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Modular Terrain - Part 2

by Gary James

With the materials bought and delivered to the club hall the terrain team - consisting me, Adam, Will, Ryan, Richard, Mark and Tom (the latter two being youngsters of GorkaMorka fort fame) - prepared to work.

Cutting the polystyrene squares

I had already hacked the polystyrene roughly into 24 inch square pieces. Remember our base boards are 22 inches square. Each piece of polystyrene had at least one straight edge.

We used my home made hot wire cutter to trim each piece of polystyrene to fit the 22 inch square baseboards. It is important to get a square cut - a sloping edge would create a gap at the surface. As you can see, we used a board as a cutting template.

Adam prepares to cut the polystyrene. Modular Terrain - Part 2

Some of the squares would have the river cut out of them and we left these unfixed to make this easier. Any square which did not need further cutting for a river was now glued onto its baseboard. Use a generous layer of PVA glue. We found that taping each side to the baseboard held the polystyrene firmly down and made a better joint.

Marking out the terrain

Modular Terrain - Part 2Once all the squares of polystyrene had been cut we laid them out together in the shape of the final terrain. Using a fat black marker pen the map which I showed you in stage 1 was copied onto the polystyrene. Take care not to take river cuts too close to an edge or corner or you will have a fragile section.

These tiles are not intended to be re-useable in different positions, but a bit of planning will make them more flexible. For example, if you always run your roads down the centre or at the same distance from the edge of the tile you will be able to flip them around and still have them join up. Sometimes this looks too contrived and in this case we didn't worry about making the tiles work in different positions. Any tile or pair of tiles that finish with flat edges can be re-used elsewhere, and even a hill that is sliced in half in two directions can be placed in a corner position.

Basic terrain forming

With the marking out complete we began to cut out the river sections and build up the hills. Adam and Will cut down the centre of the river first and then cut back the sloping banks with a long blade knife. The exposed chipboard was left bare to be painted as river surface at a later stage.

Modular Terrain - Part 2The hills were built up from layers of polystyrene glued onto the tiles. Cocktail sticks were pushed through as 'nails' to help secure the layers. A long blade knife was then used to hack out a nice slope. Naturally sloping hills, rather than stepped hills, look more natural. This is when I cut myself - be careful when cutting polystyrene with a knife - the blade can emerge very suddenly. I left some vertical crag faces in the large hill that you can see at the right-hand edge of the above picture.

The road and pond were made by melting the polystyrene to a depth of about 5mm. We used a soldering iron with a flat tip but you could cut it out with a blade too.

Modular Terrain - Part 2This is the terrain with all the cutting finished and the hills in place. You can see the tape strips that we used to help hold everything together until the glue set. Compare this with the drawing from stage 1 and I think you'll see we followed the plan quite closely.

At this point we left the terrain for 4 days, until the next club meeting, for the glue to set.

Covering the polystyrene

At the following club meeting we covered the polystyrene tiles with filler (spackle). We worked on the terrain with it laid out in its final position and applied about 2mm of filler all over the tiles with the exception of the river surface, which was left as bare chipboard, and the crag surface, which was left as bare polystyrene. The crags had a criss-cross pattern sliced into them and the bare polystyrene was covered in PVA glue to seal and toughen it.

Before leaving the club we pulled each board apart slightly so that the filler didn't set as one solid sheet.

We returned 36 hours later (having left the terrain from Thursday evening until Saturday lunchtime) and the filler had dried. Then came the messy part - sanding down the filler. We didn't want to get a completely smooth surface - we just sanded the roughest ridges off. Nevertheless it filled the room with fine white dust.

When the sanding was complete the filler was covered with PVA glue and sprinkled with a generous layer of sand.

Modular Terrain - Part 2Apply an even layer of PVA glue and sprinkle on the sand. Work on one tile at a time, and work quickly so the glue doesn't dry before the sand hits it. If you get a wet patch, sprinkle more sand on to soak up the excess glue. This picture shows the terrain from a different angle after covering with sand. Notice that the pond and road were left sand-free. The road had coarse gravel glued into it. To get a smooth surface on the pond I poured in some runny filler and tapped the board until it flowed out flat.

Once the sand had dried sufficiently we painted on a further layer of PVA glue, watered down in a ratio of about 4 parts glue to 1 part water. This sealed the surface and makes a very tough finish.

Modular Terrain - Part 2Once the sand is on the terrain begins to look like a little landscape. This is the craggy area at the top of the large hill.

The noticeable white gap showing between the tiles will be much less obvious once the painting is completed.

The next stage

It took four or five of us 3 meetings of about 3 to 4 hours each to get this far. Meeting 1 was cutting and forming, meeting 2 applying the filler, and meeting 3 sanding down and applying the sand. With the hard work done we were all looking forward to the painting and detailing. This is described in Stage 3.

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