Monday, 1 February 2010

“You want how much Styrofoam?”

Materials......don’t wargamers just love ‘em? My garage is full of bits of rubbish and offcuts from a variety of friends and local stores, bits and pieces scoured from beaches and moorland from a variety of tourist spots and the dropped branches from the trees in my garden. It all comes in handy, but sometimes you need to splash out and purchase something for a new project. This next blog entry is all about purchasing materials for the terrain project and getting started.

We wanted the terrain boards to be robust, and so I purchased sufficient 6mm MDF sheets and timber battens for the base boards. This would give the terrain complete rigidity when transporting from my house to the club or a wargame show. In my view there’s nothing more tragic than making a piece of terrain and seeing the board on which it’s placed gently warping over the years. There’s an additional weight cost to the timber battening, and you need more space in which to store the finished boards in because of the battening. But, in my view, the additional weight and space costs are repaid by knowing you’re creating terrain which is really going to last for decades.

I purchased 14 sheets of 40mm blue Styrofoam (extruded polystyrene) for the terrain bases. This was the biggest single expense of the project and cost me £78 plus £10 postage. Not bad when you measure this cost against the price of pre-flocked terrain tiles, and also take into account the chance to create the exact terrain layout you want. The Styrofoam is not that hard to purchase mail order from Craftfoam in the UK ( I was tempted to try and purchase Styrofoam locally, but the builders merchants I went to laughed when I said how little I wanted, and the hobby shops were aghast I wanted so much. Mail order is therefore the way to go, and you can achieve precise cutting of the Syrofoam terrain base to 600mm x 600mm measurements every time.

The next stage, after chalking and drawing in the trenches with a marker pen on the top of the foam, is to cut out the trenches. The Styrofoam is so dense that it cuts pretty easily with just a kitchen knife. Don’t try and cut with a saw the foam unless you want trenches with bumps and irregular cuts. Such a craggy edge to a trench would be ideal for trenches built out of a meandering series of shellholes, but perhaps not for trenches with lots of wooden revetting which are part of a purpose built field fortification like the Siegfried Stellung.

If you want to revet your trenches with wood, corrugated iron and willow-weave (or what the French called clayonnage), you are best cutting at a right angle downwards and keeping everything geometric. You should end up with the trenches neatly cut out. Use a figure and some bases to make sure that the width of the trenches accommodates all the troops and weapons you want to use in them.

As for dimensions, we generally went for a 50mm width of trench, with 60mm in the front line to accommodate a fire-step, and this seems to have worked out fine.
The base of the trench is, of course, the 6mm MDF base on which the Styrofoam sits. I screwed the Styrofoam to the MDF for extra strength, and would recommend this. The Sytrofoam is of a sufficiently solid density to have the consistency of softwood, and a woodscrew will make doubly sure that the foam is never going to move after the glue is applied. You don’t need special glue to get a good bond between the Styrofoam and the MDF, although there is a lot of literature on the internet telling you to purchase contact adhesive and the like. I used “No More Nails” which seems to stick most things pretty well, plus a liberal coating of PVA between the MDF and the Styrofoam. If you are extensively screwing the Styrofoam to the MDF (about 8 screws per board does fine), the Styrofoam is simply fastened to the MDF and just won’t move. The glue will eventually set, even thought the air contact of the PVA glue in the centre of the board is limited. Try drill extra holes in the MDF if you want to speed the drying time. The “No More Nials” seems to work really well as an adhesive sandwiched between the two surfaces.

At this point you should have a solid wooden base and some very angular trenches in bright blue. But, even thought there’s a long way to go, you can feel yourself getting just slightly excited.....

I wanted the trenches to show revetting and wood reinforcement, with sections of willow-weave/ clayonnage and corrugated iron along trench sides where planking might have been scarce. Ideally, we should have made a lot more sandbags to place all along the trenches, but my attempts at moulding these into the walls were not successful. The sandbags I did use were made with Milliput and placed on the trench parapets, but more as a token than as a recreation of the vast quantities which would have been used all along the German line. Looking back, this was one of the aspects of the project I was not that happy with, and may well go back to add some extra sandbags on the trench boards at some future date. The other thing I missed when building the trenches was adding a heap of trench spoil behind the rear wall of the trench, banked up as the trenches were excavated. These seems to have been a distinctive part of the trench lines in France and, sadly, I didn’t remember to add them into the project. Again, it’s another detail which can be added without too much trouble at a later date, but I wish I had remembered to include it when building.

I decided the easiest way was to make the revetting along the trench walls was in separate sections on a flat table, and then fix the finished section onto the walls of the Styrofoam trenches.

The method is simple: cut a piece of thin card and glue on a series of thicker card “boards” and matchstick “trenchposts”. Some corrugated card can represent corrugated iron, and was used extensively in construction by both sides. You need plenty of PVA glue, but in the end the finished result passes muster as a representation of a wooden revetted trench wall.

This process is pretty inexpensive. I used one bag of matchsticks for the whole terrain and still have some left over. The thicker card used for the wooden boards is just artists mounting board, but you could use any thick card you have lying around. The thin card base is just from old cereal packets. The industrial quantity of PVA needed for this part of the project is the main expense, along with some “No More Nails” to glue the finished revetted sections to the trench sides.

The base of the trench is a bit of a fiddle. You are really looking for something representing a muddy trench with duckboards. You can try and construct a gutter and build a ladder of duckboards on top. I tried that, but it was painstakingly fiddly as the ladders kept falling apart. So, at this point it’s time for another “lesson learned”: don’t over-complicate - instead, think macro, not micro. Try and represent the look of the base of the trench. I mixed PVA and interior filler (about a 50/50 mix of PVA and Polyfilla) and spread this on the base of the trench using an old brush. I then stuck a series of thick card “duckboards” into the mix, adding assorted gravel and stones along the edges as trench “spoil”.

It’s messy, but then trenches were a mess for most of the time. You can also try making areas which can be flooded with water gel. All this involves is building up two card mounds in the trench, which then becomes a mini-reservoir for the gel. Some collapsed trench sides also looks good by the side of the intended water feature!

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