47 Money saving tips

“OK Al,

It’s hard to find an inexpensive paint when making models of rolling stock or structures. (I am in Canada.) I have used plastic compatible automotive primer. It comes in two colours, grey Nd brown. The grey has a poured cement, or concrete, appearance. The brown can be used on buildings, bridges, and rolling stock. There’s a black equivalent which is used for people.

Assemble the building, use the aerosol primer paint in a well ventilated area, add the colour highlights, then let the thing dry. The primer goes on looking terrible, it drys quickly and is a thin film.

Using a highly diluted black ink and water wash and weather the model. The weathering will cling to the primer. Leave to dry, this will take a while, go do another modelling project.

The grey for cement can be done the same way. Using the black on people is best done painting a layer, let dry, then highlight the colours on the people, the black is the shadows from light sources.

IN ALL CASES, the priming paint needs to be PLASTIC COMPATIBLE! Not using this type of pain, the model will become a blob of plastic.

Next time, how to paint and ballast track and roadbed.


“Cleaning tracks and wheels – never use an abrasive. It makes tiny scratches which hold impurities.

I use Goo Gone on a clean cloth rag, for both tracks and wheels.

For tracks, stretch the cloth over two extended fingers. Squirt the Goo Gone over the finger tips, and rub the rails. Silver or brass, doesnt matter, the oxide and scenery goop and other dirt come right off.

For wheels I do the same thing. To be thorough, take the trucks apart and clean the wheels and contacts. I have both toys and expensive models. They all disassemble and reassemble easily.

Goo Gone has a pleasant orange smell. Seems safe enough. It’s really great on those damn sticky price labels. Cleans pine sap too.


Got this in from Ron, which I quite liked:

“1. When laying ballast between ties. It helps if you lightly pre-dampen the area between the ties with a spray mist of water One squirt ought to do it – enough to keep the dry ballast from blowing a way.

Then apply a 50/50 of Elmers glue – usually a single drop in the center of the ties. the water will eventually dry leaving enough stickiness for the ballast to set.

2. Through the years… block, sheet or scrap foam is the material of choice for creating mountains and terrain. Its much easier to handle. I also use Plaster gauze for wrapping broken arms to cover the foam. Cut into strips and they lay and conform to all sorts of shapes and crevices. I later will “paint” on a water plaster solution to add other layers to strengthen and contour the surface.

3. If a difficult access (say in a tunnel or hidden passage) is needed, then just “saw” through the hardened area to create a cap or cover that will retain the original look. Some detailing will have to be done to conceal the cut. Almost mistake free because any error or mistake can be made into something else.

4. There is rarely a “new shiny look” with trains especially a full load. Dust and dirt is all over the place. Engines and rolling stock need to have a dull dirty look, especially along the trucks and wheel areas of the cars, etc. There are many ways to accomplish this.


And this in from Dennis:

“I get branches from an artificial christmas tree to make trees for my layout. I cut them to length and mount them tip down so the branches droop downward.

I take some of my Plasticville buildings for the back wall of my layout and cut them in half. I mount the two halfs with the cut end facing toward the back to double my buildings. You can cut out cardboard and install it behind them or mount them against a bluff.


“Hey Al . . . Here’s a tip for making soft, damage-resistant and super light-weight rock faces . . . Use dense foam padding (as found in many old chairs and pieces of furniture) . . .

Cut this material into chunks with scissors, then shape roughly with the scissors (or scalpels or one-sided blades). Once done, rub these pieces with a sticky material like No More Gaps. Then roll the pieces in rock dust, and allow them to dry thorou8ghly.

Once dry, you can assemble them into whatever size rock wall you like, using an appropriate glue that won’t eat into the foam . . .

This is ideal for layouts that need to be moved, or for exhibition layouts!



“Hi Al,

Just a couple of scenery tips.

Tip number 1 mixing plaster.

When you mix plaster, tip some brown water based paint into the mix.

It will give the plaster a natural earth brown, if the plaster ever gets chipped it will show a brown surface, not a white surface.

Tip number 2 printing back drops or card board building kits.

Clean the printer head first, just press settup on the printer, then press maintenance, then press clean printer heads.

After you have done that the printing quality is improved, no grainy lines in the printing job.


“Hello Al,

Go to the kitchen: it is a wonderland of scenic bits.

Dried oregano can be used two ways to make very convincing greenery. Used as it comes from the bag, it is a dull green-brown which is a perfect match for many different shrubs and leaves. A coat of spray varnish (carry out a test and give it a week to see how the varnish reacts with the herb) will seal it. If you spread it out and let it sit a couple of months, perhaps on a window ledge to get the sun, it fades to a neutral tannish colour. Use it like this or grind it up a little between your palms for variety. Dried basil is similar in use but seems to fade faster and in my experience becomes brittle, but this may work well for someone making a ‘sun-drenched’ setting.

Dried onion flakes (not powder) can be tinted to any number of subtle colours with a wash of water-based paints, and keeps some of it’s original hue. This feature is especially useful for detailing areas where you want to ‘bring alive’ a section of shrubbery. Once it is tinted, let it dry thoroughly and grind it between your palms.

A thin wash of dilute white glue will hold the herbs in place.

Liquorice sticks in their natural state are perfect little logs.

Hope this helps,


“Hi Al,

I have found that touching up my Metcalf buildings with a felt tip pen to get rid of the white edges etc. makes a bit difference to a building.



“Best tip – model a location you can see or remember well, it’s so much more satisfying and it drives you to make things, such as buildings, rather than just make do with what you find in the shops. You can still be original in how you ‘edit down’ the crucial elements of the scene to make it fit your space. If you ARE going to just ‘wing it’ with a freelance design, keep asking yourself questions. Why is there a level crossing there, what’s that siding for, where are those points and signals worked from, how do people get to this station? The railway never spent money on kit it didn’t need, and NEVER just came back from the Works thinking ‘this is cute, I wonder where it’ll fit’ like we do. (OK, that doesn’t explain why I just ordered a Hornby Sentinel…pretend you haven’t noticed.)

If you’re using set-track, remember you can lay out your proposed plan on the boards and check it will work – eg that the passenger trains will squeeze past each other in the loop, your Big Boy will go round that curve, or you can reach a derailment in the middle – before you start gluing and pinning stuff down. And you can check your trains will drag themselves up your proposed inclines just by propping some track up on cardboard boxes and trying it. The world’s not flat, your scenery will always look better if it goes up above the railway and down below it, even if only by an inch or two.

If laying cork strip for roadbed under your track, if you either buy the halved kind, or slit it down the middle with a sharp craft knife, you can glue down one half to the track centreline you have marked on your board. Cork strip this narrow bends easily to normal radius curves, and when it’s dry you just lay the other side of the cork against it. You can then see easily where the centreline of the track should go by the cut line in the cork, which will be hidden when you add ballast. It’s neat, avoids ripples in the cork, and saves you transferring your plan to the full size job twice-over.

If you hang one end of a portable baseboard, with legs only at the far end, off the SIDE of one at right angles to it, it hardly matters how solid your joints are (and my baseboard frames are 4×1 pine and the fixings are M6 shouldered bolts, which is pretty titanic for a layout) gravity will still do its damndest to pull the cross-board over at an angle! I had to fit a removeable brace under the pair to hold them level to each other.

If soldering up an etched brass or nickel chassis kit, when you put the spacers and frames together use only a tiny blob of solder, then put the unit on a surface plate (or if you haven’t got one of those a bit of plate glass) and make sure it’s level all round before you run solder fully along the joints. Otherwise, once you start soldering stuff together big-time, it will be almost impossible to correct any twist.

Always take a spare controller to an exhibition and make sure your wiring scheme has somewhere you can attach it easily! (Bitter experience talking here, but luckily I had a spare with me for wheel-cleaning purposes.) Make notes of how you wire things, colour of wire, which pin number it goes through at baseboard joint connectors, etc. It’s a fair bet you won’t remember how you wired something up by the time it stops working five years later.


“Here’s a trick I use if I need a gap for electrical purposes. I use Super Glue to put a small piece of .020 plastic between the rails where the join. Then I use modeler’s files to conform the plastic to the rail profile. Once I scenic the rails the joint becomes almost invisible.

On His Ride,


“Alastair, I like to use uncooked pasta for drain spouts. This is especially useful when building from scratch. I’m thinking mainly spaghetti here, but pasta does come in a variety of shapes.

Artists chalk and makeup brushes are great for certain aging/weather operations. The user must be absolutely certain to use a fine mist of fixative spray – light coat, please.

Kansas City, Missouri”

“Hi, if you are a tea drinker then save and slowly dry your teabags to make realistick earth. When dry, you have to rub the contents of the teabags between your fingers to crush the lumpy bits. If you have a model of a plough man with horses, then lay the rippled sheet from yourwifes box of chocolates, glue it ripple side up to your field and when dry spray with dilute PVA and sprickle you ‘earth on it and there you have a lovely ploughed field ready for planting the potatoes.


“1.) My best innovation was drilling small holes then using a string of Christmas lights under a 4×8 sheet to light all of my son’s N-scale structures without a million tiny wire connections.

2.) Another thing I have done was to drill a larger hole, and use a fan from an old computer and I placed it under the board. I cut some red and yellow plastic in V-shapes and had the fan blowing it upward to make a pretty cool little building on fire.

3.) if you take metal screen mesh (looks like: ############) and cut it, you can use it as fence for long runs. It’s very flexible. Fine screen–window screen–can make chain link fence when cut into diagonals and put between pins or small nails as posts.


“I discovered this by carelessness. I was using crazy glue to build a coaling tower kit and when I applied to much glue to the plastic along with gluing my fingers to the tower I discovered that when the liquid crazy glue ran along the grooves on the “siding” it turned the plastic an off white giving it the appearance of faded paint and or a weathered siding look. You might want to practice this on some scrap plastic before attempting on something good. There is no going back..but it really looks great..I lucked out I think…


“Tip 1. When ballasting track-beds, lay the track and pin down in its final position. That gives it a solid base. If you need/want to use sound proofing, just cut a strip of polystyrene wall liner, about 5mm wider than the sleeper base and fasten down with double sided tape before laying the track. When you are happy with the track layout, dry lay the ballast and brush into place to achieve the desired effect. Remember that not all track ballast was laid in neat straight lines and an even depth, it always got shifted around a bit!

Mist-spray the ballasted track with water to which a few drops of washing up liquid has been added. Damp but not running is the rule!. Then add diluted PVA wood-working adhesive, diluted 50/50 with water with a syringe, just at the edge of the ballast layer. The wet ballast will draw the glue into the ballast, the detergent having reduced the surface tension, and leave to dry overnight. When dry the glue will dry clear and the track will look the biz. Do make sure that you clear any ballast from point slides and frog rails before you add the glue.

Tip 2. You can easily make your own plaster bandage, or Mod-Roc, by using old triangular bandages and soaking them in very dilute Polyfilla or quick drying plaster from the DIY store. Many First Aid centres have old bandages that they have to throw away because the packaging is compromised or they are out of date. The gauze pads from old shell dressings are just as good and you might get a load from a local military surplus store. When opened out they are about 4ft across!
Lay the soaked fabric over crushed paper or polystyrene pieces, smooth down and leave to set. Paint as required.

Hope you can use these.


“Hi …try this one ….made a set up with a lake in it …made the sunken row boats a dock pilings sticking up from the bottom ….painted all the under water sceanes..But here was the trick ..I made a whole in the deepest part of the lake
An put a plug in it ….then I mixed up enough clear wall paper ( cellophane glue )paste pored it in to where I wanted the water line to be an stopped … A few days later the top started to harden …an if you moved the dock ever so slightly the movement left like water ripples on the surface of the transparent paste ……when it got to the hardness necessary to hold the load I pulled the plug ….an when the unhardened glue ran out ….you could see through the top layer an see all the thing under water …..you know plants ,rocks, anchors

Let me know what you think


“Color Coding

I have 5 or 6 different sized, diameter and thread, screws I use frequently while modeling. To make things easier, I color coded them so it was easy to identify the tap drill and tap as well as the screws for them.

I bought some cheap fingernail polish in different colors. On a particular drill and tap set, the same color of polish is painted on each. I have small zip-close bags for screws. The same color represents a particular size. For example, all bags with 2-56 screws, the bag has yellow polish stripe. Drills and taps for 2-56 have a yellow painted band around the base. 1-64 screw bags, drills and taps all carry a blue stripe or band and 0-80’s a red stripe or band.

In instances where I have both tight and loose fit drills for a particular size, the tight fit drill will only have the appropriate color for the size while the “loose fit” drill will have a second band of silver on it. Thus, the drill for a 2-56 for a loose fit, probably one where I intend to use some sealant to make it permanent, would carry the yellow band with a silver one beside it.

Not only do I store my screws in zip-close bags, but the drills and taps too are stored in them and the bags are all identified accordingly.

This makes identification easy and when several are left laying on the work bench, it very much simplifies sorting and putting them away.


“I used brown sewing string around my telephone poles and power lines. I also took 2 plastic ho automobiles and melted the front ends together with a lighter to simulate and accident. Had police and ambulance at the scene. (of course everyone was ok)


“Here is a new idea to add weight to light boxcars etc. I used cut up pieces of old n gauge track rails the length of the car and glued them to the inside base of the truck carriage flat for weight and then snapped the body back on. Add as much as you need and it has a low center of gravity.


“When gluing pieces of foam to each other I use the least expensive linoleum or carpet glue that I can find. I full spread the glue using a 1/16″x 1/16″ square notch trowel. By full spreading the glue, you eliminate most of the gaps between the pieces of foam. Also, the dried linoleum glue is soft and readily sands off, which eliminates most of the glue lines between the pieces of glued foam. You still have to put some weight on the foam overnight ( 24 hours )while the glue dries. While the glue is still wet, it cleans up with warm soapy water. For small areas, a caulking gun applied glue works fine, but if you are making a lot of mountains and stacking a lot of foam, the linoleum glue comes into it’s own. It is fairly inexpensive and solves some common problems when gluing foam.


“I use old pill bottles and cake frosting which is plastic for oil tanks, grain storage tanks and I also use my wife’s plastic canvas for ladders and walk ways on the storage tanks, they look like they are scale and all you have to do is glue them on. I also use my extra matt board for buildings, you can buy a 30? x 40? sheet for around $6.00.


“Hello Al,

In between my other projects I decided to build an oil refinery. It will fill a space in the back of my layout about 6 feet long and about 10 inches wide. I’m using a lot of plastic straws for pipe, PVC pipe for storage tanks as well as cans and jars. I built some shut-off valves from metal grommets with small buttons for wheels. I use 1/4 x 1/4 metal screen (for O scale) to build my ladders as well as guard fencing. I glue the screen to wooden skewer sticks to make the ladders. The picture of the single piece of screen came out blurry but I hope the idea is obvious. I have completed my first sub-assembly and thought it might contain some ideas that may be of use to the group.



This tip comes from Michigan the land of salted roads and automobiles. “Bondo auto body filler”. I have built trail layouts in basements and out buildings where moisture is a problem. Conventional mountain building material can mold and mildew. That is why I use Bondo. I take metal window screen and bend, fold, and contour it into the desired shape. I use a staple gun to secure it. I add wood blocks underneath for support where ever needed. Then I spread a thin coat of Bondo over the screen. On the second coat I add more contour and detail to the mountain, cliff, or tunnel I am creating. After the second coat it is ready for painting. You end up with a rock solid detailed landscape that is impervious to moisture. The only drawback is the need for good ventilation when working with it.


“Hello Alastair,

After spending six decades in this hobby, I’d have to say my best tip is to think small. Gargantuan layouts are fantastic, but for many of us they are impractical, if not overwhelming. I’ve achieved my best results with the good old 4 X 8. When I tire of one, I simply dismantle it and build another. Of course there are compromises due to the smallness, but it’s easier to wire, scenic, and operate the completed layout. Admittedly, no layout is ever truly finished, but it is easier to gain a sense of completion (success, if you will) with the smaller pikes. I’ll leave the huge layouts to the masters. I certainly enjoy seeing them, but I have to accept my own limitations as far as skill, energy, and finances. I also need to be aware of my wife’s interests.

Not really a technical skill, but it might encourage a few folks who are just beginning, or even simply needing to downsize.

Thanks for the opportunity to spout off.


“Alastair – When laying track ballast (relatively large stones) for “0” gauge track, wet the stones in salt water first and apply them wet. After the ballast has dried, the salt binds the stones to keep them from straying and adds to their appearance.


“Hi Al,

Here is a tip for you, I admit I got this one second hand.

If you need to remove track that has been glued down to the roadbed, and ballasted.

First pour hot water on the track, this dissolves the glue and loosens the track.

Leave it for a while, then start dismantling the track.

This works well for track renewal or replacement, also if you want to be Doctor Beeching and close a branch line.



I like to keep my train’s and car’s serviced, cleaned, and oiled about every 4 week’s. Even if I have not run them, and I have very few problem’s over the years. It also give’s me a break from, my busy life & buisness. It is very relaxing, as well as good for the equipment. I don’t have much of a layout, but love to hear the trains run on the track, and change them up quite often, and just so they don’t get a lot of wear. Busy work I guess.

Love your book’s and information. When I retire, (soon), I plan to use some of your idea’s for a big layout, to keep me busy.

Thank you for all the information you share.


“My best tip, or advice, is to pay close attention to the prototype that you are modeling. If you are free-lancing, then pay attention to the prototype of a railroad that resembles what you are trying to do. Study. Take photographs. Compare your trackwork and scenery to the real thing. If you do these things, you will be able to create a more realistic model railroad, assuming that’s your goal. It’s certainly mine.


“One way to make realistic wood piles is to use old wine corks sliced vertically into wedges


“Maybe not my best tip, but it has saved me a lot money. I use those inexpensive acrylic paints, such as Apple Barrel and Cerama Coat, that are sold at Wal Mart, Hobby Lobby and elsewhere. What is nice is they provide a flat finish (gloss is available in some colors) that one want’s for model railroads. They are water based and you can thin them according to your tastes to not hide detail. You can add a small drop of dish soap to allow it to flow better, though I normally do not. It may take a few coats if really thin. They can be applied by brush or by air brush. Clean up is easy and they are not destructive to plastics. There is also a huge variety of colors to choose from. Water based paints take a bit longer to dry but the results are well worth it.