Adding Lights to Your Model Railway – The Low Cost Option

4 Mechanics 4 Comments

When adding lights to your railway you can either buy expensive off-the-shelf lights or use this low cost technique for building and street illumination.

Having lights on your railway piles on the realism. Having street and building lighting that turn on and off brings an extra touch to a layout and makes your miniature world seem just that bit more real. But it’s not cheap! With street lights often costing around £10 per light even a short road can get expensive quickly. The lighting for a small village can easily cost more than a locomotive.

Creating your own lighting is a lot cheaper but it’s difficult and complex.

Or is is it?

Contrary to what you might think, creating your own lighting isn’t that complex. This guide from shows just how easy it is.

What You’ll Need

  • LEDs – available from eBay or a high street electronics store, Maplin etc.
  • Resistors, rated for the LEDs, see ‘Power’ below for details.
  • Soldering iron & materials – see 17 Essential Tools For Your Model Railway Tool Box
  • A building (kit form is easier to install lights in).
  • A power source (typically the auxiliary output of your main controller).

Building Lighting

Step 1: Wiring

Make Your Own LightsSolder a resistor to the negative leg of an LED (this is usually the shorter of the legs).

Then add wires to this assembly (make the wires as long as you need them to reach a power supply).

It’s a good idea to test it at this point, before putting it into the building.

This is also a good opportunity to mark the wires so that you know which one goes to which side of the power supply (+ve or -ve). You don’t need to do this if you can afford 2 different colours of wire!

Step 2: Installation

Bend the LED legs to 90 degrees and glue the LED in place inside the building. Route the wires out through a hole in the base or somewhere where it is not visible. Feed the wires through your baseboard and then to the power supply.

Now just connect the correct wires and terminals, switch on and enjoy!

Street Lights

The same method as described above can be used for adding streetlights, as seen in the pictures. My DIY Lamppost uses a 3mm SuperBright LED with the wires disguised as an ornamental fitting.

Creating Model Railway Street LightsThe LED legs are bent to form the shape of the top of the lamppost (see picture).

The wires are soldered on to this and form the post part. The resistor is underneath the baseboard to reduce the thickness of the post. The round part just above the LED is made from the bits you find left over in a hole puncher; it just pushes onto the LED before you bend it.

Extra Tips:
With building interior lights, it is a good idea to make some sort of interior scene, as an empty interior will stand out like a sore thumb. Also, you may need to paint the inside walls to reduce ‘light leak’ as cardboard buildings are often too thin to stop the light escaping and you will end up with glowing walls.

My layout uses the 12v DC power supply from my controller and all the resistors are 1k ohm versions. The same setup will run from a 16v AC power supply, but the lights are quite flickery with AC. For buildings with more than one light and for different voltage levels, I recommend using this to determine the resistor values:

My lights are powered from terminal strip which is in turn powered by the controller (see pictures). This saves on wire and also allowed me to include a switch to turn the lights on and off when I want to.

Reproduced here from Under Attribution Non-commercial Share Alike license.

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  1. RT @modelrailwayeng: The low cost way of adding lights to your railway –

  2. Malcolm Temple - October 24, 2016

    Very useful info on lighting, I will be using some of your advice in the future.

  3. Job Hoogendoorn - February 23, 2017

    On the street light: you could cover both the led-legs with these heatshrinkstuff. One separate on one leg, another covering both legs……there’s a lamppost for you..;-)

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