How Do You Make Model Railroad Ground Cover?

There’s something about a model railroad scene that draws us in for a closer look.  So many details and surprises just wait to delight us and send our imaginations soaring.  Railroad hobbyists spend hours building a miniature world around their model train and it begs the question:  how do they make such a realistic landscape?

Model railroad ground cover can be made from natural materials like dirt, leaves, straw fibers, and lichen, or purchased ready-made.  The term ground cover includes materials that simulate dirt and vegetation.  

Whether you’re a newer model railroad enthusiast or a kid who got a train set for Christmas, you may want to enhance your train’s setting with ground cover.  Read on to find out how.

model railroad backdrop

Making Model Railroad Ground Cover 

Creating an interesting and aesthetically realistic model railroad scene starts with a good foundation.  The size of your display doesn’t really matter in this case.  What attracts viewers to the model scene are the varied geographic features, natural colors, and textures, as well as all the tiny details.

Ground cover in model train vernacular just means the “looks like” dirt, grass, shrubs, and trees that cover the base and hide the foam and other materials that give shape to the scene.

Working from the base up, there are three types of ground cover used on most railroad boards:

  • Low Cover starts with the base color of the board itself and also includes grasses, dirts, and other low vegetation.
  • Medium Cover is made up of small bushes and underbrush, weeds, vines, and other small plants.
  • High Cover includes bigger shrubs and bushes, but not trees.

How Make Ground Cover for a Model Railroad

You want to make a realistic cover so that your scenery looks like something you’d see around a real train track.  A good-looking ground cover can be the difference between an okay diorama and an awesome one.

Railroad scenes are built on a flat surface such as an old door or table.  Plywood sheeting is often used since it can be cut to the desired size.  Paint the surface a natural, medium-tan color as a uniform base coat.

Bare Earth or Dirt

Recreating the look of dirt is the simplest thing to do.  For the most natural look, you can use real dirt that you find outside.  You’ll need to take a few steps to get it in shape before applying it to your board.

  • Remove larger pieces of debris like twigs and stems by sifting the dirt in a sifter (not your kitchen one!).  This should also deal with any dirt clods or rocks. 
  • Bake the newly sifted soil for about 30-60 minutes at 350° to kill bacteria and seeds.
  • You can sift some more if you want finer dirt.
  • Apply white glue generously in the area where you want to add dirt. 
  • Spread the clean dirt over the glue then brush away any stray dirt.
  • Sprinkle 70% isopropyl alcohol over the dirt area before adding additional white glue.
  • Let it dry overnight.
David B.


Model grass is typically crafted from green ground foam, which provides a good representation of grass on the display board.  Ground foam can be purchased at hobby shops or online.  Or, go the DIY route and make your own.

Making your own ground foam can save a lot of money in the long run.

  • Locate pieces of inch thick scrap decorator foam.
  • Cut the foam into 1-inch cubes.
  • To a standard kitchen blender, add about a ½ cup of water and a ½ cup of 70%-91% isopropyl alcohol.  Squeeze in the desired color and amount of coloring agent.  Blend these together.
  • Put the foam cubes into the blender and pulse until it breaks down and you have a crumbly, fluffy foam mixture.
  • Pour it out on a newspaper and let it cool overnight.

Ground foam is applied to the display board anywhere the look of grass is needed.  You can add other vegetation on top and mix in other colors to simulate real-world grassy areas.

Shrubs and Bushes

Medium and high covers like shrubs and bushes add dimension and interest to your railway scene.  They can be placed anywhere you’d find them in the real world:  near buildings, along roads and creeks, and nestled up to fences.

The easiest way to add shrubs is to purchase clump foliage and scatter as desired.  Another option is to use lichen found at craft stores.  Break it into miniature bush-size pieces and add it to the landscape.  For both these materials, use a dab of glue to hold them in place.

Final Thoughts

Making a natural-looking ground cover for your model train display is fairly easy to do and elevates your board to the next level.



Lifelong Rail Enthusiast and Owner of Worldwide Rails

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