Model Buildings

This article first appeared in the March/April 2003 issue of AMRA's 'Journal'.
By Stephen J Chapman.

When you first start building your model railway you probably purchased all of the rolling stock that you needed in ready to run form and your buildings either pre-built or as kits. When you're ready to move on and start making things yourself then kit-bashing and scratch-building the buildings for your model railway is a good place to start.

First off to define what I mean by kit-bashing and scratch-building. Normally when you get a model kit there are instructions on how to put the kit together. When you build the kit according to these instructions you have a kit-built model to go on your layout. If instead of building the kit according to the supplied instructions, you instead decide to put the kit together in a different way or perhaps combine the parts from two or more kits together and perhaps a few other items as well so as to produce a different structure then you have a kit-bashed model to go on your layout. If instead of starting with a kit you go even further and use a variety of components such as plastic sheet (which may be embossed), card (which may be pre-printed) and perhaps some window and chimney mouldings and use these to put together a model then you have a scratch-built model to go on your layout (Purists may insist that it's only scratchbuilt if you build all of the components yourself but I'd only accept someone arguing that refinement of the meaning of scratch-built if they've scratch-built a locomotive in accordance with their definition and I'd want to see proof that the magnet in the motor was scratch-built from a plain piece of metal).

This progression from kit-built through kit-bashed to scratch-built introduces you gradually to the concept of building your own models from scratch. It allows you to build your model making skills gradually. If you start with buildings rather than rolling stock then you also don't have to worry about gauge and enabling the model to run on your track, scale is less important because you can always place a slightly under scale model at the back and call it perspective, and as buildings vary more in appearance than does rolling stock you have more freedom in what you do with your model.

The more that you alter a kit from how the instructions say to build it, the less that your final building will look like the one that comes from the kit. Change the way that you put the building together enough from the kit instructions (particularly if you merge the components of two or more kits and a variety of other parts) and you will soon be creating buildings that are unrecognisable as having originated from that kit. Even where you have made fewer changes and the original kit is still identifiable the resultant building is still different from the kit in some way and you have made your mark. Your buildings are what you want them to be and not just a collection of kits.

When you move beyond mixing and matching parts of existing kits and start altering those parts significantly and even creating parts of your own you will want to start planning out your building on paper before you start. Draw out the floor plan and various side views. You don't need to include all of the detail of window and door locations etc. if you are going to be using parts from kits where these are already in place, you'll just need to note which part of which kit is to go where and what needs cutting or manufacturing from scratch to fill those gaps in your building plan where you don't have a kit part to suit. Planning what you are going to do on paper before you start cutting parts or gluing them together will allow you to make sure that what you propose to do will actually work.

If you decide to build a model of an actual building or even just a building of a type that is distinctive then photographs become very important. Having photos of the actual building that you are trying to model or of a variety of buildings of the type that you are trying to model will allow you to construct a model that more accurately reflects the prototype upon which your model is based rather than being just another generic building.

The exact process of how you go about kit-bashing or scratch-building the buildings for your layout will vary depending on what parts you have available, what type of building you are trying to produce, and how accurately you are trying to model a specific prototype. I am not therefore going to give you precise instructions on how to go about it (because there aren't any). Instead I'll discuss things in more general terms and give you some examples from my own layout as to how you can progress from simple alterations to existing kits through to buildings that are constructed entirely from scratch.

On my own layout I have a town scene. The scenic area consists mostly of roads and buildings instead of the usual fields that you find on many model railways. Because I have a town scene, I need lots of buildings. There are a range of building kits available that are suitable for the area and period that I am modelling but the expense of purchasing that many kits would be prohibitive as well as requiring my using the same kits several times over to fill the space. This is where the kit-bashing and scratch-building comes in - to reduce the cost of filling the area with buildings and to provide a greater variety in the appearance of those buildings. I have some kit-built buildings on my layout, some buildings that are based on kits and still more that I have created almost entirely from scratch.

Blocks of Units

At the left hand end of my layout (as viewed from the front) are four blocks of units. I acquired these as four kits from a friend who had decided that they weren't appropriate for their layout after all. There were two kits of one type and two of a second type but both types of kit were the same brand and used some of the same building sections. As part of the construction of these units involved stacking sections on top of one another, it was a simple matter to reduce the number of stacked sections in some instances and use the saved sections to increase the height of other instances. Simply by moving sections between these kits allowed me to produce four blocks of units that are all completely different from one another and none of which match completely to the instructions that came with the kits. This is kit-bashing at its most basic level.

What I am covering in this article is mostly appropriate to modelling in any scale. To discuss the next "building" you need to know that my layout is N scale because the gas tower at the right end of the layout originated as an HO scale hit. This kit as purchased is just about big enough to supply gas to a short street, it is way under scale compared to the size of the real thing. The reason for this is that gas towers are huge structures and most HO scale modellers would not want to devote enough space on their layout to fit a proper scale model. This kit provides them with something that looks like a gas tower without taking up anywhere near so much space. It also provides N scale modellers like me with a gas tower somewhat closer to the correct scale. In this case I built most of the kit in accordance with the instructions but left off everything that would be obviously out of scale such as the safety railings. I substituted N scale equivalents for these over scale items and added an N scale person standing at the top of the stairs. The result is a model gas tower that (while not perfectly to scale) looks reasonable and fits in with the rest of the layout well enough for me.

Gas Tank and Church

There is a long road along the back of my layout with buildings all along one side. There is a row of shops at one end of the street and terraced houses at the other. Let's look at what I did with some of the terraced houses first. One of the cheaper kits that I was able to obtain contains a row of four terraced houses. I purchased six of these kits and instead of building each of them separately, I modified them so as to allow me to construct a single row of twenty four terraced houses as one model. These were built for my previous model railway and on the current model they do not quite fill the available space. As a result of this, I have obtained a corner store kit from the same manufacturer and intend to build this into the end of the existing terrace block.

This same manufacturer also provided station building kits. Because I am running eight coach trains my platforms are somewhat longer than would be found on many model railways in the same scale. The station buildings that were available all looked rather insignificant in the expanse of platform. This called for some serious kit-bashing. I obtained two station kits, a platform canopy kit, a lineside building kit, and a house kit. The parts from these kits with some modification made a much more substantial building for my station To create this building I measured the various parts first so as to work out the best way to put them together. In some places I needed to cut the length of walls down so as to fit them into the arrangement that I wanted. Careful planning enabled me to avoid having to cut a wall through where the holes for the windows were and thus avoided the need to fill any gaps. I followed a similar process to this in combining kits together to produce the church.

Some of the other terraced house kits that I obtained are more expensive but provide greater flexibility as to what you can do with them because each kit contains a number of individual terraced houses that can be constructed separately. This allows the individual homes to be staggered slightly from one another. Also there are three different finishes (stone, brick, and concrete) and the individual homes can be arranged in whatever order that you want to combine these finishes. This if flexibility provided by the kit itself, however you build them like that they're still kit-built models. The road where these models goes is along the back of the scenic area and with these particular models the front and back of the models are of identical appearance. What I did was to cut all of the side walls in half and construct half kits (what is called low-relief modelling). When the resultant models are attached side by side to produce the row of terraced houses the result is twice as many homes and a model twice as long as I would have had if I had built the kits according to the original instructions. As they are at the back you can't tell that these houses don't have any backs.

For the shops at the other end of the street, I started out with some Farish building kits. These kits are pre-printed card that gets stuck over plastic blocks. I don't think you can get building kits like this in any other scale but the way that I have developed this approach to buildings can still be applied in the other scales. The first thing that I noticed is that there are nowhere near enough kits in this range to provide all of the shops that I would need. I could afford to buy more than one of each kit but these still wouldn't be enough to fill the whole area and besides which, there were also insufficient variations available in the kits and I didn't want more than one of the same shop. The first solution that I found to this problem was a card sheet of low relief buildings. The sheet consisted only of building fronts. The idea of this is that they are cut out and glued to the bottom edge of the backscene to provide background buildings. I wanted something that was more like a proper building so instead of gluing them to the backscene (which isn't fitted yet on the current layout) I glued them to some of the plastic blocks from a Farish kit and then used the sides and backs supplied with the Farish kits to turn them into complete buildings. The heights of these building fronts didn't match perfectly with the heights of the plastic blocks so some adjustment with sheets of plastic was required to make everything go together.

I had soon used up all of the additional Farish kits this way and by this time was ready to take the next step. Instead of gluing the shop fronts to plastic blocks I glued them to a sheet of plastic. I then used embossed plastic sheets which I cut to shape to form the sides and roof of the building. This turned out to be an even easier way of producing these buildings than using the Farish blocks as well as being much cheaper. An occasional chimney (either from a packet of chimneys or left over from some other kit) finished off these buildings.

I finished up all of the building fronts on the card sheet and still needed more buildings. By now I was effectively constructing the rest of the building myself from embossed plastic sheet so it is not too big a change to move on to doing the building front the same way. By this stage the number of plastic window mouldings that I had left over from other kits was quite large but if you don't have any you can buy these separately. All that you need then is a sharp craft knife and lots of patience while you cut out the holes for all of the windows from an embossed plastic sheet. Depending on what sort of doors that you are going to use you may also need to cut out a space for these as well or you might get away with gluing them onto the front of the sheet as I did.

Of course sometimes you want to achieve an effect with a building that doesn't require much modification to a kit. To create a building with a run down appearance doesn't have to involve much departure from the instructions. The abandoned goods shed on my layout is a standard Ratio kit but the guttering has been altered, the doors placed in a different location, and the building was carefully painted to give the appearance I wanted.

Abandoned Goods Shed

I will mention one further building that I helped construct which doesn't appear on my layout but rather on the HO layout of a friend of mine. This is probably the most complex building that I have built so far and for this one I had help. My friend has a turntable on the layout with about a dozen loco storage roads coming off of it. He had several books containing photos of a number of corrugated iron round houses and wanted something similar to go on his layout. I came up with the idea of constructing the model from scratch using plastic beams and painted corrugated card. What we did was to measure out the area where the roundhouse was to go and drew up a full size floor plan for the proposed roundhouse. We also drew up a side view that showed how the roof would slope down towards the front and back of the shed. We were then able to use this second diagram as a template for assembling a roof support for each end of the shed and also one to go between each of the roads in the shed from the plastic girders that we purchased from the hobby shop. Once all of these were dry we could then use the floor plan to cut additional girders to attach the front, top, and rear or each roof section to its neighbour to give us a frame for the entire roof of the shed. It was a simple matter to then glue the corrugated card onto each section of this roof. It was also rather easy with the roof built to add a large number of girder sections all of the same length under front, centre, and back of each roof frame and to glue corrugated sheet to the sides and back of the resultant structure to complete the roundhouse.


As you can see, I have progressed from making minor changes to kits through to the point where I am effectively creating buildings from scratch and in each instance the progression from what I had done for the prior building to what I wanted to do for the next one was not a great change. In addition these buildings are also similar enough in their overall appearance that they all look like they belong together. When you look closely at my buildings, they are far from perfect but the majority of them are along the back of the layout where you can't look all that closely at them and so the overall effect that I was aiming for is achieved.

One other aspect of the progression that I have gone through in constructing these buildings is that the cost associated with each building has become progressively cheaper. The first few buildings involved the purchase of complete kits. Some of the later buildings required that I purchase embossed plastic sheet (eg., timber sheeting, brick, tile) and other accessories such as chimneys. The most recent buildings have been constructed from parts that I had in my plastic parts box and didn't cost me anything except the time needed to construct them.

One thing to remember when you start kit-bashing is to not throw away any of the parts left over from your efforts. There is a very good chance that you will find a lot of the leftover parts from your earlier efforts to be just what you need to finish off a later project.

As you develop your modelling skills through this process you will then be ready to move on to the next step and start to make similar changes to your rolling stock (where accuracy is of greater importance) confident in the knowledge that the work that you intend is well within your abilities because you have already done something similar with the buildings that you have constructed.

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Copyright Stephen Chapman