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Making Scale Buildings from Scratch

Derek Barrett describes how you can make realistic scale buildings for your dioramas using readily available scrap materials

Click on the photos to see enlarged view


There are many companies who make excellent buildings from resin or plaster. These can be expensive, so looking for a more individual approach where I could show off my modelling skills, I decided to scratch build using whatever I could lay my hands on. Everything from cereal packets, to beads and even lentils and baking powder was used.

The subject of this article is a small ruined storehouse that might be found on any European farm of almost any period. It is fairly simple to construct and can lead you into even greater heights of imagination.

The principle material used is 5 mm Artists Foam Mounting Board. You should be able to get it from almost any large artists suppliers. The board is a sandwich of foam backed by thin card on either side. The chief advantage is that it is very easy to cut with a scalpel, can be stuck with PVA white glue and is very light but strong and the thickness is about right for a normal brick wall in 1/35 scale. It comes in large sheets that cost about £10. This will be enough for many projects of this type. I estimate the total cost of materials for this project was under £2.

Before rushing in and cutting, I start by planning what I am going to make. I look in books of the period, not at the tanks and other war paraphernalia but at the buildings in the background and the scenes of damage to gain an idea of type of building I want to incorporate in my dioramas. In some cases travel guides and general books can provide useful photos.

I try not to make an exact reproduction, unless that was the intention, I tend to use parts from several buildings to create a general scene.


I now lay out my tanks or whatever on to a piece of paper to get the layout right, trying not to put things at right angles to the base. Putting things at an angle makes a diorama look more dynamic. Set in your mind why the various pieces are where they are, even think of the time of day and year. All of this should help the finished model set a picture in the viewer’s eye. Unless that is the intention, try not to dwarf your models by having a small tank or car next to a large building. The building will draw the viewer’s attention and your vehicle will seem like a small accessory.

Once you have got an idea, make a simple sketch of what you intend to make, it doesn’t have to be work of art, just something to help get the proportions and general sizes right. You can often get an idea of size by looking at doorways and brick courses to scale the model.

The scene for the diorama was winter somewhere in mid Europe at the start of the war. It is early morning and the crew of a light command tank is about to set off, after sheltering for the night, from the snow, by a ruined stone walled shed.

Cutting The Walls

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Once I had planned what I was going to make it was time to cut out the pieces. For this building one end wall is intact with the others being damaged. So I marked out the end and back walls first, not forgetting to allow for the thickness of the board when measuring. Keep any odds and end left over, they come in very handy for filling when making the groundwork later.

Making The Stones

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Now you will need to cut out the brick facings. These were made from a Cereal packet, but you can use any thin packing material, kit boxes are ideal. Cut out a pile of pieces of various sizes to represent stones. Mine varied from 20 mm x 8 mm to 5 mm square. You will need quite a lot of these as you are going to cover both sides of the walls. Cut a few from thicker and thinner card to give some slight variation in the final wall.

Fixing the Stones

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I started on the inside of the walls first. As the sides will butt onto the inside of the end walls, mark a line 5 mm in from the end wall to give room for the sides to fit on.

Using an old ½" paint brush, cover a small area at the bottom of the wall with some diluted PVA glue. (I keep an old 35 mm film container in which I make up a 50:50 mix of PVA and water. It keeps for a long time and just needs an occasional stir). Start to lay on the bricks. Most stone buildings have larger stones at the lower edge and the corners. I try to get them fairly even and ensure that the layer above covers the gap between two stones on the layer below, varying the sizes of the stones as I go. This is where your preparation pays off as you should have a photo handy, which shows the construction of such walls.

Continue upwards until the entire wall is covered. In my photo you will see that at the top the stones continue to the edge as the side wall is broken away at that point. Don’t worry if they are not in exactly straight lines. Real stones are often laid rather haphazardly and much of the inside will be hidden from view anyway. Don’t worry about the fact that the stones look too neat and square, you will get the chance to rough up the edges later.

Continue with the inside of the other walls. You should aim, as far as possible, to get the layers to match up at the corners. Usual building practice is for each layer to interlock at the corners.

Put The Building Together

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Now you can glue the building together. Use a piece of scrap card as a sub base to hold everything in place. Use undiluted PVA to stick it together. If you want to, you can push some household pins into the corners to hold it steady while it dries.

Stone Cladding The Exterior

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The outside is much of the same with one variation. I wanted to show that the wall had, at some time, been plastered over (stucco) but most of it had fallen off. I cut some larger pieces of thin card to cover the areas where the stucco would be and filled in the gaps with stones. The purists among you may want to get it exactly right and match up the stones layers on the inside with those on the outside, as the real building would be. However, I’m not that much of a purist and have found that as long as the exposed edges line up, it’s not possible to see both sides at once anyway.

If you want to show the walls as mainly stucco with only a few damaged areas, you can cover most of the walls with card and have just a few patches of stonework.

Getting In A Mess

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Now for the messy bit. Cover your work area with plenty of old newspapers, as it will get wet and sticky. You will need some blotting paper. I find that old, used paper is best, but if you can’t get any then you can usually get new blotting paper from the same place as the foam board.

Tear out a piece of the blotting paper slightly larger than the area you want to cover. Turn it over and give it a liberal coat of the diluted PVA. Carefully lay it over the area you are going to cover and coat with more PVA. At this stage it will be very flimsy and may tear. Don’t worry, just push it about with the brush until it butts up again, or leave a gap to show more damage. Using the end of a stiff brush, I use an old stenciling brush, stipple all over the blotting paper to bed it in. The stippling also gives the surface a rough texture. When it has dried a little you can also rub the blotting paper with a finger to raise the surface texture. You can pick off bits at the edges with a scalpel to feather them if required. Continue to add bits of blotting paper to all required areas. Where it goes over the edge of the wall you can either fold it over and stick it to the exposed edge or leave it proud and trim it off later.

When you have finished this, go over the entire model, inside and out, with dilute PVA. This helps to stick the stones more firmly and makes the much easier to work on for the next stage.

Sculpting The Stonework

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When everything has dried off overnight the model should be very hard but lightweight. You can now attack the stone work with a scalpel, files and sandpaper to add some wear and tear. I used a burr in my Minicraft drill to go over the stone edges to add some damage.

Finished Walls

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The finished end wall with nicks and cuts to resemble damage. When all this is finished cover the model again in dilute PVA to seal it.

Getting Plastered

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Now for another messy stage. Make up a runny mix of plaster and cover the entire model with it. You are aiming to get most of it between the stones to act as a mortar. Don’t fill up the cracks completely, as that would defeat all the previous stages. You want the mortar to be at a lower level than the surrounding stonework. Have a cloth handy and wipe off any excess as you go. You also should add some slightly thicker plaster to the cut edges of the board. These can be cut and filed to represent the exposed edges of the stonework.

When that has dried, give it yet another coat of PVA to fix the plaster and act as a key for the later paint. A handy tip is to cover any plasterwork with dilute PVA before painting. It stops the paint seeping into the plaster and also helps stop bits cracking off when handled.

Out With The Kitty Litter

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You can now glue the building on to your final base and start to build up the groundwork.

For this I glued scraps of the foam board, the offcuts from when I cut out the walls, to the base and then, using copious amounts of undiluted PVA, poured cat litter over the base. Push this into place with your fingers and leave to dry before pouring off any excess. You may need to do this several times until you get the effect of rubble from the walls spilling onto the ground around the building. Remember that different amounts of rubble would be apparent at different times after a battle. Immediately after a shell or bomb has landed there will be copious amounts of rubble. If it was a house or occupied building the Civil Defence organizations would soon sort through it to find any bodies. Later most of it would be scavenged to repair other buildings. Here we have a derelict store so most of it is still lying about.

Plastering The Base

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Cover the rest of the base with plaster to build up the groundwork. Leave a depression for the vehicle and embed a few pieces of cat litter in suitable places. Some crushed cat litter was sprinkled on top of the main litter to simulate finer rubble and dust. When that has dried off for a few days, cover it with yet more dilute PVA.

Priming The Model

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Spray the entire base with primer and then black. (I use Halfords Grey Primer and Satin Black spray cans) As mentioned several times on these pages, the black ensures that any unpainted areas are in shadow. With cat litter that is important as there always seems to be that area that you can’t reach.

When that has dried off you can start painting. I sprayed most of the building in various shades of grey and the stucco Humbrol 28 & 71. Then I applied Citadel Black and Brown washes to the stonework and Brown and Flesh washes to the stucco. The groundwork was sprayed in brown and black with touches of green. Some static grass was stuck round the building. Fallen timbers were cut from balsa wood stained with brown wash and added to the interior of the building. A damaged oil drum was found in the spares box and added for interest.

Completed At Last

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The finished article. The roof beams were made from balsa and the slates from card. The tank was glued in place, less the figures, and then the snow was added. I spayed 3M Photo Spray Mount over the model and sifted Bicarbonate of Soda (Baking powder) through a tea strainer all over it. This was left to dry before carefully brushing away much of the excess. The effect I wanted was of a light overnight snowfall, not a blizzard. A couple of places needed a repeat application to cover gaps. When I was satisfied I gave the model a light spray from my wife’s hairspray to fix it in place. The figures were now added and a little of the snow was brushed over their boots.

Another Diorama

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Another project underway. This time the scene is a flight of steps leading up to an invisible building or terrace. The inspiration for this one came from a travel guide to Prague. Most of the construction is as before. The cobblestones are lentils. There are several types and sizes. Trust me to get the wrong sort, these were a greenish colour and it wasn’t till I’d almost finished that I found that the outer skin shriveled and puckered when they got wet. I had to start again. This time I soaked them in warm water and peeled the outer skin off. They were stuck down with PVA and runny plaster brushed into the cracks. A few fell out but were left as potholes in the road.

The Walls were capped with pieces of scrap card to make a coping. The pavement was another piece of foam board with paving stones from cereal packet.

Making Steps

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Further on in the construction showing the hole in the stucco wall made as described before. The steps were layers of board with cocktail sticks stuck to the front edge. They were then covered with typing paper covered with dilute PVA before the front edges were cut away to show damage. Cracks were cut in them with a scalpel. More cat litter and pieces of foam board acted as rubble. The balls on top of the walls were small polystyrene balls and those on the lower level were metal necklace beads, all from a local shop that sells beads and stuff for necklaces, etc. Total cost about 20p

The Tamiya Kübelwagen was placed to see that the overall effect was what I wanted.

Finished Diorama

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The finished diorama, after painting and drybrushing to bring out the detail. The Lamppost is from Tamiya’s Road Sign Set. The figures are Tamiya’s German Tank crew at rest.

Another View

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Another view of the finished diorama. The signs are from Verlinden’s German Road Signs / Russia.


I hope that the methods shown here will inspire you to have a go. All it needs is some imagination; the building skills you already have. Most of the materials can be found round the house or purchased for very little outlay. The end result is something that is totally unique. No one else has a building exactly like yours.

If you want more inspiration to have a go at making buildings I can highly recommend Roy Porter’s "Model Buildings Masterclass" published by Windrow & Greene.

Last updated 14 April 2008

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July 2009, Milton Keynes Scale Model Club