DIY Tips for Detailing Your Layout

While many of us find ourselves either in self-quarantine or in “lockdown” due to COVID-19, our layouts are becoming a welcome source of distraction and an escape from feeling cooped up at home.

That being said, there’s no denying that it’s more challenging to make significant changes to our railroads during this time. Getting supplies locally has become much more difficult, and delivery times for products purchased online may take a little longer than usual. You can view what we’re doing at and how COVID-19 is impacting our operations here.

Thankfully, many of us already have plenty of tools and materials around our homes that we can use to repair, update, and improve our layouts. In this article, we’re looking at some DIY projects you can keep yourself busy with during this time – all with things you probably already have in the house!

Adding Detail to Buildings


If you’re already a scratch builder of structures and scenery elements, you’ll likely be able to identify endless opportunities in the form of regular household objects. Even if you buy kit-based or prebuilt buildings and structures though, (which usually already have incredible levels of detail) you may still be able to make your own custom improvements.

For example, upturned bottle caps can be added to rooftops of buildings, either as air conditioning units or vents. Clear plastic lids from disposable containers can also be cut to size and used for features like skylights or windows. And if you have enough of them, you could even create a glass roof effect. Plastic drinks bottles (preferably 500ml) can also be used to create “glass”, and can be cut in half (longways) to create elements such as entrance canopies or station shelters.

If you have any craft materials laying around, such as modeling paints or weathering chalks, you can also paint these objects to adapt them for even more uses. 

Adding Fences to Your Layout

Fences are a typical scenic detail that many of us already have on our layouts. While there is an excellent variety of pre-made and kit based fencing available to purchase, there is a certain sense of value and satisfaction from building items such as these yourself.

Matchsticks can be used to craft convincing custom wooden fencing. Once you’ve cut the pieces to the size that you’d like, you can line them vertically to create the fence itself, and then place others horizontally near the top or bottom to hold the fence together. You can return with paint or weathering powders to create a realistic appearance for residential or commercial “privacy” fencing. To get the most out of this method, if you have any metallic acrylics, you could additionally paint certain sections to give the appearance of corrugated iron fencing.   

For more industrial fencing styles, you can use straightened and cut-down paper clips as fence posts and railings, and add screen material to recreate the look of a chain link fence. Or you can use toothpicks (cut to size) and strands of wire to create a rural wire fence. 

The possibilities are endless! 

Other Ground Level Details

Want to add more ground level detail to your layout? 

Small plastic bottles, such as those used for acrylic paints, can be used to create building materials. Simply cut the top and bottom off and paint them inside and out with either a concrete gray or metallic silver, and you’ve got large pipe sections – perfect for either building sites or flatcar loads. If you want to turn these into loads, you can create chains to hold them in place by simply removing and painting the chain from any unused costume jewelry that might be lying around by wrapping it around the load and connecting it to the flatcar on each side. Straws, when painted black, green, or white, can also be a great option for representing smaller pipe loads.  

If you have wood chippings lying around, these can be glued together and turned into a pile of wood or assorted rubble. If you have any electric cable protectors laying around, you can cut these up and glue them together to form stacked tires. Loose wire can also be great for making cable loads for gondolas

Building Mountains & Adding Elevation

If you’re at the point where you’d like to build up some topographical scenery on your layout, now might be the perfect time to do so!

Blocks of insulation foam and wood are again going to come in handy here. If you want to add hilly areas or mountains to your layout, you can use insulation foam or wood to build up a base to the height you want. From here you can add newspaper to achieve your desired slope, and can secure it with painters tape. At this point you can cover your newly formed landscape with Woodland Scenics Plaster Cloth to create a hard shell, ready for painting and the addition of scenery. 

Insulation foam can also work well for creating a cliff-edge effect. Once you’ve got it situated to your desired height,  just cut off the edge where you’d like your cliff to be and paint it. The texture of the cut will naturally provide a realistic looking rock face effect. 

If you decide to add elevation to your track plan, remember to include a sturdy base under where the track will be placed, and ensure that your trains will be able to climb effectively and avoid derailments when coming down.

DIY and Your Model Railroad

We hope that these suggestions will provide some inspiration to help you make the most of your time at home. Take some time and look for anything you can repurpose and incorporate into your railroad. If you do need to buy supplies or landscaping elements, we’re still here for you, but please remember that it may take us a little longer to get things shipped out to you during this time. 

We’ve also got more great tips for creating your own effects in other recent posts. Check these out at the links below:

Incorporating Water in Your Layout

Starting Your Model Railroad

Choosing Elements for Your Layout

Happy Modeling!