My name is Daniel Swearingen and I live in Northern California. This blog is focused on my model railroad activites. These will include layout building, model building and techniques, product reviews, layout design and design philosophy.

The banner image: excerpt from a photo of Tiburon, Ca. taken in 1922. D. S. Richter collection.

Product reviews are based on my personal experience with items I purchased unless I say otherwise.

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A little essay I wrote about attending the 24th National Narrow Gauge Convention in September, 2004.

My wife was positive she was NOT the wife of a model railroader. Positive in two ways:
1) I (her husband of 17 years) was not really a model railroader and,
2) she (professional, educated, gregarious) could not possibly be what was she envisioned when she thought of the WIFE of a model railroader.

I have to admit I mostly agreed. It seems like I spend 110% of my time in the Real World [the Real World goes by many names: the prototype, 12” to the foot, 1:1, etc.] and no time with models. But I really think that’s going to change. This September the 24th National Narrow Gauge Convention (NNGC) running from September 1-4, 2004 was only one hour away from our home and we needed a mini-vacation.

Americans tend to identify themselves by their careers and I’ve had several: Marine, astrophysics grad student, web site developer, computer programmer. In the background I always loved models of all kinds and especially trains but I just didn’t believe I was a real model railroader.

Frankly, this just shows the incredible power of denial. I look back and

all the signs that I was a model railroader were there to see,

plain as day.

In my office is EVERY issue of the Narrow Gauge & Short Line Gazette. Forty years of Model Railroader. Many issues of Railroad Model Craftsman, Tall Timber Short Lines, Timber Times, Finescale Railroader, Finescale Modeler, Light Iron Digest, Ships in Scale, Scale Auto.

But, everyone has those … right?

I’m pretty sure I have a few (hundred) books around too…

How could I have missed the stunned awkward silence from houseguests (non-modelers) when I would say “oh yeah, I have a few un-built model kits in here …” when they see a good-sized walk in closet jammed floor to the ceiling with literally hundreds of kits?

Was it fate or was it my denial finally crumbling that led me to register and go down to Santa Clara and this year’s NNGC? In my wife’s case it was certainly true love that got her to go along with me. That’s not fair, actually she was very enthusiastic. I’m pretty sure her actual words were “oh yeah, I gotta see this. The hotel has a pool, right?”

On our first day we went straight in to the contest room. We arrived mid-morning on the first full day and there was no line. The first thing I saw was a tiny micro-layout that was smaller than a business card with a small gas-mechanical locomotive scooting around. And  the displays kept getting better. I think it is impossible to not be inspired by seeing so much exciting work all  gathered together into one room. I know I got so excited about it that many of my photos from that first day were shaky and I had to go back later and re-shoot!

Over the next couple days I shot a couple hundred photos. Here are some of my favorites:

Waterfront Diorama by Chris Kerbrat that took Best of Scale in HO

Bill White’s “McPhee Lumber Co. #053″ This model took 1st place in the Caboose category.

These next five shots are all from Dave Revelia’s incredible Tractor Repair Shed done in 1:35. Might have been inspired by Sierra West’s  tractor repair shed kits. 1:35 is a good scale for this kind of work since excellent figures and detail parts are available from the Military models world. This diorama won Best of Show.

What makes any diorama exceptional is when it conveys a story. The pets, the plans on the table, combine to give a narrative flow.

The plausible arrangement of junk and spare bits and pieces – looks like my back yard.

There were something like 100 entries in the contest. Dioramas probably had the most entries and the quality of those entries was uniformly very high. Interestingly, there were very few passenger car entries (I think there were two), and relatively few freight car entries. Diesels were kind of scarce too. Just thinking about next year…

Every year I’ve seen pictures of convention contest winners in various magazines. Seeing them in person gave rise to two impressions. First, in person you can really see so much more of the work and detail. Secondly, I could see myself actually building models – I felt truly inspired to design and build.

As Bay Area natives (and therefore tired of Bay Area freeway traffic) we limited our layout visits to Bob Brown’s Tuolomne Forks and Charlie Getz’s display of Malcolm Furlow’s original San Juan Central.

After only a 10-minute wait in line outside at Bob Brown’s house (spent looking at his garden railroad) we got in. Bob was a warm host and there was a limit of about 20 people at a time in the layout room (also Bob’s workbench area). I had seen videos and articles about Bob’s layout but like seeing the contest models first hand, seeing Bob’s work in person made it more real and at the same time more possible.

Something else was also happening. I have a picture of my wife looking at Bob’s layout with the same foolish happy grin on her face the obvious model railroader next to her has on his. 

Malcolm Furlow’s San Juan Central, built originally as a project layout for Model Railroader in the 80’s, lives on in a room at Charlie Getz’s home. I think it looks better now with all the TLC lavished on it than it ever did before. Like my childhood stuffed doggy, I have practically loved to death my raggedy copy of Furlow’s HO Narrow Gauge Railroad You Can Build.

At this point I’m having a fierce HOn3 vs On3 argument in my head.

When I decided to go to the convention I really thought it would be like looking at a lot of magazines and videos in one shot. A more intense version of the way I have been experiencing model railroading for years. I actually thought it would increase the feeling of “it’s too hard and time consuming” that had held me back from not only building but kept me from even acknowledging I was a model railroader.

It ended up a very different experience for me. By talking to the manufacturers, viewing and judging the contest models, attending clinics, and seeing home layouts it all became MORE real and MORE possible.

They say that after an intense moment of inspiration there inevitably follows a depression but this depression is just a space into which you are supposed to pour your response, your action.

In this case I’m building and I’m saying to myself “only 360 building days left til next years convention (Dearborn, Michigan).” As for my wife Janet, her favorite hobbys are quilting and jigsaw puzzles. Give you one guess what activities they had set up in the Spouse’s area? She now knows she’s the wife of a model railroader and I no longer argue with that.