DIY: Making Wargaming Hills the 3T-Studios Way!

Welcome to our first step-by-step article that will guide you through making an actual, fully finished piece of terrain in the 3T-Studios style!

For this DIY we’re going to cover the staple of wargaming terrain, the one piece of scenery that you can find on just about any table, anywhere in the world- The hill.

While there is a huge variety of hills that people have made, there is probably one dominant picture that pops into your mind right away when we talk about wargaming hills:

Here we have your basic chunk of styrofoam insulation, cut with a hot knife, stacked, painted and flocked. This style works fine when you absolutely have to get some terrain on your table, and you don’t have a lot of time to spend on it. It’s adequate looking from a distance and very easy to move troops over. But this is NOT what we’re going to make, because to me, this thing does not look like a hill.

These are hills:

Well, photos of real hills at least. In nature, hills are made by many different geological processes, such as layers of earth that crunch together, buckle, fold and erode, making sharp or random shapes that jut out of the earth. Capturing this look may be a little more time consuming, but as you’ll see, it’s not especially difficult nor expensive to add this kind of flavor to your gaming table.

The first thing we need to do is talk about our bare minimum list of supplies, many of which are  probably  already in your yard or house, especially if you’re a hobbyist already.

  • Bases. We absolutely have to have a sturdy base to build our hills on! For this project we’re using MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard, or Tempered Hardboard) board that’s been cut with a reciprocating saw into rounded shapes and then sanded smooth on their edges. If you substitute these with anything softer or you may have issues with durability and warping.
  • Filler. The easiest material to work with is lightweight spackle (AKA pollyfill,) but you could also use drywall compound or plaster.
  • “Rocks.” You have a lot of options here, from natural pieces of stone you can gather outside, to construction rubble, to my personal favorite, chunks of decorative bark, available in large bags from garden centers.
  • Some assorted  chunks of styrofoam or insulation foam.
  • Soil. By far the easiest material to acquire, it’s just dirt, sand and gravel. I use sifted “grades” when texturing my terrain
  • Glue. PVA glue, or “white glue” is cheap, safe and bonds great to natural materials. A hot glue-gun would also be a helpful addition, but not critical.
  • Acrylic paints, at least black, white and a couple of earth tones.
  • Flock. Completely optional, this is just shredded green sponge that comes in a variety of colors and sizes from your local hobby shop.
  • Some assorted model bits. Another optional ingredient, which you can use to add unique ruins, wrecks or rubble to your scenery.
  • Tools: A sharp, retractable hobby knife, some sandpaper,  a small spatula and an electric hot foam-cutting knife.

Now that we have everything we need, the first thing we’re going to do is throw away that hot foam-cutter.

That’s right, throw it away. If you ran out and purchased one just for this project, rest assured that your money was well spent because you just did the world a favor. These things are slow-cutting, imprecise, leave melted strands of goo everywhere and break easy.

While we’re at it, lets throw some other things away too.

There, that’s better. Now we can get to work!

There is no right or wrong way to design your hills, but for the most natural, yet still playable designs you will want to have some smooth flat or sloped areas, along with some areas of jutting rocks and boulders.

Using a hobby knife, cut some of your foam pieces to bulk out the main body of your hill, and some smaller wedge-shaped pieces to support the rocks or bark. Glue your pieces down with PVA glue, or if you’re in a hurry, you can use hot glue. You only need to hold your pieces in place at this point, the filler will also help bind everything together later.

This is the fun part where you can think of different designs for your hills, and how they can be played with in your games!

 

 

 

 

When I build hills using wood or bark, I often try to align the grain of the wood in an angular direction, to simulate strata of rock that’s buckled and pushed upwards over time. This makes a very dramatic finished hill, especially when repeated on additional terrain pieces.

Continue to shape and trim your foam, try to stuff large gaps with smaller bits of foam or wood so that you don’t have to use too much filler on the next step.

Filler basically represents the dirt and soil which your rocky outcroppings are sticking out of. Here I’m working filler into the gaps between the wood chunks. Filler is also spread evenly over the body and slopes of the hill, making  nice, smooth transitions across the hill.

 

The same principle applies if you’re using natural stone, but be aware that stone is much heavier than wood, so you cannot use a lot of it, especially on larger hills!

The advantage to real rocks, is that you can achieve some interesting effects, such as these chunks of railroad ballast I collected near some train tracks, which appear to be rippled, melted slag from a furnace.

 

 

 

 

Again, fill out the shape of the hill and work your filler into cracks.  Let your filler dry completely before moving onto the next step, sanding.

Using a fairly rough (60 – 100 grit) sandpaper, give your whole hill a good sanding, smoothing out the rough spots of filler.

WARNING: Nearly all sanded filler dust can be toxic to inhale! Please do all your sanding outside or in well-ventilated areas where the dust can be easily contained and collected. Always wear a dust-mask or respirator when sanding, and change your clothes afterwards!

Now we have several hills, smoothed and ready for detailing! At this point it would be good to make some decisions about what kind of environment you want these hills to represent. A rocky alien wasteland? Dense jungle? Rolling plains? These decisions could effect what kind of texture and accessories you’ll be applying next.

You can accessorize your hills with pieces from your bits-box, adding ruined walls, wrecked vehicles, piles of bodies, tree stumps, or anything else you can imagine, or if you prefer, just leave your hills featureless and natural.

For several of these hills, I’m placing these resin-cast burrows/fumaroles, which are 3T-Studios exclusive pieces, now back on our eBay store! There are also other resin bits we sell periodically such as these creepy chaos spikes, paver stones, and others we’re adding all the time. Yes this is a shameless plug, but small accessories like these can completely change the atmosphere of even a simple model like a rocky hill, as you’ll see once everything is painted.

After priming my plastic bits, careful not to get primer on any exposed foam, it’s time to add texture! Use an old brush to apply watered down PVA glue over the smooth areas. If your hill is large, you may need to do this in sectors.

I start with a layer of sand I call medium grade, which has been sifted through a screen. This will be my base-texture. Allow to dry before moving  to the next step.

Now using a a rougher, unsifted sand mix, apply PVA glue in areas where you can imagine rocks and builders crumbling down the hill-side. Don’t overdo it, especially if you’re going to be using a lot of flock later. Let dry again.

Finally, as an option you can apply some patches of super-fine dust to a few different areas, especially effective for a more windswept, barren or baked-earth look.

You can glue down a few tiny pebbles around your rocks to really make your hill appear weathered and crumbling. Once you’re satisfied with your textures, it’s time to let everything dry completely, and move on to painting!

Give the whole hill a nice, even coat of black paint. make sure to thin your paint so you don’t obscure details. You may need to do this several times to get every nook and cranny of your rocks painted.

For these hills, I gave a liberal semi-dry brushing of a mixture of dark earth-tones over the ground cover, allowing black shadows to show through. There are far too many methods, color schemes and styles of painting for me to cover here, but for the most dynamic looking hills, use a slightly contrasting color for your rocky areas. Here I used a reddish iron-oxide base color for the rocks.

Dry-brush lighter and lighter tones over your hills and rocks as highlights. I brought this soil color up to a very light brown/beige, and the rocks were highlighted with a golden-brown color. Never use pure white as a highlight unless you’re painting snowy terrain, or it will look chalky and too stark!

At this point, if you’re making hills for a barren desert or mars-like alien world, you can call your hill finished and start playing! Otherwise, we’re ready to add a little foliage.

This is another area where personal preference reigns supreme. I prefer to use flock very sparingly, only to provide a little contrasting color. You can however decide that you want rolling green, pastoral hills and may want to use a lot of flock. Apply a little bit of watered PVA glue and apply  and sprinkle on your flock your flock in areas you can imagine grass growing, and once dry shake off the excess. If your flocked areas appear too “patchy” you can take a toothbrush and scrub the edges of your patches to smooth them into the surrounding terrain.

larger clumps of foliage should be placed in in areas that might offer protection from foot traffic and elements, and allow larger bushes to grow, such as between boulders or under the edges of cliffs.

Once all the PVA has dried completely, you can give your hill a light coat of matte sealing spray, and then grab your dice because it’s time to deploy!

I know some of you may be looking at these particular sample hills and saying “How can I perch my rank-and-file units on these things?”  So let me take a second to reiterate, as clearly as possible, THESE TECHNIQUES ARE EASY TO MODIFY!

Plateau Hill PictureHere you can see the same principles I demonstrated above, with a different style of hill. Realistic mesas and flat hills can be made simply by laying your flat pieces of bark or flat rocks horizontal on top of your foam chunks before applying your filler. With simple adjustments to the way you put your ingredients together, you can still create beautiful scenery to help immerse yourself and your gaming friends into your games, while retaining the easy-to-use functionality of the old-fashioned “step-hills.”

I hope this article has given you some ideas and inspiration for making your own dynamic landscapes, and if you do use the techniques shown here, we want to see! Please send your pictures, ideas and hints to projects@3t-studios.com and we may use your submission in a future section. Now please enjoy some finished pictures of the hills we made for this tutorial and happy terraforming!





Comments

  1. Sid says:

    Great tutorial. By some measure the best on the net. Inspired me to make my first piece of scenery in neatly twenty years….. Great stuff!

    • 3T Runtherder says:

      Great to hear it! Thank you for letting us know that what we do inspires, that’s one of our best rewards.

      That and money.

      Money is also a good reward, but secondary to sacks and sacks of unmarked bills, I’ll definitely take kind words and inspiration :)

  2. Rich says:

    Thanks for the tips, this is a great tutorial! I made a piece for a hex board to be blocking terrain using some broken asphalt from a parking lot. Not as good as yours but it’s the first I’ve ever done.

    http://img689.imageshack.us/img689/6229/4j68.jpg

  3. brushmarks says:

    Thanks for the tips. After numerous consultations here, I finished 5 hills and received grand accolades from my game store.

  4. Sam Stubbs says:

    Thanks for the tutorial. Just a side note I wanted to mention: I used linoleum tiles (the thicker ones you see in schools etc.) and they worked really well for bases also. They are cheap at Home Depot, and easy to cut (just score wtih a knife.)

    Anyway, thanks for the tutorial!! Fantastic stuff!

    • 3T Runtherder says:

      That’s right, there are a lot of different materials that you can use as bases, I’ll try to cover the alternatives in a future guide, but as I mentioned elsewhere, every material has strengths and weaknesses, and materials like plasticard, linoleum, and cork sheets are great for small pieces of terrain, but are sometimes too flexible for larger pieces of terrain. (You don’t want the base flexing and all the nice, lovely rocks popping right off!)

      • Sam Stubbs says:

        That’s true, I was doing small / medium cliffs’; I can definitely see how on larger pieces linoleum might get unwieldy. Good point, thanks for the heads up.

        So, quick question. I’m assuming you cut your hardboard pieces out with a jigsaw. Do you have any recommendations for jigsaws? I’d like to go as cheap as possible of course, but is it more worth it to go on the higher end of the scale?

        • 3T Runtherder says:

          Good question, I really want to make an article going into better detail on cutting and preparing MDF, but for now here are some general tips:

          * Jigsaws range in price from $20.00 to over $150.00 brand new. Since a jigsaw is a handy tool to own for all kinds of projects, try to get something mid-range so it will last you a few years at least. Something like this Skill saw would do you just fine.
          * You can get great deals on power tools at pawn shops, but make sure it’s a quality brand like Dewalt, as it would be a lot more likely to withstand years of use.
          * The only real feature you need is the ability to turn the blade angle so you can cut at 45 degrees, this makes smoothing the edges of “natural” terrain bases a lot easier.
          * Change your blade often, they start to lose their edge after only 10 minutes or so of cutting. You’ll feel it as it takes more pressure to get through the MDF.
          * For the love of all that’s holy and unholy, WEAR SAFETY GEAR. Goggles/safety glasses are a must. MDF dust contains formaldehyde so at least wear a dust mask when you cut and sand.

          • Sam Stubbs says:

            Sorry! Late response, but thanks for the info! I’ve been borrowing my uncle’s equipment thus far, but I think I’m ready to go get my own saw pretty soon.

            Anyway thanks again for the info, and keep up the awesome work!

  5. dallas says:

    Bravo! This is great inspiration!

  6. Tony Harwood says:

    I keep coming back to this site as the definitive tutorial for rocky outcrops.

    It is my intention to build some small hills and rocky outcrops for my own table. Check out the Blog for details.

    Tony

    • 3T Runtherder says:

      I’m glad this guide is handy enough that it has replay value! I’ll be watching your blog, let us know if you have any questions :)

    • Sam Stubbs says:

      Agreed. By far some of the best rocky terrain I’ve seen. A definite “go to” reference!

  7. Jeff says:

    Can you give more details on what type of bark you used and where you got it?

    • 3T Runtherder says:

      You can get decorative bark at most garden centers, nurseries, landscape suppliers and home stores with garden supplies. It comes in huge bags and you can find it near mulch and bagged gravel. Expect to pay $10 – $15 for a bag.

      It can be found under many different brand names and comes in 3 sizes sometimes, try to look for medium or large for the best textures. I had the best luck at Wal Mart of all places. Good luck! (And wear gloves, the stuff is VERY splintery before you sand and paint it.)

  8. When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now
    each time a comment is added I get three emails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove people from that service?

    Many thanks!

    • 3T Runtherder says:

      I’m sorry that our page is flooding you with notifications, I’m looking into the issue and it seems to not have an easy fix, I’ll try to get into the wordpress tables and manually find your e-mail and remove it from the list, so hang tight.

  9. Michael says:

    I just wanted to say that your tutorial inspired me to skip the foam cutter and go right for a style like these! I’ve just finished a few pieces over the weekend and can’t wait to get them on the table! Thanks for the inspiration!

    http://cf.geekdo-images.com/images/pic1502796_md.jpg
    http://cf.geekdo-images.com/images/pic1502795_md.jpg
    http://cf.geekdo-images.com/images/pic1502783_md.jpg
    http://cf.geekdo-images.com/images/pic1502786_md.jpg
    http://cf.geekdo-images.com/images/pic1502784_md.jpg

    I took a bunch of pictures as I was building them if anyone wanted to see the wip shots! Thanks again!
    http://boardgamegeek.com/images/user/304747/zuggzugg

    • 3T Runtherder says:

      Michael, these pieces are awesome! I particularly like the jagged look of your landscapes, the natural, uneven edges of the crater, and the care you took with textures and subtle work with painting. Hope to see more!

      • Michael says:

        Thank you for the compliments. Yes, the rocks have about 5 colors in them, although its hard to see in the photos. The ground has about the same number with a few washes in between. I will be working on more pieces after the holidays. I’m currently working on a building ruin using the insulation foam. I’m always updating my gallery on bgg and I will be sure to post the next ones here as well!

        Very glad to have found your site and skipped the foam cutter! :)

    • oobacke says:

      very nice! Good job!

  10. Jim says:

    this shit is tits.

    -Jim

  11. Daniel says:

    This tutorial is awesome! I made a forrest piece based on this tutorial.

  12. Derus says:

    This tutorial was awesome. I made my first piece of terrain ever. Not near the same quality as yours but far above what I would have made had I followed one of the other tutorials I had found.

    This was my first piece I started pretty simple and am working on 1′x1′ squares.
    http://sphotos-a.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ash4/424360_4026202606961_712545300_n.jpg

    Thanks again for the tutorial!

    • 3T Runtherder says:

      Your terrain looks great! I’m so happy you shared it with us, in fact you are the first person to actually directly share a picture of work they made based off of our guides, and because of this, I’ll be contacting you in order to send you a prize!
      (Now don’t all you other folks wish you posted those pictures you always talked about sending?)

      • Derus says:

        I just got my package and I can’t wait to use the stuff that came in it. Sadly I am swamped in my art classes and at work. But I am already thinking about terrain pieces I want to work them into.

        I got what seems to be half a set of 3T Studios Craters, Boxes, and Skulls as well as two Cogs.

        Thank you for the prize!

  13. w00f says:

    Awesome tutorial, best I’ve seen online yet!

  14. Luis says:

    Hi, great work.

  15. Fryboth says:

    I got to the part where you had your reference photos, and I didn’t realize they were reference photos and I was like, “Whoaaaaaaaaa….” Still your terrain is amazing.

    • 3T Runtherder says:

      Don’t worry I had a family member look at this page wondering what kind of work I did. He called me up and yelled “Those mountains are perfect!”

      It took a while for me to figure out why he was so enthusiastic.

  16. Draxxon says:

    Just found this through stumbleupon, and you’re absolutely right about the foamcutter. Biggest waste of $20 I’ve ever spent, makes a huge mess, and cuts foam (especially blue/pink insulation foam) slower then a snail in snot. Great tutorial!

  17. Great tutorial and awsome terrain! But one thing! ;-) particularly when it comes to play games like warhammer fantasy these terrain can only use by infitration units! So it could be a task for the future to make marvellous terrain that is more playable without gettin in that oldschool sort of hills like the sort u threw away! ;-) Do not take it as an argument! its just critisism from a longt time gameer and terrain builder! And i realy love ur terrain! 100% the place where i found and find inspiration! Respect!

    • 3T Runtherder says:

      Good point Lenny! The hills in this particular guide would be problematic for Warhammer Fantasy’s rank-and-file troops, or a unit in a movement tray. Luckily these particular hills are really only meant to be samples to demonstrate how one can compile various techniques for a far more convincing result, which I hope an inspired reader can apply to their own terrain projects for their specific wargames, rulesets or play styles.

  18. John says:

    Your jar of green foliage clusters should also bear a label that reads “This IS NOT weed.” Anyway, great step-by-step tutorial; I plan on making some scenery soon!

  19. admiraldick says:

    top notch tutorial. a wonderfully simple and straight-forward way of making any gaming table look about a hundred times better. could you tell us where you got your bark ‘chips’ from? i’ve been looking for some for a while and am struggling to find anything bigger than very small mulching chips.

    • 3T Runtherder says:

      I found 3 sizes being sold at a Lowe’s garden center, small, medium and large. Other places you might could try are nurseries and landscaping supply centers.

  20. Trey Morton says:

    Thanks for the great tutorial – I’ve started making some hills thanks to this.

    Is the gothic window arch ruin from a certain place, or did you make one yourselves and cast it?

    Thanks!

    .trey

  21. Tucker says:

    So I just started my new board with this technique and it is working like a CHARM. I found that if you need to make a long gradual incline (i.e. a hill but not too steep to place models on) you can use the sand paper to file down the foam as well.

    Working with spackling paste/ filler in the past has however left me with some frustrations as it has a tendency to chip off revealing little white specks showing through the base coat. Im going to put a base coat of paint on it before I even start gluing dirt so Im hoping this will help. Is that what the matte finish is for? Also I hate punctuation go panthers

    • 3T Runtherder says:

      Hope to see pictures of your finished work! If your spackling is chipping it’s probably because it’s either unsanded, a bad (or drying out) mixture, or not fully set before working with . The layers of PVA and paint should hold everything together very solidly, the matte finish is just to help protect the paint from chipping off the rocks.

      Good luck!

    • GM Squeege says:

      You can always add paint to the spackle and when it chips off, it will show through colored, rather than white.

  22. TOMB says:

    Agreed; a very good tutorial and some smart looking scenery. I would add one final tip – whenever you build terrain, keep some of your army handy. That way you can check that everything is staying to scale (important for construction of buildings, especially doorways, bunkers and parapets) and that your hill is level enough for figures to stand on without toppling during gameplay.

    • 3T Runtherder says:

      Very good tip! I always keep some figures handy for reference when I build, but I didn’t show that important step here, thanks!

  23. Skywatcher says:

    Automatic thumbs up for not being the horrible looking square edges hills that plague gaming tables around the room. (I love them thrown in the trash to make a point) Your final product looks great and is not that much more work to create. Thank you!

  24. Ron says:

    Very cool and useful tutorial. Your terrain is some of the best I’ve seen!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Here is one picture showing base before adding fillers and paintings. It is just bare styrofoam and some small rocks. This site was very helpful to learn how to build rocky base for scale model. ( http://www.3t-studios.com/archives/2642#more-2642) [...]

  2. [...] y la verdad es que me ha parecido muy bueno y no he podido resistirme a compartirlo con vosotros. Ver tutorial completo de 3T-Studios para crear colinas Escenografia Tutoriales de Pintura Compartir !tweet !function(d,s,id){var [...]

  3. [...] following is a DIY Tutorial from  3t-studios.com that we have read and enjoyed. It is done quite well which is why we are featuring it [...]

  4. [...] Written on 23 March, 2012. Posted in 28mm, Terrain Painted by 3T Runtherder, as seen on: 3t-studios.com [...]

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