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Paper or Plastic? (or Wood)?

By Blayne Mayfield


On the shelves above my workbench, over to one side of my Frisco Railroad Fyan Branch (a.k.a. layout 2.0), you will find a collection of wood and styrene stock, unbuilt structure kits, and completed structures.  Some of the completed structures are proudly displayed near the front of the shelf, while others find themselves toward the back, out of sight.

To me, structure building is one of the more fascinating facets of modeling.  Perhaps this is because – with the exception of trees and other natural scenery elements – structures are some of the most common and prominent objects we see as we look around at our world.

Let me make a disclaimer:  I do not (yet) consider myself an expert structure builder.  But I also don’t get overly-frustrated with the outcome of my efforts.  I adhere to advice that was once given to me: “You have to take time to be bad at something before you can be good at it.”  With each build, I become more confident.  I make mistakes, and doing so helps prevent me from making them again in future builds.  I’ve also learned that working on less-expensive kits to build my skills makes me more likely to try out different techniques of building and weathering.

As with many things in the modeling hobby, there are a number of tried-and-true methods to build structures for your diorama or layout.  And there are a number of ways you can classify these.  For example, there are scratch-built, kit-bashed, and kit-built structures.  You also can categorize them based on their primary construction materials.  Today, that generally means laser-cut wood with resin/plaster castings (the so-called craftsman structures), plastic (usually styrene), and cardstock.

Like many of you, I enjoy watching videos, listening to podcasts, following online blogs, and reading publication articles.  As I’ve done so, I’ve observed a tendency toward establishing a “pecking order” of structures and structure building.  At the top are the “craftsman kits,” that is, the laser-cut and sometimes built-board-by-board wood structures.  The next lower tier is the styrene structures, usually kit-built or kit-bashed.  And coming in third place we find the cardstock structures.

Unfortunately, it seems that structure builders sometimes get pigeonholed into the same pecking order based on their choices of building materials.  It is sad when this happens!  As I see it, each set of construction materials has its own place; it’s not an “either/or” situation.  I have seen excellent and convincingly-lifelike structures built from each of these materials (and sometimes a combination of all three).

Maybe the “craftsman snobs” should take another look at building plastic and cardstock structures.  Each material (and there are more than just those mentioned here) has its own strengths and weaknesses, as well as its own set of best practices that must be mastered to create a convincing structure.  In fact, it can be interesting, fun, and challenging to see how far you can go toward realism with different materials and techniques than you usually apply.

So, remain open to different building materials and techniques than those you’ve tried before.  (I recently heard Brett Wiley speak on the HO Scale Customs podcast of using microscope slides as the window glazing in his model structures; now I’ve got to try that myself!)  Take down that structure kit from the shelf, open it up, and have at it.  Or, buy one that is a little different than any you’ve tried before.  Maybe even download a plan and scratch-build some structure.  And share your results with the greater modeling community.

Who can tell where it will lead you?

About the Author


Blayne Mayfield is a university professor by day and an HO engineer by night.  After a 20+ year absence from the hobby, he currently is working on a proto-freelance layout based on the Frisco Railroad in southern Missouri.  Blayne lives in Stillwater, OK, and volunteers as a content editor for The Modeler’s Journal.  You can follow him on his YouTube channel by clicking here.



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