I’ll never buy scatter for my model railway again.
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 been trying a technique to nudge locomotives over sticky sections of the track but didn’t play out. And, it’s probably best if I don’t 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.
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. As is often the case with youtube videos, the enthusiasm for a technique displayed seldom produces equal results when I replicate it.
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.
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 harebrained plan.
They all produced a mess but gave me 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 feverish 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 flour 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.
What I liked was the shape of the particles. Unlike branded scatter my DIY material had variation in shape.
With off-the-shelf stuff brands of scatter have very 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. Real ballast for decades past – that I model – was rarely standard sizes, although modern railway material is a lot more standardised.
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 multiple times.
- 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).
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 mould and small animals may eat or use it for nesting.
> 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.