Progress finally seen in sci-fi desert terrain

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Small mesas will allow my armies to use cover as they advance.

It was July when I wrote my rant—a whining about my frustration with making desert terrain. But my vexation finally is subsiding. Progress has been made.

The breakthrough came when, after innumerable experiments with color schemes, I finally decided upon the colors I would use for my desert terrain. Seems like an easy task, doesn’t it? Well, not if you’re the artistic equivalent of a tone-deaf musician.

But persistence paid off. I finally found a color combination I could live with: a light gray base, followed by layers of dry brushed tan and washes of raw sienna and black. To date, I’ve wrapped up nine of the 15 desert tiles that I need to cover my game table.

Desert Tiles

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My new desert terrain, with small mesas. I wish the photos did justice to the color scheme.

The construction was simple enough. Using a table saw, I cut 15 MDF boards to a 20-inch-by-20-inch size. I then cut a similar number of boards out of 3/4-inch insulation foam.

I glued the insulation foam to the MDF. The MDF provides a backbone to prevent warping, while the insulation foam allows me to carve undulations or other terrain features into the top of the terrain tiles.

After the glue had strongly bonded the MDF and foam, I covered the foam with a coat of Elmer’s glue and a thin layer of sand.

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Cork lines the wadi banks. I suppose I could have simulated layers of sandstone or limestone by sculpting the edge of the foam, which would make sense as these soft rocks erode easily. But I’m a wargamer, not a diorama builder, and the extra work wasn’t going to enhance the end project enough to make it worthwhile.

Twelve of the 15 terrain tiles are flat. The last three will be used to create a wadi—a dry riverbed. For these tiles, I cut out a 12-inch gap through the middle of the insulation boards, then glued the outer edges to the MDF board. (I made sure to match up the end cuts so the river banks will align when put on the table.)

Although I sloped a few spots in the wadi banks, much of the wadi’s edge is made of glued-down cork board, the idea being that the soft rock underneath the sand has been eroded by water from the occasional rain storm.

I’ll fill in the gaps between the cork and foam with painter’s chalk, as well as use chalk to create some gentle slopes here and there. (Always use painter’s chalk. Bathroom and window chalk are designed to repel water, so they won’t take paint.)

Sand Dunes

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Putting a firing line at the top of these sand dunes is very effective, as the crest of the dune provides a terrain cover.

It will get monotonous if I keep repeating how I use MDF and insulation board to make my terrain. The only unique aspect of the sand dunes project was the attempt to simulate the wind-blown ripples that sometimes form on one side of a dune.

There is a flaw in these dunes. I wanted them high enough to block line of sight, but not so large that they take up too much of the table. (They’re approximately 12 by 7 inches.)

The final result is a relatively realistic sand dune, but one where the slopes are a bit steep for figures. Alas, that’s just the price I had to pay to strike the balance I wanted between height and footprint.

I may add a dead tree or some sage brush to the flatter side of each dune, as I’m not trying to create a desolate, totally dead desert surface. It will help to add a little more visual interest to the dunes..

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An example of a superior dune as shown on the Dagger & Brush site.

The inspiration for my sand dunes came from the Dagger & Brush website and its article: Lines in the Sand: A Review of the AK Gravel and Sand Fixer. (I didn’t use the fixer. I covered my insulation board with wood filler, smoothed it out with a wet finger, and just carved the lines with a sculpting tool.)

Rock Outcroppings

There is some incredible ready-made desert mesas on the market these days, and I drool when I think about buying them. Then I remember that I’m a retiree who already spends too much on toy soldiers.

So, taking a lesson from Terrain 101, I purchased a bag of mulch (large wood bark chips), dried out the bark, and then began gluing bits of bark atop one another to make a series of small rock mesas of four to five inches tall. (See photo at beginning of article.)

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In addition to mesas, I used Woodland Scenics molds to cast rocks and create “rough terrain.”

I often glue terrain together with Elmer’s glue (PVA glue or white craft glue). When working on the mesas, however, the lengthy drying time drove me crazy. So I switched to hot glue. It worked fine and allowed me to finish the mesas in a single day. I built a small MDF base for each mesa, layered the bark on top of one another, and then covered the edges of the MDF base with sand.

I tried a different technique for painting this terrain, too. I spray painted the “rocks” white, then covered them with a series of washes: tans, browns, raw sienna, black, and then a sandy light tan. The result was a very complex mix of colors showing through, bringing out the details of the bark and providing a more realistic finish. The photos may not do the subtlety justice, but I thought the mesas and rock croppings came out very nicely.

I used a similar technique on my rocky ground tiles. Using dental cement and some Woodland Scenics molds, I made a number of castings of rock outcroppings with a flat backing. Glued to MDF board, I painted them as I did the mesas. They came out well, too.

Termite Mounds

These are not yet finished, but I’m excited about their potential. After all, it’s a common sci-fi trope to have chimney-style mounds that house some form of hideous alien bug. So these “bug mounds” are perfect “dangerous terrain.”

After cutting my MDF bases and rasping the edges into slopes, I drilled 1/4-inch holes in the base where I wanted my mounds to rise up. I then inserted dowels of 1/2- to 1-1/2-inch lengths. In some cases, I added some cast rocks or a thin layer of foam to break up the flat nature of the base.

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Making termite (bug) mounds involved only a little MDF, dowels, a bit of foam, and some Apoxy Sculpt.

Around each dowel, I formed the rough shapes of the mounds with Apoxy Sculpt. This is a two-part epoxy compound that can be shaped much like clay and dries by air. (It’s a cheaper, slightly softer kind of Green Stuff that you can buy in white, gray, or brown.)

I put a thin layer around each dowel, smoothed out the material with wet fingers, and then pushed a blunt pencil into the top of the mound to make the “hole” where the termites (or alien bugs) could sally forth.

(Wear disposable gloves when working with this material, although I’ve forgotten and not had any issues with irritated skin. Still, the material is an epoxy, and there’s no point exposing yourself to the chemicals.)

The nice thing about Apoxy Sculpt is that it is easy to work with and doesn’t dry too quickly. You can work with it for an hour or two without problem, although it gets a bit stiffer with time.

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A close-up of the texture on the termite mounds.

A tiny bit of water also is your friend. Wet your fingers, and you can smooth out the surface of the material to eliminate fingerprints or carving mistakes.

After I smoothed out the surface of each mound, I used a small sculpting tool to put a number of indentions in the mound surface. Up close, they’re a bit too regular (just tiny lines created by poking the surface with the tip of a carving tool). But, on the tabletop, they appear to have the kind of alien texture you’d find on insect mounds on a sci-fi planet.

I haven’t figured out how I’ll paint them yet. They need to match—to some degree—the surrounding ground, as that’s the raw material the bugs would use to make the mounds. But there needs to be a slight difference, perhaps caused by the bug fluids used to cement the sand together.

Shardwrack Spines

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I intend to detail new saplings and some skeletons in my Spines, so I opted for an MDF base that I can add details to.

Another fun project was Games Workshop’s Shardwrack Spines. This “dangerous terrain”is a plastic kit that can be glued together and painted without a base, but I decided to base mine on MDF board so I could add details (skeletons, grass tufts, etc.) around the roots.

So far, I’ve only put two washes on the spines—a light brown and a light green. My goal is to layer on a variety of washes to create a mottled, complex mix of colors that I think will look very much like alien vegetation.

What’s Next?

Other than a rocky hill to go in the corner of the table, and perhaps a few taller (8-inch to 10-inch tall) mesas, I think the big, natural terrain pieces are done.

What’s coming next will be buildings and scatter terrain. My goal is to put down a 5-feet-by-5-feet town of Middle Eastern-style buildings and metal shanties—something that might approximate the slums outside a hive city (Think of a shabby version of a sci-fi desert town  like Star Wars‘ Tatooine).

All through the town, I want to have debris piles, little shops, open sewer pipes, parked vehicles, and other urban details (scatter terrain), and I want to surround the town with walls of concrete and corrugated metal.

My ultimate goal is to have a bustling, if rundown, desert town for some sci-fi skirmishing on the planet of Morkai. I’ll share these projects as they come along.


The Corvus Cluster is a Warhammer 40K blog documenting our gaming adventures in the fantastical sci-fi universe of Games Workshop.


Categories: Terrain

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2 replies »

  1. Thank you for the mention. I really like the termite hives you made. I don’t think I saw something like this done elsewhere. The other pieces are also very good, with nice coloration of the protruding rocks.


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