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Scenery Tips - Model Railroading Tips, Tricks and Techniques

Scenery Tips

Do you have scenery tips to share? Email them to me here.

Wal-mart sells a great material for creating very realistic looking water, its called gallery glass. Its in the stained glass making section of the crafts department. It comes in several colors. I found the crystal clear dries to that and can be worked to create a surface that looks like moving water. the greens and blues are nice as well, but keep in mind that they dry to a darker color so that the "Penn Central" green you use will dry to a very nice shade of "lake" green. -T.C.Shred

Telegraph Wires
Not so much a technique as a great product. It's called "Easy-Line" and is some kind of elastic material that stretches about 300-400% of it "normal" length. I am not selling it; I'm just a satisfied customer. Your hobby shop should have it or be able to order it. It is smooth, unlike the fuzzy thread I used to use, and can take a fair amount of abuse, although anything will break if you hit it hard enough. Tie it around the insulator on the first telegraph pole in a line, and give that insulator the smallest drop of cyanoacrylate (super glue) to hold the knot in place. Unrolling the easy-line from the spool, a simple loop around the insulators on the rest of your telegraph poles (with a small dose of CA glue) will hold the "wire" in place. It is available in several colors, including black, rust, and a greenish oxidized copper hue. -Frederick Monsimer

The Grassy Knoll
Here's how to make simple and very inexpensive grassy hills. I model in HO, but this will work for any scale. I just started working on my first layout. After admiring photos of hills in magazines, I thought about a way that I could create nice, realistic looking hills on my layout. At the time, I was broke. I had no money to buy expensive materials and was too impatient to wait until I got some cash. I came up with this: Take some old newspapers and crumple them up into a ball. Then, stack them and smash them into the basic form of your hill. Once this is done, tape the big wad of paper to the layout. Take a large piece of heavy, white construction paper and spread it over the crunched up newspaper. Glue the ends down. It may be a little bumpy, but this looks natural for landscape. Then, spread glue across the hill and add ground cover and foliage. -Mr. Rookie

I have found that Kitty Litter works good for a few purposes. I have not used this technique for very long, so it involves some experimenting by you.

First try using it as carloads for gondolas and hoppers. You can put it in them predominately by using watered-down white glue, or just put it in whenever you please. Try to shape it into little piles for more realism, but it is a little tough. Also, try painting it black or a glossy graphite to represent coal, or leave it plain for gravel. Maybe a gold color could be grain.

Another good idea would be for ballast. Just make it like you do any other ballast, but kitty litter is a better value, and the 40lbs buckets last forever. Just use your favorite ballast technique and presto! Instant ballast roadbed at a cheaper, economical price.

Try using kitty litter for other things, too. Gravel roads, put it by your cement plant to be used in concrete, or make a rocky shore, just for starters. Try it out!

I have been trying another idea, for scenery, but it is totally experimental. I've been trying to use insulation, from houses, as rocky bluffs near water and such. I had a bunch left over from a project, but I haven't really used this idea much. If your bored, just try it out someday. Please, if you use any of my ideas, please email me at at and tell me how it worked, or didn't, or how you improved upon it. Thanks. -John O

Track Nails
I read the post about using needle nose pliers to hold the nails while driving them in to hold the track in place. I use a nail set to push the nails in. I found that driving the nail in (even with a small hammer) would set the nail too deep and am very happy using the nail set (purchased at a local hardware store for about $3.00) to push the nails through the cork and into 3/4 inch plywood. -Charles Chapman

You know, I realized a great way to make graffiti without buying those expensive decals. I use White-out (a correction pen), the finer the tip the better. I even made up a cool scene with this- I painted an HO car, parked it in front of a university, and put an angry teacher beside it, like one of his students painted it! -asparuh frangov (viper)

Get even more scenery tips & techniques with Robert Anderson's Model Train Help
Model Train Help eBook 4th Edition

I live near the sea and a river so I have various grades of sand on hand. It ranges from course to very fine. The course is great for track ballast. I stick this down with a 50/50 mix of PVA glue and water. Remember to wash the sand before you use it. Removal is easy, just spray with water. For more ballast pay a visit to the beach. -Jim More

River Bank Rock
I have a raw edge of ceiling tile used as a base for my saw mill area that runs up to a river. In an attempt to make the edge look as natural as I could without tapering it down to water level I first coated it with white glue and then piled up ground corn cobs against it. Once the glue was dry I brushed away the loose corn cob and had a really neat looking rock river bank.

The natural color of the corn cob was great for the area that I'm doing so I coated it with a coat clear Rustoleum. It can also be painted any color with an air brush.

I bought a 3 gallon bag of the stuff for a buck and a quarter at the pet store. It's normally fed to parrots as a supplement to aid them in digesting their food. -Ed Mabesoone

While adding a scrap yard to my layout I realized that a scrap yard is not a scrap yard unless it's loaded with a pile of old tires. I grabbed a set of wheels off an HO scale pick up truck and headed for the auto parts store where I found some automotive vacuum hose that was the same diameter as the tires from the truck.

Two feet of the hose cost me a whole $0.65 and when sliced with a modeling knife makes a bunch of fantastic tires. Once piled up, glued together, weathered a little bit and some weeds planted in some of the outer ones they look great.

Although I'm modeling HO I'm sure the hose is available in enough different sizes for other scales too. If not there is always fuel hose to consider. -Ed Mabesoone

Ground Cover
I am some what of a weekend wood butcher if you will excuse the expression. I do however produce a lot of sawdust and over the years have tried to think of things to do with it. When I started modeling railroads I found that it was easy to use as ground cover as well as adding colors on my trees.

Once I have collected the sawdust I make a bee line to the grocery store and buy some fabric dye. There are hundreds of different colors if you take the time to shop a little. You can also buy it in liquid or powder form and although both work well I prefer the powdered kind.

Mix up the dye according to the directions and start adding your sawdust. I add the sawdust until all the liquid is gone and then some. I them put the colored sawdust in a baking dish and put in a 250 degree oven for an hour or so to dry it out. Once it's dried and cooled I bag it in 1 or 2 gallon freezer bags depending on how much I have to store it until I'm ready to use it. I apply it to the ground with carpenters glue and to my trees with spray glue or hairspray.

It's great stuff and a whole lot cheaper than ground foam. -Ed Mabesoone

Cool Bashes of Hay
I went to a nearby little field of dried up grass in Houston. I then picked out some grass and went home. I wadded up some newspapers an made a ball out of them(I taped it with masking tape so it will say still).I made it to fit HO scale. Then I cut the grass into little pieces, perfect for HO scale. Then I "painted" the ball with glue. Afterwards I sprinkled the little grass pieces on. Try buying the cheapest hair spray and spray it no the unfinished bash of hay. Again, sprinkle a second layer and let dry. Use a hair dryer on cold, or a portable fan so the leftover sprinkles will fall off. Why not try this on a hopper or gondola? Or use it as grass? make up different uses for this wonderful idea! -Viper

Free Cool Loads for Hoppers
I made up a imaginary cement factory on my layout. I made up that the company used the cheap reliability of the train to ship its giant boulders from its mine to the factory. So, I went to the park, close to my house in Houston. I picked some very rough pebbles and small rocks for HO scale (pick them out to fit your scale). I loaded my Union Pacific hoppers and gondolas. They look very realistic, and it's absolutely free! I didn't have to ruin my cars by gluing it, so next week I'll pick up on a whole new scenario! -Viper

Wood Stain
I found to simulate wood colors, use "brown shoe polish". I am building a wood trestle bridge and found if you do each piece individually, and rub at different pressures, you get varied colors. After that you can add silver or black paint for weathering. -Bob Ogrodowski

Coal Loads and Dirt Roads
Another good source of coal in small size is the coal from charcoal canisters used in vapor recovery in automobiles. Just visit your local auto recycling center. Used sand blasting sand makes good road bed for dirt roads to when glued with 50/50 Elmer's and water. -Brad

Ground Cover
A great technique for those modeling on weird surfaces such as wood that can't be painted, or foam that is cut strangely:


This is really simple:

  1. Cut off as much double stick tape as you need to cover the surface, and affix it onto the area.
  2. Stick rocks, debris, and plastic parts on the tape.
  3. Cover the tape with the powder so it sticks down and is laid out evenly.
  4. Sprinkle a differently colored powder on top, and . . . Voila!

A perfect scenic solution! -Adrian

It pays to look for modeling devices wherever you can. I find that many toy cars are completely acceptable for HO scale, and a lot of the 'no name' knockoffs are actually closer to HO than Matchbox or Hotwheels, and cost far less than finescale cars. I was at the arcade yesterday, and got 12 vehicles after acquiring tickets from the games. -Stephen

Old Ties
Here's a industry for your railroad's old tie's. How about a old wooden tie seller. This will provide a place to put those gondola's of old ties. This will also create revenue for railroad from the dealer and his customers. This could be a short siding at the edge of the layout and the rest of the industry could be imagined such as the truck scales. -Dana

Ground & Hydrocal
An old blender (or a newer inexpensive one) makes a great addition to any workshop. You can make groundfoam by filling the blender with water, and then adding chopped clumps of foam rubber and acrylic paint to the mix. Add enough paint to get the shade of your desire.

When thoroughly blended, let foam bits and pieces dry overnight on a paper towel.

Use the blender to mix lightweight Hydrocal, as well. I don't know about the rest of you, but I have found that Hydrocal is not too easy to mix to the right consistency; the stuff doesn't 'dissolve' like normal plaster does. The blender makes quick work of it. Cleanup is easy if you first dump all of your mix onto a secondary "pouring" container, and quickly rinse the blender out under warm water in a utility sink or hose spicket. Pour your mix into the molds from the secondary container.

Also, to save some time, and mess, you might try buying 'pre-cast' rocks; there is at least one guy on Ebay who sells them pretty cheaply. -Chris

Trestle Span
See Trestle Spans on the How-To page.

Rock Cliffs
I found for making rock cliffs along a backdrop, take Styrofoam meat trays, break off the curved part, and hack them up with a hobby knife and screwdriver to simulate chipped stone. Then you can paint them in either a shade of brown or a shade of gray. With lines engraved into them, and carefully cut out, they can be used for stone walls. -Stephen

An easy way to hold figures when painting is to fit it with 'Pritt Buddies' (from Pritt) on a photo film plastic box! -Sainte Eric

To make a large quantity of good looking stumps, cut wild grape vines in the size you prefer. On the vine will be "bumps". Cut in the middle of the bump with a pruning shears, then cut how long you want the stump. The bump will be the part toward the ground. If preferred, a notch can be made after the stump is cut by again taking the pruning shears and cutting partially into the stump and by twisting the shears upward, breaking this part out. Mass production, no cost and realistic. -Kurt Larson

Roads, Paint and Rust
There are several brands of alcohol based asphalt patch material used to mend roofs and gutters. I found that I could dilute and pour it in a form made of stripwood, to make a road bed. Before it completely hardens you can rub in some talc and cut in cracks and divisions. You can even carve scale bricks as the underlying old road bed. The surface looks remarkably real.

Also I almost never paint anything. I gesso it and then add layers of alcohol stain (used for shoes.) I usually mix and dilute my own colors and then put them on in several uneven layers. I have several moss green washes that I put on finished shingles to imply a little moss growing. If you have a cabin in the deep woods, dust the moss stain with fine white grout powder. It absorbs the color unevenly and looks exactly like lichen growing on the shingles. Works great.

I hate that fresh painted look, it kills scale. A nice washed out slightly uneven color really helps keep things in perspective. I'm always interested in finding new ways to achieve this.

For old metal and rust I discovered Instant Iron by Modern Options It's excellent for iron smoke stacks and works great as a coating on scale correlated roofing. I drizzle their Instant Rust down the pipes and roofs to get a nice aging effect. It takes about an hour, but the surface actually rusts. The roof effect can be enhanced by dusting with different colors of grout powder while it's still wet. When it's dry I do an uneven wash of very dilute dark stain to get a more realistic look.

Okay my favorite way to make rusted iron culvert pipes, ancient smoke stacks etc is to take aluminum tubing or wrap heavy aluminum foil around an appropriate sized bolt to get the correlated look. Then dip the end in Radio Shack printed circuit enchant. Be careful, it's nasty stuff and it eats away slowly at first then it goes like mad. A bonus is that this thins the tubing to almost scale thickness...i.e. very very thin. It really helps drive home the illusion. Once I have that eaten away look I either paint it with the instant iron and rust it or I paint it black then treat it with Rustall...several coats. Sometimes it comes out too shiny, which also kills scale so I dust it with rust dust or dull coat it.

I hope this helps someone out there. -Peter Plantec

Auto Headlights
One place that many people tend not to put lights is automobiles. It can be done! I drilled out the headlights on a plastic Hot Wheels car, and put one Minitronics bulb in each hole. Now the car has working headlights. Also, I lit up a double deck London bus, for a nice effect at night. Red bulbs make nice tail-lights, especially in a heavily trafficked area. -Stephen

When making a heavily forest area that extends to the backdrop, it may be prudent to just buy some trees by Life Like or the others and use them where people only see the tops. Hacking at them with scissors a little will only add to their effect, too. -Stephen

The Wild Wild West
If you want to get a good ground cover that looks just like in the Western movies here's how:

First find some dry crumbly clay and sieve into fine dusty - dirt (the finer the better). Next go down to your local paint store and pick up a pot of the same colour as the clay. Now paint the area you want landscaped and leave to dry. Once it's dry paint again, and this time sieve the clay onto the wet paint and leave to dry. When it's dry carefully sweep off the clay that didn't stick and then (using an old paintbrush) paint over the same area again and sieve clay over the wet paint again. When it's dry carefully sweep off the clay that didn't stick. Next use an old ruler and scrape along the area you painted and you should be left with a good looking rough western terrain. For areas that are smooth such as roads use the ruler after they first coat of clay and don't worry about the second. -Mitchell

Tunnel Portals
I have found a easy already made tunnel portals from the packaging that holds florescent tubes that are shaped in a "u" shaped form. It's made of a gray cardboard with a nice shapes of concrete and big blocks. I have not had a chance to use them yet but its a good size for "S" and possibly "O" gage. -Bob B

Bashing A Bit
On the Model Power Lumber Storage Facility, discard the plastic boards that come with it, but keep the logs. Paint the sides of the logs Testors railroad tie brown, but leave the ends alone. Then you have realistic logs. Next, replace the boards with real wood ones. Then, weather the roof with railroad tie brown, and grimy black. Finally, purchase a low intensity light bulb and hang it under the rafters. The effect is quite nice! Now you have a realistic Model Power building. Who says Model Power is junk? -Stephen

Telephone Wire
To model wire for N scale telephone poles I used the wire found in an old turnout switch machine. The wire is very thin, closest thing I've found for scale. I suspect that nearly any small wirewound motor would contain similar materials. -Michael Ferguson

Old Wood Appearance
One tip is to make unstained wood look old and gray. The tip is very simple just lightly go over the balsa wood with a dull pencil. -Mike Luyster

Old Roadway
One way to get a brick road to look like it has been there for a few years is to go to a hobby store and by some cheap plastic brick road. Lay it down where you want it. Then take black water color paint and paint some on to the street, before it dries take an old shirt (if you use a towel or something like it then it will soak up to much of the paint) and with you're finger covered with the shirt gently wipe the road. This will leave the paint in the cracks between the bricks giving a dirty worn out look. -Steve Lynch

Here are some Mini Scene idea's for your layout:

1. Have a victory parade for the home Team including a supporter with no gas in his or Her car (depending on the era's modeled) with some one pushing the car.

2. Drive your Safety inspectors crazy with accidents about to happen (some one about to fall in the manhole or fall out the window.)

3. Have some one about to get into trouble (rail fan + scrapyard + junk yard dog)

4. Why show someone sweeping the station, fixing the leaky water tower, or doing some repairs at the station)

5. Have a loose tiger or any other wild animal in your town ( think of all the possibilities you could create in that scene .

6. Have some hijinks in your town or country side. (grad of 19?? or 20?? on any thing, an old wagon or barn supporting the home team) and a few old timer's saying that they never did that. (According to your RR's town archives, they did). -Dana Gill

Improved Trees
To improve the appearance of Life-Like trees, I cover the base with glue, and then take pencil shavings from an electric sharpener and cover the base with them. This make it look like woodchips and is particularly suited for parks or lawns. -Stephen N

I have found a source of coal for modeling with. It is from activated charcoal filters used in respirators, new ones are preferred but a used one is as good if it is neutralized. -Gilbert

Don't purchase Hydrocal from the hobby store in expensive small containers. Go to a tradesmen Drywall/Gypsum board supply house and buy it by the 100 lb sack for around $10.00!!! Ask them to order it in if they don't stock it. -Fred Penner

You can make model railroad trees with from a cheap plastic xmas tree. -Sam Grant

I have added water to scenery by first making the base for the river/lake by using the styrofoam that you use for building insulation. I carve it out, after having glued a few pieces together if necessary to get the depth. I then paint the bottom and add ballast for the rocks on the bottom.

I cover this with a coat of liquid plastic, available in craft stores. I have tinted the liquid plastic or added shades of blue to the painting of the bottom for the water effect of water if not actually adding the water to the scene.

To make the water moving, I've put piping and a reservoir under the layout and added a pump hiding the hosing with a dam at the top of a mountain. When doing this, you have to be sure that you have a full seal of the liquid plastic anywhere the water is going to run. You also have to use a small pump which you may have to cut down on the flow.

If making a larger layout, you can cut plastic pipe in half lengthwise for the riverbed and add ballast right into liquid plastic to hold it in place when the water flows. -Jean Weingartner

Yellow carpenters glue forms a stronger bond than white glue and dries just as clear. Use the same dilution with water as you would Elmer's white glue, depending on your application. This extra strength is very important for track ballast, or for scenery on mobile layouts or modules. -Mike Allred

More Water
I think I have a new way to put water on track. Theoretically, it will work, for I don't know because I don't have includeable space on my layout. What you do is to make a "riverbed" by placing an indentation in your mountains, hills, or on just a narrow inset in a flat area. Next, coat the area the river is to run through with "dirt" and maybe a few rocks (small), cover this with a layer of clear plastic wrap, and slightly warm it to thin out a bit, but not too much or the layer will melt and you have to do it again. Next, take a small, aquarium style water pump and place the pumping part at one end and a lake or sub layout collection area. Place the pump intake so that it cannot be seen or it will look funny. Place water in the collection pool and get ready to have some fun. (Hint, place a small boat in the water to simulate somebody that has gone fishin') Happy Modeling! -Alston Pike

Foam Base
I met a man at a model rail show today, he had a beautiful layout made entirely out of white foam, built up in layers to form a hill. The foam was painted out of a mix of water, white glue and dirt he had brushed up (scraped on a hard surface with a brush is a better description) from dry clay under his house. The next bit was a thin layer of old carpet felt underlay, with some large trees and an array of small trees/shrubs. It looked really effective. -Nick Sherwin

Last spring I bought a bridge abutment at a train show, Noch or Cooch don't remember for sure, new in the shrink plastic. As I discovered, this wrap if you remove it carefully so not to rip it, can be used as a plaster mold. Just needs a bit of support to keep it from bending outward. Use it as you would any other mold, spray it with the soapy water mix and pour plaster or what ever you use to mold. Works well if you need to make a wall or other abutments.

To weather, I found that with pastel chalks work well. If you want to cover an area with more than one color and don't like to keep cleaning the same couple brushes over and over, a good tool is a Q-tip. They don't last long as they do come apart, but will hold the dust/chalk a little better and you can have hundreds of them for pennies each. -Larry L. Doub

Yard Ballast
To ballast large areas of yards and achieve a dirty mottled look, spread regular fine builder's sand evenly between the tracks till it's even with the top of the roadbed. Use a small wide brush to even out any "humps" or "holes." When everything is smoothed out to your satisfaction, wet the sand with a spray bottle which has water and a small amount of dishwasher detergent added. When the area is thoroughly wet, dribble on Elmer's glue diluted 3 parts water to 1 part glue and dyed to a dark charcoal grey with India ink. use a large Elmer's glue bottle to distribute the dyed glue evenly and let the sand absorb it as you go. To help it spread into the sand spray occasionally with your "wetted water" solution. After the sand is colored and glued, leave it to dry at least a day. To achieve a more "grungy" appearance, use washes of thinned waterbase paints in "dirty" colors to make the area look more "used". -Roger Denison

Driverless automobiles look extremely odd "parked" in the middle of streets. Any cheap dime store or toy shop (correct size) figure including toy soldiers make proper occupants. Just cut in half, paint appropriately and glue to seat. While you're at it -- don't forget that cars have tail lights (many are not painted, left body color)and license plates. The latter easily drawn by any non-artist, reduced to proper size via photo copy & colored with magic marker. Scotch tape covering helps to preserve. -Dal

New source of coal . . . free!! Next time you want to clean the gunk out of your home oven, save the crispy black stuff on the bottom. When crushed this stuff is shiney and black and makes great coal!! Remember, this stuff is carcinogenic, so wear a mask when crushing . . . and enjoy! -John Carter

Staple the bushes to your layout. The bushes will naturally conceal your staples and they will be better held to the layout. -Alston Pike

For making rocks use pine bark. Stack chunks on top of each other paint with correct colors and, tada, you have jagged shelf rocks. The technique will make realistic looking Shale rocks (found in the southeast USA, not sure where else). -Jonathan Rutledge

Road Bed
Just the other day, I was making a delivery to a manufacturing plant, and to my delight, laying on the ground in front of me was a very huge sanding belt from an industrial sander. This belt is exactly 4 inches wide, worn down, and weathered to perfection. It made an excellent road for my model. -Frank

Ground Cover
I have taken old plastic Christmas trees, the ones with brow branches. Pull off the green parts, put a nail in the hole and spray them with spray glue . Sprinkle grass that is like saw dust on them. A little brown sprinkled in them makes them look real. They are not all going to be alike. Also Rit dye makes good coloring for plaster back ground. -Glenn

When you want to model a small stream but don't want the slow, still-looking fake water, use tin-foil. Wad it up and cut into the desired form, this way, you will have the rippling effect with the water. Make sure you put plenty of lichen around it, it looks great in old mountain logging scenes. -Ben Johnson

Hardshell Base
To form your hardshell base, many have used cardboard, screen with plaster soaked paper towels. Cardboard has its merits, easy to work and form, but lacks positive strength and this can cause cracking in your shell. Screen helps to give the lateral strength to eliminate stress cracking but is rather expensive. The alternative, believe it or not is free! Onion sacks, orange bags are a nylon mesh type screen and used in conjunction with cardboard or scrap lumber give you a wonderful base to drape your paper toweling/plaster on. This gives you the lateral strength needed (similar to 2.5 wire mesh used in real plaster work) to eliminate stress cracking and gives you a solid hardshell that will last a lifetime or until you build your next layout. -Todd

If in a hurry to get some trees done, I discovered that I can foliate tree armatures quickly. I employ the cheapest type of hair spray I can find at the beauty counter. Just spray the armature with the hair spray and sprinkle ground foam on the wet armature. If needed, I'll repeat the process until satisfied. To complete the process, I'll apply the hair spray one more time to set the ground foam in place on the armature. I can do several dozen trees in an hour and place them on the layout almost immediately. -Marty

Urban Junk
When modeling an urban scene , never forget the garbage that you see every day . It can range from an old news paper here and a rundown shack there , to piles of junk and scrape outside of major industry or railyard. One of my personal favorites is the broken-down car halfway in a body of water. But look around you and come up with your own ideas. -Glenn A. Atherton

Tree Trunks
Don't overlook Fire place or BBQ matches for your modeling. The sticks are about 12 in. long and 1/8 in square. They can be used to brace the insides of buildings, cut to length, used as ties alongside your tracks, they can be used to make cribbing and I use them also to make tree trunks. By glueing 4 of them together to make a 1/4 in. square. I shape them roughly and cut to length. These are stronger than balsa wood. When drilling for branches, you are less likely to brake them. At only about a buck for 90, a great bargain. Dip the wood in a pint of rubbing alcohol with a teaspoon of india ink to give them a weathered grey look! -Dick Watson

The other day I was looking for figures (people) for a particular scene that I was constructing. Needless to say, I couldn't find any. Therefore, I elected to cut the arms and legs off of cheap figures and repositioned these as desired to get what was needed. To attach the arms and legs I employed CCA cement. When dry filed the excess glue off with an emery board. I repainted the figures and placed them in the desired scene. -Marty

3D Billboard Signs
While visiting a craft store I came across small packaged doll house sized soda bottles. I employed a couple on a sign that I made for "Canada Dry" brand soda. I placed a "Canada Dry" soda ad onto a billboard and attached two of the doll house sized soda bottles (labeled for Canada Dry). To attach the bottles to the billboard, Drill a small hole into the back of the soda bottle and crazy glue it in place. Next, drill a small hole into and through the billboard to allow the wire to pass through. Slip the wire through the hole enough to obtain the desired distance you want the soda bottles to be away from the face of the billboard. Bend the wire behind the billboard and crazy glue it in place. Presto, a 3D Billboard Sign. -Marty

Telephone Wires In N-Scale
I had in the back of my mind a need to find something to simulate telephone wires for my telephone poles. EUREKA!, I found a light brown long ponytail hair piece in a 99 cent item store. Start by attaching the strands of hair to the inner most telephone pole crossarms with CA or any other glue. I am sure you will find many other uses for this simulated wire. -Jim Campbell

Corrugated Sheet Metal
If you wish to male plenty of scrap, rusted corrugated sheet metal cheaply, find a plastic bottle cap that has corrugated finger grips of the approximate size. I have even used the cap off a Bordons glue bottle. Randomly spread white or yellow glue over the corrugations and let dry. Remove dried glue with an exacto knife and you will have a clear casting with holes and a eaten away look. Cut to size and paint with rust colored paint. Litter the countryside all you want! -Dick Watson

I am new to railroad modeling, and only 31 years old. The first thing that I loved about modeling was the ability to create something from my mind. Of course, being an Internet/Network Engineer, I am always creating for others. The second thing I noticed, was the fact that besides the trains, nothing else seemed to me moving on other peoples tracks. So I have set out to create automation as much as possible. For example, why not dump coal from a mine into a train, then move the train to a dumping location, then move the coal hidden back to the top of the mine to complete the cycle? OR, put a real waterfall and moving rivers. I have not finished my layout yet, but working with real water must require some special considerations when working with waterbased paints. Just a thought. -Brian

Pine Trees
One way to enhance cheap pine trees, is to dip them one at a time into a white glue solution and to sprinkle some ground foam on them after removing the tree from the glue solution. -Marty

A quick, cheap & easy way to lay a gravel & stone road is to first lay tacky glue where you want the road to be. Then sprinkle the desired thickness of fine sawdust over the area concerned. Tyre tracks can then be added by using an OLD vehicle being pushed back and forth. When all is dry (usually the next day) paint over the sawdust with the appropriate coloured flat paint. Very realistic looking . . . I did experiment by using sand. It didn't have the same effect. By the way. It's OK using moss that you find as bushes but make sure you get every trace of dirt off. Do it by soaking the moss otherwise the glue won't have such a good hold when the dirt has dried. -Rick

An easy and free way to make bushes for your layout is to find moss outside, dig it up, shake off the dirt and glue on your layout. Looks very realistic and is absolutely free! -Dan Charles

Business Signs
For small business signs look for good ones on match covers, business cards and in the yellow pages. Think about hanging them over the sidewalk in front of stores.

Also look into shadowbox minitures at your nearest craft stores. These are very small miniature items that people use to populate shadow box displays. These small items are also great for store signs. I used a 1 inch size pump bug sprayer (the old fashioned kind you see in cartoons) out in front of an exterminators shop and a small rendition of an old water pump out side a tavern that I named "The Pumphouse." I've seen miniature coffe grinders, flour sacks, coins, etc, etc, etc. -David Russell

Downspouts and Piping
For downspouts and piping in general look for florists wire. It is a very soft wire used by florists to bind bouquets. It is usually painted green and comes in many many gauges. -David Russell

An easy and free way to make bushes for your layout is to find moss outside,dig it up,shake off the dirt and glue on your layout.Looks very realistic and is absolutely free! -Dan Charles

For an HO scale hose I took a piece of thin soldering wire and placed it on a lighted (60W) bulb and the flux inside the soldering wire dissolved so it looked like a hollow hose pipe. (N.B. if you are using a long piece only the furthest ends will dissolve.) -Mark Farrugia

Rock Ledges
Use Ceiling tile, broken in strips, stacked in a brick type pattern and glued with a wood glue and water mix, to simulate rock ledges. Some I paint, some I leave natural. Chip the paint off with a screw driver or fork. It's cheap and easy. I use at entrances to portals or to simulate blasted away stratus rock. -Dave Costantino

To color rock try mixing walnut stain and brown, water base, paint. They don't mix well...that is what you want. Take an OLD paint brush and scoop some of the "mixture" onto your rock face. Spread and dab at will. You will get some outstanding shading effects. This will however take quite awhile to dry and be sure to have good ventilation. -Dave Costantino

Using a cork roadbed (I am not sure if that is the correct term), commonly used for deading the sound of the train, as a concrete or asphalt road. Simply paint it like a road, and glue where you want it. If you desire pot holes, put them in any creative way you want. -RobG

Tunnel Portal
Need an "HO" scale automobile tunnel portal? I employed an "N" scale tunnel portal that allows cars to travel beneath the new city I created on my layout. -Marty

Carve Foam
To carve foam, create the texture you want and them spray acetone on. Wait until you get the texture you want and them spray water on top to stop the process. -Alex

Urban Scene
In an effort to create an urban scene on my "HO" scale layout, I employed "N" scale water tanks on the tops of several of my high-rise structures. Most city buildings use water tanks on the tops of the buildings to create enough water pressure required for the building. The water tanks were painted roof brown and later weathered by dry brushing a lighter color. I removed the water spout and other railroad related attachments so that the tank would look correct for the top of a high-rise building. -Marty

Ground Cover
I have been experimenting with different ground covers and have come up with a very realistic method. What I use is Parsley Flakes. By grinding them up you can create a very fine ground cover. But what I have also found is by grinding them up only partially you can create a leafy type of texture great for making indigenous trees. It works great and is cheep to buy. You can usually buy it in bulk at your grocery store. To apply simply spray with hair spray and sprinkle on. -Ryan Teierle

Foam Application
When putting scenery foam down, use an old seasoning or salt shaker. It puts it out evenly and quickly. -Alex

Plaster Cloth
Woodlands scenics plaster cloth is quite good to use but a BIG drain on the pocket. If you live near a major hospital, make an approach to their orthopedic (broken bones) department & ask if they can save their off-cuts. It's exactly the same stuff & even if you may have to donate an afternoon tea to the nursing staff it's still cheaper. My local hospital were only too delighted to help out & even accidently(???) placed the odd roll of new material in. I collected the stuff over the period of several weeks but it was well worth it & a few of the staff have even come round & viewed the layout once they realised what it was all for. -Rick

Many model railroad layouts I have seen have included people in them but they seem to look out of place where they are. When placing the people around the layout try to interact a group of them together. For instance mum with the children shopping & stopping to talk with someone. I even placed an army type sniper on one of the structures & made up a story about it. (See my web page.) Unpainted figures are the cheapest option but of course some modelers don't like to spend the extra time in painting them but at least you can get more poses with them & you can vary the colours of their clothing more. -Rick

Hay and Straw Bales
Make hay and stray bales out of small blocks of wood and belt sander dust or saw dust. Cut small square wood stock about the size of a bale of hay, then dip it in water/glue solution and cover it with sander dust or saw dust. Pine dust looks like fresh hay, oak dust looks more weathered.

Wire Fence
Wire fence can be made for "veil" material that you can purchase in a fabric store. There are several sizes and shapes, pick out the one that best fits the scale you model. The design of the material looks just like a real fence, unlike that of ordinary screen.

Yard Office
Railroads often build yard offices out of old cars, I've seen boxcar, refers, and cabooses converted into office space. Just remove the trucks, built up a foundation out of scale lumber (10x10's or 12x12's), add a stair case, doors and a window or two if necessary.

I (used to) use Hydrocal grade B. Mix it and dip paper towels into it. Drape across window screen and let dry, almost. Then dip more paper towels into the cement (heavy on the cement) and drape over and shape by squeezing or punching with fingers. Then get sprayer bottle and spray with water to retard the drying. Get flour sifter,with poster paints, mixed with yellow, red and green poster paint to get a brown color, more or less. Sift over wet cement so the landscape looks really like real land. Add red or yellow as needed to alter the brown, add green to make landscape more green. Before the cement dries, press real rocks or models of rocks, into the cement so it looks like rocky terrain. -Wendy Holmes

Foam doesn't have to be stacked horizontally.

I built an N-gauge module depicting a section of the Columbia Gorge - the base (river) and track level were horizontal two-inch blue foam. For the cliffs and slopes above the track level, the left side was conventionally stacked and carved, the right started with 2 narrow horizontal layers with a "roof" sloped up from there to the backboard (with other, partial layers added for variation, and, in between, two layers set vertically, diagonally transverse to the module. These were the basis for representing the vertical, exposed dikes of volcanic rock visible in the area. The cliffs and slopes were carved with knives and a surfform to rough shape.


(The following was, of course, done out in the breeze; I'm not totally non compos mentos. Do not attempt this in your living room; done by professional drivers on a closed course, etc. etc. :-)

The resulting surfaces were "etched" with applications of solvents - I started with lacquer thinner and used MEK for rapid/deep etching. This was particularly effective on the vertical dike formation - I had rough-cut the general shapes of pillars and spires in the top edges of each piece of foam before I glued them together. As the solvent is applied (thick brush, eyedropper), it cuts away the foam much as natural processes of water and wind errode the prototype. I also used brushed applications on the "roof" side to etch shallow gullys and rivulets into the smooth slope.

The module has drawn many favorable comments and served as an informal clinic venue at local shows.

Tthis is not a recommendation for the procedure; merely a report. If you try it and like it, don't blame me. -Larry R Brumback

Ground Foam
For ground foam use that green foam stuff that florists use some times. Just get a dull table knife and scrape away! -Daniel Jones

I have a winter layout and model a lot of snow. Here is a tip for modeling wind-blown snow that has fallen over a plowed right-of- way. Pour a thin sheet of plaster into a bucket. When it hardens, chip it out and break it into suitable sizes. Scatter the chips along the right of way and pour over them a very thin wash of plaster and water. Let the material flow naturally through and around the chips. When that thin wash finally hardens, it will have thin "striations" throughout the mix that looks for all the world like wind-blown snow snaking in and out about the frozen hunks of previously plowed snow. -Tully H. Turney

Using RTV Molds
RTV (Room Temperature Vulcanized) Rubber molds are simple to make and can allow you to cast several identical detail castings for your scratchbuilt models. RTV Rubber is a two-part mixture made by Dow-Corning. It comes in various styles. I find 3110 the easiest to use because it does not require an expensive vacuum pump to decompress air bubbles.

Take the detail you wish to copy, called a MASTER, and glue it into a cardboard or styrene box with dimensions about one inch longer than the master by one inch wider than the master. When placing the master in the box, you will have 1/2" on all sides. The height of the box should be a minimum 1/4" higher than the master (the master should be 1/4" below the top of the box.

To find out exactly how much RTV it will take to make the mold (I don't like to waste any RTV because it is a bit expensive), I fill the box to the top with salt, or some other granulated substance. I then pour the salt into a clear plastic cup, and level it off. With a black marker, I mark a line around the cup at the height of the salt. I then return the salt to its container.

In the cup, I slowly pour the liquid rubber until it's just about to the line. I then take some of the catalyst (it's in a tube with the liquid rubber mixture) on a popcicle stick. Read the directions on the tube for how much to use. It should be a 10:1 ratio of rubber to catalyst.

Slowly stir the catalyst into the rubber until the two are blended well (about 2 minutes). Air bubbles will surface as you stir. Trickle the rubber mixture into the box slowly, trying to fill the corners first. Then, slowly fill the box with the rubber. The master should be totally covered by the rubber. The slower you pour, the fewer air bubbles there will be.

After pouring, the box should be just about full. Gently tap the box on a flat surface for 3-5 minutes to get rid of air bubbles. Another way to eliminate the bubbles would be to use the warm air from a blow dryer. Any trapped air bubbles will ruin your mold as they will destroy the details.

Once the air bubbles stop surfacing, let the box sit on a flat surface for 24 hours. To check to see if it hardened after 24 hours, take a toothpick and gently rub it over the smooth, rubber surface. If it's still liquidy, let it sit another several hours, checking it from time to time.

Once the rubber is hardened, cut down the sides of the box and remove it slowly and carefully from the master detail, and powder it with baby powder.

The mold, if handled with care (cleaned with dish detergent, blow dried and powdered between each use), will last for an extremely long time without losing detail. You can use Alumilite (2 part liquid plastic) or a type of plaster or polyurethane to cast your copies. -Tony Segro

Tree Construction
Be sure to see Lynn Gobin's Tree Construction on the "complete how to" page.

Tire Tracks
You can make it look like a car has driven through the dirt or grass. After you have put down the grass, take an eraser and rub off some grass to look like tire tracks. -Chris Taylor

Create a Board Effect
In scratch building structures out of balsa wood,an inexpensive method that worked real well in HO was to take a flat piece of thin balsa and then use a metal dog comb with a straight edge to create a board effect on the wood. Looks as good as any manufactured siding. Just be sure to get a comb that is the scale width. Now I'm trying to find something similar in N Scale. -Ray Kopp

To add a realistic looking billboard to your HO scale layout, use a standard business card. Not only are they the perfect size but they are pretty much unlimited as far as businesses go.

If you pick up two cards that are the same, you can use one as a billboard, and the other as signage on the actual place of business. For even more realism, add a balsa wood frame, and a light. -Kyle Kessler

Road Signs
Looking for realistic street signs? Go down to the Department of Public Safety and pick up a copy of the driver's license study guide. It slam full of picture of actual street signs. You can use a copy machine to reduce or enlarge to fit your scale. To make your signs stiff, cut them out and glue them to an index card. Wait for the glue to dry then cut it out again. What about coloring? You can use an orange or yellow highliter. If the color isn't dark enough, just color over it again.

Now that you have your signs made, what about sign posts? For HO scale, use the kind of florist wire the they wrap around roses. Attach your new signs to the post with on drop of white glue on the back of the sign. The glue will dry clear, and presto, road signs that cost next to nothing! -Kyle Kessler  

Need an inexpensive stack of firewood, simply go outside find a small dead branch on a tree, cut into small pieces, and use wood (Elmer's) glue to create a stack as large or as big as you need. This method could also be used for a pulpwood load. In less than five minutes you have a load for a bulkhead car and money not spent! -Patrick A. Ward

Paved Streets
A simple way to age your paved streets: use a fine point pen to create cracks. Simply drive around your neighborhood or areas similar to where your modeling and see how they're aging. Word of caution though, don't go crack crazy. -Patrick A. Ward

Does that structure look too plain? If you're modeling anything other than winter, try adding some ivy or vines. Using model glue, I prefer Testors, draw some ivy-like squiggles and then sprinkle ground foam over the area. Let dry for a few minutes and then you have instant ivy. Does it look too shallow? After the first layer drys, add more glue and more foam. -Patrick A. Ward  

Foam Mountains
While building our layout of 12 x 10 we wanted mountains for our HO size towns. Plumbers foam seems to be the perfect material for our 3-D effect. It was also used as clouds in a muriel on the wall. The finest thing about the foam is it can be cut and shaped and planting trees is a breeze. One more thing, we have a silver mine and in one of the old modelers magazine they use alum foil for the casts for their tunnels. We found that the alum crunched and wrinkled made the same effect and only cost about 99 cents, of course you paint the foil. We are learning new things everyday. -R. J. Grady

From Jack Hanks
Instead of trying to duplicate typical railroading, models can be used to model the unusual or unique, but in a plausible way. John Allen was as expert at making the unique look plausible.

I discovered that an old rusting metal shelf could supply many tons of scrap iron for gondola loads. These flakes of rust could comply with various scales. Just fill the gondola with the flakes or add a false bottom and fill the remainder of the car with the rust flakes and apply white glue. Set the car aside until the glue dries. Presto, you'll have real honest to goodness a steel scrap metal load. -Marty

Emery Paper
For the place around manufacturing plants or farms you can use emery paper that is available in different colours and with nice structures. After you have put it on the scene it should be partly painted with water colours. If you want to join several sheets of emery paper you should tear the edges. By doing so the end of one and the beginning of the next sheet will hardly be recognized. -Markus

Ground Cover
To cover areas with dirt or soil I have used tinted tile grout. I got a used bag from a floor tile dealer. They have assorted colors that mix easily and give a great textured look to the layout. -Larry Diekema

Weeds, Straw and Hay
To model weeds, hay, straw, and grass get some "binder twine" from a farmer/horse owner. If you can get both new and old twine. The twine is a natural (make sure that you don't get the new plastic stuff) material that takes paint/stain well. It also weathers naturaly. Hang some outside for a year and it will look like fall weeds, let it lay on the ground and it will get a grayish color. It can be cut in very short lengths and used as some ground cover. -Terry Lee Rouhier

I take the foam that people use to hold fake flowers and crushit up. To get different colors, use crushed chalk of the appropriate color and sprinkle it with the other powder onto the area until you get the right color. Remember to spray glue on before and after you apply the powder. You could also mix posterpaints with hydrocal and let it dry, and then grind it into a dust, and sprinnkle the same way you did the chalk. -Randy Whitehill

Ground Cover
If you need to get a lot of grass, just crush up some of that green foam stuff that you stick fake flowers into. To get different colors, crush it and put it in a thin mixture of the correct color paint, and water. Make sure that there isn't a whole lot more water than paint, though. let this dry, and break it back into a powder. Spray glur on to the place that you are putting your ground cover, and sprinkle it on. -Randy Whitehill

To make barrels on ho scale models take pencel eraser holders and paint them red. -Brent

Cardboard Base
For fast construction of cardboard web scenery base, use a clamp-style staple-gun instead of glue and clothespins to connect the cardboard strips. While an office stapler may work, the industrial-strength staple gun will be easier to work with and can use larger staplers. -Bill Siggelkow

Model Your Friends
Instead of placing generic figures on your layout, it can be a lot of fun to model your friends, through placing them in characteristic settings. One friend is looking down into a convertible while his wife photographs his backside. Another two friends have dropped a beer keg outside of a bar. Another waves to her boy friend who is working on a power pole. You get the idea. -John Hanks

Ground Foam Application
I found that the best way to apply ground foam to my layout is with extra hold hair spray. Fisrt spray the area to be covered with a good application, then apply foam as desired. Wait for approximetly 5 min for the spray to dry then apply another top coat. -Ed Maciulis

Telephone & Power Cables
Telephone & Power cables can be made from black thread or small black yarn run from pole to pole. Very realistic looking. -Matthew

Dirt Road
To depict a dirt road, I employed acrylic paints. Mix the paints with raw sienna, yellow and black. I mixed these colors a little at a time on an old piece of plywood board until I captured the right color. With a fan brush, I brushed the paint onto the desired area. You can mix any desired earth or dirt color with acrylic paints. There are many areas on the layout in which to use acrylic paints to spice up a scene. It's really easy. -Marty

Light Industrial Modeling
If you wish to keep things simple, you might want to try light industrial modeling. This type of railroad serves light industries on a branch line located on the edge of metropolitan areas. It is often located on an old interurban line paralleling a main line or diverging out on its own. It might be possible to connect a series of old table top layouts as if they were an abandoned traction system. -Jack Hanks

Urban Structures
To model an urban scene takes lots of structures of various heights. To begin with, I elected to bash several DPM kits together to gain the needed height. In an effort to achieve higher structures, I attached a platform behind a couple of the structures which allowed me to place shorter structures onto, to create the illusion of even taller structures. The backs and a side on most of the structures were never modeled and are only foam core board (to add strength) glued to the detail parts visible. Modeling an urban scene can be fun and will enhance a layout. -Marty

Urban Scene