Phil's Practical - Light your layout with LEDs

22 July 2020
No matter how hard you work on your layout, if people can't see it, your efforts will be wasted. Adding lights isn't difficult, so don't fumble around in the dark!

I'm fitting lights to a micro layout, so I don't want heavy, mains voltage bulbs - it's not fun when your lighting rig weighs more than your entire model railway! For this job, I can use strips of LEDs. First, we need something to attach them to, therefore a fascia board has to be built.

Fascias need to be able to take a few knocks so the core of this one is a plastic angle. It's bolted to some supports made from wood offcuts. 3mm thick MDF is perfect as it can be cut with a heavy craft knife - I find it easier to be accurate with one of these than a saw, not that millimetre precision is required here! The plastic nut and bolt are sold for attaching car number plates. You don't have to use plastic, of course, I just had a couple leftover from another job.

The fascia panel is made from more 3mm MDF, fixed to the angle with plenty of contact adhesive. I'll paint this later and put the layout name on it.

Self-adhesive lengths of 12V LED strip are fixed in place and wired together. You can buy these from most model railway traders who sell electrical items, and they are sold by the foot. The outer lengths are warm white and the centre cool white, giving a good colour balance for a layout set in the endless English summer. I'd like to say the inside of the fascia is painted blue to reflect a nice sky colour, but I'd just run out of white...

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LEDs can be a bit bright in such a small space, so, I'll fit a dimmer switch to turn them down. It's simple to wire in – 12V in one pair of screw terminals and then a pair of wires to the light strips.

Sadly, the dimmer is too large to hide anywhere on the layout, but by taking all the components out of the case, they can be fitted into the control panel. We aren't using mains voltages here, so this is all perfectly safe. While the soldering iron was out, I fitted an on/off switch too. Although the LEDs will probably outlive the layout, there's no need to leave them burning when it's not in use or if I want to simulate night time on the model.