Superdetailing is a general term intended to apply to all refinements of a model railway, and includes such aspects as equipment (locomotive) detailing, equipment and rollingstock weathering, lighting, non-rail moving items [such as moving road vehicles, travelling circus rides or construction equipment, operating mills, and so forth], but this article will confine itself to general layout scenery superdetailing basics or essentials.
"Basic scenery" would normally consist of ballasting, hills, rivers, tunnels, bridges, trestles, general landscape, rock faces, trees and bushes, buildings - everything that eventually covers the bare table top, and also backdrops.
"Superdetailing" is designed to provide that additional detail to the "basic scenery" that makes onlookers want to examine the layout more closely regardless of whether any trains happen to be running or not. In fact, with enough to look at and to think about, moving trains almost become a secondary reason for stoppng to look at the module.
My article The Credible Model discusses the basic principles involved in creating a believable layout.
This article goes into superdetailing in more, well, detail.
At one time, these enhancements pretty much had to be scratch-built, but today there are many products, such as Woodland Scenics, Osborn Kits, Preiser, and so forth, available in all scales, even though scratchbuilding is still a fun (and an economy) option for all but the most finicky items that can now be produced as laser kits at a reasonable cost.
In deciding on what and where to superdetail, obviously those areas of the layout most likely to be scrutinized by visitors should receive priority attention.
People, Station Areas, Action Scenes
Vehicles, Planes, Vessels and "Street Furniture"
Buildings and Structures, adjunct Scenery
These are the most obvious enhancement. Today every possible kind of person - man, woman, child, of whatever age, occupation, or engaged in whatever activity - sitting, standing, walking, working, climbing, cycling, fishing, canoeing, or whatever, is available, and it only requires imagination to place them on the layout singly or in groups. But first and foremost, layouts should have people, or it will appear to a deserted kind of operation - a deserted land where trains travel in a world of their own instead of in ours. For those in the larger scales who plan on handpainting their figures, there is excellent advice on Brian Fayle's web page.
and street "furniture" (road signs and so forth)
Arguably, the next most significant category is vehicles of all kinds. Care should be taken here to "fit" them to the time period and to the location. Tractor trailers, for instance, would be obviously out-of-place in a 1920s scene, and even for a 1950s scene. Care should be taken so that any vehicle would arguably fit with the time period. Again, the larger the scale, the more noticeable this consideration becomes.
(grade crossing signs, telegraph poles, switchstands, baggage carts, station nameboards, trackside signs [whistle posts, yard limit signs etc], orderboards, station boards, crossing gates or barriers, watertable monitors, fencing, trackside lumber yards, coal bins, scrap yards and so on. Of all of these, the absence of grade crossing signs is likely the most noticeable in any scale, as would be the absence of other trackside "furniture" in the larger scales in particular.
Some gondola, ore and hopper cars come from the manufacturer equipped with loads, but flat and bulkhead cars usually cry out for some kind of a load, be it lumber, vehicles, machinery, pipe tubing or whatever. No railroad ever stayed in business running empty cars all over the place.
Any model railway that includes cattle pens or a farm or two, definitely also needs some animals. And out in the wilds (or perhaps in the not-so-wilds), a bear or two, and some deer. Even a miniature eagle? Osprey nests have become popular. must be the Kawartha influence.
Whimsy? Yes, that tongue-in-cheek twinkle-in-the-eye ingredient that comes so naturally to the narrow-gauge modellers because their layouts portray an innately-humorous whacky branch of railroading to start with, but with some imagination, it is possible to present the humorous side of life and raise a smile from the onlooker.
Basically there are four kinds of "whimsy":
The straight whimsy - such as a bunch of workmen leaning on their shovels, or having a breaktime chowder or even a beer. For a while there was a layout that sported a Tim Horton's (a popular Canadian coffee and doughnut chain) with five police cars parked outside. Well, even seemingly innocent humour can backfire sometimes, because a visiting retired police officer took exception to it, with the result that that little vignette got scaled down to two police cars. Can't win 'em all.
Yes, one has to be careful with "whimsy", especially in the other three categories - "gallows", scatological and spicy humour.
One good reason is that model railway layouts are naturally viewed by young impressionable minds, and one doesn't really want a six-year old asking "daddy, what's that couple doing over there?". So the watchwords are discretion and good taste, especially for layouts on show to the public. But yes, even prestigious layouts such as Aberfoyle Junction and the Ontario & Eastern had their "twinkle-in-the-eye" moments. You didn't notice? Well, that's because they succeeded in being discreet.