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Has anyone here used real water for waterfalls and rivers

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  • Member since
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Has anyone here used real water for waterfalls and rivers
Posted by anglecock on Friday, July 8, 2022 12:13 PM

I am sure a small aquarium pump and a way to keep the water clean.Pittsburgh Sceince Museum used a magnent system to move boats around

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Posted by doctorwayne on Friday, July 8, 2022 4:44 PM

I seem to recall seeing it used on a fairly large display layout, but it didn't look at all like anything but water in a glass.  For a waterfall of almost any height, it would be splashing over everything, damaging nearby scenery and making a general mess of everything around it.

Probably a great way to promote growth of mould, too.


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Posted by up831 on Friday, July 8, 2022 5:39 PM

The primary problem with using real water is that it doesn't scale down.  It won't make scale size ripples or waves. Nor will it's movement scale down.
 Not to ignore the afore mentioned mess of splashing, mineral residue, mold creation, and a host of other problems.  
So, with all that, one has to ask: do you really want to go there?!

There are several resins that work just fine (as pictured in the pages of MR).  Check them out.  I don't think you'll regret it.


Less is more,...more or less!

Jim (with a nod to Mies Van Der Rohe)

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Posted by SD70Dude on Friday, July 8, 2022 7:41 PM

The layout the original 'Thomas & Friends' TV series was filmed on used real water for streams and rivers.

You could add some bleach to the water to discourage mold and other growth in the pump and piping, but I'm not sure how well that would work on hidden moist areas, or what other negative effects it could have on scenery or track that might get sprayed.  

Greetings from Alberta

-an Articulate Malcontent

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Posted by "JaBear" on Friday, July 8, 2022 10:21 PM
Using water is nothing new but has its problems though if one was prepared to make the effort in keeping it clean and the surrounding scenery and electrics waterproof, it certainly could prove satisfying to someone who wishes to go down that path, or should I say “watercourse”.
But as Jim pointed out real water doesn’t scale well at all. From what my friend said, one day’s visit did not do justice to Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg. But even though they have the space, and while, IMO, it would be marvellous to see, from studying on line videos, the shipping going through the water just doesn’t look right. No bow waves or wake.
I do fully realise as we all should, that model railing by its very nature requires the suspension of belief but…
That said as a youngster, I did see a small British layout which had the railway running along side a canal, and at a set of locks, the narrow boat rose and fell using real water. How often the water was changed I don’t know but there was not a lot of water required and it was well contained. At the time I thought it was pretty Cool and I suspect that I still would do so.
So to the OP, the good thing about the hobby is that if you so desire, then feel free to give it a go!
My 2 CentsCheers, the Bear.Smile

"One difference between pessimists and optimists is that while pessimists are more often right, optimists have far more fun."

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Posted by rrebell on Saturday, July 9, 2022 9:15 AM

The only one that I ever saw that worked was a lake with car floats on it that moved on hidden rails. He used a colored water to hide the rails, thats all I remember about it.

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Posted by anglecock on Saturday, July 9, 2022 9:18 AM

I did see real water being used on a narrow gauge mountain railroad that did switchbacks up and down and was about 5 x 6 feet in a lit vertical case with 2 waterfalls

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Posted by MisterBeasley on Saturday, July 9, 2022 11:12 AM

There used to be an exhibit in NYC called Gulliver's Gate.  It was a display if the continents, with each model continent actually built there and shipped over.  It was all kind of tied together by the HO scale trains running in each room.

I believe it was South America that used real water and had boats propelled through it, including features like the Panama Canal.  I enjoyed the exhibit, but it really wasn't a model railroad.  The trains typically ran around a loop on each continent.  Each loop had region-specific locomotives and rolling stock.  I did notice a few North American boxcars everywhere, but I found out they were Walthers track cleaning cars and hadn't been painted yet.

Unfortunately, the cost of maintaining space in midtown Manhattan was much too high, and the exhibit didn't last long.  I don't know what ever happened to it.

It takes an iron man to play with a toy iron horse. 

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Posted by BATMAN on Saturday, July 9, 2022 12:20 PM

Water and electricity don't really mix very well. That being said there was a guy at a train show that loaded cars onto a large car float that floated on real water and it looked really good in the way it moved when the cars rolled on and off. The same scene incorporated a lumber mill with logs floating in the water as well. I only saw it one year at the show and the next year asked him where it was, his answer was it was just a mucky mess after a few months, always dirty and gross even though he took the water out of it when not using it. A couple of years later he brought in a revamped barge/mill scene with static water and it looked amazing.

That glassy mill pond look was the only time I ever thought real water looked decent on a layout, the few others I have seen just did not work as to how it looked.


It's not the age honey, it's the mileage.

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Posted by John-NYBW on Saturday, July 9, 2022 12:48 PM

I read a long time ago that on a model railroad, nothing looks less like real water than real water. The movement of water doesn't scale down well. Real bodies of water reflect light. Scaled down bodies of water don't have the depth to reflect light realistically. You'd probably have to tint it to make it look even remotely real. 

There are lots of products available that allow for realistic modeling of just about any type of water feature you can think of. Real water just isn't a good choice. 

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Posted by dknelson on Saturday, July 9, 2022 1:13 PM

The old Minirama O scale layout in the Wisconsin Dells used real water for its river scenes (boats ran on what in essence was submerged track) and as I recall, as a consequence all manner of problems had to be dealt with during Minirama's relatively short life.  Note: that was a paid attraction with paid staff to take care of those problems, which include mold, algae, and smell, not to mention playing havoc with anything nearby made of wood, cardstock, fabric, or for that matter, plaster. 

People who have tried to introduce meditation type "water features" into their homes quickly realize the issues which is why those homes tend to smell either of stagnant water, or bleach, or the owners establish a routine of changing the water, and cleaning the feature, pretty often, maybe daily.  No thanks!

Speaking of bleach, it is pointed out that water does not scale down so that the hoped for waves and water movement never really look quite right on a scale model (film makers get around this by speeding up the film so that in playback it is all slowed down, giving a more massive and realistic look to the water being pushed aside by the huge scale models of boats, ships and submarines).   I suppose that perhaps the more viscous "non splash" liquid bleach might come closest to looking like real water, but the thought of gallons and gallons of the stuff on a layout and in a home does not sound appealing, or inexpensive.  Nor do you want the family cat lapping it up.

Is there any way to replicate or even approximate the "look" that we'd want with actual movement on modeled water?    Some clever person might think of something.  Imagine a modeled boat moving on a modeled high gloss river or lake where a very thin slot is cut in the wood (perhaps with rubber gaskets the color of the water to close after the pin going up to the boat's hull has passed by) and that surrounding the hull of that boat is a very thin and horizontal "skirt" of rubbery clear plastic with the "waves" built on top so the waves move with the boat.  So the boat is on a thin movable base that has the water detail modeled on top of it.   Do I make myself clear here?

The eye would follow the boat and its surrounding "wake" of water and not notice the slot controlling where the boat goes quite so much.

This is pure vapor ware and afgter all that work it could well end up just looking fake as all get out.   

Dave Nelson


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Posted by hardcoalcase on Saturday, July 9, 2022 2:05 PM

I recall reading in MR that model railroading icon, John Allen, planned two real water features for his Gorre & Daphetid layout; one being a creek and the other a shipping basin.  When he completed the creek, he noticed a dramatic rise in the humidity in the basement/layout space.  As the shippng basin would have magnitudes more water surface than the creek, he changed the plan to use water effects for the basin. 

This was certainly the prudent course of action, but unfortunely this caused what was to be the "bottom of the basin" to be the new water level which was a few inches lower than where the real water would have been.  Photos show the car ferry "Anabel" with an unrealisticly tall freeboard (the height of a ship's side between the waterline and the deck).  I'll note that John explained that the boat was also an oil tanker and the additional load would bring the freeboard down. Wink 

Oh well, every layout has something that warrants "an explanation", but better this than having the layout room taking on a "rain forest" type climate!



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Posted by doctorwayne on Saturday, July 9, 2022 4:54 PM

I built this Walthers kit for a friend...

...and just for laughs, sent him a photo of his tugboat just beyond my version of the Maitland River, where it empties into Lake Erie...

It's very obvious that the tug is not under power (no bow waves or wake), although they could have been added for such a scene, I suppose.

Like most of our on-layout vehicles, or boats, or even LPBs, these may be relocated, but they're very seldom operational, like our trains.
I'm not sure I'd want a tugboat with bow waves and wake as a permanent scene, though.

(And I'm well aware that the real Maitland River does not empty directly into Lake Erie.)


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Posted by selector on Saturday, July 9, 2022 9:45 PM

It's the scaling problem that quickly destroys any of the gee whiz factor of real water.  I don't disagree at all with the other problems, and chiefly for me would be the higher humidity.  I have emptied the reservoir in my dehumidifier in the train room twice this week, each time pouring six liters of distilled water into my hot tub. Wink

Imagine you're a real person looking down from a scale 400' height and overlooking your passing HO train in your nice scenery.  You're a veteran modeler and operator who runs his trains at realistic scale speeds, say 79 mph for a commuter headed by a J1e Hudson.  Its rods are churning nicely, the train is moving a real speed of about 18" a second over your HO tracks.  Trouble is, your water running out of the culvert under it is also pouring out at about 79 mph...if it's the real thing. It scurries down to the 'lake' inside of about another three seconds, and the ripples it causes dash across the 'lake' at about the same speed...79 mph.


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Posted by Overmod on Sunday, July 10, 2022 12:30 PM

Dave, the skirt with the wake can be made to work.  But I'd use magnets in tracks to do the moving.  If I recall correctly we had a discussion years ago where a modeler... for some reason I think in Holland... had multiple magnet guideways at different levels so he could have boats crossing each others' track.

In a modern version you could have powered vehicles moving the 'underwater' magnets, or shifting switchable track structures...

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Posted by doctorwayne on Sunday, July 10, 2022 1:16 PM

In a modern version you could have powered vehicles moving the 'underwater' magnets, or shifting switchable track structures...

Yeah, I recall seeing a couple of videos showing moving cars and bicycles on an HO layout, using out-of-sight moving magnets (likely on track beneath the roads).

I still wouldn't use real water though....maybe not-quite-set Jello would look more realistic as bow-waves and wake.


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Posted by davidmurray on Saturday, July 16, 2022 1:26 PM

I remember an article in MR a couple of decades ago.


The author used a twelve volt windshield washer pump to feed a gentle stream that flowed to a pond.  The pond had a flexible piece of tubing that could be raised a bit so the pond filled, and then lowered when the layout was turned off, so everything drained into his reserve tank.  The drain was under a bridge, so the current was not too  obvious.  Everything it touched was water proofed, and the water had blue food colouring and algacide in it.

I never tried it.

David Murray from Oshawa, Ontario Canada

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