How to build, maintain and operate a model railroad. The information in these pages takes a more in-depth look at each topic. With each of these howtos, I hope to present a wide overview of the topic, getting into as much detail as necessary to show all the steps to perform the task described.

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Research and planning

If you're going to build a model railroad, you need to know what you're going to do and what the real thing does in the first place.

Model scale comparison

There is a plethora of different model building scales out there, and if you like scratchbuilding, you're not limited to those that have kits available. Here's a quick roundup of the most popular scales in model railroading and how they compare to other model building hobbies.

The basic scales

Scale Ratio Track gauge
Common curve radii
Z 1:220 0.257
7 11/16
8 11/16
the smallest commonly available scale
N 1:160 0.353
currently the second-most popular scale
1:144 some toys (like the old Micro Machines) and airplane models are built to this scale; models can be used near the foreground of N scale layouts for forced perspective
TT 1:120 0.47 developed in Germany as a "table top" scale, now making a bit of a resurgence
HO 1:87.1 0.649 18
currently the most popular scale
OO 1:76.2 varies from 0.649 to 0.75 currently the most popular scale in the UK, most commonly using the same track gauge as HO scale
S 1:64 0.883 scale modeling often seen in the form of Sn3 narrow gauge railroads; 3/16 inch = 1 foot
O 1:48 1.25 used to be known as "the king of scales"; ¼ inch = 1 foot
1:24 most common automobile modeling scale
G varies from 1:20.3 to 1:32 1.772 commonly used in garden railway applications


The modifiers

So what do all those "n3", "n2½", "e" and "m" (and many more) appendages on scale names mean? Generally, it means that the models are to the scale shown but the trains run on tracks that are modeled at something other than standard gauge (which measures at 4 ft 8½ inches for prototype railroads). The "n" designates "narrow gauge" and the number after it indicates the prototype track gauge (in feet) being modeled. For example, HOn3 is HO scale with 3 foot narrow gauge track; the former Denver & Rio Grande Western operated on 3 foot track, so many DRGW narrow gauge modelers build HOn3 models.

The special cases are the "e" and "m" appendages. HOe modelers are building HO scale models that run on standard gauge N scale track; it works out close to HOn2½, or 2½ foot gauge track. The "m" is an abbreviation for metre gauge, so Nm is N scale operating on 1 metre gauge track (a little smaller than Nn3 track).

For further reading

There are quite a few more scales than I've listed, these are just the most common. For more information, see:

Modelling the Undec & Western

Undecorated N scale RSC-2

Undec & Western??? Yes, the Undec & Western. It's another term for freelancing. But why would anyone want to build a model railroad that never existed? The best answer is that the modeler likes too many different models to restrict himself to a particular prototype or era. But how do you make all that stuff up? Well, let's find out......

Before we get too much further into this discussion, I need to point out that, yes, there are quite a few women who are active model railroaders. Personally, I know one who has earned an MMR certificate from the NMRA, and another who is quite close to earning hers. My own wife is a model railroader (why do you think I asked her to marry?). For most of this article I refer to the model railroader with masculine terms merely to keep the prose simple.

Favorite prototypes

Just like any other model railroader, the freelancer has favorite prototype railroads too. The only difference is that the freelancer doesn't always restrict himself (or herself) to a particular time and place in the real world. His world is more imaginary, but takes the "best" parts of his favorite prototype to use as standard practices on his own layout. For example, Tony Koester's former Allegheny Midland was based on the question "What if the Nickel Plate got to West Virginia?"

Favorite equipment

Rather than a single favorite prototype, the modeler may decide that he has several favorite pieces of equipment (be it motive power, freight cars, or whatever). The modeler can then unite all of these favorites together into a single railroad that may have never had any of the equipment except one piece. A prime example of this is John Allen's Gorre & Daphetid that was all steam powered except for a triceratops and a giant from another scale.

Favorite era and/or locale

Maybe the modeler just likes everything there is to do with a certain era. Again, the modeler can take his favorite parts and unite them all together into a single railroad. The New England Berkshire & Western is based on this idea; trains run on rights of way roughly based on the Rutland and the Central Vermont railroads of the 1940s and 50s.

Creating the name (building an identity)

There are several ways to choose a good name for the railroad. The easiest is for the modeler who works on the favorite prototype scheme. He can make his railroad the "Montana Division of the Southern Pacific Railroad" even though the SP never got to Montana on its own tracks; or he could model the Monon Railroad as it might appear in the mid 1980s even though the real road was merged into the Louisville & Nashville in 1971. The most common scheme however, is that the railroad is a completely new entity on the planet (it doesn't necessarily have to be in the US, or on Earth for that matter).

One idea that I actually started building, the Minnesota & Pacific, roughly follows the route of the Milwaukee Road from Minneapolis westward, although most of the equipment is second hand from the Santa Fe. I chose the name because at the time I was a big fan of Prairie Home Companion (from Minnesota) and lived in Los Angeles (on the Pacific).

The modeler could also choose something based more on the style of common railroad names, like the Burlington Central. In this case the name was taken from a local high school in Illinois, and the modeling scheme (what if the Burlington Northern and Illinois Central were to merge?) grew from the name.

The herald

Sample heralds

A railroad's herald (or logo) is probably it's most important identifying mark. The herald can use just the railroad's initials (in my case M&P) or the entire railroad name. The most important thing here, especially when you're designing a railroad that is not based on a real prototype, is to be as absolutely creative as possible. I've included three somewhat standard herald ideas here plus one created by just sitting in front of my drawing program and playing around for a little while. Don't think that your herald can't ever change, though. Prototype heralds (and paint schemes for that matter) change quite often, so once you've chosen, you're not locked into it for life.

Favorite prototype modelers using their own railroad name can use their favorite prototype's herald as a starting point and just let the creativity flow from there.

Placing the railroad (era and locale)

Every railroad is built to move freight and/or passengers from one point to another, so every model railroad has to run between at least two places (not necessarily cities). Where & when the railroad runs is usually somewhat set by the identity and modeling scheme chosen for it. If the railroad is the St Louis & Houston RR, then the railroad should (but doesn't necessarily have to) run between the two cities in its name. The railroad could, though be a bit more ambiguous, like the Buckshot Southern. In that case the modeler is a little more free to choose the cities the line serves.

A railroad need not serve two cities, however. It could be a switching line that runs mainly on city streets in a single large city; it could be a privately owned and operated industrial line that gets rocks from the mine to the smelter; it could be a tourist line that runs just two trains per day out and back; or it could be a major passenger terminal operator in a large city.

Wherever the layout is placed, it should be placed in a certain time frame. This will mainly be set by the equipment that the modeler chooses to buy for the railroad. If he likes tiny 4-4-0s and 2-6-0s, he could make the railroad a narrow gauge line in the 1890s; if he buys C40-8s and SD60MACs, it should be set in the 1990s.

But how do I model it?

Once you've decided on an identity, era and locale for your railroad, you're ready to start building your empire. If the railroad is going to be an imaginary division of an existing railroad for your era, the choices of rolling stock (and structures) are somewhat obvious. The exception would be a scheme like the Illinois Central of the 1980s building track into the mountains toward the Carolinas (since that would entail more rugged terrain than the IC really goes over, they might want a few tunnel motors or SD45s).

Freelanced steam locomotives
Steam locomotives on a freelanced model railroad in Laguna Beach, California.

The idea here is to choose equipment that matches the terrain and era more than anything else. A mountain narrow gauge line of the 1920s isn't going to have too many diesels, nor is a Class I mainline through Kansas in the 1970s going to have any 4-4-0s (well, okay, this might actually happen, but it will be the exception rather than the rule). A little common sense goes a long way when the locomotive foreman is making his purchases (regardless of what the treasurer thinks!).

As to paint and details, again, the favorite prototype modeler's choices are somewhat obvious, but any freelancer can buy any piece of rolling stock for his own road. The easiest and best, of course, would be undecorated models. Buying "Undec & Western" saves lots of time and aggravation since nothing needs to be taken off the model, and the model is more or less ready for the new home road's paint and decals.

If the necessary model is not available undecorated or you can get a large quantity of them (not necessarily all in the same paint scheme) at a great price, don't be afraid to remove the existing paint. It's a lot easier than you might think. There are too many paint stripping products out there to list them all here, so ask at your local hobby shop for recommendations.

If you're too afraid of removing paint that's already been applied, you could just add a patch of paint or colored decal sheet over the offending road's reporting marks and add your own. You could also use any of the myriad of weathering techniques to hide the old road's marks to add your own. Rolling stock is often painted in "black patch" style like this on the prototype, so why not do it on the model?

I've got a name, herald and equipment, now what?

If you're going to model your own road (especially if you've got a somewhat elaborate herald), you might want to consider getting custom decals made for your road. It may cost a bit more, but the way the equipment looks after applying your own custom decals can't be beat by picking and choosing from alphabet and number sets. Custom decal and dry transfer print shops advertise every month in the popular model railroad magazines. Write to them for their terms (minimum size of the run, colors, lettering styles, logo sheets, etc), get some samples and bids for your work (you are hiring them, after all), and choose the one you like best.

Tell me more about ....

Now that you've got all the models built and running you can turn your railroad executives toward other related projects. Passengers and employees that ride on your regular passenger trains need something that says they are allowed to be there, so design a pass for them. Your railroad might be large enough to issue stock certificates, so print them. Your railroad does move between two points, so make a map. Your railroad didn't just instantly spring to life in its current and extremely elaborate form, so write a corporate history. Your railroad has regular trains, so publish a timetable. Your railroad has some standard operating procedures, so publish a rulebook. Just let your creativity run wild.

Rule Number 1: This is My Railroad

Don't forget the first rule of model railroading. Make your empire the way you like it. As you add new features to your railroad it will take on an identity and personality all its own, and don't ever be afraid to change anything later.

Rule Number 2:

If there are ever any doubts as to the prototype accuracy or any attributes of any item used in or near the model railroad, refer to rule number 1.

Size does matter - selecting a modeling scale

You've decided what you want to model and you know the size of the layout location. There's one more decision yet to make, and it's one that will affect your model building purchases for quite some time. You need to decide on what scale to use in your model building.

Scale vs. Gauge

First of all, there is one important distinction to learn, and that's the difference between scale and gauge. In short, these two terms can be defined as follows:

The ratio of miniaturization of an object.
The distance between the rails on a section of track.

It may be easier to think about the difference between these two terms by thinking about their effect on a model person populating your model railroad. The scale of the model railroad will affect how tall a person stands, while the gauge will have no effect on how tall a model person stands.

Most railroads operating today use standard gauge as the spacing between the rails on their tracks. Generally, this works out to a rail spacing of 4 ft, 8½ in (1435 mm). But, prototype railroads throughout history have used different gauges, especially in the early 19th century before standard gauge was widely adopted. No matter the gauge a railroad used, be it 2 ft, 3 ft, or even 6 ft (as was seen on some early Russian railroads), a 6 ft tall person will still stand 6 ft tall in your selected modeling scale.

Popular model scales

The NMRA specification for standard model scales is documented in S-1.2: General standard scales. While there are other scales that are used for modeling (such as G, 1:24, and 1:200), this document contains the most common scales that you are likely to find at your local hobby shop.

The most popular model railroad scale right now is HO scale; this generally works out to a 1:87.1 ratio of model to prototype sizes. A 6 ft tall person in HO scale would stand at 0.83 inches tall. N scale is currently the second most popular model scale, which is measured as a 1:160 ratio. The same 6 ft tall person stands 0.45 inches tall in N scale.

Along with the size of a person and potential modeler eyesight issues, another major determining factor in selecting a scale will be the minimum radius of a circle of track in each scale. In HO scale, 18 inches is used as a normal minimum radius, while in N scale, 9¾ inches is often used as a minimum radius. Larger scales, naturally, have a larger minimum radius (24 inches is common in O scale, for example). Trains will simply not operate well on radii tighter than the minimum radius in each scale, but wider radii will not only allow you to operate larger equipment on the same track, the equipment will also look quite a bit more realistic on broader curves.

Which scale for you?

There is no "best" answer in all cases. The most common answer is HO scale due to its popularity, but you are by no means restricted to this scale alone. To make the selection, you have to take into account several factors including:

  • the size of the layout space available
  • the amount of equipment available for your chosen prototype and era
  • the amount of fine detail that you want to be able to see on your layout (do you want to see each individual rivet?)
  • your desired scenery-to-track ratio
  • layout portability
  • your own physical accessibility

It's important to note here what is not included in these criteria. For one thing, I did not include layout operations in the equation. No matter what scale or gauge you choose, you can operate your layout with the vast majority of operating schemes that are common today; the model's size does not generally make a significant impact on its operating qualities or its appropriateness for use in operating sessions. What does matter is your own physical accessibility. If your eyesight does not allow you to read the reporting marks on smaller scale equipment, for example, then you may want to choose a larger scale. Other physical limitations such as height and mobility should be taken into account, but they are generally not significant factors in selecting a modeling scale.

After factoring in all of the selection criteria, this is ultimately a personal decision. Some modelers choose a scale that lets them purchase equipment and run it out of the box with little or no modification; others may purposely choose an obscure scale or one that does not have a wide variety of commercially available equipment as a challenge to themselves. Whatever scale you choose, just remember that changing scales is not entirely unheard of. Many modelers start modeling with smaller scales and increase their scale size as they age for various reasons, and there are others that decrease their scale sizes as they age too (I used to know one modeler who switched from HO to N scale after he got into his 80s).

If you're having a hard time deciding, purchase a couple kits and some equipment in the scales that you're considering and try them out. You'll find that as you work with the models, you'll naturally gravitate toward your own scale and gauge preference.


Model railroads don't exist floating in mid-air, they're supported by benchwork


The trains run on tracks, here's information on using and modeling track.


The electrons can't get to the track without wiring. There are about as many ways to wire a model railroad as there are model railroads.

Rolling stock

A train just isn't a train without rolling stock.

Paint, lettering and weathering

Once you've built (or stripped or purchased undecorated) your models, you need to add some color to them. The world does not display in varying shades of grey without symbols applied to them by man, so let's look at some of the topics that are involved...

A weathering study: CEFX 14464

CEFX 14464

As model railroaders, many of us are trying to duplicate the real world in miniature. The ready-to-run rolling stock that we purchase at the hobby shop is better than ever, but then it's up to the modeler to make it really look real. We have to have a firm understanding of what kind of weathering occurs to freight cars, both what it looks like and how it occurs, to know what we need to add to a car to make it look less like it's straight out of the paint shop. Let's take a closer look at one specific covered hopper car that I found today to see what we need to duplicate on our models.

First, a disclaimer that really isn't a disclaimer... There really isn't anything special about this car, it's just the first car that I saw on the tracks today. The location isn't anything special either, it's at a local grain facility that happened to be across the street from the model train show I attended today. I didn't go searching for any specific type of car, or any specific attributes in a freight car, I just looked at what was out there.

So, what do we notice about this car? The first thing that I notice is the lack of graffiti anywhere on this car. There are so many cars rolling out there with such huge pieces all over their sides, it's refreshing to see one that hasn't been touched yet. Getting over that, the next thing I notice is how prominent the seams are on the side of the car. We know from looking at other similar cars, that these seams are often where rust begins and flows, so it's natural that dirt would collect there. But what are all those speckles on the car side?

Rock damage on the side of the car

Those speckles are all little scrape marks from rocks that have been kicked up along the mainline. That's ballast that has repeatedly hit the side of the car. It's just like when a rock is kicked up into your windshield on the highway by a car in front of you; those little pebbles on the highway leave dings in your windshield, and they leave dings in the covered hopper too. This closeup photo shows something else that is the result of debris kicked up by the car's wheels, too. See that dark horizontal line near the bottom of the hopper bay?

Grime thrown onto the car by its spinning wheels

That's mud, grease and grime that has flown off the spinning wheel on the truck right next to the hopper bay. You should notice here that this grime line is very straight, and is generally directly above and parallel to the rail's location below the car. This kind of weathering should be familiar to anyone who has tried bicycling in or immediately after a rainfall. On many college campuses across the US, this phenomenon is known as "freshman stripe," and we can see the same weathering feature on the ends of the car.

Freshman stripe on the end of the car

Looking at just one of the stripes on the end of the car, we see that it is, like the stripe on the hopper bay, directly above and parallel to the rail below the car. On this car, it is here where we see the first hints of rust on the car itself. We can see the rust beginning at the ladder joint directly at the top of the stripe and the rusty water trail flowing straight downward on the car from there. We can also see that the stripe covers part of the air brake cylinder, and that relatively clean spot directly behind the cylinder tells us the angle from which the grime was thrown onto the car. The stripe was made by the wheels that are closest to the car ends. If we looked underneath box cars, we would see the same kind of stripes, and we can actually see these stripes on the boxcar ends too, but those are made from grime flying off the wheels of adjacent cars. With that knowledge, we can conclude that the stripe we see on this car was also partly formed from grime flying off the wheels of adjacent cars. The presence of grime on the vertical member of the ladder directly in front of the stripe shows us that this car has received weathering from adjacent cars in the same way. And, if you take a closer look at the angle shot that leads this article, you can see that there are in fact two stripes on the car end. The other end of the car has the same kind of stripes from the wheels at that end of the car. There is one other important item of weathering that we need to look at on this car, but to see it, we need to either climb the car's ladder (which I don't recommend for anyone who does not need to be there; and as railfans, we don't need to climb up there) or step back a little way from the car side.

CEFX 14464 side view

See that patch of yellow just under the roofwalk just to the left of the middle of the car? That's corn. Yup, corn. Specifically, it is corn that has spilled next to the car's roof hatch when it was being loaded some time in the past. Sometimes, when grain is spilled on the car roof like this, some of the grain will actually germinate and grow, so it is possible to see covered hoppers with fully grown corn stalks standing up on their roofs. The grain that is spilled there is wetted by rain during the car's travels, which, when combined with the heat from the sun, can help to glue the grain to the roof and help to feed the plant growth (Don't believe me? Haven't you ever grown a Chia Pet?). Just as grain can be spilled on the car roof next to the loading hatches, grain can also spill out the hopper bottoms, next to the unloading hatches. But, the grain that spills out the bottom, lands on the track and finds its ultimate home between the rails.

Grain on the track

So not only does the car itself receive weathering that can be duplicated on a model, the car can cause weathering on the track that can also be modeled. So, the next question is how do we model the weathering that we see here? Briefly, we can use a thin black or dark grey pen to simulate the seam lines on the side of the car. The flecked off paint from rock damage can be simulated by stippling a very coarse dry brush along the lower half of the car. The grime line on the hopper bay and the freshman stripe on the ends can be simulated with a fine spray pattern on an airbrush with grimy colors. The spilled grain (both on the car and between the rails) can be simulated with very finely ground foam. What? You want specific cookbook-style steps to model each of these weathering patterns? That will have to wait for another article...

The evolution of railroad graffiti

WP 67033, Rochelle, 2007-03-11

Graffiti, whether it's called art or vandalism, is a fact of modern railroading. But it didn't always look like what we see on the trains passing us today. Railroad graffiti has evolved over the past century and a half from simple chalk marks left by railroad workers to notify other workers of issues to marks left by hobos to vanity tags made in permanent ink to the elaborate and often enormous painted "pieces" (as they're termed by those who create them) of today. Let's take a look at how these markings were developed and, for those interested, how to model them.

One important note is needed before we begin a more thorough investigation. Throughout this article, I will use the word "graffitist" to refer to the person who applies the graffiti (in the same sense as a therapist is a person who provides therapy or as a chemist is a person who works with chemicals). One group people will vigorously defend the markings that others leave as an artistic expression while another group of people will vehemently denounce graffiti as a destruction of property. Whether graffiti is art or purely vandalism is beyond the scope of this article, so I am purposely avoiding certain phrases in an attempt to avoid the argument here, and therefore I will not explicitly state my own opinion on graffiti itself.

Railroad employee markings

NS 235219, Muncie, IN, 2007-04-20

The first markings that were applied to the sides of railroad equipment were made by railroad employees themselves sending messages to each other. The messages could relate to handling of a specific car or load, the condition of equipment that needs repair or simply an indication of an item's dimensions (as can be seen on the grade crossing arm in the image to the right). Since these marks more often than not were relevant to the locations where they were placed and necessary for the safe and efficient operation of the railroad, they really weren't graffiti. These marks generally weren't applied as a way to say "I was here," but rather to convey important information that other railroad employees would need to know in order to perform their duties.

Modeling railroad employee markings

Strictly speaking, dimensional and repair data are markings applied by railroad employees, and decals including this data are widely available commercially from almost all decal manufacturers. However, the type of markings that are discussed here generally don't appear on commercial decal sets and must be created by hand. In larger scales, you may be able to simulate some markings by using a fine-tipped pen and writing the marks by hand. For smaller scales, or if your freehand skills aren't quite what you'd like them to be, this could be the perfect opportunity for you to learn how to print your own decals on an inkjet or laser printer (which is beyond the scope of this article).

Hobo signs

Since the railroad employees were using chalk symbols to communicate, it was only natural that the next class of people to be around freight equipment on a regular basis, hobos, would also start using chalk markings to communicate with each other. One item to keep in mind here is that just as there are different dialects of the English language around the country (do you know what a "bubbler" is or what it means to be a "budger"?), hobo signs tend to vary by region as well. Not all hobos traveled the entire country; sometimes called "harvest hobos", some kept to specific regions and would often follow the various farm harvests around the region.


A tag is, in its most basic form, the name of the person leaving the mark. The origins of pen and ink tags are often traced to New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Some of the city's younger residents began writing their name and the street number on which they lived using markers and other pens on surfaces near them. Since many of them rode the subway on a regular basis, the tags started appearing on subway equipment to allow the tags to spread throughout the city.

Art/cartoon monikers

No heros
The yard tourist

With this type, the person applying it adds a small line drawing to the signature. This was probably also a development of the graffitists trying to differentiate their tags from those around them. The drawing could be a political message, or could simply be something that the tagger likes to draw. These are often smaller drawings that are not noticeable from a distance, but they can be just as creative in the images or messages depicted. However, the simple line drawings of a moniker with or without a message can be as big as the entire car side, as we see on this tank car spotted in Long Beach, California.

Modeleing art/cartoon monikers

Some of the more common monikers, such as those made by Colossus of Roads or Whistleblower, have been applied to so many freight cars that decals may be commercially available from smaller decal manufacturers (I've seen commercial decals that include these two and several others on one sheet). For others, the easiest option to model them may be to use a fine-tipped pen to draw the moniker by hand. This has the obvious advantage that what you write on your equipment will be unique and will show some variation, as can be seen on the prototype, but your reproduction may turn out to be unique enough that it is no longer an accurate representation of a real moniker. But then, depending on your point of view and modeling preferences, this could be a good thing.



ARMN 111343, Rochelle, 2007-03-11
Should I be able to read this?

The word "piece" in this context stems from the word "masterpiece" which is meant to indicate that the graffiti is more than just a scribbled name. The graffitist may have taken upwards of a few hours to design the work on paper and then a few more hours to apply the work with spray paint and/or rollers to the chosen location. Beginning in the early 1970s, the simple signature tags evolved into the more complex styles that are now seen. This was partly a result of so many similar tags being applied that the graffitists started to write their tags with larger characters and larger pens, then adding outlines and other flourishes to them in order to distinguish their tags from the multitude of others around them.


Graffiti pieces can be subdivided into three categories: signatures, purely artistic or a combination of the two.

Modeling pieces

The fastest and easiest way to model pieces is to purchase decals of them. A number of decal manufacturers produce decals containing pieces ready to be floated and applied to your models in most of the popular modeling scales. These commercial decals more often include only the signature type of pieces, but the artistic and mixture pieces can also be found commercially. Often, the decal will be a reproduction of an actual piece that was seen "in the wild," that is applied to an item of rolling stock that is in active service. When this is the case, of course, that means that you have a chance of seeing the piece you've just applied on your models somewhere out on the prototype.

Overpainting and cleanup

RBOX 20469 half

The majority of railroad companies officially view graffiti as vandalism and will, with varying degrees of expediency, paint out part or all of the graffiti. This may be done to restore the federally required reporting marks and dimensional data to the sides of the cars, or it may be company policy to completely paint over any graffiti when equipment is sidelined for service.

Modeling overpainting

To model equipment where graffiti was completely painted out, simply paint an appropriate-sized patch on the side of the equipment (or the end or the top; wherever you think the graffiti would have been left) in a different color from the surrounding area and then letter it as you normally would. The color you choose for the patch could be lighter or it could be darker or it could be a completely different hue. The patch does not need uniform or straight edges on it either. You could even use colored decal paper or a marker instead of paint to apply the patch. The key here is that the railroad may opt to use the least expensive method available to obscure the graffiti, and because of that, you may even find some where the obscuring paint has faded or flaked away enough that the graffiti shows through like a fallen flag herald on older equipment. Use your imagination here and go wild.



Thanks to those who I asked to review this article for both readability and accuracy. Their feedback has proven invaluable. Out of respect for privacy and to prevent their inboxes from getting filled with spam, I thank them as a group.


So, now that the railroad's built, how is it operated?


It's not a scene without the scenery. Here's how to build it.

Beyond the plywood plains - building the first ground forms

Once you've gotten to the point in your modeling where you've got trains running, it's time to start thinking about building the scenes through which your trains will run. If you've planned your scenes based on a specific prototype, then you already know what kind of vignette you need to build. If you're proto-freelancing, then you've probably got a good idea of the kind of scene you need to build. If you're just building something to look better than bare plywood, well, think about what kind of terrain you've imagined the trains operating through.

Once you know what kind of terrain you're going to build, how do you do it? Here's one method to get the first landforms in place on your layout.

Tools and materials required

The items you will need (in approximately the order that you will need them) for this process are as follows:

Materials required
  • Insulation foam board, 1 or 2 inch thick
  • Utility knife with new blades
  • Liquid Nails for Projects
  • Shur-Form tools
  • Shop vacuum
  • A bucket of warm water
  • Plaster gauze
  • Paper towels or old newspaper
  • Brown latex paint
  • Paint brush
  • Ground foam or sand, depending on the area being modeled
  • Spray bottle with “wet water”
  • Elmer’s white glue
  • Bulb syringe

Most of the tools you should have in your toolbox already. The foam board for this process can be obtained cheaply from construction sites near you (ask the site foreman if you can take some of their waste foam; you will more often get acceptance than refusal since they would have to pay to haul it away themselves). While the white beaded foam will work for this process, it is not recommended.

The glue that you use for the foam is important. Buy Liquid Nails For Projects. The important part of this is the “For Projects”. Regular Liquid Nails will eat the foam (and put out some nasty fumes while doing so) but Liquid Nails For Projects is water based and specially formulated for gluing foam.

For the paint, ask at the paint counter of your local hardware store or at a paint specialty store for a gallon of reject brown latex paint. The shade of brown isn’t as important as the quantity. However, keep in mind that you’ll do better with a light shade for sandy or desert areas, while a darker shade will work better for forested or farm areas. I recommend a latex paint because it doesn’t smell as badly as other types and it cleans up with water. Interior versus exterior grade does not matter for this process. You should be able to buy a gallon of brown paint for three to five dollars.

The plaster gauze and ground foam are probably going to be the most expensive materials. Sometimes you can purchase plaster gauze in bulk from a medical supply store. If you don’t have a medical supply store in your city, or don’t want to wait to order the plaster gauze over the internet, Woodland Scenics makes it.

The wet water referred to above is about a quart of tap water with a few drops of liquid dishwashing soap. Any brand of soap will work, just be sure to get the kind used for washing dishes by hand, and not in the dishwasher.

The Procedure

stack the foam

glue the stack

shape the stack

add plaster gauze

paint the plaster

add ground foam

Build Basic Landforms

Use the utility knife to cut rough shapes in the insulation foam to approximate the contours that you want in your finished scene. Stack the foam to gain higher elevations. Unless part of this scenery is going to be under a structure model, you don’t have to be precise on your cuts. In fact, the apparent randomness of the edges will look better in the final scene. Once you have the stack of foam about how you want it, glue it together with the Liquid Nails For Projects. Add a few weights to hold the foam down and let it set for about a day or more.

Once the Liquid Nails has set, use your utility knife and Shur-Form tools to smooth the contours into slopes, hills, mounds, grassy knolls, whatever. Be sure to pay attention to which direction the Shur-Form cuts, as going in the opposite direction will have a much smaller effect. Don’t worry too much about getting the shape perfectly smooth, the next part will take care of that. Keep your ShopVac handy and vacuum up the foam every now and then. The foam shavings could be used as filler under the plaster gauze if you want, but its presence can make it hard sometimes to find a solid spot to attach the plaster gauze. The shavings also won’t hold up trees or poles as well as solid foam.

Apply the First Layers of Ground

Use your utility knife to cut the plaster gauze into strips that are about 8 to 12 inches long. One sheet at a time, completely dip the plaster gauze in the water and then drape the wet gauze over your landform. Use your fingers to smooth the plaster and to position the gauze. Each piece of gauze (after the first piece) should overlap its neighbors by about ½ to 1 inch. If your landforms are too level, crumple up some paper towels or newspapers for small areas and drape the gauze over them. For larger areas, add more foam. If you have rock molds to apply, now is the time to do it (and that’s a topic for another clinic in itself). Let the plaster dry for at least a day before the next step.

Add Color and Texture to the Ground

After the plaster is dry, work in an area of about 2 square feet. If there is trackwork in the scene, paint it with a random mix of black, grime and mud (as appropriate for the area being modeled) now. Brush the brown paint on the plaster to form a nice thick coat. While the paint is still wet, sprinkle on the first layer of ground foam or sand to form the base of the visible scenery. Look at prototype photos of the area you’re modeling to get an idea of the thickness and color you need.

For additional layers of scenery, apply the ground foam and other scenic materials to the base scenery after it has had a chance to dry. Spray a light mist of wet water over the new scenic materials, and use a 1:1 mixture of Elmer’s glue and water (with a drop or two of dishwashing soap) to hold the new materials down. Apply the glue liberally with a bulb syringe. Continue in this manner until the scene is as complete as you want it.

Quick and simple track ballasting

If you've never ballasted track, the process can seem a bit daunting.  But it really isn't that difficult after all.  This video shows one quick and simple method for ballasting track.  My teenage son, who has not ballasted track before we shot this video, is the demonstrator here.  If he can do it, so can you.

One quick side note, this video does not deal with the problems of ballasting around switch points.  That will be addressed in future posts.


Just how do you make those buildings look like that?

How to build it wrong - basic scratchbuilding and kitbashing techniques

So you've built a few structure kits and placed them on the layout. But what do you do when the structure you want on your layout isn't available commercially? Build it anyway. Often, you'll be able to find a structure kit that is almost just like the structure you want or another kit that has a wall or two that would look right. It's times like these that you throw away the instructions and build it wrong!

Download the clinic handout

Tools required

There really aren’t a lot of tools you need, and you’ve probably already got all of these tools anyway. These are the basic tools that you need for kitbashing and scratchbuilding:

  • Straightedge
  • Scale rule
  • Hobby knife with new #11-type blades
  • Needle files
  • Sandpaper or emery boards
  • Squaring jig
  • Glue - the appropriate type for the material

Basic techniques

Scribe and snap

Use your straightedge and hobby knife to scribe a cutting line in the styrene piece you are working with. Use light pressure and several repeated passes with the knife, but don’t cut all the way through the plastic. When your groove is about halfway through the sheet, stop scribing it. Bend the sheet back and forth on your scribe line until it snaps apart, and use the sandpaper to smooth the edge. Usually, you will not need to smooth the edges when you use this technique on styrene.

Build the walls when they are flat

Cut door and window openings in your walls before you glue them together into a box. It’s much easier to let gravity hold a part against a wall while you are gluing it. Also it’s nearly impossible to get clean window and door openings when you are cutting into a box of styrene (at least I haven’t had much success with it). The best time to add dry transfer signs and lettering is also when the wall is flat against your workbench (but don’t forget to paint them first if you’re adding signs now).

Build L corners and then glue the L corners together

Structures are generally easier to put together when you are gluing an L shape to another L shape. Use your squaring jig to glue two walls together into one of the structure’s corners (the northeast corner, for example). Put together the opposite corner (the southwest corner) while the glue for the first corner is curing. After both L shapes have had a chance to cure on their own, glue the two L corners together to form the structure’s main box shape. I’ve found that I can typically hold this box shape together with one hand for a few minutes while I apply the glue and wait for it to set enough for me to let go.

Bevel the corner joints

Unless the siding on the structure is one that has trim covering the corners, use the sandpaper and files to bevel the corners to a little bit beyond a 45 degree angle. In doing this, you can get the siding right up to the corner without using another piece of .005 (or thinner) material as a wrapper. The square silo in the Tews Cement complex (in the Wisconsin Central project layout [Model Railroader, February 1998, p. 103]) shows how effective this kind of corner can be.

Cut the parts to fit each other

Rather than ensuring that every part is exactly so many scale feet long by so many scale feet wide, only measure the most prominent or the largest of the pieces against the plans. If every piece is measured to be exactly the size of the plans, they likely either won’t fit together or won’t look very good when they are together.

Glue from the inside

Model glues often stain or dissolve the building materials, and if you accidentally apply too much glue, you’re sunk. Liquid cement will flow just enough into the joints by capillary action. So gluing from the inside of the structure will hide any blotches that you create by over application and only enough glue to hold the joint will flow to the outer edge.

Braces are a good thing

Three pieces of plastic glued together are stronger than just the two as they meet at a corner, or even on the same plane. Use a small piece of scrap on the back side of the wall as an extra brace and use it as a common gluing surface to the other two wall pieces. You don’t really need a lot of cross bracing between opposite walls because the roof itself will often act as this bracing.

Cut extra and file

This tip is so simple that it’s scary. Cut pieces slightly larger than they need to be and file them down until they are the correct size. A piece that is too small cannot be easily enlarged (at least not in a way that’s always easy to hide), but a piece that’s too big can always be reduced. Similarly, on door and window openings, cut the hole a little smaller than you need it and file it larger until it’s just right.

Hidden walls don’t need details

Save your time and don’t model a wall that will never be seen. If a structure’s wall will never be visible, and if it’s needed for structural integrity, use blank sheet styrene. If the wall isn’t needed to help with the structure’s strength, leave it out entirely. You will save both the time in not working on that side and money in parts and details that are never added.

Don’t want it seen? Paint it black

This is an old theater trick. If you don’t want someone to see that blank wall that you just added to the back of a structure, paint it black so it doesn’t reflect any light back at the viewer.

Cut from the back

Your first passes in the scribe & snap method mentioned above will rarely be along the exact same line where you want the cut. By making your scribing passes on the back of the material, the front side is unblemished. Also, the scribed lines in the sheet’s face will tend to guide your knife blade, most often in a direction that you don’t want it to go.

Test fit early and often (just like voting)

If you think that you haven’t yet taken off enough material when you are filing, you are probably wrong. Test fit parts immediately after cutting them to find where you need to file or sand. Then after making a few passes with your file or sandpaper, test fit the parts again to make sure that you are taking off the right amount of material in the right place.

Use the lines that are already there

Scribed styrene already has perfectly straight lines so you might as well use them when you need whole numbers of boards. This is the one time where it’s acceptable to cut from the front of the material. However, I’ve found that I almost never need to cut in such evenly spaced increments because the part needs to be just that much larger to fit. Use the lines, but cut much more carefully.

Don’t change a part's placement

Once you have decided where a part will fit, don’t change it. Repeatedly moving parts around on a model will create gaps in places that may not be easy to hide, or the part will be too big, forcing you to file or sand more than you need to. Mark the back side with a pencil so you don’t forget.

Glue long trim and trim to fit

Glue the whole strip of trim material to the model and then trim off the excess. You can always cut off a little more, but you can’t put it back once it’s cut. This goes along the same lines of cutting extra and then filing.

Makin' Copies - Casting parts in resin

Think that making a mold and casting your own parts is too hard? Think again. The hardest part is what you already do - make a model. No, really, that's the hardest part! After that, you're just measuruing two liquids, stirring them together and pouring the mixture in place. Once you get to casting the parts, you don't even have to worry about insane calculations because it's a one-to-one mixture! So, let's get started...

Ethical considerations

The first thing that I need to tell you about casting your own parts is that you should not use this method to duplicate commercially available parts. The model manufacturers paid good money to develop a kit for you to use, and making a mold of a commercial part is not only unethical, the commercial part is likely copyrighted and/or trademarked so making a mold of a commercial part may be illegal (but don't take my word as legal advice, I'm not a lawyer). If you make your own master, not only will you gain a few extra points on NMRA judging, but you won't have to worry as much about the legality of copying your own work.

Preparing the master

So, now we know we're going to make our own masters, what considerations are there in preparing the master? For making flat molds, your master part needs at least one flat surface. It is through this flat surface that you will be pouring the resin once you get to that step. The part should generally either be flat and shallow or tall and narrow; this will help you reduce the amount of resin that is needed to make the casting because your part won't need as much resin to cast it. I've found that a resin part can be quite strong at as little as 1/16th of an inch thick; yes, it will break if you stress it hard enough, but you don't need a lot of resin to make a strong part.

Your master part cannot have anywhere that would form a loop. Making a master that can be used like a link in a chain will create a mold where it's impossible to remove the master without either tearing the rubber or breaking the master. Even if you do get your master out of the mold, you're going to have the exact same problem with any part that you cast in it. You will run into the same problem if your part has a large ledge; while you might be able to get the part out without breaking it, your chances of tearing the rubber increase as the size of the part's undercuts increase. This is one place where the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid!) really works. Parts that come out as boxes, cones, cylinders, pyramids or similar shapes work very well as castings. Think of it this way: if you put the undetailed side of your master down on the tabletop, you want to be able to just lift the mold straight up to release the cast part.

Making the mold

Glue the flat, undetailed side of your master parts to a flat sheet of plain styrene. I like to use Elmer's Stix-All to glue my masters to the base because I can remove the master parts when I'm done. Almost anything thicker than .010 inches will work as a base material as long as you have a flat and level surface where the mold box can sit while the rubber cures. If your parts are small and your mold will encompass more than one of them, set your masters apart by at least ½ inch on all sides. This will give the rubber enough mass between the parts to stand up as you pour the resin.

Around your master parts, build a wall of a similar non-porous material (styrene sheet works well for this too) to form a box around your master parts The box does not need to be rectangular, but that configuration is the simplest to build. The walls of the mold box should be about ½ inch away from the master parts and the walls should extend at least ½ inch above the highest point of your master parts. Use a gap-filling cement to glue the walls to the base and to each other; again, Stix-All works well here. After the glue dries on your mold box, use modeling clay to seal all of the corners around the outside of the mold box. The one edge that you don't seal is the edge where the rubber will seep out before it's cured.

The next step depends on the manufacture of the rubber that you've purchased. I'm a fan of Alumilite products, and their rubber is very easy to work with. If you've got a two-part rubber and catalyst mixture, combine them per the manufacturer's instructions using a paper or plastic bowl that you're willing to throw away (although be sure to use one that does not have any holes in it; if the bowl will hold water, it will work for rubber). Mix up less ruber than you think you'll need to make the mold. You can always add more, but it's not so easy to take it away, especially if you overflow your mold box.

When the rubber is mixed, slowly pour it into the mold box. Pouring it slowly minimizes the risk of forming bubbles against your master parts and it maximizes the control that you have in the pour. The rubber that Alumilite sells allows about 10-15 minutes of pouring time, so you don't need to hurry. If you find that what you've mixed isn't enough to cover your master, don't panic. Rubber will bond to rubber, so just mix some more and pour it on top of what you've already poured. You don't need to have it mixed and poured immediately; take your time, measure carefully and pour it as if it was the first pour. The top of the rubber should be somewhere between ¼ and ½ inch (leaning more toward ½ inch) above the highest point on your master part.

When you're done pouring the rubber, you'll have something that looks like this:

Set the newly poured mold aside for a few hours while the rubber cures. I like to leave mine to cure at least overnight. Different rubber mixtures will have different curing times, so check the manufacturer's instructions. Alumilite's rubber sets up in about 4 hours, so you could theoretically pour a mold and then use it the same day. However, letting the mold cure longer will make a more stable mold when you use it.

Once the rubber is cured, you can remove your new mold and reclaim your master parts. If you used Stix-All to assemble the mold box, you can pull the walls away from your new mold and peel the mold box base away from the mold and embedded master part. You can peel the glue off the mold box parts and use the base and walls again for another mold if you're ready to do so. Stix-All, however, is a rubber-based cement, so it will stick to the mold.

After you peel away your mold box, your mold will look something like this:

Gently pull the rubber from the sides of your master parts and pull your master parts out of the rubber. You will probably find some rubber flash has seeped under your master part; a sharp hobby knife will easily cut this flash away and help to remove the parts without tearing the rubber. You will probably notice at this point that the rubber has crept up the sides of the mold box as it was curing. Use a sharp hobby knife to cut this lip off what is now the bottom of the mold so that your mold can sit flat on the table; this step will help ensure that your castings are not warped before they are cured.

Casting the parts

Once you've removed your master parts from the mold, you're ready to start casting copies. Like I said earlier, I like to use Alumilite products for my casting needs. The resin that Alumilite manufactures is a two-part epoxy that is mixed in a one-to-one ratio. Follow the manufacturer's instructions on mix ratios for other products.

The next thing you'll need to know is how much resin to mix. One trick that I've seen is to fill your mold with water, then pour the water from the mold into a measuring container to get the complete volume of your mold. If you do this, however, towel dry the mold and let it air dry unil whatever droplets are left have evaporated completely. Mix a little less resin than you think you'll need to fill the mold, and pour it into the mold. Drizzle the resin into the mold from one corner of the mold cavity. Let it flow around and through the cavity on its own; this will help minimize the number of bubbles that form in the resin against the mold walls.

The Alumilite resin that I use changes color as it cures, so you have a visible indicator of when your new castings are ready to remove from the mold. Removing the part from the mold early, you may be able to invoke a warp or bend into the part before the resin is fully cured. This can be helpful if the wall you're casting needs to be curved to fit the scenery around it or if the prototype wall is curved, you have a few minutes that you can work with the curing resin to get it into the shape you need.

At this point, the steps for creating another copy of your master part are reminiscent of the instructions on a shampoo bottle. To cast another part, mix, pour, demold, repeat.

It's done, now what?

Once you've built the layout, had a few operating sessions and finished off the last of the scenery, what's left to keep the interest going? Plenty!

Show me the trains - exhibiting modular layouts

NTrak layout at Trainfest 2004

So you've built a module, tested and scenicked it and now you want to take it to shows to participate in larger modular layouts? Great! Before you head out with your module and a couple trains in the trunk (okay, in the back of your minivan), there are a few things that you need to remember in order to make the show experience a pleasurable one.

What to do before the show

The first thing that you need to do is ensure that you and your models will be welcome with the club or organziation with which you plan to exhibit. You may think that this goes without saying, but I've been involved in a few layouts where a modeler shows up with modules and/or trains when he wasn't expected; this could easily (and has in a couple cases that I know of) lead to bad feelings all around. It's easy enough to call or email the layout coordinator to verify everyone's expectations and it prevents so many problems that there really is no reason not to do this.

If you're bringing modules to a show, get your modules checked out with other members of the layout at least a month before the show. The best situation would be one where the entire layout can be setup for a trial operating session before the show. But, that's not always practical, especially for larger shows such as the National Train Show that is held in conjunction with the NMRA's national convention each year. As a minimum, you should connect your modules to at least one other module that has already been successfully exhibited at shows. Doing so helps ensure that your modules will interface properly with adjoining modules and the established layout members will often be able to spot potentional trouble items before they become problems at the show.

You need to check your modules' track locations to ensure that they are not only at the same level, but also at the correct position horizontally and in relation to each other. Unless you were able to lay the track with an existing module as your guide, it's pretty likely that your track locations will be a little off no matter how carefully you measured their positions. The other important factor to check on your modules is the wiring. Connect the wiring to the established module and power it from there to check continuity and to check for shorts; working under a module, it's easy to cross wires, and hooking up your module to another module that is known to work correctly will help you find these problems. After fixing problems that appear in the test session, check it again with established modules, preferably with modules that you haven't already tested with. Keep doing this until your modules work correctly with whatever established modules are connected to it for testing purposes.

If you're bringing trains to run at the show, you will need to check these out too. Take some time to familiarize yourself with the layout's equipment standards and rules. Some layouts require equipment to use specific couplers or to all be weighted according to a specified standard, while others are more relaxed in what they require. If the organization you're going to exhibit with has a test track, make the time to test your equipment on it. Test not only the locomotives, but all of the rolling stock.

At least a week or two before the show, separate out the equipment that you plan to bring to the show and pay special attention to their operating characteristics. If, like many modelers, you're in the process of converting from one type of coupler to another, check to ensure that the equipment you want to bring all has the correct kind of couplers (if they don't all have the same kind, check that you've got a conversion car).

What to bring to the show

Once your modules and trains are tested and verified, you can pack them up for transportation to the show. It's best to have all of these items packed and stored in the same place so you don't have to go looking all over the house for something that you still need. It also makes loading it all go faster, especially when you have helpers, because everything is in one place and you can easily point out the correct pile to your helpers.

Other than the modules and trains, some clubs require that module exhibitors bring their own C clamps and electrical equipment. Check with the layout coordinator for these and any other requirements at the show location. Some shows supply extension cords, chairs, tables and floor mats, others may supply only some of these items and others might not be able to supply any of them. As a minimum, grab an extra extension cord or two. Some of the other things that I always try to remember include:

  • small modeler's toolbox - A small box that I can carry in one hand that includes several sizes of screwdrivers, hobby knives, sanding material, rail and wheel cleaners, styrene cement, soldering iron and solder, Dremel motor tool (or equivalent) with cutoff wheels, bent nose fine tip pliers, large pliers or socket wrenches (big enough for the module nuts and bolts), track tester, and both plastic and metal rail joiners (and a thimble with which to push the rail joiners on the rails).
  • plastic drawstring trash bags (at least two new bags per day of the show) - The drawstring can be hung over a clamp attached to the rear of a module and then the full bag can be easily discarded at the end of the day.
  • paper towels - Somebody will spill something; trust me on this one.
  • trouble lamp or flashlight - It gets dark under the layout, especially when the venue's lights aren't fully on before the show opens.
  • knee pads or a wheeled seat - I like to bring something that we call a "scoocher"; it's one of those work seats that's about a foot off the floor with wheels so I can easily move around at the proper level to work on the wiring or clamps under a layout during setup. If that doesn't fit in the truck, a flat piece of foam helps tremendously to ease the strain on the knees against the floor during setup.
  • camera and film or memory cards - There's always something to take pictures of at a show.

There's always something that is forgotten on the way to a show, but this gives you an idea of some of the less conventional items that I've found useful.

What to do at the show

Have fun! No really, that is why you're there, isn't it?

Interacting with the layout

Check in with the module coordinator when you arrive to find out any special details about the layout setup that were not yet specified. Help with setup to the best of your abilities and, if the layout is using a sign up sheet for operations, put your name down for a couple shifts when you can guarantee that you will be at the layout to run trains. When you do sign up for a shift, make sure that you show up and work your shifts. You don't like it when your relief crew isn't there, and neither does the crew that you're relieving. Check with the layout host for any special operating rules and procedures and follow them; when everyone is following the same procedures, everyone has more fun. Remember, when you're exhibiting in a group layout, you're sharing the layout with everyone else in the group, and they're sharing it with you. When the show ends, help with teardown to the best of your abilities.

Interacting with the public

Whether you like it or not, you are a representative of the hobby when you exhibit models at a show. It's best to look the part, so be sure that you shower and clean yourself up before the show begins. You don't have to wear a suit, but clean clothes are a minimum requirement. Wear a train shirt or a shirt with another design if you want, but be aware of the pictures and symbols on the shirts that you wear; take some time to consider the public's sensibilities and your own clothing's visibility when you make your wardrobe selections.

When you exhibit at a show, there will often be attendees who want to ask you something. Please be polite, especially when they ask you if the trains can go any faster or if you've ever done the Gomez Addams routine (yeah, you know the one). Remember that when show attendees have a good experience, they are more likely to take up model railroading for themselves, which leads to a greater demand for model railroad products, which in turn can lead to a larger supply of model railroad products to choose from (some at a lower cost due to the increased production) for your own railroad.

What to do after the show

When you get home from a show, put everything away as soon as possible; getting it over with leaves one less task that must be done. Make a list of the things you forgot to bring with you, then gather these items and prepare them (and the list itslef) for the next show. Sort your equipment and separate those items that were troublesome at the show so you can work on them before the next show. If you were a visitor at a layout, write a thank you note to the layout coordinator for including you in the show. If you took photos at the show, consider sharing them with the rest of the layout crew.