Dark Eldar / Dark Elf Terrain Tutorial

So, do you have the urge to put spikes all over your computer, microwave, and toilet?  Do you feel the need to put tears in all your clothing and wear fishnet stockings?  When you dream of flying, you do it in tights while dragging chains behind your skyboard?

If you do, you most likely play Dark Eldar or Dark Elf armies.  That means this tutorial is what you’ve been aching for.

Over the past couple of years, I have built a full half-dozen tables worth of DE terrain.  The first attempt was motivated by the release of the most recent Dark Eldar Codex.  It involved a bit of experimentation as I was using familiar materials in some unfamiliar ways.  The look of the finished product was definitely in the spirit of the new army and the pieces were well received when they debuted in a tournament at the local FLGS.  But, since I neither have pointed ears nor play DE, the set quickly founds its way to Ebay and thence a new home.

The fantastic response I received from pictures posted on some gaming forums led to requests for specific pieces.  Later, I built  several tables worth for clients in Ohio, California, and Brasil.  Since I had a lot of building to do, I started taking pictures of some of the process in hopes of writing a tutorial.  Here’s what I did.

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Equipment

First off, I am going to give you a list of materials and tools that I used in these projects.

  • White Glue – Elmers is not the only brand of water-soluble glue out there, wood glue will also work
  • Liquid Nails – this is a fast-drying construction adhesive, make sure you get one that works on plastics
  • Bag of Pavers Base Sand – found at DIY centers, used for making a level base under paving stones
  • Tub of Drywall Compound or Spackle – any pre-mixed plaster type wall filler
  • Painters Tape – some kind of paper tape that wont leave a residue, do NOT use regular tan masking tape
  • Sharpie – any dark-colored permanent marker will do
  • Newspaper – something to catch the drips of glue ad sand
  • Thin Cardstock – poster board, comic book baker board, and cereal box like material are all good for templates
  • 2′ x 2‘ piece of MDF / Hardiboard – found at DIY centers, it is the same material that clipboards are made of
  • Sheet of 1″ Isulation Board – this stuff comes in blue and pink and usually has a removable protective plastic film
  • Sturdy Scissors and/or Sharp Hobby Knife – I actually found both useful as each is better in different applications
  • Jigsaw, Coping Saw, or small Hand Saw – you need a narrow blade for cutting some tight corners
  • Hot Melt Electric Glue Gun – faster than construction adhesive and quicker drying, some things need a stronger bond though
  • Dremel / Moto-Tool with sanding drum – medium 100-200 grit sandpaper can be used by hand instead
  • Rubber Gloves – powder free are best, try to avoid latex gloves if you can
  • Dust Mask – though not as noxious as resin, the dust from sanding the MDF is gross, at least use a bandanna
  • Safety Glasses, Goggles, or Face Shield – this does not mean your everyday ones, get some safety eyewear – it’s worth it

Many the materials listed above have substitutes available.  Feel free to improvise.  The one that I would caution you about is the sand.  Do not use sand from the beach or a yard.  Think about where the neighborhood dogs, cats, opossums, and homeless relieve themselves.  There are more nasty parasites and infections than I care to name that can be gotten from playing in contaminated soil.  I don’t think you want that on your gaming table (followers of Nurgle excepted).

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Planning

I try to live with this one statement in mind “no plan survives contact with reality”.  It helps keep me humble and focused on the goal.  However, “failure to plan is a plan for failure”.  So, we make a plan with the understanding that S%$! happens – be prepared for it!

DE design has an organic feel.  Despite all the armor and machines, their gear flows and whirls and feels vaguely asymmetric.  This means that as we lay out our pieces, we have a lot of freedom to explore design possibilities.  I take a little time to explore the codex, surf the web, and then sketch out some rough ideas of what I want the pieces to look like.

In the pieces I have made, I use a lot of curves that blend smoothly and have spiky tips.  I used lots of curved and round objects found around the house to develop my designs.  However, you will see that though no two pieces are the same  Only the elements of a piece are repeated in it.  To insure accurate repetition, I lay out some card make a template for each element.  These template shapes can then be laid out on your MDF as many times as needed.

If you have a piece that needs to fit a certain scale or size, it is easier to make a new template than to adjust the pieces afterwards.  Still, it doesn’t hurt to check for scale once you start assembling.

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Fabrication

I use either a scroll saw or Jigsaw to cut out my MDF pieces.  You can use a hand saw but had better have a very narrow blade if you are going to cut tight curves.  Depending on the tooth of your saw, the edges of the pieces will come out anywhere from rough to ragged.  I use a sanding drum on my Dremel to smooth off all the edges before going on to assembly.  A hand sander will work but may have trouble cleaning up inside the curves.  Sanding by hand works in a pinch.

To cut out foam shapes, I just use a long, sharp hobby knife.  Cut out the basic shape and then shave away until you have a close approximation.  You’ll use the sander or hand sanding to put the final shape and finish on the piece.  There are specialty foam cutters that use a hot wire.  The battery-powered ones are crap.  If you are going to do a lot of foam work, spend the $30 or so bucks and get one that has a large opening, replaceable cutting wires, and a power cord / adapter.  Even when using these, you will need to sand to finish the piece.

If you are going to laminate on cardstock emblems or detail, make sure to use the unfinished / unwaxed side up.  It takes paint better and can be sanded easier if your cut comes out rough.  Did I mention that your knife and scissors should be SHARP?

NOTE:  I see a lot of terrain in my web surfing.  It is a shame that many times a great piece is left without a base.  A firm MDF base (not cardboard) not only gives added structural integrity to the model, its smooth, sanded edges will be kinder to your gaming surface.  Additionally, if you leave an exposed “ring” around your piece, you have space to flock and add additional detail that will really set it apart.

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Assembly

What you use to attach your components together and the pieces to their bases is pretty much a matter of personal preference.  I tend to use hot glue to join MDF, card, and plastic to each other.  If there is foam involved, you are going to have to go with something else.  Hot glue wont adhere well and will eat away at the foam with great vigor.  I fall back on construction adhesive or white glue in these cases.  It takes longer to dry, but your pieces will be sturdier and have a better finish.  When attaching the completed piece to its base, I always use construction adhesive (Liquid Nails).

Once the basic piece and base are firmly attached and dry, we can add some more character to the piece.  First, I put on some gloves and then apply the premixed drywall filler.  I smooth it over all of the joins of the model to “blend” the parts together.  You could use something smooth like the back of a spoon to apply the filler.  But, I find that nothing does a better job of working the filler without gaps or bubbles than my fingers.  Either way, you will glob up some bits and leave rough patches.  This can be remediated with a little sandpaper once the filler is dry.

After leaving the pieces alone overnight, clean up any wayward filler or rough spots.  We will now apply white glue to the base of each piece and add our flock.  I use paver base sand because it has a lot of different textures in one mix.  Additionally, is has been washed for packaging and wont contain any nasty surprises.  As an alternative to this material, GW and other hobby firms make their own model flock.  Use whatever will fit best with your table or other scenery.  This is also the point to add battlefield debris.  Just make sure you place the debris down before the flock for realism and best adhesion.

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Finish

After the glue under the flock has set (a couple of hours at least), you can get ready for painting.  I take a stiff brush or rag and wipe down the entire piece.  I am not just dusting.  I am trying to knock off any flock or grit that is too loosely affixed to the base.  This will help you find and spots you missed as well as ensuring that loose bits don’t end up in your finished paint job.

To prime your new spiky bits, I recommend a latex (water-based) floor paint.  This stuff is very durable as it is formulated to withstand being walked on.  Also, it usually coats well enough in just one pass.

I personally have two reasons for not using spray paint on terrain.  First, the majority of sprays will melt any foam you use unless precoated and sealed completely with glue or paint.  Second, the quality stuff is just too pricey to use for basecoating.  But, it’s your project now.  Now go make sure that your tetanus shots are up to date and we’ll see what you come up with.

Please feel free to leave comments or suggestions or just to share your own DE terrain.  Good Luck!

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Comments
  1. Joesph Mattera says:

    I’m really not even a Dark Eldar kind of guy, yet I want to try to make this.

  2. richard says:

    would you be interested in making a couple of bits on commision ?

  3. Hi 🙂 I came across your Dark Eldar scenery through searching for ideas in Google images. I hope you don’t mind but I have actually had a go at making this and wanted to thank you for your clear instructions. And I admit – mine doesn’t look as good as yours – but I’m still pretty happy with what I created. The end result – simple, effective and definitely ‘dark eldar-ish’ looking. Thanks heaps!

  4. […] on the Wild Boar Blog was complete ideas and tutorials for creating a Dark Eldar scenery. WOW! Could I create this? (I […]

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