Friday, November 21, 2014

Foam Scenery on the N Scale Pagosa & Southern

Using Floral Foam and Foam Paste to Model a Rocky Cliff


Scenery work has begun on the N scale Pagosa & Southern! All of the rock work in this photo was modeled using dry green floral foam and my special recipe foam paste. Backdrop added in Photoshop.


I want to keep things very light and portable on my N scale Pagosa & Southern shelf layout. To do that, I've set a goal of using little or no plaster and that has led to experimentation with more foam scenery techniques. I've used Balsa Foam to carve many of the rock formations on the On30 Thunder Mesa layout and I wanted to see if I could also get acceptable results in N scale using far less expensive green floral foam. (Note that I am talking about the dry green floral foam here, often used for silk flower arrangements, and not the "wet" foam that absorbs and holds water.) In practice, the green foam can be carved like a less dense version of Balsa Foam. Fine detail is not really possible and the resulting carvings can be fragile, but I have found that when they are painted and properly blended the results can be quite convincing. I've also found that mixing the resulting foam dust with matte medium creates a very useful modeling paste for blending the rock cravings and other scenic elements together. This foam paste shows great promise and could be a handy scenic material for modelers in all scales.

Top view of the sceniked area, also showing a bit of the staging shelf at left.



Making Floral Foam Rocks

Hobby knives, a sharp pencil, a razor saw and other tools have been used to carve a hunk of dry green floral foam into a rocky cliff wall. The cliff-face on the P&S was made up of four separate carved pieces cemented together and blended in with my special recipe foam paste. 

To seal them and add strength, the carvings were painted on all sides with tan latex paint.

A wash of diluted black acrylic was brushed on to darken all of the cracks and crevices. 

Each section of the cliff-face was then painted with acrylics. Here, a base of dark grayish-tan is being applied. 

Successively lighter colors were then brushed over the surface of the rocks, allowing them to blend and mix with previous coats. Rocks don't have a uniform color in nature and they shouldn't when modeled either. The final color is unbleached titanium, dry-brushed on for highlights.

Here, the first sections of rock carvings are in place and blending has begun using foam paste. The bottom of the creek bed has also been boxed in with 1/4" foamcore and the Kato truss bridge has been painted and weathered with acrylic paints. The tunnel portal is a Hydrocal plaster casting from Woodland Scenics.



How to Make Foam Paste

I stumbled on the idea for foam paste when considering what to do with all of the little bits and piles of dust left over after the carving process. I mixed a little bit of the dust with some matte medium to see if it might be useful for blending rocks together and was pleasantly surprised by how well it worked.

Making foam paste from green floral foam and acrylic matte medium is a quick and easy (if somewhat messy) process. It is basically a mixture of glue, foam dust and pigment and the resulting paste has a grainy, sand-like texture that is great for all sorts of scenic applications. It can be used as a sort of zip-texture ground cover, a gap filling adhesive, and a spackle-like compound for blending rock carvings and castings together. Once dry, it is strong, light weight and can be painted, sanded and carved. Tools clean up easily with soap and water. Working time is an hour or so (depending on how liquid one makes the mixture) and a 1/4" layer will cure completely overnight. Here's how I make it:

First, smash up about 8 oz of dry green floral foam. This is easy to do with your hands or with the butt of a screwdriver. The goal is to create a uniform powder. Yes, it gets everywhere but is easy to clean up with a shop-vac.

Next, pour in about 6 oz + -  of cheep, craft store matte medium. The ratio is about 4:3, foam to matte medium but you really just want enough to wet all of the foam and make a paste.

Stir very well until all of the foam dust is mixed with the matte medium.

Add pigment. This is optional but makes it quicker to work with if it already matches the scenery colors on your layout. I'm adding about a tablespoon of inexpensive raw sienna acrylic paint here.

Mix well again until you get something like peanut butter. This foam paste is now ready to use. I mix and store mine in old jelly jars with airtight lids. It can last for months.



Working with Foam Paste

Foam paste can be applied with a paintbrush, a flat stick or a finger. Here I'm using a wooden stir stick to fill and blend the gaps between two rock carvings. The foam paste sticks very well to most surfaces and dries with little or no shrinkage.  It can be thinned with water or more matte medium if desired.

A thick layer of foam paste was slathered on to glue separate layers of the cliff-face together and to fill gaps around the tunnel portal casting.

Using a wet brush, it's easy to blend the foam paste into carvings and other scenery. In the foreground, a small hill has been created from floral foam and will be covered in foam paste.

Foam paste can also be used to cover ground areas with a convincing soil texture quickly and easily. Just stipple it on with a brush for a form of zip-texturing. Here the foam paste is being applied right up to the edge of the Kato Unitrack roadbed.

For the creek bank, hunks of floral foam were shaped and glued in place before being skinned and blended together with a layer of foam paste. A little water on the brush makes it easy to feather edges of the foam paste where it meets other scenery.

Once the foam paste had cured overnight, colors were touched up and blended with acrylic paints, and various ground foams, trees and other scenic materials were cemented into place.



Finishing Up

Trees, ground foams and other materials from Woodland Scenics and Scenic Express were used to bring life to the scene. With the cliff-face completed I can next turn my attention to modeling the creek where more floral foam carvings and foam paste will be used. I'm working from left to right on this little shelf layout, with the goal of completing about a square foot of scenery before moving on to the next area. I'm pleased with the results that can be achieved with inexpensive floral foam and excited about the possibilities offered by foam paste modeling.

A train bound for Wolf Creek exits the tunnel. More work will be done to blend the Kato Unitrack into the scenery but N scale Colorado is starting to come to life.



That's about all the news from N scale Colorado. Next week I'll return to Thunder Mesa country with an update on that layout's progress. As always, questions and comments are welcome below. Thanks for checking in, amigos. Adios for now!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Big Thunder Creek: Part IV ~ Trees, Details & Sound

Click here for part I
Click here for part II
Click here for part III

All of the final touches are in and the sound is turned on for Big Thunder Creek. Does that mean the scene is finished? Well, there's always more to add but we'll call it done for now!


Welcome to the fourth and final post chronicling the build of Big Thunder Creek. Its been a fun and rewarding project that has brought a lot of life to the layout. In this installment I'll add the finishing touches to the scene, including some animal life, an old cottonwood tree, and the sound effects of birds and rushing water.

The Cottonwood

Throughout the desert Southwest, the majestic cottonwood has always been a welcome site. Cottonwood trees only grow near reliable sources of water like springs, creeks and stock ponds where they provide shade for weary travelers and habitat for wildlife. The bright green of a cottonwood grove can be seen for miles across the desert and always means life-saving water. When planning Big Thunder Creek I knew that it simply would not be complete without at least a representative sample of the cottonwood.

A Fremont Cottonwood in fall color beside a desert wash. Even if there's no water visible on the surface, a healthy cottonwood means that water can be found just below ground.

Cottonwoods have gray bark and distinctive branching trunks. I created mine using yard clippings from our paradise trees and Super Sage tree material from Scenic Express. The paradise tree clippings do a good job of representing the twisted trunks and thick branches of a typical cottonwood, while the sage is perfect for representing the smaller leaf-bearing branches and twigs. Paradise branches were trimmed and cemented together and a pin was cemented into the base to make it easier to plant on the layout and to work on at the bench. The Super Sage was soaked in diluted matte medium to make it pliable (as per the instructions) and then individual sprigs were cemented to the trunk and branches with fast-setting ACC.

Much has been written about modeling trees so I'll just cut to the chase here. Once the trunk was complete, the crown was sprayed with 3M 45 General Purpose Adhesive and then sprinkled with Noch Spring Green Leaf Flake. The other creekside bushes were made in a similar fashion and all were planted on the layout using Aleene's Tacky Glue.

Ground cover beneath the tree was created with a layer of fine dirt from my Sedona collection and ground up dry leaves from the yard. Everything was held in place with a spray of "wet" water (water with 1-2 drops of dishwashing liquid) and then glued down with diluted matte medium. Various ground foams, sticks, plants and grasses from Woodland Scenics help round out the scene. Good scenery is variety and layers, just like nature.

The finished cottonwood and environs. The challenge here was to build a tree of realistic size that didn't completely overpower the rest of the scene.



Critters and Other Details

Water in the desert attracts animals like a magnet, and while much of that illusion will be conveyed through sound effects, I wanted a few representative critters that would be visible to viewers.

Some ducks and a turtle made from Sculpey II. These were baked for about 15 minutes at 275ยบ and then painted with acrylics. For scale, the pin that makes up the head and tail of the turtle is about an inch long. It was trimmed much shorter before being added to the layout.

The ducks and  turtle in their natural habitat of Big Thunder Creek. For the record, the ducks are named Donald and Daisy. 

Why did the armadillo cross the train tracks? To get to the creek of course! This little guy is a white metal casting from Wiseman Model Services.

More greenery along the creek. This small hill between the bridges was created to help separate the creek from areas to the right.  The cacti are excellent plastic castings from Pegasus Hobbies.

An old Indian trail winds its way down to the creek from the mesa and a pair of Ute braves have stopped to pay their respects to Thunder Falls. The figures are from Woodland Scenics.

Finishing the creek scene meant finishing up the track too. Here, ballast is being spread along the mainline with a small, soft brush. This was then held in place with a spray of "wet" water  and then glued down with diluted matte medium. The mainline ballast is died chick grit and the sidings are red dirt from Sedona.



Adding Sound

As I have on previous projects, I turned to ITT Products when it came time to add sound to Big Thunder Creek. I wanted an ambient effect with the roar of the waterfalls coming from an upper speaker and babbling water and bird sounds coming from a speaker near the layout fascia. Their small sound modules are perfect for adding spot sounds like this to specific locales.

Sound modules and 2" speakers from ITT Products. The modules were wired in series to a panel switch but the speakers were placed farther apart. The speaker for the waterfall sound module was placed directly behind the big falls and the speaker for the brooks and birds was placed closer to the front of the layout.

The wiring for the sound modules is very straight forward and the instructions are quite clear and easy to follow - even for an electronics dummy like me. Here the two modules have been wired in parallel and leads have been added to connect to a 9v power source. Small jumper wires have also been connected on the center on/off terminal to allow for continuous looping sound. The orange disk at lower left on each module is the volume control.

Here the two sound modules have been mounted to benchwork below the layout in a relatively easy to reach location.



The best way to demonstrate the sound modules is with a video. To wrap up the project, here's a short movie on the sights and sounds of Big Thunder Creek. Enjoy!



Thanks for coming along for the Big Thunder Creek project. I hope everyone enjoyed the journey. Of course, there's still lots to do on this side of the layout with Thunder Mesa Mill and other structure projects waiting in the wings. We'll see what I'm in the mood to tackle in the days and weeks to come. In the meantime, thanks for checking in, amigos. Adios for now!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Aerial View, Exspansion and the Town of Thunder Mesa

It's been six months since the last aerial view update and a lot has happened on the layout since then. Much progress has been made in the Big Thunder Creek area and new benchwork has been added to the Thunder Mesa section to bring it in line with the new plan. Work has also begun on a new design for the town of Thunder Mesa, along with all of the necessary wiring for the lights and sound effects in that scene. Let's stoke the boiler in our imaginary airship and take a flight high over Thunder Mesa to see what's new.

Six months ago: May 2, 2014. That pesky Calico section was just starting construction. Good thing I didn't get too much further.

This morning: November 8, 2014. Old benchwork for the Calico section has been removed and the Thunder Mesa "island" section moved out 3' from the back wall. 

The new "folded dog-bone" style plan that I'm now working from. As well as a new layout for Calico and the addition of San Lorenzo, this plan calls for big changes in the orientation of Thunder Mesa town. For those keeping score at home, this is the third (and hopefully final) location for the town.

Moving in a little closer we can see the recent work done on the Never Mine and Big Thunder Creek. Replacing the paper model mock-up of Thunder Mesa Mill (to the right of the creek) with a finished structure is high on the list of projects to tackle soon.

Flying around the bend we get a view of the new layout for Thunder Mesa town. Six inches of new benchwork was added to the end of this section where it formerly butted against the wall. This created room for a much longer passing siding and a more visually appealing presentation of the town - while still leaving room for a 30" wide aisle.


Just a Little Bit Bigger

The original, central Thunder Mesa section of the layout is now 8.5' long by 4.5' at its widest point. If I ever have to move, that's about as big as it can get and still have any hope of being able to pick it up with a couple other guys and carry it out the door. It started out as 3' x 6' and just hasn't stopped growing. A 54" x 6" chunk of new real estate has been grafted on to the back end to make more room for the town and vastly improved operations.

Extending the benchwork 6 more inches. The rounded end will be covered by a 1/8" masonite fascia. The turntable will be relocated to a new section at the end of the aisle with an expanded yard and engine facilities. 

Here the old track and roadbed has been removed and everything scraped clean down to the plywood. I use Elmer's wood glue to affix my cork roadbed, making it easy to remove when soaked with water and pealed up with a putty knife.

New 1/2" plywood top in place. This will act as support for the town and sub-roadbed for the new tracks. The turntable hole will be covered by the base of the town module.

Midwest HO cork roadbed has been glued down and some Peco On30 flex-track laid for the new passing siding. I used Powergrab silicone based adhesive to hold the track in place. The parallel tracks heading off the layout at top will connect to the new yard and turntable section.


The Little Mining Town of Thunder Mesa

My town of Thunder Mesa is based on the little mining town that stands above the queue on Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad; structures that were once part of the little mining town of Rainbow Ridge on the old Nature's Wonderland Mine Train. I created plans and built paper model mock-ups for the town structures several years ago when first starting this project and those mock-ups have come in very handy over time in helping to visualize the various incarnations of Thunder Mesa town. Some of the mock-ups are now a little worse for wear and tear, and all will be retired as they are replaced by detailed structure models one by one.

WED site plan for Rainbow Ridge at Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Disneyland. © Disney. The structures at the park are tiny and built in very shallow relief - almost like movie flats. I've tried to stay true to the general layout of structures while allowing for more realistic depth and the operational needs of a model train layout.


The town is being built as a separate module, much like a stand-alone diorama that plugs into the layout. This will allow much of it to be built and detailed at the workbench and will also minimize the risk of damage should the layout ever need to be moved. Sound and lighting effects are also integral to the town's presentation and will be completely self contained within the module.

A base for the town module was cut to size from 1/4" MDF.  A box frame of 1" x 2"s was built on top to add strength and prevent warping.

A power strip was installed to bring current to the LED lights, and to the sound module in Big Thunder Saloon. A mini-plug connects the module to the layout's effects panel and a 9v power source. The red painted screws denote the positive terminal; important to keep track of when working with LEDs.

Here, the contours of town are being roughed in with 1" thick EPF (pink foam) and some foamcore for the more gradual slopes. A retaining wall along the front edge of town will separate it from the tracks below.

Overall view of the town module. A dirt road will cross the tracks at grade and then wind up through the town. Stairs and wooden boardwalks will connect the structures.

Moving the layout out from the wall has created all new vistas and photo-ops. This should make for a dramatic and compelling scene when completed with the backdrop in place.


With the town module roughed in and the new benchwork and track in place on the Thunder Mesa section, I can turn my attention to building the frames and supports for the Calico, San Lorenzo and Coyote Canyon sections. There's also still some work to do finishing up and detailing around Big Thunder Creek and, of course, many, many structures to build. Should be fun! Thanks for checking in, amigos. Adios for now!
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