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  an article from the

"Narrow Gauge Downunder" magazine

As modellers we are always striving to improve our modelling skills, to find that new product, that latest method or unique technique that’s going to make our models even better than before. However, before we start to look at these new materials, methods and techniques, let’s go back and look at where these came from. Let’s go . . .


 Let’s go way, way back to when I started scratch building structures in the mid-sixties. I was young and poor and couldn’t afford any of the kits available, and as this was the days before Mt. Albert Lumber, laser cut everything and every type of possible detail and casting, all I had to build with was balsawood, cardboard, printed paper and cheap poster paints.

While balsawood has severe limitations compared to basswood and other materials we use today, it is still a viable material if used properly. Some of these limitations are not being able to obtain it in exact scale sizes, and we can normally only obtain it is in large flat sheets, which at least is the most cost effective way of buying it. The big problem now is how do we cut it to the sizes we require? Back in the sixties all I had was a ruler and a hobby knife with a not to sharp a blade. For example, I used 2mm sheet and laboriously marked and cut 2mm stripes, which represented a scale 6”x 6” in ‘Ho’ (well close enough for me at the time). This worked alright but was not really accurate. Today, I have a “Balsa Stripper” (top below), which is available at some hobby shops, and allows me to set the width of cut (I use pieces of basswood like gauges to set up the width I require) and then slice as much balsa as I need. I have mine mounted onto a piece of 19mm pine board about 250mm by 100mm. Set the blade up on about a 30° angle and with the point just touching the base, which still allows the blade to move in and out. Once all this is set up we are ready to cut vast quantities of balsawood. The main trick to slicing balsa with a stripper is to only cut lengths no longer than 100mm (4”), otherwise the blade will start to wander as its hard to hold long lengths against the front edge of the stripper. A few trail and errors will sort out most of the problems. 

Distressing and weathering balsawood is no problem. Normal graining can be done using a fine razor saw, but don’t press too hard as balsa is fairly soft. You can also take to it with your hobby knife, dental probe or other sharp object like a small screwdriver and cut and slice pieces of the balsa, add knot holes, rough edges etc. For really distressed ends to timber boards, wire brush one spot on the edge of the balsa sheet, push through the balsa stripper and pull the two ends of the stripped board apart. The result can be seen in the bottom three photographs opposite. 

 The next problem that balsawood presents is when we come to colour or stain it. Unlike basswood, balsawood doesn’t stain very well, as it tends to absorb large quantities of the stain and turn very dark. The only option is to simulate aged or weathered timber using paint.  We need to simulate the varied mid-greys of aged timber. To achieve this I use an artist’s acrylic from “Atelier” who are the only manufacturer that I know who make a “Warm Grey” paint. As well, any cheap acrylic white

will do. Squeeze out an amount of each colour onto some scrap card and using a ¼” chisel brush, mix some of the two colours and paint a strip of the balsa. Continue mixing wet on wet so you get varying colours of grey. By painting each board individually you get subtle differences in greys, which can be seen in the finished floor opposite left.

 To further enhance the timber, nail and knot holes can now added using a dental probe or other sharp object and then using a small brush, wash a amount of watered down black paint into each hole. Sometimes a very light sand with fine sandpaper will add highlights to the timber, but do this very careful so as not to take too much paint off. 

As a final enhancement, white, black and other colours of pastel pencils can be used to rub over the wood’s surface to add more variation in colour and tone. Rather than paint individual boards as I have done for the floor above, you can glue, for example, weatherboards to the wall and paint them all in one go.  

With a good firm and braced support, you can use thick washes of colour, varying the tone slightly here and there. A darker colour can be dry brushed on the ends of the boards to suggest a bit of weathering or the start of dry rot beginning. 

After finishing the slow process of adding the weatherboards to all the walls, trim off the edges and window holes. Measure and slice the corner trim, plus any other components required. To obtain a nice crisp finish, I always paint the these pieces before adding them to the model. This includes any weathering or other effects. Glue to the model using a good PVA type glue. 

In the early days I used to build my own doors and windows using sheets of plastic, and still do on some models, but for this model I have used windows and doors from Grandt Line™, as they are hard to beat for quality and accuracy.


 I have been discussing the use of balsawood and how I glue it to a base of cardboard. I started to use what ever cardboard I could scrounge back in the 60’s, some pretty ordinary but occasionally I’d find a bit of “Strathmore” board—very expensive but the best board for modeling with. You could scribe wood grain and board joints straight onto it using a sharp probe like dentists use. You can still get “Strathmore’ and it’s still expensive. A cheap and readily available card board is matt or mount board. This is used by picture and photograph framers to surround the pictures and photographs when they are framed. 

If you have a local picture framer they may give you the centre cut out’s, which they normally throw away. The other alternative is to purchase sheets from an artist supply shop. These sheets, which come in a large variety of colours and a white back, are about 3mm thick and not at all expensive. 

Like Strathmore board, using the white side of mount board, grain can added using a fine toothed saw, as well as simulated boards using a pointed probe. Knot holes, nail holes and other defects can added as well. The board can now be stained or painted, with the completed result seen opposite.


 Like cardboard, paper was a common and cheap modelling material back when I started modelling. And it still is. As were printed sheets of things like brick and stone, which were available commercially.  

PULP PAPER: This paper is readily available at art supply shops, with black being the most common colour and my preferred colour. It is a heavy gauge paper that hasn’t been fully pressed and retains a pulp like middle. It is great for tar paper and by sanding with 60 grit paper, the middle will be exposed. Continue to sand until the desired weathered finish is achieved. Then weather with grey, beige and black chalks. Further weathering can be done with white pastel pencil to add highlights to creases and tears. A brown pastel pencil can be used to simulate rust runs from nails and other metals like chimneys. The finished result can be seen in the photograph of “JOHNSON’S” opposite.

 This method is also useful in making ridge capping, waterproof sheets and wall capping.

 Also, with a light sand using 100 grit sandpaper, and painted grey with an acyclic paint, and the addition of weathering chalks and pastel pencils, pulp paper makes a nice simulation of cement sheet.

 WHITE THICK PAPER: Normally about 120gsm (photocopy paper is 80gsm) this paper, which is available at art supply shops, has a slightly rough surface and can be cut into scale 8 inch strips and added to a cardboard wall as weather boards. This paper can be washed with acrylic paint, diluted paint or stains.

 NORMAL PHOTOCOPY TYPE PAPER: Normally about 80gsm, this paper is great for simulating thin metal, such as metal rings around piles, roof capping and sealing around chimneys etc. It can also be rolled into a ‘U’ shape and used as spouting. Normally I paint the paper aluminium on the inside and the trim colour on the outside. For an old look, paint brown and add rust coloured powder to achieve a well weathered and worn look.


 Today we have access to all kinds of signs, but back at the beginning I used to cut signs out of old magazines, brochures and anywhere I could find them. This also included  business names and any logo that was suitable. 

“Letraset™”, sheets of rub down lettering, still available today, were also a way of making your own signs. With “Letraset™” you could rub the letters directly onto the wall of the structure, such as the “HERALD”, as can be seen in the photograph above. “Peter’s Ice Cream” was cut out of a brochure, JOHNSON’S


JOHNSON’S, seen above, uses most of the materials and techniques discussed in the preceding pages. The internal frame of the building is made from mount board, while the weatherboards are balsawood strips painted with tube water colour beige and white paint, while the corner trim and top of the false front are painted dark green. The floor and staircase are again balsawood, this time painted varying shades of grey to simulate weathered wood.  

The windows and doors are from 'Grandt Line' detail parts, but would have been scratch built with plastic sheet in my early days.  

The main business signs were made on a computer, but could have come from a magazine. The small price signs were hand written and glued to thin balsa strips. 

While the pumpkins are commercial detail parts, the rest of the fruit and vegetables are various seeds from our kitchen pantry.

 To conclude this first IN SEARCH OF . . .”, I hope you can see that you don’t need all those fancy  materials, wood, paints etc. to build a first class structure. And it can be done on a very small budget.