Turning a wall shelf into a model train display

bnacar, Jan 2017 - present

Since joining Tstaff in 2015 I'd been contemplating the possibilities offered by the wall shelves in my office. I had dabbled in model railroading before college took over my life, and I still had my entire HO scale train collection as well as a lot of track and scenery materials lying around at home. Turning one of the shelves into a static model train display seemed like a nice way to blow off steam (pun not intended) during lunch breaks.

This project has no fixed schedule and sometimes I only have an hour to spare for it out of a whole work week, but that was sort of the point, that it be an exercise in patience. I'll add photos when progress seems significant.

The basic terrain

The shelf is 1 ft. deep and 3 ft. 10.5 in. long - actually 4 ft. long if you go past the lip at either end. The first step is to build up the contour of the landscape. There are many ways of doing this, and this isn't necessarily the best or the most popular way of doing it, but it works. You can see that there will be a main line and a siding, a road crossing the main line at the left, and a brook at the right. There's a lot more of the landscape to be filled in, but this was the portion where accuracy was important.

To give a better idea of what it will ultimately look like, I took a picture with the track and a train in approximately the right position.

The locomotive and freight cars are from the first train set I ever had. That locomotive - a Mantua engine formerly decorated as Great Northern Railway no. 407, now Benrail no. 22 - no longer runs and hasn't for years, hence my choice of it for static display purposes.

Bridge abutments

I needed a couple of bridge abutments for where the tracks go over the brook at the right. You can buy pre-cast bridge abutments in a variety of designs from hobby stores, but I wanted to see how little money I could get away with spending on this project, so I opted to make the retaining walls myself piece by piece. I found some years ago that soaking wads of toilet paper in water and setting them in rectangular casts makes realistic cut-stone shapes. Legos work nicely for this. One 1x2 Lego brick has a 5/16 in. by 5/8 in. footprint, or slightly bigger than 2 ft. by 4 ft. in HO scale. This time I used brown paper napkins instead of toilet paper, and watery glue for extra durability. Different combinations of Lego pieces gave me the right shapes for where the wall makes a 135-degree angle.

Here's one of the completed abutments in place. I was originally going to paint it, but I discovered that if you use slightly differently-colored brown paper napkins (Starbucks' napkins are lighter than Chipotle's) it looks pretty believable without further coloring.

Prof. David Laidlaw points out that the face of the wall should really have a slight slant to it. Very true, but I figured getting that just right was more trouble than it was worth for this project.

The rest of the landscape

Here's another shot with both bridge abutments in place and more of the landscape filled in. Once there's enough cardboard substructure, I cover it with brown paper bag paper, which comes believably close to the color of dry soil without further adjustment.

And here's the basic terrain all filled in. I reached this stage almost exactly one year after I embarked on this project. A dedicated hobbyist could probably have reached this stage in a day (not counting the time spent making the bridge abutments).

In case you're wondering, the trench space across the main line near the middle of the pictures is so that I can run wires to light the station, crossing signals etc.

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