Model Train Scenery

This the second part of how to build benchwork and scenery. In the first part I discussed some general design principles, and give ideas for building your benchwork. In this part we’ll dig in to scenery.

Bring your Model Railroad to Life with Scenery

The scenery of your layout can be as interesting and fascinating as your model train equipment. Your scenery really defines your model railroad – the place and time. Even putting just a few kit buildings around your layout can alter it’s look and feel dramatically. How detailed do you want to get?

Before you begin setting up a permanent or even semi-permanent scenery, you should make sure your layout is the way you want it, your trackwork is solid, and your wiring and switching is working perfectly. There is nothing worse than having to tear apart some carefully constructed scenery to make track repairs. The prototype railroads don’t like to do it, and neither will you!


Begin by building the terrain of your layout. If you are keeping it simple, and flat, then a layer of 2” extruded foam insulation, solidly attached to your benchwork is all you need.

If your terrain is going to be varied, then, following your plan, build up the basic form of your landscape, by either carving into your foam, adding more foam and carving away. Sometimes plaster over chicken wire, or other techniques, are used to create mountains and higher elevations. You may need to build these higher elevations before laying track.

Scenery From the Ground Up

Once your trackwork is completed and fully tested, you can start with detailing your scenery. I like to begin with the ground and work my way up. Not to say I don’t have a kit or two in the works, but before placing anything, I have my ground set – roads, sidewalks, curb cuts, bridges. It’s always a good idea as you work to occasionally place any buildings you are using in the scene, as well as run your train through, to check the “look and feel” of what you are creating.

Model Scenery Materials

Building model train scenery involves color, shape and texture – if you look at a scene out of doors and squint your eyes, so they loose focus, you will have only a general idea of colors and shapes. Not that you are going to be looking at your model railroad through squinting eyes!

Materials used should be water soluble, so that you can use water based scenery materials, which are much easier to work with than oil-based ones. These materials can be found at hobby shops, craft stores, art supply stores, hardware stores, and home improvement centers. These types of materials are also all available on-line, however, sometimes we just have to hold the material in our hand, or see it up close before we can be satisfied it is the right material for the job.

Many natural materials are easily found by taking a walk through the woods or a park, selecting twigs, stones, and other materials, to add a natural look to your model train layout.

For coloring, consider using acrylic paint, available at craft stores and art supply. This is easy to work with, is water soluble, dries quickly. To keep costs down you can purchase “school grade” colors. White acrylic gesso can be purchased in a variety of “thicknesses,” this can be used to build up waves on water, for instance, or seal styrofoam constructions.


Adding grass, weeds, trees, stone – adding texture – really brings a model railroad layout to life. The illusion of a perfectly manicured lawn, sagebrush in the desert, dense forest undergrowth, or wet seaweed on the rocks can be obtained, creating realism from imagination!

Good sources of scenery textures are Woodland Scenics, Wathers and Scenic Express. Make sure you get at least three shades of coarse and fine green foam, leaf colored brown foam, and several colors of ballast gravel. You’ll also want a few colors of coal and dirt.

Your walks should bring you pieces of wood, sticks, twigs, even roots. Just build up a collection of materials and textures as you go, soon enough you will have a nice set of materials to add to your layout as you expand.

Trees and Foliage

Trees can be purchased, or made from weeds found in the backyard. Find twigs that are tree shaped and sturdy enough to be handled while you pocket it, paint it and apply foliage to it. Trim them into shape with scissors, and keep the trimmings for making shrubs and bushes.

Consider SuperTrees, which can be purchased from Scenic Express. These are natural trees that grow in the Arctic tundra of Scandinavia. These are dwarf tress that make excellent scenery for your layout.


Realistic water features, such as ponds, rivers, lakes and others are hard to beat for adding realism and variety to your layout. New water-making materials are available to easily model realistic water surfaces. Some of the materials are Plexiglas, acrylic gloss medium, acrylic gloss gel, and EnviroTex two-part epoxy.

Construct your water features toward the end of building your scenery. Prep the water feature – painting and detailing the bottom- then, patience! Wait to finish the water until the rest of the layout is complete, including ballasting the track. This keeps the water fresh looking as long as possible.

Modeling water features is beyond the scope of this article – look for a detailed one in the future!

Track Ballast

Track ballast is the materials the tracks sit on (in the prototype). A well-ballasted track will make your scene realistic. The detailing will include weathering the track itself, adding rocks, gravel and other materials, so that the track itself blends into the scene.

Before ballasting, test your track so that your trains are running perfectly. A good test is to run five or more cars backward, quickly, around the layout. If you can run around and around the track, no wobbling or derailments, then you are ready to ballast. If not, you need to check your track, and the wheels on your train, and fix any problems. Gauges can be purchased to make track and wheel checking simpler.

Weather ties and rails using a wash of paint. Burnt umber color is a good start, wiping the rail tops off immediately. Keep the paint out of switches and linkages.

Ballast track when you have completed all the other scenery. Ballast should flow over the right-of-way to naturally blend into the surroundings. Use real stone ballast for the best look. You can test for this by dropping a bit into some water – if any of it floats, it’s organic, and won’t look correct. Real stone ballast stays put.

Use your stone size to be one size smaller than you think you need – if you have an HO layout, us N-scale ballast.

You’ll want to bond your ballast, using white glue diluted with water. You can add a few drops of dishwashing solution as a wetting agent, to help it flow. Keep ballast away from moving parts of turnouts. Keep the ballast down between the rails, not on top!

Weather ballast with a thin wash of earth tone paint.

This is a small fraction of ideas and techniques to get you thinking about the scenery for your model train layout. I hope this helps you get started.

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About Scott

Model Train enthusiast, engineer, inventor, fitness nerd, computer geek, ex-husband, entrepreneur.
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9 Responses to Model Train Scenery

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