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  • West End: Stuart Leuthner’s HO Scale Design Preservation Models Diorama

    By Stuart Leuthner
    Photos by Mark Archer

    You can duplicate this city scene with out-of-the-package and simply modified kits from Design Preservation Models. Take a good look at the arrangement of the buildings. It’s the variation in the angles, planes, heights, textures and colors that makes these scenes so successfully realistic.

    The sun hasn't been up long as a short freight makes its way through the city. The DPM water tower looming in the distance is a Korber product. Found on many ur­ ban roofs, Gotham City's water towers are a potpourri; commercial kits, N scale grain storage bins, cardboard and plastic trees covered with stripwood and whatever else came to hand.

    Until recently, major cities on model railroads were rare. The few urban structure kits available were expensive and the need for extensive scratch building made such an undertaking impossible except for the most committed modeler.

    That has changed, thanks to the introduction of Design Preservation’s plastic building kits. They, along with the kits of several other manufacturers, make it possible — money- and time-wise — to create a substantial urban area. The detail and selection found in these low­ priced kits is fantastic. Assembly time is minimal, painting being the most time­ consuming job.

    The HO city diorama was designed to be part of the Yule Express, a display railroad built by Modelmasters for Norwest Bank Colorado. Located in the bank’s downtown Denver Atrium during the holiday season, the 80-foot display includes a wide range of scales, G to Z.

    Since the display operates 10 hours a day, seven days a week, reliability is a necessity. The diorama’s track plan is limited to two closed loops; a trolley operates on the elevated line, and a short freight train circles the lower track. Power for the trains, streetlights, vehicle lights and structures is provided by a custom power pack built by Joel Albeck.

    Major structures in the diorama – a total of 114 kits - were provided by Design Preservation. Many are stock – out of the bag – others are extensively modified. The Design Preservation modular factory system is especially advantageous since it allows the construction of sizable industries necessary for the “big city look” in a fairly short time.

    Author’s note: The three large factories which dominate the diorama’s skyline are an inside joke. Bob Schultz, Design Preservation’s marketing director, finds most people who visit the company’s Crestone, Colorado, headquarters expect a huge plant with belching smokestacks. Instead, they find a modest, extremely efficient operation. It’s quality, not quantity that counts!

    All streets bisecting at ninety degrees results in a static scene. Visual in­ terest increases when some run at different angles, while others curve out of sight. This also eliminates dead ends at the layout's background that are dif­ ficult to disguise.

    Planning and Construction

    The most important phase of city building is the initial planning. Many modelers simply line their buildings up like so many birds on a wire. This creates a static, boring arrangement. Model cities are much more interesting if they include curving, twisting streets, narrow alleys, and odd-shaped buildings at different angles and levels.

    My method is to build a group of 15 or 20 buildings and then try them in different configurations – much like children’s building blocks. At this stage of the game, it’s only necessary to glue the walls together to see how a particular structure is going to fit in. I also cut some 2x2s into short lengths and use them as temporary platforms. Once the final design is arrived at, specific buildings can be built to fill in the empty spaces. It’s the cramped, tight feeling that creates the character of the inner city, but don’t fill up every available piece of real estate. Leave a vacant lot or two for contrast.


    Since the diorama is designed to be viewed from two perspectives – floor and near eye-level – details were an important consideration. A city is comprised of a million small details, and it’s important to look at the real thing, prototype photos and the work of modelers like John Allen, George Sellios, Earl Smallshaw and Malcolm Furlow. Again, don’t fill up every inch of your city with details, or it will simply end up looking busy. Like the occasional vacant lot, less detailed areas give viewers’ eyes a place to rest.

    Manufacturers have provided modelers with a vast array of excellent details from fire hydrants to            billboards. Many times these small items that add so much to our work are taken for granted. Next time you take a roof ventilator out of the package, think how long it would take you to make it from scratch.

    In addition to the Design Preservation structures, other buildings and details used on the diorama came from a variety of manufacturers. These include Walthers, Atlas, GRS, Mr. Plaster, Chooch, JAKS Industries and Woodland Scenics. Construction is very basic: ply­ wood on a l x 4 frame covered with blue foam for landforms. The foam was then covered with Poly Terrain. Roads are illustration board, and sidewalks were created with foamcore board. A combination of dirt and ground foam was used for ground cover.

    Since the Yule Express is a winter­ theme display, dark clouds have been seen gathering over the city, and we expect snow at any minute. If we do get a couple of inches, I’ll be telling you about the art of “snowing” a layout in a future article.            


    The doughnuts must be good since Officer Jon's black and white is parked in front of Bev's 24-Hour Cafe. As with all details, use vehicles with discretion or your city will have a traffic jam look. Vehicles used in the diorama include: Magnasun, Alloy, Forms, Jordan and Praline.

    Beauty is only skin deep. Gotham City follows Earl Smallshaw's philosophy, "Don't model what you can't see." The dioramas electronics are operated from the white panel. Each track has its own throttle and direction control.

    The tunnel on the left side of the diorama allows the train to disappear. This makes the diorama seem larger than it really is. Elements like telephone poles and street lights lead the viewer's eyes into areas of interest.

    Painting Buildings

    Building kits like those produced by Design Preservation live or die by their paint job. Obviously the completed structure could simply be painted one color, but the use of several contrasting colors highlights the fantastic detail and brings the building to life.

    The majority of the buildings on the diorama were painted by Connie Schafer. Since this was Schafer's first experience with this type of work, her impressive results prove that you don't have to be Rembrandt or a master modeler to achieve this kind of quality. Some of her tips for a successful paint job are:

    1. Use good light and some sort of magnifying device. Schafer works under a fluorescent lamp with a built­ in magnifying glass.
    2. Buy the best brushes you can afford. Nothing is more frustrating than a brush that loses its point or sheds. Match the size of the brush to the job. Some modelers prefer pointed brushes, others square. Schafer does her work with the pointed variety.
    3. We prefer to paint the entire building with a "brick" color. Since brick comes in a variety of colors , we use several brands of spray primers, along with Floquil Rust, Tusca and Box Car Red. Some kits can be masked, but Schafer finds it easier to simply paint the details by hand.
    4. Don't forget to paint the interior walls flat black! This is especially important if you intend to include lighting. Otherwise your buildings will have a toy-like glow.
    5. Pick your colors with care.
    6. Take a walk and look at the paint schemes on restored buildings in older sections of your city. Muted colors and earth tones work best, although a bright spot of color here and there help to create drama.
    7. A white wash is brushed over all brick surfaces when the building is completed. Put the building on its side so the wash will settle into the mortar lines. If the structure is already in position, a light misting with a spray bottle before the wash is brushed on will help it flow. We don't bother to wipe the walls since the white wash helps to weather the building. The final step is an application of pastels to add the grime and dirt found in the city.
    8. If you find your brush won't behave or your eyes hurt, quit! Painted buildings, like everything else associated with the hobby, is supposed to be fun — not an ordeal.

    Article Details

    • Original Author Stuart Leuthner
    • Source Railmodel Journal
    • Publication Date February 1993

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