The CarZtenbahn Story


Carsten Ramcke

It's August 31, well, actually, it's after midnight, so it's September 1, 2005.  Although it's late, I am wide awake with a strong feeling of accomplishment, since a labor of love for the past 5 months is over.  For all intents, the CarZtenbahn, my journey into Z-scale, is complete, having been finished this evening with the addition of final structures and the background.  

Before I head to bed, I want to share, via internet (call it a Zlog, if you will), the story of the CarZtenbahn, its construction, and tips and tricks I learned along the way.  First, some background...

It was November 2004, and a well-meaning friend gave me the very thoughtful and kind birthday gift of a Marklin Z-scale starter set, the 81862 to be precise (a photo of it can be found here).  Over the course of several months I added additional locomotives and freight cars to the collection, but had never even taken the trains out of the box!  You see, I already have an extensive Marklin H.O. collection from thirty years' collecting (Carstenbahn photos can be found here), and began collecting Marklin 1-scale about five years ago (for information on that scale, see the Carstenbahn One diary on this website).  I needed another scale like I needed a hole in the head!  

In February I decided it was time to do something with the starter set- either build something, or put it on eBay.  The rest, as they say, is history.  The CarZtenbahn was born.  

I started out with a simple concept:  Build a small, portable layout that could be taken to local train shows with the Great Lakes Chapter of European Train Enthusiasts.  Design the track plan to be simple, and showcase long trains on a long straight run, with plenty of scenery and a taste of Germany.  Other requirements were installation of catenary, and proper ballasting of the track.  The track plan is a simple double oval with half the track hidden in a long tunnel to avoid the 'loop look'.  There is a passing siding in a small station, and two sidings, one for a freight depot, and one for a fuel tank station.  


Here is a rough view of the first stages of the layout.  The station would be modified from the view above, as the outer track's passing siding was removed to make way for the platform.  The cut-out in the foreground would become a ravine.  The tracks along the backside of the layout would be hidden in a tunnel.  The layout's two sections each measure 2 feet wide and four feet long.

Although I had initially planned on using flex track throughout, I opted for segmented curves instead.  They would be hidden in the tunnel, so the tight radii would not be a detraction from the overall realism.

Here is a view of the station half of the layout.  The cut-out in the plywood at the left side would be a road underpass, providing access to the station and the freight depot.  Like many stations in Germany, the layout depicts a station located remotely from town, with an access road leading to it.


There are two more pictures of the first design.  Note the 1-scale train peeking out at the top of the picture!

In mid-February I finally got to put a train on the track to see how it would run.  I was delighted by the length of time it took to traverse the layout!  For someone used to H.O. and 1-scale, it was impressive!

These last two pictures show the track already laid on cork roadbed.  I opted not to put the tracks in the back on cork, since I wanted to leave it open for possible expansion into a several-track staging yard.  The last picture shows two trains running, and, with the exception of the outside passing siding, the track plan in the station as I would finally build it.

Next up was scenery.  From my experiences in H.O. I was convinced that a lightweight Styrofoam base with plaster cloth was the ideal way to construct Z-scale scenery.  Since I was modeling the rolling hills of the northern Black Forest, I didn't need to use plaster for rock formations, and could make the scenery light and manageable.  After all, I would have to be able to carry and transport it!  

I began by cutting sheets of insulating Styrofoam with a box cutter.  I started with the bottom sheet, then worked my way upwards.  I used simple wood glue to hold all the pieces together.  The bottom piece was not glued to the plywood (I wanted to make the Styrofoam scenery easily removable to access derailed trains), and the Styrofoam had a seam located exactly where the rest of the layout was to come apart.  

The cans are used to press the pieces together.  You can see the wood glue oozing out in places.  Note also how bits of Styrofoam are used to create the riverbed.

Note in the picture above-right how the area in front of the tracks is cut out for lower scenery.  This 'continues' the slope behind the tracks, giving a more realistic appearance.  We can imagine that the slope leads down to the river that created this valley...


The riverbed is almost finished.  The bridge (a modified N-scale model) was put in place to locate the bases of the piers and abutments.  Note also how the smallest pieces of Styrofoam are used to finish off the landscape contours...

Another view of the Styrofoam.  Notice how the layout and the Styrofoam have joints in the same spot...  As mentioned before, this was done to make it possible to split the layout in half easily.

Although not ready for prime time, the CarZtenbahn made its public debut in February at the  Great American Train Show in Columbus, Ohio.  Trains ran flawlessly both days, and many people inquired as to the scenery construction technique.  In the picture above you can see that the Styrofoam has, for the most part, been covered in plaster cloth.  In addition, the track on the far section has been ballasted.  I used my favorite method for this operation- slop paint onto the cork, lay the track directly into the wet paint, spike it down, and then spread ballast very liberally over everything except turnouts and the track that bridges the two modules.  

After GATS I decided to tackle the catenary.  After all, no self-respecting model railroader would run an Electric locomotive without overhead wire!  The Marklin catenary is really quite simple to use, and it wasn't long before my complex station trackwork was covered with wires...

The catenary cross-spans you see in the photo above are actually modifications of Marklin cross-spans.  The wide span was too wide, and the narrow span was too narrow, so I carefully cut out the center section of one wider span and soldered the outer pieces together.  Not a job for shaky hands!

 The catenary came down to allow for the first scenery 'decoration'.  I used a method similar to the Carstenbahn, which uses a blend of colors and textures dropped hap-hazardly into wet olive-colored paint, then covered with Woodland Scenics' Green Blend.  The result in a non-uniform and natural look.    

I added a few trees to see whether I had achieved the desired effect.  I opted for the more expensive flocked trees from Busch, since they gave a much more realistic appearance.  

I like the picture above because it shows the realistic look of using flex track on a layout in any scale.  The gentle curve very realistically mimics the prototype.

In the photo above you can see the water at the base of the bridge.  I used the Woodland Scenics 'EZ Water', which is a solution that you heat up, pour, and let cool.  The effect is pretty good, if you have the right base color.  I used a brown to simulate mud.  WARNING:  This stuff will DESTROY whichever pot you use to heat it up.  In fact, I believe this is the only moment on the whole project when my wife was truly upset (though she did get a nice replacement pot immediately).

Here you can see roughly the same portion of the layout, this time with the Styrofoam hill in the background.  Note that I have run out of trees at this point, after purchasing 5 boxes at 60 trees each!

The left half of the layout is still in the unpainted, unballasted, and unscenicked stage.  This picture also shows the layers of Styrofoam, plus the plaster cloth (in the front of the picture).

The gaps in the track is where the gap in the layout is.  I planned the track design to provide for using Märklin's expanding track pieces to fill this gap.  The pieces are simply compressed, set into place, gently maneuvered into the rail joiners, and released.  Nothing could be simpler.  

In June of 2005 I made major progress on the layout.  Another GATS was coming up, and I was determined to have the layout mostly completed by then.  

I completed construction of the station and signal tower, plus I finished the scenicking (well, the ground cover, at least) on the left side of the layout.  I weathered all the buildings during construction, which made a big difference in their appearance.  Note in the photo the path leading from the station parking lot to the signal tower, and the variations in the vegetation.  

Here is a view of the left side with all the ground cover in place.  the signal tower is the only building on the layout, but the station, whose base is already set up to check the spacing, isn't far behind...  On the hill in the background you can see the different shelves of Styrofoam.  Not to worry, the trees will do a good job of hiding these tiers...


Besides the structures, I also took the liberty of weathering the bridge.  Compare this picture with the one four pictures up.  Quite a difference, isn't it?  Many plastic kits have wonderful detail in their parts, that can only be appreciated when you weather the kits.  I use a solution of 3 parts paint thinner to one part color (using brown or black depending on what I am weathering, with Testor's 'rubber' being my favorite) for my weathering.  I use a small brush, and gently brush the dirty mixture onto the unassembled pieces that will be roofs, walls, and other outside items.  I wait for about twenty seconds (longer if I want a grimier appearance), then use a paper towel to wipe off the excess paint.  I wipe in the direction towards the earth, such as rain or other liquids would follow.  This gives a realistic texture even to the weathering.

There are three examples of weathering in the picture above.  The tunnel portal is weathered, the signal tower is weathered, and notice the buffer on the short siding under the signal tower.  I painted the track and pressed flocking material into the wet paint to simulate the overgrown vegetation you often find on the ends of sidings.

The Dayton, Ohio GATS came in August, and the CarZtenbahn was there, now about 90% completed.  In the picture above there are still some structures missing (the station platform, the freight depot, the fuel tank, vehicles, etc) but for the most part, the scenery is completed.  I ended up adding about another 200 trees to the photo you see here, though there is still room for more!  At the present time the layout sports nearly 800 trees...


Another picture of the layout at GATS.  Notice the dramatic difference in size between the 1-scale items and the Z-scale ones!  Once again, I was very impressed with the Z-scale trains' reliability.  The trains ran flawlessly, and ran the entire Sunday without a single derailment!

Which brings us to the end of August, 2005, and the completion of the CarZtenbahn.  A package arrived a week ago from Germany, containing the remaining buildings, more trees, figures, a backdrop, etc.  I spent several afternoons working on the layout, and finished the CarZtenbahn a few hours ago.  Below are some pictures of the final 'product'...


... And there you have it!  Thanks to about a hundred hours' labor and some patience, I was able to complete an attractive Z-scale layout that met all the requirements I had - transportability, the ability to run long trains though scenery, reliability, realistic scenery, and a touch of character.  

Would I do it again?  Well, probably not for myself (two scales are enough, thank you!), but for someone else?  Who knows...  What did you have in mind??


- Carsten Ramcke

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