Saturday 19 May 2012

Cheap Wargame Terrain for all Scales - the Sand Table

Good terrain adds to the fun factor of any wargame. Sadly, it is also usually very hard to store, quite expensive (especially postage-wise); and making terrain is, for most people, less 'sexy' than painting minis themselves. This is one of my attempts to circumvent these issues (i.e. quick to make, cheap, looks good).

My original "sand table"  - a styfoam dishwasher packing base  - cost $450 but came with a complimentary dishwashing machine, but if you scrounge around you could have one for free.

Originally, I was looking at making an arena for my gladiators.  Initially, a pizza tray was mooted as a circular arena but then I got the solid base of the styfoam packing off the wife's new dishwasher.  (I married a dishwasher and then I had to buy one as well...). I was going to glue a thin layer of sand to the base, but first I loose-laid the sand to see what it looked like.  I used it for a 15mm wargame and although it was a tad small (2sq. feet), it showed potential.  It was also cheap - totally free, unless you count having to buy the dishwasher first, or the dinner I will have to buy my wife when she discovers I used her best flour sifter to sift the sand I scraped off the local beach.... 
...Or you could buy a  premade"Realm of Battle" gameboard from Games Workshop, also for $450. However it does not come with a complimentary dishwasher. 
The Sand Table - a Blast from the Past
This got me thinking.  What about a 'proper' sand table? They used to be popular in the 'olden days' and would provide an easy way to make hills and undulations in the terrain.  It would make basing easy (simply splash a bit of PVA on the model's base and dip in sand).  I could easily store the 'terrain pieces' - a bucket of sand - and the table could be leant on its side against the wall. 

So off to the local hardware store. I bought:
Wood PVA glue $8
Two 2.4m pine strips $6
1.2m x 0.9m (4ft by 3ft) 6mm MDF sheet $8 (MDF is pressed particle board)
Total Cost = $22

I picked a smaller size precut mdf (4 x 3') as plywood was $40+ for decent sizes and I am dubious about the load-carrying ability of a wide sheet of mdf.  The size will be fine for the skirmish games that I usually play. If it is a success I will try a bigger 6 x 4' table. 

15 minutes of cutting and gluing later, and I had this:

The table is 4x3' - skirmish sized. I will try a larger table if this is a success. 

The mdf doesn't look strong enough to hold screws or nails and I don't have a staple gun.  Hopefully the glue will hold, as well as provide a sand-proof seal in the cracks between the boards.  In hindsight I probably should have left a notch in the pine 'lip' to allow sand to be poured out accurately into the bucket.  I plan to put about 1" of sand in the table - enough to entrench a 28mm figure.

-------------------2hr break playing ARMA2 with wife while glue dries-------------------

Here is the table when filled with sand.  I will probably paint or varnish the wood to avoid warping as sand tend to hold moisture. Two people can carry this, loaded with sand, rather easily. The 6mm mdf is strong enough for carrying and on top of a fold-out table is quite stable.

Crusties advance from the edge of town towards a Felid-held monastry.  The models are from GZG and Khurasan - they will be given sand-coated bases if the sand table is a success.

Sand, Sand Everywhere...
My experimental styfoam sand table showed that a sand table, whilst not something my wife would welcome in her living room, did not spread its gritty contents as far afield as I feared.  Simply giving buildings and minis a quick wipe/shake before putting them away got rid of all but the most tenacious sand.  The tiny microdice I use for marking reactions in Tomorrow's War did prove problematic as they tended to submerge themselves during play. Pouring it back into the bucket was a breeze but I am not sure how manageable a very large board would be.  I used about two buckets of sand in the board. - one to cover it and another to provide 'hills.'

You can see the 'hills' created by the sand.  Felid mercenaries wait behind the rise for the Crustie swarms...

Builder's Sand
We call it "brickies loam" and it is used for house construction. I am currently using sifted beach sand but will probably switch across to the loam as it can be moulded in shapes when damp and dries quite hard.  This would necessitate painting the boards to prevent warping. It is a reason to consider more expensive plywood. 

Cheap Trees
The palms I used were ebayed from a Chinese website for $10 for a pack of 30. Just search ebay for N, H0 or 00 scale trees to get a wide range of cheap selections. Thank goodness for model railroad nerds! I'll do an article on using model railroad terrain for 28mm and 15mm wargames another time.

These trees were dirt cheap (30c each approx) on ebay - I need to cut them to different lengths. A bonus of sand = no need for basing - trees can be removed and replaced freely.

To be continued.....


  1. Dude! You live dangerously! Hope the wife doesn't read the blog ;)

    Table looks great. I wondered about using some silicon sealer to seal the gap between edge and base - you can put it on with a gun-like dispenser. I would be concerned about damp from the sand getting into the MDF - you could try polyurethane to seal the MDF and pine.

  2. Definitely will need some damp-preventative; the sand absorbs the moisture especially under the deeper sand 'hills'. I may paint it light blue so the raised edges look like the sky when viewed from a miniatures' perspective.

    However I don't think a silicone sealer is necessary for the joins - the glue did that job and it is a very tight fit, thanks to my liberal use of clamps in the gluing process.

  3. Who knew as an adult I would want my first sandbox back...

  4. Speaking of sandboxes - it's got me terrified of the neighbours' cat - the mongrel thing is always in my yard and now I'm scared it'll slip into the shed and leave me a 'present' on the wargames table....

    ...the "Crusties" may be defeated by the "Monsters from Uranus".... :-(

  5. What about cutting a hole in one corner of bottom of the table, then inserting a plug? When it is time to clean up, put a bucket under that corner and remove the plug. The sand will run out into the bucket and you can push the rest of the sand to that corner as well.

  6. Everyone who used a sand table 'back in the day' seems to have used 8x8, 10x6, 12x6 or 8x10 or some other such ridiculously large table.

    I don't think I have come across any rules asking for more than 6x4.

    If I have to use a giant table and half a dozen buckets to store sand then I defeat my original aim, which is to make cheap, nice looking, EASILY STORED terrain.

    Also I can hopefully avoid complicated trapdoor arrangements which also seemed common.

  7. NOTE: For those interested in cleanup; it took me 5 minutes with a dustpan and brush to clean off the table and refill the two buckets. Only a small amount of spillage also dealt with by said dustpan.

    I'm considering taking it to the local club it's so easy and portable.

    For those making their own, it is not worth any special trapdoor arrangement unless you use a much larger table.

  8. Thank ya loads for implementing this! As I am only in my late teens, I lack the serious resources, space, and time to put into creating my own high-grade table. On top of that, my fellows bounce between 15mm and 28mm skirmishing rather frequently, so deciding on a board that could accommodate both sizes was proving quite problematic (Especially an affordable one. The minis are expensive enough as it is. ._.)

    I do have one quick question: Is dampening the sand and molding it into a landscape a good idea? The obvious concern here is how badly my figures' paint jobs might suffer by coming into contact with it; particularly vehicles, as it's more or less guaranteed to stick.

  9. Mr S Anonymous

    It doesn't damage paintjobs but I found the sand a bit irritating to brush out of the cracks of minis to be honest. I tend to just leave the minis sandy and then clean them off when I pack the table away a few weeks later.

    I'm not dampening sand as
    (a) wet warps the mdf board I used (marine plywood is an option but very $$$)
    (b) many of my 15mm minis are based on rust-prone washers
    (c) wet sand = extra weight on a rather lightly built table

    I have considered spraying the sand with cheap spraypaint though. I suspect a mix of PVA glue and water like you use for basing minis might make a good "crust" but to use enough PVA glue might be a bit expensive....

    If you are interested in making cheap terrain and are strapped for cash, I can recommend foamboard

    1. Also see "brickies loam" or I think its called builders clay? It molds when wet and dries hard. I haven't bothered to get it yet as my table sand is handy for basing minis :-)

  10. Great idea - love it, I would probably stick to 'conventional table' design though as I am pretty boring :)

  11. Are you still using this table mate?
    How has it fared over the years?

    1. I ask as I start to build my 15mm forces for WW2 in North Africa and this seems an easier way to go rather than collecting a whole new set of 'desert' terrain

    2. Yup. Still my most used table. I simply tip the sand back out into a bucket when I'm done. I use the sand-bucket for basing materials as well - dual purpose!

      I've done a lot more where I've sprayed sand over a PVA+water mix, as having loose sand is fine for the shed but its a bit risky indoors. Like this one:

      I can recommend the JR minis terrain too - in the US the postage (usually my main issue with purchasing terrain) would be very favourable.

      Because the loose sand can be molded, it worked well with expanding foam - handy if you can't access the proper stuff...

    3. Nice. I think tats the way I will go for my WW2 Desert Adventures.

      I'll look into JR Minis, thanks. Let me know if you want me bring stuff back for you, but it'll be awhile!

    4. I would appreciate some 15mm terrain smuggled back... Australia, the postage almost costs more than the (otherwise very affordable) buildings!

      If you have the sand table in the house, I'd probably PVA it down. It's not super messy, but when it's loose, grit does fall off the base of miniatures as you move them.

  12. Check out my sand table. The How to section gives details. I also made myself (and the club) a mobile sand table 7' X 5'6". My current table is 24' X 6' with two tons of sand