Christopher Brimley updated March 21, 2012


Christopher Brimley's Tags


Browse Articles » How-To Text View Magazine View

  • Building Swanson Holler

    Sam and Tom barter over the price of Sam's old pickup truck. Scenes like this add life and interest to any model.
    Model Railroading - September 1999 - Page 27





    Bird's-eye view of the Swanson Holler Farm, showing all the structures. Working on small areas like this allows for great attention to detail.
    Model Railroading - September 1999 - Page 28

    It's not hard to imagine this conversation taking place between the two men in the driveway of the Swanson Holler farm. The farm combines two years of NMRA contest models into a foreground scene for my Cincinnati Terminal Railway. The combined scene was awarded first place in Off-Line Displays in this year's NMRA national convention in St. Paul.


    A few years ago, I was in that terrible void of between layouts. You know what I mean - reading the magazines, looking at what other people were doing, and being terribly envious of those who had the space to put up something permanent. The Swanson Holler farm display is one of the results of that period.

    Swanson Holler is named for Sam Swan son of Alpharetta, GA - who is without a doubt the finest modeler I know. Among other notable achievements, Sam's water-powered sawmill display received the Gold Award at the Madison NMRA National Convention. We met at the Atlanta NMRA National Convention in 1995, and have corresponded and visited with each other since - trading modeling ideas, swapping stories and inspiring each other to new projects. It's friendships like this that make NMRA membership priceless. Sam has a farm on his HOn3 layout which helped provide the impetus for this project, hence the name of the scene.

    The Swanson Holler scene represents a farm in eastern Kentucky, circa mid- to late '50s. I selected scenery, buildings and details to recall images of the family farm at a time when it was still possible to eke out a living with a hundred acres or so of land. Farms like this still dot the area, but are becoming fewer as each year passes.

    The farm as originally built consists of the barn, garage, farmhouse and outhouse. The windmill was added later. I'd like to tell you how I built the different structures in the scene, and also how I built and detailed the scene itself.

    The Barn

    The barn was the first structure built and is the most complex of the entire scene. I pass by the prototype barn on the way to work. In 1991, a large portion of the barn collapsed. The resulting combination of debris and structure were fascinating, but I never got around to taking photos of it.

    Eventually, the owner cleaned up the mess and erected walls on the lean-to and remaining part of the barn with wood from the collapsed portion. In early July 1994, this wall collapsed, and the opportunity to build an accurate model with a visible interior was irresistible. With the permission of the owner, I collected some key measurements and took two rolls of film to document the building.

    I built the barn using prototypical post- and- beam construction, with individual boards for the sides. In all, there are about 900 pieces of wood in the barn. While this may sound intimidating, use of the proper techniques make it a relatively straight forward project.

    The prototype for the barn model. Take those photos while you can - you never know when the building is going to fall to the ground!
    Model Railroading - September 1999 - Page 29

    Preparing the wood takes as much time as anything else. The barn exterior is birch veneer from a local building supply store. I used a stiff wire brush to roughen the grain, then cut random- width boards from the veneer using a metal rule and hobby knife. I cut plenty of material, because it can always be used later for other projects.

    The remainder of the wood used is a combination of Northeastern and Kappler scale lumber. All wood was sanded and stained before assembly. I use a two step stain process, first using thinned Polly S Dark Earth paint, followed by thinned Grimy Black paint. After wiping off any excess paint with a paper towel, the wood can be dried quickly in a microwave oven on high for two or three minutes. If the wood comes out too dark, it can be lightened by a wash of Polly S Primer Gray.

    The foundation is simply a piece of matte board cut to size for the slab, with 3/16" stripwood for the foundation edges. It was all glued together with cyanoacrylate (CA) and painted light gray. A black wash provides color variation.

    The walls were built up board-an-board by laying the exterior boards out on the work surface exterior side down and gluing the framing in. The key to doing this is double-sided tape. It holds the siding square while attaching the interior framework, and makes board-an-board construction almost as easy as using scribed siding material. Working with CA makes this a very, very fast process. All walls were built up before continuing with construction.

    The walls were glued to the foundation. First-floor interior detailing was added, including the stalls and feed troughs in the lean-to. Most of the detail parts on the first floor are metal detail castings. with some window sashes cut from refugees from the scrap box. Dirt and scrap wood completed the first-floor detailing.

    The second-story floors were built up using the board-on-board construction technique, then glued in place. The second floor detailing was then added - as with the prototype, this was mainly old doors and windows.

    Model Railroading - September 1999 - Page 30

    Before the roof was added, red paint was drybrushed along the upper edge of the sides, replicating the remains of the last coat of paint on the prototype. A semi-gloss clear coat was brushed on top of this to give just a hint of luster to the painted portion.

    The sub-roof panels were built by spacing out the nailers on double-sided tape, similar to the wall construction, and attaching the joists with CA. The sub-roof panels were then removed from the work surface and glued to the walls. The roof sheeting is scale 2' x 8' sheets of heavy duty aluminum foil, glued in place with CA. The ribs are .010 x .020 Evergreen styrene. After installation, the building was masked off and the roof spray-painted with a rust-colored auto primer.

    The wall protecting the lean-to was constructed in place using leftover barn siding material. The main doors survived the original collapse, and were used here as part of the siding - they were modeled separately, then glued in place. The collapsed wall was built up one piece at a time, following the photos to get the right look. Ground foam was added to represent the small trees and weeds which were taking hold in the exposed part of the foundation. Finally. I pushed in the roof of the lean-to with my index finger to get the correct roof sag (not for the faint of heart!)

    The nice thing about this model was the fact that the interior is visible without having removable walls or roofs. The collection of clutter which accumulates in old barns is the stuff of legends. The idea to show it off like this is due to a chance encounter of modeler and prototype. Keep your eyes open as you're driving to work - you'd be surprised at what you find!

    The Garage

    The garage began life as a sketch, annotated with notes on the features I wanted the structure to have. The concept for the model was that of a one-car garage, built using post-and-beam construction, which is common to this area. At a later date. an addition was tacked onto one side. After talking with farmers in the area, I found that the addition is often used for storage of smaller tools, recycled lumber, and other odds and ends. The sketch finally resulted in the drawings shown in Figure 1.

    The garage was built using the same basic board-on-board techniques as the barn. Northeastern and Kappler scale strip wood of appropriate dimensions was used throughout construction. All wood was sanded and stained before assembly, using the same Polly S staining technique that I used for the barn.

    The main building uses standard post and-beam construction techniques, common to farm outbuildings. Wall construction for the main part of the garage was pretty much the same as the barn. After each wall section was completed, nail holes were embossed into the walls and some boards were broken and removed.

    The diamond-shaped windows and diagonal sheathing of the garage doors give this small building tremendous character. Like the barn, the garage was built using prototype construction practices.
    Model Railroading - September 1999 - Page 31

    The walls were drybrushed with Flat White, then weathered with a Grimy Black wash and sealed with Dullcote. The window framing was added, built up from scale lx4s using prototype construction techniques. The window sashes were built up from scale 1x2 and 1x1 stripwood and glued into place with white glue.

    The walls were assembled, then the roof joists were added. The ridge beam was bowed to model an old, sagging roof line. The sub-roof was added using scale 1x4 material, with the typing-paper roofing material glued on over that.

    The garage doors were built over the plans. These doors were seen on a structure (no longer standing) a number of years ago. Their distinctive diamond windows appealed to me. The diagonal material (scale 1x4s) was laid out, then the edge framing added on each side. The hole for the window was cut, then the window framing material was added on each side. The mullions are scale lx1s, and were glued in place with CA. After the assembly was dry, Kristal Klear was webbed across the frames for the glazing.

    The doors were secured to the structure using hinges made of sewing thread. The thread will not fatigue easily, and allows the doors to open (see Figure 2). The thread is doubled over, dipped in CA, then placed on the door at the right spot. After the glue is dry, I trim off the ends of the thread and touch them with CA again. I then placed the door into place, making certain the hinges adhered to the building shell. After the glue dries, gently working the door open breaks any glue which may have seeped into the door jamb. The door lock is made from painted typing paper and wire.

    The addition uses more modern stud framing and lap siding, primarily to add to the texture of the model. Like the main structure, the addition was constructed entirely from commercial dimensional lumber and typing paper. For each elevation, the structural frame work was constructed over the drawings using CA. After the glue on the frame had dried, the siding was applied. Nail holes were embossed, and some boards were broken and removed.

    After the separate walls were completed, they were added onto the main structure. The sub-roof was added using scale 1x4 material, and the typing-paper roofing material added over that. Pactra acrylic paint was brushed on, then weathered with a Grimy Black wash and sealed with Dullcote. The window framing was added and the walls of the addition given a wash of Pactra White to indicate a more recent painting than for the main structure. The window sash was built up from scale 1x2 and 1xl stripwood and glued into place with white glue (see Figure 3). The door was built from butyrate, 1/64" aircraft birch, and scale stripwood (see Figure 4).

    One of the things I did with the garage was to use different weathering techniques on the different parts of the building. This provided a visual clue that the addition was newer than the rest of the garage and added a sense of history to the building. The patched tarpaper roof also adds to the building texture, as does the one section of bare sub-roof.

    The Outhouse

    The outhouse was a one-evening project, built after "one-of-those-days." It uses scrap material leftover from the barn. I didn't have any drawings, but rather just cut and fit as I went along. Drawings of the final model are presented in Figure 5. Construction time was a couple hours.

    The outhouse was built board-on-board after 'one of those days' using scrap lumber from the barn. The doors on the outhouse and garage both operate.
    Model Railroading - September 1999 - Page 32

    The outhouse was built using board-on board construction with prototype construction techniques. Using double-sided tape, this goes very quickly. The sides were laid out, using 2x4 framing, then the seat was cut from scale lxlOs. A hole was roughed in with an X-Acto knife, then finished with a file.

    The side and back walls were glued together with CA, then framing for the front was added, making sure everything stayed square. The front siding boards were cut to fit and glued in place.

    I laid out siding material on a piece of double-sided tape, then cut the door to fit the opening in the front wall. Z-bracing was then added. The moon was cut in with a fresh #11 blade in the knife.

    The hinges are made of sewing thread, as with the garage. The roof is additional scrap material, cut to a 9" overhang and covered with Campbell shingles. A final touch for the truly observant is a roll of toilet paper, cut from a length of #28 white telephone wire, sitting on the outhouse seat.

    The Farmhouse

    The farmhouse itself is a simple structure, especially when compared with the barn and garage. Like the garage, this building began as a sketch (see Figure 6). I never did get around to doing actual drawings.

    The basic construction of the farmhouse is a shell made of Northeastern scribed clapboard siding. The boards are undercut with an X-Acto chisel blade to give the appearance of a board-on-board structure. Nail lines are added using a ponce wheel on scale 2' centers, and board ends are randomly cut in at these centers. Doors and windows are Grandt Line castings. The porches are board-on-board from scale lumber. The roof is Campbell shingles, with patches made from acid etched Campbell corrugated siding.

    The key to this building is the detailing. such as the entry mat and swing on the front porch, the trash cans and woodpile around back, and the gutters and downspouts. With out these details to make the building look 'lived-in,' it is sterile and unremarkable.

    The Windmill

    Small displays are a great way to try new modeling techniques. Don't let lack of a layout prevent you from refining your own skills.
    Model Railroading - September 1999 - Page 33

    The windmill is made from brass, styrene, wood and cardstock based on drawings which appeared in the September 1982 issue of Model Railroader. The fan and tail were laid out on .010 brass sheet, then cut with an X-Acto using fresh blades. The blades were laid out on a jig, the connecting-wire framing added, then everything was fluxed and soldered. The tail pieces were taped to a piece of glass, fluxed and soldered.

    The tower was built from styrene corner posts constructed of .015 x .040 and .015 x .020 styrene. The horizontal members were made from .015 x .040 styrene, then brass bracing wire was added using CA to hold everything together. I used CA to connect two adjoining sides together, then glued the two halves together to complete the tower.

    The base of the tower is a piece of .060 styrene painted to look like concrete. The well is concealed with a stripwood cover. A hatch to the well uses a couple of Grandt Line hinges.

    The windmill was not originally part of the scene. When first built, there was a large (scale 60') tree in that location. Unfortunately, the tree concealed the interior of the barn and made it difficult to see the garage, outhouse and other detailing in the yard. In addition to being appropriate to the scene, the open framing of the windmill allows the detail and other structures to be better seen.

    Scene Construction

    The farm is constructed on extruded foam board. The basic contours were formed using a stiff wire brush. The barn, farmhouse and garage were located on the board and their foundation locations marked. These outlines were cut into the foam with an old steak knife, then excavated out with an X-Acto chisel blade, checking depth against the foundations as I worked.

    After the foundation holes were completed, I did the basic ground cover. I coated the scene with an earth-colored flat latex paint, then sifted on Woodland Scenics ground cover and sifted dirt from the part of Kentucky I model. After a spray of wet water, a 2:1 mixture of water to white glue was used to adhere everything.

    The road is plaster of Paris, sanded smooth. A series of Polly S washes were wiped on, then cracks drawn in with a fine-point permanent marker. The berm was covered with the same dirt as used i n the ground cover, then adhered with the white - glue solution.

    Now the larger detail castings, such as the Chooch junk pile behind the barn and the Woodland Scenics auto frame behind the garage, were added. They were put in using full-strength white glue.

    I used lichen and home made clump foliage material for the bushes, which were liberally coated with the glue mixture to hold them in place. Weeds are dyed sisal and material from Woodland Scenics. An old bottle-brush tree and bumpy chenille trees complete the overgrowth. One of the defining characteristics of nature is that unless held back, it will explode with a variety of plant life anywhere it can get a foothold. Neatly manicured lawns and trimmed hedges don't typically exist along railroad right-of-ways, and they don't exist in Swanson Holler.

    The buildings were put in using a hot-glue gun to hold them in place. A couple spots of glue is enough to hold everything together. After each structure was put in. the scenery around it was touched up. It was at this point that I decided to add in the Woodland Scenics treehouse kit, which had been used on a different part of the layout. It seemed to fit in well here.

    Finally, the fine details were added, such as trash cans, the laundry, stumps, chickens, vehicles and figures. I held each casting with a pair of tweezers, and dipped it into a puddle of full-strength white glue, then put it into place in the scene.

    I cannot overemphasize the importance of adding appropriate figures and animals into a scene. These are what catch the viewer's eye and draws him into the scene. As detailed as the structures and scene might be, it is the human element which attracts and holds our attention. One can easily imagine the conversation between Sam and Tom as they talk over the din of the tractor engine, or the weariness of Christine as she brings in more wood for the stove as Lisa pulls at her skirt. Mean while, Sam Jr. is blissfully unaware of anything as he goes higher and higher in his tire swing, imagining a trip to the moon.

    As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, this and other scenes for my layout were built between the dismantling of my previous layout and the construction of my current one. I took advantage of the situation to hone my skills building structures, figuring that the results could be incorporated into the layout when I got to that point. Now that I am working in earnest on laying track for the new layout, I'm finding that I don't have time to do the detailed structures, so I am thankful that I took the time between layouts to do these scenes.

    I've also found that constructing scenes in this manner leads to a level of detail which is sometimes overlooked when working on a larger area. By focusing on a little over a square foot of space, you can bring your attention to details which are often seen, but seldom modeled - such as mail boxes, laundry... and the basketball hoop above the garage doors.

    I hope you've enjoyed your tour of Swanson Holler. It was a lot of fun to build, and I learned a lot while working on it. I hope you'll try a scene like this of your own - even if you don't have a layout now, these scenes store easily and can easily be fit into a future layout. Don't wait to start building !

    Article Album (1 photo)

    Share - Report
1 comment