Model Railway Backscene Masterclass + 6 Tips

Chollerford: OO Gauge model railwayIf there’s one thing that will bring your model railway to life perhaps more than any other it’s a background picture. Here’s the definitive guide to choosing, making, getting and fitting a model railway backscene.

Model trains have come on leaps and bounds in recent years and can now look unbelievably life like. But even the most realistic rolling stock will look fake and unappealing if the surroundings aren’t credible.

And while you can put your trains on ballasted track surrounded by authentic models and scenery if your layout just ends at the baseboard edge it’s never going to look right.

Framing your railway with a backscene – a picture of appropriate landscape or buildings – will block out anything behind the layout from the field of view while adding depth and context, bringing your layout to life.

Choosing A Backscene

Mirror, Mirror

The first thing to consider when setting up a backscene is the imagery to use.

The primary goal of the backscene is to hide the edges of the baseboard by naturally extending the layout into the distance. As such, it needs to mirror the theme of your model railway with imagery reflecting the environment of the layout.

For countryside layouts, the backscene would be fields, hills and rivers for example while cityscape railways should feature roads, buildings and offices and industrial scenes, well you get the idea.

So think carefully about your layout and what the surrounding area would look like and pick the backscene to match.

MRE Tip #1: Consider not just the theme and environment but colours too. Matching soil, vegetation and building material colours to those on your railway will significantly contribute to the realism of your layout.

It’s All About Size

Once you’ve decided on the imagery you want it’s now time to consider the physical size of the art work.

Obviously it should run along the length and perhaps depth of your baseboard but how tall?

Too big and it’ll dwarf the layout, too small and it won’t look right.

For OO gauge backscenes, you’ll want a layout that runs the length of the layout and is 12 inches high. For N gauge, 8 to 9 inches is my preferred height.

MRE Tip #2: Don’t forget viewing position when deciding on the height of the backscene. If the railway will looked down on, perhaps from a standing position to a waist height baseboard for example, you’ll want taller scenes than if you’re looking across the layout.

How To Get A Backscene

With the dimensions and subject matter decided, you can set about getting the artwork.

There are several options available.

Ready Made

To get started, the quickest and easiest option is one of the standard off-the-shelf prints available to scale for N and OO gauge layouts.

Peco do popular range suitable for these gauges.

Different scenes are available depicting town, countryside, sky and city centre themes and although they’re now a bit dated they feel oddly atmospherically appropriate for the steam era. They are available at from Amazon and are arguably the cheapest way to get a background.

guagemastear backscene

Gaugemaster backscenes, a big step up in quality

Moving up from these are those from GaugeMaster which are better quality but cost around £10 each. Being photos these are a giant leap up from the Peco prints in quality but there isn’t much of a range. See the range here.

The best mass-produced back-scenes, and the ones I use, come across are those from ID Backscenes. These are very high-quality digital images scaled to OO and N gauge sizes and printed on 160gsm paper but cost more than the others too, at approximately £10 to £15. They’re available here.

Do It Yourself aka free backscenes

An alternative to buying ready-made backscenes is to take your own digital photographs and print them, either yourself or having a commercial printer do it for you.

If this is the approach you choose to follow, you’ll need to firstly find a digital camera with the resolution needed to print at the size required. Ideally, a wide-angle lens would be used as this will capture more landscape per image and also allow you to take pictures close-up but still having them seem further away to appear small.

If you can’t take the photos yourself, Google Earth pictures can be a useful alternative as long as you only use them for private usage.

The simple rule of thumb for working out what size of picture you’ll need is to take the print resolution – typically 300dpi or 1200dpi – and then multiplying this by the number of inches you want the image to cover (see above).

> If you want more information making backscenes, I highly recommend Creating a Backscene: A Railway Modelling Companion by Paul Bambrick & John Ellis-Cockell. It’s THE guide on the subject. 

So for a 6 foot by 9 inch background, when you’re printing at 300dpi, the calculation would be 300*6*12 (12 inches to the foot) and 1200×9 giving an image resolution requirement of 86,400 pixels by 10,800 pixels for 1200 dpi printing.

To got for this kind of size you’ll need to either join multiple photos together in a photo-editing application to form one long image or use the panorama model many DSLR and phone cameras now have. (The Instagram photo above is of an experimental backscene using this technique on my layout)

With the image ready you cut it up – again in a photo image editing application – to the size of the paper your print has and print them out.

Note: some modellers paint their own landscape or clouds. I don’t have the talent or skills to even consider doing this but I’d love to see your work if you pick a brush a give it go. Share a comment below if this is you. If you fancy having a go at painting a backscene there’s a good discussion of it at Your Model Railway club, link to the article.

MRE Tip #3: Remember, again, about the viewing position when taking the pictures and also to judge the distance from the buildings and trees in the image so they’ll be the same size as on your layout.

What Wood To Use For A Back Scene

Printed back scenes on paper can’t just be unwrapped and placed behind a layout.

For starters, they roll up if left to their own devices! Being on paper they are also prone to tearing and moving around with the slightest waft of air.

They need to be fixed to a rigid material.

For small layouts, thick cardboard could be used but a more common option is wood.

A discussion about the pros and cons of different woods for this use took place on RMWeb and newrailwaymodellers with the consensus being hardboard or plywood is the best materials.

MDF isn’t popular, it’s weight making it difficult to position and it can absorb moisture causing problems if not sealed.

MRE Tip #4: If the background picture will frame more than one side of your layout pay attention to the corners. Hard angle corner joints will distract from the believability of your scene, instead create a gently curve or cover the corner a building, hill or other tall landscape feature.  Plywood can be bent for the corners which is one of the reasons it’s a popular choice for backscene wood.

How To Glue A Back Scene

Fixing the paper to the mounting surface is perhaps the most tricky aspect of the construction.

The preferred solution is watered down PVA. Apply the glue mixture to the board, let it sink in for a while and then fit the paper.

Members of tried other adhesives but found them lacking, spray mount, for example, tends to dry out with the paper peeling off the board. The same applies to double-sided sticky tape.

When laying the paper, place the board on a flat surface and drape the paper along it working from one end to the other and smoothing as you go in a similar manner to hanging wallpaper. Ideally, have someone to help you so they can smooth the paper down while you hold the remaining paper away from the wood.

Occasionally bubbles occur but these usually disappear as the glue dries.

MRE Tip #5: For PVA, water it down slightly before application. This helps it spread more easily and allows it to soak into the wood. Let it dry slightly and then position the paper.

MRE Tip #6: As is mentioned over on RMWeb forum, the key is to get the amount and composition of the glue right so the paper can be slid and positioned but without drenching it which can lead to tears. Testing the glue mix with a sheet of A4 paper will save wrecking your backscene paper.

How To Secure Back Scene Board

With the board now ready you now need to secure it to the edge of the baseboard and keep it upright.

For wooden boards glue and align the bottom edge with the baseboard and then glue vertical battons to the rear of the back scene. Finally, drive screws through the base and into the baseboard to hold it firm.

The screws into the baseboard will hold it firmly in place while the vertical battons will prevent it swaying

For cardboard supports, a PVA glue solution to hold it to the baseboard is sufficient.

Blending Your Backscene And Layout

With a backscene made and attached to your railway, you’ll want to disguise the join where the layout scenery meets the background. Being able to see the join where the distant landscape crashes into the foreground of your layout will ruin the desired look.

To cover the join position buildings, fences, walls or vegetation along the rear edge of the layout so covering the seam between backscene and layout. Notice how there’s a fence at the rear edge in the scene from the Chollerford OO Gauge model railway pictured above.

An article on blending foreground and backscene and some other points from the AMRA Journal goes into more detail. It’s reproduced here.

Finishing Thoughts
And that pretty much rounds off this guide to making backscenes. The only other thing remaining is to wish you luck making yours and to share how you got on with a comment below.

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>A final, personal, note: I spend a huge amount of time testing, photographing, writing and researching techniques for these articles and pay for all the running costs of MRE out of my own pocket. If you found this article useful you can support me by making a donation on my fund-raising page. Thanks and happy modelling, Andy.

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One comment
  1. Re the glueing of back scene’s I personal prefer ply.
    I have a slightly different way of applying the paper, I use a sizing mix of 50/50 PVA glue and water to the board and allow this to dry completely then I use ready mixed wallpaper adhesive (the stuff you buy in a tub), apply this to the board then proceed to lay the paper to the board smoothing out as I go exactly as you describe. and yes a second person is invaluable especially with longer scenery sections.

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