Saturday, July 14, 2012

Scratch-building Trees: A Tutorial (pt. I)

Even though I don't yet have a gaming mat or a warband to use for playing Skulldred, I decided on a whim a couple weeks ago to try building a tree for my anticipated Rangers of Quickthorn warband. I immediately started looking up material on how to scratch-build model trees for as little money as possible. The process I came up with was the result of a lot of different sources (listed at the bottom of the post) as well as a lot of experimentation, but I am pretty happy with the result:

Sorry if the pictures aren't very clear. I swear I will set up a totally blank background soon.

(Note that the tree I made is pretty large scale, standing approx. 1 foot tall. I wanted it to be  a more realistic height compared to 28mm figs than most store-bought trees tend to be. However, my method can be adjusted to any scale.)

 For this first part of the tutorial, I will just cover making the trunk, branches, and base of the tree. I will cover the foliage in the next post.

What You'll Need:

  • Some branchy looking twigs (washed and dried).

  • Paperclips and clippers to cut them with.

  • 1 Pin vise with a drill bit that's the same diameter as your paperclips. (I think this is the most expensive part of the project, but it's worth it if you plan on making several trees/ if you like converting minis.)

  • Superglue

  • White glue

  • 1 Steel fender washer

  • 1 old CD that you don't mind sacrificing for awesome scenery.

  • Epoxy or some other form of filling putty (I used Kneadatite Blue/Yellow: perhaps the second most expensive part of the project, but it has many uses and you only need a small piece for the tree-- also there are a number of cheap alternative materials such as modeling paste or woodfiller. I sculpt though, so I have a bunch around.)

  • Used coffee grounds or sand (a couple of spoonfuls, no more)

  • Natural Fiber Gardening twine (about 2 USD per spool)

The Procedure:

Step 1: Assemble the Trunk Section.

First arrange your twigs. You should make sure to have one thicker twig for your trank and several smaller, branchier twigs for... well, your branches.

The twig in the center is my trunk. Note that I actually had to find more branches than this. Make sure to have plenty.

Select your trunk twig. Using plenty of super glue, glue your fender washer down to the thicker end of the trunk. This will serve as a base weight while you glue the tree to the CD, and will also cover the hole.

Leave this to set for at least a half an hour. A mug or teacup can be helpful to keep the base elevated at this stage. Since the trunk is unlikely to have a flat base, the join probably won't be very strong, but that's okay. We'll be reinforcing it later.

Good thing I was drinking tea.

While your waiting for the washer to dry, begin drilling pin holes in your branches. One at a time, drill a paper-clip-sized hole into the branch where you want it to meet the trunk. Then apply a dab of superglue and insert a length of paperclip. Set aside to dry.

Note: Be careful not to drill too deeply into some of the smaller branches, or you may split the twig. But also don't worry too much if this happens, since you can just super glue it together and fill it with putty later. It just won't be quite as sturdy.

Once the superglue is dry on the washer, it is time to glue the trunk down to the base. Run a bead of super glue around the hole in the CD (make sure to use the shiny side. Also, it wouldn't hurt to rough up the surface a little with sand paper.)

When that glue has set, reinforce it with a healthy coating of elmer's PVA glue. While you're waiting for that to dry, start attaching the branches to the trunk. Simply drill holes in the trunk wherever you want to put a branch. You can then dry-fit the different branches until you find one you like for that spot on the tree. Once you have a spot for each branch, glue the pins in place with some more super glue. Don't worry if the joins don't look 100% natural-- we'll be going back and filling them later. You now have an assembled trunk!

Here the tree is about half way through getting 'branched.'

Step 2: The Roots

This next bit was probably my favorite part of the whole project, in terms of what I learned-- making the roots.

I had read some vague accounts of using twine and PVA to make realistic roots, so I gave it a shot.

Here's what NOT to do:

To achieve this lovely effect, I simply chopped off a few pieces of twine and glued them down. It looked awful.

What you ACTUALLY want to do is cut a few pieces of twine in varying lengths, from maybe a half an inch to two and a half. Then, unbraid the twine so that you have individual bundles of fiber which can easily be spread.

Next, arrange your twine in a varied and twisty fashion around the base of your tree, such that one end is spread flat against the base (so it can be covered with basing material,) and the other end is twisted into the trunk of the tree in a natural manner. I did this one at a time using undiluted PVA to get the strands to stick down. It was also helpful to use the wooden end of an old paintbrush to help shape the roots, since the twine tended to stick to my fingers.

Have patience, and stick with it. The results of this simple technique are stunning.

Should come out something like this. Sweet, right?

Step 3: Sculpting details

 This part might discourage people from this method, as it involves some basic sculpting. But I insist that it is extremely simple. Whether you use green stuff or some other material, the necessary sculpting can be achieved with toothpick.

First, make a ring of putty around the gap, as shown below.

Next, smooth out the putty with your fingers. Make sure to keep them lubricated. Water works well. I simply use a stick of lip-balm from my portable sculpting studio.

Finally, scratch some lines into the putty to imitate the grain of the bark. That's it! Your tree will now look smooth and organic when its painted.

If your feeling inspired (I was) then you can also use the putty to add further details. I made some shelf mushrooms (above.) These are really simple. I just took a ball of green stuff, cut it in half, and then stretched it into place on the trunk so it would have the proper contour. I then removed the mushroom and reattached it with a drop of superglue. 4-5 of these little guys really add some character to the finished product.

Step 4: The Base and the Paint

After your done with the putty, coat the base in a mixture of 1:1 PVA to water, and sprinkle on either finely ground (used) coffee, or else some basing sand. Be careful not to disturb your carefully shaped root systems. Now set the whole mess aside to dry/ cure over night.

When you wake up in the morning, everything should have dried solid. Now slap a coat of black paint on there.

To paint the tree, mix up a cool greenish grey and dry-brush progressively lighter and dryer coats onto the bark and the roots.

For the ground, do the same thing with a warm, earthy brown.

 For the mushrooms, I began with a base-coat of yellow ochre mixed with a tiny bit of brown and a tinier bit of red. I then highlighted up to 1:1 yellow ochre and white, before hitting it with a black wash. I then gave it a final highlight of pure white just along the edge.

For the final step, apply your grass flock. Do so liberally if your tree is to be standing alone in a field, more sparsely if it is in a forest or bog. Here's a tip: don't bother applying leaf scatter at this stage. I did, and it came out looking kind of silly, as though s miniature gardener had raked the leaves into piles. The leaf scatter will happen naturally when you put foliage on your tree, which I will cover in detail in part II.

So until then,


  1. I don't know if you still do this blog, but I have noticed no one has posted on your tree tutorial. Thank you. I have made the most awesome trees I have made to date using your suggestions and methods. It is very much appreciated.

  2. Thanks for the kind words! You're very welcome. I still plan to update the blog one of these days...been taken with other interests since the move, but I've got plenty of projects to post.

    Good luck with the terrain making!

  3. Great techniques and thanks a lot for sharing. Real talent.

  4. Just one question. What do you you use for leaves and how do you create foliage on the tree with them?
    Thanks in advance.