Scratch building model railroad structures

Some of you have been busy scratch building model railroad structures – and I always enjoy sharing them on the blog:

“Greetings Alastair.

I don’t know if you remember my story of “helping” to build my father in-law an “O” scale layout or not.

But I thought I would ask the group’s opinion on scratch building and what they think it means (since I don’t really know!).

This is my first attempt at scratch building.

Father in-law wanted an engine house (or road house) to make his yard look a little more finished.

I used sheets of a poly-plastic material to cut the sides and top.

The ends were premade store bought O scale tunnel portals (so that wasn’t scratch). The interior framing, while not finished with tools etc., is also plastic “4X4”cut to length, glued up. I tried to keep in scale as much as possible.

The lighting is premade (such as the fixture at the opening). I did add a welder and welding lighting to the left side of the engine for a little more realism. The whole thing was painted using 4 or 5 different colors, as it was all bright white to start.

Thoughts and opinions requested.

Pete, San Jose Calif. USA”

scratch building model railroad structures engine house

scratch building model railroad structures engine house

scratch building model railroad structures engine house

scratch building model railroad structures engine house

scratch building model railroad structures engine house

Now on to Paul:

“Hi my name is Paul,

I’ve been seeing some excellent bridges on here, and some great ideas too. I have a bridge i would like to share . I used one size of lumber 1/8×1/8 balsa for the majority of the structure. The only plans I used were based on the best looking arch I could form,and a few pIctures I found on google .the patience was the hardest part but well worth the outcome.

Thanx Paul”

model railroad bridge

model railroad bridge

model railroad bridge

A big thanks to Paul and Pete. I do love seeing what appears in my inbox every morning.

Sometimes it’s jaw dropping, sometimes it’s just plain rude. And over the years I have picked up quite a few cyber friends too.

I often hear from ‘builder Kim’ who sends me pics and tales about the Canadian winters.

I thought he was pulling my leg when he said he was upset about his neighbor having to shoot a bear that was going through their bins. How wrong I was.

Paul, in Oz, sends me a Christmas card every year.

The talented Dave is always sending me fab stuff.

And some of the stories folk send in – that have nothing to do with trains or modelling – keep me amused for hours.

When I posted a pic of my German Shepherd puppy, I got a stack of mails (if you’ve mailed me about him, you will get a reply! I’m working through ’em).

Anyhow, he’s grown big and bouncy and I love him to bits.

If you’re wondering, I called him Basil.


Right, ramble over, apart from: thanks to anyone and everyone who has ever mailed. I really do appreciate it.

It’s been a bumpy old ride at times, but I do love my little site and all the comments, warts and all.

Thanks for sharing your scratch building model railroad structures – please do keep ’em coming.



PS Latest ebay cheat sheet is here.

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

model train answers

57 Responses to Scratch building model railroad structures

  1. John Fuller says:

    Seeing a bear is commonplace in Northern Ontario where my daughter lives and works for the Ministry of Natural Resources. Shooting or killing a bear is not necessary unless it is known to be attacking a human or domestic animal.
    Most bears will not do this and most of the time they are looking for vegetation or small animals (ground squirrels or insects) as food. When found in towns they likely are short of food and forage through the waste left by humans. Bears can be tranquilized and taken back to the wild. This is the best way to deal with them.
    If you do not want them around then don’t leave food waste where the bear can get at it.

  2. Ron Schultz says:

    the tunnel portals are a great idea . So I would call this “Kit bashing. A “brick wall ‘ mold would also go good with the portals” but in any case its your engine house so enjoy it as its nice . and it fits and blends in to the scene’s site . as for the bridge . very nicely done . it will look good on your lay out ..

  3. Mike Street says:

    Hi, everyone, well Pete’s engine house or shed as we would call it in the UK, I would call scratch built, even though it used a pre made tunnel portal as a doorway.
    Paul’s bridge is brilliant, a lot of effort gone into that, the result excellent work.
    No wooden bridges in the UK only stone or metal, so no chance to model one for a British layout. Mike S

  4. Normand Sarrazin says:

    Hi! I’M from Canada and I the bridge that you did built , he’S verry nice and built well ……….. I was looking for builting a bridge and I saw it , but my question is .
    wath kind or where did you take the wood to built it ? I would appreciate a return from you if you don’t mind because it will help me verry much .

  5. dom michell says:

    As far as I am concerned, an item is ‘scratch built’ when it is not commercially available to buy either as a complete item or kit. Re-utilizing bits from other things (your tunnel portal) i.e. other kits, food cartons, milk bottles etc. etc. is all part of the process and part of the fun of modeling. It is surprising once you start building things how differently you will look at everyday items and start looking at them as a potential gas storage tank or lineside hut etc. Your shed looks great so carry on and enjoy.

  6. Claylands03 says:

    Hi. Having built models for over 40 years and been the Scottish scale model boat building champion for 3 years on the trot. I would like to put to rest the Scratch built discussion. Scratch building is where you either get a set of original drawings of the item to be built or draw your own design and then make everything. No buying buffers or masts or connectors or wheels etc. Everything must be made by the builder even down to sawing your own timber down to scale size. . Screws glue nails and pins are allowed as well as paint/ varnish. If you use any bought items then you are either a kit builder or semi scratch/scale builder. Hope this clears this up for everyone. Everyone keep up the good work some great layouts and stories.

  7. builder Kim says:

    Sorry about the bear.But he was a repeat offender. He took out a two car garage door to my shed. He layed scatt or poop so he was laying claim to my yard. Also this same bear attacked two horses up the road a ways. he was watched for a few weeks on trail cam and found him wandering through kid infested lol yards. I have a pair of cougar’s that wander through here. They have learned to stay way from human’s.And don’t bother me as they have to live as well and don’t cause trouble. I have lock down bin’s. But that don’t stop him from picking the bin up and throwing it in the middle of the night. I have other bears around here but they behave and go on with there lives in peace.Also cross through my yard but don’t stay.Love all of nature just sometimes you get a very bad boy. I used to live in thunderbay Ontario. so I know bears.

  8. Curtis says:

    Absolutely Beautiful Paul!!

  9. KenS. says:

    I know I rarely post but do read and enjoy every newsletter. I love the tips and pictures like those posted in this one. My main reason for posting today though is to tell you that Basil is absolutely beautiful! Take care of him and he will give you many years of love as my 12 1/2 year old pup does.

  10. jay smith says:

    The bridge is great, what scale would that be built to. Also love the dog.

  11. Bonny McDaniel aka Grannytoot says:

    As far as describing something as scratch built, I believe the model contests specify that all of the unit must be made from scratch usually including such things as windows and doors. If any pre-made kit parts are used, it is called ‘kit mingling’ although, in this case you only used parts (the tunnel portals) from one source. Some say that scratch built can use pre-made windows and doors, air conditioners, etc. but all the rest is made from raw materials such as styrene, wood, etc. So, this engine house is hard to define as just scratch built, kit mingling, or kit bashing. It seems, to me, it is closer to scratch built than the other definitions. Good job, too. And the bridge is great although I don’t know, from and engineering viewpoint, if the bracing is all correct but it looks good.

  12. builder Kim says:

    Wow Paul.Very nice bridge that. Scratch built like that is so much nicer than a plastic bought thing that most people have them selves. How does it sound when you roll a locomotive and stock over. Each bridge has a sound of there own. I would like to hear it if possible with a video when you have it installed.Thanks for the build idea very nice.

  13. Ben Taul says:

    love that bridge I built one for double track made it a draw bridge cause it crosses my door way I’ll try to send some pics. but love that bridge love that bridge

  14. Thomas Meleck says:

    For a guy who claims not to know what scratch building is, Pete in San Jose does an excellent job of imitating one. His engine shed is terrific looking, and quite handsome. He should be proud. While “Scratchbuilding” implies creating everything in a model from basic materials, it certainly doesn’t preclude using a bit of “Kitbashing” in its definition–at least not to my mind. I shouldn’t worry about using the “pre-made” tunnel portals in his design. They integrated very well with the other elements of the design. Indeed, they enhanced it. Paul’s bridge is certainly another excellent example of “pristine” scratchbuilding. It’s a real wonder that he was able to construct a strong bridge out of such normally fragile balsa.

  15. Jim C. says:

    Had a problem with a bear in my parts but it must have been corrected. There is a new sign on the main street – Bear Left.

  16. paul Otway says:

    nice bridge and layout.

  17. christine says:

    Poor Bear, when I see a bear or a big cat I don’t tell anyone, because everyone wants to shoot it. They say what about the children? I say the bear or cat has to eat.

  18. John Reynolds says:

    Awesome stuff…..
    Love the bridge,
    The stories are great also.

  19. Ian Brown says:

    Glad to see some sense of humor popping up. I find some folk take themselves and their interests entirely too seriously. I think explicit definitions belong in academia and rocket science. Pleasurable activities can live with looser “rules”. I would say that the only hard and fast rule in railroad modeling is: Do what makes you happy. At the end of the evening, just before you turn out the lights, if you turn back and look at your layout, and you SMILE, you are doing it right.
    While I enjoy model building, and have done a bit in several genres, my primary hobby has been hacking full size cars. Many of the same concepts apply: oh, I must keep this part, I might use it one day…Oh, this is a nifty jar, bin, box, to store stuff in, I must keep it…Oh, I must get that hammer, drill, wrench, I am sure I will need it again one day….so, I have the biggest garage I have ever had, but only my one little MG fits inside because of the “stuff”. Now that age has limited my heavy mechanical activities, I am preparing to finally begin putting together the accumulation of N-scale bits and pieces filling the closet in my “study”. I think if I toss a couple of things, and rearrange the desk and bookcase, I can get at least a 6′ x 8′ area to construct a layout in…..
    I love the ideas and the photos. Don’t know if I have the talent or perseverance, but….

  20. John Kenney says:

    The tunnel portal is a commercially manufactured part. The fact that you used it for something other than its intended purpose makes it a kitbash, not scratch built.

  21. Ralph Berry says:

    Marvelous engine house/shed, suits the scene very well. I wont even join the argument about what is or isn’t scratch building, if you built it and it suits your set up then go for it. The balsa bridge is excellent, Australian modelers are spoilt for choice as wooden bridges of every sort were built here. British builders do have one on Brunel’s GWR Plymouth route where a temporary wooden viaduct was built. A spectacular bridge for any British layout.

  22. Paul B. says:

    The engine house is terrific. Anyone who knows model trains will know that it is unique. The use of the tunnel portals is great. This is just me, but I would add an exhaust chimney…or even two, one at each end for the engine that is being worked on..

  23. Bob Lowes says:

    Both items look great to me. As long as you’re happy with the results, I wouldn’t care what others thought. It takes time and skill to make a item so be happy with what you have and how you used something for other than what it was intended for. Great job by both of you.

  24. jim says:

    all I can say is wow!! the building and the bridge are great looking pieces of work let alone the bear and the dog, bet they were hard to make. lol

  25. Fred says:

    Talk about nonsense, this word scratch has everyone forgetting that the model looks good, the concept is ingenious and the construction is excellent. It is not a contest and most of you would be proud to have it on your layout. Keep your scratch for an itch and worry about your own modeling skills. Don’t play word games around other people’s accomplishments.

  26. Kevin McArdle says:

    Beautiful work on the engine house and bridge, but I did not like the picture of the dead bear, but Basil looks like a great pup. I think I like animals more than I like most humans. Happy railroading.

  27. Excellent engine house! And the bridge is fantastic! GREAT Lookers built by TRUE CRAFTSMAN. I would call the engine house scratch built,so, you used manufactured front wall the building is awesome. Bears come by our house regularly,if a pest,deal with them how you must. Your Shepard is a nice looking boy. I wish,hope my scratch building looks as good as both yours! Happy modeling to us ALL! Craig from Vt. Good ol USA.

  28. Webb says:

    Thought about building a HO model railroad. Gave up the idea after building a table , purchasing track and materials. Too many people wanting to step up and criticize a persons work as it didn’t fit their idea of perfection. Good Luck and if you can just ignore the nit pickers you will enjoy the hobby.

  29. Bruce says:

    Love the kit bash scratch scale built Basil.
    Mine is Emma.

  30. Robert Rolfe says:

    Any time you make something you are using something made by others, like did you grow the tree or make the plastic? Give the people credit for trying. These are both nice unites, I have made an engine house but would never attempt the bridge.
    My hats off to both of you.
    NV Bob

  31. Dan Hulitt says:

    Nice job of scratch bashing if I can coin a phrase. Only thing you might consider is adding a large stack for removal of smoke/exhaust.

    The bridge is also well done, would like to see how it is.finished out and placed

    Well done, guys.

  32. Theodore Grimm says:

    The engine house is very good. I would age the building a little. Maybe put smoke stains at top of tunnel entries.

  33. Victor Koyano says:

    Pete’s engine house is better than my White Ground kit. I had to buy extra wood and do extension and make own doors. It was off scale. No parts pre-cut and window frames are from MicroScale sold by bags, good thing siding is standard Northeastern. It has no flooring so l used card stock from artist tablet. Raised the height to accommodate engines. Made it one door for diesels. Sorry to tell. Pete did well.

  34. JOHN YOUNGER says:

    Al Nothing compares to the love that is developed between a dog owner and his or her dog. An old saying is “Put your wife and your dog in the trunk of your car for an hour and see which one’s happy to see you when you open it up.” Boy do I miss my little “Susie”. John from Sarasota

  35. Dick in Maryland, USA says:

    Scratch built, kit bashed, kit mingling, scratch bashing, pre-made….In the end, what really matters? After all is said and done it puts a smile on your face, that’s all that matters..
    Definition of hobby (Entry 2 of 2)
    A pursuit outside one’s regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation.
    Let’s just chill out and enjoy the hobby

  36. Steve Joyce says:

    I am glad you have seen the light and obtained a GSD…(German Shepherd Dog). They are the best period. Mine is 12 and a half and still boisterous. Gotta keep him occupied or he will find something else to do..usually to the detriment of something you don’t want destroyed.

  37. NJ Mark says:

    I am a Frank Sinatra model railroader…I do it my way. Cheers! NJ Mark

  38. Marklin Ed. says:

    As for bears I have them at my bird feed and they take it down and eat all the seeds. I live upstate New York Black bears are around all the time. None by my just started layout in the spare bedroom…..

  39. Bob says:

    Dear Pete,
    You seem puzzled with the idea of “scratch” building. I like your engine house but brick is an expensive material and probably would not be used for a house for one engine. Building from scratch refers to starting out with nothing but an idea. You have to imagine you are the original architect or engineer and figure out how to build the way it would have been done in those times with the materials at hand. Each piece has to be made to be in scale of the scale of your models. Study of strength of materials would help. I don’t post here much any more as I feel I have been ignored but that is the most interesting part of the model railroad hobby replicating the history stories.

  40. Will in NM says:

    Pete, Your engine house looks great to me. My only suggestion would be to add a white mortar wash over the shiny red brick exterior to take away some of the shine and accentuate the brickwork.

    Paul, That’s a terrific HO bridge you’ve built from 1/8 inch square balsa wood. How did you get the balsa strips to bend to that curved shape at the bottom of the arch? I don’t think you need to cut the wood strips from scratch just to be able to call it “scratch built”. Regardless of what other call it, I call it an amazing bridge that any of us would be happy to have on our model railroads.

    Al et al, Though I’m not crazy about seeing photos of dead bears, I certainly enjoyed some of the humorous banter that resulted here from the bear stories, so I guess I’ll just have to grin and bear it …:-) More dog photos, of course, would always be welcomed.

  41. If that Bear looks like a DOG, I think I’ve been drinking the WRONG stuff.
    Nice looking Shepherd though

    og…I’ve been drinmking the wwron sgtuf

  42. Ruben Simon says:

    We’ve got bears in sunny South Carolina, too. Maybe a mile from me is a cave where they live, I’ve been told by my neighbor who hunts deer there. He gave me a photo of a bear eating corn at a deer-feeding station on night, taken by his automatic camera. My land abuts a hunting club – once I was talking with a couple of friends next to my log cabin (back in the 1970s, before I got electricity in 1988), and a bullet zinged between the three of us. We just looked at each other, a relieved smile on our faces, and continued with our conversation, no one mentioning the bullet. Glad that was a one-time thing!

  43. Ed White says:

    I’m impressed with the shed or train building. The arched windows are a really nice touch. And the brick look is as well. Great job. Thanks for sharing. If you want to make something for my layout I would like to have you do so.

  44. Dale says:

    Great work on engine shed and bridge.
    Great talent on both. I’ll try my skills on both

    Sometimes u get the bear sometimes the bear gets you then
    The bear gotta go. For safety reasons

  45. Mr. Ron from South Mississippi says:

    If I utilize parts from a kit or elsewhere, and it doesn’t resemble the original, I consider that “scratch built”.

  46. Larry Baucom says:

    Me and my great grandson are building and running (playing as the 4 year old calls our train). We built a lumber mill and town for the workers. Because we have very limited money almost everything is scratch built from tree branches from the yard, to empty toilet paper cardboard,turned out pretty nice for a 75 year old man and a 4 year boy there’s a wind mill small electric motor makes home-made blade’s spin. The train is an old steam engine I bought as a boy back in the 50s we luck out every so often and find toy train stuff at yard sales, and our local hobby store has given us a complete train set (used) that was given to him to give to someone, we lucked out and took possession of it, so now we have 2 train’s too run on our 4×8 track. Thanks for having this site online it’s helped us so much and the ideas keep coming from the boy while I read your articles to him. You have a new lover of trains simply because he found my old set and it ran with some sandpaper on the rusted tracks. We love your articles very much there’s over 300 of them stored in this phone, don’t know how many more we can save but until phone is full we will be saving almost all from your fellow train lover’s. Once again thanks for your wonderful article.

  47. Mike Thomas says:

    Next to elbow grease, it is the universal ingredient. You can bake a cake or build a house from it. It satisfies the itch and soothes the soul.

  48. Robert says:

    Hello Paul.
    I am Robert from Joplin , Mo .
    I tend to read a lot of what people are building . I started my first train layout a while back [ 2 yrs ago ] and slowly plunking along. I cannot afford the more expensive kits so much , so I have taken to holding onto small food boxes . I ” scratch build ” them into buildings . Cut them down , if need be . I did buy a Round House. A 3 bay job , but it seemed too big for my layout . A regular drive into shed looks more appropriate . YOURS looks ” spot on ” ! I like it very much . The bridge , looks very well thought out. IF that is Balsa wood, you did some good work shaping it . I hope to be able to send pics about my layout one day .

  49. robert dale tiemann says:

    good layout. looks like the dog wants to eat the camers.

  50. Rich B. says:

    Sure…. Nice job with 3-rail engine house and bridge exquisite. Suppose to represent steel or actual wood as is with arches? Either way, it’s all good.

    And yes, the animals. Put food out for cat last winter and had raccoon stay entire winter under deck/porch. No, wasn’t carrying rabies and bothered nothing. Not this year as didn’t want anything dependent on cat food. Carry .45auto when walking pups down on trails with no intention of shooting anything. Effective noisemaker for moving along the occasional Puma, Coy-Wolf, Bob Cat or rare Lynx. Bears- only rumors there and Moose-track soup not very often. Lower 48, ME now. Alaska, Hawaii and PR someday not counting.


  51. Harper Goldwire says:

    I don’t expect you to print this message is for you and Basil. I’m on my 4th GSD,
    I tend to wear them out at 13 years. When we moved in our house 1981 the 1st
    Christmas my wife bought me an N scale train. I set it up on the coffee table and Asia female GSD put het nose on the tracks and got a little buzz. I moved it to the
    unfinished attic, then to unfinished basement where I left it uncovered for 10 years.
    I sent in pics with the dust weathering prior to taking it apart to clean and convert to DCC. I still working on it, but I wanted to share some GSD pics. I live in New Jersey and we have had bear hunts which is sad. I used to hunt deer to eat not for sport, but no more. I saw a pair of deer walking up the street on the sidewalk and snapped a pic to show the wife. I only had Cayman 10yo now. I was blessed to have two, Cayman from a breeder and China Daisy from a rescue in Memphis. I’ll try to email you the GSD pics, unable to add them here.

  52. Arthur Romano says:

    The engine shed looks real good. I use all kinds of items to make pieces too.
    Our own way of recycling. I’ve used wine corks to make barrels and opaque plastic from water bottles to make windows for buildings and passenger cars. Saves time and money and looks store bought.

  53. Brian Olson says:

    Good construction work here. Patience is key. Patience is also… free!

  54. Bruce Benson says:

    Pete….that engine house looks pretty darn good to me ! Paul…..terrific scratch built bridge ! And Al… the dog !

  55. Steve Ruple says:

    Awesome engine house Pete, I don’t see anything wrong with that build, great job !!!!!!!
    Paul, the scratch built bridge looks great, awesome job !!!!!

  56. Dave Karper says:

    Why all the to do over scratch building? Buy Mr. Lee’s printouts,then enlarge/reduce to your scale. Then add cereal box card as a backing. There is no limit yo what you can build. If you can imagine it, it can be made. This used to be referred to as imagineering.

  57. Bruce J WALTON says:

    Like the models always gives me inspiration for my own layout.
    Bit of a play on words scratch built.from nothing to new model kit bash from kits to what you want or kit built however does not really matter as long as you enjoy what you are doing, once again my layout my rules that model railroading

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