Thursday, 24 October 2013

How to make a desert terrain mat

 Being very pleased with my desert terrain mat experiment, I decided to embark upon the real thing as soon as possible.  Luckily a couple of days off work were coming up and I had some partially free weekends so could get going quite quickly.

My desert terrain experiment.
First, the materials:
Leatherette - faux-leather rubberised fabric in a pale creamy colour, £6 for one metre from "Fabric Warehouse" in Norwich (fantastic shop, I've bought quite a few bits of stuff fro model making projects from there)
Brown frame sealant - about £1 a cartridge from the DIY section of several local bargain shops, I used 2 cartridges on this project.  Mine was made by 151 who do a lot of cut price DIY adhesives for very good prices.
Emulsion paint tester pots - various brown/sand colours from Wilkinsons, £1 a pot.
Car washing sponge - £1 for a pack of 3 from the local bargain shop.
Cocktail sticks, paint brushes, pallette, brush cleaning rags and other odds and ends
Old credit card or similar sized plastic card
Coffee stirring stick
Masking tape

The leatherette, approx 3½ x 4½ feet in size.

I started by creating my main road.  A straight road cuts the mat in half lengthways, slightly angled to create a little more interest.  A t-junction will provide a focal point for any settlement or perhaps for game objectives.  For this main road I used a thin layer of frame sealant, smoothed into a uniform surface using an old plastic card.  The width of a standard credit card seems about right for a 2-lane road.

The roadmaker tool.  Wide edge does main roads.
A network of smaller track form a grid that spreads out from the main road.  This is the width of the narrow edge of the card and has tyre-ruts sculpted in by dragging the coffee stick forks of the "roadmaker" tool along the tracks.  All I've done is cut a couple of bits of coffee-stirrer and masking taped it to the card. Remember to check their position against some of your wheeled vehicles so that the tyre-marks are the correct width apart!

Narrow edge does smaller tracks.
The tracks will be painted to match the main desert surface - more on this later...

Coffee-stirrer attachment creates tyre-ruts.
I used the rough tracks to delineate a number of different sized areas into which I can drop my desert buildings.  Those tracks that don't run off the edge of the mat just peter out, they don't end abruptly.

Basic road and track layout completed.
Next task is to create the cracked surface areas of desert, these are salt pans or dried up pools from the last rainy season.  A 2-4 inch diameter area is coated with the frame sealant and the cracks are sculpted in with a cocktail stick, wiping it frequently to remove the build-up of sealant on the tip.  I've found that the key is to create several large curving lines that mark out big areas, then add more curving lines to divide them in half, then divide the smaller areas in half and so on...  This creates a fairly random lot of shapes that are hopefully of similar size and have been formed in the same way that the mud will have dried and cracked in real life.

Parched desert surface - pattern sculpted with a cocktail stick.
The road surface was left to dry for a couple of hours before I added manhole covers.  This allows the surface to skin over so that (with luck) you can press the pin-badge former in without it sticking.

Pin badge back to press into road to make manhole cover.
Once the roads, tracks and cracked areas were done, the rest of the mat was textured.  Working on patches about 1 foot square at a time, a layer of sealant was squirted on, smeared around and smoothed over using fingers, then textured with a sponge.  I used a fairly fine-textured sponge, pressing it (not too hard!) into the sealant then pulling it straight off to leave a pattern of small, rough peaks.  This was repeated several times on each area until the desired appearance had been obtained, blending it into the edges of the tracks, roads and cracked areas.

Additional texturing completed including cracked desert patches.

Detail of cracked desert textureand surrounding rough sponged area.

Manhole cover created using pin badge back.
A medium brown (Wilkinson's "Nutmeg Spice") was sponged over the entire mat, then patches of lighter brown (Wilko "Coffee") dabbed on while it was still damp.  Sponging while the base coat is still damp helps blend the edges of the different shades together so the transition isn't too abrupt.

Main painting and highlighting completed.
The road was brush painted using Wilko "Supernova" black.  It will get a drybrush of dark grey at some point so that it looks more used.  It isn't as shiny as it appears here, that was just the lighting when I took the photograph!

Same cracked desert area as shown above, now with paint!
All of the desert areas were highlighted using Wilko "Safari Sand" which really brings out the texture of the surface, be it tyre-tracks, cracked earth or just rough desert.

Base colour is mid-brown with lighter brown patches sponged on.
Now I'm wondering whether I should have got a more yellow brown colour, the "Safari Sand" is quite a creamy colour rather than a traditional desert yellow!

When base coat has dried, sand colour drybrushed over whole surface.
The dirt tracks have deliberately been painted the same colours as the rest of the desert.  The theory is that they can be used to outline areas into which scenery can be placed - buildings, chemical tanks, supply dumps etc.  When the scenery is in place, it channels the eye along the tracks and they become more obvious to the eye.  If they aren't needed then they just blend in to the overall desert so that you barely notice them.

Sand colour helps pick out the dirt tracks.

Dirt tracks can be used to create urban area if desired.

Large salt pan.

Now I need to finish my palm trees!
The final touch will be to repaint the bases of all my desert buildings (and those palm trees!) so that they match this new games mat, but I'm waiting until I've decided on whether a more yellow desert colour is needed.  I suppose the current colours are quite similar to the dusty brown/yellow/grey that you see in Afghanistan.

9 comments:

  1. the color choices are spot on! looks good to me

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  2. Top job sir very impressive indeed.....

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  3. Really like that. Looks fantastic.

    Cheers,

    Pete.

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  4. very nice, great idea not just as a desert could also look something out of an apocalyptic setting.

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  5. Hi!

    Thanks for the fantastic terrain mat tutorial! I'm going to have to steal the concept for myself now!

    How sturdy is it and does it cope with being rolled up without peeling or cracking?

    As for the colour, it looks great and rather more realistic than a more yellow desert to boot!

    All the best!

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    1. The leatherette is pretty tough, survives rolling very well. Mine lives inside a 3" diametre cardboard map tube with another, larger terrain mat strapped around the outside.
      As long as you make sure it's the more flexible frame sealant (as opposed to decorator's caulk or acrylic filler) and apply it in a thin layer (no more than 2-3mm) it should be OK.

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  6. Really good tutorial Paul, clear and comprehensive, and producing a great result- congrats!

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  7. Sounds like the brown colour meets with approval, so my inherent laziness leads me to conclude that I can leave the mat as it is!
    Thanks for all the comments, I'll post some more pictures when I've repainted the bases of my buildings and the palm trees.

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