Thursday, December 1, 2011

Building a Terrain Board

An illustrated report of my activities from Thursday evening (7/23/09) through Monday afternoon (7/27/09).

After dinner on Thursday night my cousins and I piled into the Rio and drove to Home Depot. We were a little worried because it was already 8:45 by this point, and we weren’t sure if it closed at 9 or 10. Luckily the answer was 10. We picked up 2 sheets of 2 foot by 4 foot by 2 inch insulation foam, 1 of 1inch, and 4 2x4 foot boards of 1/4 inch thickness. I was hoping that they would be willing to cut the pink foam for us, but no such luck.

There is no way that I can fit an 8 foot long sheet of foam into the car, at least not without leaving my cousins stranded in the Home Depot parking lot. Somehow I think my aunt wouldn’t appreciate me doing that in Baltimore at 10pm. This necessitated purchasing an instrument of destruction – in this case a knife. I wanted to get the $8 knife, but that would have required another knife to open it’s sealed plastic packaging, so I decided to get the more environmentally friendly $11 knife.

The checkout girl couldn’t get the 2” foam to scan, so she ran all 3 sheets at the 1” price, which was a nice bonus to make up for having to get the more expensive knife, though not enough to make up for the fact that I had to buy a knife at all. We then wheeled everything out to the car and set up an impromptu cutting station. We sandwiched the foam sheets between the 2*4 wood boards and used them as a guide to cut the foam. Once everything was cut and loaded into the car there was barely any space left in the back seat, so we were again faced with the prospect of abandoning at least one of my cousins in Baltimore at 10pm.

Now, to be fair, they are both black belts in karate, and both in great shape. They could kick just about anybody’s ass. On the other hand they are also skinny white boys from small town PA.

Cory decided that he could fit in the back seat, even with all the stuff we’d packed into the car, and he did. It didn’t look comfortable, and he couldn’t close the door himself, but we all made it back to the house where we unfolded Cory, and then unpacked the car.

I suppose construction officially began at that point, as we glued the foam to the boards for extra stability.

The next morning we cleaned up any rough edges on the boards, carved out hills and river and then textured the board. Now I’d spent a lot of time thinking about how I wanted to texture the flat surfaces of the board. Games Workshop suggests using a fine grit sand mixed with paint, or using textured paint (same thing). While it does create a pretty good texture, it also can really scratch up a paintjob. What I ended up deciding on was using course grit sand paper in generally tight circular motions to rough up the foam. It also created a lot of pink dust! After we sanded all the boards and cleaned up the mess it made, we primed the boards using a can of brown killz coat paint that I had gotten years ago to prime my Hirst Arts dungeon.

While we waited for the board to dry I played Knight of the Old Republic while my cousins, who’ve finished the game multiples times each, helped me out. We returned to the board and using cheap craft paints we added some color. It’s hard to tell, but there are 3 colors – tan, khaki green, and a forest green.

We didn’t apply the paint too thickly so it was pretty much dry right away. We used a kitchen sponge to apply the paint, as I didn’t want really solid patches of color. We also painted the river section using a variety of dark and muddy greens. Once we finished with the painting we added a flock from Woodland Scenics called earth blend. Like the paint, I didn’t want it over the whole board, just in patches, that way you can still see some of the paint. On top of that we added patches of honey color static grass.

In between painting, flocking, and static grassing we began to work on trees for the board. The goal was to make a set of trees that could be assembled quickly and cheaply. Realism wasn’t a high priority this time around, though of course it’s always nice. I already had a pile of dowels from a project Tigs worked on back before we moved, but I needed something to base them on. I decided that I would try using the hole saw drill attachment to drill out disks. Amazingly it worked pretty well. I drilled out the disks, while Cory sanded down all the edges.

Once the disks were all drilled out I needed to make the center hole big enough to insert the dowel, so I clamped each disk down and drilled out the hole one by one. Then we glued the dowels into the disks and set them aside to dry.

The next step was to take 4 and a half packs of dollar store green scrubby pads and cut out a whole bunch of disks of various sizes. These disks were then skewered onto the tree trunks. When these were all finished I gave them a heavy spray of Dark Angels Green, and then lighter sprays of a medium and a light green.

Not the most realistic trees, but once you have them all on the table with hills and minis and hamsters, you stop noticing.

The river section of the board was sequestered to the far side of the basement because of the water effect that we used. It takes about 3 days to really dry and we wanted to be sure that it didn’t get dusty. It still needs to be flocked and have static grass added to it. I’ll post pictures of that as soon as I get it done.

We finished up the board Sunday afternoon and decided to inaugurate it with an epic game of Lord of the Rings which ran from Sunday evening through till Monday afternoon. However that’s another post.

Things I’d do differently next time

1. The flock and static grass cover the texture that we spent a lot of time working on. Either go for smaller patches of flock to show off the painting and the texture, or go ahead and flock the whole table and don’t worry about surface texture.

2. If I’m going to show the texture pick the colors out beforehand and make sure I’ve got them available before I reach the painting stage.

3. 26 trees with 2” diameter bases cover a 6*4 board pretty well, and can make a heavily forested 4*4 board. Irregular shapes and roughed up edges would probably look more realistic.

4. Having a spare hill to test things out on was a good idea. Remember that for the future.

5. Home Depot doesn’t cut pink foam – bring a knife.

6. Listening to the soundtrack to all 6 Star Wars films while building a table will make you want to watch/play Star Wars.

7. A 6*4 board takes up a lot of space. An 8*4 board takes up even more space. I need to set up something to store the board when it’s not in use so the craft table can be used for other things.

8. Next time I want to do a river section (or other elevated/depressed features), rather than carving it out of 2 inch foam, use multiple thinner layers with the appropriate sections cut out. It’ll look better.

9. Keep an orc handy to check scale, even for natural features. 3-5 inch tall trees are pretty big, but also pretty realistic. Keep a Mumak handy for the same reason. Remember to reference your scale orc, mumak, and hamster often.

10. Open a window and run a fan when doing the following: melting pink foam, sanding pink foam, mixing resin, or any other activity which may compromise the already dubious air quality of the basement.

What I still want to do for this board:

1. More/better trees – Woodland Scenics has some really nice tree skeletons of a variety of sizes. For about $40 I can get 2 sets in a wide variety of sizes.

2. I’m strongly considering adding more flock to the board. Tigs thinks it’s too dark, and I’m inclined to agree with her. So get a lighter greener flock and add that to the board.

3. Barrows, ruins, hobbit holes, standing stones, Amon Sul, Amon Hen.

4. A Stargate


  1. "Not the most realistic trees, but once you have them all on the table with hills and minis and hamsters, you stop noticing."

    I'll be sending you a bill for cleaning the coffee out of my keyboard.

    Nice work!

  2. Nice terrain board. Now add a Habitrails hamster tower, and Mr. Hamster will be happy. Hhhmmm... do they still make Habitrails??

  3. If they don't still make Habitrails -- they should!

    Awesome. wish I had that kind of "space!" But . . . too big a project for me.

    Though it offers all kinds of ideas for something "smaller."

    Very nice. Thanks for sharing your imagination with the rest of us.

  4. Nicely done. If I ever get back into 40k, I'll be wanting to build something similar... I like the trees. Abstract, but not too much so. And CHEAP!

    Looking forward to seeing the water feature!

  5. @Mikemonaco - worth every penny!

    @Zanazaz - they do, or at least things like them. However hamsters don't really do so well with them. Being plastic, they just chew their way out.

    @Mystic Scholar - One of the best reasons to buy a house with a basement! But even if you only made 2 of those sections you'd have a 4'x4' playing board!

    @Jim - Cheap was a big factor in building the board. I was willing to spend the money, but there wasn't much of it.

  6. My hamster never chewed on his, but it was so many years ago maybe the plastic was tougher.