A few words of warning though, while none of this is hard to do, it is time consuming. Especially the first few times you do it. I think the first tree I made took me almost 5 hours to figure everything out, that's a lot of time for 1 tree. Now that I know what I am doing and have a system its probably around an hour or two per tree (for 5-6" tall ones), but that's still not insignificant. There is a reason that trees like this commonly sell to model railroaders for between $60 and $200 US each (for 5" through 12" tall), there is a lot of time investment to make them look good. Also the materials to make them are not cheap so the base manufacturing price can stack up quickly too, my current estimate is between $15 and $20 Canadian per tree.
So let's start with a materials list:
- Sagebrush tree armatures (real sagebrush clippings from http://modeltreestore.com/)
- Super Leaf flock (realistic leaves from http://www.sceneryexpress.com/)
- Static Grass tufts (pre-made tufts from http://www.tajima1.co.uk/)
- Static Grass
- Green Poly fiber
- 50mm - 80mm wood bases
- Washers for weight
- Brass rod
- Liquitex Resin or Natural Sand medium
- Zap (super glue) and White glue
- Spray Adhesive (3m 777 spray glue or Elmer's Spray Adhesive)
Sagebrush makes the perfect armatures for model trees as it grows like a full size tree, but in miniature. The structure of the bark and limbs mimics full size trees almost exactly. You can create trees using any twigs you want, but look closely at the pictures of sagebrush then at the twigs you generally find, if your going to spend your time making something, do it right and start with something that will look real.
Modeltreestore.com. The operator Mike is extremely easy to deal with and will even find branches that look similar to specific real life trees if you send photos! I have dealt with him several times already and he is awesome to deal with. This however is the biggest part of the expense, due in most part to shipping and exchange. It ends up costing about $65 CND to get 10 armatures here, so almost $7 a tree.
Anyway, onto prep. The armatures come from Mike in a large bag in a box as shown above, and should be baked to sterilize them before use. Just through them on a cookie sheet and onto the BBQ on low for a few hours and you should be good to go. You could use the stove but Sagebrush has a strong aroma and most of our wives wouldn't appreciate baking trees in the oven (or at least mine wouldn't, so I didn't even try).
Once baked and dried, you start to work the armatures to clean them up. Just pull all the leaves off and slide your fingers down each branch and pull off all the tiny branches that are loose. You want them all off now, rather than later after everything is together and then starts to fall apart when bumped!
Step 2 - Basing
Now that the branches are prepped it's time to base them. Cut the branch to have a flat surface at the angle and location you want (if not happy with how it came cut) and then drill a small hole in the bottom. Super glue a short length of brass rod into the tree leaving about 2.5 - 3mm sticking out (longer if you are going to use thicker bases or if you are inserting into a foam table).
Super glue the tree to the base and let it dry. Then use liquitex to build up the base around the tree and washer and to blend everything together while adding texture all at once.
Step 3 - Poly Fiber
Once everything is dried you can move onto stretching poly fiber over the trees. This is the most time consuming part and needs to be done right to look correct in the end. It will take you a few hours a tree at the start but get significantly faster once you get the hang of it. Take small pieces of poly fiber (I mean really small, like the size of a marble) and start pulling it apart and stretching it. Take a few threads from this clump and twist them around a branch several times. Most of the time if you do this with tension the bark with grab the fiber and hold it tight, if not apply a drop of super glue to secure it. Take another few threads and to it again on another area of the same branch. Once done stretch and pull the poly fiber around that branch until you can barely see it. It should look like a spider web and like it is way to thinned out. Don't worry it will fill in once you flock it, it will amaze you.
I played with the contrast on the pictures so that you can see the poly easily, but its really not that dense. A marble sized clump gets expanded to about 2" cubed.
I also chose to paint the base a basic brown at this point.
Step 4 - Super Leaf
The Super Leaf product is the other big part of what makes these trees look real. Rather than the typical clump foliage or powdery flock this stuff looks like leaf bits. No one around here carries it though so again I had to order. To do it right I got a large container of medium green and a small container of light and dark green. That is enough to do about 20 trees.
Setup an area to spray the trees with the spray adhesive (not watered down glue and a sprayer, this is aerosol based glue and can be found at any fabric shop, Canadian tire, Walmart, etc). and an area to flock the trees (using several sheets of paper to collect the excess flock to return to the container. Start by spraying from the underside of the tree trying to only hit the poly fiber then rotate the tree to get the sides and top of the poly fiber. The poly will turn white once enough glue is on it.
Next flock the poly fiber with the medium green Super Leaf to build the basic bulk of leaf structure for the tree. Simple use the Super Leaf shaker to sprinkle it onto the poly fiber and the glue will hold most of it there. Shake the tree and tap the base to knock off the loose particles and then collect the excess from the paper and put it back in the shaker. If the tree does not look full enough you can play repeat this process a second time.
Time to do that again but this time only spray the poly (and medium green foliage) from the underside of the tree and only lightly. Use the dark green Super Leaf to flock the underside of the branches to provide a shaded look. Again shake the tree and knock of excess and collect it to use again.
One more time, this time only spray the top of the tree lightly and then apply the light green Super Leaf to provide a look of sunlight hitting the tops of the trees.
I chose to do these trees as a normal green shade, but you can just as easily do them in autumn colours or add some light sprinkles of a flower type colour to represent fruit trees in bloom. There are lots of options.
Step 5 - Finishing work
You are almost done now. It is time to paint the base (if you didn't earlier) and then dry brush it so that all the texture from the liquitex shows.
Once that is done I put white glue onto the base in various areas and flock it with normal static grass. If this is good enough for you, you can skip the next paragraph.
Once the static grass has dried I go back and add some more interest to the base with various clumps of flowers and grass from http://www.tajima1.co.uk/, which makes some amazing tufts that add a lot of realism to any project. I added a few bits of heather to each tree base and a few clumps of various sizes and colours of grass as well. Something like 8 - 12 clumps per tree looks about right to me, but you can do more or less as you choose.
Last step here is to clear coat the trees with a satin or flat clear coat spray. Apply a few thin layers allowing each to dry before applying the next. This adds some additional bonding to help keep the foliage on the tree. You can use a few thin layers of the spay adhesive before clear coating them to further strengthen it, but you need to be extremely careful as if put on to thick it will produce a haze effect on the leaves, so while I have tried it, its hard to pull off, so I just use a few thin coats of clear coat.
The above image shows the scale of these trees, which is what really led me to doing them this way. I got tired of all the store bought model trees which end up being about 3-4 times the height of a model and not really looking like trees in a forest which are huge compared to a normal person. These I think give the right feel for a forest. What is shown are 5 of the smallest trees I did, there are some almost 2x that height and I now have almost 20 complete.
All the trees I have done now are shown here filling a 3'x3' space far denser than you are likely to game with. A lot of work, but I am really happy with the results.