How to Create Realistic Landscapes for Model Railroad Layout?

Building a model railroad engine is an industrious assignment, but it is almost an empty endeavour if there isn’t a hyper-realistic landscape to surround it with. For the most part, that exercise is purely for aesthetics and how invested the maker is. However, a realistic landscape adds to the immersive experience of a model. With a realistic landscape, an observer can almost experience the air, the temperature, and imagine the warm breeze and sunlight of the day or the shrilling wind and whispering silence of the night the rail might have sailed through.

Moreover, a vivid landscape model can be used to educate the observers comprehensively. They can learn about the terrain and geography of the area, and about the geology of the terrain and how it is paired with the ecosystem of the place.

But this is possible only if the model is hyper-realistic and accurate. What follows is a simple summarized guide to making a layout of a realistic landscape to go with a railroad model that will be just that, hyper-realistic and accurate.

Step 1: Planning the Layout

Layout of an urban setting

Understandably, this step is necessary and where you make a blueprint of your landscape. Planning your layout will give you a good head start. The modeler can factor in all the important points such as the space available or needed for a particular landscape, the extent of realism intended, and the resources needed to achieve that can be calculated and collected in this step.

Most importantly, modelers can work out the space that must be dedicated to the model rail track and use the remaining space accordingly. The terrain which might include the mountains, vegetation, hills, lakes, rocks or boulders, or even the foliage can be finalized in this initial step. Furthermore, elements like bridges and roads, buildings, lighting, and other tidbits are decided in the planning stage of the layout.

Step 2: The Toolkit

There isn’t a definite, limited list of tools and materials that must be used. That list can only be decided by the detail and realism that the modeler wants in their landscape model. A basic list of items would look like this:


  • Artist Brush
  • Carpenter Squares
  • China Bristles
  • Eye Droppers
  • Funnels
  • Blades and box cutters
  • Glue guns
  • Rubber spatulas
  • Ice picks
  • Plastic mixing bowls,
  • Serrated paring knife (preferably 4” long)
  • Line Levels
  • Latex Gloves


  • Baseball diamond Clay-like dirt
  • Corrugated Cardboard
  • Foam core boards
  • Gauze pads
  • Paper towels
  • Plasters
  • Scenic Textured Foam
  • Wetting agent/ Liquid detergent
  • White Glue
  • Polyester fiber
  • Marking pens

When choosing the material, keep in mind the detail that you want in the landscape and how real you want the model to look like. Also, ensure that you buy good quality durable products that are safe to work with and won’t contaminate the environment. Avoid using strong chemicals that exude fumes.

Step 3: Building the base

The landscape model is as strong as the base it is built upon. A strong base ensures that the model is sturdy, stable, and durable. Moreover, a strong base is more shapeable and thus allows you to make your landscape model more realistic.

Choose a sturdy materials and while plywood is the most preferred material, cardboard, foam or pre-made baseboards also work great for modeling purposes. Foam boards of at least three-inch thicknesses would work best, but you still might need to add support. However, you might need to add support to the base through wooden beams or braces when using cement, cardboard or plywood, or foam blocks and padding sheets when using foam.  

Once you have decided on the scene and contours, you can use a knife or a saw to carve the elevations according to the topography, which can include hills or mountains. Always revisit the first plan in the layout to make sure you don’t miss anything before you get carving.

Step 4: Bringing it to Life; Creating the Scenery

Model train running in a colorful landscape

Model train passing through forest

Once you are done with the less glamorous labour work, it is time to get fancy and get into the details. Bits and pieces like rocks, trees, boulders, shrubbery, and the like add to the realism of the scenery. These are the elements that will rivet an observer and immerse them into the scene. Adding scenery also adds depth to the model. By smartly distancing scenic elements, the landscape can be made to appear expansive and surreal. Additionally, it also allows you to hide any flaws that you might have left in the previous step with trees or boulders.

The elements of scenery can be easily created by using different materials, some of which we enlisted above. Trees can be made using static grass, paper mache, wires, and foams. Rocks can also be made using foam. Model trees and real rocks are an easy way to go, in case you are knackered with all the labour you’ve done so far.

For rivers, lakes, or any water body, paint, and epoxy resin are the go-to option. Wax and oil might also come in handy, but will require careful handling. Using epoxy results in a hyper-realistic appearance, which will add to the feel of the scene.

Step 5: Spicing it up; Adding details

Model Train passing through an urban setting

Details can help you engross the audience and offer a wholesome experience with the model. With the addition of people, or building and bridges, an element of reality and relatability can be sprinkled over the landscape model.

When detailing, bear the scale in mind to maintain the proportions of the elements being added. Don’t be haphazard and flood the landscape with everything. Choose a theme and stick to it. Experiment with various materials with different textures and flexibility to add surrealism to the rocks, trees, vegetation, and other details you want to add.

Cluster elements and distance them in the background and foreground creatively to establish depth. This will also give the eyes of the observer some room to guide and maneuver and will captivate the observer more intimately and make the experience more immersive.

Step 6: Lighting and Special Effects

Apart from adding realism and depth, lighting can add an extra layer to the scenic essence of the landscape of your model. Special effects such as smoke or fog can be used to clear a more hyper-realistic ambiance for the observer. Similar elements can also be used to create a sense of motion in the scenery. Moreover, lighting can accentuate the elements that were added for the detailing of the scene.

Water bodies can be made to glimmer and shine and buildings can be made to cast realistic shadows with accurate placement of lights which will add to the realism of the model.

To achieve the appropriate lightning effect, LED lights and Fiber Optic Lights work best. They are easy to install, and flexible to use around the curves and the highs and lows of the models. They also come in a range of colors and lightning intensity to create more effects. Miniature light bulbs can also be used where a more robust and focused effect is intended.

Step 7: Upkeep and Maintenance

A landscape model can wear out over time and has to be maintained regularly. Moreover, one is always thinking of newer ideas and coming up with newer discoveries to experiment with. A well-maintained model can be updated and improved in the future. Also, newer design and modeling techniques are emerging every day and there is something to try and update the model with.

To maintain the model, ensure that it is regularly dusted and cleaned. It is best to stow it away in safe storage under a protective covering when not using it. Make sure the model is carefully handled and not exposed to direct sunlight, water, moisture and extreme temperatures. Another good practice is to make sure that any damage incurred is repaired at the earliest.


Railroad model enthusiasts will agree that a model is incomplete without a scenic landscape surrounding it. That is why the landscape should be made as sincerely as the railroad model itself. It must be comprehensively planned with attention to the smallest details and built with sturdy materials using the right tools. 

The landscape must be extensively detailed, with not just the right scenic elements but also the finer touches like lightning, and special effects. This will envelop the rail-road model in a rapturous and accurate hyper-realistic ambiance, which will anchor the observer and enhance their experience.

And remember, the effort that goes into making a railroad model with such surreal realism takes real effort and time. This implies that it must be thoroughly and promptly maintained, updated, and repaired to ensure that it lasts long enough to be worthy of all the effort that was poured into making it in the first place.