Even more model railroad tips

As promised, more tips…

“Hi  Alastair,

I’ve noticed a lot of train cars, etc. come with a plastic bag of some sort or other. I have been taking emptied plastic bread sacks, turning them inside out to dry them and remove the bread crumbs. After about a week I turn them right side out, punch some holes in them for ventilation and use them to store trains that do not have boxes or packaging. Then they can be wrapped in any medium you wish to use for cushioning and the cars are protected quite well.

I enjoy the emails I receive from you, thanks.

Best regards


“I had been making a scale scene kit of a loco inspection pit.

I found a easy way to remove the sleepers of the track.

Leave the 2 end sleepers. &  with a soldering iron melt the clips from the sleepers, then cut the web under the track.

Then melt the rest of the sleepers with the iron to soften them, then pull them away.

Note this should be done outside.


“Al, I know youre always looking for new ways to make a layout look realistic. I thought i might share something ive done to save some money. Resin or hydrocal retaining walls are expensive, especially if you need 10-15 of them. I found some images on google image.com of several stone wall applications.

I expanded them to the largest size then printed them, then cut them to fit with mortor lines in correct format. Ive enclosed some pics so you can see how real they look. For  myself currently im on a fixed income, but I love the railroad.


Don M from Jonesboro Ga

“Hi Al

Just by accident I Discovered a way to make rock walls from the above material.

I was making the scalescenes kit of the low relief warehouse & when I completed it, I found where I wanted to install was too small for it to fit as I had glued 2 large blocks of polystryrene there.

So anyway I needed to cut those blocks but instead cutting with a knife and making a mess, I thought why not melt off some those blocks & use a soldering iron to cut through them.

So  thats want I did with the iron, It did stink & smoke a little & it make a real neat rock face, all I have to do is paint it.



See, now I’m just starting out, and I’m having a ball re-laying out stuff as I experiment. Sometimes it’s tough to do too much in advance, especially when you’re just starting out and can’t decide between a loop and a switching shelf, so I came up with a few tips from my first tentative steps:

1. Get SCARM, and play with it to get a feel for the kinds of track pieces that flow together;
2. Start small, and be prepared to mess around a lot before you know what it is you want from your layout;
3. Never, ever, glue *anything* down unless you’re happy with it;
4. Try to have two layouts – a permanent one, and somewhere to try stuff out, even if that’s just the kitchen floor!

I’m at stage 3 with a switching shelf layout that *will* one day have a  loop, because I want the best of both worlds!

Keep on handing out this good info!



“Hot-melt glue guns are miraculous in that you can use them on plastic or metal surfaces (to secure a figure, for example) and if you mess-up or simply want to move it: no problem. The glue releases with a little pressure and you can use your finger nail to peel-off the glue in preparation for gluing again—usually without peeling paint.”

Rick Johnston

Cincinnati, OH



“One of the best ways to show rapidly running water or waterfalls is to take lint (white) from your dryer and gently pull it over your waterfall area.  Looks very realistic!


Some nice tips in today’s missive – lots more here.

And if you’re heading off to ebay? Have a look at the ‘cheat sheet’ first. It’s here.

Please do keep ’em coming folks.



34 Responses to Even more model railroad tips

  1. Hello Alastair,
    I have just started my 4’X8′ layout and I wanted some hills and mountains. Not haveing alot of money to work with, I found a couch and chair someone had set out for the refuse to pick up. I had an idea so I stopped and took the foam cushions.
    I have started using them by cutting them with a bread knife. They seem to be working out and don’t look half bad. I do need to go back with a pair of sisssores and shape them a little better. As soon as I get them complete where I feel they look real enough I will take plaster and water it down somewhat and use a paint brush to put the plater mix on. I am also thinking of using food coloring in small amounts of the plaster to color it before I add it.
    I am taking pictures as I go along and I can’t wait to post them to your site.

    Thanks from Jim S.
    Keep’um on the tracks and the problems off your backs.

  2. Thanks ver m uch Al for thetips. Very helpful esp. Doug and Rick. Thanks again Guys.

  3. I am desirous of modleing a prison train and am seeking something to represent a barred window on a passenger car.
    Any thoughts?
    Jim Lake

  4. For the bars on the windows you could use a single core wire and strip off all the plastic coating. I have done this for my prison on my layout and it works a treat.

  5. To make landscape like rolling terrain or rocky hillsides, i use aluminum window screen. I cut a piece large enough from the roll and crumple it up. Then I pull it out as much as needed. Then staple it to the framing and smear on plaster. Add paint and trees and the results a great.

  6. I have been using 1″ styrofoam for making the base and hills. To get a very realistic rock surface I have used an x-acto knife and a 1 1/2″ scraper to pry away some of the foam, from th top edge downward. It is looking really good and will be enhancd with the painting.

  7. if you use chuck cloths, that you use for whipeing up.
    Make up a slurry of castering plaster in a bucket, dip you chuck in then lay over some Foam, When it sets. You can take away the foam if you wont makes great hill & many other types, and save heaps, instead of bying plaster.

  8. also to make barb windows & also fences use shade cloth, you can also spray it differt colour if you want

  9. When I was a kid my dad used to use mountain paper that you crumbled up the way you wanted, then soaked it in water and it dried the way you wanted it to look. What ever happened to that as I never see it anymore

  10. I read where Kim was building a turbine for $20.00. can you get any info on that. thanks

  11. What is better to use in O-gauge Lionel trains… smoke pellets or smoke fluid??? Comments, information or suggestions anyone?

  12. Ken. When I ran out of the Lionel smoke pills, I used the liquid in my engine, it caused the heating element to burn out. Rats!

  13. i have been looking at all the layouts and suggestions for landscaping. but i notices that most of the trains are HO. Can you please show me o gauge. i mostly collect pre-war lionel.

    thanks brian

  14. Jim Lake,

    I use a printer to create Venetian Blinds for passenger cars. I print on velum so there is a glow.

    You can get clear over head material for your printer so the window will look clear with vertical bars.


  15. Hello,
    I really enjoy reading all the creative ideas on here. I know trees are very expensive, what I have done is get real limbs from trees and they already look like small trees. I put glue on the limbs and then put them in different foliage let them dry and spray hair spray on them to keep the ” leaves” on them. Good luck.

  16. To use the old greenplastic berry baskets works for bars on windows, fences or intricate patterns for town square gravel motife.

  17. I have had good luck with mixing drywall mud, water and some sand together and painting the mixture over surfaces such as mountains or flat areas. It gives a great look on steep mountain walls. Another benefit is that it fill in any holes or problem areas. Don’t use too much sand as the sand will be loose on top. You can use the ready mix mud that comes in buckets or the powder that comes in bags. It is very cheap either way. You want it mixed like an extremely think paint – enough that it will not easily drip of the paint brush.

  18. I wouldn’t want to go melting some of these plastics with a soldering iron or indeed anything else, some of the fumes could be toxic and it’s likely to really muck up your soldering bits. Can’t beat a good sharp craft knife.

  19. Rod, as for fumes, Woodland Scenic’s foam gives off non-toxic fumes. I’m also using 2″ insulated foam pieces, and I cut these outside with a wire foam cutter. That is Woodland Scenics too. More expensive than old ice chests and a soldering iron, but sometimes it’s better to get the stuff that is made for the job.

  20. Hi Al,
    First of all I love your tips and articles. When ballesting the side of the track pour down the ballest and spread it out roughly with the brush. Then, take the brush handle or totjpick and lay it on one rail. Make sure it is about one inch out from the rail. Simply drag it across the side to spread your ballest nicely and push any exsess to the side. Keep up the great work!

  21. The building plans can the be modified for O scale or O 27

  22. What size ballast should I use for ballast in H O , I have some of the fine however it looks to be to small ?

    Also I am having some problems with my turnouts I have peco and some old atlas I am using tortoise motors with the atlas and peco snap motors with the peco also I am using a Lenz DCC system .every ounce in a while when a engine goes over the turnout it will short out or loose power till you move the engine , I have tried
    painting the frog area with fingernail polish and it seems to help some, also with the engine stalling do I have to wire power to the two rails that move ,I know there is a way to rewrite the turnouts but I do not want to tear up all the turnouts and rewrite all of them , any ideas thanks


  23. I would like to know if there is a dictionary for the terms used in model railroading? If so can you publish the site?

    Thanks in Advance,


  24. Danielle
    Google (or whatever) :
    ‘Railway/road terms’
    same for:
    ‘Model Railway/road terms’
    There is also a “Show you how” from Peco

  25. In Guy’s tip he uses the term “Scarm” , What is this?, Also in Paul Otway’s tip he uses the term “Sleepers”, what are they?

  26. sleepers are what N Thank-youorth Americans call ties. could someone who models n-gauge help me? I am planning a layout on paper for now, and I need to know the length of a pre British rail coach 1. the couch length. 2. length over buffers. 3. the length of at least 2 coaches coupled.

  27. SCARM = Simple Computer Aided Railway Modeller. See website at http://www.scarm.info/index.php. Free tool download and explanitory tutorials on the site. Excellent library of commercially available track products in scales from Z up thru G… Definitely view the tutorials to learn the tool.

    You can design in scale…from switching shelfs to a full empire.

    I’m in N (1:160) and use Atlas Code 80 — scales perrfectly…but the other scales and vendor’s data is just as good…

  28. I found the easiest way to form mountains ,with poly or foam is to use a hot wire using a small hacksaw, you remove the blade and replace it with 1or2 mm piano wire.Connect it to at least 20 volts dc controlable power and you will have a hot wire to mould what ever you like . Cheers Ray

  29. Hi Al,
    I came across your site a few months ago and got hooked. You and the other modellers have been very helpful. I’ve been away from the hobby for about 50 years, you know, making a life, raising a family and everything else that gets in the way. So my boys went into the attic and dragged out my old Lionel’s from the fifties, and you can guess the rest. At least my wife can find me most of the time. Keep up the good work. It’s good to know there’s someplace I can go to for ideas.

  30. I have an N-Gauge 6×4 layour, which I started about 35 years ago.

    For 3D scenery – mountains, hills and banks, I used an old surfboard foam blank. This foam is rigid, fine-grained, and you can carve it with a knife, rasp or file, and sand it to get smoother textures if required.It can be glued directly to the baseboard using normal white glue. I got a damaged blank from a surfboard maker for a very small outlay. It was a nice mid-green colour (unusual – normally off-white), which helped with creating grassy hillside meadows. I even managed to sculpt a mountain trackway and fixed the track down with adhesive. Tunnels easily carved out, trees and poles just push in and hold well. Takes paint well, so rock wall effects are easy.

    One word of warning – after final shaping, this foam needs to be sealed with paint or white glue wash, as the surface tends to scuff up and produce foam dust if left unsealed.

  31. Hi Al,
    I have always been a lightweight freak. At 300 lbs, I am no lightweight tho. But I have made the most amazing mountains out of white Styrofoam insulation. Also, I am a constructor of dioramas, and I build all of my buildings from balsawood and plastic for the windows. I have made multiple dioramas ranging in years from the 1820’s to the 1980’s. People have ahhhhed and wowed them thinking that I purchased the buildings because they look professional. As I have said, I have been making dioramas for 50 years, I think I can say I am a professional, and I’m 67 years young. I’ve constructed 2 HO gauge track lay-outs, one detailing a “Switching yard,” the other a 12’X20′ foot. Modeling is a great hobby, and keeps me busy. Right now I’m working on a 6’X4′ N gauge layout, I just have to think smaller. Thanks for all the building tips, I find them interesting. Oh, using foam rubber is a great medium, it can be soaked in plaster, dried, and sculpted, of course being an artist works greatly. Thank you for all you have provided.

  32. Wanting to do remote control on my HO scale layout. How can this be done.

  33. Jim,

    The moving points on your turnouts need to be powered. Using Tortoise switch motors, you are applying constant pressure to the closure rail (moving points), and the closure rail should receive power from the stock (non-moving) rails. If you clean the mating surfaces where the rails meet, then power should pass from the powered non-moving rail to the closure rail.

    Another possibility would be trapping ballast or other foreign matter between the closure rail and the stock rail.

    If you want to directly power the closure rails, here is one way to wire them without removing the entire turnout. First, make certain the two closure rails are not electrically connected. If they are not connected, then try the following.

    1. Take a length of solid core wire, strip about 1/2 inch of insulation from one end.

    2. Using a drill which is slightly larger in diameter than the solid wire, drill a hole in the foot of the closure rail near the hinge point, on the side opposite the side where the wheel flange passes. This hole should be midway between 2 ties (sleepers).

    3. Using a drill which is a bit larger in diameter than the insulated wire, drill a hole through your train table near where the first hole was made.

    4. Form a hook in the end of the wire. Drop the long part of the wire through your table, and insert the hook into the hole in the rail base. Carefully solder the wire in place.

    5. Connect the other end of the wire to the bus or feed for the appropriate rail.

    6. Repeat this for the other closure rail, connecting it to the opposite bus or feed.

    NOTE: This same technique can be used for drop wires from any length of track to the bus below your table. It is quite small and neat, and can be done after your track has been laid and fastened down.

    Good luck,
    Carl in Kansas

  34. Rock salt coated in black paint makes great coal. I use Apple Barrel jet black matte acrylic paint found at the local Walmart.

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