Model Railroader


Like most cities, downtown Frankfort, Ind., featured many long, narrow commercial buildings, designed to keep street frontage to a minimum. Contributing editor Tony Koester doubled the length of these buildings by using two kits or by repurposing the unseen “back” wall.
These brick stores in New Richmond, Ind., exhibit proportions typical of commercial structures, with lengths and sometimes widths double those of typical plastic kits.

Scale modeling has always required some selective compression. This is especially true with structures. Accurately modeling a 16 x 40-foot depot is seldom a problem, but tackling a sprawling industry is often impractical.

From a manufacturer’s point of view, there’s another factor that sometimes comes into play: packaging and displaying in a retail store. The size of more than a few structure kits has been based on what would fit into a standard-sized polybag or box. The result is usually a pleasing structure, but one that is truncated in length, width, or both.

Two Walthers Magnolia Hotel kits (item no. 933-3462) were butted end-to-end and the second kit’s side walls were sloped to match the profile of the street-side kit. Tony made a new roof from .060" styrene and braced the side walls to keep them from bowing.

Retail buildings

A typical proportion for the footprint of a kit representing a small-town brick storefront is about 3 x 5. In HO scale, that usually translates directly into inches. But most retail buildings are much longer than they are wide, as real estate prices and taxes are often based on street frontage. The typical proportion is usually closer to 3 x 10 or even 3 x 15.

If a row of retail buildings is viewed primarily from the street side, that’s not a major concern. But if the structures line a street that crosses the railroad at right angles, the sides of the structures are prominent. Using stock kits may result in a scene that looks oddly compressed when viewed from the aisle.

A second problem results from using a kit for a small store to represent a much larger business, like a department store. No one’s going to be fooled by a 15 x 25-foot building with a sign proclaiming it to be a Woolworth’s.

Moreover, I try hard to disguise a kit’s heritage. I want viewers thinking about how well I modeled a prototypical scene, not how good a job I did assembling Whizkit’s Drug Store.

Correcting the proportions

Fortunately, a typical brick structure kit’s literal shortcomings are easily corrected. Purchasing a second kit can provide all of the ingredients needed to double the width and/or length.

Sometimes we can solve the problem simply by gluing two walls together to double their length. Occasionally, the side walls step down from front to rear in tune with the downward slope of the roof. There’s usually enough wall above the upper row of windows to cut those walls to the desired step profile. Styrene strips or Pikestuff’s cap tiles (part no. 541-1008) can then be applied to cap the top of the reshaped walls.

It’s difficult to achieve an invisible joint between two brick walls butted side by side. I don’t even try. Rather, I glue a scupper casting (or one scratchbuilt from styrene) on the brick wall in line with the sloping roof and run a downspout along the vertical seam between the two wall halves. Exterior plumbing, an electrical conduit, a fire escape, or even a tree or power pole positioned close to the building would hide the joint.

If the far wall won’t be seen because it abuts another building or faces the backdrop, it can be used to double the length of the aisle-side wall.

On a spliced-together front wall, the seam between the halves is easily hidden with a vertically mounted sign. If there’s a recessed area for a sign along the top, it’s usually easy to “merge” the open areas of both front walls into one larger panel, or the tops of both kit walls can be cut off, one discarded, and the other centered atop the new merged wall.

I always reinforce the butt joints with heavy sheet styrene on the back. I also put cross bracing between the side walls to ensure against them bowing in or out over time. And I take care to ensure the structure corners are at right angles, as any error will be amplified as the width or length increases.

Other opportunities

These same concerns about brick store or factory proportions also apply to many residential and commercial structures. Simply doubling the length and/or width (see “Case study: The Maple Hotel” on the previous page) may add considerable visual impact and realism while making it difficult for the viewer to detect yet another example of a familiar structure kit.