Thursday, 20 March 2014

Terraforming aka "making a mess"

Just before Christmas, I posted a short summary of the first significant expansion of Philip's Creek for about eight years ( Since then, the track has been laid and, over the past few weeks, I have started to work on the terrain adjacent to the line.

As it has been quite a while since I last did some serious landscaping, it was time to relearn some old techniques and try a few new ones. However, one thing that remains constant is the use of Styrofoam both as a base for the track and a landscaping medium. I have used it successfully for every module of Philip's Creek. It has proved to be stable, lightweight, and, when managed properly, has stood the test of numerous moves without any damage. In my experience to date, there are only two things to be wary of when using Styrofoam, any exposure to petrochemical products which can see your creation disappear before one's eyes, and the mess as the final landform is created. Of these, the first can easily be avoided or managed, the second cannot.

My general approach to building the landforms is fairly conventional, build up layers of Styrofoam, carve them to a final level, apply some form of coating to the Styrofoam and then add various scatter material to finish. The adjacent photo provides an overview of the progress to date.

I mentioned the impossibility to avoid making a mess as the Styrofoam is shaped. My objective has been to contain this mess to the immediate area of the construction and avoid, like the plague, any activity that sees the Styrofoam pellets migrating into the house and the consequent wrath of  'higher authorities'. At one stage, I had two battery power vacuum cleaners working in tandem, with a normal vacuum cleaner as backup.

In shaping the Styrofoam, I have preferred to shave it with a large knife rather than hot wire. I then used the hand rasp shown the photo to achieve the final shape. While it gives a great outcome, it is the tool that creates the greatest mess and requires regular cleaning.

Previously once the shape had been finalised, I either coated it with a coat of plaster or paper towels impregnated with plaster. However, over time, I found instances of flaking or lamination. This time, I decided to try absorbent wipes sprayed with a 50/50 mix of PVA and water and allowed to cure. They are very inexpensive, a pack of 10 cost about $1 from Woolworths. To date, the results have been very positive and the wipes, after the glue has dried, provide a firm hard shell.

I use a mix of earth coloured tile grouts to provide the basic ground cover. This was sprinkled onto good coating of the PVA/water mix and allowed to set. A second coating of the PVA/water was applied just to make sure everything was glued down. One of the unexpected benefits of this was that it highlighted low points in the creek line. The still drying glue can be seen as the white shape at the rear of the adjacent photo. These will become stagnant ponds in an otherwise dry creek line. The preliminary painting for these started, and since the photo was taken, a couple of layers of clear vanish have been added. This was time to be cautious about the interplay between Styrofoam and mineral based paints. Fortunately, no adverse effects have been noted and I suspect that the earlier work has provided an effective seal.

 However, there is still a lot more landscaping to do and the other new technique for me is the use of static grass. I have recently invested in an applicator together with a few different coloured grasses. There appears to be a lot of instructional material available on You Tube and other places but there is no replacement for personal experience, so a few more lessons to learn.