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Use fabric to cover your large-scale buildings

By Richard Weatherby | September 3, 2021

Create inexpensive structures using items from a craft store

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Model pool hall structure
Model pool hall structure
The finished pool hall has several fabric signs attached to it. Photo by Richard Weatherby

I’ve discovered a way to build inexpensive and custom designed buildings for indoor use or temporary displays at train shows or open houses. The primary material for this project is fabric. These fabrics are called “landscape designs,” and include patterns such as brick, wood, and stone, as well as signs. Several manufacturers make these designs, but it is a small market. Sometimes it is not easy to find a brand name, as the retail fabric outlets often cut the material into “fat quarters,” (basically 1/4 of a yard of fabric).

Fabric varies in width, but averages 45 inches. When cut into quarters, pieces range from 18 inches by 22 inches. You may have to keep these dimensions in mind and design the building based upon the available fabric size. I have found some bolts of fabric and purchased several yards. The material costs approximately $10- $12 per yard or $3 per fat quarter.

A container full of fabric
“Landscape fabrics” come in a variety of patterns. Some may be useful for creating a building exterior. Photo by Richard Weatherby

Materials list:

Fabric

Windows and window glazing

Door(s)

Foam core sheet (or 1/4 or 3/8” plastic sheet)

Spray adhesive

Plastic glue

White glue

For the wall and roof panels, I bought a 20-by-30-inch foam core panel from a dollar store. You could also use a 1/4-or 3/8-inch plastic sheet material. For windows, I used Colorado Model Structures window and door set plus a couple of Grandt Line windows. You’ll need some spray adhesive (such as 3M Scotch Super 77), plastic glue, and white glue. If you need glass for windows, I cut mine out of a disposable plastic container from the grocery store. The total cost of my building is approximately $20 or $25.

Planning your project

 A selection of model windows and a door
Paint and prepare your windows and doors beforehand. The author used both Colorado Model Structures and Grandt Line products. Photo by Richard Weatherby

Planning your building is the most important aspect. The building needs to be sized to allow for the pattern orientation and to wrap the fabric edges around the sides of the foam core panel. This is particularly important for a brick or stone pattern. Masonry openings always have a finished edge near windows and doors.

The backing panels should be laid out and cut to size. Window and door openings should be accurately cut to ensure a smooth surface for the fabric wrap into the openings. All edges should be wrapped to prevent fabric from unraveling at the edges. If the backing board is 1/4 inch thick, provide a minimum of 1/2 inch beyond the perimeter of the board. Note that the fabrics are not precise and may have variations or misprints.

For this building, the windows will be installed from the back. In the case of Grandt Line windows, when installing from the back, they also need to be turned upside-down to ensure the sash laps correctly at the meeting rail. I am sure other folks may have techniques for mounting materials on a substrate, but I am trying to avoid wrinkles in the fabric.

Prepping the fabric and covering the panels

Side panels of a model structure laid out on top of fabric
Line up the structure’s sides on top of the fabric. Pay attention to where and how the brick design on the fabric lines up. Photo by Richard Weatherby

First, iron the fabric to remove fold marks or wrinkles. Position the fabric face down on a piece of foam panel.  Spray the back of the fabric with a uniform coat of adhesive, or coat the panels with an exterior wood glue. Carefully align the panel pieces, with the brick pattern showing through the back of the fabric and dropped in place.

Wrap each panel around the window/door edges while the adhesive is still wet. This involves slicing the openings diagonally and pulling the fabric around the edges of the openings. I also mounted the roofing material and some sign fabric (signs were cut out after mounting.)

To ensure a complete bond, I ironed each fabric covered panel (face up) using a low heat setting. Note: Before ironing, cover the fabric with

A side panel of model structure with window openings cut out
Cut diagonal openings for windows and doors. Wrap the fabric around the window/door openings and use adhesive to secure them in place. Photo by Richard Weatherby

parchment paper to make certain no adhesive gets on your iron.

Repeat this process for all four walls and the roof.

I glued the windows and door into the openings from the back, then I added the glazing material. After I cut out the signs, I covered the edges with a black ribbon to hide the edges. My signs were pin nailed through the wall panels, but they could also be glued in place.

Final assembly of the structure

I finished the assembly by adding wood blocks to the inside corners, recessed at each end, to allow gluing of the side walls. I added two separate blocks to form a second floor panel to ensure building squareness. Once the floor was installed (with a trap door to access lighting or interior details), I installed the roof. Interior blocking helps support the roof at the desired location. Finally, I added a base plate by screwing it to the interior blocking.

Pool hall sign
The author mounted this fabric sign onto foam core board and added ribbon to cover the edge. He will pin nail it to the finished structure, but you could also use adhesive. Photo by Richard Weatherby

Fabric notes: I can’t verify their properties in reference to fading, staining, or resistance to water or chemicals. These structures might be better suited for indoor use, or for temporary use outdoors. There are spray-on products designed to protect fabrics from sun exposure, such as Scotchgard Sun and Water Shield or Forcefield UV, but I haven’t tried them. I would love to hear if you have used these!

Three model structures with trolley
Three downtown buildings make a nice scene. The author scratchbuilt the stairs and detail pieces. Photo by Richard Weatherby

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