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For this layout I am planning on using four different ways of supporting the backdrops based on the location within the room. Here is a simple cross-section view to give you the idea for the three main ideas:
The left side of the drawing represents a cross-section view of the benchwork along the wall. The right side is a view of the peninsula. On the left side, upper deck, if you look close you can see a thin, dark layer on the surface of the wall. For the upper deck, the backdrop backboard is easy. I will line the wall with a 24” wide strip of 1/8” Masonite (hardboard). This will provide a nice, smooth surface for the brackdrop. Doing it in 8 foot sections will minimize seams.
The lower deck has a couple additional considerations. First, the lower deck is 15 inches deep while the upper is 19. The shelf bracket support rails are 1 inch thick so that means, in order to keep the front edge of the upper level door slab flush with the front edge of the lower level door slab, I need an additional 3” spacer between the rail and the backboard for the lower backdrop (red arrow in the drawing). Additionally, when lighting the lower level, I plan to use the top edge of the backboard to support the lower level light panels, so I need to be careful about the height of the backboard as compared to the where each shelf bracket is located. I want to be sure there is space for the light panel when the time comes.
For the peninsula, I want to maximize space yet have a solid foundation for the backdrop that won’t warp over time. On the peninsula, both levels are the same depth so the same solution can be used for both. I chose to laminate a piece of 1 inch foam insulation board to the back of a 12 inch wide strip of Masonite. This lays across the support arms and fits between the door slab and the aluminum posts (green arrow in drawing). This was easy to assemble and install and provides a nice solid foundation for the backdrop.
So, with the plan in place it was time to start building sky boxes. This is what I call the 3” spacer units that provide the lower level skyboard support along the walls.
For the last 10+ years, this room was used as my modeling area and for project storage. For modeling, I had built 2 large (4’ x 4’) rolling work benches with storage underneath. I had to disassemble these before I could start installing the benchwork. Needless to say, I have a lot of excess 3/4" plywood and 2 x 2 lumber on hand. I an effort to save some money and recycle some of these materials, I am using as much of that scrap lumber as I can. So, I decided to frame the skybox spacers out of 3/4" plywood.
After spending some quality time with my band saw, I had a small pile of 3 inch wide by 4 foot long strips of 3/4" plywood. The plan being to build up rectangular frames out of the plywood and then add a 1/8th inch Masonite face. This would provide a very rigid structure that didn’t weigh too much, would fill the 3” space along the back of the lower level, and provide a nice smooth surface for the lower backdrop.
The doors provided a nice even surface to assemble the boxes on, so they stayed straight while I glued and clamped them up.
After the glue dried, installation was pretty simple. The boxes just slipped in behind the lower door slabs and laid across the shelf brackets. They maintain the 3 inch spacing all along the length of the wall and Masonite face will be good and smooth for the backdrop.
At the joints between the boxes, a simple plywood plate is screwed to the bottoms of the boxes across the joint to hold them together. This will ensure that no gaps open up after the backdrop is installed. It also provides stability to the joint in the Masonite to (hopefully) make it less visible when the backdrop is done.
All in all this went as easy as expected. There was only one glitch in the plan and that was in the section next to the angled corner down by the closet space. The backboard that will be used there starts in the corner of the “closet”, runs across the width of the closet, and then bends along the 45 degree corner and continues around until it is running along the right had wall. I want one continuous piece here so the angles are all coved.
The plan being that once it is all the way around the corner, it will wedge up against the edge of the Masonite on the next section of sky box to help hold it in place. In order to make the joint where the two sheets of Masonite meet as solid as possible, I wanted to add a vertical “stud” that the hardboard could be glued to along the seam.
Well, after I got it all together I realized I had forgotten the stud. Not a huge deal and we solved it with an “upgrade in place”.
The next step was the upper level skyboards around the walls. This was really just mounting sheets of Masonite along the walls around the entire upper level. I want to make sure that the “viewable” portion is as smooth as possible so the plan is to avoid screws in any part where the backdrop will be visible.
The bottom edges will be trapped between the wall and the top deck of the layout so I am not worried about additional screws along the bottom. There will be an upper facia and lighting valance. For support, I have brackets that will be installed along the walls. The plan here is that as the upper facia brackets are mounted to the wall, capture the upper edge of the skyboard sheets between the brackets and the wall and this will be how that skyboards are attached.
The one place I used additional screws here was the corners. I wanted coved corners and my goal was to try to do 10” radius coves. Ideally, without the need to dampen the hardboard first. This resulted in a considerable amount of pressure when the sheet was first pressed into the corner. I would mount the flat sheets along the approaching walls, up to the corners first. Then after calculating the length of the corner sheet, press it into the corner until each side edge snapped into place up against the edge of the next sheet already mounted on the wall. Then I would add some screws along the top and bottom for additional support until the panel relaxed a bit and wasn’t pressing out as hard. I only broke one panel and I am pretty happy with the results. It will be nice not having sharp corners once the backdrop is actually installed.
So, with the upper and lower walls done, it was time to tackle the peninsula. Since the upper and lower levels are the same here, this meant building up the foam backed skyboards. The lower backboard here are 12 inches tall and 8 feet long. I used an acrylic caulk made especially for foam insulation and glued a slab of 1 inch foam insulation board to the back of the Masonite. Once again, the doors provided a nice flat surface for these to sit on while the glue dried.
The good news about the acrylic foam caulk is that it isn’t flammable, doesn’t have a million warnings about fumes and such that will kill you and it cleans up pretty easy. That being said, it does smell a bit. And, it takes a few days to really cure up and quit smelling up the place. I would like to publicly thank my wife for not saying anything while this stack of skyboards cured.
For 4 days.
In the train room.
Right across the hall from our master bedroom.
These installed in a similar fashion to the sky boxes around the walls. The foam backed skyboards drop in behind the peninsula door slabs and are trapped between the slab and the vertical support posts. When the lighting gets installed the top edges of the backboards will get screwed to the aluminum support arms for additional support.
All of this Masonite will ultimately be supporting our backdrop. After seeing many different options and looking at many layouts, I know that I want a photo realistic backdrop. I know that there are a number of schools of thought on this matter (like everything else in the hobby) but my preference is for the photo realistic option.
There are commercially available options of which I did a little investigation. These have come a long way in the past 10 years both in quality and price. Still though, for a large layout they can be fairly expensive. Also, for a large layout the process of laying it out can be very time consuming.
As I was considering the time and cost involved, I was a little worried. Especially since I was afraid of going through a huge effort with a considerable financial outlay, and then once it arrived, not fitting the scene like I wanted it too or having the horizon line be off.
I work in the tech industry and have a working knowledge of PhotoShop and am very comfortable with computers. I started investigating local printing options and determined that if I could do my own PhotoShop work, I could get printing done for around $7 a square foot. This was much cheaper than the commercial options and I learned that it pays to shop around. While I was researching, the range of pricing that I got spanned from around six or seven hundred dollars for the entire layout up to around $3,000.
The local FedEx print center gave me the best price so I decided to do a test run. A small investment (around $60) to try out the process and get some idea of how hard it would be and the quality I could get from the lowest bidder, so to speak.
I decided to use the lower level on the peninsula as a test bed. The 12 inch tall backdrop wasn’t too big but would give me a realistic example of the process and result.
I spent an evening in PhotoShop and built a 12 inch tall by 8 foot wide backdrop. It was a generic forest/distant horizon backdrop that I built out of three different images with a considerable amount of blending. Also, I was totally winging how to determine the height of the horizon line I wanted. This was part of the goal for this test. I need to learn what looks good. I am after the same effectiveness that Mike Confalone has on his spectacular layout.
The next day on the way home from work I dropped the file off at the FedEx print center. Two days later, I picked up the backdrop on the way home. When it was all said and done, this is my first test:
Things I learned…
- I underestimated the heights of the foreground trees. Tremendously. They need to be much taller.
- The horizon line is likely going to need to be much higher than I expected to look natural. In fact, due to the low ceiling on the lower level of my layout, I suspect there may not be much sky at all on the lower level.
- The material they printed it on (is for banners) has a texture that is more visible than the sample they showed me when I ordered it. I have not yet followed up with them on that. It’s not a deal breaker but I want to make sure there isn’t something smoother that can be used. Given this is indoors, I don’t need the toughest weather proof option. Care and feeding of the backdrop IS a consideration though as it is likely stuff will be spilled/sprayed on it while doing landscape work and or maintenance. One of the more pricey print options you can get is an "anti-graffiti coating" which essentially will allow you to wipe off just about anything that you get on it.
- Even though it is not perfect, I really like the feel and how it adds to the look. I grabbed a small diorama I have and threw it down there. Snapped a couple test photos with the phone just to see. It always amazes me how much a difference it makes when you can isolate the subject matter…
If you imagine it is sitting on the edge of a hill it sort of works...
My take away is that it was $60 well spent. And, I have peace of mind that I can do the backdrop I want, when I want it. I have started driving around and snapping picture now. I want as large a selection of images as possible once I am ready to really get going on the backdrop.
That’s about it for this installment. Next steps include getting started on the lighting and facias.
Till next time…
DaveK in NB
This article first appeared on model-railroad-hobbyist.com
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