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