How to Make Model Train Water Features

Woodland Scenics; DIY Network

Nothing adds more to the overall realism of a model railroad layout than the addition of water features. Learning how to make these water features appear true-to-life only requires some clever techniques designed to mimic the reflective surface of lakes, rivers, creeks and other bodies of water while giving the illusion of depth. These methods involve the graduated shading found in classic trompe l’oeil painting. Above this will be layers of sheer acrylic, which will be slightly molded to imitate water currents and waves. Allow at least two days from start to finish for this project.

Decide where on your railway layout the water feature will be located. For circular water features on flat surfaces, begin by painting a pale color along the perimeter, a light to a medium brown color in a concentric, thicker ring within the first color, and a deep navy blue or charcoal gray color within the very center.

Use a fresh, dry brush to gently blur any obvious demarcations between the rings of color. This should give the visual illusion of depth to the flat area. Place a little ground foam along the outside edge and adhere it into place with the scenic cement.

Paint any recessed areas in the same manner as above. Creeks and rivers should be painted lengthwise, following the contours of the shoreline using the same shading techniques. If the creek or river is raised with an open end that will later be attached to landform, affix heavy tape to the end. This tape can be removed once the “water” has dried and set completely.

Sprinkle sand or coffee grounds at the shoreline to simulate soil, and layer talus on top to cover the edges of your water features. You may spread a layer of glue to the area first for a more permanent result. Larger stones can be strategically placed to imitate boulders that will protrude from the water.

Pour a layer of clear acrylic over the painted surfaces. For the flat surface (see Step 1), you will only need to pour thin layers to simulate a deep lake within the boundaries of the ground foam. For recessed lakes, creeks and rivers, pour the acrylic to the desired depth. Use a clean and dry stiff-bristled paintbrush to create grooves in the surface to simulate a flowing current. As the “water” begins to set, but while it’s still malleable (this may take several hours), use a paintbrush to “pull up” small points all over the surface to resemble either gentle waves or strong turbulence.

Allow the water features to remain undisturbed for at least 24 hours in a well-ventilated area. Add plant materials and scenic details around them to further enhance the realistic look.

Things You'll Need

  • Mounted model train track
  • Imitation trees, plant materials and/or miniature land forms
  • Acrylic paints
  • Paintbrushes
  • Talus (i.e.-coarsely crushed rocks) and/or rough-hewn pebbles and slightly larger stones
  • Dry coffee grounds or sand
  • Ground foam
  • Scenic cement spray
  • Glue (optional)
  • Masking or Electrical Tape (optional)
  • Clear liquid acrylic floor wax (Note: Hobby shops sometimes sell this as “Realistic Water”)


  • An effective variation is to use white paint to gently accent the dried “points” of waves once the acrylic has completely hardened. Adults should always handle acrylic within a well-ventilated space. Model railroads such as these require electricity in order to operate. Make sure that pets are kept to a safe distance during operation, and that children are both closely supervised and educated about potential dangers and safety protocols.