Part 3: Ground Cover Basics
by George Riley/photos as noted
No one item brings a model railroad or diorama to life than the addition of realistic and detailed ground cover. Regardless of the type of terrain, this relatively inexpensive step of the building process will do more to create the overall look of realism and scale fidelity to one’s own modeling. Happily, with the wide availability of scenery products, one doesn’t have to be an artist to create both attractive and believable scenery.
No one item brings a model railroad layout or diorama to life than the addition of realistic and detailed ground cover. Regardless of the type of terrain your railroad operates through, this relatively inexpensive step of the building process will do more to create the overall look of realism and scale fidelity to one’s modeling. Happily, with the wide availability of scenery products, one doesn’t have to be an artist to create both attractive and believable scenery.
Adding ground cover consists of a series of steps where consecutive layers of color and texture are added to a scene. Frequently, the finished look of a scene begins once the bench work is completed but before the first section of track is laid. This begins by laying out the structures and scenic features over the general track plan to gauge both the spacing and design. Once satisfied, the track and basic terrain can be laid in place.
The first layer of the ground cover process is accomplished by sealing and painting the competed terrain base. This not only will provide consistent color should some of the later scenery items be chipped by handling but will also serve as a good base for scenery adhesives to adhere. An inexpensive earth tinted interior latex house paint works well for this application. In addition to this base color we frequently use a spray spatter paint to add additional texture to the scenery base. These are available branded as Floquil Diorama Sprays from hobby retailers or in larger spray cans branded for several manufacturers from the local home improvement or hardware store.
With the base paint dry, the next stage is to add a layer of earth to this base. There are a number of options available to the modeler to use. These range from dried and screened real soil to various colors of finely ground foam. This is a matter of choice and availability for the builder. The loose earth is held in place by a coat of diluted scenery cement. Once the earth is applied over the glue, wet it with mist of water in a spray bottle, capillary action will draw the glue through out the layer of earth.
With the earth layer dry, it is time to move on to the next step but first one needs to choose a season. While most modelers’ choose the height of summer, the wide array of seasonal scenery products currently available will allow for layouts to be effectively sceniced to represent every location and season. By working with an autumn palette of these products small HO scale ‘Branchville’ switching layout is set in the mid-Atlantic region in late autumn – early winter.
With the season chosen, the next layer to be added is the low ground cover. For smaller scales, ground foam will work convincingly to achieve the proper appearance; however, in HO and larger scales this look is better captured using static grass products. Various heights and colors of static grasses and grass tufts were used to create Branchville’s fall fields. Mix dark and light colors as well as greens, browns and tans to effectively capture the proper look.
In addition to the low ground cover, ballast, cinders and loose gravel are now added to the track work, lots and road ways. Mix colors, sizes and textures to achieve maximum realism. The forest floor covered with deadfall and decades of fallen leaves is one often overlooked scenic element. This can easily be replicated by applying a layer of ‘chopped leaves’ and small twigs to the forested areas.
Once dry, all of the elements were tied together with a dry brushed coat of light tan acrylic paint. This technique helps blend the colors of our base scenery and provides artificial highlights. At this stage in development the landscape should begin to look almost finished. The addition of shrubs, bushes and trees will bring the scene to completion. Saplings which are common along rights of way and highways are frequently overlooked in model form. These can easily be replicated using premade “foliage branches” placed in random groups on the layout.
Brushes and shrubs are added using various proprietary as well as hand made items. These include, but are not limited to golden rods, field grasses and dried vines. There is a wide array of ready made trees available that replicate many seasonal types and species. In addition to the bare trees, we were able to create some late fall trees using commercially available tree armatures with loosely applied poly fiber covered with a thin layer of brown and dark orange coarse foam.
The last stage involves adding vehicles, people and placing buildings on the finished landscape. A simple backdrop is also added to enhance the perception of size and depth to our 2’ by 4’ layout (See page S10 for more information about how to make easy and convincing backdrops for your layout). Nicely planned and executed scenery not only provides a realistic environment for our models but also enhances even proprietary models straight from the box.