23 May 2023

Table-Top Terrain: Warp-free Bases

Looking to revitalize the old blog, as I haven't posted in over 9 months. I'm on the final push to finish a late in life (and unnecessary) master's degree so I haven't had much time for anything except school and work, let alone gaming. I'm seeing the light at the end of the tunnel though and perhaps that's why I've felt a resurgance of hobby interest recently.

I've also been contemplating on the fact that I'm not the only busy person out there, and plenty of folks seem to do a fair amount of hobbying despite adult-life commitments. I've been wondering if hobbies, like most pursuits, exist in a feedback loop, and that maybe I can keep the hobby interest up by dabbling in a small amount of constant exposure instead of focusing on large but infrequent events. To that end, I've been making terrain for 10mm games and thought I'd share a bit here.

OK, on to the topic of the post. Since I plan to play some games at the smaller scales, I've been making terrain with thin bases. Listening to wargaming podcasts and reading blogs, it seems a common complaint are terrain bases, especially thin ones, that warp. The picture above shows one of my very thin bases, free of warping. 
Replicating this result requires five items: Durham's Rock Hard Water Putty, wood glue, fiberglass wall repair tape, wax paper, and scrap plastic food packaging. The wood glue should not be water resistant but water soluable so it can be thinned; Elmers Interior Wood Glue is the best and any form of TiteBond or Gorilla Glue are absolute no-gos. Any sort of moisture-proof substrate (aluminum foil for example) can be substituted for the scrap plastic but I find the plastic easy to work with and plentiful, with PETE plastic (#1) my preferred variety.

Tools required are scissors, a Sharpee or similar alcohol marker, spreading utensils (I use disposable cutlery from the office kitchen), and a spray-bottle or similar method of adding controlled amounts of water. Masking tape, push-pins, or staples help for step four below.

Step one: cut your plastic into the desired shape for the terrain footprint, making sure it's big enough for whatever trees or buildings or whatnot you plan to mount on it. I find an old pair of normal stationary scissors cuts through thin PETE packaging just fine.

Step two: rough-up the surface of one side of each plastic base with some 60-grit sandpaper, giving it enough tooth for the fiberglass tape and putty that comes later.

Step three: use the Sharpee to write some sort of key marker on the base, like a number or letter with an arrow associated with one edge.

Repeat steps one through three for as many terrain pieces required.

***EDIT (27 May 2023): See my reply to Shaun's comment below for adjustments I've already made to the process.  I'm preserving the original post as written but it turns out one can neglect the scrap plastic and skip steps one through three, starting on step four and free-handing the outlines.  This also prevents a lot of the fiberglass tape waste and eliminates the need to label the outlines.***

Step four: Tape down (or otherwise secure) a few pieces of wax paper, giving sufficient area to accomodate all your plastic bases. One by one, trace the outline of each terrain base on the wax paper with the Sharpee, ensuring to duplicate the respective key marker on the wax paper, in the proper orientation.

Step five: apply the fiberglass tape to the wax paper, covering each terrain base outline. Since the wall repair tape is probably the most expensive material, draw the outlines in step four to minimize waste due to excess space, but ensure enough room to work on the sheet.

Step six: cut out each terrain shape from the wax paper, cutting the fibreglass tape along with it. Ensure you cut 1 mm to 2 mm inside the marker outline, so as to create a slightly smaller shape than the original plastic base. You have now essentially created peel-off fiberglass tape stickers corresponding to each of your plastic bases.

Step seven: peel and apply each fiberglass tape sticker to the rough side of its respective matching plastic base. Utilize the marker keys to ensure correct orientation.

Step eight: mix up a small amount of putty, sufficient for one terrain base. Roughly estimate the amount of wood glue required to completely coat your terrain piece in a thin (~0.5 mm) layer, add this to your mixing container to start. Sprinkle in the Durham's, mixing until the consistency goes from honey (i.e. the wood glue alone), to a thick, chalky peanut-butter like texture. Next, add small amounts of water until the honey-like consistency returns. You should be able to pour the mixture but just barely.

Step nine: Spread this mixture evenly over your terrain base. Ideally the fibreglass tape should not show through but as this is only the structural foundation layer, in most cases this is OK, as more material will be added later.

Repeat steps eight and nine for all the terrain pieces, leaving them at least 8 but preferably 24 hours to cure before continuing.

Step ten: decorate each base as desired.

The great thing about this technique is that fresh wood glue clings instantly to the cured putty mixture making up the base. In the example picture to the left, the top beauty layer consisted of a mix of old housepaint, acrylic craft paint, wood glue, flour, sand, bentonite clay, and water to improve spreadability. I slathered this goop onto the base and in maybe 2-4 hours it was plastic-like and hard, free of warping yet easily paintable with another layer of housepaint.

I could just cut thin MDF pieces like everyone else but I enjoy this method for the ease of decorating noted above, as well as the ability to use simple scissors to cut complex terrain footprints.


  1. You are back! That does seem like a long process but I do like that you detail it for others to follow in your footsteps. The results look really great (as they should do with the effort).

    1. Thanks for noticing Shaun; it's great to be back. I feel like I'm getting my tabletop wargaming mojo back, primarily through the modeling aspect of the hobby.

      And I appreciate the kind words on the results. I'm still tinkering with the procedure. Yeah, this process has a lot of steps but I made it through steps one through nine for 13 bases in just about three hours last weekend. And wouldn't you know it, as soon as I posted this I found a few shortcuts in the process...

      Turns out the plastic bases can be peeled off the bottom once the putty mix sets. So that means they were never really necessary to begin with. Now I'm just starting on a (modified) step four and free-handing the terrain base outlines on the wax paper. Once I have the fiberglass "stickers" all made, I just apply them to something non-stick but really flat (like some sheets of thick plastic I have for modeling).

    2. In our (what seems to be) time poor world, it is always a good feeling to streamline the process to be faster but also end up with the same results. Woo-hoo!