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Joel Bragdon | Bragdon Rock Molds

| December 14, 2014 0 Comments More

One of my favorite go-to products when building a new scene are Bragdon rock molds. Made from high-grade latex, in my opinion these are some of the finest molds available for modeling real rocks because they’re molds from real rocks! Incredibly versatile too as they work well in all scales. Below you can see casts from Bragdon molds on an O scale layout as well as on several Z scale scenes. Both look great!

We’re happy to present our interview with Joel Bragdon of Bragdon Enterprises.

Joel Bragdon | Raildig Gues tInterviewI’ve been using Bragdon rock molds for years now. Let me ask you, how long has it taken you to assemble your mold collection and how many different molds do you currently offer?

My mold collection has been nearly a lifetime project. Bragdon Enterprises offers over 100 molds through our standard production line and website in a wide range of sizes and rock patterns. We also have over 400 other rock and retaining wall patterns. Those not listed can be made to special order, based upon photos from and questions to, our customers. I will never stop adding molds because I build custom model railroads commercially and I need molds to fit nearly any situation, size, scale or geology. However, most modelers need only an appropriate, few.

My own Bragdon molds have lasted for years using gypsum as the casting material, is this a normal life span for your molds?

We use the highest quality latex rubber available for our molds. Properly cared for, they should last for many years (or 50 – 100 casts), but not forever. If used with gypsum (plaster type products), they should be washed thoroughly after each session of use. With our resin products, and use of the proper mold release, no washing will be necessary and the molds will last even longer. Store them flat, not rolled or folded, at room temperature and away from bright light.

Igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic, is pretty much all I remember about rocks from earth science class. When it comes to adding rocks to our layouts, would you suggest trying to determine the rock type found in the prototype scene, or just going with what looks good?

My long study of geology helps me to select molds for my own work and that of my customers. However, all that is really necessary to model a scene well, are some good photos of the prototype area to be modeled and some careful study of them. Then, some good judgement as to what materials, tools and molds to use. Also, a little practice with these materials and tools, to get used to their qualities and quirks.

Modelers are going for the right ‘look’ for any given scene, so the photos are a huge help. Knowledge of basic geology is not necessary, but an entirely made up scene, pulled out of ‘thin-air’, will likely be, unconvincing.

Hand carving foam, crumpled aluminum foil and even using broken-up ceiling tiles have been used to create rockwork in model railroading. These can all work, depending on the techniques employed. Are using latex rock molds necessary?

I built my first “model” mountain in 1953 when I was five years old. Wasn’t much, but I loved it and I could run my train through a tunnel. That was all I wanted and I added the realism through my imagination. Since then, wanting more, I have tried all of the methods mentioned in your question, and then some. Most gave me some semblance of rockwork, but I was after even more realism.

I began experimenting with a few commercial rubber rock molds and plaster in the 1970s and got a bit closer to my goal. Our master molds are made from real rocks and rock faces, which we have come across in our travels; about forty years of careful searching. Rock castings from these molds, ring true. There is nothing like using, Mother Nature, as the source.

Is there much of a worry that by using a finite set of rock molds, our layout(s) will have a repetitive look with repeating rock faces?

There is no single answer to this question. I prefer to follow a few prototype photos to guide me through building any desired scene. I select molds with the appropriate textures and often use them repetitively, but usually not in the same position or form. I want to avoid a ‘wall paper pattern’, look. Sometimes only one mold is needed for a small project or layout but often several are preferred. In general, a large layout will need more molds and textures than a small project. There is a reason that I have made hundreds of molds and am always adding more. The bottom line is that the proper rock textures are needed for any given scene.

If you could give us specific suggestions on how to make rockwork look more real, what would they be? Assuming of course that we have good rock casts to begin with.

Well, that goes back to following the prototype scenery example, plus a lot of planning. If we just start laying track, then add scenery as an afterthought, without any plan or consideration to the prototype relationship of all, the result will likely be a field of track with some model mountains. Perhaps not as realistic as might be possible with a carefully made plan. I have learned that ‘less is more’, when it comes to trackwork.

It is not difficult to produce results so realistic and true to the prototype, that the viewer is able to project into the scene and feel part of it. That is always my goal. I do not often attempt to copy a scene rock for rock and tree for tree, but I want the scene to ‘feel’ right. This begins with photos, then a plan that incorporates track, structures and scenery, then back to the photos when building the scenery. Good rock castings can be wonderful, but are secondary to all of the above.

As I mentioned, I’ve used gypsum when making rock casts but you produce and market a line of Geodesic Foam, products. Can you tell us about Geodesic Foam?

My obsession with model scenery began in the 1950s. The moment that I discovered, John Allen, and his floor to ceiling scenery on his, ‘Gorre & Daphetid RR’, my life changed forever and in an instant, (well, almost). After that, and for 25 years, several layouts, more than a ton of plaster and about 200 square feet of scenery, I was ‘Daphetid’. My scenery was awful and none of it survives today.

After one particularly horrendous occurrence, involving 400 pounds of plaster and eight Boy Scouts (what could possibly go wrong?), I decided to either come up with a better material and method for modeling scenery or just leave the hobby. My initial tests with Polyester resins were OK but the materials were not easy or pleasant to use. This was in the late 1980s. I soon learned of a new generation of resins known as Polyurethanes. My results were even better, but the industrial materials needed to be reformulated for home-hobbyist conditions. This took me and several chemists, a couple of years to resolve, but worth the effort and expense. We developed odorless, non-toxic and easy to use resins. The scenery resulting from these materials is what I had always been seeking.

GeoFoam resin scenery is not just a substitute material for plaster, it is totally different in every aspect. Quick, easy, workable and forgiving. Fabulous detail and color, not messy, one tenth the weight of plaster but also super durable (think fiberglass). Both hard-shell and rock castings are dry but flexible when installed, then later, cure to a tough, hard and durable, but ultra-lightweight, plastic. This can then, be heated as desired and at any time, with a hot air tool, to soften, then reshape the resin scenery contours. Even very large rock castings are easy to make and install. Modelers can build indoors and outdoors with these weather resistant materials.

This resin scenery process, eventually evolved into a Bragdon Enterprises product line and also, custom scenery building service. Since 1995, I have built more that thirty thousand square feet of GeoFoam custom model mountain scenery on more than four dozen layouts. Four of these layouts required 3000 to 5000 sq. ft. of rock casting, each. Imagine how much plaster that would take and how much it would weigh! Many of our customers have used these resin products and molds over the past two decades, to build their own model scenery.

The difference between my plaster days and now, was not some other-worldly, transformation of my skills or abilities, just a complete change in materials. My work is a tribute to John Allen’s, inspiration. The main advantage of GeoFoam Scenery, is the fast, and easy workability of the resin products.

I know everyone seems to have their own paints and techniques for coloring rock castings, do you have any rule of thumb paint brands or color suggestions?

My painting method goes way back to the Italian Renaissance, when transparent paints were first invented.

Transparent paint color washes, applied over a brilliant white, non-absorbent, background (gesso) will reflect much more light than opaque paints. A luminous quality results which is not possible with other methods. In modeling scenery, we are trying to achieve the effect that reflected sunlight has on the real world. Most often, we need to do this with an artificial light source and without the benefit of sunlight. Artificial light is much dimmer than sunlight and has a more limited range of color wave lengths. Indoor modelers need to get all available reflected light, from the scenery surface to pull off the illusion of the, Great Outdoors. The gesso does not absorb the paint color into its surface, rather, it acts as a mirror, reflecting much of the original light, back into the viewer’s eye.

Porous materials such as plaster, absorb the paint into their surface which buries the original white, reflective quality. This opaque, stained surface then, absorbs much of the light which eliminates much of the desired, reflected sunlight look. This may sound like no big deal, but the difference is night and day.

The color choice is also important. Pure, high quality, artist’s colors without any white pigment additives are essential. No pastels or ‘tones’. White additives are opaque so will obscure any layers beneath and will absorb much of the light. I prefer artist’s acrylics for my base coats and watercolors for the final few. Six to ten, very thin, transparent wash coats, in all. A good color palette that will work for most situations comprises only six basic colors: Yellow Oxide (yellow ocher), Raw Sienna, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber, Hooker’s Green and Payne’s Gray. Add others as desired and where appropriate. We market these and they are available from any quality art supply source.

Another product which you produce, and for me goes hand in hand with your rock molds, are your weathering powders. Can you give us some background on these powders?

‘Weather System’ is another product that began life as a material that I developed to make my own modeling hobby better and more fun. I have been weathering models since the 1960s, using all of the materials and tricks that I came across in the hobby press. I liked what I got from weathering with chalks at first, but found that they did not adhere well to the model surface and a clear over-spray just turned them into ‘paint pigment’. Not what I wanted.

Chalk is the skeleton of single cell, sea creatures know as, diatoms. They are smallish and round in shape. They just roll off most surfaces when touched, such as chalk boards and model box cars. I decided to ball-mill some colored minerals into tiny, non-rounded bits, that are about 100 times smaller than chalk particles. The result was far better that what I was getting with chalk but still, not very adhesive. Two years of experimenting later, I perfected a dry, pressure sensitive adhesive, that is bonded to each particle of color. Works great and adheres to most surfaces. We now offer sixteen colors which can be used to weather nearly anything, including model scenery and rockwork.

Any final tips or suggestions for incorporating rock casts in to a scene to achieve the most realism?

Yes, any model scene is the sum total of its whole. The modeler needs to pay attention to all of the scenic elements in order to pull off the illusion of realism. The finest rock castings may be textured and colored to perfection in a scenic area, then instantly diminished by adding details of lesser quality. These may be unrealistic trees and plant-life, as some of many possible examples. Thoughtful consideration to the layout lighting is also very important. When all of the elements and details work, the scene then comes to life. The viewer can cross the threshold and enter the model world.

Article Links

Bragdon Enterprises

Hikel Trains

Z Scale Gallery

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