DIORAMAS – WHAT ARE THEY AND WHY BUILD THEM?
Although a stand-alone model is nice, it lacks some of its significance if not set on an appropriate display base or diorama. It is like a portrait of somebody you don't know. Maybe it is an attractive or interesting-looking person, but without knowing the person, the picture has little meaning. The same thing is true with scale models. The stand-alone model may be very attractive, impressive, and so forth, but without some context, it does not reach its potential. When placed on an appropriate display base or diorama with other components, it gains context, it becomes more interesting and understandable. Its history comes alive.
Other components, especially human figures, add the “human” element, showing how people interacted with the equipment. They also provide scale reference to indicate the real size of the airplane, especially to the uninformed observer.
Some may argue that, on the contrary, a display base or diorama just detracts from the model, as it takes attention away from it. That depends on what is being presented. If it is simply a piece of equipment, be it an airplane, a boat, a tank, a car, or whatever, that is fine. There are many such machines that have a great deal of stand-alone value, due to their impressive design, color, form, or size. But anything that adds to the historical significance, background and setting of any piece of equipment represented by a scale model will bring it to life.
What's the difference between display bases and dioramas?
A diorama tells a story, while a display base is simply the frame for the model, or models on it. What makes a diorama is that the elements displayed on it "interact" to tell some kind of tale. It could depict a particular historical event, such as the first flight of the Wright Flier ‑ complete with Orville at the controls and Wilbur running along side. Or it could show a particular situation or reality that existed, such as a grouping of figures, vehicles, and aircraft that demonstrate the lack of fuel hampering the German forces towards the end of World War II. Or it could be a fictional theme designed to highlight a certain interest, like the battle at the rebel base on Hoth, a la Star Wars. Whatever the theme, it must have some story to tell to be a diorama. There could be action, drama, or humor depicted.
I especially like to combine aircraft and ground elements such as human figures, airfield accessories, tanks or other vehicles. There are lots of ways to do this: it could be simply a plane sitting on a tarmac with some people standing around, like this: MPM Vacuform Dornier Do217 nightfighter, on a simple display base with several figures,showing scale.
Or it could be a crashed airplane with enemy elements around it, like this: "Airacobra Down" - 1/48 scale diorama depicting a crash-landed Soviet P-39Q Airacobra, in the middle of a German Wehrmacht patrol; the Russian pilot comes out with his hands up! (note the interaction between the elements of the diorama, telling a story).
Other ideas are full airfield set-ups, aircraft in hangars, a low-level fly-by, etc. See the construction sequence below for an example.
Summary: A Diorama tells a story with interaction between the components. A display base, on the other hand, is a fine way to show off a particularly nice model without all the added clutter of a diorama.
Take a look at the other pages here relating to Dioramas:
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DIORAMA CONSTRUCTION- a "how-to" primer using the example of a rail diorama in 1/48 scale.
Building a diorama always starts with an idea: I wanted to combine tanks and airplanes, and the idea came to me of a tank being transported on a rail car, passing by an airfield. I chose late WWII Germany as the time and place, and went from there preparing and gathering the needed elements: the base, kits, train tracks, etc. A small, relatively simple design came to mind:
Stage One: 1/8” plywood base with ½” wood frame, about 15 X 18 inches with some improvements:
2. Cardboard and spackle/plaster terrain – to be covered with grass matt (#5)
3. Wood tarmac – coffee stir-sticks, painted and weathered.
4. Concrete runway -- can be purchased such as these resin sections made by
5. Grass mat made by Heki - about the best I have found. No colored sawdust on paper here! This product represents grass with tiny hair-like filaments. It can be crinkled up, scraped off in patches, and spray painted as well. This is all I use to represent grass.
6. Muddy areas are made of spackle(wall joint paste or plaster) mixed with brown acrylic paint
7. Railroad section (raised cardboard, sifted kitty litter gravel, Allied “O” gauge track.
Stage Two: adding finish elements: grass mat, finishing paint, etc. You can do lots of weathering, touch-ups, and add details all over to add realism. Use dry-brushing with various colors, add natural and synthetic materials for foliage, rubble, groundwork, etc.Stage Three: The finished diorama with airplane, truck, rail car and tank.
Historical Setting: (hypothetical) In 1945, the Reich was shrinking in size, and more of the Fatherland was militarized. Airfields were expanded and rail lines were being utilized almost exclusively for military transport. Here, a Jadgpanzer IV is being transported from one front to the other through the heart of the Fatherland, passing by an airfield revetment where sits a revolutionary new Blohm und Vos BV 212.3 jet fighter.
A panzer crew has come in a half-track to make adjustments to the tank,
as Luftwaffe ground crew do the same to the fight plane.
A tank commander and a fight pilot meet in the middle to compare these "wonder weapons".
The diorama is finished with a clear acrylic case to protect it from dust and breakage.
I build my own cases, which are admittedly not "pro" quality, but they do the job. It's not too hard if you have the tools, materials, and inclination.
Tools: All you need is a circular saw (4" blade and up) and a drill, battery or electric; an angle grinder and belt sander is also helpful but not necessary.
Materials: clear acrylic sheets, such as Plexiglass brand, are available in many thicknesses and sizes. I prefer to use 1/8 inch (3 mm) for the sides and 3/16 inch (5mm) for the tops. An 4 foot by 8 foot sheet goes a long way! Larger home improvement stores often carry smaller dimensions. There are various qualities: normal stuff is fine but does scratch easily. Lexan brand is more expensive but resists damage better. Glue: special adhesives for acrylic sheets some in very thin (runny), which comes in a can, and thicker (paste) which comes in a tube like a toothpaste tube. Get both. Finally, get some small screws(#6 x 1/2" or 3/4" sheet metal screws) and raised washers to attach the panels to the diorama base.
Cutting the acrylic sheets is the hardest part. First, because it is easy to cut the wrong size. Measure, then measure again before cutting. Remember that two side panels need to be longer than the diorama base itself, to overlap the cover the other side panels.
Secondly, the stuff is very hard, so it is dangerous, noisy and messy cutting. A table saw or circular saw is the most efficient way, although very messy and noisy, as well as dangerous. Use a very fine and sharp blade and keep the cut very shallow, meaning the blade should barely go all the way through. It can also be cut by running a sharp utility blade firmly over them several times, along a very firmly fixed straight edge. Then you can snap the sheets apart.
Cut the side panels to your desired height and width. (between six and eight inches unless you have something taller in to go in the case). On each panel, drill small (1/8") holes about 3/8" up from the bottom, one a few inches from each end and then spaced evenly along the bottom about every six inches. Also drill a pilot hole in the diorama base. Put the screws with raised washers through into the wood(but not too tightly - panels could crack). Once all sides are in place, put a thin bead of the paste glue along the edges that join. Then cut the top panel, remembering to add the width of the side panels. Glue that on the same way. Then once it is all together and set, go over it again with the thin glue, applying it carefully to avoid letting it run and mar the surface. It will look bad if any glue gets on the panels and mars the viewing area.
The acrylic box is not very sturdy even when assembled. The better mated the panels are, the stronger it will be. If there are gaps, fill with more of the paste glue.
Below is a 1/35 scale diorama I built: Title: "Bocage", illustrating the battle for the hedgerow country of Normandy, France, just after the D-Day landings. In this scene, a British paratroop patrol comes up against a German bunker. A US Sherman tank accompanies the attack. This angle shows the British side and the thick foliage. I used natural twigs and roots for the trees, covering them with Woodland Scenics brand foliage material.
There's the German strongpoint: note the sunken roadway and dug-in position.
And the actual bunker:
Below: the whole thing inside its plexiglass cover.