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.

>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.
One comment
  1. John Ahern was ahead of his time in model railway scenery techniques. I have made a small collection including his three books, those by Edward Beal and many others of similar topics. I’ve also managed to track down several editions of The Model Railway News for the 1940s. Here, in Chesterfield, we had Theo Pearson’s North Midland Railway, started in 1930 and completed by the time of his death in 1959. He left Red House and the large detached garage that housed the model railway in an upstairs room that was 37′ X 21′, to Derbyshire County Council to spite his poor wife. She had to move out of her home and live with her brother and his wife. I saw the layout on a school visit in 1967. It was obvious by then that no-one had thought of maintanance as the water in the dock had partially evaporated and caused rusting of the rails. In photographs taken for The Model Railway Constructor magazine a few years earlier, severe corrosion of the track around the dockside was clearly evident.
    My own layout in the old attic bedroom of my cottage, now 31 years old, uses Wrenn 3 rail track circa mid 1950s. Buildings are a mixture of Bilteezi and scratch built by me. We use Hornby Dublo 3 rail engines and wagons plus Exley LMS carriages, the ones with glass windows are pre-WW2. As they are fitted with seating, I fill them up with people – sitting and standing.

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