Weekend Reading: The Ancestral Roof

ancestralroofI have been seeking a suitable subject for my first attempt at applying the stonework modelling techniques described by David Wright in his book, Making Rural Buildings for Model Railways. This led me to a book I acquired a while back and had not actually got round to reading. The Ancestral Roof: Domestic Architecture of Upper Canada by Marion MacRae and Anthony Adamson is a detailed review of the housing styles of Upper Canada aka southern Ontario prior to Confederation in 1867. This is the period when the vast majority of stone construction took place so it is bang on for my purposes.

Published in 1963, the era of the book is evidenced in that the extensive collection of photographs are all black and white. No guide to colouring for modellers here. On the other hand, there is a detail coverage of Gerogeian, Loyalist, Regency, Classical Revival and Picturesque styles as embodied in houses built in southern Ontario.

The description of styles is illustrated with many photos and drawings; overall, floorplan and details. I also enjoyed the tales of how particular styles got to Canada and what the locals did to them to adapt to local conditions. A Georgian workers cottage executed in logs is not something you find in the UK.

The Ancestral Roof is long out of print but a quick E-Bay search turned up a couple of inexpensive copies so it is not unobtainable.

edit: photo…


Weekend Reading: Modelling Branchlines by David Wright

Branchlines_WrightOne of the things I like to do when I am traveling (and when I am not 🙂 ) is visit public libraries. It gives a glimpse into local literary tastes and sometimes interesting public architecture. The Halifax Central Library is definitely worth the visit. The building is almost new and impressively not just a big glass box. I also enjoyed the book return conveyor/elevator/sorting system which is purposely visible at points.

One of the book sections I am sure to go through is, of course, the model railroading and railroad history. In this case, I discovered a copy of Modelling Branchlines: A Guide for Railway Modellers by David Wright. My host agreed to sign it out for me and I read through it over a couple of days.

My initial impression was that this book was a bit of an odd duck by North American publishing standards. Rather than addressing a specific area of modelling technique, it covers a “vertical” segment of the hobby, the UK branchline. It includes a general history of branchlines in the UK, a basic overview of general layout construction methods, layout plans based on specific prototypes, some freelanced plans, some specific detailing and  modelling projects and some advice on colouring with prototype reference photos.

This unexpected approach is, once one gets used to it, an interesting read. The general technique sections provided some useful ideas that I want to try. I consider the real meat of the book to be the prototype line information and associated layout plans. The section describing the construction of a stone station building from card and modelling clay covers an approach I have not seen described in detail and that I definitely want to try.

Modelling Branchlines is in print and available from the usual online behemoth. If you are interested in the prototype subject matter and some excellent trackplan treatments thereof, this book might be worth picking up.

Weekend Reading: CN Engineering Specifications for Industrial Tracks

The internet is such a wealth of information that one can develop the misleading impression that all information is available online. Not but sometimes you turn up something useful. CN Engineering Specifications for Industrial Tracks is one thing I found recently while attempting to answer questions about various track details for Comstock Road. While this is the current CN document intended for modern customers, it does give me help in making more plausible guesses where required.

Some of the information is not of direct interest to modelers since model railway engineering and permitting processes are somewhat less formalized but some of it is bang on. For instance, I gleaned the following useful numbers from this document:

  • Minimum ballast shoulder for jointed rail is 6″ beyond the tie ends. 12″ for welded rail. Hmmm.
  • Additional sub-ballast width is required on the diverging side of turnouts to provide a working area for the rail crew to stand.
  • A spur of over half a mile requires a runaround. Long backing move without a caboose are neither fun nor safe for the guy riding the last car.
  • 25′ between main and industrial track unless space is unavailable, 14′ minimum between adjacent industrial tracks.
  • 20″ spacing on leads, 22″ on body tracks.

And some we are just going to pretend either didn’t apply in the 1970’s or just isn’t doable in the space I have:

  • Minimum rail weight of 115lbs. Depending on sources and rail profile that is either code 125 or code 138. I have Right O’ Way code 100 steel. That is plausible for a circa 1900 era leftover but not especially likely for 1940/50’s new construction. I am claiming reuse as a wartime expedient.
  • A minimum radius of  9° of curvature. Which is something like 160″ in 1:48 O scale. The entirety of Comstock Road is 144″ long… We are just going to prohibit autoracks and proceed.

There is also a bunch of details regarding clearances and grades that I will have to look at more closely although model standards will likely suffice. The real GECO spur crosses the actual Comstock Road and ascends to the last customer on what looks like a fierce grade of 5% or more so I doubt I will come up with anything implausible. (My intent is for the back industry siding to be up a grade to give a bit of topological interest.)

Weekend Reading: Kingston Portsmouth & Cataraqui Electric Railway by George Dillon & William Thomson


A benefit of winnowing the magazine pile is the discovery of treasures long unseen. I spent most of my formative years in Kingston, Ontario and despite being a transit enthusiast from an early age I remained ignorant of the streetcar predecessor of bus based Kingston Transit. This little locally produced gem was my enlightenment.

Every city and town who could manage it had a local, privately run electric railway system back in the day. Kingston was no exception. Dillon & Thomson describe the growth of the system from horse car beginnings up until the almost universal car barn fire during hard economic times that spelled the end of electric operation.

This particular version of the local line history is a treat for me since I am so familiar with the area. My parents regularly took me to Lake Ontario Park when I was young to ride on the rides (especially the 15″ gauge miniature railway). I wondered about the funny double line of trees along the edge of the park in front of the courthouse and so on. It turned out that both were remnants of the electric railway.

Published in the early 1990’s by the Kingston division of the CRHA, this book is typical of the locally produced volumes with no glossy paper and black and white photos of moderate reproduction quality. On the other hand, it is signed by the authors was priced at $8. (I have no recollection of where I acquired it.) I am keeping this one.

Weekend Reading: The Most Powerful Idea in the World by William Rosen


The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry and Invention by William Rosen is not a book about railroading despite the cover (which is what caught my eye). I would call it train hobby adjacent. William Rosen tells a readable story of the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and the importance and interconnectedness  of inventions of names we know such as Watt and Trevithick as well as many most of us probably don’t know.

The main theme of the book revolves around inventions and the control thereof by their creators. Rosen’s thesis is that English common law’s treatment of patents is what made England such a standout at the foundational inventing that powered the Industrial Revolution.

I found the book an interesting and accessible read. The focus is not on technical minutia but it was enlightening to have various necessary supporting inventions covered. I had never considered that such things as precision measurement and boring of large cylinders represented inventions that somebody had to develop.

This book is still available in paperback and e-book form. It even has its own website which makes it more mainstream than most hobby books. I enjoyed the book in general and  learning about the origins of the external combustion engine we love in particular.


Weekend Reading: Track Planning for Realistic Operation by John Armstrong

TPfROIf there is a model railroading book that does not need a review, Track Planning for Realistic Operation by John Armstrong is it. It is not an overstatement to assert that all layout planning in the North American tradition is based on this book. I found my backup copy in the course of the ongoing shop cleanup and I am moved to share a few thoughts on this treasured book. Originally published in 1963, it is still in print and widely available.

I acquired my original copy from the Lewiscraft store in Kingston, ON in the late seventies for $5.99 which was a princely sum for a twelve year old. If only all my youthful purchase were so rewarding. John Armstrong was a master explainer and I avidly absorbed his ideas through his friendly prose. I still enjoy re-reading sections although I think I have the thing mostly committed to memory.

While I consider John Armstrong’s influence to be enormously positive on the model railroading hobby in general and myself in particular, I do wonder if this influence caused our general obsession with cramming as much layout as possible into the available space. John’s “by the squares” method starts with the minimum acceptable radius and is used to see how much will fit. Many of John’s inventions or inventions he popularized focus on getting yet more into the space: double decks and mushrooms, vertical turnouts, helixes, and inverted return loops come to mind. To this day, Model Railroader’s layout at a glance sidebar will tell you things like how big the layout is, how long the mainline and so on.

Is bigger necessarily bad? No, of course not. I have had the pleasure of operating on some large layouts with a large crew and it is intensely rewarding. But those large layouts are the product of a great deal of effort and resources. Usually, the layout owner is supported by a crew of dedicated helpers. I wonder how many maximum sized layout efforts have died under the weight of excessive ambition for everyone achieved. I know I have a few monsters in my past. Most never go beyond the planning stage but I still tend to go from a simple plan to three decks and eleventy-miles of track in rapid short order. My approach to Comstock Road and choice of 1:48 scale is a deliberate effort to rein in that tendency.


Weekend Reading: Model Building with Brass by Kenneth C. Foran

modelbuildingwithbrassOne of the things all modelers should consider doing is looking outside their particular niche for methods and materials that might be bring something new to their repertoire. Model Building with Brass by Kenneth C. Foran was recommended to me by a modeler who knew of my beginning brass modeling pursuit. I second that recommendation.

As you can tell from the dust jacket, Kenneth Foran builds beautiful large scale models of various vehicles to a incredible level of detail and finish. The full-page and two-page colour photographs are a highlight of this book.

This is no coffee table decoration, however. Kenneth shares many of his methods in detail including tools, fabrication and finishing. Step by step examples give you an idea of what can be accomplished. Some techniques are not obviously applicable to model railroading. For instance I am not sure how I might use something like electroplating but I am ready if the occasion arises. On the other hand, Kenneth’s techniques for fabricating things like gas tanks and working brake pedals would easily translate into things such as tank car ends, brake rigging. diesel noses and cab interiors. If you want to model a prime mover right down to working pistons, this is definitely the book for you.

Model Building with Brass won’t tell you how to build railroad cars and locomotives but it can probably teach you are thing or two that will make things easier and improve your results. I consider the book a good buy for the sheet brass fabrication techniques alone.

Model Building with Brass is still in print and available through the usual online sources.

Weekend Reading: Scratchbuilding for Model Railroaders by Bob Walker

sb4mrrs.jpgI remember thinking some years ago that Bob Walker’s Scratchbuilder’s Corner column in Railroad Model Craftsman embodied a wealth of knowledge that should be turned into a book.  This was apparently not a special insight since not long after, along came Scratchbuild for Model Railroaders. If you ever intend to build a structure be it kit or from scratch, you would do well to own a copy of this book as a reference.  Note the dogeared corners on mine.

In the same self-deprecating conversational style he uses in his columns, Bob covers everything related to scratchbuilding structures from basic tools and materials all the way up to moulding and casting. Things are spelled out in straightforward fashion and include warnings on common mistakes.

We are fortunate that White River Productions has picked up and continued the Carsten books including this one so you can buy it new online right now. There is a lot of information packed into this volume and at $19.95 USD it is probably just about the best value for money available in the hobby today.

Weekend Reading: In Search of Steam Donkeys: Logging Equipment in Oregon by Merv Johnson

IMG_20171118_165748271If I ever attempt a narrow gauge layout, it will almost certainly feature logging and In Search of Steam Donkeys by Merv Johnson is the reason why.  I don’t remember why I originally purchased this book but I am ever so glad I did.  It is just wonderful.

The “In Search of” title is a bit misleading since the author has obviously found steam donkeys in abundance or at least many beautiful black and white photographs of them.  The photos are supported by explanatory prose that explains what a steam donkey is and discusses the different types and their uses but doesn’t stop there.  There are illustrations of rigging, dimensioned drawings, historical accounts and anecdotes from first hand interviews.  And to top it all, there is even a section featuring some models.

This book is no longer in print but is available on the used market at somewhere around the original price.  If you model a mainline railroad and are attempting to avoid catching the narrow gauge bug, you should not buy this book.  Everyone else would do well consider buying it if the opportunity arises.

Weekend Reading: Scratch-Building Model Railway Locomotives by Simon Bolton

Reading is the one hobby I have pursued longer than model railroading. Naturally, some of the former involves subject matter relevant to the latter. I thought I would share some titles that I have found interesting:

Scratch-Building Model Railway Locomotives by Simon Bolton is an accessible read covering the subject from a start useful to the beginner new to scratch-building in metal i.e. me.  This was an exciting find since the articles on the subject in such wonderful publications as Model Railway Journal tend to assume a basic level of knowledge and experience that many of us in North America lack.

Simon describes the construction of a simple British locomotive in a cheerful style illustrated with many colour photographs and hand drawn diagrams. Tools and techniques are introduced and explained in detail.  Neither is unachievable by the average intrepid modeler.  No lathe or milling machine required!

Even if I never actually scratch-build a locomotive, I learned several techniques that I have already put into use.  There is a sequel, Scratch-Building Model Railway Tank Locomotives that builds on the first book while tackling a more challenging modeling subject.  Both books are available through certain large online book sellers in North America which is how I found them when searching for books on the subject.