Tips And Techniques
Presented At Model Railroad Clinics
To Help You Build A Better Layout

Notes from Gary Shurgold's clinic
on model railroad techniques

One of the cleverest ideas from Gary was to spray paint old circuit boards black and then cut them to fit inside industrial buildings.  Add a couple of workers, install some lights and you have an active factory scene. Even better if you also add a lighting circuit such as a flashing arc lamp to simulate welding.

Use fine marker pens for figure detailing.

Buy a metal square from the local dollar store. Glue it to a piece of masonite or arborite. You now have a simple form to help square up building bases and walls.

Use wallpaper samples for interior walls and floors in structures.

Drill a 1" to 2" hole in the center of a piece of scrap wood such as 1" X 4" pine or plywood. Attach the wood to the bottom of another perpendicular piece of wood the length of your most common piece of rolling stock. You end up with an "L" shape.

Attach another piece of wood at right angles to the top of the "L" running to the left. Clamp this top piece to the edge of your workbench. You can use the hole when filing parts. You can also stand a piece of rolling stock on end to fit grab irons and couplers. The coupler on the bottom end will protrude through the hole so it won't get damaged.<

Here's a technique for painting random stone walls. Buy some cheap acrylic paints from the dollar store. Choose 5 shades of brown, yellow and red or whatever colors seem right. Number the bottles 1-5. Begin painting individual stones 3 apart with one color. Then move onto the next color starting at the second stone in the row. Then do the third. Vary the sequence of colors from time to time for a random pattern. Tone down the wall with a weak black wash of grimy black or use an india ink wash.  The result is really good.

Gary suggests asking a tool and die shop for some scrap square blocks of metal. Use them for cutting windows and as weights.

You can buy a paint-mixing tool from Micro Mark, but if you want to make your own, try this. 

Take apart a cheap electric toothbrush. Cut off the end close to the brushes. Use the barrel from a hobby throw-away paint stick. Cut a slot and glue in a small piece of brass at the mixing end. Attach the barrel to the battery motor end of the toothbrush. Neat.

Gary keeps a small bucket for leftover parts and scrap from projects. He throws in everything! Makes great gondola loads and details of junk around the layout.

Don't throw out scrap rail. Cut it into lengths (39 scale feet). Spray it rail brown or rust color. Stack it on wood blocks beside the track.

Lorne James on installing custom sound

Lorne is a big believer in Lok sound because it sounds great and is upgradeable whereas other manufacturers make generic sound or have decoders that are not upgradeable. He also recommends buying a Lok Decoder Tester if you go this route.

Sound can be recorded using any digital recorder including an I-pod or your Blackberry. Try to do so on a day that isn't windy. Here's the great tip. 

Go to Audacity for freeware for cleaning up and editing sound.

Lorne also suggests doing research on YouTube for visual learning of decoder installations. He says there are lots of demonstrations posted by modelers. You may just find the answer to that vexing "where do I put the speaker?" problem.

Speaking of speakers, Lorne recommends installing speakers facing down for the best sound. He covers the speakers with a double layer of panty hose to prevent metal fragments being attracted by the speaker magnet.

One of the best locations for a speaker is to mill out space in the fuel tanks on a diesel. He noted that many manufacturers now have built-in cavities. Older diesels require more ingenuity. 

Steam engines usually have a tender you can use unless they are a tank engine like a Forney.

Ralph Tayler's clinic on "Bridging the Gaps"

 Ralph's clinic was on getting across rivers, valleys and access area. The tip I remember most was the idea of using a curtain rod as a girder for the side of a steel bridge.  Use a curtain rod that has an "I"-shaped cross section. 

Cut it to the length you need with a hack saw. Fill in braces with wood or styrene. Spray the assembly black. It is very sturdy and can span longer spaces without bending.

Notes from Joe Rutter"s clinic
on using different building materials

Joe owns "Full Steam Ahead". He manufactures some great building kits. His clinic covered ways to make assembly of kits easier and ideas on weathering and painting. Joe had a handout outlining many of his ideas. You'll find his tips for painting brick walls at  Full Steam Ahead.

Here are some other techniques from his handout:

Weathering mix:  Joe uses two different dilutions of India Ink and alcohol.

  •  1 tsp of India Ink added to 1 pint of rubbing alcohol for LIGHT weathering
  •   2 tsp of India Ink added to 1 pint of rubbing alcohol for MEDIUM weathering

Joe prefers to use the weathering mixes sold by Hunterline ( I also use them. They're very good.


  • lightly dab a dry & clean paint brush in the color of your choice
  • brush most of the paint off on a paper towel 
  • when there is hardly any paint left on the brush you are ready to dry-brush 
  • then brush the object you're painting (such as a wall)
  • practice on scrap before attempting

Dry-brushing is a subtle technique that builds up the paint slowly. I have also seen this done in reverse by painting the object black first then slowly adding color.

Weathering chalks:

 Joe recommends Bragdon because they are self-sealing and come in a variety of useful colors. When you rub them they release a bonding formula so the chalk doesn't come off the model onto your fingers. 

Build up slowly. A little goes a long way. Just ask me! You can also use these chalks to replicate the vertical streaks that occur on roofs and under window sills when rain washes down.

Wood fencing effects:

  • use a ponce wheel to make nails holes before gluing, painting or weathering

Available in many hobby stores or a dress-makers or fabric shop

  • cut the boards at the top to make a jagged fence
  • break some boards, split some, or remove some 
  • use the back tip edge of an x-acto knife to gouge in some knot holes
  • make some boards brand new to indicate they have replaced missing boards
  • weather the fence (nothing is as ignored as a fence)
  • add signage appropriate to the era you're modelling

Metal and resin castings:

  • use a file to remove any left over casting material (commonly called "flash")
  • use an old toothbrush and dish detergent to scrub any casting material off METAL CASTINGS. Use Sunlight bar soap. It doesn't have any lanolin in it.
  • resin castings may have flash but there are no release agents used in the process 
  • after the castings are COMPLETELY DRY, prime them with several light coats of grey automotive primer
  • paint to your tastes, era, and highlight to your tastes

Joe also pointed out that Hydrocal plaster needs to be sealed but resin castings don't.

Black tar:

Mix white glue and black or dark grey paint on a scrap of paper. Use the tip of a wire or a sharpened pencil to spread it where needed, such as at the base of a chimney. I first learned this technique when constructing a Finescale Miniatures kit.

Joe likes Tamiya German Grey as a primer. For glue he prefers Formula 560 because it sets up slowly. He recommends using an accelerant with ACC glue for quick setting.

A good place for information is in the Railroad Line Forums at A major contributor is the Canadian Association of Railway Modellers (CARM). Also check the ON30 coastline railroad contributions to the forums and look for Radical Building Flats. Another source Joe recommends is the Narrow Gauge and Shortline Gazette magazine. The magazine builds and reviews kits. Check their comments.


  • Joe uses Hydrocal for road surfaces
  • when the road is almost dry, use a thin wire to scratch in cracks
  • paint the road a concrete color 
  • use a thinned black paint or the medium weathering formular (above) and carefully fill in the cracks using a thin paint brush
  • apply chalks like soot and grimy black to simulate oil and tire marks

Windows and doors:

  • paint them before removing from the sprues if possible
  • paint first with several light coats of grey automobile primer
  • paint with the colour of your choice 
  • add glass by cutting the glazing material provided to fit. 

 Use Microscale Micro Kristal Klear, real Gallery Glass from a craft store, or smear Formula 560 glue on acetate to represent windows from a bygone era.  

Another way Joe uses Formular 560 is to hold the glue bottle over an open window pane and slowly move the nozzle in circles until glue fills the area. Use the nozzle to gently remove any air bubbles. It will dry overnight to become completely clear. Do not use white glue for this technique.

Some of Joe's other techniques and more that I know about can be found on my  Painting and  Weathering model trains pages.

A final comment from Joe about his building methods. Brace everything to prevent warping.

  • Apply masking tape to the back of wood panels to prevent breaking when cutting.

Use thin two-sided tape on walls if you're applying paper to them. Always do walls flat and assemble later. Joe recommends Canson artist papers. If you're looking for an easy drawing program, Joe says Corel Draw is easy to use.

Notes from Brian Fayle

Brian concentrates on small and micro layouts. The first tip from him is to send you off elsewhere to Gn15 . This is about 15" gauge railways, but also has lots of tips about building model railroads.

Brian recommends painting model figures black first so that they'll photograph as real people. You add the other colors afterwards. He has more tips at brifayle with pictures of his layout as well. 

If you're looking for very small or "micro" layout ideas, go to micro/small layouts. There are more than 1400 minimum space layouts there.

I find attending model railroad clinics always to be gratifying. I didn't manage to get to them all this time, nor did I manage to see all the layouts on tour. Photos and videos of the ones I did manage to see can be reached by the links below.

Check out photos from the Saturday layout tours at Woodstock Turn train meet.

Did you look at the Ontario Western layout pictures yet? Don't miss them.

Photos and a video of layouts on the Sunday tour can be found here.

Take a video ride in the cab of a GP7 on the NFR's Ontario Southland RR prototype tour.

Return from "model-railroad-clinics" to the Train Photos overview.

Return from "model-railroad-clinics" to my Home Page.

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