Desert Terrain That Will Last

I’ve been building terrain for wargaming for over 20 years.  The design and construction are a great part of the hobby.  Being able to field your army on a table that fits their theme and basing really enhances the gaming experience ( and humiliates your opponent’s Legion of Grey as well).

Some people are lucky enough to have a local shop with space, tables to play on, and terrain to game around.  Unfortunately, many shops have a limited budget for “marketing” and that means that terrain pieces are often a cheap hodge-podge of whatever they could find cheap that wears out quickly.  This results in cluttered tabletops that look more like the bedroom floor of a 4-year old than a fantastical landscape that immerses wargamers in their genre.  But, with a few key pieces built to match, you can create a great landscape that provides for flexible wargaming at budget prices.

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Over the years I have gathered a collection of tools and supplies that help speed up my building process.  However, there are non-powered versions of most of these tools so don’t feel that you need a workshop to build these.  Now, when it comes to glue, try not to skimp.  Get good brands and use glues appropriate to your materials.  The difference in durability is quite marked.  For paint, I tend to go for the house brand at the DIY store.  Bring the paints that you use on your bases and then find the closest color matches in the sample catalog.  When building terrain you will need to buy paint by the pint.  For a table, you will buy it in gallons.  Do remember to write down the name/number of the paints you buy so that when you run out you can get more of the exact color.

Materials and tools list:

  • 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
  • Sharpie – any dark-colored permanent marker will do
  • Newspaper – something to catch the drips of glue ad sand
  • 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
  • Pints of Wall Paint – don’t use fast-drying ceiling paint; it wont flow into the cracks and crevices
  • Spray Paint – I used brown and grey house-brand primer
  • Plastic Spoon or Spatula – these are great for spreading wall fille if you don’t like using your fingers
  • Jigsaw, Coping Saw, Band Saw, or small Hand Saw – you need a narrow blade for cutting some tight corners
  • 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


Having built some mesa-style plateaus, hills, and arches, I’ll show you how to mount, detail, and paint them for durability.

Whenever I have sizeable scraps left over after a project, I set them aside for future projects.  This helps you maximize your hobby dollar.  The MDF board that I am using here is all excess from previous projects.  This explains their odd shapes in the pictures.  Before cutting, I lay out all the board and try different arrangements of terrain pieces to see how they will fit best – with the least amount of waste.  When I lay them out I leave a margin of at least 1″ so that standard infantry models will fit.  this “ring” around the terrain helps define the boundaries for in-game use as well as providing protection for the built-up piece.  If you don’t like the aesthetic, you can make it narrower, but you really want to avoid going flush with the terrain piece.  You lose all protection if you do.

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Make sure that you number your terrain pieces and the corresponding bases before cutting them out.  Matching up the cut-out pieces to terrain and the figuring which side is up is a pain – especially with larger batches.  When you start to cut, it is more important to make cut a smooth path than to stay exactly on the lines.  The smoother your cutouts, the less sanding you have to do.  I use a Dremel drill with a sanding drum to smooth the edges.  If you don’t have one, you’ll need some 100 to 200 grit sandpaper.  Edges left rough will look crummy on the table and have a high likelihood of damaging the surface you play on.

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Once the edges are smooth, you can move on to attaching the terrain to the bases.  For better hold and short drying time I use Liquid Nails construction adhesive rather than PVA glue.  In an hour the pieces are ready for the next stages.  Moving on, You’ll use wall compound or spackle to fill the joints between the base and terrain piece.  You can also add some humps and ridges on the broader flat areas for variety.  These pieces are going to be very generic because I want to use them for any game (Warhammer, 40k, Warmachine, Malifaux, etc).  The shape and texture will be what adds character to the set.  You can spread the filler with a plastic spoon, spatula or even your fingers.  Just make sure that you wear gloves and DON’T use your moms/wifes utensils.  The dollar spent at the discount shop will save you a world of hurt.

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Up to this point, mistakes are pretty easily remediated.  Once we start putting on the basing sand, it gets harder to undo your goofs.  Take your time to plan your work and ensure that you have all of your materials and tools at hand before you begin.

I live in Florida but I buy my sand.  There are too many contaminants in beach or roadside sand to give good, consistent results.  I have found that sand used as a base for paving stones is cheap, pre-washed, and readily available at DIY stores.  Also, this sand has a variety of grain sizes that gives the finished piece a depth of texture.  The only drawback is that the sand often has a lot of moisture in it.  You will need to spread it out and let it dry before proceeding with your project.  Damp sand will not adhere correctly – the basing will easily be brushed off the piece even after it is painted.

Using a large brush, PVA glue is applied to the entire piece.  You want to do this rapidly and as one step before you add any sand.  If you add the sand in stages, you will more than likely get ugly ridges and clumps that form where the batches meet.  As soon as the glue is applied, pour sand over the piece.  Dont be skimpy.  You want to tilt the piece to make sure that sand flows onto every surface and into every gap that has glue.  Once you are sure of your coverage, turn the piece upside down and tap the bottom several times.  You want all of the excess off of the piece before it begins drying.  Liquid glue will migrate via capillary action if you leave excess sand on the piece.  This leads to a clumped, crumbly surface.  Leaving the pieces alone at this point is very important.  Depending on temperature and humidity you should allow the pieces to dry for 8-24 hours.  Fortunately with MDF bases we don’t have to worry about the moisture in the glue causing warping.

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Once dry, you’ll want to roughly brush the surface and edges of each piece to remove any remaining loose sand or gravel.  If these come loose after painting, you’ll have unsightly bare patches to repair and repaint.  Thinning your base paint to a milk consistency will also help avoid bare patches.  The paint will flow better and be drawn down into the gaps between the grains of sand.  This way you don’t have just a layer of paint on top of sand waiting to be rubbed off.  Now with the paint being watery, you’ll want to be sure that the base coat is fully dry before moving farther on.  As a warning, put down LOTS of paper or tarp to catch paint.  The coarse surface will cause more misting and splashing over a greater area than you would expect.  Your clothes are going to catch a lot as well.

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Once these are all dry, I like to add a little depth to the pieces.  I use grey and brown spray primer paint to mist small, irregular patches of color onto the pieces.  This also helps break up the outlines and make the piece look more natural.  In nature, the earth is rarely a uniform color or texture over large areas.  Spray primer has a flat finnish and dries quickly.  When that is ready, you should use a 1″ to 2″ wide brush to drybrush your top color on. Use varying directions and brush pressure to avoid brush strokes and overpainting.  This drybrush will blend all the base colors together and tie all the pieces together.

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Go easy on the drybrushing at first.  Edges and rough patches will always collect the most paint.  You can always go back and add more to specific areas that need it.  If you have applied too much, you will need to cover up with the base color and repaint from there.  Once the last coat is dry, you can and foliage or static grass.  As I have done these particular pieces to match the scheme of an existing table and a couple of armies, I’m finished.

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Here are some pics of the finished pieces laid out on a table that I built for a store 5 or 6 years ago.  Keeping the info on what paint colors used on the original project was quite helpful.  The Ork Boomwagon is just there for scale reference.

  1. Joseph Mattera says:

    Amazing Tutorial!! But what is the mystery colors that were brushed on for the basecoat and highlight?

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