Articles - Modeling Water
06/18/2017
For modeling water, I have always started off with a flat base of a sheet of plywood or foam board. This I paint to both seal the surface from any moisture, and to make it look like the water I want. I usually do the scenery around the river or creek first, so that any glue spills can be cleaned up more easily, and to avoid dulling or damaging the water surface.

Deep River Modeling

There are basically two styles of water-modeling that I've done, deep-river and shallow-creek. We'll look at the deep river modeling first. A deep river shows very little of the bottom of the river. The water is either too deep to reflect any light from the materials at its bottom, or the space above the river is blocking light from reaching the river. Water, in and of itself, has no color. It simply reflects the color of its surroundings. So, these types of water scenarios are easy to model. You paint the flat surface with a black, dark green, dark blue, or a combination of those colors. I usually use artists acrylic paint you can find at an arts-and-crafts store. Nothing too fancy. I paint it with a hand brush, and in the direction of the flow of the water, so that any brush marks that remain can be justified as water flowing.
Modeling Water
When I am happy with the color, I apply one or more coats of a gloss medium. Again, these can be bought at any store that sells artists supplies. They are available in gloss (shiny) and matte (dull). They are used to enhance or protect a painting the artist has painted. They go on white, as shown in this photo, but they dry completely clear.
Modeling Water
The advantage of using a gloss medium is that you can apply it with some vertical texture. It is a thick, paste-like material. I usually do that with a flat or round brush (1/2" or bigger), and stipple the material on to the river. If you want the waves to go in a particular direction, stipple them such that you are "pushing" it in the direction of the water flow. If it is a still body of water (a lake, for example), you can just do a random stippling. The material will settle a little bit, but not much. This leaves subtle waves. As can be seen in this photo, the painting I did under the "water" shines through once the material dries up.
Modeling Water
This photo taken straight down, shows the effect of painting shallower sandy areas in the "dead space" of a river's flow. This makes it look like the river is very deep, while in reality, it is only a very small fraction of an inch thick.
Modeling Water
A very large body of water can be modeled that way, as shown here in my 2003 N-scale layout. Stippling two layers of this large river took many hours.
Modeling Water
Here is another example of modeling a deeper creek, where some rocks and things are visible above or near the water's top surface. Again, I painted the plywood black.
Modeling Water
Things that I wanted to appear above the water surface were glued to the painted layer.
Modeling Water
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Here are some rocks that have collected near the center of the creek, with even a small crate washed up on there. The white you see on the painted surface was the dried-up white glue mixture that I sprayed on the rocks to glue them in place. Some of it got on the painted surface and then dried to this white color. It went away when I poured the Envirotex over it.
Modeling Water
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To give the illusion of depth, I use Envirotex Lite. This is a two-part epoxy that dries to a translucent clear, hard layer. There are other products on the market that all provide a slightly different variation on the theme, but they all do just about the same thing. In the photo below, note how the epoxy crept up on the vertical surfaces. This bothers some people, but it doesn't bother me at all. To me it gives the impression that the rocks are wet. I took this photo right after the pour. My tips about using Envirotex are as follows:

Mixing the two parts equally is important. You don't have to be laboratory-accurate, but its needs to be close. Too much resin and not enough hardener, and you will be waiting for many, many weeks for it to cure!

It seeks a perfectly, level-flat surface, so make sure your layout/diorama is flat, unless you want the water to at a slope when it has cured.

Initially, it flows like water, so it will find every single hole, crack, or imperfection in your layout's surface, and drain through it. On the positive side of this effect is that you don't have to pour it or push it everywhere that you want it to go eventually; it will find its way around the rocks, vegetation, etc. that you "planted".

Immediately after pouring, you will see a handful of bubbles. As the curing continues, the bubbles will increase. You may get overwhelmed, especially if you are doing a large area, but eventually they will lessen. You can ignore the bubbles, because most will eventually pop, but since you don't know which part of the epoxy is about to cure, if you don't do anything, you will be left with permanent bubbles. So, pouring epoxy is not something you want to do and then not have the time to monitor the bubbles from time to time. Allow at least four hours of monitoring time. Don't do this before going to bed; do it in the morning or early afternoon and you are going to be home the rest of the day.

Blowing carbon-dioxide over the surface magically makes the bubbles rise to the surface and pop. The epoxy will then fill in the hole left by the bubble. Carbon-dioxide can come from you exhaling it over the layout (doing this for a large surface, or very often will leave you light-headed; be sure to do the inhaling away from the curing Envirotex, because it smells), or from using a small butane or propane torch and aiming it horizontally over the surface (make sure not to catch any of your surrounding scenery on fire!). Be careful, also, to not burn the epoxy. I have seen someone on YouTube using a barbeque starter lighter, but I have not tried that myself.
Modeling Water
Virtually no water surface is as perfectly smooth as the Envirotex surface, so you are going to want to add something that gives a ripple or wave shape. If you try to make ripples in the epoxy, it will flatten out to a smooth surface, unless you can time it just right before the epoxy actually hardens. But since that can take many, many hours (usually overnight has been my experience), you would have to baby-sit this curing process, and who has the patience to do that! In the photo below, I used Modge Podge Gloss to create some subtle waves. Like the acrylic gloss medium mentioned above, it goes on white, but dries clear. A good amount of it had already cured by the time I got around to taking this photo.
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The result is shown in this photo. There were two problems with this. First, I applied the wave-direction in the wrong direction. This creek, in the real world, as modeled on my layout, flows from the left (this photo) to the right (previous photo), but I applied it backwards. This was a valuable lesson learned.
Modeling Water
Second, although others claim success with Modge Podge, for me the final layer grew dull over time. Washing it, and eventually waxing it, made no difference. I then applied a new coat of Modge Podge, which, of course, got it nice and shiny again. However, the same thing happened over time. So, I don't recommend using this material as your final layer. I had no such problem with the acrylic gloss medium. It would get dusty, but a dust-rag cleaned it right up. The photo below shows the dull creek shortly before I re-worked it (compare it with the photo above).
Modeling Water
In another layout I used foamboard, painted it, and then applied two or more layers of Modge Podge for the shiny water surface. However, again, I experienced the final layer becoming dull. Also, I experienced the foam out-gassing, because tiny bubbles started appearing all over just under the Modge Podge layer.
Modeling Water

Shallow Creek Modeling

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To model a shallow creek, the idea is that everything, down to the bottom of the creek, is visible. In the photo below, you can see that I have covered the entire creek bottom with all different types of small rocks, even down to fine ballast. The lesson I learned from this is, make sure that everything is firmly glued down, and then when you are happy with it all, thoroughly vacuum the area.
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The depth of the water is now determined by the number of layers of epoxy you are going to pour onto this surface. Most of these types of water-modeling epoxies will not cure properly if the layer is too thick (no more than 1/8"), but when they cure, the layer separation will not be visible. So, you can apply as many layers as you wish; just make sure that each layer is thoroughly cured (for Envirotex, I would give it at least a week, depending on how well you measured and mixed the ratio between the two parts). Some people have used dyes to color the epoxy, but I have not yet dared to do that. If it doesn't go right, it would be a big mess to start over again, or you'd have to build a new creek on top of the old one.
Modeling Water
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Several months of layout construction have put a nice layer of dust on the flat epoxy layer of the creek, as is clearly visible in this shot. The reason why I show this photo is that from the moment the epoxy has cured, you are forever then going to be fighting dust. Just make sure that you build the surrounding scenery such that you can get a dust-rag, vacuum-cleaner, or some other dust-removing device into the area, otherwise you are going to wind up with photos that look like this.
Modeling Water
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To simulate the waves and ripples in the creek's water, I, again, used the Liquitex Gloss Gel medium. It is much more expensive than Modge Podge, but based on my experience, it is worth it. If you model in O-scale or larger, you may want to consider their Gloss Super Heavy Gel, which allows you to make even taller waves or ripples. Troels Kirk's video, linked to on the right, is a great example of using that material.
Modeling Water
Since this is modeled in S-scale, I decided to make the waves much bigger (by using more gel with each brush stipple) than the N-scale version shown near the top of this page. As before, shortly after having completed the stippling work, the waves appear as an opaque white.
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Once it dried, it looked a lot more like a rippling small creek.
Modeling Water