Let’s Make the Water Move

One of the questions I get asked most when people see my layout or pictures of it is “How do you make the water look like it’s moving”?

It’s really a simple process that anyone can do with the right equipment: paint and varnish. This scene is the Mississippi River between Memphis and Arkansas on my Bluff City Southern.

Making Waves

You can see from this shot that the water is not smooth because this is my representation of the Mississippi River, which is constantly flowing south. First, I start with a flat surface, either plywood or Styrofoam. I then coat it with plaster so it is not smooth. I put in rises and falls for waves, and then sand everything down after the plaster dries if there is too much variation in height. The sanding results in little pockets that will stain differently that the raised portions. By using various shades of earth colored acrylic paint (raw umber, burnt umber and raw sienna) there is a pleasant variation in color. You will notice that there is no constant shading thus causing the still plaster to appear to move. The real secret here is that variations in height and color.

This picture shows the importance of the “wave” action that gives the impression of a free flowing body of water. After the paint and staining, I coat the water with two coats of polyurethane varnish. I prefer this to casting resin or the commercially available water mixes. The varnish is easy to apply and will not run like resin, it dries hard as a rock and is impervious to spills. It’s also easy to clean!

Casting Removable Objects

Here is a way to cast in spots for removable objects. I cover the boat or dock with plastic wrap and build the plaster up and around it. Let the boat sit in the plaster until it hardens and it can be removed for cleaning.

This is what the boat space looks like after everything solidifies. Notice how I have created the look of a wake and waves around the boat. This is just more plaster painted white and then coated with the polyurethane varnish.

You can also paint a little varnish on the hulls of the boats to add to the illusion of moving wet water.

I wrapped this dock and boat in plastic and built up the “waves” around them. You can see that the plaster coatings are only about 1/6 to 1/8 of an inch in height. Now the dock is removable.


On another section of the layout at Friars Point, Mississippi, this barge is getting unloaded at Harris Stave.

For a swamp there is no need to have as much wave action. As you can see here, a little bit of wavy water looks good.

Here is another variation for your water. This flowing river is not as active as the Mississippi River. Notice how the elongated waves add to the feeling of motion.

On a small lake there is no need to have lots of motion, but a little bit certainly looks good. The best way to learn about doing this is to practice. Remember you can always re-plaster and repaint if things don’t turn out right. Mainly have fun!

You might also be interested in:

Making Model Train Scenery Water with Plaster
Tips for Touching Up Model Railroad Scenery Water
Making Lily Pads for Model Railroad Water Scenes
Model Train Water Grasses: Making Cattails for Your Lakes

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23 Responses to “Let’s Make the Water Move”

  1. Bill Ruth

    Thank you. Alan Keller is one of the premier model railroad instructors. I learned some things to add to my layout at a later date

  2. David long

    Really interesting way of doing this. I am at the point to making water . Thanks

  3. Chris Trueblood

    Grandson’s love trains and your river was awesome. Can’t wait to try my hand at doing something.

  4. Bernard Gould

    Most common error in marine scenes is to put a pier in the center of a truss bridge. Unless it is a swing bridge, no truss ever built had a support pier under the bridge body,

  5. Larrry Hauger

    Beautifully done. I have made the Washington monument, Stone Henge, Easter island, and the St. Louis arch. Have plans to do more. Don’t have train set up yet.

  6. Larry

    This the best concerning water I’ve seen. Many thanks for your clear and “colorful” instructions.

  7. Howard

    Hey, thanks, Use the commercial water. I like this. Nothing to buy. All in the shop or kitchen.

  8. Dave Mclaughlin

    The information is great and needed because I plan on making water Sean with fishing boats the bigger ones being unloaded by a crane putting the baskets being put on trucks and trains Thanks Dave

  9. Naim Ahmed

    This is the best wonderful idea.
    Hope we will be in touch for this type of landscape
    Thank you

  10. Ralph Ortegon

    Hey model railroader. Your water moving articles were Outstanding! I’ve been searching for ideas on “water movement” for sometime. Your techniques are very authentic and realistic. The creating of movement, particularly water and other liquids, takes creativity and patience.
    Now just imagine, water running down the side of a water tank, (for example). Or, oil or diesel fuel in a liquid state, say in barrels, buckets etc.

    Thanks for the ideas and information on the subject. I plan to having several water, a water fall system, river, streams a pond, and a lake. My focus will be on water on a natural source to a small town in a 1940’s rural setting.

    Ralph O.

  11. Robert Brady

    when i build my new layout it will run along the Hudson river in the hudson valley from the Statue of liberty to Croton on the Hudson,4 track 2 south bound 2 north bound.

    • Albert

      Ah, the ol’ Water Level Route! Would love to see photos during the build and after completion – hint: if you’re going to model Manhattan’s West Side you must include operations on the old High Line when it was actively serving meat packers, warehouses, and of course National Biscuit Company. Statue of Liberty? That’s awfully far from the rails alongside the Hudson, much closer to the now-gone terminals and yards on the New Jersey waterfront. It would be nice to see someone model CNJ’s Communipaw Terminal.

      • Jose rodriguez

        That Highline actually led into The Morgan Post Office on 31st st. I’ve just retired last year from there as Supervisor and now am a Model Railroad buff!