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Building a Diorama from Scratch

CHAPTER 1: Building the Shell

Materials and Tools
The scene we’ll be working on is not complex, although it does involve a lot of detail. This may seem like a contradiction, but in reality, if we view the entire project as a group of smaller projects, none of them are actually difficult. Each mini-project may have a few steps, and unique tricks may come into play, but there is no magic incantations, no secret formulas, nor ‘rocket-science’ math. Best of all, the overall cost for this entire project runs easily under $100. We are going to build a scene comprised of the following materials:

  •     A plywood laminate base, measuring 12” x 24” x ¾” purchased at a local lumberyard;
  •     Hard Styrofoam™ to provide elevation of the street scene above the canal waterline;
  •     Cast plaster for streets, sidewalks, and bridge elements;
  •     Mattboard often called “artists board”, found at any craft shop
  •     Basswood strip in a variety of sizes, used for both structural support and artistic detail
  •     Door and window elements from the spare parts box or molded with RTV and resin

While much of the work on this project could be done with common household tools, I recommend that you will save both time and money in the long run if you invest in a few selective hobbyist tools. If this is a “one-time” project, then perhaps you can borrow a few from friends, and buy just the minimum. Tools used in this project include:

  • Razor Saw – for making longer cuts in plaster and wood
  • Xacto Knife (#11 blade) - for fine detail cutting – keep several new blades on hand!
  • Rotary Motor Tool – the most valuable tool in the studio
  • White Glue – or other “safe for Styrofoam” household glue
  • Glue Gel (Fabritac) – for joining irregular surfaces and multiple materials
  • Cyano-acrylic glue (“superglue”) – for fine detail work
  • Right Angle guide – to insure stability and accuracy in your measurements
  • Metal Ruler – to insure straight cuts on marks and lines
  • Sanding paper and blocks – to shape and smooth wood and plaster cuts
  • Craft Scissors – for cutting thin papers and trimming up in general
  • Marking pencils and felt-tip markers never an oil-based ink pen or ball point!
  • Fabric tape – number of uses
  • Tissue paper – for creating “cloth textures” on a smooth surface
  • Interior wall spackle – great for filling in the cracks and seams in your buildings
  • Concrete patch paste –a wonderful scale substitute for “stucco” or mortar
  • Hobby paints – discussed in greater depth in the next section
  • Hobby brushes – ranging from 0/0 to 5/0
  • Alcohol or Turpenol thinner - to clean brushes and thin paint for washes and stains.
  • Breathing filter and goggles… the dust from this project can be overwhelming at times!
  • Hobby Tweezers or Needle-nose Pliers – to handle some of the tiny parts while gluing




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