Introduction: Modular Tabletop Terrain Boards

About: I like working with all mediums, but so far my speciality is machining and electronics. I make all my Instructables from a design heavy perspective, rather then a follow these steps exactly perspective. Mayb…

Having a gaming table is one thing, having a table with beautiful terrain is another! It's time to step up your gaming.

Continuing from the last Instructable where we made a gaming table, we're now going to make some terrain tiles to match! Continuing the spirit of keeping it modular, we're going to make a variety of tiles that can work together in many many configurations. Since our gaming table is 6 ft x 4 ft, we're going to make our tiles 2 ft x 2 ft. This allows you to use them with a variety of table sizes (4x4, 6x4, 8x4...)

In this Instructable, we're going to cover four main ideas of making terrain. We'll make mountains, craters, give texture to the surface, and the paint everything. We'll be using 1 in thick blue foam, which you can find at the hardware store. I found big sheets that were 2 ft x 8 ft, and was able to get the store to cut 2 ft x 2 ft squares for me. Check that they are actually 2 ft x 2 ft, even a slight amount (1/8 in) too big can make them fit too tightly into your table. Once I had the foam as my base, I was ready to go.

Lets get started!

Step 1: Plan Out the 4 Mountains


We'll start with the biggest mountains. The idea here is to create four tiles that can be rearranged to give you different mountain configurations. In order for this to work smoothly, you need to measure where the corners of each mountain ledge will end, so they line up no matter how you arrange them. For my mountains, I wanted them to cover a quarter of the tile, so they started at 12 in. I then decided how big I wanted the top layer to be, which was 12 in diameter (compared to the 24 in bottom layer). That means that each side has to be 6 in. Then, the middle row of the mountain was 9 in, to make sure that the steps were even. If you want to make a taller mountain, you can add more layers!


It's easiest to cut the mountain corners out of a corner of foam, to ensure that you have a good 90 degree edge. This means you may have to buy a lot of a foam squares, and only use the corners, which can waste the middles. If you want to cut your own corners, I would suggest cutting slightly under 90 degrees, rather than slightly over. We can fill in the gaps later.

Once you have your marks on the edges (6 in, 9 in, 12in) hold your knife vertically and cut a jagged shape across to create a rough outline for your rocks. Cut in a rough quarter circle shape, the exact shapes and positions don't matter, the only thing that matters is that the edges line up with your measured marks.


When all your pieces are cut, line up the pieces to make a trio of bottom, middle, and top. Depending how you cut the edges, some pieces may look better together than others. I marked my layers with 1, 1A, 1B, 1C, 2, 2A, 2B... so that I knew which tiles (1) matched to each layer (ABC). Once you start pairing the pieces up, you can make adjustment cuts on the jagged edges so that the layers look good together. The thing I focused on was ensuring that the mountain layers were wide enough for big models to sit on.

With these layers done, it's time to add details! Next we will add a rockier texture.

Step 2: Carve Rock Texture

The mountains are roughly shaped, now we will add some rock texture to make them even better! Here you have two choices. You can either use a gap filler, and make smooth mountains, or you can carve in rock textures and keep the edges as a stepped appearance. I know that a smooth mountain is more realistic, but a smooth mountain is very annoying to balance models on. If you want to make smooth mountains, we will cover how to in the "Sealing Gaps" step (step 6).

Rock Texture

To carve a rock texture, you need to cut angles on the edges of the foam. Make sure to cut on the top and bottom of the foam. Cut at a variety of angles and depths to make the rocks looks more realistic (Picture #2). Take care when cutting the corners, the rocks need to blend into the other mountain pieces. Since you're going to be rearranging the mountains, don't try to make a perfect blend between corners, just ensure that they look decent together. Picture #3 shows how much of a difference carving the rock texture in makes!

Once all your mountain layers are carved, set them aside for texturing and painting. I glued mine together, and that made it more difficult to paint. You can use toothpicks to hold them together for texturing, which will allow you to see how the final product will look.

Single Mountain

Once you've made a few layers of mountains, you can make a different mountain to sit on a single tile, rather then a mountain that crosses multiple tiles (Picture #4). Follow the same steps as you did to make the mountain layers, except this time you don't have a 90 degree corner to deal with. You can also cut a standing rock shape to put on the top of the mountain, or to scatter around the tiles! To make the standing rock, cut a rough shape out of foam and cut rock texture in.

Next we will cover how to carve some craters!

Step 3: Carve Craters

Craters are good to add different heights to your board. We're going to make two types of craters. One to sit above your tile, and one to dig into it. Making both are very similar.


To make a crater, start by cutting out a rough circle on an angle (Picture #1). Don't cut too deep, or you'll pierce through the bottom of the foam! Next, cut a cross hatch pattern of approx 1/2 in to loosen the foam (Picture #2). Now, you can either use a spoon to scoop the foam out, or continue with a knife. This is a very messy process, the foam bits will fly all over the place. Use the tool to shape the crater how you want, then smooth the surface with sand paper or scotch brite (Pictures #3-5). You can also put some texture in the bottom of the crater using sand. See Step #5 for how to add texture.

Rock Texture

Once you have a crater scooped out, you can add rock texture around it the same way you did on the mountains. With an above ground crater, its easy, just cut a jagged shape around the crater (Picture #5), then carve the rock texture in (Picture #6). For a crater in the ground, I cut lots of small rocks out of spare foam pieces and glued them all over (Picture #8). This was a pain to paint, so I don't recommend it.

If you accidentally scrape too deep, and break through the bottom of the foam, no worries! On the above ground crater, you can ignore it if you are gluing it to a terrain tile. If you are leaving it free to place in different places around the board, you can put a thin piece of plastic card or card board to fill the hole. Or, if you got a hole in your terrain tile, you can use hot glue to fill in the hole. Once its all painted, you won't be able to tell where the gap is.

Craters are quick to make, you can carve an above ground crater in ~10 min. Inside a tile is a bit harder, and also depends how big you make it.

Now that we have all our mountains and craters, we can add more textures.

Step 4: Add Texture

To texture your pieces, we're going to use a mix of white craft glue and water. This is a very similar process to adding sand to your miniatures bases, just at a larger scale. Mix the glue and water at a ratio of roughly 80:20 (glue:water). The water helps the glue flow around the tile better, and also makes it easier to apply with a paint brush. Careful though, if you use too much water it weakens the glue and the sand will fall off. Mix the glue in small amounts with a few drops of water at a time in a small plastic container.

Sand Choice

For sand, I found some pouches of decorative sand at the dollar store. You can use outdoor sand as well, ensure that it is completely dry before you use it. If you're using outdoor sand, you should sift it to ensure the pieces are the correct sizes (you don't want big chunks throwing off the scale of your board!). I would advise against using bigger pieces (like small rocks), as it makes painting the boards more difficult. I tried to use small aquarium rocks from the pet store blended in with the sand, but most of them fell off while painting (or got stuck in the roller and scratched the surface...).


Once you have your sand and glue mixture ready, use an old paintbrush to draw shapes on your foam. Try to avoid painting shapes near the edge of the tiles, it will look funny unless the tile beside it matches the shape. Since the tiles are always going to be moving, you can't count on that!

You can paint on a full tiles worth of glue, and then sprinkle sand onto the tile. Work on one tile at a time, otherwise the glue will dry before you get the sand on! You can sprinkle more or less in various places to get different textures. Once you've covered the tile, tip it over to get all the loose sand off to use for the next tile! When all the pieces are textured, you're ready for painting.

Flat Tiles

While you're texturing, you can make some plain terrain tiles (no mountains or craters). These are good so that you have space to put different pieces of terrain on. They are very quick too make, just paint texture on a 2 ft x 2 ft tile.

Before we get to painting, we're going to cover how to seal any gaps that may be left.

Step 5: Sealing Gaps

In this step we're going to work on sealing gaps in the foam. The main gaps I had to seal were the corners of the mountains, since the pieces of foam were not exactly 90 degrees. I used drywall filler, with multiple coats. If you try to do one thick coat, the filler will take ages to dry, or the center may never dry and leave a soggy core. Check the filler you use to see the maximum thickness it recommends applying per layer.


To spread the filler, I first tried a plastic lid cut in half, and was scooping the filler with an old toothbrush. However, I found that a corner of foam works much better (Picture #3 and #4). Who needs fancy tools!


Scoop the filler out, and spread it along the corners of the mountains (Picture #5). If you're doing multiple coats, ensure the previous coats have dried solid before starting the next. You can use the foam to make a smooth surface, or wait until the final coat is done and sand it flat.

Smooth Mountains

If you would like to smooth out your mountains, rather than leaving them as steps, I would recommend putting in a different material first, rather than trying to use pure drywall filler. You can cut foam to fit in the corners of the mountains, and then put filler over top to make a smooth curve. If you try to smooth it with pure filler, then you will have to do many many layers to ensure that you're not leaving too much to dry at once.

You can also use drywall filler to smooth out any other gaps or surfaces on your other terrain pieces. Once the final layers of filler have dried, its time for painting! I painted the tops of the tiles first, and saved the edges for last.

Step 6: Painting

Now that all your pieces are complete, its time for painting! Painting with spray paint is easiest, but spray paint usually dissolves foam. It's not actually the paint that dissolves the foam, its the propellant mixed with the paint. However, you may be able to take advantage of this! Spray paint a small piece of foam, and see what texture it leaves when it dries. Sometimes the melted, bubbly look of the dissolved foam can be an awesome texture.

Base Coating

If you want to protect your foam from spray paint, you can do a base coat with latex paint. This will allow the spray paint to sit on top of the latex, and not react with the foam. You can also use acrylic paints from the craft store (or dollar store). If you've been leaving all your foam pieces separate, it is fastest to base coat everything with a roller (Picture #1). This way it only takes a few min per tile. Once you've rolled everything you can, use a brush to touch up the last areas (Picture #3). Don't forget to paint the edges of the tiles too! I left painting the edges till the very end, that's why most of the pictures have blue edges (Picture #4). Painting the edges is easy if you do 2 at a time, and leave it to dry. This allows you to rotate the tiles without fear of getting wet paint on the floor. You can use newspaper to make a clear area for painting, I also used a big sheet of MDF from the gaming table to protect the floor.

Dry Brushing

Once everything is base coated, you can begin the detail work. Dry brushing is the fastest way to make the terrain pop, it really takes advantage of the textures that you've put down. Another option is to lightly dust colours on with spray paint. I wanted my terrain to look ashey, so I went with a black base coat, a grey dry brush, followed by a white dry brush.

To dry bush, get a small amount of paint on your brush. Wipe the brush on a paper towel, to press the paint into the bristles, as well as wiping most of the paint off. When there is a small amount of paint left on the brush, lightly paint over your textured areas. The small amount of paint on the brush will catch on the raised areas, leaving the lower levels untouched. This is a fast way to get highlighting done. Pro Tip: Dry brush in a circular motion, if you do a linear motion (up down side to side) it looks really obvious and leaves streak marks. Circular moves looks more natural.

Once your grey is complete, you're ready to dry brush the next layer (Picture #5)! Don't dry brush the entire textured parts, leave some parts grey so you have a variety of colours (or in this case, shades) showing. This makes it looks a bit more realistic. Picture #6 shows the slight difference between a grey dry brush and a white dry brush.

You should dry brush the edges of the rock texture as well. Use the same technique, and focus on the edges and corners so it looks like the rocks are lighter where light hits them. Use the white dry brush a bit heavier on the very corners to make it really pop.

Final Assembly

It's easiest to leave your mountains and craters separate to make painting easier. Now that painting is done, you can glue everything to your tiles using the same white craft glue. You should also use some pins to hold everything together. The pins can be toothpicks, or paperclips cut short and straightened. Once your pins are in, spread lots of white glue around the bottom of your mountains (get right to the edges!) and press them to the top of the tile. Put some weight on top to hold it together while it dries. You can also put some dots of hot glue in as well to hold it in place for the white glue to dry.

Now you're done!

Step 7: Conclusion

In this Instructable we learned to make terrain tiles that can be pieced together in many different ways to create a variety of battlefields for your war games! We covered how to layout the mountains to make them all work together, how to make different landscapes, and finished with texturing and painting everything.

If you need a way to hold the tiles together, check out THIS INSTRUCTABLEto learn how to make a gaming table to hold the tiles!

I'm gearing up to release a load of Instructables on a bi weekly or monthly basis. Some are bigger then others. I have over a year's worth of Instructables I want to make! They are related to gaming, electronics, 3D modelling, and robotics! I even have some large collections I want to make (10+ Instructables). For now, follow me to stay tuned with all the cool new projects that are coming down the pipeline!