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Building and Painting a Custom Base

A model’s base can be tricky business. Make it too simple, and the model looks simple, make it too busy, and it drowns out the model. One solution is to buy some of the amazing resin bases on the market, but sometimes you want to create a custom base yourself. So let’s do it.

Build and Paint a Custom Base

Today is a tutorial on building a custom base with spare bits, clay, and sand. After completing the base, I add a few extra tips on painting it. While this one is more of an urban ruin, you can also check out my tutorial for a muddy base.

FYI: this is a huge post with a ton of pictures. If you aren’t able to read it now or want to save it for later, I put it into a PDF to download as well! Just skip to the form at the bottom, I will then email you the link to download whenever you want.

Planning Your Base

Yeah, I’ve been harping on this work ‘plan’ for a bit lately, but it does help to create a plan before diving too far into a new project. Remember, we are trying to balance the base between being too simple and being too busy.

Some of this planning goes back to what do you want the model to be doing? Should it be interacting with the base or merely standing upon the corpses of his slain foes?

If you have already built your model, or at least sticky tacked it together, try posing it on the base in different ways, try adding bits or even PlayDoh to visualize how it might look.

Character models look fantastic if you give them some height while walkers look awesome when they are stepping over/on other models.

Gather the Material

There are all kinds of things you can do to create a custom base, but here are a few ideas:

  • Cork – either sliced from a wine cork or more often a cork board
  • Spare bits – or even spare sprue
  • Small rocks – shale or lava rock work well
  • Pieces of wire or fine mesh
  • Clay – air hardening or two-part green/gray stuff

You can let your imagination run wild, but for most bases, limit it to just a few things and make most of them relatively small. A little piece of wire sticking out of a wall could indicate a broken connection, the wire coming out of everywhere is a mess.

First Step of building a custom base is gathering the bits

I get a small Tupperware bin and add pieces until I’m happy I have a bit more than I’ll need. I find it easier not to use something than have to go back and grab a few new pieces before the clay or glue dries.

Some Tricks to Build a Custom Base

Rather than a step-by-step post that may not apply to your project, I wrote up some tips and suggestions for your base. I used many of them in the base for my Mentors Dreadnought conversion pictured. Later on, I switch into painting the base.

Start with the Biggest Rock

If you’ve done any leadership seminar, you have probably seen the filling a container with rocks analogy. If you start with the biggest rocks, it’s much easier to fit everything else in too.

The same hold true here. Build up the most significant bits or scenery pieces first. Need a rocky outcropping for your hero to stand on top? Grab the cork and create the layers. Is it a monster smashing a foe? Add that section first to make sure it’s right.

Adding the first big rock and test fitting the model

With the biggest areas are often the most important for the base, so start there and get it done.

Don’t Glue Bits Flat

It can be tempting to grab that half barrel and glue it right onto the base, or some extra bit from a tank kit. But it looks fake, and well, flat.

glue bits at angles and mix it up

Instead, cut the part at a slight angle or add some scenery underneath to create a change of angle. Don’t be afraid to cut into the bits and mangle them. They are supposed to be ruined material anyway right?

Use Cork, but Don’t

It can be relatively easy to find sheets of cork from hobby or craft shops. Even office supply stores have them. So it’s no wonder that they have become so familiar.

Want some rocks? Just tear off a few bits of the cork and glue it down. Want taller rockers? Tear off more sections and glue the flat sections together. Check out Scott’s work to see what I mean.

Using cork and covering it up for the base

Base by Scott from The Brush Wizard

But also notice, he didn’t stop with the cork. Cork is easy, but it is also easy to tell it’s cork. Everything is uniform height and has flat tops.

So add some interest to it with clay, sand, or other rocks. Dig into the tops to add holes.

Mix Mediums

To add more depth and realism to the base, mix up the filler material. Mix sand, 1-2mm ‘rocks,’ shale, hacked up pieces of sprue, cork, or even clay. The variation adds interest while still keeping it simple.

Natural rockscape

A tip for a ‘natural’ look is to group larger rocks together and fill in around them with sand. This especially looks nice as a transition from cork back to the flat base.

Pin the Model

If the model isn’t being glued directly to the base or is a heavy model, it is important to anchor the piece to the base.

Attach the model to the custom base with pins

I drill in both feet of the model (tail, treads, whatever) and use sticky tack to hold into pins so that they just barely stick out. Add a bit of white paint to the bottom and, while still wet, set it on the base.

The white paint will leave dots where you need to drill. Once done, test fit again then remove the pins. I use ‘penny’ nails which have a small, flat head. I insert them from the bottom of the base so that this head is flat against the bottom plastic. I then cut it to length and attach the model from the top.

I also find it useful to glue the nail in place but not the model. This way you can paint up the base separate but still attach the model when needed.

Add Extra Glue

One of the worst things with bases is having material break off and expose the area underneath. It’s not surprising that it happens as we are trying to attach little pieces of rock against things that aren’t flat to another piece of material.

One thing I’ll do is once I glue everything in place is to take wood glue and mix it 2:1 with water. This makes a sort of sticky glaze that I cover all the rock, sand, clay, and cork.

Once it dries it creates a hard shell over the base that protects all the bits underneath.

A built custom base with various bits

Some Tips on Painting a Custom Base

Awesome, now we have built the base, now it’s time to paint it!

There are as many styles of bases as there are chapters of Space Marines. So, again, rather than diving into my particular base (though I share how I did mine the bottom of the post) I want to present a few high-level tips.

Use Spray Primer

Even if you followed my advice above on adding a layer of glue, there are still a bunch of potentially flaking bits on the base. Sand, especially sand. It never wants to stay glued down

But to add another way to overcome this, I use a spray primer on the base. I know most people use spray primer anyway, but for those who like to brush their primer on, I highly suggest spraying it for the base.

The spray floats in and about all those nooks and crannies in a way that would be difficult for a brush to do without breaking off bits of rock or completely destroying the brush.

Another quick tip with this: start with black and get it nice and covered. You can then do a dusting of brown, gray, white, whatever to provide some quick contrast.

Dry Brush is Your Friend

Bases tend to have a ton of texture, especially when you build a custom base. So take advantage of that and use a dry brush to knock out most of the painting.

Start with a darker color than you need and give it a good, thick dry/almost wet brush. This way you cover most of the primer but still leave the black in the deepest cracks. Work your way up in lightness. I often will end with a light brushing of off-white to make the ridges pop.

But don’t forget to make it dirty! If you are doing a rubble-strewn base, it’s going to have a mix of mud, concrete, metal, rust, etc. So maybe start with browns for the mud, then dry brush the gray concrete and metal areas. Add some rust in, then finally give it all another dry brush of your dirt color.

Mix Glue with Your Wash

If you want to provide even more structure to the base and keep all those little bits of gravel where they belong, add a bit of white or wood glue to your wash. Doing a wash after all that dry brush work tones the color back down and emphasizes the shadows.

Adding a bit of glue to it will harden the wash when it dries and adds another layer of crust to keep everything in place. It also has the nice benefit of protecting those first layers of paint from chipping.

Mix it Up with Powders

If you are going for an epic level of basing, use powders. Either Forge World, Secret Weapon, WarColors, whoever. They all make excellent sets of beautiful pigments in the various earth, rust, and metal notes.

There are two methods I’ve seen and used for powders: the dry dusting and the wet slopping (great names, right?).

Dry Dusting is loading up a brush with dry bristles and tapping it over the base. This causes it to ‘snow’ down and adds coloring as it would naturally fall. The benefit of using this technique is you can do multiple layers of different colors, and they intermingle without thoroughly mixing like paints would.

When done, you can use a fine mister to spray it down and cover with hair spray. This locks it in place without disturbing it too much. You can then spray the whole base with varnish to fully seal the model.

Wet slopping is more like painting. You load up a mixing tray with your different powders and add some medium. It could be just water, but I like using a mix of Airbrush Medium and Flow Aid. That way when it dries it holds the powder in place and the flow aid allows it to get into the small nooks.

After mixing the mediums together (you want it thickish like white glue), you slop it into the areas you want dirtied up. As the mediums dry, the powders add texture and interest.

Static Grass and Snow

A muddy, rubble-strewn base is great for many players, but others like to add another layer of interest.

To make it less barren, you could add stack grass, flock, or pre-made shrubbery. But unless you are going for a verdant theme (great for Treeman armies), it’s best to add it sparingly. Add some interest but not make it looking like the model is prancing in a field.

A different variation is to add snow to the base. Thor has written about how he adds snow to his bases with a few different effects.

Extra Varnish Layers

The base of the model will often get the most handling, jostling, and bumping as you move it about the table top. This is particularly the case for larger models where players may move other models or objective markers onto the base.

Adding the layers of glue is great for keeping things secure, but protecting all those layers of paint and washes and powders requires extra layers of varnish.

So while my models receive maybe two coats (three+ for characters), I often give the base about four coats. This may include a gloss coat between the dry brush step and the wash, and a matte layer after the powders. I then add another layer of the rim color (I use black) and spray a few more times.

As you have already painted the details, the layers of varnish won’t make them disappear as they would with heavy primer and glue layers. So don’t be afraid to add multiple coats.

Overview of My Custom Base

OK, so what to see how I put all this together for my custom base? This base is for the kit bashed Iron Clad that I built for my Mentors. I had modified the feet to make it charging forward and wanted to use that on his base.

So in the gather the bits phase, I found half a dozer blade (used the previous half on some Deff Koptas) and some other odds and ends. The dozer would work great as I could set it at an angle that the dread could be pushing off of it.

Attach the model to the custom base with pins

That was the ‘big rock.’ So I found a good spot for it at the back of the base and cut a bit off the back to angle it slightly (remember, don’t glue things flat). I then drilled the holes for the feet. The back foot needed to be angled slightly, so it made it a bit more fun – only the front pin was glued in place.

I then started layering in more bits.

A spare piece of a box-thing, heads of the enemies, and even the remnants of the back of the dozer blade were all glued in place. Every so often I would put the dreadnought back on to make sure I was adding to it rather than detracting. For example, the pile of heads on the left side balances well with the raised arm on that side.

Using a mix of green stuff and bits for a custom base

To fill in all the gaps and add more variation, I smashed in place a layer of Milliput. It’s not that different from green stuff and holds together the same.

I first focused on adding support underneath the dozer blade and other bits. Make a ball of the clay and, using a silicon shaper, force it into place. I then used common sculpting tools to move it around and add some texture to it. In some areas, I also pressed pieces of shale and rocks to make them look like they are sticking out of the soil.

A built custom base with various bits

I then spread out the white glue and covered it with sand. Let it dry a bit before knocking off the extra. In some areas, I wanted a bit more grit and so added another layer.

Building a custom base - primer stage

After a top layer of glue, I primed it with black and then an overspray of white.

Then I got to work with the paints.

Painting the Base

While my models have a pretty eclectic set of bases, the central theme is muddy, rocky ground with warzone rubble.

Custom base with burnt umber basecoat

To provide a nice, uniform base color, I painted everything with Model Color Burnt Umber (Rhinox Hide). This dark brown not only serves well for the mud but also the worn, rusty metal.

Adding rust with dwarf skin and hot orange

I then started the first layer of rust with Model Color Dwarf Skin (Ratskin Flesh) and Model Color Hot Orange (Troll Slayer Orange). I dabbed areas of the metal with both colors, focusing on the recesses and regions that would collect water.

Theses bright oranges look odd now, but we will tone them back.

Drybrush Gunmetal onto metal

Finally, I added some actual metal color to the metal bits with Model Color Gun Metal (Leadbeltcher). I used a dry brush on this and wasn’t trying to paint the whole thing, just catch the upper ridges and add streaks.

Basecoat the details

I then turned to the detail bits and base coated the faces with:

  • Model Color English Uniform (Ogryn Camo)
  • Model Color Light Brown (Tau Light Ochre)
  • Game Color Dead Flesh (Nurgling Green)
  • Game Color Bonewhite (Ushabti White)

Drybrush Light Brown onto Base

To pick out the rocks and dirt, I drybrush it with Model Color Light Brown (Tau Light Ochre). By saving this for the last pre-wash step, I didn’t have to worry about it getting onto other details. But rather, when it did, it was simply blending the base colors into the details.

In this step, you also see I added a bit of Model Air Gunship Green (Nihilakh Oxide) to the brass to add some patina.

The Magic Dark Brown Wash

And here we have the magically Dark Brown Wash (Agrax Earthshade) – don’t go home with out a few bottles of it!

Drybrush Bonewhite onto the base

After waiting for the wash to finally dry, I then did a quick dry brush Bonewhite (Ushabti White). This provided a quick distinction between some of the metal bits in the base and added stronger contrast with the mud.

Adding layers of rust powders

Here is where I got messy! The orange paint looks ok for basic rust, but to add texture and depth, it’s hard to beat powders.

I started by mixing WarColours Brick Red (same as Forge World’s Rust, but I wanted to try it out) with a drop of Airbrush Medium and a squeeze of Flow Aid. This made a mushy medium that flowed well but still kept some grit to it.

I applied this throughout the metal areas, grabbing a bit more grit here and there.

While the medium was still wet, I used a dry brush to pick up some Forge World Light Earth and Fresh Mud pigments. Holding the brush over the wet spots, I tapped the handle, causing the powder to fall into it.

This method adds even more grit and fine spots of each color. Where colors piled up too high or where too stark, I used the dry brush to push the powders about a bit.

Add more corrosion with Gunship Green

After allowing the medium to dry, but before sealing the powders in, I added spot washes of Model Air Gunship Green (Nihilakh Oxide) with added Flow Aid. This added a layer of corrosion and because the powders weren’t fully set, blended them in a bit.

I then sprayed the base with clear matte varnish to keep everything in place.

Adding back in some of the metal chips

At this point the metal areas where too rusted and brown for me, so I picked out edges with Gunmetal (Leadbeltcher). This was even less paint then the drybrush step above, more of particular application to areas I wanted to highlight.

completed custom base with mud and rust

And finally, I went back and finished the little details for the heads. While they were painted their respective colors, the highlights included a light blue to make them more ‘dead’ looking.

I used:

  • Desert Yellow (Tallarn Sand)
  • Dead Flesh (Snotling Green)
  • Bonewhite (Ushabi Bone)
  • Model Air Pale Blue (Lothern Blue)

With the highlights done, I added washes with a mix of Dark Brown Wash (Agrax Earthshade), Dark Yellow Wash (Seraphim Sepia), and Blue Grey Wash (Drakenhof Nightshade). Again, wanting to balance the ‘warm’ shades of brown with the ‘cool’ blue.

Completed Custom Base With Model

And with the dreadnought placed into position, I am really happy with the result. When I move onto the final details of the dread, I will add washes and powders to his feet that tie him to the base.

Wrap Up

And there you have it. I know this was a doozy of a tutorial post, but I hope that it has inspired you to add some interest to your next hero base. I mentioned at the top that using resin bases allows you to skip the build phase if you are looking for something quick. I use a bunch from Secret Weapon Miniatures and love them.

But I also build some custom ones like this dreadnoughts so that I can get the right pose for him. By using the same colors and techniques across the army, you can pull together all sorts of basing types and still make them look uniform.

Remember, if you want to save this guide for later, you can get the PDF version using the form below. Even all formated, it’s 19 pages long!

Your Tips

I want to end by handing the comments over to you. Do you have additional tips and tricks you use on your bases? Supplies you couldn’t live without? Or maybe you like simple bases. Share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below, and we can start a conversation.

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  • Great article, and thanks for the plug. I need to do another revised version of that at some point.

    That base came out great. The rust is the best part I think, but it all works very nicely together.

    • Thanks Thor, I was getting a little bit of Greggles inspiration on the rust with all the layers.

  • Excellent coverage of the topic. I’d also make a tie between two of the points: “Don’t Glue Bits Flat” can also be applied to cork. It’s sometimes a fair bit of work, but a non-level flat surface can be much easier to make look not like cork.

    • Thanks!
      Good point on the cork, though I agree that it takes more work, such as making sure it is fully supported so it doesn’t break. Using cork has become a touchy subject it seems and I think it’s because so many people just slapped it on their, which looks ok, but it became over used. But just taking it up a notch and add variation (and angles) can make a big difference.

  • Nice article, you definitely cover the steps in a very informative way. I especially like the parts about composition.

    • Thanks Nils, it was an experiment in a long form tutorial so I’m glad that it helped!

      • It absolutely did. Most of the steps you included also translates very well to making bases for display miniatures, especially the composition.

  • First of all, thanks for including the names of the GW colours. Big thumbs up! And what a tutorial, the level of detail is incredible, so is the base you’ve been working on. Very cool.

    • Cheers Thomas, I took your comment last time to heart 🙂 I must admit that some of the colors are my best guess as Vallejo doesn’t have a Model Color to Games Workshop chart so I looked at GW’s range and picked the color I would have used that looked close and did what I was intending.

  • Fantastic tutorial! Really covers a lot. I particularly like how it promotes mixing mediums to get a more natural look.

    • Thanks Dave. The mixed medium comes from looking at display bases and GD winner and seeing what I can take into my own work. The guys at Massive Voodoo are especially good at this, even their bases tell a story.

  • Benderisgreat

    Nice rust effects. I’m going to have to try this next time I do a model with a dozer blade.