Simple Scenery: An Introduction to Water Effects

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Scenery is a vital aesthetic to war games, you can certainly play a game of Warmachine with books, CD spindles and other household objects as terrain and it is indeed adequately functional. The fact though, is that most war gamers will spend a large amount of time building and painting their miniatures for the look that they want. I personally believe this is because we not only want to win, but to look good doing it, and nothing complements a beautifully painted army like a beautiful battlefield to fight on.

I have been playing war games in one form or another since I was in my early teens and have made a lot of terrain from the very basic to the more complex. One thing I have never really had a lot of to put towards this, is money. Most of the people I play with spend so much on their armies that they’d be hard pressed to buy tools and supplies for making terrain as well. I have as a result developed a decent capacity to make my terrain from somewhat cobbled together supplies – I am not claiming to be the best, but I can definitely put together some good-looking pieces for what I’m working with.

One thing that I, and I am sure many other modellers, find tough to work with is water effects. Resin is fantastic for this and there are some jobs that it is the absolute best for (flowing water, waves, waterfalls). If you are simply looking to make some simple pools for your game board, you can achieve a good water effect with much simpler supplies.

For this project I used the following items – most war gamers will already possess a lot of these items and none of the others are expensive or hard to obtain.

  • One piece of one inch thick polystyrene (as big or small as you want)
  • A sheet of acetate
  • Balsa wood
  • PVA Glue
  • Tissue Paper
  • Basing materials (sand, static grass)
  • Paints and brushes
  • A hacksaw
  • A scissors
  • Superglue
  • Poly filler
  • Sandpaper
  • A cigarette lighter

Step one: Using the hack saw cut the polystyrene into an irregular shape with sloped edges, leaving a flat surface in the centre. This surface should be approximately an inch bigger on all sides than your intended water feature. Using a cigarette lighter, quickly run the flame over the edges to make the polystyrene contract slightly, removing any loose pieces from the outer area (a hot wire cutter can be used for this but I did not have access to mine at the time and besides, I am trying to be cheap).


Step two: Use the cigarette lighter to then slowly melt an indent into the flat surface area on top of the hill, this can be any depth you want but do not go through to the bottom of the polystyrene sheet. Be careful not to hold the flame too close or for too long or you will set fire to the polystyrene which is both unpleasant smelling and likely to give you a nasty burn.


Step three: Once the polystyrene has been shaped to your satisfaction, coat the entire thing in poly filler. Be careful not to make the poly filler too runny or it will simply congeal into the hole you’ve made and fill the lake. You can smooth the poly filler as it dries or simply wait and use sandpaper to smooth it afterwards (usually I will do some preliminary smoothing as it dries and then sandpaper afterwards to remove and pieces that did not dry the way I wanted). The poly filler will take a few hours to dry and should not be sanded before it is completely dry.


Step Four: Begin painting the bottom of the pool, I used a mix of green and brown for this applied in random patches.

Step Five: Since the goal of this project was to create cheap but nice looking water, I decided to add some debris to the pool to demonstrate that it did actually have depth. For this I constructed a broken log from balsa wood. Shape the balsa wood into a rough cylinder and then using a file create some small holes in the trunk into which can be glued smaller pieces of balsa for branches. A few rough strokes with a hack saw create a splintered, broken look on the end of the log.


Step Six: Take a sheet of acetate and place it over the pool. Using a marker, mark the shape of the pool on the acetate (including the above mentioned additional inch or so at the sides). Cut this shape out and then place it over the pool to make sure its the right size. Next, place the log into the pool and using the sheet of acetate work out at what point it would be above the water line and mark this.


Step Seven: Cut along the log at the indicated line and glue the submerged section into place in the pool. You can use superglue to secure it as the poly filler will prevent it from melting through the polystyrene. Once the log is in place you can paint it and base the bottom of the pool. I used a mixture of dark coarse sand and a few clumps of long static grass for this to create a mucky, overgrown look.


Step Eight: Once everything is dry, place the acetate sheet you cut out earlier over the pool. Once it is lined up to your satisfaction, glue it into place using superglue (the superglue will create a misty effect on the acetate in the area around which you apply it so keep it well back from the edge of where you want the pool to be).

Step Nine: Once the acetate is secure you can begin covering it up. Using strips of tissue paper soaked in PVA glue with a small amount of water you can construct a ridge, masking where the acetate comes out over the edges of the pool, have a brush on hand to manipulate the strips as they go down and line them up with the bank below the pools water line. The top half of the log can also be lined up with the bottom half at this point and glued to the acetate sheet. Leave the whole piece to dry at this point.


Step Ten: Now it is time to apply the water effect to the acetate. Mix some gloss sealant with ink (Games Workshop’s ‘Ard Coat and Sepia ink were the two particular ones I used on this occasion) in a fifty-fifty ratio and spread this mix over the acetate, whilst this may look overly dark it will dry to a lighter shade. Try not to be too vigorous spreading the mix or it will create bubbles in the surface. At the point where the log exits the water I applied slightly more of the mixture than the rest of the surface and after a few minutes of letting it set I pushed the mixture around the edges of the log with a brush to disguise any seem left around it. Leave the whole thing to dry again for at least two hours – at this point if any loose debris gets onto the surface it will be stuck there.


Step Eleven: You can now paint the outside of the mound and base it according to your preferences. I simply went with green paint followed by a random mixture of static grasses and sand (some longer strips of static grass at the water’s edge will further hide the joins around the acetates edge and create a more convincing illusion).


2013-03-27 17.16.54

The entire project took approximately two days to complete, although most of that time was waiting for fillers and glues to set (the actual assembly time spent at the work bench was approximately two and a half hours). I hope you find these tips useful and will revisit the topic in the future to discuss more complex techniques.



2 thoughts on “Simple Scenery: An Introduction to Water Effects

    • The mix is a random one, its mostly static grass and sand with a few small stones and bits of brown flock. I generally don’t base anything with just one kind of material, after all most areas of grass will have dirt and rocks lying around. Adding a small amount of this will break up the grass and make it a bit more interesting looking. Also using more than one length of grass in the mix creates a nice uneven length. When I open my any of my scenery boxes there’s always flock floating around at the bottom that has found its way out of the bags and I find that this random mess looks incredibly natural on terrain.

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