Model Railway Buildings: A Beginners Guide

14 July 2022
This guide aims to explain the key differences between the different model railway building kit types available, plus offers some top tips on how to personalise or make your own buildings.

The modelling world has moved on massively over the past few decades, especially when it comes to the buildings we can feature on a layout. There is a huge range of detailed models available from a wide variety of manufacturers, from ready-assembled models to self-assembly model railway building kits.

Let's first take a look at the options available.

Model Railway Buildings: Card Kits

Phil Parker built this accessible N gauge modern warehouse card kit from Metcalfe Models in the September 2021 issue of BRM.

Probably the most well-known of all the options and widely used, for decades, card kits have lined layouts around the world. Today, their realism is greater than ever, through improved printing technology of components for a precision fit. They’re cost-effective, too – great news for non-confident builders. 

Card kits are reasonably simple to construct and require few tools, again, ideal for beginners, though choose your first wisely – some of its larger kits require patience, not always in plentiful supply for some! However, do not try to skip reading the instructions of a kit even if it is a simple kit. You could regret it if you do not!

Card kits don't demand much in the way of tools – a sharp knife, glue and a steel rule will be enough.

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Model Railway Buildings: Plastic Kits

Experienced modeller, Michael Russell, adapted and elevated this N gauge factory plastic kit from Gaugemaster in the May 2022 issue of BRM. 

Like card, plastic kits are generally less expensive than ready-made buildings and there are plenty of manufacturers and models available to suit a variety of eras and locations.

If you have not built a plastic kit before, the first suggestion is to build something small rather than attempting to make a complicated kit. This will give you the confidence to go on to build a larger kit next time.

Arguably, plastic can look a little too shiny and ‘fake’ when constructed and, even the kits that advertise as ‘ready painted’, will still need toning down somewhat to look more authentic.

What is laser-cut?

One of the easiest ways of adding individual buildings to a layout is to build a laser-cut MDF kit. In the February 2022 issue of BRM, Stu Hilton constructed perhaps the best choice for the beginner. 

When you’re on the hunt for a new building kit, you will at some point come across the phrase ‘laser-cut’, which applies to a tool that has been used to create a kit. Laser cutters use a thin, focused laser beam to pierce and cut through materials to cut out patterns and geometries specified by designers.

Generally, laser-cut kits are easier to construct than card and plastic kits, because the pieces are pre-cut and ready to use, and, depending on the material used, can be of higher quality, yet still very cost-effective. 

Ready-to-plant buildings for your model railway

In the July 2022 issue of BRM, Jamie Warne adapted a Bachmann Scenecraft building, inspired by a recent pub refurbishment in his local area, as seen above.

It is now possible to buy many types of buildings and accessories made in well-detailed fully assembled form. These buildings are readily available in many scales and are a great way to make a village or station quickly. These buildings usually do not require painting or assembly and are available from a number of companies.

The buildings can be used straight out of the box or can be personalised in small ways such as adding an extension onto them, weathering the building, adding lights to the interior and attaching creeping ivy to the walls.

Adding further details

  • If you are using houses, shops, sheds or station buildings it will be a simple task to paint the doors different colours using a small paintbrush with acrylic paints.
  • Adding curtains to some of the windows is easy because the buildings come ready glazed. Curtains or blinds can be made from scraps of different coloured paper, thin card or tissue. PVA adhesive or sellotape can be used to fix the curtains in place.
  • Windows can be made to look dirty by scrubbing them with sandpaper or painting them with thinned watercolours.
  • Cutting the windows with a sharp craft knife or a screwdriver can give the appearance of broken panes.
  • One way of personalising industrial, office or station buildings is to fix signs and posters to them. Various companies sell miniature signs and posters in popular scales.
  • One of the most important finishing touches that we can do to buildings is to ‘plant’ them into the ground rather than on top of the ground. PVA adhesive can be used to fix the buildings to the layout and as the glue is drying around the base of the building it is easy to sprinkle on a very fine scatter material. Pavements are another way to improve the realism of model buildings.

What is kit-bashing?

If you’re worried about seeing exactly the same structures on other layouts, you can alter kits to make them different or hide their identity by taking pieces out of existing kits to create something new. This is known as ‘kit-bashing’ and can be a great way to create something different quite easily.

Skills learnt ‘kit-bashing’ can also be applied to future scratch-built projects, too.

What is scratch-building?

Constructed in 170 hours across 138 days, Michael Scott provided an account of how this impressive low-relief hotel was scratch-built in the March 2022 issue of BRM. 

Scratch-building is, as the name suggests, the process of building a model ‘from scratch’ using raw materials, rather than building it from a kit, kit-bashing, or buying ready-to-plant.

Scratch-building is easiest when based on a prototype, particularly when the original can be visited and measured, either in person, or using photographs. The parts are then created out of a suitable material.

Weathering buildings

In the July 2022 issue of BRM, Tom Blount used weathering powders from Humbrol to create a worn and used appearance to this signal box. Less is more here, and after placing on your layout, you can always revisit the weathering and add more.

Light weathering can be done to roofs and walls using a ‘dry brushing’ technique. Use a flat paintbrush just dipped into acrylic paints – take off any excess paint with a tissue. Brush along the roof tiles and the brick courses. Some paint will stick to the detail on the walls and roof. Once the paint is applied partially rub it off using a tissue so that the weathering remains in the brick courses and between the tiles.

Weathering can also be undertaken with an airbrush or charcoal or chalk pastels. Watercolours are another cheap and cheerful way to weather these buildings – just run some diluted paint down through the brick courses.

A different method is to use weathering dyes. These weathering dyes are water or alcohol soluble and provide good adhesion even on glossy paint finishes and smooth metals. They dry matt and can be sprayed with an airbrush or brushed on with a flat paintbrush. Use thin washes of the dyes starting at the top of buildings and let the diluted dye drip down through the brickwork.

As with all weathering unless you want your building to look very dirty go easy on the weathering techniques.

Find out more

How to assemble a 'download and print-at-home' kit

How to make realistic shop windows 

How to build and detail a card kit

Want some further buildings 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 creating some roads and pavements, our handy guide is filled with tips and advice.

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