I love tiny things
June 10, 2014 10:24 AM   Subscribe

I was always fascinated by dioramas in museums as a kid, and it only just occurred to me that I could learn/teach myself how to make them as a hobby. I would like to be able to make realistic ground/foliage/rocks, buildings (both modern and otherwise), and people/animals. The last one is easy enough to find books on. As for the rest... I'm having a harder time.

I have begun doing some basic research (read as: lots of Googling), but there seem to be two types of instruction available: Professional-quality with the expectation that you already generally know what you're doing (or, in the case of buildings, are an architecture student with a whole studio to work with), or elementary-school how-to-get-an-A-on-your-shoebox-project instructions. I need something that will lead to an understanding of the latter. Books are ideal.

The most important thing for me is a listing of tools and materials. Generally, if I can read through a list of pieces and how they can be used, I can strike off on my own without step by step instruction on the actual project. Suggested methods - for creating certain textures, for example - are my second priority, but still important. I can glean these things from a step by step guide to a particular project, but it's not ideal.

Thanks in advance!
posted by Urban Winter to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (14 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
I wonder if you've checked out model train building sites? Some of the landscapes model train hobbyists build can get pretty detailed, and I think a site which caters to that hobby may be the right balance of "more advanced" and "but not a museum curator" which you're looking for.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:28 AM on June 10, 2014 [11 favorites]

Model trains is where it's at. Also some of the other branches of modeling. My father paints little civil war figurines and uses them in tabletop gaming; he and some of his peers go to great lengths to recreate little towns and buildings used on the battlefield. The techniques and materials available would directly translate over to what you're looking to do.
posted by furnace.heart at 10:36 AM on June 10, 2014

Model trains and doll houses are going to be your best bets here. Wee furniture, totes adorbs little shrubberies. It's so twee.

Check out My Small Obsession
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:38 AM on June 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

Have you tried the big art stores like what we have in NYC like Blick or Utrecht? Architectural students need to make stuff like that regularly.
posted by Yellow at 10:49 AM on June 10, 2014

When I was into model trains we would make tiny trees using spent flower clusters from Nandina (Heavenly Bamboo) and the packs of "foliage" that they sell at hobby shops.
posted by humboldt32 at 10:58 AM on June 10, 2014

I share your obsession. And yeah, look into model train stuff. You don't even need to add trains if you don't want to.

Check out some of the how-to videos over at Woodland Scenics. They're trying to sell you their products, but a lot of what they're doing can be done just as easily with generic stuff from craft stores. Their stuff is pretty great though, and you can build some very cool landscapes with it.

My son and I built a small train layout for a school project and building the landscape was so much fun. Crumpled newspapers and plaster cloth for the terrain, then covering it all with "grass" powder, "dirt" and trees.

For tools, start with your basic model building supplies. X-Acto knives + blades (buy them in bulk), sprue cutters (if you build plastic kits), putty knives, various glue (plastic glue, white glue, scenic glue (basically watered-down white glue), crazy glue), sanding pads and sandpaper, needle files, tweezers, paint brushes. You can eventually get into air brushes if you stick with it.

Materials you'll be working with are plaster of paris, plaster cloth (basically gauze covered in plaster), various Woodland Scenic products (grass, soil, underbrush), resin (for making ponds), paints, etc. Plastic styrene from Evergreen or Plastruc for model making.

For the ultimate model making tool kit, you can get inspiration from (Metafilter's Own) Adam Savage list of tools from his ILM days.
posted by bondcliff at 11:05 AM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yep I agree, model trains is the right avenue. My dad made a really cool N-scale train diorama, I remember being really impressed with the foliage and water. The train town was so cute, and he named it Amyville :)
posted by radioamy at 11:14 AM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

A model train shop would be a great place to start, I've never found one yet that didn't have a super helpful person working there. If you are looking for good videos you might want to look into miniature figure painting for various wargames (usually things like Warhammer) while the figures might not interest you a lot of the work that goes into basing and building terrain crosses over into diorama building areas and there so and a lot of the painting etc techniques would transfer well. There are also, as it's a hugely popular hobby, so you might have more luck finding what you are looking for, I know there are a tonne of videos out there.
posted by wwax at 11:49 AM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ha, I was coming in to say the same thing. My dad used to be into model trains, and I always had sick as hell dioramas for school projects because I'd raid his supplies.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:27 PM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Model trains, and "miniatures basing techniques". I paint miniatures for games (namely Warmachine), and if you're looking for some interesting techniques for ground, there are some great tutorials for it. (Basing, as in completing the model's base). You can find things like what seeds look like autumn leaves, different ways to do snow and water....all sorts of stuff if the train resources start to run dry. Also, look at "terrain" for miniatures, as that'll get you into the buildings and stuff. There are a wide variety of tutorials for this kind of thing....maybe more than in other similar hobbies, since it is for a bit of a younger, more tech-savvy crowd who seem to enjoy publishing youtube series on this kind of thing. (I could be wrong about that though, I'm not in the train hobby at all.)
posted by aggyface at 12:40 PM on June 10, 2014

Landscape architects (myself included) often make trees by hand for design models. They have advantages over the store-bought trees you'll find ready-made in art supply stores or for train sets: you can modify them to look like specific species, and you get the detail of tree branching rather than a fuzzy, flocked vagueness. Also, they're very simple and fun to make.

Here's an Instructable that outlines the usual process. The method detailed there is a bit intensive (I usually use one nail instead of two or even no nail at all, folding wire pieces in half and twisting using needlenose pliers - and I've never fussed over removing nail heads). But the general strategy is the same. You should vary the gauge of the wire according to the size tree you're making.

The other thing I'd say regarding materials for ground/foliage/rocks is that there are lots of random things - bits of old wool or felt, sponges, styrofoam, ripped cardboard, sugar cubes, broken dishes, actual tiny pebbles, and on and on - that when played with, painted, glued, etc. can make really compelling landscape-like forms and textures. I often find awesome model materials while simply wandering hardware and thrift store aisles.
posted by marlys at 1:41 PM on June 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

You may consider looking into gaming miniatures, specifically historical miniatures games/forums but don't discount fantasy games also, especially for learning specific techniques and tools.

There is a group that meets weekly at my local role-playing style game shop that works specifically on painting and modeling techniques. Most game shops I've been in don't have this type of class, but the owners/clerks can often direct you towards resources like books/supplies) or possibly specific locals that have an interest in the hobby and would be willing to talk with you/offer suggestions.

Additionally, if you are near any larger gaming conventions (Origins, GenCon, Kublacon, etc.) they often have vendors that sell a wide variety of supplies.
posted by AnneShirley at 4:52 PM on June 10, 2014

You should check into polymer clay - there are lots of books available, even at the library, and it's a great, versatile medium for things like rocks and fences and flowers. Scrapbook paper is available at hobby stores by the sheet and would make great backgrounds - like a brick wall or a sky. You can cut out a cloud from one sheet and mount it for dimension with a little piece of sticky foam behind it on top of a duplicate sheet, for example. The variety of scrapbook paper is astounding and it's very inexpensive. Oh - and torn sandpaper works well for a beach scene.

I've thought about trying a diorama myself because so many different types of materials can be used in the same project and I love the idea of scavenging all sorts of little things to work in the scene.

Have fun.
posted by aryma at 6:36 PM on June 10, 2014

You might also enjoy little-people.blogspot.com
posted by cephalopodcast at 7:20 PM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

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