How to make mountains and hills – 5 steps from model making gurus

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 molehills 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 early railways lived up to the splendour of my imagined micro vistas.

While I had dreams of trains racing past gorgeous rolling hills and verdant valleys, 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 outcrops heralded yesterdays newspaper headlines and plaster lumps lay everywhere.

At the end of one unfortunate episode, my OO gauge train layout 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 tips; devoured every book on the subject, and spent days, weeks, even months, experimenting and seeking out insight and knowledge.

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

1. Start with reality

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.

From these pictures and views, sketch out the basic shape of the hills and geometric shapes that constitute the core of these hills and build to match.

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 another terrain map that shows elevations and heights.

Hills and mountains are often a lot bigger in relation to surrounding scenery than we think and if not sized appropriately your hills will end up looking like a stilted bulge in your terrain.

If you can’t get out yourself, search Google Images and Flickr, there are thousands of pictures to work from.

2. Render the rocks

making mountains and hills

Making the wooden foundation for hills and mountains, from my old copy of Miniature Landscape Modelling by John Ahern.

Once you know the underlying shapes, form these from either wood (for OO and above landscapes) or styrofoam for hills and mountains in N or Z gauge.

For wood construction, the standard technique is to create a foundation framework of vertical bars or offcuts shaped to the underlying shape — from the pictures and notes above — which are fixed to the baseboard or frame.

Styrofoam is easier and just involves glueing pieces together and then shaping. I’ve covered working with styrofoam here.

(Remember to leave space for tunnels through the hills if that is your plan. And this isn’t just a case of leaving a track-sized gap through the middle, as explained in my guide to making tunnels)

With the foundations in place, it’s then a matter of creating the shell that wraps over foam or wood to create the surface detail and textures.

For Styrofoam hills, the most common technique is to lay on plaster cloth.

For wood, the best budget technique I’ve found is the “matrix” method described by 30-year model veteran Tony Hill in the 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 wooden framework suggested by John Ahern and successive layers of tissue and plaster then applied for perfect hills.

Once 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.

This is then laid between the struts of the wooden framework.

Alternatively, chicken wire can be fixed across the wood. Using plaster cloth across large gaps and wood will sag so chicken wire or the cardboard matric is preferred.

Onto the matrix (or chicken wire), he applies a coating of PVA and then covers it with a layer of two-ply tissue pressed into place so it bonds with the glue.

While the tissue is still damp, a plaster mix of Artext is then painted over it. This is repeated several times until a realistic texture is achieved.

Once the Artex or plaster cloth is dry a brown earth colour powder paint and PVA mix is painted on.

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 wireframe 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. With either technique, it’s then important to leave them to dry fully before continuing. In the case of plaster cloth, this can take 48 hours or more depending on the atmospheric conditions. Doing it in the winter can take longer!

3. Next, add low-level vegetation

With the shape of the hills created, it’s time to bring your creation to life by adding low lying vegetation, such as grasses.

To do this apply a coating of PVA on to the area being worked and then apply a topping with scatter or static grass.

For scatter, I now use a home-made material which saves a fortune, likewise applying static grass has become a lot easier once I found my now preferred static grass applicator.

I should add that I’ve always struggled with the colours of grass until I got my hands on Miniature Landscape Modelling by John H Ahern — regarded by many as the first truly scenic layout modeller.

Reading John’s book was a revelation.

When he suggested, in his now out of print book, that many greens are “too blue for grass” it was if he’d been reading my mind.

John’s tip, on page 30 of my well-used copy of his 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.  Bingo.

Now I mix up some paint, starting with yellow as prescribed by John, to the shade I want (using the pictures taken earlier as reference) and dry brush or dab the scatter or static grass with the paint. (I also recommend these tips for static grass).

Alternatively, find a fine mist sprayer (perfume spray bottles can be quite good if you can find one where the spray cap can be removed so you can to fill them) and apply a lite application of the paint using this.

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

Nelson Mandela

Of course, not all hills and mountains are covered in vegetation.

For exposed rocks outcrops, leave off the scatter or static grass but top with rock coloured scatter. John’s advice is to use fine grain sand tree bark is also very convincing and which I’ve covered in a previous tip in DIY rock making.

Hills with grey background

Another 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.

Dry painting background grass with grey is also suggested, having the same result. The picture to the right perfectly demonstrates this at work in a photograph of a real landscapes, notice how the hills and terrain further back are grey and less bright than the foreground.

I’d never considered this until reading John’s Miniature Landscape Modelling but it’s a brilliant tip.

While one of N scale layout is too small to need this, it’s very effective for larger layouts and those with hills rolling off into the background and I’m experimenting with it on my 009/OO gauge layout

4. Layer on low-level foliage

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 and OO scale layouts that I most commonly work on.

One of my layouts is Cornish mining themed and I wanted one for 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 to say nothing of their price.

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 read the section where he describes using medical lint for grassland. I’d skipped this section before and it was only while re-reading it, and 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 the tiny fibres of lint, once coloured dark green and with small amounts of yellow scatter (to represent the flowers), has so far proved very effective and I”m very pleased with the results.

5. Top with taller plants

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

This is particularly effective for hills towards the front of the layout. Think about natural scenes, it’s only in the foreground that you notice the 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 and mountains produced on a budget. Send me your pictures if you used any of these techniques.


  • Have a good idea of what you want your hills to look like, ideally based on the real thing. Use photos as references.
  • Build the shape (especially for mountains), using a wood or foam.
  • Onto the wood or foam, create the surface layer with a card matrix or plaster cloth.
  • Then add common house-hold sponges and similar for low-level vegetation and use a scatter grass applicator for the best grass results dabbing yellow based paint for colouring.
  • Finally, add bushes and trees.

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

>A final, personal, note: I spend a huge amount of time testing, photographing, writing and researching techniques for these articles and pay for all the running costs of MRE out of my own pocket. If you found this article useful you can support me by making a donation on my fund-raising page. Thanks and happy modelling, Andy.

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