6:15 'Seeing the forest for the trees...'
Last month I wrote about scatter terrain with a god's-eye-view to outline the importance of seeing the game first and terrain second. This month it was requested that I give an 'in the trenches' view of scatter terrain. Knowing that there are so many types of terrain possible for a table, I thought I would focus on forests.

*** At the end of the column I will offer a few brief points on the photo I chose for this post. The photo is a great example to learn from. ***

Forests make a good transition in terrain complexity between water features and hills or rock outcroppings. More importantly, they are the primary tool to bring vertical elements to a table, giving it a real sense of place. In fact, other than fairly large buildings, they are often the tallest terrain pieces on the table. Buildings are great in a game, but a table without a nice forest always feels very flat to me.

I'm not going to give a micro-level of step-by-step instructions here. I'm going to assume you know how to cut things, paint, flock, not burn yourself with a hot-glue gun, etc., and I'll only talk about materials in a general way. If painting and flocking are areas you would like help with, you can see my previous monthly columns where I discuss them in detail. Where materials might be out of the ordinary, I'll give some more info on them.

*** Hobbylinc.com is an excellent online store to purchase materials for terrain. Almost everything I discuss for materials can be found there, and for a good price. (I love that site!)

*** I will describe making a generic forest, but you should read last months column to make sure you match your forest to the needs of your game.

So with all of that out the way, where do we start on our path towards the sylvan glory that our forests will become?

***** The Base *****

Forests look best when they are large. Three trees will look lonely, so we'll make a forest that is 6" x 8". Using any suitable material (plywood, hardboard, mdf, etc. - 1/8" to 3/16th inch thick is often best) cut a nice organic shape -- no ovals or rectangles here. A very soft jigsaw puzzle shape is the goal. Sand the edges to a smooth ~45 degree angle to soften the transition to the table.

Then cut 3-5 smaller bases that will fit within the main base. Taper the edges as you did for the main base.

This allows us to mount trees and other items to the smaller bases, and easily remove them for play. Mounting items to the main base is always an option, but I find removing individual trees, pinned in the base, to be fidgety and other elements in the forest will need to be kept low/small to allow miniatures to move through them.

***** Texture the bases *****

Sand and flock the bases (large and small) but keep the sand texture fine. Fine grain sand helps the smaller bases seat on the large base more closely (rather than float on it), and forests tend to have a fairly fine grade of dirt. Paint the soil, and apply the flock of your choice.

I tend to select a flock that leans toward a darker shade and has some dark greens, blacks, reds, or even blues, to break up the overall green tone. Some flocks have mixes of these colors in them, but you can always mix your own. It is helpful though to use a fine grain of flock for the main base, for the same reasons to use a fine sand grain. If the flock you like has some big chunks in it, run some through a coffee grinder, mash it through a sieve, or otherwise pulverize it into a coarse powder. For the small bases, go with what every texture makes your heart content. Chunky flock looks great in a forest.

After flocking the main (large) base, your done with it. Set it aside for now.

***** Get your trees ready *****

There are two options here: 1. Make your trees or 2. Buy ready made trees. Making your own takes time but it is much, much cheaper. Buying ready made trees is quick and there are some great trees out there. But, consider durability!

Those trees are going to be picked up a lot... by grabbing the trees themselves! So even if you buy trees, you may need to do some work to shore up the foliage for gaming. The most durable ready made trees are conifers, and SceneScapes makes some very nice ones with good quality and good prices. If you don't want to make trees, it's a good way to go. Don't be afraid to order 6"+ tall trees -- even 8" tall. They are already too small for the scale, so go big for at least some of them. (But it is nice to have some variety in heights. After all, not every tree is a towering mammoth.)

If you buy pre-made deciduous trees, expect to do a little touch up work on them before putting them on the table. The process for making deciduous trees will provide enough information to fix/spruce up your purchased trees.

*****Building your trees *****

Making conifers is the easiest, so I won't describe it. :) If your interested in that route, look up some videos on 'bottle brush trees' and you'll find some very approachable techniques.

For deciduous trees I often recommend (and use) Woodland Scenics armatures. They are inexpensive, forgiving, and come in a variety of sizes. Grab a pack or two and grab some clump foliage. I like a couple of shades of green in my forest since it looks more natural. Don't mix up colors on the same tree, just make a couple of different colored trees.

To attach the foliage, buy some Hobbytack that Woodland Scenics sells. However, just before you open it... throw it out. It's rubbish for wargame terrain, and pretty questionable for railroad layouts in my opinion. After glancing at it in the trash, and feeling good about that, get out your hot glue gun. It's the tree makers best friend. Hot glue creates a surprisingly strong bond and it sets up quickly. Waiting for PVA to dry when making trees is a recipe for madness.

To apply the foliage, shape your armature into a form that looks fairly realistic. Now... Hold the armature in one hand, and use the same hand to operate the glue gun. It takes a few minutes of practice, but it is the only way to keep up a reasonable pace. With your other hand you can grab bits of clump foliage and dab a small drop of glue on it, and then the tree hand can let go of the glue gun and you can stick the foliage on it where you want.

** Pro-Tip #1 - lay your glue gun sideways on the table. It makes holding the armature and operating the gun at the same time much easier. Press out a very small amount of glue. Brush off the glue with the foliage and you won't have a pile of glue forming on your table. Experience will guide you quickly. **

The amount of glue you apply should be on the small size, but a little glob is important. The glue should grab the armature and foliage strongly. Too little and the foliage will pull off easily and too much and the armature will melt, you'll burn you fingers, and generally make a mess of the whole situation. Smaller dabs of glue are generally better.

**Pro-Tip #2 - Build up the foliage gradually. Adding small bits on top of other smaller bits means there is more glue holding the clump foliage together. I use marble sized clumps for the most part. If you glue on a big chuck, all that foam is held on by a small amount of surface area on the limb. Since the clumps are often a bit 'crumbly', parts of it will likely break off easily.**

The trick to making a good tree is filling it out! Make it look dense. Lots of bare branches will make it look like a Dr. Suess tree. If you think you have added enough foliage, add more. When you feel like it has a nice dense feel, go back and add a little more again. :)

Make sure that you build foliage clumps in such a way that they will join with others across multiple branches. It gives the foliage a lot more support and helps to make sure you have filled out the tree. A big tree takes time... For me, building a 6-7" tall deciduous tree takes over an hour. But, it's a strong, beautiful tree. :)

**Pro-Tip #3 - Leave negative space. A tree gets it's realism from not only where it is filled in, but also where it is bare. Open spots give it a realistic look as long as you don't have most of inner tree open. Look at some trees and think about where you see the trunk and where you don't. Negative space... It's the most artistic component, and I think the most important.**

** Pro-Tip #3.5 (edit) - Once you are satisfied with the look of your tree.  Give it a soaking with some dilute pva.  Don't soak it to the point of dripping however.  Let it dry and see how firm the foliage feels.  If it is still too soft for your liking, give it another light spray.  You'll find it really shores up the foliage and it will add a lot to it's durability.  **

***** Attaching the trees to the bases *****

To attach the trees durably, you will want to either pin them into the base (good for conifers) or glue the tree base down firmly. Either way, hot glue is your friend here as well. When placing them on the small bases, don't be afraid to push those trees right up against each other. Crowd them in. A forest is made up of trees fighting with each other to grab the light. (Anyone else thinking of Rush right now? *grin*) A 6" x 8" forest will look good with 7-9 trees on it, more if they are slender or small. An added benefit is that the trees will help each other to absorb forces from moving them. Don't be afraid to snuggle them up close, distributing 3-4+ on each of your smaller bases.

***** Adding the extra touches *****

Now is the time to add some items of interest on the forest floor. I am a firm believer that variety imparts realism. Several colors of foliage, a handful of textures, and a variety of sizes combine to give the understory a nice lush feel. There are lots of options out there -- clump foliage, grass tufts, lichen, and more. Make sure you take advantage of the wonderful variety terrain makers have at their disposal. *Look in the railroad scenery section of Hobbylinc.com*

To add your understory growth, follow the same procedure as making your trees. A dab of hot glue and a press into the base. It's a very strong bond.

*Pro-Tip #4 - To help your trees bond firmly to the base, glue some foliage to the trunk and base at the same time. This give more surface area for the trunk-to-base bond and it will really help to hold that tree in place. You don't need to make a bush-shroud around the tree trunk, but a few carefully placed bits of clump foliage can help a lot.*

*Pro-Tip #5 - Don't let any hot glue show... anywhere! Nothing breaks an illusion faster than seeing hot glue poking out of tree branches, under bushes, etc. If you see a bit of hot glue poking out, get another tiny bit of clump foliage and glue it over that spot. After all, you can't have too much foliage in a forest.*

***** You're done. *****

After you're finished mounting your trees, adding bushes and scrub to the bases, and generally looking it over for hot glue spots, negative spaces, trunk supporting vegetation, and picking out cat hairs (at least I have to...) it's time to put those smaller bases on the main forest base.

You now have a dense forest stand, with trees that won't tip over, and can be moved easily by picking up the forest from the main base. It's playable, sturdy, lush feeling, and a real addition to the game table visually. Oh, and don't forget to pat yourself on the back. Making a good forest takes time, but it's well worth it.

***** Just before I wrap up.*****

The photo I selected for this post offers a great example of what forests typically look like and how my tips will improve it (at least I hope so). If the artist is reading this post, please take no offense. It's a great forest but I think I can help. :)

1. The trees have too little foliage. Fill 'em out. The foliage looks a little loose as well. Hot glue to the rescue.

2. The smaller bases should be beveled, and much larger. All of the smaller bases combined should fill 60%+ of the main base. Larger bases allows for more trees/base. Crowd 'em in.

3. Get some foliage up against those trunks. Hide those seams and strengthen them.

4. Keep the clump foliage off the main base. That is what the tree bases are for.

5. Add more vegetation variety on the tree bases. Lush it up.

6. Avoid the static grass. Forests are rarely grassy. Choose a nice dark flock.

7. Use a finer grain of sand for the soil. Forests don't tend to be gravely.

8. Flock a larger percentage of the main base. Give it a richer 'living' feel.

9. Did I say 'more trees'? Get a couple of other colors for the foliage and double the tree count. Dense it up. And tall it up while your at it. Where are the 7" tall boys?

Hope that gives you some real world context to flesh out the article. :)

See you next month.


p.s. If you have a question, post it in the comments. I'll do my best to help. There is probably someone else who has the same question so help them out. :)