Thursday, February 4, 2010

How I Made My Granite Block Retaining Walls

My Thoughts On Retaining Walls

Look around because they are everywhere. From large concrete walls on the side of the interstate to timber walls in a person's garden retaining walls are everywhere. We see them all of the time but sometimes never really see them.


(The above images I found while doing a Google Images search.
They are not mine and nor do I claim them to be.)

In my opinion, one thing that can really kick up a layout scene from "That's a good scene" to "WOW! That's one heck of a scene!" is a retaining wall. Unlike a building, a retaining wall is a scenery element which has the potential to be extremely unique because every layout is unique in its natural scenery. No other man-made element can be so tightly integrated into the natural scenery and be so unique for its given implementation than a retaining wall. Here is what I mean - you can take 10 people and have them each build a layout scene and you will get 10 different and unique scenes. You can then have the same 10 people build/place a building structure on the scene and still have the potential for unique scenes (assuming they do not buy and place the same cookie-cutter Yard Tower building). What you wind up with is a man-made element - the building - placed onto a natural element and, as hundreds of magazine photos have proven, it could be done quite well. But, have each one of those 10 people build and incorporate a retaining wall onto their layouts and now you are going to get a man-made element - the wall - not necessarily placed onto the scene but, rather, incorporated into the scene. Add to that the differences in the 10 different layouts' natural scenes and the almost endless possibilities of retaining wall materials and building methods you are guaranteed a scenic element that is unique and something that no one has built before. Do not get me wrong - I appreciate a well built/weathered dilapidated barn as much as the next guy but tying that element into the scenery can only go so far. That is why my layout (currently) has 3 different types of walls - because they are all around us in the real world and should be on our layouts also.

How I Built My Granite Block Retaining Wall

In this particular situation on my layout I have the roadway going under the train tracks.  It goes below normal ground level and results in a variety of places where the earth needs to be held back.  My implementation of the curved shapes and the different angles was on purpose - I wanted a final product that was unique, eye-catching, and prompted comments such as "Wow! How did you do that?"

Making the cuts and forming the earth was the easy part.  Figuring out how I was going to make and build the walls was the hard part.  While working on other sections of my layout I would mull over different ideas none of which stuck with me except for one - build temporary frames and pour plaster in place - and even that one did not excite me all that much.

Then one day while roaming through Home Depot's flooring section I stopped to look at floor tiles.  What I picked up was a 1'x1' linoleum piece.  What caught my eye was the rough texture of the edge of it.  Then the light bulb came on, "Hey!  In N-Scale world that looks like stone. If I had a bunch of these cut into little blocks and stacked up it would look like a granite block wall!"  BINGO!!! That was it!!!  Building a wall in this manner would let me build to any shape, height, or curve I wanted to.

They had several colors to choose from.  The ones I was most interested in were gray, tan, and a darker tan.  I chose the tan because the gray was too dark and I figured the tan color would be closer to a faded gray look than the actual gray itself.  In hindsight, I think I would have been better off with the gray but, none-the-less, I am happy with my selection (and isn't that what this hobby is all about?).  The tile was about 1/8" thick and I bought 2 of them.

After some trial and error I determined the following method to work best for making my blocks.  (Tip: Linoleum is quite soft and easy to bend and this softness is affected by temperature.  A piece which has been out in the cold will be too brittle and will break too soon while one which has been sitting in the sun will be too soft and will not break in a desired straight vertical line. So, work with a piece that is acclimated to a comfortable living environment temperature and not one that you went and got out of the cold unheated garage in the dead of winter.)

With a straight edge, I scored a line about 1/4" wide.

Remember earlier when I said that Linoleum is quite soft?  Well, here is where that comes into play.  I had to do this with ease...starting at the end, and using a pair of regular pliers, I pinched the tile up to the 1/4" line and slightly bent down as if to break it off. When the material started to bend slightly I stopped and slide the pliers down about a little and bent it again. I keep doing this until I got get to the end and then started over again bending it a little more than before. When done properly I would get a nice crisp straight edge. If not done properly it will just break into some weird shape. I saved everything because odd shapes might be used later.

TA-DA!!!  Now I have a strip.

Time to cut the strip into blocks.  Using a pair of Lineman's pliers because it has the wire cutting part (and it was handy), I cut the strip into pieces that were about 1/4" long.  I did not try to be as precise with making these the same size.

It may seem daunting but the process to get the million-or-so required blocks was not that difficult.  Actually, its one of those things you can do while watching your favorite show on TV.

I built a special little work surface to use when building my walls.  It is simply one small board with another one attached vertically to the back of it.  This makes it much easier to glue the blocks together while maintaining a flat even wall-face. 

To begin a wall I would line a couple of blocks next to each other with the front sides of the blocks against the vertical board of my work surface.  Then, using tweezers I would pick up a block, put a drop of super glue (CA) on it, set it in place straddling the joint of 2 blocks below it, and lightly press it down with my finger.  After a moment I would then get another block and do it again. And then again and again and get the idea. 

If you decide to do as I have done here is something to keep in mind - The blocks somewhat vary in width so try to use a block that will result in either of its ends being centered on 2 blocks below it. If you use one that is too wide then you will wind up with the gaps between the blocks lining up with each other and this is not good. The gaps need to be staggered from row to row. 
The next several pictures show the evolution of the first wall. 

At this point I stopped work on the first wall and started the second one. I held back on taking the first wall all of the way to the end because I was not sure how it would come together with the other walls.

Then I started on the 3rd wall - the one that goes under the bridge.  Following is a shot of it being built.  Here is it lying front-down instead of up against the vertical board.  I decided to try something different in my construction method.  Instead of placing a dot of glue onto the block and putting it in place I placed the block in place and then put a drop of glue at the joints replying on capillary action to suck the glue in.  It worked OK and is an acceptable method when wedging bocks between others as in the picture below but when building one on top of another its better to put the glue on the block first.

So now these 3 walls were coming together.  This happened a little at a time, some work on one wall and then another, such that they all gradually come together as 1 unit.  The following pictures show the 2 bottom walls beginning to be 'woven' together as the top wall comes closer to being part of the completed section.   

As the following pictures show, I have the first curved wall built and am in the process of weaving it into the wall under the bridge.  For this wall, I built it upside-down.  Why?  Because the top is the longest part and, by placing it upside-down, I can easily add blocks to a flat surface instead of an angled one.  For example, in the following picture you can see along the bottom of the curved piece that I need to add more blocks to bring the wall down some more.  I did so by turning the piece upside-down and gluing some blocks in place.  Simple as that.

As it is, I am able to tilt and slide the entire structure (minus the first wall I started building) out from its place.  In the following pictures I am cutting and wedging in corner blocks where the walls come together.

At this point I have done all I can do on the wall structure which would require me to remove it from the layout so it is time to make it permanent and start building the first wall into it. 

Time to start on the second side.  In the following picture you see a blue thing. I don't know what it is called but it is used in drafting for, well, drafting.  It has a rubber skin with some sort of flexible metal inside of it and can be bent and twisted to a shape so that the shape can be repeated elsewhere.  I used it to get the shape of the curved walls and then carried it to my bench where I used it as a guide for the building of the wall (remembering to turn it upside-down since I build the wall upside-down).

Almost got it done.

Looks like I can add about 2 more rows of blocks for the part directly under the bridge.

Rounding 3rd base here.  Finally around the corner and starting to build up.  These last couple of rows were built in place.  The only thing I had to watch for was making sure I kept the front of the wall straight and true.

The linoleum tiles have a swirly pattern made into them and, even at the small size of these blocks, that pattern was apparent and undesirable.  My solution was to rough up the tile with sandpaper and make special cap-stone blocks from that.  Below shows the sanded tile and the final top row of stones being glued in place.  All of the walls, except those directly under the bridge, got this final row.  It turned out OK I guess.  If I were to do it again I would sand it even more.

To secure the walls in place I crammed scrap pieces of foam behind them and drizzled glue.  Once that was dry it was time to build the ground.  I used Sculptamold for my ground form.

Then, once dry, I painted Sculptamold brown.  Here are some pictures as it stands now.  I will add more as time goes on.

I hope you enjoyed this article.


  1. The retaining wall for the train set was a brilliant wall. My dad loves adding things to the community he's built around this train set, and I think he'd love this idea! It's such a perfect addition! Thank you so much for posting your ideas!

    Sara Welsh |

  2. Great idea,I tried this on my N scale bridges, I needed to cut my pieces 1/4 your size but wow,looks real.

    1. Thanks. If you have a few pictures send them along - I'd love to see your work.

      My blocks are about 1/4" x 1/4" and are somewhat too large and out scale. I tried making smaller ones but it turned out to be just too difficult - cutting them, handling them for gluing, etc. - so I decided to trade the size I used for my sanity. It was doable but just more effort than what I wanted to spend. I am curious to see your results.

      Randy -

    2. Great post. Retaining walls look like simple stacked stone, block, or timber. But in fact, they're carefully engineered systems that wage an ongoing battle with gravity. They restrain tons of saturated soil that would otherwise slump and slide away from a foundation or damage the surrounding landscape.

      Retaining Walls San Diego

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