Scenery – Six steps

Part 1

Many people’s first introduction to model railroading is with a simple circle or oval on a sheet of plywood. No scenery, no landscaping and maybe not even any buildings or vehicles

It doesn’t take long, however, to get the urge to start adding accessories to the railroad to make it more realistic. For many people, this become a lifelong endeavor, and can grow to very large proportions

There are many options for landscaping a railroad. You can add things like grass, trees, lakes or rivers alongside the track. Or you can get a little more in depth and add hills and valleys for your train to travel through, and tunnels through the mountains.

There are many methods and articles for scenery. I have read many articles, attended a few seminars (classes) and and discussed these methods at our club meetings. We have come up with our own methods for scenery. The six steps that work best for us. These steps are not hard and fast rules, merely a suggestion that will help you get to the point where you are not looking at a train running on plywood.

Step 1 The base, for this example, will be a 4 x 8 sheet of Fiberboard. A reasonable starting point. The track plan can be what ever you wish, an oval or something a little different from the internet or magazine. Our emphasis here will be scenery.

If you drive through the neighborhood or around town the main point you will see is that it is not level. Some grade changes are everywhere. (Work in small areas in the beginning, this will help you get experience and the learning process will be easier.) The first thing to do is plan what you you would like to have and where you want it. Then map a small area and begin. This is very easily done by clumping newspaper in piles and draping paper towels dipped in a plaster of paris mix and draping the wet towels over the clumped newspaper. A second method would be to use extruded Styrofoam stacked and carved to form the hills, then use the plaster cloth to form the terrain use Woodland Scenics Plaster Cloth. It’s not very messy. Using the plaster cloth can be used for small grades or larger hills. As the plaster is drying you can smooth the hill by using wet fingers and rubbing lightly for the smooth surface. You will find if you experiment you can have the terrain you desire.

The picture to the above shows two levels, the engine sits about 1.5 inch above the lower level. The blue Styrofoam hides the elevation. As you can see it does not need to be neatly cut. Rolled up newspaper also works well. Its only function is to support the plaster cloth. The styrofoam was glued in place with Elmers white glue

Plaster cloth can be cut to fit any size and location.

Here you see a cut piece of plaster cloth in place. I place the cut plaster cloth in a plastic dish to soak for several minutes then put it in place.

Here another sheet of plaster cloth has been put in place to complete the coverage of the Styrofoam. Use as many sheets as necessary to cover the area.

I like to place two layers of plaster cloth for strength. Then using wet fingers smooth the plaster as you can see in the picture the holes have disappeared by smoothing the plaster adding to the strength. The Styrofoam allows for smooth surface and smooth finish.

Rolled up newspaper will allow for a more hilly finish as the plaster cloth will follow the contours easily.

Here another sheet of plaster cloth has been put in place to complete the coverage of the Styrofoam. Use as many sheets as necessary to cover the area.

Once you are satisfied with the area you are working, paint with an earth color spray or brush whichever you desire. I find spray cans are faster and easier.

If you are working in an area where track has been placed you will want to mask the track as I did.

For this example I used a black spray paint to lightly cover the area.

At this point I walk away to let the paint and plaster dry. Doesn’t take very long.

Step 2 is spreading earth or sifted dirt onto to the wet paint. If you have let the paint dry fear not, you can use a spray on glue. 3M and Elmer’s both make a great product, I have used both. Spray the area with the glue and use a tea strainer to cover the area with earth, gently tap the strainer as you cover the area. You can use the Fine Turf or sifted dirt. The dirt can come from your back yard. Let it dry then put it through a tea strainer. let it sit for a day or two then use it on your scene. If it gets a little thick in areas don’t be concerned, you can smooth it out with a small brush or let it go. At this point you can spray the area with an inexpensive hair spray. That will hold everything in place.

At this point the two levels are connected by a rolling hill, covered in dirt.

In the next installment we will add grass, weeds bushes and shrubs to make the area appear to be ready for trees, people and vehicles. Bringing the railroad to life.

Continue to Part 2.

How to Add Excitement to Model Railroad Scenery on Your Model Train Layout

Creating realistic scenery is the part that pulls your model railroad layout together and brings it to life. Little details can make a big difference, as many spectators will spend a lot of time watching the trains operate, so they will get to notice the little things that add to the overall effect. Your visitors will get see the vegetation that grows alongside the track and notice the signs on the buildings and the weathering techniques used on the trains.

Check the article Scenery – Six Steps.


Tunnels and a bridge will add interest to a model train layout. You will need a rail station too. Put operating signals at crossings. Use either a set of crossing flashers or a flasher and drop-arm combo. Kids (and adults too) are mesmerized by these ‘lights and action’ items.

Other ideas like a working grain elevator, water tower, coal loaders, or a control towers help complete a scene. Be creative, but specific, when making scenery for your model railroad layout.

Make sure any vehicles and rail crossings are from the right era. One idea is black washing the grilles and hubcaps to add depth and realism to the scene. Using a small brush you can also paint taillights, parking lights and door handles if needed. Then consider taking the cars apart and install drivers and passengers. Nothing looks more unreal on a layout than vehicles seemingly driven by invisible ghosts!

Click here for lots more clever model train layout ideas. 

You can purchase miniature figures in male, female and child variations all molded in ‘flesh’ color. The arms must be attached by gluing. Then the figures can be painted. Sometimes, the figures will not fit between the steering wheel and the seat. It sounds a bit cruel but you simply cut the legs off with pliers and they fit just fine. Use flat (rather than glossy) model paint to make painted clothing and hair look real.

When buying adhesives for joining scenery, there are several choices in hardware stores and hobby shops. They are not all suitable for the same job.

When building scenery try using an acrylic matte medium or white glue as both of these modeling adhesives are water soluble. However, a contact-cement may be more suitable in some applications.

If you are going to use white glue, you may want to dilute it with water using 2 parts glue to 1 part water, or a 1 to 1 ratio, depending on its application. Try adding a few drops of liquid dish-washing detergent as this will help break up the surface tension of the water. Another thought is to add a small dab of latex paint to tint the glue and help hide any bare spots.

Always keep scenery, buildings, people and structures to the right scale relative to the trains.

Join Robert Anderson’s popular online Model Train Club to get lots of clever model railroad ideas to help you build the model train layout of your dreams! 


Robert Anderson is the author of Model Railroad Scenery & Layout Construction Ideas

Model Train Scales

When you get into model railroading, you quickly learn about model train scales. Every model train that is produced has a scale letter associated with it, such as: HO, O and so forth. The scale lets you know how true to life it is and more importantly, the physical size of the train itself. The scale refers to the size in comparison with the real thing. For example, 1:220 means the real version of the model train is 220 times larger. If you are a newcomer to model trains, the amount of space will be the first factor in determining which scale to go with. For the hardcore model railroader, mixing scales is a great joy when space permits. Lets take a look at some of the model train scales and minimum space requirements.

Z Scale trains are 1:220, which means they are very small. I call these cute trains and they are perfect for those with an extremely limited space. As with any scale, you can expand the layout as large as you want to go.

Next up is the N Scale, which is 1:160. N scale trains are semi-popular and are great if you want your focus to be on your layout and not the train itself. They are small as well, so you can fit these trains into minimal space.

HO Scale model trains are 1:87 and the most popular scale of model train with model railroaders. They offer a good level of detail and allow you to fit a nice size track into an average size space. I like HO scale trains because they blend in great with any type scenery and you get a good balance as a result.

The O Scales, my favorite, are 1:48 and very popular as well. Lionel has been making great O scale model trains for many decades. These model trains are larger and require a good amount of space for a proper layout. It is possible to setup a small oval track in about a 5-foot by 5-foot area. Although the track will seem small because of the trains size, it is better than nothing. If your layout is smaller, the O scale train will dominate the view.

There are a couple other scales, such as S and G, but these are the main ones I choose to discuss in this article. Only you can decide which scale is right for you. Some, with limited space, prefer the O scale model trains, even though they dominate the layout, because of their detail and size. O scale trains are meatier and are really great for pacifying the children.

All trains have a variance in quality so one scale is not necessarily more expensive than another. Although, I have found O scale model life to be a little bit pricier. You really cant go wrong with model railroading. It is highly rewarding and wholesome. In the end, you might find yourself collecting model trains across the entire scale spectrum. Get out there and ride the rails!