Scratchbuilding a Shed

A mostly completed end wall.

A mostly completed end wall.

Building models using a minimum of commercial parts or set directions is often referred to as scratchbuilding. Anyone who is building a model railroad that closely follows a specific prototype location will need to scratchbuild a number of structures to capture the look and feel of the real place. In some cases, commercial models can be modified and altered to represent an actual structure but those instances are infrequent. Scratchbuilding has challenged many model railroaders over the years. The fear of failing or messing up a project inhibits many modelers. I think all model railroaders should attempt at least one scratchbuilt structure. I recently finished two small buildings and learned new skills in the process. Click on any image here to review a large size. Let’s take a look at one of these projects.


When we take a step into an unknown area, we can learn more and gain confidence if we start with a small, manageable project. My local NMRA division held a model contest recently and people were encouraged to bring a model of a shed. The model could be a commercial kit, a modified kit, or something scratchbuilt. I felt this was a moment to push myself to work on something different. I had scratchbuilt one small structure before and another was about 80% completed. The contest inspired me to wrap up one building and start a new one.

The Hurley, NM, prototype shed.

The Hurley, NM, prototype shed.

In August, I was returning from a model railroaders meeting in Silver City, NM. The other two travelers in the car were discussing the what shed to build when we saw some diesel locomotives and a depot at Hurley, NM. We decided to pull off the main road and check out the rail activity. Nothing was moving and no one was around, but our eyes were attracted to a line side shed just east of the depot. We took pictures and jotted down several measurements. We all agreed the building would be a great candidate for a model. I published photos, a rough sketch, and basic dimensions of the shed on our NMRA division blog the very next week.

The basic material, styrene sheet, strips and square stock, along with the basic tools for this build.

The basic material, styrene sheet, strips and square stock, along with the basic tools for this build.

In late October, I realized I needed to start the project if I wanted to enter a shed in the contest. The sketches, dimensions, and photographs were reviewed and building components of sheet styrene and Evergreen Models styrene shapes were gathered. All I needed to do was dive in. I typically model in HO scale but I decided to build this shed as an S scale model, where 3/16 of an inch equals one foot.

Walls
Using a pencil and a metal ruler, outlines of the walls were drawn onto the sheet styrene and cut out. The prototype shed walls are board and batten siding with battens spaced nearly every foot. Each batten was individually installed using HO scale 1×3 styrene strips. Installation is made easy by penciling the batten lines onto the wall. Notches were added at the bottom of the wall to represent the joints where the boards meet. This step is easier to do before the battens are installed and will lend an orlder appearance to the finished model. In a couple of spots, a portion of the batten would be missing and reveal the boards side by side. A couple of strokes with an X-Acto knife defined the space between the boards, then a couple of strokes with the knife blade turned 90 degrees exaggerated the interface. Trim was installed at the top of the walls and then the battens. In a short time, the wall looked like the lead image above. The next day, the other end wall was completed.

Mostly completed end walls.

Mostly completed end walls.

The side walls with windows and doors were next. Cut lines were penciled onto the sheet styrene. Small holes were drilled into the window and door corners with a #65 drill bit to ease cutting out the openings with a new single-edge razor blade and a metal ruler. Trim was installed then the battens. After an hour or two, all the walls were done.

Progress on the side walls.

Progress on the side walls.

Doors

The prototype doors have different sizes, textures, and functions. The left doors swing out and are nearly flush with the outside face of the wall when closed. The right door slides on an inside track and is inset. This door also has siding material that resembles wooden freight car siding. With a small structure, incorporating specific details into the build can move the model towards realism. In this case, building the two doors to resemble the prototype was not difficult. A plain piece of sheet styrene was laminated to the back of the wall and the right door opening was cut out.

The left doors are represented with one piece of styrene that was removed from one of the door openings. The board joints were scribed using the X-Acto knife just as described earlier. The center joint was scribed a little deeper and wider than the others then the bottom of the doors were roughed up with blades, files, coarse sandpaper, and a file card. After a little work, the piece was glued into place and clamped with a couple of clothespins. The door on the right side was cut from a sheet of styrene freight car sheathing, then distressed as per the usual methods. A strip of styrene was glued inside the right door post as a stop, and the sliding door was glued into place. After each wall was assembled, the lower portions were distressed using some light sandpaper and a file card. All four walls were completed before dinner on day two of the build.

Mostly completed side wall with the two different doors.

Mostly completed side wall with the two different doors.

Day three of the build concentrated on bracing the walls and assembling these into a box. Square 0.125 inch styrene was cut and fit below the walls to resemble a baseboard or foundation beam. One side was distressed by dragging it along very coarse sandpaper. A beam to support the roof ridge was added using the same stock. The model was looking more like the real structure after a couple hours of work.

The model after walls are attached.

The model after walls are attached.

Weathering and Paint

At this point the structure color needs to be considered, or rather what the structure color appears to look like. The prototype is heavily weathered and hasn’t seen a coat of paint in decades. It is located in southwest New Mexico where the sun and wind are near constant, with some winter snow accumulation. The current appearance would be very difficult to convey without resorting to building this with individual wood boards. As the model is often just one component of a scene, it is more important to present the illusion of the weathering effects that accumulate over time. A light black oil-based wash was applied to cut the bright white styrene appearance.

While the black wash dried, the yellow paint color was mulled over. The prototype has a sun-bleached and chalky appearance. It was once a golden yellow but not nearly as vibrant now. Rummaging through the paint collection turned up a tube of acrylic yellow oxide, which would make a good start. A tube of medium gray and white were in the same stash. Portions of these acrylics were mixed together using Windex as a thinner. Some of this goop was smeared onto a test card of styrene that was also used for the primer and the black wash. Employing a test card for paint and weathering is a great way to experiment with ideas to see the appearance before applying anything to a model. I was happy with the test card application, so the paint was brushed heavily onto a wall and allowed to set up for a minute or two. A Windex dampened paper towel was used to wipe the walls of the excess paint. This process was done to each wall and the model was set aside to dry. A Q-Tip was used on the recessed door areas. After a couple of hours, the process was repeated on each wall. Here’s how the model appeared after paint application.

The appearance after the first coat of paint.

The appearance after the first coat of paint.

Small Details

After looking at these images, I forgot to mention the hinges and hasps. These are small parts cut from thin styrene strip. Each hinge is three parts, the plate on the door jamb, the plate on the door, and a small vertical piece representing the pin. A small dot of styrene cement was placed on the model then a part carefully placed onto the cement. Fine tweezers and magnification viewers are required tools for this step. Note the hinges on the left swing door differ from those on the right swing door. This is another detail element where a little care in the presentation makes a difference. Once the hinge plates are positioned then the small vertical piece is installed. This can be a little long then trimmed to the plate width after the glue dries. The hasps were created and installed in a similar manner but only two parts were needed to represent the metal plate and the vertical piece for the pin.

More Weathering and Paint
Another layer of weathering was applied on day four of the build. Oil-based burnt umber paint was sparingly touched to random spots along the bottom of the walls. The brush was then dunked into thinner and daubed onto the paint spots. The capillary action of the thinner pulled the paint up the walls to accentuate battens and other details. About fifteen minutes of work made the model look like this.

The burnt umber highlights the battens and other details.

The burnt umber highlights the battens and other details.

Once the latest weathering step was dry, the work needed to be toned down a bit and blended together. Another thin batch of the yellow oxide-gray-white goop was mixed. It wasn’t the same as the first batch but it seemed close enough. This was brushed onto a wall and a Windex damped paper towel wiped off the excess after allowing a minute or two for the paint to set up. The appearance is a subtle change from the last image but the weathering seems to blend together better.

A final coat of paint blends tones down some of the weathering.

A final coat of paint blends tones down some of the weathering.

Roof

While all this was drying, the roof needed to be built. Sheet styrene was cut to size and individual boards were scribed onto the edge of one side to represent the board roof. the board joints and ends were distressed in a similar manner as the walls but the distressing made the roof edge wavy. A square piece of styrene was glued to brace the roof piece. If you do this to a model remember that the board detail is on the underside of the roof and the brace should go on the same side as the board detail, but installed far enough back from the edge so the brace is hidden inside of the building. A black wash was applied to the visible parts of the roof pieces and the yellow oxide-gray-white paint mix was brushed onto the edges.

The tarpaper was made by spray painting a red primer from a rattle can onto newsprint. Three foot wide strips were cut and the edges were darkened using a Sharpie marker to represent the tar. A bead of Formula 560 canopy glue was applied to the back of the strip and spread thin with a finger before the tarpaper was glued onto the roof. Only two strips of tar paper per roof piece were installed at this time as the roof was not yet on the model and the last pieces would cover the roof peak.

More Weathering
With the tar paper setting up, it was time to add more layers of weathering to the walls. Pan Pastel produces powdered media that sticks well to plastic models. Burnt umber was carefully applied using a piece of foam, mainly from the bottom of the walls pulled up to about the halfway point. The flat window sills received a little extra as did the swinging doors on the front of the model. There was still a shine to the model finish, so a light coat of ModelMaster flat was sprayed onto each side.

Windows
The window construction moment had arrived and a technique used on another model twenty years ago was employed. Rather than build up the delicate cross members and verticals, these components are implied by drawing them onto clear plastic. The window pane grid was drawn onto paper, closely followed the prototype dimensions of each window. A thin sheet of clear plastic was taped over the grid. The plastic sheet does not need to be large, just slightly larger than the area of the two windows. The window component lines were scribed into the clear plastic using a straight edge and a sharp X-Acto knife. Then the knife was turned 90 degrees and the scribed lines were widened with a few strokes. The knife was turned 180 degrees and pulled through another couple of strokes. Each line was scribed onto the clear plastic, including lines that represented a portion of the overall frame. This technique is pretty easy, but it takes a careful hand so the knife does not go completely through the plastic.

Once all the lines are scribed, it’s time for more paint! Another small batch of the acrylic yellow oxide-gray-white paint was mixed and thinned. This was brushed over the clear plastic on the same side as the scribed lines. It’s easiest to just leave the plastic taped to the paper. Then a dampened paper towel was used to clear off the paint. The scribed lines are deeper and the paint stays in these grooves. After an hour, this process was repeated and the plastic was set aside to fully dry. A short piece of Scotch tape was attached to the back of the windows to give a dirty, frosted appearance, and to lend structural stability if panes of window glass are removed. If broken windows are desired, this is the time to carefully cut out a few chunks. Once the pieces are done, canopy glue was used to install the windows into place.

The back wall of the completed model.

The back wall of the completed model.

Done?

After the windows are installed, the roof pieces were attached and the remaining tar paper was glued into place. Bragdon Powders soot color was brushed onto the tarpaper and rubbed into place with a finger. The Danger sign was added by enhancing and scaling down the original image using Photoshop. It was printed onto ink jet photo paper, cut out, and glued into place on the front wall with canopy glue. The concrete speeder pad was made from scarp styrene pieces, painted, weathered, and installed under the door on the right. A touch up or two with the paint mix wrapped up the work on this shed the day before the contest.

I lost track of how many days it took for this build, but I don’t think it was more than a week. Each work session lasted no longer than three hours. Mostly, I waited for the glue, paint, and washes to dry. This model was judged in an NMRA division contest and earned enough points to qualify for a Merit Award.

The front side of the completed model.

The front side of the completed model.

This was a great project that was beyond my usual interests in a different scale, and with a deadline to meet. It also rekindled motivation to move a few other projects forward that have languished for a couple of months. My hobby work tends to ebb and flow, but one project can renew overall efforts.

Please post any questions or comments below. All comments are reviewed and approved before they appear.

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2 Responses to “Scratchbuilding a Shed”

  1. Scott Haycock says:

    Nice model, Eric!

    Tour description of this build would make a good magazine article.

    Scott

  2. David Emery says:

    The Tichy old-time car parts (reefer hinges and boxcar parts) would also work well on structures.

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