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  • Man-Made Mountains

    There's more mess than magic to making mountains -- but there is an easier way…..

    Although most real railroads try to avoid cutting into the surrounding terrain as much as possible, there are always places where it is necessary to keep the tracks as level as possible. Penn-Central RR photograph.
    1001 Model Railroading Ideas - Winter 1970 - Page 44 1001 Model Railroading Ideas - Winter 1970 - Page 45

    The trouble with trains traveling around on a plain piece of plywood is just that - they look like toys running a round in a circle. Adding a mountain or two does work a kind of magic in that your trains really seem to be going somewhere even if it's just to the other side of that mountain. Many model railroaders go to the absolute limit in detailing their locomotives and rolling stock, perhaps even building a building or two, but fail to take this final simple step in making a model railroad look most like the real thing. Mountains, hills, valleys, cuts, and fills are the easiest of all to model.

    There are almost as many different methods of modeling mountains as there are model railroaders. We certainly don't insist that you use our favorite - just know that it is our favorite because we're tired of trying all the others and because we're basically lazy - one method can be just as realistic as the next if you plan a head a bit before trying your hand at "nature." You can use plaster of paris and screen door screening, paper mache, wrapping paper soaked in starch, or any one of the dozens of commercial scenic plaster-type mixes or "papers" - we don't care - our method is as simple as it sounds; plain paper towels dipped in plaster; period.

    The "key" to realistic scenery, no matter what you use to make it, to plan a head a bit. Scenery is just like any other model; it's as accurate as possible a miniature of the real thing. Step one is to get a good idea in your mind's eye of what the real terrain looks like in the area you are attempting to duplicate. The rolling Appalachians look far different in slope, texture, and color than the Rockies; just as the arid desert of the Southwest differs from the rolling farm lands of Midamerica. If your layout is a model of the terrain outside your backdoor, you've got it made. Most of us, though, seem to want to pattern our railroads after some far-distant prototype. If you can, visit the real-life area you want to "capture;" take as many color photos as you can afford; and by all means bag or bottle a few samples of the actual dirt, rocks, and even the actual track ballast. Once you're familiar with what the land looks like, you're halfway there. Remember, as you plan mountains and valleys for your home railroad, that the real-life hills and valleys were there long before the railroads - just the opposite of your model empire - the "trick," then, is to make your miniature scenery look as though it was really there before the track.

    Books have been written on model railroad scenery and the methods you can use to make it look as life- like as possible. The best so far is Kalmbach's SCENERY FOR MODEL RAILROADS. It's well worth its $3 cover price. This volume has a number of illustrations of both model and real railroad practice in locating cuts and fills to level the railroad's grade as much as possible. A full-size railroad, when faced with a valley or mountain, had to decide on the most economical method of crossing the obstacle or going around it. Obviously, if you want your miniature railroad and terrain to look like real, you must at least give the impression your railroad did the same thing. Try to imagine how a mountain, for example, would have sloped and bulged before your model railroad engineers cut through it or into it - the walls of the cut those same "engineers" made are going to have a far steeper slope, with less vegetation and a more precise shape, than the rest of the mountain. You should also try to incorporate areas a round the edges of the mountains, where your "engineers" had to haul in dirt to make an embankment or "fill" to bring the valley up to the level of the tracks. Somewhere near the center of that same valley you'd likely find a stream; that's the place to put a bridge. The stream can have imitation plastic or varnish "water" or it can merely be one of those frequent "dry" stream beds that only fill with water during the winter or spring. It's usually a good idea to place the peak of at least one of your hills or mountains somewhere near the hypothetical center of the railroad's curve radius to give the effect that your "engineers" at least tried to circle around one of the mountainous obstacles in the path of the advancing rails.

    TOP LEFT: The tools of the "trade" of making miniature terrain: a beauty shop's hair spray bottle, Pyrex mixing pan and measuring cups, spoons, spatula, and masking tape.

    TOP RIGHT: You'll also need a supply of plaster (the very best is the "Hydrocal" brand which dries into a rock-hard form of alabaster), buckets to mix it in, and industrial-grade paper towels.

    BOTTOM: Be sure all of your railroad operates the way it should before starting scenery work. Cover the tracks with strips of masking tape wide enough to shield all the way to tie ends.

    1001 Model Railroading Ideas - Winter 1970 - Page 46

    PAGE 47 TOP LEFT: Light wood or corrugated cardboard supports are needed until plaster hardens - when hard the mountains will be self-supporting. Decide on the proposed shape of the terra in first.

    PAGE 47 TOP RIGHT: We're tying this particular mountain onto the backside of a previously-built monster mountain. If yours is up against a wall, you may want to cut cardboard outlines of the highest ridges. Stick on strips of masking tape about 6" apart.

    PAGE 47 BOTTOM: The general shape of the mountain is formed with wads of old newspaper laid over the supporting web of masking tape strips. When plaster is dry, the newspaper can be removed.

    PAGE 46 TOP LEFT: Use a spray of water, from a beauty shop's spray bottle, to wet the wadded paper and help hold it in place. You can lay on a final layer of damp newspaper to get a better idea of shape.

    PAGE 46 TOP RIGHT: Always add water to plaster to avoid lumping. Usually a mix of about 1 -1/2 cups of water to 2 cups of plaster is about right - you want it the consistency of thick cream.

    PAGE 46 BOTTOM: Rip the paper towels into strips about three inches wide and dip one strip at a time into the mixed plaster. Use the spatula to be sure all lumps are mixed out of plaster tray.

    1001 Model Railroading Ideas - Winter 1970 - Page 47 1001 Model Railroading Ideas - Winter 1970 - Page 48


    LEFT: The plaster-wetted strips of paper toweling are now laid on over the wadded newspaper mountain. Overlap one strip with the next to give at least a double layer of plaster/ towels.

    RIGHT: Work quickly with each batch of plaster mix - it begins to set in about a minute. Keep a bucket of water handy to clean out your mixing tray immediately after each and every batch.

    BOTTOM: The wetted paper towels will form natural wrinkles and gulleys that closely approximate real mountain surfaces. Terrain this rough is typical only in the Rockies or Sierras.

    1001 Model Railroading Ideas - Winter 1970 - Page 49



    TOP LEFT: You can add extra layers of plaster-soaked paper towels to smooth off the gentle slopes. For open rock cuts or cliffs, the most realistic shapes are formed from plaster castings made in latex molds from real rocks. You can make your own rock castings or buy them ready to go from SS Ltd.

    TOP RIGHT: The SS Ltd.-brand rock castings are set in place, then blended into the surroundings terrain with plaster applied with your finger or a trowel. Keep the plaster away from the detailed faces of the rock castings. Your dealer can obtain the SS Ltd. castings for you in a variety of patterns and styles.

    BOTTOM: The smooth tops of your mountains should be dusted with a thin cover of real dirt that has been sifted through a strainer or one of the brands of commercial scenic "grass." Trees are added last. These rocks are SS Ltd. castings.

    1001 Model Railroading Ideas - Winter 1970 - Page 50


    There are a number of brands of kit and ready-made wood, stone, and rock tunnel portals. This tunnel, however, was made from a few SS Ltd. rock castings broken to fit. Be sure to provide at least a few inches of "interior" walls in each tunnel too.
    1001 Model Railroading Ideas - Winter 1970 - Page 51

    Article Details

    • Original Author 1001 Model Railroading Ideas
    • Source 1001 Model Railroading Ideas
    • Publication Date Winter 1970

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