Basic Scenery Tips

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I built my plaster hardshell in 1998. The GIRR Mountain Division sat there in stark white for 10 full years before I started adding texture and color. However, once I got started, I found that it was really easy and I moved right along. The method allows an area of about one or two square feet to go from bare plaster to finished scenery in less than 10 minutes.

Back in the old days, I had purchased a book, "How to build Realistic Model Railroad Scenery" written by Dave Frary and published by Kalmbach. He describes a method which he calls the "water soluble" method. All the paints, wetting aids and adhesives he uses are water based. Back in 1998, I started preparing for the use of this method by collecting paints, adhesives and textures. I used very little of this stuff until now so that when I actually got started, I had virtually everything that I needed.

I've invented almost nothing new, but I do use somewhat different materials and methods. Basically, the method for making a basic level of dirt is to paint a area in a "dirt" color and then apply a mix of texturing materials.

The book goes into much more than basic scenery texturing, I'll add the results of rockwork, trees, water, and backdrops as I do them.


080705_girr_mtn_texturing_scenery_supplies_5202.jpgBefore you can apply textures to hardshell, you need some textures. I had prepared this stuff 10 years before I used it, but I had what I needed. I use primarily sifted decomposed granite and dyed sawdust. In the smaller scales, ground dyed foam is a popular texture as well. This can be purchased, at somewhat significant expense, at model railroad retailers. However, dirt and sawdust are nearly free, at least from an out-of-pocket perspective.

080705_girr_mtn_texturing_sifted_dg_5194.jpgThe GIRR Mountain Division is located on a mountain range that is literally made from granite. I have an abundant supply of the stuff, about 75 tons was removed from under my cabin when the basement was built and it was simply dumped on a nearby embankment. I just dig the stuff up and sift it to grade it into five sizes. The largest stuff is piled on the ground next to the buckets.

080705_girr_mtn_texturing_sieves_5195.jpgI built four sieves from 1x4 pine and wire mesh. I used 1/2", 1/4", 1/8" hardware cloth and aluminum window screen to grade the material.

080705_girr_mtn_texturing_dirt_textures_5212.jpgI really only use the three smallest grades for texturing. The black grit is a commercial product, C-71 from A-1 Grit, that I use for roadways. I have ballasted part of the GIRR in gray chicken grit but I don't have enough to finish. I am going to do the rest in a lighter shade of the same A-1 Grit material. A-1 Grit is located on the seedy side of downtown Riverside CA at 1901 Massachusetts Ave. The place is virtually unmarked, look for some tall material conveyors behind an unmarked gate.

080705_girr_mtn_texturing_grass_5210.jpgFor grasses, I use dyed sawdust, sieved through the window screen sieve to make two grades. If you don't have a table saw and make your own sawdust, you can take a trash bag to a local lumberyard and ask them if you can clean up around their saws, that is what I did. After screening, the sawdust is dyed in batches of various shades of green and brown with RIT fabric dye.

080611_girr_quikrete_concrete_adhesive.jpgDave Frary recommends the use of a material called matte medium as an adhesive. I did use matte medium when I ballasted the yards many years ago and it worked well, but it is kind of expensive and hard to find. Try artist supply stores, Jo-Anns or Michaels. However, I like this stuff just as much. It is Quikrete Concrete Adhesive, available at Home Depot for $10/gal. I dilute the stuff 50:50 with water and apply it with a pump spray bottle.

I also tried this stuff for bonding ballast outdoors. In that application it didn't not work so well because it doesn't handle moisture gracefully. However, indoors this stuff is excellent. It holds well and dries completely clear.

You'll also need some ordinary latex house paint in your desired color of dirt. Take a sample of the dirt texture that you are going to use to a paint store and match it fairly closely. You don't need a custom match, just get something off the shelf that is close.

Basic Texturing

I use two different methods for texturing surfaces depending on the characteristics of the surface. If the surface is flat and smooth, I just spread the desired dirt texture onto the surface by shaking it from a plastic cup and then I soak it with the adhesive. If I want some other textures, I sprinkle them on top and spray again. Done.

080705_girr_mtn_texturing_hillside_5197.jpgIf the surface is sloped, dry spreading doesn't work. In this case, I use Dave's method. First the surface is painted with the dirt colored paint and then one of the dirt textures is sprinkled on the surface, letting the excess fall to the bottom of the slope if it is steep enough. Then I pick up some of the fallen stuff and throw it back at the painted surface. Then I spray the surface with adhesive and sprinkle and throw on a different texture until I am done applying whatever textures I am going to use. Then I spray it again and then pick up the mix of stuff at the bottom of the slope and throw the mix back on the slope until I've got all the texture that I want.

080705_girr_mtn_texturing_hillside_closeup_5201.jpgThis is a closeup of that hillside.

080705_girr_mtn_texturing_hillside_and_trees_5199.jpgAnd this is the same hillside through some plastic trees purchased from Just Plain Folk. At the bottom of the hillside, I poured on some of the larger size of DG to simulate rocks that have fallen from the hillside. I haven't finished the tunnel portal yet.


080705_girr_mtn_texturing_trolly_line_in_road_5208.jpgI have a trolly line that runs through the town. I wanted it to run down the middle of a road. I had built up the level of the town with Homosote to 1/4" below the level of the railheads. I then poured the dark gray C-71 onto the track and leveled it to the railheads. I used a utility knife to form a flangeway and then heavily soaked it in the spray adhesive. There is lots of rock in there and the adhesive has to soak down a lot so just pour the stuff on. It is VERY important to let the adhesive set undisturbed for AT LEAST 24 hours. There will be sprayed adhesive all over the railheads, but just leave it alone. When the road has set up, the majority of the adhesive on the rails can be scrapped off and the rest can be polished off with a Brite Boy or LGB track cleaning block. If you try to clean the adhesive off the rails before the road has set up, you will surely disturb the road material and it is really hard to get it flat again when it is wet.


080705_girr_mtn_texturing_plaster_rocks_5206.jpgAnother significant part of scenery is rocks. These are typically cast in plaster in rock molds and then painted and blackwashed to the desired color. I haven't got the technique of working with plaster rocks completely down yet. That will come next. Dave Frary describes making excellent looking rockwork in great detail.

080705_girr_mtn_texturing_rock_molds_5205.jpgRocks are cast in molds made from real rocks. Real rocks seem to work in any scale, a 1:1 scale rock makes an excellent mold for miniature rocks. The black mold is a commercial rock mold. The other three of samples of about 20 different molds that I made from latex following Dave Frary's method. The rock castings in the previous photos were made from these molds.

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© 2008 George Schreyer
Created 5 Jul 08
Last Updated July 11, 2008