How To Build a Model Railroad How to model snow on a model railroad layout

How to model snow on a model railroad layout

By Steven Otte | February 4, 2024

Over the years, MR contributors have shared many ideas on how to model snow

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A geared steam locomotive leads a train onto a wood trestle covered with snow
Heisler No. 79 exits the tunnel and crosses Fall River Trestle as it makes its way south from Shavano, Colo., on a cold winter day in 1898. To model the snow on this HO scale diorama, Ron Morse of Lenexa, Kan., used powdered marble, one of several answers to the question of how to model snow that have been published by Model Railroader contributors over the years. Ron Morse photo

Although most model railroads are set in the verdant summer or colorful autumn, the snow-covered landscapes of a northern winter offer an unmatched visual drama. From paint to grout to powdered stone to commercial modeling products, there are many possible answers to the question of how to model snow on a model railroad layout. Modelers have described a number of these techniques in the pages of Model Railroader over the years. If you want to know how to model snow realistically on your train layout, read on.

Woodland Scenics Soft Flake Snow

An assortment of scenery supplies sit on a bridge over a frozen creek on an HO scale model railroad
Gary Hoover uses Woodland Scenics Soft Flake Snow to give his HO scale Norfolk & Western layout a dusting of snow. Gary Hoover photo

Gary Hoover, who showed off his layout winterization techniques in Model Railroader’s December 2020 and November 2023 issues, uses a commercial product, Woodland Scenics Soft Flake Snow (item no. SN140) to give his HO scale Norfolk & Western layout a chilly look. Since he’s modeling West Virginia in the early spring, he gives his layout only a light dusting of the white stuff after finishing other landscaping. To apply it, he uses an accordion-like puffer from Vintage Reproductions, then fixes it in place with a quick spritz of hairspray. To model water in the winter, he lines the banks with full-strength white glue and sprinkles the Soft Flake Snow onto it. He also applies a few Busch icicles to bridges, tunnel portals, and building overhangs.

A steam locomotive stands by a station in a snow-covered rail yard
Bill Nelson’s HO scale “Winter Wonderland” layout features terrain covered with Woodland Scenics Soft Flake Snow. Dave Rickaby photo

When Bill Nelson hired professional layout construction company RailDreams Inc. to build his Winter Wonderland layout, the RailDreams builders also used Woodland Scenics Soft Flake Snow. But since they wanted a deeper snow pack, they didn’t use Gary’s technique of gluing it down with hairspray. Rather, they molded the terrain from white Sculptamold (a moldable papier-mache-like product), then sprinkled the Soft Flake Snow into the Sculptamold while it was still wet. You can read about Bill’s layout in our February 2009 issue.

A train emerges from a tunnel under catenary in a snow-covered landscape
Jim Rohrbach built this snowy HO scale diorama to reproduce a scene in railroad artist Jim Jordan’s painting “Westbound Electrics.” Jim Rohrbach photo

Modeler Jim Rohrbach likewise used the Woodland Scenics product to scenic his HO scale Great Northern diorama, inspired by a well-known railroad painting. He sprinkled the Soft Flake Snow onto his plaster-shell terrain and glued it on with Woodland Scenics Scenic Cement. The picture-perfect results were showcased in our January 2023 issue.

Noch and Busch snow products

A snowy scene with a chalet, a railroad bridge over a frozen river, and distant mountains
Josef Brandl modeled this awesome Alpine scene with white plaster terrain topped with Noch Powdery Snow and Busch Snow Powder. Photo courtesy Verlagsgruppe Bahn GmbH

A European professional layout builder, Josef Brandl had to figure out quickly how to model snow scenes when a client hired him to build an Alpine layout. He started by covering the mountainous terrain with plaster painted with white paint in a variety of textures for different effects. But for a more realistic look, he added Noch Powdered Snow and Busch Snow Powder, which can either be applied to a landscape dry or mixed into a paste to model the clumpy drifts cast aside by a railroad snowplow. As you can see above, the results were spectacular. Josef’s techniques are detailed in an article in our February 2007 issue.

Powdered marble

A diesel rolls along a snowy cliff face while an electric locomotive passes on the track above
Two Great Northern trains pass on Scott Kremer’s HO scale layout. Scott modeled his snowpack with plaster mixed with powdered marble. Dan Lewis photo

When Scott Kremer started building his HO scale Great Northern layout (see our February 2008 issue), there weren’t a lot of commercial snow products available. Taking a cue from professional swimming-pool builders, he mixed ground marble into his plaster. This natural stone product never yellows. It’s available in grades from fine powder to a coarse sandy texture, which Scott uses to model snow broken up by snowplows.

Black locomotives lead an empty coal train around a curve through a snow-covered scene
Four SD40T-2 diesels hustle an empty coal train through snow-covered Pinecliffe, Colo., on Mike Danneman’s N scale layout. Mike Danneman photo

Mike Danneman also used white marble powder from Arizona Rock & Mineral to model snow around the tracks on his N scale Denver & Rio Grande Western layout, which was featured in our December 2011 issue. He didn’t mix it into plaster, but used scenery cement to glue it down after sculpting the plowed snow between and around his N scale rails. But for other parts of the scene, he sprayed the terrain with wet water and sprinkled on dry Hydrocal, a fine-grained plaster product. Once that dried, he followed it with another layer. He glued white flocking onto his pine trees before installing them on the layout.

Unsanded grout

White powder is sifted onto model railroad terrain
Doug Tagsold sifts non-sanded white grout onto the wetted surface of his model railroad terrain. The grout will stick without any additional adhesive. Doug Tagsold photo

Many of these techniques require using some kind of adhesive, like scenic cement, to secure the snow material to the layout’s surface. But Doug Tagsold found a snow material that is an adhesive — non-sanded grout. Grout, the masonry material used to fill the gaps between ceramic tile, comes in sanded (coarse) and non-sanded varieties. The non-sanded grout is fine enough to represent snow well. Doug simply sprays water on his terrain, then sifts the dry grout powder onto it. One benefit of this technique is the grout only sticks where snow would, not on vertical surfaces like cliffsides. Doug explained his methods in the February 2021 Model Railroader.

Modeling melting snowdrifts

A hand places a white foam snowdrift on a slope of brown grass
Mike Confalone glues a snowdrift made of crushed white craft foam onto his New England diorama. Mike Confalone photo

Now you know how to model snow on your model railroad layout. But what if you model the “mud season,” that time of early spring when most of the snow has melted but some deeper drifts remain? In our December 2008 issue, Mike Confalone tells how he tried lots of materials, including those listed above. But he found that although they’re good at representing fresh snow, they don’t look convincing as melting snowdrifts. After pondering the ones he saw out his window, he cut a small chunk from a sheet of white craft foam (not the beaded packing material, but the kind you can purchase in craft stores). It was too porous to look right, but when he crushed it flat between his fingers, it took on the texture and sparkle he wanted. After some rough shaping, he hot-glued the clumps to the matted brown grass of his HO scale diorama.

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