Modeling Roads

Even though they represent the railroads’ competition, roads are still an important part of most model railroads’ scenery. Making roads is not too difficult. We’ll be building off of some of the same techniques we’ve used in the past two artcles.

Making a Foundation

contouring road

Using end and center marks as a guide, a gentle and prototypical pitch for our road can be filed into the foam.

Start by creating a base for the road. Roads are engineered with a crown in the center to drain water to the shoulders. This is easy to create on the foam base we created two weeks ago. Mark the outer edge and center line of the road for a reference and use a rasp to gently taper the base towards the shoulders. Nothing too scientific here – there will be lots of opportunity for corrections later. Vacuum the road completely before moving on – you don’t want little foam bits in your road!


Next we’ll pave the surface. Mix a batch of drywall joint compound as was done last week for the rocks. You’ll want a fairly thick, pudding-like mixture that is easy to spread but make sure you get all of the lumps out. In my own experience, I find that the premixed compound can be used but has too high of a moisture content and often ends up shrinking and cracking. The dry compound is also much easier to store if you go a long stretch between projects.

Paving Road

Smooth drywall mud on the road surface. Take care to get the road as smooth as practical with a putty knife.

Spread a smooth layer across the foam base. The first coat will seal the foam and establish the look. For a thicker road, or to provide a more pronounced crown, build up the surface with a second layer. When applying additional layers, allow the previous coat to dry completely then vacuum to make sure there are no dust or chips that will cause problems with the next coat.

Spread the plaster with a putty knife, drawing it to as smooth a surface as possible. It does not have to be perfect – we’ll take care of any small blemishes next – but the better you make it now the less work you’ll have to do later.

Smoothing and Cracking

smoothing roads

Smooth the road to its final contour with a sponge. The crown of the road can be seen in this view.

Use a damp sponge to wipe down the road and begin smoothing any rough spots from the putty knife. This will allow you to finalize the contours and create a perfect road surface for painting. Rinse the sponge regularly as it picks up the mud. The sponge should only be damp – not wet. You don’t want to flood the surface. Allow for adequate drying time before going forward with details and painting.

Now that the road is “perfect” maybe you want to make it a little less so? If you want to add cracks or potholes, use a hobby knife to carve the details in the dried plaster. These details may be harder to spot in the unpainted road, but they will jump out as we add paint washes. Be careful not to overdo it!

Paint and Weathering

As we did with the rocks, we’ll color our road with thin washes of acrylic paints. The color of roads can vary greatly depending on materials, location, climate, age, season and traffic. For this road I used a mix of about four parts gray to one part tan. Thin the colors greatly and build up the color with multiple coats to your liking.


With multiple washes of color and weathering the road takes color and the details carved in earlier begin to pop. No two roads are the same, so pictures are always helpful when modeling.

Next we’ll add a thin wash of black. This will bring out the details carved in earlier. You can also strategically place the black to mimic traffic wear. For additional effects, weathering chalk or powders can be rubbed into the surface. You can find these chalks at most hobby and craft stores – we’ll cover some of their other uses in coming projects. Remember that this road surface is very porous, so a little chalk will go a long way. Also, make sure the road is dry first!

You can also add patches of fresh(er) asphalt or concrete with darker or lighter colors. Use a fine brush to draw lines along patched cracks or to outline a larger patch with sealant.



Even the steadiest of hands will have a hard time painting believable lines freehand. Masking will yield much more reliable results. Consult photos for the right markings for your locale and era.

To add lines and other markings mask both sides of the line with tape, keeping the spacing constant. Use a foam brush to dab on the paint. Dab the paint straight down and try to avoid pushing paint under the tape. Dry transfer or decal striping could also be used. Note: if you are modeling a fresh black asphalt road, you can paint the striping first and then simply lay a single strip of tape. Paint the road and remove the tape and you’ll have your lines. Yellow will bleed through lighter colors however.

Apply any additional weathering as desired and all you’re missing is some traffic!

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