(Written by Mark H. Avery)
Reading and re-reading all the model train magazines I own (mainly Model Railroader and Classic Toy Trains) is almost a hobby onto itself. Doing so is supposed to teach model railroaders (and by extension, LEGO City train builders) many lessons. Some are lessons that I’ve absorbed; there are others that are too difficult for me, and still other lessons are just beyond my willpower to follow…
Walk down your block and observe the houses. Walk down Main Street of a town and observe the stores. Observe the big buildings of your city. Those are the best lessons to learn about what and how to model a railroad or LEGO town. Three words that are sometimes used to describe a great train layout are “realistic”, “to scale”, and “detailed”. The same should be true for a LEGO city. Below are some of the observations that I’ve come across that, I feel, should be useful to LEGO city and train builders. I’ve tried to organize them in some logical way.
BEFORE YOU TOUCH A LEGO BRICK
- Space is of concern for just about every model railroader and LEGO city builder. LEGO fans don’t typically have the choice of building in a smaller scale. But there are model railroads that are built on two or even three levels (with a helix for trains to travel between levels.) There are shelf layouts that circle a room. They can be high enough to pass above desks and even dressers, and thus take up no floor space. There are even model railroads that are mounted on clear plastic shelves suspended a foot below the ceiling.
- Bench work. There are entire articles written about the different types of bench work used in model railroading. The typical LEGO fan view seems to be, “I went to Ikea and bought some tables”.
- Leave enough space in the aisles for visitors to walk around comfortably.
- Model railroaders do all kinds of interesting things with the fascia of their layouts. I almost never see that discussed on LEGO layouts. Others place Plexiglas around edges of their layout.
- Good lighting in a room is important. Lights that can dim to represent dusk are nice.
- Many model railroaders emphasize planning. Some quote the old carpenters’ adage “measure twice and cut once”. I personally think planning is over-emphasized, especially for LEGO, where you can build and rebuild endlessly.
- Model railroaders use anything and everything they can find for their layouts. Cans from groceries, wire, actual tree branches, fake fur painted green for grass, wooden dowels, netting, the list is endless. LEGO builders need to make a “policy decision” on using non-LEGO items in their layouts. Personally, I “cheat” a little, using toy animals in my zoo and model train cows in my farm.
- Likewise, train builders use products from multiple companies. LEGO fans need to make those decisions as well – cheaper knockoffs, non-LEGO copycats with original designs, customized pieces, etc.
- There are several statistics that are used to describe model railroads. Most seem to be absent in LEGO discussions: (a.) layout size measured by length times width (b.) elevation – inches off the ground (c.) maximum grade, and (d.) mainline run – the length of the track.
GENERAL LAYOUT ADVICE
- Know what you want to include in your layout. Most of us don’t have enough room for everything. The LEGO City Artic sub-theme released last year is cool, but does it fit logically in your layout? The LEGO City Mountain Police is another cool sub-theme but it’s not for a layout that doesn’t have enough space for a large number of smaller mountains. The new LEGO City Space Exploration series also needs a context. Is that your entire layout? Great. Is it the major “industry” in your town? OK. Otherwise, how does it fit into your layout?
- The same question can be asked about the LEGO Creator Amusement Park series. None of this means that such sets (or LEGO Star Wars sets, etc.) don’t belong on a display shelf someplace, but they may not work together all that well.
- Try to have separate sections or neighborhoods in your city: cluster office buildings and skyscrapers, high rise residential, suburban, industrial, etc.
- Background is important in model railroading. Several companies sell photo backdrop backgrounds that you can mount on your wall behind your layout. They have city scenes, rural scenes, and tall mountain backgrounds for sale. I noticed a LEGO fan recently putting a light blue piece of plywood in front of a window covering wood window slots. Another has sky-blue walls with clouds. Both are great (and relatively easy) moves. The idea is to give the impression that your layout goes on forever.
- Forced perspective also makes the layout seem larger. Build smaller buildings at the distant end of your layout. Try using the very old 1x2x3 doors and 1x2x2 windows.
- Vary elevations. Someone wrote that “a flat layout is almost always a boring layout”. Varying heights helps the look of a scene or layout. It’s probably easier on a model railroad, than in a LEGO layout. It’s certainly been done successfully, but it’s harder to use square blocks than Styrofoam and plaster. And if you want minifigures to stand, you need a level surface. I have found that DUPLO bricks of various colors can form a foundation, and green DUPLO bricks can be visible. Green slope pieces including cheese-slopes can help reduce the stepped look.
- One could also use a piece of wood or a low shelf as the underpinning for a higher section. I do that along my back wall. If your layout is against a wall, that hidden shelf will keep the buildings in the back from being buried from view. Even on a flat surface, buildings should be of various heights.
- Lakes and streams should be below ground level. An easy way to accomplish this is to use blue baseplates with lots of green and tan plates making up the land area. But that is very plate/money intensive.
- Model builders often suggest creating a series of one hour projects. Break down big projects into smaller ones – consider each floor of a building as a separate project.
GETTING INTO SPECIFICS
- Placing roads at an angle on the table is highly recommended. (It’s hard to do using LEGO road plates without cutting them.) Running one road at an angle, using plates or bricks, help to break up the grid pattern.
- Model railroaders often use building flats – buildings with very shallow (or no) sides and no backs that they place in front of their backdrops. Rail structure companies sell sets specifically designed like that. So do some custom LEGO builders. Building your own is easy to do in LEGO. Just create building fronts with very little or no side walls. Most LEGO buildings are already not as deep as buildings in the real world. Some modelers advise locating the flats 2-4 inches from the wall so they look three-dimensional. A sign, awning, or minifigure next to the flat helps complete the scene.
- Placing a flat (or any building) at an angle (using an angled plate as the roof) adds some variety.
- If your town is built against a wall, many buildings are probably against the back wall of your layout. They don’t need a detailed (or maybe any) back wall. You can possibly take the back wall of a LEGO Creator Modular Building, for example, and use it as a separate building or building front. Double your frontage for the same cost. Some LEGO sets are better than others for this.
- Fencing can help set the stage. LEGO has several different types of fences. I wish they made a tall chain-link fence as a standard item. It would be useful for many industrial scenes. LEGO city builders have improvised with several good substitutes.
- Texture is important! That’s very difficult in LEGO. I’ve always liked the lined and log bricks. The new 1×2 and 1×4 masonry bricks are great – we need way, way more of them. But the sides should be lined as well! The folks who use endless cheese-slopes as siding on their house walls are really onto something in terms of texture. But unless you can buy the cheese-slopes in cups from the LEGO Pick-A-Brick wall, they’re expensive when you use so many.
- Lights that go on in buildings are wonderful but not if the light shines through the cracks between the LEGO bricks. There are several companies that sell LED lights especially for LEGO buildings.
- Sidewalks. I personally don’t have them in my layout, but they certainly add to the realistic appearance of a city. So do spaces for on-street parking. But that’s very difficult given standard LEGO road-plates. For me, that would also mean that every current building would need to be raised so that they line up with the sidewalk, and so that first floor doors could open.
- I don’t quite understand the extensive use of tiles for sidewalks. Shouldn’t minifigures connect at every point along a sidewalk? I’d limit tiles to roads and driveways.
HOUSES AND OTHER BUILDINGS
- Most real world buildings are not built or painted in Technicolor. Neither should your LEGO city be! That’s hard when the basic LEGO building colors are red, yellow, blue, and maybe green. And it’s harder when the expanded LEGO palette emphasizes purples, pinks, and oranges, as in some of the recent LEGO Classic sets (and especially in the LEGO Friends line). But I’m trying. I use lots of whites. I can’t avoid the reds. (I wish brick-red was a much more standard color.) I’m using a lot more light and dark-gray, and especially tans. Earth green seems like a promising, but somewhat rare color. So does dark-sand-yellow (dark-tan).
- Even if you build a layout/city at standard table height, most people are looking down at your city. Roofs are therefore very important. Chimneys or smokestacks, air conditioning units, vents, roof patches, TV antennas, satellite dishes, telephone towers, etc. are all part of many roofs – especially flat ones. Be sure to add those to your layout.
- Space between buildings, for example driveways and parks, are all important, and part of what make a layout look good. Think of them as transitions between more busy scenes. I’m guilty of violating this one all the time, as I push to get ever more buildings into my fixed space.
- Big structures dating before the 1960s very often had water tanks on their roofs.
- Internal view blocks for buildings without backs. The illusion is gone if you can look through the front window of a building and see out the back windows or open back. Some furniture or mini-figures can help. But the easiest thing to do is to put a view blocker. It could be a black piece of oak tag or card stock placed at a diagonal inside your building. I sometimes use gray or even manila folders.
- Window shades and curtains help do the same thing. Some old LEGO Town sets and idea books had stickers that could go on windows. But little pieces of colored folders or even paper can do the same job. Different rooms of a house can have different colors of curtains. Some shades can be down where others are half up. Curtains can be shaped from the same paper. (The somewhat odd proportions of LEGO windows compared to real windows has bothered me and others for years.)
- Real world buildings have leaders and gutters, mailboxes, electric meters, etc. So should our LEGO houses. There are also garbage cans on the side and chairs on the porch.
- Decide which buildings viewers can see into. Those are the ones that need furniture, decorative floors, etc.
- One railroader added a working clock tower over his railroad station, using cheap wristwatches. A LEGO fan could use one of the clocks licensed by LEGO over the years. I sometimes do that.
- Structures that are under construction add interest. Some LEGO fans have created houses using 1×8 tan plates as vertical studs. Some include the outline of an angled roof; others put in window and door frames. Add some lumber or extra window frames on the ground, a truck being uploaded, maybe a small cement mixer, and some workers and you have a scene.
- A similar concept applies to office buildings. Use 1×16 bricks as horizontal beams. Cranes, cement trucks, scaffolding, fencing, and workers all give a sense of movement. You can even add another story to your structure every so often.
- You should have at least one or two of your own creations (MOCs) on the layout, something that no one else has. You can even take a standard LEGO building set, and follow the instructions using different colors.
I hope these lists give you some pointers when working on your own LEGO city layout, and there is still a lot more we can talk about. Next time, we will look at some of the small things that help dress up a model train or LEGO city layout. What do you think? Do you use any of the suggestions mentioned above? Are there any challenges you face with your own LEGO layouts? Feel free to share and discuss in the comment section below!
And you might also like to check out my previous posts:
- My LEGO City: A Personal Story – Part 1 (introduction)
- My LEGO City: A Personal Story – Part 2 (building a large LEGO city)
- My LEGO City: A Personal Story – Part 3 (rebuilding the city)
- My LEGO City: A Personal Story – Part 4 (LEGO city layout)
- My LEGO City: A Personal Story – Part 5 (LEGO set purchases)
- My LEGO City: A Personal Story – Part 6 (LEGO city transportation)
- My LEGO City: A Personal Story – Part 7 (model railroading)
- My LEGO City: A Personal Story – Part 8 (LEGO company interactions)
- My LEGO City: A Personal Story – Part 9 (LEGO shopping)
- On the LEGO Trail: Visiting LEGO Train Shows
- My LEGO City: A Personal Story – Part 10 (collecting LEGO catalogs)
- My Top Ten LEGO Regrets – What Are Yours?