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Scale Modeling Tips & Tools Monthly, Issue #040-- "Signs of the Times"
April 15, 2010
April 15, 2010

Signs of the Times
Help Establish Project's Era

Nothing determines the era of a scale model structure quite as well as exterior signs which themselves point to particular time periods. Coupled with a good job of weathering and your signs will speak volumes.

For instance, the exterior appearance of a woman in a photo helps you easily determine what decade was being depicted—“She comes to breakfast in a suit, the skirt of which-rather tight at the ankles-hangs just six inches from the ground. She has read in Vogue the alarming news that skirts may become even shorter, and that "not since the days of the Bourbons has the woman of fashion been visible so far above the ankle"; but six inches is still the orthodox clearance. She wears low shoes now, for spring has come; but all last winter she protected her ankles either with spats or with high laced "walking-boots," or with high patent-leather shoes with contrasting buckskin tops. Her stockings are black (or tan, perhaps, if she wears tan shoes); the idea of flesh-colored stockings would appall her.

When you start looking for the same thing in signs that don’t necessarily include a woman look for period clues like this railroad advertising copy:

1930s-- Exciting new way to see the northwest. Vista-Domes have just been added to the faster North Coast Limited.
1940s--Seaboard still leads the way…First to Florida with 3 fast, daily diesel-electric trains. The only streamlined, stainless-steel coach service and only diesel electric Pullman service to central and both coasts of Florida.
1950s--Like a smooth, cool breeze…that’s one way of describing travel on Union Pacific’s daily Streamliners Daily to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland Denver from Chicago and St. Louis.
1960s -- Here’s One of Rock Island’s New Streamliners, the CHOCTAW ROCKET built by Pullman Standard. An ultra-modern train offering complete travel service. The most encouraging fact in the progress toward making streamlining everywhere available has been reaffirmed.
1970s-- If you’re going to Florida on vacation, why work to get there and back. Instead of driving all the way to Florida, who not eliminate all that hassle? Take The auto train, the official family railroad of Walt Disney World.

If you’ve spent as much time in the writing game as I have, you will notice there are time-appropriate changes in the written words used in these signs. Sometimes you don’t even need a picture.

Scale modelers get into model railroading for a variety of reasons, but designing and building scale business signs, billboards and even traffic signs was probably not considered very important in the scale of things.

But you’ll be surprised at what a good variety of signs can teach visitors about your layout.

I have set up a new source for sign ideas on the website. Check it out and watch it grow. Browse and take what you need at the Sign Gallery


History in Signs: 
Small paste-up posters appealed to pedestrian traffic, as did multi-story wallscapes, to buy, to spend, and to consume a wide range of products. In 1895 the “largest picture in the world,” a wallscape, encouraged people to buy “Wilson High Ball, That’s All!”

Create Your Own Signs
and You Personify Your Layout

There are few projects that can bring life to your scale model railroad layout like era-appropriate signs whether they are billboards, wall signs on structures or roadside/trackside signs. But to stimulate the “WOW Factor”, you need one or two ghost signs on structure walls.

Besides clearly identifying the time period of your modeling efforts, signs add a spot or spots of color as well as conveying the impression of a highly detailed layout.

The Internet has provided literally hundreds of sources for signs and signing ideas for almost any era. You will find there are several modelers who keep a collection of sign art by industry, by era or by medium (metal, paper posters, billboards etc.)

There are very few scale modelers today who don’t utilize a computer to create, download, scan and alter images and other printed material for modeling purposes. There are also software programs meant for purposes like creating banners or other signs for the printed page. With a little adjusting, cropping and shrinking, they are perfect for scale modeling.

A banner sign developed with Banner making software and reduced for use on an N-Scale building

For years I gave been creating my own signs for buildings using a program called “NetStudio” to create a “free-hand” factory sign in any font style, color and even shape, though for simplicity’s sake I normally work with a square or rectangle.

Once I get the “sign” to look the way I want, I use another program called SnagIt to grab a copy and resize it tom match the scale of my model, add a border if suitable and print the result.

Make History For Your Layout
With Your Own Decal Wall Signs

One thing I am anxious to try in creating a “Ghost sign” is making my own decal image of the sign to see how it will adapt to the recesses and bulges of a structure. I have worked with decals before, but I must admit, it was over 50 years ago working on plastic model airplanes.

There sure wasn’t a method of making your own decals practical for the modeler since there were no computers, no home printers and no known decal paper.

If I’m going to start hammering out decals, I’ll need a good teacher, or at least a well written tutorial on the topic.

Chris Bromley wrote one on the N Scale Limited Website last year that is just the ticket. There is no reason to try and re-invent the process so here’s a link to the instructions I am trying to follow.

If you learn things like this easier from a video, produced a fine one you’ll find here:

This looks a lot simpler than I at first imagined, I think the tricky part will be coming up with an ideal, good quality photo of your sign.

I have put together a gallery of sign images on my website, feel free to browse and take what you need.

What I've Learned About Decals

Decals are a very delicate way to represent hand-painted lettering, numbers, signs and artwork used to provide final details to a variety of modeling genre. You’ll find them gracing the bow of a 1/700 scale battleship, a freshly modeled p-51 fighter and railroad model oil tankers and even structures.

Decals by their very nature are fragile and easily torn and since most are water activated, you double the need to handle them in a gentle manner.

Tools for Decaling
Tools For Decaling

Sharp Scissors both straight and curved
An Xacto with a new #11 blade
Tweezers, both slanted and straight
Soft paint brush for dabbing on solutions
Soft cloth for dabbing off water
Fixing liquids such as MicroSet or a similar decal setting solution

Cotton swabs

Always prepare for their use by cutting from the decal sheet with a paper border surrounding it to allow you to grip it with tweezers for dipping into the water.

Watch for tiny bubbles in the decal surface which ruin the painted on effect. Be prepared to prick them with a pin of gently push them to the edge with a piece of cloth.

You will need to use a decal setting solution to help the decal mold itself to the surface of the model to appear like it was painted there. Most model surfaces are irregular with indentations and protrusions to emphasize detail. Decals are designed with the idea of applying them to a smooth surface.

The more glossy the surface, the better the adhesion. It is a good idea to spray the section where you are plying the decal with a coat of clear gloss. Once the decal is in position, we’ll deal with the shine around the decal later with an overspray of flat finish.

If you run into problems because of an uneven surface such as corrugations, float your decal in the water and then submerge (gently) it in white vinegar. The acetic reaction will make the decal softer and it can be more easily curved around tricky areas. Another vinegar trick is to apply it to the surface and once the decal is in position, dab it off with a soft cloth.

You will find the older a decal gets, the more problematic it will be to use, they tend to get brittle and crack. Try flooding it with clearcote and allow it to dry. Do a test soak in warm water (not HOT!). Often this won’t work and the decal acts like it is locked to the backing paper.

Don’t give up, you can always scan it into your computer and print the resulting file on commercial decal paper.

You can also apply flow solution (available from art shops to increase acrylic-paint flow) to your decal removal water. Instead of sliding, try to pick up one edge with a toothpick to remove.

Computerized Ghosts Haunt Layout Streets

You can use your own computer to make ghosts materialize as antique, weatherworn signs gracing the sides of buildings. The easiest way is with a vector imaging program such as Photoshop to manipulate images until you get what you are looking for in a phantom sign.

I eliminated both the financial drain and computer resource crippling effects of Photoshop with a simple-to-use and economy-minded graphics manipulation program called CompactDRAW.

The basic concept behind CompactDRAW is that you draw,edit and combine your shapes, text and other objects as in vector drawing packages. However each object has its own bitmap properties as a color, texture, transparency, many 3d effects, bevels or casting shadows. The objects have smooth edges and the feel of bitmap image or rendered scene.

Because everything is editable all the time, you don't have to recreate the graphics again and again from scratch just to change small thing.

brick-wall titanicposter

What that means in railroad-modeler-speak is you can take the image of a brick wall and paste it into the work-area of CompactDRAW and then copy/paste a sign on top of the brick wall image where you can re-size and move your sign to where you want it.

Here’s the cool part. You can then manipulate the sign with various texture elements and fade it to the point of being almost non-existent.

Up To Your Neck In Alligators...sort of

The rigging process for wooden or plastic ship models of a fully rigged 19th century sailing vessel can easily become a frustrating experience based on both experience and dexterity of the modeler. You need a third and sometimes even a fourth hand.

Alligator clips, especially if they are stationary can provide you with those extra hands and keep you from getting tangled up.

This is particularly handy for models of ships in an era that required rope-strapped blocks to provide a tie off point for other rigging lines below.

By sinking the butt ends of the alligator clips into the edge of a board you can pass your rope around the block at one end, bring it alongside itself and bind with a drop of glue. It is then easy to “seize” the glued area with a finer line as would have been done aboard ship.

You will find literally hundreds of uses for this particular rope-to-block process for the typical fully-rigged model.

Your Help and Ideas Needed
To Expand SMH Idea Base

Making daily decisions involving for the past 35 months has led to the creation of over 375 pages of articles on the various facets of scale modeling, this monthly e-zine and a host of modeling questions answered.

As we get ready to embark on our third year, I am hoping to open the site up to input from other scale modelers. You may have noticed the Navigation Bar has been sub-divided into the major hobbies covered.

Each of these sections now has one or two pages that invite participation with questions, tips and pictures regarding your various modeling endeavors.

We want to hear from you as do the other 25,000 modelers who log onto this site monthly.

As I get ready to roll into my 71st year, I can’t believe how much I have learned about hobby activities In the past two years. I have heard from other modelers with similar experiences.

To help me develop and maintain my website your comments on its content are essential. You can send me your comments by visiting the “Voice Your Opinion” feature at the top of the Navigation stack in the left column on each page.

It was never my intention to make this website a one way street as my knowledge is no where deep enough for me to be termed an “Authority”. I hunger for your feedback, comments, ideas, tutorials, plans, pictures and even your negative comments if considered constructive.

The Internet and that includes work best when they are interactive and that is collaboration only you can provide. It has been a pleasure serving as your guide for these past two years and by no means am I throwing in the towel, for I honestly believe the building and maintaining of this website are instrumental in keeping my mind active.

I want to open up this site in the fast lane. That is your part of the two-way street.

Its In Your Best Interest

If you have been giving some thought to launching your own home business in 2010, it is worth your time to take a look at what I found:

Steps To Success

Until Next Month

Make It Your Best Effort!

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