Christopher Brimley updated October 26, 2011

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  • A Modest Proposal

    by Karl P. Warden

    Photos by the author

    Model Railroading - September 2002 - Page 42

    According to Websters Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, the word plausible means having an appearance of truth or reason; seemingly worthy of approval or acceptance; credible; believable.

    Longtime model railroaders are familiar with the concept of "selective compression." For any new railroaders who might not recognize the phrase, it means leaving out some part of a specific actual structure being modeled in order to be able to fit the completed model into a given space. For example, an accurate HO scale model of the Washington Monument would rise above your layout about 5'. For most layouts, especially those built on a 4' x 8' sheet of plywood, a 5' high model might be a bit too tall. Selective compression could be used to shrink the height of the model to a more modest 3' and still convey to the viewing public the impression you wanted to create (whatever that might be).

    On a more practical level, a large multi-building chemical plant can be reproduced by modeling only one unit of the complex and still convey the idea of a chemical plant for your railroad. Most commercial structure models are packaged and sold using this scheme. Get the idea? One more example - an apartment building ten stories high and 30 windows wide can be modeled eight stories high and 20 windows wide without drastically misrepresenting the subject matter. The point of selective compression is to leave out some repetitive portion of the thing modeled in order that the model, which looks like the actual thing, will still fit into an average railroad layout.

    In fact, structures are frequently "compressed" so frequently that it is almost universally done. On the other hand there are some objects that would suffer greatly from being compressed. A 50' boxcar compressed to 20' long might look a bit odd. Well, you get the idea. Enough then about selective compression; it is a tool, and model railroaders use that tool.

    Model Railroading - September 2002 - Page 43

    The purpose of this article is to propose another tool. It is a first cousin to selective compression, but it goes beyond reducing the size of an actual edifice. It suggests "plausibility" as a useful method of modeling. Close your eyes for a moment - not now, wait until I tell you what I want you to do when your eyes are closed. When your eyes are closed think of a cargo carrying ship, for example, a container ship. Think of it as a part of your layout. For whatever reason, you have decided to put a model of a container ship on your layout. Perhaps you have noticed that much of the freight carried on railroads today is loaded in containers and that these containers are lettered in such a way as to suggest they have arrived by ship. It might be appropriate to have such a ship as a source of freight business on your layout. Go ahead now, close your eyes and visualize such a ship on your layout.

    Assuming that you have opened your eyes again and have resumed reading this modest proposal, what did you see when you thought about the ship? Where did you put it on your layout? Would it be docked over there beyond the freight yard? Would it look good in back of the town or should it go near the passenger station?

    Now consider this, the average container ship is 800' long, over 100' wide and carries almost 3,000 containers. How would an exact HO scale model of that look on your 4' x 8' layout? Well, it would be over 9' long (and overhang each end of the layout by 6" or more) and would be over a foot wide (leaving you less than 3' for the railroad). Just the portion of the ship that is normally under the water would be almost 5" high. Add to that the rest of the hull and the superstructure and you are nearing 2' high. You might as well go ahead and model the Washington Monument. The unhappy fact is that an exact scale model would be so large that there would be no room left for your railroad. While some lucky modelers might have adequate space for such a huge model, most of us have more limited quarters. The obvious conclusion then is that a container ship is not something to be modeled and placed on your layout.

    It would seem that many modelers who routinely run container-carrying freight cars on their railroad have reached this same conclusion. As a consequence, you find very few commercially available container ship models in HO scale even though you can find scores of containers and container carrying railroad cars running on model railroads.

    Heres where the "plausibility" concept comes into play. When you visualized the ship with your eyes closed you might have seen a ship hard up against an unloading dock with lines of cranes unloading the containers onto double-stack cars ready to be hauled around your layout. It looked pretty good, didnt it? It fit right in with the whole concept of your railroad. It was only when you opened your eyes and started thinking about the size of the thing that it lost its appeal. Well, the "plausibility" tool can make that ship, or some other ship, or any other thing just right for your railroad. You can have a container ship, or an oil tanker or a bulk carrier or a sulfur unloading facility right on your layout - even one as small as 4' x 8'.

    The secret of the "plausible" tool in model building is to step away from the idea that an object must be modeled accurately to the dimensions of the real object being modeled and, instead, model the appearance of the thing. Build something that "looks like" a container ship. If it really "looks like" a container ship to you, then, chances are that it will be equally "Plausible; worthy of approval or acceptance; credible; believable," as a container ship to anyone else who visits your railroad.

    Model Railroading - September 2002 - Page 44

    When you model a mountain, do you really attempt to reproduce an actual mountain in HO scale? Of course not, even an ordinary mountain would be overwhelming in any scale. You build something that is proportionate to the size of your layout and it looks just fine. You have not selectively compressed an actual mountain. You have constructed a plausible mountain. We all do it. Well, do the same thing with your container ship. (If someone brings a tape measure to see if it is the correct size, then ban him forever from your railroad world.) A well-proportioned and nicely modeled ship to be used on a model railroad need be no larger than 4 ' long and about 8 " wide. The underwater part (including the keel, rudder and propeller) does not have to be modeled at all. Why model something that cannot be seen on the real ship? Waterline models sit flat on your benchwork and only show that portion of the real ship that is visible above the water (hence, the name waterline).

    The "plausibility" tool can be used for scores of things other than ships on your layout. For example, what does a fish processing plant look like? Presumably it must have some place to receive raw fish. If it gets raw fish, it must have someplace to clean the fish. If it cleans fish then it must have some place to dispose of the unused parts. Once the fish are cleaned, they must then be iced or frozen to keep them from spoiling or, perhaps, they are smoked. So, you would need refrigeration equipment or a place to hang and smoke the fish. If you are going to smoke them, then you need something to generate the smoke and somewhere to vent the smoke. When the fish are finally prepared, they must then be packaged and sold to a direct purchaser on the premises or shipped to a remote purchaser. What kinds of packages are used? Do they use boxes or barrels or crates? Shipping them on a model railroad layout would seem to call for a side track to hold freight cars - possibly refrigerated freight cars. Now, with no more information than that, let your imagination run. Do you want it to be a modern plant or do you want one that has been around for ages? In either case, what do you think it should look like? Chances are, by now you already have some sort of notion about what it might look like and how it should look on your railroad. If you want one, then go ahead and build it. You dont need someone else's plans or someone else's kit. You dont even need a set of plans. All you need is your mental vision of what a "plausible" fish processing plant ought to look like and the daring to construct the thing. If you think what you are doing makes sense, then anyone who views it will, in all probability, think the same as you.

    Model Railroading - September 2002 - Page 45

    Thats the secret then. The "plausibility" tool is just your willing- ness to think logically about what you want to build and then your vision of what it ought to look like. You can, of course, do research to find out what such structures look like in real life. You can read up on what they do and how they do it, but once the research is done the real fun begins. This is the time when you get your basswood, your X-Acto knife and whatever other junk you have saved for a rainy day and build your dream. Remember above all, its your dream, not someone else's dream. There is not a single structure in the entire world that did not start out in someones imagination. Someone saw a problem and a need and dreamed up a way to solve the problem and fill the need. You can do that just as well as the next guy. So, why not do it on your railroad?

    You want a paper mill on your railroad? Then find out what goes in on one side of a paper mill and what comes out of the other side. What brings the stuff in and what carries it away? What is used to process the stuff and how is it used? What are the waste products and how are they disposed of? Is it the year 1820 or is it 2002? Will it be built of logs...or wood...or brick...or stone...or metal? Will it have lots of windows or just a few? You decide...its your railroad and your paper mill, and the fun will be yours too when you let your imagination fly.

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