Miniature Dioramas
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How To Create


How To Create Miniature Dioramas

I’ve created miniature dioramas for over two decades and have developed my own techniques by trial and error.  I’ve always admired realistic dioramas which relayed stories and sentiments but have never really investigated how they are created.  There are likely many, and perhaps, better methods to perform some steps in creating miniature dioramas, but I rely on what has been tried and true for me which is described here.

Since I have never sold a non-commissioned piece, I use economical techniques.  I’ve found that most of my dioramas can be created from fairly simple and easily procured materials.



Dioramas can be fairly simple or complex depending on the story I’m trying to relay.  One of my favorite dioramas is my 2009 creation - "And Then There Were Two".  The sentiment I wanted to express required a large brick building as a backdrop.  The complex architecture presented some interesting fabrication challenges.   Even though this diorama was not simple to fabricate, I’ll use it to describe the processes I follow to create emotionally moving miniature dioramas.

Note:  Most of the photos were taken during the fabrication of this diorama.  Some, however, were taken during the creation of other dioramas to help demonstrate the described technique.

WHAT COMES FIRST - THE BACKDROP OR THE FIGURES?

I usually begin the process of creating a diorama from one of two perspectives.  I either start with an interesting architectural backdrop and create a story around it.  Or I begin with a particular sentiment I wish to convey and develop a backdrop to help tell the story.  Either way, the backdrop will set the stage for the action provided by the figures. 

Interestingly, even though over 95% of the time it takes to create the diorama is invested in the backdrop, the story is primarily told by the figures which take less than 5% of the development time.  If the backdrop is not created true to scale or is not enhanced with enough detail, however, the viewer will likely not experience the full impact of the sentiment I wish to portray.


"Movement in 'B' Flat" - 2008



THE IMPORTANCE OF FIGURES
Figures in a diorama are very important. My initial attempt to create a diorama – "Spring at Aunt Hattie’s Cottage" (1991) – was a small endeavor devoid of figures. The cottage was fun to create and there was a story there, but it required text to get that story across. I quickly realized that viewers are drawn to figures and action which can tell the story often without the assistance of accompanying text. I, however, continue to add text to each diorama to embellish it and “help” the less perceptive viewer understand the story – at least the story from my perspective.





"The Discovery" - 1993 

Adding leaves to trees is still challenging.  Fall scenes are easiest as I now use a small leaf punch to create the colored leaves. But I do not use colored construction paper.  I use regular copier paper but paint both sides first.  The painted paper does not fade like the construction paper plus I can create whatever color of leaves I wish.  I can paint bright yellows, oranges and reds for early fall leaves or, in the case of this diorama, paint the leaves dark shades of brown and gray to resemble winter leaves. 


"Spring at Aunt Hattie's Cottage" - 1991

My second diorama – "Victor Falls Station #1" (1992) – had an interesting architectural backdrop (an old fire station) but this time I included figures which helped to tell the story.  Even though the figures were a bit primitive, it was immediately obvious that they were the focal points and greatly enhanced the diorama.  From that point on, I’ve always included figures in every diorama.


"Victor Falls - Station #1" - 1992

THE SENTIMENT
The desire to express an interesting and moving sentiment helps guide the creation of the diorama and makes it memorable.  I have thought about some dioramas for months or even years before actually creating them.  In the diorama used as an example here - "And Then There Were Two" – I wanted to recognize the life-long camaraderie developed by WWII veterans who have faced unimaginable atrocities during WWII.  I also wanted to emphasize the fact that most of these veterans are now quite old, neglected and have often been forgotten.  To dramatize this point, the diorama portrays two former soldiers meeting, which they have done annually for many years, to celebrate their survival of the infamous Bataan Death March.  Each year, as the welcome board indicates, the event reunites fewer and fewer veterans, until the year these former soldiers discover that they are the last two survivors from their post.

To highlight their isolation and sense of being forgotten, the VFW hall at which the reunion is held, is represented as being equally aged, dark and foreboding.  The landscaping is rough and neglected.  And the pair seems small and diminutive in a cold, impersonal setting.


THE PLAN

Once I’ve decided on the story, the type of backdrop I will use and the basic action of the figure(s), I next sketch out the front elevation view – the face of the structure.  I also draw the plan view (as seen from above).  Sometimes I’ll sketch out the side elevations as well if they are particularly pertinent in telling the story.

 

Then I use my CAD program on my computer to accurately draw and enhance my free-hand sketch.  A computer program is not really necessary; you can also accurately draw the plans by hand – it just takes longer and is more tedious.   CAD creates my drawings in real-life size.  So a building which is 40’ wide and 25’ high is drawn as 40’ wide and 25’ high on the computer.



In the drawing I will include windows, doors and other features adding as much detail as I want the finished diorama to have.  This affords me an excellent idea of what the finished structure will look like.  Since the diorama will only be a façade, meaning basically just the front of a structure, I have to decide where I want to cut off the depth of the structure.  In my case, it’s important to plan the size of the diorama so it is manageable for moving and storing purposes.  The scale of the diorama helps to control the size.

My first few dioramas were created at a scale of 1:12 (1”on the diorama = 12” in real life or 1” scale). This is fine for small structures.  But for larger structures, the finished diorama, at this scale, is just too big and cumbersome.  Once I realized this, I dropped my working scale down to the less common scale of 1:16 (1” on the diorama = 16” in real life or ¾” scale.)  At this scale, I can create a larger structure which is often necessary to properly “tell” the story.  And at the smaller ¾” scale, I can still create clay figures with some degree of realism.

 
Again, I have to always be cognizant of the depth of the structure  – where do I cut it off?  Stopping at the ridge of the roof is an convenient place, but sometimes that is too deep.  If there is significant action taking place in the area in front of the structure, I have to allow more room and, therefore, must reduce the depth of the façade even more.  Over the years, my dioramas have averaged approximately 40” wide by 22” deep.  With this size, I feel I can include a backdrop large enough to adequately set the scene.  But at this size it does require two people to move the diorama.  It’s not so much the weight, but the bulky size.

"Stehekin" - 1998

WORKING FROM SCALE DRAWINGS
With the design completed in the CAD program, I have one more step I take which makes it immensely easier to fabricate the diorama.  I reduce the CAD “life size” drawing down to the actual size of the diorama.  To accomplish this, I reduce the drawing to 1/16 of its life size, which, on the CAD program is to reduce it to .0625 (1/16) of the real life size.  So if a structure is 40’ wide in life size, I multiply 40’ (480”) X .0625 and the scaled down width is then 2.5’ or 30” wide.  If a window is 36” wide, I multiply 36 X .0625 and the scaled down width is then 2-1/4” wide.  This is easily done on CAD because as you perform the scale function, all the components of the structure are reduced simultaneously and the new dimensions are right there to use.  With this step completed, I now have a set of actual-size plans with dimensions and I’m ready for the initial phase of fabrication – the base and structural walls.

 
SUPPORT STRUCTURE
With my plan in hand, I know how large the base is, what the dimensions are and the shapes of the walls.  The finish surface of the diorama is typically created from balsa wood but balsa wood is too fragile to support the entire diorama which is why the supports for the walls and the base are made of a more durable material.  Over the years I have tried various materials for this aspect of the fabrication.  I tend to favor using ½” medium density fiberboard (mdf).  It is relatively lightweight, durable and easy to work.



Once I have measured out the various pieces which will make up the support structure for the walls of the diorama, I cut the base and wall structural pieces on the table saw.  A simple building is typically made of three structural pieces – the front and both sides – forming a “U” shape.  This particular diorama is more complex.   I designed a recessed entry flanked by two angled walls. 


With the wall pieces cut, I temporarily screw them together being sure to keep them square.  The two side pieces butt against the rear of the front piece when I assemble them.  I usually add a support piece at the rear of the “U” shaped building to keep the two side walls square all around. 



MARK THE OPENINGS
This is now a good time to draw the location of the openings, such as windows and doors, onto the structural pieces.  Since I use simple butt joints to join the two side walls to the front wall, I must to be cognizant of the thickness (1/2”) of the structural pieces so I locate my openings correctly.  If the wall pieces were not screwed together, I may make a mistake properly locating the openings.



When laying out the openings with the wall pieces screwed together, I may need to make an adjustment or shift the opening a bit which will leave superfluous markings on the structural pieces.  So as not be confused, I take one extra precaution when laying out the openings and just before cutting; I draw an “X” from corner to corner of each opening. This assures that when I am cutting the openings, I cut the correct marks.  Again, the CAD drawing of the actual size of the diorama will tell me exactly where these openings are located on the structural pieces.

CUT THE OPENINGS
Now I must cut out the openings marked on the structural pieces.  It is easier to do this if I unscrew the assembled walls and work on each piece individually.  Because I will line the inside edges of the rough window and door openings with balsa wood to replicate either wood, brick or stone on the finished diorama, I overcut the size of all the openings in the ½” structural pieces.  So a window which measures 2” wide by 4” high will usually be cut 1/8” wider all around – or 2-1/4” x 4-1/4”.  If I plan on a brick or stone face on the diorama, I typically oversize the openings by 3/16” all around.  So the same window mentioned above will be cut to 2-3/8” x 4-3/8”.

First I drill a 5/16” hole centered on each of the four corners of the openings.  Openings which are shaped other than rectangular will require more planning on how to cut them out.  This diorama included some rounded windows.  I found it best to use a hole saw to cut them more accurately and uniformly.

After the holes are drilled, I use a saber saw to carefully cut out the windows.  If you are worried about the final weight of the diorama, keep in mind that the more windows and doors there are in the diorama, the more structural wood you cut out and, hence, the lighter weight it will ultimately be.  I typically like lots of windows in a diorama anyway because they add interesting character. 


 
With all the openings cut out, I sand all the structural pieces.  Now that the base and wall supports are cut to size, I position them on the base and temporarily attach them with screws.  The easy and accurate way to do this is to position the assembled walls, trace the walls on the base with a pencil, remove the walls, and drill over-sized holes through the base (from the topside).  Re-position the walls on the base and, from below, drill a pilot hole through the over-sized holes up into the structural walls.  Then screw them together; I typically use an 1-1/4” x #8 flathead screw.  Once together, I then disassemble the wall unit from the base and I set the base aside for the time being. 


 
EXTERIOR WALL FINISH

Almost any outside wall finish is exciting to create.  I particularly enjoy creating wood siding, brick and stone.  Each of these finishes gives the diorama great “shadow potential.”   My term - shadow potential – refers to how realistic a diorama looks by the shadows it casts when placed in natural sunlight.  The rougher the surface texture is, the more dramatic the shadows are.  Of course, the surface texture has to be realistic – what you would expect to see in a building.

 

"Movement In 'B' Flat" - 2008

 "Comfortable Habits" - 2008

Many people ask me how I create realistic brick walls; I even created a small diorama to demonstrate, in sequential steps, my method for creating brick walls.  The following section will discuss this method.

brick wall demonstration diorama - 2010


CREATING BRICK WALLS - TRIAL AND ERROR
The first time I tried to create brick walls – "Victor Falls – Station #1" (1992) I tried a method which turned out to be unwise, but in so doing, I learned a valuable fabrication lesson.  The initial method I tried was to smear a heavy coat (~1/8” thick) of wood putty onto the structural walls, smooth it out somewhat, then etch and carve the individual bricks.  The putty dried way too quickly not allowing me much time to both mark and carve the bricks.  When the putty dried too much, I began breaking off bricks as I tried to carve them.  I assumed I was ruining the diorama and was quite frustrated. Then it suddenly dawned on me that broken and missing bricks are normal in aged and weathered buildings.  So my first method of creating a brick wall was not good but if I hadn’t made that error, I may never have realized the importance of broken and missing bricks.

When I embarked on my next diorama which included brick walls, "St. Clements" (1996), I made two dramatic changes.  One was the scale; I dropped down to the less common scale of 1:16 from 1:12.  And I used a whole new method of carving bricks. 

What I needed was time.  I did not want to be a slave to quick drying wood putty which forced me to mark and then carve bricks very fast.  When the putty begins to dry too much, you have to scrape it off, mix more, apply it and quickly try to mark and carve more bricks.  So I came up with the following method. 


"St. Clements" - 1996

To be sure that I have plenty of time to mark and carve brickwork, which can sometimes be quite intricate, I decided that wood putty could not be used.  The only material left with which I was familiar was balsa wood.  I knew I could mark and carve it taking all the time I wanted.  When I first tried this method, I wasn’t sure how it would look, but I was quite pleased and have used the exact same method ever since for both brick and stone wall finishes.

MY METHOD TO CREATE BRICK WALLS
I first need to be sure how I want my brick wall finish to look.  I achieve this on my CAD drawings.  Builders of old brick buildings utilized and placed bricks, stone blocks and concrete beams in very artistic ways – unlike most of today’s masonry structures.  The use of stone and concrete beams and lintels, brick arches over windows and doors and varying depths of bricks in a wall are just a few of the myriad ways architects create excitement in a brick wall.  Once I know how I want the brick and beam components to look, as produced on my CAD drawings, I begin the fabrication.

LINING THE OPENINGS WITH BALSA WOOD
With the structural wall pieces glued and screwed together (typically forming a “U”), I cut 3/16” balsa wood and line the inside edges of all the openings – both windows and doors.  I always want to glue the balsa wood so the grain is running horizontally.  This will make it easier to carve bricks later.  Since my structural pieces are ½” thick, I make the balsa wood pieces about 5/8” thick so a little balsa wood is sticking out on either side of each opening in the structural piece.



If I have an arch in the top of the window or door opening, I must also line it with balsa wood.  Sometimes I can bend 3/16” balsa wood to form the arch.  I have found that some pieces of balsa wood are more easily bendable than others.  If I try to form it into the arch and the balsa wood snaps, either due to the type of balsa wood or the tight radius of the arch, there is another method to use.  I often glue together 3 pieces of 1/16” balsa wood to obtain the 3/16” thickness.  Before the glue dries, this laminated piece of balsa wood can easily be shaped snuggly into the arch without snapping.

When lining the inside of the openings I use white glue to secure the 3/16” balsa wood.  But I also tape the balsa wood in place with blue painter’s tape.  This assures me that the balsa wood will not come loose and develop a gap before the glue dries. 

When the glue dries, I remove the tape.  Then I use 100 grit sandpaper wrapped around a wood block and carefully sand down the surfaces of the balsa wood which are protruding beyond the ½” thick structural pieces.  I am careful not to round off any of the edges of the balsa wood.


LINING THE WALL SURFACES WITH BALSA WOOD
Once all of the openings have been lined with balsa wood and sanded, it’s time to line the surface areas of the rest of the structure.  I prefer to do the side walls first.  Again 3/16” balsa wood is glued onto the structural walls.  It is wise to conserve the balsa wood by lining up to the edges of the openings but not covering the entire openings.  I have done it both ways.  But I have found that after covering all the openings, even though it can be done quickly, cutting the balsa wood out later is rather tedious.

Just as was done with the openings, the balsa wood should extend slightly beyond the openings by 1/16” or so and should extend beyond the side walls toward the front wall that same amount.   Again, the balsa wood sheets should be glued on horizontally.  Painter’s tape should also be used generously to be sure that the balsa wood is secured tightly to the structural wall while the glue dries.  If practical, I may also place a board on top of the drying piece weighted with paint cans so the glued balsa wood dries tightly to the structural surface.

When the glue has dried, the tape can be removed.  Once again, I use sandpaper on a block of wood to sand all the surfaces being very careful to stay flat on the surfaces and not round off any corners.  When sanding, I periodically feel the surface with your fingers to be sure that I do not detect where the edges of the balsa wood pieces meet -  the entire surface area should be smooth and square, including the openings.

Now it’s time to cover the front of the structure with balsa wood.  Proceed just like for the side walls again extending the balsa wood slightly beyond the side walls by 1/16” or so.  Sand all the surfaces again.  The finish surface should feel like once piece with no joints evident other than by sight.

Finally I carefully cut out the window openings and gently sand them down again using the sense of touch to be sure that there are no joints evident.

You may notice that some balsa wood pieces are softer than others and may crumble a little or gouge easily during the gluing and sanding processes.  Don’t let this bother you.  The finish brick in these areas will just appear a bit more weathered than other areas.

ETCHING THE BRICK
The next step is to etch on the brick pattern.  I do this with a ruler, straight edge and pencil.  Using the scale of 1:16, my bricks typically measure 9/16” long by 3/16” high. 



Taking your time with this stage will allow you to be creative as you mark out the beams, lintels and brick patterns.



I mark the beams first, then the brick pattern over the openings.  Next I mark the general brick pattern starting with the horizontal lines – each line at 3/16” intervals.  It is wise to periodically measure from the bottom of the wall to your lines to be sure your lines are of equal height all around the structure and don’t begin to sag.  I used to use a level to make sure the lines are all level, but, if the structure itself is a little out of level, the brick pattern will look askew.  It’s better if the horizontal lines match the base line of the structure even if that base line is not quite level.  Once the horizontal lines are drawn, it’s time to draw the vertical lines indicating the individual bricks. 



Remember that bricks are staggered.  It’s easy, in this monotonous process of drawing each of the numerous vertical brick lines, to inadvertently skip a horizontal line.  Then you end up with brick joints aligning instead of being staggered.  When this happens, you have to go back and find where you when awry and then use a different colored marker to remark the vertical brick joints.  It’s always better to take your time with this stage and mark the bricks correctly the first time.  Believe me, I’ve made this mistake too many time.

Usually a brick building will have portions of the wall protrude out from the brick surface.  It could be the beams, concrete columns or the brick arches over openings.  These protrusions will be addressed after this next step.

 

CARVING THE BRICKS
Now that the walls are marked for beams and bricks, they will look quite interesting and similar to the finished look.  The difference is that the marked lines do not, as yet, have any depth so do not cast shadows.

I use a simple utility knife (some call them box cutters) for carving my brick features.  I started using one and never tried other knives made specifically for hobbyists.   I make two cuts forming a “V” for each line starting with the horizontal lines.  First I align a straight edge along the line, angle my utility knife at about 450 and make my first cut approximately 1/8” deep.  In each horizontal brick line, this is the only cut I make with a straight edge.  Using a straight edge on this first cut makes sure that I am following the line correctly.  With this line cut, I angle the utility knife 450 in the other direction and cut the other side of the “V” cut.  I make this cut free-hand.  Making this cut free-hand rather than with a straight edge creates a cut that is a less than perfect, which will help to give the finished brick wall an aged and weathered appearance.



When all the horizontal lines are cut, I move to the very short vertical lines indicating each individual brick.  I will use the same two-cut “V” technique for these lines but I perform both cuts free-hand.  You need a very sharp utility knife when making these cuts as they run across the grain of the balsa wood while the horizontal cuts ran with the grain.  If your knife is dull or the balsa wood is really soft, you may not be able to make sharp cuts – you may crush the balsa wood instead.  Also when making the vertical cuts, you may gouge or break out a brick.  Again, these “problems” are not a big concern as they will ultimately help to make the building look old.


Once all the brick lines are cut including those bricks on the inside of the openings, I like to take a look at the structure under a bright light – which casts wonderful shadows now – and decide if I need to make the building look even more weathered.  If I feel it needs more weathering, I selectively “knock out” more bricks.  Corners of the building and around openings are good places to do this.  Don’t be too liberal, however; knocking out too many bricks may take away from the realistic look of the building.



When all the brick carving is finished, I take an old tooth brush and brush through all the brick lines to remove any loose pieces of balsa wood.  Often the small pieces from the vertical brick cuts can become lodged in the carved lines and will need some good stiff brushing to remove them.

 
RAISED AND RECESSED FEATURES
Now is the time to add those features which accent the flat brick wall surface.  Raised and recessed features really give the structure a unique sense of depth and character.  These may include the raised bricks in the arches over openings, or it may be the decorative raised “bands” of concrete or stone beams around the building or it can even be the name of the building either incised into stone or raised from the surface.


I frequently add more than one layer to raised features.  This is particularly apropos for the trim work at the top of the building, which is often made up of multiple layers terminating at a wide, flat top over the walls – the crown of the building.  I make my tops as wide as 1-3/4” (almost 30” in life size).  Besides layers of balsa wood, I may also glue on small squares of balsa wood laid out in a pattern, add a horizontal dowel rod or a decorative piece of wood for a different look.  You can be very creative at this stage.  It should be remembered that most concrete or stone beams in buildings are not continuous pieces; they typically are made up of several pieces so joints should be obvious.  Again, I use the simple two-cut “V” technique to make these joints.

DON'T FORGET THE SCUPPER OPENINGS
Many brick buildings have flat roofs.  The wall sections may extend 3 feet or more (in real life) above the roof.  Rainwater accumulation on this flat roof must drain somewhere and a common method is through a scupper – a hole in the outer wall at or below the roof level.  This point in the fabrication of the diorama is a good time to create the scuppers.  I trim out the bricks where the scuppers will be located making a square opening and then drill through the remaining  ½” structural support at the level of the flat roof.  I cut out the bricks first because if I drill first, I may accidently tear out bricks by the rotating action of the drill.  I usually locate a scupper on each side wall near the front of the building.  Scuppers offer yet another opportunity to add an interesting detail the diorama.



FOUNDATIONS
Brick buildings have some sort of concrete or stone foundations.  I often add an additional  layer – such as 1/8” balsa wood – to the flat surface at the base of the walls to create the foundation.  A heavy stone block foundation can be created by first etching the stones then using the two-cut “V” technique to simulate joints separating the individual blocks.  If the blocks are stone, I texture each one with a gouge carving tool randomly carving out pieces of the balsa wood to create the irregular surfaces.



CORNERSTONES
Adding a cornerstone to the building foundation is yet another interesting and unique feature which can have the added benefit of being very personalized.  I like cornerstones and have included several in my dioramas over the years.  I often use a combination of names and dates, which have a special meaning to me, to recognize someone special.



At my working scale, 1:16, the text on cornerstones can be really small – way too small to carve by hand.  In 1996, I was creating a diorama – "St. Clements" - an old Catholic church which my family and I had attended for years.  (This diorama, by the way, is my only one which is a true rendition of an actual building.)  I needed to add a cornerstone to be totally authentic.  So I tried an idea which seemed feasible…and turned out to be perfect for my needs.  I used a reverse rubber stamp.

First I decide how big the cornerstone is to be then create text to fit inside that size.  I do this on my computer CAD program, print it out and see if it looks readable.  I always add a border around the text.  Cornerstones typically do not have a lot of information on them so the text and numbers are often no less than 2” high in life size.


"St. Clements" - 1996 

Next I take the text to a company which produces rubber stamps.  Don’t make the same mistake I did my first time!  Be sure the company knows you want the stamp to read in reverse.  In other words, when you look at the finished stamp, the text appears normal.  If you look at a normal rubber stamp, the image is reversed so it looks correct when you stamp it.  My first and only error cost me over $17 which was a lot at a time when I wasn’t making any money on dioramas.

I then cut out an opening in the foundation balsa wood – right down to the ½” structural wall support – in which to recess the “rubber stamp” cornerstone.  Simply glue the rubber stamp into the opening and finish it like I do the rest of the all and I have an interesting cornerstone…with special meaning.
 

LET'S MAKE IT LOOK LIKE BRICK
The preceding steps can take a long time to accomplish but when completed, the diorama looks fantastic.  The structural details look quite authentic and the shadows are very realistic.  But the surface is merely soft balsa wood and can be scratched and marred very easily.  The brick joints are also very harsh and crisp.  This next step, however, will change all that.
 

Since I learned everything I know about creating miniature dioramas by trial and error, I don’t know if the following technique is unique to me or whether other miniaturists do the same thing. 

To make the carved balsa wood look more like brick, I mix a slurry of wood putty (I’ve always used Durham’s Rock Hard Water Putty) at about the consistency of a melted milkshake.  I mix an ample quantity to cover the entire brick surface of the building.  I then liberally brush on the wood putty working it in well into the various carved features.  If the putty is too liquid, it tends to run off instead of soaking in.  If it is too thick, it won’t soak in.  And that’s the secret – let it soak into the soft balsa wood.



After the slurry has had a chance to soak in for about 5 – 10 minutes, I use a damp cloth and wipe off the excess.  If you wipe the excess putty off too early, it may not have soaked into the balsa wood very much.  If you wait too long, the putty may dry too much and it will be difficult to wipe off the excess.  I look the diorama over well before I finish with this stage to be sure that all areas have been adequately covered with the wood putty slurry and the excess removed.  I then let it dry.

A few hours later when the slurry has dried, the surface of the diorama will be noticeably harder as the slurry has penetrated the soft balsa wood.  You can still force a finger nail into the surface but not nearly as readily as you could into plain balsa wood.

A quick note is appropriate here.  If you decide that you want more texture and elect to brush on a second slurry coat of wood putty after the first one has dried, you will need to wipe it off very quickly as a coat of wood putty applied over an existing layer of wood putty dries much faster than the original coating over balsa wood.

PAINTING THE BRICK MORTAR JOINTS
Now that the brick finish of the diorama has been hardened following the application of the slurry of wood putty, the next task is painting.  The first step is the easy step - painting the mortar joints.  This is an easy and fast step as I merely paint the entire surface whatever mortar color I wish to use.  I usually choose a shade of gray.  Sometimes I simply spray the entire surface with a gray paint primer.  Other times I use a brushable gray paint.

CREATING INDICATIONS OF SETTLING
Sometimes I like to add an interesting yet not too obvious detail to a brick wall – indications that the building has settled a bit.  If a brick building has suffered some foundation settling, some brick mortar joints in the vicinity of the settling may crack.  Repairs to the mortar are called tuck-pointing, a method in which new mortar is used to repair the cracked mortar.  Frequently the color of the new mortar does not match the original mortar and can be obvious to the careful observer.

To create indications of tuck-pointing repairs, I paint mortar joints, where tuck-pointing has taken place, a different color than the general gray mortar color.  I typically select areas of the brickwork where brick damage is evident to add this subtle feature.  Unlike most steps in painting a diorama, painting the tuck-pointed areas does not have to be very precise.  It’s okay to get some of the paint on the bricks as the next step will be painting the bricks.

PAINTING BRICKS - THE NEVER-ENDING TASK
If you think tediously carving bricks takes a long time, welcome to the next task - painting bricks.  It does take a long time to paint bricks but the finished results are well worth the expended time – plus there’s a good feeling of accomplishment when you’re finished. 

A monochromatic color for a brick building may work in some limited cases, but I typically like to use a blend of colors (4 or 5) to achieve the desired finish.  At one time I thought I’d just mix the various colors I wanted but soon discovered that if I don’t mix the right amount, I have to mix more later and try to match what I want.  It’s much easier to just purchase 4 or 5 premixed acrylic colors for the blend.  So if you run out, you can just go out and purchase another bottle.



Over the years I’ve used lots of small brushes to paint bricks.  I prefer a small flat brush a little over 1/8” wide.  Without any technical training, I don’t know the pros and cons of various types of brushes – I just know what works for me.

I usually select the lightest of the 4 or 5 brick shades and paint it first.  If I use four shades, for example, I will typically paint approximately one quarter of the bricks in the structure, in a random fashion, with that shade.  If I haven’t produced a brick diorama for awhile, I begin slowly and quickly reacquaint myself with the wrist action needed to paint bricks efficiently.  Then to achieve the random fashion, I tend to just daydream and let my mind wander as I paint .  There is no pattern; I merely paint a single brick or clusters of two, three or four bricks.  Painting the bricks does not have to be exact.  I often will get a little brick paint into the mortar lines, but it will not be noticeable once the diorama is fully painted.   I paint only one shade at a time.  After the first shade is painted, the structure will still be mostly gray with a smattering of color.  There’s a long way to go yet, but progress is being made.

I paint the remaining shades using the same technique as the initial shade.  After each shade is applied, the structure gradually looks less and less gray and more and more like the desired finish.  The only gray areas will be the mortar lines and where bricks are missing.  This is gratifying because you’ve made good progress.

 
Brick structures which have a recessed, flat roof, like this diorama, require additional work as there are bricks on both the front and back sides of the walls above the roofline.

Before the painting process is complete, I need to paint any concrete or stone beams and foundation blocks. Even though they may be similar in color to the mortar lines (gray), there usually is enough differentiation between the colors that it’s noticeable so they should be painted.  I will also paint the cornerstone if there is one.



THE FINAL ASSEMBLY
This particular diorama posed a challenge with the recessed entry way.  I could never etch, carve and paint the bricks inside the entry way if the walls were fully and permanently assembled.  So I performed these steps while the back and angled side walls were detached. 





Once the painting was finished, I needed to “marry up” these walls before the aging process.  To accomplish this, I needed to glue and screw the walls together.  The back wall was not really an issue as the joints between the this wall and the angled side walls was pretty hidden from view.  However, the joints between the angled side walls and the front walls of the diorama were right there in plain sight.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to hide them totally, so I relied on the painting of the bricks to help conceal the joints.  

After the glue was dried, I applied tape on either side of the wall joints before I applied the slurry of wood putty.  Sometimes when brushing on the wood putty slurry, it can splatter and I certainly didn’t want it to mar the other finished brick surfaces.
 

I made sure to wipe off any excess slurry and even though, at this point, the joint lines were still quite evident, I knew successive steps would help to conceal them. 



Next I painted the mortar joints where the walls joined.   I was careful not to extend the painting too far into the finished brick area.

Finally I painted the bricks at the wall joints in a random fashion.  The brickwork on the entire structure was now complete, the angled side wall joints were fairly concealed and the painted walls were ready for aging.


 
AGING THE PAINT
Once all the shades are painted, the structure does not look “right”.  This is because the bricks look too new – their texture is relatively distressed, but the colors are too bright and shiny.  I need to make the colors also look distressed.

I accomplish this by generously painting a watered down dark paint such as burnt umber (acrylic paint) over the entire surface of the walls and then wiping off the excess. 



This leaves paint in any recessed nicks or deformities of the bricks.  I wipe as much or as little of the burnt umber off depending upon how “aged” I want the structure to look.  In the case of this diorama, I wanted the VFW building to look neglected so I made the structure really dark and foreboding.

Now that the aging step is finished and the brickwork is complete, it’s time to work on windows.  There were lots of bricks in this diorama even though I’ve included lots of windows also.  Each brick had to be etched, carved, painted and aged.  I get pretty bored with all that brick work and welcome moving on to something else like creating windows.  But I will also become tired of working on windows after awhile as there are lots and lots of them as well.  The bottom line is:  don’t get frustrated or impatient; some steps just take a long time to complete.


FABRICATING WINDOWS AND DOORS

Creating windows and doors allows for a lot of creativity.  There are many different styles to use and each can be very interesting and add a lot of character to the diorama.


"Movement In 'B' Flat" - 2008

Besides the basic styles – double hung, casement, sliding, etc. there are other unique characteristics of windows.  The number of lights in each window or door, staining, the overhead and underneath trim, inside coverings, shutters and aging can all greatly enhance the windows and, hence, the diorama. 


"Dream It, Plan It, Build It" - 2010

That being said, windows and doors are also rather tedious to fabricate.


"We Regret To Inform You..." - 2011

Windows can also be installed in various ways in a diorama.  Some are installed from the outside, some from the inside and some recess into the rough window opening.  On this diorama as with many of my brick buildings, the windows were installed on the inside surface of the walls.


 

Once I’ve chosen the style of window (let’s just talk about them for now), I measure all the window openings.  Since many windows in a structure are the same size, I note the size of the narrowest dimensions in the openings and will fabricate the windows to these dimensions.  When I cut out the openings for windows, I use a saber saw and there is typically some human error in the cuts so the openings are not all precisely the same size.  They are close enough, however, that even if an opening is a bit larger than the finished window, the window trim will usually cover any gaps.

Before I describe my detailed technique for creating windows, here is a quick review.  First I make the window border.  Then I make the window sashes to fit into the borders.  I will need two identical frames for each window sash – these two frames will eventually be glued together with a thin piece of clear plastic acetate in between.  If I want to show individual panes in either sash, I will glue in small pieces of balsa wood in each of the identical frames to represent them.

  

WINDOW BORDERS

First I fabricate the borders which will surround the windows and help secure them in the structural pieces; I usually use 1/8” thick balsa wood for this.  I make the depth whatever I want; deep set windows suggest thick walls which are frequently found in old, heavily constructed buildings.  I frequently make the borders 5/8” deep. Deeper windows borders make it easier to install double hung windows.

 

For surface mounting, an outside trim is added to each border.  I usually surface mount windows in dioramas with wood siding. Other times the window border is merely recessed into the window opening or, as in the case of this diorama, glued on the inside wall surface.  The latter two methods are often the case with a brick or stone building. 

For this diorama, I glued a flat frame to the front surface of the window border.  This afforded me a greater window surface area with which to glue on the window on the backside of the window openings and assured that there would be no gaps between the window borders and the finished brick openings.


There are also trim pieces (1/16” x 1/16” balsa wood) added to the inside of the window borders.  These pieces are needed to separate the sashes in the double hung windows and to act as “stops” to secure each window sash inside the border – again this is how a real double hung window is constructed.  I always glue in the trim pieces separating the sashes before painting the window borders.  When the windows frames are later glued into the window border, I will add the final painted stops.  Remember, there are no stops on the window sills just on the right, left and top edges.  If, however, a window is non-operable or “fixed”, a stop is added on the window sill.


BORDERS FOR ARCHED WINDOWS
It is difficult to create an 1/8” thick window border for the arched tops of windows.  The way I solve this challenge is to use rubber base (used for trimming out where walls meet floors in life size construction.)  This flexible material is 1/8” thick and can be cut and glued to the balsa wood window borders to create curves like arches.  A piece of painters tape will help assure that the glue securely connects the rubber with the balsa wood.  A narrower strip of rubber glued inside the arch will form the stop securing the window.

WINDOW FRAMES
Once the window borders are assembled, it’s time to create the window frames.  To do this, I trace the inside of the window border on paper so I know the opening size into which the windows will be placed.  Next I draw the window at the precise size – unless the window is complicated, I don’t even use the CAD program; I just hand draw it with a straight edge.   I like to use double-hung windows so I’ll describe this fabrication process here.  The two major parts of the double-hung window are the upper and lower sashes.  They slide vertically past each other; the upper sash is always positioned to the outside of the lower sash.


"Movement in 'B' Flat" - 2008

When I make windows, I cut, assemble and glue identical frames for both the upper and lower sashes – two frames per sash.  That equals 4 frames for each window.  Each frame is made up of 4 pieces of 1/16” thick balsa wood which are glued together with white glue.  When gluing the pieces of the frames together, always use a square to be sure that each frame is true.
 

"Movement In 'B' Flat - 2008

If you examine a real double-hung window, you will note that not all four sides of the frames are equal in width.  The bottom member of the upper sash and the top member of the lower sash are not as wide as all the other members.  I usually make these members 1/8” wide (2” in real life size) while I make all the other members 5/32” – 3/16” wide (2-1/2” to 3” in real life size).  When the window is fully closed, the bottom member of the upper sash and the upper member of the lower sash meet side-by-side in the middle of the window. 


BARS AND MUNTINS

It’s also interesting to add bars and muntins to the windows to indicate individual panes.  (In this diorama, I chose used bars only in the arched tops of the windows.)  You can create all kinds of interesting styles by positioning the bars and muntins in various ways.  A simple design is a 3 over 3 (6 panes) configuration in the upper sash and no bars or muntins in the lower sash.  I make the bars and muntins from 1/16” x 1/16” balsa wood carefully gluing them into the window frames.  It’s important to glue them in fairly precisely as each two window frames will eventually be glued back-to-back to form the sash and you want to be sure the bars and muntins line up properly.  I’ll often glue the bars and muntins into the frame while it is positioned on the paper drawing.

"Movement In 'B' Flat" - 2008

There are a lot of pieces which make up even a simple window.  This diorama has 32 windows.  Of these, even the simplest double hung window consists of 39 separate pieces.   It becomes a lot of work making windows and fabricating them in “assembly line” fashion is the most efficient way to proceed.


"Movement In 'B' Flat" - 2008

WINDOW FRAMES FOR ARCHED WINDOWS
Creating window frames for arched windows has some challenges as they are typically cut from one piece of 1/16” balsa wood.  Using a utility knife to make these cuts typically results in a bit of a rough frame but this ultimately lends authenticity to the aged windows. Remember, there needs to be two frames for each window opening.  In this diorama, I added a single vertical separation bar in the arches of the single small windows and a triple bar arrangement in the arches of the larger, double windows. 




I now have all the window frames fabricated.  Two of the frames will face to the outside of the window and two will face to the inside.  It is expected that the outside frames will experience more weathering than the inside ones.  So, for authenticity purposes, it is appropriate to “weather” the outside facing frames. 

WEATHERING THE FRAMES
To accomplish this, I will make gouges in the surface and sand down the square corners – but mostly on the lower sash which is where one would expect the most wear – both from nature and from human use - to be evident.  The degree of weathering depends on the age of the structure and whether it has been neglected.  I really enjoy showing the effects of weathering and aging as they give great character to a structure.  I seldom create a “new” looking structure unless it is apropos for the message I intend the diorama to deliver.


The window border into which the window frames will eventually be placed should also show  weathering.  I like to place the finished window frames temporarily into the window borders when I plan out the weathering so both the frames and borders look equally weathered.  This means that I assign specific window frames to specific window borders and need to mark them with hidden numbering to keep them “married together” throughout the entire fabrication process.


PAINTING THE WINDOWS
Once the weathering is finished, which, again is only performed on the window frames which face to the outside, painting is the next step.  I usually use light colors for both the inside and outside window frames (but not necessarily the same color).  Light colored windows standout more as the inside of my dioramas always dissolve into black.  It’s important to keep the window frames “married together” even while they are separated during the painting stage.



"Movement In 'B' Flat" - 2008

AGING THE WINDOWS

Aging is the next step.  Aging techniques typically accent the weathering marks on the windows.  This is accomplished by generously painting a watered down dark paint such as burnt umber (acrylic paint) over the windows then wiping off the excess.  I water down the paint quite a bit so it can be wiped off later.  This leaves paint in the recessed scratches and weathered marks.  You can wipe as much or as little of the burnt umber off depending upon how “aged” you want the windows to look.  Again, the weathering and aging processes are only performed on the outside window frames.

INSTALLING GLAZING IN THE WINDOWS
Now that the window frames have been fabricated, painted, weathered and aged, it is time to add the glazing and assemble them .   Each outside and inside (married) window frame will be glued together with a piece of clear plastic acetate in between.  I use a thickness of ~.5 mils which is a little thinner than 1/32”.  I cut the acetate about 1/8” smaller than the overall window frame. 

Next I apply a small amount of white glue to the inside window frame (the side which faces to the outside) and carefully place the acetate onto the glue.  It is good to spread the glue a bit before placing the acetate so the glue isn’t too thick and doesn’t run onto the viewable surface of acetate.  White glue does dry clear, but it is still obvious on the acetate if it runs onto it.

"Movement In 'B' Flat" - 2008 

Then you apply glue to the back side of the outside window frame.  Again, spread the glue a bit and carefully align the outside window frame with the inside window frame and press together. Be careful to align the window frames properly before touching.  Misalignments result in smearing the glue onto the acetate. 


"Movement In 'B' Flat" - 2008 

Since it takes a bit of time for the white glue to dry on the plastic acetate, you will notice that the newly glued window may shift if moved around.  Shifting is not good as it typically smears glue onto the acetate which, again, will show up when the glue dries.

 "Dream It, Plan It, Build It" - 2010

What I do is carefully align the glued outside and inside window frames and place a board over then with weight on top and leave it for a few hours.  This assures that the windows will dry as well compressed units.  I don’t fabricate only one window at a time.  When I fabricate windows, I do several at one time so I’ll have perhaps 20 window assemblies under the board with a couple of gallon paint cans on top for weight.  A few hours later, you can remove the weight and the board and you’ll have nicely created windows.  They are now ready to be inserted into the window borders.


 "Dream It, Plan It, Build It" - 2010

GLUING THE WINDOWS INTO THE BORDERS

First I glue the upper window sash into the border.  This will be on the outside of the border trim piece which separates the two sashes.  Next I glue the lower window sash into the backside of the border trim piece – both sashes are now separated by the 1/16” trim piece.



When gluing in the lower window sash keep in mind if you want it to be in the open or closed position.  I often leave some windows open particularly if there are curtains on the inside and I wish to indicate air movement with the curtains drifting out the open window.

To finish the window, a final piece of trim – the stop - (made from 1/16” x 1/16” balsa wood) is glued to the outside of the upper sash.  This creates the channel in which this sash would typically travel.  Remember this piece of trim is on the outside of the window and should show the same degree of weathering and aging as the other outside pieces of the window.


SPECIAL WINDOWS - THE STAINED GLASS ROUND WINDOW

This diorama has two types of special windows.  There is a large round stained glass window and two basement windows. The round window was cut from a single piece of 1/16” balsa wood using a paper template and utility knife and gouge.  I tried to find a piece of balsa wood with good straight grain but still ruined a couple of pieces during the cutting.  Again, two identical pieces needed to be cut – the outside-facing piece and the inside piece. 


 

Once the pieces were cut, I painted both and weathered and aged the outside piece.  Weathering and aging was minimal due to the protected location of this window – a covered alcove.  Then I glued the plastic acetate between them and allowed them to dry.  I used glass stain paints for the glass colors. 

To “stop-in” this window, I used a thin strip of 1/8” rubber base and glued it into the bricked round opening.  I smeared some wood putty on the inside edge of the stop to be sure there were no gaps.  Since I was going to backlight the stained glass window, I did not want any light to show through cracks.  The finished window was then glued against the stop. 


 
SPECIAL WINDOWS - BASEMENT WINDOW
Including “below grade” features always adds interest to a diorama.  (See link:  BELOW GRADE FEATURES)   This diorama had two basement windows.  I fabricated them like the rest of the windows.  Because of their location, it would be assumed that security is an issue.  I therefore installed iron bars on these windows – of course the iron bars were really 1/16” dowel rods painted, aged and rusted to resemble iron bars. 

 

DOORS
Doors are created in a similar manner as the windows.  Since there usually is only one door in my dioramas, I can put a little more time and creativity into it.  And since it is the main entry, it should be special. 

I usually use the same style for the door as the windows; in this diorama, I featured arches over the windows and the door.  I also added sidelights to the door to make it appear larger and clearly indicate the entry.  And, of course, a large round stained glass window was located directly above the door. 

I also wanted to light the inside vestibule of the building, but did not want the viewer to get a clear picture of the inside.  Again, I do not finish the insides of my dioramas.  To accomplish this, I decided to frost the windows of the door and sidelights.  I placed a drop of TULIP brand white MATTE paint and dabbed it with a brush to create the effect. 


 

SPECIAl FEATURES
Little added features can really enhance a diorama by keeping it true to real life and interesting to view.  Frequently people who view my dioramas say they didn’t notice a small, subtle feature until the 2nd or 3rd visit.  The following are some typical features.


SCUPPERS, GUTTERS AND DOWNSPOUTS

All structures have a method to handle the drainage of roof water.  Typically these include gutters and downspouts on residential structures and perhaps scuppers and downspouts for commercial structures.  These same methods should be represented on a diorama.  As I mentioned earlier, many brick buildings have flat roofs.  Rainwater accumulation on these flat roofs must drain somewhere and a common method is through scuppers – holes in the outer wall at or below the roof level.

 
SCUPPERS
Scuppers are made of metal, but mine, of course, are made of balsa wood.  I haven’t closely studied scuppers, but I successfully portray them with a box-like configuration attached to the outside of the structure at the roof drain opening.  To make the balsa wood scupper look like metal, I mix a slurry of wood putty and paint it onto the balsa wood dabbing off the excess.  This gives the scupper a texture not unlike metal but certainly not like wood and hardens the soft balsa wood.
 

 
CAST IRON DOWNSPOUTS
The downspout dropping to the ground from the scupper is going to be 3” or 4” cast iron.  I start with a simple dowel rod (3/16” for a 3” downspout or 1/4” for a 4” downspout.)  I typically have one scupper and downspout on either side of the structure.  Cast iron downspouts usually have a bell-end on one end (the upper end) and come in 10’ lengths.  Portraying the bell-end is another easy step.  I merely take an 1/8” wide strip of duct tape and wrap it around and around the dowel rod at the 10’ joint between pipes until it sticks out about 1/16” from the surface of the dowel rod. 


 "Comfortable Habits" - 2007

Next I mix a paste-like thickness of wood putty and smooth it on one side only (the down side) of the duct tape.  This creates the bell end of the cast iron pipe – the end into which the pipe above slips in to establish the downspout.  When the wood putty is dry, I mix a wetter slurry of wood  putty – like for the scuppers - and brush it over the entire surface of the downspout (dowel rod) including the duct tape and dab off the excess.  This coating will, again, give the downspout texture resembling metal.  Depending on how tall the building is, there may be one or two (or more) bell-ends in the cast iron downspout.  I prefer to show a couple of bell-ends at least as they are an interesting detail.

 "Comfortable Habits" - 2007 


PAINTING SCUPPERS

Now that the scuppers and downspouts are fabricated and have a nice texture, it’s time to paint them.  Since the scupper is metal and, at one time, was likely silver colored, I paint the scupper silver.  Since the structure is old, it’s very likely that the  metal scupper is rusted.  To indicate rust, I paint areas of the scupper with burnt siena.  I choose areas which would likely rust – corners, etc., where the water has a chance to sit.  Rust often fans out from a central point – becoming less noticeable farther from the central point.  I want to paint the lightly rusted areas first.  This can be replicated by taking a small brush and just a dab of paint.  I blot the paint on a scrap piece of paper a bit so hardly any paint is left on the brush.  Then I dapple the brush against the scupper creating an indication of light rust.  This will dry very quickly.  Then I again place just a dab of paint onto the brush – a very small amount.  I am going to paint the central rusting area which will be darkest.  By dappling the brush outward from this central dark area, you create the effect of rust slowing traveling out from the central area.  It is very rusty in the central area and gradually less so farther away.


PAINTING THE DOWNSPOUTS
I paint the cast iron downspouts a light gray color.  Knowing that there may be a little leakage from the downspouts at the bell-end joints, I indicate this leakage by painting a darker shade of gray streaking down the pipe. 


AGING THE SCUPPERS AND DOWNSPOUTS

The same technique for aging windows and bricks can be used to age the scuppers and downspouts – applying a watered down burnt umber and wiping off the excess.  If there is a bad leak in a downspout which is located in an area with little sunlight, I may indicate moss growing at the bell-end.  This look can be created by lightly applying green paint at the downspout joint.


GAS METER AND PIPING

Gas meters are a fun and interesting feature on a diorama.  I looked at a few gas meters before I started creating my own miniature versions.  The recognizable components of the gas meter to a layperson are the meter unit, piping and the gas regulator.  All of these can be created from balsa wood, round tooth picks and duct tape.


"Small Town America" - 2002

THE METER AND REGULATOR
A small block of balsa wood can be cut and sanded to resemble a miniature gas meter.  Gluing on another flat piece of balsa wood on the face of the meter gives it a bit more realism. 

Another piece of balsa wood trimmed to a circular fashion and sanded thin at the outer edges creates the basic regulator.   To give it more realism, glue a short piece (~1/8”) of 1/8” diameter dowel rod onto the center of the regulator.  Smear on a paste-like mix of wood putty around the dowel rod to form the finish shape of the regulator.
 

 

Both the meter unit and the regulator have prominent bolts or screws on their faces.  I create this by applying tiny dots of paint.  I happen to use the Slick TULIP brand of dimensional fabric paint.  This paint comes in a bottle with a fine tube.  A simple squeeze emits a tiny, thick drop of paint – ideal for creating miniature screw or bolt heads.


THE PIPING

Creating the gas piping is similar to creating cast iron downspouts.  I use round tooth picks (which are a shade over 1/16” thick) to create the piping.  I make 450 cuts and glue the pieces to make the various pipe angles.  I use epoxy glue for a strong glue joint.  I need a strong joint as I will then sand them down to form rounded joints representing pipe fittings.  Tiny strips of duct tape are wrapped around the toothpicks to indicate pipe fittings. 

Next I drill a couple of holes in the top of the gas meter and insert the ends of the piping recognizing that one of the pipes will exit the meter and enter the building.  The gas regulator is glued onto the piping coming from the underground gas line.  I like to add a small piece of balsa wood to the piping to indicate a shut off valve – keeping it in the “on” position if the building is in use.


WOOD TO STEEL

The wood pieces of the gas meter need to be changed into “metal” for realism.  Once again, this is accomplished by using a slurry of wood putty, brushing it onto the surface of the meter, piping, duct tape and regulator.  Wipe any excess off.  When this mixture is dry, you have a miniature gas meter awaiting painting and aging.

PAINTING AND AGING THE GAS METER ASSEMBLY
The same techniques as mentioned earlier can be used to paint and age the gas meter assembly.  I typically paint my meters gray, indicate a bit of rust and then apply the watered down coating of burnt umber to age it.  

One more step will add even more realism to the gas meter.  This is the addition of gauges.  I perform this step after painting but before aging.  I create the gauges on CAD but they can also be hand drawn with a straight edge and fine marker.  If I create the gauges on CAD, I don’t try to draw the gauges at the miniature size, but rather draw them larger then reduce the image on a copier to the appropriate size.  Then just glue the reduced paper image onto the gas meter.  When aging, avoid getting this piece of paper too wet as it may disintegrate.
 



THE ROOF
Recessed flat roofs, like on this diorama, are easy to create…but because the roof is lower than the exterior walls, you have to finish the inside surfaces of the walls just like the outside surfaces – more bricks to carve and paint. The roof itself is fabricated from a simple piece of 1/8” hardboard.  I glue some balsa wood pieces just under the hardboard to keep it well supported. 

Next I make an angled cut on a piece of ¼” balsa wood creating a strip which is glued on top of the roof and against the finished brick wall.  In real life, this piece would direct roof water away from the brick wall which and toward the scuppers.




PLUMBING AND HVAC EQUIPMENT
The HVAC (heating and air conditioning) equipment can easily be created by making a balsa wood box.  Add a few screw or bolt heads to give it authenticity, cover it with a slurry of wood putty to “turn” wood into metal, paint and age the unit.  I will also indicate louvers or perhaps cut out one end and glue in a fine mesh to resemble screening.  To keep these units protected from standing water on the flat roof (as in real life), I place them on a raised curb.  This is simply a piece of ¼” balsa wood with angled edges.

"True Grit" - 2005 


TAR PAPERING THE ROOF
On flat roofs I create a tar paper-like finish as most people are familiar with this material.  To achieve this, I take 2” wide masking tape and carefully stick it to the roof.  Successive pieces of tape should overlap each other by 3/16” which is 3” in real life.  This tape must go up the angled strips along the brick walls, over the curbs and into the openings for the scuppers. 

Once this is in place, I paint it with a very dark gray (almost black) acrylic.  Interestingly, the tape often wrinkles a little from the moisture in the paint which actually makes it look even more authentic.  To age the roof a bit, I usually use a watered down gray paint brushed over the surface.  I’ll wipe off the excess.  And finally, if I feature any trees in the diorama, I’ll glue some leaves in and around the scuppers – with a heavier concentration nearer the scuppers as water is washing everything toward the scuppers.

BELOW GRADE FEATURES
On a few of my dioramas, I add features which are below the ground level (grade) of the miniature.  This adds a great deal of interest to a diorama.  I am limited as to how deep I go because I use a 1 x 4 base onto which my dioramas sit.  The 1 x 4 allows me to drop down almost 3-1/2” below the grade.  For most of the dioramas which have this feature, I designed the feature to be removable.  I did this mainly for storage reasons – to reduce the overall height of the diorama (for many of my dioramas I do not store them on their bases as they are too high).  It is much more challenging to create a removable below grade feature than a fixed one.

If I decide to create a removable below grade feature, I design it so there is a natural “break” in the feature.  For example, if the below grade walls are stone blocks, I make sure there is a joint between blocks right were the feature drops below grade. 



This helps to hide the joint when the feature is in place.  In this diorama, I decided to include a basement window and window well.  The fabrication of the stone blocks including etching, carving, adding the slurry of wood putty, painting and aging, follows the above mentioned procedures.  The recessed window and window well allowed me to add other bits of realism.  These include:  security bars on the window and lots of old leaves and debris in the window well.









RAILINGS
Brick buildings sometimes have steel pipe railings.  This diorama featured the entry door elevated up four steps from grade level so railings were appropriate. 



I create my railings from 1/8” round rod or tubing, decorative beads, epoxy glue and electrical wire nuts.  No, I’m not nuts; this is what I use.

I drill the decorative beads to receive the round rod and glue them with epoxy glue.  Once dry, I test fit the railings then drill holes in the structure to receive finished railings. 



 

I’ve found that the ends of some electrical wire nuts have a design not unlike decorative pipe flanges – used to secure railings to a concrete or wood surface. 



 
I merely remove the wire coil from the wire nut, drill a hole large enough to receive the railing then cut off a 1/16” slice from the end of the wire nut and, voila, you have a decorative pipe flange.  The piping and flanges are then painted, aged and installed.

 
WHAT'S IN THE WINDOW?
I do not finish the insides of my dioramas; they just fade into blackness.  But sometimes I place objects just inside the windows which can be seen.  In the case of this diorama, a three-story building, I indicate that the first and second floors are currently being in use.  This is indicated by the condition and quality of the inside window coverings. The third floor, however, is not; it’s used strictly for storage; the window coverings are merely window shades which are dirty and torn.   To reinforce this state of the third floor, I stacked lots of old boxes near the window.

 

The boxes are relatively easy to make.  I use a beige piece of typing paper.  First I draw the patterns of a couple of different sized cardboard boxes opened-out flat on the paper.  Next I cut them out then fold them shut like a real cardboard box.




Using the reduction function on the copier, I reduce a few brand name images down to where they fit on the boxes.  I cut them out and glue them to the miniature paper “boxes”.  Finally, I use my aging technique to make the boxes look old.  I stacked them in the corner of the third floor so they can be seen from either the front left window or the left side window.  They’re not very obvious at first glance, but help to define the character of the building nonetheless.




THE AMERICAN FLAG
Since this building is a VFW hall, the American flag had to be evident.  To replicate a flag was a first for me, but with a little forethought and calculated experimentation, my design worked out fairly well. 

I first decided on the size of the flag which would look appropriate for the building.  Then I made a color copy of the flag.  Next I made a reverse color copy of the flag and glued the two together.  I wanted the flag to hang naturally.  This is where I made a calculated fabrication guess.  I dampened the “paper” flag just enough to make it limp and pliable.  Then I wrapped it loosely around cylindrical objects (pens, paint brushes, etc.)  and allowed it to dry.  As I had hoped, it dried stiff and in the configuration I desired.  I didn’t give the flag tattered edges, but I did age it.




Then I made the flagpole from a ¼” dowel rod.  I tapered the upper end and added a decorative round bead for the finial.  I then cut some thin tin to form the halyard.  The pulley was made from a slice cut from an 1/8” dowel rod.  Finally, I cut some thin plastic (1/32” thick) to form the cleat.  Next I brushed on my usual slurry of wood putty to give the flag pole texture.   I then painted and aged the it.  I selected a thin string for the rope and painted it to look used.  Finally, I threaded the string through the flag holes, up through the halyard and down to the cleat where the loop was complete.

 

ANNOUNCEMENT BOARD
To relay an important detail about this story – that these two soldiers were the last two survivors of a notable WWII experience – I felt the need to provide a bit more information, so I created the announcement board.  The explanation was that the VFW post decided to honor the survivors of the infamous Bataan Death March of 1942.  What better time to start the tradition then to recognize the 50-year reunion which would have been held in 1992.  The post decided to honor the survivors every 5 years thereafter until it realized that too many soldiers were dying between reunions.  So in 2003 the reunion became an annual event.  Over time, the number of survivors diminished until, in 2009, only two remained. 

The board itself was easy to fabricate from balsa wood following my usual weathering, painting and aging techniques .  I referred to a phone book to come up with various names.  And to replicate the ego boost of the cameo appearance in films, I made a cameo appearance in print on the announcement board.  According to this diorama and story-line, “my” last reunion attendance was in 2006.  May I rest in peace.

To stay true to realism, the announcement board had to show aging.  As would have been expected, attendees over the years would have “fingered” the names of their deceased comrades, so there is more aging in the upper left corner and less as you work your way down to the lower right corner of the board.
 

MISCELLANEOUS ELECTRICAL WIRING
All old buildings have gone through revisions and upgrades over the years.  This can often be apparent in the alley behind the building or on its side walls.  Upgrades are much less apparent on the front face of the structure. 





It’s fun and interesting to add some odd surface-mounted wiring.  This can be accomplished by creating tiny insulators and adding small-gauge wire to connect them.  The insulators can be fabricated from 1/8” dowel rods by notching a ring around the rod then cutting off a section of about 3/16” in length. 




Cutting, shaping, sanding, covering with wood putty slurry, painting and aging small blocks of balsa wood give the impression of old electrical boxes. 
]


Attaching the boxes to the side of the building then running the wire from insulator to insulator up the wall suggests surface-mounted upgrades made over the years.     

 


STREETS, CURBS, SIDEWALKS AND GRATINGS
Buildings in city scenes typically feature sidewalks, curbs, streets and gratings – things you normally see along a city street.  I create sidewalks by gluing a ¼” layer of balsa wood over the base which indicates a 4” raised curb and sidewalk.  I make a “V” cut in the balsa wood to designate the expansion joints and controlled cracks found in real sidewalks.  I also indicate the curb edge making it about 5/16” wide.  The curb should have a rounded edge, expansion joints and show some damage from years of being hit by parking cars.




The balsa wood “sidewalk” is finished just like a brick or stone wall – sand, show some damage (cracking and broken-out concrete), apply the wood putty slurry, wipe off the excess, paint the mortar color and paint the final concrete color.  I sometimes “dot” the surface with a darker paint to create a weathered or worn effect.  The curb itself should be painted yellow.  Then the entire surface is aged as described previously.  Be sure to add a bit of flat black paint to the outer edge of the curb to indicate where cars have parked too closely and left a telltale black streak of tire rubber.

 

A metal grating is also a fun feature.  This is created from basswood (a bit stronger than balsa wood).  After measuring a real grate, cut the frame from 1/16” basswood and glue it together.   Then add the angled pieces.   “Change” the appearance of the wood grating into metal as described under the “scuppers” section, then weather, paint and age. 

To make the grating look even more authentic, I typically cut out a rectangle in the 1/2” base where the grating is to be placed.  This gives the illusion of depth.  I usually glue a piece of 1/8” balsa wood on the bottom of the base to cover this hole.  Then I glue some 1/16” pieces of balsa wood inside the opening to support the grating.  Finally, I paint the entire area below the grating flat black.

 

For additional realism, it’s wise to glue on some tiny pieces of colored paper scattered along the curb and clustered around the grating to indicate trash which has flowed with drainage water into the grating.         

BUILDING NAME
Placing a name on a building allows me to add a personal touch to the diorama.  This diorama features the LHM building circa 1903.  You can create building names many ways including simulating raised or incised letters in stone such as the name “Veterans of Foreign Wars” in the case of this diorama, and the raised steel letters in the building crown.  The “steel” letters were cut from thin plastic and the numbers were store bought.  To highlight the steel letters, I raised them from the brick surface with small plastic spacers.  The letters and numbers were brushed with a slurry of wood putty, then painted, rusted and aged before being glued onto the diorama. 

 

So what is the personal touch?  LHM stands for my 4th grandson – Leo Henry Marcelynas who was born on March 1, 2009 or 3/1/09 or……1903……sort of a number anagram.


LIGHTING
Lighting is always a nice feature particularly if you wish to display the diorama at night.  Since I do not finish the insides of my dioramas, I have empty space inside the diorama in which to house the lighting parts – electrical box, transformer, wiring, etc.

 
"True Grit" - 2005 

 
When creating spotlights, I often use electrical wire nuts for the light fixture.  I merely select the proper-sized wire nut (i.e.:  a wire nut with a ¼” opening becomes a 4” diameter light fixture at my scale of 1:16).



"Movement In 'B' Flat" - 2008

Then I drill out the inner wire coil and the light housing is ready to use.


"Movement In 'B' Flat" - 2008 


I’ll paint the inside white to reflect the light better and the outside any color I wish but usually flat black.  Next I insert a miniature light bulb (model railroad type) inside.  I always plan out how I’m going to run the wiring to the inside of the diorama.  Admittedly, some of my wiring may never be easily changed if the bulb goes bad. 


 
In this diorama, I had to make a groove in the underside of the base to get the wiring from the spotlight to the inside of the diorama.
       

In some instances, the lighting can simply be the miniature light bulb with no housing.  This is not totally accurate, but to the casual observer, it looks like a bare light bulb.

"Future Security" - 2006 


You can even create a somewhat believable heat lamp.

"Thank You" - 2012 

 "Thank You" - 2012


"Thank You" - 2012 



  


"Comfortable Habits" - 2007

A transformer will be needed to properly light the miniature lights as a 110 volt standard AC power source will likely blow out the lights.  The least expensive way to do this is to go to a Goodwill, Salvation Army or other second hand store.  They often carry transformers which were previously used for small household appliances. 


 
I typically look for a transformer which has a 12 or 14 V DC output.  You can find this information right on the transformer.  I will install an electrical box inside the back of the diorama into which I will plug the transformer.  The wires from the transformer, then, go to the various lights.  Sometimes I will create two lighting circuits.  In this diorama, I developed one circuit for the spotlights and one for the interior circle window and entry lighting.  I installed a double switch on the backside of the diorama to easily turn on and off either or both of the circuits.

Even though my building interiors are always painted flat black, in the case of this diorama, I painted the inside of the vestibule white.  I attached four tiny light bulbs against the inside front wall of the building facing toward the back.  The painted white wall evenly reflected the light so there were no hot spots.   

 

LANDSCAPING
Landscaping plays a large role in creating dioramas as it can set the mood as well as the background structure.  As I mentioned earlier, this diorama features forgotten WWII soldiers so the landscaping needed to look rough and neglected as well.  I choose the time of year to be late fall or early winter – a cold, hard time.  There are many old darkened leaves and dried wild grasses tucked against the building.  And the bushes are misshapen and gnarly. 




TREES
I have gone through quite a few transformations in creating believable landscaping especially trees.  My first trees were experimental.  I took solid copper wiring (insulated #12) and twisted several pieces together forming a trunk and eventually branches.  I had the flexibility to form the branches any way I wanted.  Then I mixed some wood putty to a paste-like consistency and spread it over the wire form.  Next came painting and aging.  Finally, I randomly glued pieces of green hobby foam onto the branches.  The tree didn’t look too bad, but, of course, the “leaves” were not very realist.  The real downside was that the trunk and branches could be easily bumped and moved often cracking the dried wood putty which would then fall off.


"Spring at Aunt Hattie's Cottage" - 1991

Next I tried the same wire tree structure but with a fall scene.  At that time, I was unaware of easily available  scaled leaf punches, so I had to create my own leaves.  The closest thing I could think of was using a pair of pinking shears to cut leaves from colored construction paper.  I used a crisscross motion while cutting which occasionally created an oak-like leaf with a stem.  Gluing the leaves on the tree in a few places was tedious but placing them on the ground looked more authentic.  The major problem was, again, the cracking of the tree branches but the colored construction paper also faded over time and the leaves didn’t look very real. 

"Victor Falls - Station #1" - 1992

Then I tried a real tree branch.  It was nearly impossible to find one with nice branching like that found on real trees plus the tree was not very rigid and would snap.  I considered using branches from the Manzanita tree, but I didn’t know where to find them and the ones I saw were expensive.


"Evening Visitors" - 1995



"Dorsey Sartin's Spring House" - 1994

Finally, the answer suddenly appeared to me while on a trip on the east side of the Cascade Mountains – sage brush.  Sage brush is a miniature tree already.  It is very rigid with great branching.  I merely trim out as much branching as necessary and some of the shaggy bark and it’s ready to use.


"Thank You" - 2012


 "Thank You" - 2012

 

LEAVES
Adding leaves to trees is still challenging.  Fall scenes are easiest as I now use a small leaf punch to create the colored leaves. But I do not use colored construction paper.  I use regular copier paper but paint both sides first.  The painted paper does not fade like the construction paper plus I can create whatever color of leaves I wish.  I can paint bright yellows, oranges and reds for early fall leaves or, in the case of this diorama, paint the leaves dark shades of brown and gray to resemble winter leaves.



I have never created a fall scene when most of the leaves are still on the tree.  This would entail gluing  way too many leaves onto the branches.  Instead, I hint at the fall season by gluing just a few leaves on the branches with the majority piled on the ground.  I use hot glue to adhere the leaves.  The glue cools fast and the leaf is secured, but, I DO have the tedious task of removing all the tiny strings of glue left when moving the glue gun to and from the tree several times. 

The placement of the leaves on the ground is also important for realism.  Fall leaves accumulate mostly under the tree itself.  They also accumulate in places where they are blown by the wind then trapped, for example behind the bushes and in the window wells in this diorama.  Inside corners are another common location for fallen leaves.




Summer and winter scenes pose more challenges for trees.  For summer scenes, I’ve tried gluing numerous types of tiny-leafed dried and plastic plants onto the sage brush branches.  I’ve never really found the perfect answer.  It’s a given that the leaf must be small but both the dried and plastic materials need to be pre-painted as both will fade with time.

Plus the tree will not be a maple or oak tree as no miniature leaves look like maple or oak leaves.  I prefer using plastic leaves if I can find them because they are more durable.


"Movement In 'B' Flat" - 2008

SNOW ON TREES
Winter scenes eliminate the worry about creating leaves; you have to create snow instead.  I’ve used both a wood putty paste and papier-mâché spread on the branches to represent snow.  The wood putty is messy with which to work and adds weight to the diorama.  The papier-mache shrinks after it dries and often has to be glued back on the branch. 

Whichever one I use, the next steps are the same.  I carefully paint the dried “snow” on the branches white.  Then I spread white glue over the dried paint and sprinkle on ground granite (with a sprinkling of fine glitter mixed in) over the paint.  The fine glitter will help resemble newly fallen snow.  If, however, the snow is old and partially melted then refrozen, I do not add glitter.
 

"Comfortable Habits" - 2007 

[Believe it or not to help my snow look authentic I bought an 80 lb. sack of ground granite from a swimming pool store – installers apparently adhere it to swimming pool walls to keep them white.  I can’t even remember where I got this idea.]

At any rate, I double sift the granite so it is very fine when I sprinkle it onto the wet glue.   After it dries, I vacuum the excess off.  I usually want to save the excess granite so I place an old handkerchief over the end of the vacuum hose, push in the cloth an inch or two and suck up the excess.  Then I shut off the vacuum and drop the excess granite into a container.  I repeat this several times before I get most of it off.



"Comfortable Habits" - 2007

ATTACHING TREES
To attach a large tree to the diorama, I drill a hole (about ¼” deep) into the base large enough to comfortably insert the tree trunk.  Then I drill a hole in the center of the larger hole through the base.  Next I insert the tree in the larger hole turning it until it has just the right angle.  Then I pre-drill from the bottom of the base into the tree trunk.  Finally, I insert a screw from the bottom to secure the tree.  I usually pre-drill the hole and test the angle of the tree before I add leaves or snow.  When I place the tree for final assembly, I use epoxy glue and the screw to secure it well to the base.

 "Thank You" - 2012 


For added interest, I often add tree roots.  I may also show damage to a sidewalk due to tree roots.

"We Regret To Inform You..." - 2011 


SPRING TREE
I recently created a tree in spring time.  It wasn’t as difficult as I had thought.  I merely purchased plastic foliage with very tiny leaves, painted the leaves pink then glued them to the tree.


"Thank You" - 2012



"Thank You" - 2012


If there are blossoms on the tree, there are likely many which have fallen to the ground.  To create this effect, I purchased different plastic foliage, cut it up into small pieces, painted then pink and glued them to the scene – with most being placed under the tree.

"Thank You" - 2012



"Thank You" - 2012


SHRUBS AND BUSHES
Other dried and plastic plants can be added to the diorama as desired.  I typically add some on either side of the structure along the back to help hide items behind the diorama and naturally “frame” the structure. 


"We Regret To Inform You..." - 2011

I also add them around the structure if appropriate.  They often cast wonderful shadows.  Adding colorful paint can also suggest bushes in flower.

"Movement In 'B' Flat" - 2008



"We Regret To Inform You..." - 2011

 
GRASS
Grass is very appropriate in some dioramas.  For a full, lush lawn, I use indoor/outdoor carpet with as fine a weave as I can find.  And I can’t always find the exact kind I want.  I measure the diorama and cut the size carpet piece I want.  I never leave a seam in the carpet – it always will be evident.


"We Regret To Inform You..." - 2011

If I have to cut two or more pieces, I make sure there is a natural division in the lawn sections like a sidewalk.  And I always make sure that the carpet pieces are running in the same direction when I glue them.  Sometimes there is a slight slant to the threads of the carpet and it would be noticeable if two different slants are near each other.   I always paint the carpet even though it is already green. 


"We Regret To Inform You..." - 2011


I use as combination of yellow and green spray paints to get the shade I desire, plus my carpet has a little sheen and I don’t want that look.  My autumn grasses are always a bit more yellow and some additional touch up painting may be necessary.


"We Regret To Inform You..." - 2011


Sometimes the grass is not well manicured or is very rough.  This scenario can be created by painting then gluing stiff bristle broom grasses and other dried or plastic foliage randomly onto the diorama.  


"Dream It, Plan It, Build It" - 2010

Adding a few dabs of yellow paint will give the effect of dandelions.


"Dream It, Plan It, Build It" - 2010

So landscaping is really important and challenging to accomplish, but some of the most natural shadowing is provided by landscaping.


"Dream It, Plan It, Build It" - 2010



"Movement In 'B' Flat" - 2008


FIGURES
Figures are the last thing I do when creating dioramas.  There are two reasons why.  The first is that after working several months creating the backdrop, I can better determine exactly what the figures will be doing.  The second is…I’m not very competent at creating clay figures and, therefore, put this part off to the very end.   Figures include not just people, but animals as well. 


"Saturday Night" - 2000

I currently use oven-dry clay but have also used air-dry clay.  The former allows me to reduce the time to produce the figures as I don’t have to wait for the air drying process.  Oven-dry clay also has a finer texture and dries harder.  Air-dry clay takes longer to dry and isn’t as hard, but I can “work” it more easily.


"Distant Memories" - 1999 



"Future Security" - 2006

I feel I am definitely an amateur when it comes to creating realistic figures.  I know I can be better if I spend more time creating them, but since I only create one diorama each year and only 5% of that time is dedicated to creating figures, I don’t get much practice.  The following description of my technique is only one way to create figures.  Artists who produce clay figures on a regular basis, surely have better techniques.

"The Discovery" - 1993


"Distant Memories" - 1999

ARMATURES

I start by bending a wire armature for the legs and feet.  I may use any wire handy including thin wire or 14 gauge electrical wire – kind of whatever I have lying around. 



I work from a rough sketch of the figure to determine the general relationship of arms, legs and torso.


"We Regret To Inform You..." - 2011

APPLYING THE CLAY
Next I apply the first layer of clay.  Professional artists may complete their figures totally then bake them.  I find that I leave distortions as I try to work the soft clay so elect to apply several coats of clay – baking each coat before adding the next.  I typically start with “skinny” legs and arms so I can build on them with later applications of clay.



Then I finish the feet/shoes and try to have the figure stand along while the clay is still soft.



Next I add clay to create the pants legs making sure to include wrinkles.  These two figures are old men - probably in their mid to upper 80’s so they likely have a bit of a stoop while standing.  Over the years their physiques have atrophied from their once robust late teens and early 20’s.  And they have developed slight pot-bellies.  The figures are wearing their old military uniforms so the pants are a bit baggy while the tops are a bit tight.




The shirt and/or arms come next.  Plus the heads can be done at any time.  I need to be fairly certain how the arms are to be bent, and, with two figures interacting, how the figures will be joined before I bake the clay.
 


The heads are always difficult for me.  If I achieve the exact facial impression I want, it often is by sheer luck.  I always know what I want but am never sure that my fingers can create it.  I usually create the general shape of the head and turn it onto a screw so I can hold the screw without ruining the soft clay on the head.  Then I pinch the nose and use a nail set to create the eye sockets.  Finally before the first baking, I add a small depression for the mouth and perhaps a wrinkle or two.
 
Subsequent steps (with baking sessions in between each) include: forming the ears, adding the eyes, adding the eyelids, filling out the face, adding more wrinkles, applying the facial hair and, in this case, adding hats.



When adding the arms I bend them to the position I want while the clay is still soft.  Sometimes at this stage, I can also add clothing features.  But they are often added as a final layer of clay because lots of wrinkle marks and other details are needed at this stage.  Not having military experience, I had to do some research to be sure to add appropriate medals and insignias to the uniforms.

JOINING FIGURES TOGETHER
The joining of these two figures was very important for telling the story – they were old friends and a greeting with a mere handshake would have been too formal.  So a firm handshake and a clasp of the forearm or shoulder with the other hand seemed more appropriate.   But I wanted them also to face the viewer.  I was so intent on this achieving this stance, that I made an initial miscalculation and had to make a last minute adjustment which ultimately helped to make the story more realistic. 



Shaking hands in the traditional manner – right hand with right hand – does not allow both men to be positioned toward the viewer.  Shaking a right hand with a left hand does which is how I ultimately redesigned the stance of the soldiers.  But why would they greet each other in this manner?   The only reason would be if one of the men has no right hand.  So, yes, I had to amputate the right hand of the veteran on the right. 


 
Any handshake involves lots of interlocking fingers from two separate figures.  Figures are difficult enough to create separately let along creating them attached.  To make this step easier, I created the shaking hands as one unit attached to the soldier on the left.  When positioned together, the handshaking action appears correct. 

 





I then finished off the amputee’s right lower arm with a rolled-up uniform jacket. 

PAINTING
With the body details now complete, I move to the painting stage.  I typically prime the figures with a white or gray paint.  Then I paint the various features.  I like to paint light colors first and finish with the darkest colors; this allows me to paint over any mistakes made during the light color stages.  But this can’t always be done, though.



What may trump this order of painting is when I have to paint into very tight areas on the figures.  I will usually do this first no matter what shade the color is. 



The painting stage doesn’t take very long as the acrylic paints dry very quickly so several shades can be added in a single session.  Once the painting is complete, I set the figures aside for a few days before the final step.


ACCENTING THE PAINT
This step is the accent the details of the figures, which if they were inanimate objects, would be the aging step.  I brush on a liberal but slightly watered-down mix of burnt umber over the entire figure.  After allowing it to set a bit, I then lightly wipe or dab off the excess.  I do this lightly as being too rough or aggressive may also remove the finish color.



Normally, I would be finished with the figures with the completion of this stage, but my two soldiers have still not been permanently joined together as you may have noticed in the previous photo.  The final step is to glue them together.  I then did some touch-up painting and accenting and now the pair has become a single unit.

To make their physical states more obvious, I added mobility aids – a walker and cane.  These were created with electrical wire, balsa wood, epoxy glue, wood putty and duct tape.  I used my typical painting and aging techniques.

Other subtle figures are often appropriate for dioramas.  In this case, I added pigeons.   They are not a fun thing to create because of their size.  But they would be expected in this setting.  I usually do more pinching than shaping of the clay in trying to create birds.  For the legs, I use stranded picture-hanging wire.  I drill two small holes into the bottom of the bird, separate out 4 strands of wire and glue them into the bird with epoxy glue.  When dry, I spread the four wires to create three toes facing forwards and one facing to the rear.  Painting and accenting complete the process.  With the wire legs and toes, it’s easy to position the pigeons anywhere on the building. 



If the species of bird would normally have a nest, that’s a good thing to add as well.  And finally, I always add bird droppings anywhere a bird would normally spend lots of time.


"Thank You" - 2012

PERSONALIZING THE DIORAMA
One of the things I like to do with dioramas is to personalize them.  This can be accomplished in many different ways without being very obvious.  I started this practice on my second diorama – Victor Falls - Station #1 - 1992 and have fine-tuned and improved the practice over the years.  Some of the techniques I have used to personalize dioramas include:  adding newspapers (I write my own headlines and add photos relating to my personal life)
 

"Movement In 'B' Flat" - 2008

and books (I may add one or two which I am currently reading or have just read),
 

"We Regret To Inform You..." - 2011


building names (as in this diorama, naming a structure after a relative or friend), product names (using a relative or friend’s name for a brand name), cornerstones, flyers and manipulating numbers which appear in the diorama.


"Comfortable Habits" - 2007

"Thank You" - 2012 

In this diorama, as described earlier, the building has been named for my third grandson, Leo Henry Marcelynas as indicated on the cornerstone and the building name.  His birth date was manipulated to create the year the structure was built – 3/1/09 became 1903.

 
Other dioramas I created over the years afforded opportunities to describe other aspects of my personal life.

"We Regret To Inform You..." - 2011

 

 "Small Town America" - 2002


"Saturday Night" - 2000 


"True Grit" - 2005 







"Chatsworth Revisited" - 2004

HEINZ BAKED BEAN CAN
One thing I always add to my dioramas is a miniature can of Heinz baked beans.  I am not related to the Pittsburgh Heinz empire but since my last name is “Heinz”, I add the can.  It’s often not very well hidden, and I have found that over the years, viewers often challenge themselves to find the can.



 It’s not a regular can, though.  Years ago, as a novelty, I purchase a can of Heinz baked beans from a small store in Leavenworth, WA which was featuring international food items.  The product was distributed to the Great Britain market so had a different-colored label – it was blue.  When I decided to add a miniature Heinz baked bean can to my dioramas, I just removed the label from the most handy can in the house which was this one.  I reduced the label on the copier to the right scale, glued it around a 3/16” dowel rod, painted both ends silver and the can was complete. 


FINISHING THE DIORAMA
Now the diorama is virtually complete.   All the figures are glued into place and any touch-up landscaping is finished.  The only thing left is to create the base stand and the title plaque.

Since I always try to create dioramas at minimal expense, I do the same for the base.  Since there is no return on the investment, I must keep the expenses low.

BASE STAND
I fabricate my base stands from simple 1 x 4 common pine.  I want a flat black finish on my base stand so it doesn’t draw attention from the diorama, but the inexpensive pine will not finish very nicely.  To achieve the black finish, I stretch black felt over the base framework stapling it tightly to the inside of the framework.

Finally, I prepare my title plaque.  I can create the title fairly easily but spend a bit more time composing the often 2 or 3 sentence text accompanying it.  Along with the text, I always include the title, the year it was finished, the scale and the dimensions.  After editing it a few times, I add a border and copy it onto card stock.  I then cut mat board as a backdrop for the plaque and attach both to the base stand.

 


NOW WAIT FOR A SUNNY DAY
Now that the diorama is finished, I watch the weather to find the appropriate conditions for taking finish photos of the project.  Depending up the scene, I may prefer a partly cloudy day or bright sunshine or early morning or high noon.



"Winter Labors" - 1998



"Over the River and Through the Woods" - 2001


"Small Town America" - 2002

 

"Movement in 'B' Flat" - 2008 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 







 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

    

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 































 

 

 

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