Saturday, April 26, 2014

African Terrain: Hill

I've been on the road for work most of the last month, so haven't been able to get much hobby work done.  However, over a few scattered days of free time, I manage to make my first scratch built hill, and I'm really happy with how it came out:

The sheer rock face
Living in warmer coastal California, it hasn't been easy to find dense foam insulating sheets for hill construction; generally all you see is the expanded white foam that just isn't dense/strong enough for this kind of work.   I had almost given up hope and was looking into using cork tiles, when I discovered one of the local DIY stores had some Owens Corning Foamular in convenient 2'x 2' squares.  Needless to say, I bought a few sheets not knowing if I'd ever manage to see it again.  I believe it ran about $6 per sheet.  I also picked up a tub of DAP DryDex spackling to texture the hill.  This particular type goes on pink then turns white when it dries, making it easy to see when you can proceed with final texturing and painting.

Hill construction supplies
For the exposed rock face, I've seen several people recommend cork bark, which I was able to locate at a pet store.  The section was about 1'x1' and cost me $20.  Besides the wonderful texture, it had a lot of really nice color variation and strata layers, and some of the edges even had nice green coloring from lichen.  Since I'm going for sandy colored stone, I decided the leave my bark mostly unpainted.

So as to have a strong base, I drew out the shape of the hill base onto some scrap fiberboard I had around the house, then cut the shape out using a hand jigsaw. I used this template to trace out the first layer of foam, which was also cut out with the jigsaw.  Sections of cork bark were removed from the strip, using a combination of sawing and prying (it actually took more work than i expected), and I then cut back the first layer of hill foam to accommodate them.  I originally tried using a utility knife for this with mixed results, but found my jigsaw cut through it like butter and continued to use it for most of the build. I then shaved the sides of the foam before flipping it over and using the top as the template for the next foam layer. Again more cutting and fitting until I had a rough 2-layer hill with a gentle enough slope to let figures climb one side of it. Using wood glue, the fiberboard, two foam layers and two cork sections were glued into place.  There were some gaps, so I filled them as best I could with the scrap foam left over from the carving.

Small gully between the cork rock faces
 Once the glue had dried,  The foam sections were covered with a layer of spackle, using a spackle knife for the large sections, and some small sculpting tools for the nooks and crannies. Additionally, some of the spackle was pulled onto the cork to better blend it into the hill.  I left the spackle fairly thick and lumpy to give it more of a rock like appearance, so it took a while to dry (overnight). The pink/white color change was really helpful to see when it was ready.  Once the spackle was dry, I added some Liquitex texture gel (available in various levels of coarseness) and real rock to areas that were going to be exposed so as to provide an additional level of detail.

Backside of the hill with trail leading up it
 Once all the texturing materials were dry, I gave the hill a shake and gently ran my hand over its back to knock off any loose stones.  For the ground color, I started with a medium brown drab, and then built up with bits of dark brown, dark grey, light grey, and flesh tone to blend into the colors found on the cork bark. I also dry brushed a bit of light green onto some of the bark to match the lichen already present.  Once all this was done, I hit the entire hill, including the bark, with some light sandstone paint to blend it all together.

I wanted the hill to blend into the fur felt mat I had made previously,  so I decided to have the grass run up the hill. I used the base of the hill to cut out a rough section of spare felt that was slightly on the large size, but not by much.  As I planned to have sections of exposed rock, I didn't worry too much if it wasn't enough to cover the entire hill.

Another shot of the hilltop
I tried to pick out logical sections of hill that I could cut out in large sections of felt. The felt was placed against the hill and I trimmed it to cover the sections I wanted, using the contours of the hill to guide me.  Now I did not want a really blunt edge where the grass was going to end, so I made multiple small cuts along the fabric edges and stressed the fabric by pulling in hopes of creating frayed edges. Additionally, I also cut some holes in the large sections, and then used the scrap cuts to make small plugs of grass that could be added near the edges to add a bit of further fade.  All of this was glued down using wood glue.  At the end of this, there were still some felt edges that were more obvious than I would have liked, but overall I think it looks good.

Lastly, I added some plastic shrubs to the hill to make it look a bit fancier and to hide some of the worst of the felt edges.  These were made from plastic plant mats made by Ashland. I found these at a local craft store for about $14 for a 1'x1' square.  This particular type came in a few shades of green, so I went with a more yellow green to better blend with the yellowed grass.  These can be easily removed in clumps from the sheet, and the clumps can be then further cut down to get plants of various sizes. I drilled some small holes to hold the stems, which were again glued in place using wood glue.

The wood glue residue and the plastic plants were rather shiny, so the hill was finished off with a generous amount of matte spray sealant.

Figures for scale
I have to admit that I was originally a bit intimidated by this project, as I wasn't sure if I could pull off a grass coat that would look reasonable.  However, it actually came out better than I expected and I feel blends into the mat really well.  Sadly I am headed back out on the road shortly, but hopefully I'll soon have more time to build several additional hills for this project.


  1. Nice looking hill. I particularly like the use of the two materials to give a more naturalistic look.

    Thanks for posting the images.


  2. That's good work and an outstanding finish.

  3. Excellent Job! You want to skirmish some time? I live in San Jose area too.

  4. Thanks Guys!

    Victor, what games are you playing? I travel a fair amount for work, but would love to squeeze in some gaming time if we can work it out.

  5. I haven't gamed for 10 years due to kids and work. But during that time I painted five 28mm colonial skirmish armies (20-25 figures each) of British, Askari, Czechs, Germans and Arabs as well as a HUGE African army (nearly 200 figures). I also have large Roman, Greek, Spartan and Persian armies for Ancients gaming.
    So, if you tell me what rules you like to play, then I will get those and get up to speed before we play. My email is victor AT nemechek DOT com. Ciao!

    1. I know how it goes with kids and work - I've been lucky if I can get in a gamer per year. I'll send you and email from my joekano yahoo account.

    2. Hi Victor,

      Not sure if my email ended up in your spam folder. Let me know if you're still interested in gaming.

  6. That looks the way it blends into the table