The following is a revised version of an article that first appeared in The Clearboard in 2014. The Clearboard is the official publication of The Model Railroad Club of Union, NJ.
CONSISTENCY: A KEY TO SATISFYING SCENERY
Much has been written about the importance of variety for creating realistic model railroad scenery, variety of colors, variety of textures and so on. But this article is about something that, in my opinion, is just as important, consistency. Let me go a step further, consistency is absolutely essential for great scenery. Consistent quality, techniques, colors and textures.
In March, 2012 I was at Sound Rail, a model railroad operations event that takes place every other year in the greater Seattle area. While there a group of us paid a quick visit to see our friend Walt Apple and his layout. When I walked into his layout room the first thing I said was, "This looks like Lance Mindheim's work."
Well, guess what, it was Lance Mindheim’s work! Lance, a professional layout builder who lives in Maryland, had constructed the layout for Walt and shipped it all the way to Washington. I had never seen any of Lance's layouts in person before but had read a number of his articles in Model Railroader and had looked at his website on numerous occasions. Lance's work is first rate and he definitely has his own style which I easily recognized. That experience, and others like it, got me thinking.
Let's imagine for a minute that there's a man named John who has built his own layout in three sections. It's almost done and he has even gone so far as to putting in the basic landforms. But he's not comfortable doing scenery so he decides to let me finish a section for him. After that he gives the other sections to two other modelers. John gives each of us detailed instructions about what he wants so we all know the locale being modeled and the time of year but, here's the catch, neither one of us knows about the other two.
A month or so later later we're all done and each of the layout sections look very good. Now all that is left to do is delivery the three sections back to John and put them back together. What do you think would happen next?
I know exactly what would happen. We'd have a big problem! Why? Because the sections wouldn't match. Individually they might look fine but together they'd look ridiculous (kind of like your typical N-trak setup). Working on our own and unable to coordinate our efforts we would end up using different colors, techniques and materials. The lack of consistency would hurt the end result. In order to correct the problem someone would have to go back and redo the scenery on one, two or possibly all three sections. A big waste of time and money!
Now here's a story from The Model Railroad Club. We first started using SuperTrees on the HO layout around 1998. Before building them I polled members of our scenery committee to see which ground foams we should use. After brief discussions we selected Woodland Scenic Medium Green Course Ground Foam for our deciduous tree leaves. The Woodland Scenic Light Green was deemed to be too light and Spring like for our Summertime layout, while the Dark Green was too dark. But after making and planting a dozen or so I decided that the Medium Green by itself was still too light. We then started using a mixture of both Medium and Dark Green for each tree and that turned out to be much better. And by adjusting the proportions of the two colors we were able to get some nice variety. We also occasionally used similar foams from Scenic Express but kept to our basic formula of mixing medium and dark greens on each tree. By doing this we were able to have both variety and consistency.
After planting the first batch of our new trees we immediately noticed how super they looked and how inferior all of our other stand-alone trees looked in comparison. The older trees were made using real twigs for the trunks while the leaves were created with poly fiber covered with ground foam. When all of the stand-alone deciduous trees on the the layout were done this way they looked fine. But when the superior SuperTrees were added it didn't take us long to decided that the old ones would have to be replaced and replaced fast since Allen Keller was coming to do a video. Once again it was all about consistency, the old trees were okay but the new ones were better, so the old ones had to go. Replacing them was a lot of work but well worth the effort.
Typically when only one person does scenery on a layout consistency issues are few. But when more get involved then the potential for problems increases as different people will have different experiences, skills and ideas about how things should be done and what looks good and what doesn't. In a club such as ours how do we avoid such problems?
We start by establishing a set of scenery standards that would specify such things as what materials to use; the proper colors; the best techniques; appropriate tree species; maximum tree sizes; ballast types for main lines, passing sidings and yards; and so forth. The standards would have to be readily available to all involved in scenery construction.
But before setting standards one must know a couple of things, starting with the area being modeled. In the case of our HO layout the answer is Pennsylvania and northern New Jersey, with rolling hills, farms, the Appalachian Mountains, and woods and forests dominated by deciduous trees.
The next thing we need to know is when, and I'm not talking about the era, I'm talking about the time of year. When asked most modelers will say that they are modeling the Summer or perhaps Autumn. A few select Winter. Interestingly I can't remember anyone ever modeling Spring. But is just selecting the season enough? Certainly not here in New Jersey where the scenery can look decidedly different from month to month. Early Summer is not the same as the middle of the season. And late Summer can look a lot like early Fall around these parts. In Spring and Autumn one can see dramatic changes in just a week or even a few days, so it pays to be specific.
Like most layouts ours is set in the Summer and judging by the colors we have selected thus far I would say mid-season. That puts us in either very late July or early August. The grasses and trees look green and healthy which indicates a normal amount of rain.
With the when and the where now determined we are able to begin the process of setting our scenery standards. These standards will help to insure that our scenery is of the highest quality and that the scenes will look good together regardless of who did the work.
Today forests cover about 60% of Pennsylvania. There are 196 native and naturalized trees species there but just six of them make up over half of the forests. The Red Maple alone accounts for 20%. That means that just six different types of trees cover almost a third of the state and the Red Maple covers over a tenth.
In 1999 forests covered 45% of New Jersey and the state had 77 tree species. Just ten species and specie groups made up 79% of the state's tree population. The Pitch Pine lead with about 14%, followed by the Red Maple with 13%. Various oak species made up 30%.