Scenery & Structures

Scenery & Structures

There are many subjects we feel you should know about scenery & structures that you will need to consider when building your first model railroad, many of the basics are covered here.

DISCLAIMER: The article that follows will include brand names as a reference only. Neither we who are writing these pages nor the N.M.R.A. intend for these brand names to be a recommendation on our parts. In some cases, the manufacturer may no longer be in business or may not be manufacturing these particular products. We leave recommendations to the owners of your local hobby shops or your friends who are model railroaders.

NOTE: The following is Part 3 of a series of articles written by Roger Hensley and published in Model Railroad Craftsman magazine in 1985 on Beginning Model Railroading. The article is reproduced here with the permission of both the Author and the Publisher and has only been edited slightly.

For those who have been following this series on the basics of model railroading, this part is the kicker - the one that ties it all together. Hopefully during this series what began as a train set is now well on its way to being a model railroad. Now we'll take a look at some of the things that help make those train models come alive, giving them something to do and a place to go. It is time to consider structures and scenery

Trains form only a small part of the world around us. A railroad is a narrow ribbon of twin steel running between cities, industries and yards. There is a countryside along that ribbon, one with rural land, small towns and medium and large cities that are linked by a transportation system, the railroad. This network is there to move goods and people. That is why the trains exist, and providing realistic scenery and buildings will help give them the appearance and purposes of real life.

Like the prototypes, model structures come in many shapes and sizes and can be built out of greatly differing materials. There are all kinds of railroad buildings, like shacks and sheds, depots and towers, and engine and car shops and servicing buildings. There are farms, and in the towns and cities, homes and industries. The selection of buildings that can be used is limited only by one's imagination and how they fit in with the layout's theme.

The typical model railroader builds most of the structures on his layout from kits. There's good reason for this - the variety of structure kits available in HO (and N) is almost unbelievable. Look at a Walthers or Con-Cor catalog if you question this, then look at the shelves of your hobby shop. While the shops can't carry everything, what is there is likely to be impressive, and, if the kits aren't enough, wood, windows and parts are made for scratch building.

By far the most common material used in buildings is plastic. There are a great number of good plastic buildings on the market that can be built exactly as they come from the box and that make nice additions to a layout. If you wish to have something different, a little paint can do wonders to change the look of a straight-from-the-box kit. Leaving off some details, or changing, adding or moving others can be done, too, to create something that fits your layout, needs or tastes better. You can also combine parts of many kits or cut them up and use the pieces as raw material for making a building of your own design or to come close to a favorite prototype structure; the phrase 'kitbashing' is used to describe such modeling. The flexibility in building structures and scenery makes them really enjoyable modeling activities.

There are wood kits available, as well as kits molded in Hydrocal®, which is a hard plaster, cast polyester resin and cardstock. Kits with metal panels that need to be cemented with cyanoacrylate cement or soldered are made, and you can always build from scratch with the doors and windows and other details available in white metal and plastic. Extra doors and windows can be added to most kits easily and they can also be closed off by filling them in, just as you see on many older buildings near the tracks. What you use will be what you are most comfortable with. I've been using cardstock for a number of the structures I've built from scratch lately.

Time and patience we the keys to having a model come out the way you expect. I have a close friend who only uses plastic buildings. He's afraid he'll ruin other types of buildings. There is nothing wrong with this at all, and he has a railroad that looks good. He does have one kit that uses cardstock, wood and metal that is partially done. It looks good, but he may never finish it because he just doesn't like working with cardstock. The message is simple: work with materials that you like and don't think you have to scratchbuild everything. As an example, just about every issue of Railroad Model Craftsman, and many of the other modeling magazines, has an article about scratchbuilding or kitbashing some kind of structure. Most are quite manageable for modelers with just a little building experience; many are designed to be good first projects. Even if you are not intending to build the model that is the subject of the article, read it through to pick up new modeling techniques.

There is one kit line that I would like to mention, because many modelers might pass them up because they are metal and they might think they will be "too hard." Woodland Scenics makes small buildings, scenes and vehicles from white metal. (There are other companies with white metal kits for cars and trucks, too, like Walker, Lee Town, Ivers and Wheel Works, to name a few.) They make nice additions to any layout, so don't be afraid of them. You can use cyanoacrylate cement, which model railroaders sometimes call "ACC" (though almost no one else does! It's more commonly called 'Super Glue'), to assemble them. Vehicles add to the total effect of the scenery and structures; since they are such a normal part of what we see in real life, a layout looks odd without them, even though it might be hard to figure out why at first.

Most of the plastic buildings look better if you give them a coat of flat over-spray like Testors' Dullcote, which is available in a aerosol spray can. Their appearance is frequently improved even more if they are repainted, but this is not always practical without some sort of airbrush for spraying. Airbrushes are not usually found in the toolboxes of modelers who have been in the hobby for a short time, and many of the aerosol cans put out too heavy a spray to do a fine finishing job. Brushing on plastic works, but is not always easy to do well. Stick to the flat overspray for now; you can always go back and repaint a building later. One thing, though, that can be done at any stage is weathering.

I like to weather my buildings to age them. This brings them closer to the image that I see in the buildings around me. The world is hard on buildings and vehicles and seldom do you see a bright, shiny, building. Most show signs of the weather working on them, with some dirt and soot on some of the surfaces. Even new aluminum and galvanized metal oxidizes with a relatively flat surface sheen quite quickly. Rust, dirt and discoloration from the elements and environment can be simulated with a variety of paints applied in thinned-out washes. Flat water-based acrylics, like Polly S or the MRC/Tamiya paints, are especially useful. They do not have solvents that might attack plastic or the paint on the model, and the weathering effects can be washed or wiped off be fore the paint dries if it doesn't look good. Look at real buildings to get some ideas on where and how dirt and fading affect structures. Sometimes mud is splashed up and sometimes dirt is washed down. Soot tends to build up on smokestacks and over tunnel portals and enginehouse doors like a dusting. The thing to remember is to work most weathering vertically on walls, since that is how rain washes dirt. Just follow the prototype.

Thin washes are not the only method of aging a building, of course. Dry powder pigments and chalk dust (made by scraping artist's pastels with a knife) may be applied with a brush to models and are especially effective on structures, since they are not likely to be handled very much. Articles on weathering appear in the modeling magazines regularly and may be found by looking under 'Painting, lettering and weathering" in various magazine's annual index like the one in the N.M.R.A. Bulletin. One tip for using washes is in order: to break the surface tension and make the acrylic washes flow better, add a very small drop of liquid dish detergent to the water. And, don't forget to look at your equipment while your weathering supplies are out; locomotives and cars do get dirty!

Structures, cars and people are all part of the scene that you are creating, and so, of course, is the scenery itself. Dramatic mountains are admired by most people, and they appear in both the Rockies and Appalachian form on a lot of layouts. We tend to model what we see or know best, and the materials that can be used are almost as varied as the people using them and the places modeled. I have used Hydrocal® and paper towels for hills, the hard shell scenery method which is still quite popular today and broken ceiling tile for layered rock effects. I have never used plaster and screen wire for scenery, as I felt it was too heavy and brittle. Many modelers prefer it, however.

Hard shell scenery is a method which uses a light framework of cardboard strips covered with newspapers and then covered with Hydrocal®-soaked paper towels to form a shell over the framework. The screen wire system uses screen wire shaped to hill contours with scraps of lumber supporting it, then covered with plaster. Plaster soaked towels are sometimes used. For hard shell, the framework is stapled to the benchwork where it touches and the strips can be stapled where they cross. If you don't like the scenery after the first layer of Hydrocl1®-soaked towels is on, take a hammer, knock it out and redo it. I use a plaster coating over the hard shell, painted on with a paint brush before I color the ground. Before this overcoat goes on, I dampen the shell by spraying it with water to insure that the new plaster will adhere to the old. Cured plaster will draw the water out of the new coat and affect its setting and strength.

Plaster scenery can be colored with dry pigments mixed into the plaster or thinned paint washes. Washes of clothing dyes were popular once, but the salts in them were reported to have a corrosive effect on rails and spikes and you hear less about their use today. Acrylic paints are widely available now and have supplanted the dye's use. The usual procedure is to make a thinned wash of one or two colors, plus black, and apply them with squeeze handle spray bottles. A drop of dish washing detergent will make the water 'wetter,' just as before and make it flow better. The medium that I like best for surface coloring is hobby acrylic paint, which, in certain brands, comes in a jar and is relatively thick. I thin it and mix it to achieve the effect I want, and that includes mixing the color right on the surface in most cases. This is less messy than using the diluted-color sprays and allows me to control the colors better.

Once the basic soil colors are done, grasses and weeds may be added. Ground foam is the most popular way of doing this today. It gives texture to the ground and is applied by either painting the plaster with diluted white glue and sprinkling the foam over it or by applying the foam first, then misting it with diluted white glue. Many modelers also use fine sifted soil for roads and ground and decomposed rock (typically granite found out West) for loose rock at the base of cliffs. Exposed rock cuts can be modeled by using plaster in rubber molds, by carving, or with broken pieces of ceiling tile, depending upon what they are supposed to look like. Some people like carving, while others feel using the molds produces better results. Books and articles about scenery have detailed instructions about the molds and your bobby shop should be able to help, too.

There are alternatives to the plaster. Styrofoam® board and beaded foam board are sometimes used. They have the advantage of light weight, but be careful of the dust if you try to sand it to shape. With today's materials, you can literally make Mountains in Minutes®, which just happens to be the name of a manufacturer that makes an expanded urethane foam rock casting system. Foam scenery costs a little more than plaster and it will take a little longer to color it.

Ready-made trees, kit trees and supplies for making both deciduous and coniferous trees can be purchased, and modelers are always searching for weeds for tree trunks and foliage. A little ground foam grass material, some dyed polyester fiber and some spray glue can be the start of a tree, too. Lichen (pronounced "like-en") is another readily available material that, with a little work, makes good trees and bushes. Your imagination is really your only limit to having almost breathtaking scenery whether you model the Midwest plains and hills or the mountains of the East or West. It's not how much money you spend but what you do with it that counts.

Now, I've said all that so I can say this: a model railroad can easily be a place where the structures, scenery and track all combine to complement each other. You can have a working railroad with realistic scenery that becomes one unit to be enjoyed, operated and displayed so that those who see it will see it as a miniature world. It does take some planning and observation of the real world to make it work, but it can leave you with a sense of satisfaction that you can get from no other hobby. From the backdrop to the smallest up-front detail to watching the train roll by you can have a living model of what you have seen, remember, or just wish to be. You don't have to have a tremendous knowledge of real railroads - that can and will come later as you need it. After all, it is your world and will operate by your rules if you take the time and care to build well.

Photo Credit:
Plaster Mountain Photo courtesy of the Kalmbach Memorial Library.
All other photos by Roger Hensley

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Page last updated December 2, 2014