Detailing Your Layout

This article first appeared in the November/December 1992 issue of AMRA's 'Journal'.
By Steve J Chapman.

What is it that makes the difference between the average, ordinary looking layout and one that looks really outstanding?

The quality of the workmanship that has gone into the layout does make some difference. No one can deny that a layout where the buildings and other details are perfectly constructed looks much better than one where everything has just been thrown together.

The quality of construction that can be achieved by a modeller improves with time, patience, and lots of practice. Serious modellers by the time that they come to start building their first serious layout have already reached a quality of workmanship such that their layout looks quite acceptable.

A layout constructed to an acceptable standard can look just as outstanding, if not better, than one where everything is perfectly constructed. The biggest difference with the really outstanding layouts is the level of detail which has been put into the layout. All that this requires is the forethought to decide what details to include and the time to create and add those details.


I can remember having read an article that suggested that there were three stages of completion of a layout. These three stages are a useful guide when it comes time to scenic your layout.

The first stage of completion is where there is no more bare baseboard showing. All of the basic landscape is in place and covered with a basic ground cover (scatter material). The track has been ballasted. The layout might not yet have any trees, buildings, fences, or other details but it is finally starting to look like a real place in miniature.

There is a certain satisfaction in having constructed your layout to this first stage of completion. You know that all of the basic construction work is now finished and that all that is left is to add the details. This stage of completion really needs to be reached before further details can be added except perhaps on a large layout where it is possible to fully scenic one area before moving on to the next, even in this case the appearance of the layout is vastly improved during the construction process if this stage is reached for the whole layout before starting to add the further details.

The second stage of completion is when all of the buildings, essential fences (such as those bordering the railway line), and enough of the trees, bushes, etc are in place that the layout looks finished. With the exception of layouts modelling real places, it is no longer possible for anyone to point to any part of the layout and say that it is not finished.

The individual modeller has a far greater level of choice as to the order in which the details are added to bring the layout to this stage of completion. You can start at one end and add all of the details as you work your way along, you can start at the back and work your way forward, you can add all of the details of one type and then go on to the next, or whatever method best suits you.

A layout that has reached this stage of completion is usually quite acceptable to an exhibition organizer when selecting layouts to appear at an exhibition. A layout that has not reached this stage of completion may not be accepted at an exhibition unless the intention is to show layouts at various stages of construction.

The average, ordinary looking layout referred to at the start of this article has normally reached this stage of completion. The outstanding layout has developed somewhat further.

The third and final stage of completion of a model railway is when ALL of the details which can be added to the model railway have been added. Of course this stage is never reached as there is always something more that a modeller can add or change on his layout to improve it and make it look more the way that he would like it to look. It is the process of developing the layout towards this third stage of completion to which we now turn our attention.


So how do you go about adding these extra details to your layout. You cannot just go adding things haphazardly to your layout or you will end up with a cluttered mess. It is important that you plan the details that you will be adding to the layout fairly carefully before setting them in place.

This planning of the small details that 'finish' the layout does not need to be done in the same way that all of the previous stages of the layout were planned. For those stages a general plan of what was going to be done was needed before any construction work for that stage (and perhaps even earlier stages) could commence. The finishing details of a layout can be planned separately for each small area of the layout and in many cases it is better to leave the planning of one area until after all of the details which have been planned for an adjoining area have actually been added to the layout. This will allow you to judge the effect that the extra details have on the layout and help you to decide what other areas of the layout need extra details.

The details added to the layout at this stage should form small independent scenes. It doesn't matter at all which scenes get added to the layout in which order.

These small scenes can be added to the layout one at a time and each will add something to the appearance of the layout. Important things to remember when planning these small scenes are

  1. if too many small scenes are added too close together then that part of the layout will have a cluttered appearance and the scenes will no longer be separate,
  2. the layout will look better if these scenes are not too unevenly distributed,
  3. each scene should be appropriate and fit in to the surrounding scenery, and
  4. each small scene should serve a purpose.

The first two of these are easily dealt with by correct placement of the various scenes. The other two points are concerned more with the actual scenes themselves.


There are a number of different types of scene that can be added to model railways.

There are the types of scenes that everyone seem to add to their layout when the development reaches this stage. Scenes of this type include the burning building complete with fire brigade and onlookers, or perhaps a traffic accident complete with police and more onlookers. There is nothing wrong with this type of scene and they can be quite effective. The only problem is that if all (or the most obvious) of the scenes on your layout are of this type then your layout will look just like everyone else's and will no longer be outstanding.

The next type of scene that modellers think to include on their layout are what could be called esoteric scenes. Scenes like a band marching down the main street or a fox hunt in the woods make an effective scene. These are not the sort of thing that you see around you every day. Scenes like this can add to the effectiveness of the layout but because of their relative rarity in the 'real' world should be used sparingly if the realism of the layout is not to be lost.

Then there are what we can call the mundane scenes. The scenes from everyday life that we see around us all the time (or at least when we visit the types of areas corresponding to the various parts of our layout). Most of the scenes that appear on an outstanding layout are of this type. To make it easier to consider this type of scene and what is appropriate to what part of the layout we should begin by dividing the layout up into various areas. There is no hard boundary line to many of these areas and in some parts of the layout the areas may overlap but by looking at the layout in this way it will be much easier to decide which scenes best go where.

Areas into which your layout can be broken up, for the purposes of deciding what type of scene to put where, may include the following

  1. inside the railway fence
  2. street scenes
  3. house and garden scenes
  4. park scenes
  5. church scenes
  6. river and dam scenes
  7. woods scenes
  8. farm scenes

Which of these (and other) areas that your layout can be broken up into depends upon the setting of the layout and the more general landscape that has been built.


Every layout has an area that is 'inside the railway fence'. It wouldn't be a model railway if it didn't. Railway scenes can be divided up into four or five separate areas.

Station scenes appear mostly on the platforms. As well as having the various passengers waiting for trains you can also have porters moving luggage, piles of mailbags, and a group of train spotters with notebooks and cameras. Scenes not on the platform include people crossing the footbridge, people arriving at and leaving the station, and cars dropping off or picking up passengers. These and many other possible scenes finish off the station area.

Goods yard scenes include piles of freight or containers awaiting transfer to either the train or one of the various trucks parked in between the tracks, workers pushing loaded (and empty) trolleys in and out of the goods shed, and shunters with uncoupling poles standing around talking while waiting for the next train to arrive.

Locomotive depot scenes can include the piles of old rusted wheel and axle sets stacked untidily next to the roundhouse, and the engineer and fireman having a smoke break next to the turntable.

Lineside scenes can be the most varied of all scenes inside the fence with platelayers working next to the track, trainspotters on an overbridge or leaning over a fence, a repairman up a power pole, rabbits building burrows into the side of a cutting, and many other possible features.

Carriage sidings (if you have them) also give scope for many different scenes.


Towns or villages on your layout provide you with streets, houses, parks, churches, and other features which give the opportunity to include small scenes.

Street scenes can include a garbage truck complete with garbage men carrying garbage bins to and from the kerb as well as having a bin in front of every house in the street. A pedestrian crossing can have people crossing while cars wait or people waiting while cars pass through. A post office van can be parked next to the post box while the postman is emptying it.

Houses can have children playing in the garden. A moving van may be parked out the front of a house with the workers carrying furniture to or from the house. A vegetable garden behind a house can make an interesting feature. Rockeries and flower beds can also be modelled and help to break up the common appearance of your gardens.

Parks can have swings and roundabouts with children playing. A park bench can have a tramp sleeping or someone sitting feeding the birds. A big enough park could include a playing field or court complete with game in progress.

Instead of the having the wedding party arriving at the church like so many other modellers have on their layout, you could have a funeral service being held in the graveyard.


Countryside areas on your layout may include rivers, bushland, and farms. Each of these also provides the opportunity for more small scenes adding to the overall effect of the layout.

A river or dam can have a group of fishermen standing on the bank or wading knee deep in the water. A canoeist may be paddling down the river carefully dodging between the projecting rocks.

Bushland or woods allow for the inclusion of wildlife. A group of boy scouts may be on a hike. A local might be out walking her dog.

Farms give all sorts of opportunities for the inclusion of small scenes involving farm animals, farm machinery, dogs, foxes, farmers, and numerous other possibilities. The best place to start if including a farm on your layout is to study farms and try to get the right type of buildings and other structures in the right arrangement. A farm is quite a complex feature and requires a lot of research.


There are many other features which can be included on your layout. Some possibilities are docks, gasworks, airport, caravan park, and retirement village. These and many other features provide opportunities to provide many different and interesting scenes which add to the appearance of your layout.

The types of different small scenes that you can include on your layout are limited only by your imagination and the ideas listed in this article barely scratch the surface. The number of these scenes that you include is limited only by the space available and the time that you have to put them together. Hopefully this article has given you some ideas of further details that you can add to your layout. All it takes is for you to spend a little time planning and modelling these features and soon your layout will be noticeably different from everyone else's. It will be a layout that people will remember.

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Copyright Stephen Chapman