Part 1 – Design and Theme

Part 1 – Design and Theme


No matter what you model there are times when it comes in handy to have a scenic space to display a model. Whether you need to display for a competition, or you simply want to take some photos to capture all the work that you have done, a diorama is a great place to start. It is a way to gain skills, practice your scenic modelling and just generally go all out in a small space.

While reading Finescale Modeler magazine a few years ago I came a cross what I thought of as a great idea: using picture frames to build dioramas. In this case a simple model railway related diorama in HO scale.

A word of warning

Be careful removing picture frame glass. The glass used is not safety glass and it can shatter if handled without care. You should use gloves, whenever possible, to make this operation as safe as you can.

The safest way to remove the glass is to:

  1. Lever up the tabs,
  2. Turn the frame over sandwiching the frame with your hands to hold everything in,
  3. Lay the frame rear side down over a towel or some other cushioning and then push the glass, mount and backer board out of the frame and onto the towel, and finally
  4. Either store your glass carefully or dispose of the glass per your local areas disposal policy

You should also note that I cannot be held liable for your misadventures in following the procedures set out in this article.  Having said all of that let’s move on to the fun of building a great looking diorama.

Sourcing the frame

I took off shopping and hit the discount stores. I found a simple but elegant frame for only $4.00 Australian. All that you need for this project is the frame. The remainder including the glass, mounting and backer boards, can be removed and disposed of or set aside in the spares box for another day.

If you’ve never worked with a picture frame before the backer board, mount and glass are usually held in with soft metal tabs that are pushed into the frame. Levering these up allows all of the unused items to be gently pushed out.

Sourcing the base

While I don’t remember the base that was used in the Finescale Modeler article I decided to use my go-to medium of choice in all modelling instances – Fome-Cor.

Luckily I had some pieces remaining from a box of FomeCor® Board samples (thanks to the wonderful folks at Fome-Cor) in 5 x 7 inch sizes. I found one that fit perfectly in the frame that was 3 mm thick and simply popped that into the frame with some minor trimming.

To secure the Fome-Cor in place I used the metal tabs in the frame itself. These were bent over the back of the Fome-Cor to lock it into position.

If you choose to use something else, you’ll need to measure and cut your base of choice to fit the space available. If you cannot do the cutting yourself head into your nearest art supply store or the local framing store and see if they can cut the backing for you. Almost any heavy card will work for you in this role. I simply prefer Fome-Cor because it’s easy to work, glue and it is dimensionally stable

Once complete your basic diorama base is complete.


With a diorama space that was solid and stable the only question was what and how should I model in the space available?

I had originally thought that a freight transfer structure, like the one found on the SEMO Port web site (see the original image here, or click the image below to see the full sized image) would be perfect for my diorama.

Image 1: A modern rail served transfer facility
Image 1: A modern rail served transfer facility

The transfer facility would have been the centre-piece of the diorama. However, after measuring out the space I found that while the transfer facility would be a great model it would dominate the space and that idea died on the vine.

The primary purpose of this diorama wasto have a place to photograph a freight car or locomotive and not a structure.

So the plan was changed to create a simple hard standing area where a freight car could be parked, and it’s content unloaded. One question remained, how to compose the diorama?

Basic composition

While I was thinking about building this diorama I spent a lot of time studying photography composition and thought that I could apply this to the diorama.

One rule from the photography world that can be applied to dioramas is the rule of thirds. You can read more about the rule of thirds in this Wikipedia Article.

The rule of thirds states that a subject should be thought of as being divided into nine equal parts by two equally-spaced horizontal lines and two equally-spaced vertical lines.

<image of ewan holding the frame to display rule of thirds>

Image 2: Ewan (aged two) showing the positioning of the track

The four points formed by the intersections of these lines can be used to align features in the photograph to create more tension, energy and interest in the photo than simply centering the feature would.

My take on the rule of thirds is that in a small space being non-linear, that is not squaring everything up, we force a more natural use of the space.

Additionally I find that not being able to see just one side of a vehicle makes me want to see more. These three-quarter views also provide a more realistic representation of what you see in the real world. You hardly ever get to see a train side on, and generally only get to see one end on if standing in the middle of the track.

In this small space the track is the common theme that ties the scene together. This provides a relationship between all of the elements in the space and ensures that while I have used odd angles and placement, that there is a sense of correctness for purpose in the portrayed scene.

In part two we’ll look at how the scene was built.

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