NEB&W Layout Construction

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Visitors' Guide Table of Contents
Scenery Table of Contents


We acquired the use of Davison Hall basement in 1972, as the stairways were so tight, Residence Life couldn't get a box spring down them, and thus couldn't use the basement for storage. (They could get a mattress around the staircase turns, but not a box spring.)

Our benchwork is made from hobby-standard "L-girder" construction. An upside "L" is made from a 1x2 glued and screwed on top of a 1x4 to create a flange on one side. This allows screws to added from underneath, into the crosswise 1x3 joists. Because the joists are not in the same plane, they can extend out a ways to create a free-flowing curve.

[images/scenery-bldg/No-Benn-benchwork.jpg The end of the North Bennington lob

is round, made easy by L-girder benchwork.

Risers made of 1x2 wood with a flange of 1/2x3/4 on edge allow the top surface to be adjusted despite any warping of the joists. In an area like Red Rocks, extra-long joists allowed the track to be about a real foot above the water surface.

The top surface is 1/2 inch Homasote, a pressed newspaper material used in the building trade. It is soft enough to drive track spikes into it or to be cut with a knife, but hard enough to hold said spikes. The Homasote sits on 1/2 plywood.

The backdrops, which are so crucial to the design, are made of tempered 1/8 Masonite. This early view shows Chateaugay with unpainted backdrop, but none behind South Junction and Port Henry in the rear. (This is almost the same angle as the 1972 photo above. Notice the cardboard mockup for the Chatham clock tower building.)


The track is all hand-laid. We glue down Campbell wood ties, sand the tops to ensure a flat surface, and then hand-spike individual rails, using the NMRA gauge to make sure the two rails are the right distance apart.

We've used Precision Scale Products (not to be confused with Precision Scale Casting) cast turnout components, but they are out of business.

Curves are superelevated by gluing two layers of ties along the outer edge, one under the rail line and the other along the planned edge of the ties. This twin line of wood is sanded to form a taper down to tangent track.

More on Track


We built most of the scenery base of paper towels dipped in a strong plaster and draped over a screen wire form, much like a plaster cast used on a broken arm. For all the recent work we use blue styrofoam, which can be stacked and then easily shaped. Except for rockwork, we don't add any plaster, but just give it a primary brown color and cover it with scale dirt, etc.

Rock Cuts

To make rock cuts, we first make a latex mold of real rock (or lumps of coal). The latex is in a liquid form, in an ammonia suspension, and can be brushed on and allowed to dry. It takes several coats, over the course of a day or so, with open weave cotton gauze embedded in the final layer. (These molds can also be purchased, ready-made.)

Then plaster-of-paris is mixed with water, poured in and allowed to set. The dried castings are placed on the hill like ceramic tile, and fresh plaster is used like a sort of mortar to blend the various castings together.

Our most successful rockwork, like all our modeling, is where we try our best to copy a prototype formation. (You could even copy a cut just down the street from you even if your prototype is generally based in some far locale from you - any prototype is better than none.)

Rather than try and stain the plaster (which for us doesn't work, as the plaster of the "mortar" is less porous than that of the castings, so the staining undoes the work of blending everything together in one big cut), we seal the surface with a base coat of house paint latex. For instance, for Red Rocks, we used a neutral gray, while for State Line tunnels, pure white. Then various color washes are flowed on, just like weathering a freight car or building.

Check our Scenery section for all our techniques, discussed in much more detail, including video clips.


Big rocks are made by hammering on rock castings to break them up. Avoid the flat "lava-looking" back surface of the castings. Smaller rocks such as in stream beds is made from cheap kitty litter (without blue "freshness" granulars).

For marble, such as on the causeway and around Proctor, we made trays by framing a piece of plywood with one inch high wood and lining it with wax paper, into which we poured plaster. (Real marble is hard to cut and also looks waxy up close.) As the plaster started to set, we used a flea comb to poke a series of closely spaced drill lines. We then cut the plaster into cubes using a hand saw.

Dirt & Sand

At one point we used real dirt, which was a tedious process to gather, dry, and shift. Then we took Dave Messer's idea of using diatomaceous earth for sand, and coloring it with dry colors to make dirt or yellowier sand. Diatomaceous earth is available in 25 pound sacks as swimming pool filter material, and comes pure white.

Rainbow makes/made dry colors. We got our supply about 25 years ago, one pound boxes of each, and still haven't run out. They were made to make "poster paint" when mixed with water. I'm not sure if you can get them still, or a similar product in paint stores or craft stores (maybe both). (The company was Empire White Products Co., Newark, NJ 07105.)

The other alternative is to glue down the diatomaceous earth first and paint it using any colors like Floquil afterwards. All loose scenic materials like ballast, dirt, and loose stone are glued down with our standard two-part system. First pure rubbing alcohol is eye-droppered on, to wet the surface. (This works much better than water with detergent or other wetting solutions.) Then a roughly 50/50 mix of water and white glue is eyedroppered on, and this is allowed to dry overnight.


The deciduous trees on the layout are made from a dried weed which we pick in wintertime. The weed is one long used by Rensselaer architect students on dioramas, even for much smaller scales. Known as St. John's Wort, or Culex, we call it Summit Weed, because we have to go to Summit, VT, to find a field with enough bushes to pick. While the weed is widespread, it rarely grows in enough abundance in any one spot, except at Summit that we know of, to make it worthwhile to stop and pick.

The sprigs are suitably bunched, dipped in diluted white glue, sprinkled with ground foam rubber, and "planted" while still wet, in previously drilled holes. We model the dense Northeast forests, where the trunks and forest interior are obscured by the foliage canopy at the forest edge. Our tree-making technique is shown in Allen Keller's video on our layout, Great Model RR's Vol. I, and in Kalmbach's Scenery Tips & Techniques.

Pine Trees

The large pine trees on the layout are made from the limbs of artificial Christmas trees. They are cut to length, trimmed to an irregular conical shape, dipped in diluted white glue and sprinkled with a dark green ground foam rubber. This technique is demonstrated in Allen Keller's video on the layout, Great Model RR's, Volume I and in Kalmbach's Scenery Tips & Techniques.


Grasses are not "lumpy" like other foliage and like ground foam rubber, but instead have a vertical "grain". (In fact, the terms "grass", "graze", "green", and "grain", both the meaning of parallel lines and the amber waves of a wheatfield, are all derived from the same Germanic root.)

We have found some commercial sources for grass mats. In some spots, we used the European grass mats, made of flocking applied electrostatically to paper, which is more suited for a manicured lawn. In some places we used the mats like an undercoating, with other foliage effects on top to break up the regularity.

We used "Scentare" mats for the grasslands around the North Bennington yard, but alas, Scentare is no longer in business.

In other areas, or on top of the grass papers, we use clumps of fibers, "planted" into beads of white glue. We've used a lot of Timber Products "Wild Weeds" (another company that has bit the dust), and now just dye ordinary cotton matting (found in a drug store), colored with Rit dye.

It is also possible to use fake fur from a craft store, which comes in a variety of colors and "naps", either by cutting out segments to plant in individual clumps and to use the entire mat.

Finally, we've used a technique developed by Bill Kennedy, of stretching out the "foliage net" (like a plastic steel wool), sold for making trees. This net is pulled so thin it is barely visible, and placed over the other grass effects. Then a cheap hair spray (with lots of holding power) is sprayed on and while still wet, the finest ground foam rubber is sprinkled lightly on. This last step tends to blend all the various effects together


We try to model the well-kept (labor intensive) ballast of steam-days. On the prototype, the fill is made of earth or cinder, with a flat top on to which is laid a surface of ballast. The ballast stops short of the edge of the fill or drainage ditch in a cut, and the section gangs competed with each other to keep this well manicured.

We use Highball N Scale Black or Cinder for the fill, with their HO Scale Dark or Light Gray for the ballast itself. The cinder is laid first, and when dry, masking tape is put down outside the ballast line to make this edge sharp.

  • The best tool to spread the ballast that we've found is a square of foam rubber packing material (such as comes around a brass engine). This goes around the spikes and can be pushed down so that the ballast is slightly below the level of the ties.

Roads, Streets, & Sidewalks

See this section.


All structures are started by making a cardboard mockup, which lets us see how it fits into the overall scene.

We use kits wherever possible, but since structures are so individualistic, normally we have to resort to scratchbuilding. (Sometimes kits are used as a temporary stand-in until we get around to scratchbuilding.) At first we built frame structures out of milled basswood sheets, but what with the tremendous swings in humidity down here between winter and summer, all new construction is done using Evergreen milled siding, such as for clapboard and novelty siding. Brick and other masonry buildings are made from sheet styrene covered with a thin veneer of embossed vinyl material.

Scenery Details

See this section.