Information on Modelling Materials | Railwayscenics

Modelling Materials

Below I have included some of the more popular materials used in railway modelling. They are all generally available cheaply or even free in many cases. There may be more that I have not listed. If you think something needs adding to this let, let us know with a brief description and it may get included.

Chipboard, plywood and MDF

These are useful for making a rigid base for your model. The bigger the base, the thicker it needs to be. The base should not warp or bend. MDF can be used to make large models of buildings where you want to show the rooms inside. Chipboard has the coarsest finish. MDF has a very fine finish and needs no sanding.

All of these materials are available from any builders suppliers and most DIY shops. Full sheets measure 2400 x 1200 mm and come in various thicknesses. A builders merchant can usually cut the sheet to your sizes for a small charge, and sell you the exact amount you need for your model. Many DIY shops and a few specialist model railway stores sell small, pre-cut sheets.

Softwood and hardwood sections

Many DIY stores sell lengths of planed timber mouldings. Some of these can be used to add detail or strength to model buildings. Lengths vary, but could be about 2m long.

Balsa wood

Balsa wood can be found in many hobby and model railway shops. It is available in thin sheets and in shaped sections from 1 x 1 mm to 50 x 50 mm. It usually comes in 1 metre lengths. Balsa wood is light, easy to cut and sand, and can be used to make very detailed models. Most other modelling materials can be stuck to this type of lightweight wood.

Timber dowel

The different sizes of this round wood make it ideal for making columns or pillars. Available in many diameters and lengths it has many uses in railway modelling.

Insulation boards

Because they are light and easy to cut, insulation boards are best suited to making scenery details like hills and cuttings. It can be stuck using many adhesives and is easy to cut using a sharp knife or saw.

Bamboo skewers and cocktail sticks

These are strong poles which can be used as fence posts, or even as scaffolding poles in the larger scales. They are sold in large cheap packs by supermarkets for barbecuing kebabs, etc.

Lollypop sticks and coffee stirrers

These are thin sticks of wood that have many uses for modelling, including making piles of timber at a timber yard, or wagon loads. They are cheap to buy and being wood can be glued using most types of adhesives.


Polystyrene insulation is available in sheets of various thicknesses. It is cheap, light and relatively easy to cut with a blade. However, it tends to crumble on the edge and becomes statically charged and is difficult to clear up. For really clean cuts a heated wire cutter is the best tool to use. Polystyrene sheets are available from many builder merchants and most DIY shops. It can also be found free in packaging.


Cork flooring tiles are available in packs from DIY stores. They are easy to cut with a sharp knife. Some can be found with a self adhesive backing. They are good for modelling landscapes and can be built up in layers to model hilly sites. Many modellers use a layer of cork under the track to help reduce noise.

Mounting board

Mounting board, as used by many picture framers, is a lightweight board available in large sheets. It is easy to cut and glue. Fixing several layers together will produce a strong model in any scale. It is available in many colours which could be beneficial to some modellers. It can be painted over using most craft and hobby paints.

Foam board

Foam board has two thin layers of card sandwiching a layer of foam. Although the material itself is light, it does produce a reasonably strong model. It is easy to cut and will take most paints. Care should be taken when using adhesives as some will dissolve the foam core. It is generally found in 3 and 5mm thicknesses, but other sizes can be found.

Corrugated cardboard

Corrugated cardboard is a free product that can be found in most cardboard packaging boxes. It can be used in layers to create a scenic landscape. It can also be used to add thickness and depth to model walls. Just remember that it is really only strong in one direction, so ideally two layers should be used glued at 90 degrees to each other. Thicknesses can vary.


Thin card has a multitude of modelling uses, and is one of the cheapest materials. You can get it from the back of pads of paper, inside reinforced envelopes, etc. Get into the habit of never throwing away a good piece of card, and you will not need to buy any. Cereal packets and other food packaging can also be a source, but the card tends to be a bit flimsy, and the printed side does not take paint well.


Paper comes in a wide range of colours, sizes, thicknesses and quality. Paper weight in the UK is measured in gsm, and the higher the number the thicker the paper. If you are printing onto the paper, the better the quality the better the print will be as ink bleed will be less noticeable. Paper is easy to work with as it can be cut and glued using the most basic of tools. The disadvantage to using paper as a modelling medium, is that it has nearly no strength and is susceptible to damp.


Plasticard is a thin sheet of the same plastic that is used for model kits. It can be glued with polystyrene cement and comes in a variety of thicknesses from little more than heavy paper up to about 4mm. Standard card can be used instead, but plastic card can give a fairly neat finish because it will not delaminate. As this is a plastic material it will not be damaged by damp, but may be affected by heat. Some makes can be harder to cut than others.

Modelling clay

Modelling clay generally comes as the air dry type. This means that in time it will dry on its own and does not need to be baked in an oven to harden although doing this can quicken the hardening time. It is available in either terracotta or white and in several weights. As it is air drying it is best to buy only what you need, as once opened the curing process will begin.


Plasticine is a fantastic modelling material, which shares similar properties to clay. It is available in a variety of colours and for best results it is more malleable when warm. It is commonly used to make temporary models, but can have other uses such as mould making and prototype work.

Plaster of Paris and other plaster fillers

Plaster of Paris is a dry powder that, when mixed with water, will produce a fast drying paste that can be used to cover the landform. A small drop of PVA glue added to the mix can prevent cracking. It is also best to add a colour to the mix as the bright white may show through. Other fillers are available ready mixed and can be used in the same way.


This is a flexible foam material mainly in sheet form, available in a wide variety of colours, densities and thicknesses. It can be firmly bonded together with many adhesives, but can be damaged by some. It is used mainly as a noise suppressant under the tracks in place of cork.

Sisal string

This coarse fibre string can be cut up for making long grass and reeds up to an inch high, or for thatching buildings (although in this use the twisting can create an unwelcome ripple even when unwound).

Masking tape

Masking tape is a cream coloured tape with a relatively weak adhesive. It is usually used for masking off areas when interior decorating. Its most useful modelling function is folding it over wire to make leaves. A strip of it can also be used to cover the unsightly corners of foam board buildings before painting them.

Broom head fibres

These are very good for replicating long grass and thatched roofs. These broom heads are surprisingly cheap and contain a huge amount of fibre. Make sure you get natural coco fibres and not plastic, which will not glue or paint up so well.

Electrical wire

When the outer insulation has been removed from all types of electrical and layout wire, the thinner copper strands can be used to make things like tree armatures, or can be tightly twisted to represent larger sized ropes and hawsers. In most cases, the wire will be copper which makes it easy to form, shape and to solder.

Florists wire

This is a thin wire usually sold in long lengths or reels. It is usually covered with a thin green plastic outer. It is easy to bundle together and easy to bend to shape.


One of the most common types of foliage is reindeer lichen. This comes dyed in a variety of colours, several greens, orangey brown and a pale cream colour. It has a soft spongy texture which can easily be torn into small pieces and glued with PVA. Do not get it wet or it will dry hard and brittle. It is sold in most model shops, although it can be cheaper from florists.

Rubberised horsehair

Rubberised horsehair is an excellent material for producing foliage. Unfortunately it is very difficult to get hold of and your best chance is a quality upholsterer, or maybe your granny's old sofas.

Fake fur

Nylon fur can be bought from many good department stores or fabric shops. It is cheap to buy. Cut into small irregular pieces it makes good long grass. It can be coloured by watering down acrylic or emulsion paint, blobbing it on the back of the material and then rubbing it through with your finger. Do not use too much or the paint will stick the fibres together in nasty matted clumps. Using patches of different colours will help get a natural look. The only disadvantage is that the weave of the backing is sometimes visible. At the edges of the material this can be disguised with flock.

Carpet underlay

The old fibre style carpet underlay is now being replaced by foam products, so be aware of what you are buying. The fibrous material can be stuck down, left to dry, then pulled off the scenery and will look like long unkempt grass once coloured. It is available from some carpet stores or can be got as off cuts from many carpet fitters.

Plumbers hemp

Plumbers hemp is a straw coloured material that can be used for thatching buildings. It can be bought at some builder merchants or DIY stores, but is being replaced by other products. It is available in different weights and is cheap to buy. It can be glued using most adhesives. It can also be cut into short lengths and applied as long clumps of grass. It can be coloured using most types of paints.

Car body repair mesh

This is a fine diagonal aluminium mesh which can be easily cut with ordinary scissors. It is ideal for building the supports of the landscape. It can be stapled into place and covered with papier mache or plaster bandages. It can be bought at some specialist stores and many car DIY shops.

Net curtain material

This is a very fine fabric mesh that can be used for textures on scenery. It can also be used within layers of filler to help prevent cracking when covering hills. You will need a really sharp scalpel blade or scissors to cut it without tearing. It can also be used as metal fencing in some scales. It is available from many stores and some come with patterns. You buy it as you want per metre.


The coarser sand can be used to represent gravel on some models. Sand is generally cheap to buy, but you should try to avoid the fine builders sand. Beach sand is good, but should not be removed from the beach. It can be stuck down.

Grosgrain Ribbon

Grosgrain ribbon comes in may colours and widths. It has a textured surface on both sides and can be made to represent corrugated iron roofing and walling. It is easily stuck to many materials for extra strength. It can also be painted and weathered to improve the look.