To bring your model railroad layout to life, you’ll need to populate it with buildings, people and other detail. This is one of the more enjoyable parts of building the layout, but requires some attention to detail.
Model railroad buildings can be created in several ways, either as a plastic form already built, a plastic model kit, or a more intricate craftsman kit. There is a vast selection of scaled-to-size windows, doors and building surfaces designed to duplicate and brick, rock or any building you’d want to recreate from real life.
Many of the less expensive plastic kits have pre-molded detail, but on the other end many of the more expensive kits have separate pieces you can install yourself. One drawback is that with plastic kits many of them have pre-colored parts, and will continue to really look like plastic until they are painted. With a craftsman kit, there’s simply no choice: you have to paint it, which in my mind, is better in the first place.
Now about the painting. Whether it’s a plastic kit or a complex craftsman model, need to really be painted BEFORE the kit is put together. Understand exactly what parts you have and what goes where before you begin, maybe even doing a dry run of assembly before actually painting. Try not to get paint in the joints where you must insert glue.
A realistic depiction of real-life structures will necessarily involve weathering and dirtying up some of your structures. In real life the structures are all out in the elements, and some are working harder than others, as well as the fact that some materials age better than others. This needs to be represented in your layout also.
Everything from the locomotives to the smallest outbuilding need to look as if they didn’t come right out of a box. Try and use the same brands of flat paint on your structures as you do on your locomotives and cars.
If that’s unknown or not possible, try and match it as best you can. Matte-finish paint is a great way to simulate the effects of weathering on your structures, as it can render wind-bleaching and oxidization very well.
Vary the effects of weathering, as well. It’s highly unlikely that any two buildings or cars would weather at the exact same pace and degree. Some should look newer than others. Freight cars and locomotives will definitely display more grime and dirt than outbuildings, although their weathering may take on a different form.
Look at photos and if possible visit a rail yard and see the diverse effects of age and weather on the structures. Some of the things you’ll find will be the variance of colors in the buildings and soil directly around the track, and other things such as how dust collects more in certain areas than others, and the accumulated soot and smudges in the seams of brick buildings.
For a very realistic layout, take some time and take a look!
It doesn’t matter how great-looking your model building if it’s not set into the ground. Not too many buildings out in the real world that have a nice little seam running along the base. A good way to avoid this is by assembling your building right into the ‘ground’. Strategic use of ‘plantings’ can help, but don’t let that take the place or properly grounding your structures. Use the various texturing methods to avoid having your buildings look as if they were planted there by you, and really look like they belong there.
One way to achieve variety in your layout is by kitbashing, – that is using various elements from different kits to create something wholly new. No two buildings or structures in the real world look exactly alike (even McDonalds!) and yours don’t have to either.
Your buildings need to reflect the environment they’re in, even down to the graffiti on the buildings or cars. (One reason why many modelers depict yesteryear!) First of all, make sure you’re doing everything to the scale you’re working in. This may sound elementary but you’ll find that you’ll come across some very cool little piece that’s perhaps a scale smaller, but you’re so tempted. Just remember, it’ll look off. Something about it won’t ring true, and you’ll ultimately be forced to replace it.
You can achieve some of this simply by changing up the paint colors, adding local signage, or possibly creating some of your own peculiarities in your structures. Maybe one has a roof under repair, another a different roof altogether.
You get the idea. You don’t want your layout looking exactly like the one down the street that happens to be modeling the same line. Imagination and photos are your friends when it comes to brining a little personality into your structures.
Having the layout spring to life is another challenge for the model railroader. There’s nothing more exciting than having the town or factory or whatever you’re depicting come to life with living, breathing people and wildlife. There are many, many choices for this in most every scale you can model, and they are not expensive. That’s good, because you’re going to need lots of it!
Every great layout is infused with this kind of detail, and it’s really hard to go overboard here. What is hard is choosing the pieces to work within your theme, as you want to match time, place, weather, and station. (You don’t necessarily want a figure somewhere where they don’t make sense!) Most of the people and various details can be glued or pinned into place. Pins can be used by drilling a small (#70) hole into the leg, and cutting off the head of a straight pin and mounting it into the board similarly. (I think gluing is easier, myself)
Building your own little world or recreating one from yesteryear is a marvelous undertaking. Pay attention to the little things and that layout will spring to life!