Visual Illusions and Mirror Tricks for Your Model Railroad



Visual Illusions are an exciting way to enhance your train layout and delight your visitors when they see what you’ve done to trick their senses.

Various illusions can be used on your layout for the purpose of providing the following effects:

• Forcing perspective

• Making your scene appear larger than it really is

• Creating a place for trains or cars or rivers to go even when no place exits

• Increasing the size of a lake or pond

• Enhancing an underpass scene

• Adding more structures where there are none

• Making structures larger than they are

• Adding more scenery where there is none

• Making double-sided signs

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Forced perspective has been mentioned briefly in other areas of this website. Basically, it involves the use of different sizes of scenery material, structures, trains and/or backdrops to make the scene appear larger and deeper than it really is.

For example, if you have an HO shelf layout, and you place the usual HO equipment and scenery in the foreground, then place N scale structures, trees, or even an N scale train running along the backdrop in the background, you have created forced perspective. When this scene is viewed at eyelevel, as it should be, it appears much deeper than it really is.

You can also create roads or rivers that taper from wide to narrow very quickly from the foreground to background to give the illusion of depth. Fences can be made to get progressively smaller as they follow the road into the distance. The people and cars in the distance should be smaller too.

Canyon walls that taper from large to small quickly behind a trestle bridge scene also help to provide this effect.

If you are good at painting backdrops, the roads, rivers, trees and mountains should all get progressively smaller in the mural to give it depth. This effect may be even easier to do with city scenes where all the roofs, and other horizontal lines of the buildings line up to one point in the background on the mural.


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Flat mirrors can also be used to create illusions. This was pioneered and made popular on train layouts by the late great John Allen, builder of the famous Gorre and Daphetid Railroad. He often used mirrors to create many of the effects listed above.

The main secret to the effective use of mirrors is to not give it away – i.e., don’t let it be obvious that a mirror is in the scene. You do this by…

• Not placing the mirror in such a way that viewers can see themselves.

• Hiding the edges of the mirror using structures, bridges, overpasses or scenery.

• When using the mirror to extend the length of road or track, it must be perpendicular, or at a 90 degree angle, to the path of the road or track; otherwise the extended road will appear to be at an unrealistic angle to the real road.

There are several ways to enhance the realism when using mirrors…

• Any structures, figures, train cars or autos reflected in the mirror should be painted a different color on the front and the back, so that the reflection appears to show a different structure, person or car.

• The cars or trucks that are reflected in the mirror can be altered (cut in half and re-glued together) so that they either have a front on both ends or a rear on both ends. That way, when they are viewed at eye level going into the mirror, it appears that the car in the mirror is heading in the same direction on the same side of the street as the real car.

• Place inverted signs on the backs of reflected structures, street signs, commercial signs so that when they are reflected in the mirror, the lettering can be read normally. The items in the mirror will then have the appearance of being completely different structures than the real ones especially if they’ve been painted differently on the backsides as well.

• You can also place the back of a structure directly against the mirror giving the appearance that the structure is twice the size it really is. The roofline should be lined up at right angles to the mirror to get the right effect. You may not be able to use a building with irregular rooflines. If you’re not sure, try and see if it looks realistic. If not, then remove it and try a building with more standard rooflines.

• If the thickness of the mirror reduces the realism of the scene by creating a gap between the real and reflected scenery, see if you can find a mirror that has the reflective coating on the front side of the mirror rather than the back side. Some of them are made this way, and may serve your purpose better.

The above ideas are just suggestions and ideas that have all been tried successfully before. You can use your imagination to create your own illusions perhaps stemming from the ideas above. These techniques are a lot of fun to use and to try out on your friends. See if they can find where the illusions are on your layout and figure out how you created the effects.


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