Welcome to another DIY installment. For this lesson we’re going to focus on another wargaming staple, the crater. Why craters? Because a lot of the craters out there that I’ve seen could use serious improvement. I know some of you are quite fond of them, but together, we can do better!
We’re going to show how even a simple terrain concept like a crater can be fleshed out and detailed to dramatic results with relatively little effort.
The first step in making realistic, dynamic craters that don’t suck is to decide what kind of craters we want on our table. Craters can be divided into two categories: Artillery/weapon impacts, and naturally occurring craters caused by objects hitting the ground from high altitude. Lets examine some actual craters before we even get started.
This is a natural crater on Earth’s moon. Natural craters like this one are usually very regular and round. This is because of the high amount of energy being delivered by the impact turns the ground and rock itself into something more like a liquid. This is also why large natural craters sometimes have central uplifts. (rebounding shockwaves push the center back upwards, exactly like dreaded toilet splashback.) This crater is called Aristarchus; it’s 30 miles in diameter, but the terminology and formation principles are fairly similar for much smaller craters.
And here are several craters caused by various kinds of explosive devices. Some important things to take note of, are the lack of features like pronounced rays and central uplifts, and each crater has a certain irregularity, with jagged edges and a surrounding halo of scattered debris.
Finally, a quick guide to why craters look the way they do. When an explosive object (1.) hits, it will often penetrate the ground before exploding. (2.) The shockwaves of the explosion radiate outwards in all directions, pushing the ground down and sideways. (3.) This sideways force is what pushes up the crater wall. If there is a harder material on top of the ground, like asphalt or concrete, this material will also be pushed up by the ground underneath and will crack like a broken shell. (4.) As the explosion subsides, all the material that was thrown upwards, will fall back down, (5.) settling at the bottom of sloped shards of concrete, and sometimes piling up on the floor of the crater. (6.)
Now that we know more about craters (Or if you just skimmed past everything) it’s time to start making some! This guide will be split into three parts. In the first part, we’ll be making a very basic, simple crater. In parts two and three, we’ll be stepping up our game and trying more complicated designs.
First, required materials:
- Some bases. We make all of our terrain on pieces of cut and sanded 5/8″ MDF board, which is very sturdy and has decent warp resistant qualities and is available from hardware or lumber stores.
- Lightweight spackle. This ever-present material is the best all-purpose gap-filler and sets hard and light.
- A small rubber spatula.
- Some pieces of high density insulation foam and foamcore board.
- A retractable heavy-duty hobby knife with a sharp blade.
- PVA Glue. (Also known as white glue, Elmer’s Glue or wood glue.)
- Some gravel, preferably at least a couple different grades such as very fine sand, and a coarser mix of fine gravel.
- Scraps of stuff, florist wires, bitz and loose, leftover pieces of model sprues, wood scraps, broken plaster, leftover foam chunks and anything else you can mix together for rubble and debris.
- Some craft paints. Most importantly, black, white and a warm brown color. I prefer brands such as Delta and Americana.
Other helpful items:
- Extra paints, such as browns, metallic colors, primary colors.
- Inks. Vallejo Smoke and black are a couple personal favorites for weathering.
- Spray-on black primer or enamel.
- A hot glue-gun for the impatient.
- A spray bottle and dropper.
On our first crater, we’ll be making a very traditional, very basic, no-frills crater. This is a crater that could be an impact crater or an artillery crater, and really shouldn’t take anyone more than an hour to make, not counting drying time.
Using a round base, you simply cut chunks of insulation foam into small, similar sized triangles. These triangles are then glued down with PVA glue in a circle or semi-circle.
This is going to be your crater wall, so try to make the outside of the crater slope down more gently than the inside to preserve the illusion of depth. Placement should not be perfect, and your pieces should not be identical. Nature rarely makes perfect shapes, and a crater this small is likely to be shaped odd or somewhat irregular.
Once the PVA glue has set, slather some lightweight spackle over your crater walls until the gaps are filled and the slope is blended down to the edges of the base. If your spatula is flexible, you can press your spackle into the inside edge to give the crater a smooth, bowl shaped interior.
Give the spackle a day to dry, or just a few hours if left in warm sunlight. Once dry, shave off any excess, or ideally sand smooth with a relatively fine sandpaper. (Spackle dust can be hazardous to your health! Do your sanding outside or somewhere you can collect all dust. Always wear a filter mask or other protective gear when sanding!)
Water down a little PVA glue until it’s the consistency of whole milk or cream. Brush this mixture over the crater, working in sections if it dries or runs off too quickly.
While the PVA is still wet, sprinkle on your first layer of texture. In this case, a fine-sifted sand.
With the slopes of the crater now textured, you can sprinkle on your coarser sand around the edges. Sprinkle this mix on dry, allowing it to roll down the inside and outside edges of the crater. This will look more natural, as larger rocks tend to pile up below finer soil.
Once you’re satisfied with your gravel, take your watered PVA mix and just drizzle it over the crater. A spray of water beforehand may help the glue flow through the sand and gravel.
Allow it to dry thoroughly, then brush lightly with an old brush. This is to shake off anything that’s not glued down completely, because it’s much better to have the loose stuff fall off here than while you’re painting the finishing touches.
Now paint everything black. Watering down your black paint just a little bit helps it flow into all the texture. Alternatively, you can use a spray-can primer.
Now we begin the actual painting process. Start with a mixture of brown and a little black, making a dark, muddy color which you brush liberally over the entire crater, but allowing a little of the black to show through under heavy textures. (Note that these paints dry darker than when they are wet.)
Then using a pure, warm toned brown, dry brush a few areas of your crater heavily, such as any gravel piles. This will make the ground look mottled, with dusty or muddy areas.
Now mix a little white and black into your black-brown base coat, making an earth-toned grey color. Dry brush this color on, lighter than previous coats.
Add a little more white to the previous mix, and drybrush on again, even more lightly than before.
Add more white until the mixture is just a very pale grey, and apply carefully with a very dry brush around just the most raised edges or areas you want to call attention to. Never highlight with pure white or your terrain will look chalky and unrealistic.
And there you have it. You made a crater. Congratulations, throw a party.
At this point you could flock the edges, add some wreckage, serve chips and dip in it for your dinner guests. Whatever.
While this crater works, and is fast and looks better than a lot of craters out there, it’s still very simplistic and boring. But we can use these basic principles to start stepping up our game!
The above crater represents an impact or blast on a uniform ground cover of dirt or gravel. You could easily scale it up and have a great and easy moonscape to play on, but what about when your battles take you to urban or developed locations? Blast effects look much different when they hit structures and sidewalks, so now lets make a simple concrete crater.
We start similar to before, with a base or two, and some chunks of blue or pink high-density insulation foam. But this time cut a few of your pieces lengthwise, in order to get a few thinner pieces, between 1/2″ and 1/4″ thick. Be careful cutting foam this way, I highly recommend that you make all cuts drawing away from your other hand as well as your body. This kind of styrofoam grips blades very firmly as you’re cutting, but can suddenly and unexpectedly release.
Now take your thin pieces and snap them. Break them a few different ways, hack at them roughly with a knife if you need to. you’re looking for nice, rough edges that look like broken stone or concrete.
Now it’s time to get a little creative. Cut some of your broken pieces so that they can lay with the jagged side facing slightly up. You’re simulating the broken layer of bedrock or concrete that’s been pushed upwards around the edge of the crater, so go ahead and mix it up a little, with some pieces laying at odd angles, or pushed and crushed into each other.
Spackle like before, but this time much more carefully. This time you want to keep the crater rim clear, as well as leaving some overhang under some of your slabs.
Like before, sand down your excess or unwanted spackle, but be careful not to sand down the jagged edges of your foam chunks.
Now take watered down PVA glue and cover all the exposed styrofoam. You’re going to let this coat dry! This will act as a sealant for spray-priming later, and it strengthens the styrofoam against wear.
While you’re waiting for the PVA to dry, now would be a good time to start thinking about what kind of substructure might have been under that concrete slab. Even just a few small touches like some florist wires, plastic sprues or plasticard bits can create a very powerful suggestion that something important got broken here.
Now go get some more diluted PVA glue and brush it over the edges and slopes that you want to look like piled up dirt and debris before sprinkling on your first layer of texture. Keep the PVA off your plastic bits, it wont let primer adhere.
Next comes one of my most favorite activities in this hobby, laying down rubble! Everyone here has their own particular recipes and special mixes for piles of rubble in different environments, so don’t be afraid to experiment. Scraps from old projects, sweepings from your table after a project, chopped up… anything, really. Just mix well and start sprinkling around the edges of your crater. Have care though, and manually position the larger pieces especially so they look dramatic.
More gravel all over everything too, because a bomb blast is like a blender.
Take extra care gluing everything down as well. Use droppers and sprayers if you don’t want all your carefully placed rubble to float downstream.
Once everything is totally dry, use a few blasts of spray primer over your bare plastic or metal bits, and then continue base coating black any way you wish.
Paint your crater much like before, with base colors of brown, black/brown, and I like to make our bare concrete a cooler toned grey than the dirty rubble for contrast.
Continue highlighting your base colors by drybrushing lighter and lighter mixes, making some areas lighter than others for an uneven appearance.
A few final highlights of very light grey, and you could easily call this done. I often go back and repaint some details like metal pipes, unique pieces of rubble, wooden pieces, Etc.
A few more hours of work, but miles of difference to the finished product. But what’s that? You want to keep going? Alright then, lets go take a look at more ways to make our tabletop feel like a realistically shattered landscape.
While the previous technique is great for basic urban craters, or craters that have pushed up strata of bedrock, it’s still missing some of that 3T flair for the dramatic. So for this last section, we’ll illustrate the destructive power that made these craters with some ruins,
Plan ahead when you cut your bases! A little creative base cutting can give you an opportunity to show the indiscriminate nature of a large barrage. Here I’m laying down a square of foamcore board to simulate a building foundation. I like to hack up the foamcore to follow the shape of the crater, as well as carving in cracks and breaks in the foundation.
Use combination techniques for places where the craters overlap onto other materials. Spackle to fill gaps and seams like before, and add any structural elements, in this case some urban walls from our workshop, but even a few pieces of rough-cut foamcore, cardboard or insulation foam can give the impression of ruined buildings.
Even small craters can create a subtle pattern of rays projecting out from between the sharp edges of the crater. When applying texture, you can lay down a few small trails of material for dramatic effect.
Pile your rubble up against walls and crevices, places where debris will get pushed into by wind, rain, foot traffic and blasts. It’s entirely up to you how much rubble and uneven surface you want your ruins to have. Add rebar (florist wire) to your walls, craters and some of the broken bits, as well as plasticard accessories like window, wall and roof trim on your ruins, broken pipes, H-beams and other structural elements.
Prime thoroughly, first spray-priming your plastic and metal bits with enamel, and then using a brush or airbrush, make sure your black paint gets deep into every nook and cranny. With a lot of rubble, it may take several coats before all the white spots are covered. Base coat like before with a few different brown and grey tones. Scattered pieces of the different materials should land in different places.
Alternate highlights up like the previous project until you get to very light grey, which again, is used sparingly. Once painted, you can add some extra weathering and shading to make your pieces look even more dynamic. Applying a few thinned washes of black ink into the deep recesses will make the whole piece look more dimensional, and some splattered brown and black ink on the floor make nice dried puddles.
Final touches can include weather streaking, dried puddles and stains, sandbags, crates and drums, windblown litter like posters and paper, pigment powder washes, or if you really want to start compiling techniques, a few strands of razorwire will top off your piece nicely.
Here is some more crater porn to help fuel your imagination!
That’s it for now! Want to learn more? Let us know!