Create Super Realistic Streams & Rivers For Your Model Railway In 5 Steps

Model Railway Streams and RiversWater is a key feature of our environment so it should naturally be a key feature on your model railway but creating a credible water look is surprisingly difficult. Here, in 5 easy steps, is how I do it on Landreath. Even better, this technique is surprisingly cheap while creating very realistic water.

Michael Faraday once said water was an “a phenomenon which continually awakens new feelings of wonder as often as I view it”. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the streams, rivers and ponds on your railway invoked similar feelings for you?

With these 5 easy steps to creating super realistic water, they might just.

Before starting however it’s worth noting that this post is solely about creating the water itself. Making the channel your river, hole for a pond or waterfall course flows in and through should be done when constructing your baseboard and scenery structures and is best left for another time.

Now for the technique. I can’t claim an originality here as these are just combinations of ideas and suggestions I’ve picked up over the years from multiple sources but they work and have been proven time and time again to produce captivating water effects.

#1 Prepare The Baseboard

Apply a green / brown coating of Matt finish paint to your baseboard or material that forms your waterbed. The exact colours will depend on personal preference and your prototype – if you have one – but the important point is not to use a single colour but a variety of blends and shades.

water model railwaysHaving examined lots of rivers (is there such a thing as a river watcher?) it’s apparent that the colour of the visible river bed varies not just on the geology of the rocks but also according to the motion of the water.

Plants struggle to take root in fast flowing stretches so here the river bed is often visible and browns, yellows and off-whites colours – hinting at sandy or perhaps chalk river beds – are preferred.

For slow moving and still water, where weeds and algae grow more easily, greens are preferable. It’s also likely that there will be more weeds as you get closer to the bank so where yellows and browns in middle areas used to blend in greens towards the edges.

I usually apply several layers of paint like this to get the river bed and weeds right. This adds a sense of depth.

Then I add a layer of gloss and then apply more streaks of green and yellow, getting lighter in colour nearer the surface, to represent weeds floating in the water until I’m happy. The picture to the right shows this in progress on my layout. Obviously, I let each layer of paint dry before moving on to the next.

#2 Place Your Rocks

Look at any stream, brook or river and you can’t fail to see rocks and boulders that have been carried downstream. Once the paint, applied in step 1, has dried, position your rocks and holders along the river and selectively on the lower levels of river banks. These will be covered by the upper water affect water to be applied next but as the water is transparent they’ll be visible and add depth and realism.  If desired, other rocks can be added to the river banks late in the next step so water appears to be breaking over and around them.

My Cornwall mining themed layout is N scale – 1:148 – and the techniques discussed here work perfectly for working in these miniature environments but they/re also perfectly suited for larger scales.

But, with the space available in OO / HO scale and above, even more, techniques are available. Multiple layers of crumbled Polythene (again via P. D. Hancock) topped with Varnish is one such technique for larger scales and produces some of the best effects I’ve seen.

Commercial water offerings – from Woodland Scenics – are also available and can produce equally impressive results.

#3 Getting Depth

To get a sense of depth more layers are used but not with paint.

After some experimentation I’ve settled on PVA for the river I’m working on at the moment.

Pour a small amount of PVA over the area involved and let it dry. Now repeat, repeat, repeat and keep going until you have the depth required. It’s vital to let each layer set before applying the next so this stage can take a while.

(It’s also worth trying this with your brand of PVA before applying it to your rivers as some PVA’s can dry yellow and white when we want transparency).

#4 Surface Texture

The second part of the water effect is creating the surface texture and this takes a steady hand and patience.

For slow or static moving water I apply a coat of varnish to give a sheen.

For choppy water/rapids, I mix PVA with a watered down enamel white. Then apply a thin coat, let it firm up but not set and apply several more. Before they fix, use a sharp point to carve ripples and waves. (To get the detail I want, I’ve made my own tool – gauge 30 wire glued to a paintbrush).

Draw the end of the point or wire through the PVA in the direction of flow varying the depth at which you draw it through to create different height waves and criss-cross them in fast moving sections.

I also use a small syringe to create blasts of air on the surface that creates pleasing waves in the still drying PVA. As per wire dragging, the direction of the air will be in the direction of the water flow.

#5 Final Touches

Lastly, and on the advice from late great railway modeller P. D. Hanock, is to add specs and streaks of gloss white paint to the crests of the glue ridges to represent foam and highlight the waves and ripples.

And that’s it, once the multi-layers of PVA, varnish and paint are dry you’ll have a babbling, rushing brook, stream or river that fish will swim up, ducks will swan about on and your miniature people will fish and bath in. Take a look at how my stream turned out, picture above, and let me know what you think.

Oh, one more thing, I’d love to see your results too. It’s always nice to see how others are getting on so please share photos of your water feature with me and my other followers, either drop me an email (andy @ or tweet it to me on Twitter –

Thanks and have fun in the water!

>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.

PS: This post was updated in Sept. ’16 to show my latest river and the layers approach to painting the river bed.

    • Hi Randy, PVA is otherwise known as wood glue – it’s a white glue sold in bulk in most DIY and craft stores. I recommend trying different makes as some don’t dry clear. Andy

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