0.08 Modular Terrain Boards-Basic Construction

The Ground for which We Fight

I’m going to break down my ideas and notes on building terrain boards over several posts. Otherwise, they’ll be unreadable. I won’t be doing a tutorial, per se, but I will try to give some insights, observations, and warnings along the way.

I really like the idea of custom scratch-built terrain boards, as opposed to draping a cloth over some books. I enjoy the act of making, so it suits me to a tee. However, if you can stand NOT to have custom-built terrain boards and are more interested in playing than building, I’d highly recommend avoiding them. Building terrain boards is expensive, time-consuming, messy, and takes up a tremendous amount of space.

That's a lot of wood...

My first foray into a modular terrain board system. I hate sanding.

Mr. Modular

One thing that can lead to a larger return on your terrain board investments is to build them in a modular fashion, so that each board can be used in multiple configurations and will be of use to you for future scenarios and campaigns. As a bonus, modular terrain boards can be made into sizes suitable for transport.

Above you can see my first (and only, at this point) attempts at modular terrain. There isn’t anything particularly innovative or useful about this layout. In fact, the only thing modular about it is that the boards are 12″x24″ in size and the sunken roads enter and leave from the same points on each edge. The first thing that I learned during modular terrain board building? Build them in squares. The square is a more flexible shape for a modular system, and the square’s just as easy to build as rectangles.

Materials Used in Basic Construction

  • 3/8″ Masonite Board, or some other thin, but reasonably strong sheet of wood-like substance.
  • 1×2 lumber
  • 3/4″ wood screws
  • 3/4″ rigid foam insulation (duPont, in this case)
  • Drywall spackle, for smoothing out transitions.
  • A can of primer. I’d suggest grey or black.

Tools Needed for Basic Construction

  • A saw, of some sort.
  • A drill, or a real talent at screwing.
  • PVA glue
  • A good sharp chisel, for any sunken features crossing the borders (rivers, roads, ponds, ravines, etc.)
  • A few grades of sandpaper. A sanding block is nice, too.
  • Some sculpting tools or small trowels.
  • 2″ or larger paint brush.
  • A cheap breathing mask, unless you’re a manly man.

My boards are made of a masonite backing, with 1×2 lumber cut to fit and placed around the edges to provide structural rigidity and protect the foam. The foam fills in the center. The construction should be pretty obvious, even from the not very useful photo I’ve posted above.

A few notes:

  • Have the hardware store cut your masonite down to size, unless you have a large truck to carry it.
  • ‘1×2’ is a nominal dimension. 1×2 lumber is actually more like 3/4″ x 1.5″. This is a good thing, because the 3/4″ insulation is actually 3/4″ deep. The lesson is to physically verify dimensions before purchasing any materials.
  • Carefully select your lumber. It’s likely to be at least slightly warped, and any warping really shows up at the scales we are working in.
  • Don’t use a coping saw for any step in this process. I did, and my 1x2s are not very precise. I suppose it doesn’t really matter, but if you’re going to cut something, why not do it in a way that’s going to look good. The sad thing is I have a perfectly good table saw out in the storage shed, but I was too lazy to go and dig it out.
  • Cutting and sanding foam insulation is extremely messy. Wear a mask, and do it somewhere you don’t mind have fine blue particulates all over everything.
  • Screw things from behind. You’ll want to screw through the masonite backing into the 1x2s so you don’t have to deal with filling in screw heads on your finished surfaces. Also note that if you have a sunken terrain feature crossing a border, you can’t put a screw there.
  • Buy paint for terrain boards in larger quantities. You can take a sample of your model paints down to any respectable hardware store and they’ll be able to mix you something very close to the same color. I get the paint in quart cans, and it’s a little expensive up front, but those cans will last a long time and cover many terrain boards.
  • As much as sanding rigid foam insulation sucks, it’s the best way to ‘carve’ into the stuff, unless you have access to one of those fancy hot wire foam cutters. If you try to carve out with a knife, you’re going to have a bad day.

Ok, there are some notes on basic construction. As with any sort of construction, measure twice, cut once. Be patient and think things through-you’ll waste less material and save yourself some frustration.

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  • grimace73  On 09/25/2012 at 10:20 pm

    Cool, I love terrain tutorials, I will be keeping an eye out now on your blog for more!!

  • arkiegamer  On 09/25/2012 at 10:50 pm

    Glad you enjoyed! I actually haven’t built any terrain in quite some time, but I’m looking to change that in the next couple of months.

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