Harbor Construction
On The Utopia Northern Railroad

Initial carfloat apron placement
model carfloat apron

I've always wanted to build a harbor scene with a carfloat apron and barge. 

Looking back at my previous layout:

When I saw a Walthers HO carfloat apron kit on eBay I took the plunge. Even though it was expensive (the kit and the barge are both out of production) I decided it was time to add the scene to my model railroad. The harbor will be built at the end of the open storage tracks at Fort Eerie. I began this project in August, 2012.  It is now part of my new UNRR.  This page chronicles the construction of the harbour.

I was doing the harbor construction on top of a cabinet that has three sliding drawers. The top drawer will be used for cars "fiddled off" at the carfloat apron. Eventually I also built a barge and a tug boat.  My original dock was at Blueshores (a Campbell kit). 

I had planned to build the apron at Valleyview but there wasn't enough room and the track lead was at an awkward angle at the edge of the benchwork.

So Fort Eerie got the harbor scene.

I was going to put adjustable feet on the cabinet but the height wasn't going to work out. Instead I bought a piece of 3/4 inch plywood 2 feet by 4 feet at Home Depot. I had to shorten it to 32 inches to allow passage between the harbor and the aisle by Valleyview. As the scene is only two feet wide I don't anticipate a problem for my operators who are following trains to Youngstown and South Point.

You can see the location on the diagram of my layout on my original Utopia Northern page.

Here's a photo looking through the carfloat apron towards Fort Eerie that serves as an online interchange. There are a few industries on the backdrop but most cars brought here to industries were put wherever there was room. I follow the same practice on my new layout version. The harbour was (and remains) a real destination for "off the layout" car movements.

Walthers carfloat apron as built
Walthers carfloat apron kit

Carfloat apron construction notes

This plastic kit was more difficult to assemble than I expected. I pre-painted all the parts by hand.

I mixed up a reddish rust color using cheap paints. I overpainted the structure with Polly Scale grays and allowed some rust to show through in places. I scraped paint off surfaces that had to be glued and used a small paint brush with Ambroid plastic cement and a capillary-action needle with Tenax cement for the longer "welds".

The most difficult and time-consuming task was to thread the pulleys that raise and lower the deck. I replaced the plastic rail in the kit with Code 83 metal rails. I used ACC glue to hold them in place. I broke the plastic throwbar trying to get the points to seat properly and replaced the throwbar tab with a long 00-80 threaded screw. I also drilled holes in the plastic hinges at the land-end of the apron and used O gauge spikes for pivots. I don't know if there there were parts in the kit for the hinges. I never found them and the drawing was unclear to me. Anyway, the spikes work fine and I don't intend to raise or lower the apron. I intend to keep the track as level as possible to allow cars to roll on and off without going over any kind of a hump. I had to fiddle with shims to get the apron at the approximate height I will need. I have to build a #4 wye turnout at the entrance.Walthers suggested using an Atlas #4 but I intend to use a Fast Tracks template to make my own to match the Code 83 rail at Fort Eerie.

(Due to damage during my move I have had to make the centre track non-functional because the turnout no loungers works properly. I park a couple of excess freight cars on the track).

I don't have a Fast Tracks jig for a #4, however, I've built quite a few turnouts using Fast Track tools. I found I had the Fast Tracks ties for a #5 wye left over from an earlier project and I have a Point Form Tool for a #6 and a Frog Helper jig for #5 frogs in Code 83 so I downloaded the paper template for a #5, tacked it to a piece of homasote and built the wye turnout freehand over the template. Liberal checking with an NMRA track gauge and some 3-point gauges helped me fudge my way to a wye that would fit.

Fabricating a wye turnout on a Fast Tracks template
Fast Tracks wye

After it was built I cleaned it in the sink with water and detergent and then, when dry, glued the rails to the ties with Walthers Goo. Then I went to the garage, laid down some newspaper on the floor and sprayed the turnout Floquil roof brown. 

  • I immediately used a short piece of cork to remove paint from the top of the rails. 

After a few days I fit the wye in place after removing some ties and trimming the rails on the approach track. It was necessary to add some cork roadbed and make room for a ground throw. The ground throw I used is a OO throw made by Wrenn in England.  It is long out of production but I still have a few. They are a little oversize for HO but work great. The clearance to the adjacent track was very tight so I drilled and tapped the arm for a #90 brass screw and threaded it up from underneath. This helped to lower the profile of the ground throw. I glued a scrap piece from the Fast Tracks tie assembly underneath the ground throw to get it to a good height. There wasn't enough room to install a wire tension spring so the lever doesn't go all the way over in one direction. I can live with that.

The wye installed and connected to the apron with Code 83 metal joiners.
car float apron wye turnout

Location of the wye turnout at the end of Fort Eerie.
car float apron wye location

This work was completed in early September, 2012. The next step was to deal with the harbor itself. I decided to extend the outside track onto a pier and built a breakwater of stone rubble on the opposite side to enclose the scene. After that I poured the acrylic water.

Adding the pier

I decided to work on a pier next. I made a sandwich of a piece of 1 X 3 pine, 1/2 inch plywood and 1/8 inch masonite (hardboard).  I kept the pine on top because it is soft enough to accept tiny spikes.

Scratchbuilding a pier.
ho pier construction

You'll notice in the photo the tools and method I used: an NMRA gauge, code 83 rail, tiny spikes, and 080" styrene to build up the concrete pavement outside and inside the rails. I laid the rails first using Walthers Goo and used a metal ruler to keep the first rail straight. Then I cut and laid styrene outside the rail to the edge of the pier. This helped to keep the alignment. Then I spiked the rail on the inside to hold it against the styrene. After I got that rail in position I used the NMRA gauge to lay the other rail. I couldn't use 3-point gauges because the first rail was pressed against the styrene. I added spikes on the inside of that rail.

The next job was to put the styrene on the outside of the second rail. Once that was done I cut styrene pieces to fit between the rails. I notched the bottom of the pieces to clear the heads on protruding spikes, sanded a bevel on the inside top flange and used my test car to make sure I had enough clearance. Then I used Goo to attach the styrene to the pine board. I used an assortment of weights to hold pieces until the Goo set.

I had some 040" styrene so I cut pieces to fit on both sides of the pier. I also had some H beams and some small square strips. I added the H beams on the inside where the pier side will face the harbour. I used Tenax plastic cement and applied it with a small paint brush to let capillary action flow the glue for a good weld. I went the extra step and did the aisle side using the square strips after I ran out of the H beams. They are close enough that I doubt anyone will notice. I had placed a few H beams at strategic places to make it look like it was all intended by the engineers (so i have an answer for any nitpicker who comes along). I spaced them 2 inches apart (because I only had enough strips to do that) and added extra strips to cover seams.

The harbor side of the pier.
ho pier

The 32 inch pier ready for painting.
ho scratchbuilt pier

Painting the pier

The pier is ready for painting. I'll do that at the workbench before installing the pier in the harbor. I needed to find some bollards or other typical ship fittings and clutter you'd see around a pier. These were added later.

Update: September, 2013

Some progress. I mixed a concoction of Americana Heritage Brick and FolkArt Orange and Plaid acrylic paints to get a kind of rust inhibitor-looking paint that was reasonably close to the paint I had used on the apron. The resulting color is a reddish orange. Then I dry brushed on some Polly Scale Rail Brown "rust" paint to age the walls and show where the fouling paint had started to fail due to weather and salt water. I followed this up with a wash of Hunterline Gray weathering mix. I used a heavier wash near the waterline to simulate changing tide levels. 

I covered the top Walthers Concrete Top Coat beside and between the rails with the wash as well. I also added Juneco CN rail stops at the end of the rails so cars don't topple off the end of the pier. There are a number of other options for creating the concrete appearance such as using a spray paint with some grit or using an airbrush with a setting that lets the paint air dry before it hits the surface.

I didn't want to start masking everything so I avoided these methods and only used a soft brush to apply the concrete and the wash. Styrene doesn't take brush painting very well. It took three coats to get a result that was acceptable to me.

Preparing the harbor bottom.
ho harbor water

Finally I used a Brite Boy eraser to carefully clean the rail tops. This necessitated some touch up when the eraser rubbed the paint off the edges of the styrene.

I painted the harbor bottom plywood with a flat black acrylic paint and mixed in some Woodland Scenics Green Ground Undercoat near the edge of the harbor. The plywood grain shows and it looks like there is some currents in the water. I don't know if this is going to work. It may be necessary to apply a thin coat of plaster to the plywood and repaint.

I added a gloss coat to the black and experimented with adding a little Mod Podge for water ripples. I've never tried that. I've used Envirotex 2-part epoxy and Magic Water previously but never a clear varnish.  The black makes the water appear to have depth. I didn't want to add depth because it could mess up the height of the rail connections and  I also didn't want to imbed the apron and pier in the "water" in case I needed to remove either of them to the workbench for maintenance. The next task was to build the breakwater for the other side of the harbor. 

Building the breakwater

Making a breakwater.
ho harbor breakwater

I started by cutting some 1 1/2-inch wide scraps of 1-inch extruded pink foam into strips. These were shaped with a rasp into a rounded appearance and then were covered with Woodland Scenics plaster cloth as seen in the photo. I added a top coat of Scultamold (that has a lumpy texture), painted the breakwater with Woodland Scenics Stone Graygray, and sprinkled on talus and broken chunks of plaster.  My intention was to make it look like a man-made breakwater of rocks and crushed stone.


Harbor construction completed

I changed my mind. I wasn't happy with the plywood grain showing after the wood was painted black. So I mixed up a thin, soupy batch of lightweight hydrocal plaster and painted it onto the plywood. After it was dry I repainted it flat black. Then I coated it twice with some clear acrylic polyurethane.  This looked better but I now had bumpy water instead of wavy water.

Sealing the edges.
edge seal

I sealed the edge of the plywood harbor with blue masking tape and then ran a bead of clear silicon bathtub caulk around the inside bottom edge of the tape. 

This stuff will find the tiniest hole and end up on the floor. I know. It's happened to me before!

24 hours later I carefully mixed some Envirotex Lite casting resin using two flat-bottomed plastic food containers.  This product doesn't have the odour I remember from a previous water-making project many years ago.

I crossed my fingers that I had mixed it sufficiently (about 4 minutes). I had added a few drops of dark blue resin coloring that was left over from the previous attempt. 

I used an old 2-inch paint brush to help spread the poured resin over the entire surface of the harbor. I had enough to make it about 1/8th inch thick.

Envirotex Lite water.
envirotex lite

The instructions said to exhale on the poured resin to get rid of any small bubbles that rise to the surface. The carbon dioxide is supposed to do the job. A blow torch waved over the surface is also supposed to work but I don't own one. The resin set up correctly and there are a few bubbles that aren't too noticeable. 

The poured resin water. Pier and apron have been temporarily positioned.
A styrene wall has been added between the apron and pier using the same paint mixture that was on the pier walls.
envirotex resin water

The resulting water is glossy and reflections show. I was going to look for some acrylic gel to try adding a few waves but never got around to it before the railroad was dismantled.  A lighthouse would have looked good at the end of the stone breakwater. I may try to add that on the new UNRR.

Harbor ready for use.
model harbor scene

View of apron and pier.
ho harbor scene

For a "how to" description of constructing the barge, go to building a railway barge.


Walthers re-releases their waterfront series 

Wouldn't you know it! Now that I've completed construction of the harbor and carfloat Walthers announces that the waterfront series of kits is being released due to popular demand. This includes the harbor apron, carfloat, tugboat, pier and crane and assorted waterfront buildings. Check the Walthers website or flyer.

If you're looking for marine information or would like some unique nautical items for your train room to go with your harbor scene, have a look at Derek's nautical gifts cabin for some unique seafaring momentos and model ships.


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