Saturday, 22 November 2014

Article the First...


Let’s get one thing straight about roads.  They ain’t flat and they ain’t black...two, two things about roads.  Most roads and lanes are actually a quite lightish shade of grey and all roads are cambered, or most start off that way or they’d flood dangerously.  They also go up and down, they have cracks, potholes, they react to trees growing nearby, by having ridges above the tree roots, even on the larger secondary routes. 
Note the marbles down the middle and in the cess at the edges

So, we need to go and look at them and take in these facts and features.  A bit of 240 grit wet and dry, complete with unsightly joints , slapped down outside the station, just will not do.  Because the grain of most tarmac stones is around 3 thou. in 4mm scale and 5 in 7mm scale, you won’t see any texture, except in the irregularites.   Consequently, paint is more likely to look right than any kind of textured surface.  I use Polyfilla because it’s cheap and easy to get a decent finish on.  Then cracks, dips, bumps can be carved into it, before painting.  A test pot of emulsion paint would do for the average amount of road on a model railway.  Nothing darker than a battleship grey is right.  Recently our lane was resurfaced. It was very dark grey, almost black for a day or so.  After a week, the dust and carried-in muck had it as light as usual.   After a fortnight, it was filthy.  The other day, it was SO filthy, that I got a puncture from the flint encrusted mud a tractor had left on it.   That mud has now been flattened into and in places washed away from the surface, but the stones have been scattered around, mainly at the edges and down the middle.

Because our lane is used by very heavy lorries and agricultural equipment, dips are worn in the outer edges, leaving a very pronounced ridge right down the middle. So much so that the tarmac can’t always bend enough, so it cracks and drops on one side, making it almost dangerous for a modern, lower car.  This sort of feature, carved in with a round ended blade scraped along will give you the shape, then the cracks go in with  the back of a knife blade or a pin in a suitable pin chuck.  Observation will show you how minutely irregular those cracks are.  Often they will start and stop in different places, not take a constant line.  Some of the cracks will have a little grass growing from them.  Not too much, but certainly visible.
Very recent repairs, but before they were potholes, they were cracks.

Where bigger roads will have drain covers in the gutters, lanes have little trenches dug through the verge into the ditches or even the fields, about every 20-30 feet.  We were flooded recently and I dug 13 extra ones myself!  Some into the ditch one side, some into the field the other side which is a lot lower than the lane.

Which brings us to the subject of verges.  If a lane has a ditch beside it or a field, the verge will be about 4 feet wide at least.  It can go up to around 10 feet.  The wider the ditch, the wider the verge leading to it.  The verge starts at lane level with slightly poor looking grass of a much lighter shade than the longer grass of the raised portion of the verge.  It gets covered in road dirt and may get driven on as vehicles pass.  
From lane to cess, to short dirty grass, to verge itself

Between it and the lane proper will be a cess. A strip of tarmac about 10” wide that gathers most of the debris and dirt distributed by passing traffic. This is where you can leave some fine marbles and lumps of stuff.  Nothing bigger than, say, a grain of sand.  But more than that, this is where you find junk.  Actual bits and pieces of real stuff, broken number plates, bent and broken hub caps, nuts and bolts.  Don’t be shy.   We picked up no less than 10 saplings recently.  They are now growing well, down our fence line.  Only yesterday my grandson spotted a large ballraced castering wheel and immediately found a use for it.
Note just how light a grey that really is.  And to judge the camber, catch the power pole shadow.

Of course, where the tyres go most often is where a slight darkening of the basic colour is required.  Very subtly.   This can be best suggested, not by paint, even from an airbrush, but using powders as they have become known.  Now, if you love a bit of retail therapy and have the money, you toddle off and pay Gawd knows what for Humbrol, MiG, AK or all the other pots of what is effectively ground pastel.  Me, I used to sand or file my own. Still do for small amounts, but I now use a small coffee grinder to munch the chalk up. A quick buzz in that little devil gives you powder so fine it comes out like smoke.  Do a shorter whizz, if you’ll pardon the expression and you’ll be able to sift some of those marbles out for the central ridge and cesses of your lanes and roads.  I had intended being my usual skinflint and looking for one at a boot fair, but with the weather turning and fewer boot fairs around, my dear wife bought me a brand new one, free postage for £8.  That’s about two pots of proprietary powders and you’re going to need a LOT more colours than that. The average pastel stick is about 80p, much less if you buy as a set from Lidl’s or Aldi’s.  DON’T use Oil pastels. They are completely different and would just turn to paste, although they can be very useful when used in conjunction with white spirit to blend them.  I have used oil pastels and oil crayons in that way for weathering brickwork.  About the only thing I will not cut corners on is a brush.  From 3” for boat painting to a triple 0, for hand lettering or corners when lining.  Buy sable and look after them.  I know of no synthetics that do the job as well.  Of course, for basic or mass weathering, the better synthetics are fine, but for that final assurance of perfection, it has to be a sable every time.   Of course they’re expensive,  why wouldn’t they be?  When did you last see a sable’s  earlobe?   Look after them.   Clean them thoroughly.  Then put them ‘twixt your lips as if you are going in for your first kiss, draw the brush out and get it in a tube to protect it.

Using Polyfilla or similar, you can put a camber into any road.  Best to model that in first, then go on to the individual lumps and dips.  Don’t forget that there is usually a dip round a drain cover.  Often they are far from level too.  They are easily made from the same material you use for the road surface.   Just a few lines engraved in the rectangle.  The rectangle should be cut into the cess, easily done with basic scratch tools, or you can get photo-etched versions which do make  life easier and probably neater.  When painting, work a little graphite into the drain cover finish to suggest the cast iron look, but black in the grooves.  It’s pitch dark down there.  Also, don't forget that even the tiniest lane has inspection covers for gas, electricity, water and drainage.  Once again, p/e versions can be found.
The beauty of using a polyfilla type material for roads is that if, when you’ve rubbed it down, there are gaps and fissures that aren’t useful, you just fill them with a little more and rub down again, till the road/lane is exactly the shape and appearance you require.

Don’t forget to suggest the odd repair.  Yes, some councils do actually send a couple of unfit, barely sub-pensioners out in a Transit flat bed occasionally, to throw some vaguely tarry stones into a pothole and drive the truck over it a couple of times.  That’ll leave a much darker, slightly raised section of what is probably a totally different type of tarmac.  That’s fine, leave the difference to be admired by those that remark upon your fine observation.

And that...observation, is the very key to what we should be doing.   I am not an anal anorak, but I do like to use what I was given at birth. Two eyes to see and a good brain to process what comes in.  Everybody can do it.  I hope not to preach about it, rather to recommend it as a very satisfying and pleasant thing to do.


  1. Excellent! Some great ideas here, Martin.

  2. Thanks, Iain. I couldn't find the original articles, so I just typed what I could recall of the roads one, with a little extra thrown in. Of course, in my case it is all set-piece based as I don't have space for a layout, but the principals are the same.

  3. People also forget how recent tarmac roads are. I once had a row with a visitor to a show who said he remembered the Hellingly Hospital I had modelled and "that bit was definitely tarmac!". My model is set in 1900 and there are photos showing the roads around there being tarmaced for the first time in 1950...

    As for modelling it - I had excellent results from Daler board, paint and talcum powder for a car park recently.

  4. Thanks, Phil, that's a very good point.
    Daler's fine as long as you don't use water based paints, risking warpage, but yes, good old card is fine, as it is for buildings, especially if you can get the road from one sheet avoiding joints. No sweat with a car park. Thanks for your comment.