Scenery How To Tips

Scenery Basics


There are a lot of ways of making scenery and most of them will give good final results. Each has advantages and disadvantages. The system we use at Rail Tales give the client the best balance of cost, finished look, and long term durability. It does require some practice to develop the skills needed but we offer classes and demonstrations.

Changes in recommendations for 2016 in red:

Sculptamold is a product made by American Art Clay which is similar to paper mache but it has several important advantages. Sculptamold is very tough and sturdy when dry and is also takes water based paint well. Rail Tales uses Sculptamold as the primary ingredient in most scenery work. Rail Tales offers a class in creating Sculptamold scenery but with a little patience and practice, most people can obtain good results on their own by following a few simple steps.


Sculptamold can be applied to any reasonably rigid surface and will dry into a sturdy, self supporting structure. It will permanently adhere to porous surfaces (cardboard, plaster cloth, foamcore, newspaper) but can be peeled off of non-porous ones such as styrene plastic sheeting or rigid foam.


Scuptamold takes paint when wet or dry but the characteristics of paint application are different. Latex or enamel paints and most acrylic paints should be applied once the Scultamold is dry while water-based paints can be applied wet or dry with different effects. We use Woodland Scenics paints.


The basic Sculptamold formula is 2 parts mix to 1 part water but this is just a starting point. Mixing Sculptamold is best done by ‘feel’, as the density of the product in its package and the local chemistry of the water will change how it mixes. Put a small amount of water in the mixing cup, add the Sculptamold and then add more water a little at a time while stirring until it feels right. Most of the time we prefer a stiff, clay-like consistency. This does not have to be exact: the product will cure over a wide mix ratio.


To add texture to a flat surface:

Mix the Sculptamold up so that it is soft and a little sticky like dough. Spread this material over the surface and shape with a spatula or pallet knife dipped regularly in water. Shape small hills and valleys, ditches, hedgerows, rock outcrops, and so on leaving no less than 1/8 inch of Sculptamold (preferably closer to 1/4″) and no more than 1” in any location. Once the mixture starts to stiffen on the surface, use a wet brush or pallet knife to remove any pockets or unwanted irregularities.


To make larger hills or mountains:

There are several methods of creating a structure to support a Sculptamold surface. For moveable scenery, the easiest is to carve the basic shape out of Styrofoam packing or insulation material. One can even glue together smaller pieces to make larger structures (up to 1-2 square feet of surface area and 8-12 inches high). For fixed scenery, our preferred method is to build the basic shape out of Shaper Sheet by Woodland Scenics. Foam material and hardshell techniques also work but we have found that Shaper Sheet is fasts, neat, and easy to modify in progress. Regardless of the base, however, we recommend Sculptamold be applied over the underlying structure.


Rock Faces:

Vertical or near vertical surfaces are often carved into rock faces: exposed rock common in cuts and on mountainsides and around rivers. It is advisable to have pictures for reference. Some rock faces are best replicated using the stiff brush dipped in water and others are best done with a pallet knife. Whatever is most comfortable to the artist and whichever looks best to the viewer is ‘right’. Practice with small batches.

For those who are not comfortable doing their own carving, casting rocks from molds still works great. It is too slow for us to use commercially but it is very dependable and consistent. Rock castings may be painted the same way Scultamold is except that the surface needs to be wet and the paints are generally thinned down about 50% with water. The sponge or spray bottle method also works. Regardless, rock castings should be painted and sealed with Scenic Cement prior to placement on the layout.



Rail Tales prefers to use the Woodland Scenics  line of water based earth colored paints (available from Rail Tales) to do the initial surface colors after the Sculptamold is set but before it is completely dry. Sculptamold is usually ready to paint in less than 2 hours, often less than an hour, and takes at least a day to dry to the point where the ‘paint while wet’ technique we use no longer works. If it has completely dried, you can spray it with ‘wet water’ (water and dish washing detergent) to re-moisten the surface. Woodland Scenics paints are non-toxic, easy to mix and apply, do an excellent job on Sculptamold, and are easily washed out of surfaces if the first attempt doesn’t turn out right.


For horizontal surfaces (dirt), we usually apply Stone Gray or Earth Undercoat or Raw Umber  full strength but using a constantly water-dipped large brush. For areas where rocks stick out, apply a bit of Slate Grey (cut 50/50 with water) before painting the rest of the surface. Allow the ground color to touch the rocks. Blend together with a damp clean brush.

For rock surfaces in the eastern U.S., we apply Slate Gray full strength but with a wet brush followed by Raw Umber thinned down (1 part water, 1 part paint) followed by Stone Grey thinned down (2 parts water, 1 part paint). We typically apply these with a large brush in random motions.  After this has dried a bit (usually 15 minutes) but before it is completely dry, we brush Black thinned down (3 parts water, 1 part paint, 1 drop of liquid dishwasher detergent into the shadow areas and cracks. Last, lightly brush white (full strength) on the raised portions of the rock using and top-to-bottom motion. Wait about 15 minutes, then use a clean damp brush to blend the colors together and also take some of the paint off the raised rock areas. The result is very realistic. Once the paint is totally dry, more white can be lightly brushed over the surface as a highlight if necessary.


Ground Covers

Rail Tales primarily uses Woodland Scenics ground foam materials to create basic ground cover over Sculptamold for most projects but similar products are available from Scenic Express, JTT, and others. For some project styles, Noch ground materials are used instead. (Woodland Scenics materials are made in the USA).

Peco has introduced a line of static grasses plus applicators and glue which are outstanding and considerably less expensive than previous static grass systems and in more realistic colors than the European products. We now highly recommend this system for anyone doing large enough areas to warrant the cost of the grass applicator device. For others, the following still works very well…

For those who are not using a static grass applicator-

For most natural area projects Rail Tales prefers custom blends made up of 1 part Fine material, 1 part Course material, and 1 part either Static Grass or Underbrush material, depending on the scene. For some mixes we use both Static Grass and Underbrush material but in these cases the Static Grass is a ‘filler’ and the process uses the Underbrush version below, not the static grass procedure. The underbrush material can be a blend of materials or a single one. These three materials should be complimentary in color but not identical. Typically the finer material is darker than the course material. This is part of the art of scenery making- choosing the correct blend to replicate an area. The goal is to have a surface that looks consistent while retaining the semblance of natural randomness.

For projects that are sort of civilized but poorly cared for (such as rail yards) or abandoned (such as old sidings), we use a blend of fine and medium ballast, course ground foam and a fine ground foam earth color of some kind. The ballast needs more cement than lighter foams and so we don’t blend in Static Grass (so we can use the standard ground foam glue procedure). If Static Grass is desired, apply it as a separate layer once the initial base is dry.

For mowed grass and other highly tended situations, we use fine, course, and static grass that is all the same color. The result is a lush ‘lawn’ look.

NOTE: The Static Grass being mentioned is Woodland Scenics Static Grass which is very short. Other brands of static grass such as those made by Noch are longer and heavier and are not applied using the same system. Also, the system we are describing is only for use with blends of static grass and other materials. The application of larger static grasses or static grasses applied on their own is a completely different subject. 


Once the Sculptamold is set and painted, scenic material can be applied (Paint surface to which the ground foam is to be applied in appropriate colors using Woodland Scenics Earth Colors. For rock surfaces and other locations where the ground will be clearly visible in spots, let the paint dry thoroughly. Where the surface is to be totally covered, the paint does not need to be dry). Work in small sections, usually around 1 square foot (12 x 12 inches), most commonly between natural boundaries such as ridges, rock outcrops, roads, etc.


Ground Foam Application Process

1)    After surface has been painted in appropriate colors, apply Scenic Glue full strength in beads along the center of areas to be covered with ground foam.

2)    Use a wide stiff brush dipped in water and kept wet to spread Scenic Glue over entire coverage area, adding water to brush as needed. The use of a wet brush effectively thins the glue about 50/50. We find this is less messy than thinning the glue in advance and a natural fiber brush is best for this job. All purpose glues such as Elmer’s can be substituted but they are not as sticky and don’t give the same results, especially on steeper slopes.

3a)   If using ground foam mixes with underbrush, liberally sprinkle ground foam mix over area to be covered and use soft dry brush or fingers to restrict foam mix to areas of coverage.

3b)  If using static grass and not underbrush material, shake the container vigorously to introduce a charge, then lightly tap the material into the scenic glue and hold a vacuum about ½” over the surface. This will cause the static grass to stand up. If using static grass, it is imperative that the Scenic Glue be covered in less than a minute or it will skim over and the material will not stick well. Work in small areas.

For durability, we now recommend wet water and Scenic Cement with all ground foams except for static grass applied with a static grass applicator device.

4)    If using underbrush material or static grass, the next step is to spray or eyedropper the area with a mixture of water and isopropyl alcohol (this is called ‘wet water’ in the trade and serves to break the surface tension and let the water really saturate everything).

5)    Spray or eyedropper Scenic Cement over the coverage area until thoroughly soaked. You may need to apply additional ‘wet water’ as you go. Let this area dry overnight at least before handling and go on to the next section (if any). The result should be very rigid and there should be very little loose material. If the material seems mostly loose, reapply the ‘wet water’ and Scenic Cement.

6)    For some applications, it may be desirable to sprinkle additional fine ground foam over the area after applying Scenic Cement. This is a matter of taste and is primarily used to apply a ‘highlight’ lighter color or flowers. We also sometimes do it to add more depth.

7)    For some applications, such as a wooded hillsides, it is often desirable to wet the entire hillside with Scenic Cement and sprinkle fine ground foam over the surface, then use a wet brush to remove excess. Use reference photos and personal taste to determine if this looks right for you.

8)    Use vacuum to remove excess foam.

9) Make sure to clean all tools that have come into contact with Scenic Cement immediately after use (clean with warm water and dish washing detergent), especially sprayers. If you don’t clean the sprayer right away, it will be ruined.


Grass Mat Scenery Process

For applications of scenic material over flush type grass mats (Woodland Scenics primarily). This system can also be used with fluffier or fuller grass mats such as those by Noch but the results are less consistent.

Using any sort of scenery application to grass mats absolutely requires that the grass mat be firmly glued down to the substrate (the base underneath). Otherwise, the mat will wrinkle and curl as the glue dries.

Grass Mats are best applied in small areas. There is nothing wrong with having a big 4′ x 8′ grass mat that goes down all at one go but its difficult to do correctly. Hide seems under tracks or at other natural breaks or simply cover them up later.

1)    Cut mats to fit desired area such as between tracks. Cut them a bit large and trim once they are glued down.

2)    Apply Woodland Scenics Mat Adhesive to the back of the mat and to the surface, and allow both to set-up. They will turn clear and be annoyingly sticky. It is best not to try to clean the applicator but to dispose of it.

3)    Carefully apply grass mat to surface. You only get one chance so make sure it goes down where you want it. You can’t move it once it is down if the glue is set up correctly.  Press firmly, preferably with a wallpaper roller or rolling pin to obtain a good smooth and flat bond.

4)    Sprinkle ground foam on mat surface and use a brush or fingers to distribute as desired.

5)    Spray with wet water, and then using an eyedropper or sprayer, apply Scenic Cement until surface is heavily coated.

6)    Vacuum excess foam from area as required.

7)    Make sure to clean all tools that have come into contact with Scenic Cement immediately after use (clean with water and dish washing detergent), especially sprayers.



Road Scenery Process

  1. Create a road template out of foam core or plastic to assure you have the proper/desired width of your road. If you make the guide out of plastic, you can later use it to level the road. The best road templates are based on actual vehicles used on the road. Not all ‘HO’ scale vehicles look right together and so the road should be made in each location to visually fit the traffic. Also, some roads are naturally narrower than others.
  2. The road base can be made out of cardboard or foam core and should be shimmed and glued in place. On flat surfaces, this is very simple but for mountainous roads, this will require some planning and care and should be done as part of the mountain building process.
  3. If the road surface is irregular (has a lot of vertical changes) Use Sculptamold to make a smooth road subsurface and blend the road base into the rest of the scenery. Sculptamold is very sturdy and will prevent the finished road surface from cracking (as easily). Let everything dry completely before going to the next step.
  4. If the road surface is flat, use cork or other rigid base and create ‘curbs’ as per the basic Woodland Scenic system (rigid edges).
  5. Use a non-shrinking joint compound or Woodland Scenics Smooth-It applied with a palette knife to create the road surface on top of the Sculptamold. (Note- joint compound will tend to shrink, even the non-shrinking kind, if applications of over 1/8th inch are used and often even as shallow as 1/16th inch. We prefer Smooth-It for that reason).
  6. Let the road material set-up and become stiff and workable, and then use a regular putty knife or a road template (kept damp) to shape the road surface. If using rigid curbs, you can screed the material using the curb tops. Otherwise, you have to ‘eyeball’ it. Allow to dry thoroughly. This may take anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days depending on thickness.
  7. Hand sand with a sanding block with fine grit sandpaper, and repair any holes or cracks in the road with more road material compound and allow to dry.
  8. Then apply Woodland Scenics asphalt or concrete surface paint or airbrush with the desired colors.
  9. Stripe as needed with brush, marker pen, dry transfer or striping tape.



We have now built several large snow dioramas and layouts. This process and the availability of new products have led us to drastically revise our snow method for 2016.

If you are building a layout or diorama with ‘some’ or light snow but no deep snow or drifts, apply all scenic grasses and bushes, etc. as normal and then spray scenic cement over the entire project if you have not already done so as part of the application process. This will seal the paints, dyes, stains, etc. used and prevent them from leaching into the snow. This is very important. Next, spray water based hairspray over the layout from above, protecting the track with painter’s tape. Immediately sprinkle Woodland Scenics snow from above. Spray lightly with wet water and sprinkle more snow, then coat with Scenic Cement and a final layer of snow. The snow layers need to be thin for good bonding.

If you are doing medium snow in large scales, after all scenic materials have been applied, brush all horizontal surfaces with Vallejo snow paste (thinned with water if necessary). Level it out with a wet brush and sprinkle Woodland Scenics snow over the surface just enough to even it out. Spray with wet water and Scenic Cement and sprinkle a final coating of snow over the whole area.

For medium snow or heavy snow in smaller scales, do not apply scenic grass materials, just bushes and trees. Paint horizontal surfaces white and seal them as above. Less paste will be required…

If you are doing thick snow in larger scales, we mix Scultamold, Woodland Scenics White paint, and Vallejo white powdered pigment to form a heavy paste. This is distributed with a palette knife and then textured with a wet brush. Sprinkle Woodland Scenics snow over the final surface and spray with wet water and scenic cement, followed by a light dusting of snow.




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