Design and Manufacture of Fine Scale Models by John Hunter and Laurie Green



by Laurie Green MMR


 This was a clinic given at the 24th Narrow Gauge Convention,

San Jose, California.     September 1 - 4, 2004

It is a great honour to be asked to present a clinic at a Narrow Gauge Convention in America, considering I live half a world away in south eastern Australia. It is a great thrill for me, especially after having attended five previous conventions, and having learnt so much from those who have given their time and shared their expertise in order to help improve my modelling skills, and broaden my enjoyment of this great hobby. I hope, in some small way with presenting this clinic, to repay all the modellers that I have been inspired by and learnt from, and to those who have contributed to the hobby overall.


During this part of the clinic, I’m going to work through some of the processes that I use to create my ‘O’ scale (1/4” to the foot) structures and dioramas. Great ideas for structures don’t just pop out of thin air. Often I start with commercial plans from magazines, books and other sources. As well, many ideas for models come from photographs in magazines, in books, off the net or from the prototype. They can come from postcards, gift wrapping paper and even from a print out of a picture frame that I bought as a surround for a diorama. When I see potential ideas, I scan them into my computer, and store them into a file called “STRUCTURE IDEAS”. If I need inspiration I can scroll through these files on the computer. If you don’t have a computer (or a scanner), you can always photocopy any ideas you like and place them into a book with clear plastic pockets. Just glancing through will get you inspired. Always keep your eyes open for those great ideas that might lead to a great model.


After I have decided on what model I would like to build, I start to develop a concept for this model. This “CONCEPT” states what the model is to be, what I am trying to achieve and what the finished model should look like. This will help clarify what era and what condition the structures will be in. This concept and the concept drawings that follow, will include all the elements that will come together to form the completed model or diorama. It will include the model itself and the various building materials to be used, and the other physical details that will enhance the model such as fences, sidewalks, trees, vehicles, figures, signs etc. It may include a length of ballasted track with weeds and other junk at the rear of the structure.

The Crested Butte Pilot


There may also be small mini-scenes that will be in the diorama that need to be planned and located. The concept also will include the type of base and its shape and land form and the treatment of the ground. Also taken into consideration will be the balance and visual appearance of the total scene I intend to create. In short, I try and picture how I want the model to look when it is completed. This will help me decide what is practical and what is achievable, and will start me thinking about how I will complete the model. THE CONCEPT outlines everything that is to be included in the model, as well as things that I would like to include, but could be left out if they don’t fit or if they detract from the finished model.

An example of this is a diorama I built called  'ROGERS PLUMBING SUPPLY'  which was built from plans of the 'CRESTED BUTTE PILOT', from a book of plans called `Structures of the Old West'  by Joe Crea and Elwood Bell (pages 8-9). The drawing from the book is above. The plans below.   


In this case, I had photocopies of the plans enlarged to 1/4” scale. Onto these I made notes of the concept I want to achieve, including any changes or additions, as well as notations on what materials are to be simulated on the structure. Notes were also be made on what colours were to used and where, as well as details to be added not shown on the plans. I  even coloured the plans with pencils to get an idea on how it will look finished. I also made a list the special effects required i.e. lights and animation to be added and how they were to be  fitted. I also indicated the land form that I wanted the building to sit on.

I often have these plans lying around for several weeks so I can add more notes, ideas and other changes that I may make to it. These drawings are also handy to obtain a list of materials, detail parts, figures, vehicles etc. that will be required for the diorama. I can then make a start on collecting all these parts.

While the 'Crested Butte Pilot' is a nicely proportioned structure with loads of potential, a newspaper office can be a very bland structure, especially in a diorama. I decided to take this basic building and turn it into a plumbing supply, which would allow the inclusion of heaps of interesting details, such as signs, pipes, drums, bath tubs, as well as cars, figures and a small truck being loaded at the dock which I added at the back of the structure. For added interest, and to allow for the loading dock, the land was sloped down toward the rear. You can see where I have added this land form to the plans above.

Having decided what I want to model and have developed a concept for it, and having collated ideas, photos and other information that I will need, I hand draw up basic perspective drawings of the structure, like the drawings seen above. These drawings show the locations of windows, doors, stairs and the proposed land form, as well as any other major items to be included in the diorama. This drawing doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, and can be done using tracing paper over the original. It’s only being used to bring all our ideas together to see if they will work. Quite a few of these drawings may be required before I’m happy with my concept.


I have already started to talk about the landform and other details like cars and people that are part of the structure, so I guess I have moved from this being just a structure to it being a diorama. Most model structures being built today and entered into competitions are dioramas. It is the only way to show the true potential of the model. It is also a great method to complete the model before it is inserted into a layout. This is becoming a separate section of our hobby, with some modellers building only dioramas.  



My interpretation of a diorama is a structure or group of related structures that are located on a fully sceniced base that is just large enough to hold those structures and their related details.

This may or may not include track or anything railroad related.

With this in mind, and the concept that has been developed for this structure, we need to compose the diorama. Composition is basically taking the written or drawn concept and turning it into a 3 dimensional object that encompasses determining the overall physical design of the diorama. It’s main purpose is to arrange the structure or structures and other elements in the diorama. This will be very important in dioramas, as they are normally viewable from all sides, and can sometimes have no obvious front or back.

The diagram opposite shows the top view of the composition of 'ROGERS PLUMBING SUPPLY' As can be seen, the diorama base is just large enough to hold the structure and other related details. The structure has been rotated slightly on this base.  


There are some basic points that I use when composing a diorama and they are as follows:

1. Positioning the elements 

Lay out the main elements in the diorama not parallel to the edge of the diorama. This maintains an illusion that the ground extends out past the edges. Placing objects parallel to the edge tends to say to the viewer "this is all there is" and can give the impression that the scene was laid out to suit the base, rather than the other way around. Even an angle as small as 5 degrees is enough. This is not a hard and fast rule, and there are exceptions, but generally placing the main element not parallel to the base does enhance the model.

2. The size should be as small as practical

The diorama base should be only just big enough to accommodate all the various elements to be sited in the scene so as not to distract from the center of interest, in this case the structure.

3. Balance rather than Symmetry

Balance is desirable for a diorama, but symmetry looks artificial and contrived, and rarely occurs in nature. This means that if we have a building off to one side, we need several smaller objects on the other side to balance the scene, rather than have two structures of equal size on each side of the diorama.

4. The Rule of Thirds

A rough guide to a basic balancing system is to divide the scene into thirds from left to right and into thirds from the front to the back, and use these lines as the major set up guides in composing our scene. These lines are best not parallel to the edges of the base as stated in Point 1 above.

5. Create Viewing Angles or Pointers

An example of this is the use of fences, pointing figures or the strong line of the edge of a road to lead the viewer to the main element in the scene. These angles should direct to viewer into the scene, not out of it. An example of this is having the front of vehicles point into the scene, not out of the scene.


All the above points (not rules) are only a guide and a great starting point, but dioramas are not all the same and will have different requirements. Remain flexible and feel free to experiment and go by my golden rule: “IF IT LOOKS RIGHT, IT IS RIGHT”. Move the various elements around on the diorama base, keeping the above points in mind, but settle on what looks right.


When I have decided on the model I am going to build and worked out the concept, I try and find something that can be added to the diorama that will make it stand out from other models. This can be something as simple as adding an unusual load to a piece of rolling stock or an unusual vehicle in front of a structure, a group of interesting figures or heaps of great signs. Varying the use or type of materials can also give your model a lift. We can also consider an odd shaped diorama base for our model. Even a splash of colour like a new car (especially a red one) or on the clothing of a figure in the scene can attract and hold a viewer's attention.


To allow for the option of having the land slope on the diorama, you can build the base out of a layer or several layers of 50 mm thick polystyrene foam. You can edge this with cardboard, or if it is an irregular shape, thick paper will work really well. If you are going to display the diorama by itself or enter it into model competitions it is advisable to paint the edges of the base a colour that will enhance the model.  

Other options are a sheet of MDF board or real wood that has a routed or shaped edge and then stained to match the model. White or coloured card or heavy coloured paper is also great to cover the sides of a base. If your land form is fairly flat, there are cheap picture frames available that make great diorama surrounds  

A diorama or structure always look finished if it haves some type of surround or frame, and these give you a place to handle the diorama without damaging the scenery.  


When I received the plans from Phil Shapter for  'SAMUAL PEACOCK & SONS – SHIPS CHANDLERS' it turned out to be a very complicated structure. It’s hard to get a picture in your mind of how this type of complicated structure will look in three dimensions. This is when it is a good idea to build a quick cardboard mock up. In this case I built a ‘HO’ scale version of the ‘O’ scale plans so I could get an good idea of the shape, balance, proportion of the model and how it would look in three dimensions, as well as from different angles. It allowed me to understand the structure, which is especially important when you start to build it. I also gave me a better idea on what order I needed to build the sub-sections of the structure and how they related to each other. I also mocked up the base with the structure located on it, to get a feel for how the diorama would look when complete. This mock up can be seen in the photograph.

I will now start developing my concept for the overall diorama, the same way as I did in the earlier example of 'ROGERS PLUMBLING SUPPLY'.  Full scale mock ups can also handy to see how the structure will look when placed in your layout. You can even give it a quick paint in the colours it will end up in to get an even better indication on how it will look. You then have an opportunity to alter your ideas or the size or shape of the structure to suit the proposed location. 



Make sure that the project will hold your interest, as scratch building a large structure or diorama can take many hours to complete. If it is a very large project, try and break it down into smaller sub-assemblies or separate models that can be fully finished, and then incorporated into the overall project. This will keep your interest and spur you to keep going.                                   


Some buildings have real character as soon as you see the plans or photographs and just scream out to be modelled. You can always add things you see in other structures and combine them to make a very interesting building.


Sometimes you will see a plan, photograph or an idea for a structure but it does not have that something extra that will make a good model. The initial example of the “Crested Butte Pilot” is a good example of this. Turning it into plumbing supply with lots of external detail such as pipes, drums and even a new bath tub can turn a plain structure into a really interesting model. Other plainer structures can have their character enhanced by adding such things as interesting sets of figures, vehicles, signs and other details. Even putting the structure on an interesting foundation or on a steep slope can really add to the model.


To add interest to a structure, try placing it on a stone foundation instead of wooden stumps or varying the roof materials. There are many different materials that can add interest.


Many structures are added to or changed over the years, so consider using more modern or different and less weathered materials on these additions. Even things like a new sign placed over an older and much faded sign give the structure character and interest.


There is nothing more frustrating than starting a model and then finding you are short of that vital piece or section of timber. I start collecting details and other items for a project often long before I start it. As I collect these pieces, I store them in a re-sealable clear plastic bag, and mark the bag so I know what model they are intended for.