Making an animated bonfire or campfire

Bonfire with flickering fire effect for model trains.How to make a miniature bonfire for OO gauge model railways, with buit-in lighting, it glows and flickers just like a real fire!

Bonfires hold a cherished spot in my heart, entwined with memories from my childhood. In those early years, I’d gather with my brothers at the foot of the garden in our family home in Wimbledon, watching a bonfire enveloped by the glow of crackling flames as the smoke filled the air with that wonderful smell of burning wood.

Although air pollution and environmental concerns limit how often I can have them, I still love them and if there’s one going I’ll always be there, poking a stick into the flames and watching them dance in the early hours.

But when it comes to my model railways, there’s no limit and there will always be one somewhere on every layout. My exhibition layout is no different and I recently set about making a bonfire to go near the old barn.

Update: Along with the bonfire at one end of the layout, I’ve also put an oil drum brazier fire on the layout. This sits in the industrial end of the layout, providing a nice counter to the natural fire here.

The TL;DR version for making a 4mm scale model bonfire is:

  • Take a flickering orange LED light (those from Christmas candle effect lights can work well with a little modification),
  • Secure it to a small flat surface with a hole drilled through the centre for the wires and then build-up timber around it using sprue’s carved with wood grain pattern,
  • Paint the inside with reds and yellows and the outside using a dark wash and dry brushing wood brown.

The final item can then be connected to an accessory power feed for the flickering glow effect.

The longer version, broken down into four steps, is as follows:

Making the base and adding the light

The bonfire needs a base to sit and also to securely hold the lighting fixture. For this, I cut a small square of plasticard to the size required, in this case, 20mm by 20mm.

A hole for the LED wires was drilled in the centre, and the entire base painted matt black.

The wires for the LED were passed through the hole and the LED was secured in place using super glue that should resist any heat from the light.

I used custom flickering orange/yellow LED and wired a resistor in so it can handle the voltage from a normal model railway controller but cheap electric Christmas candle decorations could also be made to work.

Making the timber

For the timber that makes up the most visible element of the bonfire, I initially used some scraps from an old Faller OO/HO Coal Mine kit.

These were then given a black wash and dry brushed with Vallejo brown before highlighting in black to represent burnt sections and looked okay.

In subsequent versions, I cut some bits of square sprue and carved wood grain patterns into them before roughed up the edges to make them less regular and more organic.

For the latest versions, which I’m now selling, I use Lime wood.

I get little twiggs of this from local trees and cut them to different lengths before giving them a square profile as befits timber.  These are then aged using tea bags before painting as above.

These mini timber pieces were then given a dark wash and dry brushed with a Vallejo brown.  Shorter pieces, that would make up the inner element of the fire were dabbed with yellow and red paint; these colours then reflecting outwards for a more realistic look. Edges and ends were painted black to create the impression of burn marks.

Building the bonfire 

Photo of a scratch built 4mm scale model bonfire for a model railway

With the LED attached to a base, the fake timber is built up around it.

Once the paint on the base dried, I then built up a pyramid of the timbers around the LED, glueing the fake wood to the plasticard base using super glue to hold it in place.  This was built up until it was approx 16mm high, which in the 4mm scale of my layout, equates to approx. 4 feet high which is about the height of my real childhood bonfires.

Getting a convincing-looking bonfire arrangement with the wood is harder than it looks but with a few reference photos of bonfires to hand, I eventually got the fake timbers into a reasonable configuration that looks very convincing.

Final touches

As a finishing touch, very fine ballast was sprinkled onto the base around the fire and painted with a black wash to give the impression of ash and gently teased cotton wool was added to the top to give the impression of smoke.

And that’s it. The model was placed on the layout near a figure taking a break by the old barn with the wires connected to the accessory feed under the layout.

At some point, I’ll head over to Modul3D and have a scan and 3D print done of myself poking with a stick that can be placed next to the fire, just as I’d have done in my younger years.

Update: For those who appreciate the unique charm of handmade model bonfires but may not have the time to craft their own, I offer a selection of carefully crafted, ready-to-display miniatures available for purchase. These are fully assembled, painted and weathered, complete with added detailing, and work with a 9 to 12V DC power supply, suitable for use with a standard model railway controller. Visit my UK model railway buildings and terrain features store to explore the options.

This post is part of a series on the construction of a lifelike model railway for exhibitions. To read other posts in the series covering its development, track work, scenery and model building making, see building an exhibition model railway.
Founder of ModelRailwayEngineer, Andy Leaning

Andy is a lifelong modeler, writer, and founder of modelrailwayengineer.com. He has been building model railways, dioramas, and miniatures for over 20 years. His passion for model making and railways began when he was a child, building his first layout at the age of seven.
Andy’s particular passion is making scenery and structures in 4mm scale, which he sells commercially. He is particularly interested in modelling the railways of South West England during the late Victorian/early Edwardian era, although he also enjoys making sci-fi and fantasy figures and dioramas. His website has won several awards, and he is a member of MERG (Model Railway Electronics Group) and the 009 Society.
When not making models, Andy lives in Surrey with his wife and teenage son. Other interests include history, science fiction, photography, and programming. Read more about Andy.

Afflliate disclosure:The links on this page may take you to carefully selected businesses, such as Hornby, Amazon, eBay and Scale Model Scenery, where you can purchase the product under affiliate programmes. This means I receive a small commission on any orders placed although the price you pay does not change. You can read my full affiliate policy here. I also sell my my own ready to use, pre-made and painted buildings and terrain features. browse the range.

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