Scenery Structures Track

Setting the Scene

The Art of Building a Diorama

My favorite part of building dioramas is the ability to use almost any material as a base. I’ve seen narrow gauge models build on a rough-cut log, tank models built on ammo boxes, or even submarine models in fishtanks. The possibilities are endless, however, I would use a word of caution; make sure the base complements your models. You want your subject to be the star, not the base.

A while back I found a wonderful shadowbox frame that was made to represent old barn wood. I thought this would make a perfect complement to my weathered bridge. The frame measured nine-square inches and would fit the scene perfectly.

You will notice in the original sketch, the bridge is a bit off-centered and the track is angled slightly. It’s a technique I like to use in my scenes, both in dioramas and on my layouts, to look less symmetrical and visually more interesting.

I set the bridge in place and cut pieces of styrofoam to the base to bring the bridge up to the correct height. I measured pink insulation Styrofoam and glued it in place using liquid nails. Once the Styrofoam was dry, the bulkheads were then set in place.

I use plaster cloth from Woodland Scenics to cover the Styrofoam and edged of the wood. I cut thin strips from the roll of cloth and laid it in place. Using an old soft brush, I brush water onto the cloth to keep the mess to a minimum and control where the plaster sets. Once the cloth has set, I use Woodland Scenics terrain acrylic paint to cover the plaster cloth to hide the white.

The ties were added next. I glued the ties in place then used my razor saw to roughen the surface. My hobby knife was used to create deeper holes in the ties then cleaned up with fine sandpaper.

The dirt is from the Pacific Northwest and is a good representation of the area I am trying to model. Using cheap pantyhose, I sifted dirt onto the entire surface then soaked with water. Using an eyedropper, I flooded the dirt with Woodland Scenics scenic cement, followed by another dusting of finely sifted dirt.

India ink and water washes were brushed onto the ties, letter each coat dry before adding the next, similar to the bridge structure. I let them dry then finished adding the dirt and ballast. The ballast is a mixture of sifted rock from a dirt road mixed with Woodland Scenics gray blend ballast. I mixed that with some of the dirt I had sifted to give the roadbed a worn, neglected look. Woodland Scenics scenic cement what again applied between the ties using an eyedropper to secure it in place. Small stones were glued in place using white glue around the bridge and creek bed.

To glue the grass from Martin Welberg Scenic Studios, I lightly diluted white glue and brushed it onto the dirt then stuck the grass in place. I used the scenic cement to ass ground foam to some of the grass to represent weeds. Longer static grass was glued into areas to represent taller, dead grass and weeds. The prototype bridge had weeds growing from the cracks in the cement so grass tufts were glued into a few of the cracks. Finally, I used the dilute scenic cement to cover some of the rocks and driftwood and sprinkled foam onto it to represent moss growth.

Once complete, I attached the deck to the piles. Once the rails were in place, I masked the ties with painters tape and, using my airbrush, sprained on AK-Interactive’s chipping color. That was followed by medium rust. I let the acrylic paint dry and then applied a wash of light rust. Finally, a light dusting of medium rust pigment was applied and sealed with dull-coat.


  1. Good suggestion for modelers to try their hand at a diorama.
    I think they should follow your lead to keep the scene simple with a single focal point.


    1. I have learned so much through out the years from building dioramas. I remember when I was younger reading fantastic articles in the Narrow Gauge and Shortline Gazette from you and Bob Brown that got me started.


  2. Great little mini project. Since I’m not at the scenery stage on my layout, a small diorama is a great way to get to play in that area of the hobby. I think it’s time to build a small diorama for my office.


    1. You will learn a lot from building them. They are not daunting like a larger layout. I personally have found that I fear mistakes less when I’m working on a smaller footprint. It’s quite liberating!


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