Techniques I Used For Planning and Constructing
My Miniature Model Railway Scenery

By Kevin C

My own miniature HO railway is modeled on the Virginia and Truckee railroad in the state of Nevada USA. Because I wanted to have something resembling an actual railroad I spent some time researching this on the internet, in books, and in magazines. The internet is invaluable when looking for actual photographs and videos. I was redirected to You Tube ( from the Virginia and Truckee site as it had videos taken on the trains by people that had been there and seen the fascinating scenery first hand; also some interviews with people that knew the history and also operated the railroad.

model railroad scenery tips

Click Here To Watch Video

Google Earth has also paid a part in this as I can follow the actual railroad and also get trackside photos of the scenic terrain present day. I wanted to model the railroad at around 1936 I have always modelled in HO scale or 1/87.

Making Best Use of the Available Space and Materials

Having built and moved in to a new home we had a 9 meter (29.5ft) by 6 meter (19.6ft) garage so I was able to partition a room off at one end as this was being built. I lined the room with 16mm (approx 5/8”) MDF board after putting fibreglass insulation in the walls and ceiling and put dry wall board on the ceiling. The MDF made it simpler to attach the L-Girder benchwork to the walls making it stronger.

Watch Next Video

Using Insulated Foam and Adhesives

When it comes to scenery making a number of materials can be used to make the topography. For light-weight model scenery, foam products manufactured for home insulation is a popular choice. Styrofoam is another widely used material. Both extruded foam and beadboard insulation sheets can be purchased inexpensively from home improvement DIY stores, such as Home Depot and Lowe’s. The thickness is usually up to 2 inch and the sheet size 4ft x 8ft. Specialty suppliers may also sell thicker foam sheets with different densities (firmness) for specific tasks. Cutting the sheets with a saw blade or sharp knife is relatively easy. The pink and blue varieties both work and can be used together if required. Beadboard foam can be cut with a hotwire tool or knife.

A hot glue gun can be used to secure foam but care needs to be taken not to melt the foam in the process. Water-based liquid nails and other adhesives are widely used. Solvent based adhesives (including commercial grade liquid nails) can eat away at foam, so using the right adhesive for the project is a must.

As I was modelling a mountain railroad I was able to make it 3 levels and point to point operation and not a continuous loop, so once the train gets to the end of the track the engine is uncoupled and runs to the other end of the train ready to start the return trip just like the actual railroad. By using KD couplings the uncoupling is done with a magnetic strip placed between the rails. Present day operation of this railroad is passenger only but in its heyday it had both passenger and freight trains operating.

Techniques for Constructing Realistic Model Railway Scenery

Once the track and roadbed was laid and all the wiring completed I was ready to start the scenery and over the last 50 years I had tried most common types of scenic mediums and products from very fine wire mesh, Hydrocal, and plaster to paper Mache. This time I used 20mm cardboard strips woven into a mesh over wooden formers i.e.1/4 inch plywood to 9mm (approx 3/8”) MDF cut to shape the hills, mountains, valleys etc. and the tunnel portals were cut from 16mm (approx 5/8”) MDF off cuts. I also made cardboard formers to attach to the tunnel portals to go inside the mountains to look like the tunnels were dug into the hills and these were painted matt black color inside. Over the cardboard mesh I glued a light canvas like artist’s use to stretch over their painting frames. I used PVA white glue mixed 50/50 with water and a few drops of dishwashing liquid over the entire canvas. (This stiffens the canvas when dry.)

A couple of days later I painted this over with plaster mixed to a consistency like thick paint and as each coat dried another coat was applied until I had applied six or seven coats. The next thing is getting the buildings and structures positioned ready and making sure they sit level and form the roads, sidewalks etc. I worked more plaster to keep them level and smoothed them with a narrow trowel. The holes for building lights and power poles were added next.

Making the Scenic Terrain Look Really Realistic

Plaster rocks were made in rubber moulds and these were glued in place with more plaster (you can use Hydrocal) and left to dry approximately 2-3 days. For your information; plaster or Hydrocal has a smooth texture, Sculptamold is a bit coarser, and Celluclay would be the coarsest material.

The rock and boulders was painted with a very thin coat of acrylic matt black (you can use India Ink) brushed into the cracks etc and left to dry thoroughly before applying a light grey with the stiff artist brush taking care not to get it into the cracks in the rocks and crevices. The rest of the plaster, was painted with an earth colored acrylic matt finished paint. I used a tan/yellow ochre color that matched the pictures I had of the terrain in Nevada. Study scenic photos and even youtube videos to get good ideas for the right colors for rocks, desert landscape, ground cover etc. in the region you are replicating.

Once all this was dry I started applying the ground scatter material working in small sections. Firstly I painted the area with the same white PVA glue 50/50 solution that I used on the canvas and applied a mixture of green brown and yellow ground cover scatter with a small tea strainer that I bought at the local discount variety shop. Any ground left uncovered just looks like natural ground once the glue has dried clear. Being a desert type terrain the ground cover is not dense. You can buy model railway scenic scatter and accessories from various manufacturers including Woodland Scenics.

Constructing Realistic Model Roads

After all the ground cover has been added I move my attention to the roads and decide from photos if they are gravel or sealed. Back in 1936 some of the roads were no more than dirt tracks. So adding a narrow strip of green ground cover up the centre of the track and by grooving each side as wheel tracks you have an instant dirt track. By adding really dark grey in patches and instant water solution you have puddles but remember deserts don't have puddles most of the time. For shingle roads I sieve some concrete premix (sand and shingle) to get the very fine sand and this is spread over the glue applied to the road service, don't be alarmed if the surface is rough most shingle roads are. These model railway scenery techniques are the ones I use, and you might have another (or better) way of achieving similar results.

I use a mixture of dark and a lighter grey to paint the sealed road surface and concrete roads have lines running across them at even spacing's (about 9 meters or 29.5ft on full size roads so use the scale that you are modelling to space these correctly) to simulate the poured sections, these can be either painted or use a craft knife to score the plaster and paint the groove black before painting the road surface usually a medium to light grey flat paint. You can add cracks in the concrete by lightly scoring the surface with a wriggly line by using a fine pointed craft blade before painting.

More Scenery Construction Methods

Miniature scenery can be as simple or as complex as you want, look at areas of the country or areas that you are modelling. If you are modelling for the first time try making a module say 800mm by 400mm (31.5” x 15.75”) and practice with that and remember take your time and get it as accurate as you can. Try different mediums. I have a mate that bought a roll of scrap news print paper and used that to cover his hills etc he used 50/50 mix of PVA glue and water and he glued several layers of paper together as you would layer several coats of plaster it worked out fine. He tore pieces of the paper into about 150mm squares and layered these so that pieces overlapped each other. The reason he tore the paper as against cutting, no sharp edges the torn paper hid the edges as it was layered.

The roll of news print cost him about $18.00 from the local newspaper office, or you could just use news papers but you would need to seal the ink print with a good sealer undercoat paint so that the ink did not bleed through the final paint. Then add the scatter material just as you would over plaster etc. He still used plaster to add rocks and roads were made of tiling grout that he had left over from upgrading his bathroom. The grey colour saved him painting them. Railway history.

Adding More Vegetation and Details to the Layout

Adding trees etc first I select the height and type of trees and drill a hole for the trunk of the tree to sit in, you need a tight fit and a dob of full strength PVA glue and carefully push the tree in and leave for the glue to dry, the same with telegraph poles, these need to be spaced evenly and a scale distance apart. Small details with your miniature scenery can make a huge difference to the overall realism of the modelled scene. For wire fences I used tooth picks cut to length and a good size brown cotton thread (to represent rusty wire) run and looped at every post and glued in place with a small amount of super glue. Either three or four single strands spaced up the posts are sufficient.

I used a silver thread on the telegraph poles to represent the wires again a small drop of super glue to hold the cotton thread in place. Allow enough between the poles to simulate the tension drop of the wires and keep them all even. I hope your find these model railway scenery techniques useful.

Model Railroad Scenery Tips

How To Make Model Railroad Scenery

Model Railroad Scenery Techniques

Model Railroad Tunnels

LED Signals