Scenery Structures Track

Setting the Scene

The Art of Building a Diorama

I have always found dioramas to be both important and rewarding to my model building. They allow me to branch out from my normal routine. Let’s face it, not all of us are born able to make stunning pieces of artwork with our modeling. Dioramas offer a way for us to practice, perfect our skills and try new techniques before we attempt them on our model railroads. Most of my early years as a model builder were spent building small projects; learning to work with new materials, paint and scenery. They challenge me to pay attention to details that I may overlook on a larger layout since they are intended to be viewed at a much closer distance. This makes for a fun and very rewarding project.

Small projects are easier to complete and allow the modeler to fill the scene with lots of detail. This small shed, in progress, is a laser kit with added details, such as interior framing and a concrete foundation. Trying new techniques with peeling paint allows me to further my weathering skills.

While on the Oregon coast, I stumbled upon a small bridge that, I thought, would make a great scratch building project. However, like a lot of the structures I photograph, it won’t fit into any of the scenes on either one of my layouts. The bridge was small, full of charm and I really wanted to build it so I decided to build a small diorama to display in my home office.

Located on the Oregon Coast, this little bridge has a lot of character and would make a great model, however, I did not have any place to put it on my layout. I decided to build a diorama to display it. Further, it will give me a chance to practice aging concrete, wood and steel.

The simplistic scene with the scratch built bridge as the focal point of the diorama. A couple of very rough sketches, none of which were to scale, were created to give me an idea if what I was building and how the scene would be composed.

Bill of materials

Stringers: 8” x 18”
Legs: 12” x 12”
Bulkhead Boards: 3” x 8”
Bulkhead Bracing: 5” x 7”
Timber Guards: 5” x 7”
Bridge Ties: 8” x 8” x 10’
Grandtline NBW
Tichy Train Group Rivets

With a basic idea in mind, I began to sketch my ideas for a simple scene with the bridge as my focal point. The model will be a scale 13 feet long and 8 feet tall and like the prototype, concrete would form footings around the wood bents that will show signs of heavy wear and mud. The concrete would be cracking and chipping away from the wood, slightly submerged in standing water, providing a challenge for my weathering skills. Since I primarily model 1:48 scale, I designed the bridge to be built to Proto48 standards.

Building the bridge

All stripwood was precut with a razor saw before assembly. I cut six stringers a little larger than I needed and used my razor saw to lightly roughen the wood.

Thin strip wood from my scrap box were used to space the stringers. I then glued the stringers together and let them dry.

A small jig was created by gluing old scrap strip wood to a small piece of 1” x 2” lumber to keep the stringers square while I glued the ties in place. I set the first tie in place and let it dry. Then I used a piece of 3” scale strip wood to space the rest of the ties as I glued them in place. The stringers were then sanded flush to the last tie. I used my razor saw to roughen the ties on top and bottom.

To further the appearance of worn and cracked wood on the ties, I used my hobby knife to create deep gashes in some of the wood. Fine sandpaper is then used to remove any access burrs in the wood.

The timber guards on the prototype were heavily weather beaten, short and showing signs of rot on the ends. I cut the 4 timber guards to length and used my saw to roughen the timbers. They were then glued in place, slightly off-centered from one another. Further, one side was a bit further out on the ties than the other. I then used my hobby knife to gouge the ends to represent the heavy wear on the prototype.

I use India ink and water to stain my timbers once everything is dry. I add light washes with my brush and let each coat dry before I add the next. This allows me to control the amount of color. In some cases, I lightly sand some of the timbers to remove some color and vary the bleaching effect on the creosote treated wood.


  1. Good suggestion for modelers to try their hand at a diorama.
    I think they should follow your lead to keep the scene simple with a single focal point.


    1. I have learned so much through out the years from building dioramas. I remember when I was younger reading fantastic articles in the Narrow Gauge and Shortline Gazette from you and Bob Brown that got me started.


  2. Great little mini project. Since I’m not at the scenery stage on my layout, a small diorama is a great way to get to play in that area of the hobby. I think it’s time to build a small diorama for my office.


    1. You will learn a lot from building them. They are not daunting like a larger layout. I personally have found that I fear mistakes less when I’m working on a smaller footprint. It’s quite liberating!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: