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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm)
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Garden Railways Magazine

Garden Railroading Clinic Report - Holden Arboretum, July, 2007

Visit our Garden Train Store<sup><small>TM</small></sup> Buyer's Guide PagesIn the summer of 2007, the Holden Arboretum, in Kirtland, Ohio (just west of Cleveland) hosted a Paul Busse/Applied Imagination garden railroad, and planned many special activities and stations to go along with the railroading theme. Among the special activities Holden planned were two 2-day presentations on how to build a garden railroad. Holden asked Paul Race, lead author and editor for the Family Garden Trains(tm) resource to put on the "how-to" presentations. Paul asked his wife Shelia and teenage daughter Molly to help, then he spent six weeks getting ready, eight hours loading the van with stuff Paul wanted to show and use, and four+ hours driving to Kirtland. This article is a report on how the presentation went.

In addition to the "how-to" presentations, Paul and his family also set up a railroad that ran Thomas the Tank(r) trains. THAT was a huge success, and a little scary as we were almost mobbed from time to time. To see series of articles about the portable Thomas railroad project, click here

Note: As of this writing, we have just finished the second scheduled 2-day clinic at Holden. We hope to add a few photos from that outing in a few days. Thanks again to all who came and especially all who helped.


While Paul and the Holden Arboretum people were talking, they "hashed out" a series of demonstations/presentations. Paul especially wanted to cover as many areas of Garden Railroading as possible in the time we had, so the clinic schedule is a little crowded.

Paul also knew that he would need to be able to build a railroad (or two or three) in a hurry. So he:

  • Inventoried the track he had on hand from similar demonstrations, and packed several trains he knew would be reliable in a demonstration railroad (in which all of the bugs may not have been worked out).

  • Click for bigger photo.Identified which buildings would be fit to take, since some of them required fixing up and few of them had been cleaned up within the last several years. It's one thing to leave a building out that still looks good from the front; it's another thing to drag it 480 miles round trip to show to strangers you're trying not to scare away from garden railroading. Molly hosed and wiped off the buildings they decided to take, except for the one with the huge wasp nest inside - Paul got that one.

  • Click for a bigger photo with more explanation.Cut out the pieces necessary to make two ovals of track: one large one for the demonstration, and one small one for the Thomas railroad. In the photo to the right, Paul has laid out the pieces that would support the curves to make certain they fit together as they should. (There was no need to test the "straight" pieces, as they are just 5' boards.) Although the method Paul is demonstrating usually calls for 2x6 pieces, Paul used 5/4"x6" decking to reduce the sheer weight of the lumber he would be transporting some 240 miles each way. For more information on the "Simple Raised Railroad" method of construction, click here.Click for bigger photo.

  • Paul also carved a 4'x4' viaduct out of styrofoam to take for Thomas' railroad. The short version is that he cut a piece of 2"x4'x8' foam insulation board into four pieces, then used a very fine hacksaw blade to cut out the verticals. In this photo, Paul is using his wife's Pampered Chef pizza cutter to make shallow slices in the structure that will represent brick walls. For more construction photos and more information on that effort, visit the Thomas Chronicles, Book 2 page.

Click for bigger photo.We loaded the car up Thursday night and drove to Holden on Friday. Note: If you come to Holden from the west or south, be SURE to use Holden's directions - MapQuests will take you the long way around and doesn't compensate for a wierd construction detour.

Once we got to Holden, we met many helpful people including the folks who were delivering the mulch, gravel, and rocks we needed. We unloaded the lumber, put the trains, track, and buildings back into the car for safe-keeping, and drove to town looking for something to eat. Turns out that Mentor, the city just north of Kirtland, has many, many restaurants, so if you come to Holden Arboretum, you can easily go north afterwords to eat at Bravo's, Red Lobster, and about any other national and regional chain you want, in addition to some unique-looking local restaurants we didn't have time to try.

Saturday's Meeting

The first session was a demonstration of a simple ground-level railroad. (Click here for the handout we gave out for this part of the demonstration.)

Holden gave us a very large tarp on the ground to substitute for landscaping fabric. (As it turned out, our results were so good, I might be tempted to use a tarp in real installations where the drainage was sufficient and there wasn't that much need for water to get through to the soil.) Several members of the Northern Ohio Garden Railway Society showed up to help, including George Kuznar, and president of the organization, Allen Nickels.

Northern Ohio Garden Railway Society members Allen Nickels and George Kuznar assemble the track on the ground in demonstration of a 'One-Day Railroad.'In the "one-day-railroad" method we demonstrated, the track is assembled and laid over the roadbed (usually crushed gravel or tamped soil), then gravel is spread over the track, and the track is brought up through the gravel, then swept and wiped off. We used AristoCraft track, which has railjoiners that you can screw together. This makes a very good physical and electrical connection (and saves builders of permanent railroads a lot of headaches and the cost of "add-on" rail joiners later on). But it does take good eyesight to screw the things together. When you buy a box of AristoCraft track, buy a pack of extra screws on the assumption that you will drop at least a couple into the ballast and not be able to find them. The pack comes with an extra screwdriver, too, which is very helpful for 2-person jobs.

Allen is brushing the 'ballast' from between the ties. Click for bigger photo.After we fastened the track together, Allen Nickels used a broom to brush excess gravel from between the rails. He was careful to leave the gravel between the ties, though, as that's what gives the effect of ballast, and on a permanent railroad, keeps the track relatively level and stable. Our helpers then shoveled large amounts of mulch on the railroad, enough to cover the tarp. In the background you can see a little circle of track we set up that morning with Thomas the Tank running on it. Again, more information on that effort is in a series of articles called The Thomas Chronicles

Molly planting trees in mulch. Click for bigger photo.On a permanent garden railroad, you would plant your plants by cutting an X shape in the landscaping fabric, turning back the corners, digging holes, and planting the plants according to the vendor's instructions. On a semi-permanent railroad (1-3 years), you could leave the plants in the pots and put them in the ground pot and all, which will make them much easier to move when you have to (you'll have to be careful about watering, though). In this demonstration, our helpers set the plants where they would look good, then piled mulch around the pots to hide them. The results were suprisingly good.

Click for bigger photo.

When we started setting out buildings during the ground-level railroad demonstration, two members of the Northern Ohio Garden Railway Society brought up the Pola structure on which the Ffarquhar Station in the Thomas the Tank series is based. Later Paul used this and other structures during his discussion of buildings for garden railroads.

We also brought a $50 fake stone waterfall from Big Lots. It looked a little chintzy sitting by itself, but after several volunteers from NOGRS helped to arrange rocks and trees around it, it looked fairly good.

Volunteers from NOGRS are doing the heavy lifting in this photo. A young volunteer from the audience is setting little people out. If you know who the young volunteer is, contact us using the link at the bottom of this page, and we'll send you a 3x5 copy of this photo.  Click for bigger picture.We used water from the Arboretum's reservoir (lake) to fill it - this is the same water they use to water their plants in dry weather, unprocessed right from nature. So by the next day, the water was full of red and green algae, giving it a natural-looking brown tint. At home, I would have treated it, but the whole thing was so convincing several people offered to buy the waterfall from me when the presentation was over. I declined, since I had another presentation coming up in a month.

This is a photo from Paul's article on the subjects - we didn't actually get one of Paul holding a tree at the arboretum.After the "ground-level railroad" was built and operating, Paul took a break, then he gave a short talk on conifers, including a demonstration of the redundant branches on Dwarf Alberta Spruce and where to cut the branches to stimulate healthy growth. (Click here for the handout we gave out for this part of the demonstration.)

Click for bigger photo.Then Paul got a fresh bottle of water and gave a talk on buildings and trestles. In the photo to the right, Paul is explaining where the various buildings came from, and what he did to prepare them for use outside. In this photo, Paul is holding a structure from Colorado Models, a company whose buildings are a tad more complicated to put together than expensive kits, but which cost much less and hold up just as well once they are properly assembled and painted. The two stations closest to Paul are Piko-manufactured stations that he painted to look like brick and painted brick, respectively. We don't have a handout for this part of the presentation yet, but the material Paul discussed is in our Painting Plastic Structures article on our primer pages.

Click for bigger photo.Next Paul talked about bridges. He demonstrated a couple store-bought and handmade ones, then showed how to use a home-made "jig" to make your own trestle. On the left is the jig Paul used to build the trestle that James and Thomas were running over on the "Thomas" railroad we discussed in the Thomas Chronicles.

George shows a trestle bent he has made. Click for bigger photo.On the right is NOGRS member George Kuznar demonstrating a trestle he built on a similar jig. George has offered to bring his trestle jig and nail gun to August's demonstration. For more information on building trestles, refer to our article Trestles 101

That night, the NOGRS folks helped us put up the buildings and trains. Then Paul, Shelia, Molly, and Paul's sister Tess spent a nice evening at excellent facilities provided for us by the arboretum. Thanks again, Holden. Once again the gracious thoughtfullness of the Holden staff and volunteers was most appreciated.

Sunday's Meeting

Early Sunday, Paul shoveled as much of the gravel off the "railroad" as he could without moving most of the mulch. That way he could get ready for the raised railroad presentation, which would not use ballast unless we really had time (we didn't). Paul also unscrewed a few rail joiners so the track would come apart in sections of three when the time came.

Allen and Paul discuss the logistics of raising the railroad using the lumber Paul has precut. Click for larger photo.When Allen got there, we went over the first workshop's plans. We would be raising the railroad using the subassemblies that Paul has precut (shown above). In addition to the subassemblies, Paul has nailed a bunch of 4"x4"x2' posts to 10"-long pieces of 5/4" decking. The post-and-base assemblies would be used to support the "longitudinal" subassemblies as they were installed. Paul and Allen decided they needed two more "posts" and Allen assembled them. The subassemblies are shown below. On the left is the "bottom" view.

Roadbed assembly as seen from the underside. Click for bigger photo Roadbed assembly as seen from the top. Click for bigger photo

Next Paul gave his talk on the value of raised railroads and explained how to measure the curves using the templates from our article on Building a Simple Raised Railroad. To see the handouts we passed out for this part of the demonstration, click here.

Click for bigger photo.While Paul continued his explanation, George and Allen began placing the subassemblies along the track. Next George and Allen slid the subassemblies under the track, so we'd know exactly where each one needed to go to support the oval once it was raised. (This part of the process is similar to a technique or raising an existing ground-level railroad without disturbing the terrain too much. That's described in the article: Raising a Ground-Level Railroad.)

When we were sure we knew where the roadbed was going to go, we moved the track out of the way and set out the posts. On a permanent railroad, you would mark the post locations with spray paint and dig postholes or some such, but we wanted to leave the arboretum's lawn where it was, so we substituted these "stands." Next, with the help of another volunteer, we raised the roadbed, slid the posts in place, and screwed the roadbed together and to the posts.

Click for bigger photo. If you know who the man in gray is, let us know and we'll give him credit for helping out.  Click for bigger photo.
Then we put the track on the roadbed and screwed it back together. We put one of the biggest locomotives, and two of the biggest cars I own on the track. In part this was to demonstrate that garden railroading could be a "serious hobby." The AristoCraft Mikado is a serious locomotive by anyone's definition. So are the "heavyweight" coaches, which are each about 32" long. This two-car train is almost ten feet long.
If you're the parent of the earnest-looking young man to the left, let us know and we'll send you a 3x5 print of this photo.  Click for bigger photo. Click for bigger photo.

We didn't have time or resources to raise much or all of the landscape to match the roadbed (something you might want to do in a permanent installation). But we did bring in the buildings and plants to dress it up a little.

Later, Paul gave talks on retaining walls and ponds, then a talk on groundcovers. That was the part where Paul gave out free samples of three different kinds of sedum and told people how get them started in their own back yards. (Click here for the handout we gave out for this part of the demonstration.) We didn't have a handout on ponds or retaining walls, but we do have articles on each subject if you want to check them out:

Click for bigger photo.Teardown

When everything was done it was time to unscrew all of the roadbed and pile it to one side so the Holden people could store it until Paul's next visit. We put everything else, trains, tools, and buildings back into our vans and came home. Thanks again to all the Holden workers and volunteers and to Allen, George, and the other volunteers from the Northern Ohio Garden Railway Society. In August, we will bring the roadbed home, too, since we may use it for another article or demonstration later.

Keep in Touch

Please let us know about your ongoing projects. Ask questions, suggest article ideas, whatever you think will help you or your fellow railroaders. In the meantime, enjoy your trains, and especially enjoy any time you have with your family in the coming weeks,

Paul Race

To see the report from our August visit, click here

To read more, or to look at recommended Garden Railroading and Display Railroad products, you may click on the index pages below.

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