The Val Ease Central Railroad ©

Taking Z Scale to the Public Around the World
(Text and photos © Copyright Jeffrey MacHan)


"Donít Look for Perfection, Perfect the Look"

Construction pt1/4: Lightweight Layout Techniques on the VEC - Styrofoam construction

Youíve done your research, got a track plan, decided on Z scale of course and now youíre interested in a rugged, durable, flexible, LOW cost, easy to build, maintain and repair, light weight layout, right...RIGHT†? I thought so...

Here is a bare-bones primer to the techniques used in the construction of all phases of my Val Ease Central Railroad.

Note: the original photos illustrating this article have been lost (hard drive crash) but they will be replaced shortly with photos of the construction of Val Ease Summit.
Supplies: You can follow along on the photo clockwise from bottom left to right.

  1. extruded polystyrene insulation†(styrofoam) comes in 2 foot by 8 foot sheets in varying thickness. For a home layout, I suggest a 2 inch thickness. I used 1 inch for the base of the VEC but then again itís in a suitcase where the space under the base was just as important as the space above. Buy enough styrofoam to cover the area to be modeled, then buy another sheet for the elevations that you will be adding to the base. I used the 1 inch styrofoam for landscaping because it is easier to carve with a paring knife,
  2. film canisters for small quantities of landscaping materials and ballast. I prefer transparent containers so that I can see what Iíve put into them. They are also water tight and store easily,
  3. scenery materials: ground cover in various shades and textures. My favorites are earth tones, greens and fall foliage. I also like to use bright foliage clumps for wildflowers and flowerbeds,
  4. paper towels†for clean-up of our water based scenery tools including hands, faces and walls,
  5. acrylic artists colors: available from your craft or artist supply store. These U.S. 4 fluid once tubes are enough to cover a huge area so you might like to get something smaller. These are water based paints and are a joy to use directly out of the tube straight onto the styrofoam using a stiff brush. Here are the basic colors for most purposes: yellow oxide, titanium white, ultramarine blue, neutral grey #5, raw sienna, burnt sienna, burnt umber and mars black. You can add green if you like but I just mix the yellow and blue as the mood hits me. The great thing about these paints is that they are cheap, mix well, dry fast, do not give off toxic fumes and are easy to work with and clean up. Your family members will thank you for them!
  6. white glue: the multipurpose adhesive that works very well with styrofoam for adding scenery details (like trees and people) and that when you add water, you make...
  7. dilute white glue which in a 3 to 1 ratio (water to glue) is used to glue ballast and ground cover,
  8. dish of water† used to clean brushes and to make your spouse angry when she discovers that you are using her crystal!
  9. rubber cement: available at school supply stores, craft stores and Wal-Marts everywhere. This inexpensive and versatile cement comes with an applicator brush in the lid. This is very smart because you donít want to use your paint brushes with this stuff. This is TOP SECRET: Rubber cement will NOT ATTACK styrofoam so we will use this cement to attach the layers of styrofoam to create our hills and mountains. The other SECRET is that rubber cement, when applied wet to only one side gives a removable bond. When applied to both sides to be joined and allowed to dry before assembly, it acts as a permanent contact cement. There is a solvent base to this cement so use it in a well ventilated area. I especially like the fact that you can get it off your fingers easily once it has dried.
  10. soft lead pencil to mark cutting lines, poke holes into the styrofoam in order to plant trees, take notes and to stick behind your ear to make you look like a pro!
  11. stiff utility brush that you found somewhere or, if you must, purchased at a hardware store. I use this brush to apply the acrylic paints directly from the tube to the styrofoam. I prefer a stiff brush in order to be able to tease paint into all the nooks and crannies of the styrofoam contours. Iíve lost all my good brushes but Iíve somehow managed to keep this one for 7 years!
  12. paring knife deftly borrowed from the cutlery drawer. I got 3 of these Ginsu knives at a store demonstration and only gave one to my wife. Shhhh! Keep the edge sharp with a flat file. This is key for making good clean cuts in the styrofoam and for not making good clean cuts in your fingers.
  13. Ah, lucky 13 and the item I forgot to include in the photo is a spray bottle of rubbing alcohol which is used to Ďwetí ballast and ground cover for gluing with dilute white glue.
You will also notice in the photo on the right an example of a complex structure that was formed from multiple layers of styrofoam and has several cuts and notches. In this case you are looking at the removable bridge section that will join Centre Val Ease „ to Val Ease West „ . Three layers of scraps have been glued together with rubber cement and carved to shape. I will use acrylic paints to seal and fill the styrofoam and when dry, the creases and joints will be cleverly camouflaged with ground foam, bushes and grasses.

Building terrain with styrofoam is easy and fun. Adding height is simply a matter of cutting a piece to fit the area to become a higher elevation. Hint†: use a paper or cardboard template to transfer the outline to the styrofoam sheet. I find that it is faster to cut across the sheet in several passes and then snap it with a little pressure than to try and saw your way around the outline. There is no BEST way, just YOUR way so have FUN with it. I like to keep the scraps for a while in case I am struck with inspiration and need a piece to complete a scene.

Making a grade elevation in styrofoam is Ďrelativelyí easy too. Take a piece of string and lay it out along the Ďmiddleí of the track right of way starting at the beginning of the grade and finishing at the end of the grade going around the center of curves as well. This is the length of the run of the grade. Measure the height that the track must reach from the base to the bottom of the ties (sleepers) at the top of the grade. This is the rise of the grade.

Mark the run of the grade (from your string) along a clean edge of 1 inch styrofoam. Then measure down from the edge at one end for the rise of the grade. Now you will need a straight edge that you can use to mark the angle using your pencil or to make the cut with the paring knife. Note: the factory edge of the styrofoam will be the roadbed since it is probably flat, your cut will be the gluing surface to attach to the base. You can go around curves by positioning the grade on the base starting at the sharp end of the wedge lining up the middle of the grade with your track right of way. Where the curve begins, cut and split the grade from the outside of the curve keeping the inside edges of the grade together. Cut and split along the curve every few inches until you reach the end of the curved section of right of way. I suggest that you use flexible cork roadbed strips to cover the gaps before you place the track. I suggest 1 inch styrofoam for grades since two strips of cork will cover most of the surface and it is easier to cut. Test fit everything before you glue. You may have to do some trimming and shimming along the bottom edge.

I try to carve the initial contours of the edges of the layers before I glue them permanently to the base. You will find that it is easier and safer to carve a piece that you are holding than trying to work at odd angles on the layout. Carving can be cutting, slicing or gouging depending on the effect that you want. Have fun adding cracks, fissures, drill lines, ledges and slopes where you can add vegetation later on. Donít be afraid to experiment on some scrap. This stuff is so cheap that it is worth your while to explore possibilities and have some fun. If you make a mistake on the layout, no problemo, itís easy to fix with a patch of styrofoam or with a new layer. I suggest that you work on relatively small areas at a time. Test fit regularly and use straight pins or round toothpicks to hold things in place while you fiddle and tweak. Note: fiddling and tweaking are a permanent part of layout design and construction.

Gluing is simply a matter of applying a thin even coat of rubber cement to both surfaces to be bonded using the applicator brush in the lid. Iíd put some newspapers down on the work surface or the floor in case you tend to drip! Too much glue takes longer to dry. Let the pieces air dry for a couple of minutes then carefully press them together and apply even pressure to secure the bond. Try your hand on some scrap to get the technique mastered so that your fingers donít stick to small pets and children.

I often have a general idea of what I want to see in the landscape however, the details tend to come as Iím carving and fitting layers. The roads and ditches, ponds and streams can be carved into the surface later just like Mother Nature and the Engineering Department does in 1 to 1 scale. Landscaping is a fluid art in time and working with styrofoam will allow you to discover the overall look that is hidden in your layout.

My personal landscaping motto is: Donít look for Perfection, Perfect the Look!

For further discussion of this topic and answers to your questions, join the Z_Scale discussion forum.