Creating buildings from laser-cut 2mm MDF and card
Lockdown in 2020 had been an odd year. I was really busy – which is a good thing but a surprising one. Initially, I thought we would have no work, I would have a lot of time on my hands and I would be able to get on with a few projects around the house, including my 009 exhibition model railway Whitesands Quay.
As it turned out I have been so busy I have not had time but also inclination because I had hit a bit of an impasse with the buildings I needed. A couple of years ago I had tried constructing a building with thin foam board which seemed to be ok, but then when I applied a render to one of the end walls the whole thing twisted out of shape! I tried thicker foam board which stayed in shape but cutting out the slots for Windows and doors was difficult and inaccurate. So I stopped.
During the pandemic, I came across Petite Properties who started creating interior kits for dolls houses and extended their range to railway modelling scales. I purchased a 4mm scale farmhouse kit for something to do but with no intention of adding this to Whitesands Quay.
The kit opened my eyes to what is possible now with laser-cut materials. It contained 2mm MDF walls and card doors, windows and other elements – all cut with a laser. The model was wrapped with scenic paper - as you can get from Scalescenes.
This gave me the idea that I could draw up the buildings I needed for Whitesands Quay, and get them laser cut in 2mm MDF. I approached Petite Properties to see if they would consider bespoke work but they were unsurprisingly politely uninterested! So I set about hunting down a company that would do this and soon found a small firm that were able to cut the parts for all seven buildings I needed for the main part of the model and importantly at a price that I thought was reasonable. I had received quotes that were somewhat laughably prohibitive. A few days later I had a parcel of bespoke laser cut 2mm MDF parts.
Lasers are interesting things – usually owned by villains in James Bond movies, or fantastic hologram exhibitions. They can be quite dangerous and can be very expensive. The main type that is used in cutting the kits you now see available are CO2 lasers that have a long glass tube and cost thousands of pounds. These are big and need a large space and extractor fan systems There are also diode lasers which are a lot less powerful, a lot smaller and a lot cheaper (but still need some ventilation!).
Happily for me, one arrived as a birthday present (after some huge hints containing URLs). It is a 20w diode Neje Master 2S laser-cutter. It uses 20w but outputs about 4.5w so can happily etch and cut card easily. It is not that fast, so good for a hobbyist's requirements or prototyping but not a production line.
The software that came with my laser is ok but not geared up for what I needed so I purchased a copy of LightBurn. This allows me to control the order of cuts – cutting inside elements first is critical else things can drop and move – and build a library of material settings.
There are no exact recipes for cutting speeds and laser power, both of which can be controlled, so the first thing I did was draw up a test file that I run for each material I try to see what speed and power combination works best for each material. I had trouble with the plain white card, finding that it will not cut below a power of 50% as it reflects the beam!
I spend the next few weeks carefully drawing up windows, doors, soffits, bargeboards, and other pieces I needed for the buildings and have had a huge amount of success! This has invigorated my enthusiasm for modelling and
Whitesands Quay is once again progressing.
The Front Row cottages
The Front Row cottages are a basic 2mm MDF shell with a Scale Model Scenery Old Stone photographic wrap - glued on and cut out. This is a great way to get realistic looking building textures that are going to be reasonably unique! Other people will be using the same wrap but it's never quite the same unlike a plastic building kit that is moulded and they all look similar.
I have enlarged WhiteSands Quay's original plan to include additional buildings and one of these is a customs house with a portico and balustrade to give Whitesands Quay a little bit of authority. Not sure the locals wanted it though.
Other laser-cut creations
I keep coming up with ideas of what I can create with the laser so the final layout is going to be a mix of kits and my own scratch-built creations.