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South Africa

Layout – Plan & Do it Right

t4africa_img006Fantastic Results can be achieved by applying some basic techniques.

While there are a few Master Model builders that spend years in search of perfection -You don’t have to be an artist to get realistic and consistent results.

The following article has been adapted slightly from its original form – credit to:

Before you start, remember the following:

  • Don’t over reach.
    By this I mean that you should not try to incorporate more elements than you have room for.
    Nobody has enough room to do everything they want, and the sooner you accept this, the sooner you enjoy what you have.
  • Unless you are creating a Miniatur – Wunderland , a clean, open, and simple design is most often the first step in creating a layout that is a winner aesthetically.
Trains4AfricaReal or Fake..?
Clever use of techniques makes this layout “Picture Perfect”

1. General Layout

Model Railroading is for everyone and as this is your layout, you can pretty much do what you want right..

Even the most basic layout can be made great and more realistic with clever use of scenery and other visual enhancements.

Please read this Before You Start Scenery Article for some additional thoughts about the overall layout..before you start..

In general,modelers..

  • Model a Freelance layout (may or may not contain elements of real-world scenes)
  • Model a specific Real-world location
  • Model elements of multiple Real-world locations or scenes
  • Plan and Build a layout with one or more constraints (size, space,cost, portability)

Some tips..

  • Look around you,and use real-world colors, textures and other cues from nature even if your layout is completely freelance
  • Look at real-world railroads and incorporate some common features and track logic
    If the railroads lay track in a specific manner, perhaps it wont do you harm to incorporate some of their wisdom into your own layout – why not “google” a local station or fiddle yard- you don’t have to match their layout or design, but you may just get valuable insight..
  • Up, through or over mountains?
    Off coarse you can go anyway you want, but the real railroads will almost certainly always choose the most effective route..whatever you do is ok, but be prepared for comment from visitors 🙂
  • Look at other layouts
    There are so many track plans available to get you inspired, why not have a look at some, you may avoid some potential problems – as a minimum you will appreciate how great your own design is!
  • Use Track Planning Software, design your own or take a look at the many 1000’s of layouts..

2.   Backdrops






Backdrops, when used correctly provide a very powerful visual effect, that will make your layout a lot more realistic.. When done right, a visitor to your layout, may well be transported to another world..






A note on Paintings and how t a background scene differ:
While the painting on your wall is supposed to be the focal point and draw you in, a model railroad backdrop should NOT be the focal point and should be handled in such a way that attention is not drawn away from the railroad and towards the backdrop.

You want a sense of 3D atmosphere stretching in to the distance and nothing more. Always remember that “Atmosphere” is 3D and it is 3D regardless of viewing angle

As soon as you add anything beyond basic blue to your layout backdrop (clouds, hills, structures) you risk making it obvious that your model atmosphere is only two dimensional.

Also keep in mind that most backdrops will encompass almost as much surface area as the layout itself and are oriented perpendicular to your line of sight-

While an skilled artist can create a passable illusion when the backdrop is viewed dead on, most modellers will never be able to do this, so stop wasting your time in this regard – rather use other techniques with much better results.

As soon as the viewer looks at the backdrop from an angle, the illusion is lost.

So, how do we deal with this dilemma?

  • Keep the sky shade light
  • Avoid deep sapphires.
  • Don’t paint clouds on
  • At most, work some white streaks into the sky blue while you are painting
  • Keep the horizon low,  2″ to 3″ maximum
  • Do not paint structures on the backdrop. (occasionally structures work o.k. on backdrops if they are small and in the distance)
  • Use a muted tone for the horizon such as gray or gray/olive.
  • Using Computer Graphic Applications, Realistic, in-scale backdrops can be created that look much better than painted surfaces

Things to avoid include:

  • bright sapphire hues
  • overly dramatic clouds (or any clouds for that matter)
  • structures on the backdrop, and high horizon lines.


3. Neatness always Counts

The human eye is merciless in detecting things that look out of place.

Basic neatness and cleanliness pay big dividends down the road.








It doesn’t cost anything to have a neat and tidy layout, and by following a few guidelines, you too can be proud of your layout:

  • Make sure all items that should be vertical (trees, telephone poles, figures, etc. ) are in fact vertical.
  • If you have vehicles, make sure they are oriented correctly in the streets and not cocked at odd angles.
  • Make sure you don’t have long snagged errant strands of poly fiber stretching from trees.
  • If you use hot-glues, make sure that you remove the spider-webs
  • Clean errant ballast away that is stuck to the sides of the rails
  • Structures should be  mounted neatly to their foundations with no visible gaps.


Come on.. your tracks shouldn’t be left looking like that..



4.  Weathering


Simple Weathering can be used to great effect, and will add realism and character to your layout.

There are numerous books written on the topic, as well as magazine articles that you can reference..

Here is another article on different weathering techniques that just goes to show how many ways there are get the job done.

Provided here is an example Technique that can be used to weather a modern diesel to great effect:

Trucks and under body:

  • Use something like Floquil Grimy Black.
  • When dry, swish on some chocolate brown chalk dust with a soft water color brush.
  • After the chalk application apply a 50/50 mix of Dullcote and thinner with an airbrush.
  • The oil spill is a vertical black chalk line

Blue Fading:

  • Mask off the cab and spray a very thin wash of Floquil GN Blue over the darker blue.
  • The airbrush was cranked way down to a very low paint volume.
  • By investing the time to apply the same treatment to Cab, the side of the hood and cab front fantastic results can be achieved

Yellow fading:

  • Using a small chisel shaped brush, dry brush on PollyScale ATSF cat wisker yellow (which is a very faded yellow) over the CSX yellow.
  • In tricky areas use some masking tape to make sure the brush doesn’t stray over onto the blue.
  • In the areas of the blue CSX lettering try to get as close as you can and don’t worry too much about it.

Rust patches:

  • These were created using burnt umber artist oils.
  • Using a nail or tack a spot of brown is applied to the model.
  • Next, using a very small brush, apply a tiny drop of paint thinner over the speck of brown paint and let it run down naturally.
  • If you get a weird pattern, wipe it off and try it again.

Cab roof: 

  • Streaks are just gray chalk.
  • The initial streaks were applied with a brush.
  • Next, put on latex gloves and smear the streaks downward with your finger

Roof and hood: 

  • Use Gray and Brown chalks applied with a brush.

Final Finish:

  • Everything was sealed with Dullcote, thinned to 50% and applied with an airbrush.

Please note, that there are many different materials available from as many companies, and you don not necessarily have to use the ones mentioned here..


5.  Weathering of Freight Cars



As with the simple Weathering technique described above, basic weathering of freight cars will add realism and character to your layout.

Presented here is a quick way to easily and subtly weather your freight cars.

Quick Tips:

  • Not every car needs to be, or should be, a dramatic rust bucket.
  • If you can knock the shine off of the factory paint job and gently tone things down you are well on your way.
  • Grab a box car and try these simple steps


  • Apply a base coat of either Floquil Grimy Black or Floquil Rail Brown.
  • Let it dry a few minutes.
  • Now, apply a light follow up airbrush dusting of Floquil Roof Brown.
  • If you don’t own an airbrush, substitute brown weathering chalks in lieu of the Roof Brown.

Car Body:

  • Spray the car with a Dullocote
  • For best results use an Airbrush, and remember to thin the bottled Dullcote before airbrushing
    a 50/50 mix of bottled Dullcote and Brush Cleaner/Thinner is recommended
  • Next we are going to fog on a very gentle and extremely transparent layer of grime.
  • Take an airbrush bottle and fill it with rubbing alcohol (any strength).
  • Open a bottle of Polly Scale Steam Power Black, Rail Tie Brown or Both.
  • Tip a paint brush handle into the paint and let a few drops drip into your alcohol.
    You want the mix to be very diluted.
    Set your airbrush to 15psi to 20psi and turn the paint volume way down, and test your mix by spraying a white object.
    The paint should not blast out nor should it be very dark.
    If it’s too dark, re-do your mix.
  • Once you’re satisfied that you have the correct mix and airbrush pressure, fog your mix gently over your car.
  • Linger with the airbrush a little longer around the door hinges and lower parts of your model.
  • When you see the slightest trace of color – stop!  The key is knowing when to quit.
    If in doubt, stop and come back an hour later.
  • If things end too light you can always go back later and add more layers. If you go too dark you are stuck.   Frequently rubbing alcohol and Dullcote react in such a way as to produce some hazing.  If this occurs simply apply another coat of Dullcote and the hazing will disappear.


While couplers don’t seem like such an issue, there are a number of companies that offer couplers that are more realistic looking, or enhance operations.

  • Many layouts do not use Magnetic uncoupling ramps – If this applies to your situation cut off those unsightly wire “uncoupling hoses” that dangle below your couplers – You don’t need them, and probably never will.
  • If financially viable you can replace the stock couplers with more realistic looking ones..

For more information on Couplers, have a look at these articles:


6.  Vegetation



Grasses, weeds, and underbrush  don’t get written about much but are things that can dramatically improve the look of your scenery.


Here are some tips to improve the realism:

  • Working in low lying vegetation around tree trunks can alleviate the dreaded “lollipop” look
  • For underbrush, take green poly fiber, stretch it into airy puff balls, hit it with hairspray and dust on a very faint layer of ground foam.
  • Avoid using ground foam for grass coverage
  • Please stop using materials, such as wood shavings and coarse foam that make your scenery look out of scale, and benefit from advances in material manufacturing techniques- by utilizing the newer grass materials, flocking you will greatly enhance your layouts appeal.
  • Depending on your financial situation, you may want to invest in a few realistic trees for your foreground scenes-
    Commercial suppliers of realistic trees include TImberline Scenery, JTT Trees and many others
  • Have a look at the products from Silflor, Heki, Woodlands Scenics, and others for a wide range of realistic scenery products



7. Track


While there certainly are visible differnces between the track supplied by the many varied track manufactuers, as well as hand-laid track, the single most important aspect of getting it to look realistic is the color treatment.


things you can do:

  • Add some details to the rail
  • Weather the rails and track ties

Here is one technique that will provide good results:

  • For a concrete look, Airbrush or paint the ties with something like “Model Master – Light Gray”
  • For a Timber look, Airbrush or paint the ties with a suitable brown color that is representative of the type of timber used
  • Let this dry for at least a day
  • Apply a wash of burnt umber artist oils over the ties
    Thin the wash to the consistency of weak coffee with mineral spirits.
  • Let the oils dry for several days
  • Mask off the ties leaving the rails and tie plates exposed
  • Airbrush with something like “Floquil Rail Brown”.
  • Follow up with a very light airbrush dusting of Floquil Roof Brown and/or Floquil Rust
  • If possible paint each track section and turnout individually, alternatively if your tracks are laid, just go slow and do small sections at a time.

8.  Ballast

One the most often overlooked scenic detailing projects is ballasting.

Realistic ballasting is not only easy, but also quick and inexpensive as well. The small amount of time that is spent on this project will yield dramatic results, even making sectional and flexible track look like a finely detailed model.

Here’s what you can do..

  • Prepare the roadbed area.
    This is as easy as painting the track base in an earth or gray color, and if raised road bed is being used make sure to paint it as well.
  • Often spray spatter paint available from either a hobby shop or home improvement store will help add a layer of realism and finish to the right of way.
  • Once the paint is completely dry, install the track to the layout or display base.

Interestingly, some of the major ballast products on the market today are not made from actual stone, but are actually crushed walnut shells !
However, the tendency for these products to float as well as their uniform color and texture makes them less than desirable when trying to create a realistic look.

  • Wet the entire track area with a fine misting spray bottle, then apply a thinned mixture of scenery cement one drop at a time over the ballast.
  • Allow 24 hours for the glue to dry completely before moving on to the next step
  • Mix up a 50/50 wash of black acrylic paint and water and liberally apply to the ballast.
    This wash will darken the crevices in the ballast to add shadow and depth to the road bed.

Easy Scenery Tips & Techniques

  • Add Highlights by dry-brushing the entire right of way with light colored acrylic craft paint.
    Highlighting brings out the details of the ties as well as the surrounding ballast.
  • Once the highlights are dry, clean the paint off the top of the rails and remove any excess ballast from the sides of the rails and in the flange ways
  • Working in small sections will allow you to detail many miles of track on your layout!


Some more tips..

  • Ballast products made from actual crushed stone create a much more realistic appearance and are also easier to work with.
  • In selecting ballast blends pay special attention to getting an aggregate size that is appropriately sized for your scale.
  • Don’t be afraid to use N scale ballast on HO layouts.


9.  Stuctures

Master Model Craftsman, Tony Koester has the following to say about structures:

“Some model railroads look more like a display of craftsman-style structure kits than a coherent miniature of any actual place and period.

The lesson?

  • While your individual structures could be a contest winner; seen as parts of a greater whole, they may fail to do their job
  • You need to examine structure candidates in the same critical light used to make motive-power and rolling stock choices.
  • If you think in terms of an individual structure for your layout, you may choose a building that’s a bit over the top, something that would stand out at a theme park
  • If plausibility and realism are important, however, it may be better to think in terms of groupings of structures.
  • Alone, each building may not amount to much, but together they may constitute a believable town, farm, lumberyard, or whatever

In Conclusion..

  • View each model as part of a whole.
    Just as running a local freight is little more than an exercise in switching cars unless its work is considered in the context of the through freights that forward those cars to distant climes, you should look at scenery and structures as being complementary to the function of the railroad itself.
  • No single aspect of our broad-shouldered hobby should be considered in isolation if you hope to create a plausible model railroad


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