It may have gorgeous mountains with abundant bushes and trees, but as long as the tracks just lie there in the altogether, the layout for your N scale trains will never look completely real.
Step One: Get Back to Nature
To get an idea of what a right-of-way should look like, get out of the house and find some train tracks near where you live. Check out the color of the ties and the ballast. Notice the plants and weeds that are growing nearby. Now, take a few pictures of what you’ve found, because it’s surprising how much of that detail you can forget by the time you get home.
Once you’re back at your layout, print your photos and use them for reference while you work.
Step Two: Paint Your Rails and Ties
Before you begin to paint your tracks, you’ll need to remove any flux and soldering residue with denatured alcohol, for these could interfere with the adhesion of your paint. Protect the rest of your layout with plastic or newspaper and carefully mask all electrical contacts.
Lightly paint the rails and ties with a woodsy shade of brown paint and let everything dry for 24 hours.
At this point, the painted areas will look a bit phony, but a light sanding of the ties will age them instantly. Sand the tops of the rails more vigorously to remove the paint nearly completely. When you’re done, remove the masking tape.
Step Three: Choose Your Ballast
Any hobby shop with a model trains department will likely carry ballast in various colors. Don’t feel that you must use the same color ballast throughout your layout. You might prefer having your N scale trains travel over a darker shade of ballast in industrial areas. A color that resembles local rocks will also work well, for railroads frequently make use of them for ballast.
Step Four: Add the Ballast to Your Tracks
Apply the ballast between the rails, using a narrow bristle brush to force it down between the ties. Sweep away any stray granules.
When you’re satisfied with the distribution, use a pipette to soak the ballast with isopropyl alcohol. Let this soak in for two minutes and then use another pipette to gently apply scenic cement to the ballast.
The shoulders are easier. Just paint the area with slightly-thinned white glue and sprinkle it immediately with ballast. Dribble some more white glue on top and let it all soak in. When everything has dried completely, vacuum off the excess ballast.
Step Five: Add the Plant Material
Any self-respecting railroad right-of-way will demand a few weeds to dress it up. Your hobby shop will have plenty of ready-made plant material to choose from. Buy whatever appeals to you.
The trick for achieving a realistic look lies in the proper placement. Weeds and bushes usually grow in clumps, and clumps will always look best when they contain an uneven number of plants. Set yours up in groups of threes and fives.
Remember, too, that these are plants, not wooden soldiers. Be sure to stagger them. Don’t just line them up and don’t space them too evenly.
Step Six: Admire Your Work
Give yourself a hand. Everything’s looking really good right now, and the layout for your N scale trains just got that much more realistic.