Landscaping with styrofoam boards

I want a hilly landscape for my model railway, sculpted from polystyrene foam (styrofoam). I went for a super-cheap solution – under-floor heating insulation!

There are many forum posts and YouTube videos recommending various approaches to creating rolling landscapes for model railways. Most of them still rely on the track itself being directly attached to a wooden base board, or perhaps using something like Woodland Scenics pre-made inclines. A few people, though, have had great success in sculpting their hills directly out of styrofoam. I thought I’d give that a try.

My local model shop sells sheets of modeling styrofoam. It’s the extruded polystyrene we’re after, which is manufactured as a solid block, rather than expanded polystyrene, which is little balls of polystyrene packed together. I priced up the quantity I thought I wanted, and it came to over £75 – ouch! Time for a re-think. Even with taking the complexity of the landscape down from my ambitious first draft, it still came to around £35. I phoned ahead to the model shop and asked whether they had 14 sheets in stock, and they said they’d have to order that quantity in specially. At that point, I started to wonder whether I was barking up the wrong tree.

And then I stumbled across a few posts recommending getting your styrofoam boards from your local builders’ merchants. It seems that the exact same styrofoam boards are used in housing construction for insulation and under-floor heating. Exact same material, but at larger sizes, and much lower cost. I got my under-floor heating insulation sheets from an eBay seller for about £15 – less than half what it would have cost for the same thing but branded as a modeling material!

I’m pleased to say that I’ve had great success so far. I’ve spent a couple of evenings out in my garage sawing away at my blue polystyrene with a steak knife (yes, that is the general recommendation!), and while there’s still lots of refining to do I have made significant progress. I have a hill. I have smooth (ish) slopes for the track to transition from one level to the next. I have smoothed and rounded the edges so it looks slightly less like rectangular blocks (still some work to do here though). I have planned out where the road will go and made slopes for that too. And I’ve laid the track out on it and checked that the train can still traverse the incline.

It’s still a long way off completion, but it’s already looking far more interesting than a flat board. Next job will be further refining the landscape to make it look less manufactured, further smoothing out on the track inclines, and some sculpting on the roads. Only when all of that is done will I be able to glue everything together and start painting it.