Grass fields add life and realism to your railway, as seen in this photo of Miniature Wunderland in Germany.[/caption]If you want to bring your model railway to life you’ll want grass. But there are hundreds of makes and types to choose from. Here’s what you need to know.
Grass is everywhere.
And not just in the countryside.
Even in residential and built-up areas, you’ll find grass in playing fields and gardens, breaking through roads and pavements or growing between sleepers of old railway track.
It’s no exaggeration to say that if you want your model scene to look genuine and realistic you must have grass on it.
And just like the real thing, there are seemingly endless varieties and types of faux grass for modellers to choose from.
Here’s everything you need to know, starting with the fundamental types and differences between mats, scatter, flock and static grass and what to use when.
Grass mats — ideal for beginners
For covering large areas in grass, the easiest, cheapest and fastest way is without doubt grass mats.
As the name implies, Grass mats are sheets of paper or other thin material covered in short fibres that create the look of grass or short vegetation.
They are typically available in sheets or rolls of 3 feet by 2 feet and cost from £5 to £10 per roll they’re the most cost-effective way of adding vegetation to a large area.
Even better, the sheets can be cut to shape and glued into place (using PVA standard glue) with none of the mess associated with scatter and static grass.
They do however have the disadvantage of looking flat and lifeless. The same texture and pattern repeated over and overlooks artificial.
Having said this, grass mats have improved greatly in quality recently. Silflor mats, for example, can look as good as static grass (see below) but cost significantly more than the basic mats and still suffer from the problem of looking somewhat artificial due to the uniform length of the individual grass stems. The Silflor mats are available here.
Noch and Woodland Scenics make the most popular grass mats. Experienced modellers will recommend that of these two, the later Summer/Autumn colours tend to be better, with more natural-looking shades.
Scatter: cheap and simple
The most common method used for simulating grass on model railways is scatter, small particles of differently coloured material giving the impression of grass, vegetation or even dirt and soil.
To apply, sprinkle the scatter material over PVA glue. It’s as simple as that and the huge variety of colours available means you can create just about any ground cover required.
However, the uniform size and shape of the particles produce a somewhat false appearance compared to static grasses (below) and it can be expensive to cover large areas.
Static grass has the best look
For realistic grass, there’s currently no alternative to static grass.
Short synthetic fibres, also known as flock, are scattered over an area to which a static charge is applied. The static causes the fibres, usually Raylon or Nylon fibre, to stand erect, simulating grass and giving a very life-like effect that has won the favour of modellers worldwide.
Available in different lengths, from 2mm to 20mm, and every possible colour to match different modelling scales, grasses and seasons static grass is now the preferred material for creating natural grassland.
The downside is its relative cost. Static grasses cost upwards of £5 for a few grammes covering just a few inches of ground
Both static grass (aka flock) and scatter materials are also messy to work with and difficult to apply precisely.
> If you’re working with static grass, read my tips for applying them and the best static grass applicator.
When to use which?
If you’re just starting out with a model railway starter kit, grass mats are ideal. They’re easy to roll out, the track sits easily on top and by introducing hills with scrunched-up balls of newspaper underneath it can create credible fields and pastures for your trains to pass through.
For building a model railway layout on a baseboard, use mats to cover large areas in the background with scatter material for variety and static grass towards the front for detail. This gives you the best economy of mats with the variation of scatter materials and realism of static grass.
If your model-making has reached an advanced level where realism is everything, static grass is the only real choice.
But even here you can save some money by laying grass mats first and adding static grass on top. You could also use mats for gardens or lawns where a uniform length won’t be unlikely.
Alternatively, if money isn’t an obstacle, and you work on bigger scales — OO or HO — Nylon fur can be used to cover large areas, edging this with Silflor will mask the artificial base of the fur. For detail areas, use varying lengths of static grass. See Joe Fugate’s excellent guide on doing this for examples and inspiration on how to do this.
How to apply grass for the most lifelike look
For the best finish, paint the baseboard in an earth or vegetation colour (green, brown or black), allow time to dry and then apply a thin coating of PVA and cover with a layer of scatter material (Noch and Woodland Scenics are my preferred choices).
Once the scatter has set, dab on more PVA and apply different lengths and colours of static grass. Use either a static grass applicator to distribute the fibres.
Finally, glue and place patches of Silflor and perhaps gently spray paint some of the static grasses for variation.
Placing small animals such as cats amongst the grass will also add to the realism.
Although the most expensive approach this multi-layer technique creates the most realistic finish.
While very cost-effective for large areas expanses of grass mats can look artificial with the same repeating texture and colour producing an unrealistic finish. Use balls of newspaper under the matting to create an uneven surface and deposit either scatter or static grass over the top to create depth for added realism. You can also add grass tufts which add variety.
And there’s a neat trick to making your own DIY grass tufts.
I’ll now contradict myself.
Having just said use different colours, there are times when you should keep to the same colours of static grass. If you’re modelling a Springtime scene, for example, use greens but different shades to mirror the rich growth that occurs at this time of year. Only use different colours — green and browns for example — to reflect Autumnal grasses or if you’re not worried about matching seasons.
- Standard Grass mats: Ideal for beginners. Available from Amazon here.
- Silflor mats: For the most realistic look. Available here.
- Scatter Grass: For large areas, ideally away slightly out of close view range or topped with static grass. Available here.
- Static Grass (flock): The best looking and most realistic look: Available here.
- Static Grass Applicator: Needed for applying static grass. My preferred choice.
> 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.
Picture, (c) ModelRailwayEngineer.com
Andy is a lifelong modeler, writer, and founder of modelrailwayengineer.com. 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.