Friday, February 25, 2005

Cheap Landscaping for Your Model Train World

The stuff in train stores can get pricey; there are things that you absolutely have to have, like liquid plastic to form water, waterfalls, and pools, but do you really need miniature gravel for the tracks? Or those expensive cars? Or the spray-on grass – isn’t there a cheaper way?

Yep. For someone with a creative mind, there are tons of ways to not just find your modeling material more cheaply, but to have a model that looks better than the stuff you buy in the store.

Start with the track. You hate the miniature gravel they sell to glue down to the track, but you don’t know how to get away from it. Instead of buying it, go out and find small-grain Styrofoam, like the stuff computer peripherals is packed in. Crumble it fine, and put it in a shallow box – the lid to a paper box is ideal. Spray quick-dry gray paint over the whole mess, and shake it around to keep it from sticking together. Keep doing this – spraying then shaking – until all the grains look gray – and an awful lot like gravel. After it dries, this material is ideal for gravel fill on your tracks, or on your dirt roads.

The spray grass also gets pricey, especially at the rate you use it. A cheap alternative – potter’s green. That’s the foamy stuff you stick plastic plants into in pots to keep them stable. If you crumble it up finely, it makes a nice grainy powder. Next trick – put the green powder you created into a wide-holed salt shaker – or recycle one of your old cheap spice bottles with fairly wide holes. Everywhere you needed grass, cover with spray-on glue; if it’s close to things that should not be coated with green, cover them with tissue paper or something else easily moldable that can protect them before spraying. Then shake the green powder all over the sprayed down areas. After it dries, go over the area with a very soft broom or large makeup brush, or with a Dustbuster. And you have grass.

So now you have the tracks, you have the grass and hills – what about rustic streams and rocky hillsides? Water, unfortunately, you will probably have to model with liquid plastic. But the other landscaping – rocks for your babbling brooks to splash over, or to jut out from the hillside – can be gathered from the ground outside. Look around carefully – you want stones with character. You need to have stones that won’t look like boulders or mountains. If you live in an area with shale or slate or other forms of limestone, you can take just about any limestone rock and break it up with a hammer – if you do this, don’t be macho. Use gloves, wear sleeves, and put on glasses or goggles. Sharp bits of stone in the eyes are not any fun. To break the stone properly, hit it at an angle; this will break it off in flakes rather than chunks. A rock hammer is the best way to go, but a regular old house hammer will work.

You should have designed channels in your papier-mache hills to flow your streams through; re-dampen those and carefully embed your rocks into the sides of the channel. Try to place them a little randomly; put a couple at angles you wouldn’t expect. Remember that streams flow downhill, so you want stones to overlap up-to-down. Wherever stones touch, put a little dab of glue or liquid cement, not enough to show up but enough to hold the rocks in place. Place a few rocks randomly along the sides of the bank, and make sure there’s a bit of a pileup of rocks at the foot of the hill. Give your rocks time to dry. Now paint your liquid plastic down the streambed to whatever thickness you want. Voila – a beautiful stream.

Trees can be made of branchy twigs from local trees outside your house. You can also use branchy twigs from bushes, or strong weeds. To make these trees look like trees, remove any leaves, dip the entire twig in an oak wood stain, and after it dries pull apart cotton balls or fluff dyed dark green (a shade or two darker than your grass) and gently and sparingly glue it to the branchy end of your twig. Spray with glue, and, holding the tree upside down, shake your green grass material all over it. You may have to repeat this a couple of times to get good coverage. If you kept a bit of the potter’s green intact instead of turning all of it into grass, it makes a perfect base to stick your tree in so that it can dry before you put it on your landscape.

Remember those expensive models? With H and G gauge model sets, Matchbox cars are almost the perfect size to match the trains. Browse toy stores and the toy section of department stores to look for other models you can use. You’ll probably be able to find vehicles, miniature people and animals, and even miniature houses. If you’re not clear on the scale you need, bring a sample from your train set with you.

The most important thing, though, is to be creative. Creativity is what your model train is all about.

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