seamoss, 28mm, 15mm, MiniNatur, Silflor, birch

How to make realistic wargaming trees – Project Birch

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
Two different trees illustrating the distinctive bark patterns and markings of a silver birch.

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.

IMG_6381
Sea moss fresh from the box. I used some sold by Busch.

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.

IMG_6229
The twig is big enough to serve as a medium-sized tree for 15mm scale. The two Corvus Belli Caetrati seem to agree.

What you need

  1. A small sea moss twig.
  2. A pair of small scissors to shape the twig.
  3. 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.
  4. A piece of very thin wire or a needle.
  5. Plastidip to cover the entire ‘Meerschaum’ twig for added stability.
  6. Wood filler to create a realistic bark texture and to give the ‘Meerschaum’ more strength.
  7. Acrylic paints: Black, grey and white to paint the bark.
  8. Fast setting glue, I use Insta-Cure+ to fix the foliage net in place.
  9. 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.

    mininatur birch net
    MiniNatur birch foliage net. This is about half of the pack.
  10. A broad brush and a very fine brush.

How you do it

  1. 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.
  2. Mount the twig on a piece of styrofoam, but don’t drill a hole in the trunk yet, as it might splinter.IMG_6228
  3. 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.
  4. 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.IMG_6308
  5. 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.
  6. Mix a dark grey and add some irregular patches to the trunk and thicker twigs.
  7. With some more thinned down shades of dark grey you can now add the characteristic horizontal dark lines birch bark has.
  8. Finally with a very thin wash of grey add some colour variation to the lower sections of the trunk.IMG_6368
  9. 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.IMG_6366
  10. 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.IMG_6376

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.

A holly oak for 15mm and 28mm scale.

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.


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35 thoughts on “How to make realistic wargaming trees – Project Birch”

  1. The birch bark you’ve painted looks so realistic! Really reminds me of the many birch forests I’ve hiked through on various quests (in real life)…

    Those MiniNatur nets really seem to be the ticket if you want properly natural looking foliage. I think it’s worth it to pay a bit more to have that kind of look at your fingertips, as opposed to having to sacrifice ‘realism’ or go flake by flake yourself 😉

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    1. Thank you very much. I am glad it came out nice and realistic. With the nets I guess the saying really is true: You get what you pay for. Superior quality for a fair price. Making it yourself might be possible, but if it takes you hours then I wonder if you save that much, after all time is also money or could be better spent on making more trees ;).

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    1. It does depend. In this case one of the many terrain pieces I built over time works as a base. The backdrop is a picture of the wonderful New Zealand sky during a hot summer day I took years ago. I just printed it A3 and glued it on a piece of thick cardboard. I use it all the time as it matches almost all the outdoor scenes. For dungeon interiors I use a plain black cloth that came with a light box, as well as wall segments I made some time ago. If there is soe interest I would write short article on how I take pictures including the backdrop for everyone to use.

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      1. It is something I need to get round to and I`m sure people would be interested if you wrote an article 🙂

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    1. Thank you arkiegamer. Glad you like the tutorial and how the birch came out. Price aside, do you think the foliage nets might work for your normandy stuff, too? If anything they are resilient, but I would wonder if they model hedge growth convincingly.

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      1. I think they would. The price might not be such an issue-I think the biggest single improvement to my bocage would be to increase the variety of foliage. If you look at photographs of the real thing, the hedges are wild, not some sort of unkempt mono-culture. A few foliage nets might really spice things up. I need to buy some and try it out.

        I really want to try your birch tree painting method. I think it would work on my twigs, with a few minor adjustments.

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    1. Thank you. You are welcome. The guys at Mininatur are fairly quick in sending out orders. They don’t have an online shop as of now, but you can drop them an email. Buying in bulk is also worthwhile, as you safe quite a bit.

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  2. Klasse Beitrag!
    Aber wo ich ein bischen skeptisch bin ist die Stabilität?!
    Im Urzustand ist das Zeug doch fast gummiartig.

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    1. The stability is something to improve on. I guess some wire around the bottom part of the twig would further enhance its rigidity. As of now it is already quite sturdy with wood glue, wood filler and the needle inserted. The net also protects the finer twigs. I’ll conduct some experiments with sea moss to see how I can further improve overall stability. A layer of acrylic gel might also work.

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    1. Thank you very much. I guess that is what I hope for when writing the tutorials, to inspire people and see other takes on terrain should they decide to give it a go, but also to get inspired in turn.

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  3. Your pictures are wonderful. I use cork bark logs to make my woodland themes. This would be a great item to add as I only use natural things from our glen. My trees were the only things that were artificial so I am definitely going to try this if I can find out where I can buy the sea moss

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    1. Thank you for your comment Roslind. Glad you like the scenic shots. You can achieve excellent results in using roots and twigs when it comes down to trees. Especially if you enhance them further with seamoss and maybe a bark texture. Are there any pictures of your woodlands? Would be interested to see your stuff.

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      1. Tried it tonight and I’m really happy with how it turned out. Although I think yours still looks better. I may have gotten a little overzealous with the colors :p but it was fun!

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      2. Hmmm technology seems to be winning the fight against me today, but I’ll eventually have pics of it up on my blog. I’ll talk about and link your tutorial to it too so hopefully others can get inspired to try some different kinds of trees in their miniatures.

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  4. I have only just found this (slaps forehead!) How resiliant is the Meeschaum once the tree is completed. I like the idea very much but currently use etched brass which is eye-wateringly expensive. I need tio be re-assured that this Plasti-Dip does the business on the Sea Foam.
    Cheers.

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    1. Thank you for your comment Atelier-Robin.

      The seamoss is relatively flexible after a bath in acrylic medium and plastidip has been applied. That said it will still break if you bend it too much or if the tree falls from the table. I say if you are a careful gamer and don’t just toss miniatures and terrain in a box after you finished there should be no problem.However, a brass tree is surely almost indestructable, you won’t get this using natural materials.

      An alternative to the brass might be thin copper wire. You can either leave it flexible and coat it with acrylic caulking or you can use soldering tin to make it strong and rigid. I used copper wire covered in acrylic caulking for my yew tree and think the result looks good. Even without foliage a barren tree is no problem, as you can depict even the finest of branches with copper wire.

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