Trolley Modeling in N Scale

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Growing a City: DPW and Zoning ~ Tuesday, October 16, 2007

With my street trackage embedded in Tomix plastic paving block sections, it was time to bring the rest of the street up to grade.

I mulled over several ways of doing this. I could fill the space in with plaster or some other pourable material, but one of my objectives in building this layout is to make it disassembleable for maintenance (or for recycling for my next layout). I could cut foam board (it's available in thicknesses that would match pretty well) but I wasn't sure I could cut it precisely enough.

One day walking home I noticed a cheap source of large plastic sheet. In fact, the first sample was free (the date of the sale had already gone by):

I found more signs at a hardware store for about a buck each. I'm pretty sure they're made of polystyrene, just like all those model kits, and if you don't mind that they're painted on one side, this is a cheaper way to get big sheets of thin stock than through the usual hobby suppliers.

To raise the plastic sheet to a level even with the railhead, and to hold the track in position exactly where I want it (I don't really need to even nail or glue it down now, although a few drops here and there might help keep it in place during "extreme handling" such as turning the layout upside down to work on wiring) I made a frame of 3/16" thick balsa strips.

Cutting the plastic sheet to fit neatly around the curves of the tracks was tricky. At first I tried just using the track (or rather, the plastic paving block sections attached to the track) to trace a cut, but had trouble holding everything steadily enough to pull that off, and I was a bit nervous that weights or clamps might damage things.

Eventually I used a cutting compas. I think you can buy those ready-made, but I improvised one by clamping an X-Acto knife into a drawing compas.

In thinking this up I had imagined that this tool would miraculously make perfect cuts every time, but it was still somewhat fiddly. The blade has a tendancy to spiral in or out that's hard to fight. I got best results by cutting out quarters circles as separate pieces, and making the arc with a series of very light very short cuts, which I later retraced by hand, and then snapped apart, rather than one long heavy cut.

You could probably improve on this tool by getting another nut to secure the pointer end onto the screw from both the inside and the outside, making it more rigid. Next time!

After that, I smoothed out some rough spots, and the overall fit was pretty good.

There's still a few gaps, but if I make sure that everything underneath is painted darkly, I don't think they'll be too obvious.

My layout has one definite advantage over real streetcar lines in that I laid down my track first, and get to decide exactly how to fit streets and city blocks around them later. I used paper, pencil, and X-Acto to make "two dimensional mockups" of city plans, and try different-sized lots until I found a plan that worked.

I'm basing it around lots that are 30' wide and 20' deep. I guess that's a good example of selective compression--realistically-sized storefronts in front of buildings that are pretty unrealistically shallow. It's enough room to build a diorama of a shop behind the windows, if I want to go for interior detailing, without a bunch of space for a store-room in back that nobody would ever see unless they took off the roof.

There's a couple of advantages to this. I can fit something that looks like a genuine downtown city block in a pretty tiny space. It also makes the buildings well-suited to recycling on a shelf-style layout, which I think my next one is likely to be. It also makes this layout easily changeable.

My plan is to build up a collection of buildings or other scenic elements that fit in these standard lots, and swap them in and out as the mood strikes, perhaps even changing eras in the process. The corner areas I've laid out at the edges of the layout also have 20x30' lots; a lot of the time these will have "mini-parks", that will not block the view of the street, but sometimes they might also get swapped out with buildings to make the whole scene more urban. No reason there can't be a park in the middle of a block (or an empty lot full of junk, for that matter).

With the land subdivided and zoning ordinances passed, developers were anxious to start building. I visited Tom's Trackside Trains (pretty much the best place in the SF Bay Area for hard-core N-Scalers), and started looking for a likely kit to fill one of my lots. DPM's "Roadkill Cafe" turned out to be just about 29' wide, so a depth-shortened version of this kit is now the first building in downtown Winifred (and the first structure I've built specifically for this layout).

Coming soon: overhead! Just as soon as I install the sidewalks and paint the sceneray, which I'll get to just as soon as it stops raining!

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