Diorama Surface
Sets Tone For Realistic Scene

Making a diorama has a lot in common with model railroading, especially if you get into scratch building structures and rolling stock. It can be very gratifying to let your imagination roam and freeze a thought or dream in mid step.

Near life-size dioramas were popular in the mid-1800s as a form of theater entertainment where the audience, often as many as 350, was rotated around successive dioramic scenes.

It's A Small World Afterall...Take A Tour

This technique is still used in natural history museums to display stuffed animals in a natural looking setting.

Today, the scale has been dramatically reduced by scale modelers, but the scenes still hold their fascination to audiences who enjoy seeing them from all angles (multiple photographs).

A convincing diorama scene starts from the ground and goes up from there.

Diorama From The Ground Up

The groundwork of any model scene, largely composed of dirt-like material is not scale dependent. Most dirt, plant and weed representations in smaller scales need finer grades of material than their larger counterparts.

My diorama structures

The Process is divided into seven steps:

1.) Decide on the scale of your model. This is a key decision because dioramas believable to the extent that it looks real. The larger the scale, the more detail you can include.

2.) Collect the materials you will need including a board for the base. In addition you will need white glue, fine grain celluclay (papier mache) water, card stock, different sizes of sand and gravel, flocking material static grass and a few twigs and sticks.

3.) Prepare the base plate. It may be a piece of wood or glass. Anything that is flat, won't bend easily and has nice-looking edges will do, the rest is pretty much up to your taste. Make sure he edges are looking fine and pleasing - it's the edges that will remain seen. You may want to frame the base when you're dealing with a deep surface. The size of the base should be carefully matched to your planned setting. A common novice error is starting with a base that is too large for the concept and then trying to add things to it to make it look "busy" after your original scene is complete.

4.) Build up the topography of the diorama. This requires some planning. The most fundamental thing to do when working on a diorama is to follow a theme or idea. Even if you think you have got the concept, try to develop it as much as possible, working out the details of the scene.

5.) Use Styrofoam, architectural boards and celluclay to form your terrain. This will give the impression of weight instead of simply placing the vehicle on the groundwork of your diorama. Try to build your diorama working from the back to the front. Start with the “background” trees or buildings. The smallest objects should be placed the closest to the front. Use glue or putty to secure the objects.

6.) Before the Celluclay has dried (it takes about a day, apply sand and gravel where there won’t be grass or vegetation. Fine sand for the road and coarser gravel for steep banks where the grass won’t grow. Try to press the sand and gravel a little into the Celluclay. Now let everything dry. The next day I go over and secure the sand and gravel using a paintbrush and diluted white glue. Now let it dry for two days.

7.) Now apply vegetation and finer ground details, there's a ton of stuff that exists. For example, Woodland Scenics produces a lot of materials that can be used, and these can be found in a well-stocked model railroad shop. In general, though, it is best to locate and use regular organic items. They will look better, since they are more realistic.Some of the items that Woodland Scenics makes are static grass, dirt, sand, rocks bushes, and trees. They also produce a strong liquid glue that can be sprayed onto a scene, gluing everything in place.After the surface is again dry add static grass using flock material mix with a little static grass white glue and water until I get a wet-mud consistency. Add also a few drops of sand or buff color to take away the gloss of the static grass. Apply to the diorama as lumps and patches of grass away from heavily trafficked surfaces.

Diorama Tips Add To The Scene

Diorama In A Circle

I realize I can't hold a candle to the modeling talents of my readers and in particular those involved in Fine Scale Miniature structure models.

Many of these kits range in price from $250 to $500 or $600, not something I can easily slip into my modeling budget.

Planning a diorama takes into account a lot more than an assessment of your existing completed models that happen to fit the same scale. First, you need a concept, a central idea for the diorama’s creation, how and where it is to be displayed and if you have the available space. About this time, you want to come up with a theme that will allow you to put in days, even weeks to complete your miniature scene.

Once you have nailed down the space requirement and have formatted an idea of how you want to present its theme, it is time to come up with the models you will use and map out the scene.

So how does this fit real life? Funny you should ask because I just started my latest diorama and the planning is still fresh in my mind. I wanted something different. Maybe not original, but something not easily Googled.

Google “Lazy Susan Diorama” and you won’t come up with 100 hits, not even 25. I have a small space which provides only one viewing angle, so being able to spin the base makes sense.

I chose for my subject, “The Other Side of the Tracks” to help remind myself and others who happen to view this scene that there is a harmony to be found that allows for education and understanding by dignifying those who are perhaps at their worst, yet have learned to cope.

“There but for the Grace of God…”

Another element of my project involves design. A lazy susan diorama doesn’t have a back where to can stash you mistakes. It has to make sense when viewed from any angle. That brings into play a design maxim I had almost forgotten, “Think in terms of three”.

Taking in the scene as a whole, there needs to be a sense of order other than modeling three buildings and calling them one, two and three. There needs to be a pecking order which allows the viewer to get a sense of poverty without having to tour a slum area.

Make The Plan Your Best Effort

Another element of my project involves design. A lazy susan diorama doesn’t have a back where to can stash you mistakes. It has to make sense when viewed from any angle. That brings into play a design maxim I had almost forgotten, “Think in terms of three”.


Remember, the poor and needy are not helpless, the Lord takes thought(of them) and plans for them. Psalm 40:17

Theimpact of volunteerism in slum town

Lifein an alley between a bar and a pool hall

These are three messages I wish to convey with my diorama without having to print out signs.

It is certainly strange the writing of this article would coincide with the tremendous crisis taking place in Japan.

I have been struck, not so much by the tragic scenes unfolding, but the unfaltering good will and hope expressed by the Japanese people sharing their food with others (even those more fortunate then themselves) and the complete lack of looting and vandalism in the face of catastrophe.

There are three primary directions to consider: vertical, horizontal and front to back. They constantly change as the diorama is spun.

The diorama must visually relate to all such differing aspects at the same time. Having built a number of structures for model railroad layouts, I am well aware of the importance of rooftop detail. Since it is the first part of a structure model seen and the one that creates a lasting impression, the rooftop must be considered a main focal point.

It is here I have learned to use my imagination and come up with unique ideas you won't find in every kit. They releate specifically to the life of the scene and make use of material from my junk box.

As a case in point, I built the Downtown Deco “Rescue Mission” as one of three structures for the lazy susan with particular attention to the rooftop. In addition to the almost expected roof access hutch and a pigeon coop, there is a rooftop garden where Mission volunteers can grow vegetables.

The back of the Mission building is overgrown with ivy running up the wall. Nearby is a homeless woman with a possession-laden grocery cart.

I was hoping to have the diorama finished by mid-March, but as always, “the best plans of men, how often gang aft agley. In other words, no matter how well you plan a project “stuff happens”. Relax and get over it, it isn’t the end of the world…yet.


SBI! Proof