Beginners Scenery basics for model railroaders

Scenery basics for model railroaders

By Angela Cotey | November 1, 2023

| Last updated on December 14, 2023

Make your model train layout look realistic with foam and plaster scenery, ground cover, rocks, and more

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Scenery basics for model railroaders: There are a wide variety of easy to learn techniques that will make your model railroad scenery look realistic.
Scenery basics for model railroaders: Scenery lead image
Often folks look at photos of beautiful model railroads and assume right away that it’s just too hard, they could never do it. Well, that just isn’t so. Certainly model railroading is a creative hobby and great model railroads approach works of art, but with today’s materials and techniques you don’t have to be an artist to be a model railroader. You’ll find a wide variety of quality scenery products, structures in kit form or ready-built, and many other details at any well-stocked hobby shop.
Scenery basics for model railroaders: cardboard scenery

You can make model railroad scenery using carboard strips and plaster soaked cloth or paper.

Scenery basics for model railroaders: Foam scenery

Extruded-foam insulation board also makes a good model railroad scenery base.


Adding scenery

There are three elements of scenery making: form, color, and texture. Let’s start with form, the shapes of things. Figures 1 and 2 (above) show two popular techniques and some advantages and disadvantages of each. The versatility and ease of use of extruded-foam insulation board has made that method extremely popular with today’s modelers, so if you don’t have a preference, choose that. One word of caution, though: Foam board can give off toxic fumes when cut with a hot wire, work in a very well ventilated area or stick to knives and Surform carving tools.


Color and texture

Once you’ve modeled the ground, it’s time to paint it. A common mistake is to choose browns that are too dark. Soils are lighter than you think, and layout lighting can’t approach the intensity of sunlight. Medium tan in a flat latex wall paint works well for model railroad scenery.

Thin the latex paint about 50-50 with water to make it easy to cover the uneven surface. Brush the paint on, and then sprinkle on scenery materials immediately to take advantage of the paint’s adhesive quality. You can use sifted real dirt, tiny rocks, ground-up leaves, or kitty litter, but the favorite material today is ground foam.

This is foam rubber (just like in seat cushions), shredded and dyed. Woodland Scenics and Scenic Express are two major manufacturers. A variety of grinds (from fine to coarse) and colors are available.

Scenery basics for model railroaders: A diagram showing the process of adding ground cover to your model railroad layout

Latex paint and matte medium are commonly used to bond model railroad scenery.


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 paint sprayer, as shown in fig. 3. (Clean the sprayer afterward if you expect to be able to use it again.) A commonly used adhesive is 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 dish soap to the mix will help the adhesive penetrate the scenery materials. Otherwise, you can end up with a crust that breaks away, revealing loose materials underneath. Another option is to wet the area with 70 percent isopropyl alcohol, let it soak in, and then apply the scenery adhesive.

To glue scenery in small areas, spray on “wet” water (water with a drop of liquid detergent added), then apply the adhesive (mixed the same as for spraying) with an eyedropper.

Scenery basics for model railroaders: rock casting equipment

Plaster, Hydrocal, rubber molds, and acrylic paint are useful for making realistic rock outcroppings.



Some modelers carve rocks in plaster as it’s setting up and get good results. For the rest of us, a better, faster method is to cast plaster rocks in rubber molds.

Plaster of paris, patching plaster, and Hydrocal 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 and then glue them to the layout, or as the plaster is about to set, cast the rock in place by holding the mold to the layout.

To unify a rock surface, apply thick plaster between castings and use a knife to carve it when it’s not quite set so it blends with the castings.

Rock casting

After painting and weathering the plastic casting looks like real rock on this HO scale model railroad.


Painting rocks

Most modelers use artist’s acrylics, usually out of tubes, for painting scenery. The paint dries quickly and cleans up with soap and water. (You’ll note that the materials we’ve discussed here are all water-soluble. This means that you can keep working without waiting for things to dry completely, and cleanup is fairly easy.)

When painting rocks, begin with a thinned coat of white, though you can go straight to work with colors. For the most part 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 mix with other colors to lighten or darken them.

Squeeze out short ribbons of paint on a palette, a white dish, or whatever’s handy (as long as it’s white, so you can see the colors as they are). Keep a cup of clean water handy (change it frequently as it gets muddy), and start mixing with your brush and painting. This may sound difficult, but you’ll get the hang of it quickly.

fig 4

Paint washes and drybrushing are easy to learn techniques for making rock castings look more realistic on a model train layout.

Washes and drybrushing

Several special painting techniques will prove helpful when modeling. The first is washes, wherein you flood an area with a thin solution of paint, using a large brush. See fig. 4. This technique is useful not just for establishing a color base, but for bringing out details later in the painting process. After the base color has dried, apply a very thin wash of a dark color, which will settle into nooks and crannies and simulate natural shadows.

Another useful technique is drybrushing. Dip the brush into paint, wipe it almost dry on a paper towel so that only a tiny amount of paint remains, then drag it lightly over raised surfaces. This will deposit paint only on the high points of the surface, letting you bring out highlights, small details and worn or faded areas. A flat brush works well for this.

black river junction photo

The Model Railroader staff used a variety of ready built structures and other details on the HO scale Black River Junction.

Populating the layout

Unless you’re modeling Arizona’s Monument Valley or a granger line in mid-Nebraska, you’ll probably want some trees on your layout. Modelers used to have to laboriously build their own, and some still do, but realistic trees are now readily available from makers such as Walthers, Noch, Heki, Woodland Scenics, Faller, and Busch, among others.

Nothing adds interest to a layout like realistic scale buildings. Once you have industries at which to pick up and deliver cars, your railroad has a reason to be. A huge variety of model kits are available in every scale, for modelers of any skill level. But if you just want to get started quickly, a growing assortment of prebuilt structures from manufacturers including Menards, Walthers, Atlas Model Railroad Co., and Woodland Scenics make it easy to give your railroad a sense of place. Finally, add some miniature figures to populate your world. Bachmann Trains, Preiser, Faller, Vollmer, Walthers, Woodland Scenics, and others offer a wide variety.

Give scenery modeling a try, and keep these scenery basics in mind. It’ll make a tremendous difference on your layout. If you don’t believe it, just sprinkle some green foam on a stretch of plywood next to the track, plop down a building and some trees, then run a train past. What a difference!

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