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Modelling Landscapes for Model Railways and Static displays

Do you want to create an amazing Model landscape?

Model landscapes can be used for a variety of purposes including:

  • Railway Modelling
  • War Gaming
  • Architectural models
  • Dioramas
  • Displays

Whether you are just starting out, or are a seasoned pro, there is something in this article for you. 

We will start with the basics and then move on to more advanced techniques, such as modelling rocks and trees.

Being a model railway shop you would expect us to cover model railway specifics, including how to ballast your model railway track.

So read on – your perfect landscape is waiting!

Firm Foundations

It does not really matter whether what your model landscape is for, you will need a firm foundation.

How you construct that foundation will depend on the purpose of the display, and whether it has to be transportable.

Traditional model railway baseboards

  • These are usually constructed using batons underneath a solid surface, and these are discussed in the article How to start a model railway
  • They can be heavy
  • The landscape is built on top of them

Open frame construction

  • This technique is useful if only a small proportion of your landscape is at one level
  • Reduces weight
  • Needs careful construction to keep the landscape rigid.
  • corners can be strengthened with metal brackets

Portable displays

  • Create manageable sections that can be transported individually and bolted together.
  • The joints between sections should ideally have precision locating dowels and bolts that hold them together
  • Adjustable legs such as those sold for breakfast bars are ideal, being adjustable allows you to compensate for uneven floors.

Planning your model landscape

It is a good idea to create a plan or drawing of where all the components of the finished model landscape must go.

This includes:

  • Raised areas
  • cutaways
  • water features
  • model structures
  • Paths, roads and track

You will also need to bear in mind how you are going to construct it, and what materials you will use.

This is particularly important for model railways as the track layout must be planned to avoid sharp curves and inclines that would derail a train.

Once you have a design, transfer this to the actual baseboard or structure that will support your model landscape.

This will enable you to build supports and place cutaways in the correct place.

Hard Landscaping

All the best TV Garden makeover shows start with the hard landscaping. This creates the underlying structure for the garden.

The same is true for your model landscape.

If your model landscape is part of a model railway then it is important to create a basic functional layout before you get started on the scenery. This is because you need to finalise your track layout to avoid having to move mountains you have planted in the wrong place.

There are two items of model railway scenery that should be considered as part of the main layout build:

Model railway inclines

Hornby produces a set of inclined peers for building raised sections of track and their recommendation is not to go steeper than 1 in 30.

Start by laying out the distance and path of the incline and placing strong supports every 10cm.

I would strongly recommend testing your proposed inline on a solid foundation with a train similar to the one you want to run up it prior to making it permanent.

Remember the train is a locomotive plus rolling stock.

Once you have proved the train manages the incline then make the strong support system permanent.

On the layout shown below the core of the incline is Hornby incline piers with the aesthetic embankment built up of card, foam and plaster bandage.

In this image you can see how the railway track and supporting structures dictate how the scenic area is built up

model bridges for railways

Like inclines railway bridges that carry the line need to be completed as part of the track laying process.

Where you have a bridge or viaduct that has to carry the railway then construction will depend on the scale (and hence the weight) of your models.

Hornby produces plastic viaducts or bridges as seen below

And Metcalfe produces excellent card bridge kits in both OO gauge and N Gauge

Changes in landscape levels

These can be supported using wooden formers, cardboard, polystyrene, or foam exactly as I have done in the pictures of our various demonstration layouts under construction.

Remember that any surface that is weight-bearing for models, display objects, or railway track needs to be properly supported.

If you are using Metcalfe kits for bridges these are designed to be weight bearing, as are track bridges from Hornby.

Model railway inclines should not exceed 1 in 33, and before making the incline permanent and laying track you must test the locomotives that will use the incline.

First, test the engine by itself and then the engine with the desired train to ensure the locomotive and rolling stock together can climb the incline.

Give the glue plenty of time to dry out and set before adding too many layers, otherwise, you can end up with a sticky pancake where you wanted hills and cuttings.

Once you have built up the desired level changes and any supports you can start to add your ground levels.

Mother nature does not use a lot of smooth flat surfaces, especially when she creates hills and valleys

When building up areas like the cutting embankments shown above I like to use polystyrene cubes and let gravity decide on the natural slopes.

This avoids the "stretched tent canvas" look that can happen if you just used sheets of plaster cloth, paper mache or chicken wire.

When you have the support and ground level components in place you can add the top surface

My preferred option is to use the plaster-impregnated bandage like that sold for medical plaster casts for broken bones.

The instructions tell you to soak the bandage first, but in fact, it is better to position the lengths of the bandage over your formers and use a spray bottle to soak the bandage. Once properly wet the weight of the bandage will hold it down while it dries.

I let each layer dry completely before adding the next layer. Usually, 3 to 4 layers are strong enough to support any trees, trains or buildings you wish to add.

Working with plaster is a messy business but very satisfying when you see your ground surface appearing in front of you.

Model railway tunnels can add a great feature to your model railway layout, and hide the entrance to behind the scenes fiddle yards.

If you use the Metcalfe tunnel entrance kits you get a printed tunnel lining sheet that gives an authentic look to the tunnel mouth when in position on your layout.

Some key points to remember when building your tunnels:

  • You will need access to clean the rails
  • Trains will de-rail in your tunnels
  • Make the tunnel entrances and interior high enough.

Up to now we have covered the 'Hard Landscaping', now we discuss how to turn stark white plaster into something resembling natures countryside.

modelling Fields and grassland

modelling rocks

Modelling rock formations is a great way to add realism to your model railway scenery. 

These are some of the methods you can use:

  • Sections of cork bark blended together with plaster or clay
  • Pre-coloured ready to use plaster rocks joined together
  • Buy your own "rock moulds" and cast plaster sections to join together
  • Apply a plaster rock paste coloured with acrylic
This last option is the approach  took in the photograph below. I mixed fine water soluble model filler with grey acrylic paint and a little water so that I could apply the mix to the surface with a paint brush.

I already had the base structure in place with a hard plaster shell and then added some air drying modelling clay to add features and fill gaps

then I painted on the stone paste


I think it was reasonably successful.

model trees

Model railway trees come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and you can buy ready made trees, tree kits, or simply make your own from twisted wire.

Cut the wire into appropriate lengths of about four inches. Then, twist the wires together so that they form a tree-like shape. You can then paint the trunk and branches before adding the foliage of your choice.

For those of you who would prefer to buy trees Woodland Scenics, Faller and Noch produce some excellent model trees "ready to plant"

If you have a large expanse of woodland place your most expensive specimen trees where they are most visible and put the cheaper trees behind them as "fillers"

Woodland scenics trees have varying colours to simulate the changing light conditions as the tree line moves from the top of a valley in bright sunlight to the cool shaded trees in the valley floor.

In nature exposed craggy mountain tops have far fewer trees than the protected valleys below.  

modelling water

One of the most difficult things to get right is model water.

Fortunately there are modern alternatives to sheets of clear plastic or flat painted surfaces with coats of varnish.

I have discovered  product called 'Solid Water' from Deluxe Materials.

It looks looks and (when liquid) behaves just like water, this means that your water course must be completely water tight.

You can pre-colour the water course for rivers or canals, applying a thinner layer of resin, or, add pigment to the resin to give a deep water effect.

I wanted a clear mountain stream effect, you can see the result below


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