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Ask MR: What should I use to detail my lumber mill?

By Steven Otte associate editor | September 10, 2021

Scale lumber is available at most hobby stores, but cheaper stripwood will do

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Stacks of real wood lumber are seen in a rack at an HO scale lumber yard

Q: My layout will have four lumber mills and a planing mill. Where do I get real HO scale lumber and plywood to detail them? Also, do I use covered hoppers to haul sawdust, and where can I get sawdust that doesn’t have oil or grease in it? – Russell C. Brenchley

A: Scale lumber, used in scratchbuilding, is sold in most model train stores, both brick-and-mortar and online. But if you’re just looking for something to stack up at your lumber mills, you don’t need either the precision or the expense of true scale lumber. General hobby and craft stores offer less expensive balsa and basswood strips in dimensions that should look close enough to scale to the casual observer. Use a block of balsa for the core and glue the scale lumber to the outside, since building stacks a stick at a time takes a lot of board-feet of scale lumber. For stacks of sheet stock like paneling or plywood, one sheet of fine-grained wood veneer (which is usually about .02″ thick, less than 2 scale inches in HO) from your local home improvement store will go a long way.

As for sawdust, this is a waste product that doesn’t have a lot of value, so transporting it by rail was done rarely, if ever. Most often, it was burned on site, in distinctive “wigwam” burners (Walthers includes one as part of its Mountain Lumber Co. Sawmill kit in HO and N scale; JV Models offers an HO scale kit). Over time, sawdust began to be used to make particle board and fireplace logs, but even then, it was usually transported from the sawmill to the factory in trucks, not by rail.

To model sawdust around your mill, real sawdust is far too coarse. Even ground foam is probably too coarse. I would suggest using a yellowish-tan powdered stone product like that sold by Arizona Rock & Mineral ( Sprinkle it into your ground cover around the mill and use it to coat mounds of plaster or Sculptamold where it would accumulate in quantity.

Stacks of real wood lumber are seen in a rack at an HO scale lumber yard
Lumber stacks don’t have to be made of scale lumber to look realistic. Steven Otte made the stacks for Steinman Lumber, part of the MR staff’s 2017 Beer Line expansion, from less expensive stripwood in various sizes. Steven Otte photo

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