Working on the railroad

Artist creates model railroad scenery at Hagerstown Roundhouse Museum

Artist creates model railroad scenery at Hagerstown Roundhouse Museum

August 01, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

Model railroad scenery designer Todd Stotler has a one-track mind: Make it look real.

He studies books about local geology, photographs limestone cliffs while biking on the C&O Canal towpath near Sharpsburg, scavenges in nature for weeds and other items that he can use in model railroad scenery, looks for tips in Model Railroading magazine, and experiments with a variety of materials - all to create model railroad dioramas that mimic the real thing.

"The challenge is to make it look real. I want things to be as realistic, as scale, as real-world as possible," said Stotler, 31, of Sharpsburg. "The key is using a little bit of everything to get a lot of random elements in it to make it look real-world."

Some dried weeds here. A sprinkling of model railroad turf there. Tiny lumps of gray plaster to simulate pebbles. Real coal to add a bit of sparkle. Tiny squares of quilting fabric to lend authenticity to a miniature clothesline. Black chalk to give shiny model train cars a weathered look. And no Matchbox cars.


"To me, that just represents the toy factor," Stotler said.

He spends just about every Tuesday creating the scenery for Hagerstown Roundhouse Museum's newest model train display - a 600-square-foot, museum-quality diorama that replaced four smaller layouts on the museum's second floor. It takes about eight minutes for one of the display's five main train lines to complete its loop, Stotler said. The Gaithersburg (Md.) Model Railroad Society gave the local roundhouse museum most of the display's components - including $45,000 worth of buildings, tracks and trains, Stotler said.

"We're taking their diorama and making it into what we need," he said.

Stotler and his wife, Mary-Fran Stotler, are longtime model train enthusiasts who became members of the Hagerstown Roundhouse Museum last year. Mary-Fran Stotler serves as the museum's treasurer, and her husband accepted the challenge to create diorama scenery despite lack of previous experience.

Todd Stotler is a musician who owns Echos Recording Studio in Sharpsburg. He's been an avid HO-scale modeler since he was a kid, but he never built scenery until he started volunteering at the museum, he said.

"A lot of model railroaders don't want to do scenery. Scenery is like this big 'I don't want to go there' thing. It does look intimidating," Stotler said. "You've got to overcome that fear and just jump into it. It's not rocket science."

Roundhouse museum members in May invited Stotler to complete the scenery for a small N-scale model train layout that was to be raffled for a museum fund-raiser. Stotler said he used the N-scale diorama to "cut my teeth on scenery," learning as he followed the layout kit's instructions.

He didn't always get the scale right.

He revels in the details

Experience, experimentation and advice from such model railroading veterans as Hagerstown Roundhouse Museum's Denny Masters has helped Stotler refine his craft.

He uses plywood and Styrofoam to create the bases for track-side towns and mountains and farms. He crafts contours with vinyl screen or chicken wire. Crumpled newspapers and plaster-soaked paper towels become the bases for rolling hills. Stotler fills latex rock molds with industrial quality papier mch to craft mountains, working fast to attach his plaster rocks to existing surface material before the papier mch hardens. He uses a dental plaster-like material to bring out the finest details in the latex molds.

Stotler mixes pricey model railroad paint with inexpensive acrylics to get dirt tones and other called-for colors while stretching dollars. He "plants grass" by sprinkling a light layer of hand-mixed model railroad turf over wet paint. A second sprinkling of turf - affixed to the first with a spray of watered down glue - fills in gaps and adds dimension. Stotler uses a shake-and-make method to build trees - shaking adhesive-covered plastic tree trunks in a bag filled with crumbly green Styrofoam.

He constructs stone walls - which he figures are needed to keep the little plastic cattle from encroaching on the railroad tracks - with layer upon layer of small plastic balls shaped like pebbles. He even spent eight hours creating an 8-inch-deep cave, drilling into the side of a hardened plaster mountain and inserting hand-sculpted cave walls. Stotler added a miniature spelunker to the cave's exterior to signify its existence.

"That's overkill in details, but it was fun for me to do it," he said. "I just like to get in one area and really knock it out in detail."

Stotler said the most tedious aspect of model railroad scenery design is placing the tiny, multitoned specks of plaster that simulate railroad ballast among the tracks. He must use minuscule brushes to remove any ballast that blocks the tracks.

"I dread doing this part," Stotler said.

He said he experiments with different techniques - like using the serrated edge of a plastic plaster tool to create a farm field's rows, or scraping a wire brush through wet plaster to make textured rock - to learn which result in the most realistic outcome. If it doesn't work, he simply tries another approach.

"It's easy to start over," Stotler said. "You either rip it up or cover it with another layer of plaster."

He hopes to finish the initial phase of the diorama's scenery - covering all exposed plywood - by the end of this year. But he doesn't foresee an end to the project.

"You never finish a model railroad," Stotler said. "You're always going back and adding things."

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