Installing Model Railroad Backdrops

backdrop supports
The backside of a styrene backdrop on a peninsula shows plywood supports attached to the legs. Provide enough support to prevent sagging over time. ©2010 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to About.com, Inc.

A backdrop can completely change the appearance of a model railroad. Painting a backdrop can be a daunting task for anyone who doubts their artistic ability, but before you can worry about that, you first have to build a sturdy canvas.

Materials

There is no single best material to use for a backdrop. You'll want a smooth surface, free of wrinkles or sags, that can be easily painted. A flexible material that can be curved around corners is often an advantage.

Masonite (Hardboard)

A perennial favorite for its wide availability, strength and flexibility, Masonite or hardboard remains a sound choice for backdrops and fascias. Masonite is actually a pressed paper product with one very hard, smooth surface. It is available in 4 x 8 foot sheets at home centers. Masonite is rigid, but flexible enough to bend around corners.

Masonite is best secured with drywall screws which much then be covered. Seems can be patched and filled with products and methods common to drywall.

Advantages

  1. Rigid construction requires minimal additional supports.
  2. Flexible to moderate radius curves (9 in radius or larger).
  3. Wide availability, reasonable price point.
  4. Easy to cut.
  5. Easy to install.
  6. Readily accepts acrylic or oil-based paints.

Disadvantages

  1. Not flexible enough for tight radius curves.
  2. Moisture sensitive - will expand / contract seasonally.
  3. Seams and screws must be patched, sanded.
  4. Primer coat required to help blend surfaces.

Drywall

Perhaps the most widely available and familiar backdrop material is drywall. Most homeowners have at least a little experience with drywall. If you've built your layout against a wall, you may already have your backdrop! Working with drywall is an art unto itself. While not difficult, seamless results take some practice. And while well-suited for straight panels, installing a curved or coved corner is not practical.

Advantages

  1. Widely available and affordable.
  2. Familiar construction techniques.
  3. Easy to paint.

Disadvantages

  1. Lots of taping, patching and sanding.
  2. Rigid - no curved corners.
  3. Moisture sensitive.

Styrene (Plastic)

Most modelers are already familiar with styrene plastic shapes and sheets for scratchbuilding and kitbashing models. For the same price as a few packs of office paper-sized sheets at the hobby shop, a plastics supplier will sell you a 4 x 8 foot sheet. Just about any thickness is available in plywood-sized form. For backdrops, .080 or greater thicknesses work well.

Styrene is extremely flexible and easy to cut. It is also very light weight and seams can be patched with a little plastic cement and putty if necessary.

Advantages

  1. Very flexible - bendable to 1 inch radius.
  2. Easy to attach - use adhesives or small nails leaving less to patch.
  3. Light weight.
  4. Easy to Paint.
  5. Stable in changing temperature and humidity.

Disadvantages

  1. Additional supports required - added flexibility works both ways.
  2. Less availability - check the phone book for "plastics."

Installing the Backdrop

No matter which material you choose, you want to ensure that your backdrop is secure and well supported. This is more of a challenge with thinner materials like styrene.

If you are using L-girder benchwork, begin by attaching vertical supports to the cross braces. Additional horizontal supports can be added if necessary. Attach the backdrop to these supports with glue, nails, or screws depending on your material.

For table-top or other style layouts, build a small frame to support the backdrop. 1x2 lumber should be adequate strength, using enough supports to prevent wrinkles.

After the backdrop is installed, patch and sand all seams, fasteners, holes, etc. with the appropriate material. Rough spots will show under the paint.

Corners

It's hard to find corners in the sky. While paint and scenery can help fool the eye, the easiest way to hide corners completely is to wrap the backdrop around in a gentile curve. Depending on the material you've chosen for the backdrop, this can be a very easy project.

As with straight backdrops, curves must be well supported. Plywood guides are easy to cut with a jig saw to any radius desired. Attach the curved guides to the wall or benchwork with vertical supports. Keep the supports consistent and use enough to prevent wrinkles when attaching the backdrop.

Paint Preparations

Before you begin painting a backdrop scene, there are a few more steps worth taking to ensure the best results. In general, it is always recommended that you start at the rear of a scene and work your way forward when completing scenery. This prevents having to work over a finished and fragile scene. Logic dictates then that finishing the backdrop should be the first thing you do.

But before you grab those paints or photo murals, consider the scenery that will adjoin that finished background. It's a good idea to complete the basic scenic contours and shell before you begin painting the backdrop for three reasons:

  1. Scenery, especially plaster, can be messy. It's much easier to clean off a blank canvas when (not if) you slop a little on the backdrop.
  2. Establishing a foreground profile will help you sketch the horizon on the backdrop. There's nothing worse than finishing a scene only to discover you've painted it too low to be seen above the treetops in front of it.
  3. If painting the backdrop by hand, blending the colors onto the 3-D scenery will help mask the dividing line and improve perspective. This is much easier to do all at once.

With at least the basic scenery shell complete in front of the backdrop, the final preparatory steps are to clean the surface of the backdrop and apply a coat of primer. In most cases, a damp rag or paper towel is all you'll need to wipe down the backdrop.

A primer coat may not always be necessary, but it is a good way to seal the surface of the backdrop and blend in any patches or seams. It will also help you find any spots that may need a little more sanding before you spend time applying a finished scene.

You're ready to paint - see these basic tips to help guide you through the process and add a new dimension to your railroad.