The wood-free forest


George’s railroad wasn’t quite finished when I delivered it to him, back in the fall. I made a few trips to his place to tune the track a little, and apply ballast, but it still lacked the trees I had promised him. Making trees is a messy job, especially when my dollar-store can of Aqua-Net blows hairspray in unintended directions. Can you blame me for procrastinating just a wee little bit on this task?

For most of the things I do to build a railroad, I’ve arrived at techniques that give me results I’m satisfied with. My tree-construction process, however, is still evolving. For a long time, I used Woodland Scenics plastic tree armatures, but they yield a stubby-looking tree that cannot be anchored securely enough in my Styrofoam landforms. I tried extending the trunks with styrene tubing, but they broke at the joints. I drilled out the trunks to reinforce them with short lengths of piano wire. That helped, but they still broke off too easily with handling, and was a lot of effort.

A couple of years ago, I tried winding tree armatures with 26-gauge steel craft wire, and finally got trees that could withstand the handling that my modules are subjected to. The trees I’ve produced lately still aren’t shaped as well as I’d like—they come out looking like green lollipops on skinny sticks—but that’s a matter of refining the technique.

The trees you see here were formed from about 6 turns of wire around a simple jig. The bottom half of the resulting coil was twisted tightly to form a trunk. The upper half was snipped at the top, and shaped into branches. The armature was dipped into a can of brownish-gray flat latex paint I had mixed just for the job, the excess allowed to drip off, and poked into scrap Styrofoam to dry.

The branches were dotted with white glue, and teased-out tufts of Woodland Scenics Poly Fiber were applied. I’m sure there are some budget-conscious hobbyists among you who question the wisdom of spending $4 on a tiny bag of green-tinted pillow stuffing, when giant bags of the uncolored stuff can be had for less than that. If I were building a Basement Empire, I’d raise the same question. The dozen-or-so trees I’m doing for George, however, consumed less than half a baggie of the stuff, hardly a major expense.

The half-finished trees sat around for a while before I finally mustered the fortitude for the final step. The Poly Fiber got a saturating spritz of cheap hairspray, and was then rolled around in a bucket containing a mixture of several shades of fine ground foam. The outsides of the Poly Fiber tufts got a nice, dense coating, like the breading on a chicken cutlet. I followed this up with a generous misting of dish-soap-infused water, which seems to help the hairspray wick into the foam, and keep it secure. Thus coated, the trees were stabbed back into the scrap foam for drying.

Installation was simple. Locate a tree, poke a hole in the foam with a kabob skewer, put a large drop of glue over the hole, press the tree home. George immediately announced plans to go shopping for N scale tents and deer.