Cheap, effective terrain scenery

Most traditional toy train layouts feature painted scenery: After plopping the 4×8 sheets down on some 2x4s to make a table, the hobbyist grabs a brush and some dark gray and green paint and paints roads and grass on the board.

If you want something that looks a little better than that but doesn’t take a lot of time, here’s my method, which takes 2-3 hours to complete.This method works well for traditional toy train layouts and for wargaming scenery, where ultrarealism isn’t paramount. You can also mix the method with modern model railroading methods if you wish, if you’re modeling flat land or flat areas.

First, buy enough 1/8 inch 4×8 hardboard sheets to cover your area. If you go to Lowe’s and ask for Masonite, you’ll get what you want. If you go to Home Depot, you’ll have to ask for hardboard (Masonite is a brand name, and Home Depot doesn’t carry it). A lumberyard should also have what you need, if there’s one near you that the big-box home improvement stores haven’t run out of business. When I bought mine, a 4×8 sheet cost about $6, so this project costs a lot less than those Life-Like grass mats that some people use. And unlike those mats, these don’t shed.

I had the boards cut into smaller boards ranging in size from 1×2 to 4×2. I can then arrange the boards on my tables, leaving six inches between them for roads, and then I have curbs and stuff on my layout. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I took the boards outside and painted them. Don’t worry if you’re a horrible painter; you don’t have to be any good to use this method. I used random spray paints (whatever I had) of various shades of green, yellow, and brown. The greens I had on hand had names like Hunter Green, Forest Green, and Meadow Green. All of these came from garage sales and estate sales so they cost me very little (25 cents per can, usually). Cheap spray paints from Dollar General and other private-label brands are just fine for this project if you don’t have it on hand or you don’t make a habit of visiting every single garage sale in your neighborhood every Saturday like I do.

Here’s an unpainted board.

Next, take a shade of green and spray it. Don’t go for total coverage. Don’t think of it as painting the board; just try to stain it.

Here’s a board with one coat of green on it.

Now spray a different shade of green on it. Again, don’t go for total coverage. You’re making the green look less uniform and more random. But leave a little brown still showing.

Now dust some yellow and/or brown over the board. Basically spray the yellow above the board and let droplets fall where they may. This breaks up the monotony a bit and gives the illusion of texture. As you can see, my yard isn’t a uniform shade of green either, especially not in March.

And here’s a closeup of what a board will look like when finished.

Let the boards dry out in the sun for a few hours, then you can take them inside and use them.

This method is similar to what British train manufacturer Hornby must have used to produce its scenic panels, which it sold before WWII. They’re quick and easy and cheap, and if you vary the shade enough and lay on enough yellow and brown, the result doesn’t look like the surface of a ping-pong table.

If you want, before you lay the boards on the layout, paint curbs and lay down sidewalks where appropriate. To paint the curb, get a good-sized brush, mask off about 1/8 of an inch from the edge, and then paint the edge and that 1/8 inch from the side with acrylic paint. A bottle of Delta Ceramcoat from a craft or discount store, at a price of about a dollar, ought to be enough to do the trick. You could mask and spray the edge with white or gray primer, but I find I can do this part about as fast with a brush, and using a brush and acrylic paints lets me do this part indoors.

If you want more realistic scenery, you can get boards and then paint a base coat on them, then spread glue on the surface and sprinkle Woodland Scenics materials on it. The result is quick and easy and portable scenery that looks a little more realistic.

Take the boards inside, arrange them on the table, lay down some material for roads, lay down your track and ballast (if desired), and you’ve got very quick, easy, and inexpensive terrain for your layout.

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