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Using Stencils To Make Building Fronts
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Written by Paul D. Race for Big Indoor TrainsTM

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Using Stencils to Make Buildings

If you've been reading our articles for a while, you know we like to suggest alternatives to the buy-everything-from-hobby-manufacturers rut that makes so many railroads look like clones and - in larger scales - costs real money. This particular article won't help you build the most realistic buildings you'll ever see, but it will let you put a personal stamp on your railroad and - if money is an issue - build whole communities for a few dollars.

Yes, some self-appointed purists will turn up their noses at "home-made" buildings, etc., but your friends and family, and most of your visitors, will be more happy to see something unique that expresses your personality and interests than another me-too railroad that has, say, the same thirty plastic structures as the last five railroads they've seen.

In planning this article, I was also interested in helping folks who are just starting outdoor railroads assemble some communities and industries for their railroads to serve from the start, even if they've already spent all the "real" money they can spare this season on trains, track and landscaping.

I also like the potential for of "mass production." Once you have created and tried out your stencils, it's not that much harder to make five buildings than it is to make two.

Not Just For Outdoors - Whenever I put something like this together for outdoor railroaders, I hear from indoor railroaders who want to do the same thing, so I've provided the resources in O and S scale as well. (S works better with Marx tinplate trains and Christmas villages, in case you wondered.)

The designs we've come up with so far loan themselves to "Americana" decorating, and you can use any colors you want. So if you've been looking for a way to sneak a scale town (and maybe a train to serve it) into a room full of antiques, or into seasonal displays (in which you can change the buildings with the season), this may be a way to do it with originality and low cost.

How Much Does It Really Cost to Make a $5 Building? I'll be honest - I used a craftcutter and two different software packages to create the stencils I use in this article. So you could say that the first building I made this way cost me about $600. But the second building cost about $5, as will every one after that. Besides, you can cut stencils out by hand - I have done it in the past and know several people who could afford cutters but choose to work with Xacto knives, etc.

No Cricuts Need Apply - The other caveat is that you can't use most Cricuts to cut out the stencil patterns we provide in this article. You CAN use similar products from Sizzix, Silhouette, Black Cat, etc. Unlike most Cricuts, you can use these with "third-party sofware" like CraftEdge's Sure Cuts-A-Lot to cut out our patterns. (The new Cricut Explore can be used to cut out these patterns, but it's a tad cumbersome.)

If you want to learn more about craftcutters, including why Cricuts can no longer be used for the kind of projects we describe in this article, please check out our "Introduction to Craftcutters" article.)

Practice "Negative Thinking"

Even if you're used to stenciling, this project may still "stretch" you a little.

When you buy prepackaged stencils for craft projects, most of them only have one stencil. If you want to have different colors on the finished product, you simply put different paint colors over the different shapes. But to get the level of detail we need for our building projects, we'll need to layer our applications, using different stencils and letting the paint dry very well in between.

We'll also be working from the "outside in," in the sense that we do the regions with the biggest areas of color first, and do progressively smaller areas, finishing with the windowpanes (which are actually painted over the windowframes, as you'll see.

The reason I called this section "Negative Thinking" is that, all the while you're working with the stencils, you have to keep in mind that you'll be painting - not the shape you're holding in your hands - but the shape that isn't in your hands. For example, you may be holding a stencil that looks like windowframes, but you don't use that stencil to paint the windowframes, really - your stencil helps you paint the window panes. And when they're painted they give shape to the "windowframe."

The photos below show three of the stencils I cut for this project:

Click for bigger photo. Click for bigger photo. Click for bigger photo.
Layer 2: Window Trim
Layer 3: Window Frames
Layer 4: Window Panes

Why do I label the first stencil "Layer 2"? Because the first layer is the wall color of the building. Further down, there's an example of the way you might paint a storefront using our "Business 1" stencil patterns.

You'll notice that the stencils aren't quite centered on the blank, as a result of the fact that I was still getting used to my cutter when I cut these. But that's not a problem. After your wall color has dried thoroughly, you align the first stencil where you think it should go. Then it becomes critical - from that point on, each stencil needs to be aligned precisely over the parts you have already stenciled.

Click for bigger photo.A Note About Stencil Media

I have had good luck with the plastic "Art Minds" stencil blanks I found in a craft supply store. They're only 8"x10" but they hold up much better to repeated heavy use than the treated paper stencil blanks a lot of stores carry. Ironically, I haven't been able to find a good source online yet.

I've also used overhead transparency film. I wouldn't ordinarily buy it for this, but I use it for other things, such as printing curtain and stained-glass window patterns for my buildings. As a stencil medium, it is lighter gauge than the Art Minds stuff, but it works nearly as well in my craftcutter. The really big problem with clear stencils is that, before you've got them grunged up with paint, it's entirely possible to mislay them in plain sight and waste a ridiculous amount of time looking for them. Don't ask me how I know that. Consider keeping a supply of flourescent orange stickers on hand to tag each one as it comes off the cutter . . . .

A Note About Stenciling

This is a stencil brush - you can see that it is designed to go up and down, not back and forth.A few lines down, you're going to see a suggested process for painting your building's "face" on one layer at a time. The computer graphics I put together make it look easy. If you've never stenciled, you should know that it's not as easy as it looks. When you're working at this scale you use a kind of brush that goes up-and-down, not back and forth. And you work with a brush that is almost dry. If you use too much paint or a back-and-forth motion, the paint will work its way underneath the edge of the stencil and ruin the shape you're trying to paint. Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap. And tap some more. It doesn't require a rocket scientist to figure out, but it does take time.

BTW, whenever I publish an article along these lines, someone contacts me and wants to know when I'm going to publish the HO or N scale graphics. Sadly, the smaller the scale, the harder it is to keep the paint from getting out of place. Yes, you've seen "Cats Meow" and similar buildings that have phenomenal detail. But those were screenprinted, not stenciled. If you really want to try one of these in HO or N, let me know and I'll scale you a set, but you have to promise me not to get mad if it doesn't work. (On the other hand, you have to promise to send photographs of your finished product if it does work.)

A Note about Paint

I like acrylic craft paints. But when I have big projects or large surfaces to paint, I think "house paint." No, I don't buy it by the gallon. Sorry I don't have a bigger photo.But Lowes, for example, sells little jars of any color house paint you choose for $3, and you get much more paint than you would get in the little craft store bottles for the same amount of money. I try to get flat or satin outdoor acrylic. I also try to choose colors that complement each other. Sometimes paint stores or paint departments of large hardware stores even have little flyers that show which colors work well together.

How To Plan your Layers

On thing to keep in mind is that your windows will not be "see-through" using this method. Don't give me that disappointed look - you've seen hand-painted birdhouses or lithographed tinplate buildings with black, blue, or amber windows that were quite effective. You may have to try a few different colors before you find one you're satisfied with.

When you plan your layers, remember that your windowpanes will be one of the last layers painted. You'll use the stencil with all of the little window cutouts to do it. I know the stencil looks like windowframes, but what you'll get when you use it is a host of little black, blue, or amber squares. Your stencil is a negative, remember?

As you're choosing what colors will go with which layer, make certain that there's at least some contrast between each layer. On the building we're using as an example, if you, say, made the trim layer off white and the windowframe layer pale beige, they'll just "run into" each other.

Consider Doing More Than One Building At a Time. Because each layer has to dry very thoroughly (basically overnight) before the next layer goes on, this process involves a lot of waiting for things to dry. An advantage of choosing complementary colors is that you could paint your building "blanks" two or three different colors, but use the same colors for trim and windowframes on each building. Then, after your "blanks" are dry, you can stencil the trim color onto three or four buildings the next day, stencil the windowframe color on them all the next day, and so on.

Each day, you only have to clean your brush once and clean one stencil. After, say, five workdays, you'll have a city block's worth of building fronts ready to be tacked to frames and set on your railroad - or whatever you're going to do with them. Whereas, if you'd been working on a building at a time, you'd only have one building to show for all your work.


Now that we've given you too many things to think about, here's the fun part - seeing how layered colors can build up a pretty interesting facade.

Click for bigger photo. Click for bigger photo. Click for bigger photo.
Layer 1: Wall Color
Layer 2: Trim Color
Layer 3: Window Frame Color
Click for bigger photo. Click for bigger photo. Click for bigger photo.
Layer 4: Window Pane Color
Layer 5a: Sign Background
Layer 5b: Sign Letters

Our Patterns

Now that you have some idea what we're talking about, you'd probably like to get started. We can help you get started, even if you are going the Xacto-blade route.

Click for bigger photo.At the moment, we have stencil sets for two buildings. Building 2 is the one we show above, with the arched windows. Building 1 (right) is similar, but with rectangular twelve-paned windows.

Each package includes .svg and .pdf versions of every stencil you need to complete the buildings as shown.

  • The .svg files can be imported into Sure Cuts-A-Lot or Make-The-Cut programs. In Sure Cuts-A-Lot, you can save the file again in "native" mode once it's been imported. The one caveat I had is that if you don't pay careful attention, you can put the media 90 degrees from the way it needs to be. Pay close attention to the little arrow graphic on the mat image in the Sure Cuts-A-Lot program. I haven't tried Make-The-Cut for years, so I can't be more specific about that one, except that it will import .svg files as well.

  • The .pdf files will print in your inkjet or laserjet printer. It's useful for verifying that you're getting the "right size" of stencil. Or if you're going to work by hand, you can use it as a full size pattern.

Downloading the Stencil Patterns

Here's the caveats: You are encouraged to download, resize, and use these patterns for your own projects, including projects you build to sell. You are even encouraged to use these patterns to cut stencils to give to your friends or to use in clinics or craft classes. You are not allowed to use these patterns to make stencils to sell, nor are you allowed to publish these patterns on your web page or in any other way.

Now that that's out of the way, here are the links to the patterns we have so far. You can save them to your hard drive by right-clicking and selecting "save target as" or whatever wording your browser uses to that effect.

  • Business 1 Patterns - This is the square-windowed version we show above in green -

  • Business 2 Patterns - This is the round-windowed version we show above in red -

Both links take you to a zip file that you should copy to your hard drive and unzip there. The stencil patterns are labeled 2-5 - don't look for a "layer one" stencil - you don't need one to paint the overall color of the building.

Note About O and S Scale Versions: By the way, the O and S scale versions have three stories, since they fit easily on a 10" stencil. In addition, I removed the fine windowpane detail from the S scale version, because it's very difficult to get right with a stencil.


Though the graphics on this page look like we are making 1800 storefronts or the like, you can use the doors and windows of these patterns to make a storefront, factory, or house, depending on how you incorporate them into the shape of your building.

Storefronts - To use these graphics to make a storefront, the building should be a few inches higher than the top of the windows in the stencil. A "false front" that holds a sign and has a bit of trim across the top would be appropriate. Each of our stencil patterns include several business names so you can mix and match.

Houses - To make a simple house with these patterns, you could use a "subset" of each pattern. For a short gable house, you could simply use the first story on the "front" of the house and the second story windows on the "side." Other versions are easy to imagine as well.

The following table shows several suggestions for using the same stencils to create a variety of buildings.

1-story Gable House

Cape Cod

Nob Hill House

1-Story Gable House
Cape Cod House
Nob Hill House
Farm House
Town House

More to Come

Ordinarily I'd end an article of this sort with a "conclusion," but I hope I'm just starting a flood of new ideas. If I get a lot of requests for other kinds of stencil patterns, I'll try to oblige, but only if I see a bunch of photos of finished projects using the stencils we have so far, hint, hint.

Finally, the vast majority of articles on my web pages come as the result of more than one reader asking the same questions. So get in touch with any questions, corrections, complaints, similar projects, or what-have-you, and we'll be very glad to hear from and to help you if we can.

Enjoy your trains. Especially enjoy any time you have with your family in the coming months.

Paul Race

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