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Making asphalt and guardrails

Q: I'm trying to build a diorama of a wreck I saw at the local race track, and I was wondering if you could share any tips on how to make asphalt and guardrails.

- Justin Davis
via E-mail

Automotive dioramas offer unlimited story-telling possibilities, Justin, and I'm glad to see you're jumping on the diorama bandwagon. Before answering your specific questions (and without knowing the complexity of the scene you're modeling) let's look at a few of the elements you'll need to consider when replicating a specific scene.

If you haven't already done so, take pictures of the areas of the track you want to model. This may require returning to the track so you can get close to the areas you wish to model, but the extra information will help you later when it's time to add important details. Local tracks are usually open to maintenance personnel on "off" days (or early on race day) and you may be allowed to poke around the track a bit and take a few pictures.

Another prime consideration when modeling any surface on a diorama is the importance of color. Our minds often make sweeping generalizations, such as "grass is green," "sky is blue," and in this case, "asphalt is black." Not so. Look at your subject with an open mind to determine its true color.

One of my favorite methods is to tear a small hole in the middle of a sheet of paper and look at a portion of the subject through the hole, with no distractions from surrounding objects. Objectively identify that color, and you may be surprised. In this case, you'll probably find that the asphalt you wish to model is light-to-medium gray. Another useful rule of thumb is to generally tone down colors so they blend to create a coherent scene.

One of the best ways to model asphalt is to use large sheets of fine-grained sandpaper attached to the base with rubber cement and painted with the appropriate colors (see the preceding paragraph). Don't use a water-based glue, such as Elmer's, for this step; the water in the glue will wrinkle the sandpaper's backing.

Another way to model asphalt is to mix up a batch of patching plaster or plaster of Paris, and before you apply the mix to the base, add a generous amount of medium-fine sand to simulate the aggregate that appears in asphalt. HO-scale model railroad ballast is a good size for this procedure. Color the resulting surface as noted

Guardrails are another story. There are many types of fencing, barriers, and other means of keeping race cars in the park. They can be wooden timbers lagged together and supported from the back (made from basswood, available at hobby stores), chain-link fencing (made from fine bridal-gown netting called tulle; it's available from craft stores) or concrete barriers (made from plaster).

However, you specifically mention "guardrail," which brings to mind those curvaceous metal railings we see every day along the side of the road. To my knowledge, nobody manufactures guardrails in scale ¬¬- readers, please correct me if I'm wrong - but they're not too hard to make.

Guardrails vary in style, so we can utilize some artistic license and come up with a reasonable likeness. They are generally about 12 inches high (1/2 inch in 1/24th scale) and are attached end-to-end to form the required length. To get the proper curve, we'll have to split some Evergreen styrene tubing down the middle. To do this, make a fixture as shown in the attached sketch. The blocks equal half the height of the tubing, so both pieces will be identical.

After the pieces are cut, glue them together as shown, using three pieces to form a deep S pattern; if the back won't be seen, attach the rods to a flat sheet of styrene to give the illusion of a deep center section.
Add suitable bolt detail, using Grandt Line scale bolts or dabs of white glue to simulate rivets. Paint the sections with your favorite aluminum paint, attach them to the base on dowel or I-beam posts, and you're all set to race.


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