Lighting Structures on Your Model Railroad Layout – Part 2: What Lights to Use

Lighting Structures on Your Model Railroad Layout – Part 2: What Lights to Use

In the old days, the choice was pretty clear – incandescent light bulbs. This is not because they were so wonderful but because they were the ONLY choice. Today’s lighting picture is a little (please forgive the pun) brighter.

Lighting Types Available

  • Incandescent bulbs are still available and still pretty cheap but they suffer from short life spans, fragility, and a big heat build-up. This can be ruinous in a tightly enclosed plastic structure, where close proximity to a hot bulb can cause warping.
  •  Mini-fluorescent bulbs (CCF’s) are very bright and usually long-lived but they are fragile glass tubes and room must be allowed for their driver hardware that allows them to work off low voltage DC. They spread light out evenly, but their color temperature makes them cold and bluish, not warm and yellow. This can be alleviated with colored gel sheets if you are up to the hassle of sourcing this material from a professional lighting supplier or theater supply house.
Set of 2 8” fluorescent tubes. Photo from

Set of 2 8” fluorescent tubes. Photo from


  • EL (electroluminescent) sheet, once sold as “Lightsheet,” now available from many manufacturers, puts out a dim, even light. EL is moisture sensitive, although this should not be a problem if directions are followed carefully. EL sheet can be a good choice for lighting flat background buildings. Some dealers make special dimmers to control or animate the sheet. EL sheet is pricey and can be finicky to use. It is generally not very bright and can be difficult to see in standard room light.


    The brown building on the left is less than ½” thick  yet it’s completely lit up by electroluminescent sheet.

    The brown building on the left is less than ½” thick yet it’s completely lit up by electroluminescent sheet.

  • LED’s. I’ve saved the best for last. Modern LED technology has progressed far past the point where dim red or green 5mm components were the only game in town. LED’s can be bright enough to leave spots before your eyes. The color range available for most components includes many bright colors as well as both cold and warm white, for simulating fluorescent and incandescent lighting installations.

    LED’s are available as individual components or pre-soldered in groups onto strips complete with built in current resistors. LED’s are tough enough to stand a good hard knock, and life expectancy is usually in the tens of thousands of hours or better.

    Did I mention that many LED components put out little to no damaging heat? Best of all, the hobby manufacturers are on board and most hobby shops will have a variety to choose from. Still not satisfied? The internet has a wealth of LED treasure waiting to be discovered. The downside is that LED’s are still very directional, and to light a broad interior, a number may be needed posed in different directions or pointed at reflective surfaces so as not to look like pinpoint sources through the windows.


One of the many LED strip-light products on the market.

Improving the overall lighting scheme.

Just because a structure is lit, does not mean that every room needs to be lit. The bigger the building, with more windows, the more obvious this is. A one room shack will probably splash light out of every window. A ten story hotel will be more believable if some windows are dark. This is most easily accomplished by putting a piece of black paper over the window to be darkened, but this is not very convincing. Try making shades or closed curtains in the darkened windows. At the very least, set the black-out paper back by 1/8 inch or so by framing it out with scrap wood or styrene. This way, the texture of the paper is not apparent in the window. Don’t forget to think logically about the placement of dark windows. Two windows on corners that would open into the same room should match, either both lit or both dark. Lobbies are usually completely lit. Factory floors are usually completely lit or completely dark, unless there is justification for part of a level to be dark, perhaps a side wing.

But don’t let the buildings walls be your boundary to interesting lighting effects. Next time we’ll go beyond the four walls to talk about lights that can be attached outside your structure.


—Raymond Potter


  1. Anonymous on January 2, 2014 at 11:41 pm

    I want to put led in buildings, is something available with built in resisters in a soft white 3mm size in the 12 volt range as a strip or individual and do individual leds each require a resistor or can one resistor be used in a chain of leds, where are such items available other than ebay and amazon thanx

  2. Admin on January 7, 2014 at 3:57 pm

    OK. There are a number of strip LED’s that are available in soft white and work on 12 volts DC including those sold online. Online is your best source. Check user feedback and shop around. Solo LED’s are also around in soft white but I have never seen one that has internal resistors to take 12 volts. These are usually designed for 3-5 volts DC. Several resistors can be daisy chained, as long as they are set up anode to cathode. Look online for a LED network calculator page. It will ask for your desired voltage and number of LED’s and give you a suggested network configuration.

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