Articles - Trees (method 4: advanced)
08/22/2014
With this article I wish to document my current "best effort" at making high-quality foreground trees. This has been a goal of mine since I started the hobby again in 1999. I keep studying different techniques, and, more importantly, keep experimenting with any ideas I come up with. The method described here is heavily influenced by Gordon Gravett's first book, Modelling Trees. I am nowhere near where he takes the art of making scale model trees, but I will keep aspiring.

The first, humble step to making trees starts with floral stem wire that you can find at nearly any general hobby or crafts store. I get mine at Hobby Lobby which is not too far from the house. There are ones that have paper wrapping and those that don't. The ones without are thinner, but are harder on the fingers to manipulate. The ones with the paper can be glued together (as I'll describe below), which makes the tree's trunk solid very early on in the construction process. However, the thinner wire allows you get the same thickness tree, but you get a lot more branches. Either approach works.
Trees (method 4: advanced)
The process starts by simply twisting two of the wires together at about 1/3 from the top of the wires. Just a few twists are needed; enough to keep them from unraveling.
Trees (method 4: advanced)
The length of the wire determines the height of the tree. In this particular example, I'll be showing all the steps involved in making one large S-scale tree. I decided to use the full 18-inch length of the wire. I used the entire package for this one tree. The more groups of twisted wire, the thicker the tree. I continue to twist more two-wire pairs.
Trees (method 4: advanced)
Next, merge two of those twisted pair into one, as shown here. I like to form them together at random locations for variety. I am not making any particular species of tree here (I am not that advanced yet).
Trees (method 4: advanced)
Next, I grab two of those sets of twisted-together pair, and merge them together for an even bigger bunch.
Trees (method 4: advanced)
I keep doing that with other sets as well. At this point the bunches are too tough to attempt to merge them together again, so I just group them together. I put them together in different locations, so that some of the wires become lower branches and others stick out at the top.
Trees (method 4: advanced)
To hold the whole tree's worth of bunches together, 26-gauge florist wire is used. I simply wrap it tightly around the bunch, hiding the ends inside the bunch (which makes it look nice, and also prevents you from getting stung by it).
Trees (method 4: advanced)
On a large tree like this, I form additional groupings of bunches and wrap those with the florist wire as well. These now start to form the major trunks of the tree. At the bottom, I trim the wires, and leave some wire sticking out. These become the roots of the tree. You can bury the roots into the surrounding scenery of your layout or diorama with some Sculptamold. Once painted, they look very convincing. You will notice the left-over pieces. These can, if so desired, be twisted in with some of the upper branches to form additional branches. You can also twist sections of the floral wire into the upper branches to form additional skinnier branches.
Trees (method 4: advanced)
Here I am showing the effect of the wire left at the bottom of the tree when I pressed it down on the workbench. At this point you can easily twist and bend the wires of the tree to form the overall shape of the tree. You can trim the branches to a more appropriate length at this point, or do that later.
Trees (method 4: advanced)
To firm up the whole tree (and this is where the paper-covered wire comes in handy, although plain floral wire will also benefit from this next step), I cover most of the tree with full-strength Elmer's white glue (Glue All). I generally apply the glue on all branches where two or more wires are twisted together. I use a fairly stiff small brush to really get into the nooks and crannies.
Trees (method 4: advanced)
After several hours of letting the glue dry, this is what the tree looks like.
Trees (method 4: advanced)
Obviously, the tree's branches clearly show the twisted-wire shapes throughout. The next step is to hide these, and to add additional forming and shaping to the branches. I use Liquitex' Flexible Modeling Paste. It is easy to work with, doesn't have much of an odor, and indeed leaves the tree somewhat flexible. I have also used Woodland Scenics' Flex Paste. It works the same way, although it is a bit thinner than the Liquitex product. The preserved flexibility helps when you accidentally bump the tree while reaching into the layout. The tree will give and move back, without breaking. The modeling paste is somewhat expensive, but a jar like this will last a long time.
Trees (method 4: advanced)
Much like the white glue layer, the paste is applied with a stiff brush. The entire tree needs to be covered with it. This is probably the most time-consuming step, but it is an important one, because this determines the final shape and look of the tree.
Trees (method 4: advanced)
I apply two or three coats of the modeling paste; whatever it takes to get rid of the twisted-wire look of the branches. I let the paste cure overnight. I like to apply liberal amounts on the main trunk, because that gives the tree its massive look. One of the things I like about making these kinds of trees is that you can be sloppy. You don't want to be too exact and precise. You want randomness. The photo below is still just after the first layer, so you can still see some twisted wire here and there.
Trees (method 4: advanced)
Update: As an experiment for a recent set of trees I've made, I decided to apply some sisal/twine/rope branches. I cut pieces of the twine around 1/2" to 3/4" in length. Next, I use white glue and a brush to apply the glue judiciously to the ends of the main branches. Next, I sprinkle the twine pieces onto the tree. A couple of quick spins of the tree (using the toothpick in the bottom) will make the twine spread out. By applying the glue to specific areas you can control where these thinner branches will appear. The photo below shows the result. The white glue will set fairly quickly. After an hour or two they are on there fairly permanently.
Trees (method 4: advanced)
After the modeling paste has cured, the next step is to paint the tree. You can use any acrylic paint, spray-paint them, or even airbrush them. For trees like the one in the previous photo you pretty much have to spray-paint or airbrush them. If you don't use the twine branches, then hand-painting of the main trunk and branches is entirely doable, as I have done to the tree in the photo below this one. For that one I used Liquitex "Burnt Umber" as the main color, with highlights of Delta's Ceramcoat "Dark Forest Green". I didn't mix the paints. I simply dabbed the brush in the burnt umber most of the time, and then occasionally also dipped it in the green. You wind up with streaks or spots of the green color, which will make it look like moss is growing on the branches. Also, I tend to go more heavy on the green when I reach the ends of the branches to blend them better with the tree foliage later on. I use a long-handled brush to be able to easily get into the inside of the tree (see bottom of the photo). Putting the tree in some sort of stand makes painting it go much easier. I use my bench vise for this. By the way, I superglue a toothpick into the bottom of the tree. This helps with holding it, and later with planting it in the layout.
Trees (method 4: advanced)
And this is what the tree looks like after the painting session. I usually have to come back after the paint has dried and touch-up areas that I missed. When the paint is wet, the light reflects off of it and you can't tell the difference between wet paint and the white of the model paste underneath. These paints dry mostly flat, so when they are dry, it is easier to spot missed areas.
Trees (method 4: advanced)
Here's a group of trees that I just spray-painted with a flat black paint. These have the finer twine branches. I have used gray, brown, even a gloss green spray-paint. Whatever I could find in the garage. The purpose is to get rid of the white from the paste and to paint the finer twine branches. A darker color is probably best, because the interior of a tree is usually dark anyway.
Trees (method 4: advanced)
Now that the base coat has covered all of the white of the tree, I go back with several brown and dark green paints (acrylic) and hand-paint the main trunk and reachable areas of the first-level branches. When that is dry, I use the dry-brush technique with either a white or a light-gray color to highlight the various ridges and profiles left on the tree. Note that the trunk in the photo looks extremely white, but it was actually a combination of direct lighting and my photo-taking abilities that made the trunk look too white. In person it doesn't look like that at all.
Trees (method 4: advanced)
Making the tree trunks is fairly straightforward. However, when it comes to the foliage, things get more challenging. Woodlands Scenics makes foliage mats and poly fiber that you tease apart and spread over branches. I have tried that many times, and I have never been happy with the results. So, the search for finding something that looks more realistic has taken many years. Gordon Gravett's book mentions that he uses "postiche", which is British for a wig, i.e. fake hair, basically. I went to a local beauty place and bought a package of fake hair. This photo, due to the surrounding light, makes it look horrible, but it is black, straight hair. I cut 1/4 to 1/2" pieces off of the hair and catch it in a big bowl (kind of like cutting hair).
Trees (method 4: advanced)
Update: The above photo of the fake hair was straight hair. This works well, but it leads to "spiky"-looking branches sometimes. I found braids of fake hair, shown below, on eBay. Just do a search for "theatrical fake hair" (my thanks to Trevor Marshall for that tip). You will find lots of beards, but also these braids. For some reason this hair is much finer. It is also wavy. The other thing I found was that it is so much easier to cut. I cut mine at about 1/4" - fairly short. I highly recommend this. I will be using this type of hair from now on.
Trees (method 4: advanced)
The fake hair simulates the smaller branches that grow out of the main branches of the armature. To apply them, I use the cheapest hairspray I can find at the grocery store, preferably one that is labeled as "odorless" (at least it reduces the annoying perfume smell). I spray the hairspray on the outer edges of the trunks over the trashcan. I try not to spray any on the main trunk. Then, holding the tree over a large bowl (I found this blue one at the local grocery store for a whopping $1.99), I loosely sprinkle the hair over the tree as I rotate it with my other hand. I then hold the tree upside down and quickly spin it around using the toothpick in the bottom. This flings off any loose hair, which is fine. But more importantly what I have found is that it forces the hair that does stick, to stick out from its branch rather than to lay flat. At first not much hair will stick to the tree. But be patient. Then, back to the trashcan and spray another coating of hairspray. Then repeat all of the above steps. Keep doing this until the tree has the shape that you want. I usually have to do this many times, especially with a tree this large. Keep an eye on the lower branches, because they tend to not have any hair on them. They will look out-of-place later on, so make sure they get some hair as well. I spray one final coat of hairspray over the whole tree when I am done. Set aside and let dry. I usually build three or more trees at the same time, so this "downtime" can be used to work on the others.
Trees (method 4: advanced)
And here is a profile view of the tree with its hundreds of finer branches. As you add more layers of the hair, some of it will start to stick to previously-applied hair/branches. This will start to form clusters of branches near the ends of the main armature branch. That is really what you are looking for in this approach.
Trees (method 4: advanced)
And now for the "leaves". I will show two techniques I use. In the past I have used Woodland Scenics' fine blended turf. This works great in a smaller scale like N-scale, but for S-scale, I wound up with very dense looking trees. I didn't like the result. I then thought that maybe larger chunks are needed since this is a larger scale. I made a couple of trees and then used Woodland Scenics' "Underbrush" ground foam. This looked better, but it, too, quickly made the tree look too dense. Trees need to have an airy feel to them. You should be able to look through them. Next, I tried a few trees with Scenic Express' "Flock & Turf", but the result looked odd. They have some color particles in them that look OK for ground cover, but not for trees. Later, I found a leftover container with some foam material in it. I tried that with one of my recent trees and really liked the result. It turns out that it was Woodland Scenics' "Coarse Turf". I ordered containers of three different colors and tried them out on the tree you see here. It is just the perfect size, shape, and texture, I think. Additionally, I tried a new approach here which looks great in person, but is somewhat hard to see in these photographs. I used a lighter color in the upper part of the tree, and a darker one near the bottom. The photo below is after I applied "Medium Green" coarse turf to the tops of the tree branches, again applied with hairspray. The coarse turf material sticks to the hair, which winds up giving it the airy feeling that I had been looking for, while also appearing to form groups of leaves from a distance. It didn't want this tree to be too "dense". It kind of looks like a very old tree that doesn't have full coverage of leaves anymore.
Trees (method 4: advanced)
I then flipped the tree upside down, and applied hairspray, but this time I used "Conifer" (a darker green) coarse turf. This, then, sticks to the bottom of the branches. It makes the branches look fuller, and it also conveys a shadowy under-branch area. It looks very convincing in person, I think. This photo shows the tree with all of its leaves. Again, I purposely didn't overdo it on this one.
Trees (method 4: advanced)
Here's another side of the tree. The next step is to really seal everything in place. Hairspray works well for a while, but eventually it dries up and evaporates. The tree will start to shed. For the final step I prefer to use Testors' Dullcote over the entire tree, including the main trunk and the roots. This is because the hairspray will leave a shine on the painted surface. Dullcote is kind of expensive, but it works the best. I have also used Krylon UV-Resistant Matte Finish, but it still leaves a bit of a shine to the surfaces. Both, however, do a good job in holding the leaves in place. Either before applying the final coat or after, I use a small pair of scissors and trim away any hair/branches that are exposed and don't have any "leaves" on them, because they tend to look odd. Also, I make sure that the branches don't look like a porcupine or cactus, which the spinning of the tree when the hair is applied can make the tree look like.
Trees (method 4: advanced)
Here is a top-down view which shows off the lighter color coarse turf used on the top of the branches.
Trees (method 4: advanced)
Here's another view of two of these trees.
Trees (method 4: advanced)
External Reference:
The other method for simulating leaves is to use Selkirks' leaves. The original owner passed away in 2013, but a new owner, Nigel Knight, has taken over the company. He has also significantly improved the web site. He was very easy to work with in me getting an order of the bags of leaves you see in the photo below. Based on Trevor Marshall's recommendation, I bought the O-scale ("standard" size) leaves. I like them, but I think for S-scale the HO-scale ("fine" size) leaves would work well, too. A mixture of both might make for a nice variety. In my order of the leaves, Nigel included a package of his "branches". Upon examination, it turned out to be pre-cut, 1-inch long, twine/rope/sisal, similar to the big roll you see in the photo below.
Trees (method 4: advanced)
Here's a tree that uses the one-inch long twine finer branches, and then a large volume of the curly fake hair end branches. To that I applied the Selkirk O-scale leaves. All done with coats and coats of hairspray.
Trees (method 4: advanced)
In this set of five trees, I used the twine branches and the curly hair ones. The tree in the middle has the Selkirk leaves applied, while the other four use the Woodland Scenics coarse foam for the leaves.
Trees (method 4: advanced)
Here is a close-up of the center tree. It is a bit hard to photograph. I like the look of the leaves. I think I will use trees with the coarse foam as background trees, while these, with the Selkirk leaves, as foreground ones.
Trees (method 4: advanced)
Tip: as I was building 7 trees in a hurry for a train show. I ran out of places to put them. I was spraying my trees with Testors Dullcote when things got really desperate. In a flash I got the idea of sticking them into a jar full of ballast. This worked great!
Trees (method 4: advanced)
When the tree is finished, as stated above, I apply a coating of Testors Dullcote which seals all the branches and leaves, and removes any shine from the tree. I will also apply some Bragdon Enterprises weathering powders to the trunk and roots just to age and color them a bit more. The photo below shows the trees at the local train show. I think that this photo makes the trees look more like what I see when I look at them. A few of the trees are "background" trees I had made several years ago, which are not my best work, but they'll do to fill the scene.
Trees (method 4: advanced)