Posted by: bgtwindad | March 18, 2010

Review: Woodland Scenics Trees Learning Kit

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Recently, in an effort to get my feet wet in yet another scenery area, I picked up a Woodland Scenics “Trees” Learning Kit.  The kit contains about 18 “armatures” (trunks and branches) in various sizes from 3/4″ to about 8″ (N scale 10 to 106 feet), two colors of “clump foliage”, and a small jar of “Hob-E-Tac” with a brush built into the lid.  The armatures have little pegs in the base for mounting directly into your layout, but also include an optional base to make the tree more-or-less freestanding.  Here’s a shot of the contents of the package:
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(I only included small sampling of the largest armatures in the picture. There are 18 total included in the package.)

I paid about $15 for the kit, which makes the trees run about $0.83 each.  However, since I’m modeling a mature forest, only about half of the armatures (the taller half) are particularly useful.  So my personal net cost is closer to $1.60/tree.  I suppose I can use some of the smaller trees around a building or in an orchard or something.

The clump foliage comes in two colors:  a very dark (almost black) green for the “conifers”, and a lighter “medium” green for the “deciduous” trees.  The conifer armatures are all tall and very narrow, similar to tall Western spruce trees.  The deciduous armatures come in more varied shapes and sizes, and would be suitable for a mixed forest.  Of course, with only two colors of clump foliage, the mixed forest is still going to look pretty uniform.

One must keep in mind, of course, that this is a “learning kit”.  Woodland Scenics offers bulk clump foliage in at least a dozen different shades of green (including a mixed yellow/orange/red “fall foliage” color), so the determined modeler should have no problem getting some variety in his forest canopy.

The assembly method is quite simple:

  1. Break up the clump foliage into small clumps and dump it into an open container (the kit packaging is handy for this).
  2. Bend the armature branches into a more realistic 3-d shape.  The plastic used is bendable, but holds its shape fairly well once bent.
  3. Apply Hob-E-Tac to the branches of the armature wherever you want foliage to stick.  Obviously, leave the Hob-E-Tac off any spots you want to leave bare (like the base of the trunk).
  4. Wait about 20 minutes while the Hob-E-Tac gets tacky.  It will change from white to clear when it is ready.  This is very important.  Not waiting long enough will guarantee a FAIL.
  5. Dunk the tacky armature into the clump foliage.  Flip it around and sprinkle the foliage on it to get good coverage.  Alternately, place individual clumps onto the armature by hand.
  6. Pick off the foliage that’s dangling or that just doesn’t look right for whatever reason.
  7. Plant the tree either in its own base or (my preference) in a piece of florist’s foam and let the Hob-E-Tack cure.  Optionally, spray the tree with WS Scenic Cement (or a 50/50 water/glue mix with a drop or two of dishwashing soap).

Voila!  You’ve created a fairly decent looking tree!  The whole process takes only a few minutes per tree, not counting the tacking time for the glue.  It’s also easy to do this in batch form, and works well as a “work during the commercials” activity during TV time.  It should also be a safe and easy craft activity for children.

The lighting in this shot is not the greatest, but you can get an idea of the natural color of the foliage and the relative size of the trees.  These would scale out to about 80 or 90 feet in N scale.  Here’s another shot including an N scale GP40 for scale reference.  You can also see how many clumps fell off the deciduous trees on the left overnight.

A few notes, though:

  • Clumps will fall off – especially the ones that are barely hanging on to start with.  I found it useful to press the clumps firmly to the armature, or even make sure some of them are “speared” onto the branch tips.  On my first attempts, I’ve had to go back a couple times and re-apply clumps where they just didn’t stick well.  I’ll revisit the long-term stability of the trees once the glue has had time to fully cure.
  • Others have reported that Hob-E-Tac is substantially similar to a much cheaper craft product called Aleene’s Tacky Glue.  I’ve never seen the stuff, but apparently it works just fine.
  • The deciduous armatures seem to model trees that would be seen by themselves or in a small copse. I’m not sure how accurately they model the taller, narrower growth pattern of trees in a dense forest.
  • The conifer armatures are very tall and narrow.  They do not model the shorter, broader structure of Eastern pines very well, and I’m not certain they are tall enough to accurately model the Western trees they more closely resemble.
  • As I mentioned in my earlier post, scale height is an issue (if you care).  These trees are 10-100 feet in N scale, which is actually pretty good unless you want to model a stand of sequioa or redwood, but would top out at around 50′ in HO, and a mere 25′ in O.  Not very accurate for a mature forest.
  • The armatures are a uniform dark brown plastic.  They are textured with a generic “bark” form, and they would pass the “two foot rule”, but there are certainly ways to improve the fidelity with a judicious use of paint, sawdust, and other modeling techniques.  Such things are beyond my ability right now, though.
  • There are other techniques for modeling “interior” trees in a forest that would be more effective and far cheaper than these trees.  But with a little “dressing up” of the trunks, these would do fine for modeling the “edge” trees that are most visible.
Deciduous Trees, picture taken with flash

Same trees, with flash photography

Please note that the horrid “nuclear green” of the foliage in this picture is a side effect of the flash and white balance on my Blackberry.  The actual foliage color is much, much more natural.  The trunks don’t look quite as bad in real life, either, though they still appear obviously plastic.

In short, this is a pretty nice kit that does just what it advertises.  It gives you all the tools you need to learn how to make Woodland Scenics trees, at a reasonable price.  All of the components are available separately in bulk, as well, and the basic technique should work with other substitute products, such as armatures made from florists wire.  The end result is a reasonably nice looking tree that certainly passes the “two foot rule” even if it won’t satisfy the “leaf counters”.  Finally, I will note that the main drawback to realism is the appearance of the plastic trunks, and there are several well-known techniques for improving this (including pretty much any of the weathering techniques normally used on rolling stock and structures).

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