Creating a Desert Floor for Wargaming

Every wargames table needs scenery, right? I primarily play Heavy Gear, and the world of Heavy Gear - or at least, the bit where people fight - is primarily desert, so for my new wargames table I set about creating a desert texture for the floor.

My criteria for method were:

  • It has to be relatively simple and easy to create, 'cause otherwise I won't finish all the pieces.
  • It has to look good.
  • It has to be fairly durable.
  • It has to be consistent enough and repeatable enough that I can perform repairs to the scenery if necessary at a later date and not have bits that stand out as obviously having been repaired.

My method, then, is as follows. The things I'm surfacing are hex tiles for modular terrain; few of the photos show the same tiles as the previous shots, 'cause I was working on several in several stages at the same time.
(In fact, I discarded the hex-tile idea after a while - it didn't seem to give me anything and it was hard to cut the hexes precisely enough - but I've replaced them with large panels which are created in the same manner.)

Base CoatBase CoatFirst, I apply a base coat of terracotta textured masonry paint ('Light Terracotta' Homebase-brand). Masonry paint is pretty damn durable just on its own, being intended for painting onto external walls and so on, and being textured means it adds a bit of surface variation. The sheets of insulation board I'm using already have a bit of surface variation - the textured paint fills in the small holes (because it's quite thick) and adds a bit of extra texture.
When working with textured paint, be careful not to stipple - dab at the surface with the end of the brush to make little pointed texture marks - unless you really know what you're doing. Because it's thick paint, you end up with an organic look that resembles wrinkled passionfruit skin, and no terrain I've ever seen. I try and break up the direction of my brushtrokes at this stage to avoid the surface looking too ordered.

Next, I sprinkle the surface liberally with sand. Which unfortunately isn't too visible in this picture, but trust me - it's there! I'm using sand with a variety of sizes of rock in it, from small grains to pebble a couple of millimetres wide - GW's "loose rocky scatter".
If you try to apply such a texture to slabs, like the hex shapes I'm using here, be careful that your sand goes all the way up to the edges, otherwise they'll look funny when you tile them together.

More paintMore paint
Once the first layer of paint is dry, paint a second layer over the top of the sand. As silly as it may seem, the sand I used isn't the right colour to properly represent sand - or more accurately, the colour of the sand and the pebbles varies too much and breaks the illusion of scale.
Also, an extra layer of thick paint realy helps keep the damn stuff on. It's worth running a clean and dry brush over all the sand and pebbles before painting the second layer just to make sure any loose ones are knocked off and the bare patches they leave get painted over.

The colour is then highlighted and given some depth by wetbrushing the entire thing with a lighter coloured paint - this time "Sandstone". Wetbrushing is a lot like drybrushing, but with a lot less effort made to wipe the paint off of the brush first.

Dabbing the washDabbing the wash
The wetbrushed surface is a good start, but it's still firstly very uniform, and secondly very harsh and flat. And very pink still from the terracotta. I'm solving all this at once by applying an oil wash which will add depth by running more pigment into the crevices and cracks around the sand and mediate the colour by blending both towards the ochre of the oil paint.
The wash is comprised of yellow ochre paint (from Windsor & Newton's Student Oils range) mixed with white spirit to get it to flow well. Make sure that the masonry paint completely covers the surface if it's something like insulation foam which may get damaged by white spirit. First, I'm dabbing the paint on in big drops.

Spreading the washSpreading the wash
Next, I spread the drops out and around with the brush. This method helps vary the density across the surface and give an organic patchiness that looks (to my eye at least) a lot more real than a flat and totally even texture.

Finished! It might be worth varnishing the scenery at this point, for durability's sake - a coat of heavy gloss followed by a coat of matt to flatten it again - but I'm relying for now on the strength of the masonry paint used. (I've had these boards for a few years now, and they're holding up pretty well.)

How it all looksHow it all looks
Here's what they look like all butted together.

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