Diorama Building in 1/48 scale

Let's go step by step on how to build a diorama in 1/48 scale.

Step# 1 Conceptual

The most important step is the first: and it all happens in your mind. I'm talking about the creative imagination that will develop the concept that you will later bring about. You need an idea. As I said in the other article about dioramas on "Quarterscale Modeler" (1/48 scale diorama accessories), a diorama is more than just a display base. It should tell a story. The important part is the interacting of the different elements, to depict humor, action, tragedy, or some other gripping tale. Without that, you will simply be putting together a display base. Which is fine too. But here we want to do more. So get your mind's gears in motion, fire up that imagination. Maybe you should look through some old photos or books to find a scene worth reproducing. Or make something up.

I usually try to come up with something based on a general historical situation or trend and depict it in a particular setting, with models that I like to show off. Also I like to combine aircraft, vehicles, figures and other accessories to make to interaction more interesting.

It is good to make sketches in order to come up with the best layout. It will help visualize the whole thing too. One thing that I would mention is that you should avoid laying out your elements on perfect 90 degree angles with your board. Put things on odd angles, so it looks more realistic. More about that later.

Step #2 Main elements

Once you have the idea in mind, start to identify and prepare the main elements, namely the models and scenery that will be on the diorama. Building the models that come in kits is the easy part. Once that is done, you may need to do some scratch building. I am not talking about the landscaping yet. That will come later. I mean, besides the vehicles, figures, aircraft, or whatever other elements will be present, you may want to put in buildings. Here is an example of a house built from Design Preservation Models (DPM- see "accessories" page for availability). It is really like scratch building with a little help. They make the walls, pillars and so forth but you have to figure out how to put them together. But they are in 1/48 and fit my theme.

They are made of styrene and go togther with regular model cement. Here's the first stage: walls going together with a piece of sheet styrene as a floor.

Now I am doing some interior and exterior design: painting, windows, railings, even pictures on the walls (from model railroad supplies - see accessories page).

A little closer look: I have black-out curtains and boards on some windows, bunk beds(this is a airbase barracks), a bathtub, and even electrical wiring - a railroad lighting system on two AA bbatteries.

The final product, is this house as seen in its diorama setting.

This is another house made from left overs and scraps of the first, built in the same way. As you can see it has suffered some battle damage. To see it in it's final form, see the full diorama -"The Sting"

Step #3 - Building the Base

Once you have the elements ready, the base can be laid out and built. I usually refer to my drawings and try to calculate the measurements, or the space, needed for everything to fit. Then I get a piece of thin plywood, like 1/8 inch, (about 4mm?) or masonite board. If it is over about 18 inches in any dimension, it would be better to go with 3/16th inch ply (6mm). Then I put a wood frame around the bottom to give it some rigidity - use thin strips of lumber maybe half inch by one inch(12 y 25 mm). Glue, nail and/or staple them in place.

I mentioned before not putting things on 90 angles - I have occasionally built the bases with strange angles in order to take away that "boxy" look. (See "Runnin' on Empty" in 1/32 scale)

But the main thing is to make things a little off the parallel or perpendicular orientation.

Take a look at a diorama combining rail, tank and plane to get an idea of a small, basic but interesting diorama layout.

Or if you really want to get away from "boxy"... round will do!

This round base proved really nice for a diorama I built... check back for details...

Okay, now to do landscaping. The easiest is a flat runway, road, field, or the like. For a runway, paint the variations of concrete gray and cut cracks into the surface. Or you can buy airfield tarmac card stock. For a field, use Heki grass mats. See the accessories list again for sources on the Quarterscale Modeler page (1/48 scale diorama accessories).

But if you want slopes, hills, ditches, trenches, etc, you need some more structure. It is good to have some variation in the ground level. Use some foam insulation board, carve it with a knife, and glue it down with Liquid Nails or even Elmers Glue-All. Avoid regular plaster, since it is white, is brittle and shrinks. Spackle is better. You can mix water based paint into either plaster or spackle to give it color, but the best material I have found is something called, Durham's Rock hard Water Putty. Mix it with dark brown acrylic paint to make dirt. You can also glue heavy paper on top of foam to make land features. (crumple the paper first) You can also use that foam insulation in a can stuff, but watch out, it expands a lot once out of the can.

Here is one of my diorama bases with only the underlying structure with cardboard, styrofoam, etc. Later it was finished with Heki grass matt, trees, rocks, rubble, and bunkers built in. Size: about 19" x 28". You can see the finished version at "What's the Best Way to Bust A Tank?"

NOTE: here is a brief anonymous article taken off R.M.S. newsgroup (rec.models.scale). I have used this method too. -------------------------------------------------

How to make terrain (anonymous from RMS) I use a wood base made out of simulated hardwood floor strips as the wood is dimensionally stable and the veneer surface is smooth and finished. On this base I lay on an ordinary paper towel and soak it with thinned white glue. I simulate wheel or track ruts by pinching the paper towel along the sides of the rut path. When dry I moisten the paper again with thinned white glue and sprinkle fine sand over it. Let it dry a bit then shake off the excess sand. Spray it with any cheap paint from a spray can to seal the sand otherwise it will soak up a lot of expensive hobby paint. Finally spray it with hobby paint of the colour you like. To simulate raised ground features you can put lumps of styrofoam under the paper towel. In an artillery diorama where I wanted the wheels and carriage to sink slightly into the ground I white glued a piece of corrugated cardboard first, then the paper towel, sand, etc. The corrugated cardboard allowed me to cut depressions for the wheels and gun carriage to nest into. For ordinary unpaved roads the rough texture of the paper towel forms a realistic dirt road surface. Paint it the appropriate earth colours. For grassy ground sprinkle dried tea(bag) leaves onto a white glue soaked paper towel base. Paint when dry.


At this point, if you want trees, rocks, etc., it is a good idea to get them ready and laid out. The best kind of trees are natural materials. Search for a bush that has small branches resembling a scale tree. It's cheap and realistic. May need some paint, but no big deal. The problem with this is they these materials often are fragile, and twigs break off easy. The best thing I have found, believe it or not, are pieces of coral that I find washed up on the shore. Almost all the trees you see on my dioramas are coral. (Well, I live on a tropical island so this kind of thing abounds.) If you don't have this good pickin's, then you may have to shell out $$ for tree sets from someone like Woodland Scenics. They have lots of metal and plastic trunks, sold separately or in kits. (See accessories article again). However, the best thing to buy is their "Foliage" material that comes in little bags ( # F51, etc). Get several colors, and use it to spread over your tree trunks (real or artificial). Also you can use tea leaves or spices oregano, etc. and glue them on with spray adhesive. Also be sure to paint these natural materials or they'l turn awful dull looking after a while.

"Foliage Clusters" (#FC57, etc) are good for dense bushes.

For rocks, just get gravel from the roadside, but sift it out to get the approximate size you want. I say "approximate" because it shouldn't be perfectly uniform, except in the case of building stones or bricks I guess. Anyway, rocks can be painted or left natural. They generally should be pressed into the ground a bit. Glue them but don't let the glue show up on the edges.

Step #4 - Setting the Elements

Now you have to decide whether you want to make this diorama a permanent display. Because you have to either fix the elements permanently on the base, or have them separate in order to place on and take off the base whenever. If it is the later, fine, no problem. But if you want a permanent display, which I recommend, then you need to get airplane or tank models, figures, trees, into the right position and well attached to the base. I use the following method:

Drill a small hole up into the point of attachment (wheels, feet, tree trunk, whatever), and superglue a straight pin in, point down(cut the head off it first). Then place the item in it's position and push it down until the pin penetrates the base and settles. If you are pushing into wood, you may need to drill a hole in the base ahead of time. You can also glue the things down, but with a pin, you can make changes easier. I always do this for figures. For larger items like big planes, tanks, buildings, trees, etc, use something larger than a pin: a finish nail, or even a small screw which you can screw in from underneath.

The other method I use is to drill holes in the base, up from underneath or from on top, laid out for the landing gear or wheels. Then I use nylon fish line to tie the planes / vehicles down. Thin stiff wire works well too.

DISPLAY CASES FOR SCALE MODELS. For display and storage of dioramas, sturdy, clear covers are very important. They protect the whole thing from dust and the fragile parts from damage. Most dioramas that you see in museum displays have clear plastic or glass covers. However, most photos of dioramas show them uncovered, but that is because for the most part they do not photograph well through a cover no matter how clear the cover may be.

Covers for dioramas can be constructed fairly simply with acrylic sheets - clear plastic like Plexiglass brand. Take a look at the photos on other parts of this site, the Building Dioramas page, or the other diorama pages. I have included some photos. All my dioramas have covers, but generally I take them off to photograph them. Again the main reason for this is dust. Few things spoil a model or diorama than a noticeable coating of urban dust. It is dangerous for the models too, because when they are dusty, one is inclined to clean them. That is how nice little detail parts get broken off. Very nasty. But there is another reason: if you transport and/or display the diorama, the cover is important protection too. I remember a model show in which a cute little fellow about 4 years old walked by an uncovered diorama and, so thrilled he was that he couldn't help but yell, "Look Daddy" while he thrusted his finger forward towards the delicate display. That gives any modeler a near heart attack. So, a good clear cover is in order.


First, for small dioramas or display bases (11x14 inches or less), here is a tip for cheap, easy, nice clear cases.

Buy yourself several of those clear acrylic picture frames at the dollar store(in the U.S.A. - other countries will have to find their own sources). It's the kind for hanging on the wall, with a lip about an inch deep all around. These will form the lids for display cases. The largest size I've seen is 11"x14", which is fine for a single 1/48 scale plane, 1/35 scale tank or 1/25 scale car, or even a compact diorama in 1/72 or 1/48 scale. Smaller sizes can be used for smaller displays, but right now let's concentrate on 11x14. There are larger sizes out there. In fact if anyone finds out where to get them, let me know! (stevebrauning@yahoo.com ) Next, get a 1x12 planed pine plank, and cut to exactly 13 3/4" long, and rip to 10 3/4" wide(that will take a table saw or careful cutting with a circular saw). From a hardware store, buy sheets of 1/8 inch (.125" or about 3mm) acrylic (like Plexiglass brand). I know that most big chain hardware stores sell some other brand, which is fine, and is the cheapest way to go. Also you can buy Lexan brand, which is supposedly scratch and break proof, but you'll probably have to go to a specialty plastics store(see Sources below to buy on line). Cut 4 acrylic panels for the sides, two at 10 3/4" and two at 14", whatever height desired (between six and eight inches unless you have something taller in to go in the case). Acrylic sheets should be cut with a special cutter(see Sources below), but also can be cut with an electric saw using an abrasive metal cutting disk. You can also cut them by running a sharp utility blade firmly over them several times, along a very firmly fixed straight edge, then snapping the sheets apart. The problem is the edges are ragged. Of course, you can sand the edges. Try both methods until you are comfortable with one. On each panel, drill two small (1/8") holes about 3/8" up from the bottom, spaced evenly along the bottom. These are for putting #6 x 1/2" or 3/4" sheet metal screws through into the wood(but not too tightly - panels could crack). Once that is in place, put a thin bead of an appropriate glue along the edges that join. Use special acrylic glue(see Sources, below), or the PVC cement that comes in tubes which works okay but turns yellow with age. Slide the picture frame lid over it and it is ready. Of course you can finish off the wood base however is appropriate for your model: tarmac, grass, terrain, whatever. It is best to prepare the base before final assembly since the acrylic box is not very sturdy when unassembled.. When assembled, it is very solid.

SOURCES: Acrylic sheets, cutters, glue http://www.plasticinfoguy.com/ http://www.ecomplastics.com/ecomplastics/clearacsheet.html


"The Sting" 1/48 scale diorama, with Bandai tanks and figures, and a house made from Design Preservation Model parts; Hasegawa Typhoon Mk. 1b in flight mode, attached to the plastic picture frame top.


Secondly, for larger cases, the process is similar but the top must be made of a thicker stock material, like 3/16"(.187" or 5mm) acrylic. It should be glued on. You will notice that on some of my larger dioramas, I have built the bases in shapes other than straight rectangles. I varied the shapes to avoid the "box" look, and to increase visual appeal. But the cases for these are harder to make.

One option is to change one of the acrylic panels for a wood panel, with a painted or photograph background. In that case, it is good the attach the edges of the acrylic sheets to the wood with screws.

A nice finishing touch is to put some kind of edge on the exposed wood base. Either paint it a solid color that accents the rest of the display. Another option is to put a piece of card stock in to cover the edge. That way you can print a description or other information.

Finally, you have to store the dioramas. Unless you have a local museum or other public institution that will put your dioramas on display(and take good care of them), you have to find somewhere to put them. Now in MY house, I can't put a big diorama in the living or family room. The wife just wouldn't put up with it. I can seek a small display out there once in awhile, but nothing big. So I have a few on a shelf in my little office/workshop, and the rest sit in boxes in closets. That is fine, but here in the tropics where I live, I have to be careful about termites and other pests. So I put moth balls in the boxes. That seems to keep the critters out.

Photos of diorama cases

Display base w/ Monogram DH Mosquito (1/48 scale), sitting on, believe it or not, a piece of an old green dish towel! I have it tied down with fishing line through holes in the wood, wrapped around the landing gear.

This also has the picture-frame lid.

"Last Ditched Bombing Offensive of the Luftwaffe"

Happy modeling. Steve

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Last Updated on Oct. 10, 2005 by Steve Brauning