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Illuminating a Model Building

(using masks to achieve a realistic effect)

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Article by Pete M

So you’ve fixed down all your track, covered every last inch with scatter, now it’s time to erect your buildings, be they stations, goods sheds, or shacks in a yard; and for that extra je ne sais quoi illuminating them.

A number of options are available, from small filament bulbs, grain of rice bulbs, or LEDs. Personally I prefer the grain of rice bulb, because it’s nice and small, and come on nice tails of wire already to wire up.

Grain of rice bulb - Model Railway Lighting


The ones I use are 12v DC although other voltages are available. They also come in a range of colours from white to red, for buildings I prefer an orange bulb.

So to work! Illuminating a building. The simplest way is to stick the bulb inside and wire it up. Switch the bulb on and your whole building glows, issuing light from every window, crack, and in the case of many plastic buildings turning the plastic translucent. You also get to see all the insides, where you haven’t painted, and worst of all you see the bulb.

Here’s an example of a Faller Station building (only partially completed).

Model Railway Lighting

Note how it glows, particularly the window frames, the light issues out from every window and you can see inside.

To solve this you can make a mask from black cardboard. Faller actually provide them, but it’s easy enough to fabricate your own. Just form the card to the inside shape of your model, or at least the portion to be illuminated.

This one is held together with masking tape.

Model Railway Lighting

Then insert it into your model and illuminate as previously.

Model Railway Lighting

Note the glow has gone but you can still see inside. By not cutting out all the windows you can make it look like only sections are occupied.

To further improve the effect put masking tale over the open windows, this causes the light to diffuse, and you can’t see inside.

Model Railway Lighting

Model Railway House Lighting

an end view:

Model Railway House Lighting

Note you now just get a nice diffused glow, no shadows cast outside, and no interior detail. By varying the cut-outs in the mask you can make it look like only certain rooms are occupied rather than a crystal palace approach, even model buildings should appear as if someone puts the lights out when they are finished. You could add curtains to the masking tape, but I model N-gauge and such details are lost.

One note of caution: grain of rice bulbs get as hot as the centre of the sun, you will need to insulate them from your model, I just tape the wires to the building with the bulb hanging away from the plastic, it’s quick and simple. With normal bulbs or LEDs it’s not such a problem.

(Should you want to show off room details, of course the masking tape can be omitted from the windows, but retaining the mask will prevent the light straying. On the whole LEDs won’t be very bright, but can be used to add a bit of extra lighting detail to a room, perhaps an open fire or a hearth in a factory, best to experiment, using choco-block type connectors allow you to switch and change bulbs at your leisure to achieve the exact lighting combinations).


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