Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Detailing the trenches: reinforcing and sandbags

This next step is probably going to be the most time consuming. I'm focusing here on detailing the walls of the trenches with a variety of materials. All that saving and storing of bits and pieces over the past few years is about to pay off.

For the corrugated iron that was sometimes employed to line the walls of trenches I've used the packaging from light bulbs and florescent tubes. This is really easy to work with and is just the right scale for 25-28mm gaming. I cut the cardboard into sections and then paste it onto the sides of the trenches, sometimes overlapping the pieces. Initially I used a wood glue, but found that the cardboard began to bow slightly, so I switched to a combination of wood glue and cyanoacrylate, using a spray on accelerator to tack the pieces in place. With the Styrofoam base sealed with the elastomeric roof coating there is no chance of the superglue eating into it.

I also worked on fabricating sandbags using some self-hardening modeling clay. My initial efforts produced bags that were way too big for the scale I was aiming for. I checked out a few web pages with advice on how to make them and came up with a more consistent method. I worked the clay into long rounded "strings" and then cut it up at regular intervals. I molded the edges of the bags with my fingers and then piled them on top of each other beginning at the bottom of the firing step. Once I'd produced something resembling a wall, I pressed the bags into the base a little more tightly, hoping the pressure would seal them together. Once they had hardened slightly I got a piece of cheesecloth and gently pressed it over the surface of the clay to try and create an appropriate texture.

There are a few things I'd probably do differently next time. I had measured and cut the firing step, and indeed the entire front line trench to accommodate standard base sizes. I hadn't taken into account the width of the sandbags. There's still enough space to mount figures comfortably on the steps, but next time I would probably make sure the steps were wider. I noticed once the sandbags were in place and dry they tend to move around a little. In other words they have not adhered well to each other. I'll use a watered down solution of scenic cement to wash over the wall and hopefully this will seal the bags in place. With the next wall, I'll work on lining the bags up better and getting a more uniform feel to the wall.

The other type of trench reinforcement I've used is to model the wooden retaining walls employing a combination of pre-cut basswood strips and rounded toothpicks. I lined up a series of the strips on a horizontal surface and then ran a bead of wood glue over them. You can manufacture a number of sections at a time. When the glue is fairly dry, the wall can be erected with the glued side next to the molded contours of the trench wall itself. Glue the prefabricated walls in place and then glue vertical braces on the sides facing the interior of the trench. I used rounded toothpicks for the interior braces just for variety. This method produces walls with boards scaled accurately to the figures on the battlefield. However it also uses up a lot of pre-cut strips. I'm going to experiment with cutting thin balsawood strips and bristol board to see how that looks too. The next step will be to prefabricate duckboards for the trenches.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

I'm going to need more paint

Its at this point that the terrain project is really starting to take shape.  Adding color is a little like bringing primed miniatures to life, but on a larger scale.  I've used Games Workshop's How to Make Wargames Terrain for inspiration and techniques.  In between  waiting for things to dry, I'd thought about the sort of color scheme I wanted.  For the Great War period of course, color photographs are hard to come by.  An interesting selection are found at this website. My recreation is based on reviewing other websites that have done similar projects, color illustrations, contemporary photography, museum dioramas, as well as film elements from both documentaries and dramas.
Above: a shattered landscape, pock-marked by water filled craters is the abiding image of the First World War battlefield
Above and below: color images like these show life in a well-ordered training trench and the devastation wrought by artillery bombardments

Above: The highly-detailed and animated dioramas conserved at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra provide both inspiration for the modeler, and a reflection on the savagery of the conflict that claimed so many lives

 The challenge here is to create something that is not too far from reality, but nevertheless engaging and inviting to play on.  "Inviting" probably isn't the right word for trench warfare.  Other websites have talked about this as well, in terms of modeling the First World War.  I decided on a two stage approach, by initially focusing on producing a ruined landscape, and then experimenting with the addition of color to bring it to life.

I took my How to Make Wargames Terrain book down to the local hardware (Home Depot to be precise), and used the back page and some of the illustrations to match with color chips on display there.  This is something the publishers actually suggest doing if you have a lot of surface to color.  I was aiming for a combination found in some of the terrain projects in the book: a base coat of Bestial Brown, followed by highlighting with Vomit Brown and Bleached Bone.  I got a quart of each and took them home.  Now on to the painting.

I picked up each terrain piece and gently shook the loose sand and gravel off.  You can also tap on the backs of the boards.  Once I was satisfied that most of the loose stuff was off, I laid the boards down and got to work painting the base color.  The first thing I noticed was just how porous the sand mix was.  I'm going to need a lot more Bestial Brown substitute.

I let things dry and then proceeded with the highlighting steps, allowing four hours of so between the second and third coats.  I have to say the result was even better than what I had hoped for.

But next comes the moment of decision - how far should I go to make the board a little more attractive with some grass texture?  More about that step in my next blog.

Detailing: adding some texture

The second stage of making the terrain boards is well under way.  With nine boards now crafted and glued down to the MDF bases, its time to start adding some texture and work out a paint scheme.  I thought that rather than putting paint down on all of them at the same time, I'd work on just two, using them as a sort of test run for the techniques I'd employ for the entire collection of terrain squares.  In this way, if the color turned out to be a disaster, at least I wouldn't need to go and repaint the entire series.  I chose the two simplest boards - ones without prominent features like trenches.
Last week I spent some time thinking about the sorts of colors I wanted to use and the overall impression I want to make.  These boards will represent the mid-to-late war period.  The more reading I've done on the Great War, the greater my appreciation for the evolution of the battlefields, strategies, and tactics from 1914 to 1918.  As the centenary approaches, I think we will see a renewed interest in the period heralded by publications, rule sets, miniatures, and conventions.

General perceptions of this period tend to revolve around the stark images of trench warfare produced by the photographic and narrative records that have been handed down to us. Understandably, the generation of enormous casualties through the mechanization of conflict, has become an abiding memory that tends to mask the actions and fates of individuals and small groups.

While we are not gaming the vast sweeping tank battles of the Second World War, or the masses of colorful infantry fielded in the Seven Years' War, this period does have something to offer, particularly I think on the level of skirmish encounters and smaller actions.  Recently published rule sets have grappled with the challenge of illustrating the impact of technological innovations like the tank, poison gas, and the machine gun, in the context of small group actions.  In the process they have produced some engaging gaming mechanisms.

How does all this play out in my terrain project?  To sum up my reflections, I want to produce terrain pieces that have both a realistic feel to them, and that can fit in with a variety of scenarios and rules sets.  For some scenarios based on Through the Mud and the Blood, by Two Fat Lardies, six squares giving a total area of 6 ft x 4 ft might well be enough for a game with 30 - 40 figures per side .  For larger actions out of the pages of Warhammer Historical's Great War, the game designers recommend a playing surface of about 6 ft x 9 ft to generate a sweeping battle involving many more figures.  The beauty of well-planned modular terrain is that it can fit with both these gaming paradigms.

So on to painting the terrain squares.  Once the first coat of Elastomeric roof coating was dry, I added a lighter second coat to the surface.  Then I spread a thin layer of sand (play sand from my kids' sandbox) and gravel (from our old aquarium) over the area.  I also embedded some twigs to represent the shattered remains of copses of trees (cf. the black and white photographs above).  I put more gravel mix around the rims of the craters to simulate the earth torn up by the explosive force of bursting shells.  Then I gently pressed the texture down with a folded piece to paper towel, to ensure it would settle into the contours I'd already crafted.

Terrain making is a slow process if you want to do it right.  You have to be patient to allow things to cure and dry before proceeding to the next stage.  So it was that I waited 24 hours before starting to color the landscape.  More about that in my next blog.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Making a Great War Terrain Board: The Basics

Below you'll see a series of modular terrain boards that I've put together over the past couple of weeks. My methods were based on the techniques shared by others on line, and my own previous attempts at home made terrain. Each board measured 24" x 24" and consists of a base of 1/4" MDF with 1" thick polystyrene, cut, molded, and glued on top. The next step will be to add the texture to the bases and then color them.
One of the challenges in constructing terrain features like this in sunny Southern California is that of finding the right materials. For a number of years I've been collecting raw materials for various terrain projects, so when I started on this one I found I had already stock piled much of what I would need. The biggest single expense was undoubtedly the Styrofoam. Like most modelers, I would have preferred to use pink or blue Extruded Polystyrene. However with the very mild climate in these parts, this sort of high-density insulation is very hard to come by, at least in the dimensions I was looking for. You can find a discussion on the merits of this and other forms of polystyrene at this website. I was able to find some one-inch stock at the local hardware, but this will be reserved for constructing special features like pillboxes and other buildings later on. The one-and-one-half inch thick stock is perfect for constructing trenches in 25-28mm scale, but was only available locally as Expanded Polystyrene. So for lack of a better alternative, I settled on Expanded Polystyrene, but I'll have to employ a special technique to stabilize it.
Above: 1 inch Extruded Polystyrene
Above: 1 1/2 inch Expanded Polystyrene
The next step involved mapping out a plan for the terrain boards in my notebook.
Once I was satisfied that I had a design that was both versatile and also achievable, I cut the MDF foundations on a table saw in my workshop and then proceeded with the messy task of cutting up and carving the polystyrene. I used a foam cutter I'd purchased at Michael's, a local craft store. It worked fine for a while, but then only in fits and starts. At that point, I resorted to a very sharp serrated-edged knife. This worked fairly well, but left a lot of debris. If I were going to do a lot more of this, I'd think seriously about making a DIY foam cutter. There are plenty of references to these on the web. Just do a Google search and you'll see.
Having designed, traced, and cut the Styrofoam, the next step is to mount it on the MDF. Make sure you use a glue that is intended for use with Styrofoam. I used Liquid Nails interior panelling glue (LN-606). I then proceeded to mold some basic contours, like the piles of earth that would have been thrown up behind the trenches as they were excavated, and also the rims of the craters that are such a prominent feature in trench warfare. For this I used a light spackling compound that adhered well to the Styrofoam.
If you're trying this at home, you will have realized by now that all these steps involve creating a considerable mess. I'd suggest doing this sort of construction in your garage or workshop, rather than on the living room table.
The next step involves stabilizing the Styrofoam with a durable undercoat. This would not be necessary if I were using Extruded Polystyrene. However the Expanded Polystyrene I had available needed this treatment to protect it from disintegration under battlefield conditions like the intrusion of small fingers, gamers' elbows, and the like. Elastomeric roof coating is one of the great finds I and fellow gamers have made here in recent times. Its guaranteed for ten years on your roof, so should last a few seasons on the gaming table. Its very similar in consistency of Woodland Scenics flex paste, and seems to have the same properties, but at only a fraction of the cost. We've used it in my local gaming club to produce flexible terrain mats. I'll describe how they're made in a later blog.
I applied a liberal coating with a paint brush to the surface of the terrain squares. It has the consistency of a very thick paint and takes about 24 hours to dry.  Now to texture and paint the boards. I'll cover that in my next blog.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Over the Top

For years I've been thinking about creating some First World War terrain and painting up figures to go with it.  I remember buying Wargames Foundry Great War Germans back when they were manufactured on the island of Guernsey and sold as individual figures.  I primed some of these white, probably back in 2000, and apart from this solitary test figure, they have remained unpainted since.  My hope now is to bring them to life.

In my next few blogs I plan to lay out the process of making a set of modular terrain boards.  These will feature trench systems, gun emplacements, block houses, ruined villages, and a "no man's land" pock-marked with shell holes.  I'll talk more about my design philosophy and also the practical challenges faced in putting such a complex project together.  I was tempted to wait until I had finished some of the terrain pieces before retrospectively blogging my successful step by step progress towards their completion.  This would have ensured that readers would not arrive at the ultimately disappointing conclusion that my methods and materials contained unforeseen flaws.  I decided against this, in part because I wanted to have some incentive to keep at it over the next few weeks.  Also, I've gotten some great advice from other websites, and I have had some experience crafting terrain pieces over the years I've indulged in the hobby.
By way of inspiration, one could look no further than Sidney Roundwood's amazing blog, packed with all sorts of advice and illustrations.  If you want to see what I'm aiming for, and some of ideas that I will be shamelessly copying, look no further than here.  With my helpers, Liam and Patrick, we are about to go over the top.