Sunday, June 3, 2018

Rocky Desert Hills for Wargames Tutorial Part 1

Some Star Wars rebels take a watchful position from atop my desert terrain.

With Star Wars Legion in full swing at our local comic shop, I decided to put together some rocky desert terrain for our stormtroopers and rebels to battle over. To fit the sci-fi setting I went a bit fancical with some of the rock formations, but the techniques I used should be applicable to creating rocky desert terrain for Afghanistan, the American South West, and arid regions of Africa and Australia.

In part 1 I'll show you how I assembled the various rocky hills, with part 2 dedicated to painting and finishing them. Let's get to it!


I used a variety of terrain bits and glues for this project. Most supplies came from the craft or hardware/DIY store, but a few I could only find on Amazon. I'll include links to Amazon for reference so you'll have the details to track them down yourself, or if you want to avoid a trip to the store and just want to order them for delivery. I was experimenting with a number of techniques, so you may be able to get by less variety in material. Hopefully my notes will help you decide which items you'll need:

  • MDF - I cut a variety of irregular bases from MDF and sanded down the edges with a dremel.
  • Dremel - Handy for getting a smooth edge to the MDF base boards.
  • Pink Insulation Foam - I used offcuts of pink insulation foam. You could just as easily use white bead foam or expanding foam if you'd like. The one advantage of the pink insulation foam is you can get a smooth slope by using a hot wire cutter as well as a level base for figures to stand on.
  • Expanding Foam - This was a tip I picked up from Luke's Aps when he built similar rocky hills. The expanding foam can be squirted into tight crevices, expands to fill the space and can be broken or chopped apart if it expands into areas you don't want it to. Very handy, just be sure to keep the nozzle clear of the foam you've sprayed. I accidentally clogged mine by spraying too close!
  • Cork Bark - The sides and main structure of my hills are built from cork bark. I found the round or half circle reptile hidey holes sold in pet stores most useful. 
  • Wood Chips / Mulch - Get a bag of mulch from your local garden center for a lifetime supply of rocky outcrops. Since the mulch may be holding moisture, grab the pieces you'll need for this project and put them in a tub or box to air dry for a few days before you start glueing them down.
  • Sand - Another item you can score from the garden center. I also used an old colander to sift my sand into three grades (coarse, medium and fine).
  • Caulk - I used some brown caulk I had on hand as a gap filler and makeshift glue. Useful, but not essential.
  • Hot Glue - Hot Glue can be messy and even a bit brittle after drying, but to keep this project moving you'll need the rapid drying time of hot glue to fit all the various bits together in a reasonable time.
  • Wood Glue - I was concerned about white/PVA glue warping the MDF bases so I tried out wood glue for this project. Seemed to turn out ok.
  • Sculptamold - This stuff is great. Another tip I picked up from Luke's Aps. Can be worked like wall filler/spackle, but lighter and seems to be more resilient. Get some. I could only find this online.


I sketched out some sandstone terrain ideas, but while in production I got distracted by "Northwest Frontier" gaming and my terrain took a detour into Afghanistan (no doubt inspired by Mad Guru's awesome hills).

Main Structure from Cork, Wood and Foam

I cut several irregular bases from MDF, checking to see if they'd fit in the storage bin I'd be using to transport them to my gaming site. I used the sanding attachment on my dremel to slope the corners of the bases.

Collecting my supplies, I broke apart the cork into large chunks and started moving them around the MDF bases. Once I was satisfied with a setup, I hot glued the cork to the base, and reinforced it with chunks of pink insulation foam. I also checked to make sure figures could move "on, in, and through" each piece (or at least two of those) during construction. I started hot gluing mulch chunks at this point as well, keeping a figure handy to make sure the stepped terraces I was creating could be negotiated by miniatures. I used expanding foam to full the gaps between all the various chunks I had hot glued together.

Sealed with Glue

To secure everything and seal the various wood and foam bits, I coated the entirety of each terrain piece in wood glue. Stupidly, I left them sitting on newspaper to dry, and when I checked them the next day the glue had flowed down and pooled around each base, glueing my terrain to the newsprint. If you decide to follow in my footsteps, be sure to rest the terrain pieces on some plastic cups or wood blocks to keep the base from becoming affixed to your table!

Look at this smug S.O.B. not even bothering to tell me the glue I slathered on him was going pool at his base and require a good 30 minutes to repair. Jerk.


As I continued to work, something didn't seem right at this point. If these huge stone structures were beaten apart by wind and rain there would likely be mounds of debris eroded from their faces sloping up their sides.

To suggest the centuries of erosion I started by sifting my sand into three grades with a colander. An old colander. Not the colander I use to cook spaghetti. I'm not a monster.

I tried gluing coarse grains to the base, but was unable to achieve the sloped piles I was hoping for. To bulk up the debris I turned to Sculptamold, heaping blobs of it on the sides and base of my hills, and then pressing coarse and medium sand into it.

Using only sand to create debris piles. I wasn't happy with the result.

A base of Sculptamold created the bulk I was looking for, with sand added on top for texture.
I was thrilled with the effect of the Sculptamold, and went to town adding it into areas that needed filling out, texturing it with sand debris, or using the edge of a plastic utensil to sculpt detail into to match the surrounding cork texture. Sculptamold is really pretty great. I wish I had discovered it years ago.

To finish the hill construction, I added a fine layer of sand affixed with wood glue to surfaces that needed some additional texture.

With each piece built, sealed and textured I decided they were ready for color. In part 2 of this tutorial I'll tackle painting and detailing these rocky stone hills.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Michael! They don't look like much right in these photos, but they turned out pretty nicely I think!

  2. That looks very impressive!

  3. Great info. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Nicely written and thanks for doing it!