Monday, January 7, 2019

Modeling Monday: Using Real Dirt for Scenery??

Way back when I didn't know "so much" about model railroading (i.e. I didn't know any better...), I took a tip from Dave Frary's scenery book (1st ed) and got myself a can of baseball diamond dirt to use as - you guessed it - "dirt" for my layout. I think he recommended it since it's relatively free from anything other than dirt (little/no twigs, grass, etc) and is relatively fine. I don't think I bothered - or even knew to bother - cooking it, straining it, or demagnetizing it. I just used it on the layout and it looked great to me at the time.

One of the things I liked best about it was its variety of color. Unlike ground foam - or even the dirt you can get from some scenery companies - which is all one uniform color, real dirt has that certain something - ever so slight distinctions of color that make it look really real, and not like paint-by-the-numbers.

So, I figured I'd get myself a can of dirt from my yard. It's certainly "prototypically correct" in that it's taken right from the vicinity of the Valley Line.

And now that I've become more "sophisticated" in the hobby, I knew I needed to cook the dirt to get it perfectly dry and to rid it of any organisms or other critters. So I got a couple old baking pans, poured the can of dirt in, spread it around evenly, and baked it at 350 degrees for one hour, stirring it at the 30 minute mark.

Then, I sifted it through 3 grades of strainers. When all that was done, here's what I ended up with:

Should be self-evident, but the lower left is what all didn't fall through the first strainer (I'd added some rock to the can of soil I'd collected as well). Then clockwise from there are the different grades of dirt I ended up with.

There certainly didn't seem to be anything magnetic about the dirt, but I got a magnet anyway out of curiosity fully expecting nothing to stick.

I tossed the magnet into the finest grade container and, well, as you can see, there's definitely some ferrous material there. Even more surprisingly (to me, anyway) were the cool lines it formed into.

Ugh. Definitely wouldn't want any of that to end up in my motors!

But at least as much a concern as the magnetic particles is how out of scale it all seems:

Of course, "scale" depends on what you're using the material to represent. The above photo is the second-finest dirt. To my eye, it looked like super-fine, almost N scale, ballast. But put an HO figure on it and all-of-a-sudden it looks like a large pile of rocks. Ok if that's what you want - not for a dirt path or road though.

But really disappointing was the "finest" dirt. This is the stuff that looks almost like powder to my eye. Then you put the milkman in . . .

Ok for a gravel path, but certainly not for a dirt path.

Even if I didn't have these concerns, I worry about how this dirt will react to any glue/water mix. The old dirt I used years ago seemed a bit sandier and I just spread it on wet latex paint. Worked fine. But I'm afraid this stuff may turn to mud - or permanently darken, which would also be bad.

So I dunno what to do. Do YOU use real dirt for scenery?

If so, what do you do differently? Maybe I need finer strainers (though the resulting dust would probably dissolve with water, no?)

If not, what do you use to represent dirt - and how do you get that nice varied color & texture that makes it look so "right?

Please weigh in in the comments - even if only to accuse me of making this too complicated. It wouldn't be the first time I ever heard that :^)


  1. Don't worry too much about the magnetic particles. As long as you secure it with glue, it won't get attracted to your engine motors (or anything else). If you are really concerned, after you have secured it run a magnet down your track line and it will pull any unsecured magnetic particles that could reach your motors.

  2. You can also place finer grades of sifted dirt into an old bread pan and throw it on a low flame grill to kill any unwanted and unseen guests. I then let the temperature rise to around 300-400 degrees. It will and does affect the color by darkening it to some degree, but if you are looking for a darker shade, it is just the ticket. Use an old bread pan or an aluminum disposable container type that isn't a family heirloom or the like though. I then mix it with Highball or Arizona Rock materials to represent branchline sidings and access roads.

  3. Ive been seeing a lot on this during my research for my upcoming layout. The ones Ive seen say the final sifting is thru womens pantyhose stretched over the opening. That gets the dirt that goes down as a base scenery layer. Its basically dust powder from what Ive seen in videos.