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How Structures Can Add Realism To Your Model Railroad Layout

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Natural scenery is a lot of fun to create and easy to do well. It really is the prime scene-setter on any model railroad layout, but let’s not forget the real purpose for the railroad’s existence.It has to serve an industry of some kind, and that means that structures should be a pivotal element of your layout.


Deciding What and Where to Build

Just throwing pre-built plastic buildings out on the layout willy-nilly isn’t an effective technique. Structures are created in real life to serve a need for shelter of some kind. On the layout, the structures suggest the presence of humans in the context of the railroad scene. While the placements of buildings in real life depend on a number of factors, the most common reasons for a certain location are a reasonable price for the location, convenient access to road and/or rail transportation and proximity to natural resources.

We have complete control over the arrangement of structures on the layout so the economic factor doesn’t play a part, but you can set the stage so that the structures on the layout look as though they belong in the place you put them. When you plan your layout to include a town or city, take a drive around your own town and see if you can determine what factors influence structure placement. For example, does a sawmill dropped in the middle of a farm field make sense, or is it more logical to place the mill on the bank of a river? Would a grain elevator be erected in the center of an industrial production plant, or best built next to the tracks in a rural setting?

Is Bigger Better?

Also important is a sense of proportion. Large industrial areas such as refineries and steel mills are most often found near larger cities. Creating a large manufacturing plant with just a small surrounding community might look odd unless the scene includes some hints of a larger city nearby, such as a background with an urban skyline.

Perspective is an important element of structure placement. Buildings near the front of the layout should be at scale and as detailed as your skills and desire allow. Structures farther back on the layout may be smaller than scale to force a perspective of greater distance. Because they are not near the viewer, they can be less detailed and still be realistic.

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Textures, Colors, Weathering, Adhesives, And Other Model Train Stuff

Colors and textures are key parts to a model railroad layout. Realism is about simulating the textures and colors of the objects and things surrounding you in the real world.

Colors bring a layout to life

If you are not so good at mixing colors, you can buy a Color Wheel (available from an art supply shop or online from Amazon). It could help guide you with tinting paints, achieving the right hues, tones and color relationships. Keep it in a box with your other model train stuff.

When painting scenery or buildings it’s generally best to use acrylic paints (available from art and hobby shops or model train stores). Water based acrylic paints can be easily thinned to a consistency you will find easy to work with. With acrylics the brushes (or airbrush) are easier to clean by using plain tap water, as opposed to solvents like mineral turpentine.

A common technique is to add color to different textures using different patterns or brush strokes. This can look extremely authentic and can make the object appear as if it has been through plenty of “real world” weathering.

Additionally, colors should be used with natural appearances in mind. The focus should be on grays, greens, and browns for the most part, although white paint can be used in winter scenes. White paint is also one of several colors to use when toning down colors or mixing lighter shades. Also consider the type of material or surface being covered by the paint as some solvents eat into plastic and foam.

Textures and uneven surfaces

Scenery textures will give the railroad setting a natural look. You won't want everything to be perfectly smooth. Rough surfaces are commonplace in everyday life, so include textures on your buildings and scenery. If you do an online search of model railroad scenery supplies or artist supplies, you'll come across various art products for adding textures to surfaces including texture pastes.

As well as incorporating rough surfaces you'll want to include gradients, valleys, hills, mounds etc. rather than having a perfectly flat layout (unless perhaps it is a classification yard).

When first constructing a layout, it is common to lay the tracks on a flat board or bench to give the trains a smooth even surface on which to operate. Keeping the track as level and even as possible will keep your derailments and maintenance issues to a minimum. Real railroads do this when creating a right of way and you should too.

However, for parts of your railroad layout not directly under the tracks choose to go a little uneven to achieve a more natural look. This might involve creating small mounds or hills around the surface. Be sure that any changes from one elevation to the next level are gradual unless you particularly want a steep gradient or cliff face.

Mountain features can also be added to railroads. The best part of adding a mountain on the railroad layout is that the mountain doesn’t need to be absolutely perfect and symmetrical. In reality it will look best if it is irregular shape. Even picturesque mountains like Mount Fuji in Japan, or Mount Taranaki (Egmont) in New Zealand are not perfectly symmetrical despite appearing that way at first glance. It is easy to add a few jagged cliffs or edges to your mountains to give them the appearance of realism.

Weathering and more model train stuff

Closely related to the topic of textures and colors and is the broad subject of weathering. When you purchase a shiny new automobile and drive it around for a few weeks in a region that gets any amount of precipitation, it will start to get dirty. In other words, your car is getting weathered. Any object left outside in the elements will become naturally weathered after a reasonably short time, and over time the new shine and colors will become faded and be dulled.

Colors containing red pigments can be particularly susceptible to fading. If you are the owner of a car or house you can certainly spend time on maintenance by washing your car or house down, or applying a new coat of paint when needed. The thing to remember when weathering a railroad is that different objects will weather in different ways. This provides the opportunity to try something out and then change it if the look isn’t quite right.

Weathering is a technique worth learning as it can stop layout scenery, structures, and trains from looking artificial or like they were just purchased from the model train store. However, to do weathering well you will need some artist model train supplies such as weathering chalks or powders, India Ink, and some acylic paints, and possibly some colored inks and other stuff. Without the right equipment and tools the task will be more difficult and the results probably not as good. Have fun creating your scenery features and controling your trains.

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