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(Guest)   JCS Archive   Hugh Laubis   Building a Pink Foam Mountain
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Building a Pink Foam Mountain
Hugh Laubis
Joined: Nov 6, 2011
Topics: 46 Replies: 28 Topics: 46
My Archive Category | My Website
posted Jul 16, 2012: 

Here is my story of building a PINK FOAM mountain and renewing my layout.

This project took roughly 9 months of effort parceled out in some hours a day and some days a week. I would be less than honest if I did not confess that at times the work was tedious and a few days off were welcome.I like to run, fix, restore and just plain play trains. Building infrastructure and doing landscaping was always for me just a necessary evil. It turned out to be fun. I liked it!
Not everyone looking at this wants the end to end details thus I put this story into a number of PHASES so on lookers may scroll down to what interests them.

When scrolling down, look for a couple of these guys NEXT PHASEat beginning of each PHASE.

PHASE 1 Conceiving the idea, working out a design, and working it into the existing layout. It was without a doubt the most difficult.

PHASE 2 Next was working out a scale looking design flow from the existing tabletop layout up to the mountain top and modularizing the project to make easy the decorative work outside of the train room. Train table is small,roughly 9x11.

PHASE 3 Executing the modular approach to building and working with Pink foam, plus some handy tools to make life easy, useful paint and landscaping material ideas.

PHASE 4 Building the Lake.
There is a 7.5 minute VIDEO of the completed mountain at the end of this Phase.

PHASE 5 Redoing the flat tabletop and developing interesting hi-rail scenes. Only your imagination counts here.
There is a 15 minute VIDEO here showing the entire layout.



Finishing the mountain! The Goal!

Access is required not only to finish the project but also if repair is needed. This was only partially planned in original layout. The hole you see behind the coal towers was a 'crude' looking lake which was designed to come out from below for mid-layout access. This would not be enough for what was to come.

Table was sturdy from the get-go! This sturdy framework helped when it came time to add the additional access point where you see my head popping through earlier.

Here are a few shots of the table-top flat layout which friends encouraged me to convert to Hi-rail and provide some depth. Base table is 9.5' x 11.5' and sits into the far corner where you see the windows.
Doing this job without starting from scratch proved be a challenge.

Visitors loved the layout as you see it here but seeing the detail in the rear corner was lost in the distance and the height of the layout dictated by building it ontop of kitchen cabinets made it even tougher.

What was needed was a plan. I wanted a plan which would provide a distinctive change but not one required to strip down and start over. Next you see the basic paper plans which allowed me to get started. They leave the industrial front part of the layout almost completely in tact with the theme of COAL, OIL and LUMBER in place. It would require the 50's town to move up one level.

I also did not wish to lose the ability to have at least 5 tracks under the mountain on which to store different trains on these sidings. So they are incorporated in the concept diagrams, though the actual construction turned out a little different than the concept drawing due to location of the new access hole.

Time arrived to tear up the entire section of the existing layout that would wind up under the new Mountain tunnel. Reworking the mainlines and under-tunnel sidings was critical to determining WHERE the new additional access point would be cut out. At the same time, where and how the existing trackage of the main lines would accomodate PORTALS. The next few photos show that work in progress and the final result.

All this white plaster stuff is what I made from moulds in preparation. I never did use the portals as you will see in progress ahead, however I did make the walls at the lake level with the view into the sidings.

Finally I came across some used commercially made portals. This one fit perfectly as is. Inside tunnel wall is stone paper made on my printer..... Boy did that suck up ink!

Lots of care had to be taken to insure mainline clearances for cab swing on steamers and passenger car bulge on the curves.

Second additional access hole will be cut in far corner once the sidings are finalized.

Working out the details of the plan takes time but it all pays off when the finished product comes out to your liking.

This portal was made by a splicing of two others and some of the pieces allowed me to finish the third tight one against the wall.

Doing a remake job like this always brings baggage along with it. The backdrop which is all around the room is one of those. I wished to keep that so my new mountain addition had to blend into the existing backdrop.

Everything came to a halt with mountain production when I focused on the fact that I had 10 switches, 7 sidings and two long mainline stretches buried out of sight. At this point I decided to design a display panel out of Christmas light LEDs to mount on the wall in an available spot which would tell me the status of what is going on under the tunnel and in the closet at any point of time.

Design & use of Christmas LEDs is info for another story but all sensing wires were dropped below table when track work was done and wires routed to box up through the wall. Today when I 'play' trains, I know how valuable that decison to halt everything and build the box was. It is also a 'WOW' to visitors.

If you want more on use of Christmas LEDs try looking here.


I am now ready to take some materials and start to piece them together to define what the base foundation of the structure will be. Here are 4 photos which roughly but happily begin to define what the enclosed part of the layout will be.

What you cannot see is that all the 1 x 2 fir strips are connected to other such strips screwed into the wall at rear of tunnel. At this point also what you cannot see is that the NEW rear access hole has been cut out. This was easy to do after the sidings under the tunnel were locked in place. I made sure all under table wiring was not in the way, drew a back marker line, took a sawzall and bingo!

Later when you look at finished photos, you will realize that all the items propped around the mountain are only placed there while my mind puts together a final workable plan. At this point it was still very loose.

A new 'kink' in the armour develops when I decide to design and install a 'catenary' system into the layout makeover. AS a result, these decisions were made.

1. The Catenary would be for looks only and not to power the engines. This removed the need for overhead wire and power in the tunnel. I still needed to manage the glide of the pantographs in /out and inder the tunnel.

You amy wish to see more on the catenary construction here CATENARY CONSTRUCTION

2. As a result, I decided that the underside of the mountain infra-structure would have a ceiling made out of masonite with the slick side down to facilitate the gliding action of the pantographs.

3 Complications got worse as I decided to illuminate the underside of the tunnel. For this I chose a string of 100 christmas lights, It was independently strung so if one light nlew out, it would be the only one. I also wired that plug for the lights through a switch in my control panel so I could/would only turn it on at will.

As you look inside tunnel you will see the shiney side of the ceiling, the lights peeping through (and out of the way of pantographs) as well as the decorated poles holding up the firm (2ft x 4ft)board used to support my weight in the earlier pictures.

One last detail before closing up and getting on with the mountain. I switched the bumpers inside the tunnel to pre-war 025's, added a microswitch so when I backed the train into one of the sidings, it would back into the switch and ring a bell! This way I knew I was all the way in.


Working out a somewhat of a realistic but somewhat fantasy looking design flow for the INs, Outs, UPs & DOWNs caused by the mountain in a short space on the relatively small layout.

This next picture gives a perspective of a design flow from the tabletop up through the top. This changed considerably from the initial concept because the one long wall from end to end would just not look good. As well the new recreational lake (the hole you see) would be isolated from the 50s town.
So I created a passive park coming down from town to the lake area. To the right, I created a shear cliff like module to make room for my oil operation. We will talk more about this design as we move through this PHASE.

Sticking this mountain in the corner was a good idea but to provide some hi-rail perspective was harder than I could imagine when I started.

Issues were:

How to deal with providing transition between what turned out to be 4 levels in a short space?
How to deal with roads to no where?
How to deal with transition of industrial level activity to a campground lake?
How to build a 50s America town with trains under it?
How to incorporate a PALISADES PARK athmosphere?
How to build a MENONITE FARM into level 3?
What scene best fits the highest point at rear most point of the mountain.

This is the shear cliff module which I made for the drop from level 2 back to base level 1. I call this section Palisades Park which was an amusement park in NJ which I frequented many times growing up in NYC. It gave me room for my Oil Operation and when constructed, also gave me opportunity for a small waterfall.

Back to the Passive Recreation Park on the opposite side, here you see the rise up to level 2. When I landscaped this module, I molded in stairs to level 2 and built a small parking lot for park visitor parking.

You can see the transition connection of the park lot to the diner lot where a Car Show is under way. Layout is designed to leave the impression of a day where time stopped in 1960. All items on layout try to proto typically replicate items from before that time. It is why the cars in the show typify a show 15 years earlier.

Here we step back to look at how I came up with the mountain grading. I took some stiff paper, taped them together, cut out a tree top profile and taped to a small platform simulating the pinnacle of the mountain top.

With the concept satisfactory in my mind, it became clear that the whole mountain would take 4 levels, 3 off the base level. Using more fir strips, I build more infrastructure. Then,I fashioned two vertical PINK FOAM sections and after attaching them where the paper was hanging, I mounted the newly purchased wall between LEVEL 2 and LEVEL 3 and started gluing together a horizontal mountain. We will talk more on working with the foam in a later PHASE discussion. The neat thing about working with foam is that you can use every piece, just glue in place and trim.

Shifting back to Palisades Park, we address one of my Roads to Nowhere. Coming through town with a Main Street, I had to make the transition of the street into something. For all these transition pieces, I chose HO Portals. I bought two types and had a third laying around. One type was used for the Trolley portals into and out of the mountain. Then a different style and colored differently was used for auto traffic on both ends of Main Street.

The prime importance for all this transition work was to be sure it blended in with my backdrop which was already in place before I started this upgrade. To add an interesting part to this module which would take focus off the portal entry, I created a rock slide which closed off the access. It shows police dealing with the traffic jam which resulted. Car in tunnel is wrong vintage but it had flashing lights so it made the cut.

On LEVEL 3, I need a way to show that the farmers had a way off the mountain. This portal, style 3, had to be glued into the foam so as to reduce its overall size and not protrude and become a scene stealer.

I also decided to sink in a Colber water tank which would act as supply for my 50s town on LEVEL 2. Hole you see is not the final hole but one I worked around while designing levels 3 & 4. Finishing these levels could only happen by sitting on LEVEL 2 as shown in one of the early PHASE 1 picture.

Here you get a broader shot of LEVELs 2 and 3 with the farmer level covered with plaster cloth awaiting painting and landscaping.

A close up of the farmers portal off the mountain showing a hiker viewing out over the valley.

This is not a very clear picture but if you look close, you will see a neighbor farmer coming out of the PORTAL on a horse and wagon to visit his Menonite friends. You will also note that the size of these figures on LEVEL 3 are not to scale but rather larger. This was another decision which had to be made and my wife , the CEO, helped with it. Purists tried to convince me to make them either scale or HO size to create the perspective of distance. What resulted was that the beauty of the scenes were lost in the distance. Using the larger scale figures and perspective leave the scenes visable and enjoyable to the visitors. Purist train friends agree that the perspective works well. CEO is happy!

A broader view.

On the left side by the Diner module, I tried a model portal against the backdrop where street was to go. It did not work at all.

What I did was sharpen curve and add another module which pointed the street into the PINK FOAM and under LEVEL 3. Note that you can see the backdrop through PORTAL.

This is a good view of finished PORTAL with a black wall inside. I also mounted a lighted billboard inside which show up great when observing the scene at night.

Another perspective showing the entire transition of the Diner, car show, parking lots and street portal. Kids ask where these portals go and I just tell them to the next town. They are OK with that.

Next challenge is back down on LEVEL1 trying to get the road from the lumber yard to go somewhere. Clearly where it is will not work as shown. Behind portal is a wide open field. What I did was to go back under the tunnel to a spot where there was backdrop which was no longer visable from the outside and cut it away to use where I needed it behind this portal.

I trimmed the stolen piece, glued it to the backdrop and added some paint to blend it in. Inside the portal, I glued a picture cut out of a magazine to give a perspective of distance in the next valley. Hokey!, yes but in the grand scheme of things, it works fine.

Another transition worked into the mountain backdrop. Much of this is really effecting my goal of a true hi-rail look but if one looks back to the size of the room, size of the layout table some forgiveness must take place.

The far corner behind KATONAH station also had a perspective problem. The grand field was also there in the backdrop and while it worked, did not work well with the stations. The Murphy Storage building is 1/8 inch plywood with a molding across the top, painted, decorated and made to slide behind that $2 freight station just ahead of the mainline PORTAL into the closet tunnel. To understand this, you need to look back at the paper drawings shown earlier.

Remember,if it looks good to you, that is all that matters.

Here you see a picture of a 50s town which I had in my files. It typified what I would like to duplicate on LEVEL2.

Finally, with all the transition issues repaired to my satisfaction, I was ready to focus on the 50s town setup and work on finishing up the PINK FOAM on levels 3 & 4.

Modular approach to building and working with Pink foam, plus some handy tools to make life easy,

I must tell you that putting this PHASE 3 together is harder to do than I realized. Certainly part of the problem is I did not take enough appropriate pictures at the time of construction. So, I am approaching this best I can first with an overall explanation and then with series of pictures which you can use to relate back to these paragraphs.

This mountain is my first FOAM project and my first effort to try and do some realistic looking scenery with an eye toward some Hi-Rail professionalism. As a result, I started with a section (module) as an experiment not knowing how it would come out figuring I could always just start it over if necessary. Not everyone builds this way but now that I have, I recommend it mainly because it is easier to make sure that as you progress, your artistic talents will develop and the scene transitions from one module to the next will be more consistent.

I found FOAM comes not only in PINK, but also BLUE and GREEN. The pink and blue come in at least two sizes 3/4 and 2 inch and the green comes in 3/8 inch. Here in south Florida, only the 3/4 inch was available in Lowes and Home Depot. The 3/8 was available only from commercial companies that installed it under aluminum siding. I needed this green for completion of the flat tabletop section of the layout which badly needed some depth and character work as well.

This will sound simple but if you never did any of this before it can be intimidating. I had some beginner help on my first two modules by an HO scenery expert who had a great deal of experience as well as artistic talent. His process and strive for detail seemed just too time consuming for me so my end result lack lots of his fine instruction and talent. I went quickly through these steps below for all of my 10 modules. End result is just fine with me though the true hi-rail look may be lacking.

START TO FINISH , Basically this is the way it is done.

1.Conceive the module scene, visualize the end result.

2.Using a sheetrock knife carve the foam pieces necessary to shape the scene and stack them in a way that the scene starts to take shape.

3.Satisfied that you are close to the look, take the hot glue gun and glue the stack of foam together. It dries quickly so you can keep working.

4.Then using your foam cutting tool, sculpt away all the rough edges so it looks more as you visualized.

5.If necessary fill gaps using RED DEVIL lightweight spakle using a putty knife. Great stuff dries quickly and cuts with the hot knife. Also carve in where you wish to add major components such as rocks, wiring etc.

6.Cover the whole piece with plaster cloth cut in appropriate size pieces. Use a brush and a cup of warm water. Lay it down over the module section, brush with water till it sits tight into crevices. You can use every little snipped off piece somewhere sooner or later. It is best to let cloth wrap over edges and have it moulded under with brush. The wet cloth will lay down and stick to almost any surface. You can also use the RED DEVIL to form contours for such things as walking paths, steps etc. Let it dry over night.

7.Using water based paints in earth tones, greens, browns etc, become an artist at randomly slapping it on. Glue on rocks and other deco items. I use silicon calk as glue. It all dries quickly.

8.Using a variety of earth tone grasses, pebbles, sand you will decorate your module. First take ELMERS white glue in full strength drip it onto painted surface and brush plentifully over surface you are working. Sprinkle on the dirt, grass path sand etc. Do it a small section at a time. Build your scene being creative. There are different methods for sprinkling, I used my fingers and got good at it.

9.Lots of loose stuff will be just lying in the scene. To glue it all on, you can dilute some ELMERS into a spray bottle and shoot it all over the scenery. It all dries clear. Another good reason to be off the layout with the module.

10.The final process is to take a variety of scenic materials like trees, bushes, lychen and glue them in place, using more ELMERS. Simple to do and use an awl to poke holes into the cloth covered foam to insert trees etc. More ELMERS on the stem when you insert.

Some key tools. Glue gun, tacky back sheetrock tape, Tapes, Brushes at Harbor Freight 30 for $12 and paint. Ignore the artist bottles I was advised to buy and never used. The jars are $3 each at Home depot and they will mix any color you want. I took a half dozen variety of greens, browns ,grey & black and slopped it full strength in artist fashion. You decide.

Next the Red Devil quick dry putty.

The foam knife sculpting tool and power supply.

Green Foam

And the plaster cloth, shop around available at $7 a roll.

A module!

Two more, the Palisades & Palisades Park with amusements placed.

Items removed but layout marked out.

Wiring get cut in the foam, taped over and finished off.

Connectors wire modules together and back to source.

Paths through the park made with RED DEVIL.

Modules shown almost finished and portable to finish elsewhere.

Finished products needed to match before finishing. They do!

Behind this masonite is hidden all the siding switches. Module had to be able to be moved if necessary.

Cork flats from pet shop were chosen to be Palisades Rock!

Foam sculpted by hot knife to accept the carefully place bark.

Screwed into place but more bark needed in blank place and you see the amount of sculpting it took to make it fit.

Additional bark from a local Oak tree & the unit can be completed.

I squeezed a waterfall out of this space. Good! You will see later.


The old lake before the mountain.

All things considered, not bad!

With lake removed I begin to reshape. Lake base is plywood and sits on cross members. New height will be the top of first foam layer. I will reshape side by tunnel and buildup with foam the L & R sides. Where you see the tools will be where the stream enters Lake.


Here you can see the low side where stream will enter

Stream enters with slight fall.

Lake as seen finished outdoors.

Each area required someway to overlap into park area without showing gap when installed in layout. I took cork roll sheet, cut, trimmed and glued into lake bottom. Being flexible, it lays itself flat after installed on layout. Note built up foam sides and back end drop off after landscaping applied.

I used fine white leveling sand.

Here installed, board & picnic table and shrubbery hide the seam.

Hidden well. Stuff is laid on seam and removable from above if necessary to remove lake.

The Island after construction.

In place, not too shabby!

Putting Lake into place.

Close up mountain and move to finish the old level 1

Materials to create the lake and stream finish were the commerial stuff used on bar tops and silicon. Just paint bottom and pour and let dry.

Video of whole layout at the end. This is UTUBE. To PLAY first hit play icon in picture, then the one lower left. BOX on lower right gives you full screen.

PHASE 5 RE-doing the flats.
I must say that for the most part, I liked the vignettes and general look of what was on the table top layout which had yet to be renewed. This made the redo easier. This picture shows how layout surface was built. You can see, plywood, carpet padding, indoor/outdoor carpeting and on left side the green foam finished surface.

The old surface was just loose scenery over colored carpet sections, and ballast laid in around.It was getting sloppy and needed a foam work permanent shapeup.

More polished look, you will see in video.


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