Concrete Plant built by SMARTT based on magazine article

Workbench Talk

Researching Models

by Ray Del Papa

I have been asked this question several times about industrial models. “How do you come up with the ideas for these models?” The biggest challenge to making anything for a model railroad is getting it right. That includes everything from the track plan to the type of grade crossing a specific railroad would use. So where do we find all this information? Today, the internet is the place most of us look first. Sometimes, however, it takes everything from books to videos to get it right, and, of course, there is that personal factor of knowing experts of specific topics that you can call or email. In short, it takes multiple sources of information to come up with a final plan for a model.

Concrete Plant built by SMARTT  based on magazine article



Another option is to let the movie people do the research for you. There are some really good films that do have good historical reference to them with respect to railroads. Some such films shot a couple of decades ago that come to mind are:

Matawan (see Did You Know… below) –
West Virginia coal mines and towns of the 1920’s.
The Deer Hunter
steel mills and the communities around them.

Then there are the old films, shot on location back in the day. A good example is On the Waterfront. In this film we look back to the day before the modern container ship, when cargo ships were unloaded by longshoreman working inside of a ship’s cargo hold. We also see the community that surrounded the waterfront – bars, churches, the homes they lived in, even the pigeon coups on their roofs. Numerous times a modeling project has been inspired by one of these or other films. I like to use movies as inspiration for a project, however, even with the ability to freeze-frame a scene you can never get all the detail you need from them.


The 1980’s brought about an explosion in railroad or railfan documentaries. Some were both newly filmed and produced, and as well, some were transfers of older film (Black Hawk, Sunday River) documentaries to video. This gave anyone with a TV and a VCR access to the railroad world that was long gone. Today, many of these have been upgraded to DVD’s.

These videos showed not only the trains of the time, but the places that these trains traversed. We see the stations, factories, bridges and railroad facilities of a time now gone. These videos are even more inspiring than the movies, for they tend to be more specialized. There are documentaries on specific railroads, locations, and of course the trains themselves.

For reference purposes, railfan videos do have the ability to go beyond movies since they focus on the railroad environment the trains travel through. While they are more specialized than movies, in most cases videos alone still don’t give us the fine detail we need for a project. They do start to narrow it down to a more specific idea though, so they are a very useful research tool.


The internet has opened the door for a universe of information. It does not always provide the keys to the kingdom, but it can be a primary source of information. Online you can find photos, both of past and present, plans, maps, and text of almost anything you want to model. In some cases the net can give you all the detailed information you need to complete a project.

The internet also opens the door to the different SIG’s (Special Interest Groups) that specialize in a specific type of modeling, such as bridges, steel mills, heavy industries, harbors and waterfronts, ships & boats, mining and so on. These SIG groups provide detailed photos, plans, and tips on how to do a project. If you join one of these SIG groups as a member, it will allow you to receive their printed news letters or even a periodical sent right to your home. Along with the SIG groups there are numerous Historical Societies, most of which are dedicated to a specific railroad or railroads. The SIG’s and the Historical Societies are the place to go when you need super-detailed information.

Another good use of the internet is personal contact with those who have similar modeling interests. Now you can communicate directly with the masters of the hobby through emails. This gives us the capability to send and receive an enormous amount of information directly, and in a very short period of time.


Books are my favorite, and there are so many of them now available. You can find a book on nearly anything that has to do with trains and the places trains serve. There are a fair amount of books on related subjects, such as ships, boats, steel mills, industrial buildings, bridges, landscape and the list goes on. All can be applied to researching a project. The only drawback here is the cost. This is the most expensive way to do research, for most books fall within the 40-60 dollar category. Not out of reach when you need just a few books, but when you need dozens, it becomes prohibitive. Unfortunately most public libraries don’t have the resources to acquire many, if any, of these books, so using a public source is often not reliable.

Magazines are another fine source of information. Over the years, the publishers of model railroad periodicals have produced countless articles on the where, what, how, and why to build models. Many have included highly detailed scaled drawings of such models. Far and away these articles are the easiest way to research and use to reproduce a model. Above is an example of a model we built here at SMARTT based on an article that appeared in Model Railroader many years ago.

Here at SMARTT we go to painstaking lengths to make sure a project is accurate. Finding that right source of information allows us to create a project that is both accurate, and exciting. Much like fabrication itself, proper research is akin to one of our supervisor’s favorite sayings “…the right tool for the right job”.

from the May, 2011 SMARTT Newsletter

Leave a Comment

Bot Check? *