Legendary railway modeller John H. Ahern’s advice on the best material for landscaping

Looking for the best material for landscape modelling? Here’s what one of the legends of model railway building used.

John H. Ahern shouldn’t need an introduction. A pioneer of model railway building, he built the legendary Madder Valley layout (still on display at Pendon Model Railway museum), contributed to early modelling magazines and wrote books on miniature building, locomotive and landscape construction that became the standard works on their subjects and remained many years. (These pop up occasionally on eBay).

One of the many things he was known for was the idea of scenic craftsmanship. Until Madder Valley railway scenery was often an overlooked aspect of a layout and John was amongst the first to feature a fully developed landscape, as seen on this layout.

And to do this he was selective about the material he used for making grassland, downs, rock faces and broken ground.

In his book on the subject, Miniature Landscape Modelling, he discusses the pros and cons of the different possible materials.

On Papier-mâché

He disliked Papier-mâché due to the time it takes to dry out.

“It appears to take an inordinately long time to dry out sufficiently for further work to be undertaken, and protracted delays, running to more than a week by some accounts, are thoroughly bad for artistic inspiration.”

Adding, “Whatever material is used should set hard overnight so that work can be resumed next day”.

Having used this in my earlier models, I can only agree with this sentiment.

And he didn’t have much time for commonly used decorator’s plaster either.

“It is likely to develop cracks after a time and may crumble if the base is not very rigid.”

He went on to describe a mix that could be made from it but this contains asbestos which I won’t dwell on further for obvious reasons.

He also mentions, a compound of three parts gypsum to one part Casco glue but unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find this glue in the UK. If you know of a supplier I’d be interested to know their details.

His preferred material

John’s recommended material is Alabastine filler mixed with sawdust.

He describes this as making a “convenient modelling clay of a rough and gritty texture” which I’ve found to be a very apt description.

He suggests a mix of two parts Albastine to one part sawdust.

The resulting material, he says, “takes oil or water colour well and dries out in a day or less according to the thickness of the work”.

An important addition that many modern landscape materials could benefit from, and I’ve not seen mentioned elsewhere, is to colour the mixture with a red or brown colouring agent (a powder).

The reasoning for this being that the mixture will dry “almost dead white, which is not a very convenient colour upon which to work. Any patches, however small, which may be missed when painting will show up rather unpleasantly”.  Adding a red or brown powder ensures that even if missed when painting the result won’t be too obvious.

The resulting material can be used for ground cover, exposed rocks and cliffs; is quick to dry and very controllable. You can see the results on Madder Valley at Pendon, always worth a visit if you’re passing.

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