Things to Ponder When You're Planning Your Model Railroad Layout . .


by Raymond G. Potter

nce the track has been laid and operation of the trains is confirmed, it’s time to consider scenery. Earlier we’d discussed choosing an era and locale for your layout.

Great Scenery doesn’t happen by itself.

Now this will come into play when deciding what scenery to implement on your layout and how. Hopefully, as you painstakingly designed your track plan and theme, you collected photos, magazines, or web links of scenery that matches this theme, either real or miniature.

Most model railroad layouts have some mountains on them, and if you’ve designed your track plan to allow for grades, you may even have tracks running through the mountains or at higher levels of the mountain. Some layouts SMARTT  has built have a separate main line running high up in the mountains for logging or coal industries.

Regardless of what region you’ve chosen, remember that scenery must ALWAYS leave clearance space to the sides of the track so that long or wide swinging rolling stock does not hit the scenery. There can surely be no more disheartening sight that running your prized train through your elaborate and freshly finished scenery to find that it doesn’t fit! If you are in doubt, move your biggest equipment on the rails through the area by hand before construction and mark off how far it hangs outside the rails, both on the inside and outside of any curves. Leave room, and if possible, leave a bit more, just in case. Don’t forget that surface treatments added onto your scenery may make it thicker and push into the clearance zone you have just established.

Model railroaders are an industrious lot and have come up with numerous methods to create lightweight realistic hills, hillsides, and mountains.  These can be solid or hollow depending upon your preference, but if you will have trains going through the mountains by tunnel, then hollow is surely the way to go.  If your bench-work (table) is open grid, that is, there is only wood laid out for the track roadbed, and it is open in between, then hollow scenery that covers the tracks can sometimes be accessed from below in case of a derailment in a hidden area.  If you have a solid table surface for your layout, like a 4’x8’ sheet of plywood, then you will have to create a hidden panel in the side of your mountains that you can pull off and replace easily. At SMARTT , we always design open grid but even then, some complex track plans call for access from above not below, so we frequently install hidden panels.
Scenery material options:


Using mainly wallpaper paste and newspaper or brown paper towels, this technique is cheap and safe even for kids. When finally dry, papier-mâché can be very light when dry and can have as many contours as you are willing to put into it. You must build a simple skeleton of your scenery to hold the mâché in place. This can be a mesh of cardboard strips or the old school method of chicken wire (which can have sharp edges and is not kid-friendly). The wet mâché is heavy and can easily deform. Usually several separate applications are required to gain strength.

Advantages: low cost, availability at hardware store, hollow, non-toxic

Disadvantages: Water soluble, heavy when wet, can take a very long time to dry, messy and goopy

Papier mache scenery,  photo found on


Plaster Cloth

This is similar in procedure to mâché. A skeleton is made of cardboard strips, then plaster cloth pieces, available from Woodland Scenics, are dipped into water and laid in an overlapping pattern across the skeleton and left to set. At one time, the bare cloth would have been dipped into a runny plaster mixture. Now, the plaster powder is impregnated into the cloth so there is much less mess and no mixing.

Advantages: Easy, hollow, non-toxic, sets up quickly

Disadvantages: You will need to find a hobby shop that carries the plaster cloth. Cost is more than that of mâché

Plaster cloth scenery in progress at SMARTT.

Foam Sheets and Blocks

In this scenery technique, foam blocks and sheets are cut and glued together to make a basic shape and then sliced and sculpted with various blades or a hot-knife tool. True experts can create things of beauty with foam block, but it takes lots of practice. The foam can be sanded as well as cut, but either way, this is a messy, dusty process so be prepared.

Advantages: great results with practice, lightweight.

Disadvantages: Foam other than white bead-board is hard to find. Cutting tools may be sharp so this is not an activity for children, hot-wire specialty tool needs to come from hobby shop or mail order, messy, solid- not hollow -unless you hollow it out.

Foam scenery photo from forums.

There are other techniques that use 2-part urethane foams and metal or synthetic window screen. These techniques can produce interesting results, but must be special ordered, and, because of the chemicals involved, are definitely not for unsupervised children. Also, if metal window screening is used, it can interfere with some radio frequency based control systems.

We have used plaster-cloth, foam carving, and even the specialty urethane foam kits here at SMARTT . Plaster cloth is our favorite technique because of ease of use and versatility. We follow up the plaster cloth with a coat of Sculptamold to blend everything together.

Once your hill shapes are roughed out, you can add detail with foam or plaster rock carvings or even carve or sculpt your own rock treatment from a fast setting plaster like Hydrocal.

Fortunately, scenery is an area where you can mix and match techniques as you like, choosing the one that is easiest and most convenient for you in a given area.

SMARTT  has evolved a few proprietary techniques that tie directly into the close integration we have between computer design and computer aided machining that are too complex to go into here.

The most important thing to remember when choosing and implementing your scenery is to first preserve the operation of the layout. Protect all tracks, especially turnouts, both from damage caused by misplaced scenery materials and from damage caused by putting your weight in their area. Don’t forget to watch your clearances. Remember: if the trains don’t run, it ain’t no fun!

from the December, 2011 SMARTT Newsletter

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