Building scenery

Materials and techniques for transforming a Plywood Central into a realistic model railroad

een procrastinating? Sooner or later all the track is laid and wired, the trains are running, the equipment has been detailed and weathered, and you can no longer put off building scenery. Fortunately, it’s easier today than it was, say, 20 years ago, thanks to all the quality scenery products now available. You can get nearly everything you need at a well-stocked hobby shop. Remember that no stretch of scenery has to last forever. If you don’t like it, you can just knock it out and try again. (Lots of fine modelers have done just that more than once.) You’re out only a few bucks worth of materials and you’ve gained valuable experience. Like most everything else in this hobby, the more you do it, the better you get.


The three elements
As my friend Bob Hayden says, there are three elements of scenery-making: form, color, and texture. Get all three right and your scenery will be right. Let’s start with form, the shapes of things. Your best friend here is observation. Our memories don’t serve us well; looking at the real thing and studying photos is much more reliable. After considerable squinting and hand waving over imaginary contours you’re ready to start. Figure 1 shows two popular techniques; I’ve listed some advantages and disadvantages with each. Modeling with extruded foam board is extremely popular with today’s modelers, so if you have difficulty choosing, choose that.

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B. Foam board method First foam layer supported by wood risers.

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1. Hot glue vertical 1"-wide corrugated cardboard strips in place. 3. Lay on surface of hand-sized paper towel strips dipped in soupy plaster (messy method), or plaster cloth strips (neat method). Plaster cloth is sold in hobby shops. 4. Apply finish surface with putty knife, using plaster (messy), or Sculptamold (very neat). Sculptamold is sold in hobby and craft shops.

Some scenery fundamentals

2. Weave in horizontal strips and staple (or hot glue) where strips cross. (Stapling is much faster and easier, but requires a pliers-type stapler.)

A. Cardboard Strip Method

Increase flexibility by bending while pulling across a handy surface. Cut strips across the corrugations.

Color and texture

Once we’ve modeled the ground, it’s time to paint it. Lots of modelers choose browns that are too dark. Soils are lighter than we think, plus our layout lighting doesn’t approach the intensity of sunlight. Medium tan in a flat latex wall paint works very well for model railroad scenery. Usually we thin the latex paint about 50-50 with water, brush it on, and then begin sprinkling scenery materials on immediately to take advantage of the paint’s adhesive quality. We can



1. Inexpensive (particularly with messy methods).

1. Need carefully applied finish layer to hide outline of strips. 2. May need modifications to obtain final shape desired. 3. Messy (unless plaster cloth and Sculptamold are used).

2. Fast (particularly on broad expanses). 3. Easily modified. 4. Lightweight (particularly if Sculptamold is used).

1. Stack up layers cut from foam insulation board; 1" and 2" thicknesses work well. Bond with Liquid Nails for Projects.

2. Smooth surface with hot-wire tool, knives, Surform tools, whatever works. (Hint: Hot-wire tools are great.) That’s it. You’re ready to paint the surface with tan latex paint.

1. Controllable, easy to achieve the shape you want. 2. Lightweight and quite durable (especially good for modules and portable layouts). 3. No wood formers ever needed.

1. Slow, particularly if building a large layout. 2. Expensive if foam insulation board is purchased. (Scraps can often be picked up at construction sites.) 3. Can be messy, although a hot-wire tool eliminates much of this problem.

1. Paint surface with thinned tan latex paint.

2. Sprinkle on scenery materials (sand, ground foam, etc.). 3. Bond by spraying with diluted adhesive, detergent added.

To unify a rock surface apply plaster between castings and use a knife to carve the wet plaster so it blends with the castings. (A palette knife works best for me.)

Painting rocks
Most modelers use artist’s acrylics, usually out of tubes. They dry quickly and clean up with soap and water. (You’ll note that the materials we’ve discussed here are all water-soluble. Generally this means you can keep working without waiting for work to dry thoroughly, can clean up easily, and won’t get chemical reactions.) When painting rocks I begin with a thinned coat of white, but many modelers go straight to work with colors. For the most part we stick with earth tones: burnt umber, raw umber, burnt sienna, and raw sienna. Of these burnt umber (a rich brown) is the most useful. You’ll also need some Titanium White and Mars Black to lighten or darken colors. Squeeze out short ribbons of paint on a palette, a white dish, or whatever is handy (as long as it’s white so you can see the colors). Keep a cup of clean water handy (change it frequently), and start mixing with your brush and painting. This may sound artsy and difficult, but you’ll get the hang of it quickly.

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1. Paint rocks with acrylic paints, let dry. 2. Flow on black wash with wide brush, let dry.

4. Sprinkle on more materials, spray again. Repeat cycle until desired results are achieved.

Washes and drybrushing
Several special painting techniques will prove helpful. The first is washes, wherein you flood an area with a thin solution of paint, applying it with a large brush, say a 1" or 11⁄2" flat. See fig. 3. Besides being good for establishing a color base, this technique is also useful later in the painting process. You can, for example, apply a thin coat of dark color that will settle into nooks and crannies and help bring out the detail. Another technique is drybrushing, wherein you dip the brush into paint, wipe it dry on a paper towel, then brush vertically over raised surfaces. (Yes, an all but imperceptible amount of paint has remained on the brush.) A 1⁄2" flat brush works well for this. All I’ve attempted here is to touch on some primary concepts, techniques, and materials. For a wealth of further information, get Dave Frary’s book, How to build realistic model railroad scenery, published by Kalmbach. Give scenery modeling a try. It’ll make a tremendous difference on your layout, and if you don’t believe me, just sprinkle some green ground foam on a stretch of plywood next to the track and run a train by. What a difference! 1

3. Lightly drybush to highlight surface detail. Don’t overdo it.

sprinkle on sifted real dirt, tiny rocks, ground-up leaves, or kitty litter, but the favorite material today is ground foam. This is plastic foam (the material inside seat cushions) ground up and dyed. Woodland Scenics is a major manufacturer. A variety of grinds (from fine to coarse) and colors is available.

als. Otherwise you can end up with a crust that breaks away, revealing still loose materials underneath. For small areas spray on “wet” water (water with liquid detergent added), then apply the adhesive (mixed the same as for spraying) with an eyedropper.

Rocks Bonding scenery materials
As you build up scenery materials you can bond them in place by spraying them with a dilute mixture of adhesive from a household plant sprayer, as shown in fig. 2. (Clean the sprayer afterward if you expect to be able to use it again.) I like to use matte medium, an acrylic varnish available from art supply stores. A good ratio for spraying is 5 parts water to 1 part matte medium. Adding about a half-teaspoon of liquid dishwashing detergent will help the adhesive penetrate the scenery materiLots of modelers carve rocks in plaster as it is setting up and some get good results. For the rest of us a better, faster method is to cast rocks in rubber molds, available at hobby shops. Plaster of paris, patching plaster, and molding plaster all work well for casting rocks. Just mix the plaster to a thick cream consistency and pour it in the molds. Either let the castings set up in the molds, then glue them to the layout, or else keep an eye on them and as they’re setting hold them in place on the layout to cast rocks in place.


ighly detailed, prize-winning foreground scenery doesn’t have to be time-consuming or overly complex. In fact, with a little effort and research, building show-quality scenery can be fun, easy, and rewarding. My scenery techniques were inspired by a convention clinic given by late MODEL RAILROADER staff member Art Curren in the 1990s called “Scenery as I See It.” The main point of Art’s clinic was that density, shape, size, and color vary greatly in nature. As a result, the more texture you can add to your scenic details such as trees, brush, and undergrowth, the more realistic they’ll appear to the viewer. Follow along as I take you step-by-step through the process I used to build the scenery for my HO scale model contest dio-


The scenery techniques Sam Swanson uses on his HO scale layout and award-winning dioramas are fun, convincing, and most importantly, simple to duplicate for your own model railroad.
rama, Hall Hollow. It is an Appalachian valley coal mine surrounded by muddy roads, dense brush, rock outcroppings, and wooded hills, adding realistic texture to the scene. 1 Sam Swanson, of Cincinnati, Ohio, enjoys scratchbuilding highly detailed structures. Having won many awards for his modeling work, his Hall Hollow diorama, as seen in this article, won first place for On-line Display at the 2001 National Model Railroad Association convention in St. Louis, Mo.


Landscaping from the foam up
By Sam Swanson • Photos by the author

For a solid foundation I use extruded foam insulation board. I build the rough topography by stacking layers of foam, holding them together with Liquid Nails for Projects adhesive and bamboo skewers. After the glue dries, the land features are easy to define using a serrated-edge paring knife. Other tools that work well for shaping the foam include a Surform tool, a rasp, various wire brushes, and even sandpaper. (A Shop-Vac is also a handy item to help control the mess.) Next, I pencil in roads and trackwork with a permanent marker, and cut spaces for structure bases that will be incorporated into the scene.



I use track spurs and roads as leading lines to guide viewers into a scene. Typically the lines provide a color contrast – dark-ballasted rights-of-way versus light clay roads – and each helps catch the viewer’s eye. For rail spurs, I glue flextrack into place with a thin layer of Liquid Nails spread on top of the foam roadbed. I then spread soil and ballast around the track and secure it with diluted white glue (two parts water, one part glue). For dirt roads, I mix fine clay soil with diluted white glue to a consistency of peanut butter as seen in the photo on the right. Then I spread it on the roadway about 1⁄8" thick and work in ruts with the end of a paintbrush. Next I sprinkle dry clay on the non-rutted areas and let the road dry thoroughly. For the final touch, I rub the road with a stiff brush or my finger to give it that dusty, hard-packed clay road appearance as seen in the photo below.



The bulk of the outcroppings on the diorama are carved from the same foam insulation board I used for the base. I score and snap 2"-thick foam pieces and glue them in place to start the rock formations. I then carve and sand the outcroppings until I am satisfied with the lines and shapes of the rocks. Next, I use a four-step finishing system, as shown in the photo. First I paint the outcropping with a suitable tan color. In the second step, I stain crevices and shadowed areas with a thinned complementary dark color of paint. For the third step, I add texture to the rocks by what I call the “soiling” process: affixing fine clay to the rocks with diluted white glue. I brush diluted glue over the painted/stained (and thoroughly dried) surface. Then I sprinkle or brush the clay liberally on the rock face and let it dry completely before proceeding. As a final step, I drybrush the rocks with lighter colors of paint to highlight and accentuate the texture.





To give the ground the proper look, I use an assortment of soils, rock debris, and ground foam to create my basic ground cover. For your layout, consulting pictures of the area you are modeling is a must when making these color selections. I start by painting the open foam areas between the track, roads, and rock outcroppings with a flat interior latex tan paint. I then add soil and fine ground foam, along with talus (rocks sloughed from outcroppings) around the rocks. To vary the soil color, I use two strengths of diluted white glue: The stronger the glue mixture, the darker the color of the soil when it dries. For the area I model, foam colors include a variety of greens, browns, and yellows. I commonly use eight different colors, starting with Woodland Scenics Green and Earth blends. I let the ground cover dry thoroughly before adding any other scenic details.

I consider everything from grass tufts, bushes, brier thickets, and weed accumulations to be underbrush. The two materials best suited to modeling underbrush are jute twine for grass and commercial poly fiber for bushes and thickets. They have the “fuzzy quality” that Art Curren stressed as important in model scenery and simulate the dense undergrowth found throughout my modeled region, the Appalachian hills. To create large areas of thicket and weed underbrush quickly, I use thinly stretched mats of poly fiber covered with several different colors of fine ground foam fixed in place with either maximum-hold hair spray or Testor’s Dullcote. I use the same colors as the ground cover and prepare a variety of color combinations, often placing different colors on the front and back of the mats. To make wildflowers, I add dashes of Woodland Scenics no. 48 flower mix to a few of the poly fiber mats. When installing them in the scene, I vary the underbrush mats by mixing up the colors, shapes, and densities. I stretch the mat so some of the ground cover shows through and glue it in place with beads of fullstrength white glue.





With the poly fiber underbrush in place, I add more detailed individual underbrush items including grass tufts, bushes, and saplings. For grass tufts, I stain and tease jute twine. When dry, I plant the tufts in holes in the foam base and secure them with white glue. You can also use grass tufts to make small bushes by gluing fine foam to the jute fibers for leaves. I make simple bushes from poly fiber or tree foliage balls sprinkled with fine foam. I typically use bushes in heavy undergrowth areas to provide some vertical shapes and vary the texture of the underbrush. For saplings I use the small twigs that break off when making trees and top them with a ball of commercial fiber or clump foliage; both work well and provide variety through color and density. I use saplings to bridge the transition from underbrush to the wooded areas, much as they do in nature.

To make the dense stands of deciduous trees that characterize Appalachia, I use three different types of trunks covered with fiber and clump foliage, as well as fine ground foam. My goal is not to model specific species, but to vary trunk and foliage sizes, shapes, and colors enough to produce realistically wooded hills. For my homemade tree trunks, I use sunflower roots and various twigs. They’re realistic and free! I preserve the natural trunks by allowing them to dry thoroughly over a couple of months and then submerging them in a pool of diluted white glue. Later, I add a 3⁄8" length of .020" brass wire to the base as a mounting pin. To make larger trees, I combine sunflower roots and twigs. Sometimes I thicken the trunks by sculpting root bases from Duro Master-Mend green epoxy and then paint the roots to match the rest of the tree trunk. I also use Scenic Express SuperTree commercial kits for their light and airy appearance.



To add leaves to the trees, I use Woodland Scenics fiber and clump (or cluster) foliage. The key to making realistic trees is to cover the sunflower and twig branches with many small puffballs of teased foliage material individually glued to the branches. I start near the bottom of the tree and work out and up along the trunk and branches, gluing the foliage balls on with white glue. After those have had time to set, I fill in any unwanted open spaces by gluing puffballs directly to each other. When dry, I highlight the treetops by dusting them with light-colored fine ground foam, holding it in place with hair spray or Dullcote. I install the trees on the diorama last, only after all the other scenery has been completed. First I test the placement of the trees in the scene, either individually or in groups of three or five. Once I am happy with how they look, I plant each tree by pressing it firmly into the foam base, securing it with white glue. With that, your lush, textured Appalachian scenery is finished and you can to amaze your friends with your realistic re-creation.

Western scenery
How-tos for handling the subtleties of arid scenery in foreground locations
By Pat Gerstle • Photos by the author


any modelers are drawn to Western scenery: snow-capped mountain ranges, twisting canyons, endless deserts, and pine forests. I suspect some modelers even choose the location before they choose a railroad. The photo of Clear Creek Canyon, Colo., (fig. 1) is the sort of scene that inspires us to model the West, but what we usually see when standing

trackside, as fig. 2 shows, is a few feet of rocky soil, some scrubby bushes, and maybe some larger rocks and a hillside behind the train. This article is about how to model this up-close-to-the-action trackside detail.

Among my primary references for colors and general scenes are pictures

from railroad wall calendars. The photos are large, very high quality, and provide a detailed view of the railroad and its surroundings. Nothing helps like the real thing, however, so I have an equally large collection of personal photographs. For general how-to on scenery, I recommend Dave Frary’s How to Build Realistic Scenery for Model Railroads from Kalmbach Publishing.

In fig. 3, I have cut and glued some 2"-thick blue foam to form the base of a small rise on which a mine will be placed and covered the foam with plaster soaked towels or gauze. I then painted this base with a soupy mix of plaster to fill in any holes and thin areas. Next I added rock castings, fixing them in place with plaster and painting around them with the plaster soup to blend them into the base. Finally, without waiting for the plaster to dry, I painted the ground and castings with the base color. Western scenery is mostly beige with some light tans and reds thrown in. I use Sears no. 770 interior flat latex diluted with an equal amount of water. Brush it over everything except the rocks. On the rocks, mix one part paint with two parts water for more of a stain. Now wait for things to dry, then brush on some dilute raw umber for reddish highlights. Finish with your favorite black wash (either very thin black paint or India ink and alcohol) to bring out the details. Your finished scene should look something like fig. 3.

Fig. 2 TRACKSIDE SCENERY. At trackside, you rarely see big vistas; usually you see a relatively shallow scene of rocks and grass.

Ground cover
The next process introduces most of the surface details, and most of the surface detail in the West consists of LOTS of rocks, of all sizes, scattered and piled everywhere. I used the following Woodland Scenics products: talus (fine, medium, coarse, and extra coarse in Buff and Brown; ballast (fine and medium) in Buff and Brown; turf and coarse turf in Yellow Grass, Burnt Grass, Earth, and Soil; clump foliage in Burnt Grass, Light Green, and Fall Mix; and field grass in Natural Straw, Harvest Gold, and Light Green. I also use finely sifted dirt and goldmine tailings I gathered from the area I’m modeling. I make a palette of these materials by placing them in empty tuna cans in a box lid. Start by painting a small area (about one square foot) with a thick coat of full-strength white glue. Now drop the large talus pieces randomly and in groups over the area. If the area is sloped, place more toward the bottom. Next, drop the medium talus around, followed by the fine. Use more of the medium and lots more of the fine. Put some of the medium and fine talus around the large and randomly distribute the rest over the whole area. Concentrate the talus in gullies, stream beds, and at the base of rock formations. At this stage your scene should look like fig. 4.

Fig. 1 CLEAR CREEK CANYON. This view typifies the scenery of the West, but few layouts have the space to model such large vistas.
Now scatter small patches of the turf and grass around – not a lot and concentrated in the areas where moisture would collect. To fix the groundcover, I spray on a coat of “wet water” (water with one or two drops of dish detergent added so that it soaks into the groundcover). Then I use an eyedropper to distribute a 50/50 mixture of white glue and water. Make sure the ground is thoroughly saturated with glue. Only when all is solidly dry do I plant the larger shrubs and trees. The shrubs are clump foliage and the trees are pines and aspens from K&S Scenery Products. A lot of the shrubs are placed near the larger rocks because moisture collects in the shadows. The last thing I add is the field grass – I love this stuff! I add clumps in all shapes and sizes around larger rocks and in gullies. I think by striving for realism in the area you would see up close I’ve captured the look of Western scenery without trying to include the snow-capped back range! 1 Pat Gerstle is a computer programmer who lives just outside of Lexington, Ky. His primary modeling interests are scenery and photography. This is his first published article.

Fig. 3 BASE TERRAIN. After shaping the basic landform and adding rock castings, Pat paints the whole area a light tan.

Fig. 4 ROCKS AND MORE ROCKS. Woodland Scenics talus and ballast provide a wide range of rock sizes to work with.

Fig. 5 PLANT LIFE. Plants don’t dominate Western scenery, but they’re needed. Concentrate them where water naturally collects.


steps to

Easy scenery you can make with ceiling tile
By Joe Whinnery • Photos by the author


ne of the nicest comments I’ve heard about my layout came during the 1997 National Model Railroad Association convention. Some visitors from back East said the sedimentary rock formations on my HO scale Eastern coal-hauling layout looked real, and that they knew exactly where the actual scene was I had modeled! That is the essence of model railroad scenery – making it look real. The technique I model rocks with is time-tested but perhaps new to some of you. Beside getting great results, it’s easy and inexpensive.
Re-creating dramatic scenes such as this is part of the fun of building scenery. Joe Whinnery relies on a time-honored technique to make typical Appalachian rock formations for his HO scale Eastern coal-hauling layout.

The Appalachian Mountains are layers of sedimentary rock that the massive collision of two continents forced upward. In some places – like this scene on Cranberry Grade at Terra Alta, W. Va. – the rock layers folded into elongated arches and troughs. Ceiling tile built up in layers, textured, and painted can re-create this dramatic effect.

Ceiling tile unlimited
I prefer ceiling tile for creating large sedimentary rock formations typical of the Appalachians. I’ve also used plaster castings with good results because the rubber molds duplicate the textures of real rock. But I’ve found most rock molds are too small to effectively and efficiently create large rock expanses. In the same vein, extruded foam board makes fine rock surfaces, but it’s more difficult to achieve the layered look I wanted. Ceiling tile has many advantages. It’s inexpensive and easy to find, cut, shape, and color. But make sure you buy new ceiling tile at a home-improvement or hardware store rather than scrounging for castaway pieces from an old building. The discarded stuff might contain asbestos – model railroading is supposed to be fun, not hazardous to your health. And always wear a dust mask when cutting and carving ceiling tile.

Planning pays off
Before grabbing my carving tools, I take some time to plan how I want the scene to look. As was mentioned in Part Four of Tony Koester’s Coal Fork Extension series (September 1998 MODEL RAILROADER), Africa and North America have probably collided at least twice in Earth’s long history, and the last collision created the Appalachian Mountains. And during one of the continents’ earlier collisions, tectonic plate action compressed many sedimentary rock layers, creating arches called “anticlines” and troughs called “synclines,” which are prevalent in the Appalachians. I wanted some sections of my scenery to reflect this signature geological effect, so I tilted some ceiling tile layers upward with a small wedge of material, such as a door shim. Got your new pieces of ceiling tile and some tools? Good, then let’s make some rocks! 1

a board creates a clean edge. Score the white side with a screwdriver, utility knife, or old hacksaw blade, then gently bend the tile over the board until the piece snaps off. It’s a good idea to do this step outdoors because of the dust it creates.


TILE PIECES. Snapping pieces of tile over the edge of

the height you want the rock formation to be. Glue each successive layer to the one beneath it with white glue or a thin layer of an acrylic adhesive such as Liquid Nails for Projects. Weight or pin the pieces together until the glue dries.


BUILDING UP LAYERS. Stack layers of ceiling tile to

CARVING. This is the messiest part of the rock-making process, so make sure you do it outside and wear a dust mask. You can carve ceiling tile with a wire brush, a straight-slot screwdriver, and broken hacksaw blades. Use the wire brush in a long horizontal motion to get a layered look, and the screwdriver and hacksaw blade to make deep, vertical fissures. Refer to photos of real rock formations and use your imagination.


PATCHING. Mix up a small batch of Sculptamold (a clay and paper product available at most hobby shops or from Walthers at and patch any significant gaps in the tile with it using a palette knife (available at most art stores and some hobby shops). The Sculptamold shows as white areas against the gray tile and, after it dries, it will take paint just as well as the ceiling tile layers.


eiling tile is a handy material for making easy and realistic sedimentary rock formations like those typically found in the Appalachian Mountains. Coloring the rocks is as simple as airbrushing or brush-painting earth-tone acrylic washes over the sealed surface.


Tools you’ll need include:
❑ ❑ ❑ ❑ straight-slot screwdriver old hacksaw blade dust mask wire brush ❑ ❑ ❑ ❑ palette knife 2" paintbrush shop vacuum airbrush (optional)

Meet Joe Whinnery


oe’s interest in railroading started in grade school when his uncle worked as a brakeman for the Baltimore & Ohio’s St. Louis Division. After a tour in the Army as a photographer, then college, Joe’s interest in model railroading revived. His current layout is an HO scale Eastern coal hauler drawing on the B&O, Chesapeake & Ohio, and the Chessie System. The 13 x 30foot layout has earned the National Model Railroad Association’s Golden Spike and Master Scenery awards, and it was one the layouts participants could visit during the 1997 NMRA convention in Madison, Wis. In addition to his career as a professional photographer, Joe works at the Brass Whistle, a hobby shop in Loves Park, Ill., near Rockford.

brushing water over the tile face. This step keeps the porous tile from soaking up too much sealer. Leftover tan-colored latex paint makes a great sealer. Let the sealer coat dry completely before applying any other colors. Tile that’s too wet can break apart.


SEALING. Get rid of the “fuzzies” the wire brush caused by

More on our Web site
For another basic technique you can use to make realistic rocks, visit MODEL RAILROADER’S Web site at There you’ll find an article on how to make rock castings.

COLORING. It’s best to color your rocks under the same kind of light that’s over your layout. You can use an airbrush or brush-paint. If you brush-paint, apply thinned acrylic earth tones over faces, then spray the rocks with water to blend the colors. An airbrush lets you do more precise coloring, such as simulating a layer of shale in sandstone. You’ll get better results with several light passes of the airbrush rather than one heavy pass.


SOIL AND VEGETATION. After blending the existing scenery base around the rock face, add vegetation and soil. Kudzu, a noxious weed prevalent in the South, often covers rock faces. Finely sifted dirt or gravel gives the appearance of soil that’s been washed down the face of the rock. To simulate kudzu, make a light pass with spray glue over stretched-out brown or green polyester fiber, then sprinkle medium-grade ground foam on the fiber.


Splendor in the grass
Modeling knee-deep grass with a new material and methods
By René Gourley • Photos by the author


s a youngster I spent many quiet afternoons sitting in a trackside field about a mile from my home while the breezes rustled through the tall grass. The rails shimmered brightly in the afternoon sun while birds soared overhead and the field resounded with the sounds of summer insects. Ultimately my patience was rewarded when the blare of a distant air horn brought me to my feet so I could see the oncoming train. The tall grass along the right-of-way never saw a mower so some of the plants tickled my chin when I walked through them. Over the years, I’ve attempted a number of techniques to duplicate these high grasses in HO scale using fake fur, twine fibers, and ground foam. Unfortunately, ground foam evokes leaves and foliage better than it does tall, vertical grass, and fake fur comes on a woven backing that’s too dense.

In 1998, I received a German model railroad magazine which had some superb photos of scenery with tall grass that made me look twice. The article indicated that the scenery was made using products from Silflor, a German manufacturer of scenery materials.

First sample
Silflor makes a variety of grass materials as shown in photo 1. My first sample was a square of winter pasture. This mat represents grass that’s been standing for some time so the leaves closest to the ground are still green, but the tall blades have been bleached by the sun. The fine nylon fibers are tightly packed, providing an excellent representation of a densely planted field of standing hay. Turning the sample over, I found the grass is woven into a backing of heavier fibers. You can pull this substrate apart to produce a scattered, irregular field of hay. See photo 2. The grass never gets






1. VARIETY. Silflor’s grass comes in short bristle spring, summer, and winter colors. The autumn mat has the longer bristles to simulate tall grass. Other mat colors and textures simulate forest ground cover, moorland, pasture with weeds, and pasture with long grass. 2. THINNING GRASS. As delivered, Silflor’s grass is too dense for the scrubby growth along the right-of-way. Pull it apart until the grass begins to look more realistic. 3. GRASS AND SOIL. Once the mat has been teased out, it’s glued down to a layer of soil using white glue. Some of the soil will show through between the clumps of grass. 4. GRASS APPLICATION. Set the mat on the wet glue and press it down with tweezers to prevent matting. Adjust the clump positions as needed with tweezers. Trim off any excess grass after the glue has dried overnight. 5. ADD DIRT. Use fine sifted dirt, worked into the grass mat with an old toothbrush, to hide the substrate fibers. Then flood the area with wet water and diluted white glue.
sparse, but clumps spread farther apart until they detach completely. As the clumps pull apart, some of the grasses fall over, but enough vertical blades remain to represent late season grass. Being nylon, the blades of grass are shiny so they reflect light in a distressingly unrealistic manner. Fortunately, this sheen is easily remedied with a fine spray of matte medium. I use an airbrush to keep from gluing everything together in a big mess. I can apply this dulling spray before or after planting. the space. The spaces in the mat require application over a painted surface or one that has a soil texture so an appropriate color shows through. See photo 3. Full-strength white glue is the primary adhesive for this grass mat. Spread the glue liberally in depressions and anywhere you plant the grass. The white glue soaks in and dries transparent, making a permanent bond that holds the grass fibers upright. Use tweezers to press the grass mat into the glue as shown in photo 4. Avoid the temptation to press with your fingers as that results in a matted jumble. The tweezers also comes in handy to make minor adjustments. Don’t worry if the edges of the mat overlap the glue area as they can be easily trimmed once the glue has dried overnight. To hide the substrate fibers, pour the finest dirt you can get over the area. Use a retired toothbrush and your fingers to work the dirt into the grass and pull the

Silflor Products are available from the following mail order companies:

Blue Ribbon Models
P. O. Box 333 Swampscott, MA 01907-3333

International Models
22 Harold Rd. Birchington, Kent, CT7 9NA, UK

blades of grass back into view (photo 5). Flood the area with water wetted with a few drops of dish soap, followed by diluted white glue to secure the soil. The next morning, or when the first glue dries, add some fine dark green ground foam and a few bits of chunkier light green foam and glue it down to represent some of the other plants mixed into the grass.

Patience rewarded
These steps take a few evenings to accomplish, although it goes fairly quickly when I work on several areas at a time. It’s a small price to pay for the chance to go back to those youthful summer afternoons of lying in the grass listening for the first sounds of a train. 1 René Gourley, an S and HO fine scale modeler, recently moved from Canada to England, where he’s a consultant for a computer database company.

Planting procedures
The photos show how easy it is to duplicate the coarse grasses and undergrowth common along the railway right-of-way with the Silflor grass mats. It takes a little time, and the materials are somewhat more expensive than dyed sawdust. Begin by stretching and teasing the mat as far as it will go. Then cut it to fit

A tale of three creeks
These waterways illustrate both variety and consistency
By Jack Burgess
Photos by the author


e’ve all heard that variety is the spice of life. It’s easy to follow this advice when adding scenery to our layouts. But if we add a little of this and a little of that, we soon have a mishmash of scenes that don’t relate to each other in a realistic way. On the other hand, distinct scenes are essential to helping portray distance and variety. The solution is to take clues from nature, so slightly different scenes can be developed which will be realistic and also faithful to the prototype. As my prototype, the Yosemite Valley RR, left Merced in California’s San Joaquin Valley and headed for Yosemite National Park, it quickly crossed three creeks: Bear Creek at milepost 1.35, Black Rascal at 1.90, and Fahrens less than a mile later at 2.70. Regardless of proximity, these crossings are all unique. Bear Creek has relatively uniform banks covered with wild bamboo. Both Black Rascal and Fahrens flow along nonnative eucalyptus groves with occasional sycamores or cottonwoods along their banks.

to the casting resin, using brown and green tints for the first layers and green and blue for the middle layers. The final layers I poured clear. These darker colors emphasize the deep, slow water. In contrast, just the first layers of casting resin for Black Rascal Creek were lightly colored with green and blue to result in a clear, cool creek. Once the casting resin had cured, I dappled the surface of the creeks with a coat of acrylic gloss medium.

Bear Creek
I duplicated the dense wild bamboo covering the banks of the real Bear Creek using Woodland Scenics field grass (fig. 1). I applied it by cutting small clumps and gluing it in place with white glue. This was tedious but produced the look I was after. While there is a tendency for the material to lean over, just keep pushing it up. As the glue dries, it will finally hold position. Using sticky white craft glue rather than regular white glue also helps. Once the bamboo was in place and the glue had dried, I used a moustache scissors to trim the material to a relatively even length. Since the banks of Bear Creek were covered with bamboo, little further detailing was needed.

Initial modeling
All three creek crossings have standard YVRR concrete abutments, so I made a mold and cast the six abutments from Hydrocal plaster. I scratchbuilt the bridges from prestained stripwood and n.b.w. (nut-bolt-washer) castings. Next I installed the bridges and roughed in the scenery with plaster. I used real dirt to form the banks. The water for Bear and Black Rascal Creeks is casting resin that I poured in layers 1⁄8" to 1⁄4" deep. Since Bear Creek is relatively deep (a scale 10 to 12 feet), I added color directly

Black Rascal Creek
In contrast to Bear Creek, Black Rascal (fig. 2) is more typical of the meandering creeks draining the foothills in the Merced area. Moisture in the adjacent ground allows the grass to remain green during the hot summer months. To duplicate these conditions, I airbrushed Noch electrostatic grass a light green. The willows which encroach into

Engine no. 28 crosses Fahrens Creek on Jack Burgess’ HO Yosemite Valley RR. It’s one of the three distinct creeks he models.

Fig. 1 BEAR CREEK. The deep, slow water is perfect for fishing, so Jack added a raft and a youngster whiling away an August afternoon.

the creek are a combination of Woodland Scenics field grass and flower pieces from dried artichoke heads dyed light green. (Dried artichoke flowers can be found in craft stores.) Since the area next to the bridge seemed an appropriate watering hole, I mixed diluted white glue with fine-grained clay soil and spread it on the banks. I gave the muddy area a light coat of acrylic gloss medium to make it look wet.

Fahrens Creek
Unlike Bear and Black Rascal Creeks, Fahrens (fig. 3) is modeled as a dry creek bed, typical of the Merced area in mid-summer. I used Woodland Scenics field grass to model the bullrushes along the creek banks, hot-gluing it in place. Cattails were made with short pieces of fishing monofilament which had been dipped in white glue and allowed to dry to form the heads. I then painted the heads brown. I used fine beach sand to form the creek bottom and bonded it in place with diluted white glue. The sand was added after the field grass was in place, covering the hot glue. Portions of the real Fahrens Creek banks are covered with wild blackberry vines. To model this, I started with small poly fiber balls covered with ground foam, bonded the foam with hair spray, and glued them in place with white glue. A light sprinkling of red foam replicated ripening blackberries. Modeling scenery accurately requires no more than observing nature and, sometimes, developing techniques to reproduce what you observe. Detailing scenery can be a relaxing diversion from working on the rest of the layout. 1 Jack Burgess, who models the Yosemite Valley RR circa August 1939, contributes frequently to MODEL RAILROADER.

Fig. 2 BLACK RASCAL CREEK. To complete the meandering creek scene Jack added a steer and muddy hoof prints.

Fig. 3 FAHRENS CREEK. Detailing on the dry creek bed included adding cattails and bullrushes.

Cajon Creek step-by-step
How to model this meandering mountain stream
By Ted York
Photos by the author


visit Cajon Pass at least twice a year to shoot photographs and collect information for my HO Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe. In January 2000 I was exploring the pass with Al Bowen, a good friend who is well versed in the history and geography of the area. My question for him that day was, “Where does the water come from?” Despite the dry desert look of the pass some water always flowed down Cajon Creek. In the many times I’d been there, I had never looked into the creek’s sources. Al promptly drove up a narrow

road to the north of the tracks; we walked up a short trail where we found a small, clear lake nestled in the center of the San Andreas fault line. Water seeping up from cracks in the ground formed the lake, providing a source of water flowing through the pass year-round. I was amazed to be standing in a dry landscape looking at more water than I had imagined. But modeling this water would be a little different from what I had seen on most layouts because Cajon Creek is very shallow and clear, reflecting the



irst I prepared the streambed, using cardboard strips to form my scenery base then attaching cheesecloth with hot glue. Next I painted on two coats of plaster of paris mixed to the consistency of latex paint. To form the final scenery I came in with a coat of casting plaster about the consistency of cake batter. I formed the smooth areas of the riverbed by spreading the plaster with a spatula, then smoothed it as it set up by simply rubbing the plaster in a circular motion with my hand. I modeled the concrete under the bridge (the Santa Fe called them concrete blankets) with sheet styrene scribed to represent expansion joints, then installed it with casting plaster. On many areas along creeks, the bank has eroded leaving the top layers of soil hanging. Modeling this was quite simple with a sponge. I put some plaster on an area then used a damp sponge to push it toward the bank. As I did, excess plaster moved up and over the sponge. I pushed down upward bulges with my hand, smoothing it out like I did the riverbed. Dabbing at the plaster with the sponge as it sets up gives the plaster a soil-like texture. After the plasterwork was done I gave it a quick coat of a light tan latex paint. Then came the fun. I filled paper cups with dirt sifted to various grades and began tossing it over the riverbed. Since my stream was only a small portion of the entire bed and very shallow, I used dirt to form the channel that would contain the water. I added various shades of ground foam on top of the surrounding banks. Even though I’m modeling the desert

there’s a lot of plant life, much of it very green in spring. Next I soaked the material with isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol so the glue would penetrate. I used a coat of diluted Elmer’s white glue to fasten the ground cover. Before working anymore on the stream I weathered the bridge and abutments. My weathering materials are on the messy side and I didn’t want to get them on the finished “water.” I applied a very dilute wash of black shoe dye and isopropyl alcohol on the abutments. I used chalks to streak on the rust and dirt colors that wash down from the bridge. Finally, I painted a thin wash on the bridge, using a very dilute mix of the tan latex paint I used on the plaster.

Ted used a sponge to push the plaster into shape, forming the eroded banks along the riverbed.

Before finishing the creek Ted weathered the bridge and abutments so he wouldn’t get the weathering materials on the finished stream. A young railfan watches from below as a GP7 helper, lashed to the rear of a Santa Fe freight, crosses Cajon Creek, a year-round source of water.
color of the streambed itself, varied by shadows from the surrounding rocks, vegetation, and clouds passing overhead. The following photos and captions take you step-by-step through how I modeled my steam. 1 Ted York’s previous byline in MR was a story on detailing Union Pacific FA-1s.

After the plaster set, Ted painted it with light tan household latex paint.



orrectly coloring the water-covered portion of the streambed is one of the most important things if you want a realistic-looking stream. I studied photographs of the stream and decided a greenish brown was needed. I used tube acrylics for the project and experimented until I found suitable colors. I painted most of the stream with a raw sienna and white mix, but for the deeper mossy bottom I used an olive green mixed from black, yellow oxide, and white. I kept a separate container of water handy to dilute the acrylics as I applied them, watering down the paint as much as I could and still have it cover the dirt. I first painted the riverbed the raw sienna mix, then added the olive color, alternating between the two so I could blend them while wet. I also painted a

To give a realistic look to the water Ted painted the streambed with appropriate acrylic paint colors.
thin wash of the sienna down the concrete blanket. Next I drybrushed some streaks of olive down the concrete to give the look of moss build-up where the water flowed over it. Finally I drybrushed some white on areas that might have rapid moving

Ted drybrushed white where there might be a rapid movement of water, like around rocks and down the concrete blanket.
water, such as down the concrete and around rocks. Don’t overdo this though, unless you want major rapids. If you care to add junk to the streambed such as brush, and old tires, now is the time. Let the paint dry before going on to the next step.

used Enviro-Tex Lite two-part epoxy resin for water. The fun thing about this product is that if there’s a way for the resin to escape from your streambed it will. I was confident my streambed was leakproof except for the layout edge. Sealing this escape route was quite simple: I sandwiched a synthetic sponge between wax paper and a piece of Masonite hardboard. I ran a couple of screws through the Masonite, attaching everything to the fascia and forming a tight seal. The epoxy won’t stick to wax paper. Just be sure the dam extends far enough to each side of the stream to prevent epoxy from going around the sides. The epoxy instructions tell you to pour a maximum thickness of only 1⁄8". If you need it thicker make separate pours, allowing the epoxy to cure between each. My project took two coats. I used an old brush (old, because it’s the last time you’ll use it) to direct the epoxy. I also brushed a little on the concrete blanket; I didn’t want it to be very thick there. Once I was satisfied with the pour, I left town until morning to avoid the temptation to touch the stuff and mess it up. Be aware that Enviro-Tex tends to creep up the bank; it also cures as smooth as a sheet of glass. I was modeling moving water and needed ripples, so I bought a small bottle of Gloss-Luster Mod Podge at the local arts and crafts store. Gloss Medium will work as well. I used a paintbrush to spread the Mod Podge over the cured Enviro-Tex, pushing down on the brush and spreading the bristles to form a ripple pattern.


Sandwiching a sponge between wax paper and a piece of Masonite stops the EnviroTex from “escaping” the layout.

Notice how the epoxy has creeped into the riverbank along the water. This can be covered with ground foam.

Here’s the finished epoxy prior to applying the Mod Podge. It’s too smooth to represent moving water.
It took three coats, spread at random, to build up a nice textured surface. On the concrete I pulled the brush down the slope to get a look of downward movement. After that set up I applied more, this time pushing the brush downward to spread the bristles as I had done with the rest of the stream. I did it several times in the same spots to give the effect of water moving down in sheets as I have often seen on spillways. Although

Ted brushes on several coats of Mod Podge to build up the ripples that are found in moving water.
the Mod Podge goes on white, it dries to a nice shine. Not only does the water now give the illusion of moving down the streambed, it also gave the appearance of distorting the light as I looked into the water. Another nice feature is that if the water starts to look dull after a while, I can just grab the paintbrush and give the stream another quick coat of Mod Podge and it’ll be good as new.

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