model buildings


A Shortage Of Space On
Industrial Switching Shelf Layouts:

Are Low Relief Model Railroad
Building Kits The Solution?

By Guest Contributor: Tony Neilson

If you are planning to design an industrial switching shelf layout you might be thinking about the pros and cons of including industrial and warehouse buildings against the backdrop. The big consideration is how thick they will be and how much space they will take up.

switching yard buildings

Obviously the thickness of 3D buildings could be prohibitive depending on the width of the shelf. You won’t want to fill the space up with large structures and have no space left for the track. 3D kits of model railroad buildings can look very effective in the right location as long as they don’t take up too much space and restrict train operations. If you plan to do plenty of yard work, then rail sidings will need to be a priority. If you have ample space, then you’ll have room for scenery and 3D kits to be more of a feature.
Let’s use an example (courtesy of ). This is the 8ft x 2ft shelf plan without any scenery or structures added.

n scale track plans

Below is the same shelf track plan with some roading, vegetation and some 3D buildings added. Although this would look okay, in their current location the 3D buildings do take up quite a lot of space, and depending on where the backdrop is located, the structures could somewhat obscure the view.

n gauge track plans

SOLUTION: Positioning low relief industrial buildings against the backdrop could free up quite a lot of space on the layout for more switching track, an overpass, or possibly even a wharf or port. The trackage could even run closer to the front edge and allow room for more operations, possibly a big industry, an engine shed, or even a turntable.

switching layout plans


types of buildings

Flats are an option

The low relief buildings could be constructed to show just the frontage (flats). This option would take the least amount of space and will look effective when viewed front on. By just gluing the frontages onto some foam board or core flute, you could create an illusion of 3D and save an inch or two in depth. The saved inch could allow more space for other features elsewhere on the layout. However, be aware that by making the structures flats, the aerial and side views may look less effective if it looks like the structures have little or no depth.

The illusion of 3D

The other option is to construct the kits to show the frontage and part of the roof and two sides. This will look more effective when viewed from above or from an angle. The kits won’t take up much room and need only be an inch or two thick depending on the scale you are working with. Space permitting you can stagger them so they stand out different distances from the backdrop. This will add to the 3D illusion.

What I'm saying is; it's mostly the "chopper” or side view that ruins the effect of background buildings. When you get down to the track level even the flattest building flats will look much better against the backdrop.

industrial building flats

Although you might not see the above scenario so often in real life, it does provide a bit of a compromise. It involves positioning the track closer to the backdrop to provide more space and more depth to the structure. A combination of flats, low relief and 3D buildings could be used to add dimension and variation to the depth of structures. yard track 

Viewing positions

Positioning your shelf layout higher from the floor can be a good compromise between viewing angle and reach. Although you might prefer your switching layout at eye level, having it lower will help with extended reach to the back of the 24-inch shelf. If it is too high you might need a portable step stool to use when uncoupling cars at the rear of the layout. Another option is to sit on a bar stool with castors. With a shelf layout it is generally better to be looking straight at the buildings rather than down on them. Adding a mirror at one end can give the illusion of the shelf layout extending in the distance.

model railroad building kits

Click here to see these Low Relief Model Railroad Buildings

The benefits of a forced perspective

By using a forced perspective, the objects positioned in the foreground tend to increase in size and stature because there is the illusion of distance in relation to those in the background. A forced perspective can help certain layout features to really stand out. The background can help create a more life like overall view of the era and time you are representing.

So it is important to carefully consider the size and perspective of all objects and structures. You may need to reduce the size to give the illusion of distance as follows:

  • For buildings that are seen up close or in the foreground they need to be viewed at 100%.
  • If they are 100 to 500 yards away then they can be reduced to 90% – 100% of the size to give some illusion of distance.
  • If they are supposed to be ¼ to ½ mile away then they could be reduced to around 80% - 90% of the full size.
  • Buildings that supposedly a mile or more away could be 30% to 50% of the full size.

Obviously these are guides only. So as an example; if an N scale building is 5 inches tall close-up, it would need to be 4 inches to 4½ tall if it is positioned ¼ to ½ mile away. Details in buildings that are further away also need to be smaller in size e.g. windows, doors etc. Objects in the foreground and in the background need to work together so as to provide the most impact for visitors at the same time creating a very realistic scene.

Painting a background sky and clouds

Even the sky you see in the background can have a big influence on the realism of the scene. The position of the sun can influence how you paint the background or position objects in the foreground. Clouds that are nearer the sun need to be lighter in color or more transparent that those clouds that are further away from the sun. Attention to details like this can make a big difference to the overall effect. No two clouds should be the same.

The clouds and sky can alter the mood of the scene too. They can give the impression it is early morning, late afternoon, or even dusk. It could look like a sunny day, or like it is about to rain or even snow.

If you are painting the sky and clouds, be aware the overhead sky is generally darker and lighter towards the horizon. Use two tints or shades of blue paint and blend them where they join to make a third shade of blue.

Search Google images for some photos of real clouds to use as a guide. There are also several examples at

Techniques for painting sky and clouds

You can make stencils out of cardboard and use them for painting clouds, but remember they all need to look different. Start with the small clouds near the horizon. When you come to spray on more clouds above, you’ll probably find a light misty spray falls on the lower clouds giving a misty atmospheric haze.

Change the stencil often and hold it ½ inch or so from the sky when spraying the paint. Repositioning the stencil and gradually adding layers can give a 3D illusion. They can also be overlayed to give shape and size variations. Spray the paint sparingly and decrease the cloud size from top to bottom on the backdrop. Don’t spray too near the edges as you don’t want a sharp outline. A soft fuzzy look is best.

Storm clouds can be painted by spray with gray paint first, before over-spraying them with white paint to provide the desired density.

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