It is now March 127th; in the meaningless blur of time that 2020 has become, I’ve picked up a new hobby that I will continue to inflict on all of you: making frankly unnecessary amounts of tabletop terrain. Since I’ve started, I’ve noticed a trend: nearly all of the terrain-building advice out there relies on some amount of specialized material (foam, foam cutters, flocking, clump foliage, resin, specialty adhesives, sprays, static grass, fake plants, real plants, artisanal yak saliva, etc.), which is fine, and the results speak for themselves, but if you just want to dive in and get started, the shopping list that even the most basic terrain project seems to require can be daunting.
And also kind of unnecessary, at least at first. This article is going to show you how to make a very basic tree diorama for your tabletop, requiring only materials you probably already have on hand. One of my favorite sayings is “there’s cheap, fast, and good. You get two.” This is very true for this basic starter project, which leans heavily on “cheap.” Like nearly everything with tabletop gaming, having anything at all is almost always better than nothing, and you don’t need an ultra-realistic scene that looks like a spread in National Geographic to really kick your game up a notch.
None of these methods are mine, and are liberally stolen from the dozens of crafters I’ve been bingeing over the last several months, all of whom are much, much better at their craft than me. If you find yourself enjoying this process, maybe give them a look. I’ve included a few links at the bottom for further digging.
Things you’ll need:
- A couple of days to let stuff dry. Don’t start this the day of a game. You’ll be doing things, then walking away for multiple hours at several points.
- A toilet paper roll.
- Toilet paper (unused).Key materials: glue, paint, aluminum foil, and toilet paper (unused).
- Old sponges: old dish sponges, crappy sponges from packing material,even material from furniture you’re just throwing away. Doesn’t matter
- Aluminum foil–if you use used foil, make sure to wash it first.
- An old CD you don’t mind destroying. If you don’t have one, a 6 inch by 6 inch square of thin cardboard will work in a pinch–any old used box from your kitchen should get you this.
- School glue. As much of it as you can spare.
- A paintbrush you don’t especially care about. Ideally larger than the tiny brushes used for miniatures, but maybe you’re more patient than I am.
- Masking tape (or any kind of tape).
- Paint: brown, green, black, and white. Any kind of paint will work. I use cheap acrylic craft paint, but anything you have on hand should work.
- A drop of some kind of soap–ideally dish soap, but any should work.
- A couple of containers you can drip stuff onto/into.
- Five watertight containers. They can be anything: old jars, condiment containers, whatever. One should be about the size of a mayonnaise jar or larger. This is going to be for the bulk of your building material, which is going to be a mixture of toilet paper and glue.
- Optional: a blender or food processor. Don’t worry. It’ll still be clean afterward. But maybe check with other members of your household first.
- Some old tea leaves if you have some on hand.
- Some small rocks. From your driveway or just like, picked up somewhere when you take a walk. Don’t be picky, but wipe them down with alcohol or wash them or something. Nature is dirty.
- Sticks? Sure. Grab some small sticks, too. But clean those, too.
Step 1: Prepare your sponges.
- If you’re using old sponges, wet them and microwave them for a minute or so to disinfect them. Wait until they cool. Don’t burn yourself.
- Tear up your sponges with your hands to get them into smaller chunks. Either drop them into your blender or tear them up as small as you can possibly get them (the blender makes things way, way easier). If you’re using the blender approach, fill it to about half the level of the sponge and blend away. If you’re tearing it by hand, just add some water until it’s mush.
- When you’ve achieved a wet, gross-looking slurry, pull it out of the blender, or whatever, and squeeze most of the water out.
- Clean your blender very, very well.
- Add a dollop of green paint and a smaller dollop of brown paint to your still-wet (but not dripping) sponge blob. Mix with your hands until it’s a color you like for greenery.
- Separate it into two piles.
- Add glue to the first pile and ball it up until it sticks together. This will become your tree foliage and bushes if you want them.
- The other pile, just spread out so it can dry without glue. This will become your “grass.”
- This same method can be used with other colors to make autumnal foliage, “flowers” for bushes, or coverage for things like alien trees.
- Set this aside and move on to the next step.
Step 2: Make your tree trunk frame.
Pull your aluminum foil into strips, then crinkle it together into something that looks kind of like tree branches or roots if you squint.
- Crumple your toilet paper roll into a slightly less “this is obviously a toilet paper roll” shape.
- Cut the tube and stick in your fake branches in a roughly branch-like pattern.They won’t stay in place very well, but that’s fine at this stage.
- Also cut a spot for a couple of “roots” and put some foil in there as well.
- Put a piece of tape over the center of your CD, or tape your cardboard flat so it doesn’t warp quite as much–things are about to get very wet.
Step 3: The gross part.
- In your largest container, mix up an approximately 50/50 blend of school glue and water.
- Add brown paint.
- Add toilet paper and mix it together with your hands until you have a paste that has a consistency somewhere between “clay” and “oatmeal.”
- Place your tree frame on your CD or cardboard square.
- Slop on the TP/glue/paint mixture until it covers the frame, roots and all.
- If you get to a point where the mixture is falling off, seal up the container with the mixture and walk away for a couple of hours so it can dry a bit before you add more.
- Add more TP slop to the base of the CD or cardboard until you have some thin coverage there as well. try to cover as much of the base as possible while still leaving the roots distinct. Uneven coverage is good, actually.
- Stick some rocks in approximately rock-like places.
- If you grabbed some sticks, put them on, too, but be sure to embed them in the mush so they don’t move around.
- Walk away. It’s good enough. I promise.
Step 4: The Taco Bell effect.
You know how Taco Bell has like, five ingredients , but still manages to make a whole menu out of that? You’re about to do that with four colors of paint, water, and soap. You’re awesome.
- Making Wash:
- Take about a half cup of water, add a drop of dish soap and a dollop of black paint. Mix. Your end result should still basically be the consistency of water, but you want it to be black enough to stain a piece of paper if you put a drop on.
- Add a very small amount of brown and green to create subtle shading.
- Making rock paint.
- Mix approximately equal amounts of black and white paint so it’s a kind of dark gray. Divide into two parts.
- Leave the first mixture (just black and white) alone. This is your base color for the rock.
- Add more white and just the tiniest bit of brown to one part so it’s a visibly lighter shade of the same color with a tiny hint of brown. This is your highlight color.
- Making wood highlight:
- Mix brown paint with a little bit of white so it’s visibly lighter than the base brown. There. You’re done.
- Seal your four containers (wash, rock base color, rock highlight color, tree highlight color). You can also use these for future projects, so keep them around.
Step 5: Waiting.
- Walk away for 24-48 hours or until all the stuff that has glue in it is rigid.
- This is the hardest part.
Step 6: Painting.
- Once everything is dry, give the tree (and roots) a good once-over with solid brown.
- Cover everything that isn’t a rock in the same brown, including sticks if you used them. If you didn’t get all the way to the edges with your glue mixture, paint the part that’s still visible.
- Cover your rocks in black. Try not to get too much on the “ground”, but don’t strain yourself.
- Walk away for an hour or so to let it all dry. Watch an episode of The Order. It’s on Netflix. It’s garbage, but it’s entertaining.
- Brush your rocks with your base coat. Don’t entirely cover the black, but don’t be stingy either.
- Put some of your wood highlight on a brush and brush almost all of it off onto a piece of paper, or your arm if you really want to feel like an artist.
- Lightly brush this over your tree and the sticks if you used them.
- Do the same thing with the rock highlight on the rocks. It’s okay if it blends a little with the base coat.
- Let it dry for an hour or so. The second episode of The Order is way better than the first anyway.
- Once everything is dry, cover everything in the wash you made. Either use a brush or spray it all down. You don’t want it to be sopping wet, but you don’t want to be stingy, either. This will bring out all of your cool little nooks and crannies. Bet you didn’t know you made those, eh? I told you you were awesome.
Step 7: Glue. So much glue.
- You don’t need to wait until everything is dry to start this part, but you might want to if you’re bothered by mess.
- Cover the base (everywhere that’s not rock, stick, or roots) with a thin layer of glue.
- Break up your loose sponge mixture into the smallest granules you can.
- Scatter a good covering of this loose sponge mixture on the glue. Knock off the excess (or blow it off if you’ve got your base taped down).
- Add glue to the branches of the trees where you want it to look like leaves.
- Break up the sponge cake that had the glue in it, and add to the edges of the branches.
- You want to maximize the contact between the branch and the foliage, so use big chunks.
- Don’t use too many clumps: you want to imply foliage without taking up too much space on the branch or making the piece something you can’t move miniatures around on.
- If you want to have bushes, add a dollop of glue and set those down, too.
- DO NOT TOUCH ANYTHING. Walk away for a day or so. At this point, even looking at the tree foliage will make it fall off, but it gets more stable. Promise.
Step 8: Sealing (Optional)
- Your piece is now done, and usable, if a bit prone to dropping bits of sponge everywhere.
- If this bugs you, or if you want to use the piece for multiple sessions, mix up a 50/50 mixture of school glue and water.
- With a brush, a spray bottle, or just drops and a lot of patience, soak the whole piece in this mixture and let it dry for another day.
- It won’t be indestructible once this is done, but it will be a lot more stable.
- Once the sealing layer is done, you’re ready for play! Again!
So that’s it. This seems like a lot of steps, but in practice, it all goes very quickly, and once you make one tree, you might find yourself wanting to make more. So what kinds of terrain do you think you want to bring to your table? Would more of these articles be useful? Let me know in the comments!
- Black Magic Craft : this guy is the unquestioned king of making terrain quick and cheap. Though he tends to use a lot of specialty materials, he makes an effort to regularly post about builds that require few, if any, things you’ll have to go out and buy. When he does require something special, he makes an effort to tell you where you can get it (often with Amazon links) which is more useful than you’d think.
- The DM’s Craft : only slightly behind Black Magic Craft, this channel has a ton of really creative ideas of things that you can make, sometimes using materials you’d never think of using on your own.
- The Tabletop Crafter’s  Guild on Facebook: This is a great group, with a ton of builds from all levels of skill regularly posted. Highly recommended.