The Dirt Cheap Technique To Creating Ultra Realistic Rocks and Cliffs

Cliffs on. a model railwayLooking for a way to add rocks, mountains and cliff faces to your model railway. Looking to do it on a budget? Here’s a dirt cheap technique to create ultra-realistic rocks I’ve used on my railways

Okay, first an admission. This rock building technique isn’t going to win you any awards for fjords (hat tip to Douglas Adams and the wonderful The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) or create towering cliff faces like those in Miniatur Wunderland (pictured above) but if you want small sections of incredibly lifelike and very easy to create rocks and cliff faces for your model railway without spending a lot this tip will do the trick.

There’s lots of advice out there on how to model rocks in plaster or paper mache but doing so takes practice. Lots of it. It may look easy in the videos but in my experience, it’s never as easy as it seems and the end result never looks as good as I want. This is especially the case at small scale.

So when it came to adding some rocks to the terrain of my latest layout I went a different, easier and cheaper route.

The technique I use is tree bark, and for my current scale (1:148, N Scale) bark with a twist.

First up, the basic 3 step tip to realistic DIY rocks with tree bark.

DIY Rock Making Step #1 – Get Yourself Some Bark

If you’re on a tight budget, just wander around nearby trees and look for bark that’ll invariably be lying around the base of the trunk. Please do NOT cut live bark off trees – it’s harmful to the tree. Alternatively, gardening shops often sell bags of bark chippings. These are just as effective for OO and HO scale and can be bought in bulk saving a lot of tree hugging.

DIY Rock Making Step #2 Refer To The Prototype

If you’re not a stickler for accuracy this step can be skipped but if you want your model train to travel past authentic scenery use Google images to look up rock/cliffs and mountains from your chosen location. Examine your bark and find the chips that match the stratification patterns in the original rock formations.

model railway bark rocks

Bark, fibre side for N scale models, covered with a layer of PVA before painting.

DIY Rock Making Step #3 Get Your Paints Out

Now you’ve got the bedrock of your rock (sorry!) it’s time to have fun. Refer back to the pictures from step two, carefully note the different colours and shapes in play and recreate these on the bark.

As a tip, I usually apply a coat of watered down PVA to seal it first (pictured right) but this isn’t strictly necessary.

When applying the paint, match colours as close to those in the pictures as you can and try to avoid perfectly straight vertical or horizontal edges. I also find it helps achieve a more authentic finish to wait for one colour to dry before moving onto the next.

painted bark rock

The painted bark. Now repeat for all the other sections of bark rock and glue into place.

That’s it. Now fix the bark in place. How you do this depends on the material used to create the hill/mountain/cliff structure. I use Polyfilla or PVA but you might need to experiment.

Oh, I nearly forgot.

Earlier on I mentioned a twist for N scale. When trying out the bark of various trees on my layout the cracks and texture of the bark that make such great imitation rock seemed way too big for N scale landscapes.

I like to move my hands and fingers when thinking creatively and while I was pondering this conundrum I happened to be playing with the bark in my hand, turning it over and over. It was while doing this that I noticed the fibres on the ‘inside’ edge of the bark.

On examination, these had the layers and stratification effect I wanted and at the right proportions for my layout. I used a scalpel to cut diagonal groves as would be present in the real thing and then finished it off with paints.

> 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.
One comment
  1. next time you are at the beach look for oyster shells. They make great rock formations and are thin enough to be easily shaped and are also natural so none are exactly the same.

Add Comment

Required fields are marked *. Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.