Copyright 2002 T. Sheil & A. Sheil  All Rights Reserved

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Making your miniature world

By Miniature World, I mean the entire thing, be it a village under the Yule tree, Model train layout or other display. A miniature world is the entire panorama of villages, scenery and vignettes. It can be a small world on an end table, with one vignette, or a massive display with entire villages, regions and myriad scenes. World vary in size.

The first thing to do when planning your world is devise a theme for it all. It can be as simple as your basic under the tree village, or as large as a massive O gauge railway. What connects it is your reason for making it. Don't formalize the theme. Just know why you are making your miniature world, and what you would like it to express. Think of its mood, flavor and visual uniqueness. Your theme is as simple as you like.

If you already have your houses, people, etc, then it's a matter of designing your world to accommodate them, and using them to turn your world into a lively vision of stories and images. If you are starting out, think of what you would like your world to be. Consider the stories you will tell, and the image you want to present. Then, accumulate what you need, selecting those things that strike your fancy. Plans can change, as this is all art and very little science.

Depending on the size of your world, you might have to divide it into zones. Reach zone is a world in itself, yet all are part of the larger miniature world. It helps if they are cohesive, even if the zones differ greatly.

For instance our small Yule Village is divided carefully into four zones. The Victorian Village occupies the center end right front. The Nautical Section is to the left front. To the right rear is the New Village, an area that could cover 1940 - 1990. To the left rear is the Wilds, a sparsely-populated place of no specific era.

The entire world is summed up as Our Yule Village, and it reflects our idea of something interesting and fun to see.

On the Tinplate World, there were two zones. The Tins was the left end, with tin structures and many miniature signals and Yule trees. The Opens was the right end, populated by a lighthouse, small carousel and a couple of small trees. Its purpose was to allow trains to run in the open. Because of the room's layout, we wanted to draw people to the train, and then to the trolley and antique tin village with its operating signals and lights. The theme behind the entire Tinplate World: holiday fun with trains and classic accessories.

The large attic layout we have under construction has a simple theme: the Big Tinplate World. Its zones include the Subway, the CNJ route, the Lackawanna route and the Pennsy route, with an additional Seaside boardwalk area. The CNJ, Lackawanna and Pennsy were railroads that handled very different places. The CNJ runs on level ground, the Lackwanna on high ground, and the Pennsy is a single route from city to Shore.

Separating zones can be done in several ways. For total separation, a high object is placed between them. It might be the Yule Tree, a hill or a miniature forest. It blocks 75% of more of the view from one zone to the next. On our world, the Tree and its stand isolated the Victorian Village from the Wilds and most of the New village.

You can also use Lines. A narrow waterway, railroad track, road, fence or hedge can delineate one zone from another. The railroad separated the Victorian Village center from the Nautical scene, and also separated the New Village from the diner.

Gradual shift is more subtle. The move from zone to zone is not finely demarcated, but is a subtle shift. The right end of the Victorian Village on our Yule Village gave way to the New Town, interspersed by a small gap in buildings. On the other side, it went from Village to bridge to the Wilds. You could not pinpoint the exact line of separation.

For optimal effect, each zone should embody a similar theme, era, type of architecture, season and terrain. Our example of the Wilds is the woodlands and isolated areas, as opposed to the more settled Villages. For another instance, one Zone might be coastal, another woodlands, another hilly or mountainous, and another settled or even industrial. You could have a Victorian Zone, Roaring 20s Zone, Modern Zone and 50s Zone. One zone might be taller buildings and city type structures, another an open town suburbs, and other a rustic hamlet. Keep in mind that whatever any zone entails, it is part of the greater world. Plan accordingly. Even disparate terrain and eras and architecture can still be blended into a whole world. The consistency among them is imparted by you.

Within each zone is a scene or a number of scenes. These play along the landscape, so to speak,. They move through the zone, one to another. Scenes must be within the character, era and other aspects of that zone. The whole panoply of scenes within a zone need to be cohesive. They are all parts of the story that is that zone.

Doing the work

Neither your world nor its zones need be mapped out with geometric precision. Many find that once they begin work on a zone, its shape changes from the original plan. Some zones expand, some shrink. Each zone is sized according to its need. You will have larger and smaller zones, in most cases.

Most important to all plans is the position of the viewer. Your busiest and most attractive zones need to be easiest to view, which means closest to the viewer. It is not necessarily physically closer, so much as it is closer to his view. The viewer can see most of the zone with little or no obstruction.

Areas that are obscured or difficult to see can be more sparsely decorated. Those distant zones would be heavy on large ornaments, and short on tiny ones. Such zones include the part of the Yule Tree that's against the wall or the back of the table. They also include areas that will be blocked from view by objects to the front. For instance, the area behind a line of tall houses is invisible to the viewer, and would be considered an obscured zone. Unless placed higher than the buildings, as on a hilltop, such an area would be bare or sparsely outfitted.

Keep in mind the angle of sight as well as the places from which the viewer looks. A viewer looking from above sees more than one looking at or near eye level. Design with the view of the viewer in mind.

Each zone will have a general layout. Sometimes it is purely your whim, and others it will be dictated by necessity. Having a Yule Tree in the center of it forces a different plan than having a totally bare space on which to work. Things like walls, furniture and decor alter how your village is formed. Likewise, if the world is built around a centerpiece such as a tree or large object, its design must be planned to enhance the centerpiece without overshadowing it. This is especially crucial in storefront window displays, where your village is but a means to draw attention to the products that are to be displayed.

Terrain and housing

The largest objects in a zone will be houses and land features. These provide the backdrop for the action in your vignettes. Both are the permanent landscape of your world.

Most villages are built on fairly level ground. For hills and such, you need to create a terrain that has "steps" : flat areas on which buildings may rest. You may create terrain using the extensive techniques of model railroading. For quick and fast work, however, all you need is ground cover cloth and empty boxes. The cloth will be in a color associated with the terrain. Green, brown and gray are fine for temperate seasons, while white works for Winter. You can use felt, plain cloth, or the cottony blanket-type tree cloths of Yule. We use plastic tablecloths with white felt lining to simulate snow. It does not bead up or fray, and is short enough that figures stand easily.

If making hills, carefully stack boxes in the general shape of the mound. Place some so they will provide flat areas. Then just drape your cloth and arrange it so it looks like a hillside with flat spots. Place buildings and scenes on those spots. Yes, it is that easy.

Scenes often include waterways or ponds. Several companies make "instant waterways" for their Yule Villages. Lemax makes pieces that combine to make a brook. These can be used, and make a great backdrop for quaint bridges. A lake is simple. First place down tinfoil as a base. Then place a translucent plastic sheet or blue "plexiglass" over it. Now use cloth to make the irregular shape of a lake around its borders. Lemax makes plastic sea surface than does well for this task, by the way. Voila - a lake! Just add a few figures of floating geese, maybe a waterline boat or two, and a dock. Some fishermen along the side make it even better.

For a frozen lake, the oldest trick is to use a mirror instead of tinfoil and blue plastic. Sprinkle fake snow atop it and along the edges. You can then place skaters on the lake, and a few benches with spectators at the lake's edge.

Another frozen lake trick is to use clear shiny plastic and spray one side with white paint. If only one side is shiny, paint the dull side. When the paint dries, place the plastic with the painted side down. Finish the sides as you would a "fake lake." Then add skaters and sprinkle snow. Many feel this looks more realistic, but few would fuss whether you use the white ice lake or the mirror ice lake method.

Should you want your cloth and box mountain to have a tunnel, say for electric trains, raise a spot on each side. Then, make or buy a tunnel portal. These are sold in hobby shops. You could also make one of wood or plastic strips. The portal merely frames the tunnel entrance, and adds a nice touch of realism.

If you want a forest, use trees of varying sizes at the front. This is more realistic. A forest looks great, and can be enhanced by having a road, trail or brook running through it.

Houses: houses all show the design of their particular era. They are one thing that remains pretty much the same as time goes by. We do not tear down old buildings when the next new style of architecture comes forth. Many a city has numerous homes from the Colonial, Federal and Victorian eras standing on the same block with the most modern buildings. Few older building types fail to live on into another era. What changes are small things. The Victorian Era used lamp or gas light for indoor lighting, and coal or wood for heating. Shops of that era employed very different methods for signs than modern ones. Though an occasional shop might use a Victorian-style signs, modern shops housed in older buildings tend to update their signs.

Our old homes remain, but the fittings change with the times. We put in new style windows, add TV antennae to the roof and modern porch lights outside the front door. Doorbells replace door knockers.

The one building type that changes least is the home. Shops, commercial and other work-related buildings change to meet the requirements of the times. The role of the home as one's abode does not require great changes. At most, simple technology is updated. Electric lights replace gas. Heat is provided by electricity, gas or oil rather than wood and coal. Windows might bet replaced by newer ones. On the holidays, some decorate their homes with strings of lights. These were unavailable 80 years ago. Other than that, a home is a home.

Another timeless building is the lighthouse. The old ones remain on watch, providing a steady beacon across the waves. Lighthouses do not change enough to be notable.

For your world, your houses will be grouped by the nature of the area. Cities tend to have them clumped tightly together, and suburbs or towns have them spread further apart. Rural areas, whether hills, woodlands or seacoast,. Tend toward isolated buildings and small clusters of structures. A shopping district tends to have all storefronts facing the center of the street. In fact, most streets have the building's front facing streetward.

The most common building placement is a line of houses along a street. It might be a perfect line, or curve to accommodate terrain or an object like a Yule Tree. We tend to space our buildings an inch or more apart. Buildings in the center of town or a city are placed closer together. Those in a hamlet or suburb are less densely spaced. In cities and town centers, all buildings fronts tend to be on or close to the same line. This line may be curved or straight, depending on your arrangement. Only an occasional house might be set further back.

Most often a house that is set far back from the rest of the buildings is an older residence with a large front yard garden and a fence or wall. The building is likely to be of an older era than those around it, and often has a landscaped yard. There might be a conspicuous bird bath, fountain or statue. Here is a case where you can landscape one house entirely in an older style and still be right. The only thing you cannot do successfully is populate that premises with people in outdated attire. A Victorian house and yard is acceptable in the modern era, but Victorian clad people are anachronistic.

Depending on the block and the type of neighborhood,. Houses will either be placed right up to the sidewalk or have front yards. In cities, front yards are narrow, if at all. The backyard is more pronounced. Wider front yards are common in suburbs and smaller towns. Likewise, side-to-side placement of buildings is closer in cities than in other areas.

Plazas and town squares require special placement. These important open spaces are generally fronted by non-residential buildings such as a town hall, house of worship, bank, library, etc. The more important building is at the center of those surrounding the plaza. Commercial buildings, if placed, and furthest from the main building. Inside the square itself you can place a monument, statue, fountain, large Yule tree, gazebo, bandstand or other prominent object. A plaza can also be a park. There would be benches and other comforts. Plazas and town squares tend to be symmetrical in their design. They are orderly places, where everything is deliberately placed.

The eye tends to shift from plain structures to those that are more ornate, more interesting or more visible. A plain house will get less notice than one that has more character and detail. For instance, a lighted shop with storefront interior tends to catch the eye more than a plain two-story house, UNLESS the house has blinking lights or some feature that overshadows the store. Ornate houses and those which are considered icons attract more attention from the viewer. Place them carefully to direct the viewer's attention through your scene.

Buildings are passive parts of your zone. They stand idly by, doing nothing of themselves. They are more a backdrop than anything else. Only those with animation, special lights or particular details will stand out as actors instead of scenery.

Trees, Shrubs, Street Lights, Fences and Walls

There are other passive items which further enhance buildings. These are found in yards and along the street. Trees grow in yards and at the curbside. They are also found in parks and, of course, wild places. You can place trees between buildings to conceal bare spots behind them. Shrubs are found in yards, parks and wild places. They serve to enhance the scene. And can also be placed between buildings.

Street lamps are common in towns and cities. You can buy plain ones, or the type that are lighted. It is most important that your street lights match the scene and are placed where they do not obstruct or clutter your village. The street lamps at curbside will be of the similar type throughout the town. A different type can be used in a park or town square. Unique lamps would be in yards, or at places like a train station. Railroads usually erected their own lamps, and they would be standard for the railroad rather than the town. Be aware of the lamps that fit the era of your scene. Gas light was common into the very early 1900s. Electric lamps were becoming common by 1910. The shape of the lamps changed, with earlier types being more ornate. Lamps used on private property, in parks and squares, and by railroads would tend to be more ornate even in modern times. Florescent-type lamps with aluminum posts are post-1965.

Fences are used to delineate property. The white picket fence is common for private homes, with wrought iron types used by the more affluent. Railroads also prefer cast iron, and it is the preferred fence type for parks and plazas. Wood rail fences, like those in cowboy corrals, are normally used in rustic regions. They may occasionally be used in parks, especially in those areas set off for horseback riding. Farms may use both rail and white picket fences. The same goes for small amusement parks. Wrought iron is used for cemeteries and around churches. A hedge is a type of fence made of plants. It is more likely used by the affluent, and in parks, church yards, etc.

Fences and walls can be used as lines, to segregate one scene or zone from another. One of the most effective types for this is the wind fence, a brown fence used to contain snow drifts. These are generally left standing all year round.

Walls are solid fences, when you come right down to it. Low walls work around houses, parks and gardens. They are attractive pieces which mark off territory. High walls would only be used to segregate an area from view. They are used to hide bare spots or wiring, and to separate zones. A stone wall would be appropriate for older houses, parks and gardens. Low brick walls would accompany modern houses. A park or plaza provides a very creative milieu for placing walls, as these allow you to put them almost anywhere without look out of place. Park and plaza walls are almost entirely decorative.


An essential tool for the modern hobbyist is animation. Several companies offer animated accessories. These are items powered by either battery or house electricity, which move. Among the popular ones are carousels, ferris wheels, lighthouses, vehicles and winter sports.

Animations add life to any scene and work to draw the viewer's gaze. Placed in what otherwise might be a dull spot, they can maintain a feeling of vibrancy. If situated strategically, a good animation can draw the viewer's eye like a magnet.

Animations are like any other item: they must be appropriate to the time, place and scene. Fortunately, you can find carousels and other amusements dressed our for Victorian or modern eras. There are also items specific to an era or situation, such as lighthouses, animated autos, etc. Keep an eye open for them, because they are a special tool of the miniature trade.

By the way, the place where most animated accessories are used are O gauge electric trains. Some items intended for the train layout also have a place in the Yule Village!


Your world is more than scenery. It is a blend of scenery, houses, people and accessories. The scenery itself is the backdrop, and the houses and streets are the stage. Actors are the people, cars, trains, animals and other things that make your miniature world a vibrant place.  How you put them together makes all the difference!

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