How to make scenery for model trains

Written by anthony altorenna
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How to make scenery for model trains
A steam-powered freight cuts through a mountain pass. (toy train image by pearlguy from

Building realistic scenery improves the appearance of a toy train layout and creates a sense of time and place for the model railroad. For many enthusiasts, building scenery is the most satisfying aspect of the hobby. Some model train enthusiasts create landscapes and vistas from their imaginations while others strive to model actual geographic locations and towns in miniature form. Recent advances in modelling techniques, modern materials and the availability of scenic details from several different manufacturers reduces the time, effort and skills needed to build a scenic model railroad.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Rigid foam insulation
  • White glue
  • Serrated knife
  • Rasp
  • Joint compound
  • Latex paints
  • Ground foam
  • Scale-size accessories

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  1. 1

    Draw a track plan that includes the scenic theme and geographic location of your model railroad. Include scenic elements such as mountains, tunnels, bridges, trees, roads and buildings to define the basis of the model railroad: a gritty urban scene, a busy seaport, the rugged mountains of west, a logging railway in the Pacific Northwest, the broad prairies of the Midwest or the rolling Appalachian hills. Transfer the drawing into a full-size track plan and lay out the track work on to the plywood substrate.

  2. 2

    Test the completed track work by running trains to identify any problem areas. The trains should run smoothly without any derailments or stalling on the tracks. It is much easier to troubleshoot and correct any track problems or wiring issues before adding the scenic elements to the layout.

  3. 3

    Temporarily position the major scenic elements right on the layout, such as mountains and buildings, and then sketch in roads, streams and lakes. Substitute cardboard mock-ups if the model buildings are not yet assembled and ready for use. Test fitting the buildings and other elements in place on the layout allows you to visualise the scenery in relation to the railroad and ensures proper clearances for the passing trains.

  4. 4

    Build up the mountains and cut through the tunnel passages. Elevation changes represented by hills and tunnels add visual interest to a model railroad, especially on small layout with a level track plan. Rigid foam insulation is a good choice of material for making mountains. It cuts easily with a serrated knife, and it is a lightweight alternative to the traditional modelling method of plaster-covered cardboard and wire mesh.

  5. 5

    Stack the cut pieces of rigid foam insulation until the hills and mountains reached the desired height, then glue the pieces together with a water-soluble adhesive. Fill any gaps with joint compound, and then allow the adhesives to dry and cure. Finish shaping the mountains using the serrated knife or a rasp. If desired, use the tools gouge and roughen areas of the mountains to create a rocklike texture.

  6. 6

    Seal the landscape with a coat of latex paint. Use light browns and tans to represent earth-coloured soils, covering all of the exposed foam hills and bare plywood areas. Sprinkle a mixture of three or more shades of ground foam into the wet paint in the natural areas such as woodlands and fields. The World’s Greatest Hobby website describes ground foam as small pieces foam dyed in different colours and ground into smaller bits to represent weeds, grass and similar ground covers.

  7. 7

    Layer more ground foam as needed to cover the natural areas. Add trees to represent forests, available commercially or made from scale-sized twigs covered in ground foam. Add small rocks and smaller pieces of ground foam in different shades and in various heights and shades of colour for a realistic and natural appearance. Some modelers prefer covering hillsides with larger pieces of ground foam or prepared lichen to represent a canopy of trees rather than placing individual trees to create a forest scene.

  8. 8

    Create urban scenes with buildings, roads, vehicles and pedestrians. Small details add a sense of movement and life to model railroad. Most towns have a passenger station and industries serviced by the railroads, offering scenic opportunities to add details such as street lights, signs, benches, trashcans, equipment, workers and other bits of urban life.

Tips and warnings

  • Test run the trains through the scenery before permanently securing buildings, tunnels or mountains to the layout to ensure proper clearances for passing trains. The National Model Railroad Association recommends using a clearance gauge to keep proper spacing between the train track and the scenic structures.
  • Use only water-soluble paints on rigid foam insulation. The chemicals in aerosol spray paints can dissolve foam products. Cutting and shaping the rigid foam insulation creates a lot of small dust-like particles. Wear a dust mask and cut the foam in a garage or similar area to make clean up easier. Clean the train tracks thoroughly after applying the scenery. Dirty rails can interfere with the electrical contact between the track and the metal wheels of the engine, causing the train to stall.

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