Bringing miniature railways to life

Dario Le Donne has made a limited edition kit featuring the Billy Miner Pub.

Dario Le Donne has made a limited edition kit featuring the Billy Miner Pub.

In the make-believe world of the miniature railroad, there’s never a moment’s rest. Buildings have to be painted, doors attached, shipments gathered and schedules kept. The trains have to run on time.

For those who like to escape into a world that’s 1/87th the size of reality, Dario Le Donne is only too happy to help – by making realistic dioramas depicting those days gone by.

In the past few years, he’s made five limited edition kits, one featuring the old Billy Miner Pub, another the Dewdney Trunk General Store – still standing on Lougheed Highway, east of Mission – and another called Carrick’s Corner, a collection of buildings from downtown Toronto that has sold out.

The craftsman kits sell for between $200 and $400 and are snapped by model railroad fans looking to add authentic replicas of scenes from days gone by to their track displays.

“It’s the biggest hobby in the world, eh – model railroading,” Le Donne says in his Maple Ridge home, where the kit manufacturing process has spread to three levels.

The hobby attracts a disparate group from all walks of life  – rock and rollers Rod Stewart, Phil Collins and Neil Young are model railroaders, as well as the guy who was in charge of dispersing the federal bailout money in the U.S., Le Donne says.

His Rail Scale Miniatures company is a blend between hobby and business, though he’s leaning toward the latter.

When he spies an old building, either through browsing through archives online or when he’s out on the job as construction foreman, Le Donne will go back to his shop and create drawings, templates and designs that will convert that structure into miniature.

Then he makes molds for the plastic and pewter metal pieces that will form walls, doors, windows and sidewalks of the display.

It’s a labourious process because he has to record as he goes.

“As I build, everything – everything – has to be documented, every measurement, colour I used …”

Those details then go into a manual with each kit and tell customers in painstaking detail how to assemble the product.

“So it doesn’t matter who picks up the kit, they can built it just like that.”

“People from around the world, they build and they put them on their layout,” said Le Donne.

The level of intricacy in HO 1:87 model railroad building is almost obsessive.

Take the square of paper, about the size of the top of a pen, that’s part of one of Le Donne’s miniature railway kits.

It’s printed on both sides with stories and headlines to resemble a real newspaper that you’d see strewn on the ground.

One of the fire hydrants, about the size of a pen nib, is cast in pewter metal in painstaking detail, ready for hobbyists to paint as they sees fit. Same too goes for doors and windows, vents and mechanical components that appear on buildings. Every kit requires labour to get the pieces painted and assembled before they’re placed on the track.

“It’s all these little castings that bring a kit to life.”

At the same time, Le Donne likes to build in flexibility so a customer can “kit bash” – change things from the intended design.

Le Donne uses computer-assisted design and a laser cutter to trim the basswood into precise components that fit perfectly. A couple of those pieces of wood have the dimensions of dry spaghetti – but when assembled on set, turn into two-by-four construction lumber.

One resin piece replicates the brick wall of the Billy Miner Pub, in which every brick is detailed and available to be painted a different colour.

The types of wall can be clapboard, shingle, stucco and brick, all with instructions on how to paint to get the weathered, aged look.

It’s not intended to be easy work for model railroad fans. The little pieces have to be painted properly so they look their age. (A tea bag works well as a weathered piece of canvas, he points out.) Even the tiny bricks on the exterior wall of the Billy Miner Pub have to painted individually.

Authenticity is crucial because if a building isn’t accurately produced, something just doesn’t look right.

“Every square millimetre is touched by the builder.”

“It’s not a static hobby,” he says.

So far, Le Donne has made five kits and is working on his sixth, which has taken him beyond Canada’s borders to Astoria, Oregon, where he spotted Boat and Delwin’s Net Storage. That will be a unique scene capturing the salmon-fishing industry with a feature depicting water.

“A kit like this will take you 100 hours to build.”

A popular seller was Carrick’s Corner, based on buildings found in downtown Toronto. That cost $395 compared to the more modest kit ($195) that features Dewdney Trunk General Store, which is still standing, next to the CP Rail mainline, on Lougheed Highway, eight kilometres east of Mission.

One that he just finished shows an old gasoline service station, Horwood Brothers, and raises the bar in that the interior of the buildings are lit up with micro-LEDs connected with wires thinner than a human hair.

Part of that building is still standing at Quadra and Yates in Victoria and even formed the basis for another kit, Vogue Furniture House.

But it’s still a guessing game about which kit to build, which scene to recreate.

“It’s a crapshoot every time you release one, it’s a crap shoot.”

Le Donne points out he’s the only craftsman kit maker in Canada and is chasing three more-established rivals (Fine Scale Miniatures, South River Modeworks, SierraWest Scale Models) in the U.S.

“They’ve already compared me with the top dogs.”

Eventually, he’d like to give up his job as a construction foreman and churn out miniatures full-time.

“I’m getting really close. But the workload … this is all I do.”