Introduction to model railways/Scenery
This page will introduce the various key aspects of making your model railway come alive....
Hit YouTube for some how-to videos for each topic area.
Weathering is the term used to make your models lose their brand new plasticky look , and replicate the natural process where we get dirt, rust and other colours that over time change the appearance of a building, locomotive or carriage.
Essentials to start with are:-
1. If using brushes, make sure they are extremely dry - you build up very small subtle layers of (different shades) of paint. An alternative to dry brush is air brush - a whole different technique (and cost)
2. Weathering powders are also available - brush or rub these on. Brush off surplus - then at the end a light spray of Matt enamel will fix the colours in place.
3. Don’t try to make a guess where to apply the weathering. Look at pictures or real-life items. Where are the rust streaks? Don’t forget the track. Real rails are rusty at the sides, and are only shiny on the top surface. Ballast in sidings and maintenance areas will be oily and grimy compared with main line ballast which is much cleaner. Where are the damp patches? Where is the moss and other vegetation growing? Observe closely and then start to replicate using the techniques outlined above....
Discussion on the different types and building techniques
various options are available to make buildings for the layout. In order of difficulty...
- Resin cast, pre-painted and weathered. These are quite costly compared to other techniques, but give an “instant” result.
- Plastic moulded, unpainted. Some work required to make these look right, but you have the advantage of choosing your own colour schemes to match other buildings in your miniature world.
- plastic kits. These can be single colour, or pre coloured; a number of companies make these kits. In either case, these kits will always look “plasticky” unless painted . Making plastic kits requires the correct glue , and kits can be modified to make them look different from “stock”. This is known as “kitbashing”
- purchased card model kits. Available in the main popular scales for UK modellers, these provide a high quality appearance, however are somewhat limited in finish (red brick or stone) although the range is expanding all the time. These models , especially the newer designed range, have very clear instructions and provide a relatively quick way to build a city or town. These are also very suitable for kitbashing.
- downloadable paper models. A number of websites provide a range of printable models, some with a limited number of free models so you can practice the techniques used. The paper sheets are stuck to card, and can produce a relatively quick and inexpensive urban or rural environment. Card models are also ideal for kitbashing and making more unique scenic items for your specific model. A good range of UK based models is available from Scalescenes.
- scratchbuilding. This uses printed paper (bricks, stones, paving etc) or other household items in true “Blue Peter” style to make any design of building you like. This provides a truly bespoke feel for your world, whereas some of the other techniques may always look “off the shelf”.
There's a good article in Model Rail (March 2019 edition) on streets and pavement and road effects.
Often a back scene will help but this will depend on individual choice.
Also remember roads and pavements are not uniform in colour or texture, and on the whole roads are not black.
Think about men digging up the road and the patches of different tarmac, not forgetting it will often cut into the pavement. Then you can patch the pavement with tarmac or put broken slabs where heavyweight vehicles have parked on the kerb.
Remember too the dirt and some weeds that grow in the gutter especially near grates and manholes.
Probably a mixture of dark grey and some cream matt emulsion may give a good colour road effect, and also lightly sanded with fine grit will take away the cardboard look.
You can use fine nib pens, for example Pilot who make some cheap ones for road markings and pavement lines. Also you can leave tyre marks with watercolor dark grey pencils.
Take a good look at your local roads, take some images on your camera phone as reference as this will help you to get even more accurate details. There is such a lot of small details that you may then decide to include, and details are what bring the layout alive.
Adding different heights to your miniature world is essential if you want to move from train set to model railway.
There are a number of ways to achieve this, each with advantages and disadvantages.
It’s good practice to build in different elevation trackbeds at the baseboard construction phase. If you can plan that far ahead!
For adding different elevations later, you can build and fix “mini-boards “ onto the existing base. This will use scraps and offcuts from the larger carpentry work. The important bit if this is for a track is to ensure there are no sudden changes in elevation (e.g. steps in the plywood), and that gradient is kept to around 2-3%.
Steep transitions between different heights can be brick retaining walls, available as kits, or use downloaded brick/stone effect paper, or tree bark. Tree bark can be purchased from model shops (eg Woodland Scenics products) , but a nature ramble might let you find some of your own. Tree bark, when touched up and blended into your scene with foliage looks very convincing.
Woodland Scenics also make a range of moulds which, when used with plaster of paris, can create a wide range of rock and stone effects.
If you are only concerned with creating scenic hills there are a number of options:-
- Pre-built tunnel and hill sections. These provide a quick and easy way to add relief, but are, essentially, toy-like. It is always going to be better to build your own using one or more of the techniques below.
- Carve insulation foam to shape and cover with plaster cloth or similar. Modern closed-cell insulation board can be obtained from hardware stores or builders merchants. This can be carved with a hot-wire tool , electric bread knife or regular knife. Some people will even construct their whole layout from this material. Small pieces can be glued together, and the whole finished with plaster cloth, static grass etc. to make your finished scenery. An alternative is polystyrene block, as found in packaging - but this is extremely messy to work with and is not recommended. However the polystyrene “peanuts” can form nice small hills when covered with plaster cloth
- Build a lightweight substructure from wire-mesh, strips of card, foam off cuts etc. and cover with plaster cloth or similar. Cut out longish strips of card and interweave - as if making a lattice basket. Staple or hot glue these to the baseboard and cover with plaster cloth. Wire mesh has the added benefit of being quite strong, and so is suited to locations where you perhaps plan to place something later that is slightly heavier than normal, or for forming self-supporting tunnels. But other than in these applications, it is probably best to avoid it. Wire mesh (“chicken wire”) is not easy to work with.
- We have mentioned plaster-cloth a few times. This is the stuff the nurses use to make a plaster cast, and is obtainable on-line, Hobbycraft or model shops etc. Cut off a short length, sit in water for about a minute, then smooth it over your substrate. It does leave a surface with small 1mm holes, so it is best to use several layers, or apply a layer of plaster later. If using a plaster mix, you can pre-colour this to avoid annoying white patches showing through your paint and/or grass layer. A cheap alternative to plaster cloth is to make a mix of relatively dilute polyfiller or equivalent, and dip kitchen towel in-lieu of plaster cloth. Not as easy to work with when wet, but when dry is pretty robust. Again, you can add a paint to the mix to make it self coloured. Plaster-based scenery is quick and easy and usually ready to paint, add trees etc. within 24 hours.
Having built your baseboard, and have some track laid, you will soon get fed up with flat sections of bare board. Covering this with trees or buildings is an option, but expensive and time consuming. A quick option is to make these areas into grass - perhaps to become fields, or to form the basis of future industrial, commercial or residential use.
There are a number of ways to create a grass effect - with varying degree of realism.
1. Quickest is to use a purchased grass mat. These come in range of colours, and are simply stuck down onto your board. At a later date some water and a blunt knife will allow you to scrape away the flock to make paths, roads or building plots. Generally this material is heat sensitive, so if you place some scrap material beneath the mat before sticking, and then use a hair drier, you can create some elevation on the board. Some degree of height variation in the scenery is always going to look better than a purely flat board.
2. Sawdust. This is a traditional medium, and generally we create quite a lot of it, so why not use it. You can mix various grades of sawdust with water based paint, dry-out this mixture in a low heat oven or microwave (approval from your local domestic authorities may be required!) and you can create your own scatter material in different colours and sizes. Paint your board with some PVA glue, sprinkle as required and there you go!
3. Electrostatic grass. This is generally considered the “go-to” method for applying grass. It requires a special applicator, and the purchase of grass flock in various lengths and colours. The applicators cost anything from £10 to £80, and consist of a metal mesh and a power supply to apply a charge to the mesh. As the device is moved up and down to shake the flock through the mesh, the individual strands of “grass” receive a “+” and “-“ charge. When they reach the board, they stick to the PVA/water mixture, and one end of the grass is attracted to the wire mesh, hence making it stand up. Using different lengths and different colours over the same area can result in a very realistic effect.
4. Special grasses. Tall reeds, clumps of grass in an otherwise tightly mowed field can be modelled a number of ways. Manufacturers produce various patches and clumps of grass, or you can make your own using small clumps cut to your desired length from an old paint brush or similar. Again, each clump can be hand attached using a small amount of PVA.
As with other aspects of the hobby, there are different tree options - these are listed below in order of cost - but not necessarily in realism.
1. Pre-made trees of various types and sizes by a number of manufacturers - for example Noche. This will give you a quick and effective foliage , but at considerable cost.
2. You can buy plastic tree-trunks and branches, to which you add your own colours and types of flock foliage. The Wargame market has some good suppliers of this type of material. This technique gives you trees that look more or less how you decide, in a range of sizes and colours that match across your model.
3. Sea-foam. This is a natural product, supplied in boxes with a range of colours. You can make a variety of shapes and sizes of trees, to which you can add your own flock (foliage), if required.
4. Use rubberised horse hair, diluted PVA and scatter.
Just pull out as much of the hair. as you want, then tease to the shape you want, trim any bits off you don't want. Put your scatter in a big plastic disposable cup. Soak the horse hair in a 50/50 diluted PVA in a trigger spray bottle. Drop it into the cup and jiggle it around in the scatter, remove and let dry.
5. Hand built trees. Typically produced by winding strands of wire together and then teasing-out into branches. Apply some paint, possibly some filler, and flock foliage, and you can make any tree you like. You can create individual bespoke trees - if you have the time!
6. Many garden plants, as used for dry flower arranging can be used to make trees, probably in addition to leaf foliage flock.
Railways carry people between towns, to go to work, visit family, go shopping etc.
But take a look at your model railway- how many people are waiting at the station, walking in the fields and streets or sitting in the passenger coaches? Not many, probably.
Adding figures gives your miniature world a population. There are a number of ways of doing this, all involving cost, or time, or both!
The cheapest option is to buy bulk packs of various figures on-line. These will almost always need to be painted, and this is quite an effort to get right, especially for people who are going to be very visible in your scenes. Half people are also available to go into your passenger stock or road vehicles.
A number of manufacturers make pre-painted figures as individuals or in sets (police, road worker, Railway gang, passengers etc.). Some of these can be very realistic, but are expensive. Keep an eye on eBay, or perhaps go to your local model railway shows to pick up a used bargain or two.
3D printing is proving to be a bit of a game changer in the modelling world, and there are a number of small suppliers doing figures across a range of topics and themes. You can even have yourself scanned and printed in miniature to rule over your new world...
In a similar way to people, adding lights to your model will give it a whole new and attractive feature, for minimal cost.
Traditionally, small incandescent lamps called Grain of Wheat (GoW) were used, in various colours. These are powered using your 12v auxiliary output, or better, a spare 12v variable supply. GoW run pretty hot when dropping the full 12v, so adding a variable supply will allow you to run them cooler and extend their life. They can be run in series, so the 12v will get split evenly across all the bulbs in the series. You can experiment to achieve the desired level of brightness. Being simple bits of wire that emit light, they do not care which way round they get wired. Unlike LEDs!
You can buy some GoW lamps pre-built into scale street lights, and some premade buildings have lights fitted. If you are making kit buildings, try adding lights at the build stage. (See the following section on fitting lights)
LEDs are increasingly popular, and for good reason. They are dirt cheap, and come in a range of sizes and colours. You can get them extremely small at around 0.5mm, up to 4mm or larger. LEDs run cold, but are polarity sensitive, so they DO care which way around they are fitted into your circuit. As with GoW, you can buy pre-made lamps for stations, car parks, roads etc using LEDs.
An LED requires a resistor to be fitted to limit the amount of current. Typically, if you want to run one LED off your 12v supply, solder a resistor of about 1k ohms to one of the legs. The LED will drop the approximately ~3v it needs, the rest will be dropped across the resistor. Series resistors (in-line) of 2700 ohms, 3300 ohms will dim the LED but note They need to be half watt resistors.
Alternatively, wire 4 LEDs in series, and each will drop around 3v and work correctly. (Assuming a 12v supply)
Do a search online for led resistor calculator. There are lots to choose from. You need the forward voltage and the mA figure and your input voltage. The calculator will tell you the minimum size resistor needed for each led. The best option is to buy a selection of resistors from say 100r up to 4k. That will give you room to change them to get the brightness you want. Put one resistor per LED then you can change the brightness of each LED in each room if required. There is a help page here https://www.railwayscenics.com/our_leds.php gives more details on LED technology.
LED dimmers are available.
You could also try experimenting with the colour of led you are using. Bright white might be ok for some modern era applications but white and some yellows can give a better rendition for earlier times. It’s a bit like putting bright whites in a Gresley suburban coach, the result is the equivalent of having todays LED lighting in a 100 year old coach whereas a yellow will give a more 'old light bulb look'. If you are using individual LEDs either put an additional resistor in series, up the value of the resistor or find a source of a lower voltage. Without a resistor LEDs work in the range 2.5 to 3.5 volts (different colours have different forward voltages) and you will blow the LED. If you spent hours fiddling to get it fitted , this is annoying!
For general lighting effects inside buildings, you could perhaps use one of those redundant Christmas light sets? Once you start, you will find myriad ways to make your world glow!
Fitting the lights
Assuming you have figured out which light to use, you have the correct colour, resistor and tested it works, you now need to fit the light into your model.
First step, as in the rest of the hobby, is planning! It’s no good spending hours building your model, only to then cut it apart to fit the LED and wires. Which room needs the light? Where will the wires go? Where is the likely place for light-bleed?
Light bleed refers to light escaping through cracks in the model, or even directly through thin sections of plastic, which creates an aura around the light that's been fitted.
It helps if you use a matt black acrylic paint in areas that cannot be seen inside buildings and also loco bodies if fitting lights. This can help reduce “light bleed” which can happen with some plastics.
To avoid light bleed at joins in model buildings, a number of techniques can be used, such as copper tape, electrical tape or blue-tac. A good trick is to use small magnets to hold the roofs on instead of glue which makes service issues simple; this is a bit more time consuming to eliminate light leakage (bleed) but well worth it!
Insulation tape can also be used to hold down LEDs, or partially cover led with the tape to reduce light levels.
Another technique is to use 12V LED strips which have an adhesive back, so can be stuck inside the buildings, the wires then poke through a pre-drilled hole in the baseboard and then soldered to a circuit of copper tape, connected to a variable voltage transformer.
Track underlay and ballasting
You will need some or all of the following tools and equipment:
- Bag(s) of ballast
- Eye type dropper or syringe
- PVA or preferably latex based glue (Copydex or similar)
- Fine mist spray bottle
- Assortment of small paint brushes or old toothbrushes
- IPA/Meths/Washing up liquid
- Ballast applicator
Many modellers consider ballasting a chore, but one that is necessary to get the right look. Ballast for railway modellers comes in many sizes and colours. You will need to choose the size dependant on the scale of your model railway, and the colour because of what was used at the location of your railway. Size is really important as over or under size ballast just looks wrong. Colour is not as important as variations occurred around the country dependant on what local stone was available. It is possible to combine two colours to create the effect you require, but mixing the materials must be done accurately to allow you to combine the two colours again should you require more material.
Another important aspect is the profile of the track bed. Typically the track sits a couple of feet above grade, on a bed of ballast. In the model world, we create the ballast profile by sitting the track onto a strip of cork, cut to the correct width and a sloped edge. Other suitable thickness materials can be used.
Old / disused lines may not need shoulders but can be ballasted straight to grade
If your baseboard is covered with insulation boards (as sold in hardware stores to go beneath laminate flooring), and the correct glue is used (see below) a reasonable amount of sound damping can be achieved. On the other hand, if there is no sub-track bed, and PVA is used, the ballast provides a very effective sound-couple to the baseboard which can act as a sound board!
If you are going to paint/weather your rails, its best to do this before applying ballast.
Once you have chosen the material you are going to use for ballasting its time to start laying the material. Ballasting can take a long time, but if done correctly will last for years and will enhance any model railway layout. Badly laid ballast will spoil any layout, and will be hard to remove once applied.
Along either side of your track, draw a line using a pencil to define the edge of the ballast. Dont worry if the line is not straight, as you will be bringing your other scenic material up to this ballast edge. Look at photos of your desired location to find how wide the ballast bed should be. A roughly blended edge will look more natural that a perfectly defined edge. A ballast applicator can be used which will lay the ballast at approximately the correct depth and width.
Sprinkle or apply a layer of your chosen ballast and carefully arrange it between the sleepers, using the brushes, and up to the edge line until you are happy with the results. An old toothbrush is ideal for this in that it was hard enough to move the ballast but not too hard as to dislodge it. Carefully press the ballast down between the sleepers. It is easier to do short lengths at a time rather than do a whole long length in one attempt. On points or crossing make sure that the ballast does not interfere with the operation of the points. One way to do this is to place 1mm rubber strips, between the blades and the rails, with some similar strips on the inside of the blades, and a strip over the joining brace, then ballast is poured in the centre space, and then glued. Tweezers and craft knife out the rubber strips, before rubbing the set of points over with a track rubber.
Once you are happy with the look and position of the ballast you need to carefully and lightly spray the ballast with water to which you have added a small drop of washing up liquid or alcohol. This addition breaks down the surface tension of the water and allows it to flow better and soak into the ballast. Do not water-log the ballast and be careful not to wash the small granules away.
Once wet, apply a 50-50mix of water and PVA adhesive, again with a small drop of washing up liquid using the eye dropper to the ballast. You should be able to watch the adhesive mix flow and soak into the ballast. Allow to soak in. Capillary action will draw the glue through the ballast so be patient and give it time to work its way in. Again do not add too much. Gauging how much to add will come with experience. If you do not add enough the ballast will crumble and not stick. If you add too much it will wash away. You can always add more where required.
ALTERNATIVE GLUE METHOD An alternative to the above wet-glue method is to mix the ballast dry with a dry powder glue - this is available from Delux Scenics, or you can use Cascamite. You apply the dry mix as above, and then spray as above. This method can save some time and if done well can achieve the same results. Whichever method is chosen you have to leave your big soggy mess to dry thoroughly. This can take some time, and should not be rushed. Do not run any locos on the track as the track power or any DCC signal may be affected by the water in the ballast.
Once everything is dry, you should be able to remove any excess ballast and to add more if required to places where it has not set properly. You will have small grains of ballast where they should not be, and will have glue on your track. Small bits of ballast can be carefully removed with a scalpel blade, but take care. PVA glue on your track can also be removed carefully using a knife blade. The glue does not really stick to the metal track, but will to areas that have been weathered and painted. Be extra vigilant around point blades for small bits of ballast and glue as these will affect the good running of your model.
Finally, the ballast and sleepers can be weathered to achieve truly lifelike results. For the best weathering effects, mix together a fine wash of mid-brown/grey acrylic colour and apply, followed by a dry brush with white for that finishing touch. The ballast will look better once the surrounding scenery is brought up to meet the ballast.
Once all ballasting is completed test the track again, cleaning where required.