A Battlegames Special Guest Post by Sean Souter
An unbroken expanse of open desert has long been a fixture of military campaigns in North Africa, but it makes for a bleak and uninteresting wargaming table. Here’s a tutorial to get scratch built palm trees into your terrain collection using Warlord’s modular terrain boards for basing.
First, a word of caution. Making trees this way is really inexpensive and yields great results, but it is time-consuming. No one step is a deal breaker, but repetitive cutting, gluing, and painting the palm tree trunks and fronds will take a good chunk of hobby time. Second, remember that we’re making wargames terrain on the cheap. Sturdy and inexpensive trumped the fragile and expensive aesthetic of proper model railway terrain.
Palm Tree Trunks
You’ll need fairly stiff wire that is still bendable. Metal coat hangers are too stiff but heavy gauge electrical wire and the ‘craft’ aluminium wire I finally settled on work well. If you can get it in brown or black you’ll save yourself a step. For the first batch, I wrapped the wire, lengthwise, in masking tape so I could paint it better. This proved unnecessary, and for my second batch, I painted the metal directly and it worked just fine.
With hot glue gun at the ready, I tacked on natural colour sisal twine and slowly rotated the wire in a drill, guiding the twine on with my free hand. Every couple of inches, I dabbed some hot glue on the wire and kept winding. This way, when you cut the wire to length, the sisal won’t come unwound. For variation in trunk thickness, you can wrap tighter or looser, go back over an area to wrap it twice, or load on the hot glue underneath in spots.
I used artists’ Matte Gel Medium – regular PVA will also work – mixed with some cheap brown craft paint and applied a thin coat to darken the twine and smooth it out a little. A small flame from a lighter or candle run along the length of the wrapped wire hardens the gel, discolors some areas slightly for variation and, most importantly, burns off all the little stray strands of sisal, so the trunk looks rough but not furry. Apply a light dry brush of cream or beige, cut to length with sharp wire cutters, and you’re good to go. I found 4 to 6 (100-150mm) inches was about right for making terrain that looked the part, stores easily, but doesn’t tower over the table. Again, a compromise because date palms grow to over 20 metres in height, but that’s not convenient for wargames and storage.
An enhancing step is the addition of dead and dried fronds hanging beneath the main branches. Comb out some lengths of sisal to separate all the little strands. Apply white or hot glue to the top of the trunks and roll the trunk over the sisal. Voila, dead and dropping palm fronds. To hold it all securely, I tied a small strand of glue-soaked sisal around the top and let it all set.
The pivotal purchase for this project is the right kind of faux plastic leaves to make into fronds. I can’t specify a make or brand or model so you’ll have to get the idea from the pictures. The closer the raw materials look to the real thing the less work you’ll have to do. Some time spent hunting around Dollar stores [Pound stores in the UK. Ed] or places like Wal-Mart will save you hours of work in the long run. At minimum, they must be the right color as you don’t want to have to paint them. Also, starting with the right basic shape will minimize the amount of cutting you’ll need to do. I found ones that needed three cuts each: one to separate it from the stem, and a rounded cut along each length to give it a long oval shape. Without spending a fortune on laser cut paper or photo etch brass, this is as easy as it gets.
Put on a good podcast (may I recommend Henry’s own podcast, TooFatLardies Oddcast, Meeples & Miniatures, or The Veteran Wargamer) or album and get cutting. I don’t recommend trying to watch Netflix while you do this as I cut myself several times during this step due to lack of attention. Get a couple of good pictures of date palm trees up on your screen and make nice long fronds. Sharp scissors really help (see previous disclaimer!). You’ll need about 25 per tree if you want to do it right.
Next, you need a flat surface on the back of the frond to attach a wire with superglue. A new hobby blade made quick work of this but remember, take breaks if you start to get sloppy as you’ll need to do this a couple of hundred times. Always cut away from yourself and watch your fingers!
While you’re at it, cut a few hundred lengths of thin florist wire. Make sure it’s green to start with so you won’t have to paint it. If you use paint-on superglue or a very narrow dispensing tip, this step will be sped up dramatically. Put a bead of superglue on the back of the frond, run the wire along a brush or surface to lightly coat it in CA [cyanoacrylate] accelerant (or Zip Kicker), place the wire, hold for three or four seconds and move on to the next one.
I did about eight at a time. Every few batches I went back and applied a little extra glue to the wire-frond join to make sure it was firmly stuck in place. When dried, cut the wires to a length of about 4 or 5mm.
Putting it All Together
You could do this with cheap air-dry clay, but I recommend something like Milliput two-part epoxy putty as it behaves better for this purpose and doesn’t shrink. Mix up a small batch and make a secure ball at the top of each trunk. I found that doing batches of four gave me enough working time before the putty set rock hard. A quick wipe of brown paint before fixing the palm fronds in place will save you some fiddly painting later. Please, do benefit from my experience on this one!
Dip the extended frond wire in superglue and push it into the putty. I found that three rows of 8-7-6 with a couple of very small fronds stuck in the very top was about right. It’s tempting to try and use as few fronds as possible in order to extend the number of trees you can make – frond making is laborious to be sure – but I found the trees look way better if they are well filled in. I added the extra step of a bit of airbrushing to give some variation to the palm fronds.
Basing and Finishing Touches
I again used Milliput to join the trees to the removable bases. Unlike the first set of modular terrain boards I did where I just gave up and stuck the removable bases in place, I did much better this time for two reasons. First, prior to assembly I used a Dremel tool (with proper venting and a filter mask) to make the receiving holes slightly larger. Second, I very carefully sanded the finished base edges to get rid of grit and cleaned out the receiving hole edges with a stiff blade. I can swap trees and shrubs in and out easily. The palm tree terrain is actually modular this time!
I made up a slurry of gel medium, brown craft paint, and very fine brown sand for a texture coat. I had previously primed the MDF with cheap spray paint which seals it and stops it from warping. Then, while it was wet, I sprinkled a load of fine buff sand on it. An hour later, I tapped the excess back into the container.
A final coat of Testor’s Dullcote gave everything an even appearance and further locked everything in place. Here are a few shots once I made use of a disturbingly extensive collection of odds and ends of Woodlands Scenics products that I’ve hoarded over the years. Waste not, want not.
All content and images for this article ©Sean Souter 2018
Visit Sean’s website at https://onseanstable.com for more terrain tips and tutorials and tune in here for his regular guest posts.