Thursday, 20 March 2014

Terraforming aka "making a mess"

Just before Christmas, I posted a short summary of the first significant expansion of Philip's Creek for about eight years ( Since then, the track has been laid and, over the past few weeks, I have started to work on the terrain adjacent to the line.

As it has been quite a while since I last did some serious landscaping, it was time to relearn some old techniques and try a few new ones. However, one thing that remains constant is the use of Styrofoam both as a base for the track and a landscaping medium. I have used it successfully for every module of Philip's Creek. It has proved to be stable, lightweight, and, when managed properly, has stood the test of numerous moves without any damage. In my experience to date, there are only two things to be wary of when using Styrofoam, any exposure to petrochemical products which can see your creation disappear before one's eyes, and the mess as the final landform is created. Of these, the first can easily be avoided or managed, the second cannot.

My general approach to building the landforms is fairly conventional, build up layers of Styrofoam, carve them to a final level, apply some form of coating to the Styrofoam and then add various scatter material to finish. The adjacent photo provides an overview of the progress to date.

I mentioned the impossibility to avoid making a mess as the Styrofoam is shaped. My objective has been to contain this mess to the immediate area of the construction and avoid, like the plague, any activity that sees the Styrofoam pellets migrating into the house and the consequent wrath of  'higher authorities'. At one stage, I had two battery power vacuum cleaners working in tandem, with a normal vacuum cleaner as backup.

In shaping the Styrofoam, I have preferred to shave it with a large knife rather than hot wire. I then used the hand rasp shown the photo to achieve the final shape. While it gives a great outcome, it is the tool that creates the greatest mess and requires regular cleaning.

Previously once the shape had been finalised, I either coated it with a coat of plaster or paper towels impregnated with plaster. However, over time, I found instances of flaking or lamination. This time, I decided to try absorbent wipes sprayed with a 50/50 mix of PVA and water and allowed to cure. They are very inexpensive, a pack of 10 cost about $1 from Woolworths. To date, the results have been very positive and the wipes, after the glue has dried, provide a firm hard shell.

I use a mix of earth coloured tile grouts to provide the basic ground cover. This was sprinkled onto good coating of the PVA/water mix and allowed to set. A second coating of the PVA/water was applied just to make sure everything was glued down. One of the unexpected benefits of this was that it highlighted low points in the creek line. The still drying glue can be seen as the white shape at the rear of the adjacent photo. These will become stagnant ponds in an otherwise dry creek line. The preliminary painting for these started, and since the photo was taken, a couple of layers of clear vanish have been added. This was time to be cautious about the interplay between Styrofoam and mineral based paints. Fortunately, no adverse effects have been noted and I suspect that the earlier work has provided an effective seal.

 However, there is still a lot more landscaping to do and the other new technique for me is the use of static grass. I have recently invested in an applicator together with a few different coloured grasses. There appears to be a lot of instructional material available on You Tube and other places but there is no replacement for personal experience, so a few more lessons to learn.


  1. Phil,
    I had a video on Youtube but has now been removed, where I used an electric carving knife to cut the Styrofoam with out making any mess. The other thing I found was when I applied the static grass to Kamilaroi, I didn't use the earth lead. I just left it wrapped around the handle of the applicator as it drags across the applied grass and flattens it. I also only used the "Heki" grass as I had problems with "Mini Natur" going into balls and wouldn't pass through the applicator. It went to landfill, might grow better there.

    1. Jim,

      Thanks for your comment. I hadn't thought about an electric carving knife but I can see the similarities between carving meat and Styrofoam. However, for me it's not so much the offcuts from the carving process, they are captured easily. It is the spoil from the finishing tool, the rasp that creates the very lightweight waste. Still, it is a consequence that I can manage, it just needs a bit of preparation.

      Thanks also for the suggestion about the static grass application. I have not seen that mentioned elsewhere but will give it a try. I have invested in a few bags of Aussie Scenics grasses. Hopefully they will end up on the layout rather than as landfill.

      cheers Phil

  2. Phil

    There are so many ways to scenic, & I used to use the clothe overlays but not any longer, if you still want to use them though, they can be sourced from many of the junk shops, Bunnings & others in large rolls, for between $5.00 & $13.00 depending on the shop.

    These days, I have just reverted to using my mix of cornice cement, disinfectant, liquid soap & vinegar mix for the basic covering, although I add some different brickies mortar colour powders to the mix, & if doing sandstone hills a good handful of playground sand in the mix helps give a natural sandy finish.

    I only roughly cut the foam to shape, & use the mix to make its own lay, in warm weather I make it runnier to prevent drying out quick. A thickness of around 10mm is more than enough as I spread & shape it over the foam & up to track side.

    For me I find taking out even one step saves time & some bits of money as well.

    Thankfully I still have enough grass supplies left from Aussie Scenics which I hope will finish off what I am doing, I agree the earth wire can be a pain at times, thus I try to actually work my grasses at a distance & then backwards to the earthing nail, larger areas in an arc.

    1. Col,
      You are right, there are many ways to scenic a layout, probably as many ways as there are modellers. Each of us have different imperatives that push us to a particular methodology. For me, the primary motivation was to create lightweight modules that would withstand the rigors of frequent moves. For that reason, the level of finish I have applied to the Styrofoam is greater than the common 'hard shell' techniques and as a consequence, the amount of plaster or tile grout that is applied is significantly less. This process has its advantages and disadvantages.

      Incidentally, as I mentioned in my response to Jim's comment, I have also recently purchased some Aussie Scenics grasses but I get the sense that they may be in short supply.

      cheers Phil

  3. Phil

    I don't know what is happening with Aussie Scenics, seems there was a problem last year & highlighted on RP, & the last information came from a fellow who owns an Ebay shop who was selling the Aussie Scenics products, he too indicated problems in getting new items & could not contact the owner. I have no idea what has happened since.

    To me its a real shame as the products he sold are great stuff, & with the exception of the Wintergrass from Heki, most of my grasses are the OZ Scenics, I really hope he gets back into the business as he was great to deal with, & as I said great products.

    1. Thanks. The Ebay shop still has a few supplies left if you need to stock up but the availability appears to be only in very small quantities.