Thursday, June 26, 2014

Game Miniature Hobby Tips: Where to Find Affordable Basing and Terrain Materials

If you've gotten into miniatures for roleplaying games or wargames, you have hopefully realized part of what makes the difference between a good and great mini is a nicely composed base. A miniature's base is to a mini as a frame is to a painting: not strictly necessary, but the right one compliments and makes your paint work shine brighter than it can on its own, while the wrong one or a poor one can ruin the composition. Bases are especially important for wargames minis, as unified looking bases helps even a diverse army look like a cohesive unit; this concept can also be applied to RPGs--different bases (even just painting the rim a different color) can help you discern between baddies, friendly NPCs, and PCs.

Fortunately, basing itself is pretty easy: glue on a little sand or grit, paint it a nice complimentary neutral tone, and glue on a little turf or static grass, and you've got a good, simple base that sets off your mini nicely. Getting those or similar materials can be a challenge, though, especially if you're on a budget.

The "problem" is, of, course is a gamer's first instinct is to check gaming sites and stores for supplies. Sure, these sites have them--Citadel, Gale Force 9, and Army Painter all have solid, respectable lines--but they're a little pricey. A tiny tub of static grass or sand may retail for $5. No, that's not terrible, but how much is sand really worth to you? It also adds up very quickly if you want a wide variety of materials or are doing a huge terrain project.

As hard as it is, move away from the game stores (you will still support them by buying your minis and games). Time to venture into a broader world: craft stores and, of course, the outside (yes, that strange place you've heard of with the fresh air and stuff).

Craft stores, such as Michael's, A.C. Moore, and Joann Fabrics are your friend. You can scour the whole place for ideas and supplies, but here is where you especially want to look:

Floral display supplies: Yes, you heard that right. This is the BEST place to go. This section of the store includes supplies for what they call "filler"--stuff they can put into pots and vases to make their potted plants and fake flowers look prettier (for exactly the same reason we base our minis). Much of this "filler" includes things like sand, pebbles, lichen, and moss--stuff that is phenomenal for terrain and bases. Compare:

Michael's Ashland Coarse Decorative Sand: MSRP $2.99 for 1/75 lbs.

GaleForce9's Grit: MSRP $5.00 for a small container.

GF9 does not post the volume or weight of their materials, but I would say roughly you're getting roughly twice to three times as much sand from Michael's for $2 less.

Now, I should pause to note before I tempt argument: GF9's grit is not actually sand--it's a somewhat porous substance. They claim it is better for not flaking off than sand. This is sort of true: if you glue sand onto a base with standard PVA glue (such as Elmer's White Glue), sometimes not all of it will stick--UNTIL you paint on top of it. When you paint over sand, sometimes it might stick to your brush and get into your paint or primer, and then sand gets stuck to other bits of your model. The easy solution is either to use spray primer (which is enough to seal in the sand), or if using brush primer, don't glue sand to your model until after you've painted the figurine. Then paint over it using a crappy brush to prime and base coat it. Some loose sand may get into your crappy brush--and that's why you use a crappy brush--but once the paint dries, it seals and holds down the sand and none of the rest flakes off. I have dozens of 10+ year old sand-based models that have never lost basing material once painted. Plus I prefer the sand precisely because it's NOT porous--it won't soak up glue or paint. That means it looks nicer unpainted (in which case I just seal it with extra glue or brush on sealer) and takes on color without soaking it up. It is less uniform in size, which also helps make the base look more natural and interesting.

But if you really want "grit" -- get it from the train section of your craft store or hobby website instead, where it's called gravel or ballast. There, you still get more for cheaper (if not as cheap as sand). Example:

Scenescapes Gravel for $3.45 at Micromark

You might get sand for bulk even cheaper at construction/home improvement stores if you have a place to put it, and accept that it's probably not as clean as the craft stuff.

Sand's just an example. Floral sections in craft stores also have huge bags of lichen, pebbles, and other useful terrain stuff that is much cheaper for quantity than what GF9 or Citadel will sell you for exactly the same stuff. They also have glass beads and other neat things which you might find a use for if not for bases and terrain, then for tokens (although the glass beads and fake gems may be perfect to fill out your alien landscape). Most of the fake flowers, vines, and grains are too big for miniature products, but depending on your project, you may find other stuff useful in that category as well. I even saw at A.C. Moore the other day big sheets of what I would call "terrain paper": basically, thick backed paper covered in turf or static grass or other "terrainy" patterns. I presume they use these to decorate the bottoms of certain kinds of fake flower displays. For miniature hobbyists, I imagine you could use them as a quick and dirty start for adding terrain to your table or cut them out to glue to bases. Finally, this section carries foam in interesting shapes for cheap that may be useful for larger terrain projects.

But don't quite see what you need here? Then move on to the...

Diorama Section: More and more craft stores dedicate at least one aisle for diorama creation, usually intended for kids to make school projects. However, you know what wargame terrain is? Basically a diorama (or a start of one, at least). All the stuff you use to make dioramas is exactly the same stuff you use to base minis or make terrain. There's usually lots of good basing material here, including turf, flock, static grass, etc. as well as things like polymers to make water effects, and sculpting materials to help build up scenes. I bought a tube of "realistic water" for a project for $8, whereas at a nearby game store I would have been charged $15, and it was exactly the same stuff. What's nice of course is the actual diorama kits as well if you don't already have a lot of basing supplies--for $12 you can often get grit, flock, and other useful materials that is enough for several minis (compare to the $18 terrain kits at GF9). The how-tos that come with the kits may also be helpful if you're trying your hand at terrain design.

Now, you do need to check your prices here. There's a reason I sent you to the floral section first--often, you can find lichen, sand, etc. in the diorama section too--but it's more expensive. Yes, even in the same store. If you find an item that might have a multi-craft purpose, such items may exist in different places throughout the store at different qualities and prices, so take time to look around.

There's also often some neat "toys" in this section as well: miniature people, buildings, etc. They are almost never the right scale for gaming (most wargames and RPGs use 25mm or 15mm scale, whereas most everything else in the hobby world uses popular, entirely different, train scales like N or HO). Still, it's worth plumbing for useful terrain extras (crates, barrels, boxes) as well as monsters (the "wrong scale" toy spider may be a perfect giant spider for an RPG). Oh, and there's usually loads and loads of miniature trees--very handy!

And on that note, need more unusual stuff for bases or decoration? Or some tools, maybe? Next place to go:

Jewelry-Making Aisle: Lots of crafters are increasingly getting into beading and jewelry making, and these store sections are full of stuff useful to miniature hobbyists, especially if you have a more unusual project. Many shells and beads might be useful for an alien or unusual landscape. The steampunk craze has hit jewelry makers hard and you may also find cool useful terrain accents like miniature gears, clock parts, etc. (great especially for a WarMachine project). Chains and wire in many gauges of course also abound--and again are much cheaper than the wire a miniature supply retailer is going to sell you.

You can also find useful hobby tools here: jewelers use the same wire cutters and needlenose pliers we often use for our projects, for much the same reason: they manipulate and cut soft metal. Likewise, here you may also find stuff like table magnifiers and such. Sometimes the prices you can get for these tools are much better, although if you're a stickler for quality you may want to do some brand comparisons. 

If you still haven't found what you're looking for due to a specialty project or what-have-you, don't be afraid to look around the rest of the store. The woodcarving section can be really helpful, for example, selling other bits and pieces good for terrain building (especially if you want to make buildings as part of your terrain) as well as wooden tiles that may serve as a large base. I've had trouble finding stuff in exactly inch-scales for D&D scale minis, but sometimes you can find wooden tiles, both square and round, that are the right size for RPG miniatures and, depending, they may be cheaper than an official base of the right size.

The mosaic and sand art section may be useful for more sand, as well if you want to have "tiled" bases or something similar.

Most of this stuff you can buy online, but I suggest hitting a brick and mortar store if you can; not just to support brick and mortar stores, but also to look at what you're getting and making sure it's what you want. Once you get a sense of what you want you can order online and find the price that's the best deal.

If your budget can't even accommodate craft stores or bulk bargains, however, there's always plan B: found items from around the house and outdoors. 

This section comes with a BIG caveat, however: if you're working with anything that is either degradable or ANYTHING outside, you need to make sure it is as CLEAN and DRY as possible.

For example, I've heard of miniature hobbyists using used tea or coffee grounds for terrain materials--great idea! But if that stuff is at all moist, you can end up with a moldy miniature. Yuck. Stuff like that should be baked in the oven at a low temperature until it is very, very, very dry. Check on it so it doesn't burn.

Going outside you can of course find dirt, sand, sticks, and so on. Stick to what is the least rottable--it may be tempting to use real moss, but that invites ick. If you want to use sand like sand from a beach or playground, you need to sift it and make absolutely sure it is free of bugs and trash (don't glue broken glass to your mini unless you really really mean to). I would avoid dirt if at all possible, and if you really want to use it, I'd use potting soil or something else you can feel pretty sure is sterile.

Sticks can be useful for terrain, especially for larger miniatures or other projects--for example, I have a dragon sitting on top of a "log" (a big stick I found) for one of my miniatures, to help show off its features. When I found the sticks I wanted, I chose very dry wood and made sure to rub off any flaking or rotten wood, carving off anything questionable with a knife if needed. I then actually soaked the sticks in water mixed with a little bleach--this was to be sure any little bugs or microrganisms chewing on the wood were gone--and let them dry in full sun (to drive away lingering molds and fungi). Then of course makings sure they were completely dry, I added them to the terrain, and also fully painted and sealed them for good measure (I wouldn't use bare untreated wood--I'd always paint or seal it, for the very same reason we paint and seal most wooden items).

You can get creative here too, of course: if you like to go beach combing, you could of course bring home driftwood, interesting stones, and shells to add to your minis. You could take a dancing girl figurine and put her in a real scallop shell and behold! Miniature Aphrodite! Just as always make sure to clean and dry them thoroughly. I highly recommend the bleach treatment here--there's all kinds of stuff that lives in the sea, and it should not become part of your space marine army.

If you take this route to find terrain items, always be careful, and do not loot materials from other people's property--yes, even if it's junk. Be aware of any toxins or other unpleasant stuff -- is that pile of sand a dog's favorite pissing spot? Wash your own hands and all the stuff you get when you get home thoroughly.

Now get out there and get to basing your miniatures properly! It's cheap to get the supplies for it and it makes a world of difference in helping your miniatures look as amazing as possible.