CoolMiniOrNot Forums - How to make modular terrain
  • Making modular terrain boards

    Hi there!
    Terrain is in my opinion the most important feature in a tabletop wargame. Even the most brilliantly painted army will look out of place when playing on a plain green table sheet (or worse).

    It is very rewarding when you can play your games on a beautiful gaming table with all kinds of terrain features.
    But there are downsides to having such a table. A standard gaming table will be about 120 cm by 180 cm. In many houses there is simply no room to store a big piece of terrain like that.

    There is a solution for this: modular terrain boards! These consist of multiple smaller pieces of terrain which will connect which each other on all sides, much like a giant terrain jigsaw. And the best part: it is much easier to store when not in use!

    The idea is not new. There are MTB’s available on the market like that of GW, but those are expensive, about 200 euros for six boards.

    In this tutorial I try to explain how I made my own modular terrain, with as many cheap, simple and easily available materials as possible. We’ll go for a 120cm by 180 cm gaming table, consisting of six square boards. But to keep matters simple, I just show how it's done with only one board!

    Step 1 – make a plan
    When you make your MTB’s, make sure you know what you’re going to do. Make sure they will connect on all sides. So, make a plan!
    For my boards, I choose the simple approach (which is roughly the same concept as the GW board) -- six square boards. Two flat pieces and 4 pieces each having a quarter of a hill. Like this.

    The great advantage of this design is that you can make your terrain one big hill, two half hills with a valley in the middle, or four small hills in the corners and combinations. See below for some examples. Remember, this are combinations you can already make with just six boards. Imagine what you could do with even more!

    Note that while the hills vary in shape, they can all still connect. That is because I made sure that on the edges the shape and size of the hills is identical.

    Also note that the same thing can go for rivers, lakes, gorges etc. But for now we stick with the simple hill design.

    Step 2 – shopping list
    You will need:

    - 6 mdf boards of 60 cm by 60 cm.
    For the thickness I recommend 0,5 cm, but you could take a heavier board if you want. Many DIY shops will saw mdf to size for you, sometimes even for free!

    - Polystyrene foam board, 2cm thickness.
    These are sold in my country in 50cm by 100cm boards. You’ll need about 6 of them. Perhaps you can do with 5, but 6 is better, more room for errors etc.

    - 6 square battens, 240 cm in length, 2 cm thick. (actually you’ll need some more, so make that 7!)
    I use these to reinforce the edge, so the boards will be very, very durable. I suppose you can do without them and just glue the foam boards on top, but these will damage quickly. Warned be ye!
    - About 100 small screws (less than 20 mm long)
    - Plenty of wood glue
    - Textured latex wall paint
    - small stones / rocks (availible in aquarium-selling shops)
    - Static grass
    - Wallpaper glue
    - Filler (as in wall filler)

    Step 3 – basic carpeting
    In this step I make the base of the board and reinforce the edges.
    To do so I drill 12 holes in each board like this:

    I use a countersink to make sure the screw’s heads will not stick out of the wood and scratch the underlying surfaces. (Very terrible picture, sorry!)

    I sawed the battens to size. For each board you need two pieces of 60 cm in length, and two of 56 cm.
    Glue them to the board with wood glue, and use the screws for extra strength.

    In top of the first frame, I also glued ‘n’ screwed some shorter battens to the edge of the hill.

    Congratulations! Now you have a very sturdy base for your board!

    Step 4 – place the foam boards and making the hill.

    In this stage I basically filled up the space between the edges of the board with foam board. I cut the pieces to size with a steel ruler and a sharp craft knife. The foam can be glued on the board with wood glue. You don't need to cover the board entirely with glue, just around the edges and some lines in the middle.

    I roughly sketched the shape of the hill on the foam board and I cut it out with a hot wire cutter.

    One of the best investments I’ve ever made!
    That is because you can very easily shape foam with it to get every form you want!

    I glued the hill in place in its corner and trimmed the edges to match with the edges of the battens.

    Step 5: filler and texturing.
    Now you have a rough shape of the board. It’s time to close gaps and smooth the area between the edges of the board and the foam.

    Here you can use (wall) filler. It is cheap, lightweight and will be rock-hard when dry. You could also use self-curing clays or other modeling masses for this.

    I also used a kitchen torch to texture the foam board a little bit, to simulate the roughness of a ‘real’ landscape.

    CAUTION: make sure you do this outside or in a open well ventilated area like a garage! The fumes are toxic and there is always the danger of setting your boards on fire!

    As a finishing tough I also smeared some patches of filler on the board, waited a bit for it to dry a little and then drew a tile/flagstone like texture on it with a toothpick.

    Step 6: Apply the textured paint and rocks

    For this I used textured latex wall paint. When it sets it will be pretty hard, but because it is latex will still stretch a little, making your board very resilient. After all, soon whole armies will march over it!

    The rocks, I use little stones found in pet shops (for aquaria) and glued them with wood glue on the board. Logical places for rocks are at the bottom of a hill or cliff, in groups at the bottom of a lower point in the landscape, and near other (bigger) rocks.

    For some extra dramatic effect I also made some ruined walls from insulation foam. (roofmate)

    Step 7: Painting.
    I base coated the whole thing with black spray paint. Note that the propellant in spray paints will dissolve any exposed Styrofoam. So when you do not apply the latex neatly, you will get holes, just as I did. Luckily, it is easily fixed with some more filler.

    Hereafter I started painting the board in layers, from brown to more or less sand-like colors. Technique involves mostly dry brushing. The rocks where dry brushed with gray and white.

    You can see that it is not as realistic is it could be, but all that will be all right in the last stage!

    Step 8: apply the static grass
    All you need to do is to apply wallpaper glue on al places where you want the grass to be.
    In my case, everywhere except on the rocks.
    Then you sprinkle the static grass onto the glued areas. Try to vary in density. I used an herbs sprinkler. It was just like sprinkling salt over your egg!

    I know there exist static-electricity based sprinkling devices which will actually make the grass stand up, but these are very expensive and the board is gonna be uses to play on, so I suppose the grass would wear off only faster.

    Overlaying the differently shaded color of the board, the overall effect is quite nice!

    Step 9: Finishing touches.
    Now the board is almost done. It’s time to go nuts with pieces of large grass, hedges, bushes, skulls, bones, old shields, wildlife etc. Don’t go too nuts tough, as the board purpose is for your army to maneuver on!

    Step 10: sit back and enjoy your hard work

    Conclusions / afterthoughts:
    And that's it, my first tutorial on CMON.
    This board was fun and rewarding to make. I think the overall result is quite nice and I can tell from my own experience that the table has become very sturdy.

    The design, sizes, materials and methods used here are just one way to go. You can of course pick any designs, size, methods or materials you’d like.

    I hope this example of how to make a modular terrain board can inspire other people to start making their own.
    I made a rocky-highlands-style table, but how about deserts, lava rivers around a volcano, ice planets?

    Any feedback, tips and comments are much appreciated!
    Comments 15 Comments
    1. Crunchysock's Avatar
      Crunchysock -
      Great article, makes me want to go build a table now.
    1. McKB's Avatar
      McKB -
      Excellent! Now I want to do mine. Very inspiring. I would like to make a desert one though. Anyone knows a good tutorial?
    1. me_in_japan's Avatar
      me_in_japan -
      I made a desert board using a similar technique to this one, but I made 3 boards of 2x4ft rather than 6 boards of 2x2 ft. I planned it out on photoshop, which helpfully allows you to rotate shapes to check they fit, but you could do it old school and just use bits of paper. The biggest difference to this tutorial was that I used styrofoam (the blue stuff) rather than polystyrene. I find it far easier to work with, and tougher, too.

      I textured it with a mixture of wood glue, cement, sand, brown paint, and a bit of water to help it all mix together. I spread this over the surface using a trowel rather than a brush (it was quite thick - much like concrete, unsurprisingly). I spread it very thin, and once it dried I drybrushed it up through shades of tan into a kind of creamy yellow deserty colour.

      For terrain features I used hills as shown in this article, as well as trenches. The trenches were actually recessed into the boards and were a bit of a bugger to do. Photoshop helped with getting them to fit in different configurations.

      Tthere are pics in my photobucket page. No tutorial, but hopefully you can see what I did Any questions - just ask.

      One thing I would say when making any board, is that its very, very important to keep it playable. What looks pretty often doesnt play well. McEagle does this very well, as the table looks great, and also looks very playable.
    1. dolenmorgul's Avatar
      dolenmorgul -
      Good tutorial. I made and sold two of these allready using the very same techniques. IMO the best way to build a gaming board. I used smaller panels of 40 by 40 cm, 20 pieces for even more options. I have to say yours look better than mine did. I really like the idea of reinforcing them I will try that next time round. Great job I agree terrain makes all the difference.
    1. Choperos's Avatar
      Choperos -
      Very nice tutorial,any tips or ideas on how to make the boards interlock with each other? There's always a clumsy nerd in our gaming group and I hate picking up my precious minis from the floor...
    1. me_in_japan's Avatar
      me_in_japan -
      hammer some nails into it so they stick out of all the board edges. He may bump into it once, but after tearing a hole in his leg, he'll be more careful from then on

      Ooooor, if you were looking for a sensible suggestion, you could either go for velcro strips along the joins (the board shouldnt be too heavy, if you're using mostly foam and thin wood), or you could go a bit more DIY and have wee hooks to hold it shut. Or, you could have a terrain feature span the gap (at least partially) and have pins on the bottom of the terrain, one in each section of the table. There are all kinds of things you can do, I reckon
    1. McEagle's Avatar
      McEagle -
      Thanks you guys for the nice comments and advices on this work. I am planing to upgrade the boards with interlocking. I'm playing with the idea to update this article with that. I'm thinking magnets.
    1. Choperos's Avatar
      Choperos -
      Magnets sound like a solid idea but they would have to be alternated in pairs on each side so that the boards can still snap together no matter how you position them...I guess with all the work you've put in the crafting,2 extra shallow holes on each side of the board wouldn't be too much extra fuss

      Quote Originally Posted by me_in_japan View Post
      hammer some nails into it so they stick out of all the board edges. He may bump into it once, but after tearing a hole in his leg, he'll be more careful from then on
      And yeah,I was thinking more something like a trip wire with a grenade attached to it or an anti-personnel mine but I hate cleaning up...Plus I want to be able to keep using the boards after a single game...
    1. rocketmonkey's Avatar
      rocketmonkey -
      Sweet tutorial, McEagle - straightforward and some great pics, too. I'll have to have a go at making a table one of these days...
    1. Gulgore's Avatar
      Gulgore -
      Great info, thanks for the article.
    1. draco010397's Avatar
      draco010397 -
      thanks for the tutorial veri usefull
    1. Count Duckula's Avatar
      Count Duckula -
      Awesome article, loved it... great pictures and the final result is brilliant
    1. SpectralDragon's Avatar
      SpectralDragon -
      An easy solution to interlocking the pieces is to make wooden U-hooks which can be magnetized to the board. Just like you made an edge in the first steps, do the same for the bottom areas. Cut a notch halfway down each side, and half again the height of the edge. Cut another piece of wood which fits in the notch of the connected boards and notched in the middle. Make it longer than the notch itself and notch the connector itself so it hooks in to the board. You can use magnets or velcro to make sure it stays on.
    1. McEagle's Avatar
      McEagle -
      I allready made the board interlocking with an alternating pattern of magnets. They snap together, which is very nice and feels "pro"!
    1. Saynt's Avatar
      Saynt -
      I love the color of static grass used! Any idea what the brand/color name is?
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