HOW TO MAKE REALISTIC TREES (CHEAPLY)

 

by R.E.Swenson

 

Materials:

You will need the following materials:

Florist’s Wire. (18-20” lengths.) (Local florist or craft store, K-mart, Ames etc., Whatever is cheapest.)

Sisal Twine (Untreated) (Hardware store item. Wicked big roll is dirt cheap.)

Brown Paint (Spray Can), Slow drying works best. Fast dry does not work well at all.(I used Rustoleum because it was available and dries slow, but if you find something cheaper go for it.).

Ground Foam (Fine, Dark Green) I used Woodland Scenics “Weeds”

 

Tools:

You will need the following tools:

Bench Vise.

Hand operated Drill. (Do not use power drill. Too hard to control. Speed too high.)

Scissors.

Glue Gun and Hot Glue

Diagonal cutters.

 

Optional Items:

The following optional items will make the project easier:

An oversized “salt shaker” or similar for sprinkling ground foam..

A Throw Away aluminum roasting pan (18” x 20” approx.). (Grocery / Hardware
store item. Inexpensive.)

Throw away latex / plastic gloves.

Get Started:

The concept is simple but realism is achieved by the technique.

What you are going to do is make a bunch of tapered “bottle brushes” much like what is commercially available but much more realistic and very much cheaper (assuming your labor is free). I found it efficient to make batches of a dozen to 2 dozen but do only a half dozen for your first try until you get the hang of it. You don’t have to go from start to finish all at once and it will require some time at the end for the paint to dry so be patient. Except for Step 6, you can stop any time for a pit stop, to play with your trains, eat, sleep, go to work, or whatever.

 

Step 1 Prepare the branches (Sisal twine)

The twine is a bunch of long fibers which are twisted together. None of them are as long as the whole ball of twine and it is the twisting together of the overlapping fibers that gives the twine its length and strength. It is only friction that holds it all together. We are going to undo all of that.

First cut several approximately 3 foot lengths of twine. (Longer gets unwieldy. A 2’ or 3’ length of twine is usually enough material for a tall tree.)

Clamp one end in your bench vise.

Clamp the other end in your hand drill.

Observe the “lay” (direction of twist) of the twine and, with a slight tension on the twine, slowly turn the drill in the opposite direction. (If the twine is wetted it will straighten out better but then you will have to wait for it to dry.)

Next cut into 2 and 3 inch lengths. (Keep the little bundles separated for easier handling later.) Comb out the twine 6” or 8” at a time as you cut to get rid of stray or really deformed material and debris. A stiff bristle brush or even a wire brush works good here.

 

Step 2 The tree trunk.

Bend in half a piece of the florists wire so it forms a hairpin. Obviously the tallest tree you can make will be slightly less than half the unfolded wire length. If you want shorter trees just cut to length. (You can make taller by twist splicing two wires together so each forms a leg of the hairpin. Some final trimming may be required. Because the wire will later be twisted it will shorten some more.)

 


Step 3 Affixing the branches.

Insert the short lengths of twine you cut in Step 1 into the hairpin, the shorter at the top 1/2, longer for the bottom ˝.

Center the clumps of branches in the hairpin and leave some random spaces (1/4 to ˝ inch) between clumps.

Run a bead of hot glue down both sides of the tree trunk, except the last half inch, to hold the branches in place. This will give the completed trunk a little more thickness, but more importantly it holds it all together for the next steps. Hold the open wire ends together while gluing so material will not move or fall out. A wooden spring clothespin works well for this.

 

Step 4 Shaping the tree.

Firs, Spruce, Hemlock etc., generally taper with the longest branches on bottom, shortest at top, but they do not taper in a straight line. Using scissors, trim the twine in the hairpin to give an exponential taper leaving only about 3/8 to 1/2 inch branch length at top. Both sides do not have to be perfectly identical in our two dimensional tree, just close. This will all average out in the next step. (You can also make a fairly good looking White Pine with a slight variation of technique. The shape is more cylindrical. More exposed trunk at the bottom which you can build up thickness with the hot glue and later paint.) In any case half the twine used will be trimmed away (waste). Good thing it’s cheap!

Remember: no two trees are alike and no tree is perfectly symmetric. Trees may be deformed by weather, disease, and insects as well.

 

Step 5 Growing the Tree (This step is almost magic!)

Clamp just enough of the loop end of the hairpin wire in the bench vise to hold and chuck the other end in your hand drill. (This can be done with only two hands but the first time is a bit intimidating.)

Time for the magic show. With just slight tension on the wire start cranking the drill (slowly) and watch the tree form in three dimensions. The branches will distribute nicely 360 degrees around the trunk. Wrap fairly tight but do not overdo. A couple of tries and you will get a “feel” for it. The tree will also shorten somewhat as the wire twists up. Use your scissors to prune the really stray branches. Getting the appropriate branch to trunk angle may require a little manual manipulation at this point.

 

Step 6 Foliating the Tree

A throw away latex glove is handy here unless you enjoy removing paint and foam from your hand.

BE SURE YOU HAVE ADEQUATE VENTILATION FOR SPRAY PAINTING.

(My spray booth was just a discarded cardboard carton to catch the excess spray and I worked out doors.)

Spray paint the tree with the brown paint. Fairly heavy but not so it drips. Be sure to cover at all angles.

Immediately shake or pour the ground foam onto the paint soaked wet tree, catching the excess foam in the roasting pan for recovery later. Be sure to cover at all angles. The wet paint is the “glue” that makes the foam stick.

You can just stick the tree in a piece of Styrofoam to dry and go on to the next one. (I allow a day or two to dry before “planting”.)

 

Step 7 Cleaning Up

Except for purging the spray can nozzle and salvaging the ground foam there is little to clean up (unless you didn’t wear the glove, in which case you will be trying to get the paint and stray particles of foam off your hands.).

 

Step 8 Planting the Trees

Just make a hole in your scenery just large enough for the wire trunk and plant your tree. After I make the hole I put a big drop of undiluted white glue over it and then insert the tree. If it doesn’t stand straight it can be propped up until the glue sets up. (Another good use for those spring clothespins.)

Except for Christmas Tree Farms, trees grow in random clusters and vary in height.. It will also take surprisingly many trees to forest a relatively small area. (This is good because you can then “hide” the ones that didn’t come out so good.) Dense forests (model) can take 12 to 15 trees to cover a square foot !

These trees are quite rugged, mainly due to the twisted wire, and will withstand some handling and bumping.

(A light over spray of hairspray or similar before planting will make them even more rugged.)

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How tall are the trees? That depends on the scale you are modeling. Approximate values are shown in the table:

 

ACTUAL HEIGHT

O SCALE HEIGHT

HO SCALE HEIGHT

N SCALE HEIGHT

1 INCH

4 FEET

7.25 FEET

13 FEET

2 INCHES

8 FEET

14.5 FEET

27 FEET

4 INCHES

16 FEET

29 FEET

53 FEET

6 INCHES

24 FEET

43.5 FEET

80 FEET

8 INCHES

32 FEET

58 FEET

107 FEET

10 INCHES

40 FEET

72.5 FEET

133 FEET

12 INCHES

48 FEET

87 FEET

160 FEET