Tips Using Model Railroad Building Flats to Make a City

Duration: 2:14

Most model railroaders aren’t blessed with enough space to model a whole three-dimensional city. So, building a model railroad means making a series of comprises. Expert modeler Tom Lund shares some tips for creating the illusion of a large city in a compressed space using building flats – or flat buildings. And best of all, it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg!


Tom models Duluth, Minnesota, in his HO layout – a city that is built on hills, or many tiers. He needed an inexpensive yet effective way to fill a shallow industrial area with a multitude of different-sized, -shaped and -colored structures. You can buy printed paper building flats in rolls and apply them directly to your backdrop with an adhesive (hint: you can also glue to poster board or foamcore, and carefully cut off around the edges of the building before applying to your backdrop to give the buildings more depth.)

But Tom demonstrates how he begins with actual modular building flats, or sides, from any number of commercially available kits. He paints them a variety of realistic brick colors, and weathers them to represent different ages (some newer, some older). It’s really like architectural model making.


Next, he prints several sets of the building flats in actual HO size on a color copier and applies to foamcore. To show distance as the buildings climb the “hills” or tiered streets of Duluth, he prints more sets slightly smaller for a “forced perspective.” The illusion “fools” the eye into thinking there’s much more depth to the scene that there actually is.

The variety of sizes, shapes and colors look totally realistic when mixed and matched. One tip Tom shares is painting the window “glass” on the flats a primer gray shade, because that shows up more realistically as a blank window when photocopied.

Using these techniques, you can build your own urban buildings in a fraction of the time and cost – and in a much smaller space – than creating three-dimensional structures.

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