Every six months, photos of O gauge trains traversing the snowy hills and quaint villages of a sprawling layout arrive at the office. What a treat! And they represent the outstanding modeling done by Gordon Hough with help from his mother, Jeannie, who finishes the scenery and paints the backdrops.
No matter fast I try to respond, my expression of thanks always gets back to Gordon too late. Sort of like with the folks who lived in the towns the Lone Ranger and Tonto helped: “We didn’t even get a chance to say thank you,” some old-timer would say on the TV western.
Gordon doesn’t want to avoid hearing from Classic Toy Trains. But his job as music manager and occasional bandmaster for one of the premier cruise lines demands that he return to sea after just a few days back home in Ohio.
Yes, the fellow whose 15 x 16-foot display models the frigid temperatures and icy streets associated with winter spends his time sailing through the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea.
Count Gordon among the hobbyists who, if asked what they connect their trains to, immediately answer Christmas. He enjoys telling the tale of receiving his first set on a cold morning on December 25, not to mention the subsequent holiday times when family members presented him with additions to his roster.
Hastily, though, Gordon corrects two possible misconceptions people might have about his Christmas memories. First, they originated in the 1970s and not 20 or 30 years earlier. For all intents and purposes, he is among the younger individuals building toy train layouts and operating contemporary sets on them.
Second and perhaps more difficult to believe about this dyed-in-the-wool O gauger, Gordon was initiated into model railroading with HO scale trains. He remembers with fondness the Tyco Santa Fe freight set wrapped in its box beneath the family Christmas tree in 1974. He still cherishes that neat diesel switcher, gondola, boxcar, and caboose.
Somewhere along the way, probably while honing his chops in middle school and high school as a musician, composer, and arranger, Gordon left the HO trains behind. Gone was the 4 x 8-foot layout his dad had built. The old Santa Fe set went into storage, nearly forgotten by the youngster who had once loved it.
New home – old hobby
The 1980s proved to be exciting years for Gordon, as his career took off. His skills on four instruments plus experience leading his own band culminated in his being hired to oversee entertainment on ships sailing the Western Hemisphere. A by-product of Gordon’s success was being able to purchase a house.
And with the new residence came a basement – an empty one crying out for something to fill the void and entertain its owner and any guests happening to drop by.
Gordon rediscovered his trains and felt himself dreaming as never before of constructing an enormous, beautifully landscaped layout in the lower level of his home. Somehow, maybe because of the reading he had done or after talking with other modelers, Gordon’s dream featured bigger trains running on three rails.
Coinciding with the start of a brand-new century arose Gordon’s passion for O gauge. Over the past 15 or so years, he has finished a trio of pleasing layouts.
The first railroad Gordon generously describes as a “warm-up.” It was a learning experience regarding how to lay track, make scenery, select structures, and handle the different tasks involved with the electronics and control system.
Once suitably warmed up, Gordon launched work on the great winter-themed layout showcased here. Thanks to input and assistance from his mother, he can call his Christmas display as finished as is possible in the hobby.
There always seem to be thoughtful improvements being made to the wonderful cold-weather O gauge railroad. Yet more and more, Gordon finds himself splitting his attention, time, and energy between it and a third layout at the family residence that reflects his pride in having attended The Ohio State University and now still cheering hard and loud for the Buckeyes.
Focus on the BL
Gordon and Jeannie designate their layouts, not with the names of real or fictitious railroads, but with initials. The third one they refer to as the OSU layout. The first one may be the LL (short for “Little Layout”) for no other reason than they consistently speak of the display showcased here as the BL (“Big Layout”).
Let’s toss out some basic statistics about the Big Layout, all of them courtesy of Gordon.
As mentioned, the dimensions of the L-shaped project are 15 x 16 feet. Five sheets of ¾-inch-thick finished plywood serve as the foundation. Each of them is the commonplace 4 x 8-foot piece that Gordon’s dad had used long ago.
The principal level stands only 33 inches off the floor, an ideal height for the kids visiting to observe the action and appreciate most of the structures and details. The second level rises 9 inches above it, and the third is 52 inches high.
Tabletop benchwork meets Gordon’s expectations, so he was fine with securing the plywood sheets to 2 x 4 lumber, with many steel sawhorses serving as the network of supporting sections. The platform of the BL is as sturdy as can be.
For the system of straights and curves, Gordon decided on FasTrack from Lionel. His first exposure to that widely accepted brand came in 2003, about the time it hit the market.
Gordon brings us up to speed. “I had bought a Lionel starter set with FasTrack and found the new sections more than satisfactory.” He has used it ever since on both the Big Layout and the railroad he’s constructing to honor his alma mater in Columbus, Ohio.
To be perfectly honest, Gordon liked the FasTrack so much that he saw no purpose in adding a layer of roadbed to the Big Layout. He says, “I was very pleased with the plastic roadbed that came attached to the track. Also, I really like the sound my trains make running over the FasTrack on the three different levels of the BL.”
At a glance
Name: Gordon and Jeannie Hough’s O gauge layout
Dimensions: 15 x 16 feet
Track and switches: Lionel FasTrack (diameters range from 36 to 72 inches)
Motive power: Lionel, MTH
Rolling stock: Lionel, MTH
Controls: Lionel no. CW80, MTH no. Z-1000 transformers with MTH Digital Command System
Structures: Lemax, St. Nicholas Square
Vehicles: Kinsmart, Menards, Welly
Figures: Lemax, St. Nicholas Square
Toy train electronics
The never-ending list of tasks and demands Gordon faces onboard as he travels through the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico limit his leisure hours. Yet when he does have a spare hour, he’s likely to grab a copy of CTT or one of the hobby books he has come to trust, especially when it comes to toy train electronics.
Three volumes have provided much of the information Gordon has put to good use on the BL and OSU displays. He draws attention to a couple of books from Kalmbach Media: Toy Train Layout from Start to Finish by Stan Trzoniec and Wiring Your Toy Train Layout (second edition) by Peter H. Riddle. Also helpful has been The Lionel FasTrack Book, authored by Robert Schleicher.
Insights and tips found in those essential reference books guided Gordon as he wired his layout. He specified using 16-gauge wire to connect the MTH No. Z-1000 transformer to the main lines. Further, 18-gauge wire worked for the 15 blocks controlled via single-pole single-throw on/off switches made by Atlas.
The same gauge of wire seemed right for the feeders, which Gordon spaced every 36 inches. Thinner 20-gauge wire handled the FasTrack switches. They perform smoothly via the Digital Command System installed by Gordon.
Gordon says his reasons for choosing the command-control system manufactured by MTH Electric Trains and not either of the two offered by Lionel were pretty straightforward.
First, the wiring connection for DCS impressed Gordon as easier and less involved than what was called for by either TrainMaster Command Control or Legacy.
Second, DCS can operate locomotives developed by firms other than MTH. An important point for Gordon, whose roster features many Lionel units.
Third, as a professional musician, Gordon reports being “intrigued and excited to be able to place music from my MP3 player through the Proto-Cast feature of DCS and have the sound come through the speaker on my locomotive.”
No muss scenery
Jeannie joined her son when the time arrived to build winter-themed scenery. Together, they brainstormed about how make the landscaping “no muss and no fuss.” Other model railroaders can learn from their easy methods.
For the landforms, the Houghs bought blocks of Styrofoam typically used to hold artificial flowers in vases. They also used sheets of extruded Styrofoam from lumberyards and home-improvement centers. Covering the foam with plastic wrap prevented particles from breaking off and getting into nooks and crannies.
The next step called for Gordon and Jeannie to secure the wrapped blocks of foam by pushing two 16-penny nails into them. According to Gorgon, “This works better than relying on Liquid Nails. If we want to make adjustments, we simply pull out the two nails, shift the blocks, and press the nails back in.”
Not a drop of paint went over the entire Styrofoam foundation. Instead, the mother-and-son team opted for a white material known as Sherpa, which they found at a local crafts and fabric store. The texture represented snow quite well.
Sherpa had another huge advantage over the natural material hobbyists traditionally have used to model snow. As Gordon discovered, it does not come apart and end up getting tangled in the wheels of locomotives and railcars.
inal touches included arranging across the layout many commercially produced bushes and trees. Most came from Lemax and St. Nicholas Square, the businesses also responsible for the structures. A few other trees Gordon bought at Big Lots.
Find yourself swooning over the wonderful hand-painted backdrop Jeannie completed for the BL? Of course you do. Every viewer finds it dazzling and the perfect complement.
Gordon described the work of art as “Backdrop 4.0.” Our puzzled looks led him to offer a succinct explanation.
“Backdrop 1.0,” Gordon said, “had a few images painted on white poster board. Then my mom upgraded to blue material stapled to furring strips. We consider that
Backdrop 2.0. It was then followed by her artwork being painted on 4 x 8-foot sheets of extruded foam hung from the ceiling.”
The magnificent depictions now seen have features painted on a large canvas whose only seam is in the middle. Gordon continues: “Mom and I took thin magnetic strips from the back of a photo frame you might hang on a refrigerator and secured them with super glue to the back of each seam so they really pull each other together.”
As Jeannie’s last task, she painted the pipes running from upstairs through the basement so they blended with the backdrop. “I think,” Gordon concluded, “I now have the nicest-looking bathroom plumbing in the whole state of Ohio!”
Ready for dreaming
An O gauge model railroad boasting sophisticated electronics and attractive scenery deserves to be operated, and Gordon enjoys running his MTH and Lionel trains over two levels whenever he returns to dry land. On the third level, there is a neat loop of SuperStreets from K-Line where he can bring out a host of vehicles.
The BL is, to put it in simple terms, ready for running. But Gordon insists the compelling display goes far beyond that, namely, it is “ready for dreaming.”
The great Christmas-themed layout Gordon finished with assistance from his talented mother makes it possible for him fulfill the dreams of having multiple trains dashing past several evocative and picturesque scenes while putting out pine-scented smoke. It leaves him feeling as though he were a kid once again.
Truly, the holiday season should leave each of us feeling young and eager to make our toy train visions realities. For Gordon, the bustling and whimsical parts of his layout do that every time he returns home to the Buckeye State.