Sunday, September 27, 2009

Bog-building 101

When it comes to model railroading and water, suffice it to say that they don't mix. Not REAL water, anyway.

On one of my layouts when I was a youth I decided once that I wanted water. Unfortunately I'd never seen it modeled. An inventive — if not slightly misguided — 11-year old, I decided to take the bull by the horns and came up with something . . . that, well, didn't quite work out. That's a minor understatement but remember, I was eleven (for Godsakes). This first "water feature" consisted of some sort of roundish shape made out of tin-foil that I painted a shade of blue that doesn't exist in nature and then embedded in the landscape beneath a mountain.

There were two problems: the first was that I had no way of putting my "pond" actually at ground level or a little below and the second was that I used real water. The ground level business didn't seem to bother me — when we're young we give ourselves a lot of latitude. The pond sat up about a quarter inch from the surrounding terrain, and I addressed that by pushing a sort of 1960s version of Sculptamold® (papier maché) border up around it. The water, though, was puzzling — it didn't look right. Strange, eh? Real water doesn't seem for some reason to fit to "scale." There was also the matter of evaporation. I'd placed my little pond in an area that was difficult to reach without my shirt cuffs, or just my arms and elbows, having a Godzilla effect on the town's buildings, and so after the first bit of water evaporated and I realized how difficult it was going to be to keep the thing "fresh," I left it to its own devices, a scar on the landscape.

Thus for many years after I nixed water as a factor on any of my layouts. So be it.

When I began building my latest layout, though, I'd seen water modeled by others and knew it could be done effectively and (relatively) easily, so I decided to try it. My first dealings with this (a waterfront/wharf area at the town itself combined with a stream that runs under some trackage at the "west" end of the layout) turned out relatively well, all other things being equal. I'll post some photos of that area eventually.

There are a lot of choices available these days for modeling water, though I won't get into any detail about them. You can choose the "easy pour," one-step method offered by Woodland Scenics, for instance, or you can use a mix-and-pour epoxy material known as EnviroTex®. I've used both on this layout. (Woodland Scenics also offers a product they call E-Z Water® which consists of little pellets that come in a bag: you heat these on your stove in a can till they melt and then you let 'er rip . . . but IMHO the few dollars saved using this vs. their Realistic Water® or EnviroTex isn't worth the hassle. Mixing EnviroTex is a much simpler matter than the attention needed for something that must be heated up then rushed over to the layout and poured before it starts to cool, etc).

I have three (perhaps there'll be another) "water features" on my layout: the previously mentioned town waterfront area and associated stream; a small bit of water at the ore dock; and a swamp or bog. I'm not much of a naturalist in the strictest of terms, so am not entirely sure whether to call what I made a swamp, a bog, or a marsh. They're all different on some technical level, but I'm too lazy to look it up. Perhaps what I've made is more of a marsh or a marshy "area" than anything else, but I've decided to refer to it as a bog. Sue me.

There was a corner at the mill area (ground level) on the layout and I'd decided early on that I'd put a bog there — to use the space in an interesting way and also because I had seen something called "Reeds & Cattails" in a
Scenic Express catalog that was reasonably priced and difficult to resist. For twenty bucks you got everything you needed to make a small marsh or swampy area: reed and cattail material; 8 oz. of EnviroTex; soil and sand; moss and weeds; and lily pads and deadfall. I thought, "Perfect, a bog in a box," and ordered it. This was two years ago and I finally got around to doing the scene earlier this year. Fact is, while I might have wanted to have used the lily pads (having once built a real pond of my own) it turned out to be far and away too tedious to cut the pads off their background with an X-acto knife, and I never used those . . . and the other materials I could have gathered up on my own, but we live and learn. It was all there in one "kit" and convenient, so what the heck . . .

What follows, then, is a sort of step-by-step primer on swamp, bog, or marsh-making. I'll comment above the photos.
One of the advantages of using pink or blue foam (insulation panels made by Dow-Corning, for instance) over a plywood base is that you can dig down into it. And that's how I began shaping my bog . . . by doing an outline and then carving out the shape with a moto-tool (the drawbacks to this way of terra-forming is that you end up with teeny little bits of electro-statically charged foam flying everywhere and sticking to everything . . . you
do need to keep a vacuum close and use it often).


I've done the outline of the bog here.

I've put up a block to keep the foam off the tracks and have used a Dremel tool to carve the shape of the bog.

The end result

(A few photos are slightly out of order, time-wise, sorry.) What I've done here is to make a background for the area, a border, using ceiling tiles that I find here and there. You break them off into pieces and they end up doing decent duty as stratified rocks. Not perfect, but decent.

A shot of my cattail-making. A good friend of mine asked me about the sanity of anyone making HO-scale (1/87th) cattails. I thought it was a very good question and I didn't have a very good answer, other than to say that if you're going to do it you might as well do it the best you can. These look more like Q-tips than cattails, and I should have done the tops either in white or in brown, but I was having a "moment." I don't like these two shades of green and eventually I'll bend over the layout here and address this however I'm able.

Another shot of the background "wall." I used plaster molds for the top of this, which you can see in the foreground. Then I use a variety of "washes" (diluted acrylics) to color the tiles and the plaster rock molds.

The wall coming together. As an erstwhile woodworker I learned the magic of clamps. Clamps are important. If duct tape is the secret of the Universe, clamps run a close second, and you can never have too many clamps. This bit of business was bonded with Woodland Scenics Foam Tack Glue, which is more or less like a commercial latex caulk.

It's beginning to have a "look." One of the drawbacks of using pieces of ceiling tile like this is that you end up with parallel horizontal lines that really don't exist in nature. You try to cover that up, or cover over it, with foliage and ground cover and so on, but . . .

I found a package of these pines for eight bucks at a craft store and thought they'd be just enough for this space. There were different sizes of trees and I tried to arrange them in a decent way above the bog and at ground level. My cousin Judy Johnston, an art teacher, suggested that I might want to dust the trees with a variety of greens and blues, and I did so later but I don't feel I did the best job possible and will readdress this another time. (The "cliffy" backdrop was a module that I built off the layout, which is why it's not in place in the following few photos.)

I've used my airbrush to begin to color the bog. Like many modelers, I'm not yet entirely comfortable with an airbrush. They're wonderful things but a bit difficult to learn how to use with skill. I don't claim to have much skill or grace with the instrument yet, but to shade and attempt gradations of color they're what one has to learn how to use.

Feathering in a little green . . .

Then some blue. (A note here: the trackside border of my bog was too abrupt. I should have or could have shaved that down but at the time I simply didn't "see" it. And this is one of the most positive things about taking pictures of ones own work. It isn't so much to be all joyous about whatever minor thing has gone on but rather to see the mistakes . . . which I'm not at all hesitant to point out.)

Shades of a bog-to-be . . .

Beginning to add a few things to the mix . . .

No water yet, but I'm getting there. What I really wanted in my bog was a grocery store buggy turned upside down in the water, but I've never seen one in HO scale, so I settled for a tire. I dropped some rocks in there, put in a few dead trees, and so on.

Could one sit on the edge of the rock face here on a summer night and listen for frogs while the trains pass?

Perhaps . . .

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