Easy Scenery Techniques
To Make Your Model Railroad
Look More Realistic.

Scenery adds a lot to any model railroad. Many new modelers are afraid to tackle it. "Where do I begin?", "I'm no artist", It'll mess up my track","I don't have the tools" are all typical excuses.

Why add scenery?

I'll answer that with a quote from Bill McClanahan's opening paragraph in Scenery for Model Railroads first published by Kalmbach Books in 1958: "A model railroad without scenery is like a locomotive that is minus its cab and boiler, it may operate, but it certainly doesn't look like the real thing."

As true today as when Bill wrote it.

Here are a few of my reasons for landscaping my railroad:

  • Keep my precious rolling stock from dropping to the floor. 
  • Covering the bare plywood with something more interesting.
  • Taking photographs of my creations.
  • Amazing my friends and neighbours.
  • Proving to myself that I really can do it.   


Basics of great scenery

Look around you. There is the natural world and the man-made world. Basic scenery is a blend of the two. When planning your model railroad, make room for both. 

Structures take up space. So do the slopes and drainage ditches along the right-of-way. Make allowance for the buildings you plan to install.

If possible, find out the footprint of the industries you want to put beside those sidings or leave a little extra space. We all tend to crowd in too much track and then struggle to fit in other elements.

Be aware that nature doesn't go in for straight lines and solid, simple colors the way humans do. Take a camera outside and take some pictures of things that interest you. Or thumb through some nature magazines. 

Better yet, get some prototype railroad books or model railroad magazines and study the pictures.

Let's dress up your layout with scenery

alexander coaling tower kitAlexander coaling tower

Structures and landscaping bring a railroad to life. This coaling tower was one of the first kits I built as a teenager.

I said on my home page that this site is designed more for the beginner or average hobbyist. 

Time to experiment. Let's start at the beginning of our scenery-making by starting simple. Find a bare flat section that's a foot or two in size. Cover any track in the vicinity with painters'  masking tape. Remove any buildings.  

Shake on some Woodland Scenics ground foam in a few shades.  Mist the area with some water that has a couple of drops of soap in it. Mist it again with a thinned mixture of white glue and water. Let it dry. Remove the tape from the track.

You're now in the scenery business. Easy, wasn't it?

I use cheap spray bottles for the glue mixture. Thin the glue about 50/50 with water. You may find you need to thin it more to get it to mist. The nozzles tend to clog so you need to flush them thoroughly after you finish. The pre-wetting with the soapy water is to keep the glue from puddling.

I, like many modellers now have switched to using 70% isopropyl alcohol instead of water. Matte gel medium, available at art supply stores, can be substituted for the white glue. White glue gets hard. Matte medium doesn't. It acts more like rubber so it is especially good for sound deadening when laying track. I like Nu-Art matte medium but any store brand will do. An eye dropper is a useful tool for controlling the placement of the glue or matte medium when ballasting track. 

Woodland Scenics Hob-e-tac is an excellent choice for planting bushes and grasses because it has a thicker consistency.  It can be messy to apply because it is so tacky.

I still use water with black Rit dye when spraying mountain scenery and rock faces. Be sure to cover any backdrops to avoid over-spray.

Pick up a scenery book at your local hobby shop. Dave Frary's book is one of the best.

model railroad building scenerySouth Point industrial scenery on my UNRR

On the following pages I'll cover a number of techniques I've picked up over the years.  Click on the links. Try the ones you like. Ignore the rest. 

In no time at all you'll have developed your skill level and have a bunch of methods that are your favorites that you can share with other modellers. Have fun. Scenery work is forgiving. If you don't like the result tear it out and start over. 

Good ideas come from other modellers, too.

I received a note from Thom who reminded me about using powdered tempera with plaster to avoid "white spots" when plaster was chipped:

"One of my favorite tricks when making roads is to add powdered tempera paint into the mix of plaster, spackle, or whatever you use. If “paving” asphalt, I add black, and if it is a dirt road then brown works well. This allows me to carve cracks, expansion joints or potholes into the road without a gaudy white spot to fix later. In addition, if the pavement gets dinged (dropping a screwdriver will do it!) it will still be the same color.

This trick also works well if you want to make your own rock face by crumpling aluminum foil, then pressing into a cookie sheet (the type with sides). Just don’t smooth the foil too much. Then pour your colored plaster into your “mold”, wait to harden, then remove it and whack it with a hammer. Then you can glue the various pieces onto your rock “face” and have a very natural color of stone, broken up into random sections or pieces."

Excellent ideas, Thom. Thanks for sharing.

Learn about building terrain

Adding model railroad scenery to a semi-finished layout

Need to make some trees?

An experiment in painting a mountain backdrop.

Making pine trees with air fern branches.

Woodland Scenics metal trunk pine trees with stretchable foliage.

Methods for modeling roads and streets.

Catch attention with mini-scenes.

How to disguise a top-mounted switch machine.

A chainlink fence acts as a scenic divider.

"Kitbashing" a a Woodland Scenics scene kit.


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