Making a model river in 5 easy 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 or diorama but creating a credible water look is surprisingly difficult.

Here, in 5 easy steps, is how I and members of the MRE community do it. Even better, this technique is surprisingly cheap while creating very realistic water.

Michael Faraday once said water was “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 in your miniature world 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, the recess for a pond or waterfall course should be done when constructing your baseboard and scenery structures. (If you’ve used polystyrene foam for you baseboard or topped the baseboard with it before starting, here’s a novel technique for easily creating river beds).

With the waterway carved, depth and realism of the river banks can be achieved by delicately carving and shaping air-drying clay. Pour on some PVA glue at the edges, press the clay into place, shape it and leave it to dry. River banks are typically gently sloping or quite step for fast flowing rivers. Use photos of rivers (Google photos has millions to work from) for reference when shaping them.

Now for the technique in this ModelRailwayEngineer Whistlestop Tour to making model rivers. I can’t claim originality here as these are just combinations of ideas and suggestions I’ve picked up over the years from multiple sources and from members of the MRE community but I’ve used them for streams, brooks and rivers on three N gauge layouts, numerous OO and 009 gauge model railways and dozes of small dioramas I’ve made over the years and they’ve proven time and time again to produce captivating water effects.

Materials needed

  • PVA white glue, jewellery resin, clear satin floor varnish or Woodland Scenics water for the water
  • Acrylic paints – olive and sap greens, sienna and burnt umber browns and black
  • Enamel white – for white water
  • Assorted wide tip paint brushes
  • Gloves – if using resin
  • Small rocks from the garden or plaster paris (for river bed rocks)

#1 Prepare the river bed

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 with 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-white 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 the middle areas are used, blend these with 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 riverbed 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 boulders along the river and selectively on the lower levels of river banks. MRE community member Paul B. does this to great effect.

To make rocks, I make up some Plaster of Paris, let it set hard and then break it up with a hammer. The tiny fragments make great rock falls at the base of hills and on river beds. Paint them to the colour of rocks you want, this can be burnt umber or sienna brown, yellow, grey or white in the case of chalk.

These will be covered by the fake water to come shortly but as the water is transparent they’ll be visible and add depth and realism.  If desired, other rocks can also be added to the river banks late in the next step so water appears to be breaking over and around them.

#3 Adding the fake water

Once the river paint and glue holding the rocks in place has set, it’s time to add the water.

There is a variety of materials and recipes used for the model water.

The budget solution, that many members of the MRE community recommend, is PVA / wood glue.

Just pour it in and let it set. It’s worth experimenting as some brands dry with a yellow tint; others set clear. Alternatively, other members of the group, again hat tip to MRE group member Paul B, use clear resin from jewellery making or, as Thomas M. suggests varnish.

Another technique is to use multiple layers of crumbled Polythene film (via P. D. Hancock). This is time-consuming and fiddly, the thin film sticks to your fingers and nearby scenery very easily, but creates some of the most realistic water I’ve seen.

Finally, there are commercial model water materials such as Woodland Scenics Realistic Water. These are very convincing and easy to apply. One tip however is to be wary of bubbles forming as you pour the fluid (don’t shake the bottle beforehand!).

Apply these by pouring a thin stream of into the river course. Don’t fill it up all the way, just a few milli-meters deep. Let it set and then pour another layer and repeat until you have the depth required.

Test your water material on a scrap piece first; some varnish/paints will melt polystyrene as I found out to my cost with this river.

Caution: If you use polystyrene base, as mentioned above, be careful of what you pour onto it. Some resins and varnish fluids will eat and melt into it, as seen in the above picture of one river base I was making. After hours of painstakingly carving the base, I poured in some varnish and it melted awful holes in the base. Back to the drawing board for that one 🙁

#4 Creating the illusion of depth

the cheapest way to make model water

Creating depth; even when there isn’t any. The photo on the left is my model water just a centimetre deep The photo on the right, is the real waterway (in Bristol) I based it on.

If you wanted the impression of depth, such as in this OO gauge layout I created, dabs of dark green and dashes of black onto each layer (above) once they are set. You don’t want a coat of paint covering the surface, but rather dab it on in places – using a sponge or old brush – so you can see through it to lower levels.

Once this has set, apply another thin coat of your water material, let that set and repeat until you get near the top level of your river.

This approach creates a credible look of depth even if the actual river is only a few centimetres deep. The river in the above photo for example is just 1 centimetre deep.

#5 Creating water surface texture 

The final step is creating the surface texture and this takes a steady hand and patience.

Slow moving water

How to make model railway scenery : rivers

A slow-moving stream on a former N gauge layout I had. (I still miss this layout!)

For slow or static-moving water I, and again, members of the MRE community who  apply a coat of varnish to give it a sheen. You don’t want much, just enough to catch the light.  I use this varnish – coincidentally the same I use to seal my baseboards – and it works well. Before this dries, use a small syringe to create blasts of air on the surface of the water that create waves in the still-drying surface layer.

Extra tip: The sheen of the varnish wears off after a while but it can be easily topped up and looks good the rest of the time.

Creating fast moving water waves and surface ripples

For Turbulent water – choppy water/rapids – mix PVA with an enamel white is used. Use a sharp point and drag it through the top layer of water material to carve ripples and waves. (To get the detail I want, I’ve made my own tool – gauge 30 wire glued to the ferrule of an old paintbrush). Once set, paint the upper ridges of the ‘waves’ with the enamel white to give the white water look.

making a model river

Creating the waves and ripples from the water wheel on my 009 layout, with white paint and PVA.

Draw the end of the point or wire through the PVA in the direction of flow or waves to varying depth and crisscross 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.

Tips for adding extra realism to model rivers

Rivers of course aren’t just about water, there’s are whole ecosystems around them and for extra realism adding little details to replicate these in model form will work wonders.

Model trees, with roots emerging from the river bank, vegetation creeping down to waters edge and even reeds growing out of the water will really bring your watercourse to life. For reeds, I use the bristles of a clothes brush, painted dark green and brown and poked into the water material as its setting so they stand upright; Hosta or Fern roots from the garden (dried and microwaved to remove any wee beasties) can be pushed into the clay banks to create very convincing tree roots. And, for a final touch, a bird nest hidden amongst reed beds is a lovely detail.


making rivers model making

A model river on one of my layouts, using the steps here.

And that’s it, once the multi-layers of PVA or resin/varnish, and surface varnish and paint are dry you’ll have a babbling, rushing brook, stream or river that fish will swim in, ducks will swan about on and your miniature people will bathe in. Take a look at how my river turned out, the 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 other followers by dropping me an email (andy @

Thanks and have fun in the water!

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Founder of ModelRailwayEngineer, Andy Leaning

Andy is a lifelong modeler, writer, and founder of He has been building model railways, dioramas, and miniatures for over 20 years. His passion for model making and railways began when he was a child, building his first layout at the age of seven.
Andy’s particular passion is making scenery and structures in 4mm scale, which he sells commercially. He is particularly interested in modelling the railways of South West England during the late Victorian/early Edwardian era, although he also enjoys making sci-fi and fantasy figures and dioramas. His website has won several awards, and he is a member of MERG (Model Railway Electronics Group) and the 009 Society.
When not making models, Andy lives in Surrey with his wife and teenage son. Other interests include history, science fiction, photography, and programming. Read more about Andy.

Afflliate disclosure:The links on this page may take you to carefully selected businesses, such as Hornby, Amazon, eBay and Scale Model Scenery, where you can purchase the product under affiliate programmes. This means I receive a small commission on any orders placed although the price you pay does not change. You can read my full affiliate policy here. I also sell my my own ready to use, pre-made and painted buildings and terrain features. browse the range.
    • 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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