Friday, January 9, 2015

Building a Better Cactus

Down by McKennon Arch, a pair of cactus wrens are building their nest high in an old saguaro. These giant cactus can stand for centuries and provide homes for many desert creatures. The holes are made by gila woodpeckers and later get used as nesting spots by wrens and other birds. The birds are made from polymer clay and the saguaro cacti are carved and painted Balsa Foam.


I must admit that I'm cheating a little by including a forest of giant saguaro cacti on my canyon country themed layout. In nature, saguaros are usually found down in the lower country of the Sonoran Desert and not up on the high plateaus around Four Corners. I've always had a soft spot for these bristly sentinels of the desert, so I hope I'll be forgiven for including a patch of them growing here or there. Also, the Cactus Forest was a feature of the Living Desert on Disneyland's original Nature's Wonderland Mine Train, and Thunder Mesa draws a lot of inspiration from that old attraction. And nothing says "Wild West" quite like the sight of mighty saguaro on the landscape.

Saguaro have been part of Thunder Mesa from the very beginning, but I've changed the way I model them over time. Originally, the Cactus Forest was populated with carved balsa wood succulents made with the old John Olson method, alongside some plastic monstrosities from Woodland Scenics. After a while, these no longer satisfied me and I began looking around for a better way to model them.

The Cactus Forest as originally modeled with John Olson style balsa wood saguaros and some funny looking little plastic things from Woodland Scenics.


I tried Travis Handschug's method of making saguaros from polymer clay but since I enjoy carving more than sculpting I finally ended up making most of my cactus from Balsa Foam, the same polyurethane carving foam that Thunder Mesa's rock formations are carved from. I use the higher density Balsa Foam II for cacti since it is less fragile and holds detail better than the softer foam. With a razor saw, I cut the foam into rods that are 1/2" square and about 6 or 7 inches long. Then they are sanded into a basic cigar-type shape before lines are scribed in with a hobby knife. Naturally, the crooked and bent arms are shaped from angled pieces of foam.

Balsa Foam from American Art Clay Co., and some of the tools used to work with it.

Here's a craved Balsa Foam saguaro before painting. Along with some strong adhesive, small lengths of wire help hold the arms in place. The pointy end of a bamboo skewer is inserted into the base to serve as a handle during painting and to help plant the cactus on the layout.


Now, everyone thinks they know what these cactus look like from movies and TV shows but it is very instructive to do some actual research into these plants. First of all, they grow a lot bigger than many people realize and a mature saguaro can tower 40' or more. That would be 10" tall in O scale! They can also have as many as 25 arms. It would take some real time and dedication to model a cactus like that.

Real saguaros are big!


Obviously, if I modeled them to scale they would dwarf everything else on the layout and throw off the carefully constructed false perspective illusion created by the buttes above. The only choice then was to caricature the saguaro. My cactus are at a smaller scale than the real thing (who knows? maybe they are a rare, "dwarf" subspecies that only grows at higher elevations), and they have just enough arms to get the idea across.

Another cactus wren pokes her head out of a finished saguaro. After carving, the cactus are painted with dark brown acrylic craft paint. Once that dries, Olive Green, Moss Green and Ivory are dry-brushed on to complete the paint job. The chewed away part of the cactus down below is evidence of javelina in the area. Javelina are bristly pig-like critters that enjoy chowing down on cactus.

The Cactus Forest today, sans backdrop. I'm much happier with the way it looks now and will be using the same techniques to add a few more saguaro here and there on the layout as things progress.


That's the story of building a better cactus. Admittedly, today's post was more of a "what I did" than a "how to do it" and if I glossed over any details or if anyone has any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments section below. I've got several big new projects on the back burner and I look forward to sharing all of those as the new year goes on. As always, thanks for checking in, amigos. Adios for now!
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