Layout Scenery Part V - Lighting

By Ty’s Model Railroad - 12/01/2012 04:40:00 PM

HO scale model railroad layout industrial scene at night with accessory lighting effects

Adding proper lighting to a layout can turn it into a completely different scene. Installing accessory lighting allows details and scenes that were once less noticeable (such as detailed building interiors), to be a main focal point. My layout includes interior lighting on most of my buildings, street lamps, and nighttime lighting effect to illuminate the overall layout.

Layout with accessory lights and nighttime lighting effects

To assist with adding accessory lights as I constructed my layout, I planned all of the wiring into my master wiring plan at the start of construction. I pre-installed power bus wires under my bench work and installed switches on my control panel to turn power to the bus wires on and off. The bus wires are powered directly by a dedicated 12V 2A DC power supply. These and are split into two separate circuits, accessory 1 & accessory 2. These two circuits are each controlled through two automotive-type relays connected to a corresponding toggle switch on the main control panel (see master wiring diagram).

HO scale model railroad layout downtown scene at night with accessory lighting effects

The majority of my structures had lighting installed during their construction (see any of my posts regarding structure kits for details). I left a long wire lead protruding from either the bottom or side of each building which I then passed through a small drilled hole in my bench work and tied it into the pre-installed power bus below. Any visible wire leads on top of my layout were simply hidden with scenery material.

Cutting Scissors Co. kit and custom garage at night with a vehicle and lit streetlamp in front

The brass street lamps along my streets were installed with the same method. I did need to wrap the base of each lamp a couple times with electrical tape to provide a snug fit once I inserted them into the drilled holes. The street lamps are rated for 12 volts, but a full 12 volts produced way too much light, so I added a 110 ohm resistor to each street lamp to provide a softer, more realistic glow. Both the building lights and street lamps are wired onto the accessory 1 circuit.

HO scale model railroad layout at night with accessory lighting effects

Accessory lighting on your layout is most effective when, quite obviously, the room that houses your layout is dark. However, having a completely dark room void of any light is much too dark and the majority of your layout will not be visible. You can create low levels of ambient room lighting by simply dimming the room lighting, but this is only effective if you use halogen or incandescent-type bulbs. If you use fluorescent lighting (like I do), you will need to completely turn off the lights as most are not dimmable. More so, dimming your layout room’s lights still doesn’t create a realistic nighttime effect, so the most effective method is to have separately installed “night mode” lights.

HO scale model railroad layout and control panel at night with accessory lighting effects

For this “night mode” effect lighting, I wanted to recreate a moonlit scene with a soft, bluish-white glow. To create this type of light, I constructed three light diffusing boxes out of styrene measuring 2 1/2” x 4 1/2” with a curved diffusing lens protruding out from the base by about 1 ¾”. I then installed one super bright white and one super bright blue LED into the base of each diffuser box, about 1” apart off center. After adding the proper resistors to each LED, I wired all three diffuser boxes to my accessory 2 lighting circuit and installed them to the ceiling above my layout.

Custom built styrene light diffuser with blue and white LED lights creates a nighttime glow

The diffuser boxes combine the intense light from the blue and white LED’s and emits an even, soft blue-white light similar to moonlight. This glow provides just enough of a natural nighttime effect that the entire layout is still visible, while allowing your scenery lighting to stand out and be the main focal point.

Styrene nighttime light diffuser box installed to the ceiling beside mini-spiral florescent bulbs

In regards to the main daylight lighting, I originally had installed standard incandescent bulbs over my layout, which were fine during construction but recently changed to mini fluorescent spiral bulbs. I use 6 of these bulbs (3 bright white and 3 warm white) in combination to produce a bright, natural daytime light. I found that incandescent bulbs alone produced way too much yellow-red light and the typical bright white mini spiral florescent alone produced an unrealistic blue hue. I also uninstalled the large florescent ceiling light next to my layout as it cast a very blue, overpowering light onto the right half of my layout.

HO scale model railroad layout at night with accessory lighting effects

HO scale model railroad layout railyard scene at night with accessory lighting effects

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  1. This story reminded me of how I got started building model trains many years ago. It was rough at first, I have to admit. I would get caught up surfing the Internet for ours on end for answers or would spend too much time going through the painful process of dealing with inexperienced sales people at my local hobby shop. But somehow I learned to create my own detailed model train layouts without having a big budget or a lot of space, even though I wasn't good with my hands nor was I an electrician, a carpenter, or an artist. Now me and my two boys spend all our free time with this wonderful hobby. I'm glad that we are having fun together and they are doing something educational with their time. By the way, if you're interested in learning about model trains quickly, you might want to check out this great article, which will save you tons of time and money and keep you from making a lot of easily avoidable mistakes:
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  2. Adding lighting effects to a railroad scenery is quite a task. It is nice that you have managed to pull it all off. The results are amazing and mesmerizing. I wonder how it would look like if all the house lights were off. Good work! Thanks for sharing :)