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Structure Tips - Model Railroading Tips, Tricks and Techniques

Structure Tips

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

Corrugated Steel
Can be made inexpensively by placing aluminum foil, preferably heavy duty, over a sheet of styrene corrugated siding then burnishing it using a large drafting eraser. Don't use a bright boy as it tends to tear the foil. After you have made the siding its simply a matter of cutting it to the desired size and attaching it to the structure you're building. I use carpenters glue from dollar general and find that Tamiya paints adhere well to the foil. -T.C.Shred

Window Glass
Don't use super glue (cyanoacrylate) for this, as it will fog the window material. White glue, like Elmer's, will work, though it does not really stick well to plastic, and you may have to reapply the window to the model from time to time. For a more permanent solution, go to a hobby shop that has model airplanes, and get some "canopy cement." This is a glue that will attach the plastic window glass to a model while leaving the glass clear. The glue doesn't know that it is being used on a train and not an airplane, and the merchant who sells it won't care. -Frederick Monsimer

Tounge depressers make great HO scale picket fences. All you have to do is paint it and glue it in place. Its that simple!!! -Matthew

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)

Instead of using windows included in a kit or making your own from styrene ( clear ) use Sobo glue. Take a plastic cup, and on the bottom pour some Sobo glue. Take a toothpick and spread a little around the edges of the opening. Then, taking as much as you can, spread it over the window, making sure to keep it level. Let it dry overnight and it will be clear and look like a real window!!! -Paul

Uses for Wet & Dry Sandpaper:

Uses for masking tape:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great looking upright, stationary! I recently visited my local hobby shop and when I left, one of my purchases was a handful of C/A adhesive applicators. These things look like really long eye droppers and are made of a flexible plastic. On closer inspection it was clear that by cutting off the very bottom and the tip, a great static boiler could be created. The really nice thing is that these applicators are designed to take C/A and most paint and solvents don't seem to harm them. Prime them, paint black or rust, add some wire and valve detail and you have a nice model. You can get these applicators for about .50 cents!! -John Carter

When I finish kitbashing a structure, I never throw away the remaining sidewall castings or for that matter any of the remaining parts. There will come a time when another structure is needed and those sidewall castings will come in handy. Going through my stored structure parts box, I managed to scratch build a structure using the sidewall castings from several different kits. The only costs were the plastic cement to assemble the pieces and the paint needed to detail the structure. Everything else was free. See the photo at the bottom of the page. -Marty

Inexpensive Scratch Building Material
I enjoy scratch building structures and am always looking for inexpensive material. Corrugated metal is used widely in trackside structures, but is expensive to buy in scale, and difficult to make from scratch. I found a solution for HO scale that may also work in other scales. It is called "metallic crepe", and is like party streamers, but is available in silver and looks just like corrugated sheet metal. I got mine at one of those party supply stores called "Pretty Party Place". It comes in 60' rolls and is 1 3/4" wide-best of all, it only costs $2.79 per roll. All it needs is a coat of matte medium to dull the shinny finish. I use that sandwich board [styrofoam between 2 poster board pieces-can get it at art and craft supply stores-it's cheap too] to build the actual structure, then glue the lengths of corrugated steel to it with a good spray adhesive or Tacky glue. The material is sturdy, and there is very little problem cutting out door and window holes. -Curt

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

Most model railroads are viewed from a high vantage point. As a result, the roofs of most structures are clearly seen. Just as we add details to the various scenes that we create, the roofs of the structures are just as important. For peeked roofs, vent pipes and the like can be added for interest and or if you era allows, television antenna's strapped to the chimney. For flat roofs, I will add almost anything, such as, vent pipes of various designs and lengths, skylights, clothes lines filled with drying cloths and last but not least, I'll apply a generous amount of engine black paint and sprinkle black ballast on the wet paint to add texture. There are many things that can be added to the roofs of the structures on our layouts. It's only limited to your imagination. -Marty

Smoke Stack
I used a plastic extender section from an old vacumn cleaner to make a concrete industrial smoke stack. Just a few details like steps, a square base, and lightening rods disguise its origin. -Jack Hanks

If you wish to build a free-lance lighthouse try using an upside down drinking glass as the foundation. The upper part of the structure can be built from the parts box. -Jack Hanks

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

Window Panes
My Cornerstone New River Mining kit came with clear acetate windows with the panes moulded in. To add a little more realism to the windows, I wanted to paint the panes. Rather than using a brush to try and paint the panes, I applied a thin coat of the paint to a piece of waxed paper. Next, I fold a short piece of scotch tape in half, leaving approx. 1/4" of the ends unfolded. Press the loose ends of the tape against the back of the windows. This gives you a "gripper". Then press the windows into the paint on the waxed paper. Carefully lift the window off of the paint and presto!, painted window panes. -Bob Brockel

You can create your own roof shingles for next to nothing by making them out of card stock. I use business cards or any card stock about that thickness. First cut strips 1-2 scale feet with a x-acto knife, then cut the strip about half way thru with a scissors about a scale foot apart. When installing them on your roof, do it just the real thing, start at the bottom and work your way up. Put a small dab of while glue on the uncut side of the card stock, use glue sparingly, just enough to get the card stock to stick. When you reach the top, add a cap. Cut a piece of card stock about 2 scale feet wide, then, scribe down the length of the stock right down the middle and fold over. You can do the same thing with a square cap if you have to. Paint and weather as you choose.

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.

You can use solid wore solder, bent to shape and glued in place to make a very nice downspouts. Different diameter solder can be used from N to S scale. Crystal Clear Windows: Use Microscale Crystal Clear. Just use a small wooden toothpick. Put the end of it in Crystal Clear and then apply on the periphery of the window and then make a film using your toothpick horizontally ! That's makes fine 'glazing' windows. -Sainte Eric

On many types of brick factories, the windows are painted silver (I suppose it's to keep the sun out). Some individual panes are painted; others are not. To accomplish this, I take a 3x5 index card, and use dividers to measure one of the many window panes in the window. I use a metal square to draw the window panes on the card. I then use an X-acto #11 blade to cut the card on those panes I want to paint silver. When the panes are cut, it looks like a crossword puzzle. I then tape the card to a clear piece of acetate, and spray it with metallic silver spray paint. I then poke four holes through the card at the four corners of the whole window. Remember the whole window may contain up to 40 individual panes. I then cut the acetate at these holes, and place the acetate behind the plastic window, making sure the silver painted panes line up with the panes on the window. Once aligned, I glue the acetate to the back of the plastic window using drops of MEK (Methyl Ethyl Ketone- the best liquid bonding agent for styrene). -Tony Segro

Window and door screens in HO scale: Use mesh screen (like the ones used in silk-screening of clothing) and color the screen with a black magic marker. Then glue a window frame to the screen. Then cut material along the edge of the frame. (Scratching holes to damage the screen adds realism). -Jim

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

HO Lumber
Wooden coffee stirrers are an inexpensive or free way to get some HO lumber. They make good planks for loading docks or roof rafters. They're easy to cut, and take stain well. -George O'Hagan

Oil Well Pumps
It is fairly easy to make plausible static oil well pumps if you use an inexpensive plastic Bachmann or Atlas Crossing Gate. Just think of these gates in reverse. The counterweight for the gate becomes the head of the rocking arm. The pivot for the gate can be used as the foundation for the counterweights and power supply. You'll have to scratch or kitbash the derrick (easy). -John Hanks

Make It Fit
AHM and other companies made plastic kits which were based on the famous model structures of E. L. Moore. Many had a central structure flanked by two distinctive wings. If space is a premium, don't be afraid to remove the wings and use them elsewhere, while letting the central structure stand alone. -John Hanks

Instead of paying for a pre-painted backdrop or painting your own, use a color printer to make detailed scenes. This is very useful when you need a cityscape in the background. -Ezekiel Johnson

Tin Roofs
To create a realistic tin roof: take a piece or pre-cut board & batten stock (available from services like Micro Mark) and cut it to the desired size. Sand the back to decrease the thickness and then seal the top. Cover this with silver or aluminum paint and apply your favorite weathering material. -Ezekiel Johnson

Power Lines
When running wires down a light pole, it is sometimes easier to drape them down and into a nearby structure. The structure hides the wires and the connection looks authentic. -Jack Hanks

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

Yard Lights
International Hobby Corp. electric power pylons (cost about $5.00 for 5) can be used to make yard lights. Simply cut off the top of the pole at the height you want, add an Athearn chemical tank car platform, and then install the lights you wish.

If you save out the horizontal lattice supports which are used as a base for the outriggers, they can be combined for many uses. I used four at a time for oil derrick supports, others for harbor bell bouys and another group for an early radio station. -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

Marty's Kitbashed Building
Marty's Kitbashed Building