Reigate Garage
A diorama constructed by Siggy de Reuther

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Building a Diorama - The creation of Reigate bus garage diorama


Not only is a diorama a very effective and visually pleasing way to display part or all of your collection of model buses, it is a three-dimensional "snapshot" of a given moment; a three dimensional work of art. Creating a diorama can become a hobby in its own right and can be a very enjoyable pastime.

I hope this guide will provide you sufficient information taking into account various considerations so to avoid costly mistakes, both financially and time-wise. Using the construction process of my Reigate bus garage as an example, I will examine each and every step along the way right from planning to fully constructed display. The original intention was to demonstrate the construction of a John Howe card kit of Reigate but I thought I would expand on this idea beyond the scope of the kit to a complete model scene.


Even before you starting cutting the timber for the baseboard or even making the first card model, there is quite a good deal of information that can be gleaned by various methods. There are several areas of study open to us. First, if the location you intend to model still exists, then it is worth making a visit and taking a few photographs for reference. I am fortunate in that when Reigate bus garage was built the frontage had to be in keeping with the surrounding buildings and as such is a listed building. Part of the garage still exists today, converted into a local nursery. Although the buses have long-gone, the frontage remains essentially intact (photo left). Visiting the real location is advantageous especially if you are only relying on historic photographs that may only show one perspective. Another way maybe to consult a local library or records office to see if they have any photographs or material that could aid your research. Remember that a diorama is much more than just buses so it may be possible to find out details about surrounding buildings, when they were built, the businesses that occupied premises and so on. In this way it is then possible to decide exactly how accurate you want the diorama to be.

Transport books and internet searches will also aid research. Beyond that there is always asking local people or joining a web-based bus group. There are numerous Yahoo! Groups for those with an interest in individual bus companies or vehicles together with three model bus groups, namely, Diecast Buses Interactive, Model Bus Builders and Worldwide Model Buses.

Once you have gathered all the data you need it is then worth taking some time to see if all you want to re-create will fit in to a diorama space. For practical reasons at no point should a diorama be constructed that will be wider than your own arms reach. This is not the only limiting factor but possibly one of the most important. The other of course is the matter of where you intend to display your diorama. If it is your intention to also publicly exhibit then it is worth thinking about how you will transport it, will it require another person to carry it, will it pass through your doorways or fit into your vehicle.

Another consideration is the time factor. I find that I spend around 100 hours on each diorama from planning to completion. Your own lifestyle will dictate whether you are able to do this. It maybe that you can only spend 1 hour per week on this hobby but the important thing to do is to enjoy it. I personally find all the stages to be therapeutic relaxation.

Once you have in your mind what you intend to build, the next stage is work out whether you are happy with "off-the shelf" products, kits or even scratch building.

Sometimes even with so many research resources it may be that it is not possible to find photographs of every building. When I started building Reigate, I soon realised that it was highly unlikely that I would find a rear view of the (now demolished) former East Surrey Traction office building. If you are building a cityscape diorama sometimes it is either not possible to include every floor of a tower block either for reasons of space or simply because an exact copy will totally dwarf the model buses you want to display. Similarly trees can reach heights of 120ft but on a diorama these can appear oversize if replicated exactly. Therefore we need to use artistic licence and reduce sizes so the overall impression is maintained. I find the best guide to this is the old adage "if it looks right, it is right".


Largely this will depend on the choice of materials used and how much work you actually undertake yourself. Using Reigate as an example, I purchased one 8ft by 4ft sheet of 6mm MDF (micro density fibre) board retailing at around 15. Add to this wood glue (2.50), screws (1.50), planed 33mm x 12mm timber lengths (14.00). Using the DIY cutting service at 50 pence per cut, the total came to under 40.00. Obviously if you are building further dioramas then the overall costs will be come less, wood glue for example will be ample to not need to buy further. If you are incorporating this diorama in sympathy with your furnishings then additional expense will depend largely on the facing trim you use.

If you are intending to build all scenic structures from card kits, these vary from around 6 up to around 15. Sometimes there are no off-the shelf ready built products or kits suitable or you may even prefer the challenge of scratch-building every structure, these costs will be less; the card from a cereal box could be used, coloured card and mounting board from an art shop is relatively cheap. It should be noted that scratch-building will require a great deal more time to construct any buildings.

The construction of the cabinet has been kept straightforward and uses the minimum of tools and woodwork skills. It may come as a surprise at the simplicity of construction without compromise of sturdiness. The only tools employed were: a tenon saw, a screwdriver, a set-square, bradawl, drill (either electric or hand would do), Stanley knife and a pencil.


The first task with any diorama is to plan and build a base on which to place the diorama. For this I use two materials, 6mm MDF and 12mm x 33mm planed timber.

For Reigate I have to accommodate other items above this so the whole diorama will sit within a cabinet. The exploded plan above shows how the various parts fit together. Whether you are building this within a home-made cabinet or just the baseboard, the latter item is required in each case.

Taking an MDF board (in this case 800mm x 400mm) a wooden frame is required to aid rigidity and to avoid warping. The planed timber is cut and screwed and glued (with wood glue) using simple butt joints. The MDF is then glued and pinned, I use 15mm long panel pins and No. 6 3.5mm x 25mm super screws for the timber. The photo (below left) shows the wooden frame completed.

If you are building the cabinet, the basic construction is shown in the photo (above right). For photographic purposes, the top has been left off. This uses the same materials as the board. The base is an exact repeat of the diorama shelf but slightly deeper. The two sides and rear have vertical lengths of timber to add strength pinned and glued.

The photo on the right shows the partially completed Reigate diorama in situ above a previously completed Southdown scene. This photo also illustrates why the diorama is not built directly into the cabinet as the baseboard shelf will need to be removed to add many more scenic details as well as the background.
Scenic ground plan


The photos below show various stages of construction. The photo on the right shows detail of one of the corners and while the paint colour is not quite an accurate match, when viewed complete the eye will blend this and so it will not look wrong.

Next the roof support and false roof is to be constructed. The supports are within the false roof and require cutting out (below left). The false roof is in two parts and these are joined together, making sure these are kept straight. As the kit is only of the garage frontage I am not going to add any detailed roof framing but the false roof will be seen so I painted the "viewed" area matt black (below right).

Because this kit only includes the frontage I thought it would be a good idea to make a rear wall. For this I have used the Superquick engineers blue brick sheets mounted on art board (artists mounting board) of similar thickness to the kit. A close-up (above left) shows this in greater detail. The rear wall is continued beyond any potential viewed area to add further rigidity and support for the roof. As I am intending to place the completed garage against a back wall, a false wall is included to stop any model buses from potentially rolling back to an inaccessible area. Note also that to keep the structure square, the waste card from the window apertures has been cut into right angle triangles. (above right)

Due to heat, most card kits will generally warp so it is a good idea to use any scrap card where possible to brace the hidden areas. The pictures above illustrates this and additional strengthening of the roof.

Moving to the roof, this is perhaps the trickiest area to get right and requires careful fettling to get the angles right. Before finally gluing the roof in place it is a good idea to check the clearance. There is no better way than to visually do this than with a model bus.


Once the basic Reigate Garage kit was built consideration was given to the surrounding landscape. In reality, the garage was situated just a short distance from the junction will Bell Street; the end building was the one-time offices of the East Surrey Traction Company, the predecessor of London Transport Country Buses. It would prove fruitless to search for any photographic evidence showing the rear of this building so artistic licence is required to create a believable diorama. To this end the rear sections of two Superquick card kits would be substituted modified as half-relief buildings (above left). These buildings are mounted onto a section of art board to be "plugged in" to the diorama once complete. By adopting this modular approach has the advantage that this small section can be worked on and fully finished with obtrusion (above centre). To maximise the display area for the model buses it is assumed that a large hard-standing yard occupied the space between the rears of these buildings and the garage. To enclose this yard, a surrounding wall was built using two contrasting brick papers, the impression is that a new extension has been given to the yard area. These walls are built from a length of card, overlaid with Superquick and Metcalfe brick papers (above right).

Next we turn our attention to the ground. To create the concrete hard standing art board is again used, suitably painted in a light grey, not forgetting to add the weathering. This is made by varying the shades of grey by mixing more or less white or black paint. The whole garage forecourt and garage floor is in fact a "jigsaw" of card made in this way. Visually it is better to again plug in the buildings rather than position them on top of the card (below left). The easiest method to achieve this is to carefully follow the outline of the garage walls and then remove the card where the garage walls will rest.

Separating the forecourt area from the pavement is a fence set within a brick wall. Taking scrap card, pillars were created, again overlaid with brick paper. Between these pillars the fencing was set into the wall. To create this, three layers of card were glued together, the middle card first having cut-outs to accept the fence posts. The fencing is Ratio G.W.R. fencing painted matt black and cut to desired lengths (above centre). Rather than use the card fence around the office entrance, further sections of the same Ration plastic fencing were used. However this is adapted by halving the height, using the lower part only, suitably painted in white for the railings, brown for the top rail (above right).

Moving to the street, Metcalfe tarmac sheet sections were laid. The pavements are made from Superquick pavement sheets glued onto a thin card which was shaped around the buildings and walls (above). Separating the yard from the road at the entrance is a cobbled stone. Metcalfe produce sheets of these.


The backscene is an important part of the scenic display as it puts the model buildings and all that is to be displayed into a context, part of a greater area than we can display. Skilful use of the backscene will help create the illusion of space and also include a two-dimensional depiction of something that there simply is not space for on the baseboard.

On my
Conway Street diorama, there is a railway bridge that the could not be accommodated so a water-colour painting of it was made (see photo to the left).

Various backscenes can be purchased from model railway manufacturers, ranging from printed artwork of sky or town or country to expensive panoramic photographic reproductions. It should be noted that any of these scenes are aimed at the model railway and as such depict views "along the line". There are other alternatives depending on your artistic leanings. A good cheap way is to use the photographs from large calendars. One point worth considering is that more distant features are faded, closer details will have stronger colours. It is also worth considering the time of year you want to portray. For example, if you intend to model a summer scene with open top buses it is no good having a winter backscene with trees devoid of trees. The other alternative is to paint your own scene to suit your diorama. This can be done with watercolour paints or even coloured pencils.

Backscenes can be made in various ways, long lengths of card or a board, mounted at the rear and side(s) of the diorama. Whether using printed backscenes or creating your own, these are best applied in the same way as hanging wallpaper. However on Reigate, I decided to paint my own backscene directly on the board. This is simply constructed from artists mounting board, glued back-to-back to create a rigid structure. Keep in mind that the thickness of this backscene will need to be left at the rear and sides of the baseboard. I chose a light ivory colour board and then gave the viewable areas a wash of blue to depict sky, adding shades of grey to white to represent an unsettled day that is neither sunny nor overcast. The positioning of buildings was marked so I could then add backscene buildings, in the case of Reigate this is the rear to the left-hand side. I used an actual photograph I had taken of the former London Country offices but with a difference. By printing a draft copy in greyscale, I had a copy of the building which I then painted on the colours, this helping to suggest that the building is set a little way distant. To cover the left-hand end of where this photo stops, an end of a building was simply constructed in thin card, covered with brick paper. On the left above is part of this Backscene with the office and end of building whilst the photo above right shows the backscene added behind the model buildings on the diorama. A similar approach will be taken with the two sides, using photos of the street.


Attention to detail is one of the areas that can really make a diorama come to life. I have witnessed some very good model railways that have would have been spectacular if a little more additional details were added. This involves such items as adding the guttering and downpipes to card buildings, the drains to roads, etc. Some other details will help fix a diorama to an intended period. The John Howe kit of
Reigate is intended for the London Transport period whereas I want this to represent London Country in the 1970s. To achieve this, the white "London Transport" lettering was painted out, blending the colours to match the brickwork (see previously sent pic 260). White lettering to as-near size was then added over the removed previous ownership, this being white 6mm plastic letters produced by Slater`s Plastikard (ref. 1106). In common with many other London Country premises, the original LCBS signage had their "flying polo" symbol until replaced by the corporate NBC double N. This was created by scrap card pieces cut to shape and then painted white. The NBC double N symbol is Mabex waterslide transfer, secured in place with decalfix. The picture on the right illustrates the office frontage.

Bringing the scene to life, people, vehicles, lamposts, a bus stop, and drains. There are several manufacturers offering 1:76 (Bachmann, Hornby) or 1:87 scale (Preiser, Noch) figures, the latter comprehensive continental-manufactured ranges which can be mixed and matched. (picture above left). Little cameo scenes can be created all adding interest, the picture below left, perhaps, illustrating the start of the morning shift whilst the picture below right shows parking problems and congestion, Cararama, Pocketbond, Oxford, and Base Toys cars and vans being used.

One thing to be careful of is the positioning of the taller items such as lamp posts. Ideally these should not be placed too close to the front edge in case these get knocked off if you intend on changing the vehicles displayed.

Siggy de Reuther

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