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Milepost 24
CPR Galt Subdivision

Scenery from the Ground Up

Scenery provides the backdrop for the drama of our model railroads. Creating scenery is not difficult but it does take some thought and planning so that it will appear natural. Many novice model railroaders design layouts that have too much track, leaving very little room for scenery and ending up with a track-heavy railway without any context. In such cases, less trackwork is better.

The most important aspect of scenery is that it existed in the real world before any railroads came along. Therefore, it is advisable that you figure out what the scenery may look like before you start building your layout.

Railroads were the first form of transport that really changed the landscape. Roads followed the sides of hills, climbed up and down valleys and generally worked with the scenery to get where they were going. Railroads on the other hand decided where they were going and changed the scenery as required. They bridged valleys, created embankments, blasted tunnels, and quite literally moved mountains. Good scenery will show evidence of these activities.

Knowing the location or setting for your railway obviously helps when thinking about scenery. Northern Ontario has geography that is different from that of the Prairies, or the Rockies, or even Southwestern Ontario.

When you have some idea of what the typical scenery for the area should look like you can be more specific. Where would a river look right, what would be on its banks, does it go through town or out in the wilds? Were the towns built on the same level as the railway, on the hillside above, or on the flood plain of a river below a long trestle?

The easiest way to model below grade landscape features is to elevate all of your trackage above your baseboard. It is easier to create culverts, bridges, and embankments if you have planned for scenery below track height. Woodland Scenics Sub Terrain system can help you here.

These are some considerations to keep in mind when designing your layout from the beginning. Be creative in planning your scenery. Include any aspects that you have liked from your travels and experiences.

Building scenery is not as hard as some people think, but you have to start from the ground up.

Underneath all scenery is the hard core – the rock. This hard shell base provides the support and general form to the scenery. The easiest way to construct hills and valleys is using layers of plaster cloth over crumpled up newspapers or a grid made from cardboard strips. Plaster cloth is a loose web cloth coated with dry Hydrocal plaster. When you wet the plaster cloth it becomes very flexible and can be easily shaped to create complex shapes like eroded hillsides. When it dries, the plaster cloth is very hard, and provides a solid base for the rest of your scenery.

Where you want to model rock outcroppings, simply add some rocks cast in Woodland Scenics rubber molds using Hydrocal or plaster. These castings are then painted with various washes of acrylic paints and/or stains.

On top of the hard shell, you will later add various layers of soil, grasses, weeds, shrubs and trees.

Before you get started with layers of scenery, choose a latex paint that is close to the colour of the soil in the area you wish to model, usually a brown or tan colour. Apply one coat over all of your ‘hard shell’. This coat will soak in and dry very quickly. Next, apply a second coat of paint over small areas at a time. Use lots of paint and apply your first layer of texture before this layer dries.

Your first layer of texture can be real earth, dried and ground to a fine texture, or something representing ground cover, such as various products from companies such as Woodland Scenics, Silflor, Noch and Busch. With such products you can model new grass, burnt grass, weeds, dead leaves for a forest scene, and many other types of vegetation.

The next layers will represent taller weeds, undergrowth, and shrubbery. Each layer can be sprinkled on randomly providing a variety of appearances, or placed carefully in urban areas that are being modelled. Each layer can be first glued using a coating of Matte Medium and later sealed with an over spray of Woodland Scenics Scenic Cement. Woodland Scenics, Silflor, Busch, Noch, Heki and other manufacturers offer a wide variety of suitable vegetations.

Trees and bushes make up the final layer for most of your scenery. These can be purchased as ready-made trees, as kits, or as various basic materials so you can make your own.

The only part of your scenery that differs from the above layering process is the ballast on your track work. Ballasting your track should normally be the last step in applying scenery to your layout. Spread the ballast between the rails using a small container or a scoop. Then smooth it out using a brush and your finger. Before you glue your ballast in place, apply 70% Isopropyl Alcohol to a small section using an eyedropper. For anchoring ballast, we recommend using white glue mixed with an equal amount of water as the adhesive. Be sure to add a small drop of dish detergent so the mixture will seep into the ballast instead of beading on top. You should apply this mixture using a different eyedropper. (Be sure to rinse out the eyedropper used for gluing regularly to prevent clogging.)

Let the ballast dry for 24 hours, then go over it with your fingers or a small tool to make sure than none of the ballast is glued to the inside of the rails. Otherwise, it may cause a derailment. Then vacuum the track to remove any loose particles. You may have to re-apply ballast to areas where the glue was not applied sufficiently.

Next apply ballast along the outside of the rails, smooth it out and apply Isopropyl Alcohol and glue as above. Let dry for 24 hours and vacuum up any loose particles. Re-apply the ballast as necessary.

Applying ballast can be tedious work, but if you complete small sections at a time on a regular basis, before you know it, all of your track will be finished and will look terrific!

If you decide to move your track at a later time, a little bit of water can be used to soften the ballast and glue, so that the track can be easily removed using a scraper.

A large variety of scenic products and details, along with books on how to use them, are available at The Credit Valley Railway Company.

If you visit our store, be sure to check out our model railways. We have a 4 x 8 Woodland Scenics layout that shows various stages of layout construction from start to finish. We also have a large HO scale model railway under construction exhibiting a variety of construction materials, modeling techniques, structures, track work and of course lots of scenery. Our staff has had many years of model railway experience, and we are always willing to provide you with specific information, advice and answers to any of your questions! You can also email your questions to us via Our Contact Page.