Railroading scenery tips

Here’s the lastest, in from the ‘collective’. Please do keep them coming!

“I do appreciate the time you take and the information that you pass along.

So, I thought I would let you and the other readers know of something I have been doing.

Most home health stores and/or pharmacies receive in the shipping cartons for their lift chairs
two blocks of polyfoam, guessing it is polystyrene, that which I have gotten, measures 3″x4″x29″.

I have used it in pretty basic landscaping and it works well. My biggest pleasure is that I can
have all I want and free, because otherwise the rest is trashed.


“I use free styrofoam. You know the stuff they use for packing. It comes in verious shapes, sizes and thickness. Carve it to shape then paint. I use spray paint to make it look like rock or granite. Vakspar Stone looks like grannit and Krylon has different colors in theiir “Make it Stone!” Both paints are Premium Enamel and they do not harm the styrofoam in any way.


“When building mountains and hills I use Oatmeal (as in Quaker) to create texture. It’s inexpensive and easy to do and it dries hard as rock.



I attach the anode of a red LED to the cathode of a green LED and then attach the other ends together.
I put a 800 ohm resister on one end (series)and attach them to a track.
When the train travels one direction, the green LED lights. When traveling in the other direction, the red LED lights.
It’s an automatic switching signal powered by the track voltage and polarity.


“Here’s an old way to produce hills. Get several sheets of news print, but of the blank page kind. Soak them in water into which a small quantity of flour has been added. While wet, drape the sheets over a rough frame built from scrap wood stock and screen wire. Let dry.
Then color, using a water based dye, or water paints.
I learned how to do this from reading an old issue of Model Railroader, circa 1937.

Deranged Dragon 99″

“Hi Al,

Modelling Clay is ideal for making model railway scenery especially mountains, and if the clay is brown or terracotta it does not matter if it gets chipped after it has been painted.

To plant trees on the clay mountains and hills after the clay has set, drill a small hole and put a drop of super glue on the bottom of the tree and install.


” I use real tree branches to make trees for my o scale layout. Bunch them like a real tree, and wire them together. Put some crayola air-dry clay on it for the trunk. Paint it brown. Trim any wire that is exposed-try to put it where it will not show. Then use a glue gun/glue to apply elk fern on the branches to make it look like a real tree. These can be made any size, or any way you like them to be. You should make a base as well, or use some other way to keep them upright. I always get a lot of compliments on them! Trim the branches to lengh with a pruner or wire cutter.


“Bark from trees such as oak or ash will make good rock faces.


“Not modelling directly, but this may help someone:

A lot of modellers use an electric soldering iron and get frustrated when the copper bit gets dirty and/or corroded with use, needing frequent “re-tinning”.
A way to eliminate this is to remove the bit from the iron and give it a protective coating of silver solder, a.k.a. silver-brazing alloy. Use an SBA with a minimum of 35% silver content.
SBAs come in 35, 45 and 50% silver – any of these will do. You won’t need much, as you’re only coating the operating end.

If you don’t know about silver-soldering – you have to clean off the bit down to shiny copper, coat with SBA flux (a paste of wetted borax powder also works), heat to a dull red with an LPG torch (until the flux melts and looks like clear water) then apply the SBA rod until it flows onto the bit. Allow to cool naturally.
Replace the bit in the iron, re-heat, “tin” with soft solder and use as normal. The bit will come clean with a wipe on a wet pad but not corrode any further.

Note: Be sure to clean the copper bit down to shiny copper before coating with SBA flux as soft solder will take on top of the SBA, but the SBA will not coat the bit if any soft solder or scale remains on the surface.


“put automatic transmission fluid on the tracks to increase electrical contact and reduce the need to clean the tracks just apply.


“Hi Al,

Tip: If you ever find the need to clean the leaves out of your eaves trough, look on the bottom of the gutter.
If you have an asphalt roof you will find little stones that have come off the shingles.
Black stones make great coal loads, brown and grey can be used for ballast.
Best of all, it’s free.

Have a great modeling day!

“Never make any print out scenery flat. Always recess it – it’s amazing the difference it makes – as this picture here proves.

Er….me. Al.”

Joking aside, if you look at the pictures of the green house made from the print out scenery, and compare it to the pictures of the blue and yellow houses, they are worlds apart. My boy is making up some new ones to show the difference.

Don’t forget to have a look at his latest edits on the ebay cheat sheet. You’ll save a fortune.



26 Responses to Railroading scenery tips

  1. Many years ago when I had visions of a large basement rail operation, a vision my wife did niot share. I bough 10 4′ x 8′ sheets of 6″ and 8″ styroform. The idea being it served not only as nearly unlimited scenery posibilities but it could remian, with sculpting basically a one piece modular to cobine with other large sheets to make up the entire rail road. No benchwork, roadbed, messy plaster or anything.
    I have eight left as when we moved, the new basement was extremely limited in space. Great idea, just no room to let it blossum.

  2. My use of foam,has been pretty well much the same. One other method I use. Spray “Rock Walls” with an Automotive spray putty lightly and it will give the Impression of Pock marked areas that you usually find near river and other Water areas,then you can repaint to a color that suits you. When I move and rebuild my Layout I shall send pics

  3. could I please ask ben for a slightly better discription of his LED system? I have read it several times. if you connect the cathode to the anode and then connect the other two ends together you have a circle. where do you connect the resister to one end (series)? and how to you connect what to the track? not trying to be hard to get along with but I am really intereted in doing this. I have several places where the train goes through walls etc. and would like to be able to signal people on the other side of the wall that a train is coming. this sounds like the simple solution I have been looking for. Kevin

  4. Kevin j,

    This is what Ben means. I can’t upload a proper drawing to this blog but I hope the following helps:

    Solder to 1 rail——–: :——-800R resistor—–solder to 2nd rail
    Be sure to solder the anode (+) of one LED to the cathode (-) of the other. If the wrong color LED comes on at the wrong time, just swap the leads at the rails.

    (Ben, I hope you do not mind me putting my 2 cents worth in.)

  5. Ki Kevin,

    Hope you can see this circuit: this is more or less what Ben is describing.
    If Rail 1 is positive, current will flow thru the red LED (because it is a diode – a one-way device – but if rail 2 is positive current will flow thru the green LED. If you make it and it works backwards, just switch the wires going to the rails.

    Note this will not work on a DCC setup.



    —————————————– Rail 1
    | |
    \/ —
    RED — /\ GREEN
    | |
    / Resistor
    ———————————— Rail 2

  6. Well, that didn’t look how I hoped. Matbe I’d better post a JPG, after work…



  7. With cutting styrafoam i rarley cut with a knife as its so messy and the bits get everywhere what i do is us a hot wire made as follows. ive got a 12 volt battery charger and i bought wire thats used for Hot Water Kettles like we used to have 20 years ago, im not sure if you cant still buy the element but then i bought a few of them. i simply put one end on the Negative and the other on the Positive, the the wire gets very Hot and cut, and theres no mess.

  8. I am a ‘n’ scaler and I found the easiest way to make mountains and hills is to use the Dow foam spray used to seal cracks in insulation. It expands on its own and dries to a soft foam. You can cover it with plaster cloth or just paint as is.

  9. Those small stones on asphalt roofing can also be found in office ashtrays. Check with the building cleaning service. They gave me a coffee can full, free.

  10. On the subject of using expanded foam from packing material, I’d be wary of using it. This material in its normal state is very inflammable. The stuff used in, for example, ceiling tiles is treated with a flame retardant, but I’m not sure that the packaging material is so treated.

  11. Re: the direction indicator that Kevin was asking about:

    I have a schematic, but don’t know how to post it here.Could not post either a jpg or a word doc…..any suggestions?

    Basically, when you look at an LED, there are 2 leads…..1 long and 1 short. Take the long lead from each diode and solder it to each of the short lead of the other diode. The resistor is then soldered to either pair of leads. Add a wire to the pair of remaining diode leads and to the unused end of the resistor. Wires can then be attached to each rail. The drawing would be so much easier to understand if you don’t have an electronics background.

  12. I enjoy recieving your emails Al

  13. Where is the best place to purchase extruded foam?

  14. the blown poly beads used in packing is not dense enough for me. Crumbles when sanded

    I prefer the 1 1/2 pink 4 x 8

  15. On the subject of using expanded foam from packing material, I’d be wary of using it.

    right on, burns like a torch. But looking at the big picture if there is a fire everything on my layout except the engines is flammable

  16. On the subject of fires, some of you may have seen the pictures of the late John Allen’s brass steam engines after the fire which destroyed his layout after he died. The lead weights inside had melted and run down to their bases, by and below the wheels. The heat would also have weakened the magnetic field of permanent magnets in any electric motors and damaged the insulation on any wire coils in those motors, resulting in short circuits even if the copper wire wasn’t melted. A hotter fire could have melted the brass shells and any bronze details, too.
    On the other hand, plastic locomotives are sometimes damaged by the heat of their electric motors, when called on to pull a heavy consist up a steep grade, for example.
    It is best to avoid using flammable materials on your layout. If you smoke, you have the wrong hobby. Some plastics, when burned, can create smoke so toxic that it will kill you before you can leave the room! Hopefully these are not the ones used in model railroading.

  17. I found a way to make haystacks from cardboard egg cartons.

    Just cut out the number you want in a row.
    Then coat with elmers glue.
    Roll in course crushed ground cover
    Spray paint color of hay.


  18. this is about Ben’s tip in this email regarding using anodes to change light color in signals by changing direction of the track current. Does this work for DCC and DC?

  19. To Mike Schaefer:

    Ben’s signal diode tip will NOT work with DCC layouts. With DCC layouts, power is applied to the track at all times and does not change polarity. His tip works because you are changing polarity to the track when you change the direction of your loco’s.

  20. Very good tips as usual. Really like getting them and sharing them. Looking forward to next set of tips and videos.
    I found out that I can use metal paint can opener to remove snap on trucks. The angle gives. Good leverage to pop them off.
    The same opener can be used to scrap off. Raised mold lines of. Plastic and smooth them. By scraping. Along line. Them finish smoothing with fine sand paper til smooth.
    Hope they help someone.

  21. I go to the hardware store and but mismatched paint cheap. A quart is usually $1.00 and gallons are $5.00 I buy several colors, then mix them together to make the colors I want. Use a mix tray don’t just pour them into to each other, that way you make way more colors. Blue and yellow make green. blue and red make purple, yellow and red make orange, etc. You can experiment and get a color you like then mix again for a different shade or color. Tip you can use lichen as a paint brush to add spot texture and sponge effect

  22. to richard d. i just purchased 1 inch extruded insulation foam board from home depot……it has been banned in our county so if i need more i’m out of luck

  23. Hello everyone,
    I require advice on a very simple subject. Can anyone advise me on which glue or cement to use on (1) paper and card (2)plastic models. I have become very short tempered when it comes to sticking things together. I’ll slap some glue on then sit like some demented loon, pressing two bits together. Finally, when releasing my nerveless grasp from the offending bits, I discover that some of the glue has seeped on to my fingers and everything comes apart when I try to remove my fingers. All I want to do is put a dab of glue onto something, attach something to it, and for it to stick almost instantaneously. Instructions tell me to “put a tiny drop of glue on so and so”. I’m currently using PRITT STICK for card and paper and I’ve got some ARALDITE which I intend using on plastic. I’m sure you will all have better ideas?
    Yours aye
    Peter Feiler

  24. Try UHU. You can buy it in block or gel. It works very well for me….
    Also you could try holding pieces together with clothing pegs from a washing line. If you find them too tight, a bit of bending of the wire will loosen them. If something needs to be glued at a right angle, try securing it with blu-tack.
    Just suggestions…

  25. Al, it would be great if you would provide a means of uploading and displaying images in this blog. Not above how enterprising characters are using typed characters to simulate LEDs and resistors. It would be just wonderful to have these tips accompanied by jpgs to show off their ideas to a better extent.
    Keep up the good work,

  26. whilst making superquick structures, I also got frustrated using PVA glue, having to wait for things to dry before continuing. I had some clear fabric glue handy so I thought I’d give it a try. Instant success. Bonds almost instantly although bulldog clips are handy for a couple of minutes on some parts. If you make a mistake you have about 10 minutes to correct it without damage.


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