Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Basing Materials and Tools: It's All About the Base (Part I)

A few weeks ago, I was in the process of packing up all my worldly possessions, in hopes of getting my condo ready to sell.  As such, everything but the essentials were getting boxed up and put into storage, including most everything that's in my "man-cave / cat restroom" (for a breakdown of how that works, see my previous post on my workspace at home)

As I was doing this, I uncovered a few boxes full of assorted crap that I use to finish up the bases of my miniatures.  I've collected all sorts of odds and ends over the decades... basically anything that I come across that catches my eye and sparks my imagination.  Some of the following items are time-tested things that are staples of my basing methods, and others are just whimsical items that I purchased or picked up in hopes of someday finding a use for them.

This is what I call my "Bento Box of Basing".  Anyone familiar who frequents Japanese restaurants as often as I do, will get the reference.  Bento boxes are basically the highly refined far eastern version of a Hungry Man dinner... it's a lunch box of compartmentalized food options, that altogether make up a nicely varied meal.  However, instead of sushi, tempura, teriyaki, and salad, this box has odd items used to add interest to my bases.

The plastic bin itself is an old piece of packaging from a circa early 2000's GW model kit.  It works great in that when the lid is closed shut, it does a reasonably good job of keeping all the items from mixing into one another.

The items inside?  Well, clockwise from the top left corner, we have shards of glass (from a florist shop, I believe.  I vaguely remember aimlessly wandering around a floral shop with my wife, and picking up a jar of the stuff, which is normally used in vases and floral decor).  When applied sparingly on a base with tiny dabs of super glue, they do a good job of replicating large jagged rocks when painted up as such.

Next, we have some sort of dyed sponge flock, which came glued to long strings.  The strings that hold the bits of sponge flock together are finer than human hair in diameter, making them almost invisible.  You simply tear chunks of the stuff off, then glue it down with ever so slightly watered down white glue.  The glue dries clear, and then you have tiny clumps of what resembles shrubbery.  If you use it in long strings, and then run it up walls of terrain, you get something that looks like climbing vines.  You find this stuff on occasion in various hobby shops, and a little goes a long way.

At the top right, we have the same thing as the broken up glass in the top left corner, only much finer.  Again, I apply tiny dabs of super glue strategically around the base, and using a pair of fine tweezers, pick up and set down pieces of this stuff to create smaller rocks.  On small bases, I will use these alone, but on big bases and terrain pieces, I'll use a combination of the big and small rocks in order to fill in volume, and get a somewhat more realistic effect than if I used the large ones alone.  After all, when rocks get broken up, they don't usually shatter up into roughly equal sized chunks... there's usually smaller and larger pieces all together.

Lastly, at the bottom we have similar dyed sponge flock to the compartment above (but in different hues), and also dyed lichen.  If you ever collected White Dwarf magazines back in the eighties, or ever owned a copy of the original Warhammer 40,000 : Rogue Trader book, you'll have seen plenty of pics of models and terrain that were decorated with a rainbow array of coloured lichen.  I don't use this often any more, as it doesn't scale up well when you view it in pics blown up many times bigger than the actual model itself.  But if your piece will likely never be viewed on a gigantic computer screen, lichen might just be the ticket to a quick and semi-realistic alien bush.

Hmmm... maybe I should say, "alien shrubbery" instead.  

 Ah, beach sand.  Far better than any pre-bagged stuff you could possibly find in any hobby or craft store.  And it's absolutely free (although if you're unlucky, possibly not free of cat crap).  I filled this container about a decade ago, based thousands of models in the meantime (absolutely no exaggeration... we cranked out entire armies during my studio days on a weekly basis), and there's still sand in there.  I simply visited my local beach on a rainy day (so that there was no one around to question my "theft" of public property), and then took the stuff home and left it to dry for a few days.  And make sure you sift out any random sticks or pieces of broken beer bottles before using.

The reason why I say this stuff is better than store-bought stuff is because it's made up of ROUGHLY similar sized grains, but not perfectly cloned identically sized grains of sand.  Every bag of store-bought stuff I've used has been too uniform in consistency, and ends up looking very unnatural when the base is done.  I even ended up buying multiple bags of sand of varying sizes and textures, and mixing the stuff together to get a more natural effect, but finally realized that if I wanted something that looked natural, maybe I should look to nature itself first.  This stuff is pure hobby gold, and it's on just about every sandy beach on earth.

As for application, thin down some white glue with plain water (you can play around with the consistency for different effects, but most of the time I go for about a 50/50 mix), brush it on the base with a beat up old brush (white glue will ruin new brushes), give it a second or two to firm up a tiny bit, and then dip into the sand bin.  Then shake off the excess (I also sweep my thumb around the rim of the base to get rid of any unwanted stuff sticking there), and leave overnight to dry completely before painting.  If you're in a rush, you can use a hair blow dryer on a low setting to speed up the drying process, but I usually find some other project to work on in the meantime instead of sitting around, holding a hairdryer to my models.

And every hobbyist should recognize wood flock and static grass.  The stuff on the left was what EVERY base and green terrain piece was dressed up in back in the '80s and '90s.  We simply brushed on a thin layer of white glue to the top of our bases, dipped the base in a bin of green wood flock (I believe it's coloured sawdust, in essence), shook the excess off, and that was it.  The only other option that was in vogue at the time was to use sand instead, and then paint the sand with a dark green basecoat, and finish it off with a light green (or yellow) drybrush to bring out the texture.

But then static grass came on the scene.  We then did the sand method of basing, but instead of green, we went with tones of brown.  Once that was dry, we carefully applied dabs of white glue here and there, pinched a bit of static grass between two fingers, and pressed it into place.  You would then give it a moment for the white glue to thicken up a bit, and then lightly blow on the static grass to make it stand up (err... why does everything I write sound dirty in this article?).

One trick I learned regarding placement of those clumps of grass was to place some next to the model's feet.  That would give the impression of the model's weight, sinking into the grass.  Clumps of static grass could also be used to hide imperfections in the basing... gaps where the model's tab didn't quite fill in the slot, for example.

This particular bin of static grass was a blend of two or three different bags.  I find most pre-packaged bags are too uniform in colour, and in an attempt to make them look more wild and natural (and less like a golf course), I would take a few colours, put them in one container, and shake the whole thing vigorously to mix them all together.

Nowadays, I don't find myself using either type of flock all that often on my gaming bases.  On larger terrain pieces, or on certain larger bases that I'm attempting to turn into some sort of mini-diorama, this stuff is still gold, but for most gaming bases, I found a simpler solution in the Army Painter pre-made tufts shown a bit later in this article.

Ah, white glue and herbs.  First of all, let's talk about the oregano, as some people are probably wondering if I plan on eating my models.  I vaguely recall reading some article about using ground up oregano leaves to simulate fallen leaf litter, and decided to give it a try.  It was fine back in the pre-internet days when people weren't viewing pics of your models blown up to fill an entire giant computer monitor, but nowadays they don't pass off as well at that level of close scrutiny.  I'll still use the stuff on terrain and big dioramas, where people are looking at the piece as a whole, but not too closely.  And I'll use some from time to time in my pizza and spaghetti sauces too.

White glue deserves a mention because it's the unsung hero of basing.  Just about everything needs white glue to bind it together.  

Superglue is fine for certain items that have at least a minute amount of heft to it, provided you plan on painting over the piece after it's all dry.  That's because superglue (cyanoacrylate) sometimes goes all frosted looking as it dries, as opposed to how white glue shrinks and dries completely clear.  You can also play with the consistency of white glue, since it's water soluble.  Mix a bit of water into it to thin it out, or wait for it to thicken a bit as it dries.  Sure, it's not as strong as superglue, but how much strength do you need to hold a tiny fleck of flock, or grain of sand?

And one thing that confused the crap out of me as a kid was how many different names white glue has.  Some people refer to it as white glue, others call it wood glue, and still others call it craft glue or school glue.  It took me a while to figure out that everyone was referring to basically the same thing.  And if you want to spend more money for the same thing, buy white glue branded with a hobby company logo, or stationary logo.  If you want to save money, go to a hardware store and buy a big bottle of the basic wood glue.  It's usually less expensive per mL for contractors and carpenters, since they usually go through huge amounts of the stuff.  Just make sure it says that it will dry clear and transparent.

The use of cork board really took off in the early 2000's, when people were exposed to the fine work of the Rackham (makers of Confrontation) studio.  When you tear the stuff, it has a texture like cracked stone, and a simple basecoat and drybrush will exaggerate and emphasize that.  The flat surface on top and bottom is great for gluing broken up sheets of the stuff, with lots of flat surface area to contact the top of the base and bottom of the model's feet.  It's super easy and quick to do, which probably led to the technique's over-exposure by the time this decade rolled around.  People still use it all the time, but it definitely won't impress people like it did back then.  Back then, it was the best thing since yoga pants became fashionable on fit women that work out.  Now that your saggy-ass grandma started wearing them to go shopping at WalMart, it's not quite so special.  When done tastefully and sparingly, it's still okay though.

The snow flock and leaf litter shown here probably each deserve their own pic.  I'll address each separately, because they are not necessarily used together.

There are lots of different kinds of snow flock out there.  My current favourite is the Secret Weapon crushed glass, mixed with a tiny bit of baking soda.  This particular package contains Gale Force Nine's micro-bubble snow flock though.  If you were to look at the stuff under a magnifying glass, you'd see that it's comprised of identically shaped and sized white synthetic balls.  When you apply the stuff on your base with some white glue, it does give off the impression of fluffy white snow, but it still looks a bit too uniform in pics.  Because the balls all have the exact same size, shape (perfectly round, no less), and colour, there's none of the subtle variation in the way light hits the stuff, like real snow would react to light.  It's serviceable in it's intended application, but is it the best simulation of snow available to hobbyists?  Eh... it looks fine.  The main strength of this stuff is that it's much easier to apply than either finely ground crushed glass (which sparkles nicely, but is dangerous if inhaled or handled improperly) or baking soda (which you need to find JUST the right ratio of glue to soda to work properly).

My take on micro-bubble snow flock?  Definately go for it if gaming quality is what you are going for.  It's fast and easy to use.  I'd still wear a dust mask while handling it though... if you sneeze or inhale sharply around this stuff, you're still going to make a mess.

As for the leaf litter, this is commercially packaged and dyed birch seeds.  Below is a pic of what birch seeds look like in nature:

I found this stuff on a birch tree in my parent's back yard, in the fall.  They look like crumbly pods at first glance, but when you break them up a bit, you see that the component pieces look kind of like tiny leaves.  The ones from my parent's tree were much finer and smaller than the ones I bought in the hobby shop, but you can see how they are closely related.  Since each piece actually has something of a leaf shape, they pass closer scrutiny than the ripped up ground oregano I mentioned before.

But they'll make your spagetti sauce or soup taste like crap.

These are the Army Painter Battlefields tufts that I wrote about earlier.  This is what has replaced the bin of loose static grass for most of my basing needs.  

Why?  Primarily because I think it looks better, but also because in many ways it's easier to use.  The two containers at the top right of the pic are pre-made clumps of static grass (with some variety in colouration in each clump).  They have a flat bottom that only needs a tiny dab of white glue to fix to the base.  The hairs are packed very tightly, so they have that nice dense foliage look to them, and they all stand at a fairly natural looking angle.  To use them, you simply place a dot of white glue where you want to on the base, then pull a patch of grass off the sheet with a set of tweezers, and set them into place.  So easy.

GW also makes their version of grass tufts, but I've read some reviews saying that the base of them is not perfectly clear, so they look a bit more unnatural up close.  The Army Painter stuff has been near perfect in my estimation, so while I am a bit of a GW whore that normally can't resist buying anything branded with their label (at least, that's what Mathieu Fontaine called me when he saw that I had bought the overpriced GW kolinsky sable brush set), I'm not all that tempted to try the GW stuff when the Army Painter version works so damn well.

I haven't yet had an occasion to use the other three ones in the pic, but I'll get around to it one day.  I'm horribly addicted to buying anything hobby-related that costs less than a meal, so I couldn't resist when I saw these in the shop.  The top right one looks like meadow flowers, the one below that looks like patches of grass with a light dusting of snow, and the bottom pack looks like clumps of poison ivy.  I can't comment on how good or bad these particular ones are yet, but one day we'll see.

Remember how I was saying that ground oregano doesn't scale well when viewed under microscopic scrutiny?  Even the old standby, birch seeds, loses a little something when you post up-close pics of the stuff on giant computer monitors.  

Well, companies nowadays are coming out with products like brass-etch leaves, and laser-cut paper leaves now.  Since they are shaped exactly like the real thing, they work pretty well at fooling our eye / brain sense of scale.  They do require some extra work on the part of the modeller though.  Brass etch needs to be primered and painted, and even the coloured paper stuff looks better with a little touch of highlighting and shading (often just a little drybrushing will do it though).  You also have to take a little care in strategically placing the stuff, in order to complete the illusion.

I've got some brass etch somewhere that I've used on a few occasions, but it looks like I'm currently out of the stuff.  I did find this random box of laser-cut paper ferns in my box of basing odds-and-ends, and will have to give it a try one of these days.

While I'm talking about modelled leaves and plants, I think I should mention that many hobby model kits do come with the odd plastic, resin, or metal bit of sculpted foliage.  I've used a few spare bits from an old GW wood-elves sprue to great effect in the past.  The only thing is that they tend to be very chunky when viewed up close.  I guess casting a fern out of white metal or extruded plastic would be too difficult, or too fragile, and so they tend to have the thickness of a shield or armour plate.  If you are planning on actually gaming with your models (instead of just putting them in a display case and never touching them again), these are probably a better bet than the super thin brass-etch and laser-cut stuff.

Ah, wood bark.  I love this stuff.  You can either source it yourself from nature (just restrict yourself to pulling it off of fallen dead trees, instead of live ones please!), or go to a landscaping store and buy bark mulch.  While each piece has beautiful variations in colour, shape, and texture, it would look horribly out of scale on a miniature as-is.  What you do with the stuff is break off a piece to the size that works best for your model (don't cut it, unless you need a flat side to it for mounting), then glue it into place (pinning helps with larger pieces).  Give it a layer of black primer (the stuff is porous, so it may take more than one coat), and then drybrush in successively lighter shades of whatever rocky colours you like.  When you are done, the finished piece should replicate a giant chunk of shale-like rock quite nicely.

I'm planning on doing up a full article about these someday, but here's the short and skinny version:

I love raiding the recycling.  I always seem to find all sorts of neat items that can be repurposed for miniatures.  In this particular case, I have various dipping sauce containers, spray can lids, and even single serve yoghurt containers that I've washed out, then filled with Plaster of Paris to give them weight and structural integrity.  Flipped over and spray painted, they make half-decent cheap display bases for oddball miniature projects and single minis.  I still like dedicated and commercially built mini-plinths and bases better (such as the ones offered by Secret Weapon Minis and Dragon Forge, but these are half decent (and nearly free!)

Well, that's enough of a peek into my man-cave contents for now.  I'll come back with a follow up article at some point... likely after I've found a new house, and set up a new hobby cave.  I am also almost finished processing all my GottaCon pics, and will continue with the GottaCon 2015 Miniature Painting Contest coverage.  In addition, I just received my copy of "Figopedia" (a painting guide written by the incomparable Jeremie Bonamont Teboul.  I have some great first impressions of it, but I do plan on writing up a full review when I get the chance.

Please stay tuned for more, and comments are always welcome!

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