How to Model Water on Your Model Railroad Layout

There are many ways and materials with which to model water, either still or moving, on your model railroad layout.  Understanding the nature of this water, (be it river, stream, pond, ocean, etc.) is essential to getting a grasp on just how you want to go about  modeling it, and the material you’ll want to use. Here we’ll look at not only some of the materials, but their relative ease of use, and lifelikeness.

I’m assuming here that your eventual aim in modeling this water is to create as lifelike a scene as possible on your model railway, so as to capture some of the natural drama that real bodies of water relate. A raging river, crashing ocean or waterfalls make for some memorable scenery, and are worth the challenge involved. Actually, modeling water itself isn’t necessarily the hard part here: it’s the planning and preparation that will make the difference in the end. Take or acquire as many reference pictures as you can. These will be invaluable.

Once you’ve settled on the exact picture in your mind, begin by preparing the base of the water by making sure the surface is leak-proof, clean, and filled with whatever you’d like to model on the water’s bottom. (rocks, fish logs, etc.)

There are quite a few ways to create water for your model train layout. Here are some, and something about each:

  • Real Water – Not really an option; as it is extremely high-maintenance and does this thing called evaporate! Plus, water and the electricity used to run your model railroad don’t mix well.
  • Envirotex – A little bulky to mix, but makes some great looking waves!
  • Casting Resin – Undoubtedly the best-looking finish, but toxic fumes and laborious coats make it only for the most patient craftsmen among us.
  • Acrylic Gloss – Also good-looking, but also labor intensive.
  • Plaster H2O – Good for unclear bodies of water, but hard to see any depth.
  • E-Z Water – Looks good, but a little difficult to work with.
  • Acrylic Ceiling Tile – Inexpensive and easy, only it doesn’t show any depth or "wetness".
  • Acrylic Shower Door – Ditto above, though simple, not very real.
  • Gloss Paints – While cheap and very photo-friendly, in real-life it doesn’t look very much like water!

Give special attention to the shores and banks of your bodies of water. Make sure to look at your photos to note the color differences, as well as the changes in color from near the shore to the middle of the stream, lake, river or whatever you’re trying to depict. If it’s deeper, it’s darker!

You can create effects like waves and falls and ripples with gels and other commercial products, and a little paint.

Modeling water effectively can make for a stunning model railway layout that will draw raves from all who see it!

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Sweeney July 25, 2007 at 10:20 am

I’ve had success with Magic Water, which I found on eBay. The secrets to a natural look are:
- Work the surface when it is nearly set-up.
- Pay close attention to coloring the bottom / banks properly.
- Top off with Water Effects for ripples, waves, etc.
- Experiment with different looks on scrap materials before using it for real on your layout.

Magic Water performs as advertised, I’m happy with it.

David Schwausch August 23, 2008 at 10:25 pm

I’ve used window solar film. Make sure you’ve at least primed the wood surface where it’s to be applied first — I used white primer on my latest layout. Solar film comes in silver, clear, copper — even in mirror finish. I’ve used silver both times. Cut it slightly larger than the area to be covered — pond, river, stream, harbor, etc. — then crush it by hand really good. Dribble white glue generously on the primed surface (if you use the clear film mix the white glue half and half with water and it’ll dry clear), spread the crinkled solar film in place and let dry. Trim the surplus from the edges with an X-acto or Stanley. If you used silver, you can color it very satisfactorily with watered down acrylics. I had a nice green river on my first layout using an olive green, and for my latest I used a dark blue gray. The acrylic will settle into the low places, leaving the silver (or whatever) as is, for a pretty realistic look!

ModelLocomotives September 12, 2008 at 4:53 am

Great writeup on creating model railroad water. I’ve mainly used acrylic, and it is definitely a pain to use.

I am going to try Magic Water as mentioned by your commenter above.

PS. Nice site.

Jim Penson December 29, 2008 at 12:57 pm

I remember reading that John Allen used real water on his first large basement version of the Gorre and Daphetid, but that it raised the humidity so much in the basement that it wasn’t feasible.
I also remember once seeing a really good effect using window glass, where the surface was painted transparently so that underwater features were still visible. Very effective, but most water is not transparent, so perhaps not the most realistic method.

Thanks for a great site!

len January 4, 2009 at 9:02 am

thank you I will take some of your advice

scott January 10, 2009 at 6:47 pm

I have used many water products and the best for making great rivers is magic water followed with tinted magic water then followed by acrylic gel or gel medium.

Ken Stockwell June 3, 2009 at 3:42 am

How do you prepare the coloring of the bottom / banks properly.

What do you use to do the colouring so that it does not go into a yellowing finish.

I have used an acrylic type of paint and had a great realistic looking colour, but over a few months the colour changed and just looked like a lake with algae.

The base of the layout water hole (Lake) is polystyrene covered with a plaster layer, this is of course porous. I have the Magic Water to give the water effect

Hoping that you can be of assistance.


Ken Stockwell

BILLY BALDWIN June 24, 2009 at 7:14 pm



dale turner August 24, 2009 at 9:32 am

Simulating water: I took a clean used piece of aluminum foil, left it bumpy, painted it with various colors using acrylic paints & shaped to look like a stream. I needed an inexpensive method & this looks pretty good. Tks, Dale.

iain dalton November 30, 2009 at 4:24 pm

hi, i think you have some good stuff there.
i found one.
i got a plastic curry pot, from my takeout, and put an inch of standard pva glue in it.
after about??? 5 months! of it being left in the atic. it hardend and became see through.
it is now 1cm thick. it looks so much like water. thing is you cant make wave, i dont think, and you will need to put a fair bit in!
hope thats useful

luigi April 20, 2010 at 7:43 pm

Here’ a way to make excellent water. Caution: this will be ‘flat’ water only, as I have yet to see realistic moving water or falls, etc., on a model railway.
Go to a local commercial window manufacturing company. Ask for samples or leftover chunks of reflective or just polished plate glass. It must be transparent, no opaque backing. They often throw these out, and will probably give it away free. Say a piece about 2′ or 3′ long by 18″ wide? Possibly a small charge for polishing the edges, as you don’t want to slice your fingers handling it. Try to get a color such as ‘Versalux Blue’, green. or grey. Take it home.
Lay it where you want it on your layout, but first lay out a dark green-black garbage bag on the deck, with the glass on top. Don’t try to flatten out this plastic bag completely – leave it sort of wrinkled. Now take a look at your finished water surface. Wrinkles in the plastic show through the glass and look just like waves! Fool around with it a bit, pulling the plastic slightly from the edges to vary the wave pattern. Easy to do.
Now bring your scenery down to the edges of the ‘pond’ and make it suit your own imagination, or what you want your lake or riverside (or ocean) to look like. Small rocks, carefully selected twigs, a bit of real sand, and you can very realistically duplicate any water-edge scenario.

Ian Watts November 4, 2010 at 12:44 am

I found the following most suitable for building a river or dam water.
Have the base made with plaster over it and coloured to a ground colour to match surrounds
Place in rocks, debris, logs to add realism
Allow a day or so for setting, start filling with Estapol wood varnish in small layers until debris rocks etc are either part covered or totally covered for effect

kurt notarnicola November 28, 2010 at 6:19 am

I bought Parks Super Glaze at Home Depot. It was about $20 for a package that will make 32 ounces. Once you mix the resin the working time is good and it dries perfectly clear. I used it to make a river on my son’s train layout and it looks great. It was also a lot cheaper than the other products I saw. My local hobby store has a woodland scenics product and it was about $24 for a 16 ounce bottle.

John Calnan August 18, 2012 at 6:21 pm

After making my ocean going into my sea port area, I decided to put a beach on the far right hand side, I tried all sorts of stuff to make the sand and found nothing to my liking, then one day later I had to electric. Sand part of my 9mm MDF board, I found after collecting up all the dust after the sanding that the dust made the perfect beach . Now I’m sanding all the unusable cut offs and sanding them, collecting the dust and using it all over the layout, ie, around the lumber mill, narrow windy country unkempt roads etc, it’s free and so simple to use plus it’s a natural residue and looks so much more natural than stuff bought in the shops, it’s great along the banks of rivers also
Hope this helps my fellow modellers save a few pounds /euros/dollars and to keep yur layout natural looking
John Calnan

Vince Puleo December 27, 2012 at 1:58 pm

Several discriptions for making flowing water were very helpful….but no one mentioned how they added ‘white-caps’……. My base is painted, then several layers of Modge Podge to create a glossy surface with some wave texture . I think it needs that splash of white to accent the tops……Any good ideas?

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