Down by the New Mill Stream

Installing New England Brownstone plaster stonework

David Emery

Overview, Inspiration and Goals

The Sandy Lake and Northern connects Pennsylvania and New England (bypassing New York altogether :-) and is set in the 1890s. One thing I wanted to capture is a typical New England mill scene.

Manchester, NH: Amoskeag Mill complex
For more good pictures of these kinds of mill canals, see New England Brownstone's "Dam Page", Lowell (MA) National Historic Park, Lowell (MA) city website, Photographs of the Amoskeag Mills (Manchester, NH) and Amoskeag Millyard Documentary Photographs, and (last but not least), the Historic American Engineering Record (search on "mill" or browse entries in NH, MA and RI in particular.)

Here's a shot of the model mill area, showing the mill canal:

The mill canal
In this photo, the brick building on the left has been moved out of the way, and the building on the right has been removed. The mill buildings themselves are described in a separate page. The stone arch bridge is from "Gravel, Guts and Glory" (Their website seems to be inoperative these days.)

My original idea for the mill canal was to use O scale styrene brick sheeting from The N Scale Architect's Model Builder's Supply Line. You can see an example of this on pictures with the stone arch bridge removed. The brick canal gatehouse (kitbashed from an RDA/Ertl Vermont station) sits on top of stonework done with this O scale brick. Since I've not painted the stonework, it's hard to see the texture.

But then I discovered New England Brownstone. Some email exchanges with Russ Greene indicated that he would be interested in doing some custom molding. I traced the canal bed and sent it to him, along with a down payment. A couple weeks later (This was right about the time of the Amherst Model Railroad Show, so Russ had other commitments to work through.), Russ sent me back the following picture (along with a bill for the balance due):

Castings fitted to my canal bed trace, Russ Greene photo

The rest of this page is a blog on how I installed these castings.

17 Feb 07

The castings arrived and were very well packed.
Castings ready to be unpacked
The castings are lightweight plaster. They can be fragile, and I broke a couple. However, they glue back together easily, I used diluted carpenter yellow glue (the same stuff I use for gluing wood models.) There's a bit of 'flash' on the back, and I carefully filed the back of the castings so that the back of the stones on one casting would line up with the back of the other casting.

The next step was to lay out the goodies to see how they fit.

First fitting for the walls

Notice the brown colored material in the canal bed. This is exterior spackle. (A suggestion from Dave Frary's 3rd edition scenery book.) The good things about this stuff are that (a) it sticks to styrofoam and (b) it's very tough once dry. However, (b) is also a liability when it comes to reshaping things. What was clear was that I needed to do some cutting of the styrofoam to better accomodate the new walls.

After a lot of work, and the liberal application of inappropriate language, I removed all of the exterior spackle and reshaped the styrofoam. The wicked-looking knife in the right hand side is a linoleum knife, which is very good for this kind of work. Not shown here, but also very useful, is a curved Surform plane. I undercut the styrofoam walls, as I wanted the stonework to sit vertically. (I suspect the prototype actually slopes towards the canal bed at the bottom, but that would have required a lot more support from the castings and is not worth the hassle.)

The reshaped canal bed

Time for the second fitting. You can see the Surform curved plane (yellow handle). Note how well the castings line up.

Second fitting, things are looking good...

Once I was happy with the fit of the castings against the styrofoam, I covered the front with masking tape, to hold the castings to the curved shape. Then I went to the garage to get "fiberglass drywall crack tape" that I had leftover from some 1-1 scale work (available at your local building store). I globbed yellow glue on the middle of the back of each casting. At the casting junctions, I did not apply glue (you can see this on the right of the photo.) This gave me some more wiggle room to position things before gluing the castings to each other, but held the set of castings together.

Reinforced backing to hold the castings together

The next step is to glue the castings to each other. This is the final fitting, and I can wiggle the castings apart to apply the glue. Then I used clothespins to hold the castings together while the glue dries.

Clothespins make nice gentle clamps
Time to stop and let the glue dry for the night.

18 Feb (morning)

Well, some of the glue joints broke free when I did some adjustments, so I've added more glue and set everything aside to dry. Since I now have the final alignment, I added more glue to the back of the structures, filling in the gaps by the joints in the casting. If you've worked with drywall tape, you're familiar with this drill...

I think what I should have done was assemble the casting sequence on a flat surface/worktable, rather than on the layout. By trying to do this on the layout, it got harder to keep everything tight and in alignment, and well glued. In the end it'll come out OK.

Russ included some extra stone courses to add where the walls don't come up to the full height towards the back of the canal (by the mill buildings themselves.) These pieces are 1/2" wide, though, and my walls are only 1/4". My plan is to see if I can rip-cut them on my modeler's table saw (with the vacuum running full blast to suck up the dust this will create.)

18 Feb (Afternoon)

I'm being too impatient, and not giving the glue enough time to dry. It's a very good thing I connected everything with the fibreglass wallboard tape, because a couple of times I picked up one of the walls and the joint connecting 2 pieces broke loose. Without the reinforcing tape, I'm sure one of those pieces would have hit the floor and shattered. So I'll let these pieces dry more, and do something else this afternoon. Clearly applying the fibreglass wallboard tape was a good idea, and I strongly recommend it if you're doing anything similar to this.

Cutting the extra stone courses down on my Minicraft modeler's table saw went very well, and my DeWalt vacuum cleaner contained the dust. (The cordless option is very handy, if you already have any DeWalt battery-operated power tools. It's also really great for cleaning your car :-) It's not a good idea to use a conventional household vacuum cleaner for plaster dust (although in this small amount it probably wouldn't hurt. Make sure you put a new filter on before starting, and change the filter immediately afterwards.)

18 Feb (Evening)

I -carefully- cut the ends to fit with a hacksaw. Once I set the line for the cut along the top, I then ran the saw down the front of the casting, to prevent any chipping along that line. Then I finished sawing.

Next I prepared the capstones. Per Russ' instructions, here's how I did it. First I used a razor saw to continue the line between stones from the front of the casting to the top of the casting. Then holding an X-Acto knife -almost- vertically, I lightly drew the knife across the casting. You want it to chatter, that's what produces the roughness. I did this in a crosshatch pattern at a 45 degree angle to the run of the stone. Then I went back and did some semicircular 'chops', roughed up the back edge and line between the stones, blew off the dust, and inspected it. To install the stones, it was easy to snap off individual stones, and my coarse file dressed the edges to get the appropriate angle for the bend of the wall.

A stretch of the wall showing the squared off edge against the bridge and the capstones.

I still need to do the capstone treatment on the parts of the wall where I did not install capstones tonight. Tomorrow, I'll spray the castings to prepare them for finishing.

19 Feb (Morning)

It's really too cold to spraypaint, but I moved the can of paint inside last night to get it warm. The intent for this is to seal the plaster and provide the dark mortar/grout color. The spotches you see are where glue leaked over the plaster and sealed it better than the paint did. Still, this gives a great notion of where I'm starting from for rock coloring, and looks A LOT better than the stark white from last night!.
Splotchy grey rock still looks better than white rock!

I moved the two front mill buildings back into place and took this tall shot, which gives you an idea of how the scene is shaping up. I didn't put the pony truss bridge in the photo, both because it would make it hard to see things, and because the bridge took some damage during the wall installation. That's OK as there are parts of that model I wanted to redo anyway...

Looking straight on at the stone arch bridge

I think I'll take a break and re-spray tomorrow when it's warmer, to get better coverage than I got this morning. Better several light coats, than one thick globby coat. Also, before I do the final spray, I need to go back and 'roughen up' the rest of the capstones (those that are in the larger castings, I roughened up the capstones I glued on yesterday before I glued them.

24 Feb

Back to work... Today's project is painting the walls. The spraypaint is all nice and dry, and it really doesn't look all that bad to start with.

Primer Grey makes a great granite base coat.

I'm using the 'drybrush sponge technique.' Basically this consists of using make-up sponges to apply various thin layers of color. The paint is all craft paint from Wal-Mart, Michael's, etc, in the following colors: Rock Grey (light beigy grey), Light Grey (no beigy tint), Pewter Grey (medium-dark grey), Brown Oxide (close to Floquil Roof Brown), Toffee (orangy brown) and Heartland Blue (a greyish medium blue). I'm using yoghurt lids for palettes, and I glob some paint into each.

Various paints, sponges and the wall castings. Yes, that's a messy workspace...
I put a bit of paint onto the sponge, wipe most of it off, and lightly move the sponge over the surface of the rock. I can press harder to get more color, or lighter to just touch the tops of the castings. It's best if you do dark colors bottom-to-top, light colors top-to-bottom and the accents in a circular motion left-to-right. You want the dark colors to tend towards the shadows and the light colors to tend towards the highlights. By using another motion for the accent colors (browns & blue), you prevent a 'zebra stripe' effect. All of the colors were used out-of-the-bottle except for the blue, which I mixed about 50-50 with the dark grey. I applied the blue very lightly. I actually did one side with more beigy/brown accents and the other side with more blue accents, then called in my wife (a trained artist - very handy to have around the layout! :-) for an opinion. She liked the beigy colors better as they blended better with the rest of the layout. The blue tints did make a good-looking granite, but that's a harder color to pull off, particularly in photographs.

I really helps when you do this to keep some pictures handy of rock you're trying to simulate. Russ has some great photos on his website, reference photos and The Dam Page. Additionally, I've found Mayang's Texture Library to be a great help. You can see some reference photos in the background as I prepared to paint. I grabbed various reference photos, loaded several per page, and printed them out on my printer using the photo setting and photo paper.

The last step is conventional drybrushing with the lightest grey color. I used a 1/2" bristle brush for this. Here's a close-up of the casting when the coloring is done.

Off-white drybrushing, moving the brush from top-down
You can also see the distressing along the top of the wall in this photo.

Since I was in a 'coloring mood', I also did the two stone mill buildings that I had not previously finished (back-left and front-right). Here's what it looks like with the canal walls back in place.

Canal walls in place. I'm thinking about recoloring the bridge to match
The flash does tend to wash out the highlights, when this part of the layout is done I'll invest some time in a photographic setup to get a more faithful photo of what you actually see on the layout.

And one more photo, a tall skinny shot.

Looking down the length of the canal

As I mentioned earlier, I should have assembled the walls on the worktable and let them dry completely. Some of the cracks/gaps where the castings slipped are noticeable, but then real walls crack and move too (thankfully...)

There won't be much change here until I start doing scenery, and before I do that, I need to go back and finish laying and wiring the track.

25 Feb (Morning)

Some have asked for a shot showing this scene in the context of the larger layout:

Here's most of the layout. The back wall is about 10' long, and track height is about 54".
I need to clean up the mess on top of the layout!
The layout room is a converted furnace/storage room, and frankly it's very cramped. The shape is awkward, too, it's a 'right angle Z'. The one advantage of this room is that there's a sink (out of sight to the right), and I love having a sink in my workshop room. A disadvantage is that it's an interior room with both the furnace and water heater, and that works against setting up a spray booth (no outside ventilation, and it's A Bad Idea to spray solvents near a gas furnace/water heater...)

The dark (Woodland Scenics) roadbed is the main line, and obviously I'll need a rail bridge over the canal. (This is where my Post Pony Truss bridge I've talked about on EarlyRail will go.) By happy coincidence, this will hide the most obvious mis-alignment in the castings. There's a foot/wagon bridge that will go in front of the two buildings, you can see (remnants of) the bridge model to the left of the brick mill building. This goes about where the white piece (the 'subfloor' for one of the mill buildings) is, again over the canal. The rail feed to the mills enters from a turnout that is about at the top left of the picture, and goes between the mill buildings (over that stone arch bridge). You can see the smokestack poking over the top of one of the mills. There's a boilerhouse with it, and the coal feed is a 1-car-long siding that switches back from the siding for the mills. I've posted some notes on the mill buildings themselves.

The piece of flextrack on the right that is leaning against some blocks of styrofoam represents my FSM Old Scale Coal Dock. The rest of the cork is the yard, and just out of sight to the right is where the turntable and roundhoues will go. There's another RDA kit serving as the yard office. This is a model of the New Haven's "Buzzard's Bay Tower", and it's a little modern for my layout, but since it was a gift from my wife, it'll represent the first attempts towards modernization and transition from the 1890s to the 1900s. The trackwork at the very front of the picture represents a junction with another railroad, and I have a C.C. Crow G.N. Bellingham station kit which I plan to use as a brand-new Union Depot for the SL&N and 'that other railroad'. This may require extending that corner out a bit, and I'll need to make sure that whatever I do there is "bump-proof", since that corner is a relatively high traffic area.

One of the good ideas I've had recently is to cover the front of the layout (fascia) with cork panels, so I can post kit instructions (what you see hanging loose there are the instructions from the Old&Weary Car Shop's O&W Wood Gondola kit.) You can barely see the under-layout storage, I've built bookcases to hold model RR magazines and to the right, a storage unit for stripwood, etc. (I justify this to my wife, telling her 'the mistakes I make doing this kind of stuff for my train room are learning experiences for all that stuff you want me to build for the rest of the house.')

You can also see the gap/dip in the fascia where the canal meets the edge of the layout. I'll bridge this with plastic and seal it before pouring the water material. I'm planning to use Magic Water. One problem with this product is that it's thin, about the viscoscity of water itself, so I have to be very careful to seal everything in the canal to prevent a nasty leak when I do pour.

Thanks for reading. Hope you enjoyed this (and maybe learned a trick or two.)

Except as noted, text and images Copyright (c) 2007 by David Emery. All rights reserved.

Photos taken with a Canon Digital Rebel XT, EF-S 17-85 Image Stabilized lens and Canon 402EX flash. The layout lighting is a combination of the newer (bluish) color balanced incandescent and color balanced flourescents. Minimal post processing done with Graphic Converter on a Mac. No Windows products were used in the production (or hosting) of this website.