Design Guidelines For Early Western Structures: 1870 - 1913 


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by David Barron

Many model railroaders have selected early western North America railroad operations to model.  This period is viewed by many as a time when the greatest railroad growth took place, and it is full of romance of the rails, both for standard and narrow gauge.  Period railroading allows for variables from small logging to massive mainline operations.  If we look at how we date our model railroad, we find that figures, vehicles, rolling stock, motive power, and structures place our miniature worlds in the time we have selected.  Basically, scenery and track right-of-way remain the same now as they were in the past.  How well we model each of the above named elements dictates how well we succeed in our attempts at period modeling. A good source of information is contained in many modeling magazines.  A free index for the magazines is located at .

Each of the elements noted in the previous paragraph have changed over the years through improved technology.  Since most of us are trying to model historical times, we must resort to resource material, structured kits, or design criteria to satisfactorily depict our models.  In the following article, we will look at the design criteria of early western structures, their different elements, and how to put them successfully together to enhance your modeling skills.

As we examine early western structure design, we will discover several distinct, but at times, overlooked features.  Foremost, it must be remembered that almost all building materials were locally available, e.g., wood, stone, sod, etc.  Any other materials, including glass, nails, iron straps, hardware, paint, and some bricks, and miscellaneous parts either had to be made locally from raw materials or shipped in from somewhere else.  Most structures were unique, to fit the purpose they were designed for with little thought given to ascetics.   About the only attempt to add design character to early structures was ethnic influence from the builder's past.  This article focuses on some of these general design details used in early, 1870 - 1913, western structures.

Thoughts on Design Criteria

When thinking of the period you want to depict, the best resource materials you can use, if you are not totally familiar with the area or time period, are books, photographs, or drawings.  To determine structure sizes in the photographs, try to select something of a known size in each photograph for comparison.  Certain elements or characteristics become common when you study early western structures.  The structures were small, and most were made of wood construction. Paint, if used, was very subdued and only on surfaces that would show.  Except for rare exceptions, all building were unique and nothing was grandiose or gaudy.

When designing a structure, or reducing a prototype to a more reasonable size, you must remember the period of time and local setting for the structure.  Obviously, you don't want a towering 20 story brick and steel structure in the middle of a small, rural mountainside community.  Incompatible scale or large structures just don't fit well with small single business structures.  In the same frame of mind, incompatible forms do not fit well together -- for example, a small wooden false front structure and a large orange reception stand, a steel oil derrick, or even a large concrete grain mill.  You want everything you put in your period depiction to look good together and accent each other.  

Placement of the Structure

Unlike the real world, most modelers tend to over-exaggerate almost everything on their railroads.  This, depending on how it is done, can be good or bad when trying to force perspective in a limited area.  Where else, in less than a scale mile, can we find some of the most changing natural features that seem to defy the laws of Mother Nature. 

When determining the location of a new structure, depicted as new or old, we must think about the ground it is to rest upon.  If you want to build a town on a hill, you may have to simulate a grade or flatten the area.  Did the early builders do this?  In most cases, no. They had better things to do, like survive.  Of course, you can build a foundation to help level the building as well.  The early builders looked for natural areas that were somewhat level to begin with.  This is why most towns were built in the valleys, rather than the sides of mountains or hills.  Unavoidable cuts or fills should blend with the surrounding terrain contours.  If you do grade out an area, be sure to put the simulated fill someplace close by. 

Proper drainage is important to remember.  At the very least, it should be properly depicted even though it rarely rains on our scale worlds.  Control of water flow was very important to avoid mobile structures.  Remember, rainfall varied yearly from almost nothing up to 70 inches or more.

Orientation of structures was important to early builders in the snow regions.  Snow always lingers longer on the north side of anything, including structures.  Some new structures were also orientated with this regard,; to the north or to prevailing winds.  Do you know where north is on your layout?  If you don't know, you can always check for scale moss on the north side of your scale rocks!

Proper use of Building Materials

Several manufacturers produced a multitude of building materials.  Selecting the proper materials and using them correctly is essential in properly depicting your chosen structure.  When selecting siding or roofing materials, make sure you use them properly.  Board and batten material obviously is always vertical, and clapboard is always horizontal.  Other appropriate siding patterns have unique applications.  If you want something unusual, think -- would they have done this or is it practical?  If the answer is no, then it probably wouldn't be a good model, and it would stand out like a sore thumb.  If you're trying to build a structure as it would have been built in its early life, don't mix building styles. Don't try to combine historical styles into a plan that visually doesn't make sense.  In other words, keep with one style.  One other caution, when building kits make sure you get the parts, castings, and siding in the proper or logical positions, and right side up!  This may sound silly, but as a former NMRA judge, I have seen missing elements of a depicted detail and some even attached upside down, like windows, concrete platform supports, and even lighting rods.  I've also seen buildings with a chimney going up one side of the structure and the top of the chimney on the other side, a good trick in real life!  A great source of metal detail castings is Smokey Mountain Miniatures.  They are inexpensive, and have adequate detail when painted.


Early builders took advantage of local material, rocks in New England, adobe mud in the southwest, and wood where it was plentiful.  Where the weather was severe and cold, the structures were generally small and economical to keep warm.  A roof was always steep in snow regions, for obvious reasons, with pitches of 8:12 at a minimum.  Porches were used as shelters from the summer sun, wet rains, and winter snows. 

During the period of 1870 to 1913, structures were built to a modest size.  The height of a single story structure would have been about 15 feet, with a maximum height of 22 feet and a minimum of 14 feet. Two story structures were generally about 30 foot, with 25 being minimum and 35 foot the maximum height (see Figure 1).  Three or more floor levels in structures were very rare in the early days of the west. 

Images of 15 foot and 30 foot buildings

Figure 1. Building heights.

The character of any model town can be very effectively created with structure features on each building.  These structures generally should be depicted as practical, sedate, and sober, yet can contain the flash of scallops, fishscale shingles, trim boards, and other decorative designs, (see Figure 2).

shingles and siding

Figure 2. Shingles and siding.

Regional influence affected the architecture of any town. In the early days, everything was hand made.  The Swedes, Italians, Irish, Oriental, Southerners, and Yankees brought their influence to the west.  Certain designs were indicative to each group. 

False Fronts

False fronts were typical of the early western structures.  Their earliest application was to the front of large tents, and then to structures that had four walls and a canvas roof.  In almost every case, a false front wall was extended as a facade alluded to the size, finish, and importance of the building.  They contained character, expression, and the spirit of the builders.  Most false fronts also served as signboards and became a place to decorate with fancy work of one kind or another.  Not too may folks were fooled by the false fronts, but almost all were enjoyed.

Roof Styles, Slopes, Siding, and Shingles

The old saying goes, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder.' Appeal for older structures can be influenced good and bad by your choice of the correct or incorrect architectural elements.

Early western structures were generally more vertical than horizontal.  The roofs were steep for various reasons.  Windows were generally tall and narrow.  Simple style with minimum ornamentation was put into early structures.  It is the successful combination of proportions, structural elements, such as windows and doors, and the correct detail that will assure a pleasing building.

Windows in the early period were generally very small because flat glass had to be hauled in.  The windows were made up of multi-glass panels such as 12 panes 4 high, 8 panes 4 high, 12 panes 4 high, or 4 panes 2 high variety, (see Figure 3).  Several manufactures of scale windows do an excellent job at producing these.  Grandt Line is my personal favorite.  Screens were rarely used, but when they were, they were typically in wooden frames that were temporarily put into open windows.  


Figure 3. Windows.

Doors were also treated as details and followed good general patterns.  They varied from the rough saw cut doors made of boards to finished ornate doors on bank buildings.  They included styles with and without glass.  Commercial building doors were rarely plain.  If a solid door was called for, it usually had 4 panels arranged on the door.  Other doors had wood panels on the lower portion and various glass windows in the upper portion.  Large commercial structures had double door entries.   Again Grandt Line is my favorite source for these door castings.

Glass can be depicted in several ways in models.  You can use clear flat plastic, a clear liquid that dries, or use real glass.  Personally, I prefer the real glass, as nothing looks better than glass when depicting the real thing.  Sierra Scale Models sells scale glass and a sizing tool.  I have successfully put glass in structures, passenger cars, and even steam engines.

Sod was used on the roofs of very early structures, mostly due to no wood for shingles being available.  If wood was available, wooden shingles were good choices for siding materials since they were good looking, practical, a good insulator, shed the rain, and in most cases, locally available, after the shingle mill was built!  Shingle patterns varied as well as their application.  In fact, cedar shingles were often combined with other types of siding.  In most all cases, when buildings were shingled on the sides, the use of 5 corner boards were always recommended.  Two styles of application are depicted in (see Figure 4).  

corner boards

Figure 4. Corner boards.

Figure 2 shows some of the more common applications of cedar shingles, fish scale, diamond, and flat butt shingles. I prefer the thin real cedar sheets for cutting shingles and individually gluing them in place.  The effect cannot be duplicated.  Another source of shingle material is the Campbell's Rolls of gummed paper shingles on a roll.  These come with a lined cardstock sub roof, which is handy for the beginner to use.  Combinations of more than one style together can be used and be realistic or even combined with rustic horizontal siding.  Other forms of siding and/or foundations did exist, which have lasted throughout time.  Brick patterns used in banks or other substantially built structures had their patterns as well.  Two of the most typical styles used were the common bond, which was acceptable for low walls, small foundations, planter, and some structures.   The row locking common bond style with bricks on every 6th row or course were used as a row locking technique for all structures.  Of course, in most areas brick was impractical to obtain so natural stone was randomly laid for foundations and walls, (see Figure 5).  In some foundations or structures, you may want to use stacked cut stone.  

Stone and brick patterns.

Figure 5. Stone and brick patterns.

Roof Styles and Slopes

Basically three roof styles, or combinations of them, can be used to typify 90% of all early western structures.  These were the gable roof, hip roof, and shed roof, (see Figure 6).  The slope or steepness of these style roofs was important for various reasons.  A flat roof would allow an accumulation of snow and weight, which, needless to say, resulted in a less than satisfactory situation.  Too steep of a roof was impractical.  Slopes of roofs are commonly expressed in terms such as 6:12, 8:12, 10:12, or 12:12.  What that means is that for every 12 inches of horizontal run, the rise is 6, 8, 10, or 12 inches.  Older style structures usually had steeper roof slopes than those built today.  Roof slopes of 8:12 or more were typical.

Roof styles and  slopes.

Figure 6. Roof styles and  slopes.

Combinations of roof styles and materials were common.  The main structure could be roofed with cedar shingles and have a roof shed or standing seam metal roof attached next to it.  Another roof feature that adds variety and interest is an eve dormer.  This is a break in the normal roof near its edge to allow a high window or opening to be installed with clear unobstructed view or access.  Combinations of a hip and gable roof may add interest to any model and shows that little additional attention getter that separates it from a run-of-the-mill structure and makes it a superior one.  Other variations include a gable that could have the end sliced off, commonly called a truncated gable or jerkin head.  Typical combined roof styles are depicted in Figure 6.

Now that we have talked about roof designs, let's talk about the different type of roofing materials.  Several types of materials are appropriate for early western structures.  Most of these materials have been used through present day applications.  The materials include the cedar wood shake shingles, standing seam sheet metal, corrugated sheet metal (see Figure 7). Again, Campbells makes corrugated sheet metal in different sizes.  Tarpaper roofing can be simulated using tissue paper or  with model airplane silk span wing covering cut into small pieces -- the size of rolled paper.  Builders in Scale, now C.C. Crow, makes some very good standing seam sheet metal roofing materials.  Other excellent examples of these types of roofing materials are available on the commercial market. 

Roof coverings.

Figure 7. Roof coverings.

Posts, Brackets and Gable Details

The character of a building can be enhanced greatly with the use of simple ornamentation without losing the flavor of the old west simplicity.  Both posts and porch details were used and were appropriate for the 1870 to 1913 and beyond era.  Roof gables and details, as can be noted on the D&RGW stations, were used. 

Most wooden porch supports, that had detailing, were at minimum chamfered with a 45-degree angle, others may have had brackets dressing either side of the upper post or may have even had double posts (see Figure 8).

gate structure

Figure 8. Gate

Roof Vents, Roof Ventilators, Chimneys, and Stove Pipes

Roof ventilators or monitors were used in some early structures.  These provided an exit for hot air buildups and added character to some structures.  These roof ventilators or monitors resembled a pigeon coup on the roof ridge and should not be confused with attic vents or gable end vents.  The attic vents were not roof mounted, but were located on the vertical side of the building, usually high and under the protected end of a roof gable.

Chimneys, built of stone and brick, as well as metal stove pipes were located on the building as need existed.  Current building codes put restrictions on the type, location, and use of stovepipes.  Back in the old days, owners pretty much put them everywhere, sometimes with devastating results.  Chimneys were built out of native stone and were located both internally and along the sides of structures. 

Site Detailing

No matter how well a person builds a structure, it will look naked without having the proper and appropriate detailing that would naturally surround it.  These details take on a multitude of forms appropriate to each type of structure.  Some of the core common details noted in western structures include windmills, outhouses, sheds, hitching posts or rails, flagpoles, benches, wooden barrels, crates, and water troughs.  These items were not just junk items cast aside; they were necessary and functioning details. 

Fencing Styles of the Period

Wooden fences were typical of the period in the west and were made of stone, woven wire, and even wood -- provided it was plentiful.  Corrugated metal was rarely ever used, but if it was, it usually come from unusable roofing materials.  Fencing styles and variations in (see Figure 9) were probably the most typically used.

Fencing styles.

Figure 9. Fencing styles.

Another type of fencing used were the so called porch railings, these were almost always made of wood, although some were cast iron and, depending on the importance of the structure and took on several unique designs.  The drawings in Figure 10 offer only a small sampling of what was actually used.

Fences and gates.

Figure 10. Fences and gates.

Outdoor Lighting

Nothing enhances the looks of a structure better than the proper installation of scale lighting.  Master Creations has done wonders in the application of computer driven lights and sound in their SE kits.  If you ever get a chance to see these, it will turn your head.  Several other commercial manufacturers make excellent outdoor light castings, which are perfectly acceptable for most structures.  These fixture castings are obviously generic and can usually be improved upon.  It was not uncommon to have a special or unique light associated with a building of importance.  In most cases, the local blacksmith made these lamps, and they more than often required extensive tinkering to keep them in operating condition.  The lights could be on a free stand, mounted directly to the building, or hanging from a chain.  Both acetylene and kerosene were used in the early days, followed by natural gas and later electricity to light up the area at night.  In real important buildings, such as banks, hotels, and fancy bordellos, the light lens carried the name or initials of the associated structure.  Figure 11 shows an example of one of these lights. 

 Lamp lighting.

Figure 11. Lamp lighting.

Finishing Touches

As a town started to mature past its initial conception, certain civilized touches started to appear.  These improvements included latticework under the porches, canopies over storefronts, weather vanes, water troughs, and hitching rails.  Other items that should be considered when planning a structure include bird houses, planters, and even the honorable  outhouse, (see Figure 12).  Temporary items such as flagpoles, brackets, benches, wooden trash barrels, boxes, and ground trash should always be considered appropriate for a scene. 

outhouse image

Figure 12. Outhouse.

Signs of the Times

Excellent decal and dry transfer signs are available for several sources, including Woodland Scenic, SSLtd, Micro-Scale Decals, and many others.  These come in color and several fancy, curved and pictorial designs.  If you decide that none of these fit your application, then the following information should be remembered.  The nature of almost all western signs was simplicity, practicality, and being forthright.  In checking actual photographs of the period you are trying to depict, you will find very similar styles of lettering.  In most cases, New York Roman or railroad Roman lettering was used.  Picture signs were not used as much in the early days as they were after 1900.  Product and/or picture signs are noted as being usually small and painted on their own backing, which was then attached to the structures.  Business names and/or General Merchandise signs were painted directly on the false fronts of structures in usually black and white letters, depending on the contrasting background.  Small signs were attached to porch posts, under windows, or even painted, at times, crudely, directly on windows. 


Depending on how you want to depict a structure, weathering comes into the picture.  Even a newly built structure will have dust accumulation on it, which can be applied with several different mediums -- chalk and weathering fluids as an example.  The sun will, in time, bleach out the red colors and lighten wood to a soft silver gray look. It also shrinks and cracks the wood as it dries out.  A fantastic natural wood weathering fluid is a product by called Weather-it, which will take new modeling wood and age it with a soft silver gray look.  Everyone should have a bottle of this around.  Mold and other wet rot will make the wood appear darker near the ground.  Replacement boards will be of a different color than the original wood.  A new coat of paint may not match the old color, which has bleached out in the sun.  Faded or pealing paint can be depicted on structures depicted as needing work.  Use your imagination or check books for accurate weathering depictions.  Use common sense.  A structure does not weather evenly; covered areas not exposed to the sun do not weather as rapidly as exposed areas.  Remember, also, that most structures were painted only on the front or street sides.  The other sides were left exposed as raw wood and were never painted.  Painting varied and was almost always very subdued.  Garish colors were used to attract the less than desirable crowds -- the painted ladies, saloons, and other establishments of questionable repute.


The best source of material covering the multitude of period western structures will come from photographs and other documents that are available today in books, back issues of railroad and other magazines, and the public library.  Another great source of data is books, --Colorado Rail Annuals from the Colorado Rail Museum.  If you are up to a field trip, you should visit Silverton, Ouray, and South Park City, Colorado.  South Park City has gathered and restored original buildings with full interiors and all the stuff that went in the buildings!  This is a living museum, so take your camera and lots of film.  Another superior book for details is called, Ghost Towns of the West by William Carter.  If you have specific questions and need more data on a particular project, contact your NMRA A.C. Kalmbach Memorial Library in Chattanooga, TN.  Each NMRA member has several hours of research time available each year at no additional charge.  If you want to build an outstanding structure, make sure that you follow the same design and construction techniques that were used during the period you are attempting to duplicate.  By doing research before you get started on a structure, you will learn more and do better contest worthy modeling.  Your additional efforts will show in your model and make it a superior replica.

Click ARTICLES to read other techniques for model railroading.

 Sierra Scale Models is owned and operated by Dave Barron, an NMRA Master Model Railroader. If you have questions about the products, send a message to David Barron or call 813-907-3343.