5 Ways To Build Beautiful Hills On A Budget

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Messy Mountain - close encountersDoes your model railway hill building feel like mountain climbing…

In the rain…

If you want beautiful hills and valleys but are struggling with ugly bumps that look like lumpy mole hills and messy disasters these budget techniques by model making gurus are for you.

“I will lift up my eyes to the mountains; From where shall my help come?”

Psalms 121:1

It took me a long time and lots of disappointment before the hills, mountains and valleys on my earlier railways lived up to the splendour of my imagined micro vistas. While my dreams were of trains racing past gorgeous rolling hills and verdant valleys when I looked at my efforts, the reality was usually a terrain that resembled a school Papier-mâché experiment gone horribly wrong.

Where I wanted gentle slopes, ugly gappy paper folds reined, rocky out crops heralded yesterdays newspaper headlines and plaster and plaster lumps lay everywhere. At the end of one unfortunate episode, the my OO gauge train layout I was building at the time looked like the scene in Close Encounters where the protagonist, Roy Neary – wonderfully played by Richard Dreyfuss, builds a mountain in his living room.

Frustration got the better of me and I set out to become the Turner of model building landscapes. I scoured every corner of the Internet for the the tips, devoured every book on the subject and spent days, weeks, perhaps months, experimenting and seeking out insight and knowledge.

While my quest to craft the perfect hill continues,  I’ve accumulated some of the budget techniques from some of the best model making gurus, here they are.

Reality Check

The first recommendation, from just about every serious model builder, is to check-in with reality. Surround yourself with pictures and photos of real terrain, hills and mountains. Even better, get out to the countryside and see them for yourself.

Look at the shape of the hills and note the basic geometric shapes that constitute the core of these hills. And most importantly, note their size in proportion to the rest of the landscape. If you’re really dedicated get hold of an Ordinance Survey or other terrain map that shows elevations and heights.

Don’t even consider attempting to model hills and mountains with such reference material to work. If you can’t get out yourself, search Google Images and Flickr, there are thousands of pictures you can work from.

Building The Mountains

Once you know what your hills and mountains should look like create a skeleton reflecting the profile of the originals. This can be constructed from foam or wood for larger features. This will give mountains in particular rigidity and strength.

On top of this skeleton a shell is laid down and for which the best budget technique I’ve found is the “matrix” method described by 30 year model veteran Tony Hill in his excellent Creating Realistic Landscapes for Model Railways.

In his book, Tony describes using strips of 15mm wide cardboard cut from cereal packets and laying them down horizontally across the wood, securing them in place with hot glue.

model railway hill matrix

A cardboard matrix for hill construction in progress, this will be glued to the the wooden framework and successive layers of tissue and plaster than applied for perfect hills.

Once this these horizontals are in place, weave strips of the same card vertically between the horizontal pieces, using PVA to fix them to the other strips. The end result is a grid or matrix as Tony calls it.

To this matrix, he applies a coating of PVA and then covers it with a layer to two-ply tissue and pressing this into place to bond with the glue. Artex plaster is then mixed with powder paint and PVA before finally mixing with water to achieve what is described as a “single cream” thick blend. While the tissue is still damp, paint the plaster over it.

Before the plaster sets, apply another coating of tissues and then plaster. Using this technique takes slightly longer than others but isn’t prone to the gaps and air pockets that tend to crop up with Papier-mâché, doesn’t lead to cracks as bad as with pure plaster and produces more rigid terrain than wire frame or scrunched paper ball based landscapes.

I find it faster and easier to make the Matrix first and then glue to the wood but this a purely a personal preference.

Further details and steps for this approach are in his book which I recommend for anyone struggling with scenery construction.

Vegetation’s what you need

With the shape of the hills created, it’s time to bring your creation to life adding vegetation and foliage.

For grass, paint a layer of PVA to the area being worked on an apply a layer of scatter.

I always struggled with the colours of scatter materials until I got my hands on Miniature Landscape Modelling by John H Ahern – regarded by many as the  first truly scenic layout modeller.

As John suggests in now out of print book, “it’s difficult to realise what a high proportion of yellow there is in the ordinary greens of grass” and that many Green paints are “too blue for grass”.

John’s tip on page 30 of my well used copy of his scenery bible is to start with yellow as the base colour – rather than green – and then mix small amounts of green into this until the desired shade is obtained. Once I’ve mixed up the colour to the shade I want (using the pictures taken earlier as reference) I then dry-paint the scatter material previously laid down.

“After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb”

Nelson Mandela

For soil and rocks, I again use John’s advice and use fine grain sand. Tea and coffee granules have also proved very effective for darker soils. For exposed rocks, tree bark is the most effective which is covered in a previous tip in DIY rock making.

Hills with grey backgroundAnother golden piece of advice from his book is to use lighter less vibrant tones for grasses and vegetation in the background to create the feeling of distance. Adding grey colours to grass colours is also suggested, having the same result. The picture to the right perfectly demonstrates this at work in photographs or real landscapes, notice how the hills and terrain further back is grey and less bright than the foreground.

I’d never considered this until reading Miniature Landscape Modelling but it’s a brilliant tip. While the N scale layout I’m currently working on is too small to need this, it’s very effective for larger layouts and those with hills rolling off into the background.


Low Level Foliage At Small Scales

My layout has Cornish tin mines set amongst hills for which I wanted shrub covered hills like this.

My layout has Cornish tin mines set amongst hills for which I wanted shrub covered hills like this.

Another aspect I’ve struggled with, particularly on my current layout, is finding a way of creating low level shrubs and bushes that don’t appear too big for the N scale (1:148) models that I’m currently working in.

My layout is Cornish mining themed and I wanted one of some of my hills that surround the mines to be covered in gorse – as per the picture left – but off the shelf pre-made bushes look too big and also expensive.

I failed to find something that looked realistic until I was, by chance, again reading The Story Of Craig and Mertonford Railway by the late P. D. Hancock. He was one of the earlier pioneers of narrow gauge railway modelling and I love reading this book for the tales he creates around his railway.

While browsing through it one evening looking at the pictures I happened to re-read the section where he describes using medical lint for grassland. I’d skipped this section before as his railway is scaled at 1:176 and while the flock of the lint is great for grass at this size on smaller scales, such as my N gauge layout, it would be too tall for grass so I’d discounted it’s use.

It was only while re-reading, having been battling with the challenge of finding a suitably scaled gorse look-a-like, that the idea of using lint for sprawling bushes dawned on me.

I’m still testing the technique but flock coloured dark green with small amounts of yellow scatter (to represent the flowers) so far seems very effective and once it’s in place I’ll update this article with the pictures.

Until then, medical lint provides a very effective grass at OO scale if you’re looking for low cost alternative to commercial scatter.

With the low lying vegetation on the hills, mountains and grass taken care of the other vegetation can be added, namely trees and bushes.

For hedge-rows, the best budget tip I’ve come across is covered under a recent Thrifty Thursday Tip for DIY model railway hedges . Essentially, go an cut up some floor scrubbers. See the post for more details and great tutorial video.

For tall vegetation, there’s a wonderfully simple 5 step technique to making your own model railway trees. As with the hedges, there’s a video to help.

So that’s it, now it’s just a case of positioning the bushes, hedges and trees as per the original photos and you’ll have very realistic looking hills produced on a budget. Send me your pictures if you used any of these techniques.

Finally, add grass. For this you can’t beat static grass with a good applicator, I’ve written about my favourite static grass applicator here.


  • Have a good idea of what you want your hills to look like, ideally based on the real thing. Use photos as references.
  • Build a firm foundation (especially for mountains) and these use the matrix card method to create the surface layers.
  • Use common house-hold sponges and similar for low level vegetation.
  • Finally, finish off with static grass using a good static grass applicator. I’ve tested the various models here.

This guide is one of the tutorials collection in the series on from train set to model railway covering railway modelling.


Picture credit: Grey hills in background,  Mark Hughes; Cornish mines, John Stratford

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