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Creating Scenic Terrain for Bases and Dioramas with Andy

Greetings, this is my humble tutorial on how to build terrain, specifically a rocky outcrop with vegetation and trees. This is my way of making terrain pieces/diorama backdrops for miniatures; however, there are many fine ways to make great looking terrain/dioramas and bases, and I hope you do your research and experimenting to come up with amazing things!

How to Build Scenic Display Pieces

I would never be so bold as to say my method is the only way nor the best way. It is merely a way that works for me, and I have borrowed many techniques from other tutorials who need their just due.

I want to welcome Andy to the Broken Paintbrush community with this awesome tutorial. I hope you enjoy the tutorial, and if you want to save it for later, fill in the form at the bottom and I will send you a copy.

Namely Massive Voodoo Blogspot, 3-T Studios, Painting Buddha, countless others on Youtube and Coolminiornot. I apologize if I used some of your techniques and did not give you a reference; however, I would feel a lack of integrity if I did not credit my sources for pioneering my techniques.

Building a Scenic Base with Layers

I hope you enjoy this tutorial.

Step 1: Board Meeting

I borrow much from 3-T Studios method in this phase.

Find a rather thick board for your base. I used ¾ inch particle board for this particular forest scene (sorry for those of you not using the imperial system of measurement, glory be to The Empire). Choose something so that the sides won’t curl up if they receive a little moisture.

Glueing bark to make a scenic terrain

Next, select exotic pieces of bark that will make interesting rocky outcrops. Take a little time to see how they orient themselves on your base; at this point (in many cases), the base kind of builds itself as you combine bark shapes to create an evocative landscape. Once you have decided on a particular aesthetic, secure the nuggets with hot glue (as 3-T Studios writes, the clay, or if you decide to use Plaster of Paris or wall filler, will bind it all together).

Step 2: Build up the topography.

Use cork board or XPS to build up the elevated layers between the large pieces of bark.

This step is important so that you can use thinner layers of DAS air dry clay, or if it is a small base (this is a favorite on Massive Voodoo) Milliput, to finish the terrain contours (it will dry faster and prevent cracking). Think of this as a rough outline of what you want the final product to look like; they don’t have to be exact.

Creating Scenic Terrain by adding Cork

Secure the items on the base with hot glue like the nuggets of bark. I chose cork board because hot knives and XPS anger me when making terrain (they are great materials really, I just prefer corkboard when you aren’t making an entire game-board).

Step 3: Build Those Wonderful Contours 

I used DAS air dry clay; you can get it on Amazon for around $11.99. I used the terra-cotta color, and they have a white variation (if you use it, please let me know how it works).

Fill in those gaps between your wonderful nuggets and your cork board and make sure you cover all exposed areas with a thin layer of the clay. No natural terrain is completely flat (I am sure a geologist will correct me here) so make sure you have a nice variation on the surface of your landscape. Use some water to smooth out finger prints and any other mistakes (if you’re like me, there will be a few).

Using DAS to Fill In Scenic Base

Note: I used some bases to see what the spacing of my minis will be. So don’t overthink about the bases on this picture. You can set in the bases if you want, but I chose to magnetize my miniatures to the diorama.

Admin Note: I learned about DAS somewhere, but forgot, so sorry if I am not giving you credit here.

Step 4: Square Off the Edges

Once that wonderful clay dries in the air, fill in any areas or mistakes you made with some plaster, wall filler, etc. (there are many names for that white goo you stick on your wall to repair the holes you made while practicing your Dragon Punches, Hadoukens, and Hurricane Kicks). Also, make sure you add a thin layer around the base.

Use a Palette Knife to Square the Edges

Apply with a small putty or palette knife (that thing Bob Ross used to make those happy little mountain ranges).

Step 5: The Sandlot or True Grit

It will take 24 hours to dry, possibly less if you used thinner layers, possibly more if you made thicker layers.

Sanding the edges of the Scenic Diorama

Use a 120 grit or 180 grit sandpaper to smooth out any sharp edges on the surfaces and the border of your base. Not a whole lot more to this step except to wear a dust or safety mask while sanding, you want to prevent breathing the small particulates entering your lungs and besieging your airways with tiny trebuchets and shield walls, not really, but seriously wear the mask to avoid injury.

Step 6: Do the Chickens Have Large Talus?

In this step start adding the larger rocks to your diorama. I used aquarium rocks for the larger bits of the talus (the rock dingleberries that fall off of mountains due to erosion). I used super glue to adhere the rocks to the bases of the rock formations.

Use Talus and other Small Rocks

Try to imagine where rocks would crumble down after years of being exposed to the elements. You can always spread some around first to see if you like the look, then adhere them afterward. 

Step 7: You The Man With The Dirt?

Using some wood glue mixed with water, liberally apply the adhesive to your diorama.  (I used a mixture of about 1/8 water 7/8 wood glue) spread some dirt on your terrain piece.

This is a great tip from Massive Voodoo, grab some dirt from natural sources. As they say, go on a hike, and be that peculiar fellow who brings a trowel whilst walking around (we are peculiar individuals anyways considering we are fascinated by the art of painting tiny things). I used dirt from my backyard because it has a great variation of particulate size and, since we don’t live in the Waterworld universe, it is free.

Use Dirt to Add More Variation

Avoid completely covering up your wonderful outcrops and carefully add it amongst your talus.

Note: the amount of dirt, rocks, etc. is dependent on what kind of look you are trying to achieve. If you want a barren rock outcropping, less is more. If you want a dessert, probably a little more fine sand. Just visualize what you want your terrain to look like and apply accordingly.

Step 8: Optimus Prime

Prime your model.

Prime the Base Black

Not a whole lot else to add here. It may take a few coats, but everyone knows how to prime. Get a can of matte or flat black spray paint and go to town. When you are done, it will look like you opened a bag of Kingsford for a barbecue. 

Step 9: Paint Your Little Creation

I used a combination of airbrush, oils, dry brush, etc. to get variation and depth in my soil and rocks.

This step is entirely dependent on your style and what effect you want to achieve. You can use whatever colors you want because you are an adult.

Paint the Rocks and Dirt Natual Colors

In fact, you can also drink soda with breakfast, or eat dessert before dinner if you want because you’re an adult. If you are a youngling reading this, then you may not be able to drink soda with breakfast or eat dessert before dinner, but you will be able to one day.

Remember to highlight at the end so that those bright colors don’t get muddled. If you are unhealthily introspective like me, you may be asking yourself at this point “why am I painting dirt?” This, of course, may lead to some sort of philosophical crisis, but that is not within the scope of this tutorial.

Step 10: Bring Me A Shrubbery

In this step, you add the grasses.

If you want a rocky terrain with no vegetation you can omit your step; however, I want a forest for my miniatures. I used a reference picture for my grass and added accordingly.

Be patient in this step because you can always add more grass later, but it is a pain to take it away. I applied long static grass using my home-made static applicator. The static applicator allows the grass to stick straight up when you glue it to your base.

I used wood glue and made my static grass from woodland scenics tall grass kits. Get a few colors and cut the tall grass into various lengths from 3mm-9mm, mix the various lengths and colors altogether and run them through the static applicator.

Using Static Grass and Small Shrubs

This gives you a realistic variation of grass length, in nature, blades of grass are seldom all the same length or the same color. You can learn how to make a static applicator in this video, and this is the tall grass I used was from Woodland Scenics

Creating a Scenic Base for the Wizard

Careful with the static applicator, I shocked the living……. out of myself multiple times. I have found a pair of rubber gloves invaluable. For if you shock yourself your hands clench like you have been tasered and you may drop that wonderful treasure. Ruining that tiny universe (the poor wizard featured in this tutorial was a victim of me shocking myself, and only through many bull sacrifices to Sigmar was he resurrected).

Step 11: “I Am Root!”

Add trees, other flora, dead-fall (not that Dreadful Nicolas Cage movie), and scatter.

I made my trees from roots that I dug from the ground. Go to your favorite park and find some roots, preferably some with good capillary structures.

Sometimes as I am digging roots out of the ground at my local park (there is a fantastic treasure trove of them near a pond), I ponder “how did it come to this?” Everyone else must think that I am out of my mind. Oh well, some weirdo has to dig roots out of the ground, and I was so pleased to find that the fellows from Massive Voodoo do the same.

In the back of my mind, I am hoping maybe one day we can go on an eccentric root digging adventure…….

Anyways, I digress.

After you select your roots, trim them into your favorite tree shapes, wash them, and lacquer them. I used spray on lacquer; matte varnish will work as well. This will preserve the product and allow for easier priming and painting. If you want a particular color, go ahead and paint them before adding the leaves; however, some of the natural colors of the roots make them look natural (dog gone, imagine that!).

Note: Once you have placed your shrubs on the ground, Massive Voodoo suggests you use some thinned down paints and give your little clumps of grass a light wash. This works fantastic and gives it great depth.

Adding Trees and Foliage for the Final Result

Note: Mr. Oliver Spaeth aka Honour Guard is a grand master terrain maker. You should look him up and glance at his galleries, for his foliage and flora is truly stunning.

I built the leaf structures using Woodland Scenics clump foliage. I used super glue to painstakingly give them the shape I want; it is easier with the large clumps, and good, believable trees are difficult to make, so be patient with adding your clumps.

You may see some tutorials on Youtube saying you should use the spray adhesive. Personally, the adhesive is weak, leaving much of the foliage falling off over time. Perhaps I tried the wrong spray adhesive (I tried three different types), but I have found that taking my time is better in the long run.

I airbrushed the shades underneath and highlighted overhead to give it more depth. I made the small shrubs between the rocks with the same materials as the leaves on the trees and with the same painting method (I found the colors rather flat out of the bag, so I added some depth).

Scenic Diorama for a Robot

Also, you can use some of the trimmings from your roots to make little bushes and things as I did on my Dust Tactics Silent Death diorama (fancy name for the turquoise robot thing I made, I don’t know how a clunky robot can be silent…)

Once you complete your trees, drill some holes into the diorama to secure them into the base with super glue. With the left over roots, you can pull them apart and make some deadfall.

Step 12: Secure Your Miniatures

This is the final step.

Creating a Scenic Terrain Display for the Falcon

This step is really up to you as to how you want to fix your glorious miniatures on your diorama. I chose to magnetize them so that others can take them off and admire the details that I added. Also, I if you use them in a game you can add them to some auxiliary bases.

Step 13: Share Your Work

If you enjoyed this tutorial, I would love to see what you come up with. I would be humbled if you took these words of advice and made something fantastic.

Final Note, I have included various finished pieces that I have created. Also included are various WIP stages of the aforementioned pieces, so that you can get a glimpse of how it looks at first, and what the end product looks like. I have, with my blunt hands, achieved decent results, so I hope that those of you who actually have talent can make something far superior.

Final, Final Note: I had to copy Mr. Oliver Spaeth’s coin scale picture. In no way is this original on my end, and in no way does my work hold a candle to him.

~ Andy Schaffert
    Educated Scholar
    Waterworld Reenactor
    Digger of Roots
    Amateur Tiny Tree-herder

Finally, If you are interested in my little gallery, you can find me on Imgur and Facebook.

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  • Wonderful stuff there and some tips I will be taking forward into my Armies on Parade board.

    • Nice! Looking forward to seeing what you do for your board

  • Awesome stuff, will be stealing some of this for my terrain! Also, a very amusing article as well, keep up the good work.

  • Awesome work. Great job on the tutorial itself, and it was a fun read, which is a rarity with tutorials.

    • It is that extra bit of humor that really adds to it 🙂

      • Exactly. In this hobby things tend to be useful, or humorous, but rarely both.

  • Agreed, great article Andy and thank you for writing it! A bunch of great tips for building up larger bases that I will be using as well.