Stephens constructs his backdrops mainly of cedar bark. Before he joined Applied Imagination six years ago, the company used worn railroad ties, but stopped because of concerns about hazardous materials in the ties. Stephens uses more cedar bark than he can salvage, so he orders it by the bundle from Cedarville Mill in Kentucky. The bales are delivered to installation sites.
"I arrive at a new place and get to work on bundles of cedar. I create onsite," he said. "I look at the track plans and see how much area I have to cover. Then I tweak it."
During the off-season, Stephens operates a furniture restoration business and Stephens Outdoor Railways, a full-service train store in Vienna featuring trains and supplies of all scales, from minuscule Z through the larger scales. His love is the G scale.
"It's the largest and most detailed scale and is designed for outdoors. It's also great for the whole family. There are trains and gardens and landscaping," he said. "The dad who is crazy about trains can share it with his son, and so on."
The roots of his infatuation with G-scale garden layouts weren't formed in childhood -- at least not in his own childhood. He never owned a train set.
But he gave his own 3-year-old son a train for Christmas 12 years ago. The layout that started out under the Christmas tree was still in the family's living room in April, when Stephens finally acquiesced to his wife's request to remove it. He took it outdoors, where he began building an extensive layout on his store property.
Highlights include wooden trellises that cross streams and rock formations, gravel tracks, terraced levels, landscaped miniature buildings, two koi ponds, tunnels and an overhead track. He's adding three bridges this summer.
The woodworking skills he employs in his furniture restoration and train garden construction were acquired during the shop classes he took as a student at Parkersburg High School. Charles Eaton, now retired, taught the class. Today, Eaton builds intricate projects such as a working carousel that is destined for an Applied Imagination installation.
"He started me as a woodworker. He took pride in what he did and gave me a lot of encouragement," said Stephens. "In high school, I did some furniture refinishing and moved into restoration. It's remarkable how a love for woodworking developed into this career."
Today, the furniture restoration business he started 28 years ago takes a back seat to the trains. During his six years with Applied Imagination, he's become devoted to the large trains.
"There's nothing like seeing a kid's eyes light up as he watches the trains go around and overhead," said Stephens. "That's why we do what we do."
People are welcome to stop by Stephens Outdoor Railways in Vienna for tours of his original layout when he's around, but he warned that it will be under construction this summer.
The nearest permanent railroad gardens installed by Applied Imagination are at Krohn Conservatory, in Cincinnati, and at the Columbus (Ohio) Metropolitan Library's Grant Avenue branch. The National Garden Railway Society will host a public day June 8 at its convention in Cincinnati. Visit www.ngrc2013.com for details.
Mid-Ohio Valley Model Railroad, in Parkersburg, does not keep regular hours, but it does hold open houses for the public. Email ggaugetra...@frontier.com for more information.
Stephens Outdoor Railways is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. Visit www.outdoorrailways.com or call 304-295-4403.
Reach Julie Robinson at jul...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.