Christopher Brimley updated January 24, 2011


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  • Detailing an Alley

    Detailing an Alley

    By Christopher Brimley

    Occasionally, when doing a little city planning on your layout, you find extra space between your buildings. There are a few remedies for this space, such as sizing the block to fit the buildings perfectly, kitbashing or scratch building a structure to fit, or leaving the hole open for an alley. I purposely plan alleys because they add a large amount of visual appeal and break up the monotony of a row of buildings.

    Whatever the era of your layout, you can easily detail an alley to blend in. For example, if you model the 1930s, a few poorly built shanties would be a perfect start. These could easily be scratch built or purchased from Model Tech Studios in HO or N scale. For a more modern alley, you could have large dumpsters, a good amount of graffiti and a slightly cleaner space compared to earlier years. The possibilities are endless.

    For my alley, I modeled the transition era for a mid-sized city. I also wanted a change in elevation, because I believe it adds more visual appeal and creates interesting design possibilities. In doing so, I created an end to the alley without abruptly ending at a wall, thus giving it more depth.

    Building a Plate

    I decided to build my alley on a small diorama in HO scale. Because most of the scenery would be concrete or plaster, I cast it all from plaster. I have had good luck doing this in the past and have achieved better results compared to styrene or other materials.

    Styrene mold.

    To begin, I built a mold from sheet and strip styrene. To simplify the pour, I built the plate as a separate piece from the elevated section and stairs leading up to it. Remember, the mold is a negative of the finished product. The highest point of the master will be the lowest point of the mold. By doing just the basic plate, all you need to worry about is raising a portion for where the street will be.

    The height of my curb and the raised street is .100”. I also added a storm drain to the curb. This was done simply by adding a piece of .100” x.125” strip styrene cut to a length of ⅝”. If you are building multiple streets and sidewalks, I would recommend pouring the streets as separate parts from the curbs and sidewalks.

    After the mold was built, I poured the plaster into the mold. The plaster was mixed to a soupy consistency, eliminating most of the bubbles. After you pour the plaster, tap the mold gently to cause any air bubbles to rise to the surface. If needed, scape any excess plaster off using a straight edge. After 24 hours of drying, you should be able to work the plate out of the mold with relative ease.

    Test fitting the structures.

    Next, I scribed the expansion joints in the concrete sidewalks, curb, and gutter using a ruler and a hobby knife with a dull blade. Using a new blade gives you too fine of a line. After all of the expansion joints were done, I free-handed in a few cracks and chipped out a couple sections. Air bubbles can be easily disguised by roughing them up with your hobby knife to make it look like a pot hole or damaged concrete.

    After I laid out where I wanted the buildings, I was able to build the mold for the elevated section using the same methods as the plate. After it was poured and I knew it was going to fit, I built the mold for the last two pieces, the dock, and the stairs. To make the stairs, I simply built them from styrene, built a box around them, and poured the plaster. If you notice in the photos, the stairs sit on a small pad -- this was actually the result of a mistake. I built the stairs one step too short, and to raise them to the correct height, I built the slab.

    The plates are stained with India ink diluted in rubbing alcohol. I sprayed the mixture with an air bush to avoid blotchy, unrealistic results. To darken the street, I made heavy coats with the stain and added a little dusting of pastel chalk.

    The stained plate.


    The two buildings flanking the alley are two I built in previous articles, the Market and the Hardware store. Both are DPM kits, however the hardware store has a facade upgrade kit made by Paw of a Bear. I still needed to build a flat across the back of the diorama, and chose to use DPM modular walls as this would be an easy method to fill in this space.

    Building the wall.

    To make the plain brick walls come to life, I added a few simple details. The first, a fire escape kit from Titchy Train Group. It is a perfect fit for the double windows and only a little minor removal of a few bricks from the vertical row needed to be removed for the structures to remain flush.

    Other additions included a downspout and some electrical conduit. For the downspout, I formed a piece of .040” styrene rod. I also carved a hopper from a piece of .060” x .125” strip styrene for the roof water before descending in the downspout. I painted it a light grey, and at the top of the hopper I added a dot of black paint to give an open illusion.

    For the conduit, I painted .020” brass wire with a dark grey paint. Next, I drilled holes into the walls and a small box made from strip styrene. I then painted and bent the wire to fit into the holes. Next, I took small strips of wood, attached them to the walls, and added the wire into the holes and mounted them to the wood.

    Fire escape and conduit details.

    To add a little variety to the building, I boarded up a few of the windows. I also glued a few boards to the inside of the window and stained them with the India ink alcohol wash. For the remaining windows, I added the included acetate and sprayed them from the back with dullcote. This creates a translucent instead of a transparent window.


    Drums and pallets added.

    The 55 gallon drums are a resin casting made by Bar Mills. I brush painted them by using different colors on the drums. After the paint dried, I gave it a wash of India ink and alcohol and a dusting of rust-colored pastels. Next, I added pallets -- both leaning and stacked. The pallets are actually a very easy-to-build kit made by Paw of a Bear. In my opinion, these are the most realistic pallets available. Also, you can beat-up the pallets as much as you want to suit your needs.

    Next, I added a few pieces from a Woodland Scenics assorted junk details.

    With these details in place, I added railings to the walls and stairs. I used .030” brass wire bent to shape. I very carefully drilled holes into the plaster with a pin vice (don’t use a power drill). I painted the railings and glued them into place with a little CA (Cyanoacrylate) glue.

    Next, I added random junk. I added vegetation in a few spots by gluing ground foam to the plaster with white glue. I also took some glosscote and carefully dribbled some in a few spots to look like puddles. It took a few coats to pull this off because the plaster absorbed it so quickly.

    More detal being added.

    I then cut white and yellow paper into HO scale sized sheet paper. Some I folded, some were crumpled up, and others remained flat. I placed most in corners or against something to look wind blown. All of the paper had a little dab of India ink and alcohol to age them. I also added a few pipes and cans made from styrene rod, as well as boards.

    Lastly, I built the remnants of a short fence next to the hardware store from pallet parts, and added a garbage can, vegetation, trash, and figures.

    Building this mini scene was a lot of fun and created a new level of realism. Try it -- it is easier than you might think.

    Check out this article in Model Railroading to help you make lots of “cheap junk”:


    For more information , please contact Christopher Brimley at

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  • Guillermo Senatore
    Guillermo Senatore Great look for this alley, great job, im very impressed with the detail level in this scale, im a car modelller in 1:24 and the difference are huge, great job!!! Congrats
    February 2, 2011
  • Bryan Busséy
    Bryan Busséy Chris, if the mold is still intact - since it was for this one use only, you could pour Quikrete and see if the results are to your liking for future projects. If the mold gets destroyed, no harm no foul.
    February 3, 2011
  • Christopher Brimley
    Christopher Brimley Bryan, The Mold is long gone, I would have used the Quickrete, I just didn't have much time for experimenting.
    February 3, 2011
  • Quenneville Robert
    Quenneville Robert Hy Christopher lot of details it is nice to see
    February 20, 2011