Christopher Brimley updated September 20, 2011

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  • Strong Buildings

    by Miles & Fran Hale

    Photos by the author

    Model Railroading - May 2001 - Page 50

    We have all been to a contest and watched the modelers bring in the apple of their eye model to enter in the contest. These models have carrying or shipping cases that are often as elaborate as the models themselves. The reason? Because the models are delicate and fragile.

    Many modelers have built models for contests. These structures show how real full-sized building techniques can be applied and used even in the smallest of scales. Judges even look to see how well the building process was followed in the miniature reproduction.

    These model buildings, while looking great, have one big problem: they break very easily. I have several of these contest models on the South Park Valley, my On3 layout. I have moved and lived in eight states in 13 years of marriage. The models have also seen all of these states and moves, and they show it. The operating crew of the SPV spent two work nights just bringing these models back to a state where they could be placed on the layout.

    We all want the best quality models possible for our layouts but durability can be an issue unless you know that you will never move from your current location. I want to show some of the models that have made the moves of the past 13 years and are in great shape. These are the models that were built with strength in mind, but with small details that keep them looking like they are the real things in miniature.

    Building so that a model is strong does not mean that it has to look clunky or like it has out-of-scale details. The first thing to remember is the model that came in with the special carrying case to the contest. Often these models are held in place by peanuts or some other packing material. The goal of packing is keep the models from moving around in the box, and thus to prevent any damage due to movement.

    This prevention of movement can be done when the model is built. Simply fasten the building securely down to a base so that it cannot come lose (see Photo 1). The bolts in the bottom of this plaster building go through the base of the model and the plywood base. The sides are pinned with straight pins where the scenery hides them at the base of the building. Glue adds to the bonds of the building and locks the unit together. So long as the base can be fastened down, the building has a much better chance of surviving being moved or handled.

    The idea of bolting or screwing the building to its base does not keep you from adding interior details, and the look of the building from the outside is not diminished.

    Photo 2 shows the barn that is about to be added to the Luxen Farm scene. The post-and-beam structure has been screwed to the base with some very small wood screws. See the end of this article for information on these screws. With the building secured to the base, the sides will add a lot of strength to the barn.

    Model Railroading - May 2001 - Page 51

    Photo 3 shows a building that is a dynamite shed for the side of a hill. The exterior of the building looks natural enough, but the backside (see Photo 4) reveals that the structure is a block of solid wood. Al Boos, MMR, and I did a hands-on clinic about constructing a building around a block of wood. The block can be cut perfectly square and the sides applied and sanded smooth. The front and back can then be added and sanded to the sides. This technique makes the building easy to keep square. This method also makes it much less cumbersome to hold the sides while gluing.

    The advantage of being very strong is a very big plus for the build-around-the-block type of construction. This also allows the roof, which is very often the most delicate part of the building, to be secured.

    Speaking of roofs, Photo 5 shows the roof of the D.S.P. & P. Gunnison, Colorado, Depot by Model Masterpieces, Ltd. The roof is not built as the manufacturer had intended. I substituted 1/8" Luan plywood for the roof and reinforced it with some pieces of " x " wood along with some gussets cut to the pitch of the roof. The gussets also hold the alignment of the roof from side to side. The shingles were applied to the top slope of the roof and scribed siding was glued to the under side of the roof at the overhangs. The trim boards were then applied, and it is impossible to tell how the roof was built.

    In Photo 1, the roof of the little house is built using .060 Evergreen styrene. The gussets are cut to the roof pitch, and the end gussets again are used to hold the roof in place from end to end. A cloth-backed gaffers tape is used to simulate the tarpaper roof. This tape is available at theater lighting supply stores and some better photography supply stores. The good thing is that the adhesive stays for years. I have buildings 15 years old, and the tape on the roofs is still good.

    This type of roof construction is common on the SPV. One thing that makes a model look old or not constructed well is the roof buckling or sagging. The cardstock that is provided with most kits cannot be sealed well enough to last through the test of time and moisture.

    I have even started to build the buildings themselves with the same 1/8" plywood and then glue the siding to the plywood. The plywood tends to make the structure stable, and it gives a wider surface at the corners, the weak point, for the glue to bond and hold.

    Most hobby shops carry aircraft plywood for R.C. models. This plywood is ideal for reinforcing roofs and walls. I have also used plastic sheet for the walls and roofs. One building was built using Plexiglas for the walls with the siding glued on. The windows were trimmed out, and the glazing was already in the windows!

    Model Railroading - May 2001 - Page 52

    Photo 6 shows some bents for the Atkins River trestle. The structures that take the most stress are the ones that the trains must use for passage. Remember that the same forces that work on the real railroad also work in miniature on our trains as well. An engine weighing a pound or more plus a train of cars at six ounces each can add up quickly. Then add the fact that they are moving, and the forces get much greater.

    On all of the bridges I try to pin or screw them together as much as possible, trying not to sacrifice the prototype look of the model. In the bents shown, the top and bottom caps are nailed to the pilings. The cross braces are spiked to the piling sides. Glue is also applied to all of these joints. The result is a very strong bent that resists racking and holds up very well.

    There are many fasteners on the market and most good hobby shops have a wide selection from which to chose. Be sure to check the R.C. airplane section as they have many sheet-metal screws in very small sizes. Walthers and Woodland Scenics both produce small screws of various types that are good to use. Mrklin also makes some flathead wood screws that are smaller than 0 and only .4" long. These are stocked as #7599, K-GLEIS, 1.4mm x 10mm. I use these for building construction because they are very small, hold well, and they are easily hidden from view.

    Next time you look at scratchbuilding, or at a kit, think about the longevity of the building and the strength needed for the building to be useful. Give some thought to how you can make the building stronger, it will be well worth your time in the long run.

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