Materials #4: Terrain Basics

Monday, 4 May 2009
There's so many different ways you can build terrain - and we're talking everything from trees and landscapes to water effects, mountains, buildings and general set design.

As you read and saw back in mfxposé #1 with Giuseppe Borzone, terrain and buildings can be constructed using almost anything.

But with this post we're going to look at some of the more basic materials you'll need for this sort of work - both off-the-shelf stuff and custom-made.


Games Workshop have been selling their "How to Make Wargames Terrain" books for some time now. Here's a scan of my old copy, I think I bought this one around 2002:


The updated version currently on shelves is available here and looks like this:


One of the great things about the book is that it covers a broad spectrum of terrain tips and techniques that can be applied to projects that are not solely for wargaming and table-top game use.

There's a decent amount of ideas on what alternative materials you can use to create walls and rockery, from cork tiles to bits of cardboard and off-cuts of expanded polystyrene. All these sorts of materials can be sourced from your regular hobby shops like Art on King, HobbyCo, Castle Hill Hobbies, and so on. You'd be surprised what you'll find at places like Barnes and Adelaide Moulding & Casting Supplies even though these guys specialise in areas like film industry miniature effects and prosthetics work.

Online Tutorial: Check this out: Tips & Tricks 9: Designing Rocky Landscapes

DVD Tutorials: I bought this Woodland Scenics DVD at Tin Soldier for around $9 bucks during a sale a few years back. I'll review this and blog about it at some point, so stay tuned.



All the usual suspects are listed as must have items for terrain building in the Games Workshop book. I'm going list them here along with a few extras:

Balsa Wood: popular for modelling material cause it's light and easy to cut. You can use this for your timber buildings, bridges and so on. File and cut pieces to shape and paint them with your undercoat, then base colours and drybrush for good effect.

Modelling Clay: I use DAS but there's plenty of others out there. When it's exposed to room temperature air it will dry hard. Store it in a zip-lock bag to keep it from drying. You can do a whole bunch of things with this sort of clay and can model an endless variety of shapes. Use any number of items to create surface texture and shape (old brush heads, tools, sticks, twigs, forks, spoons etc...). You'll even find ready-made moulds at places like HobbyCo. Even though they're not specifically made for DAS clay modelling, it works just as well in my experience. Note that it will crack if you let it dry too quickly. I like to also use Green Stuff for finer details and touch-ups.

Here's an example of a rough job with DAS for quickly adding some weight to the base of a top-heavy model:


Expanded Polystyrene: You'll find this stuff everywhere, try not to chuck any of it out if you can help it. I've noticed more and more packing polystyrene is unsuitable for model making. Particularly the ones that look as though they're compressed balls of polystryrene. They're difficult to cut and shape as required. The stuff you find inside boxes carrying electronics and computers are great. Some of the shapes will inspire unusual dungeons, castles and sci-fi docking bays. Note: only use water-based paints and glues as others can melt it. It's difficult to work with for larger projects and not as sturdy as corrugated cardboard, but you can use polystyrene to "block" out your basic shapes (crumbled newspapers and masking tape works great for filling out areas, particularly for mountain ranges). Then you coat it with your filler, PVA/Sand mixture, DAS clay or other material for surface detail. Be sure to check out Reverse Garbage for some massive amounts (and sizes!) of polystrene shapes.

Cork Tiles: Hardware stores and hobby shops supply these. I've never really had to use these, but they're great for bases and other more sturdier walls that you may need for large castles and so on. They're easy to cut and glue together.

Cocktail Sticks: Easy to find & a million uses.

Pumice Stone: You'll find these in places like PriceLine for around $6 or so. They're great if you smash them to bits with a hammer for some rubble and great shaped rocks. Because of the pumice surface being rough and partially porous, you can paint, ink-wash and drybrush them to get some great effects.


I'm actually going to use this one as a megalith or cromlech-like structure in a grasslands scene with a few archer woodsmen and Celtic-style miniatures.



Sand: Even easier to find. Look at the different grades of sand you'll find at your nearest beach. You can find it easily enough in pet shops for fish tanks or bird cages. Mix it with PVA glue to textures your bases and other flat surfaces. Paint the required areas with PVA and then scatter with sand. Some people prefer to dip the surface into sand, others simple pour it over. I use whatever suits the specific job at the time. Once it dries paint it over, use some ink washes, let it dry and then drybrush for a nice effect. You could go with earthy rock tones, mossy stones or even a winter scene by drybrushing white for a top layer of snow. You can also mix the sand with the PVA to form a paste that can be spread on your scenes with a spatula (makeshift or bought). I prefer to just use makeshift spatulas from bits of plastic shapes cut from milk cartons and yogurt tubs. You can use this for mountains, old castle walls and ruins, river-beds and the list goes on...

Straws: Great for futuristic piping and the like, especially the bendy ones.

Drain Mesh: Used for making bonsai and looks good as dungeon-grating, along with pieces of different sizes for strainer mesh (gauze wire).

Anchorage Wire: Also used for shaping branches in bonsai creation. You need a strong, waterproof adhesive to hold the wires onto rock and other surfaces. Epoxy resin is good but takes a day or so to harden - you can use a quick-drying adhesive made in Japan specifically for use on rock plantings for bonsai.

Others: The list can just go on with things like Masking Tape, Cardboard Tubes, Corrugated Cardboard pieces, Ready-mix Filler, Corks, Plasticene, Broken Rulers and bits of wood, Twigs and dried Stems, Roots from plants (washed and dried), Bendable Wiring (all sizes and types).



Hot Foam Wire Cutter: There's a bunch of different brands out there, some cheaper than others.

Assorted: Naturally your tool-kit can be made up of anything you find useful and that does the trick. Generally I only have a very limited set of "specialist" type tools that I've bought, the rest you can make yourself or wing it with similar items from bargain stores or raiding the kitchen. These ones below include a range of tweezers, mini-files, a pair of cutters, sculpting tool, hobby knife and a magnifying glass prop.


Check out this link at Scrap Dragon for a well-priced online supplier of accessories for model makers.


There's some great off-the-shelf terrain that you can buy from places like HobbyCo and Tin Soldier. This mountain/rock piece below is from Ziterdes (from HobbyCo in the QVB Sydney). They're very light weight, have some great detail and can save your life when on a deadline or doing a last-minute rush on a job (this one's called the Rock of Raburgon).


Another good place to check for ready-made rockery is your average pet store. I generally find that the larger commercialised pet stores don't have what I'm after. Usually it's the little hole-in-the-wall type shops that have a really good variety of fake rockery for fish tanks. There's a pet shop on Burwood Rd, Burwood that I passed this morning. They've got some great pieces in there that can be modified. I'd recommend ripping off the plastic plants that they sometimes come with (and save them in your "bit-box" for later).

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Some of them look great just as they are. But I always prefer to give them an undercoat and re-paint or even just a partial touch-up by drybrushing the rocks, adding ink washes and then drybrushing some highlights.


This stuff is great and you find it in the strangest places. It's ready-made interior decorator's "moss" that you'll come across in design shops and other home furnishing stores. It's perfect for speeding up your terrain building process. With this particular one it's about 8.5" inches in diameter and costs around $10 bucks. I got it on special for $7.95 at Vivalino in Balmain.


The undergrowth along with the static flock can be bent, folded, cut and shaped however you like. I prefer to prepare a base (cork tile), then block out the hilly sections with pieces of polystrene glued firmly (or small pieces of crumbled newspaper taped down). Then lay the moss "mat" over it and use pins to pin it into the cork tile in the shape that I need.

Using a combination of pins and glue, once it's in place you can start adding the PVA Glue & Sand mixture detailed above, or ready-mix filler, to fill out sections left gaping by the polystyrene block underneath. Once it's dried give it a good undercoat and then paint it up (base colour, maybe an ink wash, then drybrush) to look like dirt and clay or rockery beneath a grassy hill. I like to add either onto the moss mat or around the edges, some Underbrush Clump-Foliage in a variety of colours, some lichen, a different coloured grass to blend with the deep green of the ready-made moss from Vivalino. This will give your scene some good tonal variety when it comes to the grasses, plants and earth associated with the composition.


Try not to allow the moss mat to look too much like an obvious ready-made addition. Actually paint glue over portions of it and scatter a different coloured static flock grass over random sections, make sure that it blends well into the next colour and add a few clumps of underbrush foliage and snippets of lichen to mimick real-life natural growth. Search on Flickr or study images at your local library on how hinterlands, Scottish moors, plains, grasslands and natural hillsides look.

When Spring Begins Painting The Fields - Happy Earth Day -

NEXT: Terrain Basics continues with Ibigawa rocks (I promise!) and Native Australian dried plants ...


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