Layout Design


Scenery on the MKT, St. Louis Subdivision

A variety of scenery construction methods were used to create the scenery on the St. Louis Subdivision of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (MKT) Railroad. This document will summarize the types of scenery found on the layout and discuss the scenery methods used.  Figures 1 through 11 present examples of scenery on the St. Louis Sub.


The scenery prepared on the St. Louis Sub is intended to represent landforms found in central Missouri, specifically along the northern bank of the Missouri River from Boonville to St. Charles Missouri.  Typical scenic elements in this region include:

·        extensively forested areas along the bluffs that create the northern extent of the Missouri River valley

·        flat Missouri River alluvial valley, usually cultivated (when not flooded)

·        scrub forest undergrowth found on both sides of the railroad right-of-way

·        river bank and Missouri River water features

 Oak and walnut trees predominate in this area, with some mature trees growing well over 100 feet.  Near the river, tall cottonwood trees are common with dense undergrowth extending from the maintained railroad right-of-way to the river's edge.

Landforms and Contours

Large landforms were created using a variety of foam products.  The hilly divide at the base of the peninsula was created by stacking multiple layers of the white beaded foam.  Although the beaded foam is inexpensive and readily available, I don't particularly recommend it, because of the terrific mess that it creates!  Nevertheless, I had a couple of sheets of the "white stuff", so I used it rather than waste it.

The blue or pink closed cell foam works much better, in my opinion.  For either foam types, I stacked several layers, glued them together, and carved the foam with a kitchen knife to the approximate shapes desired. 

After the basic shapes were created, paper towels, dipped in plaster or hydrocal, were applied to the foam to create a smoother ground surface.  In areas where rock outcrops were desired, plaster rock, created from molds, were hot glued to the foam and towel base.

Plaster "subground" was applied in many areas to get rid of the flat plywood look.  In several areas, the fascia was cut in an undulating fashion, and plaster was applied between the benchwork and the fascia to create realistic landforms.

Ground Cover

After the landforms were created and the towel-plaster and plaster “sub ground” were applied the ground cover was installed.  I followed Dave Frary’s “water soluble” method of scenery, as outlined in his excellent book[1].  Another good reference is the Woodland Scenics book[2].

The first step in applying ground cover is to paint the ground surface with a tan latex paint.  I usually gave the surface two coats, since the first coat tended to get soaked up by the plaster and dried faster than I could apply the ground cover.

The second coat of paint is applied rather thick, in order to stay wet for the next step.  Fine ground foam (Woodland Scenics fine turf) was sprinkled on the ground surface immediately after the second coat of tan paint is applied.  I usually worked with a two- to three square foot area at a time.  Several shades of the fine turf material were applied in overlapping layers.  I have several “shaker” bottles,  mostly home-made (nail holes punched in the lids of peanut butter jars), each filled with a different shade of the fine turf material.  I tend to use the darker greens and browns, and skip the lighter and yellow shades. . The final layer of turf material is usually “burnt grass”, as I feel that this shade tends to blend the other shades and hide any extreme shade changes in the ground cover.  When the ground cover looks right, I wet the area with rubbing alcohol (in a spray bottle), and then spray the area with Woodland Scenics’ Scenery Cement or a potion of 50 percent diluted white glue (with a few drops of detergent).  The application of the rubbing alcohol serves to break the surface tension of the glue, enabling the glue to penetrate the ground cover.  Figure 1 shows an example of the ground cover.

Figure 1 A view of the farm at the east approach to the Missouri River bridge.

Since the landscape of the prototype St. Louis Sub was generally forested and largely overgrown, I add clumps of ground foam of various sizes and shades to the ground cover.  Again, I tend to stay away from the lighter and brightly colored shades, sticking with the deep greens and browns.  I use small (rice sized) bits to represent the low shrubs that existed along the track roadbed.  Larger (marble sized) pieces are placed at the approximate extent of the railroad right-of-way, representing the limits of railroad maintenance and the beginning of the forest undergrowth found in the area.

The ground foam clumps are used liberally throughout the scenery, representing the non-cultivated or maintained areas.  Often, these foam bushes are the final step in the scenery, especially in those areas where access is important (as near industrial areas) and larger trees may be destroyed or create an obstruction during operating sessions.

The final step for the ground cover is to wet the foam clumps with the alcohol and apply diluted white glue onto the scenery.  The glue is readily soaked into the foam, and hardens to a resilient mass of scenery!  Sometimes several applications of the glue are necessary before the scenery is sufficiently attached. 

 Figures 2 and 3 show examples of the ground cover and foam shrubbery.

Figure2Track and scenery just west of Rhineland.

Figure 3The overgrowth has not yet taken over the track at Riverside.

Cliffs and Rock Outcrops

The prototype St. Louis Sub follows the north bank of the Missouri River for most of its length, with granite and limestone cliffs towering over the track in several places.  Consequently, I needed rock cliffs and outcrops on my layout.  These were created using plaster and silicon/rubber molds.  Individual plaster rocks were attached to the vertical landforms using hot glue.  Once the molds were attached, additional plaster was placed around the perimeter of the plaster rock to provide additional attachment to the landform and to ease the transition from landform to outcrop. 

In one area (Rocheport, see Figures 4 and 5), I needed a long stretch of vertical rock.  In this area I placed several plaster rocks oriented different directions to eliminate the copycat look, and used plaster slurry to connect the various plaster rocks.

Figure 4 - The cliffs near Rochport.

Figure 5 - Another view of the cliffs near Rochport.

The rocks are weathered with several applications of tinting agents (diluted acrylic paints and India ink washes).  The weathering occurs over several work sessions, since the rock tends to lighten as it dries.

After weathering is completed, I apply crushed rock to the base of the plaster rocks to imitate the weathered talus that tends to accumulate below the outcrops.  A bit of vegetation, placed on the vertical surfaces, completes the look.

Trees and Vegetation

Trees on the St. Louis Sub fall into two categories:  kit trees and “Koester trees".  I call them Koester trees because I learned about them in a clinic given by Tony Koester at the Madison, Wisconsin NMRA convention in 1997.

The kit trees are made from commercial kits, including the Woodland Scenics trees, and  "Super Trees" by Scenic Express.  The Woodland Scenics kits contain plastic tree trunk structures, and the user affixes ground foam with adhesive.  These trees are quick, easy, sturdy, and realistic.  They may be slightly more expensive on a per tree basis than the scratch-built versions, but their convenience is worth it to me.  The Super Trees are similar to the other kit trees, but use a natural plant as the trunk and limb armature. 

The kit trees are placed in the foreground, and in places where a single tree would be noticed by the observer (see Figures 6, 7, and 8). 

Figure 6 - This small farm is located near the east approach to the Missouri River bridge.


Figure 7 - Several cows graze peacefully near Rochport.

Figure 8 - The West Approach to the Missouri River Bridge

The Koester trees are used in places where a forest canopy is desired.  These trees are essentially polyfiber spheres, coated with black spray paint and covered with ground foam.  I use the Woodland Scenics pre-tinted poly fiber, teasing it into a sphere a little larger than a golf ball.  I usually create a batch of spheres, making boxes full while watching TV.  Taking them outside I latch onto a sphere with tweezers and spray it thoroughly with the cheapest flat black paint I can find.  I then roll the painted sphere in a box of ground foam and set the newly created tree aside to dry. 

The Koester trees are "planted" on bare, painted subground surface using hot glue or contact cement.  The trees are placed closely together, creating the impression of a heavily forested area.  The forested canopy created by the Koester trees can be seen in Figures 9 and 10.

Figure Rock outcrops near Weldon Spring, just east of the Tavern Rock Quarry.

Figure 10 - Trackwork and rock formations near Weldon Spring


The track on the St. Louis Sub is always in proximity to the Missouri River, and sometime immediately adjacent to the river's edge.  Water was a great concern to the management of the MKT, since the St. Louis Sub was subjected to frequent flooding during its lifetime.

On the layout, water is represented with several coats of acrylic paints (dark greens, deep blues, and black).  The intensity of the colors are varied at the river approached the riverbank, in an attempt to represent the shallower water near the river's edge.  The surface of the river is painted with several coats of acrylic gloss medium, providing a shiny surface.  An example of river scenery is shown in Figure 11.

Figure 11 - The coal train waits in the Rhineland  siding near the river.


Two electrical lighting circuits were installed in the train room during its construction.  The circuits were completed with separate light switches and are used for day and night lighting.

For the day lighting, fluorescent lighting was used in the train room.  Fluorescent light was selected over incandescent light because of its cost-effectiveness and lack of heat generation.  Readily available four foot, two-tube “shop lights” were installed end-to-end around the perimeter of the train room, angled toward the back wall and hidden behind a lighting valence.  In each shop light, a cool white bulb is paired with a warm pastel bulb to provide a “warmer” light to the scenery. 

The end-to-end configuration of the shop lights around the perimeter of the layout room, parallel to the track, results in an even distribution of light. At corners or right angle turns, the lights were spaced so that “hot spots” were minimized.

The night lighting circuit is a fun addition to the layout.  While we don’t yet use the night lights during operating sessions, the long-term goal is to schedule evening through trains once a sufficient amount of structure and city lighting has been installed. 

The original lights for the night lighting were separate incandescent bulbs, sold as “party light” at the hardware stores.  I built numerous fixtures, with heat shades and light baffles.  When installed, the results were disappointing, because the individual lights created annoying “hot spots” on the backdrop.  I wanted a more consistent lighting environment. 

The solution was to use strings of frosted Christmas trees lights, installed parallel to the track work around the perimeter of the layout room.  Installation was simple and fast:  a few strings of lights, a staple gun and VOILA!  Instant night lighting!  I had previously installed electrical sockets for the night (and day) circuit in the ceiling area.  Since the lighting is comprised of numerous low Wattage bulbs, the heat produced is minimal, and the lighting intensity is consistent throughout the layout room.  No hot spots are created, simply a cool blue glow.  The layout room required only three strings of lights, which I purchased the week after Christmas.


The backdrop for the St. Louis Sub was formed from 1/8-inch tempered masonite.  There seems to be a variety of opinions about the suitability of this material for backdrops, but it worked fine for my application.  Four foot by eight foot sheets were installed, curving the corners wherever possible.  I used drywall screws set flush or slightly sunk into the masonite to secure the sheets.  The seams and screw holes were then taped, mudded, then sanded, sanded, sanded! 

The backdrop was painted with a white wall primer, a step that seemed frivolous at the time.  However, priming the backdrop resulted in a more even application of the final blue paint layer.  I now encourage others to not skip the primer step.  Both the primer coat and the blue coat were applied with rollers.

The blue coat is a single color top to bottom.  I had considered using blue on the top and white on the bottom, blending the two colors at the horizon.  After consideration of the amount of backdrop I had to paint, however, I decided to use the roller method and go with a single shade of blue. 

The selection of the blue color was the subject of much debate among my railroad modeling friends and in the railroad modeling literature.  I chose a sky blue that seemed to be appropriate when viewed under the fluorescent lighting.  I am generally happy with my selection, although the blue tends to wash out in photographs taken of the layout.

I haven’t had many comments about the backdrop, which I consider a success, since I don’t want the backdrop to stand out or be particularly unusual in any respects.  I want the backdrop to “fade into the background” and not draw attention to itself.  It is also for this reason that I have not applied clouds to the backdrop, although I may add a few in the future as an experiment.

[1] Frary, Dave, 1991.  How to Build Realistic Model Railroad Scenery.  Kalmbach Publishing Company,  Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

[2] Woodland Scenics, 1993.  The Scenery Manual.

Rule One is to relax and HAVE FUN!

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