East of the Blue Ridge

Chronicles of an On30 quarry railroad


A Place for Everything

For years I made frequent trips to the Quarry Gardens at Schuyler

I worked on the Railroad Display in the Visitor Center there.

Still in Quarry Garden mode one year later

While at the Visitor Center, I would compile a list of items I needed to bring with me on my next trip. Back in my shop, I stocked a shelf rack with the tools and supplies that regularly showed up on the list. The night before heading back to Schuyler, I would use my list to pull what I needed and load the blue box at the bottom of the photo. Upon my return I would unload the box back onto the shelves.

One year after the last trip I made to the Quarry Gardens to work on the Railroad Display, the shelf rack and blue box still looked like I was planning to go back to Schuyler the next morning.

What a pile of stuff!

The day finally came to clear the shelves and put everything away. A complete rethink of my storage system was required.

Organized and arranged on the walls

I bought clear plastic containers, choosing sizes that both accommodate the contents and efficiently fill the space under the layout once construction progresses to the point that I can move them there. The taller containers will go on the floor, with two short containers stacked on top, total height coming up to 3 inches from the bottom of the benchwork. Something to keep in mind when installing the fascia.

For now, everything is organized and put away on shelves around the perimeter of the shop. So far I have been able to find things quickly.

Backdrop Painting

Going back around the backdrop and extending the tree/foliage pattern downward meant doing a passable job of matching painting I did 15 years ago.

To do that I dug up old notes and looked at old progress photos.


The new foliage only had to be good enough to not be distracting or draw attention to itself.


Since it was all down toward the bottom of the backdrop, a lot of it will eventually be hidden by 3-D scenery.


These revisions to the backdrop are going to give me a lot more flexibility when it comes time to design and install the sub scenery.

Downward Extension

The very first Construction blog entry on this website from December 2006 was about painting the backdrop.

At the time, I was preparing to host an Open House for the January 2007 Meet of the James River Division. At that Meet, I gave a clinic on backdrop painting, then invited attendees to my home to see my backdrop, which was the only thing to see in the train room at that time.

The bottom of the backdrop is high above rail height, and many areas are not completely painted.

Once construction of the layout progressed to scenery, it became clear that I had made a serious error in judgement regarding the backdrop. I painted it only as far downward as I assumed was necessary relative to the 3D scenery to be built in front of it, and my assumptions were incorrect. In general, the background tree and foliage patterns on the backdrop needed to be extended downward. There were places where the actual backdrop itself needed to be extended downward as well.


Strips of Masonite were used to extend the backdrop down to rail height or slightly lower in several areas.


The seams around the new extensions were spackled, sanded, then painted with white primer. Afterwards I dug out my acrylic paints. Also dug out the handouts from my backdrop painting clinic in 2006 to relearn the process of painting my backdrop.

Repurposed Bridge Parts

Deciding to keep the Homasote sub roadbed spanning the creek limited my choices for the type of bridge to install. A girder type bridge would work, simply installing girders on either side of the Homasote might look reasonable.

Way back when I built the roadbed in this corner of the layout, I had a large inventory of HO scale components from my previous layout. One of the HO items I saved was an Atlas through girder bridge kit. I used the girders from that kit to determine how wide the bridge in this corner would be.


I dug out the old Atlas girders and placed them in position after I had narrowed the roadbed across the bridge span. Everything fit just fine. The girders hid the Homasote with room to spare along the top for cross ties. Just like I had planned it all those years ago. Only problem was that I did not like it.

My impression of a right and proper bridge for a soapstone operation has been affected by seeing flatcars used as bridges. Flatcars were used as bridges in at least two locations that I saw myself.


In the mill campus at Schuyler, an old fishbelly steel frame flatcar was used as a bridge to cross Ivy creek, and a few miles away another flatcar was used to bridge Sharon Creek. Neither of these bridges was used to carry the railroad across the creeks, but they still inspired me to try something creative as a bridge span on my layout.

Rummaging around in my collected bridge and crane pieces and parts, I came across a
Walther's N scale heavy duty overhead traveling crane kit. The profile of the crane spans appealed to me. I could see how they might be used for my bridge, with a backstory about resourceful repurposing of an old overhead crane or perhaps a (very small) standard gauge turntable bridge.


The N scale overhead crane was too short to span the creek on my layout. I cut it up to create one long span out of the two that came in the kit.


I used the lengthened bridge girder as a pattern to cut another one out of 2 mil PVC. The crane kit girder will be on the side of the bridge that faces the aisle. The PVC copy will barely be visible on the back side.

Time for a Bridge

With the card stock fascia in place, I saw that working on the bridge in the corner would be easier to do before the fascia was installed. The bridge is in a horizontal and vertical curve, with the track to the right dropping down the hill and the track to the left being level. I decided to leave the Homasote roadbed in place to minimize kinks and bumps.


Handlaid code 70 track comes up to the bridge from either direction. A short section of ME code 70 HO scale flex track makes the connection over the bridge site.


In preparation for doing track work, I traced the railhead location across the bridge site and removed the HO flex track.


Since the Homasote was going to stay, it had to be trimmed to the approximate final width of the bridge. Since the track curves here, the bridge would have to be wider than it would be if the track going across were straight. Thinking about how wide to make the bridge, I used a section of O standard gauge flex track to determine how wide the bridge would be if it had originally been a short standard gauge bridge that had been moved here by the soapstone company to use on their 30 inch gauge line. A saber saw was used to trim the Homasote down to the revised width.

Fascia Mockup

Eventually blocks were added to all the joists to support the fascia. Along the front of the Ariel Church and Horse Mountain sections of the layout, I approximated the height of the fascia at each joist and cut posts for each location.


I attached the posts to the joists temporarily, and tiled together a large piece of cardstock to create a pattern for the fascia.


Everything was taped and thumb tacked together in a flimsy fashion.


I sketched a profile line along the cardstock and trimmed it out. Then left it like that for a while to look at it over time.


The more I looked at the fascia mockup, the less I liked the places where it rose up high.


Over time I trimmed the peaks down lower and lower until I was happy with the profile.

Thinking about the Fascia

The 18 inch gauge tram for the talc dump crosses over the 30 inch gauge line. I felt like the time had come to get serious about the fascia.

My plan for the fascia is for it to be constantly curving, with the top edge constantly rising or dropping with the profile of the foreground scenery.

Way back when I built the benchwork for the layout, I cut the joists to the length I estimated necessary to support the fascia, at an angle approximating the angle of the fascia at that point.


A butt joint connection to the end of a 1 by 4 joist was not going to provide adequate support for the fascia, but that was not a problem I had to deal with back then. Now the time had come to deal with it. I decided to add small blocks to the top and bottom of each joist to turn them into I-beams with more surface area for making a connection.


Adding blocks to each joist was a severe test for my clamp inventory. But now the joists provide better connection points for firring strip posts that will in turn support the fascia.

precut blocks wait for clamps to be freed up so they can be attached to joists

Color Choices

When the time came to pick colors for the base scenery, I wanted to pull colors that already existed on my backdrop forward into the 3D scenery.


I like relatively low level, warm lighting in the layout room. I did not want to paint the sub scenery with a color that would absorb a lot of light. Using paint chips to find colors that matched the overall tone of the colors in the backdrop, I came up with two colors of paint for the sub scenery. One is beige, the other a pumpkin orange. Pulling paint from both colors randomly kept the sub scenery from looking too uniform and flat. Both are very light for colors that are supposed to represent dirt and fallen leaves. I plan to build up the scenery in layers much as I built up layers of paint on the backdrop. The sub scenery will influence the color palette and add luminosity, even though the vast majority of it will be completely covered.


I used Gysolite as adhesive to add loose rock castings to those cast in place. I filled the seams with patching plaster.


I got really lucky with the lighting on a recent trip through Bremo, Virginia, stopping to take a series of exposed rock studies for color reference.


Since my rock castings were composed of three different plaster products, I primed them first to avoid problems with inconsistent absorption of paints and stains. I mixed acrylic paints using Gray Value #5 as a base tone.


I used a lot of white, and traces of yellow ochre, burnt sienna, chromium oxide green, with cadmium red and cerulean blue to either warm up or cool down colors back toward neutral.


After the paint dried, I went over the rock castings with an india ink and alcohol wash. Once that was dry, I used chalks to color the castings, rubbing black into the shadows, pale yellow into the faces, and white to highlight the upper edges.

Back to Scenery

Work resumes on the hills I started along the back wall.

The work began with a little demolition. I had looked at the large section of rocks I had cast on a steep hillside for a long time. During that time I had been more observant of rock outcroppings along the Rockfish and Tye Rivers. Cursed with the knowledge of what those rocks really look like, I popped almost all the rock castings off the hillside and made repairs with an additional layer of plaster cloth.

Then I used an old 2 inch brush to apply a layer of
Gypsolite over all the plaster cloth.

The Gypsolite adds a coarse texture to the sub scenery and kills the stark white of the plaster cloth. It is now much easier to see the contours in the scenery and visualize how to proceed.

The rock castings had come off the hillside in large, reusable pieces. I am test fitting some of the pieces along the creek beds and cuts.

Extending the Hill

I have extended the subscenery down the full length of the south wall.

A lattice of cardstock strips hot glued to the back profile board.

Two layers of plaster cloth over the lattice extended the white hills to Cove Quarry.

The hills that the P&EBR winds through are beginning to take shape.

A Winwood Mixed rolls past the new hillside at Cove.


Once the shape of the basic hillside was formed with the cardstock web, it was time to build the basic scenic contours.

I decided to use plaster cloth for the subscenery. I have used it before and found it easy to work with. I applied two layers of plaster cloth to the hillside. It is best to not wait for the first layer to completely dry before applying the second. The plaster cloth is rigid and has a surface that accepts paint and other scenic materials very well.

Since the hillsides in this corner of the layout were very high and steep, I wanted a few rock outcroppings and minor cliff faces in the scene. All the rock castings I had on hand were left from my HO scale modeling days, and were not big enough to create a rocky O scale hillside.

I purchased several large latex rock molds from
Bragdon Enterprises. They have a wide variety available. I chose a few that appeared to have deep relief and patterns that looked typical for eastern rock formations.

The Bragdon rock molds were very easy to work with, and I was able to pour Hydrocal in the molds, wet the hillsides, and stick the rock molds in place. After the Hydrocal had time to harden, I peeled the latex mold away.

Random pieces of casting made at the bench were placed around the rocks cast in place to fill in gaps.

Back Scenery Profile

The support posts for the back profile installed, I brought large pieces of cardstock home from work.

These big cardstock panels are used in the packaging of material we use. We recycle enough of this cardstock in one day to provide more material than I could ever find use for on my layout. I duct taped panels together to make 8 foot templates and positioned them on the support posts.

I used shears to cut the cardstock, creating templates for the back scenery profile.

The cardstock templates were used to cut Masonite scenery profiles, which were screwed to the support posts.

Then I cut the cardstock into strips about one to two inches wide.

The strips were hot glued to the Masonite and each other to form a lattice support for the scenery.

Snap out of it!

For a full year, I regularly ran trains on my new layout,
But did very little in the way of new construction or revisions.

When I switched from HO scale to On30, I figured I was leaving the world of Ready-To-Run, prebuilt models behind. I assumed a far simpler O scale layout would be marginally interesting to operate, and more modeling time would be taken up with scratchbuilding. But once all the track was in and I had a reasonable inventory of locomotives and rolling stock, I was completely caught by surprise. Small locomotives pulling short trains around a winding industrial line captivated me beyond all expectations. All I wanted to do was run trains. I suddenly found myself in the segment of model railroaders who never get around to building scenery on their layouts.

I needed a convicting experience that would make me believe that the full potential of the layout would only be reached if I continued building, and modeling time would be better spent doing something constructive. On a mild January day I drove to Nelson County and hiked to a few old quarry sites. I came away feeling that my layout could be greatly improved by representing some of these beautiful scenes.

I decided to start scenery construction in the far corner of the layout. No towns, mills or quarries were planned for this area, so I thought it would be a good place to experiment and determine how I would build scenery.

I don’t want the scenery to be attached directly to the backdrop, so I developed these posts to support a Masonite profile board immediately in front of, but not touching, the backdrop.

The posts are attached to the same benchwork joists that support the roadbed risers. 2x2 blocks against the wall maintain a gap that will put the back profile board about an inch in front of the backdrop. The height of the posts indicate the planned height of the back profile board at that location. 1x2 blocks on the front of each post at the bottom will support the back profile board.

Cow Field Module - 1

Once my mill module had progressed to a presentable state, I turned my attention to work on the cow field module.

This module is only one foot wide, compared to the two foot wide mill module. The theme for this module is a simple rural setting for the train to run along a rocky hillside. I started the scenery years ago ... a “once over” of rock castings, coarse turf, stag moss, and a grout dirt road. It was high time to move beyond this point.

Small trees and underbrush were constructed from bits of
Super Trees. Foliage was applied with spray adhesive. Bright green foliage and turf were added to bring the color range of my module scenery more in line with the colors used by other members of the JRD On30 Module Group.

Super Tree material was added to a sagebrush armature to create one large tree for the hillside above the tracks and cow field.

Even with the addition of a lot of foliage, my module still looked empty. I decided it needed a few points of interest to help compose the scene. A diecast tractor, some
Woodland Scenic cows and a figure out of a gandy dancer set were chosen to populate the cow field. They all received a heavy spray of Dullcote lacquer and a rottenstone bath.

Schwenk's Mill - Construction

The Mid-East Region Convention was fast approaching. The James River Division On30 Module Group had signed up to give its first public showing at the convention.

My Schwenk’s Mill module was far from complete, and could not possibly be finished in time. So I set about making it presentable as quickly as possible.

I had a general plan for a mill and two sheds. Two roads running diagonally across the module would connect the buildings and reduce the boxy rectangular look of the module. The roads themselves are primarily charcoal colored grout with sifted dirt and small stones added. The ground cover is mainly fine sawdust. Cherry and red oak in the sawdust make it orange/red tinted, and therefore a fair representation of Virginia red clay. Over top of the sawdust I layered on a mix of decorative moss, lichen, and Woodland Scenics foliage and turf in late summer colors. A short section of tram roadbed is handlaid code 50 rail on HO low profile ties, ballasted with crushed slate that I collected in Buckingham County.

The mill is built in three sections out of black Strathmore board and basswood bracing. The metal siding is drawing paper embossed with the pattern from a piece of corrugated styrene sheet.

The roof of the mill is drawing paper embossed with the pattern from raised seam roofing styrene sheet. The doors and windows are Grandt Line. The dust collector is an HO scale Walthers detail part. The concrete foundation of the loading end of the mill is spackling over the Strathmore board. Trim, steps, roof details, and many other items were left for later.

Ready or not, the time has come to pack up and head for Hagerstown. At the convention, Clint Hyde was kind enough to supply two small buildings that fit nicely in the vacant spaces on the module.

Even though far from finished, construction of Shwenk’s Mill has already taught me a great deal about scratchbuilding. I now know how important accurate, full sized plans are for building, and I have a more realistic idea of just how long it can take to scratchbuild a building.

Callaghan's Crossing - Display

The second module I am building as my participation in the James River Division On30 Module Group is half-sized, which is 4 ft. long by 1 ft. wide. This module is very light and easy to transport.

Besides being set up at Module Meets, I plan to use it as a diorama for photography. For these photos, I sat the module on the benchwork of my layout to take advantage of the backdrop.

There is room on the module for a short train to be displayed, which will allow me to take it to model railroad gatherings and use it as a display diorama for my models.

Building modules is a great way to gain experience at model railroad construction quickly. Regular work sessions allow the members of the module group to share techniques and troubleshoot one another’s problems.

End the Year Painting

In one gigantic push, I sent Christmas cards, bought and wrapped presents, and picked up tons of leaves in my yard. With the Holidays winding down, I am closing out 2007 by finishing up the backdrop painting I started 3 months ago.

The west wall of the backdrop has many more trees painted on it now. I assume that the view of much of the new painting will be blocked by 3-D scenery once construction has advanced to that stage.

There will be derricks, shop buildings, and stone piles in front of the backdrop at Cove Quarry.

There will be a hill with a derrick on it here at Meridian Quarry.

New Road and Treeline

I thought about putting a road on a high shelf along the edge of the quarry ... maybe to help imply that the scene goes back into the distance, maybe to distract the full focus of this part of the backdrop from just being on the quarry itself. The widely spaced rotten fenceposts would do little to keep a truck loaded with stone from going over the edge. They are mainly there to imply that the road continues around the corner out of sight.

I started working in trees in front of and below the existing treeline, which will give me more flexibility as to how high the 3-D scenery will be.

Broom straw and other weeds have grown on the embankment along the road

Working trunk and limb detail into the new trees.

Finishing Cove Quarry

Some washes of thin white and chalky neutrals softened details and "knocked back" the quarry into the background

Sharp edged, contrasty hightlights and shadows on the rock piles along the bottom of the scene bring them forward so they appear to be closer.

Since there is no longer a hidden track running under the scenery along the wall, I think I will lower the profile of the scenery where it meets the backdrop. This will require the trees on the backdrop to extend further down. I have painted in an isolation coat of light tan where the new trees will be.

Cove Quarry taking shape

I painted in a distant hilltop and the trees around the quarry. Then I printed out photographs I have taken of abandoned soapstone quarries to use as color and value references for painting the quarry. I wanted to show a support bulkhead of stone in the quarry. Soapstone quarries would often have these "walls" of stone left in place to support the walls of the quarry as it was cut deeper.

Since this quarry exists entirely on the backdrop, there will not be an actual "hole" that you can look down into, so I am painting a long, low stone pile across the front of the scene to prevent being able to see down into the quarry.

I added some fissure lines in the rock face to illustrate the "grain" of the stone.

Cove Quarry roughed in

I painted a base coat on the backdrop for Cove Quarry. The tree base is a straw yellow, and the quarry base is a dirty gray green. Once the base coat was dry, I applied a clear coat of acrylic gel medium. This will make subsequent layers of paint easier to work with and correct.

"Blocking in" the shapes and shadows of the trees, and defining the quarry. The paint is brushed on with a 1 inch wide brush. Before it starts to dry, I spray it with water, and then pat it with a sea sponge. This breaks up the brush strokes and creates a coarse textured, translucent layer of paint.

More layers of color for the trees and the quarry. Will I be able to create the illusion that the quarry extends back into the scene?

Backdrop revisions-Cove Quarry

The removal of the track running along the wall and under the scenery at Apex has changed my plans for the scenery in that area. Some of these changes include the backdrop.

I am now planning on loading stone on a track in the corner of the layout where I originally had planned to put a garage. There is no room to model a quarry to provide the cut stone, so I am going to try to render the quarry on the backdrop, with just a stone pile immediately adjacent to the spur actually being modelled.

I added a strip of Masonite to the bottom of the backdrop in the corner in order to extend the rendering of Cove Quarry down closer to track level.

I then Gessoed over the part of the backdrop that will become the new Cove Quarry scene.

I sketched in an idea for the basic location of the quarry, but my initial impression is that the quarry should stay lower in the scene, and the "new hillside" needs to be extended to the left.

These backdrop revisions come at a good time, as I have to give a clinic on backdrop painting at the MER convention in a few weeks. These revisions will give me a little practice before showtime arrives.

Finally Presentable

The entire backdrop is now at least presentable, if not complete.

In a few weeks I have to give my backdrop painting clinic at the James River Division Meet.

I am also open for the Meet's layout tour. Just a backdrop ... no layout!

I cannot count on being able to paint anything in a hurry, in front of a crowd at my clinic. Hopefully, those interested in my backdrop painting techniques will drop by to see how mine turned out.

East Wall Complete

The point where the new painting and the old painting meet on the east wall backdrop is pretty obvious to me.

My sponge technique has become a little too regular, making the foliage look like rounded blobs of leaves. I don't think it is worth doing over, as most of it will be behind 3-D scenery.

Ariel Church has ended up with an odd shaped ridge behind it, but I like it. The bluff seems to imply the area is underlain with a rock shelf that has eroded.

A meadow stretches up the hillside from town. I am not inclined to try to render either the fence row along the woodline, or cows in the field.

Once past the cove in the corner, the hill sloping down to the road still needs a lot of work. I do not like the uniformity of the profile of the trees. A patch or two of taller trees needs to go here.