How to build a canal

17 August 2021
When it comes to providing a waterway for your layout, Phil shows how everyone can be a navvy.

Canals and railways have been competitors and bedfellows for many years. Waterways might be an attractive feature on a layout, but how do you produce something that looks realistic without flooding the railway room?

Real water is out for a start. Constructing a waterproof basin is difficult enough, but when your canal crosses a baseboard joint, it's almost impossible. A far better option is to use a resin that will set hard, but still offer the reflections of the real thing and provide an illusion of depth.

The trick is to understand that, while water is transparent, the sort of industrial sites we model aren't known for sunshine and beaches to make it appear blue. Generally, water for model railways needs to be brown and muddy. If you don't fancy going for a swim in it, then you've got it about right.

Resins are smelly chemicals that need to be used in a well-ventilated room. I'm going to use something from Woodland Scenics' water system. It's not as pungent as other brands, but still contains an epoxy resin, so I keep the windows open while using it.

There is a handy volume estimator on the Woodland Scenics website. My canal is based on the Worcester and Birmingham, so varies between a scale of 7ft and 14ft wide. It's 1cm deep and 165cm long – the computer said two packs would be required. If you aren't sure, it's possible to pour a thin layer and add more if you've under-ordered.

Remember, water never gets dusty, so make sure you polish regularly. A can of wax polish and a duster should be part of the essential exhibition kit.

Shopping List

Woodland Scenics
Deep Pour Water (CW4511) – Murky
Water Undercoat (CW4533) – Moss Green
Water Undercoat (CW4534) – Olive Drab


Start by drawing out the canal with a marker. For the bends, a flexible curve from the stationers is very handy to keep both banks the same shape. It's worth leaving the board for a few days and looking at it with fresh eyes to ensure the shape is pleasing.


Using a jigsaw, I cut the base of the canal out. The blade has been shortened by cutting it with a file, so it doesn't cut through the under-board strengtheners too deeply.


Each cutout piece is cut again to fit between the supports under the board, giving me a 9mm deep canal, perfect for 4mm:1ft scale. I seal the edges with DIY store wall filler to keep the resin that will be used later in the canal, and not on the floor.


Looking at the prototype, the banks are made of brick, quite a common feature of inner-city canals. Where the waterway passes under bridges, stone blocks are used.


With several feet of bank to model, I tried a few methods to produce the brickwork. In the end, Slater's embossed Plastikard is used for the wall and scribed 1mm thick cardboard is bent over for the top edge. Once dry, they are painted with Revell No. 9 (Anthracite Grey) before being dry-brushed with Humbrol No. 246 (Grauviolett).


You'll be surprised to learn that the West Midlands' canal water isn't bright, sparkling blue. Over a fresh brown emulsion base, I'm using Olive Drab and Moss Green from the Woodland Scenics water undercoat range. They are overpainted on top of each other while still wet to avoid too consistent a colour.


The canal will be filled with the Deep Pour system from Woodland Scenics – a two-part resin that is available in clear or murky flavours. I've chosen murky as it will hide the lack of depth in the waterway. The base and activator are mixed in a 2:1 ratio and remain liquid for around 20 minutes before drying fully in 24 hours.


In the baseboard joint, I wedge a piece of clear plastic from some packaging to keep the required gap. I'll need to ensure both sides of the canal are the same height and clear plastic makes this easier to see.


At the end, more plastic plus copious amounts of gaffer tape. For an effective seal, I run PVA glue around the edges. This will dry clear so you won't see it on the finished model.


After five minutes of mixing, the resin is poured along the canal. Although it will self-level, I push the liquid into all the edges and corners using the mixing stick. Deep Pour can be used for up to 12mm depth in a single pour, but I'm going to use two thinner layers to make matching depths at the baseboard joint easier.


After a few hours, the first layer starts to dry but is still soft enough to push some reeds from the Woodland Scenics range in along the banks. I'll give these a haircut once the second layer of resin is dry – it's easier to plant long reeds than short ones. Water complete!
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More information

If you enjoyed this practical feature, you'll find a whole host of great practical advice and step-by-step guides in our Techniques section here.

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