What Is Scratchbuilding?

model train
model train scratchbuilding
Scratchbuilding is exactly what it says on the tin; building from scratch.
True scratchbuilding is done completely using raw materials, from the foundations of your model train layout, to the buildings and detailing you use to decorate your model railway.
Rather than using a shop-bought kit, which simply needs assembling, scratchbuilding is the creation of a scale model by hand from raw materials.
Plywood, clay, plaster, metal and plastic are all materials that can be used to create your model railway if you choose to scratch build it.
Whether you choose to buy some of the extra layout detail, such as buildings, signs etc. is down to personal preference.
There are definite advantages to scratchbuilding.
Your layout becomes completely unique, with the exact measurements and specifications you desire.
It is very satisfying to stand back and admire your hard work once completed. The raw materials required to scratchbuild are cheaper than a commercial kit, which is an attraction to those with the practical skills to make a successful scale model by hand.
Planning is an essential part of scratchbuilding.
The concept of your railway layout can be based on commercial designs. Many scratchbuilders gain their experience from assembling kits first.
To begin with, you may wish to kitbash to help you get started.
With a big project, merging pre-made kits to create a new design, without having to think one up yourself, can be a good way to start.
Always plan your layout carefully.
You can include as much detail as you like. Specialized software is available to plan your model railway on a computer.
Simulations of the track and trains are very useful if you struggle to visualize a 2D design in 3D.
Making the transformation from paper to model isn’t easy, however scratch building allows ultimate flexibility as well as the ability to recreate a totally original model train layout.
Although scratch building uses raw materials, this doesn’t mean you can’t use things like plastic.
It simply means that instead of buying landscape detail, you build everything to start from scratch.
For example, instead of buying trees or buildings, you will scratch build them yourself.
Using wood, cardboard, or even paper, every last piece of your model train layout can be hand made from raw materials.
Very satisfying! Scratchbuilding is not for the faint-hearted but is incredibly satisfying.
It takes time and requires motivation, precision and patience. Almost everything can be scratchbuilt, from the buildings to the sheep grazing on your mountains.
I recommend to start by learning the basics through kit building.
This will give you an idea of how commercial, pre-made items are finished and then you can try to replicate them.
Scratchbuilding is a satisfying way to create your own unique model train layout.
When every last detail is perfect, sit back and enjoy your hard work. You deserve it!

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Dan Morgan

Dan Morgan fell in love with model trains at the age of six when he visited an NMRA Convention in Seattle with his father. Forty two years later, his passion remains just as strong. After achieving a successful career in architecture, Dan’s particular interest is within layouts and buildings. With a wealth of knowledge on the subject, Dan loves nothing more than sharing this with others and is delighted in the forum of members who are brought together over the hobby they have in common. Dan lives with his wife Helen in Washington. As a professional painter, Helen has learnt through Dan about Model Trains and they now enjoy working on projects together. The only member of the family who isn’t allowed to join in is their over-enthusiastic Labrador called William who has been strictly banned from the workshop! You can find Dan on Google here!

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Leave A Reply (10 comments So Far)


  1. Ian
    4 years ago

    I have done a bit of scratch building being in the NMRA Australasian chapter. My latest is a small hunting supplies shop. I will take some photos and send them on to you.
    I enjoy all aspects of Model Railway but scratchbuilding lets your imagination run riot.


  2. Lenartz
    4 years ago

    I am a beginner at at this hobby and I already scratchbuilt a wagon or two and is very satisfying, It does take a lot of time planning and building. Unfortunately I cannot attach a photo to show one..


  3. MIKE
    4 years ago

    I HAVE PROBABLY SCRATCH BUILT ENOUGH TO SAY I HAVE STEPPED OUT THERE WITHAN IDEA OR SO AND CREATED SOME REALLY IMPRESSIVE STUFF, MOSTLY SCERNERY FROM BRIDGE SUPPORTS TO CLIFFF SIDES. ALWAYS A GOOD RULE TO FOLLOW IS KEEP IT SIMPLE, YOU WILL GET MORE SATISFACTION FROM GETTING SOMETHING COMPLETED THAN HAVING A LOT OF UNFINISHED SCEANS ON YOUR LAY OUT.ALTHOUGH SOMETIMES INSPERATION COMES AND GOES. BUT REALLY HOW CAN YOU MESSS IT UP? YOU CAN ADD, SUBTRACT, CHANGE ANYTHING WHEN YOU ARE THE CREATOR.


  4. Ken
    3 years ago

    There are times you just can’t find what you want in a kit. When that happens you either scratchbuild or kit bash. I’ve done both, and of all the projects I’ve built, these are the ones people remember. If you are nervous about a pure, from scratch, scratchbuild, start with a kitbash. Find something close and rework it to fit your idea. After you do that a few times, you will have aquired a few tools, skills, and developed a feel for materials and techniques. Then you can confidently step out with an original creation.


  5. chris
    3 years ago

    I started with BTS kits (Better Than Scratch). Then I moved on to the Bar Mills One Kit which includes walls windows and doors. Many single items like door knobs are available at hobby shops. Play attention to toys as well. They often fit into scale well. You can even kitbash a goat (!) by cutting it up and rearranging the parts (head up, head down, rolling on the ground, etc.). Use grid paper and scale rulers to ensure the size of what you’re building. (I have one building that is too small…) Above all else be daring and have fun!


  6. jerry
    2 years ago

    Back in the day….The main reason for scratchbuilding was financial. I realy didn’t have the money for kits & used what materials I could scrounge up. Some 50 years later I have a different layout but still use a church I scratchbuilt. I have a small station that is waiting for a spot & a general store that has to be finished.
    Finances could be an issue today also. Cereal boxes provide material for walls & roofs if properly braced. If you are careful, you can make window frames from appropriate size stripwood as I did. For the cost you might want to buy plastic doors & windows If funds allow….HAPPY MODELING!


  7. Hat
    2 years ago

    My theory has been if I can draw it in Sketchup (A Free program) them I can scratch build it. So far so good


  8. David (UK)
    2 years ago

    A few years ago my other half agreed to let me have sole use of our single detached garage for building a railway/railroad layout. I never could get the car in there so what the heck? Feeling flush at that time I had a builder friend insulate the building. Walls, roof and floor, and the main front door is fixed shut and insulated, so it’s quite habitable. I had a bench built all around with a lift up section at the side door and stored all our junk underneath it. That still left plenty of room to put most of my toys, H0 gauge American stuff, 00 gauge British stuff, a whole pile of Scalextric (slot racing cars and track etc), a steam engine and one or two other bits and pieces.

    I spent months making track plans and deciding exactly what kind of layout I wanted, and then due to my selling my business and going back to school, progress slowed to a crawl. Recently I reached the point where I was fairly satisfied with the basic track plan and had acquired an assortment of building kits to feature in the layout, but I hadn’t quite finalised just how I was going to achieve a reasonably interesting backdrop without complicated artistry or expensive low profile models. After much messing about and looking at some interesting layouts on the internet I’ve decided on a mixture of scratch built building profiles and loading platforms and some devious painting techniques (many years ago I trained as an engineer and so learned to draw in perspective using vanishing points). I’ve cut workshop/warehouse end shapes out of thin hard board and I’m going to glue them to the wall sitting on a wooden lath of just the right height for a loading platform. My plan is to paint them approppriately with doors, windows, pipes etc…and then paint taller city buildings behind them in a different shade suggesting distance. Where I’ve left a gap for a roadway, I’ve drawn it in perspective going away from the observer and treated those building sides which are visible in the same manner. It’s not perfect, but I have to say I’ve impressed myself. I didn’t actually think I’d be able to produce such a good effect working from scratch……


  9. builder Kim
    4 months ago

    wow nice scratch built house.Rather scratch build than buy plastic multicolored homes


  10. builder Kim
    4 months ago

    Hi Dan.Im a scratch builder.Would like to send in a few photo’s.Can you direct me in how to do this.Thanks

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