How to paint model railroad scenery

Last Updated on December 6, 2015 by Dave Farquhar

When it comes to model railroad scenery, you tend to see two extremes–a plywood board painted a solid color of green, or an attempt (with varying success) at detailed scenery using ground foam and other materials, such as those sold by Woodland Scenics, at a price.

What if you want something in between? Well, on the Facebook Marx page, I saw a brilliant idea: sponge painting. The results looked really good, especially given the cost and effort required.

Here’s how to go about it. Lay down your track, but if you fasten it down, only fasten it temporarily. Take a single loose truck, attach it to a small block of wood, and secure two pencils to each side of it. Roll the truck/pencil combination around the track, drawing an outline on your board.

Now you need some paint. You’ll need some brown, gray, and green paint. As a general rule, a quart of paint is about enough to cover an 8×8 layout. If you really want to be an overachiever, get some primer too, and get it tinted brown. Use an interior paint calculator to estimate how much brown and green paint you’ll need. You’ll need somewhat less gray paint.

If you have some paint around the house from other projects and can use it, this project can be very nearly free. If not, there are sources of free or inexpensive paint. Some communities have recycling centers where people drop off unwanted paint, and anyone who wants it can pick up some paint for the asking. It’s worth looking into. Almost all paint stores and home centers sell their mis-tinted paints at a significant discount. It’s luck of the draw whether they’ll have any usable colors for you on their oops shelf, but it’s worth a look.

You’ll also need to pick up a small quantity of black, white, and red paint (a small sample jar will be sufficient) to tint the colors. Even if you end up having to pay full price for your paint, you can probably get everything you need for less than $50. While you’re there, pick up a couple of different sponges too, ideally with different textures to give you a little more randomness when you paint.

If you’re going to use primer, go ahead and prime your boards before you do anything else. Although not strictly necessary, if you use primer you won’t need to use as many coats to cover the board, and the primer will do a better job of hiding the surface of the wood. Pour some of the primer into a cup and add a couple of drops of a different colored paint to it to change the color, and use it to prime the area underneath where the track will go.

Once the primer is dry, paint the track area with gray paint and let it dry. If you want, paint some roads with a darker shade of gray. Paint the rest of the board brown. Don’t worry about having a perfect line between the dirt and the track outline–track ballast never falls into a perfectly neat outline.

Then, mix up a couple more shades of gray, one noticeably lighter and one noticeably darker, and sponge-paint that over the base coat of gray. Voila–the cheapest, easiest track ballast you’ll ever see. If you’re not completely happy with the look, mix up another shade and add that as well.

You can sponge paint the roads too. If you want gravel roads, do it exactly the same way as you did the ballast. For paved roads, use shades of gray that vary only slightly.

For the grassy areas, sponge-paint green over the brown. That’s where the red paint comes in–to darken green paint, you add red, not black. Trust me–take a bowl of green paint, mix in a couple of drops of red, mix it in, and the shade darkens. Keep adding shades until you’re happy with the look, and don’t be afraid to vary the look as well. A yard with a dog in it will have some bare spots in it, and there’s always that one person in every neighborhood who has a perfectly manicured lawn that makes all the rest of us look bad.

And that’s really all there is to it. It’s not hyper-realistic, but looks a lot better than bare plywood, and you can get it done in a few hours. If you don’t want to spend months making scenery, this approach could be a very good option for you.

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