How To Make Useful, Durable Terrain Out Of Vac-form Pieces

Since the late-great 80’s, companies have tried to pawn off various pieces of vac-formed terrain on hapless tabletop gamers.  It’s a great idea.  Vac-forming is easy, inexpensive, and gives a good enough detail rendering to satisfy the needs of the average gamer.  However, the problems with vac-form plastic as a material often give rise to more problems than solutions.

By virtue of being thermo-elastic ($3 word of the day), the material is vulnerable to warping and unexpected shape change in extreme environments… this includes exposure to direct sunlight, leaving the pieces in your car during the day, or sometimes just turning on the lights in your room.  Additionally, paint may have difficulty adhering because the plastic used can often come coated in oils from manufacturing and handling.  Finally, the stretching and smoothing of the material surface during vac-forming may further inhibit paint adhesion.  For many gamers and hobbyists, all of these problems add up to a great big case of “more trouble than it’s worth”.

But, being one of those stubborn and overly frugal individuals (read CHEAP), I am not one to throw out something paid for with good money until all avenues have been explored.  This is where two of Games Workshop’s kits come into the picture.  I refer here to the 40k Moonscape Scenery Set and the (sadly) out of print Planetstrike / Apocalypse Blastscape.  Both are great kits and the price is/was nice at about $25 USD for five unique pieces.  Unfortunately, they also suffer from all of the issues above.  What I’ll do here is show you how to make something durable and attractive for your tabletop out of something that is neither.

         

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First off, I’ll give you a list of tools and material that will be used in this tutorial.

  • 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
  • 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
  • Can of Denatured Alcohol – rubbing alcohol or mineral spirits can work in a pinch
  • Newspaper – something to catch the drips of glue ad sand
  • 2′ x ‘ piece of MDF / Hardiboard – found at DIY centers, it is the same material that clipboards are made of
  • Jigsaw, Coping Saw, or small Hand Saw – you need a narrow blade for cutting some tight corners
  • Electric Drill or Hand Drill with apx 1″ bit – jigsaw will do if you have a way to make a pilot hole
  • 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
  • Bag of Terrain – Moonscape set is still available from GW, good luck trying to find a Blastscape – even on Ebay
  • OPTIONAL:  Can of Low Volume Expanding Foam Insulation – you want the type for around windows and doors

As you can see, a lit of 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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Stage One:  Layout and Cutout

Take your MDF board (base material) and lay it on a flat surface.  Then place the terrain pieces onto the board leaving only a small gap between each.  The closer they are, the more material you will have left over for a future project.

Once they are arranged the way you want them, use your marker to outline each piece.  As you finish each outline, write a number or letter inside the outline AND on the bottom of the corresponding terrain piece.  Trust me, it will save you trying to match up what terrain goes on what board and on what side.  Now CAREFULLY use the Jigsaw to cut out each piece.  You will want to stay as close to the line as possible.  On this (my first) attempt, I left space and went back to clean up my cuts later.  It was very hard to do once the terrain is glued on the base material.  Remember to use eye protection.

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Stage 2:  Optional Drill Out

You should use an electric drill with a 1″ drill bit to put several holes in each piece of base material.  .I tried to line these up with where the highest points on each piece would be located.  Now use your Dremel with the sanding drum or some sand paper to clean up the edges of the holes you drilled. If you don’t do it now, it’s going to be a real bear to try once we move on.  I’ll show you why later.

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Stage 3:  attachment

Please don’t use superglue for this step.  You’ll hate yourself later.  I use Liquid Nails.  This is a construction adhesive designed for attaching items of differing compositions.  As an alternative, you might use Gorilla Glue, but I hate working with water-activated adhesives on pourus materials like the MDF base material.

Spread a thin, even bead along the entire edge along with any interior portion of the terrain piece that is low enough to contact the base.  Mate the terrain piece and the base using the outline as a guide.  Press the pieces together momentarily and then pull them apart.  These adhesives dry faster and cure stronger if you peel them apart after application and expose them to the air for a minute or so.  When the time has passed, reassemble the parts as before ensuring that they are firmly seated around the entire edge.  I then use painters tape to hole the pieces together and in proper alignment for the drying time.  Without the tape, a wandering feline can actually screw up what you thought were two perfectly aligned parts.  Believe it.

In the pictures above I have taped the entirety of the edge.  This is not absolutely necessary unless you are going to take the optional step coming up.

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Stage 4: Optional Reinforcement

I don’t know how much use or how much rough handling your terrain pieces will see.  I travel to lots of stores and often bring terrain to augment their tables for tournaments.  With all the packing, unpacking, and handling, I want my pieces to be as robust as possible.

In this step we will reinforce the flimsy vac-form plastic with expanding insulation foam.  This foam comes in a spray can and is used for sealing gaps and plugging up drafts in homes.  The standard type expands to many times its dispensed volume and is NOT what we want here – it can literally Hulk-out and tear the terrain right off the base.  You want the low-volume insulating spray foam specifically designed for use around doors and windows.  It only expands to two or three times dispensed volume.  You will want to leave the tape on as extra support during this stage.

Once the glue has set and cured on your pieces (I recommend overnight), we can apply the foam.  Attach the applicator tube to the spray can.  It will help you get the foam where you want it.  now, flip your terrain pieces over so you have access to the holes your drilled and sanded earlier.  If you havent sanded the openings yet, do so now.  To apply the foam, insert the applicator towards the each of the highest points of the terrain.  Spray in only enough foam to fill the visible area and just to the opening.  If you overfill, the terrain and base may separate.

The excess will fill most of the underside of the terrain and the excess will ooze out of the drilled openings.  Once dry, you can cut off the oozed out portion.  From the top, the terrain piece will now be much more rigid and resistant to crushing, breaking, warping, etc.

Once used, these cans of foam only have a shelf life of a couple of weeks.  This means that I will try to do as many pieces as I can to get the most value out of each can.  I have seen lots of folks use this expanding foam as organic alien terrain.  I did on my Tyranid terrain.

Since this foam is rigid once cured, I like to use it to reinforce plastic packaging that I find that might be cool terrain if it weren’t so flimsy.  Bakery containers and the packaging that small electronics are where I have found some useful candidates before.  I always put the piece on an MDF base to further reinforce the piece.  Here is how I used it.

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Stage 5: Cleanup and Basing

once the foam has cured overnight, we are in the home stretch.  Go ahead and remove the tape from the edges of the piece.  Check and see that there are no gaps between the terrain and the base of each piece.  If there is, you should fill it with a wood putty or fast-drying drywall filler.

Assuming you are gapless or repaired, you can move on to cleanup.  Use your Dremel with the sanding drum attachment (or sandpaper) to smooth the bottom and top edges of the base of the terrain leaving it rounded and smooth.  This will prevent the piece from having a ragged appearance or damaging your gaming surface.  Now, be sure to brush off all of the dust before we go on.  We are going to wipe down the surface of each terrain piece with a cloth dampened with denatured or rubbing alcohol (please no tequila, beer, or whiskey – it is a waste and leaves a residue).  The alcohol will remove any grease or oil as well as prepare the plastic to better receive the paint.  It takes just a moment for this to evaporate from the piece.

Now, I use white glue (Elmers in my case) to add my basing sand to the pieces where appropriate.  The paver sand is a washed mix of sand and crushed gravel that gives a very realistic ground cover appearance once painted.  However, you can use GW basing material or another flock to match your table or other terrain.

When the glue has dried, you may prime and paint your pieces as you like.  Please be sure to once again brush away any loose sand or dust to ensure the best paint finish possible.

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Games Workshop Apocalypse / Planetstrike Blastscape and Moonscape Craters

         

         

Good luck, be safe, and have fun.  Let us know in the comments if you have questions or suggestions.  Also, feel free to share your own vac-form trials and triumphs.

UPDATE:  We have built more vac-form pieces.  This time we color match pieces for one of Frontline Gaming’s F.A.T. Mats.  Check out the tutorial here.  You can read the review of the mat here.

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Comments
  1. Joseph De Stefano says:

    AHHHHHH……The many uses of spray foam………Hmmmm I wonder if they want a link on this page…think about it ….a few cents for every hit….but overall ,,, love this tutorial, nice finished product once again.

    • Nice idea about the foam. I just don’t think Home Depot is gonna give up the juice. 🙂 However, I will go ahead and link to the brand and type that I used to point folks in the right direction.

  2. Sithdevil says:

    Awesome tutorial, I can’t wait to try this myself some day soon 🙂

  3. Darksun says:

    Thank you for the tutorial. One suggestion, smear a little caulk over the edge of the sanded/bevelled mdf and use a wet finger to smooth it. You only need a very thin covering but it will seal the mdf and prevent moisture from getting in and swelling the mdf. I had a piece outside drying when a storm blew in and dumped a ton of water on it. Thanks to the newspaper I had the piece on it was standing in a pool of water but despite that extreme test my piece weathered the weather with zero swelling and fluffiness. This slightly rubbery tough edge will protect the base and go a long way to preventing those edges from damaging anything when they come into contact. It might be best to do this before gluing the base to the vacuform terrain.

  4. AndSomeDoug says:

    Great article. Like a memorial last rite ~ I often look at the thin disposable plastic containers and reflect on how they could of been used if they were not so flimsy and difficult to adhere paint to ~ before dumping them in the bin.

    Now I know have to use themI’ll be able to save some of these interesting shapes.

  5. Azazel says:

    Great work here. If I hadn’t already finished my vac-formed craters, I’d (potentially) be all over this.

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