Railways & Wargaming: Crossing The Hobby Tracks

June 5, 2019 by crew

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The hobby of railway modelling has hit the headlines recently with the news of the vandalism that took place before the Stamford Model Rail Show, where vandals broke into the venue and destroyed the many layouts Market Deeping Model Railway Club were displaying. These layouts took many thousands of pounds and many thousands of hours of painstaking labour to put together.


I found this news to be particularly heartbreaking as I have always had a love of model railways. I got my first train set when I was nine years old. Until I really got into Warhammer when I was thirteen or fourteen most of my Christmas and birthday presents were locomotives, coaches or wagons that my father liked and wanted.

A Childhood Full Of Trains

Not long after toy soldiers stole my heart, ownership of the train set was officially transferred from myself to my father, but it was then called the model railway.

Model Railways Picture 1

A work in progress shot of my father’s model railway. The viaduct was made of wood and covered with embossed plastic. Unfortunately, we never got the model railway completely finished due to illness and his passing.

While I did lose some of my interest in trains, one of my favourite days of the year was still going to Bangor, County Down to visit the annual model railway show. In later years, I helped my father build his model railway after he retired, so I know the hours and detail that goes into building a model railway. While hobbyists around the world have reached deep into their pockets to help Market Deeping provide the funds to replace the rolling stock and more, this can never replace the many hours of scratch building, research, and kit building that went into these layouts.

Model Railways Picture 2

Cork, wood, embossed plastic, lichen, flock and plastic sheep have all been used to create this tunnel area.

Given my history and time spent in both the wargaming and the model railway hobbies, this article will try and convey what railway modelling has taught me over the years, what we as wargamers can learn from this hobby and what model railway products we can use in our own hobby.

Model Railways Picture 3

Two 28mm Warlord Games’ Germans with my Christmas 1990 present. I wanted an Intercity 125 HST but my father was obsessed with the LNER and changed my letter to Santa Claus.

We will begin by discussing the scales used in railway modelling and this can be somewhat confusing.

The Issue Of Scale

The most popular size of model railways in the UK is OO gauge and anyone familiar with Hornby products will be accustomed to this size of model. OO gauge is also called 4mm scale because 4mm on the model equates to 1 foot in real life. So a six-foot-tall person in 4mm scale would be 24 mm in height, which will be noticeably smaller than the 28mm soldier you recently purchased. The ratio for this scale is 1:76.2.

Model Railways Picture 4

A OO gauge locomotive engine driver with a Warlord Games’ German. Not only toy soldiers are cast in pewter.

This means one 1mm on the model represents 76.2 mm in real life (or on the prototype as some railway modellers like to say). One thing to note, OO gauge models are not totally accurate to the prototype as the distance between the rails of the track is too narrow for it to be in scale.


Scale Ratio





N Gauge


British N Gauge (2mm)




HO Gauge (3.5mm)


OO Gauge (4mm)






O gauge (7mm)


The above table shows a range of common wargaming figure sizes, the most common scale ratio used to represent them and the most common model railway scales. As you can see the best match between wargaming and railway modelling scales is between 10mm models and N gauge and OO gauge and 20mm figures.

Unfortunately for us, 10mm and 20mm are not the most popular sizes for wargamers, but if you play Battlegroup or Bolt Action in 20mm, there is a vast range of railway modelling products out there that can be used and added to your wargaming table without fear of them looking too big or too small.

Model Railways Picture 5

A OO gauge card kit (producer long forgotten) built by myself sometime in the 1990s. Perfect for a game of 20mm Battlefront.

It is this disparity in size and scale that has seen wargaming companies like 4Ground and Sarissa Precision release some railway-related terrain and rolling stock in scales suitable for 28mm wargaming. It should also be noted that 4Ground actually have a model railway offshoot called 4Ground Trackside & Waterways and it would be lovely to see some their OO gauge products scaled up to be suitable for 28mm (someone please tell Big Ben from 4Ground this next time he is over!).

Model Railways Picture 6

Work in progress shot of my Sarissa Precision rolling stock. The track also comes from Sarissa.

This is not to say that OO gauge or O scale products cannot be used in your 28mm games, or N Gauge products cannot be used in 15mm gaming. You just have to be careful with your choices.

Products For The Wargamer

For example, a company called Slaters sell a large range of embossed and moulded Plastikard which is essentially plastic sheets with a pattern to represent brick or stone or roof tiles. Railway modellers will use these for scratch building houses, stations, goods sheds etc.

Model Railways Picture 7

A comparison of OO gauge goods wagons (plastic kits build by myself and my dad), a 28mm Sarissa Precision goods wagon, and my 28mm Germans.

Now I wouldn’t use the OO gauge (4mm) red brick to represent red brick on anything I would use for 28mm gaming but I would be very comfortable using it in 15mm gaming. Wills Kits, now manufactured by Peco, do a similar range of builder’s sheets as they call them. The main limit on how you can use model railway products in 28mm or 15mm games is your imagination.

Model Railways Picture 8

Slater’s 4mm Brick, 4mm Dressed Stone and a Warlord Games 28mm German.

Plastic builder’s sheets aren’t the only useful product you might find in a model railway shop that you could use for your terrain, you will also find builder’s sheets in card and paper. These come printed with stone, brick or roofing tiles on them, and they are a very effective and are a quick way to make or cover buildings, and also come in a wide variety of scales.

I remember my father used Superquick building papers to make very realistic buildings with the help of some cereal box card and I still have some sheets stored away for my own future terrain projects.

Model Railways Picture 9

The range of flocks, turfs and other scenic vegetation held by model railway stores is always worth a browse. You may already be familiar with some of the bigger names of the railway modelling industry like Woodland Scenics and Jarvis. The range of textures, colours and sizes will be much greater than those traditionally stocked by a wargaming store, and these are not as limited in use by their size and scale as other railway modelling products are.

Perhaps you might see a packet of OO gauge tulips or daffodils that you think would look great on your Viking’s or Orc’s bases or see trees that will make a good forest area for your next game of Flames of War. I would highly recommend the next time you see a model railway shop to pop in and have a look at what is on sale.

Model Railways Picture 10

Some of my favourite Woodland Scenics products.

I have no doubt you will see something that you could use on your terrain or basing and add a little something extra to your wargaming experience.

Terrain Tips That Last A Lifetime

While I may have lost my train set to my father’s model railway, I still always helped him when he was modelling his railway, mostly so I could play with the locomotives and make “choo choo” noises as they sped past. There were always railway books and magazines in the house and I loved reading them and in doing so I learned a lot of modelling techniques, plus I also had the hands-on experience, and tips and tricks from my father.

Model Railways Picture 11

A small selection of the model railway books I still have. Some of them are well read!

I learned to clean metal and plastic kits before I had bought my first Citadel Miniatures. I taught myself to solder so I could wire the layout. I learned to paint models, apply decals, how to weather, and how to varnish all from my father (2 coats of gloss and then a coat matt was our norm), and I still use many of the tips and tricks my father showed me nearly 30 years ago on my models today.

Model Railways Picture 12

A crepe paper tree tutorial from Vic Smeed’s Complete Railway Modelling.

One of the techniques I still use is “ballasting”. Ballast is the stones under and around railway tracks. In the real world, these allow drainage and provide support to the track and can handle the vibrations associated with trains. While it just looks like stones there is a lot of science behind it and it is very important for a model railway to make it look as realistic as possible.

Model Railways Picture 13

All the ballast on my display board was glued using a syringe and my homemade ballast glue.

To model ballast easily and not cause running problems for the model trains, later on, many railway modellers will apply the small ballast dry to the track and once they have them in place they will then either spray it with a ballast glue or apply the glue to the stones with a syringe or dropper bottle.

Ballast glue is traditionally a normal PVA thinned down with water and something added to break the surface tension. As this glue travels down through the stones it glues the stones to each other, to the sleepers and the track bed all at the same time. This gives a much better bond and much more control than applying glue to the base and sprinkling the stones on top.

If you wish to use this technique at home, it is rather easy to make your own ballast glue. Thin your glue as normal and add something that will break the surface tension. I find the rinse aid that you put in your dishwasher is the best for this. You don’t need very much, just a drop and you’ll find your watered down glue will flow around all the stones more easily. So these days if I have a large base or piece of terrain I want to put a large area of gravel or sand on, I’ll grab a syringe and my rinse aid, and I’ll model it the way Dad and I ballasted railway track all those years ago and create a bond and surface that is much more durable.

Model Railways Picture 14

A scratch built Engine Shed built by my father. I believe this is based on an actual building somewhere in Northern England.

Another technique I still use is the “hairspray” technique. This is so ironic as my father was bald and I am as well. The lady in Tesco laughed when I brought four cans of cheap hairspray to the check-out the last time I purchased some. Despite this embarrassment, hairspray is a great sealer and has been a mainstay of railway modelling for years. Whenever I add flock, clump foliage or static grass to a piece of terrain, once the glue is dry and I have removed any excess flock or grass I will seal it with hairspray.

The hairspray is very effective at holding vegetation together and it can also be used as an adhesive . For example, if you were to hairspray some static grass tufts and then sprinkle some small coloured flock from above, the coloured flock will adhere to the grass tuft and, hey presto, you have flowers! I’ll not mention the smell and potentially how flammable they may be!

Model Railways Picture 15

Another card building in OO gauge.

Some of the technics my father showed me, I can’t replicate. A lasting memory from one Sunday morning (I must have been sick as I hadn’t been forced to go to church) was watching my father sit in the armchair, a wooden board on his knee with wire cutters and pliers in his hand. Over the course of an hour, he twisted and bent copper wire, shaping and sculpting it into the most amazing tree I had ever seen (and this was before bark and foliage was ever added).

He was following a tutorial from a railway modelling magazine. Unfortunately, I have never been as successful in my tree sculpting and more than one has been thrown in the bin in frustration but I will try again someday. The most realistic trees you will ever find are trees modelled like this and Mel, TheTerrainTutor, has a fantastic tutorial on YouTube if you wish to have a go.

Thinking Outside The Box

Probably the most important “technique” that my father and railway modelling taught me was to think outside the box. Despite the vast product lines of ready-to-run models and kits, there was always something that you needed to scratch build yourself. Also like wargaming, model railway products can be expensive and often you can scratch build something for cheaper and perhaps to a higher quality than a kit.

Thin plastic straws were used as drain pipes or piles of pipes for wagon loads. Tissue paper was used to represent net curtains in the windows of houses as well as representing lead flashing around chimney stacks on houses. The clear plastic from Easter Eggs was saved and used to represent glass in windows (start saving those blister packs). Curtains, wallpaper and rugs in houses were cut out of clothing catalogues (yes, my father was a perfectionist). Real coal was broken apart and used as scatter and loads in wagons. Thread, dried parsley and PVA was used to represent ivy. The list is almost endless.

Model Railways Picture 16

A scratch built row of houses that was to go on a slope. Polyfilla and Kellogg’s provided the walls. Kay’s Catalogue provided the curtains, plastic straws for the drain pipes and Easter egg plastic for the windows.

These days I am always looking outside the box for terrain ideas. Recently I was inspired to make the flower pots that you see below. Whether I saw my father do something similar or I read it in railway magazine years ago, I do not know, but it is now ingrained into me to attempt new ideas and perhaps save some money.

Model Railways Picture 16

To give you some examples, I’ve recently begun experiments with drying used coffee grounds and using waste paper and foil to build giant mushrooms. The inspiration for the dried coffee grounds was something I read years ago in a railway magazine and the author of the article used the dried grounds to represent ploughed fields in his layout to great effect.

The mushrooms are an inspiration from watching a video of someone making a fairy house from a jam jar and me having some crocodile teddy bear fur (please don’t ask why I have it). While the latter has nothing to do with model railways, it was model railways and my Dad that inspired me to look at different hobbies to find new ideas.

Model Railways Picture 18

Very work in progress. The stem is made from toilet rolls, kitchen foil and air dry clay. Something different for a fantasy terrain table.

This is the point I would most like people to come away with from reading this article. There are many hobbies and industries outside our own, and there is so much knowledge we can take from them and apply to our own hobby. Never be afraid to try new techniques or ideas. Perhaps even go along to your local model railway show and see what inspiration you can get from it (or just make “choo choo” noises when the locomotives go past).

By Robert Bell

What have you learned from other hobbies that you can bring into the wargaming sphere?

"...this article will try and convey what railway modelling has taught me over the years"

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"Never be afraid to try new techniques or ideas..."

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