Sunday, May 5, 2013

Modeling Canyon Country: The Utah Juniper

Engine #5, the Ollie Johnston, eases a train out onto Geyser Gulch trestle as the last rays of the setting sun illuminate McKennon Arch and an ancient Utah Juniper.

Even though it is based largly on an amusment park attraction, I still want Thunder Mesa to have a true Canyon Country feel. To that end, I've done a lot of research into the geology, wildlife and flora of the high desert Four Corners region where my mythical little railroad might once have existed. It's a unique region of bitter cold winters and blistering hot summers. A dry place where, if it rains at all, it comes all at once, filling every wash and arroyo with a flood of red mud. Things have to be hardy to survive around here and among the hardiest is the gnarled and twisted Juniper.

I have to admit that Junipers, ofttimes called ceders by the early Mormon settlers, are my absolute favorite kind of trees. They can live a thousand years or more, eking out a humble existence on the mesa tops, hills and canyon rims; sometimes taking root in solid rock, cracking and breaking it with their spreading roots. They don't get very big, a tall Juniper might be 20 feet, but they do develop an enormous amount of character during their long and difficult lives, and anything with that kind of character is just begging to be modeled.

A Utah Juniper, clinging to the rim of Grand Canyon near Hermit's Rest.

I'll be needing quite a few twisted and gnarly old Junipers for Thunder Mesa and there are no commercial products available that look anything like them. What follows is a quick tutorial on the techniques I use for crafting these trees quickly and relatively simply. I hope some readers may find it useful.

Building a Juniper

Note that it is just as easy to make several trees at one time as it is to make one, but for the sake of clarity I'll only be showing the construction of a single tree.

Materials List:
  • Braided steel picture wire (the uncoated kind).
  • Acrylic modeling paste. I use Liquitex but any brand will probably do.
  • Krylon spray paint: Gray Primer, Red Primer, Flat Ivory.
  • Acrylic paint: Burnt Umber, Unbleached Titanium.
  • Woodland Scenics (or other) Dark Green Foliage.
  • 3M 45 All Purpose Spray Adhesive.

Step #1: Using photos as a guide, I build an armature from twisted picture wire. This armature used about ten strands and was twisted and shaped with needle-nose pliers into a tree about 20 scale feet high. I separate the individual strands of wire at the end of each limb to represent branches. Don't forget the roots!

Step #2: Next, I paint the whole thing with Liquitex Acrylic Modeling Paste, taking car to leave the ends of the branches thin and bare. I apply it pretty goopy, hiding and then revealing the twisted wire. This does a fairly good job of representing the dead and living parts of the tree that exist side by side in nature. I let this dry completely before continuing.

Step #3: A base coat of Krylon Gray Primer. Let that dry 

Step #4: A wash of Burnt Umber acrylics, leaving a bit of the gray to show through here and there. Let that dry.

Step #5: Once the brown is dry, I give the ends of the branches a light overspray with the Krylon Ivory. This is an important step as it creates contrast when the foliage is added and adds a bit of old age to the tree. If I overdo it, I go back and tone things down with more Burnt Umber.

Step #6: Next I spray the ends of the branches with the 3M adhesive, taking care not to get too much on the trunk. Then it's a simple matter to apply the clumps of Woodland Scenics foliage here and there, once again using photos for a guide.

Step #7: Using Unbleached Titanium, I now carefully dry-brush some highlights onto the trunk and roots to bring out the detail. Again, if this gets overdone, it's easy to tone it down with another wash of Burnt Umber. 

Step #8: Finally, I give the foliage on the top of the tree a very light overspray with the Krylon Red Primer. This tones down the color of the foliage, which is just a little too blue, and also creates the illusion of Juniper pollen, something these tress are often covered with in the spring.

And there you have it, an ancient desert evergreen clinging to the cliffside. Now I'm off to make more trees. Adios for now!


  1. Well now, I can safely say that I've spent the majority of the day reading your blog from start to finish. And your small layout has provided much inspiration for my own efforts... whenever I'll be able to work on them.

    I cannot wait to see future progress. I'll be watching intently!

  2. Thank you so much for your efforts in sharing your techniques. I started my own southwest inspired On30 mine RR a few years back but scrapped it when the results weren't coming out to my liking. Your detailed photos and explanations are giving me inspiration and confidence to build again!

    Thanks again and keep up the great work!



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