I need to get around to scratch-building the main station. I plan to have it be a focal point of the layout, with fully detailed interior, etc. After that, more detailing projects, and detailing my motive power fleet for modeling a freelanced Vermont subdivision of the B&M and CNR during the 60’s/ CR/CN during the 80’s. Plus other buildings to scratch build, and details, and the river to be poured….so in other words, plenty of blog posts waiting to be created and written, and photographed! (gimme a second, I am out of breath….)

What follows is a sort of picture report of those projects as well as the existing state of my layout as a whole, highlighting where it is at now, and projects completed. (ish)




The finally painted tunnel portal….yeah, I kinda procrastinated on it for a while, and finally just painted it.



Qui-gon Jinn on a walk through the woods…


















The newly paved asphalt road- actually tile grout, painted and weathered. Those Vermont winters are rough on these roads…


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A look up the mountain… still pretty sparse, even after the 30+ trees up there.


These are cheap Christmas village trees with the snow cut off the branches, and stuck along the back of the mountain ridge to help give an illusion of distance. These are definitely background trees, but are the right price for the right job.




Looking down the mountain….eventually a spring will be flowing here…






The evening “mock up” passenger train makes a stop at the mock up station (cardboard and printer paper and tape is all there is to this structure–just a placeholder for now).


Now,I need to get back to more projects! As always, please subscribe!


Tea Time! A Brief Manifesto on the Benefits of Tea, or, Idea#3 (MR)

I realize that in a lot of ways, I am different from the majority of my contemporaries. Most people in my generation, or in those directly before mine have iPhones or iPads  in one hand, and a cup of coffee in  the other.  We are a nation addicted to our coffee and to our electronic devices.

As for me? I usually have a book in one hand and a mug of tea in the other. Or, I am playing a board game, with a mug of tea. Or working on a model railroad project, with a mug of tea in hand. And yes, I do mean “mug”. As in, big, German mug typically used for….other beverages, (which I do not use it for). I certainly don’t use a sissy cup for my tea, thank you very much!


I guess, really, at least in this aspect, I am not too abnormal as there are plenty of people who like to drink tea. Tea does have some good effects on the body, and it tastes good. There is nothing quite like a warm, creamy spiced chai, or a refreshing, slightly sweet, peppermint tea, or even the warm and bright flavors of an orange spice tea.

(Coffee just never has been my thing. By the time I get enough cream and sugar in my cup to make it palatable, it hardly counts as coffee, but maybe a coffee flavored  sweet dairy drink! )

So why this fascination about tea? Or more specifically, why devote a post to it?

Simply, because tea has two great benefits: It is a great drink, and it yields useful modeling material for my railroad. Now, I will not delve in depth in the first point beyond what I have already written because more than likely, you didn’t come here to be convinced of the joys of tea-drinking.

What about the second point, that it yields useful material? This is a tip I have really just recently discovered anew, thanks to surfing the MRH blogs and forums.

When you finish brewing your tea, don’t throw away that tea bag! While it is still wet, snip the top off the bag, and spread the tea leaves out on newspaper to dry. Set aside the tea bag to dry as well. (assuming you have a paper tea bag)


The results of your frugal craftiness? Scenery materials and canvas tarps!

The dried tea leaves can be used in a couple different ways. They can be used as ground cover, but I think they would also be better suited to simulating leaves. Instead of dunking tree armatures in ground foam, dunk it in dried tea leaves, to give it more of a leafy texture.  Sprinkle it on top of bushes, or, paint some white glue up a wall, cover it with the tea leaves, shake it off, and you have an ivy vine!



Just another ivy covered wall. The surrounding scenery is still in progress

Now, all tea leaves are not equal here. Green and Mint/Peppermint/Spearmint leaves are green in color, and so are best suited for the methods described above. Black tea leaves could be good for a late fall tree holding onto a the last few of its brown leaves. My preferred method is to take the black tea leaves, blend them with a little bit of orange and yellow ground cover, and then shake this mixture liberally on the areas around the forests and trees on the layout. This nicely simulates the fall ground covered with fallen leaves.




As for herbal or fruity teas? Dry them out, and see if the resulting shades of leaves are useful or not. Not every tea is equal in its usefulness. If you dried some out, and don’t like the texture or color, just throw them out! Nothing lost save for a few minutes of your time.

The tea bags can be used as a canvas tarps. Cut them into scale sized squares, soak it with diluted white glue and drape it in place. After it drys, you can leave the color as it is or, paint another color on the tarp. Highlight the texture with a black wash, and then dry brush it gently with an off white paint. Voila! now your inhabitants of the railroad can keep their equipment covered and dry in inclement weather!


Tea really is a wonderful drink. It relaxes and satisfies. And, when that cup of tea is gone, you have some useful, cheap materials to work with to enhance your Model Railroad! Sounds like a win-win to me. Now, if you excuse me, I am going to make myself another cup of tea!



Idea #2 In Search of Cardstock (MR,BG)

DSCF3405Crafting is, for me at least, a relaxing, unwinding activity. Whether making a PnP game, or crafting a station for my layout, or making a retaining wall for a bridge, it is a great way to relax, relieve stress, and enjoy that feeling of accomplishment.

But to be able to craft, you need materials. After all, that house you want isn’t going to come just out of thin air! So, how do you get those materials, and how can you do so cheaply (or even for free)?

When it comes to making board games, or making structures for a model railroad, having good cardstock on hand is helpful. It is one of those basic materials (at least for me) in my crafting supply. You can buy sheets of poster board, or printable cardstock paper to get what you need, but why do that when there are other ways to get the materials you need?

To clarify terminology, when I refer to cardstock (here in the US) I refer to a sheet of cardboard that is solid, and not corrugated. The cardboard that is used on the back of legal pads of paper are a good example. I realize in other parts of the world, especially Europe, you might have different names for such stuff, “Chitboard” being one such term I have heard of.

Now, how does one find such cardstock, and how do you use it? This is the focus of my thoughts here. First, let’s run through some frugal sources of this versatile crafting material:

Cereal Boxes. (And other “food” boxes)



DSCF3409 This is my favorite source for crafting material right now. Breakfast is something most always have on hand, especially if you are like me and have a toddler in the house! (Cheerios are to toddlers what Cheese puffs are to adults.) If you are like 97% of those who consume cereal, you just throw out the box (or recycle) when you finish the contents.

But it is better to up-cycle this material. I have found that the cardstock in these boxes to be very usable (the Cheerios boxes get high marks- they are thicker than other boxes, and bigger.) I prefer them for making nice, thinner tiles for games (like Pay Dirt. A review will be coming soonish)DSCF3243

Legal Pad backs.  These tend to be thick- they are great for player boards or extra thick chits or tiles for a game, like I did for Dune Express:DSCF3411


Shirt cardboard: With some dress shirts (or in my case, my work shirts), the shirt comes pinned or clipped to a sheet of thin cardstock. Typically it has a white, glossy finish on one side. I really like to use this for making thick cards, like for the Empire Engine. The smooth white back nicely complements the card’s appearance.DSCF3173

I have also painted the white side of the cardboard, and scribed it to give the look of concrete. I used this technique for the inside of the bridge I am finishing.




These cardstock materials are handy for model railroad projects. They can be used as bracing for an interior of a scratchbuilt structure (as I did with this house). DSCF3281

They can also be used to make textured sheets thicker for walls. The bridge scene on my railroad is cereal cardboard with the textured sheet layer on top. It makes it sturdy and thick enough to be believable.

This cardboard is also good for making the cores of many models. I am planning to scratchbuild some passenger cars in the future, and I believe having a cardstock core should be easy enough to do, that I can layer detail on top of it.

Also, with a steady hand and a good knife, cardstock can be carefully scribed to look like wood siding. This is a skill I am working on mastering, but it sure beats buying stripwood or textured wood sheets. With extra care and attention to detail, I could imagine you could carve/cut brick or dressed stone texture into a sheet of cardstock as well with reasonable results.

It very well may be that you may argue that you can’t get great detail from cardboard as a building material, that styrene is the best choice, or better yet, buy your own stripwood. There is merit to this. I would hope that something you buy be a little better than something I scrounged. But, my point is this: In most cases, you can get a very reasonably detailed, good looking building out of cardstock for a fraction of the price. (Or, if you do use those textured sheets, like I do (they were a gift), cardstock is a good brace and add some more body to the sheet. )


If you look at the great layouts of yesteryear (think John Allen, etc.), many of their great buildings were done with cardstock or similar materials, with great result. Granted they did not have the same selection of products as we do now. But what they did do with what they had is inspiring to us making do will up-cycled materials.


So when you finish that box of cereal, don’t throw it out! You next game waiting to be made, or the materials for a great little station could be in your hands.

Idea #1- Find the Free Stuff! (MR, BG)

This one probably goes without saying, but allow me to elaborate. When word gets out that you like a particular hobby, well meaning people who have a desire to deep clean, sort , yard sale, or trash their belongings  will often find out. I have had this happen numerous times over the years.

They may hear that you like model railroading and so a conversation might go like this- “Would you be interested in Jimmy’s toy train stuff? He has out grown it, and I would hate to just throw it away or yardsale it”.


Typically, this is your run of the mill train set quality stuff- old TYCO and Life-Like cars, brass track, transformers from the dinosaur era, and assorted people and details. Not the kind of quality products you see in MR these days for sure. Even in the 70’s and 80’s it was of questionable and somewhat dubious quality, but now? I think I will pass. Thanks for the thought though.

Hold up! Wait a minute! Put a little love…. oh wait, never mind. (I never was a fan of Family Force 5 but it you are, enjoy that) Anyways, before you turn away from that quality plastic “junk” from yesteryear, why not take it home and sort through it a little later. Sure, those boxcar’s molded on detail look clunky, but with a little work and fresh paint, or just some careful weathering, you have a decent looking car, that while it may not match the individual quality of a boxcar from Branchline Trains or something like that, it does the job nicely.

The two boxcars closest are both scavenged from cheap train sets. With some weathering, they look pretty decent. They may not hold up on close scrutiny but in a passing train, it doesn't matter.

The two boxcars closest are both scavenged from cheap train sets. With some weathering, they look pretty decent. They may not hold up on close scrutiny but in a passing train, it doesn’t matter.


(Like the article I shared in my recent post) Let’s be honest with ourselves. Our goal is to capture the feel of railroading in minature, so we will be running trains, not examining each boxcar very carefully with a magnifying glass.

Or, you could take a sharp knife, carve off the clunky molded on ladders, remove the trucks, and give it a dull coat of paint, and plant it in your rail yard- you get a nice shed at zero cost. Much more economical than paying $9-$11 for a lower quality (by today’s standards) boxcar to use as a shed.


And it doesn’t stop there. I have a drawer full of these “junk” train details and cars. If nothing else, you can salvage some of the items for detail parts for a scratch-building project. Some clunky plastic buildings can be saved for window castings and doors, and if the wall details are not too bad, it could be a good base for a building project. It can be amazing what a little paint, some careful weathering and drybrushing can do to a model.

A Cheap Bachmann train set building with new paint, a new roof of construction paper shingles, and cinder-block loading dock made from an old kit.

A Cheap Bachmann train set building with new paint, a new roof of construction paper shingles, and cinder-block loading dock made from an old kit.

Granted, not everything is worth saving. Those ancient DC transformers are really not worth saving (unless you need a power pack for your railroad) save for maybe using to power “accessories” like lights or something. That brass track with the massive ties is probably not worth holding onto either for using as track. However, the rails could be chopped up and stacked in a rail yard somewhere for details. The same with the ties as well. A little trimming with a hobby knife, and some paint, and you can add a realistic detail.

This does take work and ingenuity on our part. If you have the cash to spend, you might justifiably choose not to root through the relics of yesteryear for some salvageable details when you could buy nicer ones with much less effort. But, for me, it is more enjoyable to spend my time this way, and keep my cash in savings. (And my wife appreciates it too)

Now what about board games? Those same, well meaning people might hear that you are into board games, and so a conversation might go like this- “You like board games? My kids played them for years. Would you like to have their old games? They had all the favorites:  Clue, Yahtzee, Sorry!, Monopoly, Risk, etc. I would hate to see them collect dust in my closet”

The typical gamer will likely start to back away at the mention of “Clue”. By the time Monopoly is mentioned, he might be running for the nearest exit. The Euro games of today, these ain’t. Instead, these are the ultimate example of the “Ameri-trash” games frequently bashed on the board gaming forums. (For those who like these games, no offense is intended. They aren’t terrible games…..maybe. 😉 )

But hold on. Anyone who has been reading this blog has noticed that I really like to make PnP (Print and Play) games. Many of you are PnP’ers, but I would wager a good many are not. I would also wager that a good many of you are intrigued by the idea, but are held up on one issue- components. Where do you cheaply get the pawns and the dice and the counters and the money and the cubes for such projects?

Boards, dice, pawns. the remnants of an old game or two can be the makings of a new, better game

Boards, dice, pawns. the remnants of an old game or two can be the makings of a new, better game


That is where these “Ameri-trash” games can come in. Don’t save them for the game itself, but for the components. Those dice can be saved for another game, like maybe Infection Express. The money from Monopoly can be saved for other games like Pay Dirt.

The boards themselves can be papered over for another game board, or if you want nice tiles. It might seem sacriledgous to glue another game board or components onto a Clue board, and then cut out what you need. (I did this to make the unique board for Serica)

I wanted a folding board for Serica. An old Chess board sacrificed itself for a noble cause.

I wanted a folding board for Serica. An old Chess board sacrificed itself for a noble cause.


The board and chits for this little game were made from an old Monopoly-type game board

Note to self- have a strong, sharp cutting tool, or have lots of patience.

The boxes from these games can also be used- either for cardboard, or for boxes. With a little playing around on the computer, you can make images you can glue over top of an old box to use for a latest project.

Again, this does take some time and ingenuity, but these old tired games can be what you need to make a new board game with nice components. Between the re-used components and the effort you put into it, people might start asking- “Where did you buy that game? It looks really nice.” Or “I enjoyed playing Serica last night, but I couldn’t find it on Amazon. Where did you get it?”

For both hobbies, there are a two caveats.

1. Don’t save everything. While I would politely receive whatever I am given, I will later go through my “goodies” and determine what can be used and what can’t. Collect all the parts you either have a use for or have a project in mind you can use for it, and then junk the rest. Somethings aren’t worth the time. (Example- I went through my brother’s old toy train stuff. I found some useful things, but others were less useful- Ceramic Christmas village buildings and details, plastic toy train track, an old transformer.

2. Be realistic. If you are like most people, you do not have unlimited space. While it can be tempting to store tons of “Someday” use items like I have detailed, don’t take up a whole room with it. Realistically, you will not use all of that stuff. Really it comes down to the same idea from point 1. Save what you need, and pass along/pitch the rest.

This tip has literally saved me a lot of moolah, and has brought a lot of fun. For me, it is fun to re-purpose “junk” and give it new life. Not only that, it is frugally sustainable in its own way.

How about you? What junk have you saved and turned into something useful? Share your story in the comments below!

Crafting on the Cheap

If you are anything like me, you probably have a “bookmarks” tab on your browser that is full of all sorts of interesting links that you found interesting at some point in you browsing history. And, I would also assume that once you bookmarked it, you kind of forgot it, and so, like me, have a huge bookmark folder filled with all sorts of links and various tidbits of useful information (or not)

As I was working on some writing this morning for lessons plans, I found myself scrolling through my bookmarks, looking for useful information for my study. While I didn’t find much there, I did stumble upon one link in particular that, while completely unrelated (Orthodox theology and model trains usually don’t belong in the same sentence), was inspiring (or should I say, re-inspiring) enough that I thought it merited being shared and commented upon.  (click here)

This article really encapsulated some of my philosophy when it comes to hobbies, particularly model railroading. You can get great results from a little bit of time and ingenuity, as DKRickman did in his article.

I discovered this many times with my own layout. In my mind, it isn’t worth spending lots of money on something, when a cheap crafty alternative can do the same thing. Not only is it cheap, but it is more fun, as you craft it.

DSCF3352 DSCF3349


These two high-rail trucks are just a few examples of my own. I wanted some railroad trucks for the layout, but didn’t want to pay $10-$20 for each one. granted,t hey would be a little nicer than these, but these probably cost $1 each, plus time and scrap parts. While the white one is not fully complete, I am very happy with the results.

And that leads me to my conclusion: while this isn’t for everyone, I have found that taking time to cheaply craft something is more rewarding. You get the tangible result, and you get the intangible, but great, feeling of accomplishment, of crafting something yourself. That “No, I didn’t just pull this out of a box- I made it myself” feeling. That is a feeling money can not buy.

Now if you excuse me, I have some lessons to prepare! 😉 Time to get back on track.



The bridge to somewhere…

Let’s face it: bridges are pretty cool. If nothing else they are a testament to our ingenuity to over come gravity, and use the laws of physics in our favor. Not only that, they also can be quite dramatic, which is probably why 99.1% of model railroads have at least one. (did you know that 69.5% of statistics are made up on the spot?)

My little layout is no exception to this phenomenon. I managed, in my small space, to fit two of them in! However, up until this point neither bridge existed. The tracks simple suspended themselves in mid air across the gap. Not the most realistic, I know.

Finally, the time has come, for one bridge at least, to support the track. It is still in progress, but you can see from the photos the general shape and structure of the bridge. It is broken into two parts. The stone/mason part, which is a part of the retaining wall, and then plate girder for the rest. Nothing has been glued in place yet. There are a few more sections to complete, then everything will be painted and weathered, and then glued into place.









Some thoughts on why I craft.

Admit it. We all love to have things quick and easy. I realize this has been an oft discussed phenomenon, this American (and Western) fetish for instant gratification. But, it is still quite prevalent in our lives. I don’t intend to rehash the same cliched generalizations about this fetish (fast food,microwaves, etc, etc, etc). And while many folks no doubt have good reason to engage in this, I would like to make a case for why I choose to take my time.

In life, the benefits are endless to slowing down, enjoying life as it comes, spending real, quality time with your family and with your Creator, not these little 5 min sound bites that are popular. I would point out (perhaps more in a future post here or my other blog) that we are too busy for the best things in life, or we spend it unwisely. We have these fast conveniences to save time, but we don’t slow down. Our time spent shows our priorities, and when all we do is rush around, leaving precious little time for family, rest, hobbies, and the more simple things in life, I would argue that the quality of our life suffers. So before we even can take time to craft, or to rest, or family time, first we need to slow down.

Once we have slowed things down, then a new world of possibilities open up. For example, my wife and I limit how much outside activities we are involved so we can enjoy a simpler, quieter life together and with our little family. It gives us time to focus on what matters, and to spend some extra time working on things we like, like hobbies. So this is where I am coming from, and I would suggest that to better appreciate your hobbies, you will need to slow things down in your own life before you can proceed. Perhaps you have already, and you have ample time. Great!

With that established then, let get to crafting. To be sure, when it comes to models or to games, this have it now mentality prevails, especially in games (which is not a bad thing since it is more akin receiving a book then a model). But there are those who choose to take their time. For me, I print and play my games. It is much more satisfying to build a game from scratch and then bring it to the table.

It is probably because I am just a crafty kind of guy. I realize not all people are. To be sure, the vast majority of gamers probably do not PnP or have the desire to do so. But there is a growing number of us who are discovering the joys of making a game ourselves, and a growing number of designers who are enjoying a chance to let others play with their idea by freely releasing the files. And, like any crafty activity, you can get as involved as you want. You could simply just use cardstock paper and cut everything out and voila! you have a game. Or, you could labor over the creation of it, tweaking the digital files before you print, printing on photo paper, or label paper, mounting on cardboard or card stock, laminating cards, etc.

My most recent game project was a copy of Pay Dirt. For this project, I went all out.  I got some square dowel rods and a round dowel rod, chopped them to size, sanded them, and then dunked them in a wash of paint to get the custom pieces I wanted for the game.

The raw materials

The raw materials

Cut and ready for a swipe of sand paper

Cut and ready for a swipe of sand paper


A finished cube

A finished cube

Once the cubes were made, I printed out the files. The files for the player boards, tiles, and chits I printed on matte photo paper and mounted on cardstock reclaimed from cereal boxes. (Cheerios boxes are the best- they are a little thicker- we always have plenty of those with a toddler in the house!)


The cards were printed on lightweight high resolution paper, and then laminated. Once everything was mounted and laminated, it was just a matter of cutting everything out. You can see the finished results:





For me, this process is very rewarding and refreshing. Maybe it is just the creator in me, but it is fun to mount the cardstock, cut it out carefully, and then admire and play your finished results. Maybe that is part of why it is fun- you craft something that you will actually use!

As for my other hobby, model railroading, the same holds true: crafting is a more meaningful activity. Especially in this hobby, it is easy to just buy kits or ready made buildings, details, cars, etc and just plunk them down. It is certainly a time saver, but you pay for it in cost. And, more times than not, you end up with a layout that looks generic. There is little originality if your main street looks like 80% of the other main streets on other model railroads.

That is why I am, with the layout I am on currently, I am scratch building everything! To be sure, it will take time. But for me, it will be an enjoyable time, carefully cutting the cardstock, making siding, carefully measuring and planning out the size of the various buildings, etc. I intend to do it cheaply with just the materials I have on hand.

When I am finished, my layout will look and feel very unique. My buildings will be unique, and there will be a certain satisfaction in knowing I made that, from the ground up. No kit or pre-built buildings here!

Crafting is a enjoyable subset of these hobbies of mine, and I would argue a worthwhile one. It takes time, but I feel that it is rewarding to finish a project and say “I made that”. It might be, in a small way, this is a way we reflect God, in that He created everything, and declared “It is good”.

One of God's many works. Not even one of our best models can come close to capturing this!

One of God’s many works. Not even one of our best models can come close to capturing this!


In the same way, we  who are made in His image, also, I think find a certain satisfaction in making something, because He made us to be like His image. Now granted, these are my thoughts and not scripture, though I think that the creativity we have and the drive to build and create can be attributed to the One who created us.

In other words, crafting is a wholesome, refreshing activity. I encourage you to take some time to craft, and enjoy the benefits of it.