Thursday, September 3, 2020

Making better roads

By “roads,” of course, I mean motor vehicle roads, highways, not railroads, and I think they can be an essential part of realistic layout scenery. We all know very well indeed what asphalt or concrete roadways look like; we look at them every day and travel on a great range of them over much of our lives. But it is all too easy to make a model roadway that is not very realistic.
     I have posted before on this topic, in a series called “Streets, Roads and all that.” My main topic was ways to realistically model all aspects of roads. The first post on the topic was the most relevant to today’s post (you can find it at this link: ). It was about such features as center lines and signage. Today I am interested in something far more basic: good coloration, surface quality, and dimensions.
     In my first efforts to model roads on my layout, I made a final coat of plaster. This does make a suitably smooth surface, and it takes paint well. But any scratch or bump opens the white plaster beneath. I decided to make road surfaces instead with a really fine-grained paper mache material, the “Brandt’s” taxidermist’s product I have mentioned before. This usually requires sanding when fully dry and set, and takes paint well enough, but is hard to get truly and uniformly smooth.
     I then decided to try something I had seen in magazine articles (hardly a new idea; one written description of this method is by Marty McGuirk in Model Railroader, May 1997, page 92). This method simply uses sheet styrene, which is automatically smooth, can be contoured easily to show a “crown” to the road, and with a primer coat, can be painted well. Most of my newest roads were made this way, such as Pismo Dunes Road in my layout town of East Shumala (for a post on this road building, see this link: ).
     The road I want to talk about today is Bromela Road, in my layout town of Ballard. The original improvement project for this road incorporated a piece of styrene, as I showed in an earlier post (you can see that one at: ).
     I primed and painted this roadway, but have never been happy with the final contours nor the color. Here is a photograph of it as it was recently (this is a super high-angle view, using a ladder, so not a view any layout visitor could get).

     The middle third of what you can see above is in fact the styrene part described in the post cited in the previous paragraph. But there are two problems. First, the parts to the left and right of center are not very smooth. And second, most serious to me, the pale, slightly bluish gray color is not an asphalt color. Yes, we can tell it’s a road, but it doesn’t really look right.
     I began with the first problem. In the leftmost and rightmost thirds of the road visible in the photo above, the texture was smoothed out with the Brandt’s paper mache I mentioned, applied with a putty knife. You see the as-applied look below, clearly showing the smooth styrene part in the middles.

The next step was to sand the paper mache application to make it smoother. I used 60-grit coarse paper, which makes short work of the irregularities. (A portable vacuum to remove the dust is a good idea at this point.) This creates a much more uniform texture over the entirety of the road length in the scene above.
     Next I wanted to address color. The road as you see it above is not only a very light gray, as asphalt roads go, even late in their life, but it has that slight bluish tinge which I don’t associate at all with asphalt. So I mixed up some of the same gray primer used in the road color you see above, and added some black from the same paint brand and type. This mix was painted over the entire road, even a little way over onto the shoulder, and I will come back with my usual Rust-Oleum “Nutmeg Brown” to touch up the edges, prior to adding any scenic materials.

One of the paints mixed was a “satin” finish, so the surface you see above was a little glossy. I sanded it lightly with 200-grit paper, then lightly dusted it with flat finish.
    As I often say to modelers, your best source of information about the color of asphalt roads is the ones near your house. Keep in mind that “asphalt” is the black, petroleum-base binder for the gravel aggregate, and to an engineer this kind of road is called “asphalt concrete.” As we all know, freshly paved roads like this are almost black, while well-worn ones are far lighter, approaching the color of the aggregate, as binder is worn away.
     The roadway in the above photo is a level of gray that I like pretty well, but it doesn’t look like a real road surface. My next step is to take some superfine dirt and rub into the surface, making it look a little dusty and a little browner. Where does this kind of dirt come from? It’s best found around home plate of softball or Little League diamonds. Fill one empty peanut butter jar and you’ll have enough for years of work.
     Next the roadsides need some grass and small bushes, and there need to be signs, such as speed limit signs, but I will return to those in a later post.
Tony Thompson

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