Chapter 7 : Scenery & Structures

What? You didn't really think that we'd let your train run around a track void of any personality? You need to make sure your train has people to appreciate it and factories, mills and mines that depend on it.

Making the lie of the land look real. And having a great time in the process. Yep. That just about sums up the purpose of the scenery on a railroad track layout. It adds that final touch or realism.

And it gives your layout that "Ah!" appeal. Kids of all ages will admire how authentic the surrounding environment is. But more than that they will absolutely marvel at how it's all in miniature.

Let's face it, there's something totally mesmerizing about a city that is a detailed tiny version of the real thing.

And many model railroaders take this portion of the hobby every bit as seriously as they do the locomotives and cars themselves. It's amazing how detail oriented these enthusiasts become as they create an entire miniature world on a large sheet of plywood!

Don't shake your head like that. Of course you can do it, if you decide to. You could, to get you started, go to the hobby shop to buy your buildings, vehicles, men, women and children. You can pick up your mountains and your mountain tunnels.

And there's absolutely no shame in that either, especially when you're first starting out. But there just may come that day, when you say, "Yep, you know I think I can do." And the next thing you know you're heading out the door to buy those supplies. Either way, just keep in mind that the goal of this hobby is to thoroughly enjoy yourself.

In many ways, it's your scenery that makes or break the attractiveness of your layout. As a model railroader it pains me to say this, but I do have to admit that trains are only a very small part of our world. If you really analyze it, a railroad is nothing more than a ribbon of steel that connects cities, manufacturers, industries, mills, and yards.

Spreading out beyond that steel ribbon there's a world. A world that the train industry connected more than 100 years ago, a world of families, of worries, of joys, of life.

The trains are part of that, but only part. So if we can display the trains within the natural surroundings of the day, then we have really shown the true nature of what railroads meant to those 100 years ago and their true role in history.

Let your imagination soar!

What you chose as your scenery, a small town, a coal mine, a large town, a steel mill, a textile mill -- or anything else you can imagine -- is totally up to you. The cool thing is no matter what you choose you can find it in miniature. You can either find kits to build specific models. Or you can find ready-to-set on your layout pieces of these various scenes.

Let me clue you in on a secret. Most of us, when it comes to scenery, opt to build our cities from kits. We neither have the time, the patience nor the expertise to build this type of scenery from scratch. (Did I just hear you breathe a sigh of relief?)

Another reason many of us use kits is quite simple. The choices and styles and varieties are simply amazing. All you need to do is walk into a serious, dedicated hobby shop to see the overwhelming number of structures that come in kits. This is especially true if you running HO scale and N. It will take your breath away.

And if you look a little closer you'll notice the most common material used for this purpose is plastic. There's no shame in that. Today, the quality of plastic models is remarkable.

Worried that your town will look just like your friend's? No worries here. The odds work against that. But if you want to ensure that your kit building isn't going to look like anyone else's, add a few details unique to your feed mill. Or leave a detail or two off. This will be enough to give it that one-of-a-kind pop out look.

Here's another trick I've used. I've combined parts. If I think a building should have a different front, like the one I just bought with this kit, I put it on. After all, I am in charge of this city, now aren't I?

Some model railroaders even go so far as to cut their kits in pieces. They use these as the basis of a building of their own unique design. This habit is so popular it even has a name: kitbashing.

It's a shame the action has been given that violent-sounding name, because the finished products of these "kitbashers" are usually quite beautiful.

In addition to plastic kits, you can also find wood kits and even kits whose pieces are made from a hard plaster, cast polyester resin and cardstock.

You'll have your choice of scenery kits with metal panels that will need to be cemented with cyanoacrylate cement -- or a few that even require soldering.

Forced perspective

It's time to get one thing straight. Forced perspective is not you trying to fit into your favorite pair of jeans from 20 years ago (We have other names for that, but we won't discuss them here!)

Forced perspective is the creation of elements of your scenery in varying sizes, so that objects and people who are supposedly farther away appear smaller, just as you would be viewing them in real life.

When you add this touch of realism to your background, you're adding a layer of realism over which people will marvel. And while this may sound complicated it's really quite easy. It just takes a little organizing and forethought.

All you really need to do is to pay special attention to relationships of objects in the foreground of your scenery to those in the background as well as the height, scale and in some cases even the color of the items.

Viewing the foreground; Imagining the background

Consider for this, a scene that slopes downward from the back to the front of your viewing area. This serves you well because it provides more viewing area -- and more chances to create good scenery. It also lends itself perfectly to this technique.

The background, additionally, is the perfect way to support the illusion of your three-dimensional world. But more than that, it can make your layout appear larger.

You can, once you gain some expertise at this technique ,give your limited space several layers of background. And this alone achieves the appearance of even greater depth.

One avid hobbyist I know took a roll of photographer's background paper -- you know the blue type that you pose in front of for your photo. He stapled it to the wall. Eventually, the train layout would be placed in front of this.

He would eventually place the layout of his town in front of this. But not before he added a few touches to ensure it would appear as realistic a sky as possible.

Try white chalk to create clouds. The lower the clouds on this paper, the more distant they'll appear in the scenery. The easiest way to draw clouds, by the way, is to use the sides of your chalk and just "color" horizontally across the paper.

Don't settle for just white clouds either. You may want to darken the sky with a few gray clouds as well.

Now you're ready to work on the background itself. Start from the back, which represents the items at a distance on top of the mountains. It's fine - in fact, encouraged -- for the mountains farthest from you to be hazy, even muted-looking. It adds to the illusion of distance.

A crucial element of successful forced perspective is the observation that your objects farthest from you look the smallest.

Now if you want to kick the perspective aspect up a notch, consider even using a layout with two different scale trains. The smaller HO train placed to the rear of the layout, with an "O" gauge to the front adds an unparalleled touch of realism to your layout. Your foreground and background scenery jump to life when you can create them together like this.

Lineside Details . . . Here's just the ticket

Yes, your forced perspective gives your town an added touch of realism. But getting the detailed effects of the signage and other utensils used by the train's personnel that run next to the train are very important as well.

And you're probably not up for a field trip walking next to a railroad track to take photos of what you need to make. Well, maybe you are. But there's a better way to ensure that the little details of these sign posts and other instruments are 100 percent accurate.

Consider using this suggestion of Matt Snell, in the September 2009 issue of Model Railroader. Snell used the resources of the "real" railroad. He uses a standard railroad plan book for what the individual railroad line he's building.

Yes, the standard "playbook" if you will of the real-life railroad. It's just about a given that every train line has one (for that matter most businesses of any kind from restaurants to car manufacturers have similar publications.

If you've ever worked for any kind of larger manufacturing plant or factory that created products, you know exactly what I'm talking about.

The standard plan book for a railroad includes such exacting details as engineering drawings for every possible aspect of running a railroad from light bulbs (yes, we're serious!) to signal installation. Imagine, if you will for just a moment how valuable this could be to your mission of "realism."

These books are the bibles of operation for everyone from maintenance workers to outside contractors. But for you -- the scale modeler -- it can be an avenue to add authentic details to your layout.

You have the diagrams for everything that even remotely remains to the railroad. All you need to do is downscale it.

Ah! But where do you find this nugget of realism?

The internet. That should be where your search begins. Here you'll discover more than one railroad historical society that has these books stashed in their archives. Heck, they might even have some for sale.

Just a note that if these books are tucked gingerly away in the archives of some historical repository, you probably need to be a member of this particular historical society in order to view them.

Beyond that, though, you may discover some standard planning books on railroad-related web sties monitored by independent groups, clubs or even private hobbyists.

And while you're looking, don't forget to hop on eBay to see if anyone has them for sale. It's actually pretty amazing what you find on this site.

Another great place to search is the National Model Railroad Association's Directory of Rail Sites, If you haven't visited this site yet, it's a must for both the novice and experienced model railroader. This organization is dedicated to the hobby, like no other association in existence.

Not quite sure what keywords to use for your search? Why not start with "railroad standard plans" to see what emerges. If the results from these words don't work for you, try plans, drawings ---- even blueprints.

And have fun creating the most accurate lineside details possible.

Let him with no terrain Cast the first . . . rock?

There are many elements to your scenery. You're going to discover that you'll have to urge to either create or buy a tremendous number of small detailed items all aimed at adding realism to the overall theme.

But, if you're considering making that mountain, also consider "casting" some rocks in the process. After all, there is really nothing more impressive than a rugged mountain range packed with jagged rock faces.

Oh, yes, mountains do appear to be solid pieces. In reality once you examine them close up and personal they are really individual layers of rocks, stacked one upon another.

After all, isn't this how essentially geologists "tell time"? By the different layers or strata of rock? They can, by detailing the different layers of rock in the side of a mountain tell you something about the time period this rock was laid.

With this in mind, you just may want to try your hand at casting a rock or two. You may decide at some point to create an entire mountain using individually cast layers of rock. Or you may just want to add a few strategically placed layers to create a hint of layers.

And don't worry, it's not like I'm going to show you how to do this out of thin air. We'll start off with one of the easiest methods around: rock molds. (Now I hear you breathe a sigh of relief!)

The magic of . . . Rubber rock molds?!

The next time you head for the hobby shop, look specifically for rubber molds for rocks. You'll be able to find these in your hobby shop (trust me, you can, you've just never bothered to look!). Several manufacturers make these in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.

These molds produce surprisingly realistic rock formations. You'll also be pleased with how relatively inexpensive these are. Of course, the best part is -- as with any mold -- you can reuse them. Some of my friends have had the same molds for more than 15 years. Now that's durability . . .like a . . er . . . rock!

As you develop into a scenery making you'll learn how you can even create your own molds.

But for the moment, this will do you just nicely. You'll also want to be sure to purchase some kind of plaster that will be easy to use. You'll also want it lightweight when it dries and (yes, we are asking a lot here) have the ability to reproduce the sharp details every well-made rock should have.

One brand, Hydrocal, can answer your needs. But don't think I'm endorsing them. If you have questions on the type of plaster to use ask your hobby store owner, he'll be glad to point you in the right direction.

Now that you're relaxed about this project and you have your materials in front of you, I'm sure you're beginning to see that casting rock is not difficult, doesn't take a long time, and quite frankly, a lot of fun to do. With a little direction, it's one of those projects the kids can do while you're working on another aspect of the scenery.

There are two common methods most individuals use. The first is called straight casting and the second is called casting in place. Let's talk about straight casting first. It's pretty straight forward to describe.

This means that you cast the rock, let the plaster harden and remove it from the mold. You can then use it whenever you want. Yeah, it's that easy!

Casting in place

Casting in place, in contrast, requires a bit more finesse on your part. You pour your plaster into your mold, but you don't allow it to set all the way. You press the mold onto the layout while the rock casting is still soft and pliable. In effect, you're wrapping the rock around any shapes -- or mountains! -- you like. After about 30 minutes, the plaster should set and you can remove the mold. And admire your creation.

Stand back and look at your scenery. It looks just about as realistic as it can be. Miniature families traveling to and fro. Small factories busy producing products. Tiny stores conducting business.

Yep, pretty realistic . . . except for one small omission. Just look at all those buildings you've created. They look brand new! And so they would. Wouldn't you like to enhance that realism? Why don't you make them look like they're aged a bit?

It's something many model railroaders do. And it's really quite easy. It's called weathering. Look around you. How many buildings have you seen that are bright, shiny and new looking -- especially when they're supposed to represent an earlier age?

You can easily simulate the accumulation of dirt, soot, even that rusty appearance many buildings eventually acquire with a variety of paints. When you apply these paints in a thin, washed-out fashion, you'll be pleased how they've seemed to "age" nearly overnight.

You may want to start your weathering process using a flat, water-based acrylic paint. Just be sure that they don't have any solvents that might attack the plastic or the existing paint on the model itself.

And don't worry. If you think that your "weathering" effects don't look quite right, you can easily wipe these off before the paint dries and start over.

But don't be too critical. Before you weather any building, become a student of older buildings. Study the details of structures, how soot lays on the walls, how the dirt splashed from past rains are splayed on the sides of the buildings.

And while you're observing, don't forget to take a serious look (who else but a railroader or a budding Leonardo Da Vinci would do this?) how the sun has affected different structures? Some sections of the buildings may be more faded than others, depending on the position of the sun.

So you want a rusty aluminum roof?

You may want to make that aluminum roof of your mill appear rusty. Here's a great way to do that, using what has been dubbed a "sweet 'n' sour" solution. Soak several steel wool pads in household vinegar for a minimum of a few days up to a maximum of a week.

This acetic nature of this solution partially dissolves the steel wool. Brush this steel wool-laden mixture on the aluminum or even wood. The iron readily combines with the oxygen in the air to form rust.

When weathering wood, you'll want to lay it on sheet of glass already moistened with the solution before you douse the piece. This helps to prevent it from warping. If you're too impatient to wait for this to dry, just take a hair blower and "blow dry" it. If you don't think the wood is as dark as you like it, just do it again.

This method, by the way, works equally as well with plaster. You simply brush on this solution and allow it to dry. If the effect isn't as dark as you had envisioned, just repeat the process.

You can also buy marker pens commercially that are made expressly for creating this effect. There's even a set that's aimed at weathering vehicles, bridges and plastic buildings.

It's distressing . . . But it's what you want

Distressing. Usually that's a term that disturbs us. But in model railroading (and a few other hobbies) it's not an attitude but an action.

Individuals in this avocation distress buildings to make the new appear old. And here's a clever and quick way in which to do that. In a nutshell, it involves placing two different shades of paint onto one building in a very realistic way.

Paint the initial base coat of your building with a lighter shade than the final appearance will be. Let this dry. Then dab on some rubber cement in specific areas. These areas will eventually be those that appear "distressed" and beat up.

Let the rubber cement dry. Now, without removing that rubber cement, pain your finished coat onto your building. That's right, you're painting right over that dried rubber cement.

Once your finished coat has dried, then gently peel the rubber cement of. Of course, you realize this takes the finished coat with it, but reveals underneath it the lighter, base coat.

Looking pretty distressed, isn't it? But you're not quite done yet. Next you'll want to brush this with a wash of very thinned out mixture of India ink and alcohol. Now your building looks distressed.

Don't forget to add some soot to a few buildings. Even Santa Clause ends up with some of this black stuff covering him when he does his yearly travel gig! Soot builds up, for the most part on smokestacks, over tunnel portals and engine houses, giving it a fine dusting of black.

If in don't weather you material from an up and down perspective, as it were. Most weathering effects are vertical.  After all that's how the rain usually falls.

Weathering your locomotives and rolling stock

Well, you don't think every train stays bright and shiny forever now do you? Just as you've applied weathering techniques to the structures in your scenery, you may want to weather your locomotives and rolling stock as well.

You could go to the hobby shop and buy something called chalk weathering. Or if you have children, or grandchildren, you can just as easily borrow their chalk.

Scrape sticks of chalk onto a piece of paper, choosing the darker tones of coloring or mixing several different colors of scraping together until you get a darker color. Then simply brush it on the locomotives and your rolling stock. You will also want to then spray this with Dullcoat. This ensures your weathering won't fall off.

If you use commercial weathering products on the other hand, you won't have to spray to ensure their adherence. These products already contain a fixative that helps to keep the chalk affixed to the surface.

The added benefit of using commercial chalk is the wide array of colors that are immediately applicable to your needs. They come in those colors that you use with the greatest frequency, like black, burnt sienna, rust . . . that range that most resembles the residue, soot and rust on trains.

And there you have it! A complete miniature world, complete with people, buildings and other structures, scenery and especially your railroad cars.

Congratulations! I hope you experience years of enjoyment from your hobby -- and your children develop an enthusiasm for the model railroad hobby as well.

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