12×8 HO scale – Joe’s

Joe’s been in touch with his 12×8 HO scale:

“I began this 12’ x 8’ HO some years ago.

Knowing that we would be moving in the future, I built it as four modules. With that in mind, I went as far as I could but stopped at major landscaping as I didn’t want to cut it apart when it came time to move.

The layout is all DC.

That move became a reality in April and so the layout was broken into its four components.

The new house has a 25’ x 25’ shop and I have placed the layout in ½ of it and my workshop, with its power tools, saws, etc. on the other half. I made a curtain out of 9’ x 12’ tarps to pull between the halves when I use the saws and stir up a lot of dust.

12x8 HO scale benchwork

Here is how it looked initially. There was a lot of leveling to be done as the shop floor was poured with drainage in mind (so it could be hosed out, something I won’t need to do).

Fortunately, I built it with screw adjusters on each leg. That being said, there were some legs that had to be adjusted by removing and re positioning the leg higher or lower on the layout frame.

12x8 HO scale benchwork

Here it is in position, leveled and cross-bolted together.

model railroad backdrop

I watched a DVD on how to paint a backdrop and here is where I began.

The railroad is freelanced, late steam prior to 1950 set roughly in NW New Mexico. The town is San Juan Creek (named for the San Juan mountains of that area).

The local shortline is the San Juan & Central. Major industries include San Juan Coal and San Juan Lumber; both own and operate their own branchlines.

There is a saw mill, a planing mill, oil distribution center, a small cattle ranch and beef processing plant. Various other normal businesses are also included.

Here are some pix of the early work.

model railroad backdrop

Here is the finished backdrop. There was so much touchup to do on the right side that I decided to put in a storm cloud and some rain.

Backdrop completed, I begin to “imagine” how the scenery will develop. I was/am really pleased with how the backdrop turned out! I’m NOT an artist!

HO scale finished backdrop

Getting there. Beginning to look similar to the mock-ups.

Once again, I separated the four modules before I began working on the mountains as it was easier than trying to do this with it against he wall. Being able to design and construct from the rear of the layout really made it all the easier.

We rode the Cumbres & Toltec in 2013 and there is where i based the scenery. I printed out some of my 400+ photos and used them as “inspiration” for the mountains, etc.

making cardboard mountains for model railroad

I started by thinking I would use 1” foam insulation for the mountains but after about 1 ½ ft, realized I would use the old “tried and true” procedure as you can see and use the foam board for details/outcroppings. Yes, that is “Shiprock” in New Mexico behind the bridge.

model train track plan

Most of the first year was devoted to getting the scenery done

Planning HO scale scenery

As mentioned, I went “old school” on the scenery. Plaster cloth over cardboard webbing followed by sculpture-a-mold, paint, texture and more paint. I continually referred to my area photos for color, etc.

HO scale mountains

One section finished and ballast laid while it was still away from the wall, making it much easier than any other way.

HO scale planning scenery

I moved the rear center module to the wall and secured it in place and re-leveled it all. Then I began the transition scenery toward the coal mining corner of the layout. Again, using my own photos of the area as guides to color and terrain.

Before working on the landscaping at the corners, I connected all the modules, tightened and leveled them all once again and connected all the trackage between the modules. Then I checked all the electric connections and turnout wiring (Tortoise switch motors) and verified that everything worked.

There is a #6 turnout under the mountain on the right that I wanted to know worked correctly before going any further.

Finally, I ran trains on all the trackage for a couple of hours. Switching, making up consists, etc. until I was sure everything worked.

Laying HO scale track with backdrop

Here is what that looked like.

HO scale lumber sawmill

The right (east) corner of the layout features the logging operation.

HO scale with middle access hole

The following year was mostly filled with detailing and making sure everything worked together and complimented the overall intent of the railroad. Most of the buildings, etc. were placed on the layout where they belong.

HO scale sawmill logging operation

Here is the logging operation with the San Juan Lumber Co. steam engine completed.

HO scale steam train tunnel

San Juan Coal occupies the west corner. Here you see the San Juan Coal steam engine with a string (not visible) of hoppers at the coal tipple (also not in the shot).

HO scale adding buildings

As operations resumed, I discovered I had an issue transitioning between inner and outer main lines. I could not get trains from inner to outer loop without putting the train on the outer loop onto a yard track or backed up on the passenger station siding.

So, a double “crossover” was installed using four #5 code 83 Micro Engineering turnouts controlled by Tortoise switch motors (making a total of 21 turnouts, all controlled by Tortoise motors). This was my first use of M.E. turnouts and I really like them! The actual rail does not seem as heavy as Atlas or Shinohara but that is not an issue.

For what it is worth; I went with the Tortoise because of the 2 built-in SPDT electrical switches. I use one set to power the frog and the other set to control the indicator lights.

HO scale coal hopper

Detailing continued: this is around the engine house and the coaling tower, etc. I couldn’t find a dump truck to haul the ashes from the ash pit so I cut down a box van.

Overhead view HO scale sawmill layout

Overall look at the layout.

HO scale sawmill layout construction

Downtown San Juan Creek with the beef processing plant (Talones Packing Co.) and cattle yard in the background.

HO scale timber yard for sawmill

Here is the saw mill, the planing mill and generating plant. The M.O.W. yard is to the right, oil distribution is upper right and upper center.

90% of this year has been devoted to doing lighting the buildings and the streets of San Juan Creek and installing interiors in some of the buildings.

HO scale fire station

This is the fire dept. next to the bank on National Ave.

HO scale store

Creek Drugs is on the west end of Montezuma St. next to the Western Auto store

HO scale overhead view of fire station at night

Street lighting installed. The streets are 180 grit sand paper sprayed with black and gray paints. Adding the white lines was a real trick and I botched it twice!

Because we live in SW Missouri, we have winters that drop into the low 20s/mid-teens and I bring all the locomotives into the house along with all my paints and glues. The shop IS insulated but it can still get below 40º.

This year, I will be bringing them out by the end of April to begin operations. But first, I have track maintenance and general layout cleaning (spelled “spider webs”).

Here is where I am at the time of writing:

HO scale crane caboose

Lettered and weathered the M.O.W. crane and work caboose. Other than the decals for the Santa Fe, which runs through San Juan Creek, I make ALL of my own decals. These were printed on “Inkjet Clear Waterslide” decal paper. If I am putting the decal on a different background, I’ll print them on “Inkjet White”paper so they can be more easily read.
With inkjet printing, you have to spray 3 or 4 light coats of clear gloss or the ink will run. Laser printing does not need to be sprayed.

HO scale construction truck

The ash pit needed a conveyor to load the dump truck so I scratch built this one.

HO scale steam train

I purchased this Bachman 2-8-0 some years ago. It was Reading # 2000. I just completed changing it over to San Juan & Central engine # 476.

Again, I created these decals. This time, I made a full sheet of decals and did the print, either color like this one or white like some of the others on a black background. I saved the .docx files to a memory stick and took a sheet of “Laser White Waterslide Decal” paper to the UPS Store for printing. Cost less than $2 a sheet. I knew I had a number of decals that would be going on the steam locos so I made bunch with different numbers, etc. and in different sizes.

Once applied, any decal needs to be “fixed” with a light coat of “Dullcote”. Then it is easy to weather. However, in this case, since the name and number had been changed, I sprayed with Semi Gloss as I wanted the engine to look fresh out of the shop.

When I get everything up and running, I post pix. of the other four steam engines.

Thank you, Al for publishing these pictures. I hope they inspire fellow modelers as their pictures have inspired me.

75 year old modeler,


My word – what a layout. Love the pics, and loved the narrative Joe sent too.

I hope you enjoyed this post as much as I did. Stunning stuff.

That’s all for today folks.

Please feel free to leave a comment below if you want to get involved.

And don’t forget The Beginner’s Guide is here if you want to take the first step on your model railway.



PS Latest ebay cheat sheet is here.

PPS More HO scale train layouts here if that’s your thing.

68 Responses to 12×8 HO scale – Joe’s

  1. Very Nice…
    Love the theme..
    Shiprock is a very iconic New Mexico location.

  2. Ruben Simon says:


  3. Mike Street says:

    What a beautiful layout and an inspiration to all us oldies.
    Keep safe Joe and keep on modeling

  4. William Holmes says:

    Wonderful layout Joe! I love the sawmill.

  5. OkieBikerDude, Tulsa says:

    A great play-by-play of your layout build. I think seeing what you went through with your move, I can get started putting mine back together. I’m modeling the same era but in the Cascades. For a non-painter you die a good job.
    Thanks for taking the time to put your pics and write up out for us to see.

  6. colin Edinburgh says:

    Great article and layout.2 Comments how does traffic get into the town .1) There does not appear to be any roads leading off the layout and 2) all the streets have 90 decree corners which I have never seen in reality. However well done and good use of the space. Doing the interiors of the shops and buildings add a lot to the layout. Please keep us informed of developments.

  7. Paul says:

    Very nice layout can you do a video of it running etc …

  8. Brian Messenger says:

    Wow Joe, what can one say but fantastic. Your backdrop painting for a ‘non’ artist is really great. Good use of the size of your layout. Keep us informed and maybe a video of some trains running.
    Brian – the HOn3 guy RSA🇿🇦

  9. Joe, I got to help out when the Cumbres & Tootec was moving its newly acquired (from the DRGW) equipment from Antonito to Chama, Labor Day 1970. I had ridden the passenger train, the San Juan, from Antonito to Chama and back with my family in about 1950 or 1951 not long before its service was curtailed! I like the idea that our beautiful & enchanting New Mexico landscape has found a home in SW Missouri (Joplin, Springfield, perhaps?). Seeing the results of an excellent job of modeling, reminds me not to take my native state and its vistas for granted. Lovely layout, Joe! Way to go!

  10. Tony Banks says:

    I’m a few years older and really impatient with my layout. It’s 20 x 16 with a small access isle down the center. Biggest mistake was placing the 8 x 4 plywood on the metal legs used for “bingo tables”. Now I need to put real braces and legs to level the whole pike. You are an inspiration to slow down and do things properly. Great detail and work ethic.

  11. kathe & Frank, Miami, FL says:

    Great scenery. The might lighting looks great. Need some more people loitering around downtown unless of course everyone else is self isolating… beautiful backdrop.

  12. Robert Brady says:

    Ok Mr. critic here; Joe Great mountains heck of a thunder storm in the distance,great art work. need more business’s make a little more busy.and exit and entrance’s to the town.and definitely a passenger train and station.Just my observation.So far fabulistic layout Sir.
    Robert B

  13. george zaky says:

    Great job. Awesome layout.
    Thank you for the fabulous narrative. I am jealous that I cant make as large a layout but I too suffer with cold with mine in the garage. But you need to carry on and create some more.
    Please keep us updated and send some working videos.
    Stay well and safe
    George from NY

  14. Ed Lustigman says:

    Great job Joe. Hope I can do half as well when I get back to my layout which is in North Carolina.

  15. Diver Gunns says:

    Wonderful layout, you did pretty well for a “young” guy! Just pulling your leg Joe, I’m a young 86!

  16. That is awesome, some great foresight and preplanning, hell of a job.

  17. Jimsan says:

    Wow—- this really looks like New Mexico !

  18. Greg Schaefer says:

    I love the thunderstorm. You could animate that pretty easily with a little sound. Just a clap of thunder (or two) followed by a little “white noise”. And you did a great job painting the backdrop.

  19. NJ Mark says:

    Your use of sandpaper for roadways is very intriguing. You have a great eye for detail. Thanks for sharing and the tips! Stay well. Cheers! NJ Mark

  20. Dwight in Toronto says:

    Your photos and write-up were as meticulous, thoughtful and engaging as the wonderful little micro world you have created. Keep having fun.

  21. Great layout! Well done love the lighting and the attention to detail!

  22. Robert Doyle says:

    What an inspiration for us oldies. I started unpacking an HO set that was boxed some thirty plus years ago and am building a layout. I am calling mine the Nothing Matches Railroad as I let my boys buy any style they liked back in the eighties when our first layout was built. So I have everything from Steam to monster triple truck Diesels. I found over 150 brand new in the box Athearn and Roundhouse freight cars to build. At age 73 I’m not far behind you and I figure I have plenty to do now. Love the layout!

  23. Greg Schaefer says:

    I also am wondering about that buding on the siding that passes south (or is it west) of the town. Right before you get to the stockyard. What kit did you use to make that building? Thanks.

  24. Jack Bury says:

    Thanks for sharing your great layout with us. Nice job on the backdrop and building interiors. The scenery seems true to the photos of the area.

    Jack in Pa.

  25. Excellent! Love your track and your story. Thanks for sharing.

  26. Mr. Jeff says:

    Hope you’re satisfied, now you did it, you pushed the right button. Today I will start clearing an area in the basement to build my layout. I expect it will be a few years before I can post pix but before I’m 80, the longest journey begins with one step. Now I’ll have something to do besides ice fishing in the cold northeast Wisconsin winters. Steam era, 1800’s after Civil War. We’ll see where that idea takes me. Thanks for your posting.

  27. Eldrege Driver says:

    Great layout–Wish I had the touch that you have.

  28. John Bullock says:

    Wonderful narrative and great photos. Lots of insiration for us all.

  29. Joseph P. Moskie says:

    Beautiful work

  30. DJfromNJ says:

    Great Job, Joe! Love the thunderstorm and the sandpaper road ideas. Thanks for sharing your detailed narrative. Good luck and continued success.

  31. Donald OSBORNE says:

    Great job putting things back together. Nice artist work. You need to get some heat in there to use it all year.

  32. Russell Jones says:

    The clouds in the backdrop are OUTSTANDING!!!!
    You stated that you watched a DVD on backdrop painting to get you started. Could you pass along the name and source of the DVD? And any other helpful hints on painting backdrops?
    This was a definite inspiration!!!

  33. Don of the Desert says:

    I hate to stat out a new friendship with an argument but…
    You degrade yourself by saying that you are not an artist. I live in the Mojave Desert and this is a great depiction of what the desert looks like. Your backdrop is true art, and the scenery looks like a photograph. Kudos to you my friend on an amazing work of art. You have inspired me to get started on a pike of my own. I hope that one day I may present something to the group, but you will be a hard act to follow.

  34. Tony, Kitty Hawk NC says:

    Joe- excellent job! I especially like the rain shower- a rare detail! Thanks for sharing.

  35. TOO COOL!!

  36. Jim AZ says:

    Very nice. You have some great scenes on this layout. I especially like the street and buildings and the night/lighting pics are quite realistic. Great layout.

    Jim AZ

  37. walt emerson says:

    The whole layout is perfect, the scenery beautiful. Great job!

  38. Joe Graffi says:

    To Robert Brady and a couple of others; there are 2 passenger stations on the layout that I did not feature. One in San Juan Creek and one at the far west side, Grants, N.M.
    Most of the people and vehicles have not been placed as I am still working on more lighting, etc. They DO exist.
    As far as access goes, I’m trying to figure that one out.
    Thank you for all the comments. Back when I began collecting locos, rolling stock, buildings, etc. I did not EVER consider that I would get this deep into detailing. One thing just lead to another.
    I watched hours of YouTube videos, read 100s of articles and experimented a lot developing many of my own techniques.
    My wife and I are fortunate to have many hobbies and interests.
    And, yes, Springfield, MO.


  39. Joe Graffi says:

    To Gary Schaefer: Talones Packing Co. is a DPM “Drywell Inks” Gold kit. I purchased a pack of DPM plain brick walls because too many from the original kit had windows where they would not have been.
    Sidelight: I actually worked for “Talone’s Packing Co.” in San Diego County so that gave me the insight for this building.

    to Russell Jones: I have a couple of DVDs from the “Dream-Build-Plan” video series (Kalmbach ?) and one of them has a section on”Painting A Backdrop: Adding the details. I’m pretty sure you can find a YouTube video that would cover it.
    I was actually disappointed when I finished painting the backdrop (it has to be all done at one “sitting as the blending of the clouds into the sky requires working before the “sky” dries.
    Hours later, I went back to see what I had and it looked waaaaay better. This was painted on one piece of 4 x 8 masonite in the middle and a piece od 2 x 4 masonite on each end. Unfortunately, there was a point, thankfully before I began landscaping, where I had to take it down and seal the wall because moisture was seeping in. After sealing the wall, I took one piece of 4 x 8 1/2″ plywood and 2 pieces of 2 x 4 plywood, sealed them on both sides and put them on the wall as a backing. Then I put the 3-piece backdrop up and touched up where necessary. That is when the “thunderstorm” was created.

    Thanks again for the encouraging comments,


  40. Timothy Morlok says:

    Re: exit roadway; For those who missed it, there is an underpass exiting the layout in the lower right corner of the over head shot near the switch tower.

  41. Bob P Fair Lawn NJ says:

    You’ve done an excellent and inspiring job, and have motivated this 78 year old to get off his butt and rebuild his layout. I have a 25 year old N-scale 6X8 which I had to partially dismantle when I moved and have been dreaming about this forever. You have provided the impetus for me to begin, thank you.

  42. Gary Johnson says:

    Joe’s 12 x 8 HO scale
    Joe, do you have a track plan for your model railroad? I like the scale, the location and the size, I just don’t have the skill to make my own track plan. I would hope you wouldn’t mind my stealing your ideas!!
    I’m 81 years old and don’t have the time or skill to do my own drawing.

    thanks for the inspiration!!
    Gary in American Fork, Utah

  43. Mark T. Pianka says:

    Very nice, Like the weathering ourtstanding!!

  44. Rob McCrain says:

    What a great layout. Well done.

  45. Gloria says:

    What a beautiful layout. Both urban and country vignettes are amazing. I agree with Don of the Desert that your desert scenes are perfect. As RVer have spent many happy days exploring that area.

  46. Alabama Mike says:

    Joe, I really like your layout. You did a beautiful job on scenery. The track layout is very good also.

  47. Mike Matejka says:

    incredibly well done — a geographic, regional theme is followed; the backdrop and scenery and first rate and really show a feel for the area.

  48. Lots of hard work and it shows

  49. Delford says:

    Lovely layout and back drop. What did you use for lighting? i.e: power and lights

  50. Chris Sylvester says:

    Wow Joe !!! That is a really Great job on the layout really enjoyed looking at the pics of the progress of the layout Thank you for sharing them Chris

  51. Will in NM says:

    Joe, You’ve done a fabulous job on your San Juan & Central capturing the flavor, textures and colors of the New Mexico landscapes. I love all the little details you’ve added to your coaling tower and logging area scenes. For an “amateur” your backdrop is perfect — especially the thundrstorm off in the distance as they so often are here in New Mexico.

    Only two things I can think of would make your layout more accurate for New Mexico: (1) You need an old dilapidated mobile home/trailer with a bunch of old tires on the roof holding it in place, and (2) A roadside stand selling green chiles and pinion nuts with the drying strrings of red chiles hanging from the eaves. You could even combine them and have the trailer be where the proprietor of the chile stand lives. 🙂 Oh, and a Blake’s Lotaburger joint in the town would be another New Mexico tie-in.

    Anyway Joe, thanks for sharing your great photos and the very interesting and detailed story of your train layout. I’ll look forward to your future updates.

  52. Wow Joe, for years I’ve wanted to build a railroad but have really never had the space. A couple of weeks ago my wife floored me by asking if I’d like to have the front room builone. I just turned 59. Now I run across your set up and find myself inspired to get going. Thanks for sharing your skills and knowledge!

  53. `David Karper says:

    Colin Edinburgh, you should see the right angle streets in Baltimore,Maryland, Philadelphia,Pennsylvania and quite a few other cities east of the Mississippi.Dave.

  54. Donald R says:

    Joe, The sandpaper for streets idea is great. You mentioned having trouble putting the white lines on it at first. Please share how you finally mastered painting the white lines. I have tried, and the grit of the sandpaper won’t let me have very sharp lines as the paint tends to run along the grit.
    Your layout is really nice, and I love the detail work.

  55. Carl Flowers says:

    Great background painting!
    Thanks for sharing so many detailed pictures — easy to understand how and what you did.
    Press on!

  56. Bob Rotach says:

    Great layout! I would also like to see your track plan. I am thinking about expanding my 4×8 into a 10×12. Thanks!

  57. BIll Robinson says:

    Very inspiring and excellent detail work!

  58. Erick says:

    Pretty Kool

  59. don kadunc says:

    Great layout. I especially like all the industry switching opportunities. At 77, I was going to laugh at all you youngsters until a 78 year old posted.

    In my last post I disassembled my layout so we could put down a new floor. The new plan will be a great improvement “someday”. Of course the installers are way behind and my project is on hold.

  60. Norm Stafford says:

    I recently disassembled my Layout in Western Mass and moved it to our new house on Cape Cod. I have a nice portion of the basement set aside for the reconstruction but I know I will be adding and deleting some portions of the layout. Your story was inspiring and helpful. The major takeaway is – TAKE MY TIME. Even though I’m 77, I still plan on having more years to enjoy the HO layout building process.

  61. Dave says:

    Thank you for your inspiration.

  62. Gary M from Long Island says:

    Joe….great layout, great planning and I love the detail and the lighting.

    Al…….thanks for posting this…….it contains a lot of great ideas for railroad modeling.

  63. Michael Miller says:

    Very good! Excellent work! As said before
    The Thunder Storm is very good. Heck an interesting and scenic layout.

  64. Frank says:

    I like the 180 grit sandpaper being painted and used to create roads. That’s cheap enough and easy. Just painting anything often makes it look better and more realistic.

    Frank in Orlando

  65. William Sanderson says:

    This layout is an inspiration to build my own HO scene and train yard. I recently sold my O scale trains and I am left with a 9’ x 5’ are to work with. I love your detail and work on the scenery, not to mention the buildings look magnificent! I am interested (if possible) in connecting with Joe to get ideas and maybe even connect for a visit. You see, I am in South Central MO myself and recently retired.

    Oh, I also have an infatuation with the Cumbre and Torres line and hope one day to take a ride with my wife to see that amazing area.
    Thank you for your hard work Joe!
    Hope to hear from you soon!

  66. Terry Miller says:

    Great layout and explanations. i notice that you have a couple of access holes and wonder whether you plan to make a “lift-up lid” to cover them when they are not needed. If so, do you plan to scenic the lid with buildings or other things?
    And here’s a question for the rest of the group: Where do you put the “lid” when the hole is open? (lay it on the top of the layout or pull it downwards and put it on the floor under the layout. I’m currently working on a project using scissor lifts to hold it in place and then collapse the lift and slide it into a “drawer” beneath the table. So far I haven’t had much luck but will keep working on it.

    Terry/Idaho USA

  67. James Marek aka SantaFeJim says:

    E X C E L L E N T !!!

  68. Ken says:

    Nice work. I enjoyed your accomplishment.

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