Christopher Brimley updated September 6, 2011

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  • Mormon Rocks, A Three-Dimensional Backdrop Part 2

    Part 2

    by Ted York

    photos by the author

    The A-B-B-A consist of F7s works hard to pull the 1951 Super Chief up the 2.5% grade past Mormon Rocks. At the same time smoke can be seen coming from the freight car brakes as a Santa Fe 3800 class 2-10-2 works to keep her freight from running away as it descends the 3% grade.
    Model Railroading - April 2006 - Page 26

    Since I started applying scenery to my Cajon Pass layout, I have come to appreciate the simplicity and the beauty of the desert.Deserts can be full of color, interesting rock formations and decorative plant life. In terms of modeling, the rail-road-oriented details seem to reveal themselves more, contrasted by the seemingly barren land that surrounds them. While the desert around southern California is not a “true desert” as is the desert country found in Arizona, it is probably safe to say that most of us consider the arid land west of the Rockies as desert. Once into the project it didn’t take me long to discover there wasn’t a lot written about modeling deserts. I had to do a bit of thinking as to how I was going to accomplish the scenery for Cajon. I talked about the first puzzle in my last installment, modeling the recognizable rock formations that are found in the canyon. Once I figured that out, the next logical question arose: How was I going to vegetate the place?

    If you are not familiar with the desert you might be thinking,“What plants? Other than saguaro cactus, there are no plants in the desert are there?” Truth be known, in terms of what has to be modeled, there are probably as many plants to plant in desert scenery as there are in those beautifully wooded Appalachian mountain scenes. It’s just that rather than tall standing oak and maple trees or other lush vegetation that you see modeled on so many beautifully scenicked model railroads,the plants in the desert tend to be more spindly and closer to the ground. Of course that depends somewhat on the type of desert, the location, and most of all, the amount of water. I’ve been up on Cajon in the spring when it is very green with lush vegetation and beautiful wild flowers in bloom. It would take a lot of sage, manzanita, Joshua trees, yucca plants, poppies and firecracker penstemons (to name a few), to cover my intended desert scenes. When I started I had no idea as to how I was going to model all these plants, but one thing I did know, cotton balls weren’t going to cut it!(Oh — and by the way, there aren’t any saguaro cactus in Cajon.)

    Ted painted all the plasterwork with a base coat of tan that he chose for his scenery. He also painted the backdrop blue.
    Model Railroading - April 2006 - Page 27

    Lets get started! After the plastering is complete it is time to throw a little dirt on the project, but first a story. When I was preparing to scenic the layout I figured the best way to go would be to acquire some genuine Cajon Pass dirt. The family and I flew down to southern California to visit the in-laws. While I was there I picked up a couple of plastic containers big plastic containers. I drove up to the pass in the rental car and filled the containers with dirt of various colors. I put the containers full of dirt in the trunk of my father-in-laws car and asked him to bring them up the next time he came to visit us in Utah. I think he thought I was nuts, but he cheerfully complied.

    When I finally got the dirt there were two problems that rendered it useless. One was that it was too coarse. What I thought looked like fine dirt was actually coarse sand, too course for general use on the railroad. The other problem with the stuff was its color. What was light in color out under the desert sun was too dark under my fluorescent layout lighting. My layout is very brightly lit, but the lighting is no match for the light of day! My collection of genuine Cajon Pass dirt was not totally useless it is now part of my Utah garden.

    One day I was sitting at the fence line watching a Caterpillar tractor grade the property next to my house. While I was watching, the Cat hit a layer of dirt that looked almost white. Curious, I walked over and grabbed a handful and ran down to the railroad room. I dumped the dirt on the layout. Under the layout lighting it proved to be a perfect match for the paint I had selected for my base color. That evening, after the tractor operator left for the night I took a wheelbarrow over to the lot and filled it up. Ive been using my supply ever since.

    I had to run the dirt through a fine strainer to clean out the larger rocks, weeds and other various odds and ends. Basically, you want a nice fine dust to work with. I did save some of the coarse material to add texture here and there. After all, there are lots of small rocks strewn around the desert.

    Before applying the dirt to the layout you will need to pick up some paint to use as a base color, particularly for your rockwork. You'll actually need two basic colors, one for the sky and one for the ground. I picked up some paint chips and brought them down to the railroad room. It is important to look at the chips under the layout lighting. I use the cheap cool fluorescents and that is what I based my blue paint selection on. I relate this because I was replacing a couple of burned-out bulbs and decided to try some of the warmer bulbs that are on the market. To my chagrin the new lights changed my nice light blue backdrop into a magenta sunset. Needless to say, I didn't use them. Once I selected the colors, I bought a gallon of each in the cheapest available flat latex.

    Ted uses Woodland Scenics Polyfiber, unscented hairspray, gray spray paint and a spruce green ground foam by AMSI to make sagebrush.
    Model Railroading - April 2006 - Page 28

    You will need other colors for painting the backdrop scenes and tinting rockwork depending on what you choose to do. I prefer to use the cheap acrylics you can buy in small bottles at the local craft stores. In the past Ive used thin washes of pink acrylics to add streaks of color to the sandstone. If the additional color is too stark you can tone it down with additional washes of the original tan. Gil Bennett, who paints the scenes on my backdrop, mixes the acrylics with my basic colors to give them continuity. The key is to experiment. You cant really permanently mess anything up. You can always repaint.

    For the Mormon Rocks scene I painted the entire plastered scene with the tan base paint. I havent had much luck adding scenery materials to wet paint so I dont bother with it. It may be that it is so dry in Utah that the paint dries too fast to give me time to do it. I also painted the backdrop blue. I dont blend white to blue at the horizon as some guys do. Partly again, because the paint just seems to dry too fast where I live. It is just as easy to blend in some diluted white paint later on when you are painting scenes on the backdrop. In the case of my Mormon Rocks I didn't need to worry about it anyway.

    I mentioned using acrylics to add color to the rock, but for this project I did something different. While I was rummaging through my scenery materials looking for something, I came across a bag of pinkish dirt labeled Cajon that I had picked up somewhere. Im guessing it is an Arizona Rock and Mineral product, but the label was missing, and I cant remember for sure. I mixed some of the dirt with water and used a paintbrush to paint it onto the rockwork. It worked out well so I went with it. Again, it never hurts to try something new.

    I added a layer of dirt over the dried paint. Due to the steep terrain, I found I had to paint on some Elmers Glue first and blow the dirt into the glue. I loaded some dirt onto a piece of paper and picked it up, curling the ends up to keep the dirt in the center. I held it up to the glue and blew the dirt off the paper and into the glue. This first layer of dirt created enough tooth so that the subsequent layers of scenic material would stay on while I sprayed it with glue in the conventional way.

    It is amazing what a little ground foam will do!
    Model Railroading - April 2006 - Page 29 Model Railroading - April 2006 - Page 30

    After a layer or two of dirt, it is time to lay down some ground cover. When you apply ground cover (that includes the dirt), the trick to realistic scenery is two-fold: use a variety of colors and be a bit of a slob. Neatly laying down one color will make the area look like a mowed lawn; if you use yellow or brown ground cover it will just look like a dead mowed lawn! Mother Nature is made up of a variety of colors. For the most part I use a fine mix of light and dark greens along with a yellow, all Woodland Scenics products. (Is there a Desert Scenics?) The accompanying photo on page 33 shows some of the variety of ground foam colors I like to use. They are available from Woodland Scenics and AMSI. I lay these down first, spreading the various colors here and there. I do a lot of mixing and matching a little green, a little yellow, and so forth. I even throw in more dirt as I go.

    For a wetting agent I use isopropyl alcohol. It works very well. I use a fine misting hairspray bottle to spray the alcohol onto the scenery material. You need to thoroughly wet the foam and dirt, but not so much that it runs all over. I was a bit conservative on the Mormon Rocks steep hillside. I prefer diluted Elmers white glue for holding the materials in place. It doesn't leave a residue, and you can buy the glue by the gallon at the local hardware store. I generally dilute it three to one, just enough so that it will easily spray from the large spray bottle I use.

    Iv'e found that spraying from the back of the scene to the front works best. I use a downward sweeping motion as I spray the glue from the back to the front of the area Im working on. Oddly enough, this technique really helps to keep me from disturbing the foam. Sometimes I use a large Frenchs mustard bottle to pour glue on, especially if Im repairing or adding to a small area. I use the same bottle for ballasting track. It beats having to continually fill up a small eyedropper.

    On steep terrain, such as on my Mormon Rocks module, you are going to have glue running down the scenery and off the module, carrying scenic material with it. Dont worry be happy. This is some of the slob part I talked about. The runs will give you natural erosion and add to the realism when it is done. If it gets to be too much, slow down. Do a little less at a time. You can fill the excess pools of glue with more dirt and foam.

    After I get the basic fine materials on, I start adding more coarse materials like the larger rocks I saved from straining the dirt. I also apply slightly larger ground foams. I prefer a light spring green, an olive green, and a blue spruce color. They are great for adding a bit of variety in texture as well as color and are perfect for desert scenes. I dont add a great deal of these just a bit here and there. I cant stop emphasizing that a sloppy variety of colors and textures will produce a very realistic scene. I once had a chunk of dirt break off one of my Free-mo modules. What was left looked like a naturally eroded area of ground. It was so realistic that I never bothered to fix it!

    Ted is using a brush to apply the mud mix. It was a successful experiment in coloring the sandstone formations he created for the Mormon Rocks scene.
    Model Railroading - April 2006 - Page 31

    I allow the first batches of ground cover to dry a bit then began adding larger vegetation, bushes, sagebrush, and the like. Woodland Scenics clump foliage makes a good base, especially farther into the background. I soak it in Elmers glue and use forceps to place it in the scene. I dont like to use it for very large bushes because it tends to fall apart over time and doesn't give the appearance of a light branch structure found in desert foliage, but it works fine for small solid looking stuff in the back of the scene.I came up with a method for making sagebrush and other small bushes using the green polyfiber that Woodland Scenics sells. I spray it with gray primer. The paint not only colors the polyfiber, it stiffens it. I pull pieces of the fiber out and twist the bottom to better group it together and give me something to hold on to. I then use some scissors to trim the top and get rid of the stray fibers. I spray the fiber bush with hairspray and dip it in the appropriately colored ground foam. For sagebrush I like to use a spruce green colored foam that AMSI puts out. I use other colors to represent different types of vegetation. For example, I use rustcolored spray primer on the polyfiber along with green ground foam to represent manzanita that grows in and around Cajon.

    You can model flowers by pulling out just two or three strands of polyfiber and dipping it into red or purple colored foams. You'll think its not going to amount to much when you pull out the fibers, but when you dip them into the foam you will be quite surprised.

    Yucca plants abound in the pass. I model them with Woodland Scenics weed material. Drill a small hole where you want to plant the yucca. Cut a bunch of the fibers to a usable length. Fold them in half and use a toothpick to push the fibers into the hole so that the ends are sticking up out of the hole. I trim the fibers to the final length I want and spread them out a bit. Next, insert a length of brass wire into the center of the fibers and paint the entire plant an olive green. (Polly Scale Pullman Green works well for this.) Finish the plant by putting a small bead of white glue on the top of the wire and covering it with white ground cover to simulate the Yuccas blossoms.

    This was about all I needed to complete my model of Mormon Rocks. Although few of you will be modeling the same location, the principles are the same for any scene. First of all, use photographs of the location or type of scenery you are trying to duplicate. Having a picture in front of you as you work will add a great deal to your success in modeling scenery. Second, dont forget to be a slob. Vary the colors and textures. Just say No to lawns on your model railroad. And finally, dont forget to have fun. You cannot mess this up. If it doesn't look right to you when you step back, do not hesitate to slap on a little more plaster, or add extra ground foam and dirt. And if all else fails hit it with a hammer! It works for me every time!

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