How to Easily Make Trees for Your Model Railroad

I want to be clear that any links or referrals I include to experts in model railroading are an effort to be helpful and not a result of having any kind of sales affiliation with them.

Many helpful skills in model railroading can be learned by watching YouTube videos. Just about any question you have or any project you want to complete on your railroad can be found on YouTube. Such is the case with making trees for your model railroad.

My purpose in watching all kinds of model railroading videos was saving money, which I have been able to do. I do not consider myself an expert in the hobby, but I have been able to complete some pretty impressive scenes on the Maple Valley Short Line Railroad by getting help from other modelers. From placing foam risers, to making plaster rocks, to scratch building an incredible trestle and tower bridge, to building printable houses, to painting backdrops, and finally, to building wire trees, there are videos for all of it!

One of the best examples of expert advice, in my opinion, can be found on Luke Towan’s videos of the Boulder Creek Railroad. This guy is amazing! I followed his examples for building my bridges and digging out the Maple Valley River on my layout.

If you have a large layout, you’re going to need a lot of trees. You can purchase tree kits at your local hobby shop but they’re pretty expensive. I purchased a 250 ft. coil of 22 gauge floral wire at the store for less than $5.00. So far, I’ve made twenty trees and used about half the wire. That’s a huge savings!

I apologize for the dark background of these photos. You can find Luke Towan’s tutorial on making wire trees at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0FNQTxX_jT4 but I finish my trees a little differently than Luke does in his video.

I have the most success using a smaller gauge wire. Be careful while you are making your trees, the ends of the wire are sharp and will draw blood! A lighter gauge wire is not so dangerous.

  1. Start by cutting 7 12-14 inch lengths of wire.

2. After cutting the wire lengths, fold them in half. Holding the folded end of the wires, twist the wires tightly 7-8 turns while keeping the two sections of wire apart. (Use more twists if you want a taller trunk.) Also, the number of wire strands you use will determine the thickness of your tree trunks. You will quickly discover the smaller gauge wire is much easier to twist.

3. Practice will make perfect as you learn to make wire trees. I suggest dividing each of the two bundles of wire in half. Combine the two inner bundles and tightly twist them together 4-5 times. Then tightly twist each of the remaining bundles 4-5 times.

4. Divide each of the bundles in half again and twist 3-4 times. Fold each of the bundles in half and twist them 3-4 times. The result will be a loop of 2-3 wires at the end of each bundle as you see in the photo.

5. This is where I finish the process differently than Luke Towan demonstrates. I clip off the top of the bundle loops so that the remaining “branches” each have 2-3 wires. To me, this is much simpler and provides a nice looking tree.

6. I am not going to set the trees in plaster and detail the roots. Rather than separating the loop at the bottom of the tree, I use pliers and twist the loop, then flatten the end. I use a piece of foam to hold the trees for the final steps.

7. Paint the entire tree with latex and allow it to dry. Put another coat of latex on the main trunk and large branches as necessary.

8. When you are happy with the trunk and branch latex covering, paint the entire tree with a brown acrylic paint. (Use a matte finish so you don’t have a glossy finish like this. I will rub a brown turf mixture on the trees to get rid of the shine.)

The final step is spraying the branches with adhesive, then rolling the tree in foliage mixture and pressing the material onto the branches. Shake the excess away. Luke Towan suggests sprinkling some turf mixture over the tree.

There you have it. This is the easiest way, in my opinion, to add as many trees as you want to your layout with very little expense.

I would love to read about your layout. Let me know what kind of techniques you’re using. I still have a lot to learn. Happy model railroading!

Printed Buildings on the Maple Valley Short Line – How to Print and Build Structures for Your Layout

Through over fifty years in HO scale model railroading, I have wide and varied experience building structures for my layouts. My first balsa and cardboard kit was the Purina Feeds Mill I was very proud of. I no longer have it and wish I did. Another was a scratch-built cabin my uncle and I made together in 1970. He is a very talented artist, now in his eighties, who skillfully drew the planks on the walls and the shingles on the roof. I just copied him. I no longer have the cabin I built, but I do have his. I also have several scratch-built structures my uncle made with balsa and foam board which will soon take their place on the Maple Valley Short Line Railroad. Photos of them will appear in future posts.

I have many kit-based buildings made of plastic. They look fine and they’re easy to light using wheat-grain bulbs for just the right amount of light shining through the windows. Until last year, I never would have believed I could build attractive structures using paper prints. Once I started, it was hard to quit! It was really fun!

I searched the internet for printable structures in HO scale and found many to choose from. Obviously, it’s important to have a good printer, which now, almost everyone owns.

The website that I believed offered the best variety of structures was https://modelrailwaylayoutsplans.com/model-railroad-printable-buildings/. The copyright and designs are owned and offered by Alastair Lee Ltd. On the website, several bundles of building designs are offered. Here is the great part! Once you buy a bundle of designs, you can print them as many times as you want! I paid about $17.00 and was able to print immediately!

I got carried away, but it was so much fun! I think I built about thirty of these little houses. Then I made some improvements by adding basswood posts, a pergola, and decks.

This is an example of a printed house. (I accidentally printed it in the wrong scale so part of the house was cut off.) I printed mine on off-white card stock. After printing, I used adhesive spray to attach the print to another piece of card stock. I suggest not using heavy cardstock because folding will be difficult.

Using an X-Acto knife, and a metal ruler for straight lines, I cut out each piece. However, I added tabs (white angular area) to each of the edge lines including the bottom. This provides more gluing area so the joints are much stronger. After cutting, I very carefully (do not cut all the way through) scored the outside of the fold edges which makes the corners sharper.

I used heavy card stock as the base for each of my buildings. I cut out the middle to provide easy access for lighting. On most of the houses, I included extra base area for a deck or porch.

There is obviously a learning curve. My skills improved as I built for structures.

“Build Your Own Lincoln Sites” is another printable building website I used. These are free and the prints are high quality. The cutting lines are highly detailed and the instructions are easy to follow. As you can see in the photo of my building, I added facia to the roof line and a balsa deck to the front.

This building from the same website turned out great. You will discover how important scoring the folding lines is when it’s time to finish the graduated edge of the building roof. A little bit of touch-up with some paint on the front completed the structure.

I printed a few pages of full color miniature advertising posters. I cut out several with attractively varied colors and glued them to the building. Another option is to scratch them lightly with a knife to give them a weathered appearance. (The billboard at the top of the wall is on the original print.)

I am very happy with my printed buildings. I still have a lot of scenery work to do. I am presently working on wiring the Maple Valley Short Line. I also have to get the next episode of Scandal at Maple Valley finished!

I used printable structures because the cost is so low. Search the internet and you will find just the right printable structures for your layout.

I would love to read about your layout. Please comment and let me know about your progress!

Model Railroad Progress on the Maple Valley Short Line

I am thrilled, excited, relieved, exhausted, and happy to report track on the entire Maple Valley Short Line Railroad is finished! Well, the track is all in place. Installing ballast is yet to come.

This model railroad is the largest layout I have ever built. I started with a blank canvas three years ago and today am very proud of my progress. I have never tried using latex molds for plaster rocks but I think they look terrific. I also have never painted backdrops before, but am very happy with the results. I am just getting started with ground cover, and I plan to use a ton of Woodlands Scenic weeds.

The long outside loop has been operational for several months. When I get tired of slow progress I run a train around the layout several times and I’m immediately enthused again. For a kid who loves trains, there is nothing like listening to the clicking sound of the wheels as they roll over the track, through turnouts, and over bridges.

This is also the first time I have ever tried making my own trees. A large layout, depending on the kinds of scenes desired, requires a lot of trees. I have several from previous layouts but not enough for this one. I followed Luke Towan’s tutorials with step-by-step instructions to build trees with floral wire. It’s very easy, but requires time and patience. I quickly discovered the clipped wire ends are very sharp! Luke Towan’s videos can be found on YouTube. There are many videos for just about everything necessary to build a beautiful layout.

There is still so much more to accomplish! I insulated several blocks throughout the layout, which means a lot of wiring. This is the first time I have not used a common rail, so I will use buss feeds throughout for DC power. I also plan to use Atlas Snap Relays for turnout signals. Several years ago I made my own two-light signals using plastic pre-fab, non-operating signals. I drilled out the red and green lenses and replaced them with real lights. I soldered resistors into the feed wire, through a two-way switch and wired them directly to my AC accessory power supply. They looked great, but were essentially non-operating because I didn’t use the snap relays. This time I will.

Since I used 1 1/2″ extruded foam for the base of the layout, I’ll have to drill through the foam and the plywood deck to provide wire access for feeds to the rails and turnouts. I had big plans to use under-the-table switch machines and linkage. The more I thought about it, the less bold I felt. I decided the resulting appearance on the layout wasn’t worth the potential headaches. I’m not purchasing all new fool-proof tortoise switch machines. I’m using my old Atlas machines that still work fine.

My next project is placing, rearranging, then rearranging again, then finally moving all the manufacturing and retail buildings I have. I plan to paint streets and lay gravel roads for rural areas and around factories. I love lighting the buildings so that will be another wiring project yet to come.

Writing “Scandal at Maple Valley” has delayed my progress on the actual railroad, but I don’t regret it! I’m fourteen episodes in and I don’t plan to stop any time soon. The most recent episode included lyrics to a song I made up just for the band, Buck Wills and the Wagoneers, called, “Mama Drinks Whiskey From a Coffee Cup.” I am thrilled to announce the song has now been set to music and recorded by one of my very talented daughters-in-law. I couldn’t believe it! It’s fantastic, if I do say so myself! So, one day, we will release the fictional song for real!

Here’s to many more years of progress on the Maple Valley Short Line Railroad. Happy model railroading everyone!

How I Painted Backdrops for My Model Railroad – Part 2

I can’t stress enough that you can do this. Believe me, if I can paint backdrops and have them turn out half-way decent, you can do it too.

In Part 1, I included a list of the paint colors most often used for painting backdrops. All of the paint is acrylic, which cleans up easily with water. When you start painting your backdrops, you will start by using light colors on the highest parts of your canvas (whatever your canvas material may be. I chose to use foam board.)

Obviously, not being an artist, I’m not including mixtures that will give you exact shades of colors for your backdrops. With me, it was trial and error. If you are an artist I don’t think you’ll be spending time reading this anyway.

In the photos you can see the mountainous look beginning to take shape. I used a mixture of blue and grey to paint mountains furthest away, the lightest blue is sky. The light shade of green below the blue is the first layer indicating the next mountain range.

The beautiful thing about painting in layers is that you can really mess up the first layer, (like I did many times fighting with my shaking hands), and totally fix and change it with the next layer. You don’t want perfect tree tops anyway. To me, a great amount of variation is best, just like you would see in a real photo or in person. Let your brush go and find your way as you dab the paint on.

I allowed each layer to dry before starting the next layer. If you lay wet paint on wet paint, the colors will begin to mix on the canvas and on your brush. Maybe that will work for you, but I didn’t want to take the chance.

With each layer of tree-covered mountains, the colors get darker, indicating the mountains are closer. In the middle photo is the beginning of a river, indicated by the white curved triangle, giving the appearance of the river coming toward you.

I definitely made mistakes, but was able to manage them pretty well. In the photo on the left, there is a light area that doesn’t look great, but I can live with it. I also left some large grassy-appearing areas in the foreground that I will make smaller by placing 3D trees on the layout in front of them. Placing trees on the layout is my next big project.

The section of backdrop in the photo on the left is my first attempt. It’s not great, and I changed it a little by painting pine trees in that appear closer, and adding rocks at the bottom. This one will again be doctored by placing trees and foliage in front of it. This one is on the right end of the layout, so it isn’t in a prominent spot. I’m happy with the other backdrops, and to me, there is an illusion of distance to the horizon. Structures, trees, and ground cover will blend the contrast between the rocky areas and the green backdrops.

Shading is an important part of painting backdrops. In any scene, whether in a photograph or a painting of landscapes, there is a source of light so there are light and shaded areas. As you can see on the painted pines, the left side is lighter, indicating light coming from the left. It also appears to give the tree a rounded shape. I used a small paint brush to blot the pine trees into existence. The individual pine trees in the center photo were made with a fan brush. The important thing to remember about indicating a light source is that it must be consistent throughout your backdrop paintings. You don’t want some areas appearing as if the sun is on the left, and others on the right.

Including roads and rivers in a backdrop is another challenge because, somehow, you have to make them appear they are coming toward you. This is accomplished by the use of a magical vanishing point. Perspective in drawing or painting is how objects are made to appear closer or more distant and still remain in proper size relation with each other. A road, for example, seems to disappear at the vanishing point, (which is why it’s called a vanishing point!), and comes toward you where it is widest, closest to you. You are looking at a flat painting, yet you see a road or river coming toward you. Magic!

I used perspective to paint a small cabin and a shed on the backdrop section in the left and center photos. The shed is smaller than the cabin. Vanishing points and shades of color were used on both structures, so instead of looking like flat squares, they appear to be 3D structures. Painting a curved road is a little tricky. You’re still moving it toward the vanishing point but adding a curve while still creating the illusion of distance away from you.

I didn’t want the Maple Valley river to end at the backdrop, so I had to paint the river, allowing it to vanish somewhere in the distance. For a rank amateur, I think it turned out pretty well! The wooden bridge nearest the backdrop will be a road connecting industries on either side of the river.

When all the painting was finished, the foam boards curved as a result of the paint drying and constricting. Ughhh! I didn’t want to just glue them on the wall because I was afraid they would come loose. So, lacking any other solution, I held each foam board, painted/curved toward me, put pressure on the back side and pushed until the foam board buckled. I did that about every two inches the entire length of the board. Result? The foam board was straight and the paint did not crack, miraculously. I was at the point of either total disaster, or breakthrough results. Luckily, the end result was great. I used hot glue to fasten the foam boards to the cinder block wall, and they are secured tightly.

Finally, as I mentioned in Part 1, there are several YouTube videos demonstrating backdrop painting that were very helpful. I am including a list, and I encourage you to watch them if you are considering painting your own backdrops.

How To Paint Model Railroad Backdrops with Rob Spangler – YouTube

Model Railroad Adventures with Bill E103 – The Joys of Painting (A Backdrop 😄) by Request – YouTube

Painting a Model Railroad Backdrop – YouTube

Learn How to Paint Mountains – Acrylic Painting Lesson by JM Lisondra – YouTube

Paint Basic Rocks by Stream – YouTube (I watched this one over and over again!)

If you search “Painting Model Railroad Backdrops” you will find dozens of examples.

I wish you luck in your efforts to paint your own model railroad backdrops!