Most people spend countless hours scrutinizing over the smallest details to make their railroads just the way they want. One way to achieve this goal is to install realistic backdrops to make the railroad come alive. Backdrops are used in model railroads to frame the scene, hide distractions such as pipes, columns, and benchwork, provide a background for photography, give depth perception from foreground to horizon, and act as a divider to separate elements and layout sections. Backdrops change the whole look of your model railroad. It makes your railroad immediately appear more realistic and expansive. Although it’s fairly easy to paint hills and general landforms on the backdrop, buildings are a lot harder to paint. One easy solution is to print photographs of appropriate buildings in the right size, cut them out along the edge of the building, and glue them to the backdrop.

It is usually recommended you install backdrops before you do your scenery or structures. If you wait until the scenery and structures are in place you may not have the working room to get the backdrops behind them, getting them cut to the proper fit or worse yet break a few structures while installing them.

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Artists advise you to erect or paint the backdrop before building the benchwork and laying the track. However, some of us are not that smart and may not properly visualize the scene. For most model railroaders, the scenery backdrop comes afterward. The main problem in installing the backdrop first is not getting paint and glue all over the backdrop when you build the foreground scenery later. The problem with installing the scenery backdrop after scenery is in place is being able to reach the area without destroying the work you’ve already done. If your layout is freestanding or is a module, you can sometimes put it together at your workbench and then install it. Whichever way you decide to do it, keep in mind these points:


You need to establish the point where the scenery meets the sky. This is your horizon and affects the vanishing point. This is easier said than done in practice because we are all at different heights and the benchwork height varies. The rule of thumb is do whatever looks and feels right for you. If you have others who come over to play with the trains they may or may not see the scene in the same way.

Shadows: Give consideration to the lighting you will use. Can you orient the lights to shine in the same direction? Which way should shadows fall in your backdrop? This is more important if you are using commercial background scenes like “Realistic Backgrounds” or if you are using cut-outs or photocopies from magazines. If you are painting your scenery backdrop you can plan ahead.

Perspective: This is another form of “selective compression”. There have been excellent results where a modeler has used an N scale or Z scale building or railroad car in the background of a scene. John Allen was one of the first to use this trick on his famous Gorre and Daphetid (“gory and defeated”) model railway. He used it for a town high up in the background.


You can buy commercial backgrounds as many modelers have often done over the years. A “Realistic Backgrounds” commercial background forms the basis for this backdrop. Photographing commercial backdrops can be tricky because the colors don’t always show well due to the dot pattern from the printing process. The backdrop looks far better up close.

Cut out the sky that comes with the commercial background and mount the industry scene on foamboard to give it a 3D relief effect, and affix with 3M Spray Mount. You can affix it as permanent or moveable for repositioning. You can build the backdrop with tempered Masonite, styrene or paint and affix directly to the drywall or wall. Many modelers use Masonite cut from 8foot sheets. If you prefer styrene, you can easily source styrene from the styrene panels that are used on buses and shelters during billboard advertising campaigns. These are usually discarded at the end of the campaign. You can also buy sheets from a plastics dealer but this can be expensive.

Or you can paint directly on the wall. A lot of modelers have done this. The result is usually very effective from a few feet away in the aisle. It is also a clever way of avoiding trying to paint buildings or complicated scenes when you don’t have the artistic talent.


Most modelers agree that the best effect is created by restricting the detail in background painting. Unless you’re a very good artist, it is safer to keep your backgrounds muted so they don’t fight with the foreground models. As the scenes recede there is less and less detail and the air gets hazier. Some modelers overspray the backgrounds with a light gray wash of paint.

With this in mind, try painting some trees. If you don’t like the effect, paint over everything with a light gray paint and start again. You can’t hurt anything. Just keep the strokes light. Pine trees are easiest to simulate.


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