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Basic Scenery

Article by Neil Wood
An introduction on basic scenery techniques using the best materials available today
to give the best possible effects for your model railway layout.



Rocks & Landscape: Types of rock, Basic landscape, Basic ground cover, Grasses, Reeds.

Trees: Deciduous, Evergreen

Plants: Bushes, Ivy, Flowers

Cameos - Birds - Animals - Wood

Manufacturers - Suppliers - Links


The variety of scenic accessories available is huge. There are many products available to the modeller to recreate the scenery required for his layout. I have been asked to put together a review of some of the products I have found to be particularly good along with some of the technique I tend to use. There are obviously too many scenic products on the market for an article of this size to encompass all of them, however if you have found something which you have found to be particularly good which is not mentioned below or you have a new method of making scenery then why not put together a short article on it with some photos and details so that other modellers may be able to use it too?


First things first: plan ahead

Before starting your layout or scenic’s decisions need to be made on location, time of year, what was going on time wise, what sort of people are there? This should all be thought out at the planning stage as some of this will be unable to be changed at a later point. You also want to have some consistency about the products you buy before filling up your basket with products you may not be able to use later.

Different rock types

Before starting your scenic project is essential to have a photograph of the locale you are trying to recreate. Rock is an area where many layouts fall down badly as they have been created with no thought about what naturally occurring rock looks like never mind what rock is in that area. Some modellers tend to use some materials which are not a good representation of real rock types and what often can make it worse is that they are presented in a manner that does not naturally occur. In the British Isles we have a wide cross section of rock types which varies as you go across the country from South East to North West. If you want accuracy then you need to know what type of rocks are present in the area you are modelling if rock is to be a prominent feature as rock types weather in very different ways.

Sandstone will decay along its strata to give a linear weathering pattern as can be seen in the picture below.

Limestone varies according to which type it is. Carboniferous Limestone will weather along strata lines too and can be seen in some spectacular formations such as these in the pictures below in Wales.


Granite weathers in a more random way as it is not formed from an accumulation of sediment like Sandstone and Limestone. Granite is the crystallised remains of a large molten rock pool which has set as one big massive entity. The picture below shows a Granite glacial valley in Scotland.

Granite also erodes to make formations such as Tors like the one in the picture below.

The amount of rock types in Britain is very extensive and I would recommend that research is done prior to commencing a layout as there are some very unfeasible rock strata on layouts. I am not trying to be critical here just to give you a warning that this is one of the most likely areas where you can go wrong. There are many resources on the web which you can use to find out rock types and what they look like. The BGS is one such site and is in the resources at the end of this article.

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Basic landscape

There are a few methods of preparing your ground. The favourites are paper mache or plaster over chicken wire or polystyrene. There are other combinations of the above and other methods too. My preference is for plaster over polystyrene. I also use plaster soaked, ripped up rags as well as straight plaster. Plaster soaked rags can also make a good rock strata if folded correctly and washes applied. These can give a very good copy of folded rock strata.

I used to use paper mache however this is a far longer and more tedious process than using plaster. It also takes a long time to dry. Then there is also the fact that you have newspaper print coming through to the surface rather than a plain white surface to start painting on. Also plaster is good for modelling rock with whereas paper mache is not good for this purpose.

I prefer polystyrene foam to chicken wire too as chicken wire is horrible stuff to work with. It is strong and robust however so may be worth considering for layouts that are transported a fair bit. Polystyrene is messy to carve however a vacuum cleaner soon sorts the mess out. I either pour plaster on to the polystyrene surface or use plaster soaked cloth depending on the degree of incline I am making. For steep slopes plaster soaked cloth is better. In some cases I also apply plaster with various tools to make rock strata.

The plaster is applied in different ways depending on how close it is to setting. For soaking cloth it must be very liquid in order for it to penetrate the fibres. Once the plaster is close to setting it will be useless for soaking rags in. To apply to flat surfaces it can be poured at a relatively liquid state, however this is something that will require judgement. If it is likely to flow off the edge of your work area then wait till it is starting to become more solid. For application to vertical surfaces it will need to be fairly close to setting. In terms of what to apply it with a variety of tools and your hands can be used. For flatter landscapes I jut pour it on and smooth it over with my hands or a tool like a fork or spatula. For rocky cliffs I use an old fork and a pallette knife or old wall paper scraper. Once dry I go over it with a wire brush to etch strata if I am modelling a rock type which has linear strata. The wire brush should only be brushed in the direction your rock strata is going. Be careful how you do this as stain and washes will accumulate in the grooves made and accentuate them. It might be worth practising this before trying this on your layout.

E.G. if you were trying to model the strata in the picture below you would draw the wire brush across horizontally.

Rubber rock moulds as shown below are available from Woodland Scenics. I have used and still do use these regularly however you do need to vary your rock strata as using the same moulded pieces over and over again looks a bit obvious and unnatural.

I find that liquid plaster is best for modelling smooth landscapes as it will pour and shape into smooth flattish formations whereas almost set plaster is best for rocky ourcrops as it starts to become grainy and viscose.

I have also started making use of Gyprock plasterboard for cuttings and sheer cliffs. This has a high Gypsum content and makes a good representation of blasted rock when carved appropriately. I peel the paper skin from one side and give it a good going over with a large screwdriver and a wire brush. The results give a good representation of a blasted rock cutting or shear cliff as can be seen in the following picture.

Several sheets can be put together to show a weathered rock strata as can be seen in this picture.


After the base layer
Below is an example of how the layers are built up. I tend to do small sections at a time so I can focus on a specific area in detail. The scene section I am doing here is the beginning a Highland scene. The base layer is shown below with a first coat of brown paint and an initial coat of coloured wash on the rockky bits. I usually do this fairly roughly as you shouldn’t see this at all at the end. It is more about sealing the plaster and having something which looks earthy in the event you miss a bit with the subsequent layers.

For the flatter areas which will be covered with grass I will paint these with an earthy brown colour to start with. I tend to use Tamiya acrylic paints for this. For rock areas I will apply a series of stains, the colour of which depends on what rock I am trying to represent. I collect old coffee and jam jars and use them to mix up stains and washes. Where I know I am going to be doing a large area I mix up a large quantity as it is often difficult to match stains precisely later. I use Humbrol enamels as a basis for washes and stain diluted with turps. I’m not that keen on acrylics in general for painting plastic although I do use them for painting track and plaster which will be ground cover.
My first coat for the rocky areas is a turps based stain for the base coat. I tend to apply this quite liberally so as it will get in everywhere and accumulate in certain areas to accentuate them. The picture below shows the first coat of wash applied to the areas which will be rocks.

For subsequent coats I tend to use water based washes.
If you are using water based washes for the secondary coats it is best to do this on a warm day or in a heated room as you want the plaster to dry quickly and not absorb any water. I tend to use several layers of washes to build up the weathered look. I have a large container of stain wash sitting around in my layout room from which I apply coats every time I am out there to build up the layers. The next picture shows the scene with some water based wash applied.

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Basic ground cover materials
Once you have your painted plaster, foam or paper mache base you need to cover it to make it look like a landscape. There are several layers of topography which need to be applied and like nature, you start at the bottom and work up. Grasses come first, then bushes and trees. I start with the finer scatter materials as shown in the picture below.

I start by spreading PVA across the surface I want covered and then liberally sprinkle the first fine scatter across it. I then sprinkle smaller amounts of different coloured and coarser material on top of that. I use a PVA water mix similar to that for ballasting where I have large clumps of material I want to stick together.

On top of this I add various types of Silflor which I tear into small pieces before applying. The scene shown below is supposed to be from the Scottish Highlands so the purple Silflor represents Purple Heather which is typical of the Highlands in Summer.

After the ground level greenery has been applied, next comes the bushes and trees to give a more three dimensional appearance. In the following scene I have put the Sea Moss Birch trees at the front as they have a better finish and the ready made plastic one at the back so it is not so visible.

In many scenes I would apply flowers, people animals etc to finish off the scene however in the Scottish Highlands there aren’t that many flowers in moorland/highland areas other than Heather which are that noticeable so I will probably leave this section of the scene here. I will include ferns at some later point but they have been on order for some time now and show no sign of turning up. I will apply some flowers to the lower trackside areas which still have to be finished off after ballasting has been done. Deer are an option I may add at a later point although it is never good to cram in too much. Once the surrounding sections of this scene are done I will decide if it needs anything further other than some birds. So at this point the following picture is the finished scene. The MDF board will be painted black at a later time which will help bring out the scene a bit more.

I will look at the application of scenic material again closer up in a bit more detail. First I start off with the base layer of plaster which I have taken right up to the sides of the cuttings. I have included a cast plaster piece as an outcrop which are common in Scotland. The plaster has been shaped using an old fork. I find a fork a useful tool for applying plaster as it can give you edges and strata if you want or if you turn it on its side, allow you to spread the wet plaster. You don’t want perfectly flat plaster as this defeats the purpose of creating three dimensional ground in the first place.

The next step is to paint and stain the plaster. Base the colour you use on the soil type prevalent in the area you are modelling. In moorland areas the soil can be a bit grey so I am using a mix of brown and grey in the picture below. Note I have covered the rail tracks with some plastic sheeting to protect it during the scenic process.

The next step is to coat the painted plaster with PVA glue. Some people choose to dilute it a bit with water however I use it straight. I do this in sections as shown in the below picture.

I then dust on a fair bit of the first coat of flock as a base layer as you can see below.

Then in the next picture I have added some different coloured and sized flock.

The next picture shows the area I am working on covered with flock.

Then some Silflor and some gorse bushes. The Gorse bushes are made from Busch foliage material which nicely coheres in clumps. I then drop diluted PVA glue onto them in much the same way as ballast is set. The scenic area is then left to dry.

When the Gorse bushes are dry yellow paint is lightly dabbed on to show the gorse flowering as seen below.

In the following picture smaller trees are added next.

Finally we add larger trees which are shown the below picture to finish this section.

This is the basic process I follow however there are other way of achieving the same end. What is just as important is the quality of the scenic materials you use in your scenery. Below are some of the materials I have used which I have found to be good. There are a vast quantity of scenic materials on the market; far too many for the scope of an article like this, however please feel free to add your own recommendations so that other modellers may discover new products.

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Scatter materials
There are a wide variety of scatter materials available in all sorts of colours and sizes for representing grass. These can be varied and combined in accordance with whatever season or climate you are trying to represent. I have found the Noch ones to be my preferred ones however Woodland Scenic’s are also good. I try to use a combination of colours and sizes but avoid the larger sized material as it starts to look too much like shredded foam as it gets larger. This picture below shows very fine grained flock on the base layer.

Other grass options are:

The Noch Grass master
This is a handy tool which works on the principle of attracting electrically charged flock particles to make them stand up. It works to good effect and can create a very good grass effect. The initial outlay is expensive however the tool can be reused over and over again. If you have an extensive grass area this is certainly worth considering. I do not have one of these however I certainly can see the benefit if you intended to model a large grassy area. However if your grass area is small then it may be more economical to consider buying grass tufts or Silflor grass mats instead.

Grass mats
There are a wide variety of grass mats of varying quality which can be good for instant lawns. These are available from Noch and Woodland Scenics amongst others. I don’t tend to use these anymore as some can appear a bit synthetic. These do not look very natural when used over a large area, especially if it’s flat (i.e. straight onto a baseboard). I find these are best when cut into small sized bit for use as a back yard lawn. They would also do for sports grounds or other manicured grass.

This is now my first choice of grass material although it still does require a bit of thought about how you are going to use it. You can get a big mat and cover a given area however I find unless you are doing a mountain pasture or a field where the grass is of uniform colour and length it is best to mix and match from different sheets of Silflor to capture the variety of grasses and weeds in any given environment. The following picture has different colours and lengths of Silflor applied in clumps.

I find the summer moor grass mat is very good for Heather if ripped into small pieces and placed on a highland scene. The summer pasture is a bit long however that will allow you to trim it sporadically so that it looks more natural. If you buy the short stuff you will not be able to do this. Clumps are available in a variety of sizes and colour however I tend to make my own from small fragments of Silflor. The picture below shows two types of Silflor spread in clumps on a base of different scatters. The Silflor then has Busch flowers added as a finishing touch.


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Feature scenery items

I use the Woodland Scenics field grass. This comes in several varieties as can be seen in the following picture.

It is laborious work but the finished work pays off. You have to get the "grass" in small bunches and snip them into appropriate sized lengths (about .5cm -1cm) to put on your layout with glue. I initially used contact adhesive, which is normally the best method to attach it. The problem I had was that I was attaching reeds right next to water made from epoxy resin. The cyanoacrylate caused the epoxy resin to have a white coating which was not good. For this reason I started to use PVA which does not have this effect. The problem with PVA is that takes a while to set so the reeds had to be positioned so that the were supported by a previous set of reeds. This, needless to say, took a long time. The results are good and can be seen below.

I also used the Anita Décor bulrushes which are sold as cactus by International Models. These are pretty good as large water rushes and I have used them in the bottom picture below to obscure the area between a backdrop and the river. These would also do as pot plants or as cactus on a layout. What I would bring to any prospective users attention is that they do actually seem to be small cactus type plants and have small fibres which get stuck in your fingers like fibre glass. My fingers were nipping a bit after I used them. They do look very good though so maybe wear gloves if you intend to use them?


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There are a tremendous range of model trees available in both ready made and kit form. I have listed suppliers at the bottom of the page as the list is extensive. Before starting, identify what trees are in the area you are modelling and then look for those. Not all tree types are readily available. I have spent some time looking for Scots Pine and have not had much luck yet. Veissmann have it in their catalogue however I have not found anyone who stocks it. In terms of ready made trees there is a wide variety and it comes down to how much you want to pay. Some have good trunks but poor foliage such as the one in the following picture.

Some have reasonable foliage and poor trunks as can be seen below.

Which ever you choose you may have to do some modification to get it to look the way you want. Most foliage is made from foam. The finer foam it is usually acceptable however when it comes to the large foam it actually looks like large chunks of foam stuck to a tree; this isn’t acceptable. Some foliage not only looks like foam but is also an unrealistically bright colour. Look closely at any foliage on a model tree before you buy.

Home made trees can be made from twisted electrical wire and added foliage. Some of these can be very good. However if not made well they can just as easily look like twisted wire with plaster and paint on them. The basic method is covered in full elsewhere (follow links at the bottom of the page) but in short you make the basic shape from the wire. Cover that with plaster or modelling clay and paint it. To this frame the foliage is then attached. Looking a bit like this one in the picture below.

If you are prepared to pay more, some model scenic’s companies do a higher grade range of model tree. Noch do a nice Apple Tree or alternatively if you’re modelling Spring then there is a Cherry blossom. Be careful about how you use trees like these as they define the time of year you are modelling. You couldn’t have both these trees in the same scene as one if from Autumn (following picture) and one Spring (bottom following picture).

Tree kits can be bought and are usually more economical. This is advantageous for those who need a lot of trees e.g. those modelling the Swiss Alps or Black Forest. Some kits have a plastic trunk which needs to be twisted and then foliage added. My current favourite are the trees made from Sea Moss and Anita Decor foliage. These are available from International Models in a package called Forest in a Flash which gives you all you need to start off with for the reasonable sum of fourteen quid. Sea moss is very similar to a defoliated tree. If you are modelling winter you could spray the trees with an appropriate bark colour and stop right there; maybe adding some model snow to the upper sides of the branches. For other seasons you want leaves and one of the best foliage products I have encountered to date is that made by Anita Décor. International Models do a package called “Forest in a Flash” which contains all you need to make trees. The package includes a fair quantity of Sea moss, a bag of Anita Décor Foliage and some glue. These are easy to make, all that is involved is to immerse the tree frames in the liquid glue for thirty seconds and then cover with the foliage.

The following picture shows the freshly made trees.

Here they are hanging up to dry in the following picture.

The picture below shows them on the layout.

This following picture compares Sea moss trees with a ready made Birch tree.

The only down side to Sea Moss is that it limits the species of trees that you can make from it. There are, however, other colours of Anita Décor foliage which you can use to vary it a bit.

If you can find any other twigs or sprigs from a naturally occurring plant such as Heather or Sage Brush you can also cover this with foliage once dried to make model trees. Another technique used for larger trees is to get a twig the size of the tree you want and to then glue Sea Moss branches with attached foliage to it. This way you can get huge Oak trees just like in real life!

With all ready made trees and tree kits, have a good look at the trunk and foliage before buying to see if it reproduces what you want, and if it doesn’t how much work does it involve to modify it. There are a lot of products out there the quality of which varies considerably. Your local model shop may stock products by some of the big scenic’s manufacturers. Take your time to browse and get an idea of what is available. Use a wide variety to recreate the wide variety of trees that are there in nature.

Evergreen Trees
If you’re in the market for Fir trees then you may well be modelling Switzerland or Bavaria in which case you are going to need them in large quantities. I have seen some really poor Fir trees which were correspondingly cheap. Some trees can be very cheap but the quality can be dire. Be careful to have a good look at any tree product before you buy.

However decent Fir trees are not expensive if you make them from kits.
I’ve found that Heki kits aren’t bad for Pine trees and are very good price wise. The picture below shows what you get in the kit, a bottle of PVA glue and a bag of flock along with the appropriate number of pine tree frames.

They are of the twisted wire (bottlebrush method) variety but look fine once made. All they really need is something like plaster or modelling clay to cover the bare wire trunk and a bit of paint, preferably prior to putting the foliage on. The biggest difficulty I found was flicking yourself and your surrounds with PVA glue as you apply it to the green “branches”, so be careful where you do this. These can be bought in various sizes of kits at varying prices however they are good value. I found with the smaller sized tree kits that you are left with a fair amount of extra foliage and that on the larger kits you can be cutting it a bit fine. It may be an idea to get a cross section of sizes of tree to counter this. The foliage is quite good colour and size wise.

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One thing which is frequently missed on layouts are bushes. The most commonly available bush scenic items are those packs of lichen which all the model shops have. Selected pieces of this can be good when modified and painted in some parts however when dumped wholesale onto a layout with no modification they can look also look terrible. I have tried to remove as much of this stuff from my layout as I can; the exception being those infrequent occasions when it looks ok.

I made some gorse bushes using Busch foliage material. The results can be seen in the picture below. I have found the Busch foliage to be quite good, although it is better for some things than others.

I have found that the Sea Moss is great for custom made bushes as you can break off bits to the size that you want from the larger tree sized pieces. This also enables you to use the broken bits that invariably occur in transit. As with the trees they can be made in differing colours to match the area you are modelling.

Other foliage

Silflor Ivy is very good. Bit dear at five quid a pack so I have used it a bit sparingly at the front of the layout. I am very impressed with this though. It has leaves and vines which look pretty authentic, although the foliage could be a bit thicker. The following pictures show the Silflor ivy on the layout.

Previously I had used scatter material however the results were poor compared with the Silflor Ivy. Having said that the scatter does look good as moss which covers damp walls on many cuttings and walls. The picture below shows coarse flock material from Woodland Scenics glued straight onto a rock cutting.

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Use of cameos
Using figures in set scenes can really add a lot of interest to your layout. Preiser are the best known and have the widest range although other figures are available from Busch, Bachmann, Hornby, Langley and Faller. The Langley figures are made from white metal and require painting. The other manufacturers make ready made figures from plastic which just require positioning on your layout. These are more expensive but more accurate representations and for most of us; probably better painted. Preiser figures can be bought painted or unpainted. Unpainted figures are far cheaper and for those skilled with a brush, these can make a significant saving. The following pictures show a combination of Hornby, Langley and Preiser figures.


The real world has plenty of birds in it. They are everywhere regardless of whether you are in a city or the country. I grew up in a seaside town where the sound of seagulls was constant. These need to be included as do Ducks, Crows Pigeons etc. It’s just one more item of detail that needs to be included to complete the picture. I have used a combination of Langley (The larger Seagulls) and Preiser (assorted Seagulls, Crows, Pigeons and Birds of prey) birds which are demonstrated in the following pictures.


Whether it’s the countryside or the backyard there are likely to be some animals around: Cats and Dogs for urban scenes or Cows and Sheep for the countryside. For wilder areas Deer, Foxes and Rabbits would be appropriate. Squirrels would be good for both. Langley do good set of British country animals in OO which are made from white metal. These require painting but look good once done. If you require something better quality then Preiser will have similar animals in their range.

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Other detail

If it’s supposed to be Spring then there should be plenty of flowers about. Make sure these are everywhere and consistent with your location. In my layout the countryside is mainly forested with grassland so flowers that fit with that are required.
I used some Busch daisies to enhance things a bit. You get 120 in a packet, both yellow and white. I got two packets which I initially thought was too much however once you start adding them to meadows and so on they soon get used up.



The list of flowers and plants available in kit form is extensive. Most well known flowers are available such as Tulips, Crocuses, Roses and so on. You can also find vegetables such as Lettuce, Pumpkins amongst others to put in gardens or allotments.

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Use of wood
Wooden strips cut to scale sizes is available from many model shops for use in building model ships. This can be utilized for many purposes around the layout including crossings, buildings wagon loads etc. It also looks a lot more authentic than plastic painted to look like wood.

I have also started making level crossings out of wood. I have quite a lot of wooden strips from the days when I used to make wooden boats. Wooden strips were cut to size, stained and then glued into place as can be seen in the pictures below.

This list is by no means definitive nor intended to be encyclopaedic and is intended to be a summary of items which I have found to be particularly good . I have not touched on backdrops, buildings or many other aspects of model rail accessories and scenery as to do so would extend this article too far. If you have any items or products which you believe are good and of interest to other modellers then please submit an article to Model Rail Forum Admin for consideration.

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Trees and bushes
Woodland Scenics http://www.noch.de/en/
Veissmann http://www.viessmann-modell.com/en/produkt...mp;sprache_nr=2
Hornby http://www.hornby.com/skalescenics-194/
Heki http://www.heki-kittler.de/
Faller http://www.faller.de/start.php?lang=gb&amp...&naviDown=0
Busch http://www.busch-model.com/english.htm
Preiser http://www.figuren.de/
Kibri http://rire-modelle.de/neu/index.php?optio...1&Itemid=26

Shops and Suppliers
International Models http://www.internationalmodels.net/
Langley Models http://www.langley-models.co.uk/
Harburn Hobbies http://www.harburnhobbies.co.uk/
Ten Commandments http://www.cast-in-stone.co.uk/html/home.html

How to articles
Model Makers Resource: Has good articles on how to make coniferous and deciduous trees from wire.
Armorama: A military modelling website but the method for tree making still applies. http://www.armorama.com/modules.php?op=mod...e&artid=135
County Gate: Model railway sight with good how to make trees section

Websites of inspirational layouts.
Chris Nevard’s layouts http://www.nevardmedia5.fotopic.net/c1164154_1.html
Dorset Reichsbahn Group’s Layout http://www.altezeitgruppe.com/

British Geological Society http://www.bgs.ac.uk/home.html
Geological Society of London http://www.geolsoc.org.uk/gsl/info

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- October 2008

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