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Modeling coconut palm trees on your layout

Use artificial plant material to make tropical trees for your model railroad
Feather-topped palm trees are a signature element for any model railroad set in a tropical climate.
Feather-topped palm trees are a signature element for any model railroad set in a tropical climate. Author Joseph Kreiss scratchbuilt numerous coconut plams for his HO scale Big Island Rail layout, set in Hawaii in the 1970s.
When you can't live in a tropical paradise, perhaps the next best thing is to model it. That's what inspired me to build a freelanced HO scale layout with a Hawaiian setting. My Big Island Rail layout evolved from the premise that railroading on the Hawaiian Islands continued to grow following the end of World War II.

As with any layout, a few modeling issues arose when I began building my version of paradise. My biggest challenge was re-creating scenery that captured the unique volcanic terrain covered with lush green foliage - coconut palm trees in particular. Besides hula girls and pineapples, nothing identifies a Hawaiian setting quite like tall, lanky, feather-topped palms.

Because I needed a large quantity of these signature Hawaiian palms, purchasing ready-made trees would have been prohibitively expensive. Instead, I made my palm trees using artificial plant and floral materials sold at craft stores, plus a few assorted workbench supplies. By following my instructions, you can make inexpensive, yet realistic, palm trees appropriate for Hawaii, Southern California, Florida, or any other tropical paradise you model on your layout.
1. Prepare the materials
At a craft store, I bought a few 5-foot long strands of plastic garland that contained artificial ferns. Using sprue cutters, I separated 45 fern clusters from the garland. To make HO scale trees, use fern clusters with branches measuring between 1/2" to 1-1/2" long.
2. Shape the trunk
Floral wire or 18-gauge copper wire is flexible enough to form into tree trunks I cut the wire into pieces between 4" to 10" long and then removed the insulation. To add texture, I wrapped bands of floral tape around the wire, leaving 1/4" exposed at one end.
3. Paint the trunk
After wrapping several wires, I inserted the exposed ends into a block of foam bead board. I mixed brown acrylic paint with a drop or two of black to create an authentic brownish gray trunk. I used a small brush to paint the floral tape.
4. Trim and sort the fern branches
Using sprue cutters, I trimmed individual fronds from the larger fern branches I cut from the garland. Separating the fronds into long, medium, and short groups, made it much easier to select the appropriate size when attaching them to the wire trunks.
4. Trim and sort the fern branches
Using sprue cutters, I trimmed individual fronds from the larger fern branches I cut from the garland. Separating the fronds into long, medium, and short groups, made it much easier to select the appropriate size when attaching them to the wire trunks.
5. Attach the palm fronds
I applied a bead of hot glue on the end of the trunk and place one long frond onto the glue. After the glue cooled, I added a full layer of long fronds. Next, I added a layer of medium-sized fronds, followed by a layer of short ones. Finally, I sprayed on a coat of matte finish.
6. Planting palm trees
I planted the palms in clusters among dense green ground cover. To detail your palm, make scale coconut pads from modeling clay and highlight longer fronds with yellow paint to represent dying foliage. Add either of these details to the top of a tree or on the grounds.

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