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Part 3: Actual Construction of the Photo Diorama

January 16, 2010

Look back on Part ONE and Part TWO if you haven’t already read them:

This is also a tutorial on how to make marshes and salt ponds in scale. So let’s jump in and see how it’ll come together. Make sure you have all the materials as outlined in part two. This is an easy evening project, it took me about 3-4 hours to complete the entire module. Obviously you want the whole thing to dry overnight, especially in regards to the water.

Draw out where you’re going to put everything.


I used a pencil to mark where the roadbed and to outline how wide the embankments are. I also drew a variety of other things like a culvert and wooden pilings, some of which never made it to the finished module.

Lay down the sub-Roadbed

Laying Styrofoam Roadbed

I used the woodland scenics risers because they were laying around in my workshop. If you’remodeling a straight piece of track, go ahead and just use a piece of 1X1, rounding out both ends. I attached this, along with most of the scenery with Hot Glue to speed up construction time and provide a good level of durability as well.

Lay down the Cork

Laying Cork Roadbed

Using the hot glue gun again, I laid the cork atop the sub-roadbed. I also used scrap pieces of cork from previous track work projects and made the slope of the embankments with them. It’s a sturdy way to make the embankment and a good way to use up all those extra small pieces of cork that you’d rather not discard.

Drill holes for pilings


This step is unique to my module, but it’s a handy tip for planting telegraph poles too. Drill 3/4 the way into the wood, stopping before you hit bottom, and then glue the bamboo skewers into the plywood, cutting to fit. Yes, you do this before you apply the sculptamold so you don’t cover up the holes you just drilled.

Cut the Pilings to length


Now, since the pilings are more than 75 years old and in a harsh-salt rich environment, there isn’t much left of them. I cut them to hap-hazard lengths as per prototype photographs and then roughed up the tops with an exacto knife to give them a frayed look. You could stain them at this point with an Alcohol/ India Ink wash.

Apply the Plaster Gauze/ Cloth

Plaster Gauze for Scenery

Cut really thin strips of plaster cloth, dip them in water and place them on the embankment. You can attach them with hot glue, for speed, or you can layer more than one to make it strong as well. Only apply the plaster cloth to the embankment, not to the flat areas.

Mix Sculptamold and Apply Dirt

Sculpamold Scenery

Mix the brown acrylic paint in with the sculptamold to take the bright white sheen of out of the bag sculptamold. Then apply with fingers covering the entire diorama up to the cork roadbed. Also cover the embankments and plaster gauze. Then take finely sifted dirt and apply it atop the wet scupltamold. Repeat the dirt application until it’s completely covered.

Make the Salt Pond with Hydrocal

Making A Salt Pond in Miniature

Like using Hydrocal for snow, you can model salt mashes with out-of-the package hydrocal. Basically take a spoon and sprinkle it on top of the wet soil until you’ve got a layer of salt to your liking. Then take a spray bottle of plain water and wet it.

Lay and Ballast the Track

How to Ballast Track for Model Railroads

Go outside and spray rail or roof brown on your track, not worrying about the tops of the rails. Once it’s dry, use an abrasive track cleaner to clean the tops of the rails. Then tack the track to the cork.

Cut a tiny notch in the top of the bag and gently shake the ballast around the rails and a few scale feet on either side of the ties. Then like the prototype, go in and tamp the ballast around the ties. You can use a real stiff bristle brush for this operation, it works nicely.

Why I use Arizona Rock & Mineral ballast instead of Woodland Scenics ballast is because it’s made from real rock (WS ballast is made from Walnut Shells) so it doesn’t float away when you get it wet like WS ballast does. Use a spray bottle of 50/50 carpenter’s glue and water with a touch of dish soap to break the water tension.

Add the Low Foilage

Salt Pond in Model Railroading

I used a mix of silflor grass tufts and lychen died more realistic medium brown/green by soaking them in RIT dye for half an hour. Then, planting the lychen fine branches upwards, used carpenter’s glue to hold the foilage down. You can also use Aleen’s Tacky glue, which also works better.

Add the Water

Making Salt Water in HO
Salt Ponds Model Railroad

I matched a photograph of the bright rust orange saltwater and painted it directly onto the hyrdocal in low spots the plaster had made from sprinkling it on the surface of the sculptamold. Then I poured the Acrylic Glazing Liquid on top of the low orange portions and let the entire diorama dry overnight.

Now it’s time to take photographs!

One Comment leave one →
  1. Thomas, ( Tom ) Marcell permalink
    May 6, 2010 5:55 pm

    I like everything xcept the orange. I think a light blue would look alot nicer.

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