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Easy Homemade Trees - A 'how-to' article.Return to Big Indoor Trains(tm) primer pageOn30 Display Trains
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Written by Paul D. Race for Big Indoor TrainsTM

Easy HomeMade Trees

Click for bigger photo.You have resin and ceramic houses - why shouldn't you have resin or ceramic trees? After all, you get them at the same place and they often look a lot like the foilage on your resin or ceramic houses. So that's a good thing, right? Well, yes, unless you want a forest, then you might find yourself looking for more variety, or for a more budget-friendly resouce.

For generations, model railroaders have been building very clever and realistic trees for fairly little money. They use a lot of different techniques, but here's one almost anybody can use, and it's one of the cheapest processes. I'm publishing it now (September, 2007) because it won't be long before one of the resources you need is widly available.

What You Need

The list of materials is simple.
  • Glue or adhesive. This can be
    • A spray glue (I substituted a clear satin acrylic spray for this example, so you can use that, too, in some cases - more later), or
    • Any white glue that you can dilute a little with water.
  • Something with small green flakes to represent leaves - this may take a trip to the hobby shop.
    • Model railroaders used to use colored sawdust to represent grass - that works great if you can find it.
    • Nowadays, they use other products that are more like finely chopped foam rubber. But it doesn't matter which you choose, although if you get the foam rubber variety, you'll may want to stick with water-soluble glue.
  • Dead weeds or flower heads that are in the shape of trees - This is the part you can get most easily in the fall.(More on this is below.)
  • Black or brown spray paint (optional). For this project, I used WalMart's cheapest flat black paint, .99 a can in 2007)
  • Something to hold the weeds in place while you're working. For this project I used a block of floral foam that was left over from a decorating project - it was really quite handy.

Where and When to Get the Weeds

I use the term weeds because the first time I did this, I actually went into a fallow field after a couple of frosts and snagged a bunch of weeds whose tops had growth patterns just like little trees. But I'll be honest, the plants I used for these examples are from my gardens. Most of them are from Autumn Joy sedum, a red-flowering, sturdy version of the "live-forever" plants my grandma used to grow. These flower-heads have really had a chance to dry - I left those heads up on purpose last fall because I was planning on doing this project. One twig is from a little ruby yarrow (achillea millefolium rubra), which is related to the kind that grows wild in the far north. This particular flower head had had bloomed in July and I hadn't gotten around to deadheading it until I started this project.

In this photo, the yarrow is on the right; the other twigs are from Autumn Joy sedum. Click for bigger photo.In this photo, the yarrow is on the left; the other twigs are from Autumn Joy sedum. The resin tree helped hold the floral block down so I could photograph it when the wind gusted. Click for bigger photo.

Now don't go cutting the heads off of other people's flowers without their permission. These examples are just to give you ideas, not to get you into that sort of trouble. The short version is, find dried weed or flower heads that resemble the structure of small trees, and that you won't get in trouble for taking. Also, if possible, break or cut the stem so that it is six inches longer than you'll probably need it.

Preparing the Stems

If your stems have anything that will cause them to look funny, like the little leaves still dangling from my yarrow, remove them. On the other hand, if they still have tiny seed pods on the heads, like most of the Autumn Joy twigs did, just shake the loose ones off and let the other ones stay - they'll stabilize once you soak them with adhesive, and will provide more surface area for the green stuff to stick to.

This shot shows the weeds spraypainted black. The Next, if you want them darker, paint them. I think darking them at least a little helps it not be quite so obvious that they started out as weeds or garden plants. With my weeds stuck into the foam block, it was very easy - I just held the block upside down and painted everything from about four inches from the block on down. I turned the block around horizontally two or three times and sprayed again to make certain I didn't completely miss a side. But I didn't have to get every bit of the twigs entirely black - nothing is quite entirely black in nature, after all - the point was mostly to darken them so they didn't quite look like weed stems.

This shot shows one of the twigs I decided to leave without foilage. Click for bigger photoThe photo that is just above to the right shows the twigs after they've been spraypainted. It also shows the Acrylic spray I used as adhesive. The bag of green stuff is what I used for foilage. I thought I was going to use the orange stuff, too, but it turned out to be made differently (attached to a fine film so you could spread it out over things), so I didn't wind up using it for this project.

Also, two of the twigs had very few of the little seed heads that were remaining on the other twigs so it exactly resembled a tree that had lost all of its leaves. I decide not to do anything with it except to knock off the rest of the seed heads and paint them black, because "dead trees" are useful for Halloween and any winter scene. Note: If you are especially interested in a dead tree look, check out Howard Lamey's article "Winter Trees from Floral Picks"

Dipping the Trees in the Green Stuff

Now it is time to make the trees look like living green things.

  1. Pour out your my green stuff into a bowl.
  2. Remove the first twig, holding it at the "trunk" end
  3. Saturate the "branch" end with the spray adhesive. (I used a spray acrylic finish this time, but when I first did this years ago, I watered down some Elmer's and dipped the "branches" into it.)
  4. Click for bigger photo.Lightly rest the branch end of the tree in the bowl of green stuff, and use your other hand to stir it around the tree for good coverage. Don't use the tree itself to stir the green stuff - you'll break off fragile pieces.
  5. Shake the loose stuff out over the bowl, and set the tree back in place.
  6. Do the rest of them.
  7. Collect any unused green stuff into a ziplock bag.
  8. After they've dried, you can install them. (In my case, I had a styrofoam base, so I just nicked a starter hole into it with a tiny screwdriver, and poked each tree into the foam. The first part of that project is shown in the last few photos in the article Portable Indoor Displays for Trees and Towns. I'll try to have more photos of the combined projects soon.)

You'll see that I decided to let two of the branches stick with the dead tree look. The moral is that if my goofed-up trees look this good, just think how good yours will look if you use the right combination of green stuff and adhesive.  Click for bigger photo.Now here's where I messed up this particular project - the acrylic spray I was using didn't like the foam Woodland Scenics green stuff as much as it liked the sawdust-like green stuff I've used in the past. So when I started to give a tree a top protective coat to "seal" everything into place, I noticed that the foilage was actually changing color. So if I want to seal them, I'll have to get a more "organic" spray, maybe something they use for silk flower arrangements or something. I actually resprayed one tree all over again and dipped it again. The fact that the foilage changes color on the underside isn't a big problem.

The photo above on the right shows this finished batch of trees, ready to be shortened and installed. (The resin tree is included both to give a sense of scale and to hold the project down in the breeze.)


Some of the weed trees on a portable foam base. Click for bigger photoThe photo at the right shows the trees on a foam base, with a couple of Hawthorne Village Kinkade buildings for scale. I'll probably shorten them more when I install them "permanently."

If you have photos of your projects that you would like us to include, or if you have any suggestions or corrections, please contact us, and we'll be sure we give you credit for your contribution.

All these are only suggestions, of course. It's your train and or town; choose a method that you are comfortable with and that gives the appearance you desire. Also, if you can use freestanding "dead trees" for any scenes, check out Howard Lamey's article "Winter Trees from Floral Picks"

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