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7/8ths Personnel

by Doc

In which our esteemed contributor waxes lyrical about things that bear but a minimal relevance to most other people's garden railway. But soft, who is concerned?

What's it all about?

We all come to garden railway from our different backgrounds. Few of us are heavily into the gardening element; the vast majority, if asked, might admit that their miniature endeavours only thinly conceal a desire to turn back the clock to a more filthy time, when steam ruled, men were men and spat ont' floor with impunity. Boys walked the streets clutching smog butties in brown paper bags, their thighs chapped with the cold and chafed by worsted shorts, handed down to them for generations.

Yes, but, No but.  Some of us, born moments after the last shot fired in anger in the last unpleasantness with Germany, are of an entirely different kidney. We are, essentially, miniaturists. We care little about double reversing clack thrusters and finely tuned goggle wagnits. If it's small and bijoux, it's for us. Many of us come from a background of extreme deprivation. I wish my father had beaten me more. It might have made a man of me. As it is, he did worse than that. The miserable son of a gopher made me read books and study. Toys were for others. Train spotting was for weedy men in anoraks. Perhaps he had a point. My father beat me mercilessly…. at chess... and in rhetorical diatribe. He made it impossible for me to fail in my career. Worse than all these things, he made me rich, filthy rich, RICH I TELL you. Well, not exactly. He made me easily satisfied with very little, with small things, and that is richness indeed.


My Guv'nor, Sir Adrian. Not much fun in his house.

So, saddened reader, wipe that tear from the corner of your eye. Yes, YOU, go ON, wipe it! …………….That's better.

As soon as I left home, I cast caution to the wind and soon made up for all those years of childhood misery. I got very involved in miniature warfare. Yes, I admit it. I was a Napoleon. I still possess a 15mm French Imperial Guard for table top wargaming. All the units with uniforms correct to the last turnback colour and button. Hundreds of them. I made dollhouse furniture. Proper Chippendale stuff out of basswood, stained and varnished. I learned how to make dolls food using salt dough. I even set up a company to import 1/12th scale items from the USA. At one time, if you bought a readable 1/12th scale leather bound book, there was a good chance I had brought it into the UK.

So, for me, garden railway is all about the miniaturisation thing. I'm not trying to reconstruct some nostalgic moment from my youth. Best forgotten really. No, I'm making small things, some of which happen to run on rails. I have to confess though, that the things that don't run on the rails give me slightly more buzz. I like the look of old red brickwork and of still usable decrepitude. A bit like my own body, you might think, and you'd be right. The sight of rusting corrugated iron raises the hair on the back of my corrugated old neck.

The people

A big part of what garden railway is about for me is what Si Harris of ModelEarth refers to as the 'back story'. The raison d'être if you suffer from Norman blood. Why on earth would somebody spent good money to lay a length of track in the countryside if it had no purpose? Just to see something run around in a circle? I think not. You had a quarry, you dug out the gravel and now you had to get it to the customer. You owned a pottery and you needed to get the clay to the works, and get the finished product to the market. In the 18th century, you got a bunch of Irishmen to dig you a canal, in the 19th century it was all about railways. Only much later did the internal combustion engine make the road worth spending money on. Running a railway needs people so my 16mm line has dozens of them. Most of them are passengers, infesting the station platforms but all the cabs have drivers and all the signal boxes are manned. There is an adequate police force on the DLR too. Well, just look at the faces of Rob Bennett's Busybodies and tell me there are few rogues among them.

When I discovered 7/8ths scale, I found my true home. Here is where dollhouse meets garden railway, head on. Best of all, very few manufacturers cater just yet for this scale so we are obliged to make things. Making things gives me the greatest pleasure.
On the other hand, it is nice to kick off with a few off the peg geezers to get you eye into the new scale and I am internally grateful to Rob Bennet for these reprobates


This is Ray Gandhi, known to all his friends as 'Goosey' for some reason. It was I that married his head to his body, and why not? He seems happy enough about it.


Stan Dinnup is a close friend of Neil Downie and I rather like his louche appearance. Reminds me of myself on a good day. I understand he is a left handed billiard player and practises a lot, so there, we differ.


I cannot pretend that this is not my brother-in-law, Dick, because if he's not, its a doppelgänger. One of my favourite relatives is known to many as 'Billy Whizz' and, to be fair to him, he is still very fancy with a cricket bat. I can't say where he got that dreadful tan but it certainly wasn't on a beach. He may well cast his eyes to heaven but, sadly, no help can be expected from that quarter. Sooner or later, I'll get round to making him look more normal. Or not

7/8ths scale means that on 32mm gauge Peco track, I am dealing with an 18 inch gauge railway when I convert up to full size. The people are 50% bigger too and that brings huge rewards and challenges. Sure, you can use commercially available dollhouse figurines but they look vile. I also think that precisely scaled down people look an unacceptable unreal, a bit like a shop window dummy. One of the reasons I like Rob Bennett's figures at 16mm is that they are caricatures. They do not pretend to be real; they are surreal. Rob makes a few 7/8ths figures but they are made to satisfy Rob's imagination, not mine. I wanted figures that told a story and had a life that suited my railway. What was nice was to discover than I could buy heads, hands and boots from Si Harris at ModelEarth and use Super Sculpey to make the bodies do what I wanted. I have no desire to mass produce them so I need not concern myself with any eventual mould lines or undercuts when I sculpt. This is free play.


For example, nobody makes a kneeling figure. It occurred to me that with these very low flat wagons, I could use a figure who would be able to get onto the flat deck and manoeuvre the loads. That was how Neil Downie came into being but, as you can see here, he also has a role on the verandah of the Sand Hutton parcel brake.  

Neil Downie also started life as a sign writer and indeed will carry 
a palette and mahl stick in his right hand and a cloth in the left.
He can also manage a pickaxe and, no doubt a jemmy. Previous 
convictions for going equipped must not be referred to yet.

Well, now is as good a time to be honest as any. I wanted a man to operate the brake wheel and I built Len Hawkins, only to find that he was too tall to stand under the overhang. Those ModelEarth heads are magnificent, but they are a bit big. On the other hand, they add to the caricature effect and I like them. I made the body as short as I dared but even so, once fired, it was obvious I had made a serious ricket. He could only stand on that verandah, twisting the brake wheel with his head jammed tight against the roof. I couldn't do that to him. Besides, nobody would ever see that face under there.
So, Lenny became Oily.


The oil can is a white metal Uskin offering

Of course, those hands were once arranged to manage a wheel. I was saddened to have to amputate the fingers with no anaesthetic and replace them in suitable positions using Miliput.

It may not be instantly obvious but these two chaps have the same head. I just added a Miliput 'Ole Bill' tache to Neil's upper lip.

ModelEarth sell a variety of heads and hands and one set of boots. The boots are excellent castings for a standing figure but I felt that a Kneeler would have the soles bent so I cut the toecaps off, chamfered the top, glued them back and made good with Miliput as usual. It's a small thing but it would have annoyed me for ever.

I wouldn't be able to sculpt the next two heads and they directed me towards the bodies as if they could have spoken. That beard is so imperious and the side whiskers so foreman.

The foreman, Sid Viscous. Once he is given a task he sticks to it.

I risked firing the Guv'nor's body with the hands in situ as I realised that to remove them would have caused damage. I got away with it, but, to be fair, the cooking is only 30 minutes at 130 degrees.


Never mind, "Well, who knows what 9 and a half hundredweight is
in kilos?", would you kindly top that one up, Goosey?

The Penrhyn Payday set

Rob Bennett in conjunction with Si Harris of Modelearth offers several sets of figures. One nice little collection comprises the Accountant, the Secretary and a Geezer to sit one behind another in a model of a Penrhyn inspection wagon. The prototype of this is to be seen in the museum at Penrhyn Castle.


I decided to copy the finish of the museum vehicle which is evidently plain if distressed, varnished wood. The kit is very simple to make and all the fun is using acrylics to simulate wood planking. I elected to use the buffer system supplied with the kit but mounted a set of Talisman couplings on top so that all my 7/8ths rolling stock is compatible.


I don't know if Mr Bennett has a problem with any accountants but, in this figure, he has created a thoroughly nasty piece of work; a scrawny, mean, shifty looking man. Meet Philip McCreddit. There is a slight problem with the Accountant figure. His legs are long and his boots come up against the upright so he doesn't quite fit into his seat as he should. He hovers a few mm above it. You might say he is without visible means of support! Hah!

On the other hand, Jane the company secretary is a total sweetie, clutching her padlocked Louis Vuitton bag to her ample bosom. She ought to wear glasses but finds the world a great deal more attractive without them.


Finally, we have the Archibald Clockwatcher, known throughout the works as 'The Geezer', resplendent in loud Prince of Wales check, full hunter and chain. We don't mention the Albert. On his lap, a copy of the Racing Times, without which he would be incapable of losing quite so much money every week.


2015 saw a significant amount of new building work for the DLR to properly fulfil the commitment to a change from 16mm to 7/8ths scale. More buildings cried out for more personnel. And anyway, I like making personnel.


Babs, Dave and Sid


Babs and Dave. 

I like characters that appear to be doing something. Dave is a general "dogsbody" whose outstretched arm could be useful for all manner of duties, including begging. Babs is a scold, so that's what she does most of the time. Big lady. Not to be messed with.

Sid Crane

Sid is another one of those useful figures for when you want to suggest Bambi-dexterity. Sid is able to reach up to trap his fingers in a block while, simultaneously scratching his groin. He could also, at no notice at all, attend a Nuremberg rally.

Making a cluster of buildings, using a variety of finishes is addictive. Once you finish one element, it becomes imperative to tack on another. Pretty soon, this vast conglomeration will be too large to lift unless I stop soon. On the other hand, the complex now assembled can be transported easily from its site to undercover which is a vast improvement on the clusters of buildings in the 16mm days. I could waste hours of lovely running time messing about with little buildings. However, as I want the buildings to act as video and photographic backdrops, i sometimes become aware that, were I to add just another element, the camera angle could be widened. This was why I decided to add a brick section to the rear of the diesel tank section. That led to an opening upstairs window thence to Holly and the ladder, hence Ollie. The wood store is a copy of the one I have at home.


Holly, Ollie and Babs

The 2015 16mm AGM was fairly unremarkable, other than the prodigious numbers of chauffeurs Chris and I managed to sell to an eager and demanding public. Rob Bennett did bring along some new 7/8ths bodies and separate heads and I snapped a few up. Here they are and now all that is required is to find names and jobs for them to do. The vicar drives McGurk of course. The guy in the wooly hat carrying a tool is Manuel, the Spaniard in the works. Could that be Percy Sledge?



Much of my motivation for populating my railway with these characters, quite apart from the fun of making them, of course, is that they have jobs to do. The first is to be extra colour and scaling assistance in photographs which I like to tell some sort of story. In the videos, they are "extras" but I feel I have to be careful with moving images so that the illusion isn't entirely destroyed. Because of that, for a video that keeps a figurine in shot for a few moments the pose of the person needs to be realistically static. People sitting and standing around or watching a passing locomotive works well enough, whereas some navvie wielding a sledgehammer would look daft if the implement stayed up in the air. I therefore decided to experiment a bit with limbs and heads. It's easy enough to create a swivelling head. How about a functioning arm?

I had a mind to film a sequence of a loco leaving an engine shed, arriving at a water tank and taking on water, before mooching over to collect some wagons and departing. Simple stuff. If I cut to different angels, I figured I could move some of the figures between shots to suggest that they were indeed walking about. It occurred to me that it would be easy enough to make a hinged arm so that one man could pull the chain to release the water. Just like those metal toy soldiers we used to get with the weird hinged arm with a rifle? I don't know why they made those; they only looked reasonable with the gun at the slope anyway!   Call for Ginge!


Ginge! Ex squaddie and can't get over it


Hey Ginge! That girl fancies you!

"Yessssss!"

Another vexed issue for me was after fitting a Bangham whistle into the Dennis, it was possible to see the activating lever in the cab depress at whistling, right in front of the driver but, as if by magic. I proved possible to amputate his right arm and reconnect it to his body using a short length of neoprene fuel tube. That way, his arm appears to activate the whistle but springs back to its original place afterwards.

Hints for would-be figure makers

Sculpey gets softer as it warms up. While that helps with adding fine details, any subsequent firm handling obliterates those. The answer? Do the job in short bursts to allow the clay to cool down. Sit it in the fridge for a bit?

If you are making a large, complex figure, your holding fingers will ruin the detail you have already done. One nice thing about Sculpey is that you can add and recook. Nowadays, I make the legs first then cook for 18 minutes. Once they are cool, I build the torso, usually without arms and cook again. Thin arms, like, for instance, bare arms, I make around a piece of wire and press onto the torso. The cooking glues things together reasonably well but a sharp knock will separate at the joint line and permit a change of posture.

Buttons are suggested by pressing the open end of a biro refill.

Thick figures need 20 minutes at 130 degrees in the middle of a fan oven but will tolerate more if you fail to hear the pinger. I do that all the time. Overcooked sculpt is darker and more brittle and as time goes by I cook it less and less.

Thin sculpey is brittle.

Fire the model standing upright on a baking tray, supported by props of cocktail sticks driven into the body at waist height. No, not you, silly, it's the model you want standing up. If you fire him lying down, you'll fall asleep. No, if the model is fired lying down, the clay has a tendency to slump and you may end up with the soles of the feet different which means the figure won't balance. The holes you make can easily be repaired with Miliput. Another way of resolving the uneven feet issue is to make thin sheets of sculpted, press the figure down to get the balance right, trim off the excess soles and re-fire. This is sometimes necessary when the head is added as that shifts the centre of gravity.

Sand and carve the final cooked outcome to correct areas you don't like. It is impossible for me to make an uncooked model so perfect it needs no attention once hard. 

Undercoat with red primer. Let that cure 24 hours before painting with acrylics. I use Vallejo.

It is worthwhile buying a set of wooden clay tools but you'll find you only use one and improvise with other tools you already own and probably make your own special ones with 'popsicle' sticks. Blow me, it's catching!

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