Section Four: Decoration and Scenery

Once you've finished building your module, laying the track and wiring, you're ready to do some cosmetic work to make it beautiful. Aside from adhering to a few basic Tinplate Trackers standards, outlined up to now, what you do at this point is up to you and your imagination. You can do just about anything you wish because fun is what this is all about. Below are some examples.

Having said that, we'll make some suggestions which you may want to follow -- at least we hope you'll follow some of them. Then we'll tell about a few technical tricks that will make permanent scenery and accessories highly portable!

Basic Necessities

It seems to us that the most basic of necessities is a coat of paint, as an expanse of bare wood and some spindly bare legs can hardly be called beautiful. While the choice of color is up to you, earth tones are probably the best choice as they will harmonize with most any other color and won't overpower your accessories, structures and such details on the deck of your module

If you operate with a regular group, and it has a standardized color, you may want to paint it accordingly. For example, the San Fernando Valley, California chapter standardized on Ameritone Paints "Tall Tree Green" Latex for module fascias and legs. Our San Diego AGTTA group has standardized on a combination of Navajo White for the substructure and deck edges and gray for the legs. Standardized paint schemes make a nicer appearance when the modules are assembled into a layout.

The deck can be painted, but the use of indoor-outdoor carpet has several advantages. It makes for a richer appearance and it helps to absorb some of the noise, and we'll have to admit that Lionel trains can be noisy. Again, use green or brown. Many prefer brown since not too many railroad yards are grassy.

Some people use roadbed. You can buy cork roadbed at your nearby hobby store or from some of the mail-order dealers. This is about 3/8" thick and brown in color. It is rectangular in cross section and slit diagonally down the middle. Take it apart at the slit and you'll find beveled edges. Just flip it over and you'll have a good looking roadbed that can be cemented down to the bard wood or even to the carpet.

If you're handy with power saws, you may want to cut your own roadbed with beveled edges from Homasote or Celotex, which is 1/2" thick, possibly more realistic, but it will need to be painted or covered with some kind of gravel or other aggregate material. These two materials can be very dusty when cut with a typical saw blade (wear eye protection and a mask), but it has been suggested that all dust can be eliminated if you use a knife-edge blade in your saber say. It may be slow going, but it will be clean.

Some people add ballast for the ultimate in realism. It can be purchased from your hobby store and must be securely glued in place. Or you can get fine bird gravel from a pet store. Be wary of fish gravel as it often contains tiny shells which might look a bit odd on your railroad. Non-scoop cat litter (the kind without the chlorophyll coloring) actually makes a nice O-Gauge ballast, but beware if you have a cat! It has an attractant in it and your cat will scratch the "ballast" and use it for its original intended purpose. You might try an auto parts store for the "oil pickup" version.

Ground cover and ballast that are glued down, such as we just suggested, have to be thoroughly glued down or they will be knocked loose as your modules are moved from here to there and back and have been set up, banged up, taken down and jiggled over rough roads in your car. You might find your module leaving a small trail of ballast or ground cover behind. We suggest a diluted white or carpenters' clue and lots of it.

That's a little bit of bare-bones information that can get you started. The bare wood is gone but your module is stile one to underwhelm anyone looking at it. Before going further, you'll want to digest the following ideas and then think a bit about what you'd like to do (or your group has in mind) before you dive into a heavy scenic program.

Themes for Scenery

There are many techniques used to scenic a train layout which are covered in excellent books. What will be covered here are some themes, thoughts and methods which can be applied to a modular layout. Many of the techniques to give the illusion of distance or size, which have been used in home or club layouts, can be used on Tinplate Trackers modules. The difference is that the scenery on a Trackers module should be interesting to look at, easy to set up, lightweight, able to take abuse, easily repaired if necessary, and can be condensed into a few strong carrying cases.

The following represent the common styles/themes used in module decoration. Feel free to choose any combination or make up one of your own.





Child Fantasy:

Adult Fantasy (keep it clean here, people):

Please Touch:

Christmas under the Tree:

Making Your Own Mix

All of the above suggestions are just that. Take these ideas and add your own, or mix them together. Add all the little details that bring the scene to life, such as people, cars and trucks, trees, animals, and all the other objects we use and see in our everyday life. The addition of a blue-painted backdrop (skyboard) will add a lot of class to your scenery, allowing the viewer to enjoy your efforts without being distracted by "giants."

Important: having skyboards adds to the beauty of a module, but it also creates a situation where you can't see the trains running on the module. They may obstruct derailments or uncoupled cars.

The time it takes to set up a module with scenery can easily run into an hour just to put on all the building, people, cars, trucks, trees, telephone poles and assorted detail parts. Some ideas to help save time in setting up and taking down your modules follow.


Make a miniature scene that just drops into a space on your module. One example of this is a cattle pen where all the fences and animals are glued down to a piece of Homasote. If you have a Main Street with a lot of people walking around, try gluing them to Plexiglass or plywood strips which have been painted to look like a sidewalk. Mailboxes, fire hydrants and other small details can also be glued down.

Details such as people, crates and barrels can be glued to loading platforms. A station platform with the people and packages glued in place will also save time. To those of you with original tinplate buildings who have been cringing at the though of gluing things to them, try mounting your details on a piece of clear Plexiglass, cut to the correct shape which can sit on your buildings.

Building Placement:

Having another person help set up can also save time, but required pre-planning. Trace the bases of your buildings onto the module and label which building goes in which space. Have pictures of the module for others to see and use to place things. For the placement of vehicles and people, give the boxes to some of the younger train buffs in your group. This method may require a final check to find all the car accidents, people who have been run over, and other mishaps from the mind of Calvin and Hobbes. I personally enjoy seeing these and will often leave them for the enjoyment of all.

Electrical Considerations:

Lighted buildings add a great deal to the realism of a module. But to save time with lighted buildings and operating accessories, try using small electrical plugs (with the correct number of contact points) that plug into connectors mounted to the module. Richard Unfried even had organ music playing from one of his buildings.

Scenery Techniques

Scenery techniques will be general in nature, as there are so many great books containing all the details. Because the module will be transported often, anything that is glued down such as grass and bushes, will take a lot of abuse. You may want to have some glue and grass in your tool box for repairs.


Any mountains should be light in weight and strong. Lightweight mountains can be made of plastic foam or old ceiling tiles which are then covered with cloth (rags, fabric store remnants, sewing box scraps, etc.). When the cloth is glued to the foam base with white or yellow carpenters' glue, a hard shell will result which can take a great deal of abuse. Ground cover can then be applied to the cloth surface. Mountains, like the miniature scenes mentioned previously, should be made as separate units which are placed in pre-marked positions on the module. Try adding interest to your module by making the tracks go around or through an obstruction such as a river, lake or mountain.

Ground Cover:

The simplest method is to put green carpeting down on the plywood, then screw down your track right through this. More realistic ground cover can be made by gluing down green sawdust or some of the other commercially made products.

Roads can be made by using thin plywood or foamcore (from an art store) over carpeting. If you are not using carpet, paint the base plywood directly or glue down gray, brown or black dirt, stones, dust, etc.

Track ties will add to the appearance and can be made from Masonite, plywood, or rip cut from solid wood slats such as those used for lattice work. The ties can then be stained or painted. Ties also can be purchased from manufacturers.

Track ballast looks great, but as some have learned the hard way, do not glue ballast where jumper tracks go between the modules. To avoid plain track between each module, try mounting the ties to the jumper track with HO rail spikes. Then place a piece of wax paper (the glue won't stick to wax paper), under the track and screw the track to a piece of plywood. Spread the ballast between the ties and apply glue to the ballast and ties. When this dries, remove the screws and wax paper; what is left is a ballasted section of track to go between the modules. For smooth operation, the adjoining modules must be flat and level.


Since the modules are of necessity narrow, they cannot contain a complete village or mountain range. A good way to achieve the effect of a realistic city or village scene is to use a row of building fronts, sides, or backs at the rear of a module to stop the line of sight. This also gives the impression that the scene continues past the rear of the module.

This can be achieved by using plastic kit parts kit-bashed into two- or three-story buildings. Add depth to the building by constructing a one- or two-inch side and top. To hold these in place, glue a back to each building which extends below the table top and is bolted to the rear of the module, or glue the buildings to a skyboard. Lights and interior details also can be incorporated into these structures.

Another method of constructing building fronts is to use plywood or Masonite backboards cut out as a silhouette or skyline and painted to represent a row of buildings. In one instance, a piece of hollow core door was used to provide the thickness and give the illusion of depth. O-scale plastic windows and doors can be painted and glued to building false fronts.

Another less realistic, but adequate, method of adding detail to a painted false front is to use an art or drafting program on a personal computer to create doors, windows or other details. Have them printed on a laser printer and then cut them out and glue them in place on the painted false front. This technique can be used to produce the effect of a row of tall multistory buildings in a short time. Additional detail or relief can be achieved by painting and gluing wood or plastic trim strips to represent moldings, cornices or parapets.

Trees and Shrubs:

Trees are the one item on a module that can add greatly to the scene, but can also add an extra box to the load. They will take a great deal of abuse, so plan on replacing them from time to time. Trees must be made removable. Drill a hole into the module deck for each tree to fit in. Or mount several trees and shrubs on a decorated piece of plywood for foamcore that can be placed on your module as a unit.

Make it You:

If you study the accompanying photos, you'll see many of these suggestions illustrated and you'll probably also see others that might set your mind to work. Just remember, your module should reflect your own personal interests and imagination. There are no rights or wrongs in scenery, just different options. The most important thing to keep in mind is that no matter what you put on your module, it will look better than nothing at all. Have fun!

Scenery: How High?

When planning your scenery, keep in mind how high it will be above the deck or table height. Our standards offer no absolute measurement here, but keep in mind the fact that whatever you do with modules you have to carry them from home to wherever they are to be set up. So buildings or mountains can be just about any height you feel proper for the scene.

We think you might start with a skyboard (backboard) and our recommended height is 12" above the deck. N-Trak suggests two heights -- 8" and 14" -- but their trains are much smaller than ours. If you're working with a group, all members might wish to standardize on one height.

You can make it from thin plywood, Masonite or foamcore (available at art supply stores). Foamcore would be the lightest, but would be more vulnerable to damage than Masonite. You'll need to wrap your skyboards in some way to protect them from damage during transport.

How do you attach them? If you've built your module with a rear fascia that rises above the deck an inch or two, you can put a strip of plywood or two short ones to serve as clips so your skyboard slips down over fascia where it is held securely.

Another way is to fasten it with two short bolts that screw into T-nuts fastened on the inside of your rear fascia. This works just as well, but takes a little longer to set up and you have to remember to carry the bolts.

A word of caution. If you operate from behind the module, skyboards can obscure your view of what is happening on the layout. Have cars come uncoupled, leaving the engine racing ahead? Has some kid put his hand on the track to play chicken with the approaching train? With possible situations like this, you may want only a few skyboards on the layout to leave some viewing windows. (Editor's note: At the 1992 TTOS Convention in Long Beach, there were so many skyboards in use that entire trains - 20 feet plus - were completely obscured, which resulted in a couple of rear-end collisions.)

There has been some thought and discussion about operating from the outside (front). This lets you keep any eye on all the action and makes it easier to talk to the spectators at a show. Our standards are not designed this way, but with the advent of wireless control systems, this has become much easier to set up. With some minor variations, a transformer could be attached to the front of a module, but this may present other problems. Any suggestions?

Giving a Skyboard Character

The sky is blue (except maybe downtown) so this might be a reasonable color. You could also put clouds on it. Several articles have appeared in the model press suggesting ways to do this, including using a sponge and white and perhaps also gray paint. Creating a smoggy city? Som other color might be better.

Walthers sells a wide range of pre-printed backdrops through hobby dealers that depict cities, harbors, small towns, and open country from the desert to the mountains. These are like wallpaper two feet high and three feet wide, which means you'll need to do some splicing to make them fit on your four-foot modules. The height can be trimmed to 12" or whatever, depending on the particular ones you are using. They can be mounted with wallpaper paste or rubber cement.

There are also sheets on which are printed a number of buildings of various types. These can be mounded on foamcore or heavy cardboard, cut out, and clued to your skyboard for a three-dimensional effect.

Mountains for Variety

If skyboards don't turn you on, how about a mountain? Keep in mind that for modules, a mountain must be durable and light, for it's going to get a lot of handling. There are a number of materials on the market that are useful here. One is Styrofoam, especially the Dow blue extruded Styrofoam that doesn't have a big dust problem like the white Styrofoam made from countless little beads. Layers of Styrofoam can be glued together to build up the shape and size you want, then covered with a thin coat of plaster or a thick coat of latex paint in a grass or dirt color. Typical scenery materials can be used to cover this later, and with a few bushes and trees, you have an interesting shape on your layout.

Note: When gluing Styrofoam, be careful of the glue chosen. Some types will attack and dissolve Styrofoam. The best bet is probably something like Elmer's carpenter's glue.

Chris Scharfenberg's Approach to Mountains:

For modules which are subject to more stress than a permanent layout, and which must be easily portable, plaster is neither durable nor easy to repair, and it's heavy. Styrofoam is another messy material that is difficult to repair when damaged. The solution: foam rubber. It is flexible, light, durable, and easy to maintain. My prototype foam rubber mountain is a tunnel, but the same process can be used to construct mountain terrain.

Easy Building Process

Now Comes the Painting

Tips to Add Fun

A Rolling Countryside Instead?

Equipment You'll Need

Proceed Carefully

Now the Fun Part

Going Below Deck

We assure you we're not into boats, but just want to let you know that all scenery doesn't have to be above the deck. The fact is, you can make a base deck of 1/4" plywood stretching across the width of your module at the bottom of your joists and then cut away the front fascia (or both of them) and install a highway underpass, river, or even a mine.

Norm Hill, an AGTTA member in San Diego, California, utilized a similar idea by building a wide river that had many bridges crossing above the placid water. Unless the bridges are removable, a module like this takes up extra space for both storage and transport.

Using Operating Accessories

Everybody likes action, whether you're using your modules as a home layout, at a club meeting or a big mall show. And the way to achieve this is with some of the Lionel and American Flyer accessories, of course.

Most accessories, like the lumber mill, horse corral, icing station and oil drum loader, should be easily removable to facilitate transportation and storage. When they operate using electricity, it calls for some way to disconnect them easily. Also, some of them need to be precisely located on the module, thus requiring additional work. In Figure 4-14, if you look closely, you can see a small wood molding around the bases of the horse corral and lumber mill. These show exactly where they are to be located when on the layout. They are connected using standard phone plugs and jacks obtainable from any electronic store (try Radio Shack's open circuit two-conductor 275-1536 and 274-252). These may be large and obvious, but they are durable so 8·'ll stand a lot of handling by many hands, some of which are powerful and a little clumsy.

If you want to be neater, use miniature or subminiature plugs and jacks (Radio Shack 275-286 and 274-251). They'll do the job, but they do require more delicate handling. While you're doing this, try to mount all such plugs so they can't be seen from the fronts of the modules, where spectators will be. On obvious place is the rear fascia where it's handy to use them. Another is a panel at the rear of the deck. They could be screened by a building, or just the facade of a building. Sockets could be located under the accessories with the wires passing through holes in the deck.

Switches for operating the accessories can be those that come with them, or you can use on-off or momentary on-off pushbuttons or toggles depending on need. Again, your friendly electronic store or Radio Shack can oblige.

For accessories that are less delicate, or do not need a lot of "babysitting," you might want to consider putting the control switches on the front fascia so that the kids (young and old) can operate the accessory. The choice is up to you.

A Warning About Accessories

Many operating accessories, such as the horse corral, must be placed quite close to the track which is fine when you're running Lionel trains. However, if you're running hi-rail (scale-sized) equipment from Weaver, Williams, Right-of-Way, MTH, Third Rail or even some newer releases from Lionel, you may run into clearance problems. Therefore, a simple admonishment: Do not place any operating accessories that might impair hi-rail equipment alongside mainline tracks! A better location would be along a siding where you're free to use reduced clearances and sharp curves.

As you add decoration and scenery to your modules, use your imagination in many ways, and youll be able to meet the problems of just how to attach both static and operating displays, and how to store and carry them. Just remember to keep it simple; keep it durable; and keep it fun!

  • Introduction
  • Simple Standards
  • What's in This Manual?
  • Section One: Module Construction
  • Section Two: Track
  • Section Three" Electrical
  • Section Five: Special Modules
  • Back to Cover Page