FORUM CLINIC: Building realistic scenery is a free Model Railroad Discussion Forum and photo gallery. We cover all scales and sizes of model railroads. Whether you're a master model railroader or just getting started, you'll find something of interest here.


Modeling SP in the 1980s
CLINIC: Building realistic scenery

Okay, let's try a FORUM CLINIC on here about building realistic scenery. I have a specific philosophy I use when building model scenery so it is more realistic, and I'll share some of that here. Plus, I have lots of techniques I use for the scenery I do.

But let's start off with an example scene from my HO Siskiyou Line. I'm modeling the prototype SP in sourthern Oregon, so I am aiming for a specific look for that locale that's correct. Here's the scene:

If you know southern Oregon, then this scene will ring true to you as looking "right". Plus, I'm using some tricks that are not used by many in the hobby to make the scene "pop" and seem more real than most model scenes. We'll start with some important philosophical points first, and then move into specific techniques with this clinic.

NEXT TOPIC: Philosophical point 1 - Proper scenery COLOR
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Modeling SP in the 1980s
TOPIC THIS POST: Philosophical point 1 - Proper scenery COLOR

A rather obvious key to realistic scenery is getting the proper color of the scenic elements.

For this, you need to do some careful observation. Grass is not always green, rocks are not always gray, dirt is not always brown, and water is not always blue.

Photographs of the region you are modeling can be a great help here. Take a close look at the kinds of scenic elements (rocks, trees, bushes, grass) and their color.

For example, conifer trees generally exhibit a much darker green vegetation color, so to make sure they stand out properly on the model, they should be several shades darker green than deciduous trees. Check out this photo, taken on the old SP Tillamook branch in May:

In May, decidious tree foliage is a shade lighter than it will become in June, so the difference in color between conifer and decidious tree foliage is dramatic this time of the year. By June, the decidious tree foliage will be darker, so the difference will be less distinct, but the difference will still be there, just the same. Learn to notice this sort of thing with regard to scenery color.

One common mistake on model scenery is to make the colors too intense. Muted colors, and subtle color variations go a long ways torward making your scenery look more realistic. Ironically, the best thing that can happen to some model scenery is a year's layer of dust! The dust will blend and subdue the colors, actually making the scenery look better!

One clever way to check the coloration on your scenery is to take some black and white photos of your scenery and also some color photos of your scenery. Then show the photos to your non-modeling friends and ask them which photos look more like the real thing to them.

If they pick the black and white photos, that's a strong clue your coloration may be off.

NEXT TOPIC: Philosophical point 2 - Proper scenery TEXTURE


Registered Member
Staff member
Hi Joe, thank's for starting this section The modeled scene in the first photo, to me is as realistic as it can get. To my eye, it's as real looking as the scenery second photo. I for one wil be with you all the way. Looking forward to learning how to do much better than I do now.



Stay off the tracks!
Hi Joe - welcome to one of my many online homes... hopefully the problems of the MR forums will result in a positive lift here.


I find scenery modeling from photos invaluable, like any modeling. I model California and live in Dover Delaware. I rely on photos for my modeling. I took this picture in central California south of Gilroy, CA.

I found no commercial scenery material to duplicate this grass in quantity. Luckily I found a plush felt that sorta matches when colored.

Initial scenery, the bushes are only temporary and will be improved. Modeling an area that is not typical requires new methods.

Just a thought
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Modeling SP in the 1980s
A few more comments on proper color ...

When we get into discussing the how-to side of doing model scenery, you will notice I use techniques that introduce subtle color variations into the scenery.

For example, indoor lighting is far dimmer than outdoor sunlight, so I use coloring tricks to make the indoor lighting look more like sunlight. When I do a decidous tree, once it is all done, I take a can of pale yellow spray paint and lightly mist the tree from above. This causes the parts of the tree that face UP to have a hint of yellow green as compared to a darker green on the parts of the tree that face DOWN.

This trick simulates sunlight and makes the model tree that's under dim indoor lighting look a lot more like it's outside under sunlight. It's subtle tricks like this that really make your scenery "pop" and look real.


jfugate said:
A few more comments on proper color ...

When we get into discussing the how-to side of doing model scenery, you will notice I use techniques that introduce subtle color variations into the scenery.

For example, indoor lighting is far dimmer than outdoor sunlight, so I use coloring tricks to make the indoor lighting look more like sunlight. When I do a decidous tree, once it is all done, I take a can of pale yellow spray paint and lightly mist the tree from above. This causes the parts of the tree that face UP to have a hint of yellow green as compared to a darker green on the parts of the tree that face DOWN.

This trick simulates sunlight and makes the model tree that's under dim indoor lighting look a lot more like it's outside under sunlight. It's subtle tricks like this that really make your scenery "pop" and look real.
Very interesting idea Joe. Do you have a preference of what type of paint you use? I am assuming you use an airbrush?


Modeling SP in the 1980s
Actually, David, I do it almost exclusively with cheap cans of spray paint. It's more convenient that way. I'll see if I can share some of the colors I use later on. If I can find the color in the 99 cents per can section, I'll do it! Otherwise, I'll usually spend like $2.99 per can. I also check out the craft spray paint because they often have some *great* colors you can't find any where else (like lots of handy colors of green).

In the summer, you can do all this paint spraying outside. In the winter, you need a spray booth so you don't asphyxiate yourself from the fumes. A repirator is a good idea, too. (Believe me I know ... I've gotten double vision a few times from the fumes, and it's not fun).

grande man

Bonafied Grande Nut
Great tips everyone! Since there's been some talk of scenery appearing as if it were illuminated naturally, I wanted to post a link to the incandescent bulbs we've been using (Sylvania Daylight). When the switch is flipped, it's high noon on the Grande! :D

New Sylvania Link

ETA- ya gotta dig with that link. Can't seem to find a better one. :(
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Modeling SP in the 1980s
TOPIC THIS POST: Philosophical point 2 - Proper scenery TEXTURE

Proper scenery texture is a concept that's not as obvious as proper scenery color -- yet if you get this concept down, you will understand where you can cut corners with your scenery detail and your scenery will look more real than ever.

Again, make careful observation of the area you are modeling, this time for the textures that are common. Photos can be a big help here since you can study them at your leisure.

Many modelers overlook proper texture and as a result you can look at a photograph of their layout scenery and it instantly screams "MODEL!"

The transition in the 1970s from lichen to ground foam was a big step in the right direction with regard to texture, because the lumpy TEXTURE of ground foam is more like leaves than the filament texture of lichen.

However, many modelers get one grind of ground foam and use it everywhere for everything ... grass, bushes, deciduous trees, conifer trees, dirt. If you pay attention to texture, of course this results in the wrong texture for some of these things. And some things, like grass, have a texture more akin to filaments rather than lumps, which means NO KIND OF GROUND FOAM will do for the texture of grass. Only a very short trimmed and manicured lawn can be simulated with ground foam, all other kinds of grass need to use something else if you want the proper texture.

The other thing with texture is to understand that you can take shortcuts in your scenery, especially in the back half of a scene toward the backdrop. As things recede into the distance, texture fades away and mostly color applies. You can use very simple low-texture methods in the back of your scene and as long as the color is good, the scene will look great.

Here is a scene from my HO Siskiyou Line that takes advantage of this front-to-back texture transition:

In this photo you can see yellow fuzzy grass texture in the front of the scene, transitioning to simply yellow hills in the background against the backdrop.

As a further practical example of understanding texture, consider the difference between modeling a deciduous tree and modeling a conifer. Deciduous trees tend to have broad, flat leaves, while conifers tend to have small, pointy needles. In terms of texture and modeling at the typical modeling scales of O, HO, and N scale, this means we use a coarse ground foam for representing deciduous tree foliage, but use fine ground foam to represent conifer tree foliage.

As we get into the specifics of how to model various things in your scenery, keep in mind these two guiding philosophies of color and texture. If you can get your arms around these two concepts, your model scenery will imediately improve, and you'll be on the road to getting a layout that looks more realistic than ever.

NEXT TOPIC: Back to the beginning - Building terrain (Or, Filling the holes in the benchwork)


Keep it going Joe, I just wanted to give this topic a 5 star rating. Were are those darn thumb up smilies when you need them.


Modeling SP in the 1980s
TOPIC THIS POST: Back to the beginning - Building terrain (Or,Filling the holes in the benchwork)

First, the disclaimer:
This series is not intended to be an extensive survey of different ways to build model scenery, but is how I build scenery for the Siskiyou Line. I've been building model railroad scenery for nearly 40 years, and I've tried lots of different methods. The methods I'm going to cover work for me because I've found them to be both easy and fast, yet produce "great" looking scenery. These are not necessarily the best methods for everyone, but they work for me!

Okay, on to forming rough terrain.

I prefer to use cardboard strips and hot glue to form a basketweave of the terrain I'm building. (I am not a big fan of foam board for my scenery base -- I don't like the problem of holes for wiring, etc, and I am leery of the flamable nature of foam -- again, this is my opinion, and yours may differ, which is fine.)

I cut 3/4" wide strips from old corrugated cardboard boxes, and hot glue them to the layout in a crosshatch, basketweave sort of pattern, with 4-6" between strips.

The hot glue makes the work go fast, and I use sprung clothes pins to clamp the hot glued overlap joints between the strips so I can keep moving. You'll need 20 or 30 clothes pins to keep this process going. Once you run out of clothes pins, the hot glue on the first of the clothes pins will be cool enough you can remove the pins and reuse them.

Hot glue can give you some nasty burns if you are not careful, so I like to use a rubber dishwashing glove on one hand (I'm left handed, so I wear the glove on my left hand) to protect me from the hot glue.

Here's a quick snapshot I took of the under-construction cardboard strip terrain around the North Umpqua Bridge area on my Siskiyou Line:

Building basic terrain contours using basket-weave cardboard strips glued together with hot glue

Once I have the basketweave terrain with the cardboard strips done, I put 2" wide masking tape over the cardboard strips. This provides a solid scenery base upon which to paint the plaster mix (discussed in the next post).

The masking tape application goes fast, and you can immediately get an idea how your scenery is going to look from it. Now is the time to alter things if you don't like how they look. The farther along you go in the process, the harder it gets to change your mind.

That's the other thing I really like about this method of building scenery. It's easy for me to change my mind after I see how things look. In the best case, I can just cut and twist here and there, maybe using a bit more carboard and masking tape, to alter a terrain contour.

Or the worst case is I have to rip out some cardboard strips and masking tape, and try again. In either case, alterations are easy to do at this stage. (Try that with foam board.)

In a pinch, you can also paint this masking tape scenery with some light brown latex paint and have some quick stand-in scenery until such time as you have a chance to do the "plastering" step.

For comparison, here's the finished North Umpqua scene, detailed using the techniques we'll be covering later in this clinic:

The same North Umpqua River bridge location as a finished scene

NEXT TOPIC: Applying the scenery "plaster" mixture


internets worst speller
i am so happy you posted this here :D
it's so hard to keep track of this at . it gets coverd so fast and ends up 3 or 4 pages back in the matter of an hour. this web page is set up better for things like this i.m.o :D

thank you :D


Modeling SP in the 1980s

Agreed ... I think this forum's approach demonstrates the usefulness of pulling the more meaty posts like online clinics into their own area.

With tools on here like Active Topics and New posts, you can get the equivalent of the MR forum general discussion if you want it.

But after trying this forum out for a few days, when I go back to the MR forum I feel like I'm in a crowded room, hollering across the din. Trying to carry on a meaningful conversation that way is very draining.

I like it here much better, and hope to keep posting more forum clinics and other goodies as I get time. I won't leave the MR forum entirely, but this place is quickly becoming my main home. :D


Modeling SP in the 1980s
TOPIC THIS POST: Applying the scenery "plaster" mixture

The plaster step can be messy, which is why I like covering the cardboard strips with 2" masking tape. The tape application goes fast, and makes the plastering step really easy because you can literally "paint on" the plaster over the masking tape. There's no holes in the "pre-scenery" for drips to fall through!

Rough plastered scenery made using the vermiculite mix described in this segment. This scenery has been painted with brown latex paint as well, and the track has been ballasted (covered in future segments). That squared off area you see in the left background is going to be a freeway bridge abutment -- Interstate-5 crosses over the railroad in this location approaching Rice Hill.

In preparation for the plastering step, you also want to get some 1.5" masking tape (HO) and put it down over the track to protect it from plaster splaters. I don't ballast my track until after the plastering step is done, but it's still nice to keep the plaster mess off the track.

I use a special mix of patching plaster, portland cement, and vermiculite (powdered mica mineral). I like this mix because it's lightweight, has a natural gray color (as opposed to a bright white color) and it's kind of "rubbery" and a bit "fluffy", making it fairly easy to poke holes into with an awl. I like to use the awl for planting trees, because it's quicker than drilling holes, and it doesn't leave little plaster dust hills around the hole (more on tree planting later).

The mix also has a bit of a grain, which makes it nice for getting a "gritty rock" look if you're hand carving rock faces. I find the slight grit makes it easier to get convincing hand carved rocks in a pinch without using rock molds. More on this in a moment.

Here's the formula:
1 part portland cement
3 parts patching plaster
4 parts vemiculite (fine)

Make sure and use a fine gind of vermiculite (looks like coarse sand) or your scenery will be full of lumps and look more like "popcorn ceiling texture". Here's an internet link to fine vermiculite:

Mix this to a consisency of thick cake batter and then paint it on. You should have a working time of about 20 minutes.

I prefer to use two coats. I paint one coat on mostly to cover the tape and to establish a solid base to work from. Usually the first coat has a lot of imperfections and unnatural brush marks, etc. I'm mainly trying to just cover the tape on the first coat (about 3/16" thick) so I don't worry much about how it looks.

After the first coat has set up (preferrably a couple of hours later) apply a second coat. The second coat varies from 1/8" to 1/4" thick and this coat I pay attention to how it looks, and I especially try to eliminate any unnatural brush strokes or globby inperfections in the first coat. I want the second coat to be fairly smooth and natural looking.

The second coat is where I do any rock work. I used to use lots of rock molds, but I only use them occassionally now. Western Oregon scenery doesn't need a lot of rock work, but when it does, I find I can hand carve something convincing just by mixing a slightly thicker batch and applying it over the undercoat, then globbing and shaping it with a common smooth kitchen butter knife. Make sure and allow for the thickness of the rock when you plan any rock cuts next to the track. Give yourself an extra half inch from the scenery base to your track clearance points to allow room for the rockwork and for any equipment to still have clearance to get past your nice rockwork.

This plaster mix does have one drawback you need to be aware of: it shrinks. Regular plaster doesn't shrink much, but this mix does, so it has a tendency to crack. But I so like the lightweight and soft properties of this mix, along with it's great natural color that I put up with the cracking. Just mix up a small thin batch and go fill the cracks. I find I get one crack about every two-three feet, I just patch them in a couple minutes and that's that.

Now that we've plastered the scenery, I like to work from the back to the front as to the final details. This means we start with the backdrop in the next installment of this clinic.

NEXT TOPIC: From blue painted board to sky backdrop


Been Nothin' Since Frisco
I've always been pretty happy with the scenery methods I learned from my scenery mentor, Dick Strobel back in 1990 when I was in high school. And I can make passable scenery for the dioramas I've built over the years. But this thread is like going to graduate school in scenery.

I am not a MR forum guy, but I had seen your thread there from a link. It was impressive there, but the format of is much better suited to what you're demonstrating. In fact, I hesitate to respond, just so I don't interrupt the flow, but I am sufficiently wowed that I had to say something good. Bravo!

Incidentally, and this might be food for thought for our intrepid moderator, over on The Gauge (a similar forum with more of an eclectic and international flair), they have a section called "The Academy." It's where the best of the best threads go when they've run their course. The extranneous replies (like this one!) are taken out of the thread and the author's comments and posts are what's left. This approach ends up being very effective, especially when the thread gets lots of comments while it's live or if it spans weeks or months. Here's an example (my favorite example, in fact) of a post from "The Academy"



Thanks for the link, I am getting ready to re-do my backdrop, I used clouds wallpaper I had gotten at HomeDepot and have never been happy with them. Though I think I will wait a spell and see what the professor does first ;) I think I hear him walking down the hall now, better get rid of my gum, and open my notebook, and turn to page...

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