Posted by: bgtwindad | March 15, 2010

Trees are bigger than you think

I’ve been doing some research into realistic scenery for my planned layout, and will be testing some of these concepts on my mini-layout.  Since I’m modeling the nearly-completely-forested Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky regions, trees will play a major role in the design.

I’m going to need a good looking, but fast way to mass produce trees, for sure!

I found this website about Virginia trees (which are rather similar to West Virginia trees), and also this PDF from the WVU Extension Office.  From them, I was able to deduce some of the following typical tree heights for common trees in this region:

  • White Pine: 50-60ft, 1-2ft trunk
  • Shortleaf Pine: 100ft, 4.5ft trunk
  • Black Pine: 50-75ft, 1-2ft trunk
  • Hemlcok: 60-100ft, 2-4ft trunk
  • Cypress: 80-130ft, 5-10ft trunk
  • White Walnut: 70ft, 3-ft trunk
  • Black Walnut: 100ft
  • Bitternut Hickory: 100ft, 2-3ft trunk
  • Shellbark Hickory: 60-100ft, 1-2ft trunk
  • Birch: 70-100ft, 2-3ft trunk
  • White Oak: 60-100ft, 2-3ft trunk
  • Post Oak: 50-80ft, 2ft trunk
  • Elm: 60-70ft, 4-5ft trunk
  • Sycamore: 140-170ft, 10-11ft trunk, head can be 100ft across
  • Sugar Maple: 100ft, 3-ft trunk

This is only a partial list of trees common to Virginia.  Clearly most of them grow to well over 50ft, and many as tall as 100ft.  The Sycamore can be positively huge!

In scale modeling, folks often fail to create realistically tall trees, and commercially available tree kits fall woefully short.  A 100-scale-foot tree in N scale would be 7.5 inches tall – as tall as a ten story building!  A single fully grown sycamore would take up more than a third of the center of a 9.75″ radius circle of track.  Prototypically sized trees would tower over the landscape of a model railroad.

If we look at the common commercially available trees, we find they are quite small by comparison.  I recently picked up the Woodland Scenics Tree Learning Kit.  Don’t get me wrong – this is a pretty nice kit.  It include plastic armatures for about 20 trees of varying heights from 1 to 8 inches, two colors of foliage, and Hob-E-Tac glue to build them.  It’s a nice place to start.  Still, unless you’re modeling a nursery or a newly-built subdivision, only about half of the trees are more than 50 N-scale feet in height.  In HO, none of them would be fully grown. Thee tallest deciduous armatures available from Woodland Scenics are 5-7 inches – again, OK for N scale, but only half-grown for HO.

They also provide some tree kits for “big old trees” and “hardwood forest trees” which fall in the correct range, but they are quite pricey and not well suited to massive forest construction.  The “big old trees” kit has an MSRP of $19.99 for just two trees.  That’s right – they are $10 each!

There are alternatives, of course.  One method that produces very nice results for individual trees is to build armatures from florist’s wire (keep digging through that thread – there’s some fantastic looking trees by user Scotchpine, as well as some other techniques submitted by other users).  This produces some very realistic trees at very low cost, but can be time consuming.  Further, there are ways of making trees from real plant material.

There are also a couple of techniques for quickly making entire forest canopies.  These largely rely on building a perimeter of individual trees to make the “front” of the forest look right, and then filling the center with either foam or an elevated mesh of some kind, topped off with puff balls to model the forest canopy.  These methods rely on the fact that beyond the edge of the forest all you can really see are the treetops anyway.

Here’s one article by Model Railroader with a foam-based technique for this (you’ll need a free registration to read it), and another thread at Trainboard.com showing how to do it with a wire mesh.

A complicating factor in modeling trees is the idea of forced perspective.  Often our models have very little actual depth to them… 18-24 inches being typical.  In order to make things look farther away, we can make them smaller.  If done right, this tricks the user’s eye into thinking the object is farther away than it really is, giving our layouts the illusion of depth.

This could be one use for the smaller trees available.  Placed in the back of the layout, some distance behind more prototypical foreground trees, they would appear to be distant, not small.  I think this would work best for isolated trees or lines of trees, rather than a whole forest, as you need visual separation between foreground and background to make the illusion work.

I believe for my layout that I will be using something similar to the “Forest in a Flash” method where possible, by modeling realistic trees in the foreground and filling in the intervening space with massed puffballs at the appropriate height.

Stay tuned for results!!

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