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Model Railways: Scenery

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The shield of the Sport and Leisure faculty of the h2g2 University.
Model Railways:
Introduction | Glossary
Scales and Gauges | Baseboard Locations | The Trains
Themes | Layout | Scenery
Photograph of a model railway.

Once you have laid your model railway track and pinned it down, tested it and it works perfectly, you cannot help but notice that it looks rather like a lot of plastic and metal pinned onto a large cork surface. If you wish your model railway to transcend its origins and actually look realistic then there is still a lot to be done.

Before you actually do anything, you should be sure that you know what you want. Which kind of environment do you want to create? The English countryside? A large city with a contemporary railway station? A picturesque fishing village at the sea? A mining town in 19th Century USA? A remote place in Tuscany with a large villa and lots of cypresses? A high mountain with tunnels and viaducts? Everything is possible! You don't have to go for the ordinary, you can choose any exotic landscape you want.

To make your scenery look realistic, do a bit of research. What does the place you want to create really look like? What is the shape of the terrain? What do buildings there look like? What kind of vegetation is there? Search for pictures on the internet or in your holiday photo albums to get a feeling for the place. Some of this may already be relevant when you lay the tracks and prepare the board, for instance if you want something fancy like a bridge.

What you can do is of course also influenced by how much space you have. Don't try to squeeze too much into a small space. On the other hand it is even possible to build a tiny T-gauge layout into a suitcase. If you have a whole room in your cellar or attic you can of course design vast landscapes in a larger scale, with several villages and railway stations.

Draw a rough sketch of your track plan on a sheet of plain paper. You can then work out where you will want contours by drawing them as if on an Ordnance Survey map. Bear in mind that unless you live in Norfolk, the real world is very rarely flat; unless you have a board smaller than 4ft (120cm) square, at least one hill, valley or cutting1 is a must. Don't be too afraid to make them a decent size, too, as once they have been painted and scattered2, small contours will all but disappear.

Once you have decided where the contours on your layout will be, you must subdivide them into two categories - small (usually smaller than 2ins (5cm) tall) and large - because there are two different methods of hill-making.

The Small Hills are Alive with the Sound of Mod-Roc

The first method is that for making small hills, which is also suitable for making the small cliff faces forming cuttings. You will require some modelling rock known as Mod-Roc (which is basically a roll of plaster-coated bandage similar to the stuff used for making plaster casts around broken limbs3), a bowl of warm, clean water, and a pair of sharp scissors.

First, draw in pencil on your layout board the outlines of the areas which will be raised above board level. Cut the Mod-Roc into squares, with sides of the same length as the width of the roll of plaster bandage. Then, take one square, place it in the water bowl, and hold it under water for two seconds, until it has become floppy and squidgy. Then place it in the middle of your contoured section of ground. Push down the edges so that they are very flat against the baseboard, and leave the Mod-Roc thicker in the middle by moulding it with your fingers. Repeat, except by layering the bandage over the lump you have, keeping it straight and flat where necessary, and extend it sideways and vertically. Stop when you have completed your hill and it is the shape you want.

It is of course also possible to let your railway go up or down hills (and mountains). In this case you will have to construct at least part of your scenery before you lay the tracks. You have to be very careful not to create rises that are too steep, though, to make sure that your trains will move without problems.

Construct Every Mountain

The method of building a large hill is different because if it were made of solid plaster bandage it would be very heavy, and not a little wasteful. Therefore, we build a framework out of sheets of wood.

The sheets of wood should have a straight base and have the rough contours of the hill cut into the top. The framework is built by slotting the pieces together in what looks from above to be a grid. For sheets of wood in the north-south direction, cut a slot in the top every time it needs to cross over a piece in the east-west direction. In the sheets in the east-west direction, cut slots in the bottom. The slots should be half the height of the wood at the point where the slot is being cut and have width the same as the thickness of the sheets. Then the pieces of wood will fit together neatly and the base of your hill will be flat. Glue the base to your board. This means that now you can see where, how high, and what shape your large hill will be.

The next step is to cover the top of the wooden frame with a net formed of strips of masking tape, or with chicken wire that allows you to make even more detailed shapes by bending it. After this, cover the net with a layer of Mod-Roc, as per the above method, and leave it to dry thoroughly.

An easier method is to cut hills from polystyrene and then cover them with plaster or Mod-Roc. Some polystyrene can be cut with a knife quite well, but other types are extremely messy. The easiest (but most expensive) way to cut it is with a special electric polystyrene cutter that melts the material with a hot wire like a warm knife cuts through butter. Just keep your windows open while you do it.

In places where the rocks will not be covered by vegetation you will of course have to paint it to look like real stone. Depending on your landscape the rock will have different colours; just painting them plain grey will not be enough. You will have to add several layers of paint to get different shades and make it a realistic imitation of rock. Have a look at pictures and see how many different colours there actually are in a rock face, where they are darker and where they are lighter, and take time while painting.


Photograph of materials needed to make a model railway.

The next job is ballasting (putting model gravel between the sleepers of the railway to increase stability). This can be very time consuming. Even with only a small layout, ballasting can seem so boring and so slow that you may feel the layout will never be completed. Persevere. Good ballasting can really make or break a layout.

Model railway ballast can be bought in most model shops. If you opt to buy Hornby ballast, which due to cost is advisable for a beginner, then buy the 'Extra Fine' grade ballast, as their 'fine' ballast is rather coarse for 00 scale models.

Sprinkle a small amount (about a heaped tablespoon's worth) of ballast on a section on plain track (ie not points). It will form a mound between the sleepers, and probably over the rails as well. Using your finger at first, spread it out along the track, in between the rails, until the top of the ballast is about level with the tops of the sleepers. Then, using a small paintbrush, sweep any grains of ballast off the tops of the sleepers and into the gaps between them. Then, using about a level teaspoon's worth of ballast, sprinkle it on one side of the track, and using a paintbrush, sweep it between the ends of the sleepers and around the ends of them, out to the edge of the cork and so that the ballast is deep enough to just come up to the top of the sleepers. Repeat on the other side of the track. If there is double track (two tracks running parallel and close to each other) fill in the gap between the tracks with ballast too, to the same depth as the rest of the ballasting.

Continue this process, taking care to avoid getting ballast in the moving parts of points, until your entire track is ballasted. Then place a strip of masking tape about 3mm wide and 4cm long in the gap between the point blades4 and the rail that they touch, so that the tape is horizontal. Also make sure that there are no ballast particles between the main running rails and the check rails5, as any ballast here is likely to cause derailments later on. If there is any ballast here, remove it with a fine, pointed paintbrush.

Now you are ready to glue your ballast down. Prepare a mixture of PVA glue and water, in equal quantities, then add a few drops of washing up liquid, as this will help it to flow better. The mixture should be about the consistency of milk, and should look pretty similar too. If it is too runny, add more glue, and if it is not liquid enough, add more water. Then, using a funnel, pour some of the water-glue mixture into a small spray bottle, such as is used for ironing. Spray the dry ballast with a mist of the mixture, spraying parallel to the track, about a foot from the board's surface, in both directions along the track. If you spray directly at the ballast, you will probably blow it away. Continue applying glue until the ballast and track are almost completely white, and appear as if someone has just spilt milk all over them. Don't panic, as when it dries, your ballast will return to its natural colour, and will be firmly attached to the board. Leave it to dry for at least 48 hours for a really strong bond.

Once the ballast has dried, remove the masking tape from the points and check that they are still working and not glued solid. Flick them from route to route a few times. If they are stuck, first remove any bits of ballast with tweezers or a pin, and then try to remove any glue with solvent. In a worst case scenario the points will have to be replaced. Then clean the entire track using a track rubber. This is like a more abrasive version of a pencil eraser, which, when used firmly on the track, will remove dirt, glue, and almost anything short of rust6. Once you are satisfied that all of the dried-on glue has been removed, try test-running trains using the same technique as when testing the original layout. If an engine stutters or stops, turn off the power, push the engine back a few inches, and "rubber scrub" the section of track where the problem occurred. Keep doing this until all your track is clean and your engines run faultlessly.

If small engines seem to stutter on the points, this could be a problem that cannot be solved by cleaning. Standard Hornby or Peco 'insulfrog' points have a plastic section where rails meet in a V shape, which small trains may not be able to cope with. You can also buy special 'electrofrog' points, which do not have this feature. However, electrofrog points are more complicated to wire up.

It's Electrifying!

If you have been following the above instructions, you should by now have a board with some ballasted track (hopefully with at least one electrical connection to the controller) and some bright white contours with grey patches. The next thing to be done, after cleaning the track again7, is to decide, depending on your design, whether you want working signals. Working signals add another layer of realism to a layout, but require more work.

Giving Off Signals

Which type of signals to use depends on the type of trains you have, and what country or time period your model railway is set in.

  • If it is a modern setting, you will most likely want mainly colour light signals. These look a little like traffic lights, only with the lights in a different order. You may possibly want one or two semaphores, which are the signals with large arms which move up and down.

  • If it is set in the steam period, you will want mainly semaphores, though which type of semaphores you will need depends on what country, area or region you are modelling.

    • For instance, if you are modelling a Great Western Railway layout, you will want lower quadrant8 semaphores, which in 00 scale can be built from Ratio kits. They can be made either operational or not, according to preference (and/or skill).

    • Alternatively, if you are modelling Southern Railway, London North Eastern Railway or London Midland and Scottish Railway layouts, you will want upper quadrant9 semaphores. There are Hornby models, or, for a better scale appearance (although obviously more delicate) you could use Ratio kits, which can be made operational.

    • Elsewhere, use the local standard.

Ratio signal kits are made to work by a simple system of springs and strings under the baseboard, with a miniature lever which can be placed near the controller position. The Hornby signals can also be remotely controlled, but this requires some work - don't forget to double-check the compatibility of signals and motors before you buy and install them.

Models of colour light signals are available, both operational and not, from many companies, including in both kit and pre-built form. If you require working colour light signals, you will need a power supply. This is most often 12V DC or 16V DC uncontrolled (ie not affected by the controller's track output), which can be obtained from most major model railway suppliers. This power supply can also be used for other proprietary electrically-powered accessories, such as building lighting, turntables and so on. You will also need some form of switches. Two-aspect (two light) signals are the easiest to wire, requiring only a double-pole single-throw switch to operate them. Wiring diagrams for the signals almost always come with the signal, but if not they can be found on the internet with a quick search.

Building Buildings

Now it is time to select the buildings you will use and where you will install them on the layout. What you choose, of course, depends on the landscape you have built. An alpine farmhouse will not fit into your Wild West railway and vice-versa. You can buy your buildings in a shop for model railway supplies. Some model railway buildings are pre-built and prepainted, while others are kits to be built out of plastic, card or plaster. Building kits are available containing a set of rubber moulds. Using these moulds you can make a plaster cast section of brick, stonework or planking walls, plus there are door and window moulds and slate and tile roof moulds. These sections fit together, and with skill and a lot of fiddling you can make a vast range of buildings.

Sometimes, however, the only way to get a building that fits is to build it yourself, whether by 'kit-bashing'10 or by 'scratch-building'11. Again, take inspiration from pictures and try to find the most important features of houses in the environment you want to build. You can of course copy the look of real houses from photos. Also bear in mind how they are situated in the landscape.

To build your houses you can use various materials like thin wood sheets or strong cardboard. You can also buy textured sheets of roof tiles and other surfaces, which will make your buildings look more realistic. It will take a lot of time and some skill to do this if you need several buildings, but in the end it will pay off and you can be sure that your railway is unique and authentic.

When your buildings are finished put them on your board and have a critical look to see if they seem right. Change their position until you are happy and then glue them on to the surface. If you want some special effects, you can drill little holes into your baseboard where the buildings are placed and illuminate the windows with a network of wires and little lamps. This way you can have a nice impression of a village at night.


By now, you probably think that your board looks a little silly with bright white hills, buildings placed on it and some railway track and signals. This is resolved by applying scatter. Scatter is normally a fine coloured powder of some sort, which with a little ingenuity can represent grass, gravel, sand, cinders on a path, mud, or various other types of ground cover and foliage.

First, before applying scatter, paint any white plaster bandage contoured areas brown or green, to prevent the harsh white colour showing through. Once this has been done, anywhere else where there will be grass can be painted a muddy brown if desired, being careful to avoid getting paint on buildings or trackwork - you can of course also add the paint before you glue the buildings to the board to avoid accidents. You should put your buildings in place before you actually start scattering, though.

Once the paint has dried, scatter can be applied as desired. As an example, for grass scatter, first apply slightly diluted PVA glue to a small area where a grass effect is required. Then, while the glue is still wet, sprinkle a little green scatter onto the middle of the glue patch and spread it around with something straight, such as a paintbrush handle, but not quite spreading it to the edge of the patch. Then, apply more diluted PVA next to the area where you have just applied scatter, overlapping slightly so as not to leave a gap between the two areas. If necessary, apply more scatter, and spread it so that there is a thin layer of scatter atop the glue as before. Continue this process until the desired area has been scattered. Leave overnight, or preferably two nights, to dry, and then repeat, to build up the thickness and opacity of the scatter layer to the desired level.

Different effects can be achieved by mixing scatter colours in various areas, such as a few small patches of yellow mixed in with the green in grassy areas to break up the block of colour. This will still not make your surface look like real grass, but it is a start.

Added Extras

Many items are available that make your layout look more realistic. Some of them you can buy, others you can build yourself. Your houses, for instance, may need something more than just the buildings: garden fences can be added, plus flower beds, garden sheds and anything else people may need. Not everything has to look new and clean, either; a used look gives more realism to the scene. A picturesque overgrown house at the end of a street, an old factory or the ruins of a building can be very interesting locations.

Of course your railway also needs trees. Just like houses, you can buy trees in any shop selling model railway supplies. Many manufacturers produce model trees, which range widely in terms of price and realism. The easiest model trees to find are often hardly the most realistic of trees, having the appearance of a toilet brush painted green. There are other types available from model shops, some of which are quite good. The best model trees are prohibitively expensive for most people who require more than about three trees - they are made of an etched brass frame shaped to represent branches, coated with solder to build up trunk thickness, and finally coated with glue and flocked with various grades of scatter. The reason for the extreme price is the fact that all of this work is done by hand.

You can also build trees yourself. To do this you will now have to leave your house and go outside. You can use twigs of bushes with tiny leaves (you will have to fix the leaves on, for instance with hairspray). Alternatively, you could use any small twigs with several forks that look like mini leafless trees. Hot glue can be used to attach lichen, which can be bought in small bags. Be sure that your trees are not too small in scale as they are much taller than many people may think.

Bushes can also be made from lichen, and different types of long grass and model flowers are available in shops to make your scatter grass look more realistic, especially in larger scales. If you add enough of them your whole scenery will soon look quite naturalistic. Don't forget to add plants around houses and streets. You can even plant fields of flowers or vegetables; just remember that they need soil instead of grass on the ground.

A more difficult thing is to add water to your scenery. Ponds, rivers or the sea are certainly a nice thing to have in your landscape, but making them look good takes skill. Still water is easiest and can be made of a simple plastic sheet with rims covered by plants. There are also different kinds of liquid water available, which are poured into the beds of rivers and ponds or serve as waterfalls. The liquid will solidify after a while and is ductile to allow you to shape waves and ripples. You can also put in plants, rocks and boats.

It is possible to get a wide variety of street furniture, people, animals, vehicles etc, all of which transform your layout into a hand-crafted model. With scenery, the first thing to remember is to be consistent. Always keep your setting and historic period in mind and don't use items that don't belong there - unless you have good reason to do so, for instance as a hidden joke.

Making a Scene

Remember you can do lots of things with scenery. You can buy plastic scenery, build it yourself, get all kinds of funny little plastic people, even have night/day cycles with light and illuminated windows and street lamps. Experiment and let your imagination be your only limit!

1Where the track cuts through steep terrain to maintain a smoother gradient.2Covered with coloured powder to represent vegetation.3Although much more messy, and hence more fun.4The technical term for the thin section of rail whose position can be changed to change the selected route on a set of points. They are held the correct distance apart by a tiebar.5The short sections of [ shaped rail next to the normal or 'running' rail, which serve to prevent, or reduce the effects of derailments on the points.6Rust is not a problem unless your set is over 25 years old, as modern model railway track is made of nickel silver - older track was made of steel.7It may be boring, but it is easier to do it little and frequently than to attack the whole track with a track rubber every six months.8This means that the arm is horizontal to indicate 'stop', and lowered 45 degrees to indicate 'all clear'.9This means that the arm is horizontal to indicate 'stop', and raised 45 degrees to indicate 'all clear'.10Buying a kit and altering it to suit.11This means making the entire building out of card, paper and/or plastic without a kit.

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