Scenic Backdrops: All Scales
by Bill Schaumburg

Mfd. by While a scenic backdrop is one of the biggest improvements one can make on a model railroad, they usually come only at the cost of a great amount of time, talent or compromise. Scenic backdrops are not easy to paint for most of us, and the majority of the commercial backdrops available for the past several decades are not really up to date in either quality, subject matter or concept. And there is only so much you can ask a friend to do if you have one that likes to do backdrops.
     While a plain blue sky with some spray-misted clouds will often suffice, the meeting point of sky and modeled scenery will usually be rather abrupt in such cases. The addition of forested hills or mountains, or appropriate urban scenes not only hides the juncture better, it gives the impression that the railroad is not simply an isolated three-dimensional element in a flat-earth universe. A good backdrop, and an appropriate one to match the theme of the foreground scenery, is a definite asset to a layout. It increases the realism and sets the scene. The new line of backdrops does this well.
     They have turned modern digital imaging equipment into a tool for making backdrops for model railroaders. They currently offer seventeen (17) 38" long by 13" high scenes, with more in the works. They are printed on high-quality, multiple-ply cardstock in full color as fine screen, half-tone photographs. As such, they are much more realistic than most rudimentary attempts at creating fields, forests and cityscapes with paints or cut-out photos from vacation trips. The elements in each backdrop are correctly in scale with each other, and the detail is, naturally, very good.
     The height, 13", is good for many modular layouts. For taller sky backdrops, cut away the buildings and/or mountains with a No. 11 X-Acto blade and mount them on a blue-painted wall with spray-painted clouds. Angling the knife blade so the edges are slightly undercut will avoid a white line where the edges of the cardstock might show. Running a dark colored pencil along that edge will provide added insurance against a white edge.
     There are two wooded hillside scenes that may be connected to form a continuous backdrop of any length by butting the appropriate ends together. While a close inspection will eventually reveal where computer manipulation has been done on the images, those locations are difficult to locate. Moreover, on a layout the view will usually be broken by buildings and modeled hillsides in front of the backdrop. This also takes care of any slight differences in printing density or the effect of haze on the green trees.
     The two downtown city scenes are unarguably the best ever offered in the hobby. They have buildings from Pittsburgh, probably recognizable only to those who have been there. The city's south-facing skyline is essentially generic, and the buildings are typical city styles, mostly traditional, so the backdrops will need modification only by those who model an era prior to about 1960. (A bit of knife work will edit out the one or two International Style steel and glass skyscrapers.) These images provide a sunny day with the shadows uniformly from the right. They do not have any distracting or severe perspective lines. Some structure facades are presented as flat elevations while others have some angle to them. Having all the buildings "flat" on a backdrop doesn't look right, and these will work well.
     Industrial scenes include a power plant, chemical plant and a steel-mill neighborhood scene with conveyors, stacks and the like, all very effective. They have also added a farm backdrop complete with cows and a cloud panel in recent months. All are excellent.
     To use them, choose a height that looks right in relation to the layout. You don't need a formula for calculating the horizon, but keep the apparent horizon uniform. (It can be "behind" a hill, too.) The backdrop panels may be installed using any of a variety of adhesives or double-faced tapes. They are an outstanding product and sell for $10.98 each, plus shipping to your zone if ordered direct.