A story of frustration: Making desert terrain

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Using castings from Hirst Arts molds, I slowly built up fieldstone blocks to serve as the walls of a new desert building. Eventually, I’ll cover most of the stone with plaster stucco, leaving just a few stones visible where the stucco has “worn off.”

TheGM: Most blogs about terrain-building are how-to articles . . . or visual celebrations of a hobbyist finishing a terrain project.

Not this time. My story is about frustration—and no small number of setbacks.

Much of the fault lies with myself. I am overly ambitious at times, and I can find myself overwhelmed by the sheer effort involved in a project that others would accomplish in a much simpler and faster manner. (Yes, I’m talking about you, Gaffer.)

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A not-so-great photo of my Miniature Building Authority buildings. Some are Middle Eastern-style buildings; others are shanties. Both fit the milieu of my sci-fi desert worlds.

One problem I’m having is with buildings. I have a number of Middle Eastern buildings from the Miniature Building Authority (MBA). They make very nice buildings. Most are designed for historical gaming, and their Middle East range includes structures that work for anything from the Crusades to modern day.

A long time ago,on the desert world of Morkai, I ran a Rogue Trader game pitting my hero, Adeon Drake, against his arch-nemesis, Count Feracci (Ambush on Morkai), I put down a bunch of MBA buildings on a desert-colored terrain mat, and I included some of MBA’s wonderful Shanty Town buildings (perfect for the slums outside a hive city).

I liked the setting so well that I decided I wanted some more terrain for my new desert world.

My plan was to start with some scratch-built structures, not because I’m unhappy with MBA’s products (I like them a lot), but because I want a lot of buildings. . . and I want to save my cash for more figures.

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In truth, these buildings were coming along well . . . until I noticed that I cut lopsided windows and doors. I wasn’t off but by a few degrees, but it was enough that it looked jarring to me.

My first effort didn’t go so well. I cut out the walls for several buildings out of bass and balsa wood, then attempted to cover them with thin insulation foam that included stonework carved in with an X-acto knife.

I wasn’t happy with the result. No matter how hard I tried, my attempts to cut out doors and windows ended up uneven and lopsided, and it just didn’t look right. So, a lot of work went to naught.

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This simple stable is looking good so far. A coat of plaster stucco will give it a better “desert” feel, and the stucco can be applied strategically tol hide the lines that are very visible between the field stone blocks.

My current attempt is both more ambitious and less. I’m using blocks cast out of Hirst Arts molds and constructing my newest round of buildings block by block. So far, so good. It’s a process that’s hard to foul up.

But the hardest part is yet to come. I intend to add some detail work, including plaster stucco, to the walls and then make molds and cast them so I can have multiple copies. (I want a big town.)

We’ll see how that works out.

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This was my original desert terrain mat. The colors were fairly decent. It was made of plastic weed screen found at DIY stores. It’s somewhat like window screen, and when you slather on the first coat of paint, the paint fills in the little holes and anchors the paint very nicely. But I forgot to write down the colors I used!

A more immediate problem is the color scheme of my desert. I have no eye for color. I managed, by accident, to find a tolerable color scheme for my first self-made desert mat. But, when I recently built two terrain pieces featuring Games Workshop’s Shardwrack Spines, I couldn’t replicate the colors.

What’s more, the paint was coming off my mat, so I need to replace it. But I’m stymied by the lack of a color scheme. As you’ll see below, I’ve created a test piece of terrain and tried a variety of color schemes . . . so far, my experiments have been a failure.

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A piece of MDF board with sand glued down serves as my “color swath.” So far, I’ve bought a shelf worth of latex paint trying to find a color scheme that looks realistic. I’m not having much luck, and that’s a big obstacle to finishing a slew of terrain projects.

I finally enlisted the advice of my son, who actually has artistic talent, and he guided me in the right direction. I actually found one combination of colors I liked, but I foolishly didn’t keep track of the colors as I was testing them, so I’m now trying by trial and error to replicate my now-lost success.

Sigh. Woe is me.

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Tank traps that are simply waiting for me to figure out the desert color scheme. I’m ready to get these on the table to stymie the Gaffer’s ork Battlewagons.

I’m determined that this will be my last rant on this subject. I’ve got the Shardwrack Spines and some tank traps built and sand glued down. All I need is the paint scheme, and I can put the finishing touches on four new terrain pieces.

I can’t wait to share them with you.

Until then, I’ll be reporting on my progress on my buildings, and I fully expect to have something positive to share—and perhaps of more practical interest to wargamers.

My desert world of Morkai deserves some top-notch terrain. It’s gonna happen.

The Corvus Cluster is a Warhammer 40K blog that documents our wargaming adventures (and occasional failures) in the fantastical sci-fi universe of Games Workshop.

Categories: Modeling, Terrain

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3 replies »

  1. You have to start someplace perhaps not everything will fall into a neat fit for you. Have you tried to look into anything published buy others on the subject to help you out. Needless to say in this age of the internet their is a lot of stuff out on Youtube. My other suggestion is looking into Kalmbach publishing. Yeah the train people. Lots of publications in both print and available for download. Perhaps you can take things from them and adapt it to your needs. I hope you get over your frustrations. I found having the time to do things finally does not always bring everything you want easily to you, time is only part of the equation.


  2. Dude, save yourself a lot of frustration and check out The Terrain Tutor on YouTube- specifically his foamboard building tutorial series. You can carve stonework patterns into it and slather on some texture paste, and get something really nice without much hassle. Good luck mate 👍


    • Much obliged.

      I have used that technique in the past, but I’m nothing if not predictable in trying to do things the hard way. I’m curious about molding and casting, so naturally I’m not starting with a simple mold–mp it has to be something over the top.

      I guess I shouldn’t rant about such things. I walked into it. But I’m hoping that, as I proceed, I’ll have something more useful to share about my terrain efforts. But I appreciate you pointing out the Terrain Tutor. Everyone should know about him. Very good fellow to share his talents and knowledge with all of us.

      Take care!

      Liked by 1 person

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