This page is one in a series on the buildout of an N scale model railroad depicting the BNSF Scenic Subdivision in Washington state in the Cascade Mountain Range. You can find the main table of contents for all the articles in the series HERE.

Welcome to Model 160 and we hope you enjoy the project!

With the idea that I’m going to use an upper and lower valance on this layout, I needed to think about how I’m going to light the scenes. Traditionally people typically used strings of regular incandescent light bulbs to light their layout. Usually a bulb holder is installed every 2-3 feet to try and eliminate dark and light spots.  The downside if you have a larger layout is that each incandescent bulb even on the lowest end is at least 40 watts and you generally need a bulb every two feet to avoid dark spots (and even then it is tough to eliminate them). That a lot of light bulbs, but more importantly a lot of heat and a lot of watts being used that add up quickly and can exceed typical 15 amp circuits. Switching from old school incandescent to fluorescent or LED bulbs can help lower your wattage usage to  much lower levels (in the case of LED bulbs) taking care of the wattage issue.  If you want to be able to dim the bulbs, just make sure the fluorescent or LED bulbs you buy are dimmable (some are not). Likewise the dimmer switch you use needs to be compatible with LED bulbs as well. But the difficulty with this setup remains when trying to eliminate dark spots.

Using LED strip lighting where the LED’s are affixed to a strip of circuit tape with adhesive on the back will eliminate dark variations in lighting as the LED’s are spaced evenly across the strip. This produces nice even lighting but there has been some discussion regarding the lighting being too even where there aren’t any shadow details being produced on the models. Personally my feeling is that I’d like nice even lighting when running trains or operating and the shadows are secondary unless I’m taking photos. In that case, I’ll use a stronger single light or two as my main source of light on the scene to get shadows the way I want and rely on the strip LED’s for ambient lighting. By using a dimmer on the strip lights I can control the amount of light and, as I discovered, the temperature as well.

So, searching online for LED strip lighting will give you a TON of solutions and at a wide variety of price points. Everything from regular white in typically three flavors (warm, neutral and cool) and full color RGB LED strip lights where you can vary the color completely and lots more. However you typically are going to want 300 lumens or more to give yourself enough light. This will vary depending on how deep your scene is and how far away the lights are. 300 won’t cut it in a wide 36″ deep scene with the lights 3 feet above the layout but it may work with a shallow scene on a shelf. Plus, when you can dim them manually, you can adjust the amount of brightness and dial them in just the way you want them. So I’m leaning towards the higher lumen ratings.

Knowing that I wanted nice bright lighting and the ability to dim it when I want better control, I went big and ordered some 1300 lumens lights (yeah I know, quite a jump) to test because I have some large areas that will be tougher to light. These are wider 4 LED wide strips (a LOT of LED’s) and were about $180 per 16 foot strip length. Check these out:

I ordered the “neutral” white color and holy cow, they were not only crazy bright, but the color temperature was still too much on the cool/blue side of neutral for my tastes. Plus these use about 12-13 watts per foot so they add up quickly and I’d end up with a lot of power packs to run them. And these aren’t cheap. I was originally thinking I’d use these super bright strips for a deeper scene on the layout (almost 48″ deep) but after holding these up and testing them, I’m going to be better suited with a deep scene by installing one strip on the back of the upper valance and another midway between the upper valance and backdrop. Basically one very bright strip isn’t going to work.

So back online I went and I found some temperature adjustable white LED strips online and ordered them at $129 per 16 foot length. Temperature adjustable white means I can dial in either a cool white, neutral or warm to my taste or mood. This way I don’t have to worry about which LED strips I order and whether they will be truly neutral or not (they can vary a bit). A few days later I received them, plugged them in, turned them on and bingo, I can get the temperature just the way I like it and they put out 500 lumens per foot which is nice and bright when I need it (plus I can dim them!). Bonus – they only use 4 watts per foot. So, other than the $129 price tag, these are darn near perfect.

A little more research online and I found similar temperature adjustable LED strip lights available on Amazon except that these use a different LED type and they were only $33 dollars per 16 foot strip. Hmmm, this sounds too good to be true right? I figured I’d order one length and try them, worst case I will know better in the future. Best case I can buy 4 of these for the price of one length from the other online retailer.

The top LED strip are the original $129 temperature adjustable LEDs I bought and the bottom larger units are the Amazon (LEDENET) $33 units. I plugged them in and taped them next to the other temperature controlled units and they look identical in temperature adjustment and brightness is slightly better (specs say 600 lumens, so slightly more). It is always nice when you end up saving some money for a change. If you look at the photo above you can see that they strips have alternating “yellow” and “orange” LED’s  The yellow are actually the “Cool” LEDs and the orange are the “Warm” LEDs. Varying power between them produces the different color temperature mixes.

So to power the LED strips you have two choices – a brick power pack similar to what comes with a laptop computer or a larger power supply similar to what you find inside a desktop computer. The laptop bricks have more limited wattages but if you have a small shelf layout would work perfectly. Nearly all of these LED’s come in a 16 foot long strip. In the case of the $33 units I bought above, they are rated at 4 watts per foot or 64 watts total for the 16 feet. A single laptop-style brick power unit will power a single strip fine. However if you need more wattage to supply say two 16 foot strips, you’ll need to consider using the power-pack style similar to this:

You can find a ton of these online for sale and I wouldn’t doubt that there are a handful of manufacturers making these with various companies private labeling these with their logos and names on them.  At the bottom I’ll include links to these as well. I’m using 24v LED’s and a 16 foot length uses about 96 watts of electricity. If you give yourself some overhead (say 10%), you’ll need to buy a power pack that can support the wattage you need. The above is 240 watts which gives me plenty of overhead for 30 feet of lighting.

To control the lighting you also have a lot of different options that use either some type of switch or a remote control. I’m playing with both and trying to decide. Here are two that I currently have for testing:

The one of the left is a touch pad that can be flush mounted to the layout and is backlit as well. The remote on the right is another choice and works quite well. There are a lot of options for control and I’m still trying to decide which route to go. Do I want to deal with the whole “Where did I leave the remote?” thing and changing batteries in it? Or just have the panels mounted on the front fascia of the layout where people can easily find them? I’m leaning towards the last option right now. Only potential issue is how many lights a single touch panel can control.

Lastly, let’s talk about the temperature adjustable white LED strips. As we talked about, the strip has both warm LED’s (the orange looking LEDs) and cool LED’s (the yellow looking LEDs) and the adjustability in color temperature comes from varying power between the two different LED’s on the strip. Full “Cool” uses only the cool/yellow LED’s. Full “Warm” uses just the warm/orange LED’s. Neutral uses both in adjustable amounts. Here are the extremes of the temperature ranges of these LEDs –




It is worth pointing out that the above photos are very tough to capture correctly. First I had to force the camera to a neutral white balance manually so that it would capture the warm and cool more accurately. If you pulled your cell phone camera out of your pocket, the auto white balance in your camera  is sophisticated enough to adjust for the color temperature and it would all look fairly neutral. The other issue trying to capture this in photos is that digital cameras just don’t have enough dynamic range to capture all the variations in light and dark. So the above are decent approximations, but required a lot of fiddling around to show here.

So one big thing to go back and look at above is the shades of blue samples. Under “Cool” lighting they look very blue. Under “Neutral” you start to see less blue and more of the purple tints coming out. Under full “Warm” those blues start to wash out to nearly grey looking and your sky is suddenly lacking in blues. Likewise the effect on scenery will be similar. The nice thing is that you can vary these a bit and could “dial in” time of day depending on the mood. You could also get creative and use an Arduino or similar controller to vary temperature with a fast clock to simulate time of day. Just some ideas…

Personally I find that 1-2 steps towards warm from neutral gives me a really nice halogen lighting look that works well for most things. Plus the dimming feature is really nice when the lights are off in the layout room and I don’t need daylight conditions. Here are four adjustments between “Neutral” (50/50 mix of both warm and cool LED’s) and full “Warm”:

I’m figuring at this point we will circle back for another article on these lights. Once installed I’ll have a better idea of coverage, spread, falloff and more. So stay tuned for more on the lights in the future. If you’re looking for links to the lights, here is the information off of Amazon:

The LEDENET Temperature adjustable LED strips can be found HERE on Amazon. If you scroll down you will see “Frequently Bought Together” with a basic power supply and dimmer control.

The power supply I’m using can be found HERE on Amazon. This is a 360 watt version that I’m using to control a little bit more than three 16 foot lengths.

The dimmer touch pad above can be found HERE on Amazon. That is for the white temperature control version. They also make standard dimmers and RGB color adjustable units as well.

Lastly the remote control version can be found HERE on Amazon.

Hopefully the above was helpful.

So moving on from the lights for a moment, I made some progress on the benchwork for the Gaynor Trestle bridge area:

The first thing I did was clamp up a board to represent the grade across the top of the bridge. Then I taped the bridge piers to the bottom so I could get a better idea of depth. The laser helped me to mark the bottom of the river bed and the lowest point I need to worry about. The board under the bridge roughly represents the bottom level of this scene. I also needed to think about the backdrop as well as it needs to come all the way down to the bottom. The piece of pink foam on the left I used to give me an idea of where the landforms will be and I moved it around a bit to visualize where those forms would be. So I marked everything up and cut a piece of 3/4 plywood with a large dip where the river comes in as my front support on the benchwork. I also measures and marked out where I needed to cut this piece of the backdrop. Lastly a little look at a piece of equipment on the bridge…

Our next installment moves on to backdrop going up. Plus building construction and more. Thanks for reading.



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Scenic Sub Project Part 4 Scenic Sub Project Part 6