Practical Model Railway Building Materials

For your layout to come alive and bear the authenticity you’d like you need to recreate the scenery as best you can. Nothing is more intriguing than to see a perfect scale model train coming down the track through an equally perfect scenic layout.

This, however, is where the work comes in.

There are several ways to accomplish your desired result, and depending on your time, money and skill you can make a simple layout take on the life it’s supposed to emulate.

There are many ways to make scenery forms. One of them is to use screen wire and plaster, a method that’s been around for a very long time. The thing is, it still works well!

It basically involves building a wood skeleton and then affixing screen wire over it. You then spread on plaster around ¼ inch thick, and Eureka! You’ve got a scenic form. Screen wire is very good to use as it is easily bendable and can produce nice natural effects. You can use casting or molding plaster; it makes little difference, and there are more lightweight plasters available now if you so desire.

Another time-tested method that’s still effective today is the use of old newspapers rolled up into balls and covered with masking tape. To define the contours you have in mind, you will need to work with this material as it can be difficult to make it retain a shape.

A spray of water can help this unruly paper. When you get everything under control, you’ll need to apply the hard shell, which is made by dipping strips of paper towels in plaster. (Remember paper mache?) This method, while messy is very fast and inexpensive. It’s best used for things like hills, mountains and anything else that doesn’t need a precisely-defined shape. It’s a little problematic to shape.

Still one more way is through the use of cardboard strips. Unlike the preceding method, this one has the advantage of being more easily workable and a little more precise. You construct your form by gluing or stapling your strips to the layout, and then covering it with plaster-dipped towels as in previous methods.

A different, and considerably stronger construction is one made with Hydrocal and Gauze. Made by US Gypsum, Hydrocal is very strong, and when used by dipping gauze strips (as opposed to the paper towels of before) you can create precise, very sturdy forms in little time with practically no mess. (Have you ever had a cast on a broken limb before? Same idea and construction.) Hydrocal can be found in most craft stores, and is not expensive.

Another, more advanced way to make model railroad scenery is through the use of plastic foam, or Styrofoam. You can be quite precise with this method, and it has several distinct advantages over the aforementioned methods, the two most notable being that it’s ultra-lightweight, is durable and can absorb abuse without being destroyed.

Some of the drawbacks are the fact that it can take forever, it’s fairly expensive, can be a problem to your skin and it’s definitely a breathing hazard. So use safeguards when using this method. But if you’re looking for way to work precisely in a smallish layout, then foam might very well be a great way to go.

As always, consider things like weight, costs and the time you have to spend on a particular project when deciding on which method to use. Remember that these are merely forms and all the decoration and detail will live on top of them. Any of these can bring great results; just choose the one that fits best!

About the author

Bill Murphy

Bill Murphy

Bill Murphy is an avid model railroader, offering advice for model enthusiasts on the YourDiorama website. For more helpful tips and information, visit

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