Add a River and Bridge to Your Model Railroad Layout

  • 01 of 09

    Planning the Bridge Scene

    Train crossing a river at sunset.
    The former B&O bridge across the Susquehanna River at Perryville, Maryland is dramatic in any light. A CSX freight crosses the massive steel span at sunset. Ryan C Kunkle

    Rivers and the bridges that cross them are a popular signature scene on many model railroad train layouts. As in real life, even a small river crossing can provide a dramatic backdrop for photographing model trains. Just as important for model layouts, the change in elevation helps eliminate that “tabletop” look and makes the entire platform more natural and therefore realistic. There are no rules for how much you have to spend to enjoy this hobby. If you add up the material costs used in this particular project, you’ll be amazed at how affordable it is. Using some recycled components, the total cost for this scene, including the two bridge kits, is less than $30. Taking into account the time needed for plaster and paints to dry, this scene can be easily completed over three or four evenings.

    Your river scene doesn’t have to be long or deep to be interesting. There are, however, a few tips that can make any crossing more realistic.

    • Study the prototype: Pictures—including satellite images available online—of similar bridges and crossings will help you place details like the angle of riverbanks, appropriate bridge types, supports, etc.
    • Place bridges in the scene, not on it: Planting the ends of your bridge firmly in the ground on proper abutments greatly improves realism. Like other structures, these foundations should appear to be planted in the earth and not sitting on top of it.
    • Think vertically: While there are canyons that drop straight down off a flat-topped plateau and bridges that cross them, railroads more commonly cross rivers closer to the bottom of the valley. Adding scenery above the tracks as well as below helps set the scene.
    • Bridge or fill? Many times modelers choose to add a bridge when the prototype would opt for a much cheaper earth fill. While the latter may seem less dramatic, the increased realism of prototype construction can often make up for it.
    • Weathering: Aging isn’t just for trains. Proper paint and weathering can improve any structure, including bridges.
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  • 02 of 09

    Choosing the Right Bridge

    Train crossing a bridge
    This small but distinctive bridge captures the character of the prototype in a size that will fit almost any layout. Ryan C Kunkle

    Constructing a realistic bridge scene is easier if you start with the bridge itself and tailor the scene around it.

    Unlike real engineers, we can make the “natural environment” fit the bridge, not the other way around. The challenge, of course, is not making it appear this way. Constructing a realistic bridge scene is easier if you start with the bridge itself.

    Like any project, the best place to start is by studying pictures. If you’re modeling a specific prototype, the style of the bridge you choose will be obvious. For freelancers, or if you are modeling a prototype that no longer exists or was rarely photographed, your modeling will still benefit from studying similar installations.

    There are dozens of different bridge models available in every scale. With a little creativity, these kits can be kitbashed: modified or combined to create even more options. If you are committed to building an exact replica of a specific bridge, you may need to start from scratch.

    The subject of this article is a small steel bridge spanning Raccoon Creek, a small tributary of the Ohio River near Monaca, Pennsylvania. Just upstream, the former P&LE Ohio River Bridge is much more impressive and well documented, but would be a tremendous modeling project in any scale. This relatively tiny bridge on a connecting branch line is much more suitably sized for the typical model railroad. While ground-level photos of the bridge are hard to come by, satellite images available online provide enough details and perspective to capture the look of the structure. Aside from capturing the basic shape and structure, the side walkways and piping are essential in capturing the flavor of this structure.

    Beginning with two Atlas Warren Truss Bridge kits, after some cutting and splicing the basic structure is complete to the point that the exact length and height can be determined. This is critical before starting the next step. More details on kitbashing this bridge are provided if you want to duplicate this scene exactly.

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  • 03 of 09

    Benchwork for Bridges

    Prep benchwork for a model railroad bridge
    Ryan C Kunkle

    Adding a bridge scene to your model railroad scenery requires a sturdy foundation.

    Knowing the length of the bridge, the valley itself can be constructed. Not only must you leave provisions to support the bridge adequately, but the tracks leading to it must also have a strong foundation. With the bridge dimensions predetermined, you can prepare a space just the right size.

    The L-girder benchwork used on this layout allows for a lot of flexibility when planning scenes like this. The track is supported on plywood sub-roadbed supported by risers above a grid of beams. Creating a bridge is about as simple as leaving a gap in the sub-roadbed. With the dimensions of the bridge known, a plywood river base—slightly wider than necessary—is screwed directly to the girders. Risers are installed on either side, and then the sub-roadbed is trimmed to the exact length, making sure the bridge fits neatly in between without excessive gaps. If necessary, it can be trimmed a little more during the next step.

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  • 04 of 09

    Making a Backdrop for the River

    A river backdrop
    A backdrop adds depth to the river scene. As this will be a night scene, the sky is a deep blue and foreground scenery is represented with black forms. In the distance, the lights of industry and towns shine across the Ohio River. Ryan C Kunkle

    A good backdrop can make the difference between a river and a lake.

    A river stretching toward the horizon adds a sense of distance to any model railroad. Capturing that perspective requires either a very large layout or a backdrop.

    Building the Backdrop for Your River and Bridge Scene

    Adding a backdrop is two projects in one. First, the backdrop must be built. Choosing a material and supporting a backdrop are more like benchwork construction than scenery. There are many options when building a backdrop. For this particular project, a styrene plastic sheet is used. The styrene curves easily with the back of the platform at the river's end. (This section of the backdrop was painted first and then installed, but all of the painting could have been done just as easily with the backdrop in place.)

    Painting the Backdrop of Your River and Bridge Scene

    Painting a backdrop is one of the most daunting tasks for beginners in the hobby. The truth is, it is not as hard as it looks. But if you're not convinced you can't pull it off, enlarged photographs can also be used.

    This particular river scene and backdrop are part of a larger night setting on this level of a home layout. Painting a night backdrop is not as hard as you think. Whether you follow a list of steps or create your own scene, you'll want to follow a few general guidelines when it comes to painting or photographing your river backdrop.

    • Keep the horizon low. You're creating a river, not a waterfall. Keeping the waterline low makes the perspective more believable.
    • Avoid direct lines of sight. Adding a bend in the river or intersecting the backdrop at something other than a right angle gives the viewers' eyes more scenery to distract from the junction of horizontal and vertical scenery. It also forces the viewer to move about and change vantage points to take in the whole scene. This can make the railroad seem larger.
    • Match colors. Try to blend the colors of the scenery and backdrop. On a dark night scene, this is easy.
    • Start with the sky. Day or night, it is always easiest to start painting the sky and then adding horizon and foreground details. The last layers painted should be those details closest to the front.

    Even without any foreground scenery, the addition of your backdrop will completely change the way you look at your railroad.

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  • 05 of 09

    Supporting the Span: Abutments and Piers

    Abutments and piers for a model railroad bridge
    Ryan C Kunkle

    Abutments and piers not only support the bridge, but they also help tie the model into the scenery.

    The model bridge, like the prototype, is supported by abutments and piers. The poured concrete structures can be recreated with commercial castings, or by using wood scraps.

    Abutments for Your Railroad Bridge Scene

    Abutments provide both a support for the ends of the bridge and a retention wall for the river banks. Done properly, abutments help to make the bridge model appear part of the natural scene, not simply set on top of it. The two abutments are made from layers of luan plywood. This thin material has many uses. The abutments for this bridge are made from scraps left over from adding fascia panels to the front of the benchwork. Strips of bass wood could also be used.

    Two layers are glued together to form the center section. The rear layer is as high as the bridge deck. It tapers slightly at the top from a width just slightly greater than the track itself to the total width of the bridge. The front layer is as high as the bottom of the bridge supports and as wide as the total bridge width. This provides a ledge to support the bridge. Two wing walls are made from additional strips of luan, angled at approximately 45° on top. These walls also angle back from the center section. The adjoining edges are beveled using a disc sander.

    Each of the four total wing walls is specially cut to fit the scene, based on the prototype photos. The three pieces are then glued to the roadbed supports and the base, being sure to keep them perfectly plum. Fill any gaps with spackle. Check the span frequently with the bridge itself throughout this step.

    Piers for Your Railroad Bridge Scene

    The center section of the bridge is supported on two piers. These are cut from scraps of 3/4 inch plywood. Height is the most critical dimension, making sure the piers will fit under the supports of the bridge without gaps, nor raising the bridge too high. The width of the piers is determined by the width of the bridge itself. The upstream ends of these piers receive a beveled front. All of the cuts for these piers are made on a band saw, but a small hand saw works just as well. Any areas where the plywood layers show, or other blemishes, can be covered with a thin coat of spackle.

    With the bridge in place, carefully position the piers and mark their location on the river base. It will be easier to glue them in place after the river bottom is painted in the next step. With a little creativity, almost any style of pier or abutment can be made. When finished, paint the wood concrete or aged-concrete color.

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  • 06 of 09

    Modeling Water

    Painting the base of the river
    The riverbed is painted black. Earth tones are painted along the edges. While the black paint is still wet,the two colors are blended together with a soft brush. Ryan C Kunkle

    Modeling water starts below the surface.

    Before installing the water, the riverbed must be prepped with these steps:

    • Fill any joints, knots, or other blemishes with drywall compound. A light coat of the compound over the entire riverbed will help hide wood grain.
    • Next, paint the river. Use darker colors to represent deeper water.
    • Blend colors to provide a gradual change from shore to shore.

    Browns and blacks usually look more realistic than blues, unless you are modeling a seaport. As this will ultimately be a night scene, the water here is painted mostly black.

    You could also model the bottom of a shallow stream with the same dirt and rocks used on your other scenery.

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  • 07 of 09

    Modeling Water with Plexiglas

    Cutting Plexiglas for the water
    Ryan C Kunkle

    A scrap of Plexiglas is an easy way to add water to your model railroad scenery.

    There are many ways to recreate water on a model layout. For this project, a scrap piece of Plexiglas forms the river. Plexiglas works well for larger, still bodies of water. Waves and other effects can be added to the upper surface with resin and other commercial products if desired. An added advantage of the Plexiglas is that there is nothing to pour, so the results are easier to control. Cutting the Plexiglas can be challenging and messy, however. A band saw works well. The trick is to cut the Plexiglas without melting it. Use a thin blade and keep it moving quickly.

    Once the Plexiglas is cut to shape, paint the edges black to help them disappear into the surrounding scenery.

    Once the paint has dried completely, set the Plexiglas in place. Replace the piers and bridge for another test fit. The piers can now be glued in place. Seal the edges of the Plexiglas with clear caulk to prevent plaster from seeping into the gap in the next step.

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  • 08 of 09

    Adding Riverbanks: Framing the Scenery

    Cardboard webbing for model railroad riverbanks
    Ryan C Kunkle

    Connecting the bridge and the river below, riverbank scenery begins with a frame.

    Hardshell scenery is used to make the riverbanks and hillsides. There are many ways of making hills and mountains, hardshell techniques are common and easy to learn, but aren’t your only option. Again, prototype photos are a handy reference for determining slopes, contours, and colors. The ground extends above the track level in places as well, further helping to plant the railroad and the bridge in the scene.

    Cardboard strips cut from old packing boxes are used to create a web to support the plaster. Foam, newspaper, or wire screen material could also be used. Cardboard has a webbed layer sandwiched between two smooth outer layers. When using cardboard for scenery supports, cut strips perpendicular to the web, i.e., across the ridges, not parallel with the troughs. This yields more flexible and stronger strips. Use hot glue to join the strips, holding them in place with clothespins or spring clamps until dry.

    It is easy to visualize and modify the shape and contours of the scenery at this stage. Simply cutting and splicing more strips will change the outcome.

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  • 09 of 09

    Hardshell Scenery for Riverbanks

    First layer of plaster for model railroad riverbanks
    Ryan C Kunkle

    A plaster skin pulls the scene together.

    The lattice frame you've created is now ready to be covered. Cover the lattice with paper towels soaked in Hydrocal plaster. Overlap the edges of the Plexiglas water to create a shoreline.

    When the undercoat has dried, add the top coat with mixed drywall compound or similar materials. 

    Once dry, the finished scenery can be painted or stained. Water or oil-based paints can be used. Many different earth tones are available.