Wargaming terrain without the one or other tree would be quite boring, after all we try to recreate natural surroundings for our games and even in the driest desert some form of tree will dwell. It does thus not surprise that there are plenty of techniques out there to make visually appealing model trees.
Some use prefabricated armatures made of plastic or metal, others go the scratch built route using wire or others again use natural products, such as twigs and sea moss or ‘Meerschaum’ as it is called in German (botanical name chenopodium aristatum).
A similar variety of foliage products exists: Clump foliage, either bought or self-made, fine turf in combination with loose ‘leave’ scatter or foliage nets.
This short tutorial focuses on an easy technique that yields very realistic results. We will make a simple birch tree for 15mm scale using sea moss and MiniNatur foliage nets to achieve a true to life appearance while keeping the time involvement at roughly one hour. If you are looking for a more involved project and even more realistic result have a look at my Oak tutorial.
Some facts about birch trees
Birches are broad-leaved deciduous hardwood trees of the genus Betula, in the family Betulaceae. Given there are a number of varieties we first have to decide which species we would like to depict. Not all birch trees have the black and white bark one normally associates with them, but given this feature really makes them stand out I went for the silver birch (betula pendula). This species is native to Europe and can thus be used for many periods of time and regions. In southern Europe it can only be found in higher altitudes, so it might not be your first choice if you want to give your table a mediterranean feel.
The twigs of the silver birch are slender and often pendulous, the leaves roughly triangular with doubly serrated margins. Comes autumn they turn yellow before they fall off and create a beautiful contrast with the white and black bark. On a related note model builders and gamers love the seed pods of birch trees as they yield perfectly shaped 28mm scale ‘leaves’ for decorating bases.
If we look at the sea moss pieces fresh from their packaging (you can buy a box in most model railroad shops) their natural shape works well to depict the silhouette of a silver birch. One small twig is enough for a medium-sized birch tree in 15mm scale, for 28mm one might need to first built a wire armature and add to it using the ‘Meerschaum’. All we need to do now is to shape it, add some bark texture and finally the foliage nets.
What you need
- A small sea moss twig.
- A pair of small scissors to shape the twig.
- A pin vise with a 0.8mm bit to drill a hole in the ‘trunk’ and to insert a piece of wire for added stability.
- A piece of very thin wire or a needle.
- Plastidip to cover the entire ‘Meerschaum’ twig for added stability.
- Wood filler to create a realistic bark texture and to give the ‘Meerschaum’ more strength.
- Acrylic paints: Black, grey and white to paint the bark.
- Fast setting glue, I use Insta-Cure+ to fix the foliage net in place.
- MiniNatur/Silflor foliage net birch either the summer or autumn variety. I used half of a small sheet, which costs 3.60 Euro. So while not the cheapest solution out there, 1.55 Euro per tree is not too bad if you only want a small number of very realistic looking trees.
- A broad brush and a very fine brush.
How you do it
- Remove any dried leaves from the twig and clean up the lower section carefully removing some of the fine twigs to achieve a clearly distinguishable trunk section.
- Mount the twig on a piece of styrofoam, but don’t drill a hole in the trunk yet, as it might splinter.
- Cover the entire twig in Plastidip. This pretty much rubberizes it. You can use the aerosol spray can for this step or decant some of it and use a brush or even better an airbrush. You might need several coats to achieve a flexible and durable coating. Let dry.
- With the help of some wood filler add some texture to the trunk and other twigs in the lower parts of the tree. This also adds some thickness to them making the overall appearance of the tree more realistic. You can also use caulking for this step if you want to preserve the flexibility of the rubber coating.
- Mix a very pale grey and paint most of the twig. A bit of brown from the natural colour shining through adds some nice colour variations.
- Mix a dark grey and add some irregular patches to the trunk and thicker twigs.
- With some more thinned down shades of dark grey you can now add the characteristic horizontal dark lines birch bark has.
- Finally with a very thin wash of grey add some colour variation to the lower sections of the trunk.
- MiniNatur products come in sheets, so you have to cut the sheet to size and pull it carefully apart to make the shape more irregular. Apply some fast setting glue and attach the pieces of foliage to the twig. Less is more, as you want the tree to look light and airy.
- After the last piece of net is applied, take the tree from the styrofoam base and drill a hole in the now stabilised trunk. Insert a piece of wire and secure with glue. Now you can pin it to your gaming table and easily change its position or you could make a base for the tree featuring a magnet to make transport easier.
The entire process without dead time for drying takes about an hour. The tree holds up well to the trials and tribulations of the gaming table, but naturally you cannot just toss them in a box and hope the best. They will break if handled without care, even though the Plastidip and filler as well as the net add quite some stability.
Naturally this simple concept can be elaborated on in first making an armature out of wire and then adding to it with pieces of sea moss. This is necessary for bigger trees or scales, as well as trees that have more protruding shapes, e. g. an oak tree.
The following picture shows such a tree that is supposed to depict a holly oak. Being almost 16cm high this tree uses up a significant amount of foliage nets, which makes it quite expensive (around 16 Euro). However, for a centre piece worth every cent. I will focus on this technique in another tutorial in the future.
I hope you enjoyed this tutorial and please comment down below if you have suggestions or would like to share your own techniques to achieve realistic trees.