Introduction: Enhanced Card Kits for Model Railway, Railroad or Diorama

About: Untidy, disorganised and a bit silly. I am a photographer, artist, body artist, sculptor, prosthetic maker, model engineer, and general idiot who likes making stuff and messing about. I give hands on workshops…

Card as a model making material has been around for a very long time. However, since the introduction of plastic kits in the 1950’s it has gained something of a reputation as the ‘poor relation’ for some modellers. This article will attempt to show that, with some care and attention card can produce a model that is as convincing as one made from other materials. Furthermore card and printed papers can produce models and structures cheaply and quickly. A large viaduct constructed of plasticard and embossed plastic sheets will cost around 10 times as much as one constructed from card and printed papers. This is especially true if you can ‘recycle’ old card, or find somewhere that will supply you for free!

You need to arm yourself with some tools, glue and obviously card! The main tools required are a very sharp knife. I personally swear by my trusty Swan & Morton Number 3 handle, equipped with 10a, 11 and 15 blades, but an X-Acto, snap off or other similar craft knife will do. Be prepared to change the blades frequently. A steel rule is required, for small scales you will probably manage with a 6”/150mm one but I keep a range of rules and straight edges in my toolbox. I find that scissors are too unwieldy and tend to bend card as it’s being cut, so these are only used for long rough cuts. A pair of tweezers often come in handy. Glues, keep a range handy, UHU, Bostik All Purpose, Pritt Stick, Cyanoacrylate (Super-Glue), Impact Adhesive (Evo-Stick) along with some double sided adhesive tape and some PVA. After trying many glues on different materials, I now use B&Q own brand ‘General Purpose Glue’ in a tube for all my card assemblies. It has no odour, it is a fairly thick paste that won’t dribble out of the tube, it dries quickly, gives a strong bond with high ‘grab’ and is transparent when set.

Card is your primary construction material, you could use plasticard, but that defeats the object of cost reduction. You should keep a range of A4 sized sheets in various thickness and possible colours. The basic ones to start with are some 200gsm white card. This is available at almost all stationery stores in packs of 500 sheets. It will pass through most desktop printers (more of this later) and is about the same thickness as good quality ‘birthday’ cards. It is available in many colours but white is cheapest. It does not have much structural strength unless laminated but it is easy to fold. Most card kits are reproduced on something of this weight.

The next thickness required is dense package board, about 1mm thick – you’ve guessed it, the proverbial cereal packet! This board is everywhere, and it’s free! Don’t chuck out your empty cereal packets cut them into A4 sized sheets and keep them in a folder. The ‘grey’ sides also make excellent reproductions of concrete in almost all scales!

Finally you will need a thicker dense board for heavy structural work. I use two types for my models. The first is ‘Border Matte’ it’s the stuff used to frame watercolours and is available from most good art shops. It’s not cheap but is available in many colours, is of excellent density and quality and is supplied in various sizes and thickness. You could use ‘show-card’ or art ‘line board’ instead. The board is between 1.5mm and 2.5mm thick (or more) with a good smooth surface. I use it where it will be seen.

For all structural work that will not be seen I use a board of similar structure called ‘layer pad’. This is effectively the same density and colour as cereal packaging but is much sturdier, available in varying thickness from 1mm up to 3mm. It is used (as it’s name suggests) to separate layers of packed products. Most packaging companies hold large stocks of the stuff. In comes in a truly vast variety of sizes, and if you can find a friendly local business you can usually scrounge some. I got 3 sheets from a local aerosol manufacturer. Each sheet was 2 meters by 2 meters (4sq M) and of 1mm, 2mm and 3mm thick, it has lasted me 5 years so far!

Finally you will need to get some artists or modellers watercolours, acrylics, oils or enamels and some pastel chalks. These are not as expensive as you may imagine and will last a very long time. I would start with a small watercolour pan set (Windsor & Newton field box £7.00) and a set of Daler-Rowney 24 oil colour pastels (£4.00). Plus some good quality brushes of various sizes.

The techniques described here are only my methods and there are many others. They are primarily aimed at N Gauge structures, but should be applicable in most scales. They are also related to pre-printed card kits and the various printed ‘papers’ used for scratch building.

In my opinion all kits should be viewed as the basis for a model, not the final article in itself. I regard card kits as being the reverse of plastic or brass construction kits. Let me explain what I mean. In a plastic construction kit, the manufacturer has done 90% of the construction work for you but supplied none of the decorative finishes. In a card kit (or with printed papers) the graphic designer has done 90% of the decorative finish for you but little or none of the construction work. In both cases detailing and final execution are left to the modeller.

With a plastic construction kit, the structural strength is inherent in the design. With card it isn’t. Most card kits are produced using around 200gsm card. Roughly the thickness of a birthday card. Anyone who has constructed one of these straight from the packet will know how flimsy this can be. Furthermore there is little relief detail, the kit trying to rely on the printing to give the visual illusion of raised (or recessed) detail. For me this is not altogether convincing. In ‘N’ Gauge or 2mm Fine-scale a recess depth of 6” in real life equates to about 1mm in scale. This is easily within the eyes level of detection. Since many types of door and window recess by 6” in real life, card kits that do not allow for this tend to look ‘flat’. The level at which the eye can continue to be deceived by the printing will depend on the size, location and surroundings of the model.

In order to correct this and enhance pre-printed card models I use some simple lamination techniques to get around the problem. Even minimal relief seems to help convince the eye that the model has more realism. And the laminating process adds greatly to the structural strength.

Starting with something simple such as a line-side plate layers hut with only a door. Just recessing the door by as little as half a millimetre and giving the model some weathering will enhance the effect. I have chosen to do a ‘step by step’ example for this article.

I am using a Metcalf ‘N’ Gauge / 2mm Kit here, for no other reason than it was in my box waiting to be built. Metcalf produce good quality card kits on approx 600 micron board. They also supply windows printed onto clear acetate film rather than simply printed onto card. Similar kits are available from Super-Quick, Bilt-Eezi and others. There is also a growing trend for downloading kits and building papers from the Internet then printing them onto your own card stock. The advantage of this method is that once you have paid and downloaded your file(s) you can print off as many as you like. This would save a small fortune if you were constructing a large viaduct for example. I recommend taking a look at who offer a small but high quality range of kits and ‘brick papers’ at reasonable prices. I have downloaded and used their construction papers with very pleasing results.

Step 1: Basic Kit

So to the construction.

Fig 1 shows the basic kit as supplied. The printing is of high quality and the various parts have been pre-stamped to make cutting out easier.

The first thing I do, like all good modellers, is to totally ignore the instructions! Metcalf have provided structural and glue fixing tabs, but I intend to use the kit only as the outer shell of the building, effectively building the entire structure inside this shell using standard card.

Step 2: Cutting Out

Fig 2 shows the main building walls removed from the stock. The upper wall has had all construction tabs, door and window openings cut away. The lower section of wall still has its blue construction tab and the door glue tabs in place.

Step 3: Templates

In Fig3 you can see Metcalfs inner structural card support frame. This will be totally discarded, except for use as a template for the base, window apertures and the height of the 1st floor. Behind this you can see the 1mm layer pad stock that will be used for all the structural work.

Once the frame has been dissected (Fig 4), its dimensions are transferred over to the layer pad. In Fig 5 you can just make out the dimension markings on the pad for the base, ground floor, first floor and the front and rear walls. The end walls are a generic strip at this stage. Since the layer pad is 1mm thick allowance has to be made for the added thickness, so the end wall sections are reduced from the Metcalf pattern by 2mm across their width.

Step 4: Walls 1

Once I had cut out and trimmed the wall sections, and cut out the front and rear inner walls, I deliberately separated one of the rear wall sections from the rest of the assembly (Fig 6). The reason for doing this was that Metcalf had chosen to form the building using two joints at the centre of the front and rear walls, I wanted to form the building as a single section with one joint at the corner.

Step 5: Laminating

Next I began laminating the inner walls to the outer shell. This process requires smearing a thin layer of glue over the outer wall and gluing the inner walls into place. Final trimming can be done later. I used the window as a template to open the apertures before gluing. Fig 7 shows one section of the rear wall laminated and the windows fitted. The second wall section has been offered up for a fit, but the apertures have yet to be cut. Notice the 1mm overhang at the left end of the wall to accommodate the end wall support. Also, all the door openings will have to be cut away.

I continued the laminating with the front wall. Once this was in place I had a single joint down one corner. This will make final assembly simpler since the whole lot can be formed around the ground floor base unit. Furthermore it makes it easier to line up and hide the front and rear joints. In Fig 8 you can see that the entire rear wall section has been laminated and trimmed and the windows fitted. The front wall support section can be see protruding from the top, it has yet to be trimmed back. You can also see that a 1.5mm overhang has been left around the main entrance. This will allow the porch to be glued into place. You will have to assess each kit on an individual basis to decide how you are going to allow for construction.

Step 6: Recess the Walls

After final trimming and setting of the front windows, two door supports were cut and glued behind the frames. These were cut so that they would also support the first floor. In Fig 9 the completed wall sections along with the doors can be seen ready for fitting into the deepened recesses.

Step 7: Added Support

Fig 10 shows a rear view of the main walls showing the construction method. I have cemented in place the end wall sections but they have yet to be trimmed back. Notice both the first floor supports and the 1mm gap between each wall section. This will ensure that when the building is formed, there will be enough clearance for the folds, but there will also be a bigger surface area at the joints for the glue to get a really good bond.

Once everything is trimmed, a couple of test fittings to the base and ground floor support sections will tell you if there needs to be any adjustments. Once you are satisfied that all is well, cement the walls together by forming them round the ground floor and base section. Fig 11 shows the assembly just after gluing. This gives a good impression of the added thickness of the walls. They are now around 3 times the thickness that the original kit supplied.

Step 8: Add a Floor and an Led

Next we need to add the first floor. This gives the model it’s main integral strength. Take some time to cut and trim the first floor so that it sits neatly on the support pillars. If you have to force it in then it will break the corner joint, if it is too loose then it wont sit correctly on the supports and it wont bond correctly to the walls. Card is really cheap so if you mess it up first time around, cut a new one and start over. Don’t attempt to cement it in until you are happy with the fit. Remember also that the added width of the walls will mean that the Metcalf template will be too big. Use it as a starting point and trim it back.

At this stage you can add some internal lighting. I prefer to use LED’s in orange yellow or white, but I found that I only had red and green left. I was intending to use two 3mm LED’s super glued into the ceiling but since I only had a grain of wheat bulb left in my box, it had to be a single lamp on the lower floor only. I drilled a 5mm hole in the centre of the floor and two smaller holes near one corner of the first and ground floors to pass the wiring. The bulb was cemented in using the GP glue since I was unsure as to the use of super glue on the base of the glass bulb. Fig 12 shows the first floor ready to go in along with it’s bulb and wiring. The original marks for the LED’s can also be seen.

I then cemented the floor into position, cut the roof section out and added two strengthening supports to the roof (Fig 13). The supports were cut so that they would fit snugly inside the end walls. The dormer sections had to be relieved by 2mm to allow for the added wall thickness. Dry run test fitting will ensure that they fit correctly prior to installation.

Step 9: Completing the Roof

I next began work on the dormer roof sections and the porch. The dormers are fiddly, but with some test fitting the support cards were stuck to the back of the roof tiles and then trimmed back to fit. The Metcalf ridge supports were all discarded since the new laminated sections can support themselves. The porch was tackled in exactly the same way as the main walls. Care and a sharp knife will help here. Fig 14 shows the model part way through this assembly.

Once the porch and dormer sections were completed they were cemented in place. In Fig 15 you can see them glued on. Notice the porch wall laminations and the additional thickness and strength offered by this method. Buy now the model had taken on a very satisfying weight and strength and could easily be handled without fear of something breaking off.

Step 10: Chimney

Next the porch roof sections were set in place. Due to the greatly thickened walls these were cemented on without the need for much additional support. The semi dormer porch section was thickened with some 200gsm strips, with the flat section being simply glued in place. Again all the original glue tabs and ridges were discarded. The chimney sections were assembled using Metcalf’s single 600 micron support as the pattern for a laminated block. Four trimmed sections of layer pad were glued onto each template to make up a full block to wrap the chimney stacks around (Fig 16). The stacks were then cemented into place. I made up the chimney pots as per Metcalfs recommendation, wrapping them around a 2mm brass rod former and gluing the end. These were then cemented in place. The kit offers two colours of ridge tiles, I chose to go for the terracotta ones to add a splash of colour. These were trimmed and glued into place. The barge boards were thickened by 1mm and then glued into position under the eaves ensuring that the roof section overhang was more to scale.

This concludes the building work and is the point at which the Metcalf instructions would end. (Fig 17)

Step 11: Decorative Finish

Metcalf, along with most other card kit manufacturers, had opted to part cut the folds. This is an excellent way of ensuring that the folds are straight and in the correct place, but once the fold is made it exposes the inner white card of the stock. In Fig 17 this is evident along the ridges and at the wall corner joints. This above all other things, makes it look like a card built kit.

In order to remove, or at least tone down the white lines, I use a mixture of watercolours and pastels. A simple set of watercolour pans will do, just remember to use washes of colour with plenty of water. In this way the printing will not be obscured, but the white card edges will take on enough colour to mask them out. It wont matter if the mix of colour you use is not an exact match, try testing your mix against an odd bit of the printed colour on the kit sheet for reference. Run a thin line of wash along the fold joints, mixing varying colours to match the ridge tiles, walls etc. I then use thin washes of colour to add a little ‘weathering’. Some green over the grey stone wall bases and under the eaves simulate moss, and some orange spots on the roof slates as lichens. Run a little grey wash in the areas that water would flow (water alters the colours of everything). Use sparingly so as not over power the model. Fig 18 shows the model after the first set of washes. The flash photography used is still picking up the white joints, but in normal light they have been greatly toned down.

Step 12: Pastels

Finally some pastels are used to tone down any shiny glue residue and to develop some rain streaks on the roof and walls. Running some mid tone pastels around the bottom of the walls and the base will help to establish the model on it’s base rather than looking as if it has simply been plonked down. The basic technique (Figs 19 & 20), is to use a cheap set of art pastels ground down with fine wet and dry paper. Tip the small pile of dust onto some paper or card and then pick it up using a soft brush. Simply brush it on to the model for a subtle colouring, then gently blow off the excess. The pastels can be blended to create almost any colour and this can be done on the wet and dry or as a palette on clean paper. Once you are pleased with the effect, spray the model with artist fixer, or cheap hair lacquer to hold the pastel. Don’t be tempted at this stage to over paint with matt varnish unless it can be sprayed on, brushes will disturb the pastels.

Step 13: Finished!

Fig 21 – 25. The completed construction and ‘weathering’. All that’s left now would be to add guttering and drainpipes if required. Once on the baseboard I would add some weathering to the paving slabs, along with some odd clumps of static grass/weeds along the join between the walls and the base. The general scenery would be blended around the base but this would depend on the final location of the model on the layout.

I hope this has been of some interest and use, and has helped to show that cheap card kits can produce pleasing models. I would welcome comments or suggestions.