Masters of their universe 

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

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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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