Lighting Structures on Your Model Railroad Layout - Part 1: Prepping a Structure for Light

Well made model buildings add interest to any layout. Without structures, it’s all just countryside, isn’t it? But once you’ve got detailed structures, the next logical step is to bring them to life by lighting them. The array of lighting products available on the market is staggering in its variety, but like many building projects, good results require preparation well before the bulb is installed.

Illuminating a city adds new dimensions to realism.

 Illuminating a city adds new dimensions to realism.


Is it light-tight?

Model structures can be made from everything from thin plastic to thick plaster. If the walls are made of a thin material, light may leak through the walls, ruining the illusion of a real world structure. Your brick walls don’t let light through, do they? Well neither should your model’s. As you open your kit and examine the components, hold up a flashlight to the walls. If any hint of light shows through solid material, maybe the cracks between the bricks or the texture on a slat-board wall, then your kit is a candidate for light-tightening. You are probably going to paint your kit anyway, so start with a dark opaque color for your primer. You can add a second lighter primer over this if you are doing light colors for the surface tone. Unless the interior lighting will be exceptionally bright, which is a reality killer by itself, the opaque primer and paint layers above it should be enough to stop leakage through solid walls. If you find that you still have a leak through the painted walls, paint the interior wall surfaces black, or for better reflection inside, try silver.

 This pre-fab structure has walls that allow the flashlight to easily leak through the plastic.

This pre-fab structure has walls that allow the flashlight to easily leak through the plastic.

Solid walls are one place to look for light leakage, but there are others. Corner joints can leak light too. Since corners are usually glued together, good modelers will remove paint before applying the glue to the surfaces that mate. This removes the seal that painting the wall provided. If you are concerned, it never hurts to add a square strip of wood or styrene into the corners during construction. In addition to stopping light, it makes for a sturdier building. If the corner is a strange shape that you can’t match with strip stock, try using a folded piece of black construction paper glued in with white glue. Make the folded surfaces wide enough so that they cover whatever paint you removed to glue the joint together.

Removable sections can be a big problem for lit structures, but they don’t have to be. If you design your sections so that they have a lip or step inside the structure, this will help seal the gap. Otherwise, you can use a folded edge of black paper that hangs into the opening as a light seal gasket.

Light tightening after the fact.

Suppose you’ve purchased an attractive prebuilt building that you think would look glorious lit-up but to your horror, it leaks light like a sieve. This doesn’t have to be a nightmare.  There are a number of possibilities to help fix the problem. Some of these also could be applied to the structure under construction discussed above.

  • Paint the interior walls black or silver. Since this pre-assembled building is already together, you will probably do it by hand. This is a messy proposition, especially if there are lots of windows, so one of the alternatives below may be better.

  • Line the interior walls with black construction paper or silver foil held in place with scotch tape.

  • Use adhesive aluminum tape sold in the auto parts shop (great for corners too. You didn’t forget about them did you?

  • Put a shade around your light to direct it only where you want it to go.

Now that your structure is ready to receive light, next time, we’ll decide on the best light source to use.

---Raymond Potter

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