Dr. Grunge...The Dirt on Dirt...(Scenic Work and Sundries)

I would like to thank Robert Burns for his motivation to get this thread to print. Thanks Bob.

Disclaimer: Uh, oh...the fine print already!...The following information is NOT how to do things...but how I do things. We all have our own styles of modeling based on our techniques, materials, skill level, etc. Example of this is how we can see a completed model and it becomes obvious who the modeler behind the model is! This is not necessarily a bad thing as long as we are happy with the results. However, should we find ourselves less than thrilled with the outcome, seeking additional resources comes into play. No matter your level of modeling we all can improve and tweak our processes. This is what I hope to accomplish here, to provide an additional resource. If I mention 25 "things" and someone comes away with one that helps them out...mission accomplished! On with the dirt on dirt...


  • The format for this discussion will be the outside work on my current build, Scotia Supply. This accomplishes two major goals; firstly, actual scenic and scene construction is presented and...secondly, I get some needed motivation to get some work done on my build! We will forego talking about the research and planning that goes into our build and how it relates to our scenic work and scene construction. I will start with the diorama base and how I proceed from there.

    With most any project the most important step is in the preparation. I use the green 3/4 inch dense foam board epoxied to 3/4 inch particle board (MDF I think it's called?). The MDF is more resistant to warping than plywood. The 3/4 inch foam board provides an ideal surface for scene construction as you can vary the topography easily by cutting, sanding, poking holes, etc. and is paintable and does not absorb moisture.

    If you remember one thing regarding scene construction and scenic work it would be...
    LAYERING and TEXTURE...well two things I guess! This concept cannot be over emphasized. The creation of layering in your scene construction and the use of multiple textures is what creates realism. Moving on...after much pondering over the previous.

    My first step is to prepare the diorama base for the first, and initial, layer of "dirt". I use real dirt exclusively. Most would agree the only thing that looks most like dirt is dirt! Somewhat intuitive but worth mentioning. There are other products in use, and modelers have used it to good effect, but I stick with what I like and that's good ole mother earth. Since I have so much verbiage here I now proceed with steps...

    Step 1.

    The first dirt layer I apply is a very fine layer that has been sieved to a very fine particle size, almost powdery. This base layer is the first in a series to build the layer effect. It also serves as a good base for pathways and road surfaces...more on that latter.
    So I have my supply of sieved, first layer, dirt.

    Step 2.

    I then paint my diorama base with a flat latex paint, what color?...uhh...the color of dirt!
    The first layer of dirt can be applied in one of two ways: Firstly, it can be applied directly over the wet paint. Secondly, it can be applied over the foam base after the paint has dried by applying a layer of diluted white glue with an old paint brush. I tend to use the latter as I think the dirt adheres a bit better with the glue. Once the paint/glue is dry the excess dirt can be removed. Now it gets interesting...Step 3 coming up...

  • Gonna be a real treat to look over your shoulder. Your scenery is fabulous and I am eager to learn the techniques you employ. Like the original class tutorial from Karl this is information every modeler should possess!
  • I had some paint mixed up once and when I picked it up I told the guy "it has a nice dirt look to it". I think he was offended.
  • edited May 17
    Thanks much Brett...

    A shout out to Brett here regarding this thread. Brett addresses the issue of layering and texture most eloquently in his build manuals however, his main focus is on the structure build of his kits and the many beautiful scenes created by the plethora of castings and details provided in the kits.. It would be impractical to try and comprehensively address the many scenic techniques and applications. There are as many methods as there are modelers! The SWSM Manuals have all the necessary ingredients to create a beautiful diorama by following the advise and methods contained therein. Once again, this is just how I do it...
  • edited May 17
    No doubt Bryan, how about the guy at Lowes when I actually brought in a small jar of the actual dirt and said "match this as best you can" Lol....
  • Looking forward to this Ken, your scenery and scenes are always beautiful to look at and admire. Its going to be a real education to watch how you pull it all together.
    I'm ready to learn a few new things and add them to my techniques.
    Thanks for sharing your skills with us all.
  • edited May 17
    I, pictures...

    Thanks for the encouragement Karl. You have paved the way for this thread and I remember how I struggled to get roads to look right until pouring over your techniques and how you and Brett preached about layering and texture.

    Step 3.

    The area I'm starting with is the north end of Scotia. Don't be surprised that in an earlier post I may have called it the east side!...Lol.


    Prior to knowing I was going to do this thread, I had begun the outside scenic work. Step 1 has been done as well as Step 2. In this scene I roughed in a dilapidated stairway to match the old bricked up doorway. I also spread my second application of ground work or aggregate. This is the beginning of the layering process. You will notice that right up against the foundation and out about an inch the material is more coarse then in the foreground. There is also a hint of a path from concrete steps out to the side drive.


    Here is an expanded view of the scene we will be working on. The darker foreground area will be enclosed in a chain link fence as per Brett's manual albeit expanded a bit. I now have a life time supply of wedding tulle! The reason for the darker area is this will be the kerosene and fuel oil depot of sorts...muddy and stained...that's right...Grungy! Wheel ruts were done when the "ground" was still wet.


    Back to the task at hand...the Step 3. aggregate...The material I use for this step has made a huge difference in my scenic work. Sometimes we stumble across a product or technique that seems to just work for us. This stuff is like that. Here's how it went...
    I struggled early on with getting the right aggregate to use for my second layering for the ground level. I tried coarser dirt, organic stuff, nothing spread well and looked right to me. Always remember, not everything prototypical looks good in 1:87!

    Regressing a bit....I have a well used gravel driveway with a parking area at my cabin here in Ohio. The parking area has the smaller sized coarse gravel...say jellybean size. One day I was looking for a dropped nail while working on a project so my nose was right down at the ground level. While looking for the nail I notice the material between the coarse gravel was all ground up fine material of all sorts of stuff. I made a note and next trip brought my sieves. I sieved the material when it was nice and hot and dry. The fine material was simply wonderful! a natural mixture of minute rock grains, wood, leaves, etc...and little if any actual dirt. This stuff spreads great and has a very natural color and look and best of all varying texture. (see below)


    Note the somewhat uniform color tones but varying textures and materials.


    Recognizing a good thing when I see it...I sieved a large quantity and will have a life time supply by the looks of it!


    So back to the scene. The material was spread along the foundation and sprinkled less as I came towards the drive. I spread a little on the drive, mainly in the middle and edges. Once this looked good, except for the driveway, path, and road (in background) I held a piece of paper up to the building and spritzed on some alcohol to break surface tension and then applied my white glue and water mix as standard. I applied mine by hand with a better control...more later
  • Great info! Layering is very apparent. You didn't give the address of your place in Ohio! :-)
  • Great start Ken. It's amazing what you can find around your house. I've collected a number of different size dirt and mini gravel. Also, it was Karl that got me to start with a base of dirt or grout over glue spread with a paint brush versus putting down a layer of dirt and digging out the pathways. Karl's method and your method work so much better. Phil
  • Ken, I very much appreciate you doing this. My next step will be scenery. I am now working on painting people.
  • edited May 25
    Meanwhile, back at the dirt pile...
    The next thing I do after the second layer of ground work is done is begin the scene composition. I like to scenic small areas at a time keeping in mind the overall concept of the diorama. In my example here, the north side of Scotia, is a little used area with an old blocked up doorway, dilapidated stairs, and an accumulation of basic junk.

    This type of scene composition can be difficult to get started on. However, once you get in the grove of laying it all out things move quite quickly. I like to take pictures and research the web for junk scenes or any pictorial example pertaining to what I'm trying to achieve. Once I have in mind what I want to do, I begin to lay out the details in the rough positions as they will/may occur in the final scene work. Nothing is finished, nothing is glued down, just staged in a rough layout. I can change things around at will until I'm reasonably happy and then...

    I take a few pictures. The main reason for the pictures is to allow me to put things back where they were after the details are prepared. Also, the pictures are on my phone and I can hash around the layout anywhere and make note on any changes to make once I'm back in front of the build.


    Here is the picture I took of the North side of Scotia I have been working on. All is tentative but I'm beginning to get a feel that this is close to what I want. A few tweaks and details here and there to be added/changed. Note the layering of details and the use of many different details with colors and textures of a wide variety. Haphazard but things should still make sense.

    Open barrel with a piece of corrugated on top, looks fine but for interest I added a couple of bricks and then put a pile of old bricks by the old stairs to tie in the concept. Also notice how some details are parallel to the building and some perpendicular. This is an important concept and adds visual interest. An old barrel laying on its side is a nice touch but putting a couple pieces of old wood of different size and color inside sticking out and the barrel laying partially on an old piece of corrugated adds even more.

    So this is how I go about placing what I call hard details. As I'm planting the prepared hard details with glue I'm also working in the soft details, which are the various bushes, weeds, grasses, sedges, etc, also in layering fashion. Next up will be the placement and work on the soft details...more later...Ken
  • We have the same way of working on details. I believe the most important fact is that it all has to make sense. There has to be a logic in the placement of things. There has to be a reason why details, castings are where they are..

    There goes a lot of time in just making the composition before I glue anything down.

    It just has to feel and look right.
    That being said, thanks for presenting this subject .
  • Such an important point. I've seen too many layouts where details were added for the sake of details. They don't look right because of the haphazard placement. No logic. Thanks Ken for this wonderful tutorial.

  • Great information Ken. I also try to place details so the make sense and look plausible. I like to have an assortment of details handy so I can play with their placement until I think they look right.
  • This is indeed a ( another ) fun part of the job !!
  • This is a perfect subject for Ken. Right up his alley (no time for a shinny clean main road). I thank you for taking the time to offer such great advice.
  • Ken, I'm with you so far. Great information. I'm looking forward to additional details. Thanks. Phil
  • I finished the Foundry over the last week and was able to immediately apply some of Ken’s scenicking approach. Definitely upping my game! Thanks Ken
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