How to build a signal box for your model railway

18 September 2019
completed-model-web-90272.jpg Signal box
Adapting card kits can be very enjoyable as we demonstrate with this Metcalfe LNWR signal box.

Empty and disused signal boxes, goods sheds and station buildings became a common sight from 1963 onwards, as branch and secondary route train services became DMU operated, and staff were withdrawn from stations. Often this was a prelude to complete closure of many branch lines. With often just a basic passenger train service in operation, goods yard sidings were ripped up and single line operation instituted on former double track routes.

Many layouts feature a signal box, but not many show them in a derelict condition. Here, we’ve taken Metcalfe's popular LNWR signal box kit and built it to represent one of these unloved, but still standing, victims of modernisation and Dr. Beeching.


Many signal boxes had their locking room windows bricked up over time. We’ve stuck Scalescenes brown brick to the window cut-outs and refitted them back into the front wall.
How to make a signal box


Before we fit the windows, we hacked them about with a craft knife to look as though the locals had been using them for target practice!
How to make a signal box


The locking room door is cut so it is in the open position, and we cut a piece out of the card kit base so the door would stand open.
How to make a signal box


Using the Metcalfe first floor as a template, cut a new floor from 2mm balsa. In order for the grain of the timber to run correctly for the projecting gallery planking, we had to cut several pieces which I glued together with PVA.
How to make a signal box


Mark out the planking using a ball point pen, which will show through the next stage.
How to make a signal box


Stain the floor with two coats of ‘Peruvian Mahogany’ wood dye, and distressed the planking with a scalpel and sandpaper. Then weather the timber using watery washes of white, black and brown acrylic paint, before dry-brushing with Humbrol 53 ‘Gunmetal’ metallic, to represent the silvery look of old wood.
How to make a signal box


The base of the box was assembled following the Metcalfe instructions.
How to make a signal box


The main windows were then broken. This time we took out some of the timber glazing bars as well. This is hard work as the glazing material is quite tough.
How to make a signal box


Before sticking the main windows in the upper walls, use a very sharp scalpel, lightly scribe along all the timber planking lines, just enough to cut through the printed surface of the card.
How to make a signal box


Cut off the roof flap as we didn’t need this and it would be in the way of the detail we was going to add later. We also cut the cabin door so it could be modelled in the open position too.
How to make a signal box


We downloaded flaky, white painted timber boarding from and print it onto an A4 size self-adhesive label, before cutting sections out and sticking them to the inside walls.
How to make a signal box


We assembled the fittings mini-kit, and made a floor from card and marked it with planking using a pencil. We used a piece of cereal box card, which happened to be brown on the non-printed side. This was cut to be a snug fit in the base of the upper storey, to keep it square. Now it’s time to paint the various fittings with a wash of dirty grey/brown acrylic paint, before adding some rust weathering powder to the frame, stove and gate wheel.
How to make a signal box


The next step is to stick the various fittings to the floor, we deliberately broke the chairs and table leg in the process, to represent vandalism. To make the cabin interior look as though the roof had been leaking, we brushed the walls with white spirit then, while it was still wet and starting at the top, brushed on small amounts of ‘Peruvian Mahogany’ wood dye. Adding more dye in places suggested a concentration of water at that point. Don’t worry if it looks a bit dark when wet, as it dries lighter.
How to make a signal box


Apply the same technique to the cabin floor and furniture and when all is dry, dab thin PVA onto the walls and sprinkled some light green scatter material. We did the same on the floor, but this time used a mix of Javis black ash scatter and Woodland Scenics Fine Turf Earth concentrating the debris build up in the corners and around the fittings. Adding some tiny offcuts of card, string, tiny scraps of paper and glitter, to represent broken glass, completed this stage.
How to make a signal box


Now for the roof. Firstly add a structural ridge cut from a wooden coffee stirrer, before marking out rafters on the roof which comes with the kit. We cut out the waste material to leave me with five ‘rafters’ on each roof slope, 2mm wide spaced 8mm apart.
How to make a signal box


We apply the internal planking before fitting the roof. We’d already cut along the planking lines, so that part of the ceiling that falls away could be modelled.
How to make a signal box


We stuck the roof onto the upper floor and painted it with a mix of emulsion. I used tester pots from ‘Wilko’, Java Bean, Nutmeg Spice and black acrylic dabbed on to achieve an old, dirty appearance.
How to make a signal box


In order to model the ‘open’ part of the roof, we added slating laths cut from 25 thou’ plastic microstrip spaced at 4mm centres (3mm would have been better) stuck with UHU, and added a card overlay to the rest of the roof to bring it up to the same height. We used cereal box card for this. We also used the Metcalfe barge board spacers, but made some larger barge boards from 1/8th inch balsa and ran the laths onto them. The slating laths and roof overlay are then painted with a brown/black emulsion mixture.
How to make a signal box


The slates (downloaded from Scalescenes) were stuck to the roof and laths using neat PVA. Some areas were left without slates and some tiny offcuts were stuck in place to add to the air of dereliction.
How to make a signal box


The bottoms of all three doors were scratched with a sharp scalpel to remove the printed surface of the card. A brush loaded with clean white spirit was held on the bottom of each, which wicked up into the card. This was then repeated with the dark wood dye to simulate rotten water-damaged timber.
How to make a signal box


On the real thing, the window cleaning gallery was supported on cast iron brackets that are made these from standard office staples, bent and cut to shape before supergluing them to the wall and underside of the gallery.
How to make a signal box


Final detailing then took place, using Ratio guttering and 1.5mm diameter Jewellers aluminium wire as rainwater pipes, with collars made by wrapping 0.3mm Jewellers wire twice around the pipe. Handrails across the windows were made from 0.3mm Jewellers wire glued into small holes drilled in the card.


The plastic staircase was tackled next. We scraped the top of each stair tread and lightly gouged them with a pointed scalpel blade to represent wear and timber grain, then we cut away bits of one or two steps and broke one completely. We also cut away one of the handrails before assembly and painted them with my black/brown emulsion mix. Dry brushing with Gunmetal brought out the highlights.
How to make a signal box


The final item to make was a stovepipe. We used a plastic lollipop stick, cut and filed to fit before gluing it together, but 2mm tubular plastic section would be just as good.
How to make a signal box


Finally, we gave the whole building a light blasting with a watery spray of dark brown and black acrylic. Then, with the spray on a finer setting, added further weathering below windows, where more run-off occurs, and at the base of the wall, where splash-up occurs.
How to make a signal box

Once the building has been fixed in place on the layout, more broken slates can be scattered on the ground below the areas of roof damage, with further debris such as bits of timber, broken furniture and other items like the signal box nameboard perhaps.

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Want some houses to complete your scene? Our guide on how to build and detail a card kit is worth a read. Or if you’re interested in building some roads and pavements, our handy guide is filled with tips and advice.

For more help and tips for adding grass to your model railway - watch our video on how to create realistic scenery using static grass here. 

And what about trees? Our online guide will help you get to grips with ‘planting’ trees on your model railway. 

Need more advice? Take a look at the BRM Techniques page for all our latest guides and advice articles.