Christopher Brimley updated September 27, 2011

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  • Chronicle of an NTRAK Module

    by John E. Dillavou

    Photos by Bruce Nall

    Model Railroading - October 2001 - Page 36

    I joined NTRAK in 1977 when the National Model Railroad Associations (NMRA) Convention came to Denver (Rocky Rails '77). I gleaned every word that appeared in Jim Fitzgerald's publication, and drooled after seeing all of the modules, but never got around to building one. Then in 1980, one member of the local NTRAK group, wanted to go into HOn3 (Heaven forbid!) and sold his module to me. It was used in a couple of the mall shows while I tried to get some idea of how I wanted to change it. It was also an important consideration in the purchase of a vehicle that would have enough room to hold a module, especially with todays smaller cars.

    Some of the other NTRAK members suggested that I get rid of the crossovers or hang-ups would occur. They were replaced with pieces of flextrack and re-ballasted. An upper level track existed with electronics I still do not understand (3-rail, from my Lionel days, is still much simpler to wire). The upper track was only set up for a back-and-forth operation across a trestle and through a tunnel. Since I wanted my own ideas on the module, all of the scenery was torn out. That upper level trestle was gently removed and, with the addition of more bents and struts, became a trestle on my expanded 1984 "No Names Line" home layout.

    A small town was added to the module and initially, papier-maché was used for the redone scenery, but it was constantly getting holes punched in it and the plaster would flake off. The module was used outdoors to photograph various types of trains for a clinic on unit trains. However, I was not happy with the module, so I decided to redo the scenery with Hydrocal over Styrofoam sheeting. As luck would have it, though, I got a bad batch of Hydrocal that wouldn't harden so it all had to be replaced. The next effort worked much better, but it still lacked something. The mountains had turned out wonderful, but it needed water and other things that would catch the eye. And it immediately became apparent that weight was going to be a problem. It needed to be as light as possible, but I did not want to rebuild the legs and framing. Built to NTRAK standards, it was built on 1/4" base plywood, with a 1" x 4" frame. The only way to accomplish the desired results was to take it down to raw wood. The only thing left was the track wire from the wiring harness underneath, which has never been replaced. A belt sander was used on the top panel to remove any remaining scenery material. The gutted material (track and all) filled one 20-gallon trashcan.

    Model Railroading - October 2001 - Page 37

    The next step was to cut a section out of the left center area for a streambed and install a brace for girder bridges. After ensuring that the centerlines of the three mainline tracks met NTRAK standards, cork roadbed was nailed, with small flat-head nails, in place. Three Atlas girder bridges were then set in place and glued together since there wasn't any space between them; this was the best way to make them secure. The spacing is perfect for NTRAK distances between tracks.

    Next came the track. Stiff Atlas flextrack was nailed into place on either side of the bridges, allowing space on each end of the module for the track connector sections. The track power leads were resoldered, then the track was tested. If you have no power, you have a big problem! Make sure operation is smooth before proceeding.

    Now for the critical thing (which makes all modules look good) - the scenery. The scenery has to draw the eye, and mini details add a lot. This is where my wife and I specialize. Since my wife is an art teacher (sculptor and potter), we have an array of paints and coloring materials to use. My younger son majored in geology and is always telling me what is or is not geologically correct...whether I like it or not. (On the layout, I would pour and set up rock foundations, only to find that he would go in later, cut them out and redo them. I have to admit that he did do a better job.) Styrofoam was built up in layers and trimmed with a small modelers saw. This time we used seven different commercially made rubber molds. Only enough Hydrocal was mixed at one time to fill two molds. After a 3-5 minute waiting period after pouring them, they were slapped onto the foam and held in place until they set up in another 3-5 minutes. Some berms were also added on the outside edges of the module so that the area would not be totally flat. This, of course, added more weight than I wanted, but the effects were worth it.

    Browns and grays were added as base colors. My wife, using Hydrocal, added texture to the sky board, to make it appear as if the mountains continued on into the background. Then she painted the mountains, sky and clouds on the sky board with acrylic paints. This gives the module a great deal of depth.

    A mixture of Woodland Scenics ground turf was added. A mixture of 50:50 white (Elmers®) glue and water, with a drop of detergent added, was used in a spray bottle to secure the grass and shrubs. The mixture is sprayed onto the base, then various colors of foam are sprinkled on top of the wet area. Sometimes, we let it set up, other times we add more mix and sprinkle again to ensure a decent ground cover.

    Model Railroading - October 2001 - Page 38

    A road was designed to run through a small town and go off the other end of the module. It passes a small freight house, a loading dock and a residence. A depot was placed on the outside edge of the module with an access road crossing the tracks. These roads were made with a very fine ballast material to resemble some of our Colorado back roads. The roads are constructed by building up layers to get a good thickness of "gravel" to form a crown for drainage. While wet, we can also add ruts to the road, where the gravel sometimes gives way to a clay surface.

    Each of the buildings (either ready made or built from plastic kits) were set in place to figure out how each one would look on the module. My wife painted and weathered each building and added signs and other details to them. A pile of coal with a conveyor was added near the freight house. A fence, shed and horses were placed near the residence. These buildings are not glued down, but are set in place after the modules are connected. It means a bit more setup work, but they do not get damaged. All animals, people, and some of the vehicles are glued in place. Along the outside edge, I scaled off the dimensions as to where the telephone poles were to go. The insulators were painted, holes were drilled and the poles were set in place with white glue. Another set of poles, with various crossarms and insulators cut off, were placed near the roadway to provide "power" to the various buildings. Rail sections and piles of ties were placed at points where the track crews might be working.

    Other details like poles, logs, barrels, cans, tires, wire, etc., were glued in place. Rocks and twigs (in scale) were added and glued in the streambed before adding Envirotex®. We wanted to add Envirotex water on our home layout for the 1991 NTRAK and NMRA Conventions since it would be on the tours, so adding it to the module first would be a great way to practice. After mixing it, my wife added a single drop of blue food color. We found that even this small amount was almost too much color, but for the module it is effective.

    As the Envirotex dried overnight, she could not resist the urge to pour more. The next day, she laid pieces of cotton in the streambed to get a white water effect in places. She toned down the color for the next pour. It was started high up on the mountain, and allowed to gently run downhill. Another pour was made past the road bridge to gain more depth in that section. She placed some o f her moist pottery clay to form a barrier where the water would come off the edge of the module. The clay held better than any thing else did. When the Envirotex was dry, the now dry clay broke away easily, leaving only a little dirt to wash off. You can see the logs and rocks in the water area. The nice thing about this material is that it can be done inside, with little or no odor at all, not like many other resin products.

    We plan to go back and add water puddles and oil spills in various places on the module and layout for more effects. A drop of black acrylic in the resin makes an oil slick which looks effective around oil tanks, gas stations, etc. (The EPA will love us!)

    Model Railroading - October 2001 - Page 39

    Ground foam masses were added around building sites to make shrubs, using the 50:50 white glue and water mixture again, but this time using a small eyedropper to place the glue where we needed it. Most of the trees were homemade, with a fall foliage theme. We left a few trees still in the green growth stage. Woodland Scenics materials were glued to stained wooden round toothpicks which were used for the tree trunks. High Pines Ltd. made some of the commercial evergreen trees. Bottlebrush trees were trimmed and dipped into the white glue mix and then into a box of ground foam to make them look like various pine and spruce trees. Ballast was done using a very fine rock and applied to the roadbed. Ballast was secured with the same 50:50 glue and water mix, using an eyedropper.

    Up on the rock areas are hikers, a camping tent, sheep and other animals. Scenery and details take a long time because you dont just slap these items into place. They have to look like they belong and fit the scene. We will continue to add more details to the module and make additional changes and updates.

    Some day, we will have to do a whole new module from the ground up, making it lighter, easier to carry (it still takes two people to load/ unload this thing) and handle. It also might have more depth so that more scenery can be added. I would like to drop the scenery over the front edge for more detail and depth as well. But this is still two to three years in to the future. I do know that I will use the blue and pink foam materials in the different thickness and use a sander to shape and form it.

    We just finished construction of a 20" x 36" module displaying a typical Colorado ghost town with an abandoned rail line, mines, houses, stores, etc. There are details galore. The weight is less than ten pounds, making it easy to carry and display. It was a good way to use up some of the older buildings I did not want to throw away. I was able to use some of the new lightweight Hydrocal and other lightweight scenery materials (fat free scenery?) But that is, hopefully, another article in the future.

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