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Statement from Ixion Model Railways Ltd
Our goal is to have a well-lit display that focuses the attention on the railroad. To do this we have planned a shadow box design that provides a consistent viewing experience around the entire layout and minimizes the lights shining directly into the viewers' eyes. This can be tricky with a double decked layout when you consider that viewers’ heights can be anything between a couple feet and 78” (or more).
Before beginning work on the lighting valance, we wanted to test various heights and clearances to make sure our lighting could be installed as planned and that viewers would get the experience we wanted. Even though we had previously built the layout in the garage, the height and depth of the benchwork changed in our new location. Also, the lighting will be implemented differently. This impacts the thickness of the upper deck (to accommodate the lower level lights). It also impacts the height of both the ceiling inside the valance and the valance itself.
We did some tests to ensure the upper valance hid the lights from view while providing an adequate view of the layout. We also wanted to ensure adequate access for operators who had to see and reach in for uncoupling cars. Additionally, we needed to determine the height of the upper deck fascia. It needs to be tall enough to hide the lower level lighting while not impeding sight lines to the lower deck.
We did not trust simply drawing this out, a test-drive was in order. We used a section of the peninsula to mock up various scenarios.
We clamped test pieces of Masonite (hardboard) to the valance support arms and different sizes of fascia material to the front of the decks. This allowed us to test the spacing between for both sight lines and access. It also gave us a feel for how well the lighting would be hidden. We had a temporary backdrop in place to give us an idea of where the top edge of the skyboard would be.
This setup allowed us to test many different combinations of heights and spacing. Keep in mind that sight lines vary greatly based on the height of the person and where they stand relative to the layout. My partner is just over 6’ and I am closer to 5’ 9’. When it comes to the height of the bottom edge of the upper valance, the 4” difference in our height is significant. We need to achieve balance between tall people being able to see to the back (on both levels) and short people not looking up into the lights.
This is why we decided to take the time to mock it up. Doing so removes all speculation and you can have confidence in your design. There is no “one size fits all” and compromises will need to be made. At least this way you can make informed decisions and know what is best for your situation.
Installing the Upper Lighting Valance Support
Once we determined acceptable valance and fascia heights and clearances, it was time to get back to construction. The lighting valance has four functions:
There was also one key design goal: Make it easy to remove for layout and lighting access after the layout is built. The removability will make it easier to work on scenery and backdrops later on and get at the lights if need be for maintenance/repair. When I say “easy” to remove, my goal is one person, no tools required, and can be done without the need for ladders or stools.
For support, arms will be mounted to the wall that support an L-girder running parallel to the wall. A Masonite valance will then be hung from the L-girder.
After the valance is in place, 1/4x20 flange bolts are hand threaded through the front into tee nuts along the L-girder to hold it in place.
The Support Arms
In an earlier post, The Mud Bay & Western #4 - Skyboards and Backdrops I discussed installing the upper skyboard. During that process we installed brackets along the top edge of the skyboards to secure it to the wall.
While anchoring the skyboards is important, the main purpose of these brackets is to support the upper valance. The design goal here is as light and strong as possible. I found these brackets on Amazon. They are rated to support 80 lbs, are a nice square shape, and have pre-drilled holes for attaching a shelf to the bracket. They are approximately a foot long and our valance is approximately 19” from the wall so the first step is to build the support arms that will attach to these brackets and extend them to the desired length.
I want to point out that I wanted brackets with a high weight rating because we are going to add an arm to extend them to 19". Adding that much length significantly increases the load on the bracket of anything mounted out at the end.
The arms extend the length to the needed 19” and provide mounting points for the plywood L-girder. They consist of two pieces of ½” cabinet grade plywood bolted to either side of each bracket with a ¾” pine spacer glued between to provide a little extra stability and support.
Given that the arms support the entire upper valance assembly, precise placement of the arms is very important. If careful attention is not paid to the vertical position, it could result in uneven spacing between the levels as you walk long the length of the railroad. If the horizontal lengths are uneven, it can result in an uneven face with visible bowing and “waves” in the valance as you look down the length of it.
Additionally, any errors in the valance seem to get magnified at the joints between valance panels. Bottom or top edges won’t align properly and/or one panel will stick out farther than the one next to it. If the ends aren’t square you get wedge shaped gaps that will likely be back lit by the lights inside so the errors really stand out. If the face isn’t parallel to the wall along the panels you end up with some panels canted slightly forward and other slightly back. While errors could be corrected later on while mounting the actual valance material, that can be time consuming and quite tricky. My preference is to take extra time now to get it right and avoid fixes later.
This means that during the mounting process, you want to take steps to get them as precise and uniform as possible. Given that the bottom of the valance needs to be precisely parallel to the deck below it, I use that deck as the baseline. That is why I wanted the benchwork for the level below to be fastened down before this step. Being fastened down, it is in its final, permanent location and will not move.
In an earlier post, The Mud Bay & Western #3 - Roughing in the Benchwork, I mentioned that when using shelf brackets you want to watch out for variances in each bracket as a result of their manufacturing process. The same caution applies to these brackets. They are a square tube spot welded to a mounting plate. Overall their quality is pretty good but spot welding isn’t always a precise process. Additionally, mounting them to the wall as well as mounting the plywood to the brackets introduces a small amount of error from bracket to bracket.
Using the benchwork below as my “source of truth” I went around the room and measured the distance from the surface of the door slab below to the top of the shelf bracket tube. One measurement next to the wall and one measurement out at the end of the tube. After checking all brackets in the room the margin of error was +/- ¼”. Not too bad and easy to fix while attaching the arms. The margin of error is significant here because it had to be within the total height of the arm panel. That way it could be corrected while bolting the panel to the arm.
To ensure that the vertical and horizontal positions were exactly the same for each arm, I cut three pieces of aluminum tubing at precise lengths (height from deck at the wall, height from deck out at the front edge, and distance from the wall to front edge). These were used to help hold the arms in position while I was mounting them. I was working on this by myself and needed four hands to keep everything in place. Using these spacers really helped maintain accuracy.
The mounting process for each arm took five steps:
1. Clamp one arm plate into position on the mounting bracket
Here you can see the aluminum tubes I used for precise positioning relative to the door below and out from the wall. Using these spacers while mounting ensures that each arm will be the same relative to the door slabs and wall regardless of any variances in the shelf bracket positions around the room.
2. Using the holes in the brackets, drill the mounting holes in the clamped arm plate
Using the holes in the shelf bracket tube as a guide, I drill through the bracket into the arm. This ensures that the mounting holes are placed exactly as needed for this bracket. You can just barely see the holes in this picture. Sorry about the poor exposure, the lighting in the room is pretty bad for photos right now (In the third picture above, you can see the holes in the brackets better).
3. Using the first plate as a template, drill the holes in the second plate
4. Mount the arms to the brackets
Using nut/bolt/washers attach each set of arm plates with the shelf bracket sandwiched in between. Note that I keep the aluminum positioning tubes in place while tightening down the mounting bolts. This ensures the arms don’t shift out of position as you are tightening things down.
5. Add the spacer/stabilizer blocks
I’ll admit, this step may not be necessary. However, the shelf brackets are only ¾” square tubes and my arm plates are almost 3” tall. I wanted a little more stability between the arm plates so I slipped a ¾” square piece of pine in between the plates and glued it in place.
After doing the first one, the process was pretty straightforward. I had cut all my materials ahead of time so one evening after work, I got all the arms in place along the left wall.
Building the Valance
So now that the arms are installed, we can start on the actual valance. The valance is two long strips of Masonite laminated together with “hooks” mounted along the length to hang the panel off the top edge of the L-girder.
The plan is to mount an L-girder beam to the end of the arms (this is what the notched ends are for on the arms). The beam provides a lot of lateral stability for the entire valance assembly. It also provides a smooth continuous front surface to help keep the valance panels aligned and parallel. The valance itself will hang from the L-girder with a few flange bolts spaced along the front to actually fasten it and provide stability in case someone bumps it or catches an edge while reaching into the layout.
The L-girder beam is fashioned from more of my recycled 3/4" plywood. The L profile makes it very strong and keeps all the edges straight. Between the use of plywood and the L cross section, warpage over time will not be a problem.
Note the front face of the arm in the upper right of this photo. I glued a 2” block into the front gap. This adds stability to the arm plates and provides a surface to take the screws when we mount the L-girder. One screw into the front and one up from the bottom.
We built the L-girder in sections. To ensure that the joints between sections were perfectly aligned, we added a joining plate inside the L and screwed it to the lower flange of the L.
After mounting the L-girder, the next step is to hang the valance panel. We cut 2” spacer blocks and clamped them along the back of the top edge to make sure it was hanging evenly along its length.
Once we knew everything was straight and properly aligned, we removed each block, one by one, and glued it into place on the back of the valance panel while the other blocks kept everything in the right position.
One of our concerns about a Masonite valance was that a single thickness of Masonite might warp or at least be a little wavy and we wanted to stabilize it a bit. Adding a stiffener along the back was problematic because if it was mounted high it would interfere with the arms. If it was mounted low it would be below the light panel and cast a shadow on the layout below.
We decided to glue a second thickness of Masonite to the top half of the front of the valance panel. This would provide stability as well as a bit more strength around the mounting bolts. Visually, it provides a horizontal centerline to the panel and allows the mounting bolts to be centered in the upper half. Given this is the face of the layout, we are paying a little more attention to the visual details here for a more finished appearance.
Once all the glue dried on the extra thickness and the hanging blocks, we rehung the panel and drilled the holes for the mounting bolts. There is one bolt centered in the face of each arm. The bolts will be visible so we wanted to be sure they were perfectly straight and evenly spaced. Each bolt goes through the valance panel, through the web of the L-girder and into a tee-nut.
Once they were drilled, we took the panels and L-girder down. Using the pilot holes, we mounted the tee-nuts on the back of the L-girder sections and then reattached them to the arms. On the panel hanging blocks we added some metal hooks that slide down over the L-girder when the panel is hung.
The metal hooks are just some 3” steel joining plates that we bent the last ½” out a bit so it would easily slide on and off the edge of the girder without snagging the edge. They also ensure that the panel is always snug against the L-girder so everything stays nice and straight.
Here you see the finished valance panels.
We now have our removable valance panels. We used black flange bolts to hold it in place. Black so they will match the valance once we paint it and the flanges eliminate the need for washers. Since we took a lot of care to ensure that all the holes were precisely located, all the bolts fit well and can be inserted and removed by hand, without the need for a wrench. Once the bolts are removed, one person standing on the floor can easily lift the panel off the L-girder to remove it. Rehanging it is just as easy. All in all it is a pretty clean installation and we are happy with the results.
Thanks for following everyone. The next post will cover adding the fascia to the upper deck. Also, more details on lighting will be presented in their own posts.
DaveK in NB
This article first appeared on model-railroad-hobbyist.com
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