The cheapest way to make water for your models

What is the cheapest way to make a beautiful river, pond, lake or sea for your models? You might be surprised.

Water, whether it’s a river, pond/lake, sea or harbour, is a great scenic effect to add to your model landscape.

And there are plenty of specialist products available (such as Woodland Scenics Realistic Water) that can make water very realistically. But these are expensive — 16oz of this costs more than 1lt of the material I use, detailed next.

Luckily, there’s a much cheaper solution.

Good old white glue, or PVA as it’s also known.

This is a general purpose glue that can be used for many things in modelling but, surprisingly, if you get the right one it can also be used to make great looking water and very cheaply.

But don’t buy any white glue.

Many of makes don’t dry transparent —  turning yellow or misty when setting — which ruins the look for water completely.

Instead, you want this one.

I use this for all my rivers, ponds and even sea creations and have never had a problem with it turning the wrong colour.

It sets clear every time. It’s a LOT cheaper than the professional water making liquids (mentioned above) and you can use it for other things around your layout (ballasting/scatter etc) so it won’t be wasted if you have too much.

How to use it?

Once you’ve got this it’s just a matter of painting the river/lake bed or space where the water will sit and pouring the glue onto it to a half a centimetre deep or so. It’s critical the area you’re pouring the glue into is flat or the glue will pool at one end and look odd.

After the first layer has completely dried, pour on additional layers (letting each dry completely before applying the next) and repeat until you have the depth required.

the cheapest way to make model water

An OO gauge (1/76th scale) dock scene being made with the PVA glue mentioned here. The shot on the left is the water in progress using technique covered here. The right is the harbour water in Bristol I’m recreating.

I can’t stress the importance of letting each layer dry completely before adding the next layer. Experience has also taught me to only do this when the atmosphere is dry and not damp. Moisture in the air will not only delay the drying process but can also result in discolouration (as mentioned in a previous post on rivers).

Equally, if you pour the glue onto a previous layer of before it has fully set odd laying effects or even bubbles can emerge and become trapped midway in the “water”.

Once all the layers have dried, the base paint colour will be visible to create a water effect.

(I recommend picking a real waterway for which you can get photographs and recreating the colours of this base rather than guessing. You can also add shingle and rocks to the bed that will be visible in the water to add further realism).

Another great thing about the glue recommended here is that it not only dries clear but also has a nice surface sheen to the surface recreating that of real rivers and lakes etc.

Model Railway Streams and RiversWith that done, surface ripples/waves can be added by pouring a little more glue on.

Once this has set — but before it dries completely — drag a sharp point through the then firm glue to create the effect of ripples. Being firm but not completely dry it’s still pliable but will hold the shapes made. I’ve also used a syringe to apply bursts of air to create waves.

These ripples can be turned to breaking waves and white water breaking (as seen here on my a river on my N gauge layout) by dry-brushing a white enamel paint to the crest of the waves once they are set hard.

Using this glue and the technique described above, I’ve had great success creating wonderfully realistic streams, rivers, ponds, lakes and even sea water for multiple layouts in all the common modelling scales.

Try adding a water feature to your layout with this cheap technique and let me know how you get on.

Footnote: Although I’ve had no problems with this glue, as always I recommend you test and experiment first to check it works for you and to also perfect the technique before using it on your layout.

> 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.  
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.
  1. I’ve just used this PVA as suggested and after 24hrs it’s still as white as when i started. The room is very cold overnight and the glue is nowhere near set. So are you confident it’ll eventually dry transparent? Should I use a hairdryer to speed up the process?
    I have poured on a reasonable amount.

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