Wood Structure Building Tips
For Model Railroads

I've always enjoyed building wood structure kits, especially Campbell kits, the ones in the red and black plaid boxes. I built the first ones before tackling Fine Scale Miniature kits. The latter has more metal castings and detail, but Campbell kits are a close second. What they both have in common are excellent instructions and good tips.

I recently started work on Montgomery's Feed & Seed that I intend to install at South Point on my HO scale Utopia Northern Railroad. I thought it might be helpful to some of you if I supplemented the instructions with a few tips from my own experience.

Preparatory work

  •  My first tip is to take your time

Don't expect to rush through the job. Spread it out over a number of work sessions so that you don't become fatigued and make unnecessary mistakes. Although the instructions tell you to read all the instructions before you start I'm pretty sure your eyes will glaze over before you're halfway done. I do a quick cursory read to look for any special guidance. This usually involves rooflines and sequence of steps. I feel it is more important to review each section of the instructions before beginning that particular task.

  • Use sharp #11 blades.

Be prepared to go through quite a few. Change them often. Begin with the siding that needs windows and doors cut out. Put some painter's masking tape on the back of the pieces to keep them from splitting. You can leave the tape on afterwards to improve structural integrity if the tape won't be visible inside the building through windows. 

Identify the piece against the drawing and write the part number on the back with a pencil.  The "A" bag usually holds all the siding parts and the "B" bags holds the trim pieces. The "C" bag often has plastic parts such as window frames and stair treads. I lightly outline the faint cut lines on the front of the siding. I do the cutting on a cutting mat, except for window acetate for which I use a sheet of glass in a picture frame or one with taped edges to protect unwary fingers. 

(If you don't have a cutting board another old method is to use a discarded telephone book. You can throw away the pages you cut through when you're finished). 

Then I use a steel ruler edge and cut down from the top corner across the grain about three-quarters down the cut line. Then I rotate the piece 180 degrees and cut up from the bottom corner. This is to avoid the knife's point going beyond the corner. Lastly I do the top and bottom running with the grain. This is easier. When I think I've almost cut through I turn the piece over. When I see slight cut marks in the masking tape I finish the cut from the back side and pop out the window (or door). 

It's important to test fit the windows and doors before proceeding. I use an emory board for light sanding until the frames fit snugly. It's better to cut the opening slightly undersize to begin with. You can always make it larger. Tough to make it smaller!

  • I sand the edges of the siding with a foot-long block of 1 x 3 pine wrapped with fine sandpaper.  
  • Hold the siding and rub it back and forth across the block on a hard surface. You only need to remove the fuzz if there is any.  

If you have a Northwest Shortline sanding block, so much the better.

I use a ponce wheel to impress nail hole detail into the siding. I don't try to be too accurate. Technically studs are usually spaced 16 inches apart. I just run the ponce wheel up the siding at the corners and by windows and doors. In between I put nail holes 4 feet apart or wherever they look good. I bought my Excel ponce wheel at a hobby shop. Excel also makes #11 blades. They are available in bulk packs of 100 as well as it small packs.

When there's more than one window of the same size in a wall section, I cut one out and when I'm satisfied with it I use the top and bottoms to line up the cut lines on the other openings. Sometimes it's difficult to see where the vertical cut lines start and stop. That's also why I use a pencil to outline them before cutting.

Initial painting

  • Pre-painting or staining siding before any gluing avoids glue interfering with paint adhesion.

For this project I've chosen Polly Scale Reefer White for the base coat. Be prepared to apply at least two thin coats of paint. I have used 4 coats. Rub the parts with fine sand paper or fine steel wool between coats. The steel wool gets down into the cracks in the siding better and both remove the fuzz from the wood swelling. This is more important if the building is going to be viewed from close-up. Anyway, it's a good practice. Who knows, you might like to enter the finished building in a contest.

Between the coats you can apply some dabs of rubber cement for a distressed paint look where paint has flaked off showing the wood underneath. This can be very effective if the second coat is a slightly different color. The base coat will show through when the rubber cement is removed.  While painting the pieces I double check them against the drawings to familiarize myself with their placement and to make sure I've painted all the correct pieces. It's a pain to find out you've missed one.

I do the same with the trim pieces.  Check them against the parts list for each section and separate them from other pieces such as the dock legs that will be stainedor painted differently.  Campbell often cuts the pieces of different sizes to different lengths. This helps with their identify.  Check their dimensions with a ruler.  See where they will be used on the drawing.  This can help avoid mix-ups later. To spped it up, note the length and width of the piece and how many there are. Then scane the instructions to look for the parts.

Campbell lists the parts ahead of each section. I wear latex gloves and draw the strip wood lengths through a paint-soaked cloth like an old handkerchief.  This is easier than painting them and gives a varied effect.  The trim and the siding will be weathered later as well when the structure is completed.

I don't usually get out the airbrush to paint the window and door frames, again because they'll be weathered later. I use a small paint brush.  It depends how new you want the building to look.  Your choice.

  • Should you get some warping of the wood siding, one remedy that can help is to paint the opposite side. 

Initial assembly

The instructions tell you to start by edge-gluing the siding pieces together.  I use either a toothpick or a cocktail pick, the one with the sharp round point. Make a small puddle of glue. Dip the point of the toothpick into the glue. I use yellow carpenter's glue instead of white glue. Use glue sparingly on the tip of the toothpick.

This helps to keep the paint off the face of the wood. I use an NMRA scale ruler against the sides of the pieces I'm gluing together to ensure the edges line up. Be careful to check how the pieces fit on the drawing. 

My drawing had shrunk a little so I had to extend beyond the lines on each side. Weight the pices with whatever you have on hand. This will keep them aligned and deal with any warpage. Bracing will also get rid of any warpage. This will be done in a later step. For now, just try to keep them flat on the waxed paper you've taped over the drawing. You did this, right? The instruction advised you to do so. Be especially careful when there's a need to cut some roof slopes in the siding pieces.

This kit has several instances where this is necessary. Go slow and carefully study the drawing before you cut. This is where a little patience pays off.

  • I make it a habit to use a pencil to tick off each step I do 

If I deviate from the instructions I make a note on the instructions or drawing. If I come back to the project a few days later I have a record of what I did to jog my memory.If the roof lines are somewhat complicated, I find it is useful to lay the end walls back-to-back to ensure the edges line up correctly.  Otherwise you may end up with a crooked roof that is hard to fix. 

A Campbell Scale Models wood structure kit usually calls for the corner posts to be added to the end pieces as the next step. I find it is easy to get confused when cutting and gluing the corner posts. Just remember the edge has to be flush with the outside of the wall and the side walls will line up with the notch. When in doubt hold a side wall in position to make sure. The corner posts on the left and right sides are a mirror image of each other.<

In the past I've used Walther's Goo to install plastic window frames into a wood structure and to attach the acetate to the wondow frames. This time I decided to try a product called Liquisilk. It's more like Ambroid cement.  It dries clear and has a thinner consistency compared to Goo so it's easier to work with. I applied the glue to the edges of the wood siding and then inserted the frames with tweezers. I cut the acetate over the cutting template but did not cut all the way through. I then removed the acetate from the drawing and set it on the cutting board. I finished the cuts on the board.  The cutting template makes the window glass oversize. I applied the Liquisilk to the siding with a toothpick using the opposite dry end to position the acetate as I put it in place with tweezers. 

You could also cut the acetate to fit inside the frames. I didn't bother to do this.

35mm slide mount corner brace
slide mount bracing

Here's a photo of the basic assembly of Montgomery's feed & Seed wood structure as the glue is drying. This has been glued in three steps as sub-assemblies. The primary things to watch for when squaring the assemblies is the height of walls where they will meet a roof and that the walls are straight vertically. I use a variety of clamps and weights, whatever will work, when gluing the sub-assemblies together. Machinists' squares, straight edge rulers such as an NMRA ruler, hunks of metal, aqua-lung weights (I don't know where I got those) and anything else that helps.

You'll notice two bar clamps near the roofline. It's often easier to get the bottoms lined up. The bar clamps help at the top. Mine weren't long enough to span all three sub assemblies, hence the varied weights holding things in place.

I also found it necessary to do some pre-sanding on the edges of the right sub-assembly so it would fit vertically correctly at the front wall. Just as in your house, corners may not be completely square vertically as I'm sure you'll know if you've ever tried to wallpaper a room.

You can also see where I left green masking tape in place and where I've written on the inside walls.

  •  Keep walls square to avoid later problems  

This building has to fit on a foundation that is built as a separate sub-assembly. I used old cardboard 35mm slide mounts cut diagonally and mounted in the corners of the foundation. They provide stability and help to keep things square.  If you have some old slides lying around that you no longer need this is a good use for them.  I've scanned my old slides with a Canon scanner that accepts 35 mm slides and negatives and have converted them to digital so I no longer need the original mounts.

Trouble spots

For the most part I simply follow the instructions.  The two areas I find the most difficult are making the stairs and adding the rafter tails.

To make the stairs more easily I tack the stringers to the sticky side of some tape as suggested in the instructions and then lay a piece of scrap styrene or wood between the stringers and additional pieces along the outside of the stringers. This helps to keep the stringers upright. Then I use dabs of Goo to affix the wooden stair treads to the painted plastic stringers.

As for the rafter tails I find that it is not sufficient to rely on the templates when cutting the pieces to length. This is because I never get a roof to fit perfectly. 

I use the template as a guide for the rafter tail angles and test fit one cut piece under the eaves. I then adjust the cutting of the remainder of the pieces to fit each roof line. I also turned the model upside down facing me and held it in position with a couple of weights so I could see where I was gluing the rafter tails on the lines that were penciled on the underside of the cardboard roofs. This is a tricky process and it is easy to make a mistake and get the rafter tails slanted or crooked.

I work at it until it's "good enough".  I'm making these models for use on the layout, not as contest models. I certainly have improved over the years. One needs a lot of patience!

I wasn't happy with the paint I'd used on the roof. I didn't have any grimy black and used a paint that had too much shine so I repainted the roof, added the tar lines, some grime, and bird droppings. I took a shortcut and used fine sandpaper for the roof on the dock. Other than that I followed the instructions for this wood structure. I also installed six 12 volt 30 ma lamps and installed some items behind one freight door.  I didn't finish the interior completely although I took the time to paint it tray. Below are photos of the completed model. It hasn't been "planted" yet but did not have its own siding yet.

Dock side of the model
Montgomery Feed & Seed dock side

Track side of the model
Montgomery Feed & Seed track side at night

It took about a month to build this HO scale wood structure kit working a few hours at a time. Good hobby value for the satisfaction that comes for completing a kit like this.

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