Adding Model Railroad
Scenery Tips and Techniques

Sometimes you have to do things backwards, such as adding model railroad scenery to a semi-completed layout. I have two sections that are 30 years old and have survived three moves. I needed to use them in my Utopia Northern layout that I was building (since dismantled due to a move).

The sections had a lot of dual gauge track and turnouts from previous layout incarnations that I was loathe to throw out, especially after reconnecting all the relays and other wiring between the sections. Everything worked even if the dual gauge track didn't go very far beyond the sections. In March, 2011, I decided to do something about it.

The completed model railroad scenery addition described below.
model railroad scenery addition

Both layout sections had scenery that was semi-finished, including a river with a fisherman in a boat and swimmers diving off the railway bridge. Unfortunately, I had built the river right over the joint between the sections. Bad planning! When I first moved the layout I had to cut through the river to disassemble the sections. This left about a 3-foot gap along the back of the sections about 5 inches deep. Not knowing what to do I had left this part of the layout unfinished. Also, there was no backdrop. 

Finally I got up the courage to tackle this scenic nightmare. The left-hand section adjoins the logging camp scene I had recently completed.

View under the dual gauge Juneco model bridge.
bridge scene

Note the box for the car cards and the track diagram. The relay board for the turnouts also hung here at the left end of the two sections.  The small river started at the top of the hill to the left of the bridge and cascaded down a slope to the river bottom. It's origin was screened by trees.

At the right end of the second section was the site of Port Feron with a small dual guage HO/HON3 yard. The view here is of the double-track bridge above the yard.

View near the double track Campbell model bridge with HO/HON3 trackage.
Port Feron scene

The photo below is of the model railroad scenery that is being added along the back edge of the layout to disguise the river where it turns to meet the backdrop. 

View near the dual gauge ridge. The standard gauge track continues to North Point.
The narrow gauge stops at the logging camp.
styrofoam hills

The hills were roughly shaped with a steak knife and a rasp and then they were covered with Woodland Scenics plaster cloth. 

When dry, the final contours were added with Sculpamold applied with a 1-inch paint brush.

The main dual gauge yard at Collings Woods.
HO/HON3 yard

This is a photo of the main dual gauge yard at the left end. At the time, operations only involved the standard gauge HO trains. 

None of the HON3 locomotives had decoders yet. The long-term goal was to integrate some narrow gauge operations into the mix.

For now, it's just a scenic effect.  Only so many hours in a day, even when you're retired!

Taping the bridges and trackwork.
taping the track

I laid painter's masking tape over the track to protect it while I did the plastering. I also draped newspaper over everything to keep the scenic material off the rolling stock and the scenery that was already in place.

Protecting the earlier scenery.
more scenery protection

Now you see the taping across the bridge span with the newspapers laid over the earlier model railroad scenery to protect it from spills. The work was spread out over a few weeks.

Adding talus rock to the stream bed.
streambed water

I had sprinkled on various textures of Woodland Scenics fine and coarse turf and other ground cover for bushes to get an idea of what the model railroad scenery that was being added could look like. 

It had not yet been glued down with isopropyl alcohol and matte medium. That came later when I was satisfied with the effect. 

Here's the new model railroad scenery around the fisherman's boat by the bridge.

Adding Woodland Scenics ground cover.
water by boat

Now it was a matter of dealing with the water for the waterfall and stream bed. I used Magic Water which is a two-part epoxy mixture. 

I mixed it in a disposable plastic yogurt container. The instructions and ideas are first rate and this product is very easy to use. Also, it doesn't stink up the house.

It's important to take the time to get the proportions correct. I used an empty Floquil paint jar as a measuring device. It's also important to mix the resin long enough. 

When you think you've mixed enough, add 5 more minutes. Stir slowly to avoid bubbles.

I did the stream in two pours. First I squeezed some bathtub caulk on a piece of wax paper and spread it laterally with my finger. 

After it was dry I carefully pealed it off the wax paper and laid it on the steam slope. 

I used a combination of an old brush to paint on the epoxy down the slope to guide it's path and then poured the Magic Water carefully down the slope. 

I also put some newspaer on the floor underneath the layout in case there was a leak. This stuff, like water, will find the smallest pin hole in the scenery base.

I had previously poured some sand across the joint by the fisherman's boat to form a sandbar in the river. This hid the cut line between the sections. 

I didn't plan to move again!  Famous last words!

Closeup of top of stream.

I dribbled the Magic Water along the river bed and coaxed it with the paint brush to make sure I got it where I wanted it. 

I had one small splash on the backdrop that can be seen in the photograph. This was touched up later.

On the second pour I added a few drops of green transparent resin dye. The original bottom of the stream had been done with a deep blue-black paint. 

The epoxy takes 24 hours to cure. I didn't try to add ripples. The instructions say ripples can be teased in after 9 hours or so. Other water effects could be added with Modpodge or other commerical product.

I need to practice on a scrap project before I try this. I went back and dry brushed some white on the caulk in the cascading section. 

The cascading stream with bathtub caulk applied.
Payne in the aspens is behind in the corner.
The aspens haven't been added yet.
cascading stream water effect

The photo is looking at the top of the stream. The logging camp was behind in the corner of the room. There was scenery work to be finished in front of the logging camp that was tucked behind a hill. 

The hill there had to be a "lift out" to provide access to a tunnel. The "lift out" had aspen trees on it.

Closeup of clear caulk and dry brushing highlights.
cascading water effect

Below is a picture of the new model railroad scenery around the fisherman's boat by the bridge.

Adding water by the fisherman's rowboat.
water by boat

The trackplan originally came from "101 Trackplans" that Linn Westcott did for Model Railroader many years ago.  If I remember correctly it was designed for a city scene. 

It was a switchback plan. In this layout version, the narrow gauge used it as a switchback from Port Feron through Collings Woods and up to the logging camp at Payne in the Aspens. The standard gauge trains usually used the track to North Point via the ridge unless a train had to switch Collings Woods.

Standard gauge trains entered from Utopia at the right end through the tunnel and climbed past the fisherman to enter a tunnel at the left end that goes to Underhill North. That tunnel entrance is below Payne in the Aspens. 

It was also a pain in the you know where if a train derails in this curving tunnel because there were tight spaces between three levels of track and the helix above Underhill North. 

The scenery behind the bridge.
plaster cloth hills
Mountains and river cleft behind bridge.
mountains and river

This is the scene at the bridge and stream where the two sections joined. The stream went under the bridge and then curved sharply left in a narrow channel towards the backdrop. The hills hid where it met the backdrop. The overall length of both sections was just shy of 16 feet.

I painted the mountains and hills on the backdrop with mixtures of inexpensive craft paints.  

The farthest hills were blue-gray and different shades of green were used for the foreground hills. 

The nearer hills were a darker Forest Green.

I used a stipple brush from my wife's collection of Donna Dewberry brushes to dab in the treeline on the foreground colours. I used a Chinet dinner plate as a palette and had puddles of white, black (licorice) and the various greens. 

I bought the FolkArt and similar brands of paints at Walmart, Michaels and the Dollar Store. My wife had a large collection of colours I borrowed from. 

The key is not to use solid colours but to blend and dab in different ones to create shadows and highlights. Nature abhors solid colours.

After the mountains and hills were dry I completed the sky and clouds. 

Mountains and clouds.
mountains and cloud backdrop

My usual method of doing clouds is to tear apart a common kitchen sponge to provide an uneven surface. Then I dab and smear on white paint and highlight the bottoms of the clouds with gray. 

I smear a little more white over the gray to blend the colours together. Some modellers use templates and spray paint clouds. I find the sponge effect easier.

Mountains and clouds.
hills and cloud backdrop

Here's another view of the clouds and hills.

Mountains and clouds.
model train scenery

At the left end of the two sections was a box for car cards and a panel for the relays that routed frog power and signals.

The fascia was painted black.  I needed to live with this model railroad scenery addition for awhile before finalizing the work. Some suggest misting the backdrop with white to tone it down and increase the feeling of distance.

I have also added trees, especially in front of the backdrop to disguise the edge. I touch up the ballast while I was at it. 

Here are three photos showing how much trees can add to a scene. 

These were all made with various Woodland Scenics kits. I followed their recommendation to use Hob-e-Tac adhesive to apply the foliage.

In the past I hadn't had much success with this adhesive. This time I read the instructions! The key is to let it dry for a half hour or so to let it become tacky and then roll the tree trunks through the ground foam.

I use cheap hair spray befor sprinkling fine ground foam over the trees. 

The plastic boxes the kits come in are good for catching the foam when sprinkling it over the trees. I installed straight pins in the trunks and planted these trees with a little Weldbond's glue. 

Thhere's a mixture of deciduous and pine trees and some low growth near the river bank.

River scene with some trees added.
river and trees
Looking along the dual gauge track by the river.
model river and trees
Along the ridge towards Payne in the Aspens.
The aspens have been added.
model railroad trees scene

Grass techniques

I started many years ago with dyed sawdust. This was about all one could do before companies like Noch and Woodland Scenics appeared on the scene. Now there's a lot of attention paid to grass that stands up by using an electrostatic applicator.

The first ones were expensive. Now there are some less expensive alternatives. You can also make your own.  One of our club members, John Houghton, has made his own and we've been using it at our NMRC train club. 

 You can also find articles and forum posts in Model Railroad Hobbyist  (, the free internet magazine.

 Recently, (I wrote this in January, 2013) a product called Fusion Fiber has been gaining in popularity.

 There have been reports on it in the mrh forum and a review in Model Railroader magazine. I have not tried it yet.

 One note of caution about the effort required to take scenery to a higher level: All scenery looks tired after awhile mainly due to dust in the train room.

 Save the effort for closeup scenes near the edge of the layout or module or scenes you plan to photograph. 

 Our club modules take a lot of abuse being moved back and forth to train shows and I'm not sure the average visitor even notices the effect of the static grass.

 It's all a matter of personal satisfaction like most things in our hobby. By all means try these products if you feel so inclined.

On the following pages I cover a number of techniques I've picked up over the years. Click on the links. Try the ones you like. Ignore the rest. In no time at all you'll have developed your skill level and have a bunch of methods that are your favorites that you can share with other modellers. 

Learn about building terrain

Go from "model-railroad-scenery" to making mountains and hills

Need to make some trees?

An experiment in painting a mountain backdrop.

Making pine trees with air fern branches.

Woodland Scenics metal trunk pine trees with stretchable foliage.

Methods for modeling roads and streets.

Catch attention with mini-scenes.

How to disguise a top-mounted switch machine.

A chainlink fence acts as a scenic divider.

"Kitbashing" a Woodland Scenics cemetery kit.

Return from "model-railroad-scenery" to my Home Page.

What's your best scenery building tip?

Have you discovered a great scenery building technique beyond the normal way of doing things? Like the best way to make water scenes? For example, I would never have thought of using toilet paper and white glue if I hadn't stumbled across the idea on the internet.
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