Realistic Trees

by Craig Linn


I've constantly been looking for a way to make realistic trees. Not until I saw Dave Stewarts "Appalachian and Ohio" did I really understand what it would take to make a tree. But it got me thinking, why can't you make a tree like it really is, with trunks that are shaped different, with various branches, and various colors.
So I started to invest a little time and this is what I came up with. My philosophy is "Trees are models also." However, like most models, they take time. These trees are not intended to be trees for a huge forest, but moreover, just trees in the foreground of your layout.

Bill of Materials
*Square Balsa or Basswood (size will be dependant on the scale your doing)
*Candy Tuft (Found at Michaels or Hobby Lobby in the dried flower section)
*Scissors and/or hand cutters
*Rail Cutter
*Hobby Knife
*Thick CA glue (thin will work, but will make your life a nightmare)
*CA Accelerator
*Small diameter brass rods
*Spray Paint (will be used for the color of your leaves, as candy tuft only comes in harvest gold colors)
*Bottle Paint (This will be your paint for your trunks, so colors may vary. For this seminar I'll be using Light Grey, Sand, and Roof Brown)
*Paint Brush
*Pin Vise and Bits
*Dremel and Sanding Drum. (Sanding stick will work, will just take a LONG time)

In the Beginning……
The first step to making our trees if figuring out what period of the year you are modeling. Remember, Candy Tuft only comes in a harvest gold color, so unless your doing late fall for your trees, you will need to get some spray paint to repaint the leaves. I am modeling mid-late summer on my layout, so this will mean I will need to use a Medium Green color with variations in green tones. My choices for paints were Olive Drab and Medium Green (testers Model Master spray paints). Once I had my color figured out, I did an overall paint of my Candy Tuft, while it was still mostly in the bag. By only cutting one side of the bag open to paint, I was able to keep my hand protected against any over spray, as well as get a 'non uniform' effect on the leaves. (In Mid to Late Summer in the Nebraska Panhandle, leaves tend to burn in the sunlight, leaving different colors on the tree). Once the leaves have been painted, do a quick once over to make sure you got the coverage you are looking for.

Just like Johnny Appleseed!!
Now that you have the branches/leaves painted, we need to start our base or trunks. Depending on the type of tree you are making, sizes will vary. For the layout I'm doing, trees range from Cottonwoods to Ash, so trunk sizes will remain the same for the most part.

Take a look at the two diagrams below. These pictures shows how I usually start off with my trunks, with the image on the left showing the major pieces and the image on the right showing how they are pieced together. Lets focus on the right image. The red piece of balsa is, you guessed it, the trunk. This piece needs to be your largest piece of balsa you will need. Depending on your scale and the size of the tree you want to make, sizes will vary. I made mine about 4 to 5 inches tall. The green, blue, and gold pieces are the branches. Sizes will once again vary, however, you will want to make them smaller then your trunk. Sizes on mine were around 3 to 4 inches long, but I also used a smaller balsa stock. You can use the same stock for the branches as you did for the trunk, but just remember to sand them down smaller at the shaping stage.

Click for larger image.

  Let's start notching out the trunk for our branches. You may ask "Why notch out the trunk?" This serves two purposes: 1) Gives the branch a much more secure base to attach to. 2) Gives a good joint for the sanding phase. By notching out the trunk, it also gives us the ability to go a different angles for our branches, because, lets face it, branches are NOT straight.

You will notice in the diagram that I use three sides of the trunk. If you want to use all four, go ahead and do it. The sky is the limit with these trees.

After you have notched out the areas for the branches, get your branches. At the butt end (end that will mate with the trunk) cut the angle you want your branches to grow out on. I generally go between 35 to 55 degrees on mine, but as before, it is all in preference. Once you have the branches cut, put a generous spot of thick CA glue on the butt end, and put it into one of the notches. Now, put on a small amount of accelerator to speed up the hardening process.

Once you get done with adding all of your branches, you should get something similar to the diagram in this section.



Look at the curves on that……
Now that we have made our rough shape for our tree, let's get to sanding with the dremel tool. With the sanding drum on, start at the bottom of the tree trunk and start to shape. I usually will go completely around the base of the trunk, until I get the desired shape I'm looking for. Once the base is done, keep on going with the branches and the rest of the trunk. Don't worry if you gouge out parts of the tree, because trees are not perfect either. After you are happy with the shape of your tree, give a good once over, making sure that the branch joints don't have any gaping holes. If everything looks good, drill a hole in the bottom of the trunk and put your small diameter brass rod in, securing with your thick CA glue. I generally make sure that about ½" to 1" of rod is inside the trunk, with 1 ½" to 2" extending past the bottom for placement in your scenes.

Click for larger image.


Down to Business…
Ahhhh, the fun part of making trees. Painting! This is probably the hardest part of the whole process. Getting the colors to look right for trees is tough, but not unachievable. For ideas on what color to use for your trees, look at the type of tree your going to model, because that will dictate a lot in this process. Since I'm doing cottonwoods, I start off with a dark color for my base, usually a Rail Brown or a Grey. Once that color has completely dried, I go back and use a dry brush technique with a much lighter color, such as Sand or Mud. The 'highlights' on the sanded surface will turn out very nicely, in some areas giving you the wood grain, and in others giving you a rough look such as bark. I would recommend using a couple of highlight colors to give a little variation in your color patterns, like real trees do.

Once you are satisfied with the color of your tree, take a look at a picture of your tree you are modeling, and compare the two. If there are any things that need reworked, do that now because we are slowly nearing the point of no return!

Yes Drill Sergeant!
Now that we have our tree base made up, we need to prep it for "branch plant" or placing the candy tuft on our model. This is where we will be using our Pin Vise and bits. I generally use a #62 bit for this job, as that seems to be about the size of the candy tuft. Some branches might be smaller, some might be bigger, so you will need to figure out what size will work best for you.

Click for larger image.


As for drilling the holes for the branches, there really is no set way to do it, just some suggestions. Here they are in no particular order: 1) Put one hole at the end of your branches, then slowly work down the branch, using a random pattern. 2) Don't go fully down the branch with your leaves. Keep the leaves in the upper half of the branch. 3) Start your holes perpendicular to the branch until started. Once started, slowly work the angle back towards the tip of the branch, so that you get the effect that the branches are not going straight out. 4) Don't over do it, but don't under do it. You should make around 15-20 holes in each branch, +/- 5 holes. 5) Be random. Look over pictures or look at real trees for ideas on branch placements.

Lets make like a tree………
Now that we have our holes made and ready for 'branches', lets start to cut the candy tuft and get the branches painted up.

When cutting the candy tuft branches, try to keep in mind that you need to keep the branch size in the scale your working in. So for N scale, you will have some pretty stubby branches, and for HO you might have some branches in length of 1 to 2 inches, and O scale would be larger. With that in mind, since I'm working on HO scale I am trying to keep my lengths around 1 - 2 inches. (For a better idea on branch size, look at the picture below - the left side is the size of a full candy tuft branch and the right size is what the cut down size would look like).


Click for larger image.


Now that you have the branches cut down, we need to paint the 'wood' up. I generally just use a paint bottle that is close to the color that my trunk turned out in, which most of the time has been a light gray or even a concrete color. I don't generally worry about weathering up the branches any, but if you want to, more power to ya!

Once the branches have dried, get your thick CA glue spread out on a contained flat surface. You won't need a whole lot, so the size of a dime should work well. Look over your selection of branches that you have painted up and try to find a branch that fills out in three or four directions. We will use this for our top on the trunk. Once you have the candy tuft piece picked out, dip the end of the branch in your CA glue, and then insert it into the top of the trunk. Give a small shot of Accelerator on the branch you just installed (this will aid in the hardening process of the CA glue).

Continue to work down your tree trunk branch that you just started on and finish it out completely. Once that is done, start on the next branch. Continue this process until completely done! (NOTE: Start with the highest trunk branch and work your way down. It will make your life MUCH easier in the long run!)

We came, we saw, we…
That is the complete process that I go through to make realistic trees. It is time consuming, but the rewards are very great. You get some very realistic trees for your layout, that will make for some amazing photos.


Click for larger image.