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Model Railway Express

Hints and Tips- Model Construction!

Updated December 16th 2008

The following Hints and Tips were contributed to Model Railway Express Magazine as a service where readers have been invited to submit "things they do" to keeps costs down, techniques they use to build their items and manage their railways in general.

These pages show the Hints and Tips categorised in the order they have been received by MRE mag. I am not promising "perfection" but as of the creation of these pages, these Hints and Tips page are also shown in order on Page 1... please click on this to access the hints in order that they have appeared in MRE Mag!


Click on the Menu to the area of interest to you.




Hints & Tips No.1 - Conflats                               Brian Macdermott
I like to have variety with my OO Conflats. Sometimes I run them as 'empties'; sometimes I run them as loaded with a 'full size' container; and sometimes I run them with the 'half size' AF insulated ones. The first two are no problem, but the small ones get thrown around and even fall off.
I solved the problem by using 'tacky wax'. This enables them to stay in position, but be easily removed with hardly any trace. I realise that real containers were held on by chains, so if anyone can tell me a method of modelling that convincingly (yet still enabling easy removal) I'd be glad to hear.  

Hints & Tips No.4 - Simulating buildings on backdrops        Trevor Gibbs, Australia

I have recently built a memorial exhibition layout and needed some backdrop buildings. I had a reasonable success by using the Auran Trainz computer program. I made an English style streetscape with buildings and footpaths then taking screen dumps from different angles of the buildings. I then printed these up and cut the building fronts out and glued them to the backdrop... usually plain sky.

My first tries at this have turned out a bit darker than I would have liked but gave the impression I wanted in the time frame I had to get the layout ready. With experimentation you can get that aspect right too! Good luck trying it out!

Hints & Tips No.7 - Simulating Trees              Trevor Gibbs, Australia

You can simulate a great grove of trees against a backdrop by using green-coloured cotton wool balls cut in half and teased out a bit then glued to your backdrop as bushy clumps. The absence of tree armatures won't be a problem and give you a sense of 3D.

Use universal dyes or appropriate food colourings sprayed with a cheap air brush in a few different tones. The cost?  A few cotton balls and some sprayed universal or vegetable dye diluted with water - like most of my other ideas for this column as close to zilch as possible. If you can see part of the forest floor, a few deep brown vertical brush strokes where the base of the trees would be would/should be enough to simulate the trunks and will be fairly short anyway.

After all you are concentrating on the trains going past aren't you?

Hints & Tips No.12 - Scenic Scale Measurement     John Challenor

No matter whether it is a simple fence or something more complicated it is just as important to keep all your scratch-built scenics to the right scale.

 To assist me, I have made a scale ruler from a scrap of plastic with a straight edge. I work in 00 scale, so my ruler is marked in feet at 4mm intervals. To remind me I have also marked on it ‘1mm = 3 inches ‘. I do my homework and find out the sizes of the originals; better still, whenever I can, I go and measure them.

 Unless you have a very good eye for these things you may be surprised how far out you can be. 

Hints & Tips No.15 - Wagon loads                        David Middleditch

Line the interior of a wagon with three layers of clingfilm. Build the load inside this.

Pit props: Short thin buddleia twigs glued together with PVA.

Coal:  Plaster base painted black with coal on top.

Timber: Matchsticks at an angle glued with PVA.

 When set and painted, the load can be removed and the clingfilm peeled off. It should then fit back into the wagon with a working tolerance. With coal and similar loads, I also set in a small wire loop. This can be used to hook it out. Painted black it is quite unobtrusive.

 Hints & Tips No.16 – Tender problem      Nicholas Rothon

There is a problem with some of the BR1C tenders fitted to the Bachmann Standard locomotives. The coupling seems to be too high to use with Peco and Hornby uncoupling ramps.

  Hints & Tips No.18 - Crisp lining              Simon Baldwin

 I was recently painting a Bratchell 317 into 'one' livery and was having a terrible time with getting a crisp edge on the rainbow lining. The solution was to run a sharp knife along the edge of some masking tape (against a ruler). Then, masking up using a template or careful measuring gave a very crisp edge and, as the tape sticks well together, it is easy to re-use on the set. It can also be moved around for the other stripes.  Now to go off and find some 'one' transfers, anyone??

Hints & Tips No.20 - Alternative magnifying glass               Roger Norman

 If trying to ascertain detail from a photograph, don't use a magnifying glass.  Instead scan the photo, enlarge it and print it or better still view it enlarged on the screen.  You will be amazed how much detail this shows, especially with old photos which can sometimes be enhanced with the likes of Paintshop Pro.


Hints & Tips No.33 - Oil Depot Tanks  Trevor Gibbs (Melbourne, Australia)

I  don’t have room on my current layout for an Oil Depot but when I did have space in my junior days, I used either tins from Quik (Nestle Strawberry was good) or smaller coffee tins. 

Turning them upside down and screwing the lid to the board meant they could be removed easily if needed for moving etc. In these days of computer labelling, it would not be that hard to make a convincing sign or even a ‘wrapper’ to go around the tin with rivets, small ladders printed on etc. Once again, the cost is not high!

Hints & Tips No.34 - Scenic Shakers  Roy Thompson

I find these expensive at almost £3 for an empty plastic container with a funny lid. Have a look around your kitchen and you may be surprised how many of these types of container you can find in varying sizes.

Ones I have found include peppercorns, parmesan cheese, herbs and spices. If you know anyone who works in catering they often have larger catering sizes, which are excellent once given a good wash.

From   Alvar York

Further to Roy Thompson's tip, I have found that the 500g salt shakers from Saxa and the like to be very effective. You can adjust the pourer head to a few grains of small ballast to fully open for a flood. It is also excellent for grass scatter etc.

Prior to this I used a 1 pint plastic milk bottle with suitable holes drilled into the top. I also use the milk bottle for storage.

Hints & Tips No.35 - Making Rail look Scale in 00/H0, Trevor Gibbs, Melbourne Australia

I have been 'weathering' my rail for a few years simply by getting out one trusty paint brush and painting the sides, particularly of Peco code 100, with a Russet or Tuscan box car colour. I personally use Tamiya type acrylics. You can simply run a paint brush along the rail sides, before or after ballasting and not worry about the effect too much. In fact mine was done after ballasting because I was not happy with the effect of the shiny rail at the time.

I have been asked a number of times if my track is Code 70 or 83 rather than the 100 as removing the sheen from the sides of the rails in this way, hides its apparent height. This is also lowered by use of ballast. Dregs from the paint bottle are especially effective as you can get simulated a build-up of grime and grease, as does occur. You can even skimp a bit and just do the sides which are seen from a viewers angle.

If you need to solder a wire to the rail, it is easily cleaned by simple scraping off the paint and retouching it afterwards. Although photos are not conclusive you can judge the result yourself by clicking on the website and scrolling down.

Hints & Tips No.36 - The Ultimate Modelling Glue? 
By  Andrew Morling (Perth Western Australia)

Quite by accident I may have just discovered the ultimate modelling adhesive. It sells under the brand name of MANICARE here in Australia and is used for attaching acrylic fingernail extensions.

It contains cyanoacrylate [super glue], and methyl ethyl ketone [for polystyrene] as well as an adhesive for acrylic. It is applied with a brush in the cap, which is quite practical as it does not set as quickly as straight super glue. 

I have been trying it on every kind of plastic I can find and it has not failed me yet. It will even stick the old resin plastic used in early Tri-ang trains. On polystyrene it sets quicker than plain MEK and is very strong once dry.

Despite the apparent innocuous use that this product is designed for please ensure that you have adequate ventilation when using MANICARE or similar products and do not smoke while using it. The use of some form of eye-shield would also seem to be a sensible precaution.

So, just join the orderly queue at the cosmetics counter of your local Pharmacy and tell the  girl you want to have longer fingernails...

Hints & Tips No.38 -  Making Hedges     

By Trevor Gibbs, (Melbourne Australia)

 You can simulate a lot of hedges using green steel wool scourers cut into appropriate strips and glued vertically. This works fairly well. You could sprinkle the outer surfaces with ground foam such as Woodland Scenics to give a bit more texture closer to viewing distance.  If you really want to do it for next to nothing, you could grind up your own appropriately coloured foam

Hints & Tips No.41 -  Using Superglue With Clear plastic 

by John Poland (New Jersey, USA)

For many situations, using 'superglue' (CyanoAcrylate) with clear plastic is not a good idea as the plastic can craze. However, there are some situations which arise that the best option is to use 'superglue' to fix in windows.

First dip the windows in 'Future', or a similar brand floor wax (it's a trick I learned from building scale aeroplanes). The floor wax creates a barrier and prevents the fumes from crazing the 'glass', and you'll be amazed at how crystal clear your windows will be.

Hints & Tips No.42  -  Kit Assembly Hint  No.2           

By Donald Hess (York PA USA)

 Skewers and Toothpicks make excellent tools for painting and glue applications. Not only can you stir paints with them, but you can apply really tiny amounts of paint and glue accurately with the sharp tip.

Hints & Tips No.46 - Cheap Brick Surfaces  

By Trevor Gibbs  (Melbourne Australia)

Need some cheap brick surfaces in smaller areas? I got some from recycled plastic plates with the grooved "tread" on them. In fact, as an exercise I built a loco shed in N scale for a club exhibition layout I was helping restore and used the plates surface on the outside, coloured a deepish brick red so the line work regularity was not quite so painfully obvious.

 If you are really keen, you can paint over with white paint and wipe the excess off to fill in the mortar cracks.

So wash your otherwise disposable party plates mates! Like a lot of other things I do, cost virtually zilch!

Hints & Tips No.47 -  Kit Assembly Hints No.2

By John Schaeffer,  Virginia USA 

When cutting thin wood for scratch building, put some masking tape on the back side of the cut. This will assist in preventing the wood from splintering. 

Hints & Tips No.48-  High Quality Brush Painting  .  

By John Challenor 

On the question of painting without expensive spraying equipment, many years ago I asked a car body restorer how he got such a good paint finish with brush application. The answer was to use several coats and to rub down between each one.  

Each successive coat had a little more thinner added, and gradually finer grade wet/dry paper and rubbing compound was used.

It is best to buy decent wet/dry paper, this is not particularly expensive but the finer the grade the finer the finish. Rubbing compounds, various household / car products can be employed. Otherwise you can practice with almost any left over paint / scrap materials.  

(Note from Trevor – Long time readers may feel a bit of deja vu... all over again in fact ... with this hint. It was written by John before Hints and Tips took a footing and I feel deserved a repeat in this column along with another which will appear in a few weeks)

Hints & Tips No.50  -  Kit Assembly Hints No.3  

By John Schaeffer,  (Virginia USA) 

Use Windex or similar Window cleaners to thin acrylic latex paints for the airbrush.  It dries faster and cleans up easier

However be aware that some versions of this type of product may contain ammonia which is not kind to some plastics so do a test section first!

Hints & Tips No.51 – Using and Reusing Thinners   .  

By John Challenor

A tip from my local model shop (!), common or garden white spirit is a lot cheaper than some of the "named" brand equivalent thinners. In nearly all cases it is just as effective.

And to save the pennies even further, save all the dirty thinners you have used washing out your brushes etc., in a clean lidded glass jar. Leave. Gradually the paint sinks to the bottom and the relatively clean thinners above can be decanted off and re-used for cleaning. This seems to work for all types of thinners.

Hints & Tips No.53 - Fitting Handrails And Grab Iron Details Easily  

By Donald Hess  (PA  USA) 

A little CA (Super glue), MEK or related glue when sliding grab irons through holes makes them go through easier. When wet it acts like a lubricant.  Reaming the small holes with one turn of an Exacto No.11 blade also really helps.

Hints & Tips No.52 -  Hi Rise Buildings   

By Trevor Gibbs, (Australia)

I saw a layout at an exhibition with a couple of very tall (for a layout) model buildings in a city scene which from normal viewing distance looked very effective. Looking closely I presume that they were a plywood box with normal building tiles glued around them, consistently one colour such as deep blue which gave the window effect.

Such a tile system could work very well on a backdrop to give a low relief depth but give the impression of more. Seeing a tile dealer for a remnant would be your cheapest option! You might even fool people at first about the detail and depth in your windows with moving characters in the office areas that look like the people admiring your work!

Hints & Tips No.54 -  Animation

By Rob Smith (Labrador Queensland)

 Although I work in larger scales, any movement or hint of movement can add that "something" to your village in any scale. Most often it is done by the train moving through your scene.

 There are also many other ways to induce movement regardless of scale. Small electric/battery motors can be mounted below the base board, above a fisherman can cast his line, an axe man can cut logs, a painter can paint a wall.....Simply moving a figurine left and right by having the shaft of the motor glued to the base of the figure will give the impression of life in the village.

 More intricate animation can involve boats moving on their anchors in the breeze to cars moving on roads. It is up to your imagination and your ability to see a small motor or gear and think of an alternate use in your scene.

Hints & Tips No.55-  Visualising Scenery.    

By Trevor Gibbs (Australia)

Some people do not tackle scenery usually using the excuse "I'm not artistic enough" or similar. Here is an easy way of being able to see how your scenery COULD turn out.
Cut some cardboard cartons into strips about 40-50mm wide. Start by stapling or tacking (cobblers blue tacks are good ) about an inch (25mm) or so of the strip to your base or frame then arc it upwards to the shape of your rolling hill. If your strip is not long enough to cover the size hill , simply staple another one on end and keep going. Place a number of strips about 120-150mm (4-5") apart parallel roughly where you envisage the hill being.
These strips will give you an idea of your shape and you can bend and crimp your strips to get the effect of hills, crags and cliff fronts. You can then make a simple lattice using strips and thread them through your laterally placed strips. This will give you a more solid base to look on and you can still make changes by crimping the card.
If you like what you see or you can visualise, make the frame a little more solid using hot melt glue and then you can cover it with whatever scenery you prefer to use, Chux cloths painted with PVA is good for this... or tear it out and try again for very little . Good luck...,

Hints & Tips No.56 – A Cheap and Simple (and very effective) Viaduct

By Tom Welsh (Sunshine MRC, Melbourne Australia)

 In building the exhibition layout “Chuffington” we needed a rather large viaduct of unusual ess shape. The track is elevated at that point and the shape would not be covered by a commercial offering. We made viaduct sides from some 3mm MDF board and bent it to the shape of the trackwork.

While we probably could have just painted the MDF, we elected to get some very coarse spent belt sander belts and glued them to the outer surfaces. We then cut the belt so that the arches were open and treated the insides of the arches the same way.

A coat of an earth tone paint and the origins of the material would not be known. This technique could be applied to any size bridge. You can see a picture of the bridge at .

(A Note From Trevor – The bridge has raised a few eyebrows even on the limited time that I have minded Chuffington for Tom at exhibitions. I had one gentleman say how expensive Model Railways were and I pointed the bridge out to him. “How much did that cost?” so when the process was explained, he was quite incredulous at what he was seeing! Well Done Tom) 

Hints & Tips No.58 - Minimising Bleeding Of Paint When Painting And Spraying, 

By Trevor Gibbs (Melbourne Australia)

 You can reduce the amount of bleeding under masking tape when spraying your models quite considerably.

 Paint the colour you want to be masked off and allow to dry thoroughly. Apply your masking. Then respray your model with the original colour. If there are holes in the masking, the overspray of the original colour will fill the spots where your secondary colour could have overrun the first colour. Allow to dry again.
Then spray with your secondary colour. Because the "holes" have been blocked, you should minimise any overrun you had under the paint masking and your lines should look quite neat! Now it should be easy to paint your blood and custard or chocolate and custard cars and keep the lines!

Only wish I had this info myself when I was painting the black stripe on my Canadian Budd Rail Cars. My thanks to Paul Hawden of The Buffer Stop, East Preston Victoria for his initial input for this technique.

Hints & Tips No.59 -  Preparation Of Kits For Assembly And Painting

By Donald Hess  (York PA,  USA)

 Most kits come in packaging straight from the mould. Pre-washing a plastic sprue in very luke warm water and detergent removes release agents from the plastic used in the moulding process. This makes it much much easier to paint later on.

As A follow up...

I would not recommend the use of detergent/washing up liquid as this, too, leaves a film on the surface. The best material to use for cleaning models is one of the bathroom cleaners which contains a limescale remover. I use Waitrose's own but any other will do. A trade name familiar to some would be 'Viakal'.

Hints & Tips No.61  - Air Brushes

By Trevor Gibbs (Melbourne Australia)

If you are going to do a bit of painting, you might like to invest in an air brush.

My own is not an internal mix but a simple external mix sprayer by Revell if I remember rightly but I have seen similar under the Humbrol name. Powering it is also quite easy as I use an old spare tyre blown up to 50psi (350kpa).

 While I would really love to have a better airbrush and a compressor etc, I find that I just could not rationalise the expense on the amount of work I would be doing with it and my results have been OK. I have found the Tamiya brand acrylics work well diluted with rubbing alcohol in such mixes.
Remember to work in a well ventilated area and have fun.


submit hints   Trevor   Brian