By Simon Fletcher
When thinking about entering my Ffestiniog Brake Van No 6 for the 2019 MOTY at Peterborough, I noticed something in the small print: something along the lines of ‘bring your own track on which to display your model’. Simple enough, right? But then thought, if you’ve spent ages on something of which you are proud, there must surely be a better means to showcase your work than a bit of PECO track? A display plinth seemed good. Now I should point out dear reader that I have never done anything like this before, so this could all go horribly wrong…
So the first job was to find a bit of track. I had a short length on which I do painting of models. It had paint splodges, overspray, dribbles and so on, so I wasn’t too worried if it didn’t turn out. I knew the sleepers would end up covered, so all I started with was to give the chairs and rail sides a painted rusty look (which I’ll cover later), since you are unlikely (at least with what I had in mind) to be able to get at these areas once the ‘landscaping’ gets added.
I should at this point I should really say what I had in mind: after all you need something of a plan! I wanted to do a slate quarry type scene. I did a bit of image searching on t’internet just to refresh my memory and provide some inspiration.
Having found my length of track, the next bit was to make the plinth. I had some wood moulding left over from another job and found some 5 or 6 mm ply. I cut a rectangle of ply to length and width, then broke out my mitre saw to cut the bits of moulding. I have a picture framing ‘clamp’ that came with the mitre saw – it’s just plastic corner blocks that you clamp up with a length of cord. Crude, but effective when it comes to gluing the plinth frame together. Only when the glue had dried did I fit the ply rectangle. In this case, I knew I’d be building up the ‘landscape’ to about rail top level, so I recessed the ply about 6mm from the top of the plinth. It doesn’t matter how you choose to position the base, but thinking about how you want the finished thing to look will guide you. I then stained the plinth using wood stain…..just remember that any stray glue will affect staining, so bear this in mind. Finish off with spray enamel varnish from Halfords. See photo for where we are up to.
I marked up the base to line the track up and used four modelling pins in the outer part of the sleepers to hold it in place. I knew I’d be covering these so didn’t worry. You could epoxy the track down or whatever. Again, up to you. Once done, I painted part of the base in grey paint to avoid any ‘see through’ where the ballast was to go. This may or may not be necessary, but good practice; you will struggle to fix it if you do not!
Next bit was actually great fun: building up the ground. I thought a lot about this and was going to use plaster of Paris, but thought it’d be messy, so opted for air-drying plaster which I got from Hobbycraft. In use, it’s a bit like using plasticine, so break off a lump and squidge into place, trying not to leave ‘seams’ between lumps: it will dry out and crack along any such seams – not that it matters, as you’ll find out later. Build up your ground to approximate profile, but remember to try to leave a little shy of the plinth top to allow for the surface treatment. At this stage, I fancied a couple of puddles, so dug out hollows before leaving the clay to dry… for a few days! As you can see, I built up between the rails, so remember to allow for wheel flanges! And don’t make that allowance too tight: there is more to add to the clay surface. From the photo, you’ll be able to see that I had a base that permitted both full-depth ballast and built up ground – well, this was an experiment!
For those who watched The Great Railway Challenge, you might remember Kathy Millat, one of the judges. She has a website that majors on scenic techniques and worth a look. Top Tip I got was to use coloured tiling grout for the ‘ground surface’. I used grey: This is supposed to be a slate quarry. But with many colours available, you pick the best for your idea. Don’t fret if not an exact match; you can paint it when dry. And, usefully, it will happily fill any cracks that appeared in the clay. Now Kathy recommends sprinkling the grout dry, then misting with 2:1 water: isopropanol as a wetting agent, before another misting/drenching with 2:1 water:PVA. I didn’t, so accept that Kathy would tell me I’m wrong. I just spent ages dribbling Woodland Scenics’ Scenic Cement with a model paint brush and encouraging to soak in. This method can affect the surface texture if you touch it, but I feel that gives some nice variation. If you don’t like it, you can always over-sprinkle some dry grout to restore texture.
The ballast. I was going to use some sort of modelling ballast, but didn’t like the look. This is where your research kicks in. Slate (and other) quarries used what was available… and free… in this case, slate spoil. I needed slate spoil in 16mm. Hmmmm… I raided some waste ground where I work and in 5 minutes turned up half a windowsill/ lintel and a few roof slate bits. Plenty. And so, in the snow, I spend a very cathartic (and cold) half an hour tapping bits of slate off the lintel in perfect 16mm scale – well, it looked about right! Once dried out, I sprinkled a load onto the appropriate area and liberally doused with the scenic glue and left to dry. I did it in areas so that I could finish the grouting and then ballast up to and over the interface. Each gluing session needs overnight to dry.
More of my “cathartic slate” was then sprinkled sparingly over the grout surface to get the effect: see photo. It’s up to you and your imagination as to what looks right and gives the feel that you were after. At this point, even though slate quarries were hardly ‘verdant’, I thought it looked a bit too barren. Enter “static tuft grass” clumps. You have a choice of sizes and colours, so large mossy green it was. Something the colour of a Premiership football pitch would not be right! The ones I used (“moss green”) came from a company called Footpath, and you get 40 big ‘uns that are self adhesive, which equates nicely to stunted greenery up a cold, wet mountain in Wales. I only used 4… and used Formula 500 PVA canopy glue (normal PVA would be OK too) to make sure they stayed tucked up against bits of slate. Plants only tend to grow in quarries where protection is given by lumps of slate. The same glue can also be used for any bigger rocks or those that get dislodged.
We are getting there now….time to do a bit more painting. So, as promised, I’m going to expand on this a bit. Everyone has their fave paints; in my case I use Tamiya acrylics. Matts are matt and fast drying and glosses not too glossy. But if yours is Dulux, then it’s not for me to judge. I’ve seen recommendations of Tamiya matt linoleum brown for rust but, having spent some time improving my rusty paint effect, I have some other colours that I use. I have two mixes of… well… let’s call it “Dirty Orange” numbers 1&2. It’s Tamiya orange (which only comes in gloss, but don’t worry), mixed with some matt brown/ matt lino. If you study some rusty subjects the colour is not uniform, so I use the three different paints and blend them whilst wet, sometimes using a dab of thinner to help with blending. In crevices, use thinners to wet the crevice and then use the brightest dirty orange which will then wick into the crevice, just like real life! I still needed to clean the railheads of stray grout, so used a fibreglass brush, then got weaving with dirty orange to finish off the rails and touch up exposed chairs. Unless the subject is “high traffic”, rail heads are unlikely to be shiny.
Puddles. If you stare into a puddle, there’s usually a layer of silt covering the underwater surfaces, so I just painted the underwater areas with a darkish matt grey, including any pieces of slate that were in the puddle, using thinners to ‘blur’ the waterline. In one of my puddles, I’d decided to have some rusty remnant or other, so just added some of my dirty orange to the bottom of the puddle after wetting first with thinners. Rusty things do this to the silt. Oh, and make sure there are no cracks in your puddles whilst you’re at it; the Realistic Water used to fill the puddles has a consistency of water and will just drain away – which will be very annoying! My “rusty remnant” ended up being a bent bit of copper pipe that I had lying about. I did paint dirty orange and coat with atomised iron with the intention of having real rust… but got impatient and did my rusty paint job on it instead. Note submerged rust is quite a vivid dirty orange. I added the bent bit of pipe to my puddle and then added Woodland Scenics Realistic Water. I dribbled this in with a cocktail stick (you can pour it for bigger puddles, but mine were a bit small for this). Build up in 3mm or 1/8” layers. It’ll take a few applications, but you’ll get there with patience. And don’t panic if it’s cloudy when first added; it clears up on curing. One other possible use for this stuff would be for a “wet scene”: just paint over everything and it’ll probably make for an interesting wet effect. Just remember colours are darker when wet.
One other little tip: don’t overlook the grey slate dust you’ll create when making the slate ballast. It’s useful. When I’d finished painting the rail heads, at one end of my scene, they start to disappear into the scenery. The transition was a bit “abrupt” and thinner wasn’t helping. Solution; wet finger, rub in slate dust, dab over the transition and leave to dry. It could also be used as a tenacious weathering powder in its own right. It’s fab stuff – and free!
And that’s it. About a week to make (although I am still adding ‘water’ to the puddles) and received highest praise from my “critic in residence”. And really is fun to do: so much so, that I’m seriously thinking of taking commissions! And once used for MOTY, it’ll be used as a display base for Charles, my Penryhn loco, when not in use outside… or just some slate wagons. I’m sure you have “a special someone” you’d like to pamper, so give it a go. I’m already thinking about other plinths to make…
Wood mouldings, PVA glue and ply courtesy of B&Q, mitre saw from Axminster. And just to help you with scenic bits and bobs, if you search t’internet for “model scenics” it’ll turn up a few websites. Much is aimed at OO scale, but there are larger scales available. If you want to try bushes or even trees, Noch do scale leaves in larger scales and OO tree armatures would be a good size for 16mm bushes. A friend of mine found a good approximation of ballast as chipping in a garden centre and don’t be afraid to try flower arrangers for chippings! Woodland Scenics do pretty much everything, although aimed at N/HO/OO, but adhesives, water effect materials and so on are still perfect. Atomised iron can be found on eBay, if you want real rust and a builders merchant for slate if you really can’t find some in your garden/ through a friend: after I’d finished, a colleague said he’s got a pile of roofing slate in his garden if I want more. The moral here is to look wider than model scenics for your materials… you’ll be amazed what a bit of lateral thinking or telling friends what you are up to, can turn up!