Photos by the author
There are a myriad of wonderful products available to help modelers create convincing scenic ground cover. There are also plenty of materials we can find in our backyards or around the neighborhood that can be used in scenery construction.
Making realistic looking ground texture is not difficult. It requires observation of nature, correct application of materials and an understanding of a few details and tricks. The observation part is easy. We can journey to the prototype location of our model scene, or review resource photographs. (Do not make a model based on a photograph of a model railroad. This would be similar to drawing a cartoon of a cartoon.)
Some observations of nature to consider: where there are cliffs there is rock debris called talus. Under trees there will be fallen leaves and needles, dead branches and even rotting trees. Water courses will have high water marks defined by erosion, color difference and the deposit of flotsam. Field grasses will be in different colors and should include weeds and flowers. Soils contain veins of mineral deposits causing the dirt to be multicolored.
When people and livestock are present, nature is altered. There will be trails and paths, fences, vehicle roads and parking lots that invade the natural world. There may even be piles of rusting junk and old equipment. When structures are present they too interact with the scenery. Weeds creep up foundations and walls. Grasses grow in the cracks of pavement. Trees grow above roof lines and drop leaves. The natural world tries to reclaim its territory. These are just a few of the many things to think about when planning ground texturing for a model railroad layout.
Lets discuss some of the commercial products available for ground texturing. Woodland Scenics, Timberline Scenery and A.M.S.I. Scale Model Supplies offer a full line of poly-foam turf and foliage materials. Their foliage materials are ideal for making shrubs and bushes that should be included as part of your ground cover. The turf materials come in an assortment of colors that work together well. A.M.S.I. also offers 17 colors for flowers. Vintage Reproductions provides unique products for ground cover such as: Evergreen Needles, Evergreen Ground Litter and Summer Short Grass and Long Grass. If all of these choices aren't enough, suffice it to say, there are many other scenery supply sources available including companies that are packaging soils and sands from actual railroad locations such as Cajon Pass and the Colorado Rockies.
Dirt, sand and gravel are readily available from your backyard or neighborhood. It is amazing how many colors and textures are present. Be sure to filter all the soils you collect through a wire mesh (window screen is ideal) to remove undesirable rocks, plant debris and insect bodies. You should also sterilize the soil to remove bacteria, fungus and mold. The method is simple, place the soil on cookie sheets and bake it in a preheated oven at 450 degrees for at least 30 minutes.
Other materials required to do ground cover include: dried twigs appropriate to the size of trees and branches in the scale in which you model. Also, a piece of sisal, hemp or manila rope, white glue, dishwashing detergent and isopropyl alcohol.
Tools needed include: a squeeze bottle, spray bottle, small inexpensive China bristle brush, sash brush for latex, artists sable brush, scissors and medium-grade sandpaper.
Before we lay ground texture the scenery surface must be properly prepared. In most cases plaster or Styrofoam will be the foundation. These or any other surfaces must be painted with a flat latex paint. The preference is to coat the surface with colors similar to the ground textures that will be applied. Areas of dirt should be painted brown, grass fields green, gravel areas gray and so on. This ensures that white plaster or blue foam wont be visible through the ground cover. Before the ground texturing is started the scenery area will look like a large paint-by-number painting. This actually serves as an indicator for where the different ground textures will go.
Work in a specific order: first, all the rock areas are painted and weathered to the final detail. (Techniques for coloring rocks are not in the scope of this article.) All structures are adhered in place. Roads and pavement areas are made and colored. The location for trees should be noted, but the trees should not be fixed into place. Of course, trackwork is laid and the ballasting done. With all of this complete the texturing can proceed. Start with the dirt areas first, gravel areas next, grasses and weeds third and texture detailing last. Lets begin with the dirt texture.
Full-strength white glue is applied with a China bristle brush to cover the dirt area up to four square feet at a time. (Too large of an area will cause you to rush to beat the setting of the white glue.) An artists sable brush is also used to force the white glue into confined locations such as around rocks and buildings. (Be sure to wash your brushes often in hot water to keep the bristles pliable.)
Dirt is sprinkled over the glue until it is uniformly covered. Remember, soil is seldom one color. Include a variety of colors in your soil coverage. A sash brush is used to gently sweep across the dirt to remove any excess. To ensure good bonding, spray the soil with wet water. This is the standard formula of white glue, a few drops of dishwashing detergent and warm water. Dont go any further with the dirt at this time.
Now, we turn our attention to gravel areas. The same application techniques used for dirt are used for gravel. There is one additional treatment...in nature, gravel (talus) tends to collect in piles at the base of cliffs next to boulders. To simulate this effect, the gravel is heaped in appropriate locations. When pleased with its appearance, spray the mounds with 100% isopropyl alcohol using a spray bottle set on mist. The alcohol wets the gravel without moving it around so it retains its shape. Wet water glue is drizzled over the piles of gravel to bond them to the foundation.
Grasses are adhered to the scene exactly as the dirt. Blend two or more colors together unless you are making a manicured lawn. The grass areas are allowed to dry before further detailing takes place. Even on a warm day it can take several hours for the glue to set - play it safe and wait a full day! Besides, when the ground textures are still wet they take on a milky color which makes it difficult to do the final texture detailing.
At this point we have laid our base coat of textures and can now treat the entire scene as one area of work. Start by inspecting the ground covers. If any areas look too thin or patchy they can be improved. Often weeds, grasses and shrubs will hide minor imperfections in this base coat. If the flaws are too obvious add more of the original textures. This time however, dont coat the surface with white glue. Simply sprinkle the materials onto the scene. Use a spray bottle with isopropyl alcohol to dampen the added ground textures. A gentle mist of alcohol keeps everything in place until a few drops of wet water are applied. (The alcohol step is critical. Without it the wet water would bead-up and run causing the delicate detail textures to move from where you want them.)
Detailing the scene is done in steps. Begin with fine grasses, then work with medium course textures and finish with course textures. Move across the scene and add patches of texture, flowers, small rocks and even boulders. Add grasses and weeds and flowers to the dirt and gravel. Add some dirt and gravel to the grassy areas. The idea is to put different textures next to each other to develop a random effect. Nature does not grow things in straight lines or uniform rows. Always adhere these new textures by misting them with alcohol and applying several drops of wet water.
Now is the time to add the trees. (The making of the trees is not included in this article.) Punch a hole into the scenery with an awl, add a drop of white glue and then insert the tree. Now, add leaf or needle debris under and around the tree. Use scissors to cut fine fibers from the piece of rope to create the leaf scatter. Repeat this process for each planting. Fallen branches and the occasional dead tree add realism to a grove or forest. These can be made from twigs.
To make a dirt field or dirt road look well traveled rub a piece of medium-grade sandpaper across the dirt. Using this technique it is possible to indicate foot paths, cow trails or vehicle roads leading through the scenery and to structures. It is amazing how well the sandpaper wears away the soil and makes it look like a dusty path.
The last bit of texturing should be shrubbery which can be made from course ground cover or from foliage netting which is available from Woodland Scenics and other companies. Shrubbery grows near trees (but not usually under them), along fences and next to rocks and buildings. Shrubs grow along pathways and next to roads.
It is said that model railroads are seldom completed. The same can be said about ground texturing. Look at your work with a critical eye, if you think it could use more details, add them.
In a few years, depending on the environment and the dust level of your layout room some color fading of the ground textures may occur. Don't worry, the scenery can always be refreshed with the addition of new textures.
With a little effort, ground texturing will add beauty to any layout. Expensive model trains just look better moving through realistic scenery. Give ground texturing a try...it isn't difficult to achieve great results.