PRR Chartiers Branch: Hazel Mine - Creek
Modeling the Chartiers Creek is a very important part of the telling of the story of the PRR's Chartiers branch. That is a big reason for why I decided to make these modules 4 feet deep. Future modules will be restricted to three feet, if possible, because four feet is just too difficult to reach. To model the creek, I cut out sections of the plywood surface, and offset them by about 10 scale feet from the normal ground surface. Locals have stated that the creek is usually about 10 feet below the top. That translates to about 2 inches in S-scale. The top of the plywood represents the top surface of the creek's water. The main reason for doing that is that the creek is in the back of the modules, so you won't be able to look "into" the water, and so that cuts down on the cost of materials to model it.

I am building the modules' scenery from the bottom, up, and from the back to the front. That's why I am starting with the creek first. Also, if I put anything on the creek and it rolls under the top layer, it falls in between the cabinets upon which I have the layout, and it would be a lot of work to take it all down to get to that item. So, the creek's embankment must be built first. When I was building the modules, I came across this roll of screen material from which to make your own window screens for the house. I had some of it leftover and just stored it in the garage. I thought that this would make a great material to use instead of the usual Woodland Scenics plaster cloth (which has gotten more and more expensive). So, I roughly measured how wide of a strip I needed to cut off, and cut it with a pair of scissors.
I decided to use the hot-glue gun to attach the bottom of the strip to the plywood base of the creek. I glued the edge of the strip to near the edge of the plywood, shaping it to fit the curvature of the creek. I then came back and attached the top to near the top of the embankment. Since the glue doesn't grip the somewhat slippery screening material (which is really a plastic), I quickly learned to use a small scrap of wood to repeatedly hit the glue area. This does two things. It presses the screen material into the glue without burning your fingers, and it draws some of the glue up through the holes in the screen. The latter really reinforces the glue's hold.
I was left with a hovercraft-style edging around the creek when I was all done. The process went fairly quickly once I got the hang of working with the glue and screen.
The purpose of the window screen material is the same as with using the Woodland Scenics plaster cloth, and that is to serve as a foundation for the "ground goop" layer. This time around I decided to just make my "ground goop" out of two parts Sculptamold and one part white glue. Nothing else. I added water until the mixture had the consistency of breakfast oat meal. It needs to be somewhat thick otherwise it will drip down the embankment. Applying it was fairly easy. The window screen material has some "give", but it is quite thick as well. I filled the bottom area up with the Sculptamold mixture, and then built the rest of the embankment up from there. I did several inches at a time like that. Since I will be using Envirotex epoxy for the water, the Sculptamold must make a good seal with the plywood surface. I applied the mixture with a small artist's spatula (paint-mixing pallet knife).
And here is the final result. It didn't take long to do this. One thing I have noticed with using just the white glue in this mixture, is that the surface is hard in about 45 minutes to an hour.
When I took my last set of modules apart, it was quite a challenge. I had built those modules as if it was a normal "fixed" layout, leaving the cutting for later. Luckily there were only two with track and scenery on them. When it was time to demolish them, I had to cut through the track, ballast, scenery, water, etc. to separate the modules. That was not trivial. So, as I am building these new modules, I am cutting anything that spans the border between the modules when it has dried. So, the next day I cut the Sculptamold with a thin-kerf handsaw. I had already cut the window screen material with a pair of scissors and a knife when I had completed its installation (I knew that cutting it with a saw was going to be impossible, since the screen material has a lot of "give").
The next step is to paint the creek. However, the first thing I had to do was clean up the plywood surface. Between the drops and spider-webs of the glue gun and the drips of the Sculptamold, there was a bit of clean-up to do. Also, there is a slight gap between the middle and right-hand modules, which I filled with a thin strip of Masonite hardboard (glued only to the right-hand side module). However, the glue and the hardboard stuck up a bit from the modules, so I needed to file that down. After vacuuming it all up, it was time to paint.
Studying photos of the creek, its surface always looks rather dark. The creek is deep and flows with a pretty good pace. Water gets its color from the reflections of what it is surrounded by, so I decided to make mine a mixture of black and green. I used the Van Gogh brand of acrylic paints that I bought at Hobby Lobby. The colors are Oxide Black (tube on the left) and Sap Green (I had a second tube of green ready, just in case the first ran out - it didn't).
I don't mix these colors, but rather dip the brush in both at random, and then paint the surface. This leads to the surface having random streaks of black and dark green, which is the effect I want. The black color is to suggest depth, and the green color is to suggest the reflections of the trees growing up around the creek. I then painted the entire creek with these colors, leaving the very edges alone.
The edges of the water and the embankment were painted with these paints. The Van Gogh paints were: raw umber and sap green (the one in the middle had dried up and was no good anymore). The Folkart bottle on the left has become my standard "ground" color, which is #881 Coffee Bean.
I painted the embankment and the water's edges in the same manner by using random strokes of the individual colors.
I wanted to bring in some lighter colors, so I used these.
Using the dry-brush technique, I added some relief to the embankments.
Here's another shot of the completion of the painting step.
Prototype photos show lots of undergrowth of bushes and weeds along the creek's edge, so I wanted to simulate that. I used the two Woodland Scenics foam bushes shown in the photo. Using full-strength white glue and a painting brush, I spread the glue on the embankment, and then quickly applied a handful of these bushes. I pressed them hard into the embankment, so that they stuck and so that the glue wouldn't drip down into the creek. This worked fairly well, as you can see in the photo. After about an hour, I ran my fingers over the completed section, which released a lot of the loose material. I then swept that up and used it on the next section that I applied glue to. The final leftovers went back into the container.
Next, I applied a variety of small foam material to fill in some of the areas and to add a bit of different color.
After all of that work, this is what you can see when I hold the camera high above my head; i.e. not much. But, it was fun doing it, and it gave me some more scenery-making practice.
The next thing I wanted to tackle was the actual simulation of water in the creek. If you want to build up a layer of visible water through which you can see the bottom of a creek or pond, Envirotex is my recommendation. However, since it dries perfectly smooth, you will need to add something to simulate the waves. In my particular case, the creek is at the back of the diorama, is not easily visible from the front, and, from prototype photos, is relatively dark, I decided to skip the Envirotex layers and just do the waves only. To create the waves I use Liquitex Gloss Gel. I bought mine at Hobby Lobby, but you should be able to find this product at any store that caters to artists. It is expensive stuff, but it works so much better than Modge Podge, for me at least. I used a Hobby Lobby 40%-off coupon to save $10 on the jar you see in the photo! The other tools I used was a stiff, flat brush (foreground, right) to actually apply the material. The larger brush in the background was used to sweep the creek's surface before I applied the Gloss Gel. I also have a sheet of paper towel handy, because as I apply the Gloss Gel, the scenery material from the creek's edges comes loose and gets caught up in the gel, which I don't want.
Viewed from the back of the layout, the creek flows from left to right in the real world. So, I got started by "pushing" the Gloss Gel toward the right-hand side as I applied it to the creek bottom. I tried to make sure that I applied it in a random set of waves. You don't want it to be too similar, or too repetitive. In some areas I applied small amounts, but in others I put on quite a bit. You want to make sure that the entire surface is covered, though, because otherwise the uncovered, dull areas will be very noticeable when it is all cured (not a real big problem, as it is easy to apply a second layer).
As you can see, the gel goes on milky white, but it will dry clear and shiny when it is fully set. Some of the areas where I applied a lot of material, those will take 48 hours or more to completely clear.
This is the same shot as above, but about 15 hours later. Just remember that this gel is intended to preserve your brush marks, so you don't want to "paint" the gel on to the surface, but rather push (waves, rushing water) or stipple (still, large bodies of water) it on.