Environmental and Budget Friendly Model Railroading

23 04 2013

Railroads are one of the most environmentally friendly means of transportation available. Whether we’re talking a packed commuter train rolling into a city, or a mile-long train of shipping containers crossing the continent – the economies of scale and the mechanical advantages of the railroad make a world of difference.

bone yard

It may not be a happy scene, but this locomotive’s scrapping will lead to new creations.

Despite the iconic image of smoking steam locomotives, railroads have long had a tradition of supporting the environment. Some railroads designed locomotive fireboxes that could burn culm – or waste from coal mines that was too inefficient to use elsewhere. Cinders were used for ballast in rail yards. Old equipment was reassigned to work service or rebuilt to extend its life. If it couldn’t be reused, scrapped rail cars were melted down into new steel. Recycling like this wasn’t just good for the environment, it was good for the bottom line.

Our model railroads can do the same. There are endless options for recycling everyday materials for use on our layouts. From making interesting loads, to scenic details to re-purposing older models like the prototype, the thrifty modeler can accomplish a lot on a tight budget. In honor of this week’s Earth Day celebrations, take a look at some of these recycling tips from our modeling pages:



Using natural and recycled materials, this scene was finished for less than $10!

Scenery is one of the easiest ways to accomplish a lot without breaking the bank. After all, what could be better to reproduce nature than natural materials? These supplies are convenient, realistic, easy to use and cheap! Take a look at our scenic display diorama. This whole project was completed for under $10 by using recycled materials from around the house.

Here are some more specific tips you can use for any model railroad:

Recycled Loads

tie down

A plastic bag, thread and scraps make a great load.

Freight cars are always more interesting when we add loads to help tell the story. You can turn almost anything into an interesting load for a gondola, flatcar or even inside boxcars. I’ve seen everything from soda straws to building blocks to a broken camera lens turned into amazing loads with nothing more than a coat of paint and a few extra details. Here are a few we’ve made:

  • Tarped Loads – A plastic bag and scraps of foam and thread make a great mystery load.
  • Scrap Loads – Turn your broken parts into something new.

The Bone Yard

bone yard

Rows of equipment await their fate in the bone yard.

Follow the prototype’s lead and reuse some of your older equipment. This project made use of old shells and broken  models to create a realistic scene. From turning a caboose into an office and a reefer into a storage shed, to cutting up old locomotives, this yard has lots of examples of reuse. You’ll also find great simple and cheap scenery tips to build your own:

All of these tips will help you save money and reduce your scrap pile a little. But best of all, you won’t be sacrificing quality at all as you add your own character to your layout. Give some of these tricks a try – and feel free to share some of your own!

Scenery for Small Corners

27 03 2013

When the LCCA and Lionel designed the new FasTrack Modular Railroad, a narrow corner module was added so that it could be used in either an inside or outside configuration. This is great if you want to have “L” or “U” or other shaped layout while still maintaining the geometry and operating qualities of an O-72 minimum curve. The downside of this module is that you have less room for scenery than our full-width corner as seen in the previous two scenery articles.


A simple country crossing adds a little character to the narrow corner modules.

But less room for scenery doesn’t mean no room for scenery.

Even some basic scenery can help these small modules blend into to rest of the layout. Best of all, they don’t take a long time to complete and they’re are great way to experiment if you’ve never tried scenery before.

For one of our narrow corners, a simple country road crossing offered a good solution. Most of the scenery on this section was completed using the techniques for gluing ground cover and ballast already described in previous posts.

Country Roads

The rural road adds a little something extra to the module without overpowering the small scene or more prominent visual highlights on neighboring modules. It also provides a reason to blow the whistle – always a plus!


Drywall compound makes a convenient plaster base for the road. For better operations, plaster was kept back from the rails

To reduce the amount of material needed, a base for the road was made from some scraps of foam core board. Cardboard, bass wood or other scraps could also be used. With the base in place, it can be covered in drywall compound.

When working at home, I prefer to mix my own plaster from dry mix. Since this module was completed in the middle of a trade show, I opted for the ready-mix form. Building up the contours in smaller layers will reduce cracking and speed drying time.


Culverts are inserted in the wet plaster to simulate drainage control along the right of way.

If this were a paved road, you could smooth the plaster for a proper finish and paint. See the post on modeling roads for a step-by-step guide. Since this was going to be a dirt road, a perfect finish was not required.

While the plaster was still wet on the shoulders, some culverts were installed near the track for drainage. These were made by wrapping aluminum foil around a bolt (see last week’s blog.)

Once the plaster has dried, dirt is applied to the road surface just like the rest of the scenery. Rather than build up the profile of the road across the tracks themselves, dirt was simply glued directly to the tops of the ties / ballast. Although this would certainly make a rough crossing for any autos, it keeps the flangeways clear.

Finish the scene with weeds, cross bucks and any other little details you’d like to add. A simple little corner like this doesn’t take long to finish, but it looks a lot better than bare plywood. In future blogs, we’ll be building some more new modules from scratch – some with much more dramatic scenery. Stay tuned to the Modular Railroad pages for more information and updates.

Planting Fields

20 03 2013

As we usher in Spring, it will soon be time for planting. Fields of crops are an easy way to add a nice detail to any layout. They are also perfect for filling oddly shaped spaces of nearly any size. From backyard gardens to acres of farmland, these tips can be used in many applications, and even in multiple scales.

The fields you see here were completed on a pair of our full-width corner modules for our Lionel / LCCA FasTrack Modular Railroad over the course of two World’s Greatest Hobby shows.


After dampening, corrugated cardboard can be easily turned into the perfect base for farm fields.

Planting Rows

One of the keys to effectively modeling a planted field is maintaining even rows. Fortunately, there is an easy modelers trick that makes this easy. All you’ll need is some corrugated cardboard.

The corrugations will make perfect plant rows once you remove one of the face sheets. These smooth sheets are glued to the corrugated center. Fortunately, the glue is not very strong and is water soluble.  Spray a mist of water on one side of the cardboard. After the top layer is soaked, within a few seconds you should be able to easily pull it off the corrugated center strip. If it sticks and wants to tear, simply spray on a little more water.


Cover the cardboard with dirt to create the look of freshly plowed fields ready for planting.

Now all you need to do is glue the remaining cardboard onto your layout or scenery base. Some of our fields were glued directly to the wood top of the module. To create some subtle changes in elevation, others were propped up on a strip of foam core board that was handy. By softening the cardboard with water again, you can bend it to confirm to slopes and changes in the terrain to break that table-top look.

With the cardboard fields in place, the top is covered with soil first by coating with white glue and sprinkling on the turf. Then the scene is sprayed with alcohol and glued again with thinned white glue (50/50 with water). The alcohol breaks the surface tension and allows the glue to flow evenly.


Crops can be made from a variety of products.

You can begin planting your crops even before the thinned glue has dried, or you can wait. Apply another bead of full strength white glue to the top of a ridge and press on individual clumps of thicker ground foam. When one row is finished, go to the next.

If the foam clusters are loose, you can apply another alcohol / thin glue spread. You can vary the color and size of the foam plants or even use other materials to create a wide variety of crops.



A little drywall compound helps build subtle scenic contours. Don’t worry, it dries white!

Crops don’t grow without water. Even on a “flat” module, you can create the look of irrigation with some simple contours built up on the base. These can be done by raising portions of the terrain as described above, or by creating mounds and contours with a little drywall mud. You can learn more about creating a scenic base with water in mind, as well as mixing and applying this plaster coating in our display diorama pages.

To add a final touch, some simple culverts were made from aluminum foil. This is a great tip to make culverts for a variety of scenes or even pipe loads for your trains. Choose a bolt with a diameter that works for your job (not all pipes are the same size.)


These little drainage pipes are easy to make and add a nice detail.

Cut a rectangular strip of heavy-duty aluminum foil and wrap it around the bolt clockwise (this makes it easier to wind and “unscrew” the finished pipe.) The ends should overlap.

Now start at the end of the bolt and press the foil into the threads with your fingernail. When finished, twist the foil pipe off of the bolt just like you were undoing a nut. The resulting pipe has a great texture and scale thickness. You can carefully trim the pipes to smaller lengths with a sharp hobby knife.

The pipes can be pressed into the drywall mud while still wet to secure them into the scenery. You can also attach them to other surfaces with white glue.


Weeds, a dirt road and freshly turned earth are just the beginning of more details that can be added to complete the scene.

Details and Finishing Touches

These modules were finished using the same general scenery application techniques. This included some bare fields, ballast for the FasTrack, and an assortment of weeds and grasses to complete the look. You could easily take the details farther. Add a scarecrow, tractor, some workers in the fields – let your imagination grow!


The finished scene covers two of our full-corner modules. The field on the left has been left unfinished to help show construction techniques.

Modeling Sand and Surf

13 03 2013

As part of our display at the recent World’s Greatest Hobby shows, we completed the scenery on four corner modules of our Lionel / LCCA FasTrack Modular Railroad. Not only did this help us fill in some of the “bare tables,” it was a great way to introduce new modelers to some very easy yet effective scenery techniques. Over the next three weeks, we’ll provide you with the same step-by-step instructions here.


Life’s a beach when you’re modeling! Learn how to make scenery like this.

All of our modules already have an assigned spot in their shipping containers so scenery had to have a low profile. All of these scenes will work very well with your portable or temporary layouts as well. Taller elements like trees, vehicles or even buildings can be made removable for storage and transport.

Since two of our venues were right on the California coast, it only seemed right to make one of our modules a beach! This scene was completed on one of the full-width corner modules. It features some very basic ground cover and terrain and of course a little water – all useful scenery techniques whether you’re adding a quite beach like this, or modeling other locales.

Creating the Beach

Beaches aren’t typically associated with radical changes in elevation, but any scene looks a little better if it’s not completely flat. To give our sand a little contour and to keep the beach a little higher than the water, a low base was built from cardboard. These cardboard sheets were simply recycled from packaging for our trade show shipping.

With the track already fastened to the module, all I had to do was lay the cardboard over top and cut along the profile of the FasTrack ballast with a utility knife. Hold the knife at a 45° angle to accommodate the profile of the ballast. An exact fit is not critical.

The sides were then cut to match the edges of the module and the ocean-side of the beach was cut freehand, again on an angle to provide an easy slope to the sand. Additional “dunes” were built up from smaller pieces of cardboard stacked on top.

Glue the cardboard to the module and to subsequent layers with white glue. Place tools, books or anything else flat, heavy and handy on top for a few hours until everything is dry.

Painting the Base

With the base for our scenery in place, it’s time to paint. I selected two colors of paint, one sandy the other a deep ocean blue, from the cards at the local home center. Since you won’t need much for this project, just purchase the small sample sizes of each. The cans cost about $2.00 each and provided more than enough material for this module.


After a coat of paint, the beach begins to take shape.

Since this project is small, you can get away with latex paint. If you are working with a larger canvas, you may want to use oil paints so you have more working time to blend the colors. I opted for a flat finish on the sand and a semi-gloss on the water. We’ll be increasing the gloss later. Note that the exact colors aren’t critical here. Get something that looks right to you.

Begin by painting the ocean. Here paint was applied directly to the wood platform. (You could add texture with plaster or drywall compound if desired, but since I was keeping it simple and working in an open public space, I kept the steps and the mess to a minimum.) Paint up to within about 3/4 inch from the beach.

Next, before the blue paint dries, begin painting the sandy beach. Start away from the water and cover all of that ground first.


Blending the sand and blue colors yields a smooth transition to “deeper” water.

Now comes the fun part. Don’t try to paint a smooth, crisp line between the sand and the water. Instead, simply keep painting the sand right into the ocean. You’ll begin to see the paints mix right on the module. Keep working, feathering the two colors together for as sharp or gradual a transition as you’d like. It doesn’t have to be even all the way around, and in fact it will look better with irregularities.

The only important thing is to mix these colors while both colors are still wet. If you think you’ve feathered too much, pick up another drop of blue. Too little, grab another drop of sand. You’re friends will be amazed by your painting skills, but you really can’t screw this up!

It helped that our hall in San Diego was quite humid, providing a little extra working time. Again, if you are covering a larger area, or if you just like a longer working time, go with oil paints. You’ll have all the time you need – just remember you’ll have to wait at least a day or two before moving on to the next step.

Sand and Ground Cover


Sand and other ground cover add texture.

You can begin adding sand to the beach while the paint is still wet if desired. (Just be careful to keep it out of the water.) You can use real sand, or choose a commercial ground foam product of similar color. I ended up doing the latter since the local sand appeared too dark when applied inside.

Once you’ve covered your beach, simply adhere the sand with some diluted white glue (50% glue / 50% water). Spray the area first with isopropyl alcohol to break the surface tension of the glue. For more detailed instructions on this simple ground cover technique, see our blog pages on scenery and ballasting. While you’re doing the sand, you can add other ground cover and ballast around the tracks as well.


You’ve already applied the base for the water, now it’s time to make it “wet.” There are lots of methods for making realistic water. Again, because these scenes were completed in a public setting, the easiest, least-messy, least-smelly option was the way to go.


Several coats of clear gloss bring up the shine. You can also add some swells with partial coats.

Start by applying a coat of clear gloss finish. Again, I found a small jar of latex clear coat at the home center for a few dollars. Get the most glossy finish you can find.

Apply several coats of this clear finish until you’ve built up a smooth, even shine. Allow each coat to dry before adding the next. By the time I was finished, I think there were at least five coats on the base. Because I was using latex, each coat was dry enough to paint over within an hour or two. (Probably sooner, but after a while it is hard to tell when it is still wet vs. just looking wet – which is of course the whole idea!)


Apply water effects in beads and stipple with a brush.

This will give you a nice, calm ocean or lake. If you don’t want to go any further, you can stop right here. But I wanted a few waves for our ocean. None of these are going to make the surfers very happy, but the effects to give the water some life.

I used Woodland Scenics Water Effects to create the waves. Simply squirt a bead of the compound in a line where you want your wave. Then feather the wave back using a stippling motion with your paint brush.


The finished water has both texture and shine, all with little mess or work.

Repeat this process over and over to create the water surface. For taller waves, you can come back with additional coats after the first dries overnight. Note that the effects look like white glue when they go on. But like glue, they dry clear.

When you are happy with the results, you can give the scene one or two more coats of gloss to bring up the shine. Then, if you’ve created some good waves, dry brush a little white paint on their crests to provide a highlight.

Final Details


Palms and grasses help complete the scene.

Our beach still looked a little barren, so I added a few more simple details to bring it to life. Tall grasses and reeds are made from commercial grass products. Simply cut the fibers to length and glue them to the scenery.

For some taller trees, two palms from JTT Enterprises were added. Simply drill a hole in the beach and insert the palms. You could glue these in place, or leave them as a tight dry fit so they can be removed for transport like ours.

You could of course go further. This scene would be a natural for more details like swimmers, sun bathers, a sand castle – let your imagination run wild!