Italians by river

Down by the River…

I am something of a newcomer to the black art of terrain making. Like a lot of people I relied on my friendly local gaming store to provide appropriate terrain and tables to game upon until rather recently. It has now sunk its rather insidious teeth into my soul however, and I probably spend more time making terrain than I do painting minis. I am by no means an expert on terrain making but, having learned so much from various web articles, I thought it appropriate to try and contribute.

My piece for this article is a section of river. Rivers have a huge impact on military operations. When a large group of heavily armed soldiers is headed towards an important objective, rivers have a habit of getting in the way like nature’s own long, winding tactical challenges.

Rivers on the tabletop can sometimes be rather controversial. They have such a huge impact on the game that it can be difficult to set them up in a manner that is fair to both sides. Some systems, like DBA, specifically include them as perks for particular forces but most systems I have used satisfy themselves with having mechanics for dealing with them.

Some gamers like to ignore rivers completely as it makes life simpler, but I think that this is a mistake – particularly for historically based games. You simply cannot ignore the impact that rivers and the crossing of them have had upon military history – at least not unless you are intent on redoing the Battle of Stirling Bridge without the bridge, like a certain movie that shall not be named.

My river section is designed to be added on to the other sections I have already made. In particular I have designed it to drop into the space taken by an existing river section – a foot and a half long section with a 28mm 4Ground bridge built into it. I wanted the option of a section with a ford, both for games where the bridge is inappropriate and for use with other scales.

I started by cutting out the base of the river. I used some plywood I had lying around, but mdf works too. If you don’t have to slot your section into a particular space, almost any shape is good for a river so you can use your imagination. A minute or two with my trusty jigsaw was enough.

River section started

The river starts to take shape.

I built the river bank up using some plaster. I used to use pre-mixed plaster from the local art shop for terrain, but I found that the costs started building up. A friend suggested cornice plaster from the hardware store, but I went with a 5kg bag of Plaster of Paris that I found there. It’s intended for quick repairs in the garden and as a terrain making plaster it has its problems (mainly the fact that I occasionally have to glue it down after it dries), but at $10 for a bag that has now lasted more than a year you can’t argue with the price.

I painted the whole thing with some brown acrylic paint, also bought at the hardware store (yes, there is a pattern here). A word of advice for new terrain builders here: Do not use your expensive model paints for terrain – at least not for the base colour. Wood, plaster, Foamcore and other terrain building materials soak up paint like it’s going out of style and terrain pieces have a lot more square area to cover than the average mini. Terrain also tends to be rather forgiving of less than stellar paint quality, so do yourself a favour and use the cheap stuff.

River section part 2

The piece just after the All Clear had been poured. No sign yet of the bubbles, but they will form.

For the water in my river I used Selleys All Clear. I have experimented with a lot of different materials for making rivers. Commercially available water effects give a good result, but tend to be expensive for large water features, such as a river that has to cross a 6 foot wide table. Raiding the hardware store, which is a place any terrain builder should be familiar with, I came across many, many possibilities.

I have stayed with All Clear for my rivers as it has given quite good results. When it comes out of the tube it is nearly completely transparent which, on my first piece, made me worried that I hadn’t put much detail on the riverbed. But I found that as it dries bubbles form and slowly percolate towards the top of the river, which obscures the bed a fair bit. I shaped the stuff using an old butter knife.

One thing to note here: The temperature has a huge effect on how easily the All Clear can be squeezed out and shaped. My first river sections were made in the depths of winter. It was an Australian winter to be sure, but even those temperatures made working with the All Clear a very difficult experience – it was very thick and stuck to everything. I eventually learnt to bring the stuff inside to let it warm up before working with it. For this piece I had no such trouble – the ambient temperature of an Australian summer (well, November, but at 39C it might as well be summer) kept it moving easily.

The All Clear was touch-dry within about 12 hours. It took days for it to fully cure, and the bubbles I mentioned previously made their appearance during this period. Once the surface cured I coloured it with a mix of blue and brown ink that I had lying around. It is quite possible to do this before the curing is completed, but if you do be aware that the bubbles will lighten the shade when they form.

By this point my river was effectively done. I added some suitable foliage to the banks to polish it off.

River section finished

The finished piece.

Every time I make a piece of terrain I come across something that lets me make the next one better. Although this was my fifth section of river that I have made in this way, I still found something that I would do differently next time. After pouring the All Clear I left the river to cure for several days. During those days I got a lot of work (my work schedule is somewhat eratic) and so I didn’t come back to it until about a week and a half later. By that point the All Clear had completely cured and had more bubbles near the surface than my other pieces.

Next time I will make sure that I come back to the piece while the surface is still somewhat soft and get some of the bubbles out of it – if you pick the right time you can literally squash the bubbles flat. The difference isn’t particularly striking, but I will notice it.

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