Dioramas of H.O. Train Layouts

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How to Build an H.O. Train Layout

There are many different and effective methods to create an H.O. railway scene or H.O. running track scene. There are different sizes and shapes to consider in the creation of a moving masterpiece. But when you are planning and executing the creation of an H.O. railroad diorama and you want realism in the scene, your options are narrowed. New techniques in glossy magazine layouts show the progress that has been made in this artistic field of miniature art. Here is a two-decade-old tried and true method we use. I am going to describe the process of creating a small, non-running H.O. train scene. These miniature scenes, called dioramas, can be built to fit on top of your living room cabinet or bookshelf. You might want to place your completed diorama in a plexiglass cube or an oak and glass cabinet, for example. Alternatively, you might enjoy building your first diorama so much that you want the scene to be accessible for children and grandchildren. This kind of diorama is built from scratch and is built to last. Plastic moldings that you buy from a hobby store are not used in this method.

Let us assume that you have decided you want to create a 16” x 48” diorama which could fit nicely on the top of various types of living room cabinets, commonly called entertainment centers.

You will need to purchase a few inexpensive materials. You will need a 4’ x 8’ sheet of 2” thick Styrofoam. You can buy this at any store that sells home building supplies. You will also need a bottle of household plaster. If you were filling in the nail holes on your walls, you would use this same kind of plaster. Additionally, you will need glue, a jar of sand, a jar of gravel, two or three colors of fine dirt and a jar of tiny rocks. You will probably want some bigger rocks, too. Rocks the size of a fist and slightly larger can help the scene look very realistic. You can find the rocks in your neighborhood or at a river. You can purchase the colored fine dirt at hobby stores such as Ben Franklin. You can collect lovely different shades of dirt and sand in the great outdoors if you are so inclined.

Dome Car Scene
Dome Car Scene

H.O. Railroading is an Art Form

The first chore is to cut the 4’ x 8’ sheet of Styrofoam into four pieces.  Stack the four pieces.  Insert a few long nails between two of the pieces of the stacked material so that the top level is attached to the second level, the second level is attached to the third level with at least two nails, and the third level or tier of Styrofoam is attached to the bottom level with a nail or two.

Next, get a sharp knife and carve out the topography you want for your miniature scene from the Styrofoam landscape you have now created.  If you want to make a tunnel scene, you only create the top of the tunnel and then carve an indented area long enough to hold one H.O. train car which will give the illusion that a whole train has gone through the tunnel or is coming toward you from the tunnel.  Decide the route of the track you will eventually place onto the scene. 

Decide where you want small rocks in the scene and where you might want big boulders to be placed.  Keep this in mind while you proceed.  Now, spread the household plaster over the topography of the Styrofoam.  You may want to be wearing gloves for this part of the process.  Spread glue over the entire scene you have created, lightly pouring the glue on top of the plaster.  Sprinkle sand over the glue so that there is a light covering everywhere.  The next step is to sprinkle the small pieces of gravel over the scene.  Use your artistic judgment to decide if there are a few patches of sand that you want left as sand.

If you are creating a bluff of rocks in your scene, use two or three different shades of dirt – such as red dirt and light beige dirt – to fall between the rocks.  This diorama is going to look completely natural.  You can purchase very green grass in various shades of green from a hobby store.  If you decide you want grass in your scene, pour a thin layer of glue over the areas you want the grass to grow.  Sprinkle the grass while the glue is still damp.

Railway scene of olden days Hawaii.
Railway scene of olden days Hawaii.

Destination: Boyland, where the Boys are.

I think you will be having fun by this time. Now, decide where you want an area of small rocks. Lay the small pebbly rocks in without glue. Once you have placed them exactly how you want them to lie, pour a thin layer of glue over them. Now add another layer of small rocks if you are inclined. Pour another thin layer of glue over the newly placed small rocks. Now it’s time for my favorite part: Begin placing the large rocks, approximately fist size, on to your landscape. Place your larger rocks in positions that bring realism to the miniature scene. At this point, you dilute the glue with water. You need to use a 50-50 mixture of water and glue at this stage of the work. Pour the 50-50 mixture over top of the large rocks. This sets them in place and they will sit like that for decades if this procedure is done properly. Make sure the glue runs down into the bottom crevices of each rock.

It is likely you will want to add trees to the scene to enhance the realism. If you are fortunate enough to live in an area where there are types of foliage that lend themselves to this art, gather those. Let the pieces of foliage dry for a few weeks. If you cannot find foliage in your area, you can purchase a variety of types of foliage from a hobby store. Modeled trees range in price and in realism. From evergreens to red maples, trees can be found at sale prices if you have the time to browse online. Another option is to advertise online to find someone who is selling their H.O. trees and supplies privately.

There is a plant in the Delta area of British Columbia which we discovered years ago. When it is in its dry form and hand-shaped just a bit, it looks exactly like an evergreen tree – to us, anyway. Look around you before you spend money. You might find just the right plant for your diorama’s forest of trees.

When you obtain the trees you want, purchased or plucked, get yourself a toothpick in hand. Poke one little hole in each exact position on the Styrofoam where you want to place a tree. Dip the toothpick into the glue and then into the holes you have excavated with your toothpick for the trees. One by one, dip the bottom of each tree's trunk into the glue before placing it into the position where it will stand forever more.

This is the method my husband conjured up in the early 1990s. His dioramas were juried and we were invited to place ten of them on display for the Canada Summer Games.

If any of you build a diorama using these instructions and get to this point, you will have completed the artistic phase of the project. Then it is time to locate your railroading cap, place it on your head and begin to lay down the train tracks. Get your best dummy engine out. No need for a real engine on a diorama.

Even though you will have created a non-running layout, the scene will be able to transport any railroader down the train tracks to Boyland where all the good trains go -- and some of the good men with them.

We don't like plastic palm trees, but we did use them on this scene.
We don't like plastic palm trees, but we did use them on this scene.

© 2010 Pamela Kinnaird W

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Comments 10 comments

Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

Pamela Kinnaird W 4 years ago from Maui and Arizona Author

Thanks for the tip. My husband would love to see every railway museum in the country -- in all countries for that matter. lol.


bn9900 profile image

bn9900 4 years ago from Alger WA

If you are in the northern Illinois area, try out the Illinois Railway Museum.


Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

Pamela Kinnaird W 5 years ago from Maui and Arizona Author

Knightheart, sorry I missed responding to this, but I was in touch with you. St. Louis' museum is one of the places my husband really wants to go. Thanks for reading the hub.


Knightheart profile image

Knightheart 5 years ago from MIssouri, USA

Oooooo...trains!

Seeing this hub brings back a lot of childhood memories. We always had a train set under our Christmas tree and remember running the train round and round! We had the HO scale, a friend of ours had an N gauge I think it was, while a neighbor had the infamous Lionel train set with the helicopter that launched off the flatcar!

I live in St. Louis and there is the Museum of Transport very close. It has vintage vehicles of all kinds, wagons, buggies, cars, and of course a couple of real train engines and cars!


BJBenson profile image

BJBenson 5 years ago from USA

I love trains. Happy New Year!


bn9900 profile image

bn9900 5 years ago from Alger WA

Just found this site, cool stuff and very informative. I have been into modeling for years and need to get back into it again.


Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

Pamela Kinnaird W 6 years ago from Maui and Arizona Author

Habee, thank you for stopping by to read.

MoneyCreator24, thank you for reading my hub. My husband and I enjoyed the video link you provided. Great layout!


MoneyCreator24 profile image

MoneyCreator24 6 years ago

Just wonderful.

In my neighbourhood I only found a H0 exhibition. Feel free to have a look at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhPKYcMIzbA

Best Regards! Andreas


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia

Wow! My dad would have loved this. He was a nut about trains. Rated up!


GarnetBird profile image

GarnetBird 6 years ago from Northern California

This is LOVELY and interesting--I am an avid train fan, and have often gone to parks to see train set-ups, but none as unique as these. Great work, Pam!

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