Landscape refining and engine oiling

Another successful evening in my garage saw a host of subtle improvements to my styrofoam landscape, smoother running from my Smokey Joe 0-4-0 thanks to some sewing machine oil, and a slightly longer siding to accommodate a two-carriage DMU.

I have to say, the blue is starting to get to me. It really needs painting. But before that can happen I need to refine the shape of it and figure out a seemlingly endless list of other details. Before I started work on it this time, the sheets of styrofoam were plainly obvious, and far too square to be believable. So I hacked away some more, taking off edges, introducing more randomness, and smoothing things off. It’s a subtle improvement. I think I shall probably still have to hide a lot of the edges underneath hedgerows and trees to make it even less obvious, but at least now it’s looking a bit more like a landscape and less like 4 sheets of underfloor heating insulation.

The most important refinement though was to the inclines underneath the track. I had previously hacked out the channels using a steak knife, so it wasn’t exactly smooth. Today I took a different approach, filing instead of sawing, extending the length of the inclines a little and smoothing out all the bumps. The track still needs persuading to lie completely flat, but once it’s actually pinned down it should look great and be nice and smooth and even.

A similar technique was used to create the road bed. I’ve planned out a road, coming in at the back and off again at the side, crossing the track in two places, and giving access to the car park behind the station. I could have just painted it on, but it occurred to me that since my entire floor is mouldable I could do an even better job by actually sculpting the road. It’s now got a slight camber to it at the edges, which has the dual effect of creating a defined edge for the curb of the pavement. Once painted up, this should look a treat! I also cut out some pieces of cardboard to experiment with the level crossings. I’ll probably use a more solid piece of card eventually, and embed it into the road a little.

Also, while I was in town, I bought some sewing machine oil. Nice and cheap from a local wool shop, and is perfect for lubricating locomotives. Smokey Joe was a little jerky, and sounded rough, so I took the top off and oiled all the moving parts. After a few laps to settle in, it’s much better. Still not perfect, but from what I read on the forums that’s typical of 0-4-0 locos due to the limited options for electrical contact.

While I was at it, and I also got my green Lima DMU out. It’s a three-carriage passenger loco, and I hadn’t planned on using on this layout simply because it’s rather big. Leaving out the middle coach it will fit on the main station, but is still too long for the top station. One option is just to live with it and assume that the DMU doesn’t stop at the top station (it’s technically a ‘halt’, after all). Or, if I’m feeling adventurous, I could scratch-build a station with a curve in it, so that it’s long enough to accommodate two long carriages. I’d worry about the clearance though, what with the overhangs on my tight radius curves. Either way, it looks good and drives well, so I’ve increased the length of one of my sidings so it’s long enough to hold those two long carriages.

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.