Modeling Roads and Ground for Your Model Railroad Layout

Some of the most interesting things you can depict with a great degree of realism on your model railroad layout is the way you can render roads, ground and rail crossings. Since most people use rail crossings as a point of reference, (it’s where most of us see trains close up for the first time) they hold more of an interest. Let’s look at some of the ways you can make life-like ground, roads and crossings.

Let’s cover basic ground a little first. First know that no ground is ever completely flat. Even the most pristine golf course has many undulations that lend character, depth and variety to the surface. You can use products like ground foam, available from your local hobby shop to depict many sorts of top soils. You can also use plaster and other ground making products. Whatever medium you use, be sure to have an eye toward the natural slope of your layout. In other words, if you’re modeling ground near a river or stream, its slope and lushness may be much different than at other spots in your layout. Also be careful how you model your grass. Unless you have a railway running through Pebble Beach, it’s doubtful that the grass will all be one height, color and density. Look at the wild grasslands next to real railways, and you’ll notice a great deal of variety.

Take care with your colors. While nature can indeed deliver some amazing palettes, most of the time the colors you see are well blended, and make perfect sense. The most intense, "bright" colors seem to be associated with many man-made objects. Nature comes with its own weathering, and it’s up to us to duplicate that system as well as we can. Winds flow, dust flies, and leaves fall, all of which lends a hand in dimming the sheen you might otherwise expect.

Also be sure to vary the texture of your ground. Some areas will be lush, some sandy, and others rocky. All of that depends on the area you’re attempting to depict, and the local ground you will typically find there.

Modeling roads is similar, but with a few more things to think about. First, decide exactly what type of road it is: a country dirt lane, an asphalt or concrete road, or if an older town scene, quite possibly a brick road. Consider the width of the road, and just what type of vehicles would be using it. Each will obviously have its own special needs and materials, but there are some common guidelines for all roads to bear in mind.

Most roads, because they must not be collectors of water, are crowned in the middle; that is, they are a slight bit higher in the center of the road to allow water to run off to the sides. Drainage is accomplished on the sides of the road, either by a drainage ditch, culverts and gutters. While you don’t necessarily model all these, (and in fact they are often missing in real life!) you can an in fact, can add a lot of realism to a scene by including them. Be aware of textures, colors and if you need to model a bit of collected water to give it an added dose of realism.

The actual roads can be made from several types of materials, probably the best of which is molding plaster. You’ll probably get the best results by constructing your roads similar to how the road is built in real life: that is by first building a sub-roadbed, and then add the top surface, and subsequently finishing the road with the kind of detail you’re trying to simulate. Be sure not to set your plaster too close to your rails, as any expansion in your plaster and you’re looking at a possible train wreck! Use a pliable material just next to the tracks, such as balsa wood, that can handle a little expansion and contraction.

Texture the road surface as you would find in real life, whether the top level is simply a dirt surface, (you CAN use actual dirt) or painted in the colors representing the concrete or asphalt. (Asphalt roads are typically not totally black, but a flat gray-black, and more gray as they age.) Brick streets and roads are a little more tricky to get real, but when done well are quite stunning. Don’t forget details like ruts, potholes, and manhole covers.

Rail crossings are a focal point in your layout, and should be well-thought out. Since it will be getting much attention, you should take care to stick as close to prototype as you can. There are many types of crossings: gravel, timber, asphalt, rubber. The type you’re modeling will have its own specific set of needs, and that will dictate how you should proceed. Most rail crossings are slightly raised from the ground around them, so bear that in mind. Use as many pictures as you can to create the exact crossing you have in your head. Be very careful to secure the tracks into your sub-roadbed on the crossing itself, and to be sure to allow plenty of room for the wheel flanges to pass through. If you mold a "concrete" or "asphalt" crossing with plaster, you can carve in room for the rails with a flat file. Use the aforementioned ground materials to fill in and around your crossing, and be sure to "dirty" it up a bit, as the trains tend to make these crossings a bit untidy. Make sure to leave space and plan for all the appropriate signal lights, signs and crossing barriers if any are to be used. 

Creating a realistic ground, whether it is a crossing, a road or merely open space requires some forethought and careful planning. When you get it right, however, you’ll have them dazzled by the verisimilitude your layout brings to the table. Make sure and take the time to do it well!  

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jordan September 25, 2008 at 12:26 pm

thanks, this was very helpful…just a good base to create any type of road is sandpaper, paint it then (if it is a coarse)texture it with very little plaster, if its a fine coarse, just paint it.
for buildings, i make my own out of cracker boxes and custom made “wallpaper,” they look great, and practically free.

Wesley Shankland March 16, 2009 at 10:43 pm

I model in N-Scale. What’s the best material or way to place center lines on an asphalt road? Thank you.

tatty November 26, 2010 at 5:39 pm

hi im 11 and have a model railroad layout. this ” advise ” is awsome i will use it on mine !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Gerald R Buckner February 12, 2011 at 4:26 am

As an artist, I know how to read a color chart. And in all walks of life, I feel that color is an essential lesson in all phases of work etc. Well, a an orange tie would like awfully shocking to some (perhaps not in Californian,}
Bright green is a very bright shock when we look at it. But If you look at the chart turn the wheel to green, look at the hue, the color itself is called hue. The value of the color is
called sometimes shade. after selecting the closest value look straight down opposite the chose hue, you will see red and next to it other values, so take your green and add red then mix it in a container until you get the desired value that you want.I usually have on white paper a color mixing chart. I use white as I paint on white paper. So I can see what effect it will have. If I were to use pink foam board, I would use a pink paper to make a chart. When I get a color, I start with it,then I make a I start with my darkest blue, mix a 50-50 of the two. fill in the square and paint, the next square will be the next dark blue, and I repeat this until I use up all of my colors. I now select the next color of the pallette and I start under the second block, proceed until finished after all is done.
When I don’t remember the value of a color I want to mix I look at the chart.
If you want to further your education then take a gridded piece of paper laid on a flat table, Place a piece of glass on top. take green and red I start with 20-20 mix and add one or the other then I add until I get the value I want. Mix the values along the grid in each block until you get about 9 different values.
Now all you have to do is count the grids to see what it took to get the value that you want. You can mark the top of the grids with the respected percentages.
Example: When you look at the chart you will find that you need a 5-3 percent solution. If need be make note for further references.
A color chat is an essential way to make selections. When you understand why an Artist will tell you tha you need no more than 6- 12 colors on his pallette, he mixes the colors to get what he wants. It also takes the shock away from the bold colors that they are and mutes them down.
One more thing is to add a little of the opposite red value to to darken the green.
Or sometimes I use black to darken and white to lighten the value.
I feel that Reagon and Bush did an unjust to our schools, when they took away art, Music and Home eco. My wife became a brilliant cook with this knowledge.
Thank You
Gerald R. Buckner
“The Saint Augustine Artist”

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