Wargaming terrain without trees would be a joyless and boring affair indeed. After all we try to recreate naturalistic surroundings for our games and even in arid or cold regions some tree species will dwell. As you will be aware, there are plenty of techniques out there to make visually appealing model trees. Some use prefabricated armatures made of plastic or metal, others go the scratch built route using wire, others again use natural products, such as twigs and sea moss (botanical name chenopodium aristatum). A large variety of foliage products exists, too: Clump foliage, either bought or self-made, fine turf in combination with loose ‘leave’ scatter or foliage nets.
In the end you want to combine the materials that give you the best results, but you don’t want to spend ages making trees either. I hear you! This short tutorial focuses on an easy and fast technique that yields very realistic results. We will make a simple birch tree for 15mm scale using sea moss and MiniNatur foliage nets to achieve a true to life appearance while keeping the time involvement at roughly one hour. If you are looking for a more involved project and even more realistic result have a look at my Oak tutorial or my ancient yew tree.
Some facts about birch trees
Birches are broad-leaved deciduous hardwood trees of the genus Betula, in the family Betulaceae. Given there are a number of varieties we first have to decide which species we would like to depict. Not all birch trees feature the black and white bark one usually associates with them. Given this feature really makes them stand out, I decided to make a silver birch (betula pendula). This species is native to Europe and can thus be used for many periods of time and regions. In southern Europe it can only be found in higher altitudes, so it might not be your first choice if you want to give your table a mediterranean feel.
The twigs of the silver birch are slender and often pendulous, the leaves roughly triangular with doubly serrated margins. Comes autumn they turn yellow before they fall off and create a beautiful contrast with the white and black bark. On a related note, model builders and gamers love the seed pods of birch trees. They provide perfectly shaped 28mm scale ‘leaves’ for decorating bases.
Sea moss – practical considerations
If we look at the sea moss branches out of the box their natural shape works well to depict the silhouette of a silver birch. One small twig is enough for a medium-sized birch tree in 15mm scale. If you intend to make birch trees for 28mm, you need a wire armature that you can add to using the sea moss. However, for 15mm all we need to do now is to shape the branch, add some bark texture and finally drape a foliage net over it.
The entire process without drying time takes about an hour. The tree holds up well to the trials and tribulations of the gaming table, but you cannot just toss them in a box and hope the best. They will break if handled without care, even though the Plastidip and filler add some strength.
What you need
- A small sea moss twig.
- A pair of small scissors to shape the twig.
- A pin vise with a 0.8mm bit to drill a hole in the ‘trunk’ and to insert a piece of wire for added stability.
- A piece of very thin wire or a needle.
- Plastidip to cover the entire ‘Meerschaum’ twig for added stability.
- Wood filler to create a realistic bark texture and to give the sea moss more strength.
- Acrylic paints: Black, grey and white to paint the bark.
- Fast setting glue, I use Insta-Cure+ to fix the foliage net in place.
- MiniNatur foliage net. The birch nets come in spring, summer or autumn varieties. I used half of a small sheet.
- A broad brush and a very fine brush.
How you do it
Remove any dry leaves from the twig and clean up the lower section, carefully removing some of the fine twigs to achieve a clearly distinguishable trunk section. Mount the twig on a piece of styrofoam, but don’t drill a hole in the trunk yet.
Cover the entire twig in Plastidip. This pretty much rubberizes it. You can use the aerosol spray can for this step or decant some of it and use a brush. You might need several coats to achieve a flexible and durable coating. Let cure.
With the help of some wood filler add some texture to the trunk and other twigs in the lower parts of the tree. This also adds some thickness. You can also use caulking for this step if you want to preserve the flexibility of the rubber coating.
Mix pale grey and paint the entire twig. If the natural colour shines through in some areas this will add some nice colour variations. Now mix a dark grey and add some irregular patches to the trunk and thicker twigs. With some more thinned down shades of dark grey you can add the characteristic horizontal dark lines birch bark has. Finally, with a very thin wash of grey add some colour variation to the lower sections of the trunk.
MiniNatur products come in sheets, so you have to cut the sheet to size and tease it carefully apart to make the shape more irregular. Apply some fast setting glue and attach the foliage to the twig. Less is more, as you want the tree to look light and airy.
After the netting is applied, remove the tree from the styrofoam base and drill a hole in the trunk. Insert a piece of wire and secure with glue. Now you can pin it to your gaming table and easily change its position or you could make a base for the tree featuring a magnet to make transport easier.
I hope you enjoyed this tutorial and please comment down below if you have suggestions or would like to share your own techniques to achieve realistic trees.