Kit-bashed, laser kits, and scratch-built structures unite to make a city. Photo by SMARTT (who else?)

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


by Raymond G. Potter

Around the time that you’re planning scenery, your mind may also be turning toward the subject of structures to populate your layout. It’s better to consider structures before the final scenery is laid in as you may need to insert a flat section into the scenery for the structure to sit on. This may seem obvious now, but ignore it at your peril, because later, when you realize that you have to redo an area because you forgot to allow for a structure, you will wonder why you didn’t consider it.

Kit-bashed, laser kits, and scratch-built structures  unite to make a city. Photo by SMARTT (who else?)

Kit-bashed, laser kits, and scratch-built structures
unite to make a city. Photo by SMARTT  (who else?)

There are many different types of structures you might wish to include on your model train layout. Some structures may be already built, either by a factory or another hobbyist at a show. Other structures may come as a kit that you will need to assemble yourself. Finally, if there is something special or unique that your layout needs, you may have to modify an existing product or even scratch build what you need.


The availability of structures depends upon the scale being modeled.  HO is the most popular scale worldwide and there are more kits and pre-built structures available than any other scale. On the other end of the spectrum, G scale’s huge size makes selling pre-built structures in retail outlets difficult as they would just take up too much space. Often pre-built structures can be found at train or hobby shows where modelers may be selling already assembled versions of items otherwise sold only as kits. On the down side, manufacturers’ pre-built structures often have very basic paint jobs and weathering so additional detailing may be needed. Woodland Scenics does do a nice painted line of structures available in a few scales. Pre-built structures can cost as much as twice what the same building in kit form costs, but consider how much your time to build the kit to the same level of quality is worth. For the most part, however, to get the structure that is similar to what you have in mind, you may have to consider a kit.


The range of kits available for a model railroad runs a gamut from simple plastic snap-together kits made of injection molded plastic all the way to complex multi-media monstrosities. Generally, the simpler a kit is, the less detailed it will be.

A snap-together kit will have very few parts, none of which require glue (although it can be used for more stable assembly). The parts are often thick and sometimes are not to scale. Notwithstanding, a good paint job can sometimes mitigate a number of these flaws, and, at the very least, many have parts that are great for kit-bashing. Bachmann’s Plasticville line is a good example.

The next step up in complexity from snap-together is the glue-together plastic model kit. These are made by major manufacturers like Walthers and can be fairly detailed. Some are accompanied by extensive detail parts that can be used to customize the kit or set aside for future use. Many plastic kits are designed with some customizability built into the components. Walthers sometimes supplies building walls with hidden score marks or window cut-outs for just this purpose. Some kits, like the Walthers roundhouses are designed to be modular so that additional kits can be seamlessly integrated into the structure during construction as a single unit with no cutting.

Next in order of complexity is the resin kit. Resin kits are usually made by smaller manufacturers by casting 2-part urethane chemicals to form a tough dense plastic part. Frequently, the only way to obtain a kit of an obscure or out-of-production product is through a resin (or garage) kit. The quality of resin kits varies between manufacturers and sometimes between different kits. This is a place to do plenty of research and ask others for opinions. Resin kits require more work and care than regular plastic kits. They must be glued together with super-glue (AKA cyanoacrylate) as plastic solvents do not affect them. These kits sometimes include cast metal detail parts or wood strips to enhance the kit’s look.

Laser cut kits are a different animal altogether. These kits’ walls are made from flat pieces of wood or acrylic that are stacked to create surface detail and relief. The walls are then assembled square to each other. There are a few simple wood kits that can be built as a try-out before moving on to bigger and more complicated structures. Laser kits often feature subject matter that is impractical in resin or injected plastic such as tall city buildings or long train stations with glass roofs. The glue used will vary according to the material that the kit is made from.

Wood kits can be laser cut as described above or can be much more difficult. Some kits contain injection molded windows from a manufacturer like Grandt Line.  Some wood kits only contain a blueprint and an assortment of wood strips in different thicknesses and widths. These strips must then be cut to size, sometimes beveled, then glued together. (We call such a kit  a “box of sticks.”) The results can be beautiful but these projects can be extremely time consuming and much patience is required.

Plaster models make good cities, when skillfully assembled. Photo from Downtown Deco’s site

Plaster models make good cities, when skillfully assembled. Photo from Downtown Deco’s site

Plaster Kits are only made by a few manufacturers. One of the best known is Downtown Deco which makes an assortment of buildings in various scales up to O. Their buildings are highly detailed replicas of “wrong side of town” type structures as well as some brick industrial buildings. Although there are only a few parts per kit, usually the individual walls, the castings are highly detailed. Separate window and door plastic components as well as paper for roofing and styrene for windows are often included. Plaster kits require some sanding as well as assembly know-how to make sure the walls are square and true before assembly. We usually use super glue on these, the thinner type that can soak in and get a good bond. White glue might work as well if securely clamped. The trick in making these kits look good is all in the paintwork.

In the past few years a new phenomenon in the model industry is the photo-etched structure. Photo-etched kits are made from very thin (sometimes 0.010” thick) metal that is turned into a cut pattern in the same way that a printed circuit board is created. These parts are often sharp, sometimes very tiny. There are some starter kits available. Most structures of this kind are in HO scale or below, although Miller Engineering does make a nice diner in as big as O scale.

Last, there is the multi-media kit. This is a kit that combines several of the above technologies to produce a masterpiece level model. These kits often have resin, wood, plaster, photo-etch, laser cut, and plastic parts in the same box, as well as paper, strip styrene, and other unusual components. One kit I recall even contained glass microscope slide specimen covers to use as windows. This type of kit is not for the faint of heart. Skill and patience are required to make the most out of these kits, which are often costly and limited in release.

On a completely different note, many smaller scale (HO and below) modelers can find a broad assortment of foldable paper kits. Some are pre-punched or die-cut with embossed brick detail, while other equally complex or simple kits are available as a downloadable graphic that you can resize and print yourself. A little research on the net may even turn up some free paper “foldables” ready to print.

Kit Bashing

Sometimes you’ll find a kit that is similar to what you need but not quite, or perhaps you need a structure that is one and a half times as big. This is an occasion for kit-bashing. Kit bashing is the process of physically modifying a model by cutting and removing or adding new parts. The parts you add may be from a second similar kit, a different kit, or even parts you’ve designed and created yourself. This process often requires familiarity with cutting tools like a razor saw or a jeweler’s saw, as well as old favorites like the X-acto knife. Prospective kit bashers should try a simple project first, like lengthening or shortening some walls before descending into an all-out ambitious adventure. Spend extra time on your design and measurement process, because the old adage about “measure twice, cut once” has a lot of weight in the kit-bashing arena. Many model railroad magazines have articles on different kit-bash projects. If you have the perseverance to follow the project through from start to completion, the kit-bashing process can be very satisfying.

Scratch Building

Once you’ve eliminated kits and pre-built structures to fill your needs, there is only one recourse – scratch-building. This can involve anything from a brutally ambitious kit-bash of which very little is left of the original kit, to using all original materials and making every component by hand. Model railroaders are apt to use anything and everything to create their scratch-built masterpieces. The most common elements, and also the easiest to work, with are pre-cut strips and sheets of wood and styrene plastic. If a project has repetitive components, like columns, for example, you could make one detailed master and then cast using silicon rubber and urethane resin. Fortunately, some companies have seen the opportunity to create and sell handy components for the scratch-builder. Plastruct and Grandt Line have extensive catalogs of architectural details including windows and doors. Other suppliers make laser cut shingles or sheets of textured material to imitate brick, stone, and even stained glass.

This Glass-roofed station with detailed interior, from the same layout as the city above, is a complete  scratch-build, designed in CAD, cut by laser, and assembled by our model specialists. Photo by SMARTT

This Glass-roofed station with detailed interior, from the same layout as the city above, is a complete scratch-build, designed in CAD, cut by laser, and assembled by our model specialists. Photo by SMARTT


Ultimately, these are the routes you can go through to populate your layout with structures. This applies not just to buildings, but bridges, power towers, and accessories as well. If you cannot find what you need in a pre-built structure, you are going to have to consider the idea of a kit or a scratch-built structure. But what if you don’t have the time, tools, or talent to do this on your own? This is where a company like SMARTT  comes in.

We can build or custom build structures to meet your needs, whether they’re based on real buildings that exist already or fantasy structures that you would like to see take form. We also have the capacity to custom design parts to be laser cut, machined by a CNC router, or even photo-etched to fill the design needs. Of course, this is a very labor intensive process, so it works out to be more economical as part of a layout project, but if you want your dream structure badly enough, it can be built. SMARTT  makes dreams come true.

from the January, 2012 SMARTT Newsletter

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