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The mental image we get from the word “WATERFRONT” brings up the smell of salt and sea weed, the sounds of squawking sea gulls and pounding waves. While this is true, there are many other types of waterfronts. They exist anywhere that water transport meets land transport. They can be located on the shores of large lakes, big and small rivers, log ponds, as well as bays and estuaries. They can be found on the edges of large cities, small towns or all by themselves. While water fronts may vary in size, style and complexity, they all usually have some things in common. The obvious one is water, and we will discuss this in the first section of this clinic. In the second section, we will take a look at one of the most common components found in these scenes – wooden piles. Once we have our piles firmly hammered into the bottom of our sea, river or lake floor, we will take a look at how they were used to build channel markers, ship buffers, piers and wharves. Finally, we will take a look at some of the other ideas and materials that will be useful around the waterfront .

Photo of Shelter Bay on Gavin Hince's "North Coast Narrow Gauge" On3 layout


Section One  -  MODELING WATER

It is rare for the sea, a lake or even a pond to be perfectly flat like a mirror. While this does happen in nature, it often looks unnatural in our model.

If you want this effect, the usual way of achieving this is to paint the flat surface, usually masonite or MDF board, with paint to simulate the colour of the water you require, remembering to blend the shore colour, if the sea or lake’s shore is a shallow angle, with the deeper water colour. If the shoreline is steep or vertical in the case of a cliff, this blending will be narrow or be non–existent. In the case of a vertical cliff, you could add a small amount of the rock colour to the watercolour to simulate the part of the rock under the water, which will add depth to the still water. When the paint is fully dry, several layers of a clear full gloss will complete the water. The other option is to pour a two part mix of a clear full gloss such as “Envirotex” over the water area.

While this method will model water quite effectively, most water surfaces are affected by wind and, in the case of the sea and large lakes, by tide and wave movement. A very simple and effective method of creating this effect is needed. After some experimentation, we have found the following method to be cheap, easy and fast. Once the sea or lake surface has been prepared and had any holes drilled to take piles, a very thick layer of “Selleys NO MORE GAPS is squeezed over the surface. Using an old or cheap disposable brush (who want’s to spend valuable modelling time cleaning brushes), dip it in water and spread out the NO MORE GAPS evenly over the whole surface, to an approximate thickness of 1 to 2 mm. This depth doesn’t seem to be overly critical, but we have found that this amount works well. When the NO MORE GAPS is at the tacky stage, wearing a disposable glove, and with the flat of the hand, pat the NO MORE GAPS up and down. This will raise the surface into a small wave effect. The more tacky the NO MORE GAPS the higher the wave effect. If, when fully dry, the wave effect is too pronounced, a light run over with fine sandpaper will take the high wave points off.

 If you want higher actual waves, apply a thick run of NO MORE GAPS along the wave position and work into a wave shape as the NO MORE GAPS becomes workable. With the ends of your fingers (again wearing the glove) smooth the wave to its shape, working from the front edge of the wave to the back. Where the back of the wave meets the stiller water, again pat to blend the effect into the finished water. A light pat with a finger along the front edge of the wave will simulate the turbulent foamy effect of a wave breaking. You could also use a toothpick to work the final effect and repair any areas that do not look quite right. It’s always best to do some test try-outs to get a feel for this method.

The colour of the sea or any large body of water will vary with the sky colour as well as the surrounding landscape. While this can give some interesting colours, in modelling we tend to use colours that look right, rather than are right.

When colouring the main body of the seawater I use just two colours: Pthalo Blue and Chromium Green Oxide. Both these colours are by ATELIER. Squeeze a liberal amount of each colour onto a palette. It’s best to again wear disposable gloves; otherwise you will get paint all over your hands. Using a cube of soft foam (a brush takes longer and you have to clean it afterwards) dab the foam into one of the colours and rub it over an area of the water. Then dab the foam into the other colour and rub it over the same area mixing the two colours. The deeper areas of the water will have more of the blue, while the closer you get to the shore or where the water is shallower, the greener the colour of the water will be. If you are modelling the shoreline, such as a sandy beach, you will need to gradually add more sand colour, such as Yellow Ochre, until right at the shoreline, the colour is identical to your shore colour.

If you have modelled waves, you will find the backs of waves have a lighter colour where the water has been churned up by the wave action. This time we will use a brush that is about one inch wide. Dab your brush into a mixture of the Green Oxide and white and drag the brush back and forwards on some scrap paper to take most of the paint off. Then with this almost dry brush, drag over the back of the wave, at right angles to the wave face, blending it out as you move away from the wave front edge. This colour will be more prominent closer to the front of the wave. Using white paint dry brushed on with a flicking motion can simulate the foamy front of the wave. Once all this paintwork is fully dry, we need to apply the clear full gloss. If no other scenery or structures are in place, the easiest method is to use a commercial spray can of clear gloss and give the surface several coats, allowing time for each coat to fully dry. Otherwise you can simply paint several coats of a clear gloss onto the water surface

Section Two  -  WHARF PILES

One of the most common structural elements seen around a waterfront is pile. They are used for wharves, piers, parts of breakwaters, to hold navigation lights and to show where the shipping channels are located. Mostly they were whole tree trucks, stripped of branches and sometimes with the bark taken off. In latter years concrete has replaced tree trucks in many cases. In this section of the clinic we are going to concentrate on the wooden piles.

In building piles I usually use various sizes of ‘Ramon’ dowel, which is a fine straight grained white timber ideal for weathering and staining. I get my dowel from a Bunnings hardware store, which have a large range of ideal sizes in 2 and 3 foot lengths. Before we make a start on our model piles we have a couple of decisions to make. First, what are diameters are the piles required and, second, if we are modelling an area that has tidal influences, at what level of tide are we going to model. This is a very crucial decision, as it will effect how we treat all the objects on our diorama or water front scene that are in or near the water. To be believable, we must be consistent with all the elements, including these piles, as well as rocks,

Having cut the piles to the required length, including the depth they are to be inserted into the base (see diagram on the previous page), I use a very course rasp and attack the dowel with real vigour, dragging it up and down the dowel to really rough the surface. I then hammer a small flare on the top of the pile to simulate when it was pounded into the sea floor. Using a sharp pointed nail and a flat file brush I add weathering and splits to the top of the pile.  

To complete the piles, a clear full gloss is painted on everything, including the barnacles and seaweed up to a line about half way between the high and low tide marks to give this area a wet look. I tend to feather the gloss at the top edge, rather than have a hard line.  

Once the piles have been distressed, it is stained with a mixture of methylated spirits and brown and black shoe leather dyes. The ratio of dyes is about 3/4 brown to 1/4 black, with the methylated spirits added to dilute the stain to the required colour, depending on how much dye you use. The colour is a personal choice and only by experimenting and staining samples will to get the colour that suits you.

Now a simple template is required. Using a piece of paper or card, mark a line on one edge where your high tide mark is, then about a third of the way down, mark where the pile will stay wet, then a third down again to where barnacles and seaweed will grow to and finally the low tide mark (this is 6 mm from the bottom of the pile if you are modelling down to this level and using the 6 mm MDF base). With a pencil, mark all the piles from the bottom of the pile, up to the high tide line, dry brush.

Now we need to add some weathering to the pile. Lightly dry brush either a white or light grey paint from the top of the pile down to the high tide line. This will highlight the top of the grain that was raised with the course rasp and achieve a nice weathered look. Don’t forget to do this to the top of the pile as well, and add some bird droppings using a solid white paint.  

Any wood that is immersed in water over a long period will show some sign of rotting. This tends to turn the wood a black or very dark grey colour. To simulate this look, using a black paint, dry brush heaviest at the bottom of the pile, gradually using less paint up to the high tide line.  

Barnacles will grow on almost any surface that is covered by seawater for more that two thirds of the time. When I was making my piles for the lighthouse, I considered various herbs and other things to represent barnacles, and finally decided on dry  mint leaves, which I crushed up. These were attached by painting the bottom section of the pile with white glue and rolling it in the leaves.

Like barnacles, seaweed will attach to most things in the water, and I found that fine natural ferns were a good representation of these. Again, I painted the bottom area where the barnacles were with white glue and attached pieces of the fern. This was done in a vertical pattern. If you can’t obtain a suitable fern, a course green foam will do as well.  


Section Three - STRUCTURES

Now that we have built the various piles we will need for our waterfront scene, there are various ways they can used.

                            WOODEN PILES

One of the most common use of piles around the water front are a group of piles lashed together. These are use as channel markers or safety buffers for boats. Any number can be lashed together, but in our model world odd number like 3, 5 etc. seem to look best. Simply hold say three piles together, usually with the tops at different heights, and wind large scale rope around them. This rope can be purchased as a model boat detail part, or from craft shops that often have very good looking large scale rope. A good idea when building these multiple pile lash-ups is to have all the bottoms of the piles level except one which is longer. This longer one can be inserted into a hole drilled into the water surface. See diagram at right.

An easy way to mount the piles is to use a sandwich of two sheets of 6 mm MDF board (craftwood), with the top sheet having the correct size holes drilled in it to take the piles. The bottom sheet forms a base and thus all the holes are the same depth. If there are a lot of piles in the structure you often do not need to glue the piles in, as the combined friction is enough to hold them in place. The MDF also makes an ideal surface to simulate water on.

                                                                                       WHARVES and PIERS

Probably the most important and most substantial structure in a waterfront scene is the wharf or pier. These structures can be supports for a light house, or a long low wharf with warehouses and ships, as well as having many other uses.

All these structures have some type of decking, usually planked in some form or another. There are two ways to build this decking – the easy way and the hard way! Both ways have their uses, so it is worthwhile discussing both here.

First the easier method. This is where the entire top and sides of the deck are covered with all the internal beams cannot be seen. Using a piece of 6 mm craftwood (or sheet to your preference) cut to the size of the decking required and locate and drill holes the size of the piles being used. (see the top diagram right) Insert all the piles allowing for the correct height. The piles on the outside edge are usually taller and extend through the deck. If the holes are a good fit, glue is not usually required to hold the deck in place. With this completed, the edge of the sheet can be face with the timber, and then all the decking added, shaping the boards around any piles that pass through the deck.

These structures were heavily cross braced with diagonal and, if they are tall enough, with horizontal beams, much like a railroad trestle bridge.

Now for the harder method. If you are really serious and building a foreground model where all the beams can be seen, we need to do a little more work. We need to file shallow notches in each side of the pile to seat the main beams (see bottom diagram right ). The beams that the planking sits on were usually just butted up to the pile and bolted.

To do this a simple jig is very handy and easy to make. Using a piece of scrap sheet, glue two lengths of timber to support and hold the pile in place (see diagram A below). Using four thick nails, place as guides for the file. Use a piece of the beam to set the correct spacing. If you have a lot of piles to file out, you may have to replace the nails several times.

Once this is ready to go, place a pile in the supports and file a shallow slot across the pile (see diagram B below). Repeat this first slot on all the piles. Then, using a piece of thin flat block (see diagram C below), glue onto the base sheet opposite the filing slot. Place the pile back in the jig with the first slot sitting on the thin flat block and file a second slot in the pile. This will keep the slots on either side of the pile parallel and square with each other. A good idea is to have two of these jigs set up on the sheet – one for the first slot and the other for the second slot. I also placed metal stops to set the depth on the slots using some aluminium section (see diagram A below).



Any object, including timber and metal is affected by the elements, and when we add water ,and especially salt water, this effect is normally very severe. I have three main techniques to achieve this severe weathering on timber:

  • Distressing with wire brushes, course rasps and other tools.

  • Staining the timber.

  • Dry brushing with paints and chalks.

Some of the tools shown opposite, which include Exato saws, a file brush, various dental and a rust removal wire brush probes are used to torture the timber to achieve that well worn and weathered appearance found in waterfront locations. The file brush, which can be purchased at most hardware stores is called a file card, and is used to clean metal files. It is used to distress the end grain of timber, while the smaller round brass wire brush is great for ripping into the wider flat timber surfaces. These can be purchased at most Auto Shops and are normally used to file out rust in cars. An Exacto saw blade is used to achieve a less distressed wood grain effect, and is handy for locations such as the top of decks. The sharp probes is used to impart deeper grain and splits into the timber.

Once the timber has been distressed, it is stained with a mixture of methylated spirits with brown and black shoe leather dyes added. The ratio of dyes is about 3/4 brown to 1/4 black, with the methylated spirits added to dilute the stains to the required colour, depending on how much dye you use. The colour is a personal choice and only by experimenting and staining samples will you get the colour that suits you.

The final finish on the timber is to dry brush the faces of timber that will be seen. There’s no point doing the sides that can’t be seen. I use Floquil Polly Scale “Aged White”, but any off-white paint will do. If possible, a thick paint is easier to use to achieve this effect. Dip the brush into the paint, and drag the brush back and forward on some scrap paper, and when most of the paint has been taken off, lightly brush on the remaining almost dry paint onto the surface of the timber, just painting the high spots of the grain.



One thing you will always find around a waterfront is rusted metal. Even the most well maintained metal will show some sign of deterioration. Over the years we have tried many methods to achieve a realistic rusted metal effect. Some worked really well, others were only reasonable. The latest method, seems to give good results most of the time.

                           SMALL DETAIL PARTS

Small parts such as nut/bolt/washer castings and other small metal parts are painted with a weathered black paint, and when dry, are dusted with powdered rust or rust coloured fine chalks. Commercial tile grouts also have some good rust colours, and works well. It is a little bit courser than the chalks and often needs “Dullcote”™ applied to ensure it stays where you want it too.

                             CORRUGATED IRON

This is usually pressed aluminium. It is cut to the required sizes and then undercoated with a grey primer on both sides and the edges to dull the gloss appearance, as well as to give the next coat of paint a good surface to adhere to. We now use a dull red and dark blue paint (we use Humbrol™ red #73 and blue #104 but the choice is yours as to what brand you use). With both cans open and a 1/4” chisel brush in hand, dip into the red paint and apply onto the sheet, and with the brush still wet, dip into the blue and over-paint the red. Vary the amount of each colour used on each sheet so you get a variety of colours from red through purple to blue. When all the sheets are painted and allowed to fully dry, brush on a dark brown rust powder, varying the coverage on each sheet. Finally, with a lighter ochre coloured powder, dab on blotches at random to represent areas of dry powdered rust. Don’t over do this effect, and leave some sheets without any. The object is to achieve a set of sheets that look similar but have subtle differences in colour and rust spots.


A lot of flat sheet was used around waterfront scenes, as well as narrower pieces for roof edges, capping and guttering. A great base material to use for this is artists water colour paper. It can be purchased from all art supply shops and comes in a large sheet for about $5.00. Cut to the required size, and follow the same method as with the corrugated iron, except you normally do not have to undercoat it. Where you need to bend this paper for things like roof capping, score about half way through with a knife and bend over a straight edge.


Rain and waves will form runs of rust from things like nails and bolts, vertically down walls, piles etc. To simulate this effect, you can use a mid-brown artist water colour pencil. Draw the lines of rust onto the object and with a fine brush and clean water soften the lines by drawing the damp brush down them.




There are many excellent commercial detail parts available from hobby shops who carry boat kits and parts, such as fine ropes, life buoys, etc. It is also worth having a look through craft shops, who carry things like ropes and fine chain that a perfect in our scales, and art supply shops.

Fishing nets can be made from the fold-out nylon mesh umbrellas that are used to keep insects of food. Just cut the frame off, stain and drape in the appropriate places. The buoys that are attached to these nets can be made from small fishing sinkers, painted red or orange.