The Cheapest Technique For Making Model Trees

Making model trees cheapest quickest techniqueI go full Blue Peter for this tip.

It won’t be for everyone but if you’re looking for an almost free, very quick and easy technique to make trees for your model railway it’s hard to beat.

And in true Blue Peter style, I’ve got pictures of one I “prepared earlier’ that show how good the trees made with this tip can look.

So without wasting time that you could be spending on your layout let’s get going.

Look at the trees around you, particularly deciduous varieties in full growth.

What’s noticeable, or what I noticed and forms the cornerstone of this tip, is that on trees in full leaf bloom, the branches aren’t visible. They’re hidden under all those glorious green leaves.

The branches aren’t visible.

Think about that.

Making Model Foliage

As the branches aren’t visible, all that’s needed to create trees then is a trunk and something that looks like the foliage growth.

The trunk is easy and I’ll come to it in a jiffy.

For the foliage, we need a material that can be shaped into the crown of the tree and holds shape without branches.

For this, I’ve used my old friend the kitchen or bathroom sponge.

Take a dark green one and cut it into the shape of a tree. (One of the best things about this tip is that you can make pretty much any type of deciduous tree just by carving the sponge to the shape required). Just take a look around you at natural trees if you need inspiration.

It’ll probably take a few tries to get it right but it’s surprising how good it looks with relatively little effort.

I just pinch bits off, using tweezers to grasp small pieces.

How to make the trunk

I’ve written before about using twigs for tree stumps but it’s this tip where old sticks really come into their own.

Take a look at any railway siding, you'll see stumps and branches where trees have been cut back to prevent damage to passing trains and prevent falling branches blocking the line. Here's this weeks Thifty Thursday tip to making tree stumps for free. Yes, you read that right. Free. This weeks tip allows you to make as many tree stumps and fallen branches as you want at zero cost. Nothing. It's not a case of reusing house-hold items that you've already bought but using something that's absolutely free in the first place. I love this technique not just because it doesn't cost anything but it produces superbly authentic looking trump stumps and can work for any scale of model railway, from Z and N scale to HO and above. Twigged it yet? To make tree stumps just go out an grab some small twigs and bush branches. You're looking for twigs that have a shoots emerging from the main trunk, like this: Now with cutters or a shape knife cut across the main stem just below the shoots. Now cut diagonally above the shoots, you'll want the branch leading to a long sharp point. You should have something like the picture below. Now turn the brach upside down, so the shoots point downwards and insert it into your ground surface until the inverted shoots are level with the ground (you might need to drill a small hole in which to insert it). Hey presto a tree stump. The shoot stems look like the root collar leading into the soil and the top half tampers off as normal tree trump would. Being real wood, our DIY tree stump has yellow tint on the inside just as real tree stumps do and textured bark. Take some other small twigs and scatter them around the stump simulating cut branches and trunks and you have wonderfully realistic and authentic dead tree stumps. I'm currently working in N Scale so I pick very small twigs, for larger scales just use larger twigs. You can also sprinkle some yellow / brown scatter around the stumps to simulate sawdust from the trees but this is only necessary if you want to create the look of freshly felled trees.

For best results, small twigs with shoots emerging are ideal.

Look around your garden or neighbourhood for them. (I’ve had some odd looks when caught kneeling in the gutter of a local alleyway picking up twigs — the things I do for this hobby!).

For N-scale, twigs of about 2 inches in length are best, three to four inches for OO and HO and six inches upwards for O-scale.

Look for twigs with a slight taper and ideally with collars for branch buds or shoots that have broken off.  The branch will be cut immediately below the collar and this end glued into the base of the layout so the collar creates the impression of the top of the root ball at the base of the trunk just as it is for real trees, particularly Sycamore, Birch, Hornbeam, Oak and Poplar varieties.

This technique is very good for trees with a central main trunk showing, if you’re making trees with low branches that would be visible look (oak, acacia for example) look for sticks with offshoots.

For good measure leave them on a sheet of paper outside somewhere so any insects in them crawl out and then microwave them to dry them out.

Once dry, sharpen one end of the twig and skewer the sponge on it.

For extra touches, I dab darker shades of acrylic green paint on the recessed parts of the sponge. If I want visible leaves on the trees ⁠⁠— at the front of a layout where detail will be visible for example⁠ ⁠— I spray the sponge with hair spray and gently sprinkle small amounts of very fine green scatter over them.

That’s it — the majority of the “growing” is complete.

To plant your tree, drill a small hole to the diameter of the trunk in your baseboard, dribble a small amount of PVA wood glue into it and push the trunk into it. You may need to support it until the glue sets.

It really is this easy!

As promised, here’s a photo of some I made earlier.

Making model trees for N and OO gauge model railways

Trees on my layout were created at almost no cost, quickly and easily using this technique.

Compared to the faffing around making trunks and branches from wire and then sticking on layer upon layer of scatter as suggested in other guides, including several on this very blog it’s much quicker and easier.

As for cost, it’s an old sponge and a twig! Compare that to £4 or £5 per tree in model shops!

Now, where’s my Blue Peter badge…

No one will miss a bit of bathroom sponge so why not have a go at making your own glorious tree now?

Subscribe to my free email newsletter for more articles like this, plus the latest model train news, regular and exclusive tips, tutorials and guides. It's free, you can unsubscribe at any point and i promise never to sell your information. Click here to subscribe now.

Founder of ModelRailwayEngineer, Andy Leaning

Andy is a lifelong modeler, writer, and founder of He has been building model railways, dioramas, and miniatures for over 20 years. His passion for model making and railways began when he was a child, building his first layout at the age of seven.
Andy’s particular passion is making scenery and structures in 4mm scale, which he sells commercially. He is particularly interested in modelling the railways of South West England during the late Victorian/early Edwardian era, although he also enjoys making sci-fi and fantasy figures and dioramas. His website has won several awards, and he is a member of MERG (Model Railway Electronics Group) and the 009 Society.
When not making models, Andy lives in Surrey with his wife and teenage son. Other interests include history, science fiction, photography, and programming. Read more about Andy.

Afflliate disclosure:The links on this page may take you to carefully selected businesses, such as Hornby, Amazon, eBay and Scale Model Scenery, where you can purchase the product under affiliate programmes. This means I receive a small commission on any orders placed although the price you pay does not change. You can read my full affiliate policy here. I also sell my my own ready to use, pre-made and painted buildings and terrain features. browse the range.
  1. I’ve been taking your advice Andy, and hunting for small twigs. Walking round a small park this afternoon, I looked at the trees that had shed their foliage last autumn, revealing the branches emanating from the trunk. I’ll go out tomorrow with a camera and finish off a roll of film. Some thin twigs could be glued together with Evo-stick. I threw the plastic trees away yonks ago after getting my hands on a nice copy of Mr Iliffe Stokes’ book Buildings in Miniature, originally 5/-. Now his trees, depicting a winter scene, were really something. I’m currently in the process of making massive changes to my model railway, moving from urban to rural country village. Far less buildings, much more green spaces including a village green. So trees will certainly be needed.

  2. A good idea.
    Would the twig deteriorate without chemical treatment in relatively hot/humid climates at high altitudes?
    What would be the suitable treatment method for such twigs if realism is to be preserved?

    • In extremes of humidity/climate it’s obviously possible but if built in these kinds of environments I suspect other elements of the layout would also suffer too. I’d probably give a coating of liquid latex to protect it if it was a concern. Andy

  3. Brilliant, so simple. I have experimented making stone walls with cat litter, once painted with watered down acrylic paint added foilage etc you really can’t tell.

  4. Brilliant, so simple. I have experimented making stone walls with cat litter, once painted with watered down acrylic paint added foilage etc you really can’t tell.

  5. Hey Andy: Your idea on the making of “sponge trees” is intetesting. However, this point begs a question. What if: “A green colored sponge is not available, or I can’t find a green colored sponge………..
    Painting is a viable option for me. The Big if: I’d blend my colors to fit my ground, background and the season of which I’m building.
    Pretty cool stuff.
    Ralph O.

    • Hi Ralph, you could spray or paint a sponge or perhaps even dunk it into an acrylic coloured water. Not tried it but don’t see why it wouldn’t work. Andy

  6. Oh my giddy aunt, how simple is this technique, I’ve spent a fair bit on ready made trees of the Chinese origin via a certain auction & although they look nice visually, they do look very plasticy.
    Thanks for the great idea.

    • Glad you like it Andy. It is remarkably simple, effective and so cheap. Really pleased the results. Have perfected the technique a bit more since this post that makes them even better. I’ll post an update shortly. Andy.

Add Comment

Required fields are marked *. Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.