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  • Simple Methods of Adding Waterways to Your Layout

    By Mark Preussler, MMR

    Water. The earth has much more water coverage on its surface than land mass coverage. I guess we’re even made up more of water than any other “substance”, yet water on our model railroads is a pretty rare commodity. Through the years, many different ideas for making realistic water have been promoted in the hobby press and frankly all have pros and cons – especially when one considers what water effect you’re looking for.

    If you model anything other than the most arid parts of the world, chances are there will be at least some standing water to be included on your layout. For the most part, railroads hate water and build their right-of-ways on a grade for proper drainage. Often culverts are built to funnel water under or below the grade itself. In these areas on my model railroad, I find one of the “resin type” water products to be best. Now, there are a ton of good products on the market. Some are hazardous while others are water soluble or non-toxic. I have used Woodland Scenic’s Realistic Water with good results. Just pour it out and wait for it to dry! Remember to pour it in thin coats and slowly build up the depth, usually ¼” or less. In this application I’m just simulating standing water (a glorified puddle if you will). When working with a river or a stream, the key to making the water look like it has depth isn’t done by making multiple pours to build “depth” with your simulated water resin. Rather, paint the river or streambed appropriate colors.

    On my railroad, I also have the need to model deeper bodies of water (rivers) that have been dredged and eventually flow into the Great Lakes. These rivers are usually polluted and have fast currents, which stir up the riverbed as well as collect dirt and other debris from upstream resulting in a solid brown/blackish/green color. This is the method I’ll address in this article. These rivers don’t have a shallow end or bank. They have been dredged to a depth that will allow a cargo ship (we call them boats here on the Great Lakes) to dock right up against a slip or unloading area on land at the river’s edge.

    You could pour a deep river using the methods above, but I wanted to get the large water mass I was working with down quickly and cheaply! Using any of the “liquid” water methods would certainly be a little more costly as several bottles would be required to build up even a 1/8” thickness as my river is roughly 14” wide and 6 feet long. Also, adding a current to the liquid river is something I didn’t feel comfortable trying since the scene also includes a Great Lakes Carferry. I wanted a uniform solid surface for the boat and to be able to easily remove, if necessary.

    My answer was found at the local glass store in the form of acrylic shower door material. There are several different patterns made to get the privacy look on the material, but I found one that was dead-on for ripples/currents as seen in a river. If you want, real glass can also be used, but I would recommend the plastic/acrylic since it’s easier to work with. This product gave me a solid base for the car deck of my ferry as well. It’s important to get product that is glossy/reflective. I chose the ¼” thickness as that is what the store had in stock. As a bonus, the owner noted they usually have a lot of damaged acrylic coming back from jobsites or broken in transit. It’s likely they will sell you a piece for a good deal, sort of like mis-tinted paint!

    Once I had the piece cut to size (I used a band saw with a fine blade. As a side note, most stores will cut the acrylic for a nominal fee), I was ready to prepare my riverbed. I used black Sintra brand board. This is similar to foam core, only tougher with a layer of styrene above and below a much tougher layer of foam-like material. You could also use smooth side Masonite, etc. Any type of smooth “board” material that will hold black paint is what you’ll need. Simply trace the acrylic river onto the riverbed and cut to match.

    Once the riverbed is installed, you will need to do only one more thing: Lightly mist the underside of the acrylic river with a greenish or brownish color. I found a flat “army camouflage green” from Krylon Paints for my Manitowoc River. Stand back away from the acrylic and lightly mist it. You don’t want to apply it too heavy as you will want the black riverbed to show through the acrylic as well. The important thing here is to make sure you mist the backside of your acrylic river, not the surface and to apply the paint very lightly. You can always add paint, but can’t remove paint without making a mess, which will ruin the effect. You want the blackness of the riverbed to show through to give an illusion of depth. The acrylic is not glued to the riverbed. I used the fascia board or plaster along the banks to keep in in place.

    I’ve included various pictures of water on my layout to give a better idea of what I’m talking about. I think you’ll find water isn’t that hard to model after all and it’s an important part of a realistic scene.


    For more information, contact Mark Preussler at

    Here is an example of a dirty river which has been dredged. The greenish color is somewhat translucent as it’s only been misted on the backside (bottom) of the acrylic sheet. Below that the blackness of the Sintra board shows through. The car deck of my Great Lakes Ferry is allowed to rest on top of the water and can be removed in needed with damaging the acrylic which is quite tough.

    Here are the basic elements to using acrylic shower door material for water. You will need a solid black base as shown. I used Sintra board, but styrene or even painted smooth hardboard would work. Cut a piece of the acrylic to overlay the black base. Now using a greenish or brownish color of paint, lightly mist the backside (bottom) of the acrylic sheet. I used a simple spray can of appropriate color, but an airbrush would also work.  In this area, I used a tan color to show a shallower depth near the banks. This would be painted on the black Sintra board, not the acrylic sheet.  For a deeper river, this would not be necessary.  Once you are satisfied, simply lay the acrylic on top of the black base and carefully bring plaster along the banks to hold the sheet in place.

    Here’s an example of “poured” water in a small creek setting. I use this method for small areas of water like this or standing water below the grade of the right of way. One advantage of pouring this Woodland Scenics product or a similar resin is that details such as weeds can be easily added while the product hardens.  This would not work well with the acrylic shower door material.


    Article Details

    • Original Author Mark Preussler
    • Publication Date December 22, 2010

    Article Album (3 photos)

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  • Paul Weber
    Paul Weber Great info! I have never heard of the shower door technique before
    December 25, 2010
  • Rick Phipps
    Rick Phipps Mark, you just made my day. I was wondering what I was going to use on my layout for my water. Great idea.
    January 3, 2011
  • Mark Preussler
    Mark Preussler Hi Guys- Thanks! It works well for large areas and is pretty easy. You can cut the plastic with a bandsaw or have the dealer cut it for you. I experimented with a few scrap pieces to get the colors I wanted. Have Fun!
    January 3, 2011
  • Kevin Klettke
    Kevin Klettke Mark, this is a very effective technique! I've actually looked at that type of material before but hadn't seen a texture like the one you have used here. And your layered technique is beautiful! Thanks for posting this!
    January 5, 2011