Last Updated on January 20, 2022 by Dave Farquhar
Sometimes you may not be able to find a commercial backdrop for your train layout that you like, for whatever reason. You can make your own train backdrop more easily than you may think. Adding a backdrop makes your layout look finished, and larger. Adding a thin backdrop makes my 8×8 layout look more like 10×10, or perhaps larger.
First, download a copy of Paint.NET, the free imaging program. You also need some plugins for fill (I found fill from clipboard and fill from file invaluable) and perspective.
I wanted a backdrop that looked like a period-correct old tinplate toy and looked urban. Plenty of vintage backdrops exist, such as the American Flyer Train-o-Rama. But they were too remote and open-country for me. This backdrop is super simple, but if you can follow a process, you can make your own train backdrop. You don’t need much artistic ability. Putting a backdrop in place really helps to finish your layout.
Create your file
You’ll be creating a huge image file. Mine is eight feet long and 10 inches high, to accommodate the length of my layout and the size of my paper. Size yours appropriately.
Create multiple layers
I create several layers. It helps to have one each for my sky, my road, my buildings, and my pedestrians. I also want layers for objects in front of and behind the buildings. To make things easy, name the existing layer sky, then create more with names like road and buildings, and arrange them in an order that makes sense..
Fill up the sky
First, do a web search for a seamless sky pattern and find one to your liking. What I like may not be what you like. Fill your sky layer with that pattern.
Then add a horizon. Do another web search for a seamless grass background. Fill about half your page with that.
Make your road
I really wanted a road and sidewalks to give my layout a little more depth. Just lining up a bunch of building printouts along my back wall never looked quite right to me. To really make it fit in with your layout, take straight-on photographs of your road and sidewalk and make them into seamless patterns. But you can use ready made patterns too, if you wish.
Fill your road layer with the pattern, then crop it to about double the size you’ll ultimately want. Then apply perspective to it. I found that values of 2.5 all around in the perspective tool gave me a good starting point. Try starting there and adjust it to your liking.
Crop the results to the height you want, then slide those pixels down to the bottom of your image. Now you have a road.
If you want a sidewalk, repeat the process. Paste an image of some concrete in between the two to make a curb.
You can add more depth to your layout by having a perpendicular road or two intersect your main road. Create a new image the same height as the distance between your road and your horizon, and about as wide as the roads on your actual layout. Apply a vertical perspective using values of .01, 1, and 1. Copy the image, then paste it into your backdrop. Play with the height and width to get it to swing into place on the backdrop.
Now paste images of straight-on shots of buildings on the building layer, positioned just above the sidewalk. Boxy, urban buildings lend themselves to this formula more readily than houses and churches.
I used images of vintage 1914 tin buildings manufactured by West Bros. The real toys are tiny, about 1:150 scale. I used photographs of them and changed the signage and layout to meet my needs. To help keep it from looking computer-generated, I deliberately avoided common fonts available on every computer for my signage. No Times, no Arial, no Helvetica, and certainly no Comic Sans or Papyrus.
Use a less-common pre-1950 font, or use something obscure. Since the original West Bros. images were hand drawn, I used a modern font designed to look hand-drawn, but not Comic Sans. Everyone recognizes that font.
If my vintage tinplate look isn’t what you’re after, you can use straight-on photographs of suitable buildings.
If you don’t want a flat, completely 2D look, draw some building sides in perspective. It’s a pain, but not as bad as it sounds, and the effect is worth it. Take a straight-on shot of a building side, then apply the Perspective effect to it. Switch to horizontal perspective, and apply values of 1.0, 0.5, and 0.5, in that order, for buildings fading out to the right. For a building fading out to the left, apply values of 0.5, 1.0, and 0.5, in that order. Those values usually give a pretty good starting point.
Create a new layer for perspective, then paste your perspective-drawn buildings into it. It probably won’t look right at first. But you’ll find as you play with sizing, you’ll see the building side swing into place. If you can’t quite get the angles you want, go back and tweak the perspective settings a bit.
Besides using this for sides, you can also use this with building fronts to put a row of buildings going off into the distance. Just line up ever smaller buildings side by side until you hit the horizon.
As a general rule, have your buildings fade toward the center of your backdrop. A good artist would use different values depending on a building’s position relative to the center, but generally you can get away with set values on backdrops, especially since you’ll probably never be able to see the whole thing at once.
My buildings looked a little repetitive, since I only had two basic designs to work with. I mixed them up as best I could and gave each building a unique sign. Planting some trees in between buildings on the sidewalk really helped to hide some repetitive elements. Doing a Google image search on “tree” yields a surprising number of tree images with transparent backgrounds suitable for use.
You should be able to find at least six or seven suitable images quickly. By changing up the size and/or flipping them horizontally, you should be able to get enough different trees to avoid making your trees repetitive.
Printing your backdrop
You want to print your backdrop on a color laser printer. Inkjet prints fade over time, and you don’t want to put this effort and expense into something that will fade out after a few short years. If you don’t have a color laser printer, most office supply stores will print color prints for a reasonable fee. Fed Ex and UPS retail locations will also print color prints on demand.
Save your file as a PNG. Then open the file in plain old Microsoft Paint. From the print setup, you can specify how many pages to make it. I made mine 13 x 1 to print an 8-foot long backdrop. Then you can print it.
Print a draft
I printed several drafts in black and white to check the fit and the overall look. This allowed me to try things out without using $15 worth of color toner each time.
Gluing and mounting your backdrop
I mounted my backdrop on white foamcore board, available from office supply stores. I had to glue several sheets together to get an 8-foot width. Carpenter’s wood glue, such as Titebond II, works fine for this. Gorilla Glue would also work well. Let it dry overnight.
I cut the left-hand margin off all of my prints and glued them together onto the board. An Uhu glue stick is ideal for this, as Uhu stays correctable for a short period of time. Cheaper glue sticks will work though, if you have a good eye and steady enough hands. Bookbinder’s PVA glue is also nice for this. It will wrinkle slightly, but will recover as long as you use it sparingly.
To mount the completed backdrop to the layout, I glued ordinary clothespins onto the layout frame, and glued jumbo craft sticks onto the back of the backdrop. Clothespins hold foamcore board up just fine, and make it easy to adjust.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.