The Making of a Diorama

Countless hours of research and building went into the making of our latest diorama. The following narrative and images will walk you through the building process. Click on the images to see a larger image.

Modeled after bone tools from a photograph, the bones were made of sculpting clay and then painted with acrylics. Thinned acrylics were used to achieve the weathered tone of the bones.

Molds were created from three stone samples, and the finished stones are plaster. The plaster stones were cut to be distinct, and others were broken apart for variation. Painted with acrylics, the colors are not limited to the original three: stone arrowheads were used as models. If you look closely, you may be able to spot the three original samples.

The Styrofoam backing gave a sense of the distribution of bones. The hatch marks on the Styrofoam depict areas of greater bone density. The approximate location of the skull circle is also marked.

The cleanest of the real buffalo bones were selected. The bones on the table were chosen and separated from more fragile samples. A simple test of bone durability was whether a single finger could snap a bone piece.

The bones were separated by shape. Flat pieces were the most universal shape and could occupy most spots on the diorama. Odder pieces demanded more separation and care in placement.

The position of each bone had to be determined in advance. We quickly opted to use a separate Styrofoam board to hold each bone in place. Much effort was made to ensure that the placement of the bones looked natural, and inspiration was drawn from the Vore Buffalo Jump poster.

A large amount of time was dedicated to finding the right shade of plaster and assuring that layers of plaster would stay together. Plaster powder was mixed with water and paint. When the consistency became thick, it was poured and formed into a layer. Pins were placed on the sides of layers for additional plaster to seep through and “lock in.” In the picture, different amounts of paints were used in each layer.

The Styrofoam was effectively “cemented” into the case (the yellow material at the edges). Another concern was securely attaching the plaster to the Styrofoam backing: screws were inserted through the Styrofoam and into the diorama case to give the plaster something to grab on to.

Once all the Bones were organized into their expected positions, the bone tools were also put into place. See if you can spot them among the bones! The mock Styrofoam backing was placed next to the final Diorama case for easy transferring. This was our primary setup for the bulk of the diorama.

Plaster was made in batches, and the diorama was done in layers. Some tools present are the plaster pins and stiff paint brushes. The paintbrushes were used to draw lines on top of the plaster for texture. Every few layers, the plaster would ruin a brush.

During the layering process, plaster pins were dispersed along the sides. In this picture, you can also see the consistency of plaster that has not yet set. The screws are also shown more clearly.

The workflow was comprised of slow, uneventful mixing before intense scrambles to form the plaster into the desired shape. The filling process is illustrated in these pictures. The plaster was often thick and could not flow around the bones. Plaster was sometimes poured first, and the bones were placed in afterwards.

Some work still had to be done after the filling process. The diorama was exposed to prolonged periods in front of a fan. Bone tools were not yet placed at this time.

The filled and dried diorama is present here. The lid has not yet been placed on, and the banner still required some minor edits.

The bone tools and stones were glued into place. The hammer stone replica was drilled at the very bottom, and a wood dowel connected it to the diorama. We decided to attach our set of arrowhead replicas to the side of the banner, instead of dispersing it throughout the model.

Transport and Installation: Transporting the glass was the primary concern of this step. The entire diorama was heavily wrapped in blankets and horizontally orientated. Styrofoam was used to maintain the shape of the glass for the trip. Fortunately, it arrived on site with no damage!

The diorama was inserted into the wall with no problems. The bulk of the diorama’s weight came from the plaster and required multiple handlers.

The diorama was secured into the wall with screws. You can see some of the thin pieces of wood used to correct gaps. Excess wood was removed before placing the lid on.

Here is the fully installed diorama in its home at the Vore Buffalo Jump!