A Step-by-Step Guide on Specific Types of Model Train Scenery

August 06, 2021

A Step-by-Step Guide on Specific Types of Model Train Scenery

Are you getting ready to build a model railway but the concept of model train scenery is a little overwhelming? At TrainLife, we want you to enjoy each step of your model train journey, so join us here for a step-by-step guide on specific types of model train scenery; starting with terrain and finishing up with waters.


Chicken Wire or Cardboard Method

The chicken wire and cardboard methods for creating model train terrain are very similar. With chicken wire, you simply cut it into workable pieces and form the wire into mountains, hills, and valleys, then staple the wire to the baseboard all along the edges.

The cardboard method requires you to cut out 1-inch wide strips of cardboard and create a lattice pattern with the cardboard pieces, also then gluing or stapling the edges down to the baseboard.

cardboard form for model railroading terrain

Once the basic form has been created using chicken wire or cardboard, you can begin covering the form in plaster cloth or paper towels soaked in plaster. 


Foam Board Method

The foamboard method for creating terrain requires foam, glue, and a hot knife or hot wire tool. 

Stack pieces of foam atop one another in tiers, then use the hot knife or hot wire tool to cut away the sharp edges of the rectangle blocks and smooth them into a sloping mountain. 

Graphic of how to do the foam board terrain method.

This form can then be covered in plaster cloth, or simply painted with latex paint.

Ground Goop & Cover

Ground Goop

Goop is what model railroaders like to put on top of the plaster or terrain mold to help it look like dirt, turf, grass, or even hills and cliffs. There are all kinds of different “goop” mixtures out there, so it’s all about testing a few and finding one that you like best. 

Ground goop combinations might include some of the following:

  • Latex paint
  • Glue
  • Clay
  • Vermiculite
  • Water


Once the goop has been combined, apply it to your plastered terrain. Feel free to use any utensil you feel helps you spread it quickly (even fingers, it will wash off later). Give areas that are meant to be rocky or cliff-like some jagged areas, while smoothing out the flatlands. 


Ground Cover

Ground cover consists of three parts:

  • The Base - turf, grass, color of the earth, etc. 
  • Mid-Size - brush, weeds, flowers, etc. 
  • High Cover - larger bushes, plants, etc.


The base can be completed using latex paints, turf, dirt/leaves from outside (or fake ones from places like woodland scenics), gravel, and spray adhesive. The base can also easily be completed with products such as grass/meadow mats. These pre-made mats can be laid down anywhere and can even be cut and molded to fit around other pieces or into small spaces.



Mid-size ground cover includes things like the underbrush along a railroad track, vines on rocks and tunnels, little wildflowers and spray paint meadows.


High Cover

Now for the bushes, shrubs, and vegetation! You can find ready-made model train scenery items that can be easily glued onto any model set, or you can create your own using dried vegetation. No matter how you choose to get your high cover, make sure you fill in all the spots you want to have bushes, hedges, larger plants, etc.



Dirt Roads

Use a sculptamold or terrain plaster for the base of your dirt road.

Once that has dried, paint it with tan paint. While the paint is still wet, sprinkle some sand or ballast to the road. Make sure the entire surface is covered so it looks like good rough dirt.

You may want to “plant” a few weeds or grass around and even on the road to help make it feel like it’s a true country road. 


Paved Roads

An easy way to do paved roads is to use woodland scenics products:



Video Summary:

  • Figure out the width of your road and pencil where you want it laid.
  • Use the paving tape to tape off the area, and add masking tape to ensure a clean space. 
  • Mix together your smooth it and apply it in between the paving taped area.
  • Use the scraper to smooth out the road and wait for it to dry.
  • Give it a quick sand down and add in any imperfection or potholes. 
  • Apply the asphalt top coat and wait for it to dry. Once the top coat is dry, you can sand it down for a bit of a weathered look.
  • Then apply your line decals.
  • Scrape a lead pencil on some sandpaper to get some lead shards on the road. Rub in these shards for a tire track weathered look.
  • Finish off the road with a quick black wash.


There are many, many ways to do trees. Here we will go over just a few different ways to add life-like trees to your model railroad scenery.

Packaged model train birch tree

Packaged Trees

Companies like Woodland Scenics have several packaged tree options from large full-grown fruit trees to small sprouts and tufts. Find winter pines or colorful fall maples, any tree that fits your specific model railroad. These packaged trees are an easy addition with both a planting pin option and a detachable base for temporary use.


Dried Vegetation

You can use dried-up vegetation from your backyard or local park! Simply cut down the foliage to the proper size, paint them a specific color if needed, and glue them to your scenery. Some popular types of dried vegetation include:

  • Baby’s breath
  • Peppergrass
  • Candytuft


Foliage Clumps

Using clump foliage and some sticks from the backyard, you can glue together a very life-like tree as well. This is a great concept to use for forests or areas with large numbers of trees. It also works well for those trees that you just can’t seem to get the color right using other methods.


Water can be used on model railroads in the form of ponds, rivers/streams, waterfalls, and oceans. There are many products available to create water, but there are a few techniques that may help you create the correct water.

A few products you may choose to use in the creation of your water include:

  • Modge Podge
  • Liquitex
  • Magic Water
  • Realistic Water, Water Effects, Water Kit, Ripplin’ Water Kit, and E-Z Water by Woodland Scenics
  • Modeling paste/gel
  • Or one of many other water products

Still Water

Still bodies of water can be made by cutting a small hole in the layout where you’d like your pond or body of water to sit. Lay a soaked plaster cloth in the hole, forming it to be as the base of the body of water. Let this dry overnight.


Paint the plaster in deep blue or black at the base, lightening the color as you come up around the edges. This will give the body of water the look of both deep and shallow waters.


Add rocks, cattails, or weeds along the banks and inside the pond.


Use whichever water medium you have chosen to fill your plaster hole with “water.” Follow the instructions on the product you have chosen to use.


Moving Waters

Moving waters such as creeks, rivers, or even waterfalls take a few extra steps. You’ll need to consider where all you want these bodies of water to go through your model train scenery and where their “source” of water is coming from.

Model train scenery waterfall

After completing the basic steps found in the still water section, you’ll want to add a streaking effect with a paintbrush or toothpick to show agitation and direction in the water. Remember to move the body of water along in the same direction throughout, going from the “source” chosen and moving down a mountain, around a town, or through a canyon. Add more agitation to portions of a river or stream where rocks are present. You can also add basic water ripples using a product such as surface water effects.



These are the basics to get you started with your model train scenery; hopefully, you’ll be able to take these tips and tricks and apply them to your model train scene and discover just how inspiring it can be to do each individual part of a model railway yourself. Find all the supplies you’ll need for your next model railway here at TrainLife!

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