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I'm trying to help a friend come up with a way to make fake trees as inexpensively as possible. It's not actually for a theatre show but I figured someone might have some ideas how to go about doing this cheaply. We're not looking for anything huge just any tips and methods of building simple forest trees. If anyone has any ideas or has tried this before it would be extremely helpful. Thanks!
Smatticus said:
I'm trying to help a friend come up with a way to make fake trees as inexpensively as possible. It's not actually for a theatre show but I figured someone might have some ideas how to go about doing this cheaply. We're not looking for anything huge just any tips and methods of building simple forest trees. If anyone has any ideas or has tried this before it would be extremely helpful. Thanks!

In a word for cheap--Plywood (or any wood scraps nailed or screwed together) and lots of burlap. Plywood will make the outlines for the tree, and burlap can be cut into strips and bits, and painted green for leaves and staple-gun'd or hot glue'd or tied to the wood, and for "bark" around the base you just bunch the burlap over the trunk so the lines run sorta up and down, and paint brown and black and it gives a textured look like bark. Cheap and easy way for to a simple gobo that is. ;) Of course fake ficus type trees and plastic plants can also be bought or rented from event suppliers and mixed in with the burlap trees too to finish the set look.

Is your intentt to be making the foliage in addition to branches and trunks, just branches and leaves, or just trunks. What is your budget if any? What type of tree anyway? And how real are we talking, three dimensional, two dimensional relief, or two dimensional outline? What’s the application - will people be touching it or things hitting it, and what’s the fire code necessity for it? We don’t want another Coconut Grove here.

This and budget would be primary factors to define better. Stuff like fiberglass or tuff coated and flame resistant foam might be only options in a public space for the trunk, verses at home you can relax the flame treating a bit. Wolf’s burlap could be interesting especially if you were to starch, even epoxy as in fiberglass coat it solid after it’s shaped. Otherwise you can do the same with a heavy wight muslin.
Both can be on carpet tubes, linoleum tubes, fabric tubes and tubes from wrapping paper, which can be cut and blocked to get angles out of them and supported with lumber as necessary, the problem is you can’t really use a water based paint or adhesive as well on the thinner tubes so you might want to treat them with either a contact cement on the tube, spray adhesive or construction adhesive on the tube’s surface before applying the fabric. Otherwise it might be possible to prime the tubes with paint than use your adhesive to attach the fabric. Something like a Plex Glue or Sobo should work well if not watered down to the adhesive or paint. Use a glue/starching method at least on the fabric covering that’s no more than 1/4 watered down on the first side, than paint the outside after dry. Before you put down the fabric you can also glue even hot glue tie line to the tubes for more grain and knots, or if you have wood cores screw other branches onto the primary ones as long as you use countersink bits if not blocks.

For branches, it might be easiest to see if you can find some old crappy camouflage netting and cut off the leaves, even cut them into sections of three pieces long, cut two of them down to about ½" wide and hot glue them around some wire. You can than cut the final leaf into your leaf shape and paint it. Camouflage netting should be inherently flame retardant and very strong thus my advising it. Plus if you can even get a 12'x8' diamond shape, its going to be more than enough material to work with and you will have a strong net left over. Otherwise see what your florist shop has cheap and plastic or silk, or go to a fabric store and see what they have for something vinyl coated or leather like with a fabric backing for strength. Than away you go with the magic scissors. If doing something two dimensional or on relief, you can use the netting to support the leaves between branches also.

On larger trunks, you might cut blocks for the trunk to match up with it’s cross section and do 1x2 boards down it’s length to support and span between the blocks. That’s about the standard way of doing it. To cover the burlap, fabric or even large sections of cardboard especially if it’s ribbed outboard, than covered with a lighter fabric.

Note on all but the leaves, if in a public area you would need to use flame treating on all surfaces. inside and outside. This is usually done after it’s painted though you might be better off doing it before hand because otherwise the flame treating tends to leave little white splotches all over everything no matter how clear it is supposed to be.

Anyway some notes I would have on technique but it's been a few years since I did anything like this.
Alright I got some more information on what they would like to be trying to do with these trees. The theme for prom this year is a jungle theme so we're trying to equip it with realistic looking trees. They want to try and make an assortment of trees as far as size goes but the largest being about twenty feet high, this would include trunks and branches and foliage. The problem as always tends to be is budget, I don't really know what our budget exactly is but it isn't big. Basically we're trying to build trees as realistically as possible and as safely as possible but also as cheaply as possible, a very complex problem. Anyone else have any ideas I can consider while we are trying to plan this? Thanks for all of your help!
If its not too late, I'll give you a few ideas, Smatticus. I wouldn't expect results that are too realistic, and don't think its necessary or even desirable for a dance decor.

For palms, try a trunk of a 2x4 with a trunk shape cut out of 3/4 ply and screwed to the face to make a T in section. Make it a gentle curve with a slight taper. This wil be viewable from the front only. Then wrap the whole thing in burlap, folded to about a 1' wide strip for thickness, wrapping with a slight overlap on the diagonal like you would wrap tape, beginning at the top and working your way to the bottom. stape as you go. This will simulate the bark and layered look of a palm trunk. A 20' tall tree would probably have to be anchored to the wall in some way.

Large banana and palm leaves are available from the bigger suppliers of artificial flowers, but they might be too expensive, They could also be cut from posterboard by students using a few templates. Make a spray of these at the top. Cocoanuts could be the real thing, or made from paper mache over balloons.

A number of these large trees could be the focal point. You could then string vines between them- depending on where you live, grape vine is very easy to find. and accent with artificial exotic flowers like bird-of-paradise.
Will, thank you for your suggestions. Unfortunately my involvement in the project has turned out to be nonexistant. If I were really involved in the process I would be able to do alot with your ideas, I will definitely remember for future reference. It is just extremely difficult trying to keep things going in the right direction without everyone wanting to do things their way or having some opinion to offer about how everything should be done. If I were in charge atleast of the technical aspects I would be able to do so much more with the ideas that everyone has offered than I really can right now. Thank you for your help though I will remember those ideas for future occasions. Thanks again!
Since it seems you still are open to ideas for future use I have a couple. We did "The Wizard Of Oz" in 8th grade and for the trees we used trees that were made from plywood. They were on some sort of stand, but my memory doesn't seem to be as vivid as I thought so I'm not sure what they were made of. The plywood was cut into shape using a jigsaw. It was then painted a green and detail was added over that.

Another idea is to use chicken wire and 2"x4"s as was previously mentioned. This would possibly work better for a large tree, as it would shape pretty easily.

Hope this gives you some good ideas for the future and break a leg!


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