Thursday, 23 April 2015

Take to the hills

Since acquiring my most wonderful snooker baize I've been pondering, and making mistakes about, how to do hills.

The structure is easy, of course. If you have a cloth, what you need is hill shaped stuff to go underneath it. With a thick underlay I suppose you could use almost anything, and I did consider investing in a few thick blankets until I priced things up and found that this wasn't a cheap option. Plus, I don't do ad hoc at all well; I've seen some amazing ad hoc results, but I'm just too organised to do it. Don't get me wrong, I applaud those laid back souls for whom ad hoc works - bloody hippies!

I came by my cloth when doing my Lake Trasimene demo game. With an overlaying cloth, hills can be quite grandiose. 

It was my first real 'cloth experience' so I went straight in for lots of two inch thick high density foam boards all eight foot by two. What a waste of money. For those with the tools to cut foam board that is two inches thick, or want to spend hours sanding stuff down, and have a bench rotary saw to keep joining edges square, then this is probably the way to go. I do not fall into this category: I have normal tools and limited time. I have rethought my approach to best tile thickness. As a one off solution, as this picture of my Trasimene terrain shows, 2" thick is fine, but It isn't a practical solution for a general gamer's hill system.

Back to basics. 

Considering that the steepest slopes that war game figures can stand up on, without toppling over or sliding down, even on big bases, is about one in three, and given that the usable length of a coping saw blade is about four and a half inches, a the maximum depth of a board, or contour, would be about an inch thick. 

Given that hills might have to be large, straight edges, and lots of them, are essential. Straight edges mean that sections can be joined up easily. This sounds easy enough, but cutting things with a hand saw rarely gives perfectly straight ninety degree angles - most of us don't use a saw that often.

Biting the bullet, I have recently made a first purchase of new foam board. This time, each board is one inch thick, in pre-cut tiles, two foot by two foot (600 mm x 600 mm x 25 mm).

I bought this stuff on line from a company in Sheffield. It came, in a very sturdy box, next day. 

The sturdy box is important because you get tiles with edges undamaged by transport. I was impressed.

These tiles were not cheap, in fact I thought them expensive at (including delivery) £64.20 for twelve tiles. 

 Now, a hill system needs a design solution. This can be done on paper, and some time should be spent doing this to iron out simple mistakes that might be made later. 

This early drawing shows a couple of mistakes that could have been made. The bottom two drawings (on the right) show the same shapes laid out on a tile in two different ways - the one on the right is wrong - the one on the left uses better edges and gives a better, more usable, left over. 

Likewise, the bottom two drawings, on the left, show the same pattern but using one cut rather than two and a more 'shapely' edge without a 'central' waste. 

The drawing in the centre row shows a one piece hill, or a two piece hill, with the same dimensions - a two piece hill will serve more purpose as it can be the ends, added to other sections to form ridge; a one piece hill can be nothing else. It's all about the straight edges.

This all sounds pretty simple, and you might think that stupid mistakes can be avoided without much thought: However, without thought always provokes stupid mistakes, believe me.

I have gone for basic shapes in three sizes. 20cm, 30cm, and 40cm from the edges - all the above diagrams are for 20cm and 40cm. It will allow me to build big hills of varying dimensions.

Here is a tile marked out for cutting. This is the tile design in the above diagram.  The central waste is now a 'round' hill. The 'slopes', three inches deep, have been marked on and the amount of absolute waste blocked out. This is a best use of tile solution. Not all tiles can be as waste free as this.

Here I've marked out the slope lines. I've done this for explanation only. You don't need to do this on every tile - you just need the top and bottom points.
Tools for the job. 

As well as measures, pencils and the like, I needed a fret saw (long bow, short blade) and a coping saw (medium bow, longer blade). 

I used the fret saw to cut out the basic shapes - the bow is 290mm deep so even approaching from two directions on a 600mm tile will need a small 'snap' to accomplish a cut. I bought a few new fret saw blades because I'd broken loads doing 2" thick boards; doing 1" thick boards I didn't break any. 

The coping saw is used to cut the slopes. Small teeth need less sanding! I found that the coping saw blades at 32 teeth an inch were good.

Sand paper is required to smooth off the saw cuts. I bought 70 and 100grade; 70 grade was most useful - note to self, next time buy 3 sheets to 1. Gentle, firm, steady sanding 'up and down slope' is best. If you are too rough the tile breaks up on the surface and requires even more sanding to remove.

You will notice that I do not own a hot polystyrene cutter. The ones I've seen come in two types. The first, a thin wire between a bow tends not to have a long enough 'cut' or deep enough bow for most jobs and I'm not sure of their strength Vs high density foamboard. I stand to be corrected here and be pointed in the right direction, but I've not seen one with the right dimensions, strength and price. The second device, a long bladed soldering iron type probe (for want of a better description) cost too much for the amount of use I would get from it so I haven't even considered one, although they would probably be perfect for the job. 

Something to saw on is, of course, a minimum requirement. A friend gave me this B&D bench a couple of years ago. I got it out and built it for this job and, with the addition of a short wide plank on the top, it was perfect - thanks, Tim.

The blue tarp', I guess, is optional. But be prepared for a mess and lots of vacuum cleaning when the job is done. Telling your wife (whatever) that you will clean up before you start is a very good idea. The blue tile dust gets everywhere.


So, first, using the fret saw you cut out the basic shapes. The saw is not long enough to reach the centre of the tile so a bit of 'snapping' will be required.
 Next the slopes are cut with the coping saw. This blade has 16 teeth to the inch and the cuts were quite ragged. I swapped it for a 32 to the inch later. They required less post cut sanding.
After cutting, the whole lot needed to be sanded down. 

The wider board to sand on was a very great help. The hill was pressed to it whilst I moved rhythmically up and down the slope with the sand paper.

As up and down things go, this is much less enjoyable than some, and creates a lot more mess.

After sanding there was a 'feathery' edge at the bottom of the slope. I don't like feathery edges because they get caught on stuff and generally lack strength. I cut mine off with a scalpel.
 Here is the tile reassembled to show the lack of waste for this tile.
 This shot shows the gap between the extents of two fret saw cuts. A blade cut here, before snapping the pieces apart stopped a possible bad break. I added the bits of paper to show the gap more clearly.
Put these and a few more pieces together and.....
 This shot shows me cutting the slope with the coping saw. You can see the lack of play in the blade length - 3" is the maximum slope. When cutting you have to keep an eye on the top of the blade and the bottom of the blade to get the slope. 

When negotiating bends and corners you must think of the blade negotiating the radius of a circle - sometimes the bottom of the blade is at the centre, sometimes the top is at the centre - and the blade must rotate around centre.
 So, I've clattered out a few shapes.
 They can form up differently - interchangeable system.
And they fit in my cupboards. 

I still have two tiles to do. I kept them in case I find a horrible mistake in my workings out. I have enough room for at least another 24 full tiles (there is another cupboard this size on the other side of the table) so next time I'll be doing some 'turns' to allow for horse shoe shaped hills and the like. I will also make some tiles 'back fillers' that allow whole sections of the table to be at higher elevation, though I'm not sure I'll ever have enough space to store hills for a proper central depression!

Onwards and upwards. When it comes to hills I now think I'm on the right track.

Oh, by the way. Why so much time sanding? Well I intend to paint all of these hills with emulsion paint so they can be used for my WW2 desert stuff - unless I get a desert coloured cloth (which isn't off the agenda).


DeanM said...

I like clothes for both transportability and storage. Those are some elaborate (very nice) hills you made. I'm one of those hippies; and a recent game used several upturned Guinness boxes for a bluff :)!

David said...

Impressive effort there and an excellent end result!

ColCampbell50 said...


I've found that a steak knife with a small-serrated blade can work for the "rough" cuts around the hill shape. Since you are going to be cutting and sanding most if not all of that edge away then a "rough" cut might not be a decrement.




Guiness boxes, what did you play the game out with Joni Mitchell wailing in the background? Oh no, Guiness boxes, it was Bono.

Lord give me the strength to...........

Der Alte Fritz said...

Will these hills be placed under the baize cloth or on top of it?

This is a problem that I wrestle with. The under the cloth method usually works but sometimes you get places where the cloth bows a bit as a result of it not laying entirely flat on the hill pieces.

I'm interested in experimenting with hills that I can place on top of my cloth. I agree that the one inch thick foam board is the way to go. Two inch thick foam is a lot of foam to cut - I never could get a good and realistic grade using two inch foam.

Your idea of building a large base level, big enough to place a second or even third tier of foam atop the base is the way to go, from my experience.

Your results really look good and the tutorial will be very useful when I try making hills again.


Hi DAF, they'll go under.

I might paint them beige / sand to be useful as contours for my WW2 games in 15mm. This might also strengthen the foam a bit.

Carlo said...

Hi James,

Very interesting and instructive post. I too gave just acquired 24 600 x 600 tiles of blue foam for my next terrain project and I think I will be referring to this blog quite frequently.

Adam said...

Hi James, a cheaper option than blanket for underlay is to use geotextile, which comes in a variety of thicknesses, 3 - 5mm is £1 to £2 per square metre..

Steve said...


Love it. Have acquired the snooker cloth, which works well. Now need to collapse a lung (I've only one) spraying it. Spent the weekend walking Nordlingen and Blenheim and discussing how to make hills for it with my mates. You have, in your usual genius way, cracked it. Thanks!


Steve said...

Hi James, great work.

Have acquired the snooker cloth, which works well. Now need to collapse my one remaing lung spraying it. Spent the weekend walking Nordlingen and Blenheim discussing with my mates how to make the hills, but you, you genius, have cracked it. Thank you.


jmilesr said...

Excellent tutorial - I use the same type of material (extruded polystyrene) to make my hills - it's easy to work with and the scraps are always useful to make small rocks rubble.

I do scenic mine rather than use them under a matt. I suspect both ways have there merits!

Thanks for the tutorial