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Looking for guidance on lighting model buildings

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  • Member since
    September, 2015
  • 1 posts
Looking for guidance on lighting model buildings
Posted by A_Hansen on Friday, September 04, 2015 4:28 PM

I'm looking for beginner-level information on how to light model buildings, preferrably with LEDs. I have limited electrical knowledge or experience (my current layout is a small DC affair with four blocks, using the Atlas system) but am willing to learn.

I was excited about the Woodland Scenics "Just Plug" system, and was about to purchase a basic set-up when I checked out this forum and saw all of the comments about the cost, compared to a more DIY approach. I am all for DIY, saving money, and learning new skills, but I've struggled to find clear guidance on what I need to get started, how it works, and how to set it up. 

I'd appreciate any pointers or resources you can offer.


  • Member since
    August, 2006
  • From: Franconia, NH
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Posted by dstarr on Saturday, September 05, 2015 5:47 PM

Step 1.  Pevent the entire structure from glowing in the dark.  The styrene plastic used in structures is translucent, it passes light.  Paint the interior to keep it from glowing.  I use a light colored paint, to avoid soaking up too much light. 

Step 2.  Skip the LEDs, they have funny colors, the white ones are too blue.  Plain old incandescent bulbs look right, don't need current limiting resistors, and don't care about polarity.  They are available in 12 volt and 6 volt  ratings.  You can find good 9 volt wall warts.  Power a 12 volt bulb on 9 volts and it will last forever and look good. 

Step 3.  Mount the bulbs on the ceilings of the structures so they don't show thru the windows.  They make a fine sticky tape of pure copper.  This will stick to your interior walls, and you can solder the bulb leads onto the copper, which solves the socket problem. 

Step 4.  You want to be able to remove a lighted structure from the layout for repair or modification.  Use a length of twinlead, very thin gauge, sold for speaker wire, and run it down thru a hole in the layout.  Leave a good deal of slack.  Get some terminal blocks, mount them under the layout and  use them to distribute juice to each lighted structure.  You can then just unscrew the twinlead from the structure should you need to remove same. 

Step 5.  Your structures will look better with floors, so when you look in the windows you can see a floor rather than a bottomless pit going all the way down to the basement.  You may need to put a bulb on each floor (on the ceiling) to put light in the windows on each floor.  Think about some partitions so that yo have some windows showing light and some showing dark. 

Step 6.  Structures really look better when lit. 

  • Member since
    March, 2012
  • From: Stow, OH - originally Boston
  • 177 posts
Posted by Paul D on Sunday, September 06, 2015 8:17 AM
Good stuff, Dave! I’m thinking through the very same undertaking for multi-story City Classics and Lunde buildings (30+), and you’ve addressed many of the features I’m struggling with, like being able to rearrange them.


For the OP, I discovered a great flooring/ceiling material at Hobby Lobby: a 36”x48” tri-fold display board that’s .150” thick (5/32). It’s white on one side, standard cardboard light brown on the other, and very rigid for something with so little heft. $4 for all the floors & ceilings you’ll need for a long time. Look for it in a “racetrack” back near paints and other artist stuff. They call it a Project Board.
  • Member since
    July, 2006
  • From: Chamberlain, ME
  • 4,843 posts
Posted by G Paine on Sunday, September 06, 2015 8:42 AM
A lighted building with clear windows needs an interior to look right. An alternative is to spray them inside of the window glass with Dullcote. That way the building is lighted, but no interior detail is needed.

George In Midcoast Maine, 'bout halfway up the Rockland branch 

  • Member since
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  • From: Collinwood, Ohio, USA
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Posted by gmpullman on Sunday, September 06, 2015 9:14 AM

Hi, and Welcome

I agree with the replys above especially about prepping the building so that the lighting actually has something to light up. You can even make printed interior partitions, at least there's a visual distraction inside and the "fogging" of the windows is OK, too. Nearly all the factory buildings I see either have frosted windows or they're so dirty you can't see clearly through them anyway.

As far as the lighting itself, I would encourage you to go with LEDs as you have the preference for. There's just a few basic rules to grasp and after that you'll be stringing up LEDs by the hundreds.

The warm-white colors available today are much closer to incandescent lighting than the LEDs of only a few years ago.

I recently pointed out these simple strings that I bought from Amazon:

and another link showing LED strips that are easy to use:

It would be very helpful to learn soldering skills, not completely necessary but you'll be glad you did down the road.

LEDs are polarity sensitive so you want to be sure to use DC power supply and feed the longer side to the positive + side.

There are formulas for choosing a resistor depending on how much voltage you are supplying but if you choose a "wall-wart" type transformer you can find them with an output of 9 to 12 volts, be sure it says DC. Usually the plus wire has a white marker.

A 1000 ohm Ω or 1KΩ resistor is all you would need in series on either wire to the LED. Later you can experiment with less or more resistance to vary the brightness, slightly.

If you look on ebay you will find dozens of suppliers of cheap LEDs. Get an assortment and just start playing around and you'll learn as you go. Many sellers include the resistors, then even with a 9V battery you can start experimenting.

Have fun... Ed

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Posted by mlehman on Sunday, September 06, 2015 9:36 AM

Good idea to just start with LEDs, as they're much easier to handle in multiples than bulbs are. Lots of good advice also. For more tips and lots of examples, my Night Scene thread provides plenty about lighting buildings, plus rolling stock and room lighting, too.

It's worth noting we're just coming up on the prime season for finding lots of cheap sources for LEDs. Ed just mentioned some. There is a wide variety of LED lighting available wherever various holiday lighting is sold, usually at reasonable prices.

A good thing to look for are what is called "cone reflector" LEDs. These tend to look more like ordinary light bulbs when lit.

One tip I have is more philosophical. Yes, having interiors to light up is great. But building a decent interior can range from quick and dirty to a model project all of its own. I've done some interior work as I lit buildings, but lots of them are still empty and await future efforts to do that. In many cases, the layout height, your height, and the limited view through the windows mean that the lighting will be OK for now. I'd say go ahead and light 'em up. There's always time to revisit and improve interiors later, just make the roof removeable or provide other access. For future buildings, it's also easier to build lighting in than to retrofit it.

Mike Lehman

Urbana, IL

  • Member since
    August, 2003
  • From: Collinwood, Ohio, USA
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Posted by gmpullman on Sunday, September 06, 2015 9:55 AM

A good thing to look for are what is called "cone reflector" LEDs. These tend to look more like ordinary light bulbs when lit.

Nice addition to this thread, Mike! Thumbs Up

I have some inverted cone and some that are flattened-dome shape and, as you point out, they spread the light out and look just like a ceiling light fixture.

Thanks for your input... Ed

  • Member since
    January, 2010
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Posted by peahrens on Sunday, September 06, 2015 9:55 AM

I was in your shoes about 18 months ago...which path to take, what details.  I decided on the LED route.

- I power each of several circuits with a 12volt walwort, each having a 1A capability and putting in a 3/4 amp fuse on the way to a terminal strips where individual building wiring is hooked up.  Some people use a single larger power supply.

- I use LEDs from two sources.  The singles are stripped warm white 5MM from Lowes Christmas light strings.  The inverted cones distribute the light. They may be in stock already but surely will soon.  The others are from SMD LEDs strip lighting, which consist of connected 3-LED segments, each with its needed resistors.  You just cut off 3, 6, etc as desired to hook up.




- The single LEDs need a resistor attached.  I use 1k typically.  I got resistors off EBay, a few bucks for 50 or 100.  The US distributors charge a bit more.  The China distributors are cheapest, reliable (check their rating) and take a couple weeks to arrive.

- I keep a list for each circuit on the load as I add structure lighting.  Each single LED uses 9ma, each 3-segment SMD takes 25ma.

- I get my terminal strips from All Electronics.  I also added a simple switch panel on the facia, made of plexiglass or such painted black, with SPDT switches for each circuit.  I use 24AWG red/black auto rip cord for wiring.

- A shack or small building may get a single LED.  I usually epoxy them in place.  A large building may get several 3-segmant LEDs.  I'm ok with the color and intensity, though some tweak that by painting some colored wash over the LEDs to fine tune the effect they like best.


Modeling HO with a transition era UP bent

  • Member since
    January, 2010
  • From: Chi-Town
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Posted by zstripe on Sunday, September 06, 2015 10:02 AM

Mixture of 12v incandesants with own controlled panel mount power transformer...LED's with their own 4amp 12v DC panel mount filtered power transformer....all street lights AC/DC also on their own power supply in control panel. All buildings have interiors on first floor...other floors have .005'' frosted white acetate, that You can cut with scissors...glue or tape to inside of window glazing, do not have to paint comes frosted. Check Artist supply stores, comes in affordable rolls,,,frosting will not rub off. Some of the back-ground buildings are only 2 1/2 inches wide, but with added printed color gives a lot of depth. Some buildings in pic's will show light on backdrop....that's because I don't have them seated in their foundation properly when pic was taken...All buildings are removable, with two brass sockets in each building foundation....area is 15ft. long on the industrial section of layout...still more reconstruction going a lot of details and figures have been taken off of it.

Take Care! Big Smile


  • Member since
    February, 2019
  • 2 posts
Posted by AussieHO on Friday, February 15, 2019 11:53 AM

I know this post was 4 years ago, but here goes.  I love images of lighted layouts and buildings and I think the "Just Plug" system is very nice from the perspective of not having to worry about correct juicing of the lights and tangled wires.  They are also great if that is exactly what you want, but that seems a bit limiting to us model railroaders.  

I was wondering about the use of fiber optics.  Has anyone tried using these?  It would seem they would provide the ultimate in flexibility.  I recenlty saw some people using these on some N scale dioramas recently, as well as on an HO layout and they looked quite bright.

Any inputs on fiber optics use for scenery work?  Thanks

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Posted by mlehman on Tuesday, February 19, 2019 11:10 AM

Fiber optics for model RR apps were pretty popular at one time, largely due to their ability to be tiny lights in places where bulbs can't go. The shrinking size and cost of LEDs pushed aside much interest in fiber optics. I recall a few articles that depicted using fiber optics, so might be worth digging in the archive to see what comes up.

The main issue with fiber optics is the limited amount of things you can do with them. The light tends to comne out the end of the fiber, so it doesn't spread like a lot of lights. Hard to do overhead lighting, for instance. However, that is sometimes exactly what you need. Imagine a figure holding a flashlight that casts a beam. Or signal lights? Traffic lights?

Tiny fiber optics is easy to hide but it becomes more difficult as the size increases.

Cost is another factor. Just as the falling prices for LEDs has driven them being substituted for bulbs, the cost of fiber optics hasn't changed a lot. You also need the specialing source fixture, I'd think, but maybe hacks have been developed that make this easier and cheaper?

Mike Lehman

Urbana, IL

  • Member since
    February, 2008
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Posted by kasskaboose on Tuesday, February 19, 2019 12:53 PM

This is a timely topic for me since I'm hoping to consider this in a bit.  Thanks everyone for clarifying things.  Wiring is much easier with the detailed explainations!

  • Member since
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  • From: Mpls/St.Paul
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Posted by wjstix on Tuesday, February 19, 2019 2:46 PM

I like Evans Designs LEDs. They are available already wired with resistors and diodes, so can use any power source up to 14V AC or DC.

BTW not all interior lighting has to be 'warm white'. Not sure if it's still done, but I recall back in the 1970's-80's that the stores in the strip mall near my house used a bluish 'security lighting' after closing hours, I suppose so the police could cruise by and see if anyone was moving around in there.

  • Member since
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  • From: Northern CA Bay Area
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Posted by cuyama on Tuesday, February 19, 2019 2:47 PM

Fiber optics for model RR apps were pretty popular at one time, largely due to their ability to be tiny lights in places where bulbs can't go. The shrinking size and cost of LEDs pushed aside much interest in fiber optics.


Here's a possibly useful Google search for what folks are doing recently


  • Member since
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  • From: Collinwood, Ohio, USA
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Posted by gmpullman on Tuesday, February 19, 2019 3:02 PM

Any inputs on fiber optics use for scenery work?  Thanks

My take on fiber optics is that they really don't "cast" a whole lot of light but they are useful for direct viewing, such as signals, marker and class lights and maybe table lamps in passenger cars.

I used fiber optic strands to illuminate this "model board" inside a signal tower:

 IMG_5281_fix by Edmund, on Flickr


 IMG_5300_fix by Edmund, on Flickr

 IMG_5305_fix by Edmund, on Flickr


 IMG_5316_fix by Edmund, on Flickr

I have it set up so that when I change a turnout the LEDs and the fiber optic lights, in turn, change color.

Actually, in HO anyway, SMD LEDs have gotten so small that they have pretty much made fibel-optic strands redundant, for instance, this fusee is a LED chip:

 car_stop3 by Edmund, on Flickr

Cheers, Ed

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