How to Build a Train Layout
The UNRR Part 2

Scroll to the bottom of the page for the latest updates

This is the second part of my story about building a model railroad.  I am chronicling my experience in case it can help you build yours. I don't have all the answers and I keep trying different techniques but you may find some useful information here.  On the other hand you might say "Why on earth did he do that!"

If you want to follow along, the first part of my story about the Utopia Northern Railway, umpteenth configuration, is on the My New Railway page. 

ho to build a model railroadBuilding a model railway: Part 2

As you can see in the photo a lot of the track is now laid and the basic wiring is almost complete.  It's the end of September, 2015 and beta testing of the mainline has begun. Time to finish up the initial track wiring and test run engines and cars. There are problems to fix and turnout controls to be added before giving thought to siding construction, industry placement, scenery, signalling and operations.

All that is ahead. Stay tuned. Add me to your RSS feed if you haven't done so already so you can be notified when I post more information.

Laying track

fast tracks tie jigFast Tracks tie jig

Some of the layout has hand laid track. Above is a tie jig with siding spacing, that is, the distance between ties is a little greater and they are not as precisely straight. Railroads saved money where they could. So do I. As I intended to use this jig with Fast Tracks circuit board ties I left the spaces empty where those ties would be.

tie jig with taped tiesTaped ties ready to plant

I used painter's tape to hold the ties in place so they could be lifted from the jig. This tape is less sticky but works well when being pealed off.

laying wooden model railroad tiesLifting the ties from the jig

You can see how the ties wander a bit. This can be lessened by making sure the ties are tight against one side or by using other ties. These are the ones Fast Tracks sells. 

solered model railroad railsFast Tracks soldered rail from jig

It is possible to bend the tie strips a little when laying them or it is better still to use curved jigs that match the radius. Here I've used an alternate method. I have built the rail on circuit board ties in a jig for the radius I needed and slipped the ties under the rails after setting them in white glue (or matte medium). My model railroad is struggling to avoid bankruptcy so the ties are a little crooked. That's my excuse for the sloppiness, anyway.

fast tracks circuit board tiesSection of glued track

These ties from Fast Tracks are double-gapped. The older ties needed to be filed or cut by hand. It is wise to check the gaps with a meter. I ended up with a short circuit that was traced to just one tie in a stretch of mainline where the gaps had been bridged. That was a nasty problem to locate.

model track rail benderBill Payne's homemade rail bender

I usually just build some flex in the rail by running it through my fingers before laying a curve. I don't normally use a rail bender. That is more important in S scale and with larger rail. I do use a rail bender  when making sharper turnouts such as #4 or slip switches.  Above are two rail benders. The one on the left is my commercial one. Bill Payne borrowed it as a guide and built his own out of common materials from the hardware store.


pin rail jointers for model trackRemovable pins for joining rail sections

As an aside, if you have removable sections of track as we do on our NMR club layout, Martin Alborough's idea is worth considering. He soldered small pieces of brass tubing to the ends of the rail sections and used wire inserts to hold them in alignment. Neat trick. He explained: "I used 1.5mm (inside dia.) x 0.225mm (thickness) brass tube and 1mm round brass rod.  $6.00 and $5.00 for about 4'-0" of each from Hobby-Worx at the Bracebridge show."

The next phase in my "how to build a train layout" is to complete the mainline wiring and the reverse loops.

Dividing scenes

I installed one of my Lenz controllers on one reverse loop. On the other loop and a section of the mainline that acts as a reverse section I used a Tam Valley frog juicer configured for reverse loop operation. Works like a charm.  The mainline is now operating. I added a passing siding and some backdrop dividers to separate scenes.

model railroad siding and backdropScenic divider and new siding

I had neglected to put in a needed passing track. Never be afraid to make changes. In this instance I had to rip the sub roadbed so the sidings would be level while the mainline with the new passing tracks was on a grade. After I had done this I decided it would be a good idea to add a scenic divider between this area and the future site of the city. There was just enough room to put in some narrow buildings and background destinations for freight cars. Below is the opposite side of the scenic divider. The backdrop is from my previous layout. The track has not been laid out yet. I will place my buildings first to work out an acceptable arrangement for operations.

model railroad scenic dividerThe other side of the scenic divider where the city will be located.

Some wiring tips

While this was going on during the summer of 2015 our Nottawasaga Model Railway Club was busy building the benchwork for our new layout and holding some Q & A sessions about track building and wiring. Members Bill Payne and John Houghton held a class on proper soldering techniques and the use of soldering irons for different jobs.  I had forgotten a few things and learned a few new tricks.

  • Put a carbon pencil mark on either side of a spot where you want to add solder.

The carbon will stop the solder flowing past where you want it. This is particularly useful when making turnouts on circuit board ties but can also help on the side of rails.

  • "Tin" first.

Make sure the soldering iron tip is shiny. Put a small dab of rosin core solder on the tip. Tin both the rail and the wire. Use small diameter solid or rosin core solder. Use flux, especially if you use solid core solder. Benzomatic Plumbing Flux, a petroleum based lead free flux is all you need. Get it at a local hardware store. For soldering to rail, use an iron that gets hot enough, such as a 60-80 watt iron for code 83-100 rail. Use a chisel tip if you are soldering at a 90 degree angle. If you use a more rounded tip you need to solder from the side. The idea is to get in and out quickly so you don't burn the plastic ties. Soldering irons such as the Weller ones allow you to change tips to suit the job. The soldering iron I use the most are a Weller 35 watt and a 60 watt. I have two size chisel tips for the 35 watt iron and use that for code 83 rail. I could only find a sharp pointed tip for the 60 watt iron. I use that sometimes for turnouts and soldering wires to the rails. I have a small point for the 35 watt iron for electronic work on circuit boards. I even have a lower wattage Radio Shack iron that I can use for delicate work where less heat is needed.  You can use the lead pencil trick for the top of the rail to keep solder from sticking there. You can use a lower wattage iron with a smaller tip for more delicate work such as soldering on circuit boards as I do. I also have a heavy duty iron with a flat tip that I use for bonding rail to ties when using Pliobond or Goo. This is a trick I learned years ago when our club in Montreal would lay code 100 rail using only the glue on the base of the rail.

Consider silver solder for points on handmade turnouts. It is stronger, but it requires more heat to flow.

  • Use speaker wire for desoldering.

There are special tools for desoldering to suck up extra liquid hot solder.  There is also a braid you can buy. A cheap method is to use braided speaker wire. It works just as well. Snip off the piece once used.  A little flux also helps to get the capillary action.

  • Cheap heat sinks.

Bill found some cheap small clamps at a dollar store. After he removed the rubber ends they could be used as heat sinks. Clamp one on each side of the rail where you want to solder a wire. They keep the heat where you want it. Again get in and out quickly with the soldering iron. Make sure the solder looks shiny when you are finished. Avoid "cold" solder joints that are caused by the wire moving before the solder sets. 

  • Use an aluminum probe to keep the wire in place.

Solder won't stick to aluminum. You can use a tool with an aluminum tip to hold a wire against a rail while the solder sets up. Some people used to use tuning screwdrivers for old radio sets if aluminum tips weren't at hand. I've even used worn out files and even dental tools. Whatever works to keep the wire steady.  

  • Clean the surfaces first.

Although flux will clean the side of the rail you can also use a Dremel wire brush, a wire brush that comes with soldering sets, needle nose files or fine sandpaper to get the rail shiny clean. The same applies to circuit board ties. Solder won't flow over painted, dirty or oxidized rail or metal ties. 

Always wipe the area afterwards to get rid of any extra flux. Most of us use too much flux and too much solder. Avoid the blob! I no longer use acid flux for anything.  find it is too difficult to clean to neutralize the acid. If you don't clean the acid off, the parts will eventually corrode.

  • Practice on some scrap.

If you are having trouble with soldering or haven't done any yet, practice on a scrap piece of track.  All model railroaders should develop good soldering technique. It will save you aggravation down the road.

Roadbed alternatives

I have usually used Midland Scenics HO cork roadbed on the mainline and sometimes their N scale roadbed for sidings because it has a lower profile. Some modellers are concerned that cork dries out. It has never been a problem with my layouts in the past.  This time I opted to experiment with Woodland Scenics foam roadbed. 

woodland scenics foam roadbedLaying down Woodland Scenics foam roadbed

As the photo shows, I had placed buildings on the plywood until I was satisfied with the arrangement and then drew centre lines on the plywood for roadbed positioning. I spread white glue on the back of the foam and used push pins to hold the foam roadbed in place. The roadbed can be split down the middle with a sharp knife for laying on curves, just like cork. However I used scrap pieces of 1x2 pine to hold the roadbed flat on the straight sections and put weights on top. I found that the foam would become dented if I used the weights by themselves. Woodland Scenics recommends using their tacky glue. I find that hard to work with so I resorted to good old white glue. At least with cork I could use water or windshield wiper fluid to soften the glue if I needed to move the cork. Not sure if this will work with the foam roadbed. I had trouble keeping the edges straight. I would use the side of a metal ruler or a piece of wood to help nudge them straighter with limited success.


3m spray adhesive3M Super 77 contact spray adhesive

My friend, John Houghton, used another method on his N scale layout. He first cut out patterns from foam board and used these to draw in the edges of the roadbed. Then he used 3M Super 77 contact spray adhesive on the back of the foam and on the sub roadbed, let it dry for a few minutes, and then carefully laid down the foam strips. He found the water soluble spray didn't work well. Years ago I used brushed-on contact cement to lay down cork. It worked but was certainly permanent! And it smelt up the house. We plan to use John's method at the club. He presented a demonstration of how to do it. It was still possible to move the foam a little after it was laid down so it didn't act as quickly as my old contact cement method. I have also used construction adhesives like DAP but these give you a much more permanent bond. I have destroyed a number of turnouts trying to remove them.

I still prefer cork although the foam is a little easier to cut when laying down under turnouts. But it is lousy for accepting spikes or track nails. As I hand lay much of my track the foam roadbed will require me to make sections of track in Fast Track jigs instead of spiking and gauging the rail as I go. The alternative is to buy prefab Micro Engineering Code 83 3-foot sections and cut to fit. Again I guess I would use white glue or carpenters glue 's hold the sections in place and minimize the use of spikes. In the industrial area pictured above it will certainly be easier to work with commercial track. The alternative would be to solder together the rail in the jigs, flip a section over, and use Pliobond or Walthers Goo to affix wooden ties to the rails. In that way I can drop complete sections into place on some glue and hold down the track with weights until the glue sets. I use coffee stir sticks to spread the glue on the back of the foam. Woodland Scenics recommends their tacky glue. Equivalent tacky glues are available at stores such as Michael's. 

foam subroadbed on homasoteTest of spray adhesive for foam on homasote

I haven't tried this method yet. I tried the spray adhesive method on homasote and it holds very well.

We'll probably use commercial flex track on the club layout because there isn't a lot of difference in price when we analyzed the cost of circuit board ties, rails, wooden ties, joiners, etc. Flex track can be laid a lot faster as well. It can be bonded to the foam with matte medium (or white glue). Matte medium remains more flexible. White glue becomes brittle. Both can be softened with water or windshield washer fluid if track needs to be moved or removed. Contact adhesive would need to be scraped off and this will probably damage the foam.

Anyway, there are a couple of suggestions about how to work with Woodland Scenics foam roadbed. Good luck!

Track work is complete (December, 2015)
Well, almost...

I decided to complete the track work before continuing with the wiring. I did pause to get some help from John Houghton to install a couple of Tam Valley Switchright servos and fascia controls on the mainline (and Bill Payne helped me install some Tortoise machines. An extra pair of hands is helpful.)  The leds on the fascia are not controllable in the same way as the singlets. You can't set the colours. They are always lit as red or green. Other than that they are an excellent package.

My current layout isn't very prototypical and there won't be a lot of room for scenery. I prefer local freight switching to mainline running and wanted to use as many of my former buildings as I could fit in. I tried various arrangements and finally settled on where to put the sidings.

model railroad cityThe new city of South Point with the temporary placement of buildings
model railway city layoutSouth Point from the layout room's entrance looking into the layout

Nothing is set in stone yet but the sidings are in. Buildings are roughly placed. Many need repairs due to damage during the move and I have to figure out the streets and other details. I experimented here with Woodland Scenics foam roadbed. I cheated and used Shinohara (Walthers) Code 83 flex track. it was the only track I could find locally. I found that the bases of the rail seemed too wide for any of the rail joiners I had on hand so I had to do a lot of filing to get them to fit. I won't ballast until every piece of track is wired, tested and painted. I laid the track on matte medium and held it down with weights overnight as we do at the club layout.  Our NMR club layout is a prototypical type layout so when I want to be more realistic I work on that.

At home it is more to have fun and experiment. I don't have anyone to please but myself so I can do whatever I want when I want.

model layout industrialUtopia industrial area. Looks like Tuckahoe's roof has collapsed!

Much of the trackage is hand laid. This was not a problem where cork was being used as a base because the Micro Engineering small spikes could be pushed through the wood ties into the cork.

For the foam road bed I had to improvise. I made the straight track in a Fast Tracks jig, flipped it over, and used Pliobond to glue the wood ties to the bottom of the rails. Then I flipped the track right side up and laid it on the foam roadbed covered with mate medium applied with an old paintbrush. The track was weighted to hold it in down while the matte medium set.  Some curved track had to be built in a Rube Goldberg fashion: I used a rail bender to get an approximate curve, soldered on the circuit board ties, temporarily spiked the curved to a piece of homasote, and then used two 3-point gauges to lay and solder the opposite rail.  This was my method for the siding at Mt. Martin (see photo farther down the page).

Afterwards I went back and stained/painted the ties. I still have some Floquil Tie Brown left. When that runs out I'll have to find another suitable brown. The sides of the rails still have to be painted. Some of my rail is pre-weathered. It doesn't solder well unless the weathering chemical is removed with a file. I had to do that for the sidings at Summit where I had used the foam roadbed and I had used up my unweathered rail. Bad planning!

Soldered curved track problem

I found after a few weeks that some of my soldered curved track work had gone out of gauge. I was very surprised because I had made the track in Fast Track jigs. I had kinks in several places that were derailing trains. I think this was a contraction/expansion problem. Commercial track, and even hand-spiked track, allows one or both rails to slide a little back and forth if a small gap is left between some pieces of rail. (At our club each rail is separated and insulated every six feet). The soldered track doesn't permit this slippage. The structure is rigid. So the only thing it can do between every soldered tie is to kink or bend to one side or the other. I had to unsolder some rail and realign it. In some places I removed the soldered ties and hand-spiked the rail to wooden ties. The length of these soldered sections was about 6 feet and I allowed for expansion between the six foot sections. However, once I glued down the sections and filled in with ties there was no longer any flexibility in the sections soldered to the ties. I haven't found the problem on any of the straight sections where I used track soldered to ties in the jigs. I will see what happens over the next few months and will avoid ballasting these sections until the problem is resolved. 

There are a few other places where the track needs some maintenance due to errors in my construction, either gauge problems or one rail slightly higher than the other. I have found a few spikes on the track as well. It is a good idea to use a Kadee or other magnet to sweep the track for errant bits of metal to avoid locomotives attracting the debris. That's also why it's always a good idea to run trains for awhile before plunging ahead with ballasting and scenery.


Backdrops and dividers

model train townsiteThe new North Point industrial area.

I salvaged some of my old backdrops to create scenes. Above is the new North Point area above one of the hidden reverse loops and the intermediate loop. These are going to need some steep cliffs when it comes to the scenery.

model train mine sceneThe coal mine is now at Houghton

I double-sided the backdrops so I could create four different scenes on the left-hand peninsula across the aisle from East Utopia. Houghton, named for my friend and fellow operator and electronics wizard, John Houghton, is on the rear side of the North Point scene. I will need to build a low-releif mountainside for the mine shaft.

model railroad  industriesMt. Martin is the new home for Glacier Gravel and the ore mine.

In the photo above you can see the new curved siding on foam mentioned above. It has to be painted, in this car o also cover up some sloppy work. I hate working with Pliobond. I find it very messy and hard to control. I didn't have any Walthers Goo left. I find that works better. Fortunately the building will disguise my sloppy work. Fast Tracks recommends Pliobond. The tube is easier to work with than the cans. I used a toothpick to get the Pliobond off the brush that comes as part of the can's screw top. 

On our club layout John Houghton is experimenting with Goop from Canadian Tire for the hand laid turnouts we're building in the Fast Tracks jigs. I'll post our results on the Nottawasaga Model Railway page.

I named this location Mt. Martin for our club president, Martin Alborough. Martin was one of my main operators on the former UNRR.  Most to these area will have to be worked by trains going in opposite directions because there are few runaround tracks. The foreground track will serve the Payne in the Aspens siding for the logging camp dedicated to my narrow-minded friend Bill Payne. I've given him much of my HON3 rolling stock as I have no room for dual gauge on this current layout. A few buildings represent the camp. These models were hidden behind a hill on the former layout. I kept the trees for replanting.

ho model industriesA new industrial area at East Utopia

I managed to add some sidings at East Utopia to squeeze in some more sidings for operations. On the former layout the foreground track went to the Mintwood wye that no longer exists.  This will add quite a bit of switching potential at the entrance to the East Utopia yard that used to serve only as an interchange for CN and CP. Now I can still interchange cars using the ferry slip as a destination and "fiddle yard" for off-the-layout destinations (drawers). I plan to try using jmri's operations as John and Martin are now doing. I'll hold onto my card boxes just in case!

model railroad swift buildingEast Utopia station and the new location for Swift

The station at East Utopia is still in the same spot but now the Swift building is alongside. Passenger operations will be limited to the RDC and maybe some very short passenger trains. There are passenger stations scattered around the layout that can be destinations for some LCL (less-than-car-load) freight as well as passengers.

Now that I have locations roughly planned I am finishing the wiring and adding the turnout controls before moving ahead with scenery (when I'm not working on the club's layout). Check out what we're doing.  We're currently laying the track and doing some field research excursions to measure the bridges at Angus and Thornbury and planning other scratch building projects.


Electrical notes

I am using a Lenz LZ100 Command Station and two separately powered LV101 and LV100 boosters. One is powered from the fixed DC terminals on an old Tech II DC throttle unit and the other is powered from a homemade transformer unit. I also have 12VDC and 5 VDC from a computer power supply to run lights signals, Tortoise turnout controls and Tam Valley servo units. The layout is roughly divided into two primary districts by the LV units. Each LV is further protected by a quad PSX-4 circuit breaker board from DCC Specialities that cover smaller sections of the train layout.  This may be overkill but I had the electronics from my previous, larger layout so I decided I might as well use them.

My main bus wires to each district are 14 gauge: red for positive, black for negative. The wires run from the LV units to terminal blocks near the sections they govern.  I use short 24-gauge wires soldered to the tracks and connect them to 18 gauge stranded wire beneath the sub roadbed. The smaller gauge wire is kept to a foot or less in length. I find that the smaller wire is easier to solder to the sides of the rail with a chisel-type soldering iron tip. 

I have not cut the rail for signalling yet as I don't know how far I want to go with that aspect this time. However, because the drop wires from the track go to terminal blocks it will be a fairly simple job to install current sensors on the wires. I will only have to ensure that the wires within a signalling block are gathered together to avoid false triggering.  This only involves gapping one rail. I will use the positive rail for signalling.

XpressNet and jmri

jmri laptop setupControl centre for my train layout

I have an old Dell Latitudes 600 laptop from around 2005 that I bought used on eBay a few years ago. It was installed on my previous layout using an Ethernet cable. The router in our new home is on another floor and there is no way to run a cable to this computer. The laptop predates USB ports but does have a disc drive. A local computer shop still had a Wireless-N MIMI CardBus Adapter on the shelf. It plugs into a slot on the Dell machine. Lo and behold I am now wireless! This means that I can run jmri operations and have automatic train termination updates and can set up WiThrottle for use with iPads and other tablets as we do on John Houghton's N scale layout. I can still use my Lenz throttles and my CVP ARL900 wireless receiver and throttles. Many options. It will take me awhile to set up operations with jmri because I will be starting from scratch (with John's guidance). In the meantime we can run trains with the standard throttles. After making sure the laptop would connect to the internet I checked to see if I had DecoderPro and Panel Pro working. As the laptop is only using Windows XP I am limited to earlier versions of the jmri software but it should be sufficient for my needs. I use the Com Port to connect to the train layout using a Lenz LI101F Hi-Speed Xpressnet RS232 Computer interface and an XP-5 XpressNet Din socket. That panel has two standard Lenz pin sockets and the DIN receptacle.It is mounted near my workbench at East Utopia and the laptop sits on the top of a plastic roll-out 3-drawer cabinet.  The photo shows the general setup. Nothing too fancy but it works. You'll notice that the electrical components are housed in an old cheap cabinet and the Lenz controllers and the circuit boards are on a pull-out shelf that makes it easier to add wires or check connections. There are screw-type terminal blocks directly behind the Lenz Command Station and controllers.

Fixing mistakes!

 I had to fix that curved track that is still derailing some engines. My first attempt at resoldering one rail failed to rectify the situation. It was necessary to strip the ties and rails back to the cork roadbed and resand the damaged section. I think ties under one rail have inadvertently been raised when originally glued in place. The troublesome track was replaced by flextrack and the bridge was repaired with new ties and rail and the girders were refastened. The bridge was made of brass and joints had become unsoldered. I repaired them with ACC.  I also repaired Tuckahoe Produce and an old Ulrich metal coal hopper that had accidentally plunged to the floor.  That was a good reminder to get started on scenery to protect the trains during derailments. Also scenery would make the railroad look much better.

Top-mounted servo

modified wooden servo bracketModified Tam Valley wooden bracket
top mounting a servo on a train layoutTop mounting a servo

I top-mounted a servo by one turnout to avoid installing it in a difficult place under the benchwork.  Friend Bill Payne came up with a neat way of modifying Tam Valley wooden brackets for top-mounting servos. The pieces interlock. They are cut from the originals designed for mounting under the benchwork. A little sanding, white glue and a few holes and you have a sturdy mount. Bill added a gusset for strengthening but I didn't bother.  The actuating wire is attached to the end of the throwbar instead of in the centre of the turnout. I made it long so I could hide the servo in a trackside factory. I used a piece of masonite to raise the bracket on the plywood to compensate for the height of the cork roadbed.

hidden servo on train layoutHidden top-mounted servo

There is other maintenance to be done as the railroad is "beta-tested".  While testing the jmri operating scheme I encountered other track problems. It is a good idea to stop and fix errors before plunging into scenery construction. One of the commercial turnouts needed frog-wiring. Fortunately the Tam Valley singlet controller had a relay on it that could be used to route power. This turnout was in a hard-to-reach location. Isn't the troublesome turnout always the one that is in the most awkward place?  I can usually avoid wiring the frogs on hand laid turnouts. When I need to I use Tam Valley electronics that only require one wire to the frog or I use the auxiliary contacts on the switch machines. For manual throws the Tam Valley boards are the easiest solution. On former layouts I would resort to micro switches and 24 volt relays for additional circuits (panel lights and signalling).

I am also slowly patching up damaged buildings and rolling stock.

Tunnel construction

I started scenery construction with the tunnels. I find it easier to build the tunnels before doing other scenery. In this way I can still reach into the scenes if I still have track problems such as misaligned track joints on curves.  I will use this occasion to add feeder wires if I have rushed ahead without doing so previously.  It is very difficult to add feeder wires to track that is hidden inside tunnels!

ho tunnel portal locationLocation for the first portal
ho model train foam portalScratchbuilt portal construction

I began with the tunnel portals. The first one needed to be fashioned by hand because the tracks at the entrance are wider than normal and the portal will be at the edge of the benchwork. I opted to cut one out of scrap foam board and face it with illustration board. Fast Tracks weights are holding down the illustration board while the white glue dries. I detailed the face of the tunnel with stone paper before installing it.

ho tunnel portal with stone paperHandmade tunnel portal with "stone" paper facing

I lined the interior walls of the tunnel with cardboard cut from a box and glued it in place with hot glue using a craft-type glue gun. Then I covered the cardboard with crinkled up aluminum foil and painted it black. Some modellers prefer to paint the interior with grey paint but I only had some leftover black so that's what I used.

woodland scenics concrete portalThe opposite end of the tunnel using a Woodland Scenics plaster portal casting

I used a concrete portal from Woodland Scenics at the other end of the tunnel. I mixed a few drops of India ink with a few ounces of alcohol to make a wash for the tunnel face. I added a tiny bit of black chalk at the top of the arch to simulate exhaust smoke and dry-brushed a few more streaks lower down where rain would have washed dirt. The black-painted aluminum foil can be seen beyond the portal. As the track is curved I only needed to line the inside of the tunnel as far as can be seen. Pieces of cardboard were glued beside the track to block light from underneath the layout. The track on the right (the return loop) will be completely hidden. The next step was  to add a framework of 1-inch cardboard strips to create the contour for the hillsides and cliffs that will then be covered by plaster impregnated cloth from Woodland Scenics.

model train scenery frameworkCardboard framework to support plaster cloth

I used a mini glue gun. The glue is hot and can burn skin. I pulled off some skin while doing this. I used to use a heavier gun but that glue really gets hot so I only use it when I run out of the mini glue sticks. Here's the view at the left end of the exposed track where it enters the tunnel portal.

model train cardboard scenery supportCardboard cliff supports

After a base coat of plaster cloth (or paper towels dipped in plaster) is applied to the cardboard strips the cliff can be built up with rock moulds. In past experience I have found it necessary to keep the cardboard strips far enough back from the track edge to avoid the plaster build up getting too close to the passing trains. That's why I cut the sub roadbed plywood a little wider to give room for the cardboard strips to be attached. it's a good idea to keep an NMRA gauge handy when building the scenery and to test the longest car or engine you plan to run to make sure you maintain sufficient clearance, especially on curves. The hidden and exposed track needs to be covered with painter's masking tape before doing the plaster work and newspapers or a drop cloth should cover the floor in the working area. You're bound to get some spills and drips no matter how careful you are. Also make sure access is provided to the hidden track in case of derailments or maintenance. If necessary the scenery can be made removable. I had to do this in one area on the previous UNRR because the access was limited from beneath due to other hidden trackage. Plan ahead!

Scenery base coat

model train scenery preparationScenery preparation for protection.

The first step is to protect the track and work area. I cover the track with painter's masking tape or paper. I also cover the floor and anything under the layout where I'm working with newspaper.

In the past I have used screening mesh, industrial paper towels with hydrocal, foam board and scrunched up paper towels for shaping the terrain. This time I opted to make the base coat with Woodland Scenics plaster cloth. It is a more expensive method but is fast and relatively tidy. I cut the plaster cloth width into strips about 4 inches wide using scissors. I show a cut piece in the photo. It is best to do a complete roll while the plaster strip is dry. I pour lukewarm water into a rectangular plastic tub (or pyrex dish). The trick is to hold the pieces of plaster cloth by the edges, quickly dip them into the water, drag them up the edge of the dish to remove excess water, and then apply them in an overlapping fashion to the scenery base.  As I will apply a second layer of plaster on top I don't bother smoothing the surface of the plaster with my fingers. This is a rough coat and I don't care if one can see through it. I will build up exposed areas such as at the edges of the benchwork with a second overlapping layer to add strength. 

scrunched paper for making sceneryScrunched paper can be used to support plaster cloth.
scrunched paper to support plaster cloth sceneryThe scrunched paper can be spray-wetted to shape it or held down with tape.

Sometimes it is easier to scrunch up some newspaper and use it to contour the terrain. I have done this around both of the tunnel portals. This was faster than backtracking to cut more strips of cardboard. The method works well for low hillocks or even where there is a near vertical surface.  The plaster cloth sets up in a few minutes so it is necessary to work quickly doing small areas at a time. It took me about an hour to lay down 2 rolls of plaster cloth. Here is how the first section of scenery base looks.

model train scenery plaster cloth base coatPlaster cloth base coat

Another time out...

I stopped work on the Utopia Northern temporarily in order to scratch build the bridge and trestle at Thornbury on the club layout and have begun work on my garden G scale railroad. There will be more about these summer projects on other pages. 

Ballasting (Dec-2016) 

ballasting ho trackBallasting sidings at Utopia

I returned to the indoor layout in the autumn and repaired a few buildings and some track work. In November I installed most of the plaster cloth base coat.  In early December I removed all the buildings in Utopia and painted the plywood base with some leftover brownish-beige paint. After this was done I painted the side of the rails facing the aisle with Floquil roof brown paint. The rail brown I had was dried out and unusable. (Now Floquil is no longer available.) The ballasting was done with Woodland Scenics fine grey and a bit of black. I applied a bead directly from the containers and then used a stiff-bristled brush to spread it. I wet the track with alcohol and dribbled thinned matte medium between the rails and used the brush carefully to spread it. I sprayed the alcohol but found the matte medium clogged the nozzle too quickly.  The eye dropper technique takes longer but it puts the matte medium (or white glue) where you want it.  You have much more control.  My preference is to use matte medium. White glue sets up too hard and can transmit sound more easily to the plywood, although the foam sub roadbed probably stops this from happening.  I've been told that the alcohol can affect the matte medium over time so I have decided to revert to my old technique of using water-thinned white glue.  I buy spray bottles at the Dollar store. So far I've managed to get them to spray for a few minutes before they become too clogged. Fortunately this layout doesn't have vast amounts of scenery that needs to be sprayed. I use the eye dropper method as much as possible but that doesn't work very well on cliffs. (A few drops of bleach here and there from a eye dropper dribbled down a stained cliff face makes a nice touch.)

I was trying Woodland Scenics black foam sub roadbed in this area and probably should have painted it grey or brown before ballasting. I didn't think of doing this until it was too late.  In the past I used cork roadbed. In the photo it is obvious that some of the sides of the foam are showing so I will need to add a second coating of ballast to cover them. I also cleaned the tops of the rails with an abrasive pad and a piece of cork before the matte medium dried. If you don't like using abrasive Brite Boy or Peco pads, try using a piece of cork roadbed.  Good when painting rail, too. Throw it out when you're finished.

I will repeat the cleaning of the rail tops before proceeding and operate an engine over all the track work to make sure there are no dead spots caused by the matte medium or grains of ballast on the inside of the rails. I tried to stay away from the moving parts of the turnouts so hopefully these will function OK.  I forgot to put a drop of oil around the points to block the "glue" from adhering to the rails.  Shows what happens when you haven't done any ballasting for awhile.  We're at this point on our club layout as well so it is good reminder.

You can find more in depth coverage of ballasting and track work on other specific pages.  Look for the the topics in the headers or in the right sidebar column.

Next step will be to replant the buildings and install the streets and lighting.

Adding hydrocal "paint"

working with hydrocal plasterAdding a hydrocal layer

After figuring out the final arrangement of the city buildings and streets, but before replanting the buildings, I added a layer of white hydrocal to the plaster cloth. My hydrocal came from Hamilton Model Works and their instructions are excellent. It is necessary to work very quickly as this particular hydrocal gypsum sets up within 5-10 minutes.  The proportion of water to hydrocal is important. It depends to some extent on whether or not you are making castings or "painting on" the hydrocal. For my purposes I was using an old 2-inch paint brush to paint on the hydrocal to the plaster cloth. This was to strengthen the base coat and cover up the tiny holes still visible in the plaster cloth.  My practice is to do this even if I am going to add castings.  A teaspoon or two of white vinegar can slow down the setting time. I didn't do this. I only mixed small batches.  I chose to work with a soupy mixture. A more pancake-like mixture is better for casting moulds.


bucket for plaster cleanupBucket for plaster cleanup

A note of caution: When cleaning mixing bowls, spatulas and brushes, be careful not to dump the plaster down the drain.  You can get away with flushing down some very thin plaster if you're not doing a lot of plastering but you want to avoid clogging the sink drains. It is better to dump the old plaster and water into a bucket and discard it outdoors. Drain off the water and dump the hard bits of plaster into the garbage can.  Chunks of plaster can be used as rubble if it sets up too quickly for you.  Also, some people prefer to use glass or metal mixing bowls.  I use plastic bowls that can be flexed a little to break dried plaster away from the sides and bottom. They are cheap and can be discarded if they crack or get caked with plaster that won't come loose. When a brush becomes caked with plaster lumps I break them up with a hammer. I use old brushes because they can quickly become caked with drying plaster and need to be thrown out.

plastic wrap model protectionProtecting a building with plastic wrap when plastering

It is also wise to cover up the working space: floor and track especially. This stuff will drip everywhere. When it is difficult to move a structure out of the way when doing plaster work or scenery painting, it can be covered with kitchen plastic wrap as shown in the photo at the right. The plastic wrap clings to the building yet lets you see what you're doing. Better than newspaper or paper towels. The original hydrocal impregnated plaster cloth base coat was done before this scene module was secured to the layout frame. I covered the module with plastic wrap before painting on the moulding plaster top coat. I mixed up a soupy 2:1 moulding plaster to water mix and painted on the top coat. It is necessary to work quickly so I only do 2 cups of plaster at a time. I'll leave the plastic wrap in place until the plaster is stained, painted and has ground cover added. The photos above show what the scenery base now looks like.  The thicker sections with the added top coat can be carved with a knife. I spray this with a light wash of India ink or black Rit dye. The dye has a high salt content so I prefer using an ink-alcohol wash or the Hunterline washes.  This work needs to be completed before putting the other buildings back in place.

Initial "additive" scenery work

A lot of modellers shy away from doing scenery because they fear they don't have the artistic talent. Believe me, it is easy to get started and your layout will immediately look better.  The trick is to do what I call "additive scenery".  Begin with a base coat and slowly add other ingredients until you are satisfied. Start with light colour washes. Darken as needed with additional coats.  Use varying shades. Nature doesn't come in single colours.

Here's what I did to begin the scenery around the city.

colouring model railroad sceneryInitial scenery on city cliff face

I started on the cliffs with a light wash of a few drops of black India ink in alcohol. So I didn't have to remove all the buildings I used a paint brush to apply the wash to the vertical surfaces, varying the intensity on some of the faces by applying additional coats. I followed this with a wash of Woodland Scenics earth undercoat.  I poured some water in a small cup and added the undercoat a few drops at a time until I had a shade that seemed to work. I painted this on the more horizontal surfaces. While the washes were still wet I sprinkled on some Woodland Scenics mixed turf and then a little medium green and tan. I also used an old Linn Westcoat trick of "zip texturing":  sprinkling some plaster that had some brownish dry pigment in it on the cliff faces letting it settle where it would. This will be "set" when I spray the scenery with some matte medium glue fixative. I ballasted these sections of track after adding the scenery so that the ballast would be the last item added, as in the real world. 

I can come back later and build up the scenery by adding different shades of ground foam, bushes, and trees.  For now I have some basic scenery in place. I decided not to add rock castings because there isn't a lot of room between the cliff and the buildings on the inside or the track on the outside. 

model railroad scenery rubbleSome rubble rocks have fallen from the cliff!

Notice in the photo the small rocks at the bottom of the cliff. It would be natural for rubble to fall. You can buy packages of Talus or simply use some small stones which is what I did here.  A nice feature would be to add some netting on the cliff to hold rocks from falling or even add a snowshed as if it were avalanche country.  Use your imagination and experiment. If you don't like the result you can redo it or tear it out and start over. 


Ballasting: 2nd pass

ballasting edges of model railroad trackFine-tuning the ballasting of the track edges

In the past I have found it difficult to get the ballast to adhere to the sloping edges of the cork or foam roadbed so I concentrate on getting the ballast between the rails and on the top edges of the ties on my first pass. After the ballast has been glued and is dry I make a second pass using a spoon and a stiff-bristled brush to add ballast along the sloping edges. I then use an X-Acto knife to remove the crushed stone from the top of the ties where it looks too have been applied too heavily on the first pass. Finally I wet the track with an alcohol spray and use an eye dropper to drip matte medium onto the new ballast. The alcohol helps the matte medium soak into the ballast quickly. I finish up with an overspray of alcohol and then clean the rail tops with a Peco abrasive cleaning pad before the glue dries. It is more difficult to clean the rails later. When the ballast has dried I run a small screwdriver blade along the inside of the rails to remove any stones that could interfere with wheel flanges and drive an engine over the section to make sure I still have good electrical contact.

Using rock moulds

using rock moulds for cliff sceneryBeginning to install rock moulds to a cliff face.

The reverse curves on the left hand peninsula are among the first things seen when entering the train room. I decided to make them more interesting by adding rocks produced from moulds. I borrowed the moulds from Bill Payne because I couldn't find mine. My technique is to spray the moulds with Jig-a-Loo to act as a release compound for the plaster.  I have also used talcum powder in the past. I used moulding plaster instead of hydrocal. It sets up quickly, like plaster of Paris so I only mix enough for one or two moulds, about a 1/2 cup of water to a cup of plaster. I attach the moulds to the cliff face while they are still wet, i.e., before they get too hard. I spray the cliff with water first because the old plaster will soak up the water in the new plaster very quickly. These cliffs are almost vertical so in some cases I need to hold the mould in place for a few minutes so it doesn't fall away. I then fill around the edges with another batch of wet plaster. The plaster can be carved later. I keep an NMRA track gauge nearby to check for clearance. In some spots I will need to go back and chisel away some of the plaster rock. Bill reminded me to add some black water-based paint to the mix so the white plaster won't show if the rock face gets chipped. He uses Dollar Store variety paint that is fine for this use. I had some Woodland Scenics slate gray so I squirted some of that into the mixing bowl.  In the past I have used dry black pigment, gray or black Rit dye or even India ink.  I am not too concerned about this for these rock faces. It is more important when one needs to drill holes to plant trees after adding ground cover.

You'll notice in the photo that I've covered the track with painter's masking tape. I prefer to do any ballasting after the ground cover is added to the stained and/or painted cliffs.  

Colouring the rock face

rock face scenery from mouldsColouring the rock face
rock face ho scenery with india ink washCloseup of of test car and inked rock face

After applying the rock moulds to the scenery base I used a tunnel clearance test car to make sure the rock castings weren't too close to the track.  You can see it in the foreground of the photo. I double checked with an NMRA track gauge. I used moulds for several different types of rock and rotated them every which way to fool the eye. I filled in between the castings with wet plaster as I went along and then used a knife, chisel and metal spatula to carve more cracks into the surface. The trick is to try to remove unnatural blobs of plaster.  I sprayed water with some India ink onto the rock surface. This helps to bring out the texture. One can always do more carving after this is done if the result isn't to your liking. Then it is a matter of adding other colours and ground cover to the more horizontal surfaces. I prefer to use sprays and washes instead of paint. I use beige paint on flat and rolling land but stick to washes either sprayed or painted onto rock faces.  I poured a little Woodland Scenics Slate Gray into a bowl and dabbed it on here and there to bring out more highlights. You can see the effect on one of the rocks in the upper right quadrant of the photo.

model scenery of ink plus paint and ground coverScenery with india ink wash and beige paint plus ground cover
ho scenery on cliff with ground coverThe cliffside with paint and ground cover added

Making scenery is one of my favourite aspects of model railroading. Yes, it's messy but it is fun and forgiving. These photos show a few hours of work to add some leftover beige paint to the more horizontal surfaces. I sprinkled on various shades of ground foam while the paint was still wet. These simple steps make the layout much more attractive as they cover up a lot of the white plaster, bare plywood and homasote and give some sense of what the final result will look like. I can go back and spray on some more black wash to cover up white plaster that I missed on the first pass. After that  I can now get on with ballasting the rest of the track and adding bushes and trees.  For now it looks more like a semi-finished model railroad when one enters the train layout room. The scenery is far from finished. I can work on small sections at a time as I have the urge.  There is a great deal of satisfaction watching the train layout come alive. Try it for yourself.  As i said earlier, you can always cover up something that doesn't look right to you or tear it out and try something else. It doesn't have to interfere with running the trains. 

basic scenery on ho layoutOverview of scenery with basic ground cover

Trees make a difference

ho trees on cliffAdding trees to improve a scene
ho mixed trees on hillMixed trees on hillside

The base scenery improved the overall look of the layout but there's nothing like some trees to brighten a scene.  I had some trees left over from my previous layout so I decided to start planting them now.  I chose a couple of places on the layout to begin the planting. My method is to drill a #63 hole in the base of the plastic root platform that many commercial trees have. I insert a dressmaker's pin and cut off the bulb end. Then I dip the pin and base in Walther's Goo (or any sticky glue) and insert the tree into a pre-drilled hole in the plaster scenery. It helps if the plaster is pre-coloured but the hole is so small that a little white plaster dust can be blown away if you haven't coloured the plaster. I hadn't. Some of my former trees have different size trunks. Some were wood. Others were twisted wire or metal. I needed to drill various size holes to make them all fit.  "Reforestation" is now complete.

reforestation of ho layoutReforestation with various tree types on the left peninsula
adding trees to an ho train layoutAdding trees to the right peninsula
ho pine treesTrees in the upper right are made with air ferns. These were from an old Campbell Scale Models kit. They were at the lumber camp on the previous layout.

Have a look at Part 1 of building the Utopia Northern Railroad.

Check out my previous UNRR layout.

Return from "train-layout" to my Home Page.

Return to Top


Like to become a "solopreneur"
with your own online business?

New! Comments

Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below.
Copyright© 2008-2017 model-railroad-infoguy.com