Scratch-Build HO Scale Picket Fences

My Maple Valley Short Line Model Railroad in HO scale has more detail than any of my previous layouts. Model railroading is a learning experience, which is a big part of the fun. Scenery on a layout is never quite finished because there is always some little item that can be added to make a scene more realistic.

Section of balsa picket fence painted.

I decided to try my hand at making scratch-built picket fences. I found it to be a fun project and once I figured out how to do it, I kept making them. As you can see in the photo, I chose to make the slats irregular shapes and sizes.

Cutting board, ruler, balsa pieces for fence.

The fence pieces consist of rails, posts, and slats. The rails and posts are 1/32″ balsa material. The rails can be any length, but they should be the same. The posts are 5 scale feet long, cut from the same material as the rails.

The slats are cut from 1/32″ balsa sheet material.

The HO Scale ruler is a valuable tool. There are several measurement options on the ruler. I used it to measure all the fence materials, as I have for many other building projects.

HO scale ruler with balsa post.
Balsa ready to cut 4’ HO scale fence slats.

I measured 4 scale feet of 1/32″ balsa sheet material for the slats and cut four at a time. The first few fences I made had wider slats but I think the narrower ones look more realistic.

After cutting a sufficient pile of posts and slats, I laid the rails side by side and put a spot of glue at regular intervals across the entire length of the rails. I then separated them so the glue spots were directly across from each other. I carefully placed the posts on the glue, with the rails approximately three scale feet apart.

The “Original Tacky Glue” I use dries rather quickly, so after the posts are set, the work of gluing the slats to the rails can begin right away.

The process of gluing small slats side by side can be tedious, and requires great care to keep from covering fingers, slats, rails, cutting board and tools with glue. I found using my X-acto blade for poking the slats, dipping each end in the glue, and placing them on the rails a perfect way to do it. The only thing I was really careful about was not gluing too many of them straight.

Finished balsa picket fence leaning by a tree.

When the glue has dried, it’s time for painting. I mixed some green, gray, and white acrylic paint, diluted with water, and stained the fences. To keep the fence from looking too uniform, I dabbed areas with various shades of color. I set the painted fences against supports to allow them to dry.

I love the look of old fences plastered with posters faded and worn by years of weather. I glue scale posters to all kinds of things. They can be scratched with a knife to make them look older, but I found the process of printing them caused enough distortion to make them look convincing enough.

Colorful signs in HO scale printed

This is what’s left of the sheet of advertising posters I downloaded from a website. I’ve used them on several projects. The colors are great without being perfect.

As I was careful not to glue the fence slats too straight, I made sure most of the posters were skewed. Of all the projects I have completed on the Maple Valley Short Line Model Railroad, my scratch-built picket fences are in the top two or three of pleasing results.

This is another fine example of a project going into the file named, “If I can do it, anyone can.”

Scratch-Build a Two-Story Trackside Structure in HO Scale

Two story balsa Maple Valley Supply Co building h finished.

This is the Maple Valley Supply Company. It sits on the line that brings passengers from Midtown to Maple Valley on The Old General. The two-story structure is scratch-built in balsa. The windows and doors are plastic models purchased at a model railroad swap meet.

I drew plans for the structure on card stock. I built each of the walls by cutting, gluing and pinning balsa pieces on the wax-paper covered plans.

I love the way the framing looks on the wall interiors.

The gables and the front wall are two stories tall. The back wall is off-set by a scale 12 inches, so the walls were built separately. The end rooms are single story.

Balsa two story building without roof.
Two story balsa structure.

The siding pieces are cut from 1/32″ balsa sheeting. Since I have stud framing, it is easy to cut and glue individual lengths of siding for a more authentic appearance. Each siding piece is 3mm tall. Some modelers stain the balsa before gluing, but I choose to paint the finished structure.

Balsa building with roof trusses and decking.

I build roof trusses and individually glue them to the walls. I admit it’s difficult to build a bunch of balsa trusses that are exactly the same, but I get pretty close. As my middle school band teacher used to say, “It’s close enough for jazz.”

When the roof truss glue is dry, I apply individual planks the same way I attach the wall siding. My roof planks are all the same length. I don’t apply any covering other than paint.

The loading dock on the front of Maple Valley Supply Company is approximately 3 scale feet high and 4 feet deep with a ramp at the end. There is a double door on the far end and a single door in the center. The small storage room on the end has two small windows and a door.

Side view of balsa Maple Valley Supply Co outside town of Maple Valley.

I use acrylic paint diluted with water and mixed with a small amount of matte medium. With a little more scenery work to do around the structure, I think the Maple Valley Supply Company is ready for business.

Make Your Own Static Grass Applicator for Realistic Scenes

This definitely has to go in the category, “If I can do this, absolutely anyone can.” I made my own static grass applicator that really works!

I’ve been working steadily on the scenery of The Maple Valley Short Line Model Railroad. I’m creating scenes with more detail than I have on any other layout. On my previous model railroads I was happy with paint and some turf sprinkled here and there. The Maple Valley Short Line will probably be my last layout, so I’m doing it right.

I visited many sites showing modelers using static grass applicators, but when I looked at the cost I decided standing weeds weren’t necessary. I changed my mind. I started looking for videos showing how to make a static grass applicator and found several.

Blah Flag electric bag zapper and small strainer.

The self-built models are all pretty similar. It wasn’t difficult to find the parts. It was harder trying to tell myself I could actually do this and have it work.

The Black Flag Hand Held bug zapper I purchased for $10.95 at Home Depot promised to deliver 2750 volts of shocking power to any little critters that happened to get too close. It also delivered a powerful shock to my finger!

I found a small Farberware plastic strainer with a metal screen mesh to use as the grass spreader.

Separate pieces of bug zapper and small strainer.

I first removed all the screws from the back of the handle. Three screws held the zapper screen in place, three more screws were in the battery compartment. Once the screws were removed the pieces came apart easily.

Electric bug zapper wand wires exposed.

There were no screws in the wand, so I forced a screw driver blade into the seam to break the pieces apart. A red wire was soldered to the inner screen, a blue wire was soldered to each of the outer screens. I snipped the wires off at the screen. The two blue wires came from the same point on the control board, so I removed one.

Bug zapper handle opened to show control board.

After the extra blue wire was removed from the control board, I soldered a long green wire to the blue wire. I soldered a short red wire to the red wire from the board. The red wire carries power to the wire mesh basket. The green wire is attached to the area where the static grass will be applied. Static electricity is created by the field between the wire mesh and the surface of the layout.

Hand strainer with handle cut off, holes drilled to match screw posts. Red wire soldered to screen.

I held the strainer next to the zapper handle to see how much of the strainer handle would fit and cut off the remainder. The handle of the Farberware strainer is about the same width as the zapper handle. I held the cover of the zapper on the strainer handle and used a small drill bit to make pilot holes for the screws. I then used a larger bit, the size of the screw posts in the zapper handle, to carefully drill out the pilot holes. The handle of the strainer fits perfectly over the screw posts.

Hand strainer with holes drilled placed on screw posts in zapper handle. Red wire soldered to red wire from control board in the handle.

After tinning the wire, I poked it through the screen, made a loop and poked it back through the mesh. I twisted the wire with itself and soldered it, creating a solid connection.

Simple contact button on the side of the bug zapper handle.

The simple contact button on the side of the handle has to be held to create the static field between the two leads. The applicator is powered by two AA batteries.

Finished static grass applicator showing long green wire soldered to green wire on control board.

This is the finished product. The strainer handle fits tightly inside the zapper handle, thanks to the three screw posts. The cost of this static grass applicator was about $15.00.

I have already discovered using a static grass applicator takes some practice. I purchased some short static grass at Rider’s Hobby Shop, and I can see it’s too short. Taller grass will look more realistic in scenes where there is not much activity.

It’s best to use the static grass applicator on one small area at a time. A thinner white glue solution works better than glue right out of the bottle.

Good luck with your own static grass applicator construction. If I can do it, you can do it!

By the way, I wasn’t kidding about getting a shock. Make sure to keep your fingers away from the screen while you’re working on your scenes. You’ll find out quick, like I did, why bugs don’t like zappers!

More Scenery Details on the Maple Valley Short Line Model Railroad

I love looking at photos and videos posted by fellow model railroaders. I have learned a great deal about scenery by watching others do what they do best.

I recently discovered I’ve been making a mistake. When I go into my train room, I tend to look at my whole layout from one end to the other. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed because there is still so much to do, and I lose sight of the best part of this great hobby. The work is really never done!

The secret I uncovered is that expert modelers often just work on a small part of the layout at a time. They take a small scene, like the one above on my layout under Three Tower Bridge, and create a masterpiece.

Just in this photo I can see several things that need more work:

  1. The base of the little shed needs to be blended with the surrounding ground cover.
  2. The foliage material around the first tower is too big.
  3. Obviously, this is a section of track that is awaiting ballast.
  4. The towers and the deck could use some weathering. Maybe some weathing powder would be good.

What I should do is focus on this piece of the layout, as if it were a module. For me, it might be a good idea to lay some plastic over the surrounding area so this part is all I see. I probably won’t do that.

I like this small section near Maple Valley. The two tanks on the stand need paint. The sign on the end of the freight shed is blank. I’ve never seen a small work shed with an orange roof.

I’m learning as I write. Looking at small photos of my layout is a great way to figure out how to improve the scenes.

Ballasting is an ongoing project. None of it has been glued in place yet. I’m still using my clear plastic ballast spreader and I’m running out of material, so I’ll have to make another trip to the hobby shop. Yesss!

This track section is the line that carries passengers on The Old General from Uptown to Maple Valley. Maple Valley is a popular tourist destination which is also the focus of a scandal that began over a year ago. A local resident, Sylvia Meisner, disappeared. Her burned car was found under Three Tower Bridge. The caboose on the right is almost directly above where the wreck was discovered. (You can read “Scandal at Maple Valley” on my blog – just click on the menu.)

Getting back to scenery progress, the freight dock on the left is terribly bare. I want to get a static grass applicator, or make one. The dock needs weeds, stacks of stuff, weathering, and workers.

Lots of work to be done here, and I don’t mean by the guys in the scene. The edges have to be blended with ground cover. The tower and small sheds need paint and weathering. Many weeds are needed, the ground cover needs help. A little more brown will look better.

The brush lichen along the curve is too big. I’ll pull it apart and replace it. I still have a lot of ground cover to finish between buildings in Maple Valley.

I still have a bunch of trees I made that are ready to have leaves applied. It’s been a busy summer and the layout was a little farther down the list.

Happy model railroading!

Painting Beautiful Backdrops for Your Model Railroad

One of the beautiful things about model railroading, and scenery in particular, is that beauty is in the eye of the creator. If you think it’s incredible, then it is. We all like to be told our work is terrific, but the truth is you are the only one to please.

I pondered backdrops for a long time before I actually started working on them. In fact, I kept putting it off because I just didn’t think I could do it. In addition to having no real artistic talent, I have a condition known as essential tremors. If I hold my hands out in front of me it’s difficult to see any trembling. But the minute I try to do something small or detailed, like just signing my name, I have difficulty controlling my hand.

I considered painting right on the cinderblock wall but finally decided against it. I was afraid the mortar lines would show too much. I also thought about using posterboard. Our daughter, the real artist in the family, said the posterboard would wrinkle. I used foamboard which has a very smooth surface and it is about 3/16 of an inch thick, which gave the paintings a little bit of extra depth.

As I said, I’m no artist. Thank heavens for YouTube! I found a basic list of acrylic paint to use on my backdrops. I collected a bunch of platic containers with lids because I knew there would be a lot of mixing involved.

I began by deciding how high I wanted my backdrops to reach. My model railroad terrain is a blend of mountains, hills, and rocks. I didn’t want the backdrops to overpower the scenery in front of them. I drew a rough pencil outline of the mountains on the horizon. I then cut the foam board in the same general outline, and inch or so above the pencil line.

I used a light mixture of blues and titanium white with some matte medium to prevent a glossy appearance, and painted sky in varying depths along the top of the foam.

The first layer of mountains on the horizon is a gray-blue mixture to promote the illusion of distance and haze.

The secret to creating distance is to remember the most distant areas are the lightest. Each layer of color is gradually darker as the trees get closer. For forest areas, the greatest distance is the lightest green. Be careful to avoid following the same outline as the color above it. Don’t hesitate to allow part of a color layer to rise above the edge of the color behind it. In the middle photo, the outline of the treetops rises above the outline of the mountains behind it.

Experimenting with color mixtures is the best way to create the scene most pleasing to you. Use some scrap foam pieces and paint some mountains and trees. Let the paint dry, then start on the real thing.

Blue-gray paint creates mountain range.

A real challenge for me was painting a river to connect to my Maple Valley River running under four bridges, including my scratchbuilt trestle. I put that job off as long as I could. For non-artists like me, a little practice with vanishing points is necessary. A vanishing point is the spot on the horizon where all lines meet. If you stand on a road and look to the horizon, the road seems to disappear, although you know the road is just as wide four miles away as it is where you’re standing. Where the road disappears is the vanishing point.

The white inverted “v” shape in the photo above is the area will the river is painted. The wide area in front is closest to the viewer. The narrowing will indicate distance.

Another trick to help create the illusion of shape and distance is to indicate a light source. By dabbing some lighter paint on the left side of the trees, it appears as if the sun is shining from the left. All light source direction shouild be consistent throughout the paintings.

Painting individual pine trees was another learning experience. I started with a straight line with brown paint. Using a fan brush, I dabbed a green mixture unto the trunk on each side. Larger branches at the bottom, smaller at the top.

Light paint dabbed on side of the trees indicates sunlight coming from the left.

I tried my hand at painting a cabin in the woods. The road leading to the cabin has some distance by being wider at the bottom, narrow at the top. The cabin and shed lines also have vanishing points to eliminate a flat appearance.

Painted river with rocks on the bank.

I’m happy with the final outcome of the painted river meeting the epoxy river at the back of the layout. The bridge will carry vehicle traffic. I removed a track girder bridge to give a clearer view of the river.

Paint colors should match at the corners.

To make corners less noticeable, it is important that color layers match. Different shades of green meeting make corner lines more obvious.

Acrylic painting of large rocks with shadowing for depth.

I am really happy with these rock formations. The shading definitely gives the appearance of a light source on the left and shadow on the right, also giving the illusion of depth. For an audience of one, I am thoroughly pleased with the artwork.

The Maple Valley Short Line Model Railroad backdrops are complete. I did have one hiccup after the painting was finished. The foamboard curled when the paint was completely dry. I placed the foamboard, paint side down, on the floor. I placed a straight-edge on the foam board perpendicular to the direction of the curl. I pulled the foamboard up, making a slight crease. I was afraid the paint would crack, but it didn’t. The effort straightened the boards and they were ready to be glued to the wall.

I glued the paintings to the wall with a hot-glue gun. I placed the boards on the wall to mark exactly where they should be positioned when glued. I worked quickly after applying the hot glue to keep it from drying and hardening too fast.

Scratch-Built Paned Windows in HO Scale

In a previous post, I wrote about scratch-building small cabins with balsa wood. By trial and error, sometimes resulting in more error than success, I filled in the window frames without actually making windows. I simply framed the space and added some trim.

I decided to try my hand at building paned windows that I could make in advance and pop them in place as I’m building new structures.

HO window template covered with wax paper

I first drew a template I could use repeatedly. A fellow modeler suggested covering templates with wax paper to prevent glued pieces from sticking to the template. Brilliant! (I then remembered my uncle building a plane from balsa and using wax paper to protect the template.)

I measured the windows on several of my plastic structures and many of them are about the same size, 3 x 5 on the HO scale ruler. I drew pane lines evenly across the window space.

I cut strips of thin balsa about 3mm wide and glued them together on the template. I use very small balsa material for the panes. I first painted the balsa and stood the pieces in a jar for drying. I cut the pane material just wider than the frame width and length. I glued the horizontal pieces to the frame, then put a spot of glue on the panes and the frame to hold the veritcal piece in place.

Three balsa HO scale windows

I think these windows look pretty good for a first attempt. They might still be a little large for HO scale, but not by much.

Scratch built HO scale balsa windows with trimming finished.

My first idea was to use two layers of framing and glue the pane material between them. That didn’t work well. The frames were too thick. After the glue has dried, I cut the trim back leaving a more realistic appearance.

Two balsa walls with HO scale windows installed.

After framing the walls, I drop the finished windows in place, gluing them to the studs. I then finish the walls by adding siding. Once the four walls are completed, I trim the edges for a smooth fit and glue them together.

Small HO scale cabin with windows ready for roofing.

I’m hooked on making these little cabins. I’m getting better at framing more quickly, and I build a few at a time. On recent models, I included the gables with the wall framing, making roofing easier. I don’t enjoy making roof trusses.

HO scale balsa four walls for layout store.

This frame is going to be a retail space on the Maple Valley Short Line Railroad. The large window and double door looks great. It may become the Ya’ll Sit Cafe in Maple Valley, owned by Shorty and Hannah Cloverton. (They’re the ones – among several others – who were sued for the unfortunate demise of Mrs. Madeline Overweist after a bat landed on her face outside the cafe.) The BAT Strategic Health Investigation Team is still working on the problem.

HO scale pencil template for balsa structure.

This is a template I recently finished for a larger scratch built structure. The building will be a two-story model with a first-floor extra room and a shed attachment. The numbers on the template correspond with measurements on the HO scale ruler.

Scratch building is a lot of fun. I have always enjoyed the scenery-building process of model railroading almost as much as running trains.

I am really looking forward to finding out what happened with the lawsuit brought against several prominent members of the Maple Valley town council. The lawfirm of Skellson & Skellson served Shorty Cloverton with the suit at the Ya’ll Sit Cafe a few days before Christmas.

One thing is certain. The Scandal at Maple Valley is not over. Not by a long shot.

Treasures from a Model Railroad Swap-Meet

Packages of styrene, balsa strips, plastic windows, and metal junk.

Everyone in model railroading, from those just getting started with the first circle of track to those seasoned folks with several layouts under their belts know how easy it is to quickly spend a lot of money.

Swap meets can be a model railroader’s best friend.

I love going to model railroad swap meets. It can be overwhelming with so much to see and choices to make. The good meets have rows and rows of tables with a wide variety of gauges from N scale to G and everything in between.

Just because it’s a swap meet does not mean prices are going to be rock bottom. You have to patiently search to find those great deals. There are many displays with folks who regularly do train shows. Some prices are no different than can be found in local hobby shops.

Yesterday, I attended the Railroad Days Train Show in Durand, Michigan. This is an annual event, but this was the first time for me, so I didn’t know what to expect. The show was held at the Durand Middle School. I couldn’t believe the number of cars in the parking lot!

We paid the five dollar entrance fee and started hunting. I already have plenty of locomotives and rolling stock. (I know that sounds like blasphemy, but my shelf-style 21 x 4 feet layout just won’t realistically hold any more.) I have more buildings than I can use. What I need most is junk. It’s the stuff lying around that makes scenes look realistic. Old tires, rusted bicycles, piles of broken pallets, window frames, and paint cans. Junk.

Box containing many random items from model railroad swap meet.

As I was about to enter the second large room of vendors, I spotted the treasure I was looking for. A box of junk for $5.00. I couldn’t believe it! I could see right away this was the find of the day. I thought it would be rude to dig through it, so I handed the owner a five dollar bill and thanked him before he could change his mind.

The first chance I had, I carefully searched through the items and everything convinced me I had struck gold!

I don’t run long passenger cars on my layout, so the four packages of car diaphragms will probably not be used, at least not for their intended purpose. Piled against the side of a building they will look terrific. I’ll improvise a spot for the elevated conveyor system. The little caboose-shed will look great with a little bit of weathering.

The small stationary crane is fantastic! Hidden down in the box were eleven small sheds including two outhouses! Scenery treasures!

A sandwich bag was packed with wheels, trucks, couplers and other junk. Some of the trucks are spring loaded. This load of stuff will be perfect for the engine house yard.

I have been making my own windows for the cabins I’m scratch-building. I found several packages of HO scale windows!

The barrels, tanks, and other items are metal. Just the stack of barrels is $12 at the hobby shop! The box of stuff got better with each item I pulled out.

One of the things I was looking for at the model railroad swap meet was vintage automobiles and trucks. I’m modeling the 50’s era, so finding the right vehicles at a good price requires some diligent searching. Once again, I uncovered a treasure!

Six metal and plastic HO scale cars and trucks.

I was a little kid on Christmas morning! A ’56 Ford T-Bird, a ’59 Chevy El Camino, a 40’s delivery truck, a ’57 Chevy Bel-Air, a 40’s Buick police car, and a ’55 Chevy Bel-Air Sport Coupe. The T-Bird, El Camino, and the ’55 Bel-Air are metal. Beautiful! (These were not in the junk box. The vehicles were purchased from a retired middle school teacher/assistant principal. It was great fun talking with him and he gave me a fantastic deal!)

The police car is especially important. Pete Terkinberry, the Sheriff of Kertok County, who lives in Maple Valley, has been using his own car for county duties. The police car was purchased from the Chicago Police Department when they ordered all new vehicles. Sheriff Terkinberry is looking forward to using a real police car to patrol Maple Valley and the surrounding area. The Maple Valley town council voted unanimously to purchase the used patrol car. They also approved the purchase of plane tickets for Sheriff Terkinberry and Mayor Alvin Thrashborn to fly to Chicago to retrieve the car and drive it back to Maple Valley.

Maple Valley Railroad box car and HO scale automobile

Probably the discovery that was the most fun was this Maple Valley box car. My layout is the Maple Valley Short Line Model Railroad.

I plan to make Durand Railroad Days and the Model Railroad Swap Meet an annual event on my calendar!

Using Balsa Wood to Scratch Build Structures for Model Railroads

Lap desk, cutting board, protractor, scale ruler, and balsa pieces.

My Maple Valley Short Line Model Railroad is looking really good, if I do say so myself. In previous posts I wrote about making printed buildings with cardstock and balsa. I have many of them. I decided to try scratch building.

The first thing required is a dedicated work space. Mine is a lap-desk and a piece of foam where I can measure, draw, cut, pin, and glue while binge-watching “The Mentalist.”

I used my scale ruler to measure some of the structures on my model railroad to be sure my plans for new buildings are accurate. I use the ruler and a protractor to draw pencil outlines on cardstock.

I like all the printed buildings I have, but they don’t look as convincing in mountainous areas surrounded by pine trees. I need small rustic cabins.

On the HO scale ruler, 3.5 mm equals one foot, so the 10 mark on the ruler is approximately ten feet. I cut the stud pieces at 9 so that when glued to the top and bottom plates, the wall is a scale 10 feet. I cut all the balsa pieces first.

Balsa wood is very light and easy to work with. Art supply stores and hobby shops have great supplies of balsa wood in many different sizes, making it easy to create terrific structures.

I pin the wall plates to the drawing on edge, then glue the first and last studs to the plates and allow them to dry. Placing pins on an angle from both sides of the scale 2 x 4 holds it in place.

Two wall frames and two wall outlines in pencil drawn on cardstock.

This cabin has longer walls so I glued a middle stud in place to be sure the plates stay true while the glue is drying.

Four wall frames and two trusses, pinned and glued.

When the outer frames are dry, I then begin gluing the remaining studs in place. I make my windows 3 x 5, doors are 3 x 7 on the HO scale ruler. When all the studs are dry, I glue the window and door upper and lower frames in place.

My roof trusses are a “trial-and-error” exercize. After gluing trusses on a small cabin frame, I decided it looked goofy so I cut the roof off and started over. A lower pitch looks better on a small structure.

I decided to try using overlap siding because I like the way it looks. I cut strips from very thin balsa sheets. Starting at the bottom of the wall, I glued each one in place, overlapping the next piece above it. To frame the windows, I glued short pieces from the wall ends and between the windows. I left a small edge of the frame to allow window trim to be added later.

To create finished corners, on opposite walls the siding pieces are 3mm longer at each end. This also allows for much stronger gluing surfaces.

Two sizes of balsa cabins showing inside stud assemblies.

These are my first two attempts at making scratch-built balsa cabins. I really like the way the walls look on the inside. The siding looks great, but doing the overlap is a lot of work. These will look terrific nestled into the pines on my model railroad.

This is the small cabin with the second roof attempt. The lower pitch is much better. I used the same process to make roof trusses as with the walls. I measured, drew the outline on card stock, cut the pieces with the appropriate angles for the pitch, then pinned and glued the scale 2 x 4s in place.

Obviously, the glued pieces are stuck to the cardstock after the glue dries. I use an X-acto knife to carefully cut the balsa pieces away from the cardstock.

Scratch building is a learning curve. On this cabin I used flat siding. It was much easier to frame the windows and allow plenty of space for trim pieces. I started these walls by placing a vertical board on the ends and then measured between them for the siding.

I cut the gables out of balsa flat stock then made grooves indicating wood slats using a small piece of basswood.

Sharp 1:87 scale workshop painted dull gray inside and out, ready for roofing.

This will be a workshop in Maple Valley. I used vertical slat siding glued to the balsa wall frames. After gluing the three solid walls together, I added the roof support beams and the front post with the angle pieces.

Trimming the windows was actually easier than it looks. I painted very small pieces of balsa with white acrylic. I put a little glue along the window frame, then held the painted strip in place and cut the end off. For the window pane I cut a piece of balsa and glued it on the inside of the window frame.

As my work continues on the Maple Valley Short Line Model Railroad, I am convinced more scratch built cabins will be perfect for blending in among the pines. These little cabins are sturdy and good looking. I have a little more painting to do, and I have several more structures under construction on my laptop workbench.

I don’t consider myself a master modeler by any stretch. Learning is the key to model railroading that provides years of enjoyment. Before the days of the internet, modelers had to rely on hobby magazines, and there are still many good ones. Today, with YouTube and innumerable websites, model railroaders of all scales can find help with any project.

Why go to all the trouble of scratch building? There is something very satisfying about making my own buildings, one small piece of balsa at a time.

How to Build Strong Model Railroad Benchwork

Blog and Photos by Dale Parsons

Benchwork support structure including leg support and arms.

Strong model railroad benchwork will guarantee stress-free HO scale, or your favorite scale, railroading for years to come.

Linn Westcott’s magazine-style book, “How to Build Model Railroad Benchwork” is a great resource for information about a solid structure for your trains and scenery. Whether you plan to use an open-grid style, or a table-top layout, Westcott’s book will be helpful to you.

Magazine by Linn Westcott, "How to Build Model Railroad Benchwork."

Since my plywood sub-roadbed was only about a 1/4 inch wider on either side of my cork roadbed, it didn’t leave enough room for attaching the strips of cardboard for the foundation of my ground and rock scenery. I made it work, but I wished I had built it differently. I have not used open grid since then.

In my opinion, no model railroad is ever finished. At least not for me. There is always something more to do. I find that scenery and detail is just as fun as running trains. On this my third layout, I plan to use more detail than I ever have before.

Model railroading is a great learning experience. I have already made several mistakes on my third layout, but I’m not starting over. The most important mistake I made is the narrowest part of my benchwork is 36 inches. The ends are 54 inches. My original braces weren’t long enough so I had to attach additional 1×3 pieces to both sides so the brace arms to extend them to the edge of the bench. Leveling everything was a challenge. The two sides of the arm had to be level, and the brace itself had to be level with the next brace arm, and so on.

Keeping in mind that model railroad benchwork is the foundation of future enjoyment will carry you through the tedious tasks.

Attaching the braces to the cement block wall was tough. But they’re not going anywhere. I used an impact driver and 1/4 inch cement screws that are 3 1/2 inches long. I went through several drill bits. I drilled through the 2×2 inch leg brace with a wood bit that made a mark on the white cement block. I then used the cement drill bit to make the hole. The impact driver fastened the legs to the wall very easily.

Close up photo of lengthened wall bracket arms with fascia attached for additional support.

To accommodate my choice of 26 inch radius curves on each end of the layout, the benchwork is 54 inches deep. I am pleased with my progress so far, but the benchwork really is too deep. Reaching across to work on scenery is going to be difficult, but I will manage.

When I was satisfied with the benchwork framing, it was time to put on the plywood sub-roadbed. I had some plywood pieces from my previous layout so I used them, plus some additional new 3/8 inch plywood. I measured and cut the plywood so the ends come together between the two sides of the 1×3 inch brace arms. I then drew lines on the plywood indicating the brace arms. After drilling counter-sink pilot holes I used 1 1/2 inch screws to fasten the plywood to the brace arms.

These are photos from my first shelf layout. It was only 24 inches wide in the middle, and just wide enough on the ends to hold a 22 inch radius curve. I run parallel mainlines so I can operate two trains simultaneously.

My next post will include details about applying sheets of foam to the plywood.

Thanks for reading.

Dale

How I Created My Own Backdrop Factory

Backdrop Factory pieces leaning against the wall

I started working on my backdrop factory two years ago. I don’t have enough space on my layout to use the factory as a free-standing kit. I started by cutting the pieces down so they could be glued together side-by-side. I have four inches of space between the wall and the rail siding.

I was not satisfied with making the factory a totally flat backdrop, so I brought the center portion out three inches for depth and so I could put lights inside the building. Gluing the pieces together was the easy part, especially because of the terrific industrial backdrop painting I purchased to go behind the factory.

Building the backdrop factory included a lot of starts and stops. I stood the pieces up against the wall so I could imagine how the factory should look. The most obvious feature of the factory is windows. I decided to block many of them.

Collection of 6v and 12v lights

I finally decided to tackle the backdrop factory job once and for all. I glued the remaining pieces together, leaving the factory at a whopping fifty inches long. My decision to include an array of lights meant I had to figure out how to display them from various windows offering separate views. I didn’t want to just put a light bulb behind the facade and hope for the best.

I have lots of wires and lights from my previous layout. I first had to refresh my understanding of wiring lights in series or parallel. I have a few bulbs that are 6v, most are 12v. My accessory power supply is 12v, so I wired 6v bulbs in a series of two, dividing the voltage in half. All the other bulbs are wired parallel.

Here’s an over-simplified explanation. Light fixtures have a positive and negative lead. In series, the fixtures are wired lead to lead, the beginning wire and the last wire are connected to negative and positive leads from the power source. Every light bulb drops the power feed by the voltage of the bulb, saving 6v bulbs from being burned out by a 12v feed.

In parallel, all negative and positive leads from each bulb are connected to the negative and positive feeds from the power source. Hint: That doesn’t mean if you have twelve bulbs you have twenty-four feeds going to the power source. The negative wires can be connected together, and the positive, then connected by two feeds to the power source. This is still parallel wiring. When wired parallel, each of the 12v bulbs will receive the same power from the source.

I love foam board! I pondered ways to make the light sources appear different so the windows don’t all look the same. I decided to make small boxes out of foam board and glue them to the back of the factory backdrop.

I still was not satisfied with just putting lights in different size white boxes. I thought about painting the inside with varying colors. Nope, not good enough. I decided to print color pictures of factory and workshop interiors and glue them to the inside of the boxes. So, the entire box interior is colorful.

It wasn’t until after I glued the boxes in place that I realized I blocked too many of the windows and it was almost impossible to see the beautiful interiors of the lighted boxes. So, I cut open the boxes from the back and took out some of the material covering the windows.

After taping light fixtures and wiring in place on the back of the factory boxes, it was time to test the lights for the first time. I was pleased to see every bulb working perfectly. I stood the backdrop factory up and looked in the windows. Beautiful! Granted, the windows have small panes, and the backdrop factory will stand against the wall on the back of the layout, so it will be difficult to see detail, but I know it’s there.

I securely taped all the wiring connections and also connected two long leads to the positive and negative feeds to the lighting system. I fed the two leads through the layout bench surface to be connected to the power source below.

One area of the factory backdrop has a blank brick wall that needed something. I printed some 1:87 scale signs. I rubbed the color print with sand paper to “weather” the signs. I cut several of them out and glued them to the wall.

The top of the boxes glued to the back of the facade provided nice support for the foam board roof that I made for the backdrop factory. I mixed some light gray and black acrylic paint with some matte medium and painted the rooftop. It was now time to permanently place the backdrop factory on the layout.

The Maple Valley Short Line Railroad is coming together. I still have a long way to go, but when I look back at all the photos from the beginning, it’s amazing how good the layout looks. The addition of the backdrop factory is an important accomplishment.