Category Archives: Reviews


  by BGTwinDad
, a photo by BGTwinDad on Flickr.

This weekend, the Twins (well, mostly TwinBoy) and I made some trees for the Wye diorama that I’ve been putting together.

I’m not sure if I’ve posted about this diorama yet. It’s a small (10″ deep x 24″ wide) diorama that is the tail of a wye that crosses a creek and a road. I’ve been using it to practice scenery techniques for the main layout, and also as part of a “party” on

We used the Woodland Scenics Forest Canopy starter kit, fall colors edition. It is – like most of their starter kits – a mixed bag. The natural plant sprigs that are included to make the trees work OK, but they are very brittle, mashed flat and very flat-topped.

They look pretty natural from down low, like the photo above, or as true canopy (shot from above, say), but need considerable work to get to look like a real tree because all of the foliage is in a narrow band (vertically) at the top of the sprig.

Still, particularly for a low shot that doesn’t show the whole tree, they work well, and the smaller pieces make convincing bushes.The use of actual natural plant material, dried, makes for a pretty good bark look to the stalks, which is good.

The instructions show how smaller sprigs can be glued to the larger ones to fill out the tree shape, and sprigs can even be taped together using florists wrap as well – though obviously one would need to paint or texture to recover the natural trunk appearance.

What do you think?  Do they look nice?

A Town Begins to Come Alive

Originally uploaded by BGTwinDad

Remember that Parvia stuff I was blogging about some time ago? Well, I haven’t forgotten about it, though I have been distracted and torn away from it for several reasons and excuses. I have been able to work on it a little bit from time to time – at least enough to begin putting together a small street scene…

Honestly, I think one of the problems is that I bought too much to start with. That’s a “me” thing, not a “Parvia” thing. But the generous allowance they gave me in exchange for a fair review turned out to provide quite a bit of product – so much that I’ve been a little overwhelmed and unsure just where to start.

In my railroad layout, I am getting dangerously close to being at a point where I cannot go forward without working on the town streets a little, so I have lately been eying these modular street pieces. I expect to be able to use them in some fashion to prototype out the town streets and get a feel for where things should go.

To that end, I took some measurements and built up some basic structures.  In the title picture above, you can see the basic elements… the street blocks are a pavement gray and come pre-painted with a dashed yellow center line.  There are also solid gray or brown pieces that can be used, as well as various curves, angles and intersections.  The street pieces also have sockets along the edges to which various types of sidewalks or borders can be added to complete the streets.  I have not made use of them yet, but details galore are also available – everything from street lamps to mailboxes, from bus stops to trees.

Typical Parvia Street Segment

Critical to using the street pieces in planning a town is how closely they match the intended scale width of the planned town streets.  The parts as given are 3-3/4″ (50 scale feet) wide, and 1-7/8″ (25 scale feet) long, equalling two by four of the basic Parvia “squares”.

The border pieces vary according to their design.  The grassy sidewalk segments shown here are 12 scale feet wide each – roughly a 4-foot sidewalk in between two 4-foot grass areas.  This leaves a net 26 scale feet for the street, or two 13-scale-foot lanes.

13 foot lanes sound generous, but this street is remarkably similar to the residential street my house is on, down to the width of the grass between the street and sidewalk.

The set also came with narrower “city sidewalk” borders, which gives a correspondingly broader street… with the sidwalks being just shy of 6 scale feet (13/32″) each, the street is 38 feet wide.  With some creative striping, this would allow for two 7-foot wide parking lanes and two 12 foot driving lanes in a downtown district.

How does this tie in to my railroad layout?  Well, I have a tight space for my town.  I had therefore planned for 1/4″ (42 scale inch) wide sidewalks, a single 8 foot parking lane, and two 10-foot driving lanes.  That works out to only 35 scale feet, 15 scale feet narrower than the Parvia street.

There’s an important lesson here for folks planning realistic towns – especially modern ones – on their layouts.  Streets are wider than you think.  And the things that go along with them to make them look truly real are even wider.  Yes, there are narrow lane-and-a-half country roads out there, where you hope you don’t meet someone coming the other way at the wrong time.  But most town and city streets are actually quite broad.

Failing to account for this in the layout design, or to work out adequate compromises leads to unrealistically crowded street scenes, where parking is nonexistent, cars barely have room to maneuver, sidewalks are nonsensically narrow, and Heaven help us if there is a fire or a delivery to be made!

I won’t be able to fit my town using the comfortably broad Parvia streets, but I can lay out the streets, allowing for the space difference.  They will come in quite handy for roughing in where the main road will flow and for visualizing the overall streetscape. And, I’ve added another item for my “To-Do” list.  I normally use an open source layout design software package called XTrackCAD.  I think a parameter file add-on for this package that provides the various Parvia street pieces to proper scale would be a handy way to help layout designers work proper-width streets into their designs.  Especially since XTrackCAD has no internal method of “flowing” streets.

And then, with a little luck, my kids and I will finally have the time to sit around the table and dream up our own version of Key West, Florida…



Unstoppable movie photo
Photo (C) 2010 TC Fox. All Rights Reserved.

My wife treated me to a matinee show of the new movie “Unstoppable” at the theater today.  If you haven’t seen the previews, it’s about a large freight train (# 777) with hazardous cargo that gets loose from a yard in Southern Pennsylvania and threatens a medium-sized city.  Frank, a veteran engineer (Denzel Washington), and Will, a rookie conductor (Chris Pine), have to chase the train down and save the day.

(View the Trailer on YouTube…)

My short review:  GO SEE THIS MOVIE.  It is a great action flick, full of nail biting moments and good dialogue, a riveting story line and some decent character development.  It’s not Oscar material, but it’s a good popcorn film.  Even my wife and kids enjoyed it!

The movie is PG-13, and there is a fair amount of “cussing” – more than I really would have preferred my 10 year olds hear, but not so much that it wasn’t tolerable.  We simply discussed that bit briefly after the movie.  There is no sexual content, except for some restaurant views of Frank’s daughters and their co-workers – at Hooters,  and all of the violence is of the “ooh! he almost fell off the train!” variety.

As for the storyline, it is somewhat formulaic, but not too badly so.  You have the grizzled veteran, the rookie, the bumbling fool, the tough-as-nails woman, the cold, money-focused corporate VP, the redneck in a pickup, and so on… You have to think of it as the action flick version of the “romantic comedy”.  You know generally what’s going to happen, but it ends up being an entertaining story anyway.

My railfan friends will be wondering about how accurate the railroad stuff is.  I left more than satisfied.  The rail footage alone is worth the movie, and while they certainly got some things wrong, they did not stretch credulity to the breaking point.  The most obvious technical errors mostly had to do with speed.  If you look close you’ll note that some of the “high speed” footage was obviously filmed at a slow, safe speed (and not sped up), especially where major characters are concerned. Watch the shots where Will  is guiding Frank to couple on the back of the runaway train for an example.

In another scene, they try to slow the runaway by coupling two locomotives to the front of the train.  In the scene where the “chase” locos pull in front of the runaway, the relative closing rates of the trains don’t match the storyline.  The runaway is barrelling down on the lead trains at (supposedly) nearly 70 MPH, and the chase engines are entering the mainline at what appears to be 5-10 MPH.  The runaway should have closed the apparent separation distance in seconds and smashed into the slowly accelerating chasers.  Somehow the chase engine accelerated to a matching speed almost instantly…

I’m sure there are plenty of other “goofs” that railfans will catch that are beyond me, but as a relative “layman” I would deem them minor.  One thing that did bother me was that nobody seemed to realize that locomotives can be boarded from the back.  Some might wonder if it’s even possible for a train to get loose like that in the first place.  This is, perhaps, the most “real” part of the whole story – it’s based on a very real train that got free from a yard in Ohio in much the same way #777 gets loose.

In all, I think they did a pretty good job.  It’s an entertaining film with believable characters, gripping action, a good story and some great railroad action.

Certainly worth a matinee, at least, and probably a second look at the dollar theater.

First Parvia building

First Parvia building

Originally uploaded by BGTwinDad

This is the long-awaited second step in my review of the Parvia building system. Today, I built a small passenger station for my railroad.

To be honest, that big box o’ parts has been intimidating me a bit, but I had some time to fiddle today, and I’ve been needing a temporary passenger station for my N scale layout, so I decided to take a stab at building something. I’m fairly pleased with the results.

I intentionally ignored the how-to video on the Parvia website, but I did refer to the beta test of the quick reference sheet the company is designing. It will be very helpful when it is finished.

The system is fairly intuitive, and a little experimentation can produce good results. I will provide more detail on the construction process in a later post. As you might notice from the photo, while I used the foundation components, I skipped the base. It is 3/4 inch thick, and to get the right height on a layout, one would need to bury the base below grade (or not use it).

On a good note, with the unmarked “drive” parts I used, the platform is just slightly below the NMRA platform clearance gauge height. Close enough to be realistic, and short enough to be well clear of rolling stock.

The building itself is 2-7/8″ x 1-7/8″ x 3/4″ tall to the roofline, or 38.3 x 25 x 10 scale feet.

While in general, I’m pleased with this initial foray, I must note a few items.

First, the system “suffers” from an inherent limitation of modular systems – they must have a standard unit of size in order to be modular. This isn’t necessarily a problem (hence the quotes), just an item of note.

Second, some of the parts fit loosely. Part of this may be operator error – I’m still learning how the parts are supposed to fit together – but part may be a minor manufacturing tolerance issue on the connecting surface. Or it might be intentional. It is useful to be able to take the models apart and rebuild them differently, and too-tight parts would make this difficult.

In short, my initial foray into Parvia has been a pleasant one. Next up will be actually using the base and creating a small streetscape.

Parvia: Build your own world… Part 1

Note:  The following post was written in June.  I unfortunately got distracted and didn’t get it published.


I recently found out about a new company and product available for scale modeling.  Parvia is an innovative company providing a unique product.  That much is for certain.

The folks at Parvia conducted a Beta test program where they invited some N-scale model railroaders (and other folk, I suppose) to free samples of their products in exchange for fair and honest reviews of their product.  So, I volunteered.

It took some time to get things started – mostly because I was distracted with other projects, but I recently placed my order for four of the complete sets, plus a few extras.  Since I chose the free, but slow shipping (because I’m cheap that way!) I’ve got some time before I can review the actual product.  For now, you’ll have to settle for some information about the company and the website.

Parvia, the company…

Parvia the company was founded in New York, but is based in Seattle, if you can say it is based anywhere.  It is a virtual company, and has no real offices.  All of the non-manufacturing employees work from their homes.  I find that rather fascinating.

I’m not sure who their website designer is, but Parvia’s website is one of the more unique-looking websites I’ve seen.  Its look and feel very nicely matches the product itself, with simple, clean lines and soft colors, and is easily navigable.  The catalog and ordering process took a moment to figure out, but was still easy enough.  Certainly not the worst I have ever seen.  Pricing is clear, and a variety of shipping options are provided.

Parvia, the experience…

Parvia markets what I would call an “experience” or a “community” based product, nut just a pile of plastic parts to build from.  On their website, you can sign up for an account.  With that account, you can obviously order kits, buildings and detail parts.  You can also submit designs for custom buildings and entire dioramas.  If someone else orders a diorama you designed, you get a royalty fee.

There is a Wiki under construction, which will enhance the sharing by users, and suggestions for games and other group interactions that can be done.  And of course, some stories from Parvia users.

The system doesn’t quite seem to be fully in place, but their intent is clearly not just to sell parts, but to foster a community of modelers who share ideas, designs, models, and fellowship.  And of course, drive sales through all this community support.  That’s not a bad thing.  That’s a win-win.  It will be interesting to see how this develops.

Parvia, the product…

That’s all nice, but what exactly is Parvia?

Parvia is at its core a modular building system that most closely resembles “LEGO* for grownups”, if it resembles anything at all.  The townscapes are built on a rigid plastic frame which the company claims makes even large models sturdy and portable.  The model itself is made of modular pieces – streets, sidewalks, grass, building walls, roof sections, and details.  The walls have details printed on, and custom buildings can be printed to order.  So if you want to model that unique courthouse in your hometown, they can make it for you.

The models are in 1:160 scale, so 1 inch on the model represents 13 foot 4 inches in the real world.  Not by coincidence, this is the same as N scale model railroading, so Parvia is exactly compatible with N scale trains, accessories, and scenery, as well as closely compatible with a number of other popular small modeling scales.  For reference, a 6 foot tall person would be just under half an inch.

These are not hyper-photo-realistic models.  Which is where the LEGO comparison comes in.  Well, that and the glue-free click together construction technique.  However, they are very conceptual representative, and the printed building facades adds a very nice detail touch.

The bottom line so far…

Full disclosure: Parvia gave me the product I will be reviewing.

That being said, I don’t see myself using this for my model railroad layout.  It’s not the level of realistic detail I’m shooting for.  That’s OK.  Parvia doesn’t even pretend to be competing with Woodland Scenics.

I could see my kids using this for scenery on their layout.  Or anyone for whom being able to say “There’s the town!” is more important than having their friends wonder whether that photo is of a model or the real thing.  Or who doesn’t want to deal with glue and sharp knives just to have a model town.

I have a friend who has enjoyed town planning and design for many years.  He finds joy in deciding where the fire station should go, and whether the Northeast corner is a good place for the garment district.  How wide the streets should be and where to put the sidwalks.  This sort of product, assuming the real thing passes muster when it arrives, would be perfect for him.

I’m intrigued by the product concept and design, and I’m encouraged by the positive contact I’ve had with the company.  I’m looking forward to seeing how the actual product works out.

Stay tuned!!

* LEGO is a registered trademark of the LEGO group, and has nothing at all to do with Parvia, this site, or me… which should be obvious since this is a personal website.

Great Customer Service

One of the things I’ve found in this hobby is some really great customer service from the manufacturers and retailers.

Two that I would like to give a “shout out” to today are Mike & Robin Fifer at Fifer Hobby Supply in Las Cruces, NV and Duncan McRee at Tam Valley Depot.

Mike Fifer is an active model railroader, in addition to running his retail and online supply business.  He also has a great series of videos on YouTube outlining the construction of his AC&T Railroad at the shop.  I’ve had excellent service from Mike & Robin, including some more than fair “above and beyond” business practices regarding shipping.  They clearly are out to build a good relationship with their customers by doing the right thing all the time.

Mike has also been very quick and patient in responding to the many questions I have peppered him with, and it is clear that he would be just as nice regardless of how much I was buying from him (and in truth, I’ve bought very little, $$$ wise).

As for Tam Valley Depot, well, if you’re looking for turnout controls or other electronics for your layout, you’ve got to check these guys out.  They have an excellent product line that has been clearly very well thought out and designed with flexibility and ease of use in mind.  I can say that with authority, as I do this kind of stuff for a living.  It’s really good stuff, and well documented, too.

Again, just like with Mike & Robin, Duncan has been more than helpful and patient in answering the dozens of planning questions I have sent his way, and I have yet to drop a dime on his company.  That speaks very well of him and his company, in that they understand their customers’ needs and are passionate and engaged in helping folks achieve their goals.

Thing is, it’s not just me, either.  I’ve seen many, many posts on the forums from a broad spectrum of other folks regarding these two companies, all to the same effect.  Top notch products, over the top service, and a real passion for the hobby.

Of course, there are many other MRR companies out there that also do an excellent job, and a few that perhaps don’t do so well.  But Fifer Hobby and Tam Valley Depot are certainly two examples of the right way to do things.

(Note:  While Tam Valley Depot products could be used on any layout, Fifer Hobby is an N-scale specific retailer).

Review: Woodland Scenics Trees Learning Kit


Recently, in an effort to get my feet wet in yet another scenery area, I picked up a Woodland Scenics “Trees” Learning Kit.  The kit contains about 18 “armatures” (trunks and branches) in various sizes from 3/4″ to about 8″ (N scale 10 to 106 feet), two colors of “clump foliage”, and a small jar of “Hob-E-Tac” with a brush built into the lid.  The armatures have little pegs in the base for mounting directly into your layout, but also include an optional base to make the tree more-or-less freestanding.  Here’s a shot of the contents of the package:

(I only included small sampling of the largest armatures in the picture. There are 18 total included in the package.)

I paid about $15 for the kit, which makes the trees run about $0.83 each.  However, since I’m modeling a mature forest, only about half of the armatures (the taller half) are particularly useful.  So my personal net cost is closer to $1.60/tree.  I suppose I can use some of the smaller trees around a building or in an orchard or something.

The clump foliage comes in two colors:  a very dark (almost black) green for the “conifers”, and a lighter “medium” green for the “deciduous” trees.  The conifer armatures are all tall and very narrow, similar to tall Western spruce trees.  The deciduous armatures come in more varied shapes and sizes, and would be suitable for a mixed forest.  Of course, with only two colors of clump foliage, the mixed forest is still going to look pretty uniform.

One must keep in mind, of course, that this is a “learning kit”.  Woodland Scenics offers bulk clump foliage in at least a dozen different shades of green (including a mixed yellow/orange/red “fall foliage” color), so the determined modeler should have no problem getting some variety in his forest canopy.

The assembly method is quite simple:

  1. Break up the clump foliage into small clumps and dump it into an open container (the kit packaging is handy for this).
  2. Bend the armature branches into a more realistic 3-d shape.  The plastic used is bendable, but holds its shape fairly well once bent.
  3. Apply Hob-E-Tac to the branches of the armature wherever you want foliage to stick.  Obviously, leave the Hob-E-Tac off any spots you want to leave bare (like the base of the trunk).
  4. Wait about 20 minutes while the Hob-E-Tac gets tacky.  It will change from white to clear when it is ready.  This is very important.  Not waiting long enough will guarantee a FAIL.
  5. Dunk the tacky armature into the clump foliage.  Flip it around and sprinkle the foliage on it to get good coverage.  Alternately, place individual clumps onto the armature by hand.
  6. Pick off the foliage that’s dangling or that just doesn’t look right for whatever reason.
  7. Plant the tree either in its own base or (my preference) in a piece of florist’s foam and let the Hob-E-Tack cure.  Optionally, spray the tree with WS Scenic Cement (or a 50/50 water/glue mix with a drop or two of dishwashing soap).

Voila!  You’ve created a fairly decent looking tree!  The whole process takes only a few minutes per tree, not counting the tacking time for the glue.  It’s also easy to do this in batch form, and works well as a “work during the commercials” activity during TV time.  It should also be a safe and easy craft activity for children.

The lighting in this shot is not the greatest, but you can get an idea of the natural color of the foliage and the relative size of the trees.  These would scale out to about 80 or 90 feet in N scale.  Here’s another shot including an N scale GP40 for scale reference.  You can also see how many clumps fell off the deciduous trees on the left overnight.

A few notes, though:

  • Clumps will fall off – especially the ones that are barely hanging on to start with.  I found it useful to press the clumps firmly to the armature, or even make sure some of them are “speared” onto the branch tips.  On my first attempts, I’ve had to go back a couple times and re-apply clumps where they just didn’t stick well.  I’ll revisit the long-term stability of the trees once the glue has had time to fully cure.
  • Others have reported that Hob-E-Tac is substantially similar to a much cheaper craft product called Aleene’s Tacky Glue.  I’ve never seen the stuff, but apparently it works just fine.
  • The deciduous armatures seem to model trees that would be seen by themselves or in a small copse. I’m not sure how accurately they model the taller, narrower growth pattern of trees in a dense forest.
  • The conifer armatures are very tall and narrow.  They do not model the shorter, broader structure of Eastern pines very well, and I’m not certain they are tall enough to accurately model the Western trees they more closely resemble.
  • As I mentioned in my earlier post, scale height is an issue (if you care).  These trees are 10-100 feet in N scale, which is actually pretty good unless you want to model a stand of sequioa or redwood, but would top out at around 50′ in HO, and a mere 25′ in O.  Not very accurate for a mature forest.
  • The armatures are a uniform dark brown plastic.  They are textured with a generic “bark” form, and they would pass the “two foot rule”, but there are certainly ways to improve the fidelity with a judicious use of paint, sawdust, and other modeling techniques.  Such things are beyond my ability right now, though.
  • There are other techniques for modeling “interior” trees in a forest that would be more effective and far cheaper than these trees.  But with a little “dressing up” of the trunks, these would do fine for modeling the “edge” trees that are most visible.
Deciduous Trees, picture taken with flash
Same trees, with flash photography

Please note that the horrid “nuclear green” of the foliage in this picture is a side effect of the flash and white balance on my Blackberry.  The actual foliage color is much, much more natural.  The trunks don’t look quite as bad in real life, either, though they still appear obviously plastic.

In short, this is a pretty nice kit that does just what it advertises.  It gives you all the tools you need to learn how to make Woodland Scenics trees, at a reasonable price.  All of the components are available separately in bulk, as well, and the basic technique should work with other substitute products, such as armatures made from florists wire.  The end result is a reasonably nice looking tree that certainly passes the “two foot rule” even if it won’t satisfy the “leaf counters”.  Finally, I will note that the main drawback to realism is the appearance of the plastic trunks, and there are several well-known techniques for improving this (including pretty much any of the weathering techniques normally used on rolling stock and structures).