Little Boxes

When we first moved into the city from out in the suburbs, our apartment overlooked the Ports Of Auckland’s operations on Fergusson and Bledisloe Wharfs.

1 View

It was fascinating to watch the ships come in. The containers would be unloaded by the giant Wharf Cranes at incredible speed, then moved into the stacks by the lanky yellow Straddle Carriers and, later, carefully placed onto waiting trains by the Reach Stacker. Operations would continue all hours of the night so that the ships could get on their way as soon as possible.

2 Night View

Being near to the port also meant being near to the railway line, specifically Auckland’s Eastern Line that runs between Britomart and Orakei. There were many trains going past every day. Mostly commuter trains (that changed from being diesel to electric while we were there), but also heavy freight and specialist trains like the Northern Explorer.

2 J1275

When I was planning Arohana, I knew that my layout was going to have containers. They’re a major component for rail (and in Auckland’s case, road as well)…

3 Prototype

And after a bit of researching on the internet, I came across a website based in Holland that was selling 1:120 scale containers for a very reasonable price. They even had some familiar brands which would really make the layout look realistic.

The package took a while to arrive, as I believe they were waiting for all the stock to be available. But I was in no rush, so it was ok.

4 Delivery

Firstly, the containers are very detailed. They’re made from molded plastic, have all the ribbing and doors, markings, etc. and even stack nicely into each other. They did need some weathering to get that authentic look, which I was able to do pretty quickly with some brown paint and a fine paintbrush.

5 Display

6 station

Eventually I’d like to get some PK wagons to haul these around, but in the meantime they can just sit on the layout.

7 house

20′ version sitting at the house on the hill. Finally they can unpack their furniture!

8 siding

Buying a house

With Auckland property prices going through the roof, it’s about time we got out of the city and bought a house in Arohana. Or in this case, buy one and relocate it there to an empty plot of land on a hill.

Looking at most railway houses in the country is like taking a step back in time. Back to before government funding stagnated, and New Zealand’s railways were thriving with passengers and freight. Simply put: it was the best way to get around.

1 photo

2 photo

So this is the type of house I’ll be relocating. 1950s weatherboard with corrugated iron roof and a brick chimney or two.

3 Railroad houses

Further online investigations found that there are, in fact, 3D printed models in 1:120 scale available for purchase. Apologies to whomever took these photos, I saved them a while ago and can’t remember where I got them from.

5 examples6 Perfect exampleThe grey and red one above looked perfect for my layout, so I found a similar one on Shapeways:

6 to 8 weeks later…7 Box

The detail on this model is quite amazing. You can see the weatherboards, the bricks on the chimneys and the corrugated lines on the roof. Thoroughly impressed with this, and I didn’t even need to take out a mortgage!

8 House arrivesIt did need paint and windows added, which I cut out of a strawberry punnet and glued on with PVA on the inside of the house.

9 Windows

For now I’ve just placed it on the layout, although in future I might do some renovations by adding some internal walls, lighting, etc.

10 paintedTime for a house-warming party!

Water and weeds

“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.”
– Bruce Lee

Water. It’s everywhere on this planet and it’s what allows life to flourish here. 71% of the earth’s surface is covered with water. So you would think that there would be lots of options for recreating water in a modelling sense – after all, you can’t use actual water on a layout this small.

But after an extensive amount of research on how to create water, the one thing that kept coming up was an expensive product made by Woodland Scenics:

Going from that, I figured I’d need about 4 or 5 bottles to fill my river – or about $200 New Zealand dollars’ worth!

So I did a bit more research and found that a clear resin would do pretty much the same job but for a fraction of the cost. I found a two-part resin at the local Mitre 10 Mega hardware store for 20 bucks. Two bottles that, when combined, would completely fill my river and set in about 24 hours. Perfect!

First thing to do was tape up the two edges where the river enters and exits the layout. The stuff will flow to the lowest points and then layer up, so the edges needed to be secure.

1 Tape

I used PVA glue as well, to make doubly sure there was no way through.

2 Tape

While the PVA was drying and since I had the layout out from under the glass (it’s getting pretty heavy now), I took the time to add some weeds to the trackside areas. This consists of some green-dyed sawdust that I made a while ago ,which I think looks pretty nice next to the professional turf. Just to break things up a bit.

3 Weeds


4 Weeds


5 Weeds

Right, the tape was on the east and west edges of the riverbed, and the PVA glue had dried and sealed it off. I did a final vacuum of the riverbed to remove any dust and grass pieces that had dropped there, then mixed the two bottles of resin together and stirred for about 5 minutes to make sure it was all even. Then I held my breath and poured it in!

6 Riverbank

The viscosity was quite low – lower than I thought something would need to be that would become solid in 24 hours. But this low viscosity helped to get the resin into all the areas between rocks and bridge pillars, etc.

7 River

8 River wide aerial

It’s quite difficult to photograph how great this looks in real life, but these pics with the reflection look pretty good.

9 River aerial

I also poured a bit of the mixture down the hillside where I’ve got a little waterfall going on.

10 Waterfall

In all, I’m very happy with how this turned out – it looks just like water and people want to touch it to see if it is.

Overhaulin’ the DC

So I’ve previously shown the state of my DC loco. She was running a bit low (actually scraping the rails) and lacking a few details like the bogeys not being like the prototype, and grills etc. missing.

One thing I have done already since the last loco post is add some window panes. I used the clear plastic from some cut up strawberry punnets, and glued them from the inside.



Here you can see the plasticine on the engine base that I had been using to lift the shell higher.


So I ordered a few parts from Trackgang Products ( to give her a bit of an upgrade.


Bogey facade things. After painting and weathering, I glued them straight onto the existing bogeys, only to find out they aren’t the perfect size, and actually restrict turning quite significantly when they hit the fuel tank and undercarriage.


I had to get the scalpel out and trim the internal corners off so that we’d be able to get round the tight corners of Arohana.

Another one of the upgrades was a sheet of etched brass that contained grills and fans to go on the roof of the DC. Yes it says DFT on it, but I had been assured they would also fit the NZ120 DC. Which wasn’t quite correct. As you can see, the fan blades and grill extend past the edge of the square hole.


And, at the rear of the roof, the exhaust vents weren’t quite long enough to reach the back.


A bit of sanding and the fan was reduced to fit. You can also see here a black bar underneath the shell, flush with the front section under the cab. This is to cover the hole that is left when the shell sits on the engine base, and was made from leftover foam, sanded and painted black.


The circular grill for on top would have to just sit as it was. And the middle grills were perfect as is. The “goldilocks” zone, if you will.


Paint shop.


And applied to the roof, along with the finished bogey facades.



Looks pretty good, I think!


Just need some decals now.


State of the nation!

Enter sand, man

Ahh, summer.

It’s been a while since I made a post, which is mainly because it’s summer and there are much better things to do than hang around indoors.

The next step for Arohana was to get some sand for the riverbed and other trackside areas, so on a recent trip to the beach I was able to pick up some good quality west coast black sand. I only needed about a cup of it and, if you know anything about west coast sand, it’s that you get about a cup’s worth out of your towel when you shake it off at home.

To apply the sand to the layout, I mixed 1 part PVA with 1 part water, then painted the areas that I wanted the sand to stick to with a small paintbrush. As I said before, this is the trackside areas between the track and shrubs or grass, as well as the riverbed and parts around rocks and things. Once the glue was down it was just a matter of using a teaspoon to sprinkle the sand on top.

IMG_1491 Sand 1

You can see on the left the glue has soaked through the sand. This area needed a heavier application of sand on top. The excess sand was then vacuumed away once the glue had dried.

IMG_1496 Sand 2

One thing I’ve noticed about the sand after it has been glued down is that, much like the west coast beaches, it also has sparkly bits to it which isn’t really the look I was going for. For some areas I might have to do a bit of experimentation – paint some with gray maybe or give it a bit of a dirtier look. The river looks great though, and is about ready for some water effects.

Ground cover

After seeing the finish of the painted plaster sheets, I quickly realised that I would need to have some cover on top of that. My first attempt was with some dyed sawdust.

I painted some PVA on first where I wanted the ground cover, then lightly sprinkled the sawdust on top. Of course it always pay to cover the tracks up with tape first. These pics show how it looked afterwards with tape removed and excess sawdust vacuumed off.

1 sawdust grass IMG_9223

And although it looked better than just the exposed plaster sheets, I still wasn’t happy with it as some of the “grass” chunks were too big.

2 sawdust grass IMG_9227

So it was off to the hobby shop for some professional products! I went for a bag of “clump foliage” and a shaker of “blended turf”, both by Woodland Scenics. My research online had shown these products to be very good and just the finish I’m after. I did see another product that actually makes the grass blades stand on end, but it involves the purchase of an expensive static machine, something I don’t want to afford for this small project.

3 products IMG_9242

I applied this stuff the same as the sawdust, but instead of painting PVA, I used a brown paint to look like dirt. When sprinkling the turf on top I didn’t go right to the edge in some spots, to leave some dirt showing through. And the places where I had the sawdust from the first application, I didn’t cover that up but merely blended it in together to show some variance between grass types, much like real life.

5 grass IMG_9507

6 grass IMG_9508

A bird’s eye view of the layout with the blended turf applied:

9 birds eye IMG_9524

When applying the clump foliage, I found a thicker glue was required as opposed to just brown paint. I went back to the trusty old PVA, putting lines down where the bushes were to go. I then broke off small pieces of the foliage and pushed them onto the glue. I dropped a 50/50 PVA and water mix on top of the foliage, and sprinkled turf on top of that to show some colour difference.

8 IMG_9545 stacked LR

Bushes in the hills

1 IMG_9538 Grass

And a few odd bushes down by the tracks too.

2 IMG_9540 Grass 2

Looking down on the northern end of the layout. I really need to get some sand now to finish off the river.

3 IMG_9563 Grass 2

In the meantime we’ve had a few people come around to visit and most of them have been blown away by this project. Being inside our coffee table, the layout sits in the middle of our lounge so it’s hard to miss, but I feel the blended turf in particular has brought a whole new level of realism to this layout. It’s much nicer than just the painted green plaster, as it is three dimensional. And the layout will just get more and more realistic as other fine details like this are added.

I should also mention that the messiest part of the project is finished with, being the foam carving and sanding, so my wife is very happy about that. No more finding little foam bits on the floor around the apartment. However, she did get a bit of a shock when emptying out the vacuum cleaner the other day and it was chock full of dusty green particles…

Making rocks

One of the focal points on this layout is the river, and being a river at the bottom of a hillside, I wanted it to have a lot of rocks. An easy way to do this would be to just throw handfuls of pebbles onto the layout and glue them down, however this would greatly increase the weight of it. I want to keep the weight down so that the layout can be removed from the table easily. So, using foam leftover from making the base, I began the long and somewhat arduous task of shaping rocks.

1 makin rocks IMG_9054

I found that painting them black first and putting them on a length of cling film was a good way to get each rock coloured in one go. The rocks come off the cling film easily when dry, ready for the next coat.

I also needed to put a “roof” on the mountain, closing in the tunnel and controller space.

2 mountain IMG_9032

I joined the end caps on, but my long clamps weren’t quite long enough to hold everything together. I ended up putting the whole layout on its end while the glue dried, using the weight of the layout to hold things down.

3 birds eye IMG_9035

Northwest portal with rocks hot glued down.

4 NW portal IMG_9049

Northeast portal:

5 NE portal IMG_9050

Rocks rocks rocks!

6 makin rocks IMG_9109

7 river IMG_9078

The northern end cap glued on and mountain tops plastered and getting painted. The hole in the end cap allows derailments inside the tunnel to be reached.

8 northern end cap IMG_9091

More foam at the rail crossing, with a higher street level on the western side when compared to the internal part of the layout. This will eventually lead down to a goods shed.

11 crossing IMG_9117


This is how it’s looking through the tunnel window. The reasons for the window were two-fold: (1) To provide access in case of a derailment inside the tunnel, and (2) to give a secret view to inside the tunnel. I plan to hide this away with some sort of cover which will also make the tunnel dark when looking in through the portals.

01 Tunnel window IMG_8444

Unfortunately the plaster sheets left an ugly cross-hatch pattern wherever I used them – inside the tunnel and also on all the hillsides. On the positive side it is very strong and provides solid protection for all the foam which can dent easily.

2 Plaster Sheets IMG_8403

Thick layers of paint didn’t do much to cover the holes.

2 South hill IMG_8407

Building site:

3 Building site IMG_8409

Bird’s eye view:

5 Birds Eye IMG_8410

I went over the plaster shit holes with polyfiller, a ready-made plaster mix usually used for patching up dry-wall. Mixed a bit of water into it too, so it was more pliable, and I applied that directly over the dried plaster sheets with a paintbrush.

6 tunnel IMG_9026

7 tunnel IMG_9027

I cut some end caps out of 8mm MDF, just where the hills were ending abruptly at the northern and southern ends. I figured these would cover up the rough plaster edges and protect them in case they get knocked as people walk past the table.

8 Layout IMG_8440

8 Layout IMG_8441

Painting the end caps

9 End Caps IMG_8443

DC going through a cutting

10 cutting IMG_8450

Going up!

Using foam, hot glue and plaster sheets, the mountainside slowly starts to take shape. Each piece needs to fit with the others around it to create a tunnel that looks good from outside (the hillside) and inside (through the tunnel viewing window). I wanted to create a realistic looking tunnel wall – as if it had been roughly cut through.

1 NE Tunnel IMG_8399

I had to keep putting the track down with the loco on it to check the roof height.

3 Height test NE IMG_8398

Checking the NW portal height

3 Height test NW IMG_8396

Closing off the NW corner of the layout gives me some storage space, where the controller will eventually be housed.

5 NW Tunnel IMG_8401

Putting the tunnel roof on.

6 Mountain Foundations

Tunnel portals were done with pencil, indenting into the foam to create 3D mortar gaps between “blocks”. Then paint the whole thing black.

7 Portals

And finally, dry-brushing the relief surface in a lighter grey. Each piece is made to fit the rocky outcrops where they are glued into place.

8 Portals

Leftover scraps from a wet weekend!

9 Rubbish