My friends Sean and Claire are always making and doing together. They do urban exploring, they psycho-geographically map the high-weirdness and local color of their beloved Baltimore, and they’re always working on some kooky project together. Where other couples might be going out for a romantic dinner at some over-priced eatery, Sean and Claire will more likely to be found playing footsie while building their rendition of a Cabinet of Wonders from the Future or working on their Baltimore Babylon (my name for it, not theirs) model train board. In celebration of Valentine’s Day, I asked them to write something up about the ins and outs of being a couple that collaborates and to tell us more about their unique take on model training. — Gareth
By Claire and Sean Carton
Barbie and Ken. Bill and Hillary. Bob and Rita (Marley). Laurie (Anderson) and Lou (Reed). Burt and Lonnie.
If there’s stuff to make, and the willingness to make it, there’s a long history of couples making it happen together. And call us icky romantics, but we think there’s something special about two people coming together to make something bigger and better than either individual might accomplish on their own. Not to mention: It’s fun!
“Beads? Bunny ears? After several months of working on their train layout together, they just don’t care, anymore.”
As a couple, we’ve always loved collaborating. It’s probably one of the things that drew us together in the first place, starting with bashing out information architectures and creative strategies at a digital agency in Baltimore, MD, ten years ago. The process of collaborating, of brainstorming, of negotiating through the tough parts, of sweating the details, and finally, celebrating the birth of something that we’d created together, has always been a center point of our relationship.
So, how do you make it work, making things together? It isn’t always easy. But we’ve done a passable job at figuring out how to creatively collaborate without killing each other, or ending up in divorce court. So we thought we’d take this opportunity to share with you some of what we’ve learned about making together. Is is Valentine’s Day, after all.
Rather than serving up a bunch of bland, half-baked advice, we thought we’d take you inside one of our recent projects: our postmodern (and somewhat post-apocalyptic) train set, and the inevitable fallout. Hopefully, along the way, you’ll gain some insight into how we make this work, and maybe take away some inspiration for how you can undertake collaborative projects together (if you aren’t already).
Closeup of “Tyler’s,” Claire’s re-creation of a 1968 riot-era bricked-over package store/bar
A few years ago, when Claire was recovering from an operation and going stir-crazy with boredom and pain, Sean decided to help fulfill her lifelong dream of building a model train set. Sean hauled sickly Claire out to the local hobby shop and bought the basics — some buildings, track, a locomotive, some cars. And Claire, fueled by Percocet and a lack of gainful employment, proceeded to while away her days building a big ol’ standard-oval train layout on a piece of plywood.
Fast forward a couple years: the layout is languishing in the basement, maybe a third done, with a giant and unsociable longhair cat sleeping on it 24/7. The cat does not want to move. The track beds aren’t laid and Claire had resigned herself to being a failed model railroader.
And then, without warning, the bug strikes again. Maybe it’s being shut in by vicious winter weather. Maybe it’s staring at that layout day after day. Maybe it’s the fact that we’d successfully completed a number of smaller projects together and realized that our most ambitious one still awaited us, just steps away. Whatever the reason, we finally decided it was time to dust off the layout and make this thing a reality… together.
We’re geographically and emotionally tethered to Baltimore, specifically gritty/tragic Baltimore. Gritty/tragic Baltimore-ness enchants and dismays us in equal measure. So naturally, when faced with deciding on our perfect model train layout, we realized that we wanted to capture Baltimore in all its postindustrial, grimy, glorious, gentrified, sagging, soot-streaked, architecturally-insane glory. Our train layout wouldn’t be some perfect 1950s midwestern fantasy, or some Swiss/Bavarian dreamscape. Instead, we wanted a something that was more than real — a distillation of our perceptions about our specific place. Since Baltimore’s the home of the first railroad (the first tracks laid in the U.S. started only miles from our house), it seemed appropriate to re-imagine this city in HO scale.
Layout in progress with detailing pieces stacked on roof and zombie horde (OK…there’s only two, but still…) near train.
Also, since “gritty” and “weathered” also mean “you don’t need to worry too much about dripping glue and paint,” using Baltimore as a model played to our weaknesses (which also turn out to be our strengths): occasionally poor craftsmanship disguised as “weathering” or “faux finishes,” inattention to detail (depending on mood and substances consumed), and a sincere love of the imperfect and the appreciation of the beauty inherent in chaos.
Our vision agreed to, we were ready to begin.
Making a Space
We have a small house, and train layouts are big. We set up in Claire’s office/studio where she mainly works to make money in order to afford train stuff and crafting supplies. It’s got great lighting from a lot of windows, is off to the side from the rest of the house (vital when dealing with inquisitive/potentially “helpful” children), and can be shut off from day-to-day activities.
The room where we wanted to set up is on the first floor, so the first step was for Sean to haul the layout up from the basement and set it on the table we’d “inherited” from Claire’s mom. After much huffing and puffing (along with a few dinged doorways, knocked-over household items, and one highly annoyed cat), he managed to wrestle the layout upstairs and get it set up in the center of the room.
“You know Claire,” Sean remarked after the layout was situated, “This thing’s never going to leave this room.”
“Shut up,” Claire replied with a grin.
We both acknowledged the inevitable and decided to move on. Deciding on where you’re going to do your work is vital for a making couple. Everyone’s got “sacred space” in their abodes, and often reacts violently (or, more likely, passive-aggressively) to stuff that invades said space. Regardless of the fact that it might end up being a permanent fixture in our home, we both agreed that this room was the right place for it.
Zombie attack re-creation using distressed Matchbox car and repainted HO-scale figures
Our first step was to gather together everything we were going to need. Some of the layout had already been completed, but we still needed to build a number of buildings, lay the track, assemble the scenery, build some landscape features, and decide on what other items were going to share the layout in order to fulfill our vision. It was a big task, and one fraught with the kind of “traps” that often lead couples to ditch a project like this all together.
The biggest thing was that we’d already decided on was our overall vision for the project. That eliminated a lot of “negotiation” in terms of materials and tools. We knew we needed to be able to handle the aesthetic and the “engineering” parts, so the next task was to assemble what we’d need and keep it handy.
Our list included:
1 – 4X8 plywood sheet for the base of the layout (already in place when we started)
Several yards of green felt for the “grass.” The less “flocking,” the better. Your felt should be green (if you’re going for grass) and relatively smooth. We’d gotten most of this down before, but there were parts that needed touching-up.
Some miscellaneous Marklin train parts, Marklin snap-track, and track controller. While there are other, cheaper HO scale starter sets, we went with Marklin because of their reputation for quality and longevity. If you aren’t fanatically-committed to model railroading yet, start with one of the starter sets. HO scale is best because it’s common and basically 1:87 scale… not that far off from most readily-available plastic models which use 1:72 scale. Close enough.
Random supplies used in other crafts, including Flex-Paste, papier-mache mesh, Elmer’s glue, plastic (model) glue, plastic model paint, acrylic paint, children’s paintbrushes, sandpaper, pieces of HO models, HO-scale stones and foliage, miscellaneous kit-bashed pieces, random train crap (easily and cheaply available on eBay or Craig’s List). You want a lot of raw materials.
Dremel Tool with assorted bits and attachments. One of these babies will come in handy for all your cutting, engraving, embossing, and sanding.
Hot glue gun. They’re all pretty much the same, but buy lots of glue sticks because you’re going to be gluing like crazy.
A table, inherited from sister, which used to live in the back storage but now takes up all of Claire’s office. You don’t necessarily need a table inherited from your sister: any cheap table large and sturdy enough to securely hold a 4×8 sheet of plywood will do.
Some crap-ass Ikea lights plugged dangerously into mounds of extension cords for illumination while you work.
Additional dangerous mounds of extension cords.
Assorted hand tools: hammers, hacksaws, X-acto knives, boxcutters, small files, needle-nosed pliers, and a set of small screwdrivers (the kind often sold as “computer screwdrivers” are usually sufficient).
Downtown Cartonville. Definitely the wrong side of the tracks.
Once we knew what we wanted and had surveyed our current tool and supply pile, we went shopping. We knew we had to be frugal, so besides dropping a load of cash on the train set (the obvious heart of the project), and a few key buildings, we scoured eBay, thrift stores, and hit up friends for unused train paraphernalia. It’s amazing what people have laying around. Just ask.
Finally, it was time to get started. As we soon found out, this is the most fraught part of the whole process. While there may be lots of …err… disagreements during initial setup, it’s not until you’re actually making undoable decisions that things can get hairy.
An exasperated Ava asks “What the heck were you guys thinking? ‘Train’s cool, though!”
For our layout, we has such issues as: should it be a simple “ring around the table” layout, where the trains ride the rails on a ring outside of the board while the town sits in the middle, or should it be a more complex layout featuring all the geegaws that train geeks get into: bridges, coal-loading areas, intersections and crossings, etc. Choosing the simpler layout would let us concentrate on building the town that we’d envisioned. Going for the more complex layout would mean concentrating more on the train aspect and less on the town.
Luckily, we’d already agreed on what the whole thing was supposed to be about: a gritty representation of the postindustrial town we live in, re-imagined through our (somewhat perverse) vision. This meant that the buildings, landscaping, and overall “dressing” of the layout, had to take precedence over the train mechanics.
Down-and-out rowhouse block looking towards train bridge.
Potential arguments averted (or rather previously solved), we got to work. Claire, the one who seems to understand a lot more about art theory, feng shui, and organic form in general, assigned herself the landscaping duties. Sean, being the one who (admittedly) was a lot more linear and precise about things, handled most of the buildings. Decision made, tasks assigned, we stayed out of each other’s way.
Claire definitely had the messier part of the project, often finding herself up to her elbows in plaster, “earth color” paint (kind of a poo-colored brown that tries to approximate dirt). After a test layout of the track on the floor to determine the final circumference, she used her measurements (mainly eyeballed and always accurate) to build a raised track around the layout using styrofoam, plaster, and various environmental tidbits including rocks, fake water (a VERY slow-setting resin designed to test even the Buddha’s patience), foliage (craftily constructed by whirling foam rubber chunks in a blender with various colors of green paint), and the roads (constructed with textured black paint in widths measured to meet our laughably-lax HO standards).
Al’s, circa 1952
While Claire built the world, Sean tackled most of the buildings that’d line the streets. Rather than build our structures from scratch (something some hobbyists do, but that we decided was far beyond our pay grade), he turned to building kits, cheaply available online, on eBay, in hobby shops, or if you’re feeling really brave, at your local train show. It took some searching, but Sean was able to find kits that matched our design ethos: the “Haunted House,” “Building Under Demolition,” and “Industrial Warehouse” models seeming to work best for the cornerstones of the layout.
For both the landscape and buildings, our guiding vision was whatever we built should look like the stuff we saw every day around us in our city. This wasn’t gonna be no Mayberry: our buildings were going to be dented, dinged, scraped, weathered, and generally damaged in a way that reflected the reality from which they came. Luckily for our project (and our marriage) this wasn’t all that tough: for all of our maker urges, neither of us is much of a perfectionist, or an obsessive craftsperson. Knowing we were imperfect at all this, and okay with that, we melded the imperfections into our work.
With Claire creating the landscape and Sean building broken-down buildings during the evenings after the kids were put to bed, things went together fairly quickly. Soon, we had a collection of buildings ranging from our “Secret NSA Listening Post” (kit-bashed by combining a train shack with radio and radar parts from a plane model of Sean’s) to an inner city bar/liquor store (Claire’s creation designed to emulate the cinderblock-filled bay windows put up during the 1968 riots), to ponds, graffiti-covered train tunnels, and re-purposed industrial buildings housing yuppie lofts. The landscape — designed to reflect both urban bleakness and (on the other side of the layout) faux suburban lushness — infused the entire layout, adding depth that even surprised us. Everywhere we could we tried to include small details that would add to the realism and match our sensibilities including tiny hardcore show fliers (reproduced from actual fliers lifted from the web), detailed dumpsters, random abandoned vehicles, and crackhouse-chic building fronts.
Finally, it all came together. OK: honestly no train layout ever “comes together” enough to be considered finished. But at some point in the process, as the streets of the town filled, the backyards got spiffed up with fences and junked cars, and billboards that made us chuckle went up, we both realized it was time for the finishing touch: the train!
Laying down the track, wiring it up, and assembling your first train, can definitely be one of those times when things go horribly wrong. Because it involves electronics, miniature machinery, and control systems, this is one of the places where (let’s be honest about our stereotypes here) men can push their female partners aside as they insist on twiddling with wires, mumbling under their breath about “amperage loads,” and fuss about couplings, car order, and other minutiae. Major danger zone!
Luckily this didn’t happen to us: the whole thing was new enough to both of us that we realized that it’d take a true collaborative effort to make it work and that our somewhat oversized egos needed to be tucked in for the night if we were going to make this project happen.
It worked. While Sean fiddled with the wires and connectors, Claire laid the track. Once in a while, each of us would consult the other about a sticky problem — where to lay the wires, how to get a curved piece of track to link up together — and we put our heads together to solve the problem. Since neither one of us had much experience with model trains, we approached it as a dual learning experience where we started on equal footing. The result was a project that came together clumsily but came together from both of our efforts.
Finally, buildings in place, foliage flocked, track laid, and wires firmly connected to track, it was time. We plugged in the transformer, carefully placed the locomotive on the track, held our breath, and jumped for joy as Claire pushed the throttle forward and our little locomotive took off down the tracks.
Random person hanging on street
Of course, total success was far away… and may never be achievable. Our attempts at lighting, coordinating multiple engines, and even getting a train of more than four cars to make a complete circuit without derailing somewhere near the old News-American building, have taught us that we’ve both got a lot to learn. But we’re going to learn it together… and that’s the exciting part.
Some Additional Thoughts and Observations
Okay, maybe we are going to get a little preachy and serve up some friendly advice. Your mileage may vary, but here are some things we’ve learned in doing projects together:
- You’re not going to get your way — with each other or the materials. But that’s OK. New ideas will come out of letting go.
- There’s often a different solution. But it isn’t going to be found unless you both contribute. So listen.
- Your life is a project you actively create. But your project? It’s just a project.
- If you find yourself in a fight, walk away, and think about it. Then regroup.
- Appreciate each other’s strengths, and compensate for each other’s weaknesses.
- Find something entertaining to listen to while you work. It’ll give you something to talk about and distract you from any frustrations.
- Carve out time to be together and work on your project, regardless of what the kid(s), dog(s), and cat(s) might demand.
- Start with a shared vision, but be flexible about what that means.
- Celebrate your victories, no matter how small.
- Do it for yourselves. What others think doesn’t (and shouldn’t) matter.
- When one of you is on a roll, get out of the way. What comes out of it will likely be amazing.
- If you can, put the family to work. Kids make great pieceworkers! And they like being involved.
- Share you skills. Teach your significant other what you know. Find joy in sharing your know-how.
- Laugh. A lot. The perfection of the final project isn’t that important. What matters is that you’re spending some together.
- If you’re tired, go to bed.
- Accept chaos, but fight entropy. In other words, keep your space and your life as tidy as possible, but realize that life happens, and ultimately, nothing’s more important than your family and your life outside the project.
- Trains are cool. Even if they’re mainly the domain of old guys who retired from steel mills and have too much time on their hands.
- A good joint project is like good sex: the details don’t matter so much as how good you feel when it’s over.
- Praise each other. A lot. Positive feedback keeps things moving.
- Hanging out together is the best thing. So even if you don’t have a project in mind, just hang out. You can always improvise something.
Most sane people want to avoid big box craft stores as much as possible. The goods are overpriced, and irony’s in short supply. Which is why we seek out the best thrift stores around. (And no, we won’t tell you where they are!) Nothing can match the patina of stuff you thrift.
Thrifting with your sweetie is part of the whole making-stuff experience and should be savored. If you get a day off from the kids, or work, plan a full day of it — map three or four stores on your phone and enjoy the conversation on the way. Once you’re there, don’t question your partner too much. If he or she has a brilliant idea for that faux-Hummel get-well-soon figurine, let it go.
Good scores from thrift stores:
- Cookbooks and children’s books–anything with great illustrations and photos
- Picture frames and picture boxes
- Old furniture in need of a makeover
- Fake flowers
- Glasses and odd plates
- Old electronic equipment & retro technology
- Wooden boxes
- Kid’s toys, especially dolls
- Costume jewelry
- Textile items like napkins needing embroidery, sheets and curtains, felt, and bags of fabric oddments
Claire Carton is a writer, mom, dog wrangler, model train enthusiast, amateur historian of Baltimore oddities, treasure hunter, and urban explorer. She’s currently the principal of Carton Consulting, a marketing and digital strategy firm.
Sean Carton is a writer, dad, speaker, and atypical “ad guy” who lives a very un-“Mad Men“-like lifestyle. In his spare time, he tinkers with electronics, collects items for his wunderkammer, seeks out ancient artifacts, builds model trains, and explores alternative theories of reality. He currently works as Chief Creative Officer at a digital agency in Baltimore and moonlights as a professor in the Cultural Sustainability Master’s Program at Goucher College.
You can follow Claire and Sean’s off-kilter exploits at their site, What’s In Our Brains.