Making a Backdrop for Your Model Railroad Layout

Simple painted, rounded, model railroad backdrop - blue sky with wisps of cloudsHere is a portion of the backdrop for the Blue Ridge and Southern model railroad layout. Note the rounded corner, blue sky with wisps of white suggesting clouds, more white blended in on the horizon and bluer as you go up.

Do you need a backdrop for your layout? Almost everyone who has a shelf type layout or a wall-hugging around-the-room type layout will need some kind of background to enhance their scenery and to create the proper environment in which to show and operate their trains.

Even if you have a small freestanding, tabletop layout, you may wish to have a barrier, or flat 2-sided divider, running down the middle of the layout in order to create the effect of trains moving long distances from one locale to a completely different area with different scenery on one side of the layout vs. the other.

The making of a simple backdrop is not as daunting as it might seem, although it may take a little time and effort to do it right.


Rounding Out the Room Corners

For wall-hugging layouts, one of the first things to consider is whether you want to hide the corners of the room somehow. After all, room corners are not very realistic when you’re trying to simulate an outdoor scene. I think the best way to do this is to attach thin hardboard to the wall above your layout to the ceiling and extending all around the layout. These hardboard sheets are thin and flexible enough that they can be curved around the inside of the room corners to make nice rounded areas on the back of your layout where the corners were before. Once you have attached your hardboard to the walls behind your layout, use drywall tape and spackling compound to cover the seams. Once this dries, then sand it flat so you can’t see or feel the seams any more.


Painting your Backdrop

Reference sky for backdrop

Now you’re ready for painting the sky. This can be done very simply without requiring any artistic talent. First, open 2 cans of paint – white and sky blue. Have a small old mixing bowl or pan available that you don’t need for anything else. Starting at the top, use a roller to paint the top half of a section of the layout with pure blue. As you get to the middle layer of the "sky", while the blue paint is still wet, use your brush to begin blending in a little white color horizontally. As you move down the backdrop, blend in greater amounts of white, but not pure white. Blend the colors together as well as you can, but it’s preferable if it’s not perfect. You want a little streakiness of the white mixed in with blue so that it looks like wisps of low lying clouds in the distance. Continue doing each section of the backdrop in the same way all around the layout till you are done.

This is probably all you really need to do to give the impression of a sky and horizon. As an example, see the page describing how the backdrop was painted for my Blue Ridge and Southern layout.


However, after this is dry and if you’re feeling really brave, you can try painting a few more distinct clouds in various places using light or medium gray paint along the bottom of the clouds and then blending in white color as you move up in the cloud finally using a stippling technique with the brush containing very little white paint to make the top of the clouds irregular and fluffy. You may want to try this a few times on a piece of cardboard first till you get the hang of it. Reference photos may be helpful also – using a picture of the type of clouds you wish to paint. Don’t make too many clouds for your backdrop. You don’t want them to detract from the layout itself. The idea is to just create an impression of a realistic horizon. You want the eyes of the viewer on your trains, not your clouds.

Now if you wish to go further, you can use flat muted colors of gray-green or gray-blue to paint the tops of mountains around the bottom of the horizon.

Example of backdrop mountains

Again, you don’t have to put much detail in this because you just want a vague impression of mountains in the background to create a setting for your trains.

Remember that the light on these mountains is coming from the sun on one side of the mountains, not both sides, so try to put the lighter color along the edges of the mountains getting the light and blend it into the darker color on the side of the mountains away from the light. The “lighter color” required for this could be made by mixing in a very small amount of white or yellow to whatever color you’re using for the mountains in your separate mixing container. Once again, you may want to experiment with this on a piece of cardboard before you put it on your backdrop.


If you do have some artistic talent, you can always go further and paint grass fields, flowers or trees or even structures and people in the foreground and more detailed forests or cityscapes in the back. Again, reference photos are often helpful.


Printed Model Railroad Backdrops

If painting mountains, etc. doesn’t really appeal to you, you can buy sheets of small murals containing background scenery, from Woodland Scenics, Walthers, Trainjunkies.com and other manufacturers. Many of these are made so that they can be “stitched” together to create a long continuous scene. However the sky colors often don’t match well. To get around this problem, before gluing these scenes onto your previously painted blue and white background, I would suggest using a sharp hobby knife to cut the skies out of these printed scenes. Your own painted sky will be more congruous and will look much better. Just be sure to glue the edges of the paper to your backdrop well enough so that it appears seamless as much as possible.

There are some great photographed backdrops available in N, HO and O scale made by Trainjunkies.com.  Here are the instructions for installation provided by the Trainjunkies dealer.  An example is shown below.

Another excellent company that provides beautiful and realistic model railroad backdrops is called simply, Railroad Backdrops.  It was determined to be #1 in 2019 by Model Railroader magazine. One of their best features compared to the others is that the size of their backdrops can be as much as 36" x 72" even in N scale.  The backdrops come in a variety of types, from presentation paper to outdoor durable vinyl.  You can also choose from a large variety of skies to go with your scene.

Using your Own Photographs

Another way to create more dramatic background scenery is to use landscape or cityscape photographs that would be suitable for enlarging and pasting to your backdrop. Using one of the more modern digital cameras, you can take these photos yourself while visiting the area you wish to model.

When you find a nice scene that would be an appropriate background for your layout, set your camera on a tripod and take a series of photos side by side to capture the entire landscape. Using your camera or the software that came with your camera, you can then “stitch” these photos together so they appear seamless. If you take the digital images to the camera store and tell them what you want, they may be able to create a banner of these photos to paste on the wall or backdrop behind your layout. Try to use mostly distant scenes or landscapes for this. If your photos are close-ups of the trees and fields or buildings, the scale may be unrealistic for the size of your layout. 

If your camera has a panoramic option and if you have a tripod, you could easily take long, horizontal, backdrop pictures  and have them printed on special wide printers, made for that purpose.


Going “Outside” the Box

The ultimate backdrop is a real landscape or cityscape behind your railroad scene. If you’ve created a small portable modular type railroad scene, you can take it outside on a sunny day, prop it up on a table or other secure structure with the appropriate landscape in the background, and take some fantastic pictures that will make your scene look about as real as it can get.


Blending it all in

I hope these ideas will be helpful to you as you think about your backdrop. One important point to remember is that whatever type of scene you might use for your background, try to blend in your foreground scenery on your layout so it matches your backdrop as closely as possible. It should be difficult for your viewer to tell where the scenery stops and the backdrop begins.


Reference

A great new reference book is now available to help you with developing your own background panorama...

Painting Backdrops for Your Model Railroad

This page was updated on June 14, 2020.



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