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229 Posts
Discussion Starter #1
Ive been doing a scenery article at another site and thought I would also share it here.

This is for those who would like to build a permanent home course and do detailed scenic elements like those in the model railroad hobby do.
40 years in the model railroad hobby taught me a few things..........but I am still learning.........so anybody can feel free to pitch in with thier idea's and thoughts on scenery or the methods they use.
And so with that let us begin......

Before doing scenery work it is important to have the tools you need.
Also, deciding on what medium you will use (plaster, foam, ceiling tile, Styrofoam extruded foam insulation etc.)
For ground coverings, Base paint, various colored ground foams, colored sawdust, ground shrapnel (homemade ground cover made with leaves & Cypress mulch blended and screened), and various twigs, sticks, sifted dirt’s, rocks and any other details which will be made permanent. Don’t forget some moss green color for stone viaduct shadow area's and for around culverts etc.

For tools you should have spreaders, carvers, gougers, Molds, Spray bottles, adhesives, saw blades (for making rock strata) In various configurations. A dremel or motor tool is nice to have but not critical.

For coloring plaster you should have some good earth tone colors of paints ( I use artists acrylics and inexpensive acrylic craft paints) that can be mixed very thin with water . Raw Umber, Burnt umber, raw sienna, burnt sienna, yellow ochre etc are among the needed colors. These will be blended very thin making them more of a thin stain or wash.
India Ink & Alcohol mixed into several different tints.1 tsp to a cup..1 tbsp to a cup 2 tbs to a cup.
This mixture is sprayed on to define shadow areas. It can also be used on your figures to help define creases in clothing etc and to give light to heavy weathering affects to buildings.
A spray bottle of wet water (water mixed with a drop or two of dish soap) This helps your adhesive to flow into all the nooks and cranny’s.


Traditional Methods of building your tabletop include:
1 - The Flattop Over Box frame
2 - Open Grid
3 - L Girder
4 - Cookie Cutter over Open Grid

One somewhat newer method:

5 - 2”Extruded Foam Insulation Board with built up contours using various thick nesses of this same extruded insulation board. Extruded Insulation is very dense foam-board and IS NOT Styrofoam with all the little beads, which has very little strength.

Each method has its own Advantages and Disadvantages and the method you choose will ultimately affect your landscaping choices.

Lets take these 1 at a time and assign each with a skill level suggestion.

1 - Flat Top Method - Skill Level = Beginner
Advantages - Quick, Inexpensive, Solid and Strong with flat layouts, very basic building skills required.
Disadvantages - difficult to introduce grades into your roadbed, scenery options more difficult to introduce. Below grade features like streams & canyons near impossible.

With the Flat top method you must use additional material to make an elevated roadbed-gluing risers in place for that roadbed to get grades.
The flat top method generally works best if you plan on a flat track with very little in the way of scenic elements. While you can introduce scenery to this type of basic bench work, it is not the best or most ideal for the purpose of scenery and is ideally suited for the beginner to build his first layout while learning basic techniques as it helps to get a circuit or layout up and running quickly keeping the excitement level and forward momentum that a beginner needs.

2 - Open Grid - Skill Level = Novice
Advantages - Very Strong, Easy to scenic, ability to introduce low or dropped area’s into scenery, Ability to create multiple grade changes easily, Allows for underneath access for wiring purposes, Allows for Pop outs for difficult to reach area’s to scenic or simply maintain. Easy to Finish, Uses less material generally.
Disadvantages - More planning is needed in developing the overall scene before building. Additional Tools may be required as well as skill to create the risers and get plywood roadbed cut and installed

3 - L Girder Method - Skill Level = Novice/Advanced
Advantages - Lightweight, Strong, and Easy to scenic above and below grade, Front finish of layout can use radiuses for smooth flowing and visually appealing finish of project. Uses less Material. Easily formed Ideal for Screen, Plaster Hard shell Scenery, Easy access underneath for adding lighting extra wiring etc. This is a Professional method for building a permanent layout.
Disadvantages - Requires greater skill Level, Requires detailed planning before construction.

4 - Cookie Cutter over open grid = Beginner/Novice
Advantages - easy to put in some grades and some below grade scenery.
Requires minimal tools but a hand sabre saw will be required. Material needs to be strong enough to support track and cars easily; it must also be thin and flexible enough to flow with a grade. 3/8” Plywood sheathing seems to work well. Hairpin turns and Mountain switchbacks are very possible with this method.
Disadvantages - Limited below grade scenery, subject to temperature change problems if in an area like a garage where temps and humidity are not fairly constant or slow changing. Not recommended for any unheated space or space subject to exterior humidy and moisture fluctuations.

NEWER METHODS - Softer techniques

5 - Extruded Foam Insulation = Beginner/ novice
Working with this material requires some different tools than our traditional methods. Working with foam requires the use of Hot Wire cutting and forming tools with the quality examples of these being rather expensive and the Cheap variety’s being worth less that the postage to receive them.

Advantages - The weight strength ratio is very good for this method and this is a very viable technique for the temporary /permanent layout. With this method large modules can be built and easily moved being put together to form a complete circuit in minimal time. Imagine 4 x 6 foot tables that weigh under 25#s fully sceniced and that can be stacked in one corner taking up the space 1 small table would yet holding 6 fully sceniced modules that form an 8 x 18 ready to run Circuit. These are the possibilities with this method of bench-work.

Disadvantages - while strong for its weight it will not take the abuse a plywood tabletop will and it may require the occasional scenic touch up from high speed hits into soft material.
Can be expensive to buy and set up, particularly if you want grades.
Tools to work with this material can be a bit prohibitive.

Setting Your Terrain

While there are many methods used I will touch only on the main approach used by most to developing your scenic base,
This method has been used for many years and includes building up with wood and using screen or cardboard slats weaved over newspapers or a combination of wood screen and cardboard followed by a covering of Hydrocal plaster. This is called the Hard Shell Method of Terrain modeling and is used by most advanced terrain modelers.
Extruded foam is another method but this author simply does not have enough experience yet with it to do justice to the material as a scenic medium.

With this method combined with an open grid framework you can build above and below the bench work even running terrain all the way to the floor. This is an effective way to get into the scene and has been done by several accomplished modelers the most famous of which is John Allen who built the Gorre & Daphetid Model railroad. In his scenery you literally walked into a Canyon with mountains rising to the ceiling and the canyon walls going to the floor, which was painted blue to act as a river at the bottom of the canyon. His incredible model railroad was featured for many years in many publications and he almost single handedly changed the face of terrain modeling forever.

But this is not about John’s incredible feat. ( a simple online search will tell you more about his innovations including using mirrors within the scenes etc.)
No, this is about building YOUR scenery. It does help to study how others have done things however which is why I mention him here.

One thing that many folks forget to do is Add a backdrop onto their scene in area’s where it should have one. In Model railroading this is quite common. Not so much in the slot world but when we build against a wall a backdrop becomes an extension of our racetrack. Now is the time to determine HOW you want to do a backdrop if you will have one. In this way it can be worked into the terrain naturally. Most folks use 1/8” Masonite for their backdrop board but anything flexible will do.
Once you have your Backdrop board in place and have determined where you want elevations etc you can paint the backdrop a Sky blue color running this down below where you will attach your terrain forms. Painting in ground and tree’s can be done later as well as cut out buildings to detail your backdrop if you feel the desire. Photo mural backdrops are also an option for those artistically challenged, but be warned they can get rather expensive and some of these are So good, they actually will distract the viewer from the real stars of the show.... Your collection of racecars.

I picked up a rather simple method of painting a backdrop from Dave Frary.(author of Modeling Realistic Scenery) and I will share that here.

Get yourself some nice sky blue latex paint a rich medium blue...not too dark (do not go past the 3rd color on the paint chip)
Also get some basic White to match Flat finishes always work best in scenery modeling.
Start by grabbing a 3 or 4” brush and painting your Blue along an area about 6-8 feet long. Now, while it is wet use a 2” brush and work some white paint into the blue down low lightening the sky blue leaving more and more blue as you rise. Now take the same brush dip it in some paint and remove most of the paint by first brushing on some cardboard. Now stipple a little light cloud streaks up higher on the backdrop.

Move on to the next section and repeat until finished.
The great thing about this method is this
#1 - it is inexpensive
#2 - it is simple to Do Over if you do not like how it turned out
#3 - it will add a lot to all of your other scenery having that sky in the background.

OK this is finished so now we will add our risers, and cardboard or screen to form our hills. (Don’t forget to leave flat spots for buildings and little mini scenes)
Screen needs to be stapled to wood and requires a bit more work.(and a bit more money)
This method will cost more but does work very well.

Cardboard on the other hand is free and strips can be cut with a utility knife or simple box cutter and glued with a hot glue gun.
Once you have all of your screen or cardboard in place its time to cover this with our hardshell.
This will require
#1 - a mixing pail (ice cream pails are excellent)
#2 -a stir stick
#3 - a spatula for smoothing (go to the dollar store do not steal wifey’s)
#4 - a scoop
#5 - Paper towels
#6 - Hydrocal plaster (or Plaster of Paris if Hydrocal is unavailable)
#7 - Something to cover the floor etc like plastic tarps, plastic sheeting etc.
#8 - water (enough for mixing AND for cleanup)

This type work can get a little messy so my advice is do it when the wifey is out SHOPPING....... she’ll be excited about her purchases when she returns and will be less likely to notice the fine dust you just covered everything with because you didnt mix outside!!!

Tear paper towels into strips about 3” wide. You will need about 15 sheets torn into strips for a small batch of plaster so prepare plenty because once you have mixed the plaster it does not wait for you to tear up more, it simply sets up in the bucket.

Mix your plaster into an ice cream pail to about a cream soup consistency and dip individual sheets into this completely covering. Drape these plaster soaked sheets over your scenery forms starting at the bottom and working your way up. Do not worry about getting a perfect look; this is rough in work only.
Continue this until you have covered the entire area. As plaster starts getting thicker you can pour this into any area’s you feel are a bit thin and smooth with a spatula.
If any plaster is left over or did set up in the bucket, do not throw this away.
Let it harden and we can use it later for rip rap or talus along cliff edges etc.

If you want to you can add colorant to your plaster as you mix. Some people like to add powdered pigment or paint colorants to get an Earthy color that goes all the way through the plaster. I don’t think its necessary for this base coat but it does give the impression of getting somewhere rather than having a snow-white landscape LOL.
Once this is completely dry its time to do your rock molds or Glue in your Foam rocks .

Next time we will discuss GROUND GOOP and how to start getting that realistic look!!

1,457 Posts
Thanks for lending us your experience. Good stuff there. :thumbsup:

I would suggest using Woodland Scenics Plaster Cloth over newspapers for doing the hard shell mountain scenery though. Great product. Much cleaner and less materials needed. It's very easy to apply and if you goof it is easier to remove than metal screen soaked hydrocal. Once you get the look you want, then you can go over with the Hydrocal or plaster of your choice. You could even add dyes to your warm water when you soak the plaster cloth.

Scott V.
Vargo Speedway

229 Posts

1,457 Posts
Thanks. My track needs a make over though but the plaster scenery and modular construction has survived 15 years and a move across town after being cut apart and reassembled.

All my detailing techniques came from model railroading books. Probably older versions of those listed, I'll have to look. I also remember books by Lynn Wescott that I read as a kid. He illustrated the hardshell techniques in the 60's. I also have a bunch of Model Railroad magazine from the 40's, 50's and 60's. Great old stuff showing true scratchbuilt things when retail structures and materials weren't readily available.

Looking forward to more detailing tips. :thumbsup:

229 Posts
Discussion Starter #7
Hang tite there SlotV..........I'll be doing a little How to soon on making Foam Rocks (soft scenery........or at least softer :)
A guy in Australia came up with the technique and it is actually ideal for a slot car track where we DE-Rail often LOL

Yep, old magazines.....i had So many i had to get rid of the advertising and keep just the meat.
I have 10 portable File Boxes filled with articles (all filed by topic) From Model RR Craftdman and Model Railroader from the late 30's through 1980.
I have a complete 1990's and 2000's collection of both magazines (and still recieve them every month) along with a variety of specialty mags like Narrow Gauge & Short Line RR...............Timber Times............Model Railroading etc.

I recently sold most of my video collection and began picking up DVD's from specific talented individuals ( Like Dave Frary )

I also take scenery Photos most every where I go to remind me of details.

229 Posts
Discussion Starter #9
Ground Goop - Sculptamold - Groundcovers

There are several different ways of covering up that white winter wonderland of Plaster we’ve created with our hard-shell plaster coat.
Some are commercially available, others are simple home made alternatives.
Care must be taken in the selection of these coverings as some recipe’s under certain conditions can cause mold & Mildew to form making for a rather unpleasant environment for us and/or ruining all of our hard work to date..............Sometimes, Cheaper is not better.
“The sting of a bad installation lasts far longer than the sweetness of a good price.”
Something I learned in my Contracting Business and it applies here as well.

Sometimes saving money is important..........just do not let it become the all encompassing deciding factor of how you finish your masterpiece because it may cost far more in the end if things go awry. Experiment yes, but do so OFF the layout whenever possible.

OK warnings are done on to the show!!

Sculptamold is a commercially available product that is a bit expensive for large projects but extremely convenient and an excellent workable product. If you have a lot of scenery base to cover I wouldn’t recommend it unless you are in a hurry as it is spendy. For smaller layouts or layouts where little scenery base needs covering or for Diorama’s for that matter it works very well.

A Better Alternative for covering large area’s that is far less expensive is Ground Goop.

Making Ground Goop
There are several recipe’s available for this basic ground covering that was originated by Lou Sassi a well know modeler in the Model RR circle.
Lou’s Original Recipe
1C Celluclay
1C Permascene
1C latex pain
1/3C white glue
1 capful Lysol and water to bring it to a peanut butter consistency.

Permascene is no longer available. It was a product made from vermiculite and dry powdered glues. To substitute I have had success with adding Sculptamold and/or Ground up shredded Dry oak & Maple leaves, ground Cypress Mulch, dry sawdust and wallpaper paste.

1 - cup Celluclay
1 - cup earth colored latex paint
1/2 cup of white glue.
1 cup ground leaves & Cypress Mulch or sawdust fines (screened)
½ cup of clean Dirt/sand that has been baked to kill potential enemies of the state ( in this case meaning simply the wife’s state of mind)
¼ cup Cellulose Wallpaper paste
1 capful Lysol
Water to bring this solution to a creamy peanut butter consistency.

This mixture is excellent for creating a good colored scenic base that is workable and its a great start for our terrain. Fine sand can be sprinkled into this while wet as can other ground covers like ground foam. Mist any additions with wet water (water with a drop of Joy Dish Soap) And then spray with diluted White Glue (50/50 water glue mix)

Ground covers for finish are very much dependant on the look you are trying to achieve but one thing is consistent no matter what that look is, The more layers you use the more realistic your final outcome will be..........And this is a FACT!!!

I use many layers to create my scenes and I’ll list them here as basics
# 1 - Plaster - (including rock mold work)
# 2 - Ground Goop (Level One rock /talus added)
# 3 - Dirt/sand as needed
# 4 - Fine Ground Foam blended color #1
# 5 - Fine ground Foam- solid scatter color
# 6 - Fine Ground Foam -solid scatter color
# 7 - Ground Shrapnel *(explained below)
# 8 - More dirt sand pebbles as needed (final addition of rock talus)
# 9 - Add brush, bushes and trees
#10 - Final blending in includes using a little of most of the above here and there.

· Ground Shrapnel is my homemade leaf cypress mulch ground up and screened blend used for under-story ground cover in woods along waterways etc. consider it for use in any area that would have a bit wilder unkempt appearance.
· I Highly recommend this for use with your Rally Tracks

Rock Molds and Making Rocks

Making Rocks is not difficult with the use of latex rubber molds. These molds are available commercially OR you can make them yourself with the use of a Mold Making product.
Woodland Scenics has a good one that is inexpensive.
Done properly these molds will last many years. Making a Master for rock walls and using this Mold compound will make life so much easier if you need a lot of rock walls for building foundations, Terracing, Bridge and culvert abutments etc.
A How to on making you own molds will be done in the future if I see some interest. Most Model RR guys do at least some of their own mold making.
We have our Plaster Basecoat done; now we need to do our cliff faces.
Assemble your rock molds keeping in mind the direction of the strata. the direction you run the strata is far less important than that you keep it all running the same. Horizontal, vertical or at an angle we have seen them all so decide HOW you want to do your strata and then stay consistent.
Mix plaster and fill your molds after spraying lightly with Wet Water (remember, this is water with a little Joy dish soap in it). This will help the plaster to flow into all of the nooks and crannies. now watch and wait. Timing is critical so do not get distracted. When you pick up the mold and the surface of the plaster cracks ever so slightly (kind of like a pudding left in the fridge to long), this is the time to lightly mist the area you will apply the mold to and then Plop it on to the layout pushing it in with a slight pressure and holding it in place for 5-10 minutes depending on conditions. You will feel it heating up in your hand. After the requisite time has elapsed remove your hand but Not the Mold. Let it sit there for another 15-20 minutes. Doing 2 at a time like this helps whenever possible to get area’s done in a timely manner.

Save all of your dried left over plaster and crush it up separating it into varying sizes or grades. This will be used later as Talus.

Frocks.....Rocks from foam rubber I have covered earlier and will include here simply a web site link as I can not improve on his technique.

Other items that can be used to make rocks include Ceiling Tiles broken up and stacked.
Cork can be used in the same way.
Real rocks like flakes from shale and slate can be hot glued and stacked to make some interesting rock features.
Extruded foam can be carved and painted ( although I have found this difficult to get a good look but others with more artistic ability have done some fine examples)

Next Segment we will Discuss Coloring Your Rocks and begin on Trees..........From Deciduous Trees to Pine trees how to make them appear realistic.........When to use them, AND how to use them. :thumbsup:

See you next time........... :wave:

229 Posts
Discussion Starter #10
Understory & Landscaping Pine trees

Not everybody will be able to use those Tall timbers but a shorter Pine like a spruce or balsam used in the landscaping is a natural.
HEKI makes a nice little N scale Pine tree thats good for starters but it seems a bit bare to me.

Heres what I use to improve the looks of these tree's for front of the layout quality.
A needlenose pliers, 3M super Spray 77 adhesive, A Hammer A Tray and 2 differant ground foam colors in a fine texture. A piece of foam insulation to stick tree in when completed

Grab the trunk with the needlenose and spray complete tree. Roll in the ground foam and sprinkle some making sure it gets to the inside. Now use your hammer and tap the metal on the pliers while holding tree with it. This will knock off the excess unstuck material.. tap three or four times then set aside.

Using 2 colors you can have Balsams and spruces.

These work well in clumps of 3-5 tree's minimum for a wilder look or in even spacing for a tailored landscaped appearance.
100 Trees for around 24.00 in material and 2 hours of your time to improve them dramatically. 100 packs available on auction daily. BIN is generally around 25.00 last i looked but they can be had cheaper!! :thumbsup:

229 Posts
Discussion Starter #11
Here is a Clinic on making tall lodgepole pine trees from a very good friend of mine Rick Ludlow (used with permission).
I hope you enjoy this clinic.

The system I use is the very simple Malcolm Furlow approach, which is a balsa trunk, Caspia branches and green ground foam from WS.

I taper a 1/2" balsa stick about 2 ft. long (O scale) to a fairly fine tip using my dremel disk sander. I then hand sand to a smooth shape and use either a stiff barbeque wire brush to apply a grain. If I want a redwood tree, I use either a hacksaw blade or Sawzall blade to really put the deep grain in it.

I stain the trunk with alcohol/India ink and maybe a thin wash of brown acrylic paint.

Then, I spray a clump of caspia earth brown. I use a pushpin to poke holes in the trunk starting at the top.

Then cut off the branches of caspia at different size.

As I move down the trunk gluing in branches, I go from small branches at the top (sticking straight up or diagonally) and increase the size as I move down the tree trunk and continue to increase the angle of the branches downward as I glue them in.
When I am nearly 1/3 to 1/2 of the way down the trunk I stick in some oddball stick like branches at odd angles (deadwood).

When the branches are in, I spray a small section of branches at a time with hairspray or clear fixative of some sort and immediately drop the foam onto the branches. I repeat until it looks full enough. Then, continue on until the branches are covered.

Once it looks OK, I give it a final over spray to make sure the foam is stuck on well.

Thats all for now so gather your materials and make yourself a few Tall Timbers to use for that corner forest scene!!
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