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 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.

Model Railroading from Start to Not Finished

Model railroading starts with a fascination with trains. I guess that’s obvious. But why trains? What are trains? Aren’t they just huge semi-trucks with steel wheels instead of rubber, rolling on rails instead of roads? There are one, two, maybe five or six or more incredibly large engines, pulling anywhere from ten to one hundred and more huge cars loaded with items bound for destinations around the world.

Why not model semi-trucks? Does anyone have a “layout” made of winding roads full of trucks pulling trailers? I don’t think so, or maybe. But millions of model railroaders build layouts, large and small, with tracks carrying scale engines pulling scale trains. G scale, O scale, S, HO, N, and tiny Z scale provide a very wide range of opportunities for enthusiasts to live in their fascination with trains.

A model railroad is a work of art that begins with a blank canvass. The canvass may be a room measuring twenty-one feet by seven feet, like my own train room where I am building a shelf-style model railroad. It may be a larger room with only enough space for a four by eight feet layout. The important thing is the canvass is anywhere you choose, and will hold any dream you build.

Building a model railroad is identical to writing a novel, only different. Some people begin writing a novel with an idea but the characters are born and develop as the story is created. Other writers know their characters inside and out before the first word is penned. Still others begin with a blank sheet of paper and the story and characters create themselves. Sometimes characters do things the writer didn’t expect. Main characters become belligerent and demand freedom to change story lines on their own. Model railroads do that, too.

My Maple Valley Short Line demanded benchwork that would be strong enough to carry my own weight. I’m not a small man, so that was no easy task. The wall brackets were fastened to the cement blocks with three-inch masonry screws, after I drilled pilot holes in the wall. The drill bits in my impact driver had to be changed after drilling just three holes.

I attached the brackets to the wall leaving no more than twenty-four inches of space between them, which increased the strength of the bench. These brackets were used on a previous layout which was only twenty-four inches deep at the center. This layout is thirty-six inches deep at the middle, so the bracket arms had to be lengthened. I chose to attach a 1 x 3 inch board to each side of the arms, making sure the boards were tight against the wall, increasing arm stability. To provide even more stength, I attached a 2 x 2 inch support between each bracket, making sure each was level with the top of the bracket arm.

A good novel has layers of subplots adding suspense and apprehension about what the resolution might bring. Model railroads do the same. A layer of 3/8 inch plywood was added and attached to the bracket arms as the base of the layout. A layer of 1 1/2 inch extruded foam became the visible base. This is the same kind of insulating foam builders use in new house construction. Foam is a popular base as it makes attaching additional layers easy. I attached the foam pieces to the plywood with Liquid Nails.

When the base layer of foam was securely fastened in place, the obvious next step in the story was to build a bridge. Ahh, the first subplot. Who could have known the Maple Valley Short Line included mountains and a river when only a flat pink surface was visible? Every artist sees far beyond the simple strokes with which a masterpiece begins.

After completing a perfectly wonderful bridge, the next logical step was to build a larger trestle-style bridge, and then another. At this point in the story, characters begin to ask questions of the writer who created them. They start conversations with each other without asking permission.

In a novel plot there is a rise in the action. Trains will have to rise four inches to the height of the bridge decks. The solution to the problem of taking trains from the surface of the layout to the deck of a bridge is styrofoam risers. Grade percentage is an important consideration when choosing a riser. I wanted my locomotives to be able to pull many cars to four inches without difficulty. The result is sixteen feet of 2% grade. However, reaching the bridge height is not the only problem. Bringing the trains back down to the surface is also necessary, requiring another sixteen feet of 2% grade. Problem solved.

The next task was digging a river in the foam so the trestle-bridge would look terrific spanning it. Having never done it before, I decided the best way to create a river was to just start hacking away at the foam with a utility blade. I scraped, sliced, pealed, scratched, dug, and gouged until I was somewhat satisfied with the appearance of my foam riverbed.

I had to be careful to dig out a convincing river without exposing the plywood, so I only had 1 1/2 inches to use. I then used plaster-saturated paper towel to line and shape the riverbed, making sure the plaster material was thick enough to seal the surface and prevent epoxy from seeping through.

For a couple of months, I battled with how best to secure the trestle-bridge to the riverbed. I tried to avoid cutting down to the plywood, but ultimately for fool-proof stability, I did just that. I held the trestle in place and marked where the posts touched the riverbed. I then cut a rectangle a quarter inch wide, and just longer than the width of the posts. I glued basswood pieces, one at a time, in each of the gaps until they were the exact height needed to support the trestle. I was pleased to find the trestle rested securely on the footings. I glued the trestle permanently in place.

At this point in the novel, the characters were behaving themselves predictably. They stood back and let me do the work. The risers were finished, the trestle was rock solid. All eyes were on the process of laying cork roadbed on the track lines. I am suspicious when characters are quiet. Sometimes I don’t trust them, but please, don’t tell anyone I said that. Every writer and model railroader knows the thin line we walk between working a plan and a plan working us.

I avoid things I’m worried about. I’ll put them off until I can’t go on without dealing with the problems first. I don’t like being backed into a corner. When my plot included rise and fall, which all good plots do, I was trapped by the need for realistic gradual fall-away from the top of the risers to the surface. This is the point where I started listening closely to ideas from the characters. Some of them were stupid. Others caught my attention. Finally, a solution was found.

I cut strips of cardboard twelve to fourteen inches long. To determine the height of the strips, I measured the height of the riser from the point where cardboard would be attached, to the point it would end. On the cardboard, I marked the shorter measurement on one end, and marked the longer measurement on the other. I drew a line between the two points. I cut the carboard one inch beyond but parallel to the line. The extra inch creates a gradual, more realistic, fall-away from the top of the riser.

I placed the strip on the floor, then using the corner of a piece of 2 x 2 to hold it tight, I pulled the length of the strip under the corner edge of the wood to crush the cardboard cells. This makes the cardboard more flexible, especially helpful on curves. I then folded the the carboard on the line.

On straight sections of track, using masking tape, I secured the straight edge to the top of the riser. I taped the angled edge to the foam surface. If I was not happy with the angle, I repeated the process, but increased the height measurement until the fall-away angle met my approval.

On curves, there are a couple more steps. On the straight edge of the cardboard, I make a cut one quarter each deep, every half inch, the length of the cardboard strip. On the angled edge, I cut an inverted “V” about an inch and one half deep. This allows the cardboard to follow the curve and still maintain the same fall-away angle from the top of the riser.

When the cardboard was secured, it was now time for huge sloppy messes. Lots and lots of them. But that is a story for another day.

“I want to talk about it now,” Bertrand said.

“No, I’m done writing, I’ll write more later.”

“When?”

“When I want to.”

“Who put you in charge?”

“I created you, didn’t I?”

“Ok, I’ll stop now,” Bertrand said.

“Good idea.”

Easy Floral Wire Trees for Your Model Railroad

I recently discovered a surprising fact on my model railroad. I don’t have enough trees! After setting about thirty more pine trees, I took a good look over my scenery, and, sure enough, I have to make more trees.

Thanks to so many great modelers who post terrific videos on YouTube, I have learned how to easily make amazing looking trees in a relatively short amount of time. I use Luke Towan’s procedure for making floral wire trees, but mine are a little less detailed than his, which works fine for me.

I use 26 gauge, green floral wire. A word of caution, even though 26 gauge is not stiff, the ends are still sharp and will easily poke into your skin if you’re not careful!

You can tell this floral wire is quite old – $1.57 at Walmart. I recently paid about $2.50 for a two-hundred fifty foot roll.

  1. Cut 14 pieces of wire, about 13 inches long. (If you want your tree trunks to be thicker, use more wire. But remember, more wires will make them more difficult to twist.
  2. Fold the wires in half.

3. While gripping the end, and placing your index finger between the two strands of wire, begin twisting the two strands together tightly. (Since the wire is so thin, the twisted wires will easily hold their shape.) As you can see on the HO scale ruler, the trunk of this tree will be about 14 feet tall.

4. Divide the wire ends into three strands, approximately the same number of wires in each.

5. Twist the three strands individually, making three main branches. (If you want to have more branches from the trunk, separate the wires into smaller groups before twisting them.) My branches on this part of the tree will be about eight feet long.

6. Divide the wires coming from the three main branches into two strands, each with approximately the same number of wires.

7. Twist the new strands of wire, making smaller branches. Using this example, you now have six smaller branches extending higher into the tree.

8. Fold the end of each strand back over the branch, leaving a loop on the end. While holding the loop tightly, and holding the wires against the branch, twist the loop so the wire ends wrap around the branch.

9. Repeat the process for each of the strands of wires.

10. Using a good hobby wire-clipper, cut each of the loop strands.
11. Using a pair of pliers, grip the wire ends and twist into small branches. (Some of the wire pieces may come off, but that’s okay.
12. Adjust the branches until you’re happy with the look of the tree.
13. Using the pliers, grip the bottom loop of the trunk and flatten it. (Luke Towan, on his Boulder Creek Railroad Tutorials, cuts this loop and creates roots which will be secured in place on the layout with plaster. You may want to use that detail as well. I choose to drill a hole and glue the trunk in place.)

14. When you are satisfied with the shape of your trees, it’s time to cover them with liquid latex rubber. I purchased this jar at craft supply store. Using a small paint brush, cover the entire tree with latex. Once dry, you will want to add at least one more coat to the trunk and heavy branches to reduce any chance of wires showing through.

You are nearing the end of the project, and you can already see your trees are looking great! Just a few more steps and they’ll be ready for placement in your model railroad scenery.

15. I use Acrylic Burnt Umber to paint the entire tree. I have several here that are ready for foliage.

16. I have used a couple brands of spray adhesive, but am happiest with the results of this brand. Wearing latex gloves, spray the branches of the trees, being careful not to get spray on the tree trunks.

17. While the spray is still wet, dip your tree into a bag of foam foliage. Twist the trunk in the foam, and pinch the foliage onto the branches. Shake the excess foam loose and set your completed tree aside. Do the same process with each of your prepared trees.

This is an easy way to make lots of great looking trees for your layout. I will have to make many more until I’m completely sure my model railroad, The Maple Valley Short Line, is fully saturated with trees.

Happy model railroading, everyone!

Adding Trees to the Maple Valley Short Line Railroad

When you’re making plans to build a model railroad, scenery is going to be a big part of it. If you want your layout to be at all convincing, and I can’t imagine starting a project like this without deciding to make it as realistic as possible, trees are going to play a huge role.

If your benchwork is already complete and your track is in place, now is the time to start planting trees. That is, if you already know where your buildings are going to be. You have spent plenty of time in the hobby shop, and you know tree kits are quite expensive. If you don’t plan to use a lot of trees, maybe a tree kit from the hobby shop will work fine. Otherwise, you’ll want to find trees at swap meets – the model railroader’s best friend.

I was lucky enough to find two complete pine tree kits, about thirty trees all together. The first job is to twist the tree armatures as they are flat in the kit. I hold the top with a pair of pliers, and twist the trunk until I’m happy with the look.

As you can see, the trees have a small tip on the trunk. They come with a plastic base, allowing you to stand the trees without making them permanent. Don’t bother with the stands. You want your trees to be permanent.

The kits come with a bag of dark green foliage. Many of my conifers are covered with a home-made light colored foam. I prefer the lighter color to the dark foliage in the kits. I have many trees of both.

When I finish twisting the trees, it’s time to spray them with adhesive. I only spray as many as I can complete in a few minutes, while the spray is still wet. Yes, the adhesive is still sticky when it dries, but it works a lot better if the adhesive is wet.

After I spray the branches, being careful not to spray the lower part of the trunk, I dip the tree into the foliage bag and squeeze the foam onto the tree. I shake off the excess and the tree is finished.

I completed all of the trees in the photo in about an hour.

My layout has semi-mountainous, rocky scenes with both conifer and deciduous trees. I planted most of the deciduous trees in areas where my houses and buildings are. The mid-section of the Maple Valley Short Line is an industrial area with a few trees along the painted backdrop of hills and trees.

I made many of my deciduous trees with floral wire. They are easy to make, and anyone can do it. I start with fifteen pieces of 26 gauge floral wire, about 12″ long. Wire length determines the height of the trees. Holding all the wires together, I fold them in half. Then I twist the folded end, making a tight loop. I separate the wire ends into branches of about five or six wires each, leaving about 1 1/2″ of twisted wires as the tree trunk. I twist the branches tightly, leaving about two inches at the ends. I then fold the branch ends in half and twist them, making a loop. I cut the wire loops, making the ends of the branchs.

I twist the heavy loop at the bottom of the tree as tightly as I can with a pair of pliers. I then use pliers to crush the loop, leaving a straight trunk. Some modelers divide the wire pieces at the end of the trunk to make roots that will sit above ground and be secured in place with plaster. I choose not to do that. Instead, because I use 1 1/2″ extruded foam as a base for my layout, I simply poke a small hole in the foam where I want the tree to be planted.

When I’m happy with the shape of the tree, I paint the entire tree with latex. More than one coat is needed on the trunk and large branches to cover the twisted wire. After the latex dries, I paint the tree with burnt umber acrylic paint. Then I follow the same procedure I use with the tree kits.

I poked holes in the foam base, then marked the holes with a piece of balsa. Rather than planting one tree at a time, I found it easier to mark several holes and place four or five trees.

To permanently plant the trees, I first tried white glue. I immediately found the time it takes for the glue to even begin to dry is far too long. I decided to use a glue gun instead, and it works great. I simply apply hot glue to the base of the tree and plant it in a hole. About thirty seconds later I have a permanent tree, firmly planted.

So far, I have planted at least fifty or sixty trees on the Maple Valley Short Line. I can see it’s time to make more.

O-Scale Model Railroad Techniques

A visit to the Detroit Model Railroad Club in Holly, Michigan, is always an opportunity to learn something about model railroading. The giant O-scale railroad fills what was once the Holly Theater. I think the most fascinating part about this model railroad is that every inch of the thousands of feet of track is hand-laid.

Anyone interested in trains can immediately see the artwork and skill that has been invested in the trackwork at the Detroit Model Railroad Club. Each of the ties is precisely the same size, stained and glued in place at exactly the same intervals. Each tie has four hand-placed O-scale spikes holding the rail in place, just like the real thing.

There are common techniques for building a model railroad, whether the layout is 4 x 8 feet, or a 24 inch deep shelf-type model, or a huge empire like the Detroit Model Railroad Club. No matter large or small, the delight in the imagination and heart of the model railroader is the same. From the first cut in the timber that will eventually support the benchwork, to the risers, the roadbed, and the ballast, each step is a treasure in the adventure that is model railroading.

In the more than thirty years I have been attending the Detroit Model Railroad open houses, I have only gone into the “basement” one time. Visitors are allowed to go under the layout during open houses, accompanied by a club member, and the view is incredible. As impressive as it is, the benchwork construction that holds the beautiful DMRRC layout in place is much the same as it would be for any open-grid layout in your home. Open-grid simply means the layout is not on a table-top. The benchwork, or the foundation of the layout, is built of girders, joists, and risers that hold the roadbed underlayment in place.

In the case of the DMRRC, the track underlayment is 3/4″ plywood. For a layout in your home, 3/8″ plywood works well. Over the plywood, 1/4 inch homosote is placed following the track plan line. On my own layout, I used cork roadbed, as many model railroaders do, instead of homosote as it is already prepared with beveled edges. On the DMRRC, 3/16 inch basswood is cut into 2 1/4 inch strips for ties. The ties are stained and glued in place. The steel rail is spiked to the ties. Ballast, or “rock,” is placed and glued. The resulting track is amazing. I have never tried hand-laying track, but many skilled model railroaders do it. I choose to use HO-scale “flex track” which makes laying three-feet sections of track at a time quite easy.

On my most recent visit to the DMRRC, I paid particular attention to the brass bell on display just inside the front door. As you can see in the description, the bell came from a steam locomotive that was going to be scrapped. It was donated to the DMRRC by the New York Central Railroad in 1953. It is fascinating to see this bell that once clearly announced the arrival and departure of passenger trains.

As you can see in these photos, the scenery detail on the DMRRC is difficult to describe. I remember several visits many years ago when I noticed a pair of legs lying along the rails, as if some unfortunate bystander had gotten too close to a passing train. I think they’ve been removed. The key to exquisite detail is the resultant impression that a viewer could easily step into the scene. I was particularly impressed with the cabin built on the side of the mountain. I would love to sit on the porch and watch the trains roll by.

Operation of individual trains on the DMRRC is a combination of work between the dispatcher and the engineer, just as it is on a real train. With Digital Command Control, or DCC, each locomotive on the layout receives a signal from the engineer giving movement commands. The power in the rails is constant, as provided by the dispatcher, and the engineer moves his or her trains individually. It’s amazing. While several trains were already moving along the layout, I watched an engineer moving a single locomotive into place on a siding.

Looking at the photos, it’s easy to imagine the scenes are real. Model railroading is constantly evolving with new technology providing opportunities for detail the old-timers, like me, could have only dreamed of when we were getting started with our first “train set.”

I was excited to notice the milk delivery truck from Twin Pines Dairy in Detroit. My uncle, now in his eighties, has always been my inspiration in model railroading. We still talk on the phone about our layouts. When I was six years old, I visited Twin Pines Dairy with my uncle. He was proud to show me where he worked. I think I’m going to hunt for a HO-scale Twin Pines Dairy truck for my Maple Valley Short Line Railroad.

Printed Buildings on the Maple Valley Short Line – How to Print and Build Structures for Your Layout

Through over fifty years in HO scale model railroading, I have wide and varied experience building structures for my layouts. My first balsa and cardboard kit was the Purina Feeds Mill I was very proud of. I no longer have it and wish I did. Another was a scratch-built cabin my uncle and I made together in 1970. He is a very talented artist, now in his eighties, who skillfully drew the planks on the walls and the shingles on the roof. I just copied him. I no longer have the cabin I built, but I do have his. I also have several scratch-built structures my uncle made with balsa and foam board which will soon take their place on the Maple Valley Short Line Railroad. Photos of them will appear in future posts.

I have many kit-based buildings made of plastic. They look fine and they’re easy to light using wheat-grain bulbs for just the right amount of light shining through the windows. Until last year, I never would have believed I could build attractive structures using paper prints. Once I started, it was hard to quit! It was really fun!

I searched the internet for printable structures in HO scale and found many to choose from. Obviously, it’s important to have a good printer, which now, almost everyone owns.

The website that I believed offered the best variety of structures was https://modelrailwaylayoutsplans.com/model-railroad-printable-buildings/. The copyright and designs are owned and offered by Alastair Lee Ltd. On the website, several bundles of building designs are offered. Here is the great part! Once you buy a bundle of designs, you can print them as many times as you want! I paid about $17.00 and was able to print immediately!

I got carried away, but it was so much fun! I think I built about thirty of these little houses. Then I made some improvements by adding basswood posts, a pergola, and decks.

This is an example of a printed house. (I accidentally printed it in the wrong scale so part of the house was cut off.) I printed mine on off-white card stock. After printing, I used adhesive spray to attach the print to another piece of card stock. I suggest not using heavy cardstock because folding will be difficult.

Using an X-Acto knife, and a metal ruler for straight lines, I cut out each piece. However, I added tabs (white angular area) to each of the edge lines including the bottom. This provides more gluing area so the joints are much stronger. After cutting, I very carefully (do not cut all the way through) scored the outside of the fold edges which makes the corners sharper.

I used heavy card stock as the base for each of my buildings. I cut out the middle to provide easy access for lighting. On most of the houses, I included extra base area for a deck or porch.

There is obviously a learning curve. My skills improved as I built for structures.

“Build Your Own Lincoln Sites” is another printable building website I used. These are free and the prints are high quality. The cutting lines are highly detailed and the instructions are easy to follow. As you can see in the photo of my building, I added facia to the roof line and a balsa deck to the front.

This building from the same website turned out great. You will discover how important scoring the folding lines is when it’s time to finish the graduated edge of the building roof. A little bit of touch-up with some paint on the front completed the structure.

I printed a few pages of full color miniature advertising posters. I cut out several with attractively varied colors and glued them to the building. Another option is to scratch them lightly with a knife to give them a weathered appearance. (The billboard at the top of the wall is on the original print.)

I am very happy with my printed buildings. I still have a lot of scenery work to do. I am presently working on wiring the Maple Valley Short Line. I also have to get the next episode of Scandal at Maple Valley finished!

I used printable structures because the cost is so low. Search the internet and you will find just the right printable structures for your layout.

I would love to read about your layout. Please comment and let me know about your progress!