Christopher Brimley updated May 17, 2011


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  • Simple Kitbashing...

    by V. S. Roseman

    Photos by the author

    Here are just a few variations of the same structure that are possible when you do not follow a kits instruction sheet.
    Model Railroading - October 2005 - Page 23

    It surprises me how many hobbies are actually encompassed by model railroading. Of course there are the fellows who have layouts and build scenery. They often build all kinds of kits for structures and rolling stock. There are also some hobbyists who mostly enjoy painting models, others who start with a bunch of sticks and some sheets of basswood and end up with a structure not to leave out those who start with some pieces of brass and end up with a freight car or even an engine. Model railroading also includes those of us who have a loop of track with a turnout or two and just a few cars as well as those who are dedicated to prototypical operations. So it can be easy to forget that some of us work within the limitations of the parts that come inside the kit box those of us who read and follow the instructions and are perfectly satisfied to build models just as they come in the box.

    There is nothing wrong with any of this, just as there are few rights and wrongs in this hobby. Going off into unknown areas can be very distasteful to some as it involves fear of the unknown, and there is nothing wrong with this. However, personal growth within this hobby often involves going beyond what the manufacturer shows on the box to improve the models appearance or to adapt it for a better use on the model railroad by changing the model.

    How Instructions are Written

    You must first realize that when kits are proposed by the research and design department, a model builder (sometimes a professional), goes step by step with each part, writing down a logical progression as he (or she) actually builds the model. Photos are taken or sketches are made that will become the instruction sheet. A list is kept of the materials used, and at the completion of the model, all of this written work is compiled into the instruction sheet. Parts are manufactured (or purchased from other companies), the kit is boxed or bagged, and it soon appears on the hobby shop shelves.

    In the case of kits requiring a lot of fabricated parts such as a metal or plastic kit, the parts are made first, then a research and development person has to figure a good way to put the pieces together and make the model look good.

    In most cases today, the efforts of the manufacturers yield excellent kits. Most old-timers (like myself) can spin you some tales of the days when kit parts did not all fit, or when you couldn't build a model as good as the one shown on the box because the person who built the sample for the photograph cheated a little (like substituting better parts than came in the kit).

    The point here is that sometimes the modeler who buys a particular kit may be just as competent a builder as the person who designed it and wrote the instruction sheet (or built the example for the photos on the box). If you have read kit reviews in this magazine, you may have noticed that the reviewer often suggests using a different procedure than shown in the instructions. In fact, every model builder should check over instructions to see that they are really the best way to finish the model. This is not to take anything away from the instruction writers, but as you get experience in building, you may find shortcuts or better ways to build kits than the designers have found. Or you may have some priority (such as for painting the model) that requires a little different procedure.

    A good way to break into the world of possible variations without actually having to ignore or change the directions is to paint a plastic model, such as a structure. You will be surprised how much more realistic a painted model looks than an unpainted shiny plastic one. Don't use those old cans of Red Devil Enamel your grandpa left you, get some good model paint. Ask another modeler or the hobby shop retailer, and do follow the instructions for the paint. Modern model paints work well unless you get too creative about mixing with other brands or ignoring the directions.

    One advantage of painting your models is that it gives you control of color. I sometimes use what I call a negative color on a structure kit to change the look of a particular building. If the building (say a house, for example) is molded in a light color such as white plastic with perhaps blue window trim, I might paint the walls a deep rust color and then paint the trim white. This produces a dark building with light trim instead of the originals light building with dark trim, thus giving a negative color effect. This is useful too if you wish to use the same kit more than once on your layout.

    A row of tract houses often only differ in small details. A few simple modifications can enable the modeler to use multiples of the same structure.
    Model Railroading - October 2005 - Page 24

    Revell Farmhouse

    My illustration shows the old Revell (later Con-Cor) farmhouse that comes with a garage and a number of rural accessories. I wanted my model to represent a suburban house. I used a colonial maroon (Tamiya hull red and brown) with white trim. I added shutters on the front and side windows, which I prepainted in pale gray. These could have been white, but in days gone by there were more elaborate trim schemes on houses.

    The photos show some variations of this kit such as eliminating the add-on kitchen wing and only including the side porch on corner houses (see photos).

    On houses like this one, striking effects can be made by adding some architectural details such as those from Grandt Line (available in several scales). If your house is a Victorian style, you can add some gingerbread-type parts such as railings, porch columns or some of the eve brackets shown in their catalogs. These should be painted in the color of the buildings trim unless you are modeling the 60s or later. Details such as these that had not been removed were often painted the same color as the walls after this time. I added some ground foam weeds with glue around the base of the models so they would not show any unprototypical crack and would look as if they were really planted in the ground.

    If your kit is a brick structure, you could paint the building pale tan (blonde brick) with dark green windows instead of the more commonly seen red brick with white windows shown on most box covers.

    Many kits have paper shades included for placement inside the windows. Some of these are quite realistic and add a great deal to the appearance of the finished model, while others are toy-like and should be tossed in the trash. Only you can decide if you like the look of what is included in the kit, but you should not be afraid to leave something out if it detracts from the appearance of the model. An alternative to printed sheets would be plain paper painted in colors you like for curtains and then crumpled or folded to resemble different kinds of curtains. Plain paper can be tinted tan or deep green for window shades and then glued into the windows at any level you like.

    If you add shades or curtains you should also make up some light blocks. A light block is a simple form of interior detailing that doesn't require actual furniture or other details. When the walls are assembled, and before you add the roof, some dividers can be added. Some modelers use a dark color just to prevent one from seeing through the building, while others use realistic interior colors that improve the appearance of the building when it is lighted. It is very effective to light only one or two rooms at night, using the light blocks to separate the areas of the structure.

    The windows on the Revell farmhouse are molded only as openings, and the mullions and frames are printed on thin clear plastic, as are curtains and shades. The shades are believable, but the curtains are printed as white outlines to represent lace. I enhanced these by painting the back of the printing. While it does add some color, I am going to try making my own painted windows on thin acrylic behind which I will fit my own paper curtains. I made some acceptable lace curtains by scratching the curtain area and leaving the white outlines for the edges.

    Plasticville Hospital

    The next example is the Plasticville Hospital (available now from Bachmann). It is molded in white and deep gray. While this building does have a hospital-like appearance, it is also an excellent example of streamlined art deco architecture. From the 1930s through the 50s many industrial and municipal buildings were built in this style. A close look at this building should reveal that you might have seen a school, police station or other municipal structure or even a factory or office block that closely resembles the Plasticville structure.

    While this kit is now sold as an O scale building, it was originally sold as an S or O scale structure. In S scale it is a larger and more impressive structure. I used the original doors as templates to cut new ones of styrene, which I then painted and glued in place. I painted the entire structure a light concrete color and enclosed the skylight with plain white styrene.

    The siren on the building (unless that thing on the roof is supposed to be a heat exchange or something else) is replaced with a length of styrene tubing to represent an exhaust chimney. I trimmed an upper decoration with silver to represent the aluminum or stainless trim on some buildings of this type (in some cases it was just cement). As the windows were small, I just used plain acrylic plastic which I frosted by sanding it on the back.

    A few simple changes enables the Plasticville Hospital to be used as an S scale dairy facility.
    Model Railroading - October 2005 - Page 25

    The raised signs for Accident Ward and Clinic were just covered with thin styrene, although they could be decaled with new signs. The Sealtest sign was cut from an ad and was backed and framed with styrene. As this will be used in an urban setting I hope that I will someday get the time to build a huge steel sign for the roof, and possibly a water tower. An N scale locomotive water tank (minus the spout) would be a nice sized accessory for the roof to simulate the real industrial towers. I intend to use the Plasticville Hospital as a diary distributor in conjunction with some older buildings and a lot of milk trucks. It will make a good place to park some refrigerator cars too.

    Atlas Water Tower

    A kit that seldom receives the respect it deserves is the Atlas water tower. This is a model of a Pennsylvania Railroad structure and resembles those seen all over the country. When I built my first one nearly 40 years ago, I was surprised at how well the kit was designed with simple modular units that went together and resembled individual pieces. I only made two simple changes to this kit. First, you will notice how much better it looks in the photo by simply painting and weathering it.

    An examination of the photo will also reveal that it no longer has a spout. In many areas railroads converted tanks like this to supply water plugs. There are a number of good models of water plugs available, but my local retailers were out of all of them so I had to scratchbuild the one you see in the photo. I used two nesting Evergreen styrene tubes to make the metal pipe and heated the joints with a candle to soften them. Then, while still hot, I bent the pipe into the form you see. For the pipe joints I cut strips of bond paper and used styrene cement to adhere them around the tube.


    With very little trouble it is possible to create striking models even from inexpensive plastic kits. In many cases I find that instead of spending time on building more complicated wood structures, I can begin with a plastic kit and spend time improving and modifying the kit. This method can be used as a stepping stone toward building your confidence as you advance to constructing more complicated kits. For me, the best part of improving kit models is that everybody else wont have exactly the same model on their railroad.

    I hope that by getting you to think about painting your structures, adding small details or making changes, you will be inspired to create some striking and realistic buildings that are unique to your layout.

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