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One of Canada's Largest Model Railway e-Commerce and Bricks & Mortar Retailers Since 1993

Milepost 24
CPR Galt Subdivision

Constructing Your Railway on a Flat Surface

A model railroad is like the theatre: the trains are the actors, and the scenery provides the stage and the atmosphere, which are required for the story to unfold. The artistic part of this hobby is making the scenery that depicts that part of the country through which your railroad runs. You can use illusions, forced perspective, and selective compression of spaces and buildings to create the feeling of vast areas of the part of the country that you model.

The substructure of the model railroad has to support the track roadbed and create a base for the details you will be adding. Some idea of the topography, or surface structure, of the area you are modelling is required before you start. Are you creating rolling hills, mountainous country or flat plains with vast farms all around you? Let us look at rolling country, as this requires most of the techniques that we will be discussing. Rolling country includes rivers and streams that run below the track level, hills and wood lots that provide a backdrop, and communities with industries that provide a purpose for the railway.

Various methods of constructing the sub structure are offered in various magazines and books that focus on model railway design and construction. Talk to our staff for the method that best suits your needs and interests.

One way for model railroaders to build the substructure of the scenery is with Woodland Scenics SubTerrain System. For many individuals, this system replaces the earlier practice known as the ‘cookie cutter method’.

First, determine the track plan you wish to use for your model railway. One way to create a track plan is by laying out track, or photocopies of track pieces, on a flat shelf or table. Several books featuring many track plans are also available in our store. One of the problems with published track plans is that in many cases, they do not meet or interests or space requirements. For that reason, Credit Valley Railway Company offers customer layout designs that are tailored to your specifications, needs and interests.

Most track plans will show a grid made up of squares measuring 12” x 12”. First transfer the grid lines to the flat surfaces of your layout sub roadbed. After your grids are in place, it is relatively easy to transfer the track plan to full size drawings on the tabletop or the newsprint sheets.

Using the track plan that you have eventually selected, draw centre lines of your track to indicate where it will eventually be placed. An alternative is to lay the track onto the grids and draw lines down each side of the track to show where it will be placed. If you have specific buildings that you wish to use, now is a good time to plan for them by drawing in their ‘footprint’.

Next, you can use the Woodland Scenics flexible risers. Risers come in five heights ranging from ½” to 4”. We recommend using 2” high risers for most track work, as this size will allow you to drop scenery below track level without having to modify your base. Lay the risers along the lines that you drew previously, pinning them in place temporarily as you go with Woodland Scenics foam pins. Special risers, known as starter inclines or incline sets, allow you to build in grades without having to use a calculator every two minutes. Inclines come preformed in 2%, 3%, and 4% grades. Just pin them on top of your other risers when you wish the track to change elevation. When you have all the risers pinned in place, take a good look at what you have created. Now is the time to make any changes. Once the lines of the layout look good, use a low temperature glue gun or a foam compatible adhesive to attach the risers to your base and each other. The pins can then be removed and used over again. Space for your buildings and communities can be added using sheet Styrofoam to build up flat areas.

This would be a good time to prepare for your track work. Since you will be installing some track feeders from the rails to the wiring underneath the layout, you will need to drill holes all the way through the track sub roadbed on both sides of the rails. First, pin the track in place on whatever you are using for the roadbed: the risers, cork roadbed or directly onto the tabletop. Then drill 1/8” holes on either side of the track pieces, so that when you lay your track later, you can solder the wires to the rails, and pass them down to the wiring circuit or bus wires under the layout. It might be a good idea to mark each wiring hole with a small piece of dowel, a flag or piece of wire that is visible. Later, if you decide to use cork roadbed on top of the risers, you will need to drill a hole in the cork where each hole is located.

Now, we move on to the edge of the table or shelf. In creating our section of the countryside we have taken a slice out of the ground. Woodland Scenics profile boards are used to create the outline of this slice that we have taken. Glue the profile boards along the edge of your table or layout, and then trim them down using the hot wire cutter. In this way we can create the edges of the hills and valleys that border the railroad.

Using crumpled up newspapers and tape to hold them in place, fill in the spaces between the profile boards and the risers. This process creates an approximation of the surface of your world. Cut some 10 to 14 inch lengths of Woodland Scenics plaster cloth. Dip each one in water to activate the plaster, and cover the newspapers, risers, and the top edge of the profile boards. Each piece of plaster cloth should overlap the previous one by about one third its width. Use wet fingers to smooth out the plaster, filling in any holes that remain. You can form gullies or streambeds into the wet plaster cloth as you go, creating the topography that appeals to you. You can stop the plaster cloth at the edge of your track risers, or carry it right over the risers if you wish. Be sure to smooth it on the top of the risers to provide a flat surface for the cork roadbed and the track.

Before installing your track, paint over your plaster base with latex paint, available from any hardware store. Choose a color to represent an appropriate earth colour, as the “earth” may later show through in places. Please note that earth tones can vary, so select one that suits the area you are modelling. Let the first coat sink in and dry thoroughly. Apply the second coat later after installing your track. (See below.)

Now is the time to install your track. If using flextrack, ensure that the rail that slides back and forth goes on the inside of your curves. In order to hold the track in place, you can use such products as Latex Contact Cement, No More Nails, WeldBond, and others. You can also use track spikes to hold the track in place until the ballasting is completed.

Solder track feeders to the outside of both rails using 22-gauge wire (black and white, for example). Then solder the track feeders to the corresponding bus wires running underneath your layout. Hook up any switch motors or ground throws to your turnouts, and then test your trackwork thoroughly before proceeding with scenery. Some modelers prefer to run their trains for a season or two before starting their scenery to ensure that the trackwork works well and does not shift with changes in temperature and humidity. However, if conditions in your train room are fairly stable, you shouldn’t have a problem.

Adding the soil and plants to your miniature world is like an artist painting a picture. You start with a basic background and you add layers of paint and texture until you have completed the picture. Like an artist, you have to observe the landscape that you wish to model, in person if possible, or through reference books about the railway you have chosen to model.

First decide if you wish to have any rock outcroppings. These can be shaped by hand using a slow setting compound like ‘Polyfilla’ or they can be made using Woodland Scenics rock molds. These are flexible rubber molds, taken from actual rock surfaces that you fill with plaster. When hardened the rock castings are removed from the molds and applied to the scenery using additional plaster, a hot glue gun or an adhesive to hold them in place.

Painting the rocks is easy and fun using three of the paint pigments offered by Woodland Scenics: Black, Burnt Sienna, which is reddish and Burnt Umber, which is dark brown. Thin out the pigments with water until you have a translucent wash of color. Apply these liberally with a brush, letting the pigment run over the rock. Start with a good base of the Burnt Sienna, add the Burnt Umber to the upper surfaces of the rock outcrops, and finally let the black collect in any spaces or crevices in the rock. If the rock still looks too light in color, you can always go over your work another time to darken it to your satisfaction.

Woodland Scenics has an entire line of products to represent turf, weeds, shrubs and trees. Each type of product is added on top of the previous layer, so that ultimately, you create the scruffy, unkempt look that Mother Nature likes so much. Silflor, Busch, Noch, Heki and other manufacturers offer a wide variety of suitable vegetations to add interest to your scenery.

Now you should be ready to apply a second coat of latex paint. This time, apply a liberal amount of paint to a 2 or 3-foot square area. While the paint is still wet, sprinkle on the first layer of turf which the paint will hold in place. Continue to paint and add turf until all of the terrain is covered in that first layer of ground foam. Now you’re ready to apply additional layers of scenic materials.

Add coarse turf to represent weeds, clump foliage for shrubs, and finally plant some large bushes and trees. It is important to use mixed colors of these products to represent the randomness of nature. Each layer is held in place by an over spray of ‘Scenic Cement’, Matte Medium, or white glue thinned with water. You do not have to wait for the previous layer to dry, as this process is all water based and can all be done at the same time.

Don’t worry if your scenery doesn’t look exactly right. You can always change it or rip it all out and start over. Just have fun doing it.

The Credit Valley Railway Company carries a large selection of “How To” books and reference books on specific railroad related topics. These include books on layout design, prototype operations, how to build and detail structures and many other topics related to creating realistic looking model railroads. We also provide custom model railway design service for those who prefer professionally developed scale drawings.

Our staff has had many years of model railroad experience, and is always willing to provide you with specific information, advice and answer any of your questions! You can also email your questions to us via Our Contact Page.