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How to Build an O Scale Display

by Tara Dodrill

Building a model train layout is a labor of love which requires a steady hand and a lot of patience. Constructing an O scale display which mimics the toys of your youth or reflects a renewed passion for the railroad genre often entails many hours spent searching online auctions or digging through boxes at estate sales for period pieces. A little planning can save you some pain further down the line. Before going shopping for tiny treasures to include in a display, take some time to consider the space available for your layout and establish a budget for the project.

How to Find Pieces for an O Scale Display

O scale model railroad items can be hard to find at hobby stores. The smaller HO and N scales are much more readily available, and the newest scale in model railroading - 'G' or garden scale has become popular with hobbyists and is featured more prominently at hobby supply stores. Broadening your search to include online auctions and O scale specific trade shows is a good way to expand your choices when adding to your collection.

Be aware that landscaping materials are also scale specific in many cases. While an HO scale boulder mold could be used as a small rock for an O scale mountain, make sure to read the scale adaption details on the back of packages before purchase. O scale models are 1:48 of the actual size of their real-life counterparts.

O Scale History

Before rushing out to fill your shopping bags with expensive locomotives, rolling stock or accessories, discover a bit of O scale railroad history, as it will guide you in gathering period appropriate pieces. The first O scale railroad models were manufactured in the early 1900s in Germany by the Marklin Company. By the time 1930s rolled around, the popularity of O scale trains reached across the ocean and into the hearts of American boys. Trains were built to be durable enough for daily play with realistic detail only a secondary concern. Pre-War (World War II) trains sets and accessories were often made of tin or wood.

Post-War O scale models were often made of plastic with the Lionel company name becoming synonymous with toy railroads. The manufacturer saw its highest profits during the 1950s and even boasted a television show to attract the attention of both boys and girls who were preparing their Christmas lists. The Lady Lionel pink train set remains one of the most sought after collectables for model railroaders. Model trains sales slumped during the late 1960s through the 1980s due in part to the new electronic toys flooding the market. Lionel and model railroading saw a resurgence of interest during the 1990s when advanced control systems, railroad and accessory sounds, and the use of modern technology to foster real-time action was introduced.

Display Stand

Once you have found a space for your O scale model railroad display and determined the size of your model railroad layout, you need to find a display stand of some type. While you can purchase an expensive or professionally made display stand, there is really no need to go to great expense for something which will never been seen. An old cafeteria table from a yard sale or auction, or a piece of plywood will suffice. If you do opt for the ever popular plywood stand, make sure you sand the edges smooth so you do not get scratched during the many hours you will spend knelt over the display. Make or buy a set of sawhorses to hold the plywood and screw the board firmly into place. If you are making a rather large stand, you may want to cut the display board into smaller sections for portable and rearrangement when necessary.

Preparing for the Display

The most inexpensive way to cover a display stand is to spray paint the board green for grassy areas or silver or black for roadways. If you cannot afford to purchase a roll of turf grass from a hobby store when first setting up the display, the above methods work nicely. You can always remove your display items later when purchasing grass and pouring plaster for roads or placing manufactured roadways is within your budget. Although taking the entire display off for an upgrade is time consuming, the more realistic the accessories the better your display will look.

Artificial Grass

Rolls of turf grass vary by manufacturer and hobby store inventory. Typically the rolls are at least two feet wide and four feet long. They will lay flat when model structures are placed on them, or can be glued into place for a more manicured appearance. Turf grass can be measured on the backside, which is typically white, and cut with standard scissors.

Building Roads

If you are planning on painting roads with either spray paint or craft paint, measure and mark the road areas and lay plastic or newspaper over the adjacent areas to prevent paint overflow. Plaster of Paris or similar faux concrete mixtures are readily available at hobby shops or craft supply stores. I would encourage you to purchase the roadway adhesive strips which encase the designated area and give the mixture something solid to form against while hardening. Simply follow the mixture and use directions on your chosen package and allow the roads to cure fully before attempting to work anywhere on the display. Bumping the display during the hardening process will cause the mixture to bubble and possibly splash outside of the encased area. Do not rush this process or you may have to spend hours cracking apart the portions of the road which did cure and starting all over again.

Layout Pattern

Grab a pen and pencil and go old school with your layout plans. It may take more than one try to design a town layout which fits your board and your mind's eye. You do not need major artistic skills to accomplish this task, just the ability to draw a square for structures, stick trees and people, and a railroad track. I find it helpful to actually draw the diagram on the boards themselves before covering the space and taking a photo. You can actually situate the pieces on the board and take a photo also, and keep the printout for reference during your final arrangements on the display. If you ever decide to upgrade your ground coverings, purchase more tracks, build a mountain, 'dig' a pond, or anything in between - you will be glad you have a diagram or photo to work from when putting it all back together.

Putting the Pieces Together

Do not be discouraged if all of your current O scale model railroad pieces do not fill your display board, they aren't supposed to yet. Leaving room to grow is very important when building a display. Your little town, village or sawmill display will increase with time and become more realistic looking as your learn how to make trees, waterways and add all of the little details that you will find during your search for the next great piece online or at trade shows. There is no right or wrong way to arrange your pieces; it is like a work of art which is unique to each creator.


Many hobbyists like to add a background on the wall next to their display. Placing a background can be accomplished as easily and cheaply as painting a wall blue and free-handing some clouds, or buying an over-sized photo poster. Background posters can be ordered stock from hobby shops depicting a rural, urban or period scene. The posters are offered in multiple sizes which you can cut to size to fit your display. If the idea of a realistic background is more appealing than light blue paint over concrete block in the basement but professional posters are out of your financial reach, do not despair, grab a camera and head outdoors and shoot your favorite areas around town or take a drive in the country for a nature scene. Once you have taken your photos, go to a local department store which offers photo processing and order your own poster size print. Although there is still an expensive involved, it will be far less expensive than buying a similar poster with a generic scene from a hobby store or model supply catalog.

About the Author

Tara Dodrill is a travel writer focusing primarily on the areas of Florida, the Cape Fear Coast and Ohio. Dodrill's credits include USA Today, Yahoo!, RUMBUM, Cape Fear Coastal Guide, Trips 2 Florida, Gadling, AOL/SEED, Trails.com, Travels.com, Outdoorzy, Hobbizine and BootsnAll Travel Blog. She is also a licensed real estate agent and has been a high school volleyball coach, high school cheerleading coach, softball coach, youth recreation league director, village government council member, county government central committee member, public school drug prevention coordinator, domestic violence shelter board member, Kiwanis club member, vacation bible school teacher and a certified counselor's assistant who completed an internship at a maximum security prison. Tara is also a former newspaper journalist and works as a professional photographer and videographer.


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