Can Fiber Optics replace LED Lights for Models?

by Michael Groves

Lighting can add beauty to any train layout. Having wired up small grain-of-wheat-bulbs over the last 20 years, I have watched with delight as new solutions have come along. First came the addition of LED’s to the layout, but these still had the disadvantage of having to wire up the LED bulbs, only this time polarity of wiring was critical. Being able to use prewired LED’s is another significant step forward for the railroader who does not enjoy wiring, but it comes at significant expense and under board real estate to light a whole town, and still requires dexterity to mount the LED’s inside structures.

I felt there must be other solutions that can offer similar benefits of ease with an intrinsically lower cost structure. What if one could use a single light source, remote from the structures, and deliver it using state of the art fiber-optics? So, a few years ago I started by putting a typical LED to a fiber optic and discovered that the 20mA LED’s just don’t have the power needed, so the search was on. About this time, car manufacturers were coming out with state-of-the-art LED side lights which added a significant sparkle to the car headlight system. This is what was needed, so I bought some only to find they would start smoking before going out with a loud popping sound. The problem was solved with the use of an appropriate heat sink. Next was to find some suitable optics to take the typical widely divergent LED beam and focus it down to small LED fibers. I eventually put together my first light system and there it was, lighting up some of my buildings. 

As this was working so well, I decided it was time to involve my grandson, Austin, in the design of multiple units. The Lamplighter(TM) System was born. It is an aluminum box that holds all the prototype components but with a great deal more rigidity than the prototype and is shown in below.


With a modular unit like this, I could now plan to light up the whole train layout. A huge advantage is that one region could now be lit up with only one LED bulb and fiber optic cabling. One of the greatest benefits of this approach is the ability to light up buildings in seconds! All one does is mount the Lamplighter box underneath the layout, insert a fiber into the box, drill a hole of say 1/8” underneath an existing building on the layout, and insert the other end of the fiber into the building. A schematic of how it is used on the layout is show below.

This step of adding lighting to more buildings may be repeated without the need to wire up another light source making the operation simple. Indeed, with the present configuration, one Lamplighter box can light up between 12 to 13 buildings using 1.5mm diameter fiber optic cables. Some of modelers decide to anchor their structures down to the layout. So how do you go about installing a lighting system in these? With a fiber optic system there is no need to get any other access to a structure than through a small hole in the layout board, and the job is done. Of course, street lights add significant realism to any layout. These are quite a challenge to make with LED’s, so I wondered how they would turn out using Fiber optics. One of the keys was to make them look attractive in the HO scale without them looking chunky. Reducing the fiber diameter to 1mm and using very thin walled metal tubing did the job, as can be seen from the street lights shown.

Although they are small and in-scale for an HO layout, they provide ample lighting. With the smaller diameter fiber, one Lamplighter box can provide light for up to 28 street lights. Image below shows the Lamplighter being used for both buildings and street lights.

The length of the fibers can be easily adjusted with a snip.  Be careful, however, to use shear cutters which will provide a smooth sharp end cut, as against using typical wire cutters that will pinch the fiber, thereby reducing the light output.

If colored lighting is desired within a building, colored cellophane can be wrapped around the end of the fiber-optic when inserting it into the structure. A major advantage in using optical fibers with an LED light source is that it provides a so called ‘cold light’ in which there is no heat dissipated beyond the LED. This removes any concern over melting structures or creating a potential fire hazard on the layout.  You could also paint the fibers!

Another advantage of the Lamplighter System is the very small lighting effects that can be created. An English looking pub that I built from scratch has a beer garden in which needed lighting into a tree and under the typical Cinzano® umbrellas. In this case I used 0.75mm diameter optical fibers, the effects of which are seen below.

A very recent discovery was that if one drills out the headlights of a model car one can have shining lights within minutes using fiber optic cables. The lighting effects are really limited by the railroader’s imagination, after all, isn’t that what model railroading is all about?

This really is the next revelation in model lighting. The major benefits are:

  • Adding light to structures in a matter of seconds
  • No wiring needed
  • Cold light on the layout - no heat dissipation in structures
  • Lighting effects are limitless
  • Cost effective solution using a single light source for many structures

The Lamplighter system is a Trademark of Dwarvin Enterprises.
More details can be found at

Dr. Michael Groves is a retired consultant in the Medical Field. His love for trains started as a young boy watching the end of the steam era in England. Now in the USA his hobby, that started again with his 7-year-old son, now has his grandchildren delighted in making components for the track scenes, as well as occasionally running trains.

Austin Mitchell is Michael’s grandson and has a real engineering mind. He has always been intrigued by his grandfather’s train set and has built both the Lamplighter box and the street lights. He is currently being homeschooled and is in his sophomore year of high school.

Images are courtesy of Mr. Kai Leong, Mr. Bill Crawford and the schematic is courtesy of Poh Ann Goh.

Original article published in SUSQUEHANNA SIDETRACKS Vol 26 No. 2. Minor modifications to the text and photos were made for formatting purposes.

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