Model Railroad Construction
Over the years I have tried a variety of construction techniques. Some were published methods from books and magazines, and some were my own experimentation. Just like with everything else in life, you learn from your mistakes, then you try again. Some of my layouts were so made from trial and error that there are several different techniques used on the same layout. Notes are taken on what worked and what didn't work. And in the end, if you don't like what you made you can try it again.
In the beginning there was 4'x8' plywood with a slot car race track on it. The plywood board was held up by two saw horses. One day the race track came down and oval train track with a siding and spur took it's place. This plywood tabletop would later become a main part of the first official layout. The oval was never meant to be anything other than a test track for the new HO scale equipment that I bought to replay my O scale, Lionel 0-27 carpet empire, toy train conglomerate, which I had amassed throughout my childhood. I have built hundreds of layouts with the big, three rail track, none of which my parents let last more than one day. It was very educational. Rebuilding the track every time taught me a lot about geometry and electricity.
Anyway, the first two versions of the layout use what I call the cookie cutter, plywood, open grid, bridge the gaps between bookshelves method. Using this method I literally build the benchwork on top of old furniture, including bookcases, old TVs, desks, and dressers. This gave me lots of nice storage space under the layout and sturdy support. I would arrange the furniture in the shape of the layout and then bridge the gaps between the pieces with scrap plywood dimensional lumber, or even old doors. In some spaces traditional open bench work tables were built. In other places the cookie cutter technique was used on top of the plywood.
I like building on top of plywood. I know some people despise it but I like the security it gives to everything on top of it. One locomotive crashing through thin scenery and hitting the floor is too many. The benchwork on the newest version of the railroad is the open grid type with the grid covered with plywood. In some locations the plywood is level. In other places the plane is tilted, just like the real geography of the area, flat but at an angle. Some times the track is flat on the plywood. Other times it is on risers like when the track elevation goes up faster than the natural slope such as where the roadbed raises up into the mountains. This is the back part of the layout between Wolf Mountain and Sand Mountain, above the staging yard.
One aspect I like about using a plywood base is that it makes a good solid foundation for buildings and roads. If the plywood is sloped, then, just like in the real world, some cut and fill is required to level the lot for that new building. But before we get that far, let's go back to the start of scenery.
Scenery: The first scenery method I tried was some kind of stuff in a box that you had to spread over wire window screen to make mountains. It looked kind of real, with no painting required but it was expensive and after it dried it would crack if the wire screen moved. Another mistake I made was using a large sheet of grass to cover open grid which had been cut on top to create the contour of the ground so it would not be flat. This was in the cattle ranch area of the first layout. One day a train derailed and crashed through the grass and didn't stop until it got to China (the floor). Talk about the Orient Express!
Since then I've tried the foam, and the plaster bandages and discovered that for mountain and desert landscapes, paper towels dipped into patching plaster, or plaster of Paris, works the best. The paper towels and plaster can create wonderful details that look great naturally without needing mountains of trees, ground cover or even paint to hide it. First I start by making mountain peaks using the empty cardboard rolls from paper towels and Christmas paper. I tape them down to the plywood to hold them in place. Next I make the skeleton with one inch wide strips of old cardboard boxes. I hot glue them to the mountain peaks and to the side of the elevated roadbed and to the bottom plane. I connect them together with cross pieces so that there is support for a single paper towel between the framing.
I mix the plaster in an old pie pan, usually from King's Hawaiian bread. I just work on one little section at a time because you have to work fast before the plaster dries. Then mix up some more and do the next section. Always completely clean the pan between patches. You can do several sections in one day. This is my favorite part of construction and the most dreaded. It's a sloppy mess but once it dries you have an instant winter wonderland!
Next I paint the earth that I want to not be covered with snow. Don't use brown! Unless you are modeling a mud puddle brown is too dark. Depending on soil content and moisture, the Earth is actually closer to a flesh tone. I think the swatch I picked out was call Jaguar. I use flat, water based, latex paint bought by the gallon from the hardware store. I mix water with it to thin it some and paint the ground from the bottom up, slowly making the snow line recede. If some paint runs down the side of a mountain and covers part of a freshly painted road below, that's run off. The best mudslide I ever modeled was totally by accident because it naturally ran down to the low points and caused some area flooding, leaving a nice mess for the city road repair crew to deal with as it filled one foothill area street intersection with mud.
While the paint is still wet I sprinkle on some Lifelike brand 'Earth'. These small pieces of stained saw dust make an ideal ground cover for the most barren parts of the desert and mountains (other than dry lake beds which get a fine powder cover). Later fine size green ground foam is added to some areas. In low elevations close to the viewers eye this represents natural wild grasses while in the mountains far way, forced perspective turns it into bushes or even far off trees. I use coarse size yellow ground foam to simulate tumble weeds. Course size green ground foam also represents bushes and far off trees.
I cut up a piece of hemp macramé rope into pieces about 1/4 inch long and used it for tall, uncut wild grass which grows in vacant fields. Also small pieces of yarn were used to simulate bushes. This looked really nice in the flat areas of the North End peninsula but looked horrible on the hills, making them look like hairy hills, or fluffy bunny slippers.
Sidewalks and grade crossings were originally made by building forms and filling them with plaster. For better results and less mess, I've switched to using sheets of evergreen scratch building plastic. The layout's roads are mostly painted right on the plywood except where they raise up to go over bridges or into the mountains. Once I tried to make a road like a magazine article said by using pieces of cardboard and covering them with plaster soaked paper towels It was a total disaster. The water from the plaster warped the cardboard and the road was completely unleveled with wave after wave of warpage every inch. It was the bumpiest road ever.
There are some rock outcroppings which were made from store bought molds. They were painted with standard techniques but instead of using Indian Ink like many people do, I just used watered down, black acrylic paint for the low lights and white snow for the highlights.
In some areas I used store bought snow. Some of it turned yellow because of the glue so I had to re do it.
For water I tried these plastic pellets which you melt it a pan and then pour as a hot liquid. It was a huge mess and the heat melted plastic swimmers in the pool. Now I just use matte medium for decoupage to simulate water. You have to build it up in layers but it looks really nice and doesn't destroy your details. There are no toxic fumes like the traditional two part resin technique. All of the rivers are dry and there are a couple of dry lakes. The only water is in swimming pools, the California Aquaduct (a man made river), and Lone Wolf Lake. The frozen water of the ice skating venue is simply a round (dust covered) mirror. The swimming pools, the aquaduct and lake are made to be scale depth. They then have a sheet of clear plastic placed slightly below the water line. Swimmers, boats, or other details are then placed on the plastic. The water is then poured on top of the plastic. partically coving the details. When viewed, it looks like the water goes all the way to the bottom.
||Sand Mountain||High Desert||Barstow|
Copyright 2003 Updated 12/1/2007
Sunset West Productions