• Stephen Strum

Building a 3.5' x 5.5' N Scale Layout Part 3: More Scenery, Structures, Signals, and Lighting

Updated: Oct 21




This is the long-overdue part three in a four-part series on building this three and a half by five-and-a-half-foot N scale project layout. Anyway, if you haven’t seen the first two parts in this series, here are links to those two posts:


Part 1 Blog Post: https://www.steves-trains.com/post/building-a-3-5-x-5-5-n-scale-layout-part-1-benchwork-and-base-scenery

Part 1 Video: https://youtu.be/JU8hOFSOt20


Part 2 Blog Post: https://www.steves-trains.com/post/building-a-3-5-x-5-5-n-scale-layout-part-2-track-and-wiring

Part 2 Video: https://youtu.be/P0y9i0BsnlU


For reference, here is a look at the track plan I am using for this layout, which has been built using Kato Unitrack. View the Part 1 blog post for a track parts list.

Ok, now for the new progress since the last full update on this project layout. Once all the wiring was done (the main focus of part 2), I moved on to weathering all of the Unitrack. While the Kato track is super reliable and extremely easy to use, the code 80 rail is way oversized for N scale. So, weathering the rail doesn’t just help the color look more realistic, but darkening the rail, helps to hide the height of the rail to some extent as well. I used the Woodland Scenics Tidy Track, track painter pens on this project and I used the steel rail color for the rail itself.



First off, when opening the package up, note that you do get an extra brush tip for the paint pen. Do not lose it since you will need it. In fact, you are going to need about 10 more than they give you, but alas you just get one extra. To start using the pens, you need to shake the pen well for a minute or so, and then depress the tip several times on a hard surface to get the paint flowing through the brush tip. Then, you can run the brush tip along the side of the rail. I found that one pass wouldn’t put enough paint on the rail and so I often had to make two or three passes to get the rail fully coated. These brush tips are also less durable than other similar paint pens I’ve used before. After doing just one section of track, the brush tip was already torn up a bit from the spike heads on the track. You can carefully trim the tips a bit once before replacing it, or try flipping around the brush tip in the paint pen and trimming the other side into a wedge shape, but then you will need to swap it out with a new tip once it becomes too worn, which happens very quickly.





For the turnouts and crossovers, I used Neolube on the points and frogs, and other areas that I wanted to darken the rail but didn’t want to lose electrical conductivity. Neolube is essentially a powdered graphite type mix in alcohol, that can be painted onto a surface. It adheres well and can be used on your locomotive wheels and other metal surfaces that you want to be darkened. The Neolube really helps to make the turnouts and cross-overs look more realistic by toning down the bright shiny rail, hinges, and other parts of the turnout. I still used the paint pens on the outside of the rails and in the areas where electrical conductivity wasn’t as much of an issue, and then cleaned off the tops of the rail before the paint fully dried.



You can see here the difference between the painted and unpainted rail. The top section of track has had the rail painted, while the bottom section is still unpainted. The top section does have wood ties and the bottom section concrete ties, so the track itself does look different too, but note how the bright shiny rail has been transformed into something that looks much more realistic, especially from a distance.



Since the brush tips of the paint pens give out way before the paint runs out, I switched to just painting the rail with a brush. I pulled the brush tip out of the pen and then shook the paint out into a cup. You might need to poke a nail or small screwdriver up into the paint pen to help the paint flow out easier. But just painting the rail with a brush ended up being a lot easier in the end than using the paint markers since the brush tips gave out so quickly.




I also used the weathered tie paint pen to paint some of the track ties. The pens work well in this application, and I went around the layout painting various ties with the pen so there was some variation in track tie color. When it dries, the color difference is subtle, but it does add one more level of realism after the track has been ballasted. If you plan to use the Kato Unitrack as is, without adding ballast, then I would just skip this step, however, since you are going to get paint on the plastic ballast between the ties.



Next, I mixed up a ballast blend to use on the layout. I picked up several bags of the Kato ballast which closely matches the trackbed color. You can use this right out of the bag and just run it along the edges of the roadbed to help soften the sharp lines along the roadbed and have a much better-looking layout without fully ballasting the track. However, l like to fully ballast the track on layouts, and I didn’t like the color as-is out of the bag. So, I dumped all the bags of ballast into a larger bag, and added various weathering powders to the mix, along with another brand of ballast I had laying around. I mixed this up and had a blend that was more pleasing to my eye than the brighter-looking ballast out of the bag from Kato.



So I could finish off the mountain area, the first areas of track I ballasted were the two tunnels. You don’t really need to ballast everything inside of tunnels like this but I run a camera on a train through the tunnel I want it to look good. I like to start out by painting full-strength PVA-type glue along the edge of the roadbed as well as along either side of it. I also painted a strip of glue in between each of the two tracks. Putting a layer of glue down first helps to ensure that the ballast will adhere well to the track and layout base and will be less likely to crumble off at some point in the future.



After I had the glue in place, I used a small paper cup to pour ballast on either side of each track section and then a brush to smooth out the ballast to my liking. I sprayed sections of the ballast down with alcohol and dribbled on diluted matte medium with a pipette. It is important to soak the ballast thoroughly with the glue mix so you don’t end up with layers of ballast in between the bottom and top layers that are still loose, which could result in parts of your ballast work breaking off eventually.



I also ballasted a section of track outside of the tunnel on the lower loop at this point using the same techniques.



After making sure I could reach both tunnels from the access hole on the side of the layout, I test fit the top of the mountain over the tunnel areas and trimmed off a few areas of excess foam. I applied excessive amounts of glue and attached the top of the mountain, using some nails to help hold everything together while the glue dried. I glued in scrap pieces of foam to help fill in some gaps and then mixed up a big batch of Sculptamold so I could cover all the remaining foam areas on top of the mountain. It turned out I mixed up too much at one time and couldn’t apply all of it before it began to harden on me. So, I ended up having to toss half the mixture out and mix up a second batch to finish the job.






When the Sculptamold was fully dry a few days later (and it does take longer to fully dry than regular plaster, especially when the humidity is high), I painted everything with a brown wash made from about 20% brown paint and 80% water. The thin paint can easily soak into the various grooves and cracks in the Sculptamold and tends to pool in those areas, creating variation in shades.



I also test fit a woodland scenic plaster tunnel portal in one spot but quickly realized it would not provide the needed clearance on each side nor on top without a fair bit of modification. So, I held off on installing tunnel portals for quite a while to think about the best solution.



Next, I painted on a darker paint wash on the landscape to help provide some additional variation and contrast to the ground and rock areas.




Since the main industry is more than an inch lower than the central town area, I decided to build a retaining wall to allow me to expand the central town area a bit more. I made the retaining wall using some large strips of sheet styrene that were cut to the height of the wall I needed. I glued them together using some splice plates on the backside of the wall and then cut several narrow strips that I glued onto the wall for more detail. I glued one strip along the top of the wall, then vertical strips every couple of inches.




I test fit the wall on the layout, and then after painting the wall a concrete color I pinned it in place with some nails, and then applied a thick bead of glue along the back edge of the wall. Since some of the glue was oozing out underneath the wall, I poured some dirt on the front side of the wall to help absorb and cover the glue seepage.





At this point, I shifted gears to installing some track signals. I picked up some signals from Z Stuff for Trains (https://www.zstuffexpress.com/) and decided to install them in the location you see here. I should note that some people have had issues getting orders filled from z stuff lately, so you might want to try and contact them first before placing any orders to see if you can get an update on their status. I don’t receive any commission or anything from them but do like the signals.



Since the signals were an afterthought, there were only a handful of locations I could put them because of the existing scenery and wiring underneath the layout. I didn’t want to have to redo any existing wiring or have to move electrical components around, so the locations I picked were basically just those where they wouldn’t interfere with existing work. I have a post and video on these signals (https://www.steves-trains.com/post/z-stuff-for-trains-signals), so I won’t go into full detail here, but these signals have built-in IR sensors and electronics, so you need to drill a 3.4” hole to accommodate the circuit board built into the base of the signal units. I did just that on each side of the track, and after soldering on some longer wires to the included ones, I installed the signals on the layout. The signals have sensitivity adjustments, so you need to make that adjustment before securing the signal to the layout. If the signal is too sensitive, trains on the opposite track will trip the signal, and if not sensitive enough, a train on the track the signal is placed next to won’t trip the signal. How close or far from the track the signal is located of course plays a big role in that sensitivity adjustment.




If you just want the signals to operate independently, all you need to do is hook up the two power wires to a power source, but you can also daisy chain them together so multiple signals will work together or install additional sensors for the crossing signals and so forth to trip the signal from another location. If just connected to power, the track signals will turn red when the train passes, then after 8 seconds turn to yellow, and then to green after another 8 seconds. If connected to additional signals, the color changes will be controlled based on the signals down the line, so a signal won’t turn from yellow to green, for example, until the next signal turns from red to yellow.


(The hospital kit below is what I repainted and modified a bit to be used as a hotel)

While waiting for my second order of signals to arrive, I went back to working on the layout scenery. I decided I didn’t like the original waterfall/river area, so I raised up part of it with a layer of 1” foam. I glued and nailed the foam down and then spread some Sculptamold around the foam edges to blend that in with the surrounding scenery. I also built a base area for a hotel out of styrene that will overlook the eventual lake and waterfall. I spread Sculptamold around that area as well. For the front of the lake area, I built up a dam of Sculptamold that extends a centimeter or so above the front edge of the lake. This way, I’ll be able to pour a lake of resin and it won’t simply flow downstream. There will then be a waterfall at the front of the lake area that flows down into the river under the two bridges at the front of the layout.


Next, I worked on the front right section of the layout. This is going to be a small industry, and I wanted to have the track embedded in concrete in this area. I built most of the base area out of styrene but decided to fill in the space between the rails with plaster instead of styrene. I simply used some regular drywall spackle to fill in the area between the rails. This type is pink out of the pail but turns white when dry. I spread it out smoothly, then cut grooves along the edge of each rail. Once everything was dry, I spray-painted everything with a concrete color.






I worked on a bit more scenery in the left front area of the layout, putting down some static grass and ground foam, and then it was time to finally install tunnel portals. I found a tunnel portal design on Thingiverse that I thought would work, and then edited the design a bit to be somewhat larger in width and height to meet the clearance needs that I had on this layout.




I printed out four of the tunnel portals and then cut away scenery as needed to get the tunnel portals to fit in each location. After painting the tunnel portals with spray paint and applying a black wash and some weathering powders, I glued them in place with wood glue and a few spots of hot glue.


On the back of the layout, the two tunnel openings are too close together for the tunnel portals to work as they were, so I cut one side of both tunnel portals off and then glued those together along with a brick column to hide the seam. The completed unit was then glued in place the same way as the front two tunnel portals.


I then mixed up a small batch of Sculptamold to blend in the tunnel portals to the surrounding scenery.




It was then time to finish up more of the passenger station at the front of the layout. I wanted to have a platform on the other side of the tracks, along with a walkway that crossed the tracks. So, I cut some pieces of styrene to fashion a walkway across the tracks, and then built up a platform on the other side by simply stacking up pieces of styrene until I had the height that I wanted. I glued that in place and while the glue was drying, I patched a few gaps between the track and surrounding scenery with more of the patching plaster. With that in place, I could then ballast the track on this part of the layout using the same techniques I showed before.




I continued around the layout and ballasted more of the backside of the layout and then started work on installing some of the structures. I drilled a hole for the LED wires in the warehouse structure, fed those wires through, and then glued the warehouse in place. I drilled a hole for the hotel lighting and then started work on preparing the roadways through the central town area.


Since I used Woodland Scenics Smooth-It for most of the road areas, I masked off all the areas I didn’t want to get covered in plaster. Then I mixed up a batch of the Smooth-It plaster, with some black India Ink added for color, so it wouldn’t dry a pure white. I poured out the plaster and worked it around using scrap pieces of styrene as spreaders.


When the plaster was starting to set a bit, I pulled up the masking tape and then continued to work the plaster smooth the best I could. As it began to set, I switched to smoothing things with my finger. Once dry, a sanding sponge allowed me to get the road areas even smoother, but there were still plenty of imperfections. I mixed up another small batch of smooth-it and spread that around the road areas.



With this batch I pretty much just scraped the paster onto the existing road base, trying to fill in all the gaps and dips, and get things as smooth as possible. After another sanding and some clean-up in places with a knife, things were pretty much ready to go. I placed the gas station on the layout (which was built from a Walther’s kit) and traced around the base sections with a knife and then came back and scraped away the plaster from the areas the gas station base would be placed. After a good vacuum, I was able to glue down a couple of base pieces for the gas station.



Before I went any further, I realized that this was probably a good time to paint the new road areas. I masked everything off that wasn’t road and sprayed a few colors of gray spray paint onto the roadway areas. The various colors create some texture and shading to the road area that looks more realistic than one uniform color. I’ll eventually come back and hit the road areas with some weathering powders and washes, but I was ready to move on with more structure installation at this point.




I drilled two holes for the gas station lights, one where the pumps were located, and one where the gas station convenience store was located. I had to drill these at an angle so I wouldn’t drill down into the Digitrax DCC switch machine controls that were installed right under that area. I then glued down the gas station pump section and glued down the passenger station.



I wanted to have interiors on some of the structures visible, and so I picked up a Roomettes kit to add those. I have a blog post and video on these Roomettes kits, which are fantastic (https://www.steves-trains.com/post/roomettes-cheap-easy-and-fast-interiors-for-your-structures). So, I won’t go into full detail here, but these are simple cardstock kits that fold up into rooms that can be glued inside your structures. They include LED lights that are compatible with the Just Plug system and an opening in the ceiling of each room for those lights.







While just card stock printouts, the kits really make the structure interiors look a lot nicer and are especially interesting to see at night when lighted. With those interiors installed I was able to glue down the gas station, and then drill holes for the other structures in the town area. Three of the structures were pre-built Woodland Scenics structures that had lights installed, and the other one was built from one of the kits included in the Woodland Scenics town and factory kit that they put together to work with the 3x6 foot N scale layout kit they offer.




After drilling holes for the structure lights through a styrene sidewalk base, I realized I probably should have installed the streetlights into that sidewalk base before gluing it down to the layout. So, I ripped up the styrene sidewalk and drilled small holes for the woodland scenic streetlights I used. Since the wires are small, I simply taped them to a pencil and dropped them through the holes so I could easily pull the wires through. Then I glued the sidewalk and building base back down to the layout, and while that was drying, I drilled a hole for the IR sensor I was going to install for the crossing lights. I also added a couple more lights to the station area and then glued down the remaining structures using super glue. I weighted down each of the structures while the glue dried to make sure they were well bonded to the base.


Wiring up all the lights was a pain and took quite a while, but the effort was worth it. Since the streetlights and other small LED lights use very thin wire if you decide to cut the wire to the length you need to strip off the coating in some way. While you can try to strip it off with a knife or wire strippers, you probably won’t have much success doing that. It is far too easy to break the wire. So, the easy way is to take a lighter and simply burn off the coating on the ends of the wires. This works great and is far easier than trying to manually strip the coating off.



You can see here what some of those lit building interiors look like using those Roomettes kits. It is hard to tell in N scale that everything is just two-dimensional, and at any rate, it is better than just seeing blank interiors. The hotel and the warehouse don’t have any detailed interiors, and if I had more time spend it would have been nice to try to produce detailed interiors in those as well, but that would have taken far more time than I really had to work on this layout project.




I mentioned that the Z-stuff signals can be somewhat problematic to get a hold of, and this second order of signals took almost two months to arrive after I ordered them. But they finally did arrive, and you can see them all here with extension wires soldered on.



I had to find locations for these on the layout that didn’t interfere with existing wiring under the layout, so the locations weren’t ideal, but work ok enough for this layout. The layout isn’t signaled prototypically, but the signals still add a lot of interest to the layout. I drilled the needed holes, glued the signals in place, and then sceniced around them.



I initially wired the signals all together so they would work more prototypically in terms of the lights not changing from red to yellow to green until the train had cleared the blocks ahead. However, since I only had three sets of signals, this only worked correctly if the train length and speed were just right. Otherwise, if the train was longer or traveled too fast you would never get the signals to switch to green. Connecting them all together would work better on a larger layout with more sets of signals. So, I went back to just having each signal on a time delay. The effect is similar, and it works regardless of train length or speed, though you can still run the train around fast enough to prevent a signal from turning to green if you have a long train since the layout isn’t that big. Just using the time delay makes the wiring much easier though, since all you have to do is connect them to power. I installed a couple of sets of terminal strips under the layout to connect all the signals to, and then I have those terminal strips connected to one of the toggle switches on the front of the layout so they can be turned on or off.


(Note that the tape is temporary until I install permanent wire organizers)

I also have a sound unit connected to the crossing signals glued to the underside of the layout. That sound unit is on its own toggle switch, so you can keep the sound off but still have the signals and crossing lights operate. While the crossing bell sound is nice to have, in practice you probably aren’t going to want to hear it that often since it is going to get annoying after a while.


With all but one structure in place and all the signals in place and wired up under the layout I could turn most of my attention to scenery work. I glued some JTT wire trees in a row along the gas station area where I had made a narrow grass strip between the road and the gas station. These trees are nice in that they are very durable, being made from twisted wire. They are not as realistic as the supertrees I’ll use for a lot of the layout, but I like using them for small trees in any locations that have a higher chance for damage.


I next touched up the paint in various areas and then tackled the base scenery on the mountain. I painted everything with a layer of full-strength white glue and then spread on a layer of dirt. This is the dirt ballast from scenic express and it contains everything from finely sifted dirt to small rocks.




This works well for a scenery base like this as the heavier and larger particles and rocks all roll down to the lower areas where they would naturally collect in nature. I rubbed the dirt into the rocks in places to help blend everything together and then also piled up some woodland scenic talus around the waterfall area and sides of the upper river. I covered the talus with more dirt to make it look embedded into the ground and not just sitting on top of it.

Once everything looked good, I sprayed down one section at a time with alcohol and then dribbled on diluted matte medium. I really soaked the deeper piles of dirt and talus to make sure they were well adhered to the layout. I also glued down dirt and rocks to the base of the lake and river. While the glue was still wet, I applied a layer of static grass on top of the mountain as well. I then repeated the same process to the remaining areas of the layout that didn’t yet have any base scenery in place: Paint with glue, apply dirt, soak with alcohol, and then more glue, and then apply static grass.



I had one more structure to build for the layout, and this one was a Pikestuff distribution center kit. I had never built a Pikestuff kit before, which is kind of amazing considering how many of them are out there, and I really liked it. The kit was easy to build, and since all the windows and doors are applied separately, it is easy to paint everything as well. I assembled the walls and roof pieces, painted those, and then painted all the windows and doors while they were still on the sprues. Then it was just a matter of cutting those out and gluing them onto the kit. I needed the big doors open so rail cars could pass through the building, so I only glued a sliver of the big door into the top of each opening.




I glued the structure to the layout in the right front corner, using some dirt and static grass along the seam where it met the layout base to hide any gaps. I wanted the whole area fenced off, so I used more of the Woodland Scenics chain-link fence which is nice to work with. These won’t look quite as realistic as some of the other kits out there, but they are far easier to install and so you can get a better-looking result with these in some cases rather than more finely detailed but also more delicate options that you end up mangling during the installation.




I used a drill bit in my pin vise that was just slightly larger than the post size on the fence sections, and then drilled holes for each post and glued each section down with super glue. I applied glue to the posts as well as the bottom edge of each fence section and whatever edge was meeting up with an adjoining fence section. Installation goes fast and easy. I also made some gates that swing open across the track. I simply took a couple of fence sections with posts and found some aluminum tubing in my scrap box that was just the right size for the posts. I glued the tubes into the layout base, and then simply have the fence posts sitting in the aluminum tubing. This way you can gently open and close the gates when switching cars into the industry. These might get broken over time, so I’ll make sure I have a few additional gate sections ready to go if needed. I also added fencing around the parking lot of the large warehouse as well as along the edge of what will be a parking area by the passenger station.