Making a river, exhibition layout

Starting on the scenery.

If you’ve been reading the previous posts in this series on making a model railway, you’ll have seen the recent articles on making a mill house with a moving water wheel.

A water wheel naturally needs a water course to turn the wheel and making this has been the focus of my attention for the last few weeks.

As described here, and seen in the layout plan below, the river runs back to front on the left of hand side.

To cover up the awkward disconnect between the layout and back scene where the river exits the layout, I’ve used design features seen in many mills, such as the one at Cobham Mill in Surrey shown below, where part of the mill building runs across the river forming a bridge.
photo of Cobham Watermill

As explained here, my mill does exactly this, with the river disappearing under the mill building rather than crashing into the back scene.

These design elements gave me a position and path for the river.

Carving the riverbed

I carved a channel for the river into the layout base in two sections. One runs from the track to the front of the layout, the other from the track to the rear of the layout. Not disturbing the baseboard under the track avoids any risk of damaging the track and keeping it supported underneath. Adding the rail bridge, covered in minutes, is then just a case of attaching visible elements of the bridge to the front and rear of the base material either side of the track.

An earlier decision to put the foam on top of the baseboard made the carving much easier as I then only needed to cut away the foam rather than chisel it into the baseboard surface.

With the channel cut, air-drying clay was applied to the sides of the channel to create the river banks. This allowed me to shape the river banks to have a gently sloping look of a slow-moving river rather than the steep bank of a faster-flowing river. This probably won’t be visible once vegetation and water is in place but I’ll know it’s there and the detail is right.

These and the river bed were then painted a dark olive green, blending into darker shades towards the centre of the river, before adding foliage – a mix of my own DIY bushes and Woodland Scenics version – along the water edges. Green colouring was also added to the stonework of the mill house and pier where it will meet the river – to give a moss growth look.

Making the rail bridge

Finally, I knocked up a mock bridge to support the railway track where it crossed the river. In contrast, the technique I usually employ for making bridges, for this layout  I didn’t add anything new for the bridge but rather left the path for the bridge in place when cutting the foam for the river. The channel for the river was cut on either side of a narrow span of foam that will carry the rails. This left the track support in place and means I just needed to create the visible frontage of the bridge.

This was done using some plastic-card stone sheets for the stone pillars which were then glued to some plastic from another model kit that helpfully looked like a girder. These were then carefully positioned into the river channel and to the front of the foam below the track.

For the railings that sit on either side of the track to prevent a train from falling into the river, I considered making my own, using some plastic sprue from model kits, heating it and then pulling it out to stretch it and make it thinner before bending these into shape. But while looking through my box of plastic kits in waiting for an appropriate sprue I found some kit fencing that was just too good not to use. This was cut to size, painted a matt black and then given a light coating of rust and glued into place with Revell Contacta plastic glue.

Creating the channel for the water wheel

With that done I then formed a place-bolder for the mill-race pier and sealed both ends with liquid latex so I’ve had a trench clear of the water for the waterwheel to sit in.

The placeholder was made from air-drying clay and the seal around it and at the ends was from liquid latex.

This wasn’t as straightforward as it seems and lead to a near disaster for the layout but that’s another story.

The water, Woodland Scenics Realistic Water, in this case, was poured in and left to set.

Adding ripples to the river

making a model riverWhere the water emerged from the underwater wheel and from bridges I wanted white water.

On other layouts, I’ve dragged a small point through the water mixture while it was still pliable but this time I tried an alternative technique that I’ve found while making a culvert.

Essentially, I took two tiny bits of cling film (no bigger than a fingernail), scrunched one into a ball and rolled the other and then opened them up again before glueing to the ‘water’ surface with PVA, just in front of where the water wheel will sit and the bridge piers.

Rolling the clingfilm up creates lines in the film replicating the look of a series of waves emerging from the water wheel while the scrunched-up ball has more of a random look suitable for waves as the water laps around a pillar in the middle of the river (supporting the bridge).  The surface of the ripples was dabbed with enamel gloss white paint and the area was then dry brushed, again with white paint, creating a convincing look and feel.

There’s still more to do, I’m not completely happy with the vegetation around the front river section and need to tone down the green of the stonework moss. The rail bridge supports also aren’t big enough and need to set further into the land on either side of the river but for now, and you can also see the backboard under the bridge that supports the mill side extension, but it’s enough to work with.

> This post is part of a series on the construction of a lifelike model railway for exhibitions. To read other posts in the series covering its development, track work, scenery and model building making, see building an exhibition model railway.


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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.

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