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Building plastic kits – some thoughts

Thought I’d do a bit of a more detailed post about building and finishing plastic kits and the thoughts behind it as I go along. As always other methods are available and no one has to follow every step slavishly. Just take from this what you want if it helps at all.  The intended victim in this case is a Parkside LMS (ex MR) 20 ton brake van, kit PC58.  Im not sure how long this kit has been in the Parkside range but it has the look and feel of one of the later kits however the instructions do refer to the Woodhead transfer sheets as a source of lettering and they vanished a long time ago now. More importantly and the reason to devote a little more than my usual ‘heres a bunch of pictures, hope you like them’ approach is this is the last original Parkside kit in my stash so it’s also the last kit I will build that I brought from Richard Hollingworth himself.

So armed with the kit, the instructions, a selection of glues and other rudimentary tools plus the all important prototype references I set to work. Generally parkside kits are as close to model railway lego as you can get.  They kind of fall together however don’t take this for granted and in this case I found that the floor was about 30thou too narrow.  This was evened up with a couple of bits of microstrip either side. The importance of a dry run to check the fit of all of the parts parts cant be overstated.

Another thing not to assume is that the kit is right or accurate. Again generally speaking the vast majority or Parkside kits are but theres a couple that have a few clangers. The vac’ braked 16ton mineral wagon with a 10ft chassis not 9ft and the LMS fruit can with the wrong shaped ends are the better known examples. It’s strange how the right chassis is in the range for the mineral wagon and the common fix for the fruit van is to use the ratio LMS van ends and roof.  As these are all under the Peco banner now you would think this would be an easy fix for them. Perhaps they don’t know?The glues I will be using. as theres no metal to metal joining required the soldering iron can stay turned off for this one. The main glue I will use is the Tamiya extra thin cement.

Building the body

The body assembled,  I drilled the holes for the handrails before putting it together, the instructions say to do this after but i find it easier this way.  Although not really a decision as such with this kit as the handrails aren’t moulded on this is usually the first point where you will start to make your own decisions.

Handrails – do models look better with separately fitted ones?  Yes provided you don’t mangle the body too much removing the moulded ones and the replacements are not all wobbly.  I use 0.35mm nickel silver wire and flat nosed tweezers to shape them.  You need to keep the bends crisp and the straight bits straight. If you mess up a bend don’t waste time trying to straighten the wire out as you wont. Just start again. Separately fitted handrails that are all out of shape against a gouged body will not look any better than the moulded ones you carved off. Whatever you do though if you do have messed up handrails and someone points it out don’t try to claim its because they were bashed about in real life as it’s obviously a bodge! I think this stems a lot from the late 90’s when people were fitting all manner of after market bits and dodgy etches to Lima diesels. The fact that a lot of these parts were worse than what people were carving off the original body seemed to pass people by as separate bits was what you did back then!

Decision 2 – the lamp irons.  Will they look better separately fitted?  Yep but theres another thing to consider, will I knock them off in layout use?  When people are new to finescale models (I don’t like that term but it serves a purpose here) theres a tendency to fit every tiny bit of detail that you can.  With experience of operating your stuff at exhibitions you will find that you tend to draw back from that to point where practicality takes over. Where that point ends up will naturally be different for each of us.

It helps a little to delve into how human beings work. When I was working as an illustrator we placed a lot of emphasis on learning to see. Although we have sight we are not really wired to properly look at things. We are designed to make quick judgements and move on, basically can I eat it or is it going to eat me? What we are good at though is spotting something wrong or out of place.  So a moulded lamp iron in this case will go unnoticed by most people. But one thats been knocked off wont. This pre-determined fascination with the out of place can cloud our judgement of many things.  We notice graffiti on a wall so we think it’s prevalent. We don’t notice the 100 other walls we walked past that didn’t have any. We notice the wagon in a train that looks like it should be in the scrap yard and ignore all those that don’t look like anything like that. This extends to our history too, especially our photographic history. Photographers like the rest of us will ignore the mundane as focus on the thing that catches their eye. If you look at pictures of New Street in 1987 you would believe pretty much every train had a class 50 on the front and there was one DMU a day, as for EMU’s you can forget those completely!

This next stage will be dictated by how the kit in manufactured and can in the right circumstances save time later. If the kit is moulded in all the same colour (and its not black) you can skip this bit. However if the body is one colour and the underframe is black you can safe a lot of painting later if you paint and finish the body before you move on to the underframe which is what I have done here.

The Underframe

A wagon of this size is border line for needing springing or compensation in my experience. On wagons that don’t need it one tip I’ve found that works is to slip a piece of thin paper between the axle and the bearing at one end only while putting it all together. The other end should have no slop but the width of the paper gives just enough movement of 1 axle to keep everything on the rails. A piece of glass to check that the wagon sits square on all 4 wheels at this stage is another must however. Another handy thing is the Brassmasters axle spacing jig that ensures the axles are parallel.  It doesn’t matter how nicely your wagon sits on the glass if its constantly trying to steer itself off the track!

This is the underframe with all the supplied bits in place (except the steps) Its up to you if you chose to stop here or not.

I went for ‘not’ and added the break linkages and safety loops. If you are going to do this drill the holes you will need in the brake shoe moulding before you fit them to the model, it’s nigh on impossible to do after. The safety loops are glued in to bits of 80thou microstrip that have a hole drilled through them.  This is my stop point as there’s more detail that you can add regarding the correct shaped linkages and operating gear behind each wheel.  It’s not something i can see on the layout unless I make a really determined effort to look for it.

Hang on a minute, what was all that rubbish about bits of paper and not compensating stuff then?  Well sometime you can kill 2 birds with just the single bit of garden aggrigate!  Of all the options I am on record as believing that rocking compensation is not the first or even second best option of the 3 we have. However the internal ones do handily provide more rolling resistance than pinpoint bearings and on a brake van and a layout with gradients thats not a bad thing.

Let’s talk about buffers. If your plastic kit has moulded plastic buffer heads, let’s not beat around the bush here, they will be crap! I have yet to see any that aren’t! Options for replacements come from Lanarkshire models, MJT, Wizard and Accurascale. As always check your prototype pictures as the ones on the wagon you are building might not be the ones the kit represents. This applies to axleboxes a lot of the time too.

In this case I opted to keep the moulded stocks and replace the heads with those from MJT, The housing was drilled out very carefully using a hand held pin chuck. Don’t be tempted to use a powered drill as the wall you are left with is very thin and even the slightest bit of heat from the drilling will melt it.  A 0.5mm hole was drilled through the centre of the buffer and through the bufferbeam to account for the tail of the buffer head.   You can chose to spring the buffer if you like. I don’t find it makes any real difference though.

Weight – I try to aim for 50 grams for a 2 axle wagon.  If you have the room inside then these self adhesive car wheel weights are ideal.  This brake van needed an extra 30 grams adding.

Next stage is the running trial. With any kind of van I do this before fitting the roof as once its on i don’t want to try and get back inside. The wagon is tested through all the pointwork and sidings and any derailments or unpleasant jolts or bumps are investigated and corrected. In this case I’m happy to report there were no problems.

The finished build, even at this stage you still need to constantly check your work. note the bit of white near to the closest handrail?  Something I’d not noticed until I looked at the photo. I used the Revell liquid polly shown earlier to fix the roof.  The reason is that the Tamiya stuff evaporates too quickly.  The Revell version is thicker, wont run and gives me a little longer to position the roof.


Im very much of the opinion that a restricted pallet is best for all sorts of modelling applications, You don’t want to go too mad! As discussed earlier unless you are going for the scrap yard look you kind of need your weathering to be one of those things thats there but its not really noticed.  An important point I feel is don’t expect one technique to give you all the effects you want and try to work with each technique rather than against it, Things are so much simpler if you do!

So stage 1 washes – to represent washed on dirt you need to wash on the dirt! I make the wash from a mix of Revell 89 and no 9.  If you are doing multiple wagons at once keep changing the mix and the paint to thinner ratio unless you want them all to look the same. Don’t be afraid to go in with neat paint as well to mix it all up a bit and work ‘wet in wet’. Ive done that here on a few planks and the roof. It doesn’t matter if it looks a mess at this stage as you will need to leave it for no longer than 24 hours and potentially clean it all off again with cotton buds and clean thinners. A big part of weathering is not about how you put stuff on but how you clean it off. Having said that I have found on many occasions, especially with planked vehicles, you can skip the cleaning stage and this was the case here.

Next stage is airbrushing.  For this I use AK interactive dark mud as it comes and a mix of black and Humbrol gummetal for greasy/ sooty deposits. Think about in the real world the direction that the atomised dirt hits the vehicle and try to emulate this. Track dirt from about 45 degrees below the model and roof dirt straight down. As aways refer to photos.  What you don’t want is a rally car look as if the model has been flinging itself around a Welsh forest for a week!

The last stage is best described as titivating (and its pretty hard to show the effect it has in pictures but i still think its worth doing).  I use the burnt umber gouache for small deposits of rust. It doesn’t want to sit on enamels all that well so will naturally give a rust like effect. This can be fiddled with with water or paper towels/ cotton buds until you are happy. Its worth noting that if you are doing a vehicle with a lot of rust it’s best to do the gouache stage before the washes.  Ak interactive also make sets of weathering pencils, including a set just for rust, which work well in combination with the gouache.

The lighter brown and gunmetal were used to dry brush areas of wear on the steps and the underframe respectively.  The grease is a wash that contains particles and is used neat around axleboxes and bits of the underframe that are greased in real life.

As I said its hard to see the difference this has in photos. The oval crop is before and the main picture after. While you have the gunmetal out you can pick up some of the thicker paint that always forms on the inside of the lid with a cotton bud and dab it on to the buffer faces to represent more grease.

And there you have it. All that work for a mundane wagon that will hopefully just blend into the scene and go about is business in a most unremarkable, unnoticed way!


The Bachmann Compound – part 1

I found a relatively cheap Bachmann Compound recently and thoughts have turned to what to do with it.

Lets start with a little disclaimer. Alan Gibson supplies a set of wheels to convert this loco to P4 and I would have every confidence that just swapping the wheels would get a p4 steam loco up and running pretty quickly. After all a 4-4-0 has got to be about the best case scenario you could really ask for. I didn’t try it myself but we’ve had a wheel swapped GWR Grange (I think) running on Moor Street for years now.

Being relative new to RTR steam locos, this is actually my first RTR tender loco I’ve had since i was a kid, there’s always 2 areas that stand out to me as looking a little weak on pretty much all RTR steam locos. No, not the wheels although big, in your face, wheels do perhaps yield the greatest benefit of swapping to p4 visually. The areas I am talking about are bogies and tenders. More specifically in the case of the latter, tender underframes. They just always seem so, for want of a better description, flat!

The bogie

So to the bogie. There was nothing about the supplied RTR one that i wanted to keep so its a straight swap with a Comet example. As supplied they can be built with central springing for side control but no springing on the axles. Setting some simple springs up however couldn’t be easier.

The loco chassis

To the loco. I decided I wanted to use some of the Comet chassis bits but not exactly as intended. So the first process was deciding what of the RTR offering I wanted to keep and what I wanted to replace.

I wanted to use the sideframes in a sort of Brassmasters easychas inspired way and keep the original Bachmann drive. Initially I thought the crosshead was just an RTR bodge but they do actually look like that. So that and the cylinders were keepers. I also liked the brake gear so that stayed.

The Comet chassis is not designed for this model and is too long. The wheelbase between the driving wheels and hence the coupling rods are also too long. Comet do specify this is the case on their website. The Bachmann frames are actually the right width at the front of the loco but narrow from the cylinders back to accommodate the 00 wheels. The cylinders look, from underneath that they might fit on little pegs coming down from the footplate. They don’t, they slot sideways into the chassis. Its best to pop them off and keep them safe.

I decided to split the chassis behind the forward step to loose some of its extra length. The front part being a relatively easy fit. The rear part needed some trial and error to cut away little sections to get it to fit. The Bachmann model is driven on the front driver ( it looks like the chassis was designed for gears but to both axles but it doesn’t have them), so the Comet chassis was carefully titivated so that the rear axles position matched. I wasn’t too worried about the front driver as I has decided to keep it rigid.

By leaving the RTR style bearings off the rear driving axle you get a little room for vertical movement. A Brassmasters sprung bearing was modified with a bit of tube (the Bachmann and hence Alan Gibson axles are an odd size). The frames were glued in place using 60 thou plasticard to space them out to something more prototypical. The springs are part of the RTR keeper plate so they are too to far back but I decided to leave them as is.

The brake gear needs a bit of modification to fit over the new frames and it was here that I hit a little unexpected snag. Bachmann use bigger wheels than scale. I wonder if this is because its a development of the national railway museum model which being an earlier example had bigger wheels? Anyway the effect of this is the brake gear sits too low and would likely hit the rails when crossing pointwork. The solution is to take a mm out of the top of the keeper plate so that everything moves up a little.

Valve gear

Lets be honest RTR valve gear is generally a bit weird. Its often both too big and to thin at the same time. The Bachmann coupling rods are about scale height (ignoring the bosses which are huge!!) but being only 1 piece of metal aren’t thick enough. So these were discarded and the Comet ones used in their place. Suitability shortened by 2mm.

The connecting rods as supplied are quite good though. Much more meaty and they feature the big square bosses that the Comet ones don’t, so hybrid valve gear it is then! The Bachmann crank pins are 2mm wide (really!) so a bit of tube was soldered in to make them fit the Gibson crank pins. While I was at it I made another 2 collars for the trailing driver a the coupling rods on a compound are outside of the connecting rods.

On to the tender

Body great but underframe – ugh!

Luckily Lanarkshire models do a replacement chassis kit for a Fowler tender. This was assembled as per the instructions. For the outer frames I was kindly supplied a spare etch by Brassmasters and mated this with some Comet springs and axleboxes. I decided to keep the Bachmann steps as they are moulded as part of the tender body.

As is often the case with this sort of stuff, the most pleasing view is the one you wont ever see!

Another ‘tweaks’ post

Bit of a random post this time but I have been revisiting a few things. Be warned though these are all really subtle and if I didn’t point them out I suspect no one would ever know.

Starting with the safety valves on my prairie. As supplied it was a pretty flat dish with 4 blobs to represent the valves. A bit of drilling and some wire gives something a little better.

I’ve also gone back (again) to my Dapol railcar for another little tweak.

As its not all that obvious I have fiddled with the bogies a little. Some 3x4mm triangles and some microstrip was used to change the sideframe shape to something more accurate. I also got a spare set of sideframes and cutting the springs and axle boxes of the new ones, filing down the old ones and sticking them over the top had given me more relief.

Sometimes its nice to look back at where we started to see how far we have come.

While i was in a railcar kinda mood this is my detailed Lima one. I haven’t done anything to it, it just tends to avoid the camera for some reason.

Austerity hides at the headshunt. Again no tweaks just a piccie.

Now this is properly subtle. I have revisited the layout with some Tamiya smoke and AK wet effects to see if I could increase the wet look a little. The smoke provides the darkening effect of the rain.

It a little easier to see on the light walls of the pub.

The thing is I know its darker because i knew what it was like before. In order to give fresh eyes something to compare it with I needed a few areas of contrast.

By the warehouse i can leave the area under the canopy dry to give the contrast I was looking for.

and at the other end the areas shaded from the rain by the bridges. Its important to make sure the rain falls in the same direction. So the buildings don’t have smoke applied to the sheltered walls. Its the area above where I feel the effect has come out best.

Getting the most from older models.

In September I will be doing a demo at Scaleforum entitled getting the most from older models. Regular readers will know I have a bit of a thing for starting with old models that many will have long ago consigned to the bin. To this end I thought id look at a couple of old building kits too. Namely Airfix.

The Airfix Signal box is based on the one at Oakham which is a Midland Railway type 2a box from the early 1900’s I liked the look of the platform mounted version at Kings Heath (which is a type 3a) so set to work

The kit as supplied is too wide. I used some etched windows from Phoenix models and reduced the ends to fit. I binned the roof and knocked up a new end platform from microstrip. I wanted to use this model to try out a few new (to me) painting ideas.

First step was to paint it in an aged wood colour. The wood effect is pretty easy and quick if you work more like a painter and less like a modeller

I use these 4 Revell enamel colours as they are nice and matt. They are numbers 47 (mouse grey), 88 (ochre brown) , 84 (leather brown) and 9 (anthracite grey). The actual colours aren’t that critical. I use a dunk and dip technique and work on a base of Halfords grey primer. I dunk the brush into the mouse grey and ochre brown and lightly dip the tip into the leather and anthracite. All at the same time so that the brush is loaded with layers of colours. Then is just a simple case of drawing the brush across the model and letting the colours mix themselves. You don’t want them to mix too well so try and do one stroke per plank and work in the direction of the wood. The trick is to let the brush do the random work for you and not to fight it too much. My end result was a smidge dark so when dry, i drybrushed more mouse grey lightly over the model.

This is what ended up with. I then gave it a couple of coats of matt varnish.

This is the bit that’s new to me. Ranger distress paints. The large scale guys have been using these for a while with good results but the method for smaller scales seems a bit different. The pain is intended to be dabbed on quite think and left so that it starts to crackle and flake on it own. For our scale i found it better to brush it on on 2 coats. This doesn’t do any ‘magic though so the next stage is with a fine sanding stick to give it a little help. Again working in the direction of the wood.

Here’s the result. Distressed but not weathered. Another coat of Matt varnish and then back to enamels, used this time as a thin wash. I added an interior from Ratio and a signaller from Modelu. The finished result can be seen below

The Dapol flying banana – part 2

As mentioned last time I planned to use a Brassmasters 7ft bogie for the none powered end of my GRW railcar. The Brassmasters bogie is longer overall than the Dapol one – you can see the adjusted one at the top of the picture. Here is the bogie in position with pick ups on the far side. The near side picks up through the bogie itself.   If all you want it a p4 railcar then you can stop here. I tested mine at this point and all seemed fine but its worth noting that the pickups  are wired the opposite way round at each end. The red wire at this end goes to the opposite rail at the other.   A bit odd!

Naturally I didn’t stop there. This is the interior without the body. That huge moulded lump has to go. The culprit is this huge motor. No idea why its this big, the thing only has to move itself and you can’t couple it to anything anyway!  The Mashima sitting on top is a 1020.The good news is the motor and its mounts simply unscrew from the underframe.  I mounted my 1020 on a  bit of 80thou plasticard and on the floor. By moving the motor back from its original position you can mount the flywheel lower too. A bit of 1.5mm ID/ 2mm OD tube meant I could use the original flywheel which contains the universal joint. The drive shaft was cut in half and lengthened with a bit of tube. There’s a small lip in its channel at the motor end that needed to be ground away. While I was hacking the chassis about I cut a hole to allow me to represent the engine. Spares from the Heljan class 128 underframe sprue did the job. Next, the interior and finishing.

One thing leads to another

On a couple of forums people asked for more details on the Lowmac compensation shown last time so…
This is the underside. It’s best to set everything up with normal bearings first so that the rise height is correct. Then a  simple case of adding a bit of scrap etch for the axle to rest on.Once happy you can replace the bearing with ones that have been filed into a slot. This means the ends of the axle can move up and down, it really is that simple! On the subject of track holding…This is the Chivers kit for the LMS fish van (diagram 2115) of course ive done plenty of 6 wheeled bogies before but never a 6 wheeled wagon.  Brassmasters do a clemenson chassis for 6 wheeled vehicles but as the fish van has stretcher bars I didn’t think it would work. To the right of the picture is a Bill Bedford pedestal suspension unit converted to inside bearings, the outer axles use normal suspension units. The plan is to join them all with wire so that the center axle can slide side to side.  Speaking of 6 wheeled vans and clemenson chassis…A black country icon, the Palethorpes sausage van.  this uses the ancient Hornby model (well 2 of them) and chivers sideframes.  You can see from the picture where the 2 vans have been cut up to correct the length of the van as supplied.  Note also the strange backwards brake lever.Where the fish van is quite open underneath these vans are not. They were fitted with onboard lighting and internal fans thus the dynamo and battery boxes. It’s all a bit cramped really!! Speaking of palethorpes…The 6 wheeled vans bigger brother. Surprisingly you only need 2 vans to do one of these too!  the underframe is from the comet kit.  And finally on the subject of bogie vans…the good old Lima GUV, fitted with new bogies and underframe details.

Kirtley finished (well nearly)

First up a short video of the inside motion doing its thing.

There’s still a bit of work to do on the Kirtley – add a crew and the weather sheet, some coal and the wet weather effect but its pretty much done. Below are a few pictures.

I have been doing a few wagons as an aside to the soldering iron. Another lowfit from Red Panda.  This one has a Parkside chassis and buffers from my supply. I don’t know who made them or what type they are but they matched some of the pictures on Paul Bartletts wagon site  Thanks to my friend Brendan for the lowfit transfers. The Dapol lowmac kit. Reworked with Lanarkshire models buffers, archers rivets and new axleboxes from the spares box. The brake lever is an etch and the ratchetey looking guide is from a piercing saw blade.  This wagon is really too long to be rigid and there’s not a lot of room for any sort of springing or compensation units so the solution here (which I remember from a P4 society digest sheet years ago) is to file the bearings into a slot and use a bit of scrap etch in the centre of the axle to allow it to rock.

DCC controlled Dinghams

I originally wrote about this several years ago but since the topic has come up again on a forum I’m going to take a little look back at my thoughts on couplings.

There are 2 schools of thought on the issue of coupling trains together. Something that looks like the real thing, or something that can work automatically. The downsides of these are that the real thing type can be fiddly (and the closer you get to dead scale the more fiddly it gets) and the often bemoaned ‘hand of god’ that seems to be wheeled out as a regular complaint by some forum go-ers. The automatic type doesn’t look like the real thing (unless you are doing some sort of buckeye type prototype) and many of them require fixed magnets and an odd ‘shuffle’ to be performed by the driver to uncouple.  How this shuffle looks any better than the hand of god I don’t really know and to my mind its better to credit your viewer with the ability to suspend their disbelief for a moment while you uncouple a vehicle than for said vehicle to look wrong all of the time!

Problem is with New Street I don’t have much choice. Loco’s will need to be changed and all that overhead along with a shopping centre means that a manual hook isn’t going be in any way practical!   So automatic it will have to be and as only certain rakes will need to be uncoupled some sort of DCC on board solution seemed the obvious answer

dingham-raisedProof of concept. The coupling of choice being the Dingham coupling which will couple to a Smiths hook (not automatically mind you), By fitting these to coaches that have gangways they can be hidden as much as possible and there’s no requirement for a weird coupling on the loco. As supplied the Dingham has a steel dropper that when passing over a magnet is pulled down to raise the loop. By fitting a magnet instead and using an opposing magnet the loop can be raised from inside the vehicle.

electro-dingham-1By salvaging an electro-magnet from a cheap relay and wiring it to a DCC decoder this process can be simply automated. with no power the loop sits in its normal position.

electro-dingham-2But when power is supplied via a decoder function the loop is raised and coupling/uncoupling can be done. It’s all quite simple really!


Dingham Autocoupler

Welcome to spring

If you listen to some forum ‘experts’ if you are going to model in P4 everything has to be compensated or sprung or it will all fall off and everyone will point at you and laugh! Of course the closest that these people get to regarding springs are the ones in their oh so comfy armchairs that they never seem to get out of.

The reality is somewhat different but before I go into that it’s probably best that I share my finding of how model railway vehicles run. Of the three options Sprung vehicles do run best, then compensated and finally rigid when it comes to trackholding. Visually though the order is a little different as while sprung still looks best, I find rigid vehicles look smoother than compensated ones where due to a single solid axle all the track imperfections are transmitted to the body.

It seems then that Compensation is perhaps outdated and I certainly wouldn’t bother with compensating a wagon these days. Leaving sprung and rigid as 2 viable options. Sprung being best but not always necessary. I have a theory that any form of flexible chassis is primarily there to compensate for us not building things square in the first place and when it comes to machine produced RTR wagons most of the time you can just pop some new wheels in and they will work as can be seen here –

So before we fix anything we should really see if it needs fixing at all, however some RTR is a bit more tricky and the prime culprit here is Lima with their underlength axles. So using a lima PGA as a victim here’s what to do.

First thing is P4 wheels just wont fit. However Lima did mold a boss on the back of the axle guards so one option is to carefully cut this away with a circular saw in a minidrill and deepen the axle holes with a special tool such as Ed’s tool. However Lima also modelled a lot of their wagons too high so in an attempt to kill 2 birds with one stone the original axleguards were removed completely.

lima-cutoutI tend to use the Bill Bedford springing units but if mounted to the floor they wont fix the ride height problem. The trick is to mount them to the top side of the floor not the bottom and cut holes for them to poke though. The angled shapes are there so that the wheel doesn’t hit the floor. This mounting to the wrong side of the chassis idea also works for Bachmann TTA’s too. brassmasters-jigYou shouldn’t expect springing to sort out sloppy workmanship because it wont. Getting the axles parallel in all 3 dimensions is still important and a handy tool to help with this is the Brassmasters axle spacing gauge as seen above.

BB-cambrian-modI always solder the bearing in to its carrier and file it down a bit for clearance. The original Lima suspension moulding was distorted to adjust the height so I decided to replace them with spares from a Cambrian SSA kit that I had. These are very thin, plastic mouldings, so a few strips of square 40 though strip were glued in place to act as spacers. It goes without saying – dont bung the springs up!


The finished (ish) chassis. The SSA kit also yields the rather heafty brake gear brackets too. Obviously the body needs work but that’s for another day.

How to model roads

This is an older article that you may have seen on some forums before however its something I am asked about quite often so i thought I’d reproduce it here.
First up the basic structure. I thought long and hard about the camber of the roads but in the end decided to do them flat. The reason is partly ease but also looking at large vehicles they sit level on their suspension and to me a model leaning over doesn’t look right.

The kerbstones are cut individually from 80thou square microstrip, the paving slabs are scribed onto plastic sheet. Don’t forget things like dropped kerbs.

pavementsbrunel st 1Birmingham had a lot of large kerbstones that were cut from stone, a lot have gone now to be reused in posh buildings. To model them I softened Evergreen strip with liquid poly before attacking it with sandpaper and a hammer. Once I have a suitably distressed strip this was cut into lengths and laid individually.

When ready spray everything with plasticote suede paint. This gives a texture to the surface. When dry spray everything black and then a light dusting of grey primer – you are aiming for a tarmac look to the paint – don’t worry about the pavements for the moment.


Using thinned enamels block in the pavements – you can see how some of the pavement is tarmac.


When dry paint the road with neat thinners and then paint ‘wear’ onto the road. I use browns and blacks for the area where wheels go or not. Pay attention to how dust collects where vehicles don’t go such as arround the pavements, the gravel you get can be represented with pepper at the end. Use the paint neat and using a large flat brush blend it into the wet thinners. You will see I have picked out some paving slabs with a lighter grey – For darker slabs the fastest way is to use grey markers.


Road markings are added using paint markers – I cut templates to help me keep them neat.

These will need a little more weathering to tone them down a little. Once dry spray everything with matt varnish

Its worth considering when your road is set as the time of the year affects the colouring – for example in the winter the roads look much whiter due to salt being spread on the road. In the autumn there are leaves in the guttering etc etc

Due to health and safety people are not asked to lift as large slabs as they were, modern paving slabs are much smaller than they were 20 years ago.

Not all roads are tarmac though, this is how I did concrete


First up paint the area to be concrete with PVA glue – allow it to dry for a bit. When it is dry enough to hold a shape use a nit comb (I had to buy one specially – honest!) to draw lines through the surface.


When set use the plasticote suede paint to give the texture – I needed my concrete browny grey but if you need it grey-grey overspray with primer. Once dry cut in panels with a scalpel and then weather as before. The black tar was added with a fineliner.
brunel st fin 2Since I wrote this an excellent book, Modelling Grassland and Landscape Detailing by Gordon Gravett has appeared which also deals with roads and especially older worn tarmac. Well worth getting a copy (ISBN 978 1 908763 06 8)

What’s wrong with this picture?

Given the recent appearance of some of my images in a recent magazine, which were a bit of an embarrassment if I am honest, it might seem strange that I want to touch on the subject of photography but never the less…

My first job was as an illustrator. Illustration is a very proactive thing to do, you have complete control over the end result. My second job was as a photo finisher. Photography is a very reactive thing to do as you have to make the best of what is in front of you. Finishing even more so as you have to make the best of what someone else thought was the best they could do. I am no photographer I can assure you but given that I have finished literally hundreds of thousands of images that are taken by professional photographers I do at least know the theory.

Owning an expensive camera will most likely make your pictures better but it will not make you a photographer, just as owning a pencil will not make you an illustrator but there are a few things that you can do that will help you when taking pictures of models. Photography of models kind of crosses the boundary of the 2 disciplines as you have control over the subject and the camera. Lets start with what not to do.


The above image has several areas that are open to improvement. It’s too saturated, and its over sharpened, it looks too Photoshopped. Also it has too much magenta in it, the wall is a grey/blue in reality not purple. The loco is framed too high and there is a horrible tangent between the roof of the loco and the building behind it.


First things first, All images NEED to be finished, what the camera gives you will never be the best it can be. Theres a lot of ways to finish an image in Photoshop but most of them are quick wins and actually go some way to destroying the image. Things like auto levels, brightness/contrast, sharpening, hue/saturation all do the job but badly. The truth is you only need to learn how to use curves as this will do all of those things with far more control and less damage. Basically curves is a line between black and white that can be bent. The other methods are more like a slider on a scale. In curves your white point will be top right, your black point bottom left. Once these are set they will not change so no matter how much you play with the curves your blacks will always be black and your whites will always be white. You can choose to lighten the image in a particular tonal area, such as towards the dark end to bring up the detail in an underframe and it wont effect the highlights. Moving the brightness up moves the whole image and you gain detail in the darks but lose detail in the lights. You can also select channels and adjust them in the same way, focusing on a particular colour in a particular tonal range. Making the curve into an S shape will adjust the contrast again without losing the blacks and whites. It’s very powerful and once learnt (aside from the camera doing something odd) it’s all you really need to know.


Sharpening is best avoided – get the image sharply focussed before you take it not after. However there is a way to improve a slightly soft image without it looking too Photoshopped. Using the sharpen tools in a colour image will sharpen the colours too, this is not what you want to do so the trick is to hop into LAB colour mode (which is immensely powerful but a lot of work to get your head round) select the lightness channel and only sharpen that. Result – a sharper image without affecting the colour


Having worked with an awful lot of professional photographers composition is not something they are all that sophisticated in, usually because it’s not something they have a lot of control over. Many will use the rules of thirds and that’s about it. (the focus of the picture should be 1/3rd of the way into the image). However illustrators are quite sophisticated in this regard as they do have the control they need. Ideas like leaders, lines of action etc are quite normal and can make an illustration almost move. You will be guided through the image exactly as the illustrator wanted you to be and will not even know that you are doing it. Good Illustrators and designers are some of the most manipulative people you will come across in terms of making you do what they want. With a model its more still life than anything, you set the scene and its worth thinking about how everything interacts to get the result you want. In the image above the loco is too high in the frame. If it were lower it would have more mass to it and would convince the viewer that its heavy.


Tangents are a big problem in illustration and to be avoided at all costs. They are a big problem in model photography too but not a lot of people understand them. Referring back to the image of the 31 there is a horrible tangent where the line of the roof between the loco and the building meet. Simply put a tangent is where 2 lines of different things in the image meet. Things like a buffer appearing to join with a signal are common and are things that professionals will look to avoid. It’s what makes the difference between a professional image and one that isn’t. If I had moved the camera down a bit you wouldn’t see the roof of the building, moved it up and the roof would have been distinct so as it is its in just the right place to spoil the image.

Light and doing it badly

Light is where you can really make a difference and a lot of images are lit with little or no thought. (its worth mentioning at this stage that if you want to Photoshop a real sky onto an image of a model its a good idea to make sure they are both lit from the same direction!) This is one area where you can transform an image easily and the best way to do this is to do it deliberately badly.

class-85s-parkedHere we have a fairly typical model image – lit from the direction of the camera but slightly off set. In the real world light is not always where you would like it to be so its worth experimenting with it as a less ideal image can have a better impact

class-85s-in-the-darkThe same image lit from above (where the flood light would be) looks much more interesting even though much of the detail is lost. This sort of image would probably be a reject if taken in the real world but as a model its a bit different or unusual.

Black and White

Theres a right way and a very wrong way to turn a colour image black and white.

overview-1-march-2011greyThis is the wrong way but its the easiest – convert the image to greyscale. The problem is that the definition between colours is lost. I know that sounds odd in a black and white image but certain colours while very different are also similar in tone. Rail blue and Warning Panel Yellow are a good example and will appear very similar when converted to greyscale.

overview-1-march-2011bwThis is the right way and its back to using the Lightness channel in LAB mode. Theres much more definition and tonal variety.

The Photoshop argument

People are either indifferent or heavily against deliberate Photoshopping. Things like adding smoke etc really don’t bother me as the whole process of model railways is trying to fool the viewer into thinking, just for a second, that the object they are looking at is not a foot long piece of plastic but a 100+ tonnes of locomotive. Obviously using Photoshop to fix a bad model is somewhat different. It’s funny how those most vocal against the use of Photoshop usually are the first to defend using the wrong gauge or unrealistic couplings.

Of course if you are going to add a photoshop sky make sure it’s lit from the same direction as the model and if you are going to add a thick exhaust smoke to your steam locos, don’t forget to add it to their shadows too!

Next time you take a model picture think about composition, look out for things like tangents and ask yourself, Can I make this more interesting?

Let there be lights

One of the things I get asked quite often is where I got my platform lights from. When I tell people I made them I’m often asked if I can make more.  Well its nice to be asked but I really don’t want to get distracted from what I should be doing and besides which they are dead easy to make anyway.

Before I get into how, some thoughts on the subject of lights on layouts.  People easily get sucked in by the gimmikyness (is that even a word) of working lights.  Of course that’s fine if that’s what you want and you run your layout in the dark but if you don’t it does leave 2 questions:

Why compromise the look of the light to make it work?

Why are the lights on in the day anyway?

OK you don’t have to compromise the look of the light (I built a ‘dayburner’ street lamp to prove to myself I could) but on in the daytime?  Its just not how things work.  Thus my lights don’t work because they don’t need to.

So anyway, in true blue peter style here’s how I make my platform lamps.

You will need:

  • 1mm dia brass rod
  • 20 x 80 thou strip
  • 20 x 100 thou strip
  • 80 x 80 thou strip
  • 2mm OD, 1mm ID plastic tube


If you have a strip cutter (I use one of these these – if you haven’t got one then you should, its one of the handiest tools I have!) set it to 22mm and cut 1 each of the 20×80 and 80×80 strips for each lamp you need, you no doubt will need more than one).  Cut the one 20×100 strip to 23.5mm and the tube to 24.5mm.   One end of the tube need shaping to a taper and I mount it into a mini drill and run it against sandpaper to get the shape I want. Use a dabbing action so that the tube doesn’t get too hot and starts melting.

The 80 x 80 piece needs a 1mm hole drilling through its center and the ends shaping with a file and the brass rod need to be cut to length, I use about 80mm as I want it mounted through the platform and into the baseboard. You should now have a kit of bits ready to assemble.


Glue the shaped 80 x 80 strip to the 20 x 100 so that its centered (make sure the hole is the right way, obviously) and the 20 x 80 on top – again make sure its centered.

Glue the plastic tube onto the brass rod so that its base is 60mm from the top.  When these have set glue the pole to the head ensuring everything is square and that’s it (told you it was simple)


Further detailing

There are 2 types of these lamps ones that fold and ones that don’t.  The folding ones are generally used on platforms where the running lines have overhead so that maintenance people don’t have to use ladders.  The bases on the 2 types are where the differences are.  On the rigid ones they have a lozenge shaped access panel on the base which can be simply made by cutting a lozenge shape from paper or a sticky label. The folding ones are more distinctive and I etched an overlay for these.  Few of New Streets lamps are actually the same, some having loudspeakers, platform telephones or HST stop signs added to them (or any combination thereof) although none had station nameboards which are common on many platforms.  New Street had the name printed on the lamp head itself, these were printed on DIY waterslide transfer paper (available from here)

platform lamp final