Scratchbuilding

DECEMBER 2001

    While I was browsing through a hobby shop the other day, a member of the sales staff related to me that the previous week a customer was in the store expressing interest in modelling the Stratford area, based upon the operations described in To Stratford Under Steam. The customer was inquiring as to whether there was an HO scale kit available suitable for representing the large timber coal dock at Stratford. The employee and I had a chuckle over that one.

    This is not meant as a slight to a sincere question from an unknowing customer, but rather a commentary on the nature of prototype modelling, any era, any locale, any railway. When it comes to recreating any one of the hundreds of thousands of specific railroad structures or industries existing in the past or present, there is one undisputed reality: you will have learn to scratchbuild, and get used to it. Unless, of course, you are wealthy enough to engage the services of a custom builder, or cagey enough to engineer a trade for someone's services (more on that latter point presently). Granted, as well, there are a few dozen accurate kits available to satisfy a small fraction of our needs. But, by and large, you will need to scratchbuild most of your structures in order to accurately represent a real place in a specific era. I have good news for you, though: scratchbuilding is fun, scratchbuilding can be quick, scratchbuilding is rewarding, and scratchbuilding is inexpensive compared to most kits on the market (and the inherent modifications they may require to meet our requirements). Please note that I consider kitbashing to be a form of scratchbuilding, which it is without dispute, if you consider the kit parts to be a collection of raw materials.

    Let me provide you with a specific example. Al Lill, editor of CN Lines, is a good friend of mine. He is aware of my need for branchline steam power to replicate the operations of the CNR Allandale Division; I am likewise familiar with his ambitions to model the CNR operations in British Columbia. A year ago, I was in the market for a Ten Wheeler, while Al needed a model of the station at Red Pass Junction. Presto! A trade was engineered. For the past couple of months, I have been happily engaged in the process of scratchbuilding this depot, and here is the approach I took:

    I armed myself with all available information--photos, plans of the station and similar structures, and recollections of people who had visited the station during the specific era in question (1955). After spending a few days looking over the material, I began construction.

    My tools for such a task are as follows: self-healing cutting mat (available at craft stores); a quantity of single-edged razor blades (I prefer these to X-acto knives, as they are sharper, thinner and longer-lasting--but I keep several X-acto knives as well); a dial calliper (available through Lee Valley and other tool suppliers); a set of machinist squares (Lee Valley, Micro-Mark or others); an electronic calculator; a scale rule; appropriate cement (for styrene or wood); a pad of paper and pencil. That is all you will need in order to lay out the walls for a similar structure.

    If there is one tool which has revolutionized my productivity, accuracy and squareness of assembly, it is the dial calliper. I credit friend Tony Van Klink for introducing me to the method of working in thousandths of an inch, rather than HO scale inches, for scratchbuilding (thus the handy electronic calculator, for multiplying or dividing by 87.1 for HO scale). Think about it: there are more than eleven thousandths within every HO scale inch! More than its foolproof nature of replicating measurements exactly, the calliper functions as a cutting guide; I simply use the straight edge of the "claw" to guide the razor blade for cutting strip stock to length. For sheet stock, a mark initially grooved by the blade held against the calliper is extended at right angles with a machinist square.

    In the process of assembly, I convert all dimensions to thousandths of an inch, and lay out the walls accordingly. Window and door openings are cut using the "scribe and snap" technique (breaking down the wall, then re-assembling it, pioneered by John Nehrich of NEB&W fame). For the openings, the callipers are used to determine the exact dimensions of the Grandt Line (or other) windows and doors used.

    I have traditionally worked in wood; the Red Pass Junction is my first full structure built of styrene. I am impressed with the workability and rapidity of construction offered by this medium. I am decidedly not impressed with the solvents necessary for welding this material together. Keep a window open and turn on a powerful fan, work outdoors, or use a fume hood. Inhaled fumes of MEK (the main ingredient of liquid styrene cement) cause damage to internal organs.

    With walls and partitions constructed of 60-thou styrene, there was no need to provide additional bracing for this structure (I have achieved similar results in wood with 1/16-inch scribed and plain siding). Scribed stock was used for the floor. As Red Pass Junction had a stucco finish, I sprayed the styrene with Elmer's adhesive, then quickly sprinkled on fine sand. After the exterior of the building was airbrushed white, the surface texture was found to be adhering well. Windows and doors were painted, then affixed with clear styrene "glass", and added using Weldbond adhesive.

    For the double-pitched hip roof, I used mathematics to figure out the dimensions and shape of each component (Jack Burgess described this process well in a past issue of Railroad Model Craftsman). A shell of plain 40-thou styrene was assembled around a flat ceiling and formers. The exterior surface was covered with Holgate & Reynolds shingle material. Rafter tails were cut from strip stock with my Northwest Shortline Chopper (which included using an angled piece of styrene to produce the required end cut). Signs were printed larger than required on my computer, then reduced several times at a copy centre (to provide sharper lettering).

    Returning to the general theme of this discussion, please don't be afraid to scratchbuild. Arm yourself with a few necessary tools. Provide yourself with a well-lit workbench (and keep it clean and orderly!) at an appropriate height. I prefer to work standing up, which I find easier on the back and conducive to faster assembly. Stock your shelves with basic materials--plain and scribed sheet stock (wood or plastic), a full bin of strip material (dimensional and/or scale "lumber"), a parts cabinet of Grandt Line, Durango Press and Campbell (etc.) windows and doors. Then get down to work. With practise, you will discover that it takes no more than a few hours on a weekend to lay out and assemble the basic shell of any building. Scratchbuilding, for many of us, is a most rewarding and pleasing aspect of this fascinating hobby.

Ian Wilson
December 5, 2001


[HOME] [BLOG] Topics ] Books ] Contact Us ] About Us ]