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OK What's Up With Those Trees?

 Why thank you - I'm glad you asked.

Here's the short answer:

The background forest is comprised of thousands of plastic trees from China, 
in a variety of sizes and styles, accented with a variety of spray paint colors - 
because the traditional "puffball" trees were not the best answer for the SNR.  


"It's great texture.  I'm inspired to get working on trees."
- Paul Miklos, B&O Chillicothe Sub

OK, that's the executive summary.  Paul's quote is my favorite of some very positive comments I'm thankful to have gotten on the approach, which I'd worried would be a little too toy-train.  (By the way, check out the trees Paul went on to create for the Great B&O.)

Read on for the SNR's story and details. 


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THE WHY'S AND WHEREFORES

As we all learned in catechism, one of the ten commandments of being an Appalachian coal road modeler is "Thou shalt make puffball trees multiply."  

And in reality, one of the factors that led me to settling on coal road theme is that I assumed an Eastern hardwood forest would be a lot easier to model than rocks, evergreens, etc..  I'd just make contours with chicken wire and lay out the puffballs that would reproduce like Tribbles, and all would be leafy and well.

"Aaaawww, were we ever that young!"  - Niles Crane, Frasier

So, twenty or so years into the enterprise - once the kids who were not yet born when I began building the layout, had nearly reached adulthood - I determined it was time to start making trees.  Fortunately by then I had made the acquaintance of a number of seriously talented modelers who damsherr knew how to make puffballs - or at least, how to get friends to make puffballs for them.  My good friend, neighbor (ish), and model railroading carpool buddy Tom Patterson is one of the former.  You should check out his beautiful Chesapeake Wheeling & Erie layout to see what I had in mind as the target.

Tom, God love him, tried.  Valiantly.  He described to me all the steps, then wrote them all down in an email, and then even conducted a clinic for me so I could see how The Master did it.  No problem - got it!  I bought a few cubic yards of coarse ground foam, several bushels of fiberfill, a pair of mongo-long pliers, and a 55-gallon drum of spray adhesive, and proceeded to begin gluing things to myself.  

"This is glue.  Strong stuff."  - Dan Ayckroyd as Elwood, The Blues Brothers

Tell you what, that #77 spray yields for no man.  I even considered using it on my hair, but I have Gorilla Glue for that.

Anyway.  I sort of got the hang of making the puffballs - what I did not get the hang of, was making trees.  See, Tom has an artist's bent, and can somehow make random trees that come together and look like a forest.  However I am a CPA and a systems designer - "random" is hard.  My head works in orderly rectangles.  Ledgers, spreadsheets, database tables.  Code.

"If it sounds boring, Dad's probably good at it." - says my son Kees, on my LinkedIn page 

So, pretty much no matter what shape of puffball I tried to make, it came out looking like a McNugget.  So the first lands I forested came out looking like armies of McNuggets, standing at attention.  You can almost hear George C. Scott in Patton barking at them - the best quotes from which are not reproduceable here.  The McNugget infantry looked ready to descend from the highlands and repel the invading mongol hordes in the valley.  


I tried to play it off as if that's what I was after - stands of trees.  Yep.  That's it!  I did, after all, plant each one on a wire spike so that it would stand up, and not be lying around in random fashion.  Tom was very complimentary of my early attempts, but I could feel the horror.  Other friends offered similarly kind feedback, along the lines of "looks much better!" - meaning not good, necessarily, but... better than nothing.  Truly a great group of guys - most would go to great lengths to bust your chops, but would go even further to avoid hurting any feelings. 

But, figuring my technique would improve, or at least I'd eventually cover enough surface that "better than nothing" would be adequate as background, I kept at it.  I tried numerous new methods of making puffballs, all of which had an uncanny. magnetic ability to eventually regress to the McNugget mean.  Tom thought I was allowing them to collapse by vigorous action in the ground-foam can, but I'm fairly positive it was simply that my head is incapable of letting my hands create something that is not a regular shape.  Yes, I straighten pictures on the wall.

Well, finally at the 470th tree, on the 470th handmade wire spike positioned on the layout with the 470th glob of carpenter's glue, I had to yield.  I had to admit that this was never going to look like anything but an a cappella choir of green bumpy McNuggets, standing at attention on their choir risers and ready to belt out Handel's Hallelujah! chorus.  Not to mention that, it was taking forever to make the trees, then make the spikes, then mount the spikes, then mount the trees.  I was starting to calculate the forestry effort against the remaining decades of my life, and wondering if I was going to make it. 

There had to be a better way.  There had to be pre-made trees I could buy 4,000 of (that, for a change, is actually not an exaggeration).  I would be done with it, and damn the cost.  Unfortunately, the best cost I could come up with for good HO trees would have come to about the price of a decent used car, to do the whole layout -  which was well beyond the cutoff point for cost-damning.  

Then it occurred to me - what about the furiously industrious Chinese?  We had just been to San Francisco over the holidays, and Chinatown was, as ever, a delightful, endless array of astoundingly inexpensive plastic miniatures of anything you could think of - all of which were passably accurate at a distance.  Surely someone was cranking out tolerable scale trees for cheap?

The answer was yes, they were.

"And don't call me Shirley." - Leslie Nielsen as Capt. Clarence Oveur,  Airplane 




SOURCES

The secret was to not specify "model railroad scenery" in my search - but be willing to try items classified as toys, or accoutrements for architectural models, battlefield scenes, etc. - not necessarily foreground models.  I searched I think on something like "plastic scale trees" - and found untold thousands of hits.

I settled on a broker called www.AliExpress.com - they seem to sell just about everything, and they had millions of options for trees.  The difficulty was, there are not really any standards for describing the items' specifications with the individual vendors.  You're never quite sure what you're looking at.  So I dug around, and hemmed and hawwed and compared and scrutinized and estimated - sizes, shapes, fullness, economy, color, etc..  Eventually I came up with about a dozen types that were worth trying a sample package of, for a few bucks each.  My experiment delivered, after a month or so of trans-oceanic shipping, a couple hundred trees at a total gamble of about $70.

I was pleased to discover that most of the sample types in fact were usable as forest canopy.  They do tend to be a bit deformed after being packed into bags and shipped halfway around the world, but most recover.  They are imperfect - very few are suitable for standalone placement - but that's fine.  I'm after the forest here, not the trees.  They are also electric green - one is more garish than the next.  But I experimented with some spray paint, and came up with a formula for a tree and paint mix that would fit my standards.

Without dragging you into Beancounterland, a quick word on the economics.  I was able to develop a mix of trees which blended the cheap with the good - to an extent adequate for a forest canopy - which comes in at a little under 15c per square inch of surface, including shipping and paint.  I looked at what supplies I'd gone through making the puffballs, and came up with...  12c per square inch.  So - the cost difference is negligible, and you don't have to make them.  And also - in my case at least - the resulting forest does not look like the McNugget army.

So, I spooled up the terra-forming machine, and ordered another 3,600 trees.  Truth.  My plan was to get everything I'd need for the whole layout onboard at once, lest certain designs stop being available, which would wreck my blend.  Or worse, lest the prices change, which would wreck my economics.  That turns out to have been a good decision, as a few years downrange now, I went back to AliExpress to dig up sample pictures for this page, and was unable to find most of what I'd bought.  There are oodles of good and probably better options available, but the lesson is, once you've done the work to arrive at a mix that works for all the criteria, go all-in - or risk having to do the sample analysis all over again.  I believe my all-in orders came to something under $900.  Kind of a lot - but then, not really these days.  You could spend that on two locomotives.  (Or, one!)  And this covers the entire layout.  

I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by how well the shipping all worked.  I definitely had my reservations, given the high volumes, great distances, language barrier, limited contact data, etc., not to mention the total investment being risked.  But, I got everything I ordered.  Where the quantity was wrong, it was in my favor - too many, not too few.  And for the one order that did not show up when the tracking said it would, I contacted the merchant via email after a week.  She was concerned and asked if I would please allow another couple of weeks.  I was skeptical, but said I'd give it a try.  When three weeks had gone by, I contacted her again.  She was mortified, and said she would run a replacement order ASAP, and apologized profusely that it would take another several weeks to arrive.  She also said should the original order show up, I should just keep it and not worry about returning it, and so sorry for the trouble.  I was pleased with the attention, but still a little skeptical that it would all work out.  So within a day, I had notification of a new shipment from the carrier.  And naturally, within a few days after that, the original order showed up.  Followed in a few weeks by the replacement order.  Shame on me for my cynicism.  I emailed the merchant and thanked her for the great service, and promised I would mention how well they took care of customers on the other side of the world.  So here ya go.  




STYLES

OK, on to the trees. These are the styles I settled on.  They are named by letter, which I assigned sequentially to each sample batch so I had a way to identify them, since roughly all of the item titles are named "Miniature trees landscape diorama model toys scale dollhouse 9cm dark green trains", or something similarly non-specific and unwieldy.  And species, fuggedaboudit.  I still use the lettering system, so that's how they're identified here.



  • The left four are G's, which come in packs of 20, with five of each size.  In my nomenclature, they are G1 thru G4, from largest to smallest.  These tend to be very good trees, and were of intermediate cost.  The G4s can be bought in packs just by themselves, which I use to help fill out the edges of the woodlands.
  • The tree on the right is an F, which are the fullest, but were the most expensive.  They come in packs of 20.


  • The left two are K1 and K2.  They come in packs of 16, with 10 of the large and 6 of the small.  They really are not great, and garish, and rubbery, and smell like rubber, but - they were reeeeally cheap.  Like well under two bucks a pack.  At that price they are good enough for bulking out the forest, or scrunching into semi-circles and gluing to the backdrop, etc. - and thereby helping to substantially reduce the overall average cost.  The K2s I use for scrub, and especially for filling holes in the canopy. 
  • The middle tree is an A - the go-to.  Second-most expensive, but largest and most reliably full. 
  • The next to the right - the smaller, lighter tree - is an I.  This is the workhorse of the forest - reliably full, and fairly inexpensive.  Great for varying the patterns in the canopy (rather than grids of only-large trees), and filling smaller spaces.  I also use them for making the scrub growth at the edges - they can easily be "unrolled" and cut into three sections.  
  • The right-most tree is a J, which is the new "I".  Per the discussion above about going all-in lest your blend or economics change - when I realized how many "I" types I was burning through doing the scrub growth, I went to order more and found that the price had tripled.  The Js are a reasonable facsimile, at the old price of an "I".  
All of these trees are only about 4" tall or less, which is about a third of what they'd be in reality.  But I find you don't really notice the lower height that much, as long as the canopy is well filled out, and the trees are of a consistent height.  You never really see how tall a tree is in the middle of the woods.  The relationship of forest to track is right for the SNR, and no matter what, the trees are markedly taller than the trains, which is the viewer's point of reference.


  



COLORS

To tone down and control the colors, I paint all of the trees using spray bombs from the home store.  I try not to hit them too heavily, so there is some color variation left - but enough to dial back the flashing neon a bit, and create a more predictable blend.  I use approximately equal numbers in these three colors:

  • "Light" - Rustoleum Satin Moss Green
  • "Medium" - Rustoleum Satin Hunt Club Green
  • "Dark" - Rustoleum Camouflage Deep Forest Green
Another shout-out here to Tom Patterson - when I asked his opinion on the first samples, I had only used Medium and Dark.  Actually I had tried "Oregano" as the Light green, but it looked uncomfortably like marijuana bud, so I was running with just the darker two colors.  Tom said positively that a third, lighter color would really help with the depth and color blend, so I added the Moss Green in, and can guarantee that he was absolutely right.  Others have also said that the lighter color here and there definitely lets the land contours pop in 3D.   



Because I'm only accenting with color and not deluging, I also use some clear flats to kill any leftover plastic sheen, as well as to dampen the satin finish in the lighter two colors.


  • The Matte Clear, on the left, I use as a first coat, before the Camo green.   Those Camouflage colors are the flattest finishes known to man - no light escapes their surface whatsoever.  Suitable for stealth coatings on SR71 spy planes, and the Monolith in 2001.   But since the entire tree won't be dipped in it, the matte finish kills the sheen on branches and other tree parts that don't get much Camo paint.
  • The Chalked Clear, on the right, I use as a second coat, after the Medium and Light greens.  It's a bit flatter than the regular matte, so is useful for dialing back the satin, as well as any remaining plastic sheen.  It's also a lot more expensive, which is why I don't use it on all three colors. 



I do the painting on a whole batch at once, since there are certain economies of scale in that process.  Primarily though, I want to paint outside, as you can imagine.  Therefore, I want to get it done while the weather is decent, so I have inventory ready to terra-form with when it's not.

The painting apparatus is a scrap of 1x4, with wooden clothespins attached using carpenter's glue.  With the four sets, I can do 40 trees at one time.  

Gosh, how much more attractive do those heterogeneously green plastic trees look, than the end-of-season dead Black-Eyed Susans from the real world, in the background!




YOU KNEW THERE'D BE A SPREADSHEET AT SOME POINT

Of course, there had to be an orderly system of numbers and colors of each style.  But believe it or not, this was put in place to actually enforce the randomness in the placement, not merely to control the inventory and economics.  Being me, if I didn't work in small, evenly blended batches, I'd use up all the good trees in one swell foop, and create another army of carbon copies in a honeycomb pattern.  

The basic fractile I used consists of 34 trees, and will cover about a half a square foot of surface.  I think of this as a "panel", probably because when I was first working out the blend, I set up samples on the removable foam panels in Virginia Hill which provide access to Millsbrae staging.

A "panel" comprises:

  • 7 "A" - 2 Light, 2 Medium, and 3 Dark
  • 6 "K1" - 3 Medium, 3 Dark.  The Light color on these trees created eyesores, so was eliminated in favor of more of the subtler colors.
  • 3 "F" - 1 each L,M,D
  • 12 "G" - 3 each of G1, G2, G3, and G4 - and of those, 1 each L,M,D
  • 6 "I" or "J" - 2 each L,M,D

A "batch" comprises 20 panels.  This was a good round number because many of the trees come in packages of 10 or 20, and, the painting clips are in multiples of 10.

I paint an entire "batch" at one time, generally one set of 40 somethings each day.  For the most part, these 40 will be of the same style and color, which greatly simplifies the process.  It takes an elapsed hour or so to remove and store the previous day's output, unencumber and fix up the new trees, pose them in the clips, and spray the two coats, including drying and transit time.  

So a "batch" therefore is 20 x 34 = 680 trees.  If I paint 40 trees per day, it takes about three weeks to paint up a new batch.  This is a good pace which keeps me from hating it - and I've not exactly been in a hurry, either.  

After samples and startup efforts, the layout should need about 5 batches.  At this writing (February 2021), I'm about halfway through.  The ultimate goal will be to replace the McNuggets as well, but that will probably be last.

I have been abused by people named on this site for stating that I was painting a batch of 680 trees.  It sounds oddly precise, doesn't it?  Keith, are you sure there aren't 681 trees?  Etc..  These people are much better modelers and artists than me, and possess that all-important ability to work randomly, and so isn't it funny that the accountant man knows down to three significant digits how many trees he's painting.  Well yeah Ha Ha dammit, as a matter of fact is 680 trees!    See previous comment about chop-busting.  😀 




PLANTING

I "pick" one panel at a time - meaning, pull the appropriate numbers of each style+color - and "plant" all of that panel, before moving on to the next one.  This helps enforce the blend and keep the forest random.

As discussed on the "Hills" page, I actually did my scenery contours using papier maché.  This is because it's much easier to work with in tight spaces than hardshell, and was only intended to have to hold up puffballs anyway.  


For each tree, in addition to stressing over placement, coverage, style and color blend, etc., I also trim off each trunk at an angle to match the hillside, and then hot-glue it.  The hot glue holds really well, but it does take a minute to set up, and, leaves gossamer filaments of shiny glue-thread everywhere, that you will never find all of.  

As I was hot-gluing about the third tree out of 4,000, I thought yeah well maybe styrofoam would have been a good idea.  Planting in foam is a whole lot faster, and more correctable.  Alas, too late, but the project moves on.  


One thing I keep close at hand, and use religiously, is a bottle of "Forester's Friend".  It's a sample of the contour base coat, which is a flat finish, kept in an old Solvaset bottle, with a brush applicator.  That way, as soon as the hot glue has cooled, I can paint out the shiny glue globs and strings, and blend the new tree into the forest floor.  It's also useful for covering trunks which have gotten too much paint (or not enough).  I also make a habit of touching up any shiny bits I've missed the instant I spot them.  Otherwise, I'll never be able to find them again, until they show up deep in a finished section, where it's impossible to reach with the touch-up.

  



SCRUB GROWTH

As you look at most woodlands, especially in the wilds of Appalachia, one thing you very rarely see amid all those trees is trunks.  If it's not winter, all you see is foliage in the canopy, and scrub growth along the edges, especially honeysuckle and laurel.

To simulate this, I use extra batches of the G4 and "I" styles, all painted the Medium color.  The result is effective, but tends to be a little bit more manicured than you might like.  This can be fixed with the addition of leftover bits of branches, to roughen it up a bit, as well as some ground foam to fill in the gaps.  I have got a lot of this left to do - but it does tend to get left "for later".  

Below is Herald Hill with the forest complete on the other side of the tracks.  It's looking pretty good, but the canopy seems to be floating there, as if it were an orchard.



Here is the same area with the scrub growth applied.  Still too neat, for now, but it does help provide that thick wilderness look. 





FOREST FLOOR

Where the forest would continue out into the aisle past the edge of the fascia, I detail the forest floor as you'd see it if you were actually standing there in the woods, including the scrub growth facing outwards at the edge.  It makes for some pretty interesting trainwatching.  



Walking through my own woods, I'm always amazed how thick and impenetrable it looks from out on the lawn, but once past the scrub growth, how open and airy it is from within - right up to that wall of honeysuckle at the sunny edge.  I wanted to give the viewer that same sense on the SNR.









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