Making an animated bonfire

Model bonfire for oo gauge model railwayHow to make a miniature bonfire that glows 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.

I could have bought one, such as the Scale Model Scenery bonfire, but where possible I like to make my own.

The TLDR version for making a bonfire in 4mm scale is: take a flickering orange LED light, those from Christmas candle effect lights work really well, 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.

The longer version, broken down into 4 steps, is as follows:

Making the LED base

I cut a small square of plasticard to the size required, in this case, 20mm by 20mm. A hole for the LED wires was cut in the centre and then painted black. The wires for the LED were passed through the hole and the LED was secured in place using poly glue that should resist any heat from the light.

The LED was a flickering orange/yellow bulb from one of those cheap electric Christmas candle decorations.

Making the timber

For the timber that makes up the most visible element of the bonfire, I intially used some scraps from an old Faller OO/HO Old Coal Mine model (130470) 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. and roughed up the edges to make them less regular.

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, which would then be reflected 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 then built up around it.

Once the paint on the plastic had dried I then built up a pyramid of the timbers around the LED, gluing the fake beams to the plasticard base using poly-cement 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 really looked like an actual bonfire.

Final touches

As a finishing touch, very fine ballast was sprinkled onto the based 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: A few friends have asked me to make some of these for them. Given the unique hand-made nature of each one, I’m thinking of charging £10 each, if you’d like one too get in touch.


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.


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