Monday, March 19, 2012

Scratchbuilding the Robertsdale Post Office


In my last post, I wrote about the pleasures of scratchbuilding -- one of my favorite parts of the hobby.   My latest project is to recreate the cluster of buildings owned by the East Broad Top Railroad in the company town of Robertsdale on the east side of Broad Top Mountain.   There were four structures in what came to be called "Company Square" -- the massive company store built in 1875, the stone block station built around 1911,  a two story office building that held the coal company offices, and a plain stone block building constructed around 1915 that once held the Robertsdale Post Office. 

In recent years, the old Post Office has been acquired, along with the Depot, by the Friends of the East Broad Top Railroad, who have converted both buildings into a museum.  The Post Office has moved to the former EBT office building across the street.  The old Post Office had a varied and often colorful history.  Located on Main Street, across the EBT tracks from the depot, at times the building also housed a barber shop, a shoe shop, company offices, and apartments.  Upstairs rooms were used at times by community organizations for meetings, and during at least one coal miners' strike, these rooms served as an informal "lock-up" for the company police.  Here is a photo of the building as it appeared in the 1950s, the period I model the EBT.

Preliminary Research and Challenges

As you can see, the building was not in the best shape at the end of EBT operations.  Modeling the structure was a challenge, since while there are many photos of the Company Store and the Station, very few photographers thought this plain rectangular building worth the time to preserve on film.  Even determining dimensions was problematic.  It appeared I would have to estimate the size of the building and the location of doors and windows by counting the stone blocks, which measure 8 by 8 inches and are 16 inches long.  Furthermore, I could not locate any good pictures of the sides or the back of the building.   How was I going to scratchbuild a structure with only the front to go on?

The last problem was resolved when I posted an appeal to the Friends of the East Broad Top .  Adam Watson, a fellow EBT enthusiast, lives in Broad Top City, not far from Robertsdale, and volunteered to photograph the building the next time he drove through town.  A day or so later, I received the following photos:

The photos were a godsend.  Now I had both left and right side views as well as a full frontal picture of the building.  There were no pictures of the rear of the structure, but I reasoned that since no one would see the back anyway, I could trump something up.  Of course, I still had the challenge of determining height, width, and window and door sizes.  Also, I noticed that the long plate glass photo of the building in the 1950s was missing in the 2012 picture. 

The mystery of the plate glass window was solved when I discovered that the FEBT had restored the building to its original configuration.  The plate glass window was a later addition.  But since I model the EBT in the 1950s, I decided that I would include the plate glass window.  By coincidence, I happen to find an HO scale barber shop on eBay, along with a pool table and player.  The building was intended for the edge of the layout, and it would be fun for folks to peep in the window and see the Robertsdale barbership and pool hall, just down the street from the station!

About this time I encountered another stroke of luck.  A fellow EBT modeler, Dave Crement, sent me several pages of field notes made by Gary Hart in May of 1989.  The notes included a full set of measurements of all the dimensions, INCLUDING THE BACK!  This was the first time I had any idea of what the back of the building looked like.  One discovery was a 4 by 6 foot "porch" on the second floor, accessed by a door.  I guessed that the porch was an emergency exit -- possibly a fire escape -- which is how I decided to model it.


With photos and dimensions in hand, the next step was to decide how to model the stone block walls of this simple structure.  The EBT used stone block construction on a number of its buildings, including the engine house that still stands in Mount Union.  Fortunately, the FEBT Company Store now offers sheets of resin cast stone blocks in HO scale.  Based on Gary Hart's field notes, I decided two sheets would be sufficient.  The only fly in the ointment was that the length of the sheets was about 4 1/2 feet short of the 50 front and rear walls.  That necessitated adding a short extension to the long walls, most of which would be disguised by windows and doors.  However, the addtional piece, along with all those windows and doors, necessitated lots of bracing.  I used 1/4 inch square styrene to brace the back and sides.

Having worked with resin walls in building the Robertsdale station, I thought this would be a cinch.  However, I built the station from a kit, which came with window and door openings already in place.  The first thing I discovered about resin is that if you aren't careful, it will break -- which it did, several times, when I tried to cut the window and door openings out.  A second discovery was that neither ACC nor epoxy seems to bond very well with the resin.  I discovered this to my chagrin when several of the braces I carefully installed to prevent further breakage popped loose with the slightest stress.  In the end, I found that Walther's Goo was the best cement for this application.   With the window and door openings cut out, the next step was to assemble and square the sides.

If you look carefully at the walls (above) you can see the vertical line on the left where I added an additional 4 1/2 feet of wall to make the front an even 50 scale feet.  On the right, above and below the long plate glass window, is an irregular seam where the resin broke while I was cutting it.  My hope was that once the building was assembled and painted, these lines would be less visible -- which fortunately turned out to be the case.  Incidently, this photo shows how I do my structure modeling.  The model is set on a sheet of glass, under which is a plastic grid that I discovered at Joanne's Fabric stores.  I believe the original purpose of these grids was in quilting, but they certainly simplify making sure the walls are square.  Here is an inside view of the model showing the extensive bracing.

Once the walls were assembled, I couldn't wait to give them an initial coat of gray primer.  I use a cheap primer from Home Depot,  since I only needed to provide a base for the enamel that would color the finished walls.  After some experimentation, I decided on Model Master FS36118 Gunship Gray for the overcoat.  I then mixed small amounts of Cotman Water Colors (Chinese White and Lampblack in the tubes) and added water to make a dark gray mixture that was then brushed over the sides of the building.  The water color flowed into the gaps between the stone blocks while leaving a light residue on the face of the stone, suggesting years of smoke and soot.  I liked the way the building came out.

Notice that the line where I had added a section to the front wall is not very visible in this view.  For the fun of it, I test fit the model on the layout, where it will eventually go.  As you can see, the windows and doors have also been added in this photo.   The windows were a challenge.  I first ordered Tichy windows from my local hobby shop, based on the measurements in their catalog, as compared to the dimensions on Gary Hart's field notes.  But when they arrived, they were much too large.  An email to Don Tichy revealed that the measurements in their catalogue are for the working part of the window, but do not include the trim.  This may be the way your local planing mill sells windows, but it makes it difficult to get exact sizes for a scratchbuilding project like this.  I then ordered windows from Grandt Line, only to find that they didn't fit either!  A second call to Grandt Line finally brought the correct size windows, leaving me with several packs of windows for another project.

Constructing the Hip Roof

The old Post Office is capped with a hip roof.  The 1950 photo of the building suggests that it was roofed with diamond pattern shingles.  Gary Hart's field drawings also indicate that there was a three foot overhand and that the slope of the roof was 4/12.  Hip roofs are a bit more challenging than a conventional roof, as one has to match the triangular end sections with the long trapezoidal roof sections facing front and rear.  I have done hip roofs before, but the method was basically trial and error.  Then, as I was thumbing through some old articles I had clipped but never filed, I ran across a wonderful article from the September 1995 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman.  The article, by Jack Burgess, was entitled, "Hip Tricks: An easy way to build hip roofs without resorting to trial and error."  Just what the doctor ordered!

Basically, the technique extrapolates from known dimensions, like the length and width of the structure and certain lines of the roof when viewed front the front or side, to deduce the actual height of the front and side roof panels.  When you look at a hip roof, say from the front, the roof slopes away from you so that you can't see the actual height of it.   The view is foreshortened.  But if you look at the Post Office from the front, the line from the end of the roof peak to the end of the eave is the true height of the triangular side panel.   That dimension allows you to calculate the actual height of both front and side panels.  It's actually easier to work from diagrams, as in Burgess' article, than to explain it in so many words.  But once I caught on, it was a snap to produce scale drawings of the roof panels, cut them out, and cement them together.  Since I used styrene sheet for the roof, I was able to assemble the entire structure with plastic solvent, making for a tight and permanent roof.  The hip part of the roof was then cemented to a rectangular base to keep the entire assembly rigid.

Borrowing another construction technique from the same article, I turned the roof upside down, set the building on it and marked the position of the building walls on the underside of the roof.  I then used plastic weld to cement 1/8 square braces to the roof, so that the roof would fit tightly into the top of the building.  Building the roof this way allows me access to the inside of the structure for lighting.

The basic roof shape was now ready for shingles.  I used two packages of Bollinger Edgerly Scale Trains (B.E.S.T.) HO scale self adhesive laser cut shingles, item 3011, with a dark gray diamond cut.  It took some practice to figure out exactly how to apply the shingles properly.  The instructions provide a guide for drawing lines on the roof to make sure shingles are applied in straight lines.  As you can see from the following photo, it wasn't easy to get the lines straight, so there was some trial and error involved.

But with patience and continual checking against the guide, the roof gradually began to resemble the one in that old 1950s photo:

Finishing touches were then added to the model.  Angle structural strips were placed above and below the plate glass window to imitate concrete sill and lintel.   A photo of the entrance to the new Post Office across the street had a sign indicating "United States Post Office Robertsdale, Pennsylvania".  I cut the sign from the photo and glued it over the door of the old Post Office.  Glazing and window treatments were applied and the building was just about ready for the layout.  It still needs weathering and a sign over the barbershop and pool hall.  And I need to construct an enclosure behind the plate glass window to hold the barber chair and pool table.  I plan to add microlamps with green shades to illuminate the scene.


What did I learn from this project?  First of all, I learned that, as in Murphy's Law, if something can go wrong, it probably will.  At the same time, I also learned that (in most cases) even if things go badly, it's almost always possible to fix the problem -- or simply start over!  I also learned, once again, how much I rely on my fellow modelers for advice and help.  Adam Watson was willing to drive over to Robertsdale and take photos of the building.  And Dave Crement was kind enough to send me the field notes taken over 20 years ago by Gary Hart.  Finally, I have found over and over again how much I can learn from other model railroaders through the hobby press.  The article on building a hip roof was just what I needed at just the right moment. 

All in all, it underscores how this is truly a fraternity of model railroaders who help one another to make the hobby better for all of us.