Fiber Optic Lighting for Model Trains

  • 01 of 05

    Using Fiber Optics on Model Trains

    theatre marquis lights
    Dozens of fiber optic strands multiply the effect of three bulbs to make miniature chase lights on this HO scale theatre marquis. Modeling by Walter Kuhl. ©2011 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

    Model railroaders often put lights in trains, buildings and signals. But what about other lights that might be too small to model with bulbs or even LED's? Fiber optics offer an opportunity to try a lot of different lighting effects.

    Fiber optics are small, hollow tubes which can carry light from a source to the end of the filament. While they can carry and show light, they do not project a beam of light like a bulb or LED itself. In other words, you can use fiber optics for lights that you want to see, but not see by.

    A model railroad presents several options for using fiber optics, and they will work in many scales. From vehicles to figures to special effects, fiber optics can put lights in places you wouldn't have thought possible. Here are some potential uses:

    • Conductor's lantern
    • Night Watchman's flashlight
    • Miner's helmet lamp
    • Smoker's cigarette
    • Vehicle headlights, turn signals, accessory lights
    • Locomotive walkway, stair and truck lights
    • Theater marquis / chase lights
    • Signs
    • Signals
    • Distant lights or stars on backdrops
    • Carnivals / Amusement parks

    Follow the steps on the following pages and let your imagination run wild!

    Continue to 2 of 5 below.
  • 02 of 05

    Fiber Optics for Model Trains - The Light Source

    light source
    The light source for fiber optic strands, in this case a 12 volt bulb, can be hidden beneath the train platform. Aluminum foil helps reflect light and maximize the effect. Everything is held in place with tape to maintain alignmenent. ©2011 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

    Fiber optics transmit light, but they don't create it. All of the effects that follow require a light source. This light can take any form and be located almost anywhere.

    1. Choose a Light. Any light or LED can be used. The brighter the light, the better. For chase lights, colored lights, or other effects, more elaborate light arrangements can be made.
    2. Locate the Source. Place the light in a convenient but conceled location. The inside of a structure or the underside of the train platform work well.
    3. Line the Fiber Optics. Align each of the fiber optic strands so that the end points directly at the light source. The strand and light do not need to touch but should be close. A direct alignment is more important than proximity. This is another reason a larger bulb often works better. You can also bundle multiple strands to a single light to simplify wiring and reduce costs.
    4. Secure Everything. Glue everything in place to insure nothing moves.
    Continue to 3 of 5 below.
  • 03 of 05

    Chase Light Circuit

    theatre lighting circuit
    A pre-made circuit and bulbs supply the chase lighting effect for the fiber-optic marquis. ©2011 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

    The lights seen on the Capitol Theatre marguis on page 1 are illuminated from within the theatre itself. Although the marquis is scratchbuilt and the theatre building kitbashed, the lighting circuit is available as a kit. Note: Additional fiber optic strands were added to the kit for this installation.

    The circuit simply turns three bulbs on and off in sequence. Fiber optics repeat this sequence dozens of times over on the three sides of the marquis. Care must be taken to keep the strands in order, organized and properly aligned or the sequence won't work.

    HO modeling by Walter A.J. Kuhl.

    Continue to 4 of 5 below.
  • 04 of 05

    Fiber Optics for Figures

    miners helmets
    Fiber optic strands lighting the miners' helmet lamps are run behind their backs and through the platfrom to a light source below. The strands are painted black and are nearly invisible from normal viewing angles. ©2011 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

    Figures may be one of the last places you would think to add lights on a model railroad. Look closely however and you'll see lots of opportunities. From a switchman's lantern to a coal miner's helmet lamp, a little bit of light can make a big impact.

    This is especially true in darker spaces like night scenes or building interiors. A conductor holding a lantern for example can be a good marker for an uncoupling magnet or the clearance point at the end of a siding.

    Once you figure out what you want to light, the next question is how to do it. Like anything else, the steps to installing fiber optics are straight forward.

    1. Drill holes. Drill holes in the appropriate locations on the figure. There are different sizes of fiber optics, but a No. 80 bit will work for most. You should not have to force the strands through the hole. Try to secure and conceil the fiber optic as much as posible within the figure casting. Drill another hole through the scenic base to route the strand back to the light source.
    2. Paint the strand. Any part of the fiber optic strand that can't be hidden inside the casting can be well-hidden simply by painting in flat black. This is even more effective inside buildings or anywhere that the back of the figure can't be seen. Not only does the black paint hide the strand, it prevents light escape as well.
    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05

    Fiber Optics for Locomotives

    LED Lights
    LED headlights add a realistic look and long life to Athearn locomotives. ©2015 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

    Fiber Optics can be used to recreate a variety of lighting effects in locomotives. Use larger strands for headlights like those shown in the locomotive above which has been converted to use LEDs. Clear plastic lenses, available from detail parts manufacturers, can be used to finish the exposed ends of the strands.

    Smaller strands can be used for accessory lights on locomotives as well. This could include marker or class lights as seen on the locomotive here, ground or walkway lights, cab interior or even control panel lights.