83 Layout Tips - Free!

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83 Layout Tips - Free!
Posted by Frank54 on Thursday, November 09, 2017 2:29 PM

The 83 Tip Challenge. Here are 83 layout building tips. I'll add in more photos as I find them. Depending on your personal preferences, some may be better than others. Your mileage may vary.

Run wild with it:

  1. Mimic Nature – Rarely do you see a sea of the same tone of green in grassy areas. Grass is greener in shady area or near water and more brown in direct sunlight. Mix up your tones for a realistic look.
  2. Match your equipment to your layout size. If you are limited to o31 or o42, run smaller equipment. Large equipment barely able to run on small radius track looks unrealistic.
  3. Triple check your clearances. While your railroad may accommodate your current equipment, always leave extra clearance between curves and in proximity to walls to avoid mishaps.
  4. Set up a common track ground when wiring.
  5. Don’t over populate. The most eye catching scenes are those containing a central focus of a small number of figures.
  6. Bank, or “Super Elevate” your curves. Placing a 1/16” shim under the outside rail ties makes a big difference in the appearance of your trains rounding a curve.
  7. Use realistically sized ballast. A chunk of ballast pretty much fits in the palm of your hand. Extend this equation to your O scale figures. If the ballast matches the size of the figures hand you have the right size.
  8. Don’t use organic materials. Using materials such as coffee grounds on your layout is always a bad idea, as it will eventually draw “critters.”
  9. Invest in your trackwork. Regardless of the track you use, the track is the feature you will look at consistently. Invest in ballast and track side work to make your trackwork stand out.
  10. Minimize traffic. While we all accumulate scads of vehicles, jamming roads and parking spaces with vehicles detracts attention from your scenes. A few vehicles create more visual interest.
  11. Be true to your timeframe. Whatever moment in time you model, be consistent. A 50’s layout with a 2015 corvette running down the road looks out of place. Match your figures, vehicles and structures to your time period.
  12. Make sense. If you place a structure, support it with logical access, such as roads or sidewalks.
  13. Understand the reality of scale. Placing a pre-made gas station or similar structure with a half inch base means your o scale people will need a step ladder to climb the curb, as one half inch equals two scale feet. Removing the bases or embedding it into the layout yields superior results.
  14. When weathering structures, keep in mind, weather effects run from the top down, not side to side. Heavier weathering at the top, lightening to the bottom.
  15. The real world isn’t pristine. Adding weather and broken down features makes your layout more realistic.
  16. Blend your scenery into your backdrops. Running a road up to a picture of a road in your backdrop draws the backdrop into your scene. Placing tress in front of a forest backdrop adds three-dimensional interest. Try adding fire escapes to buildings on a backdrop.
  17. Random building lighting adds interest. Rather than lighting an entire building, light individual rooms. This is easily achieved by placing a light box inside the window.
  18. Think about access. Avoid placing switches in areas tough to reach.
  19. Masonite is a great material for streets and sidewalks. Using 1/8” Masonite for roads and ¼” for sidewalks yields a six-scale inch curb height, which is believable.
  20. Find opportunities for using natural materials. Gravel accumulating in street gutters makes excellent, believable scenery. Scoop it up every now and then.
  21. Figuring grades. A general rule of thumb is one eighth inch rise per foot of run equals about a one percent grade. One quarter inch rise approximately equals a two percent grade and so on.
  22. Ceiling tiles are your friends. Ceiling tiles are inexpensive and can be cut and stacked to create hills, mountainsides, just about any effect. Create your framework, slop on some earth tone paint and while the paint is still wet, place some ground cover in your hand and blow it on to the wet paint. It will stick and look great.
  23. Made in the shade with file folders. Manila folders make great window shades for your buildings. Cut a small piece to match your window size, lightly mist it with flat black paint and scotch tape it in place varying the heights.
  24. Tunnels don’t stop at the entrance. Use a print of a stone pattern inside your tunnels, or just black paper.
  25. Twigs make great firewood. Break off a few 1/8” or ¼” twigs from trees and they make great firewood stacks.
  26. There is gold under the tables at train show. Junk box finds make great trackside structures. Items such as beat up boxcars, tank cars, passenger cars and cabesse can fill in stray areas.
  27. HO items work too. HO or even N scale tank cars make great propane or oil tanks to enhance your scenes.
  28. Blend your building bases into your landscape. Use some groundcover, be it light soil or gravel and butt it up against the bases of buildings for added realism.
  29. Blend your signage onto your buildings. To give the impression of painted on signs, print signs from websites and lightly sand the back of the paper to make it thin. Add a light coat of white glue and place the sign on your building. Use a fingernail or toothpick to score the sign into the brick work of the building to give the impression the sign is painted on.
  30. Foamcore is a great material for building bases and roofs. It is easily cut to size. Black foamcore is a good choice.
  31. Avoid hard lines in landscaping. Nothing in natural ground cover comes to an abrupt end, but rather transitions or “feathers” to another area. Mix up your ground covers when transitioning to trackside, or other area.
  32. Tint your ballast. Ballast is subjected to all of the environmental conditions of real life. Rather than having pristine ballast, tint it by using a watered down wash of paint. A color with a reddish tone gives the feel of weatherworn iron.
  33. Mist your structures. A simple weathering technique is to “mist” your structures with black, or cream colored spray paint. Hold the structure about 12-18 inches from the spray can and blast a single cloud of paint towards the structure. It adds a nice dull tone giving your structures a real world worn look.
  34. Enhance your tubular track with extra ties. These can be wood or store bought rubber/plastic. Make the ties one half inch wide and paint flat black. Don’t forget to insert a tie into the existing hollow metal ties for added realism.
  35. HO double tunnel portals are ideally sized for two lanes of vehicular traffic.
  36. N Scale streetlamps can be used as exterior building lights. Remove the base and bend the street lamp pole to a ninety degree angle and place as porch lights.
  37. Placing printed photos of building interiors in your windows gives the impression of a finished interior.
  38. Paint your rails. Using a rust colored paint on the sides of the rails adds realism. Clean the rail tops with solvent to retain good conductivity.
  39. You can never have too many power feeds. Maintaining high quality power throughout the run makes running your trains a lot more enjoyable. Solder a live feed to the center rail every few feet keeps your trains running smoothly.
  40. Don’t start too soon. What seems like a good idea when you first start planning is guaranteed to be your worst nightmare when you are a year or two into the project. Planning is everything. Your track plan, structures and locations, roads, plan everything and you can forecast power sources and clearances and many other factors.
  41. Add mortar lines to your brick structures. Take a plastic wall section, clean it thoroughly with hot water and let dry. Sparingly apply drywall compound to the brick surface. Do this small sections at a time. Once applied, whip off excess with a damp sponge. Repeat until the entire wall is complete. Wash the entire wall under hot water, running your fingers over the surface until you work off any “slimyness.’ (You’ll know it when you feel it). It will appear you have washed off all the mortar, but once it dries those great white lines will reappear between brick rows. If you don’t rinse these thoroughly, you will have a white haze on your structure which will never go away.
  42. Household items are layout applicable. Desiccant containers from large medication bottles make great oil drums and trash barrels. Paint them grey and mist with flat black or maroon. They will look worn and layout ready.
  43. Ballast your track just beyond the tie edge. Two, three or four tracks running parallel aren’t swimming in a sea of ballast. Ballast to the tops of the ties and separate ballasted tracks with dirt or opposing tone gravel.
  44. Sidewalks and roads aren’t perfect. Cut your roads and sidewalks in sections from Masonite. Coat with drywall compound and sand down rough edges. Spray with concrete color paint and place in sequence to give the appearance of a well used sidewalk or road.
  45. Use black modeling clay between sidewalk and road sections to simulate joints and separate pours.
  46. Window screens make great O scale chain link fence.
  47. Weathering bare wood is a snap. Add a few drops of black india ink to a bottle of ethyl (not isopropyl) alcohol. Shake well and liberally apply to bare wood such as fences. The alcohol will evaporate living a grey, weather beaten look on the wood.
  48. Use terminal blocks to take power to your structures. A few well-placed terminal blocks allow you to wire your structures in close proximity with a single set of feeds back to your power source.
  49. Skimp on glue. When scratch building, be stingy on white or yellow glue. If excess spills over to visible areas, it will alter the appearance of paints and stains.
  50. Overgrowth is everywhere. Liberally use materials such as Woodland Scenics course turf to create overgrowth. Nothing in nature is neat.
  51. Wire your telephone poles. Avoid using “stretchy string.” I learned the hard way it sags over time. When the sagging lines were caught by the horns atop my post war F3’s, no one on Brace Avenue had phone service for weeks.
  52. When photographing your layout, don’t use flash.
  53. To create wear on your roads, cost an O scale vehicles tires with black chalk and move it up the streets. Creates a “burn out” effect.
  54. You can create a faded paint look on your building signs using Adobe photoshop. For signs being placed directly on brick walls, open your sign in photoshop and size it. Then reduce the opacity to about 70%. When placed on your building as mentioned in tip # 29, the paint job will appear weather faded.
  55. The tissue paper found packaged in men’s dress shirts is an excellent material for opaquing windows in illuminated buildings. Rather than having a bare inside of a building, use tissue applied with scotch magic tape, which adds extra opacity.
  56. Home Depot sells quarter inch square dowels in three foot lengths for $0.69 each. These are ideal for building tie walls, trestle bridges and framework for scratchbuilt structures. Much less expensive than hobby shop scale lumber.
  57. Invest in ballast. Kitty litter, roof gravel, aquarium gravel and rocks are a poor substitute. I recommend Brennan’s Better Ballast.
  58. Don’t ignore Plasticville as a source for structures. While these structures are closer to “S” than “O” some of these structures can be dressed up nicely. The Switch Tower, Hobo Shacks and Diner are great scene builders.
  59. Be consistent with your figures. Although mentioned in a previous tip, keeping your figures consistent in the look of your figures – at least those appearing in the same scenes. I use Artistta almost exclusively to make small one, two and three figure scenes.
  60. Layer your flats. Placing flat building fronts in front of a city scape for example adds depth to your backdrop scenes.
  61. Border your streets with light gravel or soil to blend them into the next texture.
  62. If you are using Fastrack or RealTrax, build up the open areas  with ceiling tile. By bring your scenery base to the height of the track, you can conceal the fastrack roadbed and have excellent realism.
  63. Assure your trees stand straight and tall by using an awl to make a hole for the tree. Fill the hole with brown modeling clay and place tree trunk in hole. Once up right, cover clay with white Elmer’s Glue.
  64. Paint your plastic building kits. Sure it’s extra work, but worth it. Many building kits are molded in a color to simulate red brick, but look sub par when just glued together without painting. Spray cans make it an easy job.
  65. The most invaluable tool for cutting wood and plastic parts in scratchbuilding is a Zona Saw with a Miter Box. About twenty bucks, but the best tool you’ll find.
  66. You can double the value of IHC Building kits “Gingerbread” style houses/shops by cutting them in half. They have storefronts on the front and residential houses on the back. They measure 14” in length and when cut in half, you get five stores and five houses. Use foam core to create a new back and of course position these so the backs aren’t seen.
  67. Use small (tiny) scraps of paper to create debris in alleys and side streets. The real world is full of litter. Create some of your own in gutters by gluing small white scraps of paper. Use white so they stand out from the color of the road and sidewalk.
  68. In places where roads cross tracks, use stripwood to build railroad crossings. Using 1/8” x 1/16” stripwood makes a believable crossing. Place your planks in a row to the recommended length and glue two braces to the backside placed perpendicularly. Paint a wood color and weather.
  69. Switch mechanisms don’t have to be eyesores. You can cover switch matches with shacks, loading docks, fences, block walls, tie walls and a variety of other creative methods.
  70. O Gauge is generally one quarter inch equals one foot scale, the same as is standard for architectural drawing. You can plan out any structure you can imagine using the architectural standard. You can also enlarge or reduce backdrops by using the quarter inch scale. There is a broad variety of HO scale backdrops on the market. By scaling a doorway to one and three quarters inches, you can enlarge the backdrop to “O.” Keep in mind “HO” isn’t “half O” but more like 180%.
  71. The best way to prepare Sculpt-A-Mold is to use an old hand mixer (not the one your wife uses for baking cakes). Combine water until you get a consistency not unlike a loose dough. Apply by hand.
  72. Keep it simple. In theory a complex layout with all kinds of switches and crossovers may be wildly appealing. In reality, it creates a potential operating nightmare. Plus, a spaghetti bowl of track minimizes your scenic opportunities. While running trains is the goal, it is the scenery that gives your layout the “Wow” factor.
  73. Handmade trestles are an economical alternative to purchased bridges. You can construct a handmade trestle from 1/4” square wood lengths available from Home Depot (Tip #56). Construct the first “bent” using five vertical supports. Once you complete the first bent, you can easily make a jig to make identical bents until you have the required number.
  74. You can easily achieve a “peeling paint” look on your wooden structures using rubber cement. Paint your structure with a base coat of an underlying color and let dry thoroughly. Randomly dab some rubber cement in places where you want the paint to appear to be peeling. Paint the entire structure with your final color. Once dried, rub back the areas where rubber cement is beneath the final coat with your thumb. The rubber cement will peel off revealing the underlying color. Distress with some chalk and you have a building with an underlying color showing through randomly.
  75. Spare parts and pieces of broken equipment make great trackside debris. Wheels from old locos, tubular track rails, railings – just about anything off a never to run again engine or freight car can be distressed and used as trackside debris.
  76. Ball point pen parts can be used as cyclones adhered to the outside walls of manufacturing facilities. Springs from the same pens can be used as track side debris.
  77. Add realism to your tunnel portals with either black spray paint or black chalk centered above each track to simulate the residue left by steam engines.
  78. Don’t overdo special features. The factor making a feature special is uniqueness. For example, there are many different very cool illuminated, animated signs. A couple or three in different areas of your layout are cool. They bring a uniqueness to the scene. A dozen is overkill and robs the special feel they provide.
  79. You can add interest to your structures in a “seedier” part of town by boarding up a few windows. One eighth inch wide stripwood equals six scale inch width planks. Weather these with an alcohol/india ink wash.
  80. An invaluable tool for scratchbuilding is “The Chopper.” With it you can make cuts of accurate and repeatable size. It is particularly well suited for roof and loading dock planks.
  81. Add visual interest to the roofs of your structures by placing the ends of trusses emanating from beneath the roof. Cut them at an angle matching the roof angle and paint black or dark brown. A good size is 1/8” x ¼” stripwood.
  82. Rocks of all sizes – but preferably more flat than round can be embedded in your hillsides to simulate a rockface. Use Sculpt-A-Mold to hold the rocks in place. You can pick up rocks for free anywhere, as opposed to casting rocks in molds with hydrocal or plaster. Further the rocks will always be unique in size and shape.
  83. When photographing your layout, zooming in on scenes nets great photos. Keep an eye level view of an o-scale figure, which places the viewer right into the scene.
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Posted by phrankenstign on Thursday, November 09, 2017 8:01 PM

I love truth in advertising!

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  • From: Austin, TX
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Posted by lionelsoni on Friday, November 10, 2017 8:55 AM

Frank that's a very constructive and thoughtful post.

A couple of comments:

70.  Standard American doors are 6'8 high.  That's actually 1 2/3 inches in O scale--just a little shorter.  Unfortunately for the purpose of rescaling images, entrance doors are often substantially bigger.  Another standard dimension that may be useful is the width of American trains, which is reliably 10'8, or 2 2/3 inches in O scale.  Big road trucks are usually 8'6 wide, which is unsurprisingly the width of a domestic intermodal container.

76.  I was puzzled by the word "cyclone" until I realized you were talking about cyclone separators.

Bob Nelson

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    February, 2016
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Posted by Frank54 on Friday, November 10, 2017 9:08 AM

lionelsoni
Standard American doors are 6'8 high.  That's actually 1 2/3 inches in O scale--just a little shorter.

Thanks Bob. You are correct. I rounded it to seven feet for simplicity. 1-5/8" would be 1.625". Eleven sixteenths is probably closest.

Good info on widths. Thanks.

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    September, 2010
  • From: Parma Heights Ohio
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Posted by Penny Trains on Friday, November 10, 2017 6:35 PM

Frank54
Don’t use organic materials. Using materials such as coffee grounds on your layout is always a bad idea, as it will eventually draw “critters.”

I'll second that one.  I used a dried plant material labeled as "Candy Tuft" on the layout I started in the 90's.  While it made for fairly realistic looking trees due to the plants tiny sized leaves, it started to get "fuzzy" after a few years in the basement.  (I also noticed tiny worms liked the stuff.)  I had to sray the stuff with Raid ant spray to stop the deterioration and disposing of them entirely was the only safe answer in the end.

Frank54
Made in the shade with file folders. Manila folders make great window shades for your buildings. Cut a small piece to match your window size, lightly mist it with flat black paint and scotch tape it in place varying the heights.

Tissue paper is another good one as it models shear drapes very well.  And since you can get it in a lot more colors than just white, you can add a good deal of variety on the cheap.

Frank54
HO items work too. HO or even N scale tank cars make great propane or oil tanks to enhance your scenes.

Fences especially.  I used a Bachmann HO scale picket fence to make garden fencing and I even made a trellis out of broken pieces.

Frank54
Mist your structures. A simple weathering technique is to “mist” your structures with black, or cream colored spray paint. Hold the structure about 12-18 inches from the spray can and blast a single cloud of paint towards the structure. It adds a nice dull tone giving your structures a real world worn look.

I'm going to have to try that one!  Big Smile

Frank54
You can easily achieve a “peeling paint” look on your wooden structures using rubber cement. Paint your structure with a base coat of an underlying color and let dry thoroughly. Randomly dab some rubber cement in places where you want the paint to appear to be peeling. Paint the entire structure with your final color. Once dried, rub back the areas where rubber cement is beneath the final coat with your thumb. The rubber cement will peel off revealing the underlying color. Distress with some chalk and you have a building with an underlying color showing through randomly.

You can also use artist's masking fluid.  It's sort of rubbery and can be "erased" when dry.

Frank54
Ball point pen parts can be used as cyclones adhered to the outside walls of manufacturing facilities. Springs from the same pens can be used as track side debris.

Another unlikely use for pen caps is window awnings:

The two small ones on the firehouse are from depleted gel pens while the larger one in the center was a cap for a map reading tool.  Big Smile  Keep that junk box full!

Great stuff!  Thanks for starting this thread!  Big Smile

A waking Lithium Flower just about to bloom

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Posted by Frank54 on Tuesday, November 14, 2017 10:01 AM

Nice awnings Penny.

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Posted by Frank54 on Thursday, November 16, 2017 10:58 AM

This post was kind of a social experiment. Interesting result.

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