An Eye for Art: Local train enthusiast combines his artistic, electronic skills to create intricate layouts

James Crist is a local train enthusiast and craftsman living in Westminster.
James Crist is a local train enthusiast and craftsman living in Westminster. (Courtesy photo)

James Crist is a local train enthusiast and craftsman living in Westminster. Crist first got interested in trains when he came out of the Navy in 1966. About the same time, he purchased a set of HO trains with a steam engine.

At first, he built a train station in HO scale. Then he built a grain elevator and another one for his cousin. Crist built them out of 2-inch cardboard mailing tubes and balsa wood.


At that time, Crist got the Model Railroad magazine that contained directions for making trees. He used modeling clay for the bark of the larger trees. Then he inscribed little grooves for the bark of the tree trunks.

At that time, he had a 4-foot by 8-foot train platform. Since he could not get much on a layout that size, Crist decided to switch to N Scale trains that are smaller. Crist gave his HO set to his brother in Mississippi who uses it for his Christmas decorations.


He also built boats with balsa wood and mini-steam engines that worked.

At first, Crist just had a track layout. Since he worked as an electronics service electrician for the Board of Education in Carroll County, it took him 40 years to get back to being serious about his trains. About 10 years before he retired, he began to get back into landscaping his layout.

At first, he built a tunnel out of pine boards, wire, newspaper and plaster. Then Crist painted it and embellished it with clumps of moss to simulate bushes.

The ideas for his layouts came from Christmas displays he saw in town. Crist saw one display at the Town Mall (then Cranberry Mall) that had extensive detail. It inspired him. At the same time, he put a background on his layout with seven photographs he took in the Smoky Mountains he took at Caves Cove. He stitched the photographs together on his computer and used them as a mountain backdrop for his layout.

Crist decided to build a second tunnel that is two tunnels in one. He saw online that they used soft pile cotton to lay down as a base for landscaping and then it is painted. Then he sprinkled simulated grass he purchased at hobby stores.

Next, he built a girder bridge out of wood. In order to build it, he laid down a form to get the parts of the bridge and then laid a block down to get it straight.

Recently, Crist began to start thinking about making trees. He takes 22-gauge wire, six pieces about 4 inches long, twists them together and solders the bottom together. Then he painted the wires light brown to resemble a tree truck.

Crist uses preserved reindeer moss for the tree leaves. The ends of the clumps are very fine so he just uses the ends. When he lived in Silver Run he used to get his own reindeer moss but because he did not use a preservative process it fell apart.

Crist combines his layout with electronics. He had the idea that he would run the train with a computer. He experimented with microprocessors. Then he interfaced it with a relay board. Sensors on the track tell the microprocessor which way to throw the track switches.

He often shows people his train layout at his home. Crist also has a portable layout that he takes to St. Mary’s Lutheran Church for Christmas.

As an artistic person, he also makes wooden items and is specializing in lighthouses. He has made four about 16 inches tall. The lens is made from plastic diffusers from fluorescent lights. Crist builds an electronic circuit that makes the light blink slowly like a real lighthouse. The lighthouses are made of plaster and wood and painted to look like existing lighthouses.

Crist also loves photography and is a member of the Carroll County Camera Club. Crist shows his photographs with the club at the Carroll County Arts Council. He likes to take photographs of flowers, animals and scenes. He makes notecards, calendars, bookmarkers and box cubes with his photographs. He also does kaleidoscopes with his pictures.


Crist taught photography for the Carroll County School System evening classes and then for Carroll Community College.

Crist is not satisfied to just take his own pictures. He also sets up sunset backgrounds with silhouettes in front. One of his students cut out silhouettes of elephants that he placed in front of the sunset. They won first place in a contest with the image.

Crist has over 200 of his photographs on Twitter. The most popular photographs are Polar Patterns where the photographer takes a photograph and polarizes it with Photoshop on the computer. Twirl patterns are also popular. A photograph is “twirled” to a variety of degrees on the computer.

“I just like being creative. It is a drive I have,” Crist said. “I love to see my trains go around. The new ones have sound and they get more realistic. They have lifelike sounds and the brakes even squeal.”

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