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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm)

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Glazing Windows with Lucite®

Glazing is the construction term for the part of the window you can see through, usually glass. I've tried several kinds of glazing for model buildings, and I feel that "acrylic glass" products like Lucite work best for me in most projects. This article is meant to be a supplement to my other articles on painting and building model buildings, including the article titled Painting Plastic Structures. Most of what's on this page is already familiar to most hobbyists, and most homeowners, for that matter. But I figured I'd provide a step-by-step report on a recent project in case my methods, or even my mistakes, might give someone who has never scored and snapped a piece of acrylic glass courage to try.

Why Glazing Helps Buildings

Having your buildings' windows glazed can be helpful several ways:

  • Seen from a normal viewing angle, this glazing reflects the ballast in front of the building instead of allowing visitors to see inside a 'hollow shell.' Clicking here will show you the whole finished building.Glazing makes your buildings look more realistic during the daylight. Glazed windows reflect their surroundings like windows in real buildings. They also help camouflage unfinished interiors, by making it harder to see in.
  • Glazing also makes your buildings look more realistic when they're lit. If you light a building without glazing, the only light that comes through the windows is coming from the opposite wall or floor of the building, providing a weaker than necessary light, and making it obvious that the building is empty (if it is, of course). If you have any kind of glazing at all, a certain amount of light will be refracted by the glazing itself, making the fact that the building is lit more obvious, and, again, somewhat camouflaging the fact that the building is empty.
  • Glazing allows you to add curtains and advertising signs that add realism to your structures.
  • A very solid glazing, like the Lucite® glazing discussed in this article, helps protect your windowframes from being busted out if someone picks up the building wrong.
  • Glazing makes your buildings safer by cutting down on wasp nests in your buildings. It makes it harder for them to get in and reduces ventilation, so it bakes their nests if they do get in.

What Are My Options?

Several different kinds of glazing are used in garden railroad buildings and kits:

  • Most expensive kits come with clear plastic windows that are injection-molded and fit the kit's windowframes. If you have a building that requires a specific size and shape of window glazing, you're probably better off using those. But they may yellow or, worse yet, crystallize, if they're exposed to direct sun for many hours of many days each year.
  • Some kits come with a clear, flexible material. I don't know how well that holds up, as I haven't tried it. But it has made me wonder if I could slice up an empty two-liter bottle in a hurry the next time I need to glaze some windows in hurry.
  • A few kits come with milky plastic windows, the same sort of thing you see on some illuminated buildings indoors. The idea, I suppose, is that you're supposed to be able to tell the building is lit, without being able to tell it is empty. I assembled my Korber Centerville Station with these windows, and, a year later, took them out - they just made the building look toylike.

The first several structures I built for my garden railroad didn't have any glazing at all. Fortunately, I had some scraps of 1/8" Lucite available from a window repair project. I tried using that, and was so happy with the results, I've used the same material in several other buildings, even when some form of glazing was supplied.

I understand that Lucite® is an acrylic and is very similar chemically to Plexiglas®, though they are different brands. So most of what I say about Lucite is also true of Plexiglass or any other "acrylic glass" product used in storm doors or other places where clarity and strength must go together. I am using the term Lucite throughout because most of the 1/8" replacement acrylic glass panels sold in our part of Ohio are Lucite® brand.

I have worked with thicker pieces of Lucite and Plexiglass both, but that would be overkill for this application, and besides, once you get over 1/8" it gets a lot more complicated to cut. (I use a saw with a special blade for anything over 1/4".)

Getting Lucite® Panels

Lucite® comes in sheets big enough for a picture window, but that size is very hard to work with. You want little pieces. Sometimes your local hardware store will give you the scraps from a bigger project if you explain you want them for a craft project (don't try to explain garden railroading to them or they'll just look at you funny and turn you down anyway). I've also gotten scraps from a broken storm door and other sources. Unless you're using the Lucite for structural purposes (which some folks do), a bunch of scraps will do just as well as (or better than) a single big piece.

When you get a new Lucite panel, it will have protective plastic coating on both sides. Leave that on until you're done cutting the material - it will help protect it from getting scratched up while you're working with it.

You Will Need

You probably keep the following stuff around, but just in case you don't, you should have:
  • A utility knife with a fresh blade (I used a widget in this project because I had mislaid my utility knife, something I'm sure you've never done.)
  • A carpenter's square or at least a metal yardstick
  • A "Sharpie" or other pen that will write on plastic
  • Some sort of weather-resistant glue that works on plastics. ("Superglue," which I like for many purposes, isn't so "super" in this situation, as you'll see below.")

Measuring and Scoring Lucite Panels

In most cases, you will want your windows to be 1/4" to 1/2" larger than the window opening in both direction, to give you room to glue them to the inside of the building without excess glue sqeezing out into the window opening. Also, if you have several windows in close proximity, it's easier to cut one panel than several.

That was a no-brainer the case of my Colorado Model Structures tower, which had four walls of windows so close that it only made sense to cut one strip of glazing for each wall. This is the structure featured in the article "Painting the Colorado Models Tower." If you look at the blowup of the last photo on that page, you'll see that from a normal viewing position, you can tell there is no glazing in the window. Colorado Model Structures did supply glazing, in case you wondered, but I like Lucite better, so I held off until I had time to write this article.

The window openings were only about 2.3" high, but I cut the windows to be three inches high, so I'd have plenty of space for gluing. I cut the long pieces first, always a good practice - if you mess up a big piece, you can still use it to make little pieces. If you make all your little pieces first, then mess up a big piece, you may need another trip to the store. In this case I had to be careful not to make the strips too long - since the windowframes went right up to the corner, the glazing strips could cause a tight squeeze. My Lucite panel with the old carpenter's square I used to measure and to guide the knife. Yes, I know I shouldn't have left the square in a damp basement.  Click for bigger photo.

The Lucite scrap I was using was eight inches wide, and the long wall would need a strip about 7 5/8" x 3". So I measured a 3" strip and marked the plastic safety coating with my Sharpie.

Then I brought the Lucite scrap to the edge of my deck (in winter I use a very sturdy table inside). I lined it up so that I could pull my utility knife toward me, but the edge of the scrap was just over the edge of the deck. That way when the knife got off the plastic, it wouldn't slash the deck. Then I held the carpenter's square over the Lucite scrap in such a way that it would guide the utility knife as I cut. Sorry, I don't have a photo of this, since I was using both hands.

You don't actually cut through the Lucite - you are trying to "score" it, that is to create a straight line that is thinner and weaker than the rest of the panel. The deeper and more evenly you score the product, the more likely it is to break cleanly when you snap it in the next step. I usually give it about four good passes, trying to make certain all four passes go into the same cut - if you have multiple scoring lines, even if they're very close, you increase the risk of a jagged edge.

Snapping the Lucite Panel

The scored line is position over a straight, sturdy edge. Click for bigger photo. This is a part of the project in which it is good to wear protective eyewear and to keep kids away. You are going to apply pressure as evenly as you can along the entire scored line trying to get it the panel to break where you scored it. Lucite panels almost always break cleanly, and they almost never shoot out any fragments, even if they don't break clean. But there's a lot of pressure at work, and you want to take precautions.

The photo above shows me positioning the panel over the edge of my deck (again, I use a very sturdy table indoors during the winter). The photo doesn't show my right hand, because I was using that hand to snap the photo. Once I had both hands free, I applied pressure along the score line as evenly as I could and pressed down on the side that was sticking out in mid-air.

If you do this inside and anyone else is home, warn them first - sometimes the crack of separation sounds like a .22 going off. In this case, I did it right - the line was clean and straight. Even if it hadn't been, I had allowed enough overlap that it would still probably suit my purposes.

This piece broke off unevenly, but I had allowed enough 'margin' that both this piece and the piece I had broken it from were still usable. Click for bigger photo.In my case, I needed to cut about 3/8" off the end of the panel. I measured, scored, and snapped again. The resulting little piece was jagged, but it was wide enough to work on one of the tower's side windows, so that was a bonus. I broke off the excess with a pair of pliers, being careful to bend it so that the fragment would also snap along the score line. Sometimes when you do this, you have to "nibble" away at it a little, but that's not a problem.

The photo at the right shows the two pieces I have scored and snapped so far laying on top of the tower to make certain they covered the window panes. I laid the pieces on top of the windowframes they were supposed to cover as a 'sanity check' to make certain I had measured correctly.

Next I scored and snapped the other long piece, then scored and snapped off the end.

The glazing strips for the side windows would need to be a little more than 4" long. I scored and snapped another 3" wide strip, then measured, scored and snapped the piece for one end of the building. This left a piece that I couldn't actually use for the Colorado Models Tower, but would use for another project.

A Small Detour

While I was working with the Lucite, I went ahead and did the glazing for an old Korber structure that needed windows, too.  Click for bigger photo.After I repeated that process for the other end of the building, I had two small scraps. No problem. My old Korber Centerville Station had been smashed into pieces by a freak windstorm, and I had always meant to put Lucite windows into it sooner or later. So I cut the scraps into sizes suitable for that building. The leftovers from the Colorado Model Structures tower project netted me four windows for the Korber building, but I needed three more. Well, there was no point in putting stuff away until I had done the rest of the glazing that that building as well. I scored and snapped another 3" strip, and measured off the other pieces I would need. By the way, Lucite panels are amost infinitely easier to work with if you can work things out to score and snap off a strip at a time, and work with just that strip.

Checking the fit before I put everything away.  Click for bigger photo.Before I put everything away, I also set the glazing for the Colorado Model Structures tower in place long enough to make certain it would fit without either being too small (and leaving an unsightly gap in a windowframe) or being too large (and not all fitting into the corners). In the photo at the right, the glazing looks filmy because the protective plastic sheet is still attached.

Gluing the Windows in Place

Later that week, I had a few minutes to finish the task. I got out the Lucite bits, a couple different kinds of glue, and the building (still without the roof attached). I peeled the protective coating off of my glazing pieces and wiped them with a cotton dishtowel to remove any fingerprints I might have left.

In the past, I've used a kind of silicon goop for this job, but I've noticed that after a couple of seasons of baking in the sun it starts to lose its adhesion. So I thought for this project, I would try superglue first. My plan was to get the windows in place quickly, then leave another bead of a more robust glue to bolster the gluing I placed the glue at the edge of the windowframes so when pressure was applied to it, it wouldn't rush to the middle and bleed out into the window opening. Unfortunately I used the wrong glue. Click for bigger picture.job.

I laid a trail of "superglue" around the edge of the windowframes on one long wall, keeping it as far away from the window opening as was practical. Then I wiped the piece of glazing I was going to use on a soft dishtowel and carefully dropped it into place. Oops, a piece of sprue attached to one windowframe was keeping the glazing from laying flush against the window. I got a knife and sliced it off, then tried again. I pressed the Lucite down against the windowframe, being careful not to squeeze in such a way that the glue bled out into the opening. Then I held it in place for about a minute, as long as it usually takes to glue two pieces of plastic together with superglue.

Thanks to my daughter's taste in reading, I had just the right size weight to hold the glazing strip in place until the glue set. Click for bigger photo.Oops again. The superglue didn't seem to like Lucite - the glazing wasn't even beginning to adhere. That's okay, I figured out a way to apply pressure to the glazing until it did harden. Then I used Duro brand glue for the rest of that project, allowing 20 minutes "set time" between applications.

Back On the Railroad

Notice that from a normal viewing angle, the windows reflect the ballast in front of the building.  Click for bigger photo.Since this building was initially assembled, it has traveled about 1400 miles and been used in about five demonstration railroads, all without windows. It also spent most of August and all of September on my railroad. So it was not great difficulty to pop the roof back on and set it out again. I have some work to do on my railroad this fall, and I plan to move this building to a slightly different location eventually. I also want to add illumination of some sort. Still, this photo gives you an idea of what it looks like with windows in place. If you click on it, you'll see the whole thing.

Reader Feedback

Dick Friedman, of greater Sacramento, California, says:

Good article on glazing. An unending source of plastic if you live in a '70's house is the kitchen ceiling florescent lighting panels. They're about 2 foot on a side. Mine are clear crackle finish. They last about two years in the kitchen before yellowing. But in buildings, the slightly yellow tint is hardly noticeable, and makes LED's look a little less blue!

I cut the long strips with a band saw set on VERY SLOW, and use the scratch and snap method for the length. Bachmann's J&S passenger cars have glazed windows, but not doors. They look finished with glazing!

Wil Davis, of Dayton, Ohio, says:

The only comment I have is I have had great luck with Silicone Adhesive Caulk in clear. I have been using Lucite windows for years and it is the only thing I have used. I have yet to have one let go. [I might add that Wil's railroad is mostly in the shade and mine's mostly in the sun, so that might affect the aging of the product. - ed]

Tell me about your projects

If you have a particularly interesting structure painting project you'd like to tell other garden railroaders about, please contact me with the details.

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