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Can’t see the forest for the…


By Andrew Batchelor

This web page was last updated on November 20th, 2009.

Materials & Tools

A wide variety of materials can be employed in making trees. In fact, since there is so much variation in techniques and materials, we’ll just focus on getting the trees built rather than worrying what it’s made of. The following is a therefore non-exhaustive list of materials that can be employed in making trees of various types.

Deciduous Coniferous
Armatures / Large Branch Structures
- Weeds*
- Twigs
  Stranded wire (various gauges)
- String – e.g. cotton, jute, twine, carpet thread
Commercial products like Woodland Scenics plastic armatures, or
- Scenic Express “SuperTrees”

* some weeds, like sedum, are suitable for use as a complete tree!

- “Christmas village” trees – e.g. Dollar store

- Artificial Christmas tree branches
- Bamboo skewers or other dowelling
Fine Branch Structure

- Smaller or thinner versions of the above

- Poly fibre (usually green or black, other colours can be painted)
- Dried flowers like baby’s breath
Commercial products like Woodland Scenics Foliage nets (also includes foliage)

- Furnace filter (fibrous kind, not paper)

- Pot scrubbers
- Ground foam in various colours
- Ground leaves and other detritus

- Commercial products like Woodland Scenics Clump Foliage

- Ground foam

- Very short static grass can sometimes be used                                   
Tools & Other Supplies

- Reference book or pictures

- CA/superglue/crazy glue
- Cheap (cheaper is better) hair spray or other spray glue

- Scissors and/or wire nippers for trimming
- Razor saw
Hot melt glue pot

- 50-50 water-glue mixture

- Florists’ tape
- Paint

- Chunk of Styrofoam to hold finished trees and armatures
- Newspaper
Bucket(s) for dunking armatures

So… How To?

Conley Lumber, courtesy Mike Hamer ©2007
Generic trees can be made “à la Mike Hamer” by simply dunking suitably shaped weeds in a 50-50 water-glue mix and sprinkling on ground foam. This kind of tree is very fast and easy to make, very inexpensive, and suitable for background to foreground. If they get broken by errant operator elbows, it’s not the end of the world.

If you are interested in having trees that help to set the place and time of your scene, then you should refer to pictures or reference books as you build. It is amazing the noticeable variation in different types of trees and their location.

Even trees of the same species turn out differently when grown in a forest setting as compared with “open grown” examples. By the way, if you don’t think trees can indicate time, remember that rural scenes set 50+ years ago in Ontario would have had many more Elms than the same location today!

Let’s take a quick look at a few different ways to make both coniferous and deciduous trees...


1. Furnace filter/Pot scrubber Conifers

Besides the “weed” trees, these are probably the least expensive to make, although they are a bit more time consuming. You’ll need the bamboo skewers, paint, glue, and pot scrubbers or furnace filter material.

The basic technique is to cut circles of material and thread them onto the trunk (skewer). The scrubber and/or filter material can be pulled, stretched, or ripped to make it less dense. Once the form looks good, it can be dunked in the glue mixture or thinned paint, and covered with ground foam.

2. Christmas trees

Trees 1-2-3 courtesy Andrew Batchelor ©2007

This is one step easier than the above, as the tree forms are complete. The Dollar Store typically has these kinds of trees for use with “Christmas Villages”. Artificial Christmas tree branches can also be used with some (re)shaping with scissors as desired. Again, once the form is finished, it is simply coated with ground foam to simulate foliage.      

Deciduous Trees

One major challenge for deciduous tree construction is modelling winter trees. A very fine branch structure must be achieved in order to avoid the “dead tree” look. Both the methods below are suitable for creating winter trees, if enough fine branch structure is added. Summer trees need less branch structure, as the poly fibre and foliage will hide this to a degree. 

1. “Armature” trees

All of what I am calling “armature” trees use some sort of more-or-less ready-made structure: weeds, twigs, dried flowers, and so on. If you are lucky, you can find some armatures that look good right from the start, but others can be built up by adding smaller structures with glue. The hot melt glue pot is very useful for this and is easier than drilling holes in the main trunk.

If necessary, you can combine several branch structures together to get one tree. The components can be cut or whittled to fit, and then wrapped with florists’ tape to hide the joints and add some bark texture. Given the right materials, this step is sometimes not needed.

Once the branch structure is satisfactory, paint it if necessary. Many trees have a greyish bark, rather than brown; check if you are trying to capture a specific look. Then poly fibre “puffs’ can be teased out to a light and airy shape and glued to the tree. Use black fibre if you are intending to create fall coloured trees; otherwise green is fine (or any other colour as it can be painted - sort of).

Don’t try to create one puff that will cover the entire tree; instead try one or two for each of the main branches of the tree. This will avoid the “ball on a stick” look and give your trees a more natural shape. If you want to avoid a third step, use something like Woodland Scenics Foliage “nets” for this step. That allows you to put on the poly fibre and ground foam in one.

Ground foam foliage can then be added to the poly fibre. Mist the tree with hair spray or spray glue and sprinkle on the foam. A final spray will help affix any errant pieces.

2. Stranded Material Trees

These trees differ from the above only in that the armature is manufactured, rather than found. Any sort of stranded material will do, and can even be made by twisting lengths of wire together, for example. The idea is to build a branching structure by twisting the strands together at the base, and then separating them into smaller and smaller branching structures.

String or other “non-rigid” material can be used, but must be stiffened with the application of glue. Cotton string + CA is a good example. If needed, the trunk and branches of stranded material can be hidden under a layer or two of florists’ tape, or some other compound. Some modellers apply putty and carve in the bark texture. This is not really necessary for background trees, and/or if the individual strands are very fine.

The fine branch structure and foliage are added as above.

Other Notes on Construction

For HOTrak purposes, planting the trees could not be easier. Put a short wire (pin, piano wire, etc) into the trunk, and simply push the wire into the foam (actually, adding the wire at the beginning of construction can provide a useful handle during spraying). You can affix them with a blob of glue, or leave them so removal is easy. Trees made from weeds can be stuck right in the foam after a hole is made with an awl or similar tool.


I hope you have found this information helpful. As you can see from the above, there is no “wrong” way to make a tree. Just as there is a huge variety in nature, so do our models vary. It’s ok for trees not to be perfect - they rarely are in nature. Dead trees, dead or broken branches on living trees, misshapen, bent or otherwise “unique” trees are everywhere.


Model Railroader - May, July, Sept, Nov 1995 – A 4 part series on all kinds of trees and construction
Paul Dolkos & Allen Keller, Great Model Railroads Vol #46 - http://www.allenkeller.com/GMR46.htm
Mike Hamer - www.bostonandmaine.blogspot.com
Various Tree Guides - search
www.chapters.indigo.ca for various titles.
Online tutorial @ The Gauge: http://forum.zealot.com/t109129