Adding scenery to a model railroad can be exciting. But for many people, creating scenery can seem like it's beyond human capabilities. I have found the scenery stage to be very simple and exciting, especially once you dive into the project. After a short time, you will see how easy it is to create fields and hills for your model railroad. Let's add a small hill to your layout.
I try to keep the scenery process simple and work slowly. First begin with a sketch of the area to develop. Once you are satisfied with the sketch, use a black marker to draw the scenic elements on the layout. Be sure to plan for the scenery height, especially if trees will be added.
I prefer using construction foam insulation to build up hills and landforms. It is easy to cut and shape, it paints well, and blends in with the rest of a layout. Using thicker foam can minimize the layers you will need to create a hill or a mountainside.
Plaster can also be used for scenery and is preferred by many modelers. Scenery built in this fashion is done by soaking strips of paper towels in a soupy mix of plaster. Excess plaster is wiped off of the towel strips, then these strips are placed over a screen wire or cardboard hillside shaped into a form. A couple of coats are suggested, as well as applying a thin layer to smooth over any irregularities. Personally, I find using foam for scenery to be quick, easy and less messy.
Foam insulation comes in several thicknesses and colors. I have used blue, green and pink foam for many scenery applications. I try to avoid the white 'bead board' foam, as it can be very messy. Foam insulation can be purchased at builders supply stores around the country. It can also be scavenged from large construction sites. Most any home or commercial structure uses this kind of foam in the building process and most sites have a waste pile of it ready for the landfill or incinerator. Always ask a construction foreman or supervisor if you can have some of the pieces from the waste pile.
Defining the Hill
Okay, now that you have some foam, let's see what you can do with it. Remember the sketch you made on the layout? Make a similar sketch on a piece of foam to cover that area. Carefully cut it out using a serrated edge knife and check the fit on the layout. If the piece is okay, then cut out another chunk of a slightly smaller size. Do the same for a couple more pieces, depending on how tall you want your hill. These foam pieces are the raw layers of a hill.
Once you have the height figured out, it is time to carefully cut these to simulate the slope. Try to keep the slope angle below 30 degrees as you carefully cut into the bottom piece. Once that piece is done, work on the next one and use a slightly steeper slope, but not quite 45 degrees. Check if the second layer fits on the first okay, then do the same to the next one. Once all the layers are done, use the toothpicks to hold the layers in position. If you are satisfied with how the hill has turned out, then separate the layers and spread a bead of Latex Liquid Nails, or a similar latex construction adhesive, along the outside bottom rim of each layer. Do not put the adhesive on the bottom layer yet. Put the layers back together with the toothpicks and let it dry.
If the layers did not turn out well, separate them and use the knife to trim away unneeded areas. Reassemble the layers to double check, then glue them together as described previously.
It may take a day for the adhesive to dry, so lets see what we need next. Ground cover materials come in many sizes and shades, from several different companies. I try to get a couple of different shades of green in the fine and medium sizes. I mix these together to get a range of green color. A look at the trees and grasses in nature will reveal many shades of greens, yellows, browns and grays, in addition to other colors.
For earth, I use dirt from my backyard that I screen into fine sizes. It takes some extra effort, but I like the results. You are welcome to get these materials from the scenery shelf at the hobby shop. Be sure to get a couple different shades. Don't forget to buy a quart of an earth color flat latex paint. It can be obtained from a builder supply house, or local paint shop.
Fine Tuning the Landform
Now, it's back to the landform. Once the adhesive is dry, you can use the rasp to smooth over the cuts you made with the knife. This part can get a little messy, so spread a drop cloth around the work area. Different features can be etched into your landform by using the rasp. Water is a major factor with Mother Nature, and it often carves out small gullies or shallow, gently sloping valleys in a hillside. If you are up to the task, now is the time to try your hand at adding this type of scenic feature. Keep it simple and make the surface of the foam flow like a hillside. Don't be surprised at how much material is removed. Just try to get a hillside with gentle curves.
If your hill is close to the railroad tracks, you should check the clearance between the trains and the scenery so everything will run well. I have had several situations where I had to reconfigure some scenery because I did not realize how close I built the scenery to the track. Use an NMRA track gauge, or your longest and widest railroad car to check these clearances.
Once the hill is shaped to satisfaction and located with clearance for the railroad tracks, spread a bead of the construction adhesive along the bottom and carefully set it into place on your layout. Ground Texture
With the hill affixed to your layout, it is time to add color and texture. If any scenery work will be done close to the tracks, use some masking tape to cover the rails and ties to prevent any unwanted paint drops. Using the earth colored latex paint, brush a heavy coat onto a couple of square feet. Carefully sprinkle on the ground cover materials, paying close attention to where you want straight dirt, where you want grasses, and where you want a mix of the two. Don't sprinkle all the way to the edge of the paint, cause there is more to do. Once this area is covered, brush on more paint over the next couple of square feet and sprinkle on more ground cover. Keep doing this until you have finished your designated area, or the whole layout.
As the paint dries, it will affix most of the ground cover. While it dries, you may want to consider some other details to add. Broken branches, more ground foam over here, more dirt over there, and maybe a tree stump or two. Once the paint is dry, add more material or detail where you need it. Use a fine pump spray bottle and mist the area with a mix of water and a drop or two of dish soap. The soap allows the water to flow easily into your scenery. Carefully flood the scenery with a dilute mix of white glue. Be sure the glue bottle is half filled (or a little less) with glue, then fill the bottle with warm water and a drop or two of dish soap. This step will help glue all the ground cover materials to the layout.
Once the sceniced area is dry, you can add trees, fences and many other details to make your railroad look realistic. I have used this technique for foam scenery on my home layout with great success. Be sure to check out the photos of the Vandalia Short Line to see what can be done with scenery on a small model railroad.
The best advice I have is to keep a close eye on the scenery that Mother Nature can show you each day. Watch for the little details like a rocky streambed, or a cluster of pine trees among some maples. With just a little effort, you can add these details to a model railroad. Now that you have done this much scenery, you can do most anything.
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Page last updated January 8, 2001