Adding Trees to the Maple Valley Short Line Railroad

When you’re making plans to build a model railroad, scenery is going to be a big part of it. If you want your layout to be at all convincing, and I can’t imagine starting a project like this without deciding to make it as realistic as possible, trees are going to play a huge role.

If your benchwork is already complete and your track is in place, now is the time to start planting trees. That is, if you already know where your buildings are going to be. You have spent plenty of time in the hobby shop, and you know tree kits are quite expensive. If you don’t plan to use a lot of trees, maybe a tree kit from the hobby shop will work fine. Otherwise, you’ll want to find trees at swap meets – the model railroader’s best friend.

I was lucky enough to find two complete pine tree kits, about thirty trees all together. The first job is to twist the tree armatures as they are flat in the kit. I hold the top with a pair of pliers, and twist the trunk until I’m happy with the look.

As you can see, the trees have a small tip on the trunk. They come with a plastic base, allowing you to stand the trees without making them permanent. Don’t bother with the stands. You want your trees to be permanent.

The kits come with a bag of dark green foliage. Many of my conifers are covered with a home-made light colored foam. I prefer the lighter color to the dark foliage in the kits. I have many trees of both.

When I finish twisting the trees, it’s time to spray them with adhesive. I only spray as many as I can complete in a few minutes, while the spray is still wet. Yes, the adhesive is still sticky when it dries, but it works a lot better if the adhesive is wet.

After I spray the branches, being careful not to spray the lower part of the trunk, I dip the tree into the foliage bag and squeeze the foam onto the tree. I shake off the excess and the tree is finished.

I completed all of the trees in the photo in about an hour.

My layout has semi-mountainous, rocky scenes with both conifer and deciduous trees. I planted most of the deciduous trees in areas where my houses and buildings are. The mid-section of the Maple Valley Short Line is an industrial area with a few trees along the painted backdrop of hills and trees.

I made many of my deciduous trees with floral wire. They are easy to make, and anyone can do it. I start with fifteen pieces of 26 gauge floral wire, about 12″ long. Wire length determines the height of the trees. Holding all the wires together, I fold them in half. Then I twist the folded end, making a tight loop. I separate the wire ends into branches of about five or six wires each, leaving about 1 1/2″ of twisted wires as the tree trunk. I twist the branches tightly, leaving about two inches at the ends. I then fold the branch ends in half and twist them, making a loop. I cut the wire loops, making the ends of the branchs.

I twist the heavy loop at the bottom of the tree as tightly as I can with a pair of pliers. I then use pliers to crush the loop, leaving a straight trunk. Some modelers divide the wire pieces at the end of the trunk to make roots that will sit above ground and be secured in place with plaster. I choose not to do that. Instead, because I use 1 1/2″ extruded foam as a base for my layout, I simply poke a small hole in the foam where I want the tree to be planted.

When I’m happy with the shape of the tree, I paint the entire tree with latex. More than one coat is needed on the trunk and large branches to cover the twisted wire. After the latex dries, I paint the tree with burnt umber acrylic paint. Then I follow the same procedure I use with the tree kits.

I poked holes in the foam base, then marked the holes with a piece of balsa. Rather than planting one tree at a time, I found it easier to mark several holes and place four or five trees.

To permanently plant the trees, I first tried white glue. I immediately found the time it takes for the glue to even begin to dry is far too long. I decided to use a glue gun instead, and it works great. I simply apply hot glue to the base of the tree and plant it in a hole. About thirty seconds later I have a permanent tree, firmly planted.

So far, I have planted at least fifty or sixty trees on the Maple Valley Short Line. I can see it’s time to make more.

Friday Falls & Fails

I had many years of back pain. My back deteriorated until it took a week of lying on the floor before I could function adequately enough to get around. The final bout began with just bending slightly to open a drawer. I fell to my knees and wasn’t able to move. Somehow, after an hour, I made it to the car and drove myself to a clinic, screaming all the way.

I was lying on the floor when my wife arrived at home. I ended up in the hospital for a spinal tap and MRI. Two days later I had back surgery. The neurosurgeon asked me if I had ever been in an accident, I said, “No.”

Days later, I started thinking about that question. “Have you ever been in an accident?” I’ve been in a bunch of accidents! They just weren’t the car-wreck type!

I’m sure throwing baseballs and snowballs as hard I could, any time I could, didn’t help. I couldn’t hit a baseball to save my life, but I could throw one a mile. I remember one game we were warming up and I was in the outfield. When I caught the ball I heard someone by the batter yell, “Watch this guy throw the ball!” One of my two memorable moments of baseball. Pitching wasn’t finesse, it was speed. All speed. Didn’t help my back.

We moved from the city to the country when I was in high school. My dad decided he was a rancher and bought some horses, about which he knew nothing. The first was my sister’s small pony. For some ridiculous reason, I decided to take the pony out for a ride. In spite of the fact my feet were almost resting on the ground when I sat on the horse, she took one step, bucked, and I flew off and landed flat on my back. The pony took off across the field. We didn’t find her until two days later.

I was running across the quad at college, wearing giant bell-bottom pants that could have hidden two small children. Running in those would have been enough, but I jumped to catch a frisbee, caught my shoe in the cuff of my pants, and landed in a heap. Hurts my back just to think about it.

Having learned how to actually ride a horse without getting thrown or scraped off, I welcomed opportunities to ride for many years. In one town where we lived, we had friends who owned a small hobby farm. On a Sunday afternoon, my friend and I went riding. We were out for about a half-hour and decided to head back to the house.

While we were riding I forgot one very important task. I didn’t stop and recinch the saddle. When we got out on the road, I let the reigns slack and whistled. My ride took off on a full run. About half way to the house she started heading for the ditch. I tried to turn her back, which she did, but I didn’t. The saddle slid off and I hit the ditch and tumbled. I lay there for a moment waiting for the pain to hit. It didn’t, other than feeling like I had just fallen off a running horse.

My wife was standing at the kitchen window and saw the horse run into the yard dragging the saddle. Then she saw me stand up in the ditch. Lucky. My back remembered that ride.

For six months, I drove a dump truck for an asphalt crew. I actually enjoyed the driving, but I didn’t often enjoy handling three-hundred degree asphalt. I climbed up on the box of my truck to pull the cover tarp to the back. When I tried to jump off, I caught my toe on part of the box and landed on the ground like a sack of potatoes.

Once when I was a pastor, our church rented a room which had a stage raised on several steps. As a service was about to start, I thought of something I needed at the back of the room. I tripped, rolled down the steps, and banged into the legs of two women sitting on the front row. Relieved I wasn’t hurt, I looked up into the faces of the two ladies. “Pastor, this is my friend, she’s here for the first time.” I reached up and shook her hand.

Being something of a very minor public figure in a small town provided opportunities to be remembered for things that go wrong. That is, if someone finds out about it. Like the time I showed up at a community Thanksgiving Eve service and didn’t realize until I arrived that I was the speaker. I just acted like I knew it all along went through with it as if I was well prepared. That was fun.

I was speaking at a friend’s church one time and while I was walking back and forth across the front of the church, just as I turned, a little kid sitting on the front row let loose with a loud burst. The metal chair he was sitting on amplified it like he had a microphone in his back pocket. I kept my cool, didn’t laugh, kept preaching. Later, when I told the pastor about it, he said, “Everyone probably thought you did it.”