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Beginning Terrain-Making Blog, Part 1: Foam Terrain

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

At PaizoCon this year I did a seminar/workshop introducing all sorts of things about making terrain for RPGs and wargaming. In between various demonstrations of hot wire foam cutting, casting bricks in dental plaster, mixing epoxy putty, and using polymer clay, I rattled off a bunch of websites with more information and/or product links. Here's a rundown on the terrain-building information and links for making foam terrain, just in case you missed the seminar.

Building With Foam

Whether you want to make some movable hills, an elaborate cave system, or build an elaborate set piece that you'll use over and over again, styrene foam (such as Styrofoam) is the go-to material for building. It's light, inexpensive, reasonably durable for this purpose, and easily shapeable with a hobby knife or hot wire cutter. Although you can use common white styrene (technically, "expanded polystyrene," or EPS) for this, its cell-like structure is a little crumbly and may not give you the look you want. A better choice is a denser material called extruded polystyrene, which is stronger and smooth. You can buy it in hardware stores (such as TrueValue, Home Depot, and Lowes) where it's sold in large, rigid pink or blue sheets (typically 2 ft. by 8 ft.) for insulating walls, in 1/2-inch, 1-inch, and 2-inch thicknesses.

A Sturdy Base

Styrene is slightly flexible, and the underside can get scratched or gouged if you place it on a rough surface, so you should attach it to a harder, less-flexible base. Plywood is sturdy but heavy, so many modelers use fiberboard (often called "medium density fiberboard," or MDF), which is stronger than heavy cardboard but easier to cut than plywood. It's medium-brown, typically smooth on one side and rough like dried pulp on the other side. You can buy this at most hardware stores in large sheets (here is a link to it at Home Depot, though this is 1/2" thick and 1/8" thick is generally sufficient). In my experience it is easier to cut the fiberboard to the size you want for your terrain piece, then cut the styrene to match the base, rather than cutting the (softer) styrene and trying to cut the base to match that.

Time For Glue

The cut foam, ready for gluing.

My terrain supplies box has a bottle of Gorilla Glue, Aleen's Tacky Glue and Elmer's white glue, all of which are available in hardware and/or craft stores. Gorilla Glue is good at affixing styrene to MDF, though it expands slightly so you need to stack books on top of it while it dries, as the foam is light enough that the expanding glue could form a gap between the MDF and foam. You can use tacky glue or white glue if that's all you have available, but the bond isn't as strong.

Cutting Foam

Once you've cut the base material and glued it to the foam, you need to be able to cut and shape the foam. The stuff is easy to cut with an X-Acto knife or a box cutter, though the thickness of the foam may make that a slow process. It's much faster and more fun to use a hot wire foam cutter, and if you plan to fiddle with foam on a regular basis, you should get a foam cutter. The principle of the foam cutter is it uses electricity to heat a metal wire, which slices through foam like a poor man's lightsaber. There are several types available:

The cheap: Often these are powered by D batteries (and drain them quickly), but there's at least one with an AC adapter. Look for the brand names "FloraCraft" or "Wonder Cutter." Retailing for under $20, they're of low quality and they don't cut very fast, but are an easy way to get started with foam-cutting.

The mid-range: The Woodland Scenics Hot Wire Foam Cutter is a little powerhouse and sells for under $50 (you can find it cheaper at Amazon.com and other online stores). It runs hotter than the cheaper cutters, allowing you to cut faster. I also like the wide "U" of the rigid bars, allowing you to cut thicker foam. You can even punch a hole in the foam, untie the wire from one end of the cutter, thread the wire through the hole, and reattach it to the cutter, allowing you to make interior cuts (like a pit in the middle of your terrain). The only drawback to this cutter is you have to hold the thumb-trigger in the "on" position (rather than having an on-off switch) when you use it.

The expert: The Hot Wire Foam Factory has an entire line of crafter and professional oriented foam cutters, including U-shaped cutters, cutting wands, flat cutting knives, and jigsaw-like cutting tables. I picked up the 4" hot knife, which lets me carve directly into the foam (for example, to create the appearance of bricks or mortared stone). These all require one of their power supplies, either a simple AC adapter for $11.95 or a more advanced model for $99.95 that lets you change the cutter's temperature.

This Stuff Will Kill You

Glued, painted, and ready for play.

One critical thing to remember is that styrene, when heated, gives off toxic fumes. Don't use a foam cutter in an enclosed space or with poor ventilation. If you don't have a filter mask, either work outside, in an open area, or with a fan blowing the fumes away from you. And remember that children and small pets are going to be more susceptible to the fumes because they're smaller than an adult. Play safe!

In action at PaizoCon 2011! Photo by Blake Davis

Have An Example

The photos with this blog are of an incomplete foam terrain piece I used at PaizoCon. It's an elevated rise with a bridge over an underground river. The rise pieces are pink foam, carved with a foam cutter, and glued together with Gorilla Glue. I used a blunt pencil to draw a grid on the pieces (not a precise grid, as this looks less artificial), painted them with brown craft paint, painted a second layer of craft paint mixed with sand for texture, then drybrushed with a lighter brown to make the texture show up better. The "water" is currently just blue paint, but I'll be covering that with either a clear resin or layers of clear glue to make it shiny. The bridge is a picket fence from a craft store, stained a darker brown with dilute brown craft paint, and screwed into the top of the foam with long screws. Total building time, spread out over several weeknights, was about two hours, not including time for the glue to dry.

Sean K Reynolds
Designer

More Paizo Blog.
Tags: PaizoCon Terrain
Cheliax

I DIG THIS !

Thanks for sharing Sean!

Andoran

Pathfinder Comics Subscriber; Pathfinder Adventure Path, Roleplaying Game Subscriber

I've been really working lately to try and add more to my games through props and such lately, but my artistic/craft skills are rather limited currently.

I really appreciate all the information given in this blog post, it gives a great place to start for various types of crafts. I hope you do continue them.

Thanks a lot Sean.

Grand Lodge

Hey, I played in that game! (That's the Sean-painted-gnome [and gifted!] in the top left corner that I was playing.) The bridge fight was fantastic.


Good stuff. Thanks for the tutorial!

Qadira

I saw the finished model @ PaizoCon and it was great. Nice one Sean.

JP


Just don't try to spray paint the pink foam. Something in spray paint can cause the foam to melt.

Contributor

joshua gaines wrote:
Just don't try to spray paint the pink foam. Something in spray paint can cause the foam to melt.

True. I have a painting blog planned for later. :)

RPG Superstar 2008 Top 32

I like that there is a section titled "This stuff will kill you."

RPG Superstar 2010 Top 16, 2011 Top 32, 2012 Top 4

1 person marked this as a favorite.

SKR = mad genius


Pathfinder Comics Subscriber; Pathfinder Adventure Path, Companion, Maps Subscriber
Ross Byers wrote:
I like that there is a section titled "This stuff will kill you."

Honesty and warnings. They work for gamers too! Especially warnings.


Pathfinder Adventure Path Charter Subscriber

Nice. I'm looking forward to reading more of these blogs. Are you going to do one on papercrafting as well? How about how and where to store all this stuff?

Contributor

My intent is to blog the topics I covered at my PaizoCon workshop. I've downloaded some papercrafting stuff but haven't actually assembled any of it. Storing stuff is also a very good topic....


I've made terrain out of styrofoam and am planning on making more. I bought a hot wire cutter at Hobby Lobby with a 40% off one item coupon so it wasn't too expensive. The terrain has been a huge hit with my players. So far I've used stiff cardboard as the base, and that has been sturdy enough for my purposes so far. I haven't seen a need for the extra sturdiness (and weight and cutting difficulty) of MDF, although I might decide I need that some day. My next step up on the firmness meter though would probably be foamcore posterboard a material I use for lots of things.

You can also cut the styrofoam into blocks and use the blocks to build structures and then paint them to look like stone buildings.

One thing I've found is that the scraps I get from cutting the foam into shapes tends to work very well as small rocks or rocky outcroppings and I generally end up wasting very little of the styrofoam.

Sean are you going to cover any foamcore posterboard techniques? I've found that to be extremely useful in making structures. I'm currently working on a four story palace using pretty much nothing but foamcore, and it's coming along pretty nicely.

Although I do need a clear plastic dome for the observatory on the top....


As a fan of this more crafty aspect of the hobby i love seeing this kind of post here. Usually i only paint minis but i may branch to terrain in the future.

Contributor

brassbaboon wrote:
I've made terrain out of styrofoam and am planning on making more. I bought a hot wire cutter at Hobby Lobby with a 40% off one item coupon so it wasn't too expensive. The terrain has been a huge hit with my players. So far I've used stiff cardboard as the base, and that has been sturdy enough for my purposes so far. I haven't seen a need for the extra sturdiness (and weight and cutting difficulty) of MDF, although I might decide I need that some day. My next step up on the firmness meter though would probably be foamcore posterboard a material I use for lots of things.

Smaller pieces (like a 6" diameter moveable piece) don't have the warping issues that larger pieces (like a 2-foot area of pre-carved cavern) do. And it's really not a big deal unless you're trying to have two pieces match up smoothly next to each other (it could create a change in elevation).

brassbaboon wrote:
Sean are you going to cover any foamcore posterboard techniques? I've found that to be extremely useful in making structures. I'm currently working on a four story palace using pretty much nothing but foamcore, and it's coming along pretty nicely.

I haven't done any work with that stuff, so until I do I wouldn't be comfortable blogging about it. :)

Grand Lodge

I saw that thing in play at Paizocon and it looked so amazing I had no idea it was home-made! I want to give this a try now!


Most of the terrain I've made so far has been deliberately small for a couple of reasons:

1. It's easier to transport. I can put it in a shoebox or something like that and keep it protected.

2. My deliberate strategy so far has been to make modules that I can mix and match to create new and unique battlescapes. I've been making 8"x10" portions so far and placing them adjacent to each other, or in conjunction with my digital table maps as a way to extend the maps into the third dimension.

I will have to think about the prospect of making a single huge terrain element. I could see doing that for a climactic battle scene, it's really not hard at all to make very cool looking terrain, so it's not like it's an investment of huge amounts of time. In some ways it is actually easier to make terrain than it is to draw and print out maps.

Most of my terrain is made from paper I've printed or painted a background map on, then glued down styrofoam hills, boulders, towers, ruins, etc. After the styrofoam is done I usually glue in small pebbles and maybe some twigs as fallen trees or something, and then I use this floral supply moss that looks amazingly like grass, weeds, ivy, and even flowers. Then I spray it all with some cloth stiffener spray to keep the moss, pebbles and twigs from falling off too easy.

Finally I add trees, wagons, perhaps some small structures, etc. I don't incorporate those into the terrain because I like being able to re-use them. I use trees I've made from scratch and trees I got from a railroad background set. I've also made some cactus and other odd shaped plants from sculpey clay or epoxy putty.

It's really amazing what you can do if you just give it some thought and look at some online video tutorials...


Pathfinder Adventure Path Charter Subscriber
brassbaboon wrote:


It's really amazing what you can do if you just give it some thought and look at some online video tutorials...

could you point me towards some of said video tutorials?

Contributor

There are many on YouTube, just do a search for "building terrain" or (if you want to be more specific) "building wargaming terrain" or "building tabletop terrain."


Pathfinder Adventure Path, Campaign Setting, Modules, Roleplaying Game Subscriber
Sean K Reynolds wrote:
There are many on YouTube, just do a search for "building terrain" or (if you want to be more specific) "building wargaming terrain" or "building tabletop terrain."

Model Train terrain howtos are also helpful.


it looks really good! Do you use the "grid" for movement, flanking etc., when you play with this kind of terrain? Or is movement, area of effect more "rule of thumb" like? How do you do it?

best,
kikai

Contributor

I drew a grid on it so I can use grid-based movement. However, the hand-drawn grid allows me to do some tricksy things with the terrain that aren't possible on a square grid. For example, I could have an "easy path" through some terrain where the "squares" are longer than an inch, and a "hard path" where the squares are shorter, thus you could cross the room in 6 squares on the optimal path or 8 squares on a suboptimal path. You can even have triangular spaces or intersections where flanking is more difficult or easier....

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