Landscaping with styrofoam boards

I want a hilly landscape for my model railway, sculpted from polystyrene foam (styrofoam). I went for a super-cheap solution – under-floor heating insulation!

There are many forum posts and YouTube videos recommending various approaches to creating rolling landscapes for model railways. Most of them still rely on the track itself being directly attached to a wooden base board, or perhaps using something like Woodland Scenics pre-made inclines. A few people, though, have had great success in sculpting their hills directly out of styrofoam. I thought I’d give that a try.

My local model shop sells sheets of modeling styrofoam. It’s the extruded polystyrene we’re after, which is manufactured as a solid block, rather than expanded polystyrene, which is little balls of polystyrene packed together. I priced up the quantity I thought I wanted, and it came to over £75 – ouch! Time for a re-think. Even with taking the complexity of the landscape down from my ambitious first draft, it still came to around £35. I phoned ahead to the model shop and asked whether they had 14 sheets in stock, and they said they’d have to order that quantity in specially. At that point, I started to wonder whether I was barking up the wrong tree.

And then I stumbled across a few posts recommending getting your styrofoam boards from your local builders’ merchants. It seems that the exact same styrofoam boards are used in housing construction for insulation and under-floor heating. Exact same material, but at larger sizes, and much lower cost. I got my under-floor heating insulation sheets from an eBay seller for about £15 – less than half what it would have cost for the same thing but branded as a modeling material!

I’m pleased to say that I’ve had great success so far. I’ve spent a couple of evenings out in my garage sawing away at my blue polystyrene with a steak knife (yes, that is the general recommendation!), and while there’s still lots of refining to do I have made significant progress. I have a hill. I have smooth (ish) slopes for the track to transition from one level to the next. I have smoothed and rounded the edges so it looks slightly less like rectangular blocks (still some work to do here though). I have planned out where the road will go and made slopes for that too. And I’ve laid the track out on it and checked that the train can still traverse the incline.

It’s still a long way off completion, but it’s already looking far more interesting than a flat board. Next job will be further refining the landscape to make it look less manufactured, further smoothing out on the track inclines, and some sculpting on the roads. Only when all of that is done will I be able to glue everything together and start painting it.

Track laying

Having planned out my model railway layout in theory and built my base board, it’s time to put the two together and see if it works!

I already had all the track pieces planned out, so it wasn’t actually too hard to put it into practice. And because I had mapped it out on the computer beforehand I knew it would fit. What I didn’t have was enough points, so those went on order from eBay. Before long I had my track roughly laid out, and very satisfying it was too. I took all the fishplates out so that I could check them and then reinstall them, replacing any that were beyond hope – they had previously been painted brown, so some were stuck fast and took some persuasion (and in some case deformity) to remove. Thankfully I already had some spares.

Then I started actually connecting the track up properly. This was an insightful step, because it took out the vagueness somewhat and showed me where my calculations were slightly off. I had to cut one of the tracks up a bit because it was too long, and another I had to replace with a different combination of straights to get exactly the right fit. Still, it all went in.

Next came the electrics. Every joint was tested with a multimeter to make sure there was a good electrical join, and fishplates were replaced where necessary. In a couple of cases I had to take a screwdriver to the edge of the rails to scrape off the excess brown paint so that there was actually some bare metal to make use of. Eventually, though, all the track was connected and tested. Of course, I needed some way of hooking up some actual electricity to the track, so I bought some Hornby power clips (yes, I know, not as good as soldering, but I don’t yet have a soldering iron), some 7/0.2 wire, some toggle switches, and once I realised I needed them I got some crimped pin terminals to go with the power clips. eBay is a wonderful place.

It only took an hour or two to connect up all the wires, plumb them in under the base board, connect them up to my controller, and get an engine running around the track! Hooray!

Of course, then came a whole lot of cleaning, both of the track and the engine wheels. Sadly, at this point I began to realise my error in building such a compact layout. My favourite locomotive, a Bachmann 57xx pannier tank in GWR green, doesn’t like the new points or the tight curve radius, and keeps popping off the rails. I tried all sorts to try to persuade it to stay on, but you can hear it scraping its way around the curves. It’s just not built for R605 (radius 1) curves. Very sad. I did do a whole load of research one evening and found that Hornby had made a cheap version of a 57xx, with far less detail. Interestingly, that had flangeless centre wheels, which presumably help it to get round the tighter corners. I briefly considered whether I could take the Bachmann apart and replace the wheels, or grind down the flanges somehow, but I love it too much to tinker with it. It’ll just have to sit in a cupboard until my next layout…

In the meantime, I’ve been getting my Smokey Joe saddle tank in better working order. Being an 0-4-0 (that’s a ‘four wheeled locomotive’ for us laymen), there is apparently very little that can really be done to make it super-smooth, because there are only four potential points of electrical contact, which means things can very easily get stuttery. Still, I cleaned up the wheels, took the body off and cleaned up inside, and I’ll probably oil it too when I find some suitable oil. I also did some detailing and weathering on it, not with these expensive weathering paints and pastels you can get, but with my kids’ pencil crayons – worked a treat! It now has faded lettering, rusts spots and water staining in appropriate places. The same principle has been applied to some of the trucks and the engine shed, covering them in a layer of black pencil to make them look a bit dirtier. I also found that increasing the weight in the trucks meant that the engine had to work a bit harder, which weirdly made it slightly smoother. I’m thinking of getting hold of some lead fishing weights to cram into Smokey Joe’s bodywork, as that should help it keep in contact with the track too.

The next step is getting the polystyrene foam board to start making the landscape. I can imagine that taking some time…

Base board built and installed

Bank holiday weekends are the traditional time for DIY.  So, not wanting to disappoint tradition, I set out on Saturday to my local DIY store to buy lots of wood.  And nails.  And tools.  And then put them all together to make a base board for my model railway.

I had fairly carefully planned out my layout already, so I knew exactly how big I would need the base board to be.  I also knew that the total surface area of the board would be bigger than I’d fit in my car, so I deliberately bought it in two sheets of chipboard rather than one.  My plan also included a supporting structure underneath to provide rigidity and a little more height, and I bought some wood for that too.  So on a hot Saturday afternoon, I constructed my base board.

Sunday afternoon saw me back out in the garden, this time attaching legs.  For anyone else wanting to do likewise, Ikea sells table legs individually at £2.50 each.  And, at the Bristol Ikea at least, they have an area in their car park where they put all their ‘waste’ wood – from items that have been broken or damaged – which they’ll let you take away for free.  I picked up a few pieces, and I’ve used that to make the corner pieces that the legs screw onto.

So after a lot of hard work, including teaching myself how to use a circular saw (thankfully no accidents!), I now have a model railway base board installed in my garage, ready and waiting for the next step in the process.  The garage looks tidier now than it’s ever done.  I’ve got some more track pieces in the post too, to fill in the remaining gaps, and then I can start thinking about wiring!

Track redesign

In my previous post I shared how I had found a layout plan that looked interesting, and I’ve been developing that idea further. I’ve got nearly all the track pieces already to achieve it (minus the points), and when I laid it out on the floor it turned out to be slightly smaller, which would make it easier to fit into the garage, which is another plus. So I’m now going full speed ahead with that idea.

I’m using AnyRail to play around with track plans, though you’ll notice I haven’t bothered tweaking the layout to fill those gaps at the bottom – there should be just about enough flex in the track to allow me to connect all that up. We’ll end up with two stations, a main station and a countryside halt in amongst the trees. I’m still planning on the back section being raised slightly to add variation, I’ll just need to be careful about the gradient to ensure that my trains can climb the hill. The branch line at the top of the layout will be a timber yard of some description, prepping logs fresh from the wood to be transported to a sawmill bottom right.

There are some isolated sections too, which took some careful figuring out. On the diagram above the isolated track connectors are shown as little triangles. The sidings at the bottom each have a small section of isolated track at the end, allowing me to store more than one engine on each siding by switching those sections off. The points will isolate the other sections, so I’ll be able to leave trains in either station while a freight train makes the journey from the woods to the sawmill. I haven’t quite figured out where the road is going yet, but I’ve put in a level crossing ready for it.

I’ve also been thinking about the construction of the base board. I mulled over the idea of using old wooden pallets as a substructure, seeing as they’re really strong and some businesses give them away for free. But in the end I decided against them, on the basis that they’re really heavy and probably overkill for my little railway. So I’m now erring towards a custom-built table, using six legs I’ve just bought from Ikea, a timber frame, a 12mm chipboard base, and sheets of extruded polystyrene foam on top of that. At least that’s the plan today.

In preparation for the build, I’ve done a load of clearing out and organising in the garage, which had been fairly haphazardly strewn with stuff on the basis that it didn’t matter. Well of course now it does, so order has had to be imposed. A few items went to the local recycling centre, others have been reorganised into tidier piles. A load of old cardboard boxes nearly went into the recycling too, until I had a brainwave and decided to weave them into the inside of the garage door to provide some insulation. It’s all cut to size and wedged in, not a strip of duct tape to be seen! That should make life in the garage a bit more bearable come winter.

Tidying the garage, and indecision

Last night I spent a few hours out in the garage, planning out where my model railway is going to go. Based on my mock-up in the sitting room, it’s going to need a base board around 1m x 2.4m. I got my tape measure out, and that’s going to take up rather a lot of my garage! And it’s not exactly empty as it is.

So I set about reorganising the contents of the garage, putting things more neatly into corners, throwing out some rubbish, and generally trying to work out how I’m going to fit everything in. You probably wouldn’t notice the difference, but it is now a lot tidier – in places.

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking a lot about wiring, referring to this excellent page – it’s not pretty, but it is incredibly useful. I need to buy some parts, probably from my nearby East Somerset Models, or possibly eBay, but it should be fairly straightforward. It’s just a lot to get to grips with, all of a sudden! What makes it even more complicated is that I’m suffering from indecision – I keep coming up with alternative track designs, or variations on what I had before, and I can’t decide which one to go with. I keep moving the sidings around, trying to make more space for stations. But I also want the layout to make sense, which means that something needs to happen in those sidings. I’d like to have a small industry or something, so that I can legitimately transport something from A to B, ideally without requiring the passenger train to be taken off the layout.

And then this morning I found this layout on the SCARM website. Yes, it’s for a different scale, but it shows a slightly different way of adding variation into an oval. It’s got room for a nice station (though only one), plus an industry (transporting lumber from the woods to a sawmill). I might have to get the track into the sitting room again so I can play with this idea. The SCARM software looks tempting too, I might have to download that as well!

Model railway build: it begins

Something unexpected happened last week – I took possession of a model railway. Well, to be exact, I took possession of some of the parts I’ll need to create my own model railway. Which essentially means I’ve been handed a mid-life crisis.

When I were a lad, my Dad and I built a 00 gauge railway. We mounted it on a big board hinged to the wall. It had two ovals (an outer express line and an inner goods line) that went through a tunnel, a branch line that went up a hill and finished on top of the tunnel, several sidings, a hole in the middle for small people to peep up through, and some weird electronics to optionally isolate certain bits of track so we could have lots of engines on the track at once. There were many happy hours spent playing with engines, painstakingly applying ballast to the tracks, and trying to make the grass look realistic.

But with my parents moving house, it became time for me to reclaim the railway, or lose it. Of course, I couldn’t take it as it was, on that great big board, so my first task was to rip up all the track and scenery. That was tough, not physically but emotionally. But the heartache was balanced out by the hope that it would live again, albeit in a different form.

And so begins my next project – making my own 00 gauge railway layout. I’ve already got a rough idea of a track layout, using the bits of track that were still usable. I’m trying to keep it simple, but I also want it to be interesting. My plan at the moment is to have a single oval, but with a wiggle in it for variation, and a few sidings. Below is a picture of what the track looks like on my sitting room floor.

I’m already considering changing that, though. I’m contemplating whether the sidings on the right could be inside that wiggle, on the edge of the board rather than inside the loop. I’ll need to get the track out again and see if I can make it work.

As for mounting it, I’m looking at using some sort of styrofoam base to build up some scenery, making some nice hills and a subtle elevation change such that the back straight is slightly higher than the track at the front. I’m still researching how best to do that. I’m imagining that will all be mounted on a bit of chipboard, possibly with some slats underneath for rigidity. I’m still working on how best to raise that off the ground; it’s going to be in my garage, and I’ll want to store stuff underneath, so I need to work out whether I can repurpose an existing table or whether I’ll need to create my own legs. I’m not exactly experienced with woodwork, so this is going to be a challenge! I’m also wanting a lid, probably also in chipboard for now, which will keep the dust out when I’m not using it, and possibly also allowing me to store some stuff on top if I need to. And there was me thinking this would be a simple project!

Height map showing where the hills might be

Ultimately, I’m aiming for a quaint little countryside line, ideal for a little tank engine and a few carriages or trucks. I’m not anticipating express trains on here. I’d quite like some sort of industry on the top branch line, but I’m not sure what yet. Might be a farm, or a mine, or a factory. Suggestions on a postcard.

The sovereignty of God

Or: God, our ultimate superhero

This is a sermon I preached at St Aldhelm’s Doulting, focusing on James 4:11-17.

Superheroes are everywhere in today’s culture. In some ways we’re a bit like them, in that we often judge each other, comparing our own skills and achievements against other people. James points out that this is contrary to God’s will. We judge God too, every time we go our own way instead of his.

James teaches us that the solution to our problem of pride is humility. We need to humbly submit to each other, and to God.

Sermon: Living faithfully

This is a sermon I preached at St Peter & St Paul Shepton Mallet, looking at James 2:14-26.

James writes to young Christians in churches across the Middle East, telling them that faith without works is dead. At first glance, that seems contrary to Paul’s teaching, so we need to take a closer look at what James is saying.

Listen to this recording to learn more! And do leave your comments below.

What is Church?

Following a discussion with a learned friend recently, it became painfully apparent that my personal definition of “Church” was quite different from his.  He challenged me to explore this further, particularly to look at the New Testament to see Biblical evidence of Church.  This document is an analysis of this research, which will hopefully point me towards a Biblical definition that is also culturally relevant and contextual for today.

Personal opinions matter

Since this exploration started with a difference of opinion, I thought it would be worth asking a few more people for their opinions too, to gather as broad a range as possible.  The answers were not intended to be scientific or cleverly thought out, and most people I asked were not given much chance to craft their responses, and that was quite deliberate; what I wanted was people’s gut feel, their immediate impression, a summary of what was most important to them.

Those with theological training (perhaps unsurprisingly) gave the most Biblically-centred answers.  A common point of reference was Acts 2:42, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer”.  To them, this is Church.

Interestingly, those with a less leadership-oriented perspective came up with very different definitions, centred more around community, family, people, personal experience, and spirituality.  Some highlighted the importance of the mix of believers and unbelievers, showing the importance of mission and being outward focused.  One person quoted Matthew 18:20, where Jesus says “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them”.  Another had a more timeless understanding of Church, including all believers throughout time and throughout the world, highlighting the nature of the breadth of corporate worship.

As for me, I had my own opinion too.  I instinctively defined Church as the following:

The Church is the body of believers acting as a community within the community to worship and encounter Jesus.

However, as confident as I was of this definition when I first met with my learned friend, I recognised the importance of looking to the Bible first, and using God’s Word to inform my definition, rather than just finding Bible passages that backed up my opinion.