jute grass is half full

There are a couple of things I’ve been thinking about and wanting to model for most of the time I’ve been in this hobby and I suppose I could extrapolate from that, that since I’ve had model trains most of my life, well, there’s no rush to perfect a process for this since it’s a life’s work and can take a life’s time to learn. Among those is to model tall grass for our trains to run through. As is the fashion now most of the time when I am including long grass in a scene it’s static grass fibres. I like how easy they are to use.

  • Because they’re synthetic fibres they are all identical and all perfectly straight. The closer you look the less they look like grass and the more they look like what they are.
  • Short fibres look fantastic but when they get longer than 6mm their look only becomes more and more like bundles of wire and less like any kind of grass.
  • Being nylon I haven’t had any luck changing their colour using a paint brush and water-based paints. Washes just don’t stick and dry brushing isn’t working either. Airbrushing paint would work but I can’t do this in my living room so, for now, no.

A year ago, when I was first working on the track on Coy, I was laying down a layer of static grass, then ballast, around the ties but long before the rail was in place. This is something I will keep doing as it just works. I was using a particular shade of static grass that I really like but also thinking it could stand to have more variation in colour and this was where I first met the challenge of trying to alter the appearance of static grass. But this isn’t a post about static grass...

I really enjoy making little studies to practice techniques–not just how to do them but also gain experience in how I relate to the finished product: “Do I like how this looks?” Mike Cougill makes extensive use of jute grass in his projects and I’d be hard-pressed to find any better example of scenery I like more than his–I grabbed an offcut of styrofoam and worked on the above sample.

  • Scale for this sample is O and those ties are for On30 track
  • Grass is tufts based on unraveled jute twine

I’ve carved the foam to produce the land forms, including the roadbed under those ties, but other than paint no other finishing materials were used over the foam. To add the grass, was take a one inch length of twine, rolled it between my fingers to unravel it, then folded the fibres in half (length-wise) over the end of a toothpick. I had already painted a thin layer of white glue onto the prepainted foam and I poked this “tuft” into place. It’s a really simple process and I quickly moved through this scene. I liked how easy this was and also how the toothpick’s point introduced some variation in each tuft. I worried that if the tufts weren’t so close together the pattern of their concentration might be too obvious and this whole process depends on raw foam so if the scenery base is a coat of plaster or other hard material I can’t chaotically poke tufts into it as easily with my handy toothpick “applicator”.

Jute twine is that kind of thing we always have here at the house. In summer months it’s a staple in the garden to tie things back and it’s just handy. I may not be tying many packages with string but it’s still one of my favourite things. As a grass product jute offers something static grass can’t. Being a natural product the individual fibres vary wildly in shape, size, and colour. Being a natural product they feel right to use, to me. Where in the original sample I was poking inch long lengths into the foam base I wondered what it would be like to use shorter lengths and apply them like how I do when I’m using static grass? That little pile of grass is jute twine, cut with scissors into little 3-5mm lengths–took about two minutes to cut a nice little pile to experiment with.

I already had one of the ballasting samples leftover from the earlier dirt ballast study so grabbed it. I laid down a layer of white “school glue” without thinning it. I don’t own a static grass applicator so simply grabbed a small pile of jute fibres and daubed them into the white glue (this is how I stick down static grass too). Each time I’d lift that bunch a few more fibres are stuck into the glue so I just kept daubing my way around this little block of foam. A favourite static grass tutorial I’ve watched showed using progressive layers of static grass fibres to develop depth and texture so as layers of my jute fibres dried I simply dotted on more white glue into which I daubed more jute fibres. By the time I took the above photos I have about four “layers” of jute grass fibres and am really liking the way their depth is starting to feel right. This technique of simply daubing bunches of fibres into the glue works for me. Before I leave each layer to dry I scanned through the standing fibres and used a toothpick to help groom them into shape by separating any that weren’t laying in the right direction or might look too artificially clustered together. When dry, and I feel this is becoming a crucial step in this process, I brushed the scene softly with a toothbrush. Not scrubbing, just a light combing of sorts. Doing so helped remove some fibres that didn’t glue down and this also helped correct the stance of some of the other fibres.

I like the natural colour and texture of the jute fibres just as they are. To my eye they look like grass in the late Maritime winter. Being a natural product they will accept a coloured wash easily so if I needed to alter their colour I could easily do so. As I wandered around the house last night, in the minutes before bed, I couldn’t help but wonder about another of those things I always wanted to model. With a teaspoon of baking soda in hand I dusted this little study in grass and, I’ll confess, I think this really looks just about perfect to me. These jute fibres feel right to me. It’s not because of cost or any need to be disruptive but it’s a choice of media that works with what I’m trying to feel in the work I create. I feel empowered by this study and keen to continue exploring textures like this as a series of skills building lessons while I work out what’s happening “on layout”.

Categories: How I think, model scenery

Tags: , , ,

9 replies

  1. Remarkably effective!…….I wonder if it would work at a minimum in my static grass applicator. Worth a try.

    • I’m not sure but I had a similar thought about loading a static grass applicator with jute grass. If it doesn’t work with jute alone I wonder, too, if we mixed static grass with the jute?

      • I’m pretty certain it won’t work in a static applicator.

        That saud, this study is superb Chris, please come and lay me some track and I’ll provide the trains!

      • This is where I was wondering about a mix of the jute fibres with static grass thinking that the static grass fibres might stand and encourage the jute ones too to.


  2. I’m really enjoying your experiments!

  3. Baking soda? I assume you sprinkle it to unify the colours. I’ve used chalk/whiting powder for that, is less soluble in water.

    • I used baking soda in a moment prioritizing experimentation over permanency. I used to mix it into paint to build up mud effects and also liked its slight sparkly appearance. It’s not glued into place here though and I’m not sure what I’d or what I will use for snow or glues.


  4. That looks great and it is the right price. You can get that dolloped over look where the grass is bent over by the elements more easily since jute is more pliable than nylon. For a moderate sized layout that has varied terrain (not just open field) it is a viable method.

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