Making Smoke…

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Making Things Smoke….

How to get locomotives, buildings and other things on the layout to smoke …

I run steam locomotives on my N Scale Stevens Pass layout, but the lack of smoke and steam from the locos seems unrealistic, especially those with sound.
Photos in various magazines with smoke or steam appear to have been Photoshop-enhanced to add the effects. While this is nice for photos, it didn’t solve my desire to have the smoke
come from the locomotives while running on the layout.

So I stopped and asked myself, “Could I come up with a way to create the effects of smoke and steam coming from my locos running on the layout?”
After some experimenting, here’s the technique I developed.

Getting smoke in my steam locos

To create the smoke for my N scale steamers, I use Q-tips swabs as the starting point. I cut the swab stick in half; this gives me two chances for each swab, one for each end.
I tease out the cotton using a dental pick; a round toothpick also works, and I pick at the cotton little by little. I aim to tease it out into a thin, airy texture that will look like smoke or steam (2).

I like to leave as little cotton as possible attached to the shaft of the swab when I am done. It took me a little practice to get some good enough to be classified as keepers. Those that
didn’t turn out to my liking were used for smaller projects that I will share with you a little later. I like to leave as little cotton as possible attached to the shaft of the swab when I am done. It took me a little practice to get some good enough to be classified as keepers. Those that didn’t turn out to my liking were used for smaller projects that I will share with you a little later.








1. Typical locomotive without smoke.

Once I have finished teasing out the cotton of the swab (3), it’s decision time. If they are being used for steam release, I don’t paint them – I declare them done. For these, all I need to do
is attach them to the locomotive or some other equipment’s steam vent.

To make smoke rather than steam, I poke the swab shaft into a base of cardboard or foam. I prefer to do spray painting outside with a rattle can of Krylon or Rustoleum dark gray primer – I find it makes a nice dark smoky color (4).

I have also found the cotton tends to blow around a little while I am spraying it, which makes it harder to control the paint application. To keep this from happening, I hold the cotton down with a skewer or a tooth pick.














(2)  The beginning of the teasing process.









(3) The finished look of the teased swab end.






(4) The teased Q-tips swab painted dark gray and ready to install in a locomotive.

To create the effect of smoke going over the boiler of a locomotive, I stand the cardboard/foam base holding the teased swab up so that the smoke hangs down at a 900 angle while it is drying. If I want the smoke to go straight up, I hang the cardboard/ foam base upside down. The paint holds the cotton to shape once it has dried. After the paint has dried, for variety I sometimes tease the smoke out a little more to create a multi color look (6).

After the paint has dried, I cut off the excess swab shaft to prepare it for mounting in a locomotive. For maximum clearance, I cut the shaft as short as possible. I found that the
swab shaft fits quite nicely into many of my locomotive smoke stacks (5).








(6) This smoke has had additional teasing done after painting.

I decided to add smoke to a Scenic Depot on my layout. I began by drilling a 1/16” hole in the large chimney. I then folded a strand of thin wire to trap a piece of cotton that I had pulled away from a swab with my fingers. I teased the cotton in the same manner as I had done for the locomotives  (7).











(7) The cotton is trapped in-between the wire ready to be teased.

Once I was happy with the appearance, I painted it lightly with an all-purpose gray primer, which is a lighter color than the gray used on the locomotives. I am careful not to spray too solid of a color onto the smoke (8).

When I am done painting, I hang the painted smoke upside down to dry. This creates the effect of the smoke rising up from the chimney. Once it was dry I clipped off most of the wire and glue it into the hole that I had drilled into the chimney.

For the smaller smoke stacks I use only a tiny bit of cotton, but the procedure is the same. For these, I tease only a little bit of the cotton on the swab before painting, or I leave them
unpainted, depending on their use (9).











(8) The teased cotton with a light coat of the light gray primer.

Some items may not have a hole in which to mount the smoke, or may require a hole too small to be practical. The small pipes of rolling stock or vehicles generally fall into the category.
When I run into these situations, I add a very small amount of CA cement to the end of the pipe with a sharp toothpick. I let it set for a second or two before touching the swab cotton on the pipe, and then holding it there until the CA cement sets up.









9. The depot with smoke added. It adds a nice touch.

When the cement is set, I pull the swab away, leaving just a whisp of cotton smoke. This is how I added the smoke on the smaller chimney of the Scenic Depot (9) and on some of my vehicles (11).







10. A truck without any smoke








11.  The same truck with smoke added. I use the same procedures on the truck that I use on the small chimney of the Scenic Depot.

I have a lumber mill with a boiler house on my layout. Unfortunately, without the boilers being fired, the lumber mill won’t saw any logs, which leads to no lumber being shipped. So time for some smoke in those boiler stacks!











12. The boiler house without smoke venting from the stacks.











13. The boiler house is fired with smoke coming from the stacks. Sure hope the EPA isn’t looking!

For the industrial smoke stacks of the boiler-house, I used the same process as the station smoke. I made this smoke flowing in an upward direction, and I used the lighter gray color like the Scenic Depot. After making the smoke and gluing it into the smoke stacks, I teased the separate smoke plumes a little more and merged them together. By doing this I am able to create the suggestion of the wind blowing them together.

There are many opportunities to model smoke and steam on your layout (14,15), from just a wisp to bellowing out like the place is on fire. I have received many compliments about the smoke that I added to the models on my layout.










14. I made the smoke for my heavy crane the same way as the industrial smoke. The shaft of the swab fits perfectly into the stack, so I did not glue it in place.














15. For my steam winch at a logging area on the layout,  I wanted to suggest some steam leaks around the edges for a little extra detail.  I used the same procedures I use on the small smoke stacks except no paint.


Give this technique a try and see how you can use it to add life to locos and your layout!


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