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Scale Modeling Tips & Tools Monthly, Issue #049-- "Scratchbuilding 101"
January 15, 2011
January 15, 2011

The Challenge of N Scale Scratch Building

Scratch building in N Scale has always presented challenges that can be overcome and they become more serious once we get to age 70 and beyond, but I have found the work easier with new products and techniques now available.

With over a decade of experience, I have found that scratch building has benefits that far exceed buying manufactured structures and also provide the scratch modeler with advantages not available in building a kit, though both of these sources provide structures you can practice techniques which will sharpen your modeling skills.

To begin with, your structure needs a purpose. If it is to be featured on a layout, you need to determine if it is to be a rail destination (freight or passenger) and what type of space you have adjacent to track. The footprint of your structure becomes all important. If you are scratch building, or at least kit bashing, you have the ability to adapt your structure to the space available.

It is also becoming more prevalent to find a specific structure for use in a diorama that takes into consideration both the physical size of the structure as well as its condition and age. These are elements that are easily changed in a scratch building session.

So what is entailed in a scratch building session? Does it require specialized tools? Where do you get the materials needed? Start with a plan. As mentioned earlier, you need a purpose for your structure. The best purpose is one that provides action as a destination and gives you a pick-up or loading opportunity in another area of your layout. For instance, you could have a quarry as the point or origin and a stone panel builder on the other end.

Once you have a purpose in mind, pick out some logical sites on your layout or diorama. You will need a space that is one to three inches deep by two to four inches in length. Scratch building all but nullifies such restrictions.

Starting From Scratch

To begin with, you need an image (hopefully multiple images from different angles) of your intended building. The best source for such images is your computer. I haven’t found a better starting point than Google’s Images library where you will find hundreds of pictures per subject.

For more detail, you can’t beat a site like Shorpy's Not only does Shorpy house photos of a variety of structures, the resolution and detail is above average because of the enhanced images available on glass negatives. They provide a “High Def” view more detailed than today’s high def TVs.

Another source, specially for multiple views of a given structure are forums like The Railline Forum which specializes in tutorials or builds of craftsman kits like those from Fine Scale Miniatures or Bar Mills. You can usually get a view of all four wall sections in these build reports.

They concentrate on the high end HO or O Scale structure kits priced anywhere from $150 to $400. They are worth considering as a scratch build projects because they have real character, individuality and in most cases, have been sold out or otherwise discontinued.

Computerize Your Plan

The program Model Builder by Evans Design is the best system for creating your own accurate scale model structure plan for scratch building when you are trying to extrapolate a building picture into a workable project.

The software makes determining the scale of a wall very easy and automatically guides placement of windows and doors a snap.

Once the scale is determined, you will need a good set of dimensions for the individual walls. They do not need to be precise, as if you were creating a duplicate of the photo, instead, extrapolate from the measurement of a known art of the photo such as the height of a door or width of a window.

Screen shot of wall plans from Model Builder

The program allows you to select a scale before you begin your design, allows you to design in scale feet or actual inches/centimeters. This allows you to take the footprint into consideration as you design by measuring your available space in inches, inserting this width into the program and then convert to scale feet.

This is important in extrapolating a building photograph to create your model structure. You can take the known dimensions of a window or door. Find something in the picture you know the size of, it only takes one dimension. You can scale everything from that.

In Model Builder you can pick a typical wall material which is close to what you are planning for the model, drag it into the work area and by grabbing a corner expand to the height and width you want.

By the same method, you can select the windows/doors drop down box. Select a window or door close to what you want to ultimately use and drag it onto your wall. You can re-size it to make it the size of the actual window or door (Grandt Line or Tichy), even laser cut.

Factory Window types for insertion into plan

One of the features I really enjoy is the ability to line up windows or doors so they are in line top to bottom, or side to side.

I set up each individual wall in the Model Builder work area. The program provides for peaks in the case of a gable roof or hip or mansard style.

Once you have the walls set the way you want, simply print and cut them out. If you are using scribed siding (wood or plastic), simply glue the wall section to the back of the material (inside of the building model) and carefully cut out the shape. If you are using your own frame and board building technique, slip the printed wall section beneath a sheet of glass and assemble your framework right on the face of the plan. You can then glue on your chosen wall exterior material.

My Scratch Building Toolbox

I’ve probably got a hundred or so tools I use in scale modeling, but there are only a few that would make it into a scratch building toolbox.
First and primary is a good, sharp, make that keenly sharp, cutting knife. Most often, it is an Xacto but lately I have taken to using surgical scalpels as they are more comfortable and utilize stainless steel blades. Regardless of the type of knife and style of blade, you can save yourself a lot of work by keeping the blade sharp.
Buying your blades bulk (100 per pack) will keep you from over using a blade to the point where you apply so much pressure you break the blade. This is a hobby, it should be relaxing, not work. For precise cuts, replace the blade often.
You will also need a steel rule marked off in the scale you most often work in along with inches and centimeters. This is not only to measure your work, but it is also a straight cutting guide.

Tweezers—I recommend the needle-point watchmakers tweezers with a curved, pointed tip. They are ideal for working with small parts. You may also want slide lock or cross-locking tweezers that will hold arts while gluing or painting.

Work surface—You will need an area at least two to three feet wide by 20-30 inches deep which is dedicated to scale modeling where you can leave glued or painted parts overnight for drying. My preference is for a glass and steel surface over a green cutting mat. I prefer cutting on glass as well as gluing and painting on such a surface. It is easily cleanable and allows me to slip plans beneath it for modeling structures. The steel section is ideal for use of magnets to keep water-based painted surfaces flat while drying. Thus prevents walls from curling as they dry.

Pin vise—Basically, a small metal handle designed to hold a variety of fine drill bits (usually in the handle) used for drilling small holes in wood or plastic.

Calculator, scale converter, or nearby computer—The first two are pretty obvious, but I can’t tell you how often I use my computer in scratch building. It provides ready reference to photos and plans as well as tutorials on how to build models.

Gluing jig—Most useful is the magnetic type which allows for assembly if walls at exact right angles. (See Keep It Square).

Keep It Square

Real problems with your model occur when things get out of square. When walls are slightly askew, you will find corners don’t meet correctly, tops and bottoms of walls are not level and the whole project can come to resemble a dilapidated structure (not always a bad thing in model building).

My preference is magnets and a metal square every time I put two walls together at a right angle.

The magnets hold the walls firmly against a non-steel backstop while the adhesive dries to hold them in place. They also allow for “at-the-last-second” adjustment to correct the not-so-obvious errors.

You can also hold smaller scale walls square with a couple CD Jewel boxes. This works best with flat wall sections but can help you square up window and door holes.

They can also be used laying out the flat square and then opening a third jewel case vertical in the square an placing your walls adjacent to the standing case walls.

Painting Transforms Your Model

I have learned through trial and error that Murphy's Law is correct: "the odds the paint will go in the wrong place are in direct proportion to the number of hours spent building what ever it is you're painting."

That being said, paint is the final touch for so many models that it can’t be overlooked in scratch building.

Primarily working in N Scale, I have realized my best results with brush painting using acrylic paints that I thin with water. I use the dollar-a-bottle paints I get from Michael’s, AC Moore or Walmart. They easily mix to provide any color I am looking for and are easily thinned with water so surface texture is not buried beneath the paint job.

Painting models is something covered in depth in the Scale Modelers Handbook in over a dozen articles starting here. Black Art

Your Help and Ideas Needed
To Expand SMH Idea Base

Making daily decisions involving for the past 45 months has led to the creation of over 425 pages of articles on the various facets of scale modeling, this monthly e-zine and a host of modeling questions answered.

As we get ready to embark on our third year, I am hoping to open the site up to input from other scale modelers. You may have noticed the Navigation Bar has been sub-divided into the major hobbies covered.

Each of these sections now has one or two pages that invite participation with questions, tips and pictures regarding your various modeling endeavors.

We want to hear from you as do the other 25,000 modelers who log onto this site monthly.

As I get ready to roll into my 71st year, I can’t believe how much I have learned about hobby activities In the past two years. I have heard from other modelers with similar experiences.

To help me develop and maintain my website your comments on its content are essential. You can send me your comments by visiting the “Voice Your Opinion” feature at the top of the Navigation stack in the left column on each page.

It was never my intention to make this website a one way street as my knowledge is no where deep enough for me to be termed an “Authority”. I hunger for your feedback, comments, ideas, tutorials, plans, pictures and even your negative comments if considered constructive.

The Internet and that includes work best when they are interactive and that is collaboration only you can provide. It has been a pleasure serving as your guide for these past two years and by no means am I throwing in the towel, for I honestly believe the building and maintaining of this website are instrumental in keeping my mind active.

I want to open up this site in the fast lane. That is your part of the two-way street.

Its In Your Best Interest

If you have been giving some thought to launching your own home business in 2010, it is worth your time to take a look at what I found:

Steps To Success

Until Next Month

Make It Your Best Effort!

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