Davis-Murdoch Stone Company

Composing Scenes

Iain Rice is one of my favorite authors on the subject of model railroading.

I collected all his books intended for an American audience only to find he had written even more for British and European modelers. I have not aquired every Iain Rice book, but my favorite that I have managed to obtain so far is
Finescale in Small Spaces.


Accustomed to American model railroading publications being light on words and heavy on illustrations, this book has column after column of tiny type composing text intended for a British reader. I have managed to stick with it and read this book completely through several times, and no doubt will do so again. I gain new insights every time I read it.

The chapter that I focused on for this project is "Designing For Visual Effect." After multiple readings, I began to understand how important this is for any layout, whether it be a small finescale pike or otherwise. The earlier in the layout construction process that things like composition and sight lines are considered, the better chance they have of manifesting themselves in the finished scene.

I divided my layout into a series of scenes through which the right-of-way runs. Each scene has a Focal Point. Scenes are divided by some form of Containment that would break the view of a Visitor so they can interpret the beginning and ending of each scene.

Focal point in upper left, Containment in lower right

The Focal Points are identified by index cards marked with an "F." Containment areas are identifed by index cards marked with a "C." I can't recall Iain ever recommending using index cards in such a way to help previsualize scenes. He articulates designs far more effectively in his beautiful sketches. I feel that, once the benchwork is in and the track is laid, it makes more sense to work out the composition of scenes on the layout itself using foam board scraps, cardboard boxes, index cards.

With scenes roughly defined by "F" and "C" index cards, I taped together sheets of cardstock to make a pattern for the fascia.


Rises and dips in the fascia were made taking the locations of the F and C index cards into account, with an eye toward complementing the ridge lines on the backdrop.

Updated Train Control

My simple On30 layout does not require a sophisticated control system


The first shelf layout I built in the early 90s had analog control, using a simple power pack to run the trains. In that particular application a power pack mounted in the center of the layout filled the bill, as I could control the power pack with my right hand to reach to the left or my left hand to reach everything to the right. I only ran trains solo, and only ran one train at a time.

As my layouts got larger, a simple power pack no longer suited my train control needs. A lot of my model railroading friends had
Digitrax systems at that time, so I got one for myself. I was generally happy with Digitrax, the command station ran literally for decades with few problems. My dissatisfaction with Digitrax grew when I began to program momentum into the CVs of my locomotive decoders. Guest operators began to spin the speed controllers frantically to get their trains moving and to stop. It was as if they were trying to wring the knob completely off, and the speed controller could not put up with much of that abuse before it would become faulty and unpredictable. I returned throttles to Digitrax on a regular basis for the same repair over and over again. They would be returned with the same cheap speed controllers as replacements.

Over time I had the opportunity to operate layouts with
NCE control systems. The throttles were set up differently and did not seem to be subject to the same issues my Digitrax throttles were having. So when I got the opportunity to buy a barely used second hand NCE system, I made the switch. The NCE system has worked reliably, and I have not had to send any components back to the manufacturer for repairs.

But my second hand NCE system came with only one throttle. That is adequate for troubleshooting electrical problems, programming CVs, and operating solo. But I wanted more throttles in order to be able to host group operating sessions. A requirement of any throttle used on my layout is that it allow quick and easy access to the stationary decoders I use to throw my turnouts. Accessing stationary decoders using simplified, compact throttles like I would prefer visitors to use is often difficult or impossible.

My search for a throttle well suited for a visiting operator led me to the
UWT-100 by TCS. The throttles themselves are relatively small and lightweight. They do not interfere with the function of my NCE system, so the throttle I already have is still completely functional.


The UWT-100 is cordless, interfacing with my NCE system through a WiFi panel which is almost-but-not-quite the same size and configuration of my old Digitrax UP5 panels, of which I still had a pile in a drawer somewhere.


I modified a Digitrax UP5 fascia panel to make it work with the
Wifitrax board. I can now mount it on the fascia of the layout, but the Status LED of the WifiTrax board is so bright and distracting I will either mount the board in an accessible but hidden location, or do something about dimming the intensity of the LED.


Railroad Display Covered Hopper

The Quarry Gardens at Schuyler have an O scale 2 rail Railroad Display in the Visitor Center.

I worked on the Railroad Display in its initial development until
Rail Tales of Charlottesville could take over production. One of my early responsibilities was to find rolling stock for the Display. Bob Leverknight was very accommodating and offered a large assortment of second and third hand freight cars at a very reasonable price. Some of the cars were more appropriate for representing the Nelson & Albemarle Railroad than others, but I was happy to take anything Bob wanted to sell.

One car in particular that Bob was willing to part with was a distinctive red and white checked Ralston Purina covered hopper. It was eye catching but not particularly well suited for the setting and theme of the Railroad Display.

QGS website, June 17, 2020

It was quite a photo bomber, even showing up on the Quarry Gardens website. In all the time I was working on the Railroad Display, I never took a good photo of the Ralston Purina covered hopper.

Purina covered hopper participating in track test

It looked very much like this 3 rail version.


Visiting the Quarry Gardens after the Railroad Display was completed, I was at the Visitor Center waiting for my tour to begin when I saw the red and white checked Purina covered hopper sitting on a siding at the soapstone mill. I requested permission to bring the car home with me for the purpose of giving it a makeover. Permission was granted. I found a photo of an early Chesapeake & Ohio covered hopper for reference, ordered two sets of ProtoCraft decals, and picked up some Tamiya black and clear flat spray paint.

I disassembled the car and washed the parts with soap and water. Once dry I applied many thin coats of gloss black. The paint laid down well but not perfectly with the surface developing a coarse texture, but it did not interfere with applying decals.

The pebbly surface of the paint was bad news

However, when I had finished decalling the car and oversprayed it with clear flat, the black paint immediately blistered and came loose.

Stripped and ready for primer

So I went back and did what I apparently should have done in the first place, using
Scalecoat paint remover to strip the covered hopper down to bare plastic, then primed it and painted it black again.

Much better the second time

This time the paint laid down smooth with a mirror finish, making for easy decal application. No disasters were encountered with the clear flat this time.

A dusting with actual Alberene Stone dust

I thought the most appropriate way to weather the car was to dust it with talc collected from the floor of the dust mill in Schuyler.

This car's photo bombing days are over

Upon the covered hopper’s return to the Railroad Display at The Quarry Gardens, it was immediately consigned to talc service between the soapstone mill in Schuyler and the B. F. Goodrich plant in Akron, Ohio.


Old and New Combined

I laid the long strip of cardboard on the floor of my shop along with the section of the full sized track plan that showed the southeast corner of the layout.

The one foot grid from the plan was transferred to the cardboard so I could position it along the backdrop.
Using the track plan as a guide, I drew a back scenic profile on the cardboard. The cardboard was trimmed to the profile and set in position.
I had saved the cleats that held the previous back profile board in position.
They were much too tall for the new profile.
The old scenery had been much higher in the back, mainly due to the fact that I did not paint the backdrop down far enough. Since then I have extended the backdrop painting much further down.

The cleats were trimmed down so they would not show above the new back scenic profile. The cardboard pattern was used to cut the Masonite profile.
The Masonite profile positioned and installed.

Scenery Behind the Track

The corner of the layout farthest from the door will be primarily scenic.


The area can be generally defined as where there is enough space behind the track to develop the scenery to any extent. The white cardstock in the photo extends about 6 feet or so in either direction out of the southeast corner. Beyond it the roadbed swerves really close to the backdrop on the right and left.

The cardstock will be used to create a pattern for cutting Masonite for the back profile of the scenery.