The Pipe-Works: Part 1

One of the often overlooked aspects of playing miniatures games is the terrain. There are a variety of great options for the table surface itself (Mats by Mars and FAT mats to name a couple). Heck, even just a dark grey primed board can pass in many situations. It’s easy to get the ground laid… but what about the terrain itself? Games like Malifaux, Warmachine and Warhammer 40k require 3D terrain to really shine.

Games-Workshop and other companies make some amazing terrain kits. All of that, however, can get expensive. New players on a budget likely need to focus their spending money on new models, paints, brushes, a carrying case… or any number of more direct “get into the game” purchases. So today I thought I would begin a two part series on how to make some inexpensive terrain that fits into a variety of themes (although it won’t work for every game). The Pipe-Works industrial park.

You’ve likely seen locations like this while driving along the highway. Enormous silo’s of… well usually grain in the real world, but here we’re going to assume nefarious chemicals.  We’re going to also damage them up, making them appear abandoned, or at least showing the signs of constant conflict.

Here I’ve collected the things I’ll need to for this project and laid them out in a vague shape that shows how I’ll be arranging them.

20150926_183311All in all I used the following:

  • Cardboard Pringles, Kool Aid, and Tea canisters
  • Twist-off Bottle Caps
  • Corrugated Plasticard
  • Press-board
  • Gorilla Glue
  • Elmer’s White Glue
  • Super Glue
  • Hobby Knife
  • Hobby Scissors
  • Sand

Step 1: The Gathering

I feel compelled to mention that I did not collect all these canisters and bottle caps by consuming their contents. I asked friends to save any they might have, and I saved them myself over a few months. You’re going to want to find someplace to tuck them away, as the other people you live with will probably think they are trash.

As for the bottle caps, I simply asked Joel to start saving them. He’ll deny it, but it only took him one weekend to get me all those caps. I think he’s preparing for a Fallout style event.

As for the pressboard, that’s a bit trickier. I happen to have a friend with a table saw (thanks Mark) and he was gracious enough to cut up the wood for me. If you don’t have access, however, there is hope. I suspect most places can cut wood for you, but I can only be sure that Home Depot provides the service (as that is where I went). If you’re going to purchase a piece of pressboard (they come in 3′ x 2′ sheets at about $8) then you can ask that they cut it for you. Just have them get close to 1 foot squares and you’ll be fine. They don’t have to be exact, and you’re going to lose some of the dimension on the cuts. You want the boards to be thin but sturdy. Describe your needs to someone in a work apron and they’ll help you find it.

Step 2: Gluing Crap to Wood

This is the easy part. Gorilla brand wood glue is astonishingly inexpensive (about $3 a bottle) and you’re going to get plenty of it. I recommend wood glue for this first stage. It doesn’t dry clear, but that’s ok, most of everything is going to get hidden anyway. Its bond is stronger than white glue (important for the big pieces) and it’s much cheaper than super glue. You’re going to use enough of it that super glue just isn’t cost effective.

Simply apply the wood glue to the open end of the cardboard canisters (I don’t remove the wrapper) and then stick them to the wooden panels. These will be our silos. Always put them closed side up, otherwise the illusion will be quickly broken. I also recommend putting them at the side of the board. This will allow multiple corner arrangements, and you can put a few together to create large line of sight blocking areas this way. If you put them in the center of the panel it will limit the ways you can arrange them.


Repeat the process with the lids to make rendering vats on the ground. Cut the center of the lids in a single line with a hobby knife. The hole doesn’t need to be large, but it helps them stay adhered to the board.

Next, I used wood glue in lines to set up the bottle caps face down. You want them to be face down to avoid accidental cuts, but also to hide what they actually are in the final product. I used them to make walkways (I’ll be painting them in part 2).

Lastly, I cut corrugated plasticard (about $10 at most model train stores) to make sheet metal walk ways and platforms. I glued these down using standard Super Glue, as the plastic responds better this way. You don’t want to cover up the entire top of the silos, as in part 2 we’ll be using wet effects to make some of them look full of chemicals. It’s also ok to leave some of them open.

It can be fun to play reverse CSI at this stage. I try to hint at a story by placing pieces to look broken. For instance,  I glued some of the plasticard walk-ways to look like they fell into the chemical vats.  Once the wet effects are done they should add world building depth to the piece. This picture is from the post Step 3, but you can see what I’m talking about here.

Step 3: Basing!

I had a few extra pieces of plasticard laying around, so I went ahead and glued them to the board directly, to make scrap metal on the ground. Waste-not, want-not… and all that.

Lastly comes the sand. For this I took a little extra plasticard and folded it in half to make a glue spreader. The fold is important, as it lets you stand the card up when not in use, the glue facing up (see the picture).


I then applied Elmer’s white glue to every surfaces where board still showed through. Spread that around with the glue spreader so that you don’t have to use too much glue, but it is important to get full coverage of every nook and cranny.

Then pour on the sand! I use a clean pizza box (I’ve had the same one for years). Most pizza places will give you an extra box if you ask when ordering pizza. The box lets me reclaim the unused sand at the end, and keeps it from getting everywhere.


Step 4: Wait & Shake

Now give the whole thing 24 (or 48) hours to dry. Don’t rush it. Afterwards you can gently shake off the sand that didn’t adhere. I do this into my pizza box so that I can poor the excess sand back into the container.

You might have some places near the edges of the base where glue didn’t hold on. It’s ok to have small bare patches away from the edge, but those bits near the corners or sides can break the visual illusion. Once you shake off the sand, if you have bits like I do at the lower left corner here, just use some Super Glue and put on some more sand.20150926_201927

And that’s it! You’ve got a piece of terrain (or multiple pieces) that are ready to be primed and painted! We’ll be covering that in part 2!


2 thoughts on “The Pipe-Works: Part 1”

  1. Nice start, Mack. I’d add a couple of things for thought.

    First, if you have the tools, I recommend cutting your board base into irregular oval or organic shapes. This helps the terrain blend more into the tabletop and makes it less useful as a range reference in games that forbid pre-measuring

    Second, you can use thin card or even paper to add detail to your silos. Apply it at irregular angles for a streampunk, fantasy or post-apocalyptic setting, or more regularly for a modern or Sci-fi look. This also conceals the tell-tale spiral lines found on Pringles tubes and similar packaging.

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