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Create More Realistic Buildings

In this How-To I'll show you easy ways to make those cheap buildings look a lot more realistic.  While there are companies out there that sell assembled buildings that look nice, there are many manufacturers like Model Power and various kits that require a little work to make them look realistic.

It wasn't very time consuming, difficult, or expensive to turn the original building on the left into the building on the right.

Here are the steps I took to enhance the appearance of the building.

  1. Remove all of the attached parts - In this case it was the bell tower, the Fire Department sign, the telephone pole, and the ladder

  2. Remove the base - When using this in a layout where realism is preferred, remove the base and build the building into your layout.  Nothing looks worse than a nice paved street and then a bunch of buildings all with slightly warped sidewalks

  3. Hand paint the details - The bell tower and sign were simply molded in brown plastic.  It looked really cheap!  I painted the bell tower red and white and the bell a gold color.  I also painted the top of it as if it had shingles.  I painted the sign a color that would stand out against the red brick.

  4. Enhance the bricks - Take a small sponge, tissue, or paper towel and dip it in white or grey paint.  Take the sponge and wipe it over the bricks.  The paint will flow into the lines between the brick.  Now clean up any remaining paint that's on the bricks with a tissue or paper towel.  The effect is dramatic and immediate.

Here's a look at the Star Journal building before and after.

Here's a building I added a little color to by painting the cast-in bricks in a checker pattern.

Pay attention to the roofs of your buildings.  When looking at a layout it's very common to see the top of buildings.  Spending some time on this often overlooked area will enhance the buildings realism with little effort.


In this picture you can see the top of the skylight on the fire house.  It's a light gray color as is the rest of the roof.  A building like this would typically have an asphalt type roof so I painted the entire roof a black color as seen in the finished photo on the right.


The roof on this building was the same red color as the rest of the building.  I added some black ballast to it to simulate small dark colored rocks which allow for drainage on many buildings.  The building on the right has a gray roof which I felt was good enough.  Some day I may paint the roof details a silver color to show them as aluminum pieces.


Here are the steps I take to create more realistic lighting in my buildings.


  1. Remove any clear plastic covering the windows in the inside of the building.

  2. Paint the entire inside of the building with a healthy coat of black paint.  Avoid getting paint on or outside the windows themselves.  Test this by turning out the lights and shining a flashlight into through the bottom of the building.  Add more paint to spots where it still shows through.

  3. Once the paint sufficiently keeps like from leaking through, glue the clear plastic pieces back over the windows on the inside of the building.  If the pieces were destroyed when taking them out then you can always cut out plastic from any packaging that may have come with something you bought as many goods come packaged in plastic.

  4. Take some toilet paper, paper towel, or preferably tissue paper and glue it over the clear plastic.  This helps disperse the light a little better, keeps the viewer from seeing the inside of the empty building, and also prevents people from being able to see the light inside the building.


Here you can see the tissue paper drying inside the building


Here you can see the light shining through the skylights.


This building also had a skylight glued to the top of the building, but there was no hold for light to shine through to it.  I used a hobby knife to remove it, cut a hole in the top of the building, put some plastic in it to represent glass, glued it back on, and had a great looking skylight in the end.  You can see the top of the building in the picture on the left where I glued the tissue paper to the building rather than trying to get it properly positioned inside the skylight




Here I'm going to touch upon sidewalks, but not on how to make them.  This is more to show you how buildings look better when they don't sit ON the sidewalk compared to when they're build into the sidewalk.


Remember that one of the first things I do to make the buildings more realistic is to remove the base they're sitting on.  The bases are often warped or different colors than the one you'll put next to it.  Creating your own sidewalk or using pre-built sidewalks make a big difference.


Here you can see where I've already laid The Star Ledger into the sidewalk.  I also built an alley in between it and where the fire house will go.  Once this dried I removed the building and scraped the foam putty of that had stuck to the building.  You can also see in the empty spot for the fire house that I put a piece of plastic there to help raise it up to the level it needed to be at.  The Star Ledger building is not sitting on top of the sidewalk.  It is slightly sunken in below it.  This gives a more realistic appearance and also prevents light from seeping through where the building might not be completely level with the sidewalk.


The images below show a close-up of the side walk around the fire station.  I scored the sidewalk, which was made out of Woodland Scenics Smooth It with a hobby knife.  The picture on the right shows the when the scoring was finished.


Here is another shot of a building that is set into the sidewalk.  If you look at the door, you'll notice that the threshold is at the level of the sidewalk.


Before and After Pictures


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