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Learning from Model Train Layouts – Part 1

(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.


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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:

{ 25 comments… add one }
  • DavidH October 10, 2019, 11:03 AM

    This is super interesting to me. I can see how compared to model railroading, lego railroading seems limited. We usually stay within the Lego building system, which means we have to build up the landscaping for the train from Lego bricks. That can get pretty expensive.

    • Mark H. Avery October 10, 2019, 3:13 PM

      Thanks for the complement.
      “Expensive” That is why I and some Lego people use Duplo bricks or even pieces of wood to build mountains or other elevations.

  • Peter October 10, 2019, 11:32 AM

    This is an excellent list. So many things to think about, but if you think it through at the beginning, it can save you from headaches later. Running trains under the ceiling is a great idea if you have limited space.

  • JasonK October 10, 2019, 12:48 PM

    Would you explain that helix for trains going between different levels? How does that work? I can’t picture it but it sounds interesting.

    • Mark H. Avery October 10, 2019, 2:57 PM

      A helix is a relatively small diameter round track that is built on an incline, It might take three circles to get between levels of your layout. Typically the helix is hidden from view. Search on the internet for “model train helix” and I’m sure you’ll find lots of ‘how-to” articles.
      One of the complications in Lego is that there is only one size curved track. You might have to use the Lego flex track.

      • Håkan October 10, 2019, 3:33 PM

        Woult the helix go slowly upwards and then steeply downwards, or how would you manage to include a helix in an unbroken loop?

  • hushpuppy October 10, 2019, 1:52 PM

    Where do railroaders get their supplies? Do they go to shows? Or is there a website you can get things like terrain, trees, etc?

    • Mark H. Avery October 10, 2019, 3:05 PM

      Yes and yes. Train shows sell supplies. There are model rail shops you can visit depending where you live.
      Then there are websites that sell everything a model railroader might need (Walthers) and others (Scenic Express) that just sell scenery, trees, flowers, etc.

      It also depends how much effort and mess you want to undertake. People buy Styrofoam, glue pieces together, carve to shape, add plaster, paint, glue grass, etc. Others start with wire mesh or plaster of paris or…


      • Håkan October 10, 2019, 3:34 PM

        Seems like there are German model companies selling miniature replicas of nearly everything. They are often stunningly beautiful, but the companies would charge accordingly…

  • LEGOJeff October 10, 2019, 2:10 PM

    One of the benefits of running trains under the ceiling or on shelves is that you don’t have to do that much landscaping to make the train look good. Like Mark said, you can just do facades and take advantage of forced perspective techniques. People get in trouble when they make loops on a table or on the floor, which lends itself to wanting more and more.

  • Master Builder October 10, 2019, 2:54 PM

    “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.” – this is a great suggestion. It can be overwhelming to tackle an entire city at once. I also like the idea of creating neighborhoods. That way you can fit in a lot of your favorite sets without making the whole thing look chaotic. You can have the train connect all the different neighborhoods. Do you have suggestions on where to get backdrops?

    • Mark H. Avery October 10, 2019, 3:10 PM


      There are several different companies that sell those things. Some are where you buy rolls of paper, others sell you a computer disc from which you print your own. They all have web sites.

      You can also take your own photos and size them (and edit them) on the computer and print out the results.

  • Håkan October 10, 2019, 3:36 PM

    Seems like Lego has made a bunch of different train track systems since the 60’s. The compatibility between them would vary. (I also suppose the different systems would have their advantages and disadvantages…)

  • The Other Mark October 10, 2019, 3:45 PM

    This gives me some food for thought for my own layout. I know I made many mistakes and had to rebuild sections and rearrange things because I wasn’t planning properly. Good thing that Lego is so easy to work with, but constantly having to rearrange the layout can also cost extra money.

    • The Other Mark October 10, 2019, 3:49 PM

      Okay, just one more though. It’s sometimes hard to plan because we really don’t know what Lego is going to release next.

      It took us a few years to realize that a new modular was going to come out every year. The fairground sets go well with a city, but we never know what set is coming or how big it’s going to be. So, some rearranging is hard to avoid.

      Of course, you could just focus on the trains, make your own props, and don’t worry about what they release. It might not be a bad idea to keep trains separate from everything else. Like someone said above; run them under the ceiling, and put the rest of the sets on shelves.

  • RetAardvark October 10, 2019, 7:33 PM

    Such a wealth of great advice from a seasoned master of this craft.
    These concepts are exactly what anyone considering starting to build a city would greatly benefit from learning up front.
    Do you, (the writer) have a website/ channel/ forum place you could send people who wish to learn/ participate more on building cities and such?
    The exchange of ideas and solutions can often be the dealbreaker between someone starting or even staying involved. There’s nothing wrong with learning “the hard way” as long as it’s not the OLD “hard way”that’s already been tackled. There will always be plenty of new “hard ways” to come.

    • Mark Avery October 13, 2019, 2:33 PM

      Sorry. No website.
      All my posting is done on this site.
      But I will try to respond to questions, and you could send your email address.
      Part II should appear in the next few weeks.

  • Daniel Tan (LegoSonicBoy) October 11, 2019, 1:45 AM

    Finally, somebody else who finds tiled sidewalks overrated! I can only think of one real practical advantage tiled floors have and that’s ease of dusting. Studded surfaces are much harder to clean, but other than that, I’d much rather have as many places I can place minifigs and objects as possible.

    • Håkan October 11, 2019, 6:46 AM

      They could have a more realistic appearance, though, if you’d make a model meant for conventions or the MOC community.

      • Mark Avery October 13, 2019, 2:39 PM

        Why are tiles more realistic than plates? I don’t get that. I would limit tiles to roads/driveways, roofs, and other places that minifigures never stand.
        Just my view. I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.

      • SergeiS October 13, 2019, 4:19 PM

        If someone wants a smooth road, sideways building with 1x bricks is far more realistic than tiles. Square tiles are okay for some sidewalks because they are also used in real life. But I have never seen a real road for cars using small square tiles. 1×2 tiles can be used for bricked streets, which looks okay but is expensive. A combination of smooth surfaces for cars and studs for pedestrians is the best in my opinion. Like how it is done for the roaplates. I just wish they made roadplates in more sizes and configurations.

        • Håkan October 14, 2019, 6:53 AM

          Although sideways building is harder to combine with any upward studs at all. I guess each stud in this case would need to be mathematically planned out, beforehand.

          • admin October 14, 2019, 9:49 PM

            What I have seen people do is to simply slide a sideways-built platform under their entire city. They don’t have to be solid under the Modulars (it could be a grid pattern. That was the roads are easy to integrate. It’s parts intensive, but so is tiling.

            • Håkan October 15, 2019, 6:11 AM

              But then there’d be no studs for minifigs, right? So you’d need to place them carefully on the sideways built platforms to avoid having them fall down regularly.

              • admin October 16, 2019, 1:40 PM

                The sideways built streets are usually for vehicles, so they don’t really need studs, but you could still add a few studs here and there for the occasional minifigs/accessories studs by using some bricks with studs on their sides. 😉

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