Masters of their universe 

Small-scale artistry meets big-time obsession when western Montana enthusiasts create their own miniature world

When you're playing God, the devil is in the details.

It's been said that the moment a hunter squeezes the trigger and drops his prey, the fun is over. That same watershed moment hits every model railroader when he paints the final letter on a tiny water tower or pokes his last wee pine tree into place on a foam hillside. His layout is complete; there's nothing left to do but hit the switch and watch his trains go 'round and 'round. No matter how many tunnels or trestles are in his layout, it's all downhill from there.

For most model railroad buffs, the kick comes from creating a world over which they have complete control. The allure of this basement omnipotence fuels countless magazines, hobby shops, websites, online forums and local clubs, all devoted to the "World's Biggest Hobby."

The National Model Railroad Association lists 78 registered clubs in the U.S., and there are hundreds of independent groups across the country that gather regularly to share their passion for model railroading. The association estimates that there are 300,000 hobbyists in the U.S., and more than half a million worldwide.

click to enlarge News_News1-1.jpg

"I pity a man who doesn't have a hobby like this one. It's just the most supreme relaxation. Every person should have one hobby that really captures his interest," said Rod Stewart in a 2007 cover story for Model Railroader Magazine. Yes, that Rod Stewart. The rooster-haired rocker always arranges to have an extra hotel room when he's on tour, where he can set up tables and spend his mornings crafting buildings for his massive HO-scale layout.

Stewart is among a number of famous folk who spend a lot of their time and cash building model railroads. Tom Brokaw, Neil Young, Mandy Patinkin, Merle Haggard and Tom Hanks are celebrated model railroaders, as were Frank Sinatra, Walt Disney and Joe DiMaggio.

As suggested by that list of luminaries, the hobby tends to attract mostly older, male devotees. Baby boomers were at the perfect age in the mid-20th century as the model train craze hit its stride. Millions of little boys ran down the hallway on Christmas morning to find a model train set—usually a tin-sheathed, O-scale Lionel—whistling and clattering its way around the tree.

Nowadays, precision-milled scale locomotives, some costing thousands of dollars, pull trains through intricate layouts that can have the square footage of a racquetball court. By now those baby boomers are cruising past the outer reaches of middle age, and they have the resources to fund larger, more complex layouts loaded with intricate features and fascinating detail.

Many of these layouts sport the eye-popping scale buildings and dioramas created by a guitar-slinging mad scientist of miniatures based right here in western Montana.

•••

When Randy Pepprock moved back to Missoula from Los Angeles in 1993, he, like many in this high-cost/low-pay town, invented his own job. The job he invented involves creating the pieces and parts for people who want to create their own worlds.

click to enlarge CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters

In his workshop south of Hamilton, Pepprock designs and fabricates hyper-detailed architectural miniatures, most of which are sold to model railroad enthusiasts. His company, Downtown Deco, caters to the verisimilitude freaks who want a more grimy, run-down look to their train layouts. Of the handful of companies that create this particular style of miniature, Pepprock says his is probably the oldest and most well-known. He's even sold a few of his kits to Stewart, shipping them to the rocker's Beverly Hills and U.K. mansions, or to the hotel where he happens to be staying while on tour.

Having recently returned from a convention in Pasadena, Calif., Pepprock had the opportunity to take in the work of fellow miniatures artists from around the world in dozens of layout modules on display. He's been posting photos from the show on his Facebook page.

"My stuff is okay, but there are lots of guys whose stuff is better than mine," he says.

One of those guys Pepprock refers to is George Sellios of Massachussets, who has built the grungy, king-hell Mona Lisa of model railroad towns: the Franklin and South Manchester Railroad. The massive, 23 feet by 42 feet HO-scale layout is legend among model railroaders. Using the touch of a neurosurgeon and the patience of a sniper, Stellios has let no grubby detail escape his sprawling town, from hobos taking a leak in Houligan's Alley to the pigeons scattered on the roof of the Brownsville Depot.

Spend a few minutes online perusing the photos of various scenes in the grimy, Depression-era cityscape, and you'll feel like showering off the dust. Sellios offers kits made from several individual scenes within the layout at his website, finescaleminiatures.com

Like Sellios, Pepprock prefers grime to shine. "I like urban settings with lots of character and grittiness," he says.

One look at a recent Downtown Deco creation, a prototype of Butte's historic Metals Bank building, bears him out. The chipped wall plaster, weathered bricks and rust-flecked tin covering the stairway evoke the battered character of Butte itself. The O-scale (1:48) model also features a pair of functional, vintage streetlights, a '40s-era State Police car parked at the curb, and a gun-wielding bank robber fleeing with a satchel of cash. Stray bills flutter behind him. There's even a tiny bullet hole lasered into the front window.

Why on earth would a seemingly sane, well-adjusted man spend countless hours crafting tiny buildings and scenery in a painstaking process that sits somewhere between building a ship in a bottle and etching the Old Testament onto the head of a pin?

"I'm like Geppetto, only I'm working with plaster instead of wood. I have to remind myself that this detail is what my customers are paying for," Pepprock says. "People who are into this are either cool and hip artistic guys or they're real nerdy like Sheldon Cooper (the neurosis-riddled science geek on TV's 'Big Bang Theory')."

click to enlarge Mike Brown, president of the Missoula Model Railroad Club, works in the group’s headquarters at Fort Missoula in the Drummond Depot. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Mike Brown, president of the Missoula Model Railroad Club, works in the group’s headquarters at Fort Missoula in the Drummond Depot.

Pepprock's customers occupy a niche within a niche inside a sub-genre among model railroaders. Some modelers focus on collecting or building their own train cars and engines, while others dive headlong into creating a complete environment over which they have total control.

"Ideally, they're trying to tell a story," he says.

•••

For any guy who spent his Wonder Years woozy and thick-tongued from Testors glue fumes putting together plastic models of airplanes, cars and boats, it's easy to see the appeal of model railroading. Building things is fun. But the reasons people get into model railroading are as numerous as the lumps of coal in a tender car.

To most laypeople, the stereotype model railroader conjures the image of the dad sporting a striped engineer's cap, a pipe clamped between his teeth, who would rather be in the basement running his model trains than making time for his family. The truth is there is no "standard" type of model railroader, because there is no standard type of model railroad.

First off, there's the variety of sizes. Hobbyists refer to "scale" and "gauge," but these terms are not synonymous. Scale is the size relative to the actual railroad, and gauge indicates the distance between the rails of the track. Wikipedia lists more than 50 recognized scales, but there are eight scales that are commonly used. They range from the G-scale (or Garden Scale), which features cars as big as a loaf of French bread, down to the super tiny T-scale, with diesel locomotives that would fit into a headphone jack. Available space typically has a big influence on the scale chosen by the model railroader, but beyond that the only limitations to layout size are imagination and funding (and the wife, noted one model railroader).

"How far can you go? How high is up?" says Joe Gyles, a self-proclaimed "railroad nerd" who works at Missoula's Treasure Chest. He notes a local enthusiast who built a 30-by-60 building in the Bitterroot Valley to house his layout, on which he runs hundreds of trains.

The costs involved can be staggering. Locomotives can run to several hundred dollars. A brass and stainless steel, butane-fired, live steam locomotive offered by Accucraft goes for $5,000 online. Between state-of-the-art digital controls, professionally constructed panoramas and scenery, electrical wiring and complex carpentry to support the whole thing, it's possible to pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into a layout. According to Model Railroad publisher Terry Thompson, the model railroading industry is stoked by more than $500 million a year shoveled in by aficionados.

But it's not just a hobby for the well-heeled. Gyles points to a complete entry-level setup, including train, track and power supply selling for just over a hundred bucks. "Every socioeconomic class is involved in model railroading," he says.

So what attracts Gyles to the world of foam mountains, plastic rivers and variable DC power packs?

"All that little detail stuff appeals to me," he says. "I was a gold and silversmith for 10 years. I'm approaching 50 now," he says as he smiles, "and now I'm the guy with all the cool stuff."

click to enlarge Randy Pepprock’s company, Downtown Deco, caters to the verisimilitude freaks who want a more grimy, run-down look to their train layouts. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Randy Pepprock’s company, Downtown Deco, caters to the verisimilitude freaks who want a more grimy, run-down look to their train layouts.

As Gyles and his coworker Rich Blacketer patiently expound on the arcane world of model railroading, two trains circle nearby on a compact, two-tiered layout set on a 4-by-8 platform at eye level. The HO-scale (1:87.1) and the smaller N-scale (1:160) circling above it are model railroading's most popular sizes.

The two men greet by name every model railroad buff who drifts into Treasure Chest throughout the afternoon. It's their hangout, Blacketer says. Steam-and-diesel fanatics stand around swapping gossip or talking transition-era layouts and narrow gauge lines, much like a bunch of musicians hang out at the local music store debating the merits of different guitar amps or kick drum pedals. All that's missing is a potbelly stove.

Model railroad nuts harbor different ideologies when it comes to building a layout and assembling their trains. Some guys are prototypers, Gyles says. They build replicas of real-life trains to scale, accurate to the tiniest detail. "They count every damn rivet. Gotta be just right."

And it's not just the train itself. Some of the more ambitious prototypers (like Stellios) construct an entire layout modeled on an actual railroad line and the town it runs through, faithfully recreating all the topography, man-made structures and natural terrain, down to the last sagebrush.

Another approach is to adhere to a particular era, sometimes even to a single day. All vehicles in the layout must be from a certain model year. Clothing painted on the people must reflect the fashion of the times. Architectural details and the lettering on store signs must properly represent the style of that moment in history. The fanatical attention to period accuracy coupled with the proportional demands of sticking to a particular scale seems like it would be enough to feed the monkey of even the most tightly wrapped model train geeks.

Then there are those wild-eyed anarchists who freely mix and match the details of their layouts without regard to history, scale or physical accuracy. They're called freelancers. Anything goes. "If I like it, it's mine," says Gyles, reciting the freelancer's manifesto with a mischievous grin. Obviously, the lack of a rigid set of design criteria can be a powerful lure to the more freewheeling personality who prefers to let his imagination and sense of humor run amok on the rails, giving him total dominion over not only the environment, but its very creation.

•••

At Downtown Deco, Pepprock tempers his ultra-detailed designs with a bit of stylistic fudging to allow their use in a wide range of eras. He's drawn to the architecture and style of the early 20th century (hence the company's name), but he wants to make sure his customers are not hemmed into a narrow chronological window. He has created replicas of several actual buildings, though many of his works are an amalgam of different structures.

"I try to make things generic enough so they'll fit in. East Coast, West Coast, any era right up to modern day," he says.

He's also aware of the space limitations inherent in most layouts. Modelers tend to use the bulk of their space for scenery, track and various features such as bridges, trestles, tunnels and forests. Downtown real estate is even more scarce than in real life.

Urban buildings of the Metals Bank style are usually long, tall and narrow. In order to maintain realism but fit more buildings into less space, he uses a technique called "selective compression." He compares it to buildings in Disneyland, which give the impression of being full-sized with an impressive façade, but with a footprint nowhere near as big as the real thing. Think Haunted Mansion and the iconic Sleeping Beauty castle.

Selective compression is one valuable tool in a bag of tricks Pepprock developed during his stint as a scenic artist for the film industry in Hollywood, a short-lived career that was long on adventure.

He recalls a gang movie he worked on, filmed in part on location in East Los Angeles, where things got out of hand. "I was an on-set painter. We were painting tombstones for a graveyard scene."

The crew apparently was impinging on gang turf, people got nervous, words were exchanged. "The caterer wound up getting shot in the leg," he says with a chuckle.

Like many creative souls, Pepprock has other talents. During his Hollywood period in the mid-'80s, he played guitar in a few rock bands, rubbing elbows with dozens of big-haired musicians who created the notorious hard rock scene on the Sunset Strip. In Missoula, he pinned a few ears back with the band Shangri-La Speedway in the mid-'90s, and he currently writes, records and jams with hard rockers Letters to Luci. He is also the busy father of two teenage daughters, one of whom just started her first year of college.

Still, the miniatures business takes up most of his time. Downtown Deco is a one-horse operation; he does all the tedious scutwork like ordering supplies, accounting, packaging and shipping products. Although he's not into model railroading, Pepprock can definitely relate to the people who buy his products through his online store at downtowndeco.com.

"People spend so much time on it, but it's just a thing. Like mowing your lawn or fishing or camping or driving a speedboat," he says. "When you think about Michelangelo, people said he was a nut, but painting the Sistine Chapel was just a thing. It can definitely be an obsession."

click to enlarge Joe Gyles and Rich Blacketer work at the Treasure Chest in Missoula, where model railroad fanatics tend to congregate. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Joe Gyles and Rich Blacketer work at the Treasure Chest in Missoula, where model railroad fanatics tend to congregate.

It's not clear if he's referring to model railroaders, or to himself.

"It gives us our humanity. The weird stuff."

•••

The Missoula Model Railroad Club is headquartered, appropriately, in the Drummond Depot at Fort Missoula. Of the 35 or so members, only a handful are active in the club, reports MMRC president Mike Brown. He's an O-gauge man, having received a Lionel model train set when he was 6 years old.

Longtime Missoula attorney R.H. "Ty" Robinson spearheaded the relocation of the depot from Drummond to the Fort in 1982. The MMRC was able to secure a long-term lease on the baggage room and meets there monthly. The club also opens it up to the public twice a month for "Run Days." The dates and times are listed on their website, missoulamodelrail.org.

Brown spent a recent afternoon with fellow model railroader Mac Palmer at the depot, showing off the club's two complete layouts, which are riddled with tunnels and bristling with tiny forests and urban vignettes. Both layouts are modular, so they can be easily disassembled and moved to different locations for display. A third, bi-level layout is being constructed across the entire length of the end wall of the depot.

Palmer, spry and wiry at 81, is retired from a long career as a railroad man. He's the vice president of the local chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, as well as the MMRC's liaison to the Fort. "I used to like scratchbuilding cars," he says. "I used the slats from Venetian blinds because they were so flat." He still has a few handmade collectibles stashed away in boxes, but says his favorite scale is 12 inches to the foot, which he calls FS-scale. Full Size.

Palmer's love of railroads and their history is as visible as the striped Montana Rail Link conductors cap perched on his head, and it goes way beyond modeling or collecting miniatures. For him, the romance of the rails is what keeps the wheels turning. There are a lot of model railroaders who also collect memorabilia of the real thing, he says, like signal lanterns and tin signs from particular railroad lines. A student of railroad history and an engineer who's driven everything from steam engines to electric trolleys, his knowledge of the evolution of rail travel seems to be endless.

And he's more than happy to share some of the tales of his travels. "I learned to speak Spanish in the cab of a steam locomotive in Mexico," he says.

When it comes to locomotives, he's an old-school steam guy all the way. "Grew up with steam locomotives," Palmer says. "Diesel locomotive"he waves a dismissive hand"you've seen one, you've seen 'em all."

"Not true!" exclaims Brown, perhaps revealing his own locomotive preference.

What he lacks in Palmer's real railroad experience, Brown makes up for in scale model enthusiasm. "There's a ton of things you can do with 'em. You don't have to sit with your wife and listen to her talk about her sister."

Model railroading does have its female enthusiasts, including Brown's wife Elaine, the MMRC treasurer. But it has always been a heavily male-dominated pursuit.

"The female equivalent would be dollhouses," says Palmer, trying to pinpoint the appeal of building model trains and layouts. "But it's the same sort of thing—miniaturizing the real world."

•••

Creating tiny versions of a particular tableau takes patience and an eye for accuracy. And it's not cheap. Close examination of Pepprock's architectural miniatures reveals an intensity of detail that simply can't be achieved by normal mass production, but the man-hours involved in carving, building, painting and aging by hand every tiny structure he sells would make them cost-prohibitive to his customers.

Pepprock's solution is to create molds from his hand-carved originals so he can cast copies out of plaster and sell the buildings to collectors as unpainted kits, complete with step-by-step instructions.

click to enlarge Pepprock works on a miniature building in his shop in Conner. “I have to remind myself that this detail is what my customers are paying for,” he says. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Pepprock works on a miniature building in his shop in Conner. “I have to remind myself that this detail is what my customers are paying for,” he says.

"It's both the saving grace and the biggest pain," he says of the process, which involves using a jeweler's loupe and an X-Acto knife to precisely sculpt the walls of the structure from sheets of 1/4-inch plaster. This includes each individual brick and stone, every ornamental flourish on the building.

Once he's finished creating the building's components, he makes a silicone cast of each wall to use as a mold for Hydrocal, a mixture of plaster of Paris and Portland cement.

The Hydrocal, he feels, is the key to the stunning realism of his miniatures. It's lightweight and strong, with a matte surface that takes paint exceptionally well so the finished models don't look glossy and toy-like.

After the molds are made he tricks out the prototype with aged-look paint, ghost murals, store signs, tiny figures and other details. Then he arranges the buildings in a realistic setting to photograph for listings in his online catalog, model magazines and press releases. Between the fine detail of the model and the careful staging and lighting in various locations, sometimes the recipients of the photos believe they are looking at a life-sized building.

"When a model magazine contacts me and says, 'You can't send us photos of the real thing, we need a photo of the model,' that's the ultimate compliment."

•••

Like Mike Brown of the MMRC, past club president Bill Taylor received his first model train set—a Lionel, of course—as a young boy. He was hooked right away. "There's something about trains that's kind of mesmerizing."

Now he loves seeing others being drawn to the hobby. "Sometimes people get into watching actual trains. Then they get their first (model railroad) set, then they work their way into studying the history of it."

Taylor is an avid student of railroad history, and with his wife Jan he's written five books on the subject. As far as his model railroading goes, creating scenery is his favorite aspect.

"The technology is making modeling so it's very detailed. The computer allows me to do backdrops and things I couldn't otherwise do," he says. "Modeling is kind of a way to capture things and make them yours. I call it 'the God Syndrome.' When you build a model railroad, you are God. It's all up to you and you create the world."

For Taylor, as with many other model railroad fanatics, the layout is never finished. That's how they like it.

"It's never done. When it gets done, it's no longer any fun. Operating the thing isn't as much fun as creating the thing. I find it incredibly boring to watch a train go around in a circle."

The Missoula Model Railroad Club hosts its annual "Swap/Meet" Sunday, Sept. 15, at Big Sky High School, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. $3. Free for ages 15 and under. More info at missoulamodelrail.org.

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