Building Dioramas

(Part One)

November 4, 2001

by Jim Rosado


This is the first in a series of articles focusing on Diorama Construction. I will begin to outline construction from the ground up, and in future articles we will get into building construction, foliage, debris, and streets.


I personally build Armor of World War II vintage. However, the techniques covered here can be applied to any modeling genre.

I will start with the diorama base onto which the groundwork will be attached. There are commercially available wooden, mostly pine bases available at hobby and craft stores like A.C. Moore.


Select your base to fit your diorama, and not the other way around. I happen to know of a local cabinetmaker that will custom make bases for me using the hardwood of my choice. It actually winds up costing less than a commercial pine base. This type of base gives a much more custom, or professional appearance to your finished product.


I recommend sealing the wood with a matte varnish to prevent warpage. You may also paint or stain the base to your liking. If you choose stain, then apply a few coats of satin or gloss varnish to the perimeter to seal the stain.


After base preparation, you may want to apply some felt pads on each corner of the bottom of your base. These will act as little "feet" to keep it raised just a little, to allow easy lifting.


Now, we will move onto the groundwork for the base. (Also, I will include a list of materials needed/required for each project with each article).


For the groundwork, I start with styrofoam. There are two types that can be used. One is used for insulation, comes in pink or blue sheets approximately 2 feet by 8 feet, and start at 1/2-inch thickness up to 2 inches thick. They are available at Home Depot and building supply stores. This kind is non-porous and very dense. Verlinden uses it in his pictorials.


Another is the seasonal type of styrofoam that is usually white or green. This is very porous and available at most craft stores. It is often used for flower displays to hold them in place.


This will be used to build up your groundwork so that it doesn't appear that our scene is just plopped down on a wooden base with a thin veneer of ground cover.


The styrofoam is easily carved and shaped to create contours. The material that is removed can be used to create height contours.


Glue the styrofoam to the wooden base, using Tacky Glue or a strong adhesive. Try to avoid using petroleum-based adhesives, because they may attack the styrofoam. In addition to gluing the foam to the base, you may want to nail it down or drive some screws through it into the base. It is not enough to just glue it down. Leave a perimeter between the edge of the wooden base and the edge of your groundwork.


Prior to or just after the mounting of the foam, you will want to tape off the edge of your wooden base, to prevent damage while you work.


You will want to begin on the ground cover next. If you want tire ruts? or truck ruts on the base, you can carve out the foam with a serrated knife.


Place the vehicle onto the desired location and mark the location of where the vehicle contacts the ground.

Use a magic marker. Using a ruler as a guide, begin to carve ruts.


Once you are satisfied with the results after checking the vehicle's fit, then you can move onto the next phase of ground cover. We will use ceramic tile grout for the dirt. By now, you will have wanted to accumulate some various sizes of rocks or debris. The following works great. Kitty litter for medium size rocks or debris. The absorbent clay used for oil spills sold at auto stores is excellent because of its random size. You can also find an abundance of sand, gravel and dirt right in the gutter of your street.

Have all of your "aggregates" ready when you start your groundwork.


As I said earlier, we will use tile grout for the ground. It is available at Home Depot or a tile distribution center. Stay away from Color Tile. Their grout is inferior and doesn't dry properly.


We will use sanded floor grout, also called joint filler. A ten-pound box is plenty. Choose an earth tone particular to the area that you are modeling. Stay away from the chocolate browns. They are too dark and the washes won't show up.


You should follow the instructions on the packages, but add acrylic additive instead of water. This will cause the grout to adhere to the styrofoam. It is available at the same location as the grout.


Mix it in a cheap plastic container and apply it with a plastic spatula.


After you apply the grout to cover all pores in the foam, apply some white glue diluted with water to the grout while it is still wet. Sprinkle on the sand, gravel, etc. while pressing it onto the soft ground. You may want to add twigs or roots at this time. You can also add any new building elements at this time as well.


After that step, sprinkle on your static grass, but wet it with more diluted glue first if needed. Press the grass into the soft ground and glue in place.


You can embellish your groundwork with shrubs, bushes or trees. These items will be covered in a future article.


Allow this to dry for about 24 hours. After that time you can apply the first in a series of washes. Use Winsor-Newton oils thinned with Grumbacher thinner. I use Grumbacher 's odorless type.


Start with Raw Umber. Apply this generously, as the grout is absorbent.


Once this dries, drybrush a lighter shade of ground color. Began an alternating process of shades of washes and drybrushing, but do not do the entire areas.


Do a certain percentage of the total area so that you don't paint over an area that you just did and you also don't want to create uniformity. Uniformity does not exist in nature, and it should not exist in your groundwork.


Experiment with darker and lighter shades of dry brushing. This will create a feeling of depth as well. Do the same with the grass. Try a little rust or light brown at the edges to represent dead or dormant grass.


Grass often turns a brownish beige color during the summer because it becomes dormant. It actually looks like it's dead, so some light brown paint may capture this.


As a final touch, try a touch of straight yellow. Because we have to create a lot of optical illusion in scale modeling, the yellow really brightens the grass as though sunlight.


Don't overdo it. It will not be seen as yellow except for in direct sunlight.


As you work, you may want to seal your work in with Testors Dullcote This will also act as a great adhesive, if you want to add Hudson and Allen leaves.


Remember to let each series of drybrushing dry completely before moving onto the next stage for a couple of reasons:

Paints look different dry than wet, and you may be satisfied with your current results, and you do to want to wind up with a monotone brown mess.


Drying time will distinguish? Each color, and create depth and highlight affects. If you choose to add figures or trees and your grout has already dried, then just poke a hole through the grout to anchor your object.


A pin, wire or small nail in the wooden trunk will hold things in place.


This is just a very basic presentation of groundwork, which as I mentioned can be applied to other modeling genres like off-road scenes, autos and aircraft.


This concludes the first installment of the diorama series. I know most of this stuff is basic, but I wanted to start out simple and work my way up. I hope that these tips are helpful in some way. This hobby is a constantly working process of discovery of new techniques and knowledge, so enjoy and have fun.

Jim Rosado

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Copyright 2010 by Anthony I. Wootson & Jim Rosado. No material may be reproduced without permission. Unauthorized duplication is prohibited.