Modeling Sand and Surf

13 03 2013

As part of our display at the recent World’s Greatest Hobby shows, we completed the scenery on four corner modules of our Lionel / LCCA FasTrack Modular Railroad. Not only did this help us fill in some of the “bare tables,” it was a great way to introduce new modelers to some very easy yet effective scenery techniques. Over the next three weeks, we’ll provide you with the same step-by-step instructions here.


Life’s a beach when you’re modeling! Learn how to make scenery like this.

All of our modules already have an assigned spot in their shipping containers so scenery had to have a low profile. All of these scenes will work very well with your portable or temporary layouts as well. Taller elements like trees, vehicles or even buildings can be made removable for storage and transport.

Since two of our venues were right on the California coast, it only seemed right to make one of our modules a beach! This scene was completed on one of the full-width corner modules. It features some very basic ground cover and terrain and of course a little water – all useful scenery techniques whether you’re adding a quite beach like this, or modeling other locales.

Creating the Beach

Beaches aren’t typically associated with radical changes in elevation, but any scene looks a little better if it’s not completely flat. To give our sand a little contour and to keep the beach a little higher than the water, a low base was built from cardboard. These cardboard sheets were simply recycled from packaging for our trade show shipping.

With the track already fastened to the module, all I had to do was lay the cardboard over top and cut along the profile of the FasTrack ballast with a utility knife. Hold the knife at a 45° angle to accommodate the profile of the ballast. An exact fit is not critical.

The sides were then cut to match the edges of the module and the ocean-side of the beach was cut freehand, again on an angle to provide an easy slope to the sand. Additional “dunes” were built up from smaller pieces of cardboard stacked on top.

Glue the cardboard to the module and to subsequent layers with white glue. Place tools, books or anything else flat, heavy and handy on top for a few hours until everything is dry.

Painting the Base

With the base for our scenery in place, it’s time to paint. I selected two colors of paint, one sandy the other a deep ocean blue, from the cards at the local home center. Since you won’t need much for this project, just purchase the small sample sizes of each. The cans cost about $2.00 each and provided more than enough material for this module.


After a coat of paint, the beach begins to take shape.

Since this project is small, you can get away with latex paint. If you are working with a larger canvas, you may want to use oil paints so you have more working time to blend the colors. I opted for a flat finish on the sand and a semi-gloss on the water. We’ll be increasing the gloss later. Note that the exact colors aren’t critical here. Get something that looks right to you.

Begin by painting the ocean. Here paint was applied directly to the wood platform. (You could add texture with plaster or drywall compound if desired, but since I was keeping it simple and working in an open public space, I kept the steps and the mess to a minimum.) Paint up to within about 3/4 inch from the beach.

Next, before the blue paint dries, begin painting the sandy beach. Start away from the water and cover all of that ground first.


Blending the sand and blue colors yields a smooth transition to “deeper” water.

Now comes the fun part. Don’t try to paint a smooth, crisp line between the sand and the water. Instead, simply keep painting the sand right into the ocean. You’ll begin to see the paints mix right on the module. Keep working, feathering the two colors together for as sharp or gradual a transition as you’d like. It doesn’t have to be even all the way around, and in fact it will look better with irregularities.

The only important thing is to mix these colors while both colors are still wet. If you think you’ve feathered too much, pick up another drop of blue. Too little, grab another drop of sand. You’re friends will be amazed by your painting skills, but you really can’t screw this up!

It helped that our hall in San Diego was quite humid, providing a little extra working time. Again, if you are covering a larger area, or if you just like a longer working time, go with oil paints. You’ll have all the time you need – just remember you’ll have to wait at least a day or two before moving on to the next step.

Sand and Ground Cover


Sand and other ground cover add texture.

You can begin adding sand to the beach while the paint is still wet if desired. (Just be careful to keep it out of the water.) You can use real sand, or choose a commercial ground foam product of similar color. I ended up doing the latter since the local sand appeared too dark when applied inside.

Once you’ve covered your beach, simply adhere the sand with some diluted white glue (50% glue / 50% water). Spray the area first with isopropyl alcohol to break the surface tension of the glue. For more detailed instructions on this simple ground cover technique, see our blog pages on scenery and ballasting. While you’re doing the sand, you can add other ground cover and ballast around the tracks as well.


You’ve already applied the base for the water, now it’s time to make it “wet.” There are lots of methods for making realistic water. Again, because these scenes were completed in a public setting, the easiest, least-messy, least-smelly option was the way to go.


Several coats of clear gloss bring up the shine. You can also add some swells with partial coats.

Start by applying a coat of clear gloss finish. Again, I found a small jar of latex clear coat at the home center for a few dollars. Get the most glossy finish you can find.

Apply several coats of this clear finish until you’ve built up a smooth, even shine. Allow each coat to dry before adding the next. By the time I was finished, I think there were at least five coats on the base. Because I was using latex, each coat was dry enough to paint over within an hour or two. (Probably sooner, but after a while it is hard to tell when it is still wet vs. just looking wet – which is of course the whole idea!)


Apply water effects in beads and stipple with a brush.

This will give you a nice, calm ocean or lake. If you don’t want to go any further, you can stop right here. But I wanted a few waves for our ocean. None of these are going to make the surfers very happy, but the effects to give the water some life.

I used Woodland Scenics Water Effects to create the waves. Simply squirt a bead of the compound in a line where you want your wave. Then feather the wave back using a stippling motion with your paint brush.


The finished water has both texture and shine, all with little mess or work.

Repeat this process over and over to create the water surface. For taller waves, you can come back with additional coats after the first dries overnight. Note that the effects look like white glue when they go on. But like glue, they dry clear.

When you are happy with the results, you can give the scene one or two more coats of gloss to bring up the shine. Then, if you’ve created some good waves, dry brush a little white paint on their crests to provide a highlight.

Final Details


Palms and grasses help complete the scene.

Our beach still looked a little barren, so I added a few more simple details to bring it to life. Tall grasses and reeds are made from commercial grass products. Simply cut the fibers to length and glue them to the scenery.

For some taller trees, two palms from JTT Enterprises were added. Simply drill a hole in the beach and insert the palms. You could glue these in place, or leave them as a tight dry fit so they can be removed for transport like ours.

You could of course go further. This scene would be a natural for more details like swimmers, sun bathers, a sand castle – let your imagination run wild!



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