Low Cost Model Railroad Scenery
Techniques To Save You Money

Making This, Using Nothing but That – Part 2


Constructing Vegetation - Trees

In nature, vegetation springs up everywhere seeds can land and find nourishment. Just as with topographical features, fractals play an important part in vegetation. Consider the photo:

constructing model railroad trees 

Notice that our two trees are actually two branches of the same tree. The self-similarity should be evident. What’s the point? Vegetation created for one scale of railroading is often useful for another scale and generally won’t seem out of place – within reason, of course. A 25 foot tall oak tree created for an O-scale layout will appear to be a 50 foot tall oak tree on an HO layout. Not unreasonable scaling at all! Now, this type of effect doesn’t carry across ALL vegetation, but as with the section on topography, being hyper-precise is a waste of time and tends to suggest that your vegetation is faked – what we would really like to avoid!

Placement is also somewhat of an issue. Being human, it’s very hard for us to be completely random. For example, many layouts don’t look quite “right” even though the vegetation itself is modeled accurately. What makes the scene feel wrong is a tendency toward repetitive regularity. Placing trees in rows rather than in clumps and straggles makes them look like they are planted by humans. Unless this is the effect you are looking for, you’ll want to look out for this and try to avoid it!

Which brings us to the subject of materials, trees in particular. If you carry the fractal nature of, well, nature, down to the lowest level, you can start to see that a twig is pretty self-similar to the entire tree. So, if we are going to make realistic trees in our miniature world, does it not make sense to start with twigs? There are a myriad suggested ways to create model trees. But if you start with nature’s own model, your broadleaf tree branches will have a built in authenticity. One issue with natural materials is that they tend to decompose over time, so you might also want to consider ease of replacement if your trees start to look a little the worse for wear. Another option is to model your tree trunks from twisted wire. Much more permanent, but less accurate on close inspection. However, they can be convincing from a small distance if you model the trunks and branches from actual twigs. If you are going to the trouble to twist up some trunks, might as well use a life-like model!

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Real trees don’t last forever. They are destroyed by pests, lightning, landslides, and developers. For additional realism on your layout, include some stumps and broken off and dead trees. Slices of twigs and modeling compound can be used to create realistic stumps and root features.

For twig work, a small hobby saw or X-acto or utility knife will suffice to make cuts. If you use a saw, the cuts tend to be too regular to appear natural, so any cuts with a saw that you make should be hidden by other features of the tree…roots, foliage, etc. The fine teeth of the hobby saw are perfect for scribing lines to simulate bark as well. The subject of realistic tree construction is the subject of literally dozens of scenery books and on-line blogs and videos. There are almost as many techniques and suggestions as there are modelers in the hobby. A google search will provide you with dozens of ways to experiment when you create your trees.


Along with the cutting tools mentioned above, vegetation construction will use a liberal application of white glue and other adhesives such as cyanoacrylate (CA, or super-glue) to construct features and attach them to the layout.

Making Vegetation - Ground Cover

In most places on the planet where there is enough rainfall, ground cover vegetation abounds. It should on your layout as well. Good ground cover starts with good “ground.” There are many places where the ground appears to be completely flat. This isn’t really true. Even on level ground there are small lumps and depressions unless the ground has been prepared for some commercial use by grading and leveling. If you have completely flat spots on your layout, they should be there to represent man-made leveling or the base of water features. For any other area, use one of the techniques we’ll talk about later to make sure you have hills and gullies to add visual interest to your scenery. We’ll also mention paints and washes to get the base color to your liking.



Ground vegetation is all about plants and bushes. Uncultivated areas with sufficient run-off usually host a variety of weeds, vines, berry bushes, small trees, and wild flowers in a bewildering array of types. How do we realistically represent them?

One very popular method is to use ground foam products of several sizes and colors. Woodland Scenics, and Scenery Express make ground foam products in sizes and colors that will match any prototypical vegetation that you would care to model. The ground foam is moderately expensive if you are going to be covering large areas, but it’s also possible to make your own from foam chair pads and artists acrylic paint. Two methods of doing this involve either a powered food blender, or a manual meat grinder. The food blender can be used to both chop and color the foam, the meat grinder method will require a step to color the foam once it’s finely ground. Don’t take your wife’s good appliances for this method!! Instead, find a thrift or recycle shop to obtain an inexpensive repurposed unit. When chopping the foam, first cut it into blocks about an inch on a side. A Google search will net you videos and illustrated instructions to make your own.

Foam has other uses besides ground cover. Very finely ground foam can be used to create foliage on your trees as well. Attach the foam by coating the branches of the trees with white glue and rolling them in a cup full of foam.

Making Weeds For Model Railroad Scenery

Where there isn’t grass and bare rock, there are…….WEEDS! Hemp twine is one of the best sources of weeds around, but any fiber string or small rope will do. Cut 6” lengths of twine and soak them in various shades of green wash for 15 or 20 minutes, then set aside to dry. Once the dyed twine is dry, cut pieces of appropriate length with your scissors and separate the individual fibers into a realistic looking patch and stand upright in a small dot of white glue where you would like to have your weeds. Be liberal, remember how much work it is to keep them out of your yard and how fast they grow everywhere!

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Making Grass for Model Railroads

There are several scenic elements that are rather hard to model well. Grass happens to be one of them. Real individual grass blades are impossible to model accurately (they would be microscopic in scale size), so one of the older techniques is to use a grass mat made of some grass simulant attached to a cloth or paper backing. Unfortunately, this technique only works really well with reasonably flat terrain because the mat tends to wrinkle and bunch...

Whoops….remember we said earlier that such terrain doesn’t exist naturally? Bet the last mowing of your yard convinced you that your yard isn’t that flat, either! Something better is at hand.

The electrostatic grass applicator is a modern invention that uses the same principle that causes bead board and extruded foam pellets to stick to everything. The applicator creates a static charge differential between the layout base and a grass flocking product. Since opposite charges attract, the grass is drawn to the layout from an applicator held a few inches above. With an adhesive surface, the grass product stands up straight, aligned with the electrostatic field and then is held in place when the adhesive cures. The flocking simulates individual grass blades and can be applied on any terrain for a realistic grassy surface. Selecting the right length grass fibers allows the surface to resemble manicured or overgrown surfaces. The applicators start at about $40 US, and if you are planning lots of open grassy areas are a good way to go. Grass products are available from several suppliers such as GrassTech USA, Woodland Scenics, and Noch, and comes in a variety of colors to simulate all seasons. The cost for the grass is about $15 US for a 32 oz. container.

Making Model Railroad Rocks, Boulders and Rock Faces

We haven’t been discussing scenery application in any particular order, but once you get the foam base of your layout in place and manicured to your liking, you’ll probably want to add some rock features. Large extruded foam areas are easy to make, but you will also probably want to add some really dramatic relief effects to your terrain cuts, bridge approaches and tunnel entrances. The easiest way to do this is with rubber molds and plaster.

Again, Woodland Scenics and Scenery Express make rubber rock molds for plaster casting, however it’s also possible to create your own molds with an array of rocks from your garden or other area, some latex rubber product and some medical gauze pads. Liquid latex is available from Woodland Scenics and can also be found in your craft store.

There are lots of plaster products available that will do the trick. Casting plaster or Plaster of Paris can be purchased at an art supply store, but you can also use just about any plaster you can find at a home improvement store as well. Most of the difference is in the time it takes to set up to a solid, so if you aren’t in a particular hurry, cheap plaster will do the trick. If you don’t want to wander the Home Depot aisles, you can also buy a product called HydroCal from Woodland Scenics. HydroCal is a lightweight plaster made especially for creating scenery features.

Mix the plaster in a discarded plastic mixing bowl that has some flexibility. This will allow you to flex the bowl and remove the remains left in it to harden at the end of a casting session. Rather than cleaning out the bowl when you are finished, saving the remains and breaking them down into smaller pieces with strokes from a hammer will give you scale sized pieces for rock and boulder falls and talus areas.

When the rock molds have hardened, attaching them to your terrain to create faces is easy with joint compound or a product from Amaco (American Art Clay Company) called Sculptamold. Sculptamold is a wonderful tool when making rock faces and walls. Mix it with water according to the directions and use it to fill in joints between castings or by itself when you want to create a small outcropping.

 model railroad rock mold

When dry, it looks like distressed rock and will take paints and washes easily. It’s available at hobby and art stores and on-line through Amazon.com and other online model train stores.

When plaster sets, an exothermic (heat producing) reaction takes place. This isn’t normally a problem when working with molds and small projects, but you should know that there is a fair amount of heat generated by large quantities of plaster. Working in small batches is best from that aspect as well as the ability to finish your project section before your mix completely hardens.

Constructing Large Terrain on a Model Railroad Layout

Creating layout bases of any size from extruded foam is certainly practical from a project standpoint. However, if you need a lot of terrain for a large layout, foam might not be the most cost effective solution. You might also want to try another, older, technique with newspapers, cardboard strips, wire mesh and plaster cloth or plaster soaked paper towels. This technique is called hard shell modeling. Large areas can be created quickly by wadding up newspapers for hills and valleys and then holding them in place with masking tape. Similarly, cardboard strips can be used to form a more rigid frame over the newspaper.

For the ultimate in strength, a wooden frame with stapled wire mesh can be created for a very large area. In all of these cases the covering is either commercial plaster soaked gauze cloth or creating your own with gauze or paper towels soaked in plaster or HydroCal that you mix yourself. Depending on the technique you choose, you’ll need a decent pair of scissors, a staple gun, and a saw to cut the wood framing material, shears to cut the wire mesh and your bowls and stirring tools to mix plaster. Apply the plaster with a wide bladed putty knife and work in manageable sections to avoid having your plaster set in the bowl before you get a chance to use it.