Sunday 29 August 2021

Off cuts and hill tiles - step by step

 If you have been following my desert terrain posts of late, you will know that I stained a large canvas play mat (cut down to 14' 4" x 6' 6" approx) and kept the off cuts for one reason or another. You will also know that because the cloth shrank by 16" in length that I don't have quite as much stained off cut as I would like.

However, although I have now completely run out of stained canvas, I have managed to do my hill tiles for To the Strongest games. For those unfamiliar with To the Strongest, it is a game played out on a grid and consequently, for two reasons, I decided to go for stylised terrain based on the size and shape of the grid squares.

The first reason for my choice of hill shape was to achieve a certain sartorial elegance. The game is based on a square grid so why not embrace it. 

The second reason, and the reason my hills are so square, is down to cost. Originally I had planned to do my hills in a similar fashion but with less regularity of shape and I had planned on buying new foam insulation board to do it. However, a box of twelve one inch thick tiles two foot square is nearly £80.00 including delivery, VAT, etc. 

As I only actually needed three or four tiles this was too much, especially as I already had sufficient 'spacer sections' in my collection of under cloth hills tiles for 'green terrain' from which to make my desert hills. These sections are unpainted square edged lengths (to increase the width / length of hills) and could be easily converted into painted sections for going on top of the table for TtS desert games, whilst still maintaining their usefulness as spacers when going under a green cloth where their true identity cannot be seen. A simple case of double bubble. A side benefit of double bubble hill sections is of course storage space requirements - hills being one of those terrain features that require quite a lot of storage space.

Having decided on a basic design and working out that I had cloth for 21 squares worth of sections, I made a simple plan of what to make. I drew out the sections I would cut and shape on a piece of paper, and changed my plan after a little thought to add two one square spacers. 

Previous games had shown that two square hills were the most useful, so I planned for three. One square hills are very much stand alone pieces so I settled on three; this might prove one too many and I did consider just doing two and adding another one square spacer. I also decided to do two right angle corner section to allow for up to two right angled hills, or a horse shoe shape, or an S shape hill to be made.

On the plan, you will note the green squiggles, this was simply to check, by matching one join with another, how many tiles might be left at the end - it proved to be a maximum of one. Red ticks were done as sections were made, just to keep track.

With more cloth, I would have made four or five more hill sections, mostly open ended spacers, perhaps including a two square long open ended section, and another right angle. 

The first thing to do was cut my hill sections so that they had a slope on one side whilst being able to be flipped over to become spacer tiles.

I decided a simple step pattern was the best solution to this. This would, I hoped, give the impression of stylised cliff faces.

This was achieved by first cutting horizontally into the side of the hill to give the horizontal steps, then doing the vertical cuts to give the shape of the hill in that plane. 

I worked top to bottom, doing the first horizontal cut followed by vertical cuts, before moving down to the next horizontal cut. It's worth noting that where the first horizontal cut was quite high, it allowed an intermediate horizonalt cut to be made at certain points to increase the number of 'strata'.

Tools used were a Stanley knife for the horizontal and a scalpel for the vertical cuts. Blades were always new and replaced at regular intervals. In the whole process (start of project to finish) I used 4 Stanley blades and seven scalpel blades - most can be reused in the future where a less sharp blade is required to do a job.
The edges were now sealed with thin filler mix. Creamy texture with a 1:1 PVA water solution. This is important. Thick filler is much easier to apply onto a coated surface. 

Whilst drying, weight was applied, using a couple of glass shelves, to stop the chance of the tiles warping.
Filler was a cheap brand (2Kg for £4) and cheap PVA which I mostly buy to do sand and grit basing: It's quite runny. 
Then the thicker filler is applied to rough up the surface. I used a hog hair brush to get the effect. Again filler is mixed with a 1:1 PVA water solution. This is important as it will stop the filler chipping when in use - it's all glued together.
Warping hasn't ever proved much of an issue with this technique but, until the filler was dry I wasn't taking any chances. The tiles were stacked on a level surface under two glass shelves and weights (a few books). 
When the plaster was dry I painted the 'rock faces'. I did this as a two part operation. Firstly I did the bottom of the cliff going under half an inch onto the base to seal everything, placing the hill upside down to dry. Then I did the top half (as pictured) doing the same.

At this point, you don't need to worry about warping.

I used Dulux Wholemeal Honey #1 for this: Code 90YR 19/487
When dry I ink washed the surface with Daler Rowney Burnt Umber acrylic ink diluted 1:4 with water.
First drybrush. Done using a big (size 8) flat hog hair brush.

I used Dulux Wholemeal Honey #2 for this: Code 90YR 34/468
Followed by a second and third highlight using a Magnolia, first mixed with WH2 for the second highlight, then applied neat.
Next the top surface was applied. This would be canvas offcuts stained when the cloth was done. A thin coat of PVA was applied to the top surface of the tile and also to the leading edges of the fabric. 

The latter was done to seal the fabric to make the edge easier to cut later, and also because otherwise the fabric would soak up all of the glue applied to the tile and reduce the glue's sticking potential. 

Note the 6B pencil used to stencil trace the hill edge to help direct where to add glue to the fabric. You don't get to use a 6B pencil very much but I'm glad I had one kicking about for this job. 
Up until this point everything was straight forward and quick. Now the hassle began. I had to cut off the excess canvas from around the edge of the hill. For this I used a scalpel.

This was also where my knowledge of the finished result was lacking. It was a harder job than I had imagined, mostly trying to hold the hill in a position where I could see what I was doing - something I found best achieved by holding the hill edge on between my knees - and the cut wasn't as neat as I was hoping.

Also, because the stain hadn't evenly penetrated the cloth, the fabric had a distinct pale edge. 
Consequently, I decided to stylise the hill.

First I sealed the top edge of the canvas by painting a quarter inch line of PVA around the cliff edge to stop leaching before adding a dark edge with ink (diluted 1:1). This new clean edge line hides a multitude of sins, and possibly because the ink was used elsewhere in both processing the cliff faces and the cloth, it somehow blends in with the whole effect. 
One possible combination of 21 squares of hill sections.
And slightly less hills in a game set up.

Please ignore the tall 'stalks' in the woods. They are commercially available plastic palm trees currently being made up and finished off with various painting techniques to make them look a little less like plastic (hopefully).

Tuesday 24 August 2021

Free to a good home: I'm giving away ten 2' x 2' desert tiles


I have ten of these old polystyrene tiles left and they are free to a good home. 

They are old and a bit battered but, they are all still very useable. 

Note: I'm only giving away the base 2'x2' polystyrene tiles, none of the other stuff pictured (LOL).

I only have three requirements: 

1. You must pick them up from my address in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, UK as they are too bulky to pack up and post.

2. You must pick them up some time in the next two weeks and be able to make definite arrangements (a time and date, etc.) for doing so.

3. You must take all of them regardless of how many you actually want (to save me a trip to the dump).

First come first served, and on that basis no time wasters please.


Sunday 22 August 2021

Into the blue - a new playing surface for gaming things arid.

 I've been wanting to change my 'arid / desert' terrain playing surface for quite some time and I've toyed with several ideas including simply purchasing a ready made play mat.

My reasons for wanting a change are that firstly, my current terrain tiles (the painted backs of terrain tiles by TSS, pictured above) are very old and have largely seen better days: They are dinted beyond belief, several have had large chunks polystyrene taken out of their edges and corners, and the cat has used several as scratching posts. Secondly, they simply take up too much storage space: Storage space I sorely need for other bulky stuff like hills, so I can clear a cupboard for new buildings, new trees and such like.

The solution has always been obvious. A cloth, suitably coloured, that can be kept permanently of my table. I did look into this and made some serious enquiries about the cost of professionally made cloths, of one kind or another, 5 meters in length. As you can imagine the quotes were not cheap; they were not impossible prices (£170 - £350) but, I figured I could probably make my own for £60 - £80.

But, how? What materials would I need? A cloth, obviously, but what kind of cloth. How would I colour it? These were questions that I've been pondering for over a year or two. 

Then a couple of months ago I stumbled on a blog post about someone buying a new professionally made desert cloth to replace a home made one. I'm afraid I can't give you a link because I've forgotten who's blog it was but there was a comment he made that stuck with me and set this particular ball rolling. In the blog post the author admitted that although he liked his new cloth, he still preferred the one he'd made by staining a plain cloth with tea and coffee.

I'd looked into cloth for some time and decided that canvas was probably my best bet.

Importantly, canvas comes in widths of over 2 meters (the choice of material in wide widths is limited), it is made from a natural fibre (cotton) so it takes stains and dyes readily enough, it is hard wearing and it's relatively cheap. 

I went on line to Forrest Fabrics and, after seeking advice on which weight to buy on LAF (thanks Atheling), I purchased 5 meters of 12oz canvas 2.18 meters wide. It cost, all in, £49.50. I also bought (from elsewhere) a large plastic drop cloth to go over my table to protect it whilst work was in progress (£1.50).

I have to tell you now, at the point this picture was taken, I didn't have a clue if this would work, or if it did, how well. I had a plan and some contingency ideas, nothing more.

First up, I wet the cloth with water with a small amount of detergent mixed in to break the water's surface tension so that it would penetrate the fabric more easily.

Here you can see the plastic sheet protecting the table from the liquid deluge that's about to happen; at the far end of the table my main implement of destruction - a big wall paper brush.

The stain. Tea, About two litres of the stuff made with four tea bags, left to stew until the tea was cold.

It went onto the wet cloth. It worked to some extent but it was very pale. I was already having doubts about the tea. 

How many applications would it take?
Time to start some dark patches, put on whilst the cloth was sill wet. These were made with instant coffee (half a litre made with four big heaped teaspoons of coffee), applied with a one inch paint brush. I took care to blur the edges well.
Another batch of tea but things aren't darkening as I'd hoped.
Time to bring out the big guns. 1.5 litres of tea with 0.5 litres of strong instant coffee mixed in. 

The place is beginning to smell like Starbucks and the cloth is soaking.

This picture accurately shows the true colour of the cloth at this point - insipid is a good word to describe it.
Also, strange dark grey spots are beginning to appear in a couple of places and I'm starting to get worried.
The next morning and the cloth is almost dry. The grey spots have gone but the cloth looks very pale.
Contingency plan number 1: I put on the another tea and coffee mix then I mixed a weak solution artists burnt umber acrylic ink 1:10.

I paint the ink, in patches, onto the cloth, then flick a slightly stronger solution of maybe 1:7 onto the wet cloth in various actions from various directions. 

It's not looking good. I've overdone it and I can't go back and change it. 

Furthermore, I suddenly realise that the cloth has shrunk by nearly 400 mm lengthways. It hasn't shrunk at all in width. I was expecting to lose a little but, not 400mm!

I'm confused and slightly depressed. I might have completely cocked this up and be buying emulsion paint to rectify the situation with a new approach.

I decide go for a break to let the cloth dry a bit. It's nowhere near as wet as it was the day before so it should dry quicker, and I've set an electric fan to assist in the drying process.

When I come back, the ink has leached into the wet cloth, and the patterns and the colour are not as bad. It's just that the lighter patches between the ink patches are not dark enough. The accompanying photo is taken at this time.

Question: How much more tea and coffee is this thing going to need? I'm not quite as depressed about the way the cloth is turning out as I was but, I'm still not very hopeful. I'll give it one more day.

Several hours later, just before bed time, the cloth isn't dry but, it's just damp. Before I pack it in for another day I add one last application of tea and coffee mix.

The next morning - would you Adam and Eve it! The cloth didn't look like this last night. It didn't look at all like this.

The cloth is dry. It looks a bit like desert. Hell, it looks quite a lot like desert. 

The colour has completely changed. Did it hit critical mass? Did the wargaming fairies stop by? I don't have a clue why it suddenly changed but it has; I'm happy again. 

I'd actually made up another coffee and tea stain to cool overnight, and I'm not going to need it. 

Bloody amazed, absolutely bloody amazed!

More than happy with the colour I trimmed the cloth to size. I took care to PVA the 'cut line' before I cut it. This will stop the cloth fraying. 

This wasn't my idea. Along the length edges of the cloth this had been done by the manufacturer - good idea, so I nicked it. Note the edge shown is the width edge that hasn't had a PVA treatment: See how it is fraying badly, this shouldn't happen now

I have several uses for the off cuts. This is the reason I stained all of the extra cloth rather than cutting it first. Their use will become known to you over the next week or two - one of the uses is in this post.
I now ironed the cloth - what a pain in the bum that was. I didn't get rid of all of the creases, several of which had been caused when the cloth was rolled for dispatch by Forrest Fabrics. The worst one is pictured. 

Funnily enough, the crease down the centre of the cloth was the one I most worried about (the cloth had been folded in half before it was rolled) and it has been almost entirely ironed out. Perhaps the other creases will disappear over time.

Although the stain has permeated the cloth to some degree, most of the stain has been caught in the surface layers. The contrast is striking considering how utterly wet the cloth was at times.
Cloth with a bit of terrain on it. This gives a fairly good impression of the shade. 

I'm as pleased as punch with the way this has come out. I didn't know what to expect, but yesterday, this wasn't it.
Off cuts, heavily darkened in patches with coffee and diluted ink. 

You can see I'm PVA-ing where the cut lines will be to stop fraying. 

Just after doing this, I decided to go over the PVA 'edge' with burnt umber ink diluted 1:2. Again, I wasn't sure how this would look but, I'm feeling lucky at this point.
They are rough terrain area grid pieces for games using To the Strongest. I've made eleven: Funny number but there isn't going to be a scrap of spare. The cloth shrinking as much as it did has severely lessened the amount of off cut cloth available (I lost 18 pieces like this). 

I wasn't completely shocked by the shrinkage because I had been warned that canvas does shrink but, somehow I thought cold liquid wouldn't cause as much shrinkage as it did.

The actual terrain pieces (in this case rocks and bushes) can be moved when troops enter these areas, even to areas that are not rough, and you won't forget which squares are actually rough.

My terrain for TtS is going to be very stylised, I'm going to fully embrace the grid and this will involve the use of more canvas off cuts. That will be my next post, as the hills for TtS games are work in progress.

You might also note the cross hairs, spaced at 200 mm and marking the intersections of the squared grid used by TtS. They are pure burnt umber ink applied with a fine brush. 

When I started this experiment I had no idea where it would end up and half expected that I'd end up painting the cloth with emulsion paints. As it is, I'm very happy with the colours that tea, coffee and 15ml of acrylic ink has produced. For the price of a dozen tea bags and the same number of tea spoons of instant coffee, plus half a bottle of ink, I've coloured over ten square meters of fabric. The total cost of a cloth to cover a 15' x 6' table was in the order of £54.50 (plus the hidden costs of electric, etc.), all in.

Edit: Suddenly remembered this piece of advice from Martin S., erstwhile of Vexillia, on LAF: Is this what happened?

"James a word of advice if you are using real tea and coffee.  Don't use them fresh! 

The polyphenols, in tea especially, are very reactive and that's why the tea darkens with brewing.  It will continue for some time after it's cooled down. 

For control, far better to make a brew, and leave it overnight and dilute it to the shade you want. You don't want the tea stain darkening whilst on the canvas.

It's amazing what you learn from a career in laundry detergents!"

Monday 16 August 2021

Trees: First prototype


One of my terrain projects for this year will be to upgrade my tree stock. What I want are trees that have a layered appearance; trees with foliage that looks like it is attached to something; trees which you can see through and see the branches through. 

Not really knowing how this could be achieved I took some time to watch various YouTube videos on how people make model trees. I probably watched a dozen or so, discounting many methods of making trees as too fragile, or expensive, or difficult.

Then I saw a video that showed the wire branch method.

I was particularly struck by the wire branch method, where several lengths of wire, usually an even number, are twisted together, then a half the strands from the bunch are separated to make two branches, and on down the line until each is just one piece of wire. The system of branches are then glued into holes drilled in the trunk of the tree - a fairly straight piece of twig - at any point desired.

What struck me as very useful about this method was that it didn't rely, at all, on any natural 'branches' a twig might have; indeed, natural branches are discouraged due to their inherent weakness. Almost any desired tree shape, with branches anywhere you want, can thus be achieved.

The second thing that drew me to this way of making trees, was the obvious strengths that metal branches would have over thin wooden ones. In a wargame, trees get moved about a fair bit to place troops and they have to be stored, usually quite unceremoniously, when not in use: Unlike model trees for a static model railway diorama, wargame trees need to be robust to survive. Metal branches, box ticked!

Of course, twisted wire has a draw back. I looks like twisted wire. That is of course until you cover it with PVA and dust it with fine sand. Two applications and, low and behold, the twisted wire disappears and it looks like a twig. How damn simple is that!

Here are three shots of my first prototype, with flocked coconut fibre foliage. Apart from the trunk, every branch is twisted wire, sand and glue.

I used coconut fibre over other options because of its durability (not to mention cheapness - wait until you see how much I bought, it's hilarious), and I've used cheap sawdust flock for similar reasons.

Anyway, having made my prototype I've discovered quite a lot and come up with a few simple ways to ease and speed production. Hence, this is not a step by step, how to, post. When mass production starts, I'll do exactly that. I've tried so many new things and methods in making this tree that it's been a real eye opener and I can't wait to share them with you.

This prototype tree is nowhere near perfect but, I know where I've made mistakes in its construction so the next trees will be better, I think. However, this one isn't going in the bin. I give it six and a half out of ten - it's not too shoddy. For the production batches of trees, I'm going to aim for a seven and a half.

BTW. Cost will be £0.50 - £0.60 per tree. Cheap as chips!

Saturday 14 August 2021

The Italian Wars Volume 2, by Massimo Predonzani

I missed the release of this book through usual channels so I'm indebted to Colin over at Carry On Up the Dale for putting me onto it. Indeed, because he's pretty much said what I want to say, use the link to read his review of the book. 

What I would like to double down on is the quality of the account of the Battle of Agnadello 1509, with a full order of battle and deployment diagrams to help explain what went on during the action. This, for the wargamer, is simply glorious because it's so rare to see this level of detail for battles in this period. It's a battle I've always wanted to do but, up until now, never fully understood: hence my reticence to undertake it. This book has removed all obstacles to its recreation, as a game, in the future.

Another thing I would like to complement the author on is his detailed breakdown of the French OOB at Agnadello because, for once, he specifically states the number of heavy cavalry. Most books, when referring to heavy cavalry numbers will simply say "50 men-at-arms", which confuses the novice to this period into thinking that this is the number of cavalry present. It's not of course, because almost invariably when books say 'Men-at-arms' they are in fact referring to 'Lances' and each 'Lance' generally comprises a man-at-arms and two 'archers' (heavy cavalrymen armed with lances not bows, confusingly): so 50 men-at-arms becomes 150 heavy cavalry. In this book the entries read "Teodoro Trivulzio: 30 Lombard men-at-arms and 60 archers.", thus removing any doubt (providing you know 'archers' are lance armed, well armoured cavalry). 

Unfortunately, he doesn't do the same for the Venetian list: He simply states the number of men-at-arms. It's not a complete fudge because cross referencing in the book does reveal that the numbers of men-at-arms given does indeed refer to the number of Lances but, it's not explicit. I can only presume the authors reticence to give a detailed breakdown of Venetian heavy cavalry numbers stems from the fact that early in the 16th century, in response to French practice, the Italian 'Lance' increased in size from two heavy cavalry per Lance to three but, the change was gradual and inconsistent: I'm guessing he's simply not prepared to stick his neck out - and that's fair enough.

That criticism aside, the book is excellent. Don't wait, buy it!