Clever Model Train Scenery Techniques
That Are Cheap & Easy To Do

Making This, Using Nothing but That – Part 3

  model train structures

Making Structures for Your Model Trains

Structures come in three types: ready-built, kits and scratchbuilt. If you are a beginning modeler with an eye toward completing your layout quickly, ready built structures are about as fast as you can get. They are available in all scales and at all price levels. Unfortunately, if you are going to use a ready to go building, you are limited to what the manufacturer has put in for details. That might include come compromises such as window and door frames that aren’t strictly to scale.

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Kit structures are usually much more detailed. The come in all kinds of materials. There are plastic buildings, laser-cut wooden buildings, brass, castings, paper buildings and combinations of all of the above. Kits are wonderful if you have an itch to build or think you might. Try a small kit, and if it goes well you can soar into the far reaches of the price realm. High quality large kits can run to several hundred dollars and take weeks to build and finish.

One other aspect of kit building is the “kitbash” method. This means taking a commercial kit and customizing it with parts from another kit or from your own imagination and handy materials until it assumes a completely different character. Sometimes you just can’t find a kit structure that quite fits your vision of the railroad.

Kitbashing lets you select those elements you like from other structures and make your own creation. You can also “ready-bash” those plastic ready-made structures if you like. There are hundreds of different shapes of wood and styrene that can be used to replace or augment elements of the ready-made structure to make it appear more realistic and true to scale.

The logical extension of kitbashing is scratchbuilding. Like any contractor, you create the plans, decide on the materials, and create the structure just as you would if you were creating it down the street. Plans are available in magazines like Model Railroader and Model Railroad Hobbyist from time to time, or you can even take a project from an author’s article and try to duplicate it on your own.


Building structures is easy with a couple of basic tools. A couple sizes of X-acto or hobby blades are absolutely necessary. Adhesives appropriate to the materials you are using are also required. If you are going to kit bash or scratchbuild, a metal or plastic scale ruler is invaluable. It will save you tons of time by letting you measure in scale inches and feet rather than trying to figure out how many inches 1/87th of a foot is!

Most structures need to be square, so a modeler’s square or small carpenter’s square will be needed. Even kits which should be ready to glue are going to need some help with this. There are also small clamps available that keep building walls square as they are built. Micro-Mark is a good source of modeling tools, but beware! You can easily find yourself rationalizing all kinds of helpful little doodads that will run your credit card charge up!

If you are building plastic models of anything, the parts normally attached to a piece of scrap plastic or metal called the sprue. A sprue cutter is really convenient if you do a lot of this kind of modeling. The sprue cutter is a sort of tweezer with sharp blades that will cleanly separate a model part from a sprue with no flashing and with a flush surface. You will also find sprue cutters that look like a diagonal pliers. This type provides a lot more leverage if you have a lot of parts to isolate, or if the sprue is metallic. This helps a lot in getting small parts to fit together properly.

Once the parts of any kind are separated, you’ll likely find that you need to sand them. You can purchase several sizes and variations of small sanding sticks for tight spots, but you can also go to the pharmacy and buy disposable emery boards in the cosmetic department. They can be cut with a scissors into various shapes to get into tight spots and will suffice for light duty sanding.

While you are there, also pick up a cuticle scissors for cutting paper parts such as printed shingles and signage. If you have a kit that includes tiny screws and bolts, a cheap set of jewelers or electronic miniature screwdrivers will be needed. You can double up on these in your electronic tool kit, if you like. Get both standard blade and cross point tips.

Many kits use very fine wire to model ladders. Search your electronic kit for a set of very fine-nosed small diagonal and needle-nose pliers for trimming and cutting the wire. For most structure building you can also use fine nosed hemostats in various sizes, curved and straight, in lieu of the pliers, but a diagonal sidecutter will still come in handy. Jewelry supply houses are good places to find tools as well.

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Scratch Building Model Railroad Scenery

If you are going to do a lot of structure or rolling stock scratch construction, you might want to consider a Northwest Short Line Chopper. It comes in three model sizes in the $35-60 US range. The Chopper will cut wood and plastic materials squarely and cleanly in the popular miter angles and is well worth the price if you do a lot of custom length cutting. NWSL also has a sanding tool ($35 US) that provides completely square sanding and finishing to small pieces.

It always seems that you are short at least one hand when building models. To accommodate that, there are various third-hand types of tools that provide clamps and clips to hold your fine work at convenient angles for detailed work. Depending the amount of building you do, you can spend $5 US and up on one or more examples. If you can’t find one in the on-line hobby stores or locally, check the electronics e-businesses. Third hands are used for fine soldering work.

You will be gluing many fine parts together. You really don’t want them stuck to your workbench, so have a roll of waxed paper handy to tape to your desktop. The paper will protect the desktop and is easy to remove from the parts with a stroke or two of your sanding strip. You can also use Teflon cutting boards (again, from the thrift store, not your wife’s kitchen!!) in the same way. Making a small pad out of a 12x18 inch piece of 3/8” particle board covered with a thin layer of sheet cork will allow you to pin things down to secure them for assembly. You can also tack down your structure plans to the cork, cover it with waxed paper, and glue the parts in place right on the plans if necessary. If you can’t find sheet cork in your art supply store, you can also use cork floor tiles.

For hobby knife cutting, you’ll need a hard surface for safety and good quality cuts. A sheet of tempered glass of the same 12x18 size can be used over the cork pad to allow you a hard cutting surface. If you can’t find a scrap piece of glass near to that size, commercial cutting mats are available in many sizes. Use one of these suggestions to keep your desktop from having craters dug out by your cutting and trimming!

Which Adhesives To Use For Building Model Railroads

This is a place where you’ll be following the specific instructions with your kit. For most plastics and non-porous materials, you can use cyanoacrylate (CA) superglue. Careful with this stuff, it will permanently bond your fingers to whatever you are working with and to each other. Work in a ventilated area because the fumes are not only obnoxious, they are dangerous. CA comes in several viscosities, generally hardening slower the thicker the goo. There is also a quick hardening agent that can be applied to the thicker CA adhesives to cure them faster once the joint is made.

For wood structures, CA, white or yellow Elmer’s or Gorilla glue work well. Take the time to let the joint harden before you try to move it. Yellow and Gorilla glue tend to work better for wood to wood joints, as CA is somewhat brittle when cured. White and Yellow Elmer’s are also useful for various foam bonding, and for attaching plaster casts to foam or other plaster features.

Attaching loose ballast to your layout is done with an application of “wet water” followed by a 50/50 mix of white glue or matte medium and water.

CA requires acetone or fingernail polish remover to debond, and you can use water to thin or clean up white and yellow glue.

Two part-epoxy adhesives are useful for any-to-any bonding. Mix equal parts of the two components and you should have 5-10 minutes to work on your joints before the epoxy begins to harden.

With any adhesive, make sure that the parts to be bonded are clean and dry, and follow the instructions stated on the package labeling.

 adhesives for model trains and railroads

Polystyrene cements are used for plastic bonding.

The polystyrene cement actually softens, then welds the parts together.

Use it sparingly to avoid damaging plastic parts. Polystyrene cements are available in tube and liquid, brush application form.