This article shows my latest technique for making generic conifer trees. It is based on the well-known bottle-bush technique. I start with real twine rope (I bought it at Lowe's). I cut several lengths off of the bundle, as shown in this first photo. The various lengths represent wider branches. The exact length is not critical. If it is too long, you can always trim the branches later.
I then take a piece of thin, double-sided see-through tape and lightly place it on the workbench. I leave about an inch dangling off of the workbench to make it easier to remove the assembly later on. The tape is needed to hold the individual fibers of the rope in place. You can loosen up the twine until you get down to just the individual fibers. This is what you want. Then press them on to the tape, centered. Again, exact placement is not critical. However, make sure to leave about a half an inch of clear tape on the top. Put shorter strands higher up the tape, and longer ones down below.
After placing the various lengths of fiber strands on the tape, I cut another piece of double-sided tape a little longer than the length taken up by the strands.
Place the tape over the strands, connecting up with the half an inch of clear tape on the top, and about an inch or so below the last strands. I then lightly tap the areas of the tape where there are no strands. The idea is that the two strips of tape stick together and hold the fibers while the assembly is being handled.
The next step is to make the main trunk of the tree. This photo shows the tools and materials needed. The metal wire I picked up at Lowe's in their electrical/picture-hanging section. Really any kind of not-too-flexible, not-too-rigid metal wire can be used. You need at least two for this technique, so make sure the wire isn't too stiff or too thick.
I cut two lengths of wire. Here I am cutting one piece to 13 inches. My experience shows that about 5 inches is lost due to the twisting and trimming later on. So, the 13 inch wires are going to make an 8-inch tall tree (about 43 scale feet in S-scale, which is on the low side of an average tree). Make different pairs of wires different lengths to make sure you don't wind up with a too-uniform forest.
Grab the two wires that are going to make the tree (note that you can make a thicker trunk by using more than two wires, although that may make things harder to work with), and put about a 1/2-inch, 90-degree bend at one end.
Make a hole in a solid work surface. I directly drilled a hole in my work table here, because this work table will soon go to the landfill. In the past I have used a piece of plywood that was thoroughly clamped to the workbench. The hole needs to be slightly larger than the diameter of the two (or more) wires you are using for the tree trunk. Insert the 90-degree bend into the hole, and place a clamp over top of the wire. This makes sure the wire stays in place for the next step.
Carefully remove the strips of tape that hold the fiber strands, and place the assembly on top of one of the two wires. The fact that I am using double-sided tape comes in handy, because I can press down a bit and have the tape stick to the wire. This is probably the hardest part, especially if the metal wire is warped somewhat. When you have the tape in position, place the other wire over top of the tape, so that the tape with the fibers is caught in between the two (or more) wires.
I have seen various techniques used for getting the two wires to spin, but I still find the simplest one the easiest one. Open the chuck on your power drill, and guide the two ends of the metal wires inside. Then slowly tighten the chuck so that it has a very strong hold on the two wires (as if they were drill bits). Try not to let the tree assembly spin yet until you have the chuck tightened.
You can then slowly start to spin the drill. You need to pull on the assembly a bit to make sure the wires twist straight and evenly. That is why the 90-degree bend and the clamp on the work table are so important. Between the pulling and the twisting, there is a tremendous amount of force on the wires where they meet the table. I've had the wires break several times due to the strain. Don't pull too hard, though.
Stop drilling when the fibers seem to be somewhat evenly distributed over the tree. It doesn't have to be perfect. Nature isn't perfectly even, either. The tape used to hold the fibers gets wrapped up into the twisted metal and provides for some thickness of the trunk and also some smoothness (so that the twisted metal isn't so recognizable). The force of the twisted metal wire usually makes it somewhat difficult to pull the tree out of the hole in the workbench, so use a pair of pliers.
Using a pair of wire cutters, I cut off the top of the wire, just above where the last strands are. Sometimes there is some tape left over up there too, so you will want to cut that off with a pair of scissors. I also cut the bottom of the tree trunk off, usually about an inch or two below the last strands. Some amount is needed there to hold on to the tree for the next steps and for "planting" the tree in the layout or diorama's scenery base.
At this point you should have something that more or less resembles a conifer tree. I trim the unruly branches down to make the typically conical shape of a conifer tree.
I've shown how to make one tree, but as you gain experience, it is usually a lot more efficient to make several at once, in an assembly line fashion. I can build about ten or so trees using this method in about four hours (allowing for drying time). When you have completed a tree, you need a stand to put them in so that they keep their shape, don't get lost or damaged, and have air around them to dry for next steps. I grab some leftover wood and drill holes slightly larger than the diameter of the tree trunks. Make sure to space the holes further apart than the widest width of your intended trees. If not, they get really difficult to pull out when they all stick together later on. Also, don't drill all the way through the wood, because otherwise the tree might fall down too far and strip off the paint from the trunk when it is still wet. I have 6 trees ready in this photo. The first step to making them look more like trees is to paint the trunks black or a dark brown. Any spray-paint can be used for this. The reason for the dark color is that it simulates the dark shadow you see near the trunk when viewing a tree from a distance.
When spraying this dark color, focus only on the trunk. Leave the "branches" alone. This close-up shows the result. Let the dark paint dry for a while. The dark green spray paint bottle in the photo will be used in a minute.
First, we need to give those main branches (the fiber strands) some smaller branches of their own. The way I do that is I cut up some very short pieces of the twine. The length isn't critical, but my experience has been that if they are too long, they look kind of odd on the tree (like it has spikes on it), so lately I have been cutting them very short.
I use the 3M Super 77 spray glue to glue these short strips to the branches. I normally do this spraying outside, but it was too windy, so I did it over a trash can. Note that everywhere this spray goes will be sticky for quite some time. Plan ahead! I spray the tree armature briefly with this glue.
Kind of hard to make out in this "action" shot, but I am twisting the tree armature while gently dropping the short pieces of twine on it. I try to drop them on the outer edges of the tree's main branches, to minimize them falling on the tree trunk. The trunk doesn't really have short branches coming off itself on real trees.
When I am satisfied with these smaller branches, I spray them with the glue one more time. This "Christmas tree" is what is left. You can see that the tree has a lot more body than in the photo above next to the dark green spray can.
After the glue has had some time to dry, I spray paint the branches with the dark green paint shown above. Any dark green will. The photo here shows what the tree looks like at this point. After that dries, the lighter green shown in this photo is used next. I spray the light green color from above the tree. It is a light spray for only a brief moment and it doesn't necessarily need to cover all of the top branches. It gives the tree a more three-dimensional appearance; as if it is being lit by the sun. The effect is not really visible in photos, but does have a subtle effect when viewed in person.
Here are a grouping of several of the trees that were finished.
This is one of the modules that make up the double-track wye of the Houston S Gaugers' club layout. Believe it or not, there are 21 of these conifer trees on this module! Many more are needed to make a forest.
A nice low-angle view into the scenery.