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.

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.

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.