Masters of their universe 

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

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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.

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