How to Make Paved Roads and Scenery for Your Model Trains

Model train with street and grass town scenery

onfilm/Getty Images 

Getting Started

Model semi truck and scenery
The Spruce / Ryan C Kunkle

Few model train layouts would be complete without roads. Paved roads are a common sight from cities to the countryside and are an easy way to add life to your scenes. Adding paved roads, lots and railroad crossings to your model train layout is easy using tools you may already have around the house.

What You'll Need

  • Permanent marker
  • Foam tape
  • Drywall joint compound (dry mix; 30 to 45 minute set time)
  • Water
  • Mixing tray/bowl
  • Putty knife (choose a size appropriate for your project)
  • Sponge
  • Paper towels
  • Paints

Planning the Route

Outline of road location for model train
The Spruce / Ryan C Kunkle

Start by laying out your roads on the platform. One common mistake when modeling roads are making them too narrow. Travel lanes average 10 to 12 feet in width. Add shoulders and you're pushing 30 feet on a typical two-lane. Adding parking on a city street can make it 40 feet wide or more.

Rural roads tend to be narrower and allow for a little more selective compression. As a general rule, roads should be about half again as wide as the cars that travel on them. These roads can be laid over any scenic base, from bare plywood to hardshell plaster or foam. It helps to clean the path of the road so dust and dirt aren't mixing into the plaster.

The path of the road can be laid out with a permanent marker. Thin strips of foam tape placed along the lines make effective dams for the plaster to come. Woodland Scenics makes a special tape for this, or similar materials can be found at office supply stores. Roads are profiled to allow water to run to the edges, so a steep shoulder is not necessary.

Have other details like railroad crossings, sidewalks, manholes, sewer grates, etc. ready to go and their locations marked prior to mixing the plaster.

Mixing the Plaster

Mixed plaster on the edge of a putty knife
The Spruce / Ryan C Kunkle

Drywall joint compound is a cheap and effective material for making roads and many other scenic formations. Drywall compound is available at home centers or hardware stores. While you can buy a joint compound in ready-mixed form, the consistency is not quite right for roads and in the thickness needed the pre-mix is much more prone to shrinkage and cracking.

Dry mix is available in a variety of setting times from 15 to 90 minutes. For small projects, a 15-minute set is probably adequate. For larger jobs or simply to feel less hurried, 30- to 45-minute varieties work best.

Mix the plaster in a clean plastic container. Estimating the amount needed is fairly easy as the volume of water added to get the proper consistency won’t greatly increase the total volume of the mix.

Add water to the dry mix gradually and stir until you reach the proper consistency. You want the plaster to flow smoothly, but not uncontrollably. A consistency like thick pudding is best. Make sure the entire mix is even in consistency without any dry powder or puddles. If you accidentally add too much water, simply sprinkle in a little more mix.

Spreading the Plaster

Drywall compound spread over the train scene
The Spruce / Ryan C Kunkle

It is easiest to start in the center of the road and work toward the edges, maintaining an even taper as you go. Use a putty knife as large as the road you are making if possible. Profiling with a single pass will result in less cleanup and an evener road surface. For large surfaces, use the largest knife you can find and keep seems as even as possible. It will be easy to make adjustments as you go along.​

You'll have plenty of time to work the roads into the desired shape and contour. Final touch-ups can be done after the plaster has set, but the closer you can get to finished results the easier that will be.

Any additional details that are to be added can be done while the plaster is still wet. Simply press them into the mix and smooth the joints. Plaster that spills onto the new surface can be easily wiped off with a wet paper towel.

At the end of the first coat, the road surface may still be a little uneven and will probably have a rough texture. We'll even and smooth out the bumps later. Let the first coat dry completely before making any changes.

Adding Railroad Crossings

Train track outline on wet plaster
The Spruce / Ryan C Kunkle

Most layouts that feature roads will include at least one railroad crossing. Paving the roads is just one step in modeling a crossing scene.

These crossings are easy to recreate. Spread the drywall mix evenly across the tracks. Level it off even with the tops of the rail using a putty knife. Foam tape or other barriers work really well here in maintaining an even edge at the end of the road.

Once you’ve finished the road, but before it dries, carve out the flanges. Use a clean putty knife. Place it on edge and line it up with the inside of the rail. Holding the knife against the rail, simply drag it through the plaster in one clean stroke. Wipe off the knife and repeat on the other rail.

You may notice some rippling in the plaster from this. If so, lay the knife flat across the railheads again and smooth out the plaster, then re-cut the flangeways. Each repetition will remove a little more material and should result in a smoother cut. Final smoothing will be accomplished in the next step.

Some crossings feature wood or rubber inserts to protect the flangeways. These can be added while the plaster is wet. Use basswood or styrene parts to replicate the prototype of your choice.

Smoothing the Surface

A damp sponge over the model road
The Spruce / Ryan C Kunkle

If your road has lots of low spots, especially easy to do when covering large surfaces, a thin second coat can be added once the first coat has hardened. Repeat the mixing steps as before and spread in a thin layer to fill in any low spots.

Once you're happy with the results and all of the plaster has dried, the road surface can be smoothed. A small bucket of water and a standard household sponge is all you'll need. The sponge should be damp, not wet. Rub the damp sponge across the road surface, gradually increasing the pressure until you begin to see the results. Clean the sponge regularly as you work.

If you are modeling a concrete road surface, expansion joints and cracks can be easily added at this stage. Use a straightedge and an old hobby or utility knife to scribe expansion joints. Cracks can be added with the same tools working freehand.

For most concrete or asphalt roads, paint is all that is needed to finish the surface. If you want to try and add more texture to the surface, fine grit or ballast can be sprinkled over the roads while they are still damp.

Painting the Pavement

Painting a base coat over the dried drywall mix
The Spruce / Ryan C Kunkle

Roads, like most other things, come in a wide variety of colors. Unless the road is freshly paved, chances are there are great variations in color even within just a few feet of each other on the same street. Even the time of day and weather can change the apparent color of pavement.

For asphalt, anything from black to a medium gray will work as a base coat. For concrete, a light grey to beige is a good start. Go out and study the real thing for ideas and take pictures.

Acrylic paints work best. Painting roads and other scenic elements are easier in light washes, and thinning acrylics is easy and doesn't require any solvents. By painting in thin washes you can gradually build up the color to the hue and darkness desired.

Foam brushes work very well for thin paint washes. They're cheap, disposable and available in many sizes. It's always easier to add color than take it away. Once you've achieved a good base coat over the entire road surface, additional layers of weathering can be added.

Lines, Weathering, and Final Details

Weathering trains and other scenery
The Spruce / Ryan C Kunkle

Yellow and white lines make a road stand out. Do a little research and study historic photos. Road markings, both in the street and signage, have changed a lot over the years. Centerlines, stop lines, crosswalks, etc. vary greatly by era and locale. Lines can be added with decals, dry-transfers, or paint.

Even if you have a really steady hand, painting lines freehand is difficult and not likely to yield good results. Masking lines can be a chore, but taking the time to do it right will pay off later. Once masked, lines can be painted with a brush or airbrush. To make the process even easier, here are two tips:

  • If using a dark color, lines can be painted before the base coat. Paint a wider yellow or white line, then apply a single strip of masking tape to make the line instead of applying a pair of parallel strips.
  • Before painting the line color, paint an extra coat of the base color over the masks. This will help seal the edge and prevent bleed through between the tape and porous road.


Just as with your trains and buildings, weathering goes a long way towards adding realism. Dark streaks are common in the driving surfaces of the roads. These can be added with darker acrylics applied by brush or with an airbrush. An airbrush is ideal for jobs like this since you can control the amount of paint, make gradual changes and soft edges and make long continuous strokes without reloading. If you're not very comfortable with an airbrush, roads make a great practice project. Start thin and gradually build up the color.

For more detail, patches and repairs can be added. Use a small brush to paint concrete or asphalt patches around the road surface. Some patches follow cracks and look like a web of black snakes lying on the road. Potholes and other rough spots often receive larger concrete or asphalt patches. As with the general road surface, the darker and cleaner the patch the newer it looks. You can vary the colors to show repairs over time.

Curbside Details

Finish the road with additional details. Gravel shoulders, street signs, guardrails, billboards, lights and of course vehicles all help complete the scene and set the era and locale. We see these details every day, so it's easy to overlook them. It's amazing what a few signs can do to complete a scene. There are lots of commercial products available for all of these details.