Saturday 25 September 2021

Making a desert mat for the Sudan

I've always wanted to try my hand at making my own terrain mat but frankly the prospect has always been fairly daunting. Having a small terrain project go a bit wrong is no big disaster, but a 6x4 terrain mat and all the time and material involved was another matter altogether. On the other hand I've seen a lot of people making their own on their blogs and in videos, so finally I decided to pluck up the courage and give it a go myself. A desert mat for my Sudan project seemed a good place to start, not least because it wouldn't require flocking and had the potential to be fairly straightforward.

The plan was to use a tried and true method by applying acrylic caulk to fabric (sorry, no original ideas here folks!). So the first place to start was finding the best sort of fabric and I settled on a good quality painter's drop cloth. These come in various thicknesses of fabric and in different quality. I looked at those with plastic backing and while they are relatively inexpensive the weave of the fabric is very coarse and I wasn't convinced this would work well for the project. Working on the basis that you get what you pay for I invested in the best quality canvas drop sheet at the local hardware store. 

The sheet comes folded and so I let it hang for a couple of days to let the creases drop out.

I used a small section to conduct a few trials before embarking on the full size mat. Caulk is readily available at hardware stores and I've used the material before when making roads. It normally comes in white but is also available in a range of colours. The advantage of a coloured caulk is you won't get any unsightly white blemishes appearing if the surface of the mat is damaged or chipped. I managed to find a caulk coloured 'Cedar' which was a dull brown and conducted tests spreading it and working out how to apply texture. 

I've seen two methods used, one is to apply the caulk and then sprinkle sand and other texture material onto it while it's still wet. The other is to make up a mix of caulk, PVA glue, water and sand and then apply the mixture. You can see the result in the pictures below. On the left is the surface after sprinkling sand while the caulk is wet, on the right after applying a ready mixed caulk/sand combination. 

I think either would work okay but settled for sprinkling the sand onto the surface of the wet caulk. In either method I was impressed with the adhesive quality of the caulk which stuck well to the surface of the fabric and also held the sand very rigidly. Once dry it was almost impossible to remove the sand and was an indication that under normal usage it should prove robust enough for storage, transportation and gaming. As extra insurance I thought there was no harm adding PVA to the caulk for even more adhesion.

Here's a close up of each, first with the sand sprinkled on top of the wet caulk.

Second, the premixed caulk and texture.

The real test came once paint was applied and it was at that point it was clear that my preference would be to sprinkle the sand. It had a more subtle finish. Here is the painted premixed caulk.

And here is the sprinkled sand.

Scaling it to the figures I would be using also helped determine what was going to look best. Here's the pre-mixed caulk and sand.

And my preferred look, with the sand applied after the caulk.

Once I'd settled on the technique I moved on to attempting the full size mat. I don't have a single table large enough and so was using two trestle tables pushed together. I was doing this under the house on ground that is not completely even and therein was the first lesson. Ideally you have a perfectly flat and even surface to do this on, for reasons that will become apparent.

I've heard stories of caulk and paint seeping through fabric and in the worst cases adhering the mat to the table. To avoid either of these I put a layer of plastic sheet under the fabric first. 

To avoid the effects of shrinkage it's advisable to clamp the fabric securely. If nothing else it holds the fabric firmly in place while you spread the caulk.

When it came to spreading the caulk and applying the sand and small rocks everything went well and I had no problems. I worked in sections of about 2'x2' at a time which meant the caulk remained wet and adhesive to take the sand. A few things I didn't anticipate were that creases from the plastic sheet underneath the fabric and the small divide between the two trestle tables could come through into the caulk, as you can see below.

As it turns out this wasn't quite as bad as it appeared. The caulk remains soft and pliable (which is what makes it so suitable for a game mat) and so anything placed under the mat will make an impression on the surface. However this is mostly temporary, in other words, once you remove the object making the impression then the mat falls flat. Once I removed the plastic sheet and hung the mat for a day during warm weather then the creases fell out, which was quite a relief. That said, the lesson learned is to do this on the flattest surface possible.

I went through a few variations of colour before I was happy. I used Dulux acrylic emulsion paints and applied them with a paint roller after diluting the paint with water at about a 2:1 ratio. Once dry the surface was dry brushed in lighter shades.

The test pieces were base coated in Brown Land and dry brushed with Arava. The pictures below show the second colour palette - a base colour of Deep Bamboo (a lighter brown), dry brushed with Arava.

I wasn't totally happy with these colours, which were drabber than I wanted. Images of the desert in Sudan show a fairly strong yellow/orange tint to the sand and I thought introducing some of this colour would help make the mat colour feel much warmer.

While the intention is that the mat works for games in the Sudan, I also want it to work for other arid locations like Afghanistan, so I didn't want this to be too distinctive a colour. Nonetheless I made up a new base colour by mixing Scarab and Deep Bamboo for a more mustard shade which I would then dry brush again with Arava. Overall this gave a warmer colour which I think works much better.

Depending on how the light hits it the more mustard colour becomes very apparent and overall I am much happier with this result as it really seems to lift the mat.

Here it is with my host of Beja. 

I've been working on scatter terrain to add to the table and the small rock formations you see in the pictures above are the first of these. They are made using dried tree bark. I know this is something railway modellers have been doing for decades but I've never tried it myself. I've no idea why, because they are very effective.

I'm not quite happy with the colour of the rocks, I've been very unimaginative painting them grey and looking at photographs I'm going to go back and try them in a more reddish brown base colour. 

Overall though I have to say that I'm really happy with the way this has turned out. It gives me a new game mat that could see service in any number of locations, be it the Western Desert in the Second World War or Palestine during the Crusades.

Thursday 2 September 2021

3,2,1.....Mahdist Ansars are go!

The one upside to an unexpected and prolonged lockdown has been the revival of my Colonial era project. Despite letting a month pass without posting anything new on the blog it's not because I haven't been busy painting.

The first forty Perry 28mm plastic Mahdist Ansars are now completed and I have the figures from a second box assembled and based awaiting primer. To oppose them I have a box of Perry British Infantry, some of which I started way back in April 2020. This is a fairly versatile box set that can be used for a number of campaigns beyond the Sudan, including the North West Frontier and Afghanistan. 

I like the idea of playing large skirmish games with these and I have a copy of Daniel Mersey's The Men Who Would Be Kings (TMWWBK) which are ideally suited to the period. I would dearly love to see Too Fat Lardies' black powder rules Sharp Practice expanded to include this period and have been following John Savage on Twitter and Facebook, as he has been testing a variant for the Sudan that may see publication in the forthcoming Lard Magazine.

Most skirmish rules involve individual basing, which works fine for me as I'm happy to use sabot bases to help move groups of figures. That's ideal for more regular or drilled units but doesn't quite look right for tribal groups or irregulars. I know there are sabot bases available where figures are spaced in a more irregular pattern but I quite like the idea of basing in 3s, 2s and 1s. This would give tribal units a less rigid appearance while allowing for ease of movement and the removal of casualties. So that's been my approach.

The bases are cut from larger pieces of 2mm MDF. The edges are beveled to give them a more natural appearance using the sanding tool on a Dremel.

As for painting the figures I thought this might be a good opportunity to try the Citadel contrast paints for the fabrics. I primed the clothing in either white or dark sand. With the white I used the contrast paint Apothecary White and with the dark sand Skeleton Horde. The results were very pleasing and I can foresee a number of other applications where the contrasts will work well. The figures did receive a final highlight with a paintbrush, but overall I achieved the effect I was after very quickly.

A group of Tribal Infantry in TMWWBK is made up of sixteen figures including a leader. Sharp Practice tends to have smaller size groups and I'd expect Tribal Infantry to be in groups of approximately twelves. Either way the 3,2,1 basing system would work for either. So for TMWWBK I'm looking at a group of sixteen being made up of three bases of 3 figures, two bases of 2 figures and three bases with a single figure.

The Perry figures are very versatile and allow for a good variation in poses or weapons. That's allowed me to keep the units looking less regimented. Here are some of the three figures bases:

The two figure bases are simply a variation of the three figure bases, but with one less figure:

Individually based figures include those that might need to be differentiated in one way or another depending on the rule set, such as leaders, musicians or flag bearers, but they also include individual warriors.

The Perry box sets come with a very useful information sheet that includes a number of flags and banners. They are printed on glossy paper and so I copied them and reprinted with an inkjet onto normal copy paper. This made them easier to soften with PVA glue to shape them.

The sets come with a number of arms with rifles and so I have based all of these riflemen individually. They can be mixed in with the larger groups or made up into groups of skirmishers or other rifle armed groups.

This is the first time I've painted darker flesh colours on a large number of figures, so it took me a few trial attempts to settle on colours that worked for me. Originally I used a base colour of Vallejo Game Colour Dark Fleshtone with an overall highlight of VGC Tan, further highlighted with a mix of VGC Tan and Army Painter Barbarian Flesh. The end result was a bit lighter than I wanted and you can see that in the picture above with the second rifleman from the left painted in those colours. So I moved to something darker starting with a very dark base colour of Vallejo German camouflage Black Brown. The overall highlight was VGC Dark Fleshtone which was highlighted with a mix of that and VGC Tan. I think that's worked a lot better.

Overall with the basing I've tried to give myself as much flexibility as possible and to future proof the collection so it can be used across several different rule sets if I choose. So far I think they are making for a suitably imposing looking horde of warriors.

I know the 3,2,1 basing system works for others and so I'm hoping I've got the balance right, I guess the real test will come when I can get back to face-to-face gaming. For now though I'm saying it's 3,2,1....all stations go.

Before I start on the next box of Mahdists I've taken a break to paint up some of the British. I like these figures a lot, they are very reminiscent of the poses you might see in Victorian paintings of the period.

As you can see these are based individually and more traditionally on 25mm rounds. I intend creating sabot bases to use with them, probably with four figures in each, as this will allow them to be grouped in eights for Sharp Practice or twelves for TMWWBK.

I haven't used contrast paints with these. The base colour for the uniform is Vallejo Khaki and the webbing is Buff. They were then washed with Citadel's Agrax Earthshade. The uniform was highlighted with Khaki and then a mix of Khaki and Dark Sand.

I've ordered another box of British as the 36 that come in a single box won't give me enough figures for a game. Of course there's no point ordering just one box so I've add a couple of boxes of Afghan Tribesman to the order as these should work for the North West Frontier and Afghanistan. Might as well keep my options open, eh?