How to make your own scatter & why I’ll never buy scatter material again

8 Intermediate | tips 8 Comments

How to make your own scatterI’ll never buy scatter for my model railway again.

Never.

Not because of the obvious expense, although that’s a jolly good reason on its own but because I’m so pleased with this DIY technique for making your own material.

It’s fun and very satisfying too.

It’s the equivalent of using Hornby track connectors for power and soldering the wires to rails and fish plates. Using track connectors is quick, effective and a great way to start but seeing your loco run for the first time after you’ve soldered the wires the track is so gratifying. It’s also cheaper and it the looks so much better too!

Of course, there’s a lot of learning and experimentation, as with everything in this hobby. And what you think should work doesn’t always.

I wrote about just one such failed experiment a while back. I’d be trying a technique to nudge locomotives over sticky sections of the track but didn’t play out. And, it’s probably best if I pass on my first attempts at track soldering— suffice to say there were a lot of melted sleepers and more than a few burnt fingers!

But after a bit of trial and error things do, usually, work. With this tip, the experiments not only worked but I positively hit gold.

With this tip, the experiments not only worked but I positively hit gold.

Or green, brown and yellow in this case.

Let me explain.

Like most modellers, I get through a LOT of scatter on my layouts. And with the quantity I use with the cost soon mounts up so I regularly have a go at making my own.

Previously, I’ve tinkered with various ideas. Making the stuff from coffee granules and tea is an idea I’ve previously written about. But while okay they’re not perfect.

I’ve also watched dozens of modellers and vloggers (am I the only one who detests that word?) on YouTube and while their ideas have sounded good they, like my first attempts at soldering, often don’t produce the perfect results.

Many modellers report success with dried herbs and sawdust for example and although the technique and material are broadly similar to this I just don’t get the same results as the approach I use here. (When I try using sawdust it invariably comes out the wrong colour and dried herbs always turn into a sludge).

But a few weeks ago I had a fresh idea.

I was sitting in our living room when I heard a rustle from the window sill. I looked across to see a leaf from one of the house plants, an orchid, had fallen off and fluttered down to the window sill.


Terminology

I use the scatter in this post but you might also know it as ground cover. They mean the same thing, a tiny substance in different colours used to model soil, grass, foliage and ballast on model railways, dioramas and wargaming. This technique can be used to make them for whatever your application.


What made me think of it I don’t know but looking at the dried brown leaf the light bulb of inspiration flickered in my head.

If I could grind up the leaf fine enough it might make good scatter.

There followed several weeks of trying different grinding devices. Everything from sea-salt grinders to coffee blenders got roped into my hair-brained plan.

Mixing scatter, add the scatter; mix in some paint and turn until its all covered and you have a paste-like texture.

They all produced a mess and all gave confidence that I was onto something. I just needed to get the ground up matter down to a fine enough size for N or OO/HO scale.

And then another brainwave hit me, I really need to lay off the coffee!

These were dried leaves… Tobacco is made from dried leaves… Maybe an old style tobacco grinder would work?

I promptly ordered one and several days later was busy cramming mashed up dried leaves into the grinder.

After a few twists and turns of the grinder, I peered inside.

Starring back at me was a heap of perfectly formed little brown scatter.

I grabbed a flower sieve, separated out the larger bits and veins that didn’t break down and repeated the process several more times.

The result was promising. Very promising.

The texture, size and shape looked just right. (I’ve since tested different leaves and find Horse Chestnut and Sycamore leaves, once turned brown but before breaking down, produce the best results).

Further sieving rendered two piles of medium and fine grade scatter.

make your own scatter

What I liked was the shape of the particles. Unlike branded scatter my DIY material had variation in shape.

The off-the-shelf stuff you can buy, many branded makes of scatter have uniform size grains. While massively better than the material available to modellers just a few years ago, and a world of difference to the stuff I worked with as a kid, it still looks wrong to me. Soil and leaves etc aren’t standard sizes!

I think this leaf based material looks better because of its natural randomness.

It was, however, the wrong colour.

From previous attempts, I knew just dumping the stuff into paint wouldn’t work. That just ends up with a matted gloop.

Spraying was equally bad. The scatter goes flying.

Instead, and after a bit of experimenting, I figured out that the solution was to use only a small amount of paint and, crucially, add it to the crushed leaves rather than the other way around.

With the paint in the scatter it then needs churning it over and over.


How To Make Scatter Summary

  • Grind leaves up or get hold of either fine sawdust.
  • Sieve these with a flower sieve.
    • Sieve several times to get the finest grain you can.
  • Mix in with a small amount acrylic paint until fully covered and in a paste
  • Spread out on greaseproof paper and leave to dry
    • Till regularly while drying and sieve at least once.

This coats the particles without swamping them.

The exact makeup of the paints is down to you. I use a mixture of greens, olives and yellows for vegetation and greens and browns for soil but the colouring is a personal preference so experiment and find the colour you prefer. (I have tried food dies but these didn’t look right and I couldn’t get the tone of green I wanted).

Make your own scatter

A work in progress. Ignore the building and track, look at the scatter behind the engine and house. By comparison, Woodland Scenics fine stone is in the foreground.

The painted granules were laid out on Greaseproof paper and left to dry for 24 hours, occasionally tilling and sieving them to prevent matting.

After they were dry, I sieved them again to separate them and that’s it.

I’m really, really, happy with the results.

The slight variation in size and colour of the mix gives a more realistic look – to my eyes anyway.

And it’s so much cheaper too.

Over to you!

What techniques have you tried for making scatter? Did you get on better with sawdust than me? What was the best result you’ve had? Send in your pictures and I’ll share the best ones!

 

Footnote: my model railways are kept in ventilated rooms and free from insects and rodents. If your railway room is damp or vulnerable to ‘wildlife’ this technique may not be suitable. Leaves could potentially suffer from mold and small animals may eat or use it for nesting.



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  1. Martin Hinsley - September 22, 2017

    Brilliant tip Andy. Loved it….BUT….(1)what and where did you buy the grinder? (2) what quantity of paint to what quantity of ground up leaves? I know…experiment..experiment, but it would be good if you divulge this info.

    Kind regards

    Martin

    • Hey Martin, good questions. Grinder via ebay: http://modelrailwayengineer.com/grinder. Leaf to paint ratio, difficult to say precisely, I’d estimate 10:1 but start low (with the paint) and work up. For me the hardest part was finding a seive fine enough. I started with a tea strainer and worked down to a flower sieve which gave fine enough scatter for N gauge. Andy

  2. steve broughton - September 22, 2017

    I’m having problems getting through I can’t cut and paste a reply to this box. How do I agree to the comment policy

    • Hi Steve, that’s odd. Other people have commented and I’ve just tried pasting and it seems fine. Ignore the comment policy text; that shouldn’t be there ( a legacy from the recent site update) and I’ll remove it shortly. Email me (andy @ modelrailwayengineer.com ) and I’ll add your comment from here.

  3. Steve Broughton - September 23, 2017

    I’ve just read your comment on scatter and it reminded me of a time back in the 70’s, BC “before children”, I built my first layout but back then you couldn’t buy scatter or ballast. One day I was cleaning out the back of my builders van and I noticed Celcon block dust on the floor and I had one of those light bulb moments ! I grabbed a broken block and a lump hammer. I smashed the block down to marble size pieces then ground them up with a wooded rolling pin. I finished the operation with a couple of varying size household sieves and ended up with a fine pile of sand for tarmacing
    roads, an assortment of rock sizes for scatter and best of all. piles and piles of OO gauge ballast at just the right colour. and all for 1£ and a bit of elbow grease.

    • Hi Steve, I’ve considered that before but think my wife would complain if I started smashing rocks up in the kitchen 🙂 Andy

  4. G’day Andy. I’ve used an old Coffee/Spice Grinder to do this with dead leaves. It’s called a grinder but it uses a spinning blade. I did have a photo of it but can’t see how to attach it.
    Like Steve, I also couldn’t copy and paste here. I was going to make this a reply to Martin’s post and cut and paste for a quote but it wouldn’t allow me to do either.

    • Hi Ken, I’m looking into the cut/paste issue but still can’t replicate it but thanks for the info as it confirms there is an issue somewhere so I’ll keep trying. It worked for Steve later, could you try again.
      Re the coffee grinder. Can’t really help with coffee grinders although usually they just clip together. If you can, email me a pic and I’ll try to help. Andy

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