Tuesday, 16 February 2010

“How green is my (Mash) Valley?”

At this stage, you’re ready to tackle the surface of the boards. And at this point the main aesthetic dilemma arrives. Do you want a realistic muddy trench system, or do you want something which is not just 12 boards painted interesting and slightly varied shades of brown? My question is a little loaded, of course, because we chose the former, not the latter. It was a purely personal choice, and I agonised over it.

On the one hand, no-one is going to deny that the trenches were a place of misery and suffering. Mud was everywhere. In so many ways, a landscape of muddy shell craters half filled with stagnant, poisoned water have become the enduring image in so many people's minds of the First Word War, a signature for the terrible conditions in which the War was often fought on the Western Front. Coating all of the trench terrain boards with interior filler and brown paint would therefore certainly not be inaccurate, and I was very mindful of not wanting to suggest that the no-man’s-land of the Great War was a calming place of swaying grasses and picturesque poppies flowering amidst the barbed wire.

But, on the other hand, there were actions fought over green fields even in the middle of the War, notably the early engagements on the Somme in 1916 and the crossing of the Siegfried Stellung at Cambrai in 1917 (which was not heavily shelled to facilitate the movement of the Royal Tank Corps). I reasoned that our trench system could be one of these locations, where a substantial amount of grass could remain before a heavy bombardment had taken place. This would allow for a mix of muddy shell craters but also some colour in the green of the surrounding grass fields. It was a personal choice, and I know some of you like it and that others are less keen. Well, mes braves, one pays one's money and takes one's choice.

For those of the “brown mud” persuasion, you might therefore like to skip the rest of this blog post and head down to your local DIY store for a large 5 litre drum of “Flanders Mud” paint, with my very best wishes and hearty blessing.

For those of the “green fields” persuasion (or at least those intrigued enough to try), thank you for staying. Here’s how to add the "grass". Before you do, dig out the craters you want to have in the Styrofoam terrain. Just use a chisel....go mad, there’s no magic here. If you want super craters, try building the edges up using offcuts of old Styrofoam from other projects (or from the Styrofoam left over from trenches you have just cut out), cardboard or anything suitably bulky. You can see in the photo below a fairly early stage of constructing one of the "no-man's land" Terrani Boards. I've built up a few large craters using lumps of yellow Styrofoam, applying the PVA/interior filler mix to the craters and edges of the craters. You probably want to learn my lesson in making sure that the bottom of the crater is fairly flat to be able to stand troops up in! We figured that out on the second, and later, boards featuring artillery craters, but the first "no-man's land" Trench Board (in the photo below) is just slightly too realistic in having concave bases to the craters - perfect for prone figures with rifle grenades, but less than idea for standing figures. So, here's another lesson learnt: "rememebr you're building wargaiming terrain, not a museum model". Remember to have a spare old figure on hand to check scale and the ease of positioning of figures on the terrain.

Then get some old bath towelling, basically stuff you’ve wanted to chuck away for ages. Perhaps suggest to your Wife/Girlfriend/Husband/Significant Other that it’s time for some new towels and then take the old ones and dye them dark green. I used DYLON® Dark Green Fabric Dye, which was inexpensive, easy to find and pretty easy to use. Looking back I found that the towels which dyed best were definitely the white and cream ones. It isn’t really that important, as the towelling will be painted over anyway (see below), but it does help.

When the newly dyed towels are dry, cut them to fit around the areas of the board – such as besides the craters and alongside the trench line – where the grass is going to remain present. This is really a trial and error system, and there's a lot of personal taste here. In my view, some boards look better with lots of towelling on them (perhaps a board for a communications trenche). Some boards look better without much towelling at all (the more heavily shelled parts of No Mans Land).

By the time you have finished cutting the towelling, you should have a pattern of green towelling to be placed on each board, ready to be glued down. For the sticking, I'd suggest that you don’t just use PVA glue. You will probably be fine if you do use PVA, but remember that the terrain is going to need to last a long time, and that us wargamers are a fairly clumsy bunch en masse. Try using a 50/50 PVA and interior filler (Polyfilla in the UK) mix and spread this thickly over the surface of the terrain, but not in the trenches themselves (into which you will have glued model duckboards - see earlier blog posting). The PVA/ interior filler mix dries reasonably quickly, and even quicker when you increase the ration of interior filler to PVA glue. Think of the consistency of porridge as what you’re ideally aiming for. Coat this on with a brush across the entire board’s upper surface. Again, think macro, not micro. Then simply glue the towelling down. It helps to "stipple" and "feather" the egdes of the towelling into the PVA/ interior filler mix so that the edges of the towelling cannot be seen when you're looking at the finished terrain boards. Don't worry if this doesn't look quite right fist time, because you can always add a little PVA/ interior filler mix later to correct any oversights.

The PVA/ interior filler mix should really soak into the towelling and dry rock hard. Once the towelling is glued down flat on the terrain, it’s basically never going to be moving again. And hey presto, mud and fields. The photo below gives a good idea of the PVA/interior filler after being speread on the surface of the Terrain Board but before the towelling is stuck down onto it.

While the PVA/ Interior Filler is still setting/drying, sprinkle a variety of stones, ballast, sand on the boards fairly liberally. I started in 2005 with a £5 bag of builders’ sharp sand and that’s still going strong. Just sieve out the stones, dry the sand and its ready. You can also add ballast (such as Talus) from a model railway shop or an online stockist like Antenociti or 4D models, which looks great scattered liberally among the trench craters.

Here's another example of ballast and scatter being glued into a more make-shift trench created between a succession of shell holes.. Here, I glued the "wood planking" (thick cardboard) and "corrugated iron" (corrugated cardboard) onto the PVA/ interior filler and then quickly scattered the sharp sand, ballast and talus onto the still-sticky surface.

A later trick we tried was adding dark grey or brown paint to the PVA/ Interior filler mix. We found this to be a good way of speeding up the painting time by cutting out the need for a painted basecoat in the shell craters and surface mud. You can just see that in the photo above - the grey paint tinge to the PVA/ interior filler can be seen just round the egd of the ballast/ talus scatter. In the photo below you can see the grey/dark brown PVA/interior filler/ paint "muddy combo" being mixed, together with a sample of the different scatterings we dropped onto the board to add the texture to the areas covered with the PVA muddy combo. The different terrain basing elements are (a) sieved sharp (builder's) sand; (b) residue of sharp sand, basically small pieces of rock and pebbles; (c) fine ballast/ talus; and (d) medium ballast/ talus.

This was probably another of those important gamer lessons we learned on building the trench terrain - combine stages to save time where possible, such as adding the paint to the PVA and interior filler. Even if you're not in a hurry to put on a game or attend a show, saving time on terrain projects leaves more time for gaming, going down to the pub or simply re-introducing yourself to your loving family.

By now you should have reached the stage of trenches, grass and craters. And at this point, feel free to have a suitably themed Flemish beer, because a great deal the hard work has been done!


  1. Definitely like, and for us late war aficionados, the green, green grass of home is the best way to go.

  2. This is a truly fantastic sequence of articles. Thanks for posting them. I confess that I am green with envy.

  3. Thank you both very much. Hope you continue to enjoy the Blog.



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