STORY: From the Very Beginning

When I was a little boy I had a fascination with steam locomotives. All trains were great but a steam engine with its smoke, steam and all the moving parts, it would make my heart race! Each one having its own personality.  Steam engines have always held a special place in my heart. I love the old narrow gauge trains of Colorado and how they fought their way up through the canyons along the edge of the river and across  trestle bridges . Towering mountains reaching the blue skies with cold, crystal clear creeks rushing off the mountain sides and along the railroad tracks.

So after growing up some (I’m still a kid at heart), I decided that switching to N scale modeling would open more possibilities within the 4 x 8 foot measurements.

Two main goals of this layout were to keep the layout small and light enough to move around. The track plan I decided on was in an old Atlas Track Plan Book. The plan is called the “Atlantic Longhaul.” I followed the plans pretty close to start with. The original plans called for 4% grade and I found out that my engines didn’t perform very well. So I highly recommend you use only a 2% grade on any track plan and you will be much happier.

Follow along and see how I built this layout using 2% Grade inclines to replace the 4%inclines.


The sound of a train always caught my attention.  I grew up in Ft. Collins, Colo. in the 70’s and 80’s. The railroad tracks back then ran down the middle of the paved street downtown. It was fun to ride my bike alongside of the train as it rolled thru town. I didn’t get to see steam engines but it was still great! There is an article in the magazine, Trains, Special 2016, Colorado Railroads (page 14) that shows a picture of a steam engine running down these very same tracks.  I remember many times, lying in bed, listening to the train whistle echoing through the night.

I had a paper route as a young teenager and saved up enough money to buy the biggest HO train set I could find in the catalogs. My older brother bought a sheet of 4×8 foot plywood and set his race car track up. I was able to set up my train around the outside of his race track and we had countless hours of fun. You could find Dad, my two older brothers and I, all around the two tracks together. Those were good times. When my brother grew up and went to college, I was able to take over the whole board. I tried many different track arrangements looking for the perfect track plan to build as a small layout. But the HO scale was too big to fit much of a layout inside these dimensions. Decided that N scale modeling would allow me to build a larger layout on the same 4’x 8’ space. Keeping the layout small would allow me to move it around easily from place to place. Wanted to keep the weight of the layout as light as possible and decided to try and use extruded foam board for the scenery.

A doubleheader is pulling a mixed freight up the pass as the local does some switching below.

Building a scale model railroad has been a dream of mine ever since I was young. The two biggest challenges for me, as it is for many people, is a location to build a layout, and the lack of money. So progress has been slow over the years. Started to build this layout in 2002 and worked on it when I could and had some money. I got the layout built as far as getting the framework built and all the track down temporarily to see how the trains ran. I was excited to start running trains but was soon disappointed in the performance of the locomotives trying to climb the 4% grades and knew this was not going to work.

After some thought, I decided to change the inclines from the 4% to 2%. First thing I had to do was remove the ramps that lead up to the upper level so the main level and second level are completely flat. Then starting at the highest elevation, I worked down using the Woodland Scenics Subterrain, Incline 2% Starter ramps. Under those I stacked ½ inch particle board(s) where needed which act as risers.The boards added more weight to the layout, but also helped strengthen the sheet of plywood. After changing all the inclines down to 2% the inclined tracks ended up being about twice as long as they were originally. This created a very contoured landscape which will fit right in with the mountain scenery I want to model. I was much happier with the performance of the locomotives making the whole project worth it all. With all the track laid down, the trains were running again!           TO BE CONTINUED…..SOON!!

Until then, keep it fun, relaxed and happy N scale modeling!


The next big project was to hide the back track which runs somewhat parallel to the track next to it as seen in the photo above. This called for a rock ridge which would end up being almost 7 feet long to hide the back track. I like working with insulation foam board when building the mountains and rocks because there is no rush before it sets up and hardens like working with hydrocal or Plaster of Paris. I can take my time and make many changes to the rocks until I’m happy with the results. Another good thing I like about working with foam is that I can work on a section in the house away from the layout. My train room is in an outbuilding which is not heated. That can be a problem during a cold Colorado winter. Being able to work in the house also keeps the mess away from the layout! But make sure you clean up after yourself in the house or you may end up in the doghouse.

I originally started carving rocks using the blue extruded foam board (XPS foam). This type of foam board is getting harder to find in our area. Lately I have been carving the new white expanded foam (EPS foam) and have had good results. I do prefer the blue extruded foam better for carving because it breaks off more like real rocks do and it can show finer details which is important when N scale modeling. The expanded foam breaks leaving little beads showing where there were no cuts in the foam before breaking the piece off. This is easily fixed by cutting them off with an X-Acto knife. When I started to make the back rockridge, I would cut the foam to shape on the layout making sure all clearances were good for the trains to run through. Sometimes I would mark guidelines or outlines on the new piece of foam to mark the location of the rocks next to it as seen below. Then I use these references later when carving away from the layout. I’ll stay outside the lines while carving and then do the final carving when the new piece is back on the layout next to the old carved foam. This way the edges line up correctly. This is especially true if the surface the foam sits on is not level like along the back incline on this layout. I learned this tip the hard way.

One of my winter projects, in the warmth of the house, was to build a mine scene that would fit in the back right corner of the layout. I cut the base piece of foam for the scene to size while working at the layout. Making sure the piece of foam fit properly on the train layout, and that there would be good clearances for the trains. I marked where the tunnel needed to be cut out on the bottom side of the foam. The rest of the scene was built inside of the house. I first built the mine building which is a strip wood kit from JV Models called “Burnt River Mine”. Then I made the landscaping to fit around the mine. This provided a chance to try my hand at something new. Never have done much scenery work before, other than a small square foot project that won in a small contest. So this would be good practice.I have put down the first layer of material for the undergrowth but that is all so far. The mine scene needs more landscape work to add more layers and details like talus rocks, weeds, bushes, trees and etc. The photo above shows the mine site in its early stage with what looks like nicely manicured grass. That’s going to change.


There are some locations on the layout where the track needs to change slight elevations from the ballasted mainline down to tracks laid right on the ground with no ballast as in the yard or a side spur track. I will use insulation foam board to create gentle slopes for these areas. I broke to incline into small sections to make it easier to fit each piece in among the irregular edges.  The following photos show the steps I used to create the inclines using Woodland Scenics Foam Putty to fill in gaps and edges.First I glued down the foam pieces where they needed to go and placed weights on top to hold them in place until the glue dried.After the glue had dried, I filled in any gaps between the sections and along the edges with Woodland Scenics Foam Putty. In the photos below you can see how much Foam Putty I put down and then spread it out with a putty knife as seen. Let the Foam Putty dry real good before using a sanding block to smooth it all out.I’ll usually paint the area a natural color after I’m done to help give the layout more of a finished look. I will vacuum up after each project to help keep the layout cleaner. 

I want to put a plastic coaling station on the layout until I can get a wooden one built. The plastic models base is too narrow to fit outside the roadbed. To solve this problem I used Woodland Scenics Foam Putty to raise the area up. First I placed the coaling station on the location it will stand and drew a line around the area that needed to be raised up. Then its the Foam Putty to the rescue. Add more height of Foam Putty than what is needed because the putty compresses down a lot. Place the putty knife on top of the roadbed as a height guide and spread the putty out. The photos below hopefully will show what I’m trying to explain.Let the putty dry real good before painting. I like to use acrylic paints because they are water based, easy to mix colors, thins with water, has a low odor and cleans up easily with water. I have learned that acrylic paint tends to get darker when its dry so experiment on scrapes to find the color you desire first.

These are some ideas for now that I hope are helpful. Until later, keep it fun, relaxed and happy N scale modeling!


There are some tried and true methods for creating water effects that have been around and work really well. But I have been trying to find a good way to make cascading water and twisting waterfalls which wrap around rocks as it falls downward. Using resin to do the cascading water would not work because the resin would flow down the falls and collect at the bottom in a big mess. The clear silicone method for creating a waterfall looks good but usually is a straight down fall. So I thought about using Woodland Scenics Suberrain Foam Putty by slightly thinning it with water and slowly letting it build up as it flows down and builds up the falls. Follow along and I’ll explain how I went about this project.

After the mountain and rocks are all colored and looking like the real thing (or as close as I can get), it is time to add some water by using the Woodland Scenics Foam Putty to build up the waterfall and/or cascading water. The most important part of this process is to use tiny drops of water. A small amount of water is needed to smooth out the Foam Putty.  A small syringe or eyedropper works well. Drop one drop of water at a time. otherwise the foam putty will wash away or just dissolve away. Go slow and allow the foam putty to stiffen up some before adding any more putty or water. The picture below shows dry putty placed where needed. I’m about to put a small drop of water on it to melt the putty into place. 

The next picture below shows how the putty flowed into place with just a tiny bit of water. A little water may flow down ahead of where the putty is being applied. This is okay, just keep adding dry putty to absorb the water. A paper towel can be used to absorb the excess water if needed.

The following photos show putting down the putty and adding water in a little better detail.          To start with, I will take the amount of the Woodland Scenics Foam Putty needed out of the original container and put it in any old plastic bowl to hold it for now. I do this so that I can put the lid back on the container of putty to keep it from drying out. As you can see in the picture above, I’ll use a toothpick to cut and push some of the dry putty into place. I’ll work in small sections at a time.

    Using the toothpick I will push the dry putty into the area where it is  needed.

 Here you can see the small pieces of dry putty I laid out before adding the water drops.

This photo is taken right after applying the water drops. Again, you can see how the putty flows into place. One thing I ran into was some vertical areas of the waterfalls needed more Foam Putty added, so I turned the whole piece of foam on its back. This allows the vertical areas to lay horizontally flat and any new Foam Putty added would not flow away.

The picture above shows the waterfall after all the Foam Putty has been applied. The next step is to paint the waterfall with white acrylic paint with the gloss fluid medium added in to give it a wet shiny look. The gloss fluid medium for acrylic paint helps improve the flow of color for blending as well as increasing transparency.

I use one drop of acrylic paint to three drops of the gloss fluid medium for acrylic paints. Mix the two together really well. The gloss fluid medium comes out of the bottle looking white with a touch of blue in it. This turns clear and shiny when dry.

I paint all of the waterfalls first with the mix of white paint and gloss medium. After that dries, I will then go back over the waterfalls painting them with just the gloss fluid medium. I will also paint the gloss medium over any rocks that would get wet from splashes from the waterfalls. After that dries, I will use the white paint with gloss medium to highlight the tops of the falls and raised areas to add some depth. After everything dries again, I will basically, slowly pour the gloss medium at the top of the falls and let it naturally flow down the falls. I poured the fluid gloss in different areas to even out the gloss medium along the height of the falls. I will pour in an area after a level spot and at the top of next falls below. You can tease the gloss medium back uphill with a paintbrush to help form ripples a little before the gloss medium has started to set up. Adding this final step of pouring the gloss medium really helps everything blend together and makes the flow of the waterfalls look more natural

In the lower right corner of the photo, you can see where I left a long piece of foam on the bottom section of foam. The reason for this is to provide a handle to hold the rocks while working on them. This handle will be cut off and the whole piece will be cut square so it can fit into a place where other rock formations will be added around it later. Since the Woodland Scenics Foam Putty and the acrylic paint are water based, it is easy to add more water (Foam Putty) later to connect the two sections together and cover where the seam was.

The Woodland Scenics Foam Putty, the acrylic paints and the gloss fluid medium for acrylic are all easy to work with. They mix well together and cleanup is a breeze with warm water as long as you rinse everything off right after using it.

There is a gloss gel medium that will work well when needing thick, clear areas of water. Something I would do differently next time is use just the clear gloss medium on the level areas of water showing the details of the bottom of the river and the white water effect only along the vertical parts of the falls. This would look more like a real waterfall. The gloss fluid medium can be slightly tinted with a touch of acrylic paint of your choice if needed.

I hope this opens up some new water ideas for you to add to your layout. But until next time, keep it relaxed and happy N scale modeling!



Earlier in this article on the date 8/20/2017, I mentioned a mine scene that was in progress. I would like to explain a little about how I built it.

The mine is a craftsman strip wood kit from JV Models called the Burnt River Mining Co. #1019. This is a difficult build and prior modeling experience is needed. The kit comes with the wood to build a small retaining wall in front but I got carried away and built a little bigger one.

The mine sites landscape had to be raised up in the back to allow for clearance for the tunnel which runs right below it. The following picture shows the underside of the mine site where the tunnel is cut through.

As mentioned before I built the mine scene away from the layout and inside the house. Having the scene separate from the layout makes it easier to work on the details without leaning over the layout. Inside the house I can sit down and be comfortable and warm in the winter.

Another thing I did to make working on the scenery around the mine scene was to keep the carved foam mountains loose so they could be removed as seen in photo above. This made it possible to work on it from all sides.

The mine scene was looking too clean and I realized that there needed to be a dump site for the waste coming out of the mine. That started a new timber retaining wall.  The picture below shows how I used small pieces of foam to fill the outer edges.

The following photos show parts of the waste area.

This photo above is a wider view showing the bare foam edges of the mine scene.The track for the ore cart started out as Z scale track. I pulled the plastic ties off the rails and put the two tracks side by side and bent both inner rail and outer rail together at the same time so they had about the same curve. Then I bent the outer rail to a slightly larger radius. Next thing to do was regauge the tracks to fit under the ore cart wheels. Then cut some new ties from basswood and glued them under the tracks. The rails look at little large but did not know what else to do. I have seen plastic ore carts and rails online for mine scenes in N scale but did not like the way they looked. 

I’ll explain how I added the mine scene to the layout a little later on. Right now I better get some sleep and tackle things again tomorrow. Until then, I hope you enjoy some N scale modeling!


A lot of time can be devoted to thinking how to arrange your layout. Deciding where the most logical location is for the different buildings and the different features of the model railroad can take a lot of thought. Getting the different elements to fit within the model railroad layouts boundaries can add to the difficult task. Following a prototypes arrangement may help in the placement of the buildings and etc., but then things still might have to be moved around to fit the confines of a layouts size and/or shape. A freelance layout allows the builder more freedom to include the elements they want in their layout. That freedom may also create more questions like where to locate the team track and the best location that works well for both the railroad and the town.

I studied the track plans for my layout a long time in trying to decide on where to locate things like a small switching yard, turntable and roundhouse, and train passenger/freight station. Even though a lot of thought was put into planning the layout a change of ideas can come along unexpectedly. I had a small brain storm (small brain equals small brain storm). The location where I originally pictured the train station would go, suddenly looked like a great place for an idea I had from an old magazine article. I decided there was just enough room on the layout in this area to squeeze in a twisted, steep dirt road that heads up to the mines. The roads switchbacks, wood retaining walls and steep drops along the edges would add some character. Because of the tight location on the layout, the roads switchbacks are a little too tight but I think they are believable to the viewer. The poor truck driver will probably have to do a three to five point turn with larger trucks trying to negotiate the switchbacks.

I started the project by taking a picture of the layout where the dirt road was going to be located. I loaded the photo into Photoshop and played with the road idea to kind of get an idea what the road would look like. I drew the route of the road on the photo first to get an idea which way it would fit the best. Then I drew in the mountains around it. This was not to scale and route of the road is not exact but it gave me an idea where to start.  The Photoshop picture just helped me to visualize how the road would look. The picture was just a tool to help get my imagination jumpstarted. My normal starting point for a new foam mountain project is to make a paper template of the area which the new foam is to be located on the layout. This template gives me the exact size and shape for the new piece of foam. I place the top of the template against the bottom side of the new piece of foam. I use straight pins to hold the paper template to the foam. Then I draw an outline around the template with a sharp permanent marker to transfer the template shape to the foam. Then cut the foam to shape cutting outside the lines of the template. This makes the cut piece of foam a little bigger then needed. I slowly sand down the edges of the foam until it fits snug into where it needs to sit. I like to use a hacksaw blade for cutting the foam. I don’t use the handle for the hacksaw though. By using the blade alone it is possible to cut curves and irregular shapes into the foam. You can buy handles that leave the end of the hacksaw blade exposed if you like. They are nicer on the hands but then you can’t twist the blade as your cutting.The photo above shows the start of the new mine road and the surrounding mountainside. The blue foam will be one of the inside edges of the tunnel which is on the upper level. I painted the road brown to help it show up better in the pictures. Here are a couple more pictures of the progress.When I had the mountain and road carved to the shape I wanted, I started building the wood retaining walls to help keep the mountain from falling onto the road. The retaining walls are built out of basswood 1/16 x 1/16 inch square stock. I try to keep any glue from showing on the front side of the retaining wall when assembling the wall. But I also sand down the front of the retaining wall with fine sandpaper to remove any glue before staining and weathering the wood. I did not glue the retaining walls into place on the mountain so that I could paint the rocks and road first before the walls were permanently glued in.  Here is a shot of the retaining walls after they were done.The photo above shows the gaps between the bottom of the curved retaining wall and the road. I use Woodland Scenics Foam Putty to fill in the gaps and to shape the road surface. When filling in the gaps below the retaining wall, I pressed the foam putty down against the ground and not against the wood wall. I still want to be able to remove the wood wall until everything is completely carved and painted. So be careful not to stick the foam putty to wood retaining wall. Placing saran wrap between the wood and putty works great to keep the putty from sticking to the wood. The next photo shows spreading and smoothing out the foam putty. I painted the road a ground brown color with acrylic paint after the foam putty was completely dry. The roads surface was roughly shaped by using a rough wood file chased by a fine wood file. Finish smoothing out the foam with 100 grit sandpaper or finer if needed. After the road is close to the contour I want, I use the foam putty to finish the finer details like filling in large potholes and adding ruts and ridges to the road. I also try to think about how erosion will move dirt around and collect in level areas and try to model that. The picture below shows white on the road where the foam putty was added. When the roads surface is to my fancy and it is all painted and dried, it is time to add the real dirt to the road. I like to use Arleen’s Tacky Glue that is watered down to a 50/50 ratio. Half glue and half water. This formula can be changed if thicker or thinner glue is needed for the project. A thicker glue is nice if working on slopes so the glue doesn’t run down the hill. The photo below show a small plastic container I use to spread out the dirt. I tap the side of the container softly with my finger while moving the container sideways slightly while pouring the dirt to help spread the dirt out evenly. The tapping on the side of the plastic container helps regulate how much dirt falls out.The dirt I use on the roads has been prepared before getting to this point. To get the dirt ready I went outside and looked for a place in the dirt where the rain had collected and dropped fine dirt particles in a puddle. I then ran the dirt through different screens starting with the largest holes first and work down to the smallest holes. I separated the different sizes of dirt particles after each screen in separate plastic containers to use later in scenery work. A container of the fine screened dirt, a container for fine crushed rock, a container of medium sized rocks and so on. The plastic containers that dry tea mixes come in at the grocery store work great for storage. The photo above shows an example of one. I label the finest screened dirt as “clean dirt” on the container. The smallest screen size I have been able to find is a kitchen tea strainer. The smallest size you can find is necessary when modeling in small scales like N scale and Z scale. Nothing looks better for modeling dirt then real dirt.

I put down a few drops of the diluted glue on the road and spread it out pretty thin and evenly with a wide brush. Then I tap the fine dirt onto the road in a thin layer. After the first layer of dirt is put down, wait a few minutes and watch to see if the dirt starts to look wet. If the dirt looks wet then add more dirt to cover up the wetness. If you want the dirt to stay looking wet then do not add anymore dirt and it will remain dark to look wet when dry. Does that make sense?  Anyway…here are pictures that kind of help in telling the story.The photo above shows how the dirt has got wet looking after a couple of minutes. The wet area is in the upper left of the photo. The picture below shows the same spot again after more dirt was added. Note how the dirt is now all the same color.When covering a long road with dirt you may have to work in sections at a time. If you are putting glue down for a new section next to a section already covered in dirt, feather the glue into the dried dirt to blend the new layer of dirt into the old layer of dirt. Otherwise a seam may appear between the two sections of road.

I took some photos of the mine road before it was placed on the layout. I’ll add more when I start adding on the rest of the mountains and continue the road towards the mine. Man, I sure hope his brakes are working good! The picture above is only the lower part of the mine road. There is a second section to be added so the road can continue up and over the mountain and down to the mine camp. The following picture is of the upper section of road before it drops down the other side of the mountain. The truck in the picture is coming from the mine camp.The far side of the mountain is almost complete too. The miners cabins are next to be built. There is room for three or four cabins in the camp area, so I need to get supplies together before the building can begin. I’ll wait and take photos of the other side of the mountain until the cabins are under construction. I think it will be an interesting area to visit on the layout when things are closer to being done.

So I guess that will be it for now, so until the next time, keep it simple, relaxed and happy N scale modeling to you!