Today, guest writer Mike Everest talks about building big terrain for big tables. This part looks at building a modular river for the table.
Some time in 2020’s endless hellscape of no gaming, I had decided to throw myslef into a huge terrain project. In my previous article I detailed how to make the mega beach board. In this article, I will detail the highs, the lows, the creamy middles and the ‘closing sequences of the Lighthouse levels of mania’ of constructing a MASSIVE river.
First off, the planning phase. We need to consider how big do we make the river? What sort of scale are we looking at? How much of an obstacle should it be?
Rivers can be a powerful piece to game around in any scale, really.
From a simple stream slowing your advance or causing a ‘cross’ test, to something like the immense battles at Rapido where the Royal Engineers had to build a Bailey Bridge under fire to cross a river.
As we play at two popular but different wargames scales, 15mm and 28mm, I decided to make the river ‘scale agnostic’. In 28mm the river would be something akin to being roughly 6 meters wide; still a substantial obstacle. In 15mm it would be considerably more, looking like the Ouse at its broad points. Taking inspiration from rivers like the Ouse in Sussex, the Ancre (a Somme Tributary in France) and rivers in Italy, I was set.
The main base of the river would be 12 inches (304mm) wide. The actual “wet” part of the river itself would be 4-6 inches (100-150mm) wide, with a raised levee either side, creating a false depth to the river.
Making a river outside of a modular board that allows you to cut into the foam is difficult to make it look natural, however, rivers in Holland, and indeed parts of Sussex are cut in with Levees, and surrounding them is flood plain. So you actually have to go up an incline to get to the river, basically.
I ordered a bunch of custom cut mdf in 3mm thickness at about 2ft by 1ft sections (608mm x 304mm). I then laid the plates down to a length of 3 sections long and also cut some corners to match the width of the rivers and create a roughly 30degree turn.
Rivers are curious beasts and can spend miles going absolutely dead straight then turn suddenly back on themselves and create things like Oxbow lakes as well. I had grand plans of making said Oxbow lakes, but those went by the wayside as the build started to take place.
I then cut a 6ft long by 1 ft wide section of kingspan high density insulation foam. This stuff is great as it takes spray paint, sanding, cutting with a carving knife etc. Pretty well anything I wanted to throw at it. I cut the middle out of the 6×1 section to form the centre of the river and sanded both levee sides to smooth them.
Laying the levees on the wooden sections, I cemented them in place with PVA glue and added some bricks for weight. By having the plates of wood in three sections, I could control where any potential warping would take place on the main section by allowing it to warp only on the un-bonded joins. The ‘edge’ piece warped slightly but wasn’t the end of the world.
Once the River was fully cemented and I then laid a thick belt of PVA and sand down the middle of it to make the riverbed. At this point it was important to make the sand and PVA ride up the riverbank. This would act as a sealant for the 2 part clear set resin that I would pour to make the water.
Next up was to repeat the process for the corner sections. For these, I used the offcut I had for the centre of the river, as I’d cut it with gentle turns in it. This way, the turns were naturally there for the corners.
Its important to note that pretty much every part of this project was followed by a period of waiting a LONG time for things to set. I started the project in January and, whilst living in the countryside with a massive barn has its bonuses, the temperature is not one of them. Sub Zero temperatures mean that PVA glue at that thickness could take upwards of 4-5 days to dry. But since the lockdown had made the passage of time totally void, I had it to spare… How long had I been making the river? Weeks? Months? Help me Recollect.
Next up would be to paint the whole thing. Initially this would be to match the colour of the boards perfectly in Wilko Brand Nutmeg. But Wilko had ceased to make this.
So, I had to search ebay and trawl for the next best thing. ‘Prime Paints Gingerbread Brown’ had to pick up the slack.
Painting the whole river.
While I waited for the river to dry over the next three days, I set to work on making some rocks to place on the river banks to give it a bit of life. These were made by cutting up “boulders” of kingspan foam, spraying it black, then painting over with Vallejo German Grey. Then I used a cheap makeup brush to drybrush on Vallejo London Grey, then Vallejo Sky Grey.
Breaking Rocks in the COLD ICY WIND OF WINTER, WHEN WILL THE RAIN CEASE
Once the brown had finally dried I cracked on with with a heavy drybrush of Chocolate Dream from Wilko. The base of the riverbed had some German Field Grey sprayed onto the edges of the riverbank to blend it in and give a bit of an algae look to it. I had mega grand plans to seat vines and fish in the base of the river, but attempting to glue vines into the base of the river fractured my sanity.
River now starting to take shape with the turf on it.
After the the rocks were in place, I used Woodland Scenics fine turf for the banks. This would be augmented with grass tufts. I’d found out about static grass shakers and things like that recently, but when making something this scale, it needs to be practical. Models and wargamers hands are going to be pawing it and moving tanks over it while making trundling noises, so static grass will get bent out of shape and flattened very quickly. So I opted for the greatest thing to come to wargaming terrain. TUFTS.
Tufts can cost a bit, but honestly they make things look incredible. Gamers Grass is the best stuff for wargaming with as its practical and easy to apply. I splashed out and bought a set of 8 really nice wild flowers ones from a model railway shop… these were incredibly expensive, but they really looked snazzy.
At this point I was now halted by the weather. With everything in place, I was now waiting for temperatures to raise enough so a pour of resin would actually cure rather than spending upwards of two weeks being weird and sticky and just hoovering up every single small bug in the barn, encasing it in a resin doom. (Spoilers… this also happened).
With temperatures at -6 to -8 celcius in the barn at night, it simply wasn’t possible or advisable to start. Damming the corner test piece was part of the learning curve for this. And boy… this was a brutal learning curve.
All dammed up and ready for a test pour. What happened next was… disappointing.
With a warmer day forecast, I decided to do a test pour on the resin. With the corner all dammed up as best as I could, or so I thought, I mixed 200ml of resin together and poured. So far so good… I jacked the corner piece up on risers as per the sage advice of TV set builder Tone Hitchcock so I could hear any drips. Waiting a solid minute I closed the barn door shut and ran, hoping for the best. Apparently overnight what had happened was that bit in Das Boot…
Total Bulkhead Collapse
Spilling its entire contents and tearing the main corner part off, it was a total disaster. I had to re-dam the whole thing then sealed it totally with silicone bath sealant, did a test pour with water to make sure everything was set and then went for it.
It’s worth remembering that with pretty much each step of the way here, there was a 48hr waiting period. Which made it perilously labourious, though did allow enough time to paint an entire force of infantry for the Big Red 1! After about 4 days of waiting through the cold, the resin had finally set. I peeled the dams off and left the results. I was so happy! It was now time to head onto the big river…
Sealed up and ready, and the final set pour.
The Great Pour
Finally, with spring in the air and after months of preparation, it had come down to this. The great pour.
I mixed up the thick end of 1000ml of Resin in batches.
Prepared the dams and sealed them with hot glue and silicone and locked them in position.
Got the river as flat as I could physically make it (the barn is not the most even of floors).
Sacrificed a goat to the old gods for good measure…
Working with resin requires a steady hand, and faith in the fact that it will find its own level. Don’t chase it so much and poke it and prod it. Let it do its thing. Once poured, you pretty much have no control over the chemistry of it and have to bank on the fact you have made every available effort to mix the correct portions and for long enough.
The freshly poured resin. Crystal clear and so very tempting to touch. The only thing punching through those dams is a bouncing bomb… or so I thought.
After a day of drying, somehow the resin had leaked through some tiny imperceptible hole. At this point I was pumping a mix of hot glue and silicone into the dam system to hold it all back.
Thankfully this worked enough as, after another 48 hours, the whole thing was dry; with the exception of a particularly stubborn patch in the centre that part of the newspaper cover had touched and wicked the alcohol trigger away causing it to take much longer to dry on the surface.
Finally. After all this hard work it was completed. Ready to lift it and place it onto the table… just… wait… its not budging.
Oh no. Oh no.
Somehow the resin had penetrated the MDF the river was on, cementing itself to the table. At this very last hurdle I was prepared to scream and launch the whole thing into the skip. Taking a moment of clarity, I grabbed a hammer and a long thin metal yard rule and used it as a chisel and fired it under the whole river. This was painstaking and my heart was absolutely in my mouth while doing it. To come this far and be thwarted would have completely spiked my guns. But, after about an hour of work, the whole river prized safely off the table.
With the river now up, I could use some Mod Podge Gloss to make ripples on parts, extra tiny details like lily pads, wildlife like ducks and geese and other bits and bobs to go on it.
Once in position the River is a massive, and dominating scenery piece. Something that will influence battles played on the big board with it. I bought various types of bridges for it for various scales as well. Including making an imposing stone based metal girder bridge for Flames of War scale for epic firefights across.
The Shopping List
This list is by no means exhaustive as this was a mega project, but here is a list of the supplies I used for it:
Kingspan Foam: £35 for a sheet. I use this stuff for all my terrain projects. Its brilliant.
Laser cut MDF sheets:. £2.50 per sheet. Well worth it to get them cut perfectly to size, but you could easily use hard board.
Matt Emulsion Paint: £14 for a tin. Keep it cheap with this, you don’t need farrow and ball!
Woodland Scenics fine turf: £10 always buy by the shaker.
Gamers Grass Tufts: About £7 per pack. I used about three packs for this.
Super posh model railway meadow tufts: £10 for 8… EIGHT. Expensive but gorgeous.
Two Part Clear Set Resin: £40 Resin isn’t cheap and, I cannot stress enough, of watching Luke Towans Boulder Creek Railroad videos to understand its arcane useage,
DUCKS. From the Warlord Games animals set which is great and has 4 cats that my daughter is in love with. £12
Woodland Scenics Wire Tree Armatures and Putty: £12
The blood sacrifice my fingers paid from using the aforementioned wire: So much. So much blood.
What a journey and thanks for reading along!
Here’s some pics of the River in action!
Here on a 16×6 mega table representing a dozen northern French mining towns, the river splits the industrial and urban area with the rolling farmland around it. It really looks at home on the big board here.