How To Expert Tips Add depth to structures using mirrors

Add depth to structures using mirrors

By David Popp | February 28, 2023

Plastic mirrors are easy to cut and install inside model buildings

Email Newsletter

Get the newest photos, videos, stories, and more from brands. Sign-up for email today!

Add depth to structures using mirrors: In working on the addition to my On30 Olympia & Sand Creek layout, I’d decided to add a building flat at one end to represent a warehouse. The flat is about 3” deep and angles away from the viewer slightly so it can sit 90-degrees to the track that serves it.

Add depth to structures using mirrors: Brown wood building with long wood loading dock along a stretch of track that appears to run through an open door in the building.
The warehouse at Sand Creek on David Popp’s Olympia On30 layout appears to have track running right through it, thanks to a carefully placed craft mirror. The building flat is only 3” deep.

For those of you who have followed the Olympia series, you may recognize the structure. It was scratchbuilt by MR’s editor, Eric White, for the first version of Olympia, back in 2014. It’s a plain timber building, and because it was shallow to fit along the backdrop, Eric originally built it with closed doors.

In its new location at Sand Creek, I modified the building to fit around a fascia support post and opened the doors so freight cars could be parked part way inside. However, even with the building at a slight angle, I could still easily see the backdrop through the open door.

Add depth to structures using mirrors: Brown wood model building against a light blue wall with a brown railroad track entering its open doorway.
Even though the doorway is angled away from the viewer and the opening is in shadow, it is still obvious this warehouse is just a building flat along the backdrop.

While I’d considered painting the backdrop inside the building black, I remembered that Gerry Leone used small mirrors in various places on his Bona Vista layout, making his roads and rivers look like the continued on under bridges. John Allen had used mirrors on his Gorre & Daphetid as well, particularly to make scenes in his mountains look vast and deep. I also remembered a backdrop building we’d taken off of Jones Island on the MR&T that Art Current had built that used a small mirror inside an open door to make the flat seem deeper. After looking at what Art had done, I decided that adding a mirror to my warehouse seemed the perfect answer.

Add depth to structures using mirrors: Exposed back of white plastic model building with green doors and windows and a large gray square held with silver wire.
This building used to stand along the backdrop on the MR&T. The back of Art Curren’s building flat has a small square mirror (gray area) attached to it with a wire.

Art, Gerry, and John all used glass mirrors. Glass mirrors are heavy, thick, and difficult to cut without damaging their surface.

Add depth to structures using mirrors: Gray and brown model building walls with open doorway showing two men talking to each other.
From the front of the model, the mirror is positioned to reflect the interior of the loading dock, making it look like the building extends through the backdrop. The figure is painted different colors on his front and back, so his reflection makes it seem as though two people are talking in the doorway.

Looking for a different option, I found 4 x 6 inch plastic mirror tiles on A pack of 16 was just $!5, so I ordered it, figuring that if this worked well, I’d want to use them in other projects. (And if it didn’t, I was only out 15 bucks.)

The plastic material comes with a protective plastic film on it, which is great for cutting the plastic without scratching the surface. The material is approximately .030” thick, and easy to cut using the same score-and-snap method you’d use with styrene. After cutting a 4 x 4.5 inch piece, I peeled away the blue plastic coating.

Blue shiny square next to silver square setting on wood table with brown model railroad track on it.
The plastic mirror tile comes with a protective blue film on it. After cutting the mirror to size, David removed the wrapping. He also glued the mirror to a piece of foam insulation board to hold it in the proper position on the layout.

The thin plastic will stand on its own, but it’s also flexible which can distort what it reflects. If I were to mount it straight to the backdrop, this wouldn’t have been a problem, but I needed it to angle away from the backdrop to stay at a 90-degree angle to the track.

To solve this, I mounted the mirror to a piece of ½” foam insulation board, gluing it in place with clear latex caulk. I then used my hot wire foam cutter to shave off part of the foam backer and produce the correct angle for the mirror. After test-fitting everything, I then glued the foam block and mirror to the backdrop with more latex caulk.

Small mirror supported by blue foam block attached at angle to blue wall and reflecting brown model railroad track.
To support the flexible plastic mirror, David made a support block from blue foam insulation board. The block and mirror are glued in place with latex caulk.
Small mirror attached to blue wall and reflecting brown model railroad track.
To make the track appear to pass through the backdrop, the mirror needs to be at a 90-degree angle to the track and stand perfectly vertical to it as well. In this view, the mirror needs a slight vertical adjustment yet.

When placing the mirror, to achieve a good effect, the mirror needs to be at aligned to what it is reflecting, as well as perfectly vertical to it. For the track to look as though it extends into the mirror and through the backdrop, it needs to be at a 90-degree angle to mirror’s surface, as does the building. Before the caulk had set up, I replaced the building in the scene and found I needed to angle the mirror downward slightly to get the right reflection.

brown model building against blue sky with open doors and brown railroad track extending through building.
Before the caulk set and locked the mirror in place, David tested the building in position in case he needed to make adjustments.

The plastic mirror material does have a few down sides. First, the mirror reflects objects that are close to it really well. However, it falls off with objects that are distant. Also, while the plastic mirror is thin enough that only a minor gap shows where the mirror and rails meet, there is still a gap. You could eliminate that gap completely by using a front-silvered mirror, but those are made from glass, are more expensive to purchase, and much more difficult to cut properly.

Brown building with brown railroad track running through its open door alongside a weathered wood loading dock.
This view shows the final placement of the mirror, track, warehouse, and loading dock. It appears that the dock, like the track, extends to both sides of the warehouse. The red object reflected in the mirror is my phone, used to take the photo.

For my application, which was to make it look like something continues beyond the other side of the building flat, the plastic mirror works really well. It was easy to work with and I’m very happy with the effect. It also looks 100% better than if I’d painted the backdrop black. And with the building angled into to the layout scene, there is no chance that a viewer will ever see anything of the aisle or the people running trains.

While I will likely return to glass mirrors for applications where I need it to reflect distant object clearly, I’ll gladly look for other opportunities to use small plastic mirrors to give my building flats and modeled scenes depth. After all, I still have 15 of them left!

One thought on “Add depth to structures using mirrors

  1. While I have seen mirrors used in limited circumstances, these plastic mirrors look to be a great solution for relatively small applications, such as looking into a structure. I can see using these in a two or three different spots as I build out my layout. Thanks, David!

You must login to submit a comment