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The Truth About Trees

By Ron Marsh

All photographs by Ron Marsh

RM - Truth About Trees - Tree.png

Whether you are building a model railroad layout, a diorama for displaying military models, or fantasy models, the scenery will be a key component to your modeling.  Your favorite locomotive, World War II-era tank, or haunted castle will look its best when set amid hills, grass, rocks, trees, and underbrush.  Thus, no matter what type of modeling you do, you need to master some basic scenery building techniques.  In most landscapes one of the critical components of scenery is trees.  Most of the areas you model will have some type of trees as part of the scene.  Convincing tree building, therefore, is a critical element in any modeler’s skillset.

As you plan your scene and the trees that will be part of it, you need to ask several questions that will guide you as you build those trees.  First, what type of landscape are you building?  If you are building high Rocky Mountain scenery, you are going to need many large pine trees.  If it is Appalachian scenery you are recreating, you will need large canopies of deciduous trees.  In central and southern Texas you are going to find numerous small, scrubby Mesquite trees, and in the Midwest, you will find towering oaks, maples, and elms.

Size is an important consideration as you plan and build your trees.  Many commercially available trees are much too small to represent truly scale trees in whatever scale you may work (see Figure 1).  Trees which are too small or too large for your scene and your models will destroy the sense of realism that is the goal of good modeling.  In most cases, trees should tower over residential houses or railroad locomotives, dwarfing our models and thus putting them in a realistic perspective (see Figure 2).

RM - Truth About Trees - Figure 1.png
RM - Truth About Trees - Figure 2.png

Trees are not perfect in the real world.  The temptation to build trees that are uniform and symmetrical will yield a scene that looks too “perfect” and thus unbelievable.  Real trees often have voids in the foliage, lean in a direction where they will get more sun and are lopsided.  Modeling these imperfections will yield a scene that is much more realistic and believable.  Even including some dead or dying trees can make a scene look more varied and prototypical (see Figure 3).

RM - Truth About Trees - Figures 3 and 4

Variety is the spice of life.  It is also the key to a good looking forest of either evergreen or deciduous trees. Try using a variety of techniques and see what kind of varied results they yield.  You may find that some techniques produce great looking background or canopy trees while others yield beautiful foreground trees. Try also using a variety of products.  Compare the results you get using commercial plastic armatures versus those made from a variety of natural products (see Figures 4 and 5).  Compare your results using leaf flake foliage versus ground foam (see Figure 6).  See the difference you get between twine and twisted wire pines versus furnace filter pines (see Figure 7).  In short, play with your tree making techniques and materials to see what works where.

RM - Truth About Trees - Figures 5 and 6
RM - Truth About Trees - Figure 7.png

As you experiment with you tree-making skills you will find that practice yields improvement. You will find that, as you discover the techniques you prefer, you will improve each time you make another tree.  Before you know it, you will be amazed at the improvement in your scenes as you yield the fruit of better tree building.

Happy Modeling, Ron. 

About the Author


Ron Marsh is a pastor in Southwest Missouri.  He grew up in West Central Missouri where he became a railfan of the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio and Missouri Pacific Railroads at an early age.  Ron has been a model railroader for over 20 years and has modeled 1970s Missouri Pacific and contemporary BNSF.  He is currently working on his third layout—the Texas, Colorado & Western—depicting BNSF operations in North Texas and Colorado in 2008.  He is a member of the N Scale Enthusiasts – a national organization for N scalers. Ron posts model railroading videos weekly to his YouTube channel, Ron’s Trains N Things


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