Creating Realism

By: Todd Schacherl

Creating a convincing, realistic scene in a model railroad layout is the goal of most involved in the hobby of model railroading. Whether it is creating realism in the way it looks or in the way the trains are operated, creating realism allows one to look at a layout and really feel that they are looking at a “real” miniature world. “When you build a model railroad, you are creating a miniature world of your own conception and design” (“Scenery” 13).

There are two types of worlds that are modeled, freelance and prototypical. Prototypical layouts are those that are modeled after a specific geographical area and or a specific railroad line. Prototypical layouts often require a lot of research to gather the information required to recreate the desired geographical area or the way the tracks are laid. Freelance is where you can create a whole world of your own design. Although prototypical layouts are much more popular today, freelance layouts have their own appeal because one can create anything they want without the limitations of having to exactly copy something else. Either way, both require the ability to create the realism that makes the layout convincing and both require some amount of research.

“The modeler needs to be a keen observer of detail” (Smeed 64) so it's a good idea that you can see or at least find in books, pictures of the area you are going to model. Even if you are not doing a prototypical model of a particular mountain, you would still need to see what a mountain looks like to be able to model it correctly. “The only way to learn about scenery is look at it, really look at it” (Schleicher 186) so that you can see the nuances that make the scene really come to life.

By the time you have decided on a prototypical or freelance layout you should have an idea in your mind as to what the premise of your layout is going to be. The premise is what it’s all about. The premise indicates what the train’s purpose is on the layout. You may want to model a particular mountain pass where logging is the predominate business in the area. Another premise might be an oil refinery, or the downtown area of a city.

Once you have figured out your premise, it's time to start the process of laying out where each of the buildings are going to be, what types of buildings, where the streets are, and where the rail lines are that are going to transport your people, coal, lumber, or cars. You want to make sure that when you are planning your layout you don’t use a grid plan for your streets and the orientation of the buildings and structures. “Curving lines aren’t only attractive; they make layouts look larger”(“Practical” 36) so make the streets and rivers bend, twist, and turn.

The landscape should not be perfectly flat either. Rarely is the Earth totally flat except for short distances so make sure you have small hills and mounds to help give the layout a more realistic look. The color of the ground, trees, bushes, grass, and flowers are all not going to be uniformly colored. For instance, make sure you use at least four different colors for your ground cover. Give it enough variety, not only in color but texture as well, so that it doesn’t have that golf course look of everything being flat and one color. Make sure the landscape scenery goes up to and includes each building and structure.

Some people don't consider the buildings and structures to be a part of the scenery, however, they are one of the most important. “The buildings on a model railroad add an immeasurable look of “life” to the scene and imply industry and action” (Schleicher 161) and “You’ll be a big step ahead of the game of improving the realism of your model railroad if you really do consider the buildings to be scenery” (Schleicher 161).

Buildings and structures are added to a layout to give it purpose. Add industrial buildings like granaries, logging mills, and factories to make a layout look like the commercial area in town. Use storefronts, banks, police stations, and courthouses for the center of city. Use barns and farm equipment to create a rural scene.

There are many tricks to making buildings look real or convincing. For instance, blacken the inside walls of the building with black paint so that any lights inside the building don’t make the walls glow. Make sure that you seal all cracks especially at the corners of the building so that light doesn’t leak out. Many beginners will place a single light under the building and light up the whole building. Unless it is a very small building with only one or two rooms or a building with a single big room this technique will not provide convincing results.

In real life, rarely will all of the rooms of a building be lighted. Dividing up a building with floors and walls so that you can light individual rooms will provide the desired results. Cardboard, index cards, poster board, or other materials can be used to create floors and walls inside the building. Another alternative is to paint some of the windows black or to cover them with paper that has a curtain design on it. This will give the appearance that the room is dark and not lighted.

“Not everyone is concerned with interior detail in buildings, but obviously empty shells are unconvincing” (Smeed 98). Even if all you do is make walls and floors and light each room individually, it will go along way to filling up the inside. The two main techniques for filling the interior of a building are two-dimensional images printed on card stock or paper and placed on the walls of the interior or like a dollhouse actually having scale furniture, people, and other interior props.

Once the insides are decorated, you will want to show them off. The lighting of the building inside and out is another aspect of creating realistic looking buildings. Most beginners will simply connect all the lights up to a power source and leave it at that. Most bulbs will be too bright to look convincing when connected in this manner. The lights shouldn’t be so bright that they light the whole area. They should just glow and provide enough light to light the room or street where they are located. Connecting lights serially will allow you to experiment with how many lights can be connected together to get the right brightness. By connecting two or three bulbs in a serial configuration, where the first lead of the first bulb goes to the positive connection of the power pack, the second lead goes to the next bulb, and so on for each additional bulb. Then connect the remaining lead of the last bulb to the negative connection on the power pack. Adding and removing bulbs will allow you to find the right brightness.

Once you have all of your buildings in place, the track laid, and the lighting completed, one of the last major considerations is weathering. “Weathering is a term used to describe a final coat of very thin paint that is applied to the model to simulate the effects of sun, wind, dirt, and rain” (Schleicher 48). Weathering usually applies to the buildings, structures, and the trains themselves. When you put together a new building or buy a new train, it will be completely clean and even shiny. A newly constructed house is not perfectly the same color and not without at least some dirt around the edges. A real new train will show some signs of weathering.

Getting that weathered look can be as simple as spraying on some light brown or black paint while holding the spray-can about two feet from the object. An airbrush will allow for much greater control of the paint thus allowing for an even more realistic look. There really are no hard and fast rules with weathering and it is much more of an art than it is a science.

By now your layout is looking very real but without some action it will look like a deserted town. The final step is to create the action that makes the layout come to life. Adding people, cars, trucks, and freight will make your layout look like it is actually doing something. If your layout includes a freight dock, include some figures that are moving boxes and using dollies. Stack up freight like boxes, bags, and crates. If your layout includes a police station, park police cars in front of it. Find some figures of police officers walking in and out of the building. If your layout includes storefronts, put people walking holding bags, kids looking into the window of the toy store, or a police officer writing a parking ticket. Just remember to look at your own town and think about the activities that go on around you and recreate them on your layout.

Creating realism really is paying attention to what you see everyday in real life and incorporating that into your layout. The more details of real life you can find and recreate on your layout the more realistic and convincing your layout will be. The rest is experimentation with technique and developing your modeling skills. When you are done creating realism, you can look at it and see a snap shot of life right there in your very own model railroad layout.


Schleicher, Robert. HO Model Railroading Handbook. Randor: Chilton Book Company, 1983.
Model Railroader Magazine. Practical Guide To HO Model Railroading, The. Milwaukee: Kalmbach Books, 1986.
Smeed, Vic. Complete Railway Modeling. London: Ebury Press, 1982. Woodland Scenics. The Scenery Manual. Linn Creek: Woodland Scenics, 1996.