Coffee Table #3 Construction


Note: The links on the left side of this page and the other Model CT-3 pages will take you to detailed information about the new coffee table's design and construction.



The last time I worked on model railroad scenery was in the early 1960s. The layout was Lionel O gauge, and it covered an area of about 600 square feet (photo below). It was located at the Fessenden School in West Newton, MA.

The scenery was hard shell, consisting of a wood frame, large quantities of aluminum screen, hundreds of pounds of plaster, and whatever paint I could scrounge from the school's Art Department. The background painting was (reluctantly) painted by the school's art teacher. Our budget was almost nonexistent. For those of you who have nothing better to do, you can read all about the layout and its 40-year history by clicking here.

If you like the scenery in the above photo, I will be glad to take credit for it. If you don't like it, I will tell you that I was only one of many people who worked on the project. Fessenden is a boarding school, and the “Train Club” layout was built and rebuilt by various adults and many kids over a period of four decades. While I was running the Club, I had no shortage of help—grade school boys who thoroughly enjoyed working on the never-ending construction project. Fortunately for all of us, artistic talent was not a requirement. Having fun was the important thing, and we did have fun!

But now I am on my own, trying to put together really great N-scale scenery for a coffee table layout. Everybody who comes into my home will see it, because it will be right there in the living room. And I won't have a group of long-forgotten kids to blame if it doesn't look good.

The Coffee Table Scenery Project

Note: Scenery lights and other electronic effects are discussed on the Electronics Construction page.

The scenery for the coffee table was constructed in three phases:

  1. Basic Rough-Cut Scenery

    During this phase, the foam terrain was glued in place and then rough-cut with a hot knife until it was close to the desired shape. Buildings and other structures were placed where they belong, and roads were mapped out. Finally, a coat of paint was applied to the mountains (brown), streets (black), grass areas (green), and dirt areas (more brown). Finally, lighting and other electronic scenic effects were installed.

  2. Detailed Scenery

    This is where the scenery project became really challenging. Realistic and interesting scenic details were added to every square inch of the layout. The objective was to provide the viewer with an exciting visual experience in a variety of situations. For example, the layout can be operated in the raised or lowered position with the room lights on or off. Also, the layout can viewed directly from any angle or through the eye of the TrainCam.

  3. Backdrop Painting

    Earle Florence is creating the background painting for the layout. While this part of the coffee table project is under development, a temporary high-resolution photo backdrop of the Grand Canyon has been installed.

Basic Rough-Cut Scenery

The coffee table layout (shown below) has 3 levels of track and covers an area of about 9 square feet. There are two towns—a first-level town on the right, and a second-level town on the left. The buildings in the photo were randomly placed, and were not intended to show their final location.

Note that the second-level town (left) is actually located above some of the first-level track. This means that a trap door had to be designed into the second-level town to allow access to the tracks underneath. The trap door is located roughly where the temporary brown board is located in the photo. It is this trap door, and the scenic elements associated with it, that were designed first. That's easily said, but not easily done. Some of the challenges included:

  • The trap door must lift up and over the adjacent scenery. This requires custom-designed hinges.

  • There are illuminated houses, operating scenery, etc., on the trap door, so there must be some sort of flexible wiring harness in the hinge area.

  • There is scenery in the tunnels. This is because there is a TrainCam that will be wandering around the layout—including the tunnels. The trap door is the ceiling for part of the tunnels, and in some areas, there are lights embedded in the ceiling. One of the scenic items in the main tunnel is an opening into an underground railroad station, where a passenger train can be seen entering the station (photo below).

  • As for the TrainCam, itself, the camera car is long, and the curve-anticipating camera swings to the side (photo below), which means that tunnel entrances and tunnel side clearances must be made wider than normal. All of these requirements affect the trap door design.

Throughout the layout, each scenic element had to be carefully considered, and its interaction with the rest of the layout had to be understood, before construction began. The layout has precise dimensions that cannot be changed (24.75 x 51.75 x 6.50 inches), placement of certain types of operating scenery is critical (due to clearance requirements below the layout), and all scenery must be designed with the TrainCam in mind. Also, the scenery must be lightweight and flexible—able to withstand a certain amount of flexing on a daily basis as the layout is raised and lowered inside the table.

Tunnel and Trap Door Construction

The trap door actually consists of two pieces of wood—the main hinged door and a smaller removable piece (not hinged) that covers the fake train at the underground station. Both wood pieces have high-intensity LEDs embedded in them. These special 2x3mm surface-mount LEDs are actually ceiling lights for the tunnel and underground station. The photo below shows the open trap door with foam mountain attached, and the underground station with its cover closed.

General Terrain

With the trap door closed, and the foam glued in place, the high country terrain began to take shape. Much of the foam was eventually carved away with a hot knife, producing what I hoped would be visually interesting landscape. But, before carving could get under way, considerable thought was put into the layout of the two towns and the interconnecting highway system (actually, a dirt road).

By the way, gluing a stack of extruded Styrofoam together is best accomplished by applying a certain amount of weight to the top of the pile. The two O-Gauge Lionel engines (remnants from The Fessenden School Train Club) made very good weights.

With the high country blocks of foam in place, the mountain sculptor began work on some serious carving. Little by little, the landforms began to take shape.

A quick coat of brown paint transformed the sculpture into something more earth-like than the blue Styrofoam. The addition of trees and houses made the scenery start to come alive. Eventually, most of the brown paint would be sanded away, or hacked away, as the landscape was refined.

The roughly carved hills with their temporary brown paint job provided a surprisingly good visual experience when viewed by the TrainCam.

Soon, the N-scale residents could enjoy an evening at the local drive-in theater watching The Silver Streak. Yes, that's a functioning N-Scale drive-in theater, capable of showing the entire movie in color with sound. But, I've limited the production to the final five minutes, running in a continuous loop without sound.

Note: in 2014, the theater started showing a video of the Coffee Table #1 in operation. The main reason for the change was to eliminate any copyright issues.

Detailed Scenery

Work on the detailed scenery started with one corner of the layout, so that I could try out different colors, ground covers, plants, trees, people, cows, etc., until I was satisfied with the results. The first step was to make the rough-cut rock formations (extruded Styrofoam) look more like real rocks. I started by doing some X-ACTO foam carving, followed by a coat of glue to harden the surface, and a coat of black paint to fill in the crevices.

Next, the black paint was covered with a coat of brown paint, except in the crevices, which remained black.

Then, the rocks were given some character (e.g., different colors and highlights), followed by the application of different types of ground cover.

There are more things to do with this scene, including trying to do something to improve the cheap bottle-brush trees, but at least it's a beginning. Final rock colors may have to be adjusted to blend well with the finished coffee table sculpture.

Slowly, the rough-cut rock walls throughout the layout were carved and painted, and ground cover (including track ballast) began to appear.

And even the bottle-brush trees were dug up, reshaped, flocked, highlighted, and then replanted (left to right in the photo below).


As noted earlier, Earle Florence is creating the background painting for the layout. This part of the coffee table project is still in the development stage; however, preliminary sketches of the proposed backdrop have been made and then temporarily placed in the table (photo below).

The rugged scenery in the backdrop painting is being designed to complement the layout's scenery. For example, raised landforms in the layout's scenery appear to continue as raised landforms in the background painting, and valleys in the layout's scenery match up with valleys in the background painting. It's a daunting task to design a 146-inch wrap-around two-dimensional backdrop painting that will seemlessly integrate with the three-dimensional scenery. The finished painting will be digitized and then printed on strips of canvas that can be cemented to the inside of the table.

In the meantime, the layout has been dropped into the Grand Canyon. A temporary high-resolution panoramic photograph of the Canyon was placed in the layout in June 2014 to give the layout a finished look. The photo below shows one section of the photo being installed on the inner wall of the table while the layout is removed.

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