Help Brandon make a water fountain

Help Brandon make a water fountain

From the MAKE mailroom:

I am working on a project but I’m missing some critical know-how on building models and I was wondering if you would be so kind as to impart some skills.

The project is a water fountain. So far, I’ve come up with a couple of ideas on how to construct it, but there may be a better way. I was thinking of using a plaster mold by constructing the basic structure with Styrofoam and then using mesh wire to cover the surface. After that, I’d apply some plaster and end up with a hollow mold of the structure. Then I need to apply some sort of waterproofing solution. Then some miniatures (trees and such) and a water pump at the base.

Any Ideas you may have would be greatly appreciated.

Avid reader – Brandon

Anybody have any experience with this sort of modeling and water features want to chime in?


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38 thoughts on “Help Brandon make a water fountain

  1. Timothy D. Swieter says:

    Do you really want to use real water in the model? Water does not scale. In other words, if you make a fountain or jet of water or a waterfall, it will not be the same as a full size jet of water or waterfall.

    Check out the various hobby supplies that are used to create scens for model railroading. There are great books and ideas on building lanscapes with easy to use materials. Woodland Scenics is a company that offers many products that can acieve great results. They even have a proudct that you can use to model water. (

    Enjoy your project, it sounds like fun!!

  2. MattL says:

    I would build it as you mention however I would make all areas that water comes in contact with out of fiberglass and resin. You can buy the inexpensive autobody repair type almost anywhere then blend in with the plaster along the edges.

  3. RDAC says:

    Seconded on the fiberglass, but I’d say make the whole thing out of it. No real need for the plaster then.

    Stick with the sheets, though. The ‘cat hair’ type just gets messy and is overall useless.

  4. Dax says:

    If it is only 6″ by 11″ I would be tempted to build it up out of tightbonded together layers of wood and the use a band saw to cut out your diagonals, and a router to make your water pathways. You could create the passage for the pump and tube by pre-cutting your wood layers before gluing together. Use a bunch of coats of blue enamel paint to water proof the thing and you are good to go.

  5. kyle says:

    never done something like this, but i have built full-size water features in gardens. all i can say is make sure you have enough of a pool at the bottom that your pump isn’t sucking air. that’ll kill it real quick.

  6. mukelarvin says:

    Is this a school project?

    Is everyone helping this guy cheat on his homework?

    That’s pretty rad if that’s the case. Give this guy an A.


  7. Austringer says:

    Cheating? This is research!

    At the scale of the illustration, why not use the pink or blue styrofoam insulation board and follow Dax’ plan? This wouldn’t work if you wanted something that would last for years and years, but if this is for something like a science fair where you only need it for a week or three, it should work for you.

    One other thing to consider – the angles in the artwork are pretty steep – you might have trouble with your water going over the edge of your channel before it changes direction.

  8. cyenobite says:

    I wanted to just say, that this idea of featuring a Maker looking for help is a great idea for this blog. I know the forums offer that, but to pull out a good/creative idea and feature it here is awesome. Thanks Gareth.
    Good luck Brandon. Sorry no real advice other than to maybe check out some “warhammer terrain” websites. I think MAKE has featured some of these in the past. – links to warhammer site.

  9. tgill says:

    I’d have to second that your drawing doesn’t look like it’s scaled properly. The dimensions on the height don’t look correct when compared to the width. That aside, there are many ways to do this. You didn’t mention what your skillset or toolset was like and that makes it a little tougher to offer good advice.

    A stryofoam base sounds like a good (light) solution to me. I might put a piece of 1/4″ plywood underneath though. For something permanent, fiberglass over that should work well. For the adventurous, vacuforming some cut up 2-liter pop bottles seems like fun. Use a little RTV to seal things up. For a cheap and easy solution, see what you can find in the way of plastic containers at the dollar store or a restraunt supply store and cut them up to the proper shapes (again with a little RTV thrown in the mix). Even a high school student should be able to pull that off if you take your time to make nice cuts (think Dremel or sharp hobby knife). Some paint made for plastic should hide the plastic. Some RTV scattered around would give you a more realistic texture in the canal.

    It looks like you are expecting only a thin layer of water on the slopes and that you are using pools and dams to regulate flow. As long as that is what you are expecting, you should be fine. But, some turbulence on the slopes might be a good idea. RTV some plastic pieces or just use RTV on the slopes horizontally alternating sides. That would slow the water a little and add some interest. Maybe add a “rock” or “island” to spice things up. If it’s more of a canal than river, it’s not unusual to have “steps” built into slopes like this to slow down the water.

    Look for trees and such at a toy store or model train store. You could probably find instructions on the web for that as well. You might add a small building (maybe with a waterwheel). Some styrofoam and good use of paint would give you some decent rocks. The toughest part of this is going to be finding the right pump. Too slow and there won’t be enough water on the slopes. Too fast and you are going to have water everywhere.

    Good luck. Post the results!

  10. Aud1073cH says:

    I’d use whatever base materials you would feel good with.

    Use foam, layers of wood, wire mesh, cheesecloth, plaster… whatever works to get the contours you like.

    Build the plumbing in as you go. You could set the entire thing over or in a basin to hold the water, so you have something to set the pump in.

    I’d give the base its base colors of paint first, (including where the water runs, then waterproof the area where the water will run by using a two part resin applied with a disposable brush. I think Michaels craft store sells some, or try your local hobby stores.

    Oil based enamel paints will stand up better to the moisture than water based acrylics. However, they smell worse, and you have to clean up with solvents.

    I’ve made a water scene, but I just had fake water made with multiple coats of thick clear gloss.

    Sounds like fun!

  11. cjc15153 says:

    I’ve noticed in old movies, when a very small body is supposed to stand in for a very large one, that the illusion is very delicate, but I’ve never tried to quantify how.

    Why doesn’t water scale? Air pressure? Surface tension? Viscosity? Refraction? Something else?

  12. brandon says:

    Don’t use plaster if you’re going to use actual water, it will absorb like a sponge and leave you with a soggy, leaky project.

  13. Chris says:

    There are a few reasons water doesn’t scale very well.

    Waves, for example-the large, slow moving waves you see on a lake on a windy day are driven by gravity. On the other hand, the tiny fast-moving ripples you see when you tap the side of a coffee cup are driven by surface tension.

    The problem is, those two types of forces don’t scale the same way, so at different scales you see different types of behavior. (For instance, surface-tension driven waves don’t break near the shoreline.)

    It might be possible to adjust the relative significance of surface tension by adding astergent or soap, but that introduces other problems (bubbles and droplets won’t act the same).

  14. Chris says:

    typo in that last comment.

    I started to type “a surfactant,” and tried to change it to “detergent or soap,” and obviously something went seriously wrong between my cortex and fingertips.

  15. Eric says:

    Hydrocal is a waterproof plaster that won’t dissolve (at least, not nearly so fast) under running water than plaster of paris. Hydrostone is another one, with greater density. These are brand names; talk to a supplier for alternates.

  16. Brandon says:

    Thanks for all the input!

    After some research, I’ve decided to make a positive mold of the model with brush on urethane rubber, and then cast the model with brush on plastic, or I may use Fiberglass?

    Anyhow, this way I have a outer shell of the model leaving the inside hollow for plumbing.

  17. Eric says:

    One of the reasons I suggested Hydrocal is that you can skip the negative mold and a casting step and work completely with a positive. Start with a chicken wire outline and add thixotropic plaster (that’s a particular stage in its hardening process) as needed. See just about any sculpture technique book for how to sculpt with wet plaster. It’s fun. Like a mud puddle that’s about to turn to rock.

  18. codesuidae says:


    I was wondering what the heck ‘astergent’ was, it sounds like something you’d look for in the personal care department! =o=

  19. Vijay prakash Shukla says:

    Excellent overview, it pointed me out something I didn’t realize before. I should encourage for your wonderful work. I am hoping the same best work from you in the future as well. Thank you for sharing this information with us.

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

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