The right tool for the job – Recommended tools for making terrain

You just started making your own terrain or you intend to make your first piece. Excellent! Looking at a gaming table full of your hand crafted terrain is a grand feeling indeed. But which tools should you get before you start or which tools should you get down the road when you gained some experience with this important aspect of our beloved hobby?

Fear not, as I will show you a selection of tools that will come in very handy for pretty much any terrain project. I will keep it simple and recommend a number of tools for cutting and measuring; painting, sculpting and engraving; and tools that are nice to have, but not essential.

tools, terrain, wargaming, recommendation, table top, diorama, modelling, list

Basic tools to measure, cut and clean-up

Wire Cutter: You will need a good quality wire cutter to cut different gauges of steel wire, music wire, bronze rod etc. Make sure to get a model with  comfy grip, as you will need to apply significant pressure to cut thick materials.

You can also use this tool to cut plastic card or MDF. Naturally this is only for rough handiwork.

Finally you can also cut models from a sprue or cut away thick cast-on plastic or even metal bases.

Needle Nose Pliers: I use pliers extensively to make the wire armature for my trees. You can exert much more force with them and also won’t hurt your fingers or hands.

You can also push metal pins into a hole you drilled to stabilize elements of your build.

Sprue Cutter: Obviously this is for cutting models and accessories off the sprue. I would not use it to cut thick pieces of plastic, rather use the wire cutter or a scalpel.

Scissors: Again a very basic tool. Cut thin plastic card, cardboard or thin wood with them.

Hack Saw: This is for thicker pieces of wood, plastic rod or pieces of pine bark. If you use bark for your rock faces you can save material and weight in cutting the bark in pieces.

Cutter: Given you can easily renew the blade of a heavy-duty cutter this can be used for the rough day-to-day work: Cutting XPS and foam board to shape, scoring plastic card or MDF etc. Make sure the blade is sharp before you start.

Scalpel: This is for the delicate work: Converting miniatures and accessories, shaving of small amounts of plastic or wood to fit something and texture plastic card. Be very careful with the scalpel. Never cut towards you. The blade is extremely sharp when it comes fresh out of the package.

Secateur: Can be used to easily cut thick to medium pieces of wood. Easier, cleaner and safer than a scalpel or saw.

Files: Small microfiles can be used to prepare miniatures or small accessories. Larger files can be used to roughly shape and smooth your XPS or MDF.

Steel Ruler: A steel ruler is superior to a plastic one, as you can cut along its edge with a cutter or scalpel without danger of shaving off some plastic. A nice long ruler is recommended, as you can cut a straight line in one go.

360 Degree Angle Measure: Sometimes it is important for your edges to line up perfectly. An angle measure will help you with this.

tools, terrain, wargaming, recommendation, table top, diorama, modelling, list

Tools  for sculpting, painting and engraving

Paint Brushes: You will need a variety of paint brushes for terrain making. None of them need to be expensive. In most cases you will apply paint to a large surface, so a nice big flat or round brush will serve you well.

Also get some smaller flat brushes for dry brushing. A few round brushes will be useful for mixing paints, applying paint to smaller or hard to reach areas and can also be used to apply PVA. In most hardware or art stores cheap brush sets can be bought. These will be absolutely sufficient for terrain making.

If you are also a miniature painter you will have high quality brushes. Don’t use them for dry brushing or any heavy-duty work. It will shorten their life significantly. However, for detailing or freehands you may want to use a high quality brush with a proper, well-shaped point.

Wire Brushes: These often come in packs of three: Steel, copper and nylon. You can use them to score or roughen materials, to clean pieces of dust or to texture plastic card, XPS, plaster or wood filler. You can depict wood grain or rock stratification in simply brushing over your piece in one direction.

Toothbrush: Just get a cheap one to clean miniatures or elements of your build. The bristles are quite soft, so no danger to damage the surface.

Spatula: A metal spatula is an excellent investment. You can smooth acrylic medium, acrylic caulking, XPS glue and many other things. Then act quickly and clean the spatula under running water. Good as new. Much better than wooden or plastic spatulas. Obviously for something like resin or silicon don’t use the metal spatula, as it will be hard to get it clean.

Color Shaper: An excellent tool to smooth modelling clay or greenstuff. See also my tutorial on using greenstuff for some more ideas how to use this tool.

Needle tool: Perfect to sculpt fine detail and to add heavy texture to plastic card and wood.

Metal Ball Stylus: You can use this tool to smooth greenstuff or use different sized ball heads to sculpt mail, organic indentations and holes in cloaks etc.

Toothpick: A handy tool to apply moss paste, snow products or to sculpt certain details.

Sewing Needle: You can use the needle head to sculpt the finest of detail. Make sure it is well lubricated. Also very handy if a dropper bottle of paint is blocked.

Stencil Sponge: A very useful tool to apply rust or dust effects. Only add a very small amount of paint and gently apply to your piece.

Permanent Marker: If you need to mark something or draw a design before you cut it out or paint it a fine permanent marker will help you a lot.

Micro Pen: Intricate detail can be drawn with a micro pen. Either to help a freehand along or to make a sketch in a confined space. I use two with a 0.8 mm and 1 mm tip.

Masking Tape: If you already finished part of a piece make sure to cover it with masking tape before you continue. Get some high quality tape that is recommended for use with scale models. If not you may lift the paint.

tools, terrain, wargaming, recommendation, table top, diorama, modelling, list

Nice to have

Tweezers: We work a lot with small parts, so preserve your sanity and invest in some high quality tweezers to hold pieces in place or to place brushes and single leaves.

Pin Vise: This comes in very handy for – you guessed it – pinning miniatures, but also to drill small holes into a base to place a miniature or a tree. I use a Tamiya pin vise and can recommend it.

Sieve: I use a very small, fine sieve to prepare soil for basing.

Rolling pin: If you work a lot with polymer clay or green stuff you will find this to come in very handy to get an even finish.

Hot Glue Gun: I normally don’t use hot glue that often, but it can come in handy if you just want to quickly glue together some foamboard, cardboard or other materials. You can also make simple molds using hot glue or a water fall (the base structure that is).

Pure decadence

Rotary Tool: Luxury, as you could also just use sanding paper. That said it speeds up stuff significantly. You can easily bevel MDF bases or engrave designs in wood.

The Terrain Tutor has you covered and shows you how to bevel MDF bases properly:

Hot Wire Cutter: Once again a luxury. A cutter will do the job, too. However, the hot wire cutter will speed up shaping and carving XPS. Getting a model with a temperature dial is a good idea, depending what kind of foam you use. If you think the commercial ones are too expensive, why not make your own? Luke Towan is your man in this case.

Static Grass Applicator: Sure, you can apply static grass the old fashioned way or you can either buy or build yourself an electronic static grass applicator. Luke is again at it and shows you how easy it is to make your own:

Airbrush: A wonderful tool to basecoat terrain, to paint large surfaces, to add subtle colour variations or to seal your terrain with thinned down acrylic medium. If you get one, get a good one. I did well with my Tamiya Sprayworks, but Badger seems to have also very good products. This is possibly the most expensive tool on the list, but very good to have.

The Chopper: A devise made to cut balsa wood, plastic card and cardboard with high precision and safety in mind. If accuracy is very important for you, this is the ticket.

3D-printer: Resin and filament printers came down in price quite a bit and the quality of resin prints is almost equal to traditional metal spin cast or injected plastic minis. Filament for all your terrain needs and resin for small bitz and miniatures. Keep in mind that resin printers are messy and the whole 3D-printing is a hobby in itself.

Laser-cutter: An expensive piece of equipment, if you buy something solid. That said you can easily design and cut your own houses, frames for gaming boards and so on. Never will your measuring be off again!

Further reading

Now you have a good idea which tools you may need to build terrain and can prioritize which ones to get first. You will already have some of these tools at home, so it won’t be too expensive to start making terrain.

If you still look for further tool recommendations look at this article on the 10mm Wargaming blog by Andrew Bruce. His focus lies more on tools for miniature painting, but much of it applies to terrain building, too!


Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

13 March 2017 at 4:14 am

This was a good read mate.

13 March 2017 at 4:16 am
– In reply to: imperialrebelork

Glad you like it. Any tools I missed that you use every day?

13 March 2017 at 4:19 am
– In reply to: daggerandbrush

Well I like to keep things simple. Myntools consist of the following: scalpel, snippers, pencil, ruler (metal), a soup spoon and brushes. I seem to manage well with just these. I know a bloke who has every tool imaginable but for me I try to be a Boy Scout hehe. I think you’ve covered everything.

13 March 2017 at 4:26 am
– In reply to: imperialrebelork

I agree! I honestly “scrounged” my tools from various sources or use house hold items/make stuff myself. High on my list is a static grass applicator and foam cutter. I linked to two YouTube tuts by Luke Towan. The man is a genius and shows you how easy it is to make such tools yourself in safe and sound way.

13 March 2017 at 9:20 am
– In reply to: daggerandbrush

Is Luke the dude with the big loop hole earings? If so, yes he is brilliant.

13 March 2017 at 9:26 am
– In reply to: imperialrebelork

I don’t think he has loop hole earings, but one sees mostly his hands in the clips. He is firmly entrenched in the model railway hobby, but most of his stuff works for us, too.

13 March 2017 at 9:36 am
– In reply to: daggerandbrush

Ahh no different bloke then. The other Luke shows you how to make cheap but really cool terrain. He also showed me how to dry brush with a spray can.

13 March 2017 at 9:45 pm
– In reply to: imperialrebelork

I believe I came across him. If you want you can put a link in the comment section. Drybrushing (or do you mean highlighting?) with spray paint is surely an intriguing idea.

13 March 2017 at 10:19 pm
– In reply to: daggerandbrush

Oh yes highlighting I guess it would have been.

13 March 2017 at 5:48 am

Great stuff. I’d also add Files (both large and fine) and blu tac (or poster putty, as it’s called in some places).

13 March 2017 at 9:22 am
– In reply to: Azazel

Good point. I use microfiles to prepare minis, but a large one would surely work well on XPS. Blue tack will be featured in the post about materials. That said, it is also a helpful tool.

13 March 2017 at 8:20 am

Great post! I’d like to add one tool I use often, as I work a lot with matchsticks and wooden rods: secateurs. Faster then a saw and safer than a knife (cutting matchsticks with a knife is a pain).

13 March 2017 at 9:24 am
– In reply to: cptshandy

Excellent idea. Do you use a small version for modellers or the garden variety?

13 March 2017 at 9:42 am
– In reply to: daggerandbrush

The garden variety – I borrow it from my girlfriend!

13 March 2017 at 9:46 pm
– In reply to: cptshandy

Sadly we don’t have a garden, but I borrowed a few tools, too. Thinking about it, an electric drill is also good to have.

13 March 2017 at 8:24 am

Oh, and if you get a foam cutter, it’d probably be a good idea not to get the cheapest one… I speak from experience 🙁
My grandfather was a cabinetmaker and always told me to only use the best tools – they might be more expensive, but the last longer and save you a lot of hassle as they are better to use.

13 March 2017 at 9:44 pm
– In reply to: cptshandy

I feel you. I got a Foam Factory Hot Knife without temperature control. Works well with EPS, but is veeeery slow with XPS. That said, a cutter is even slower. I may just build my own one.

Brian Botzan
13 March 2017 at 11:27 am

Can’t argue with anything on your list, I use most of them on any of my projects too. I’ll jave to check out the static grass applicator video. It’s something I’ve wanted to make for a while.

13 March 2017 at 9:48 pm
– In reply to: Brian Botzan

I have all the materials for a static grass applicator lying around. No I only have to build it :P. Gladly my wife is a very good solderer.

13 March 2017 at 12:31 pm

Very nice article!

I have a tool to add: the ridiculously overpriced “The Chopper” which is great for getting precise repeatable cuts on small bits of basswood, balsawood, cardboard, and plasticard. I discovered this tool in school, where it was fairly essential for cranking out architecture models. The Chopper is essentially a razor blade attached to a lever arm, with a variety of fences that can be used to control angles and lengths. It’s definitely a luxury tool in a gaming terrain making context, but is super convenient, nonetheless.

Shane Hobson
13 March 2017 at 1:44 pm
– In reply to: arkiegamer

Yes the chopper is a great tool, it does not have a permanent place on the desk. Sometimes I think oh I will just get the scalpel and metal ruler out, like when i was cutting balsa to make weathered flooring the small imperfections kind of enhanced the weathered look.

13 March 2017 at 4:18 pm
– In reply to: Shane Hobson

That being said it would have saved me quite a few minutes. P.s what size nib did you use on your micropen? i cant think of any tools we might have missed, except maybe an airbrush. Often we can get around this.

13 March 2017 at 9:53 pm
– In reply to: alamandrablog

I have two sizes:0.8 and 1.0 mm. I will add the airbrush to the luxury tools. I have one and would not like to miss it. Some effects are very hard to replicate with a spray can or brush.

13 March 2017 at 9:52 pm
– In reply to: Shane Hobson

I can see that especially balsa wood etc. is much easier to cut with such a set up.

13 March 2017 at 9:52 pm
– In reply to: arkiegamer

“Get to da Choppaaa!” Never heard of that device. Looks really useful and I see it is only 30 Dollars US. Not too bad. Something to add to my list of luxury tools.

13 March 2017 at 10:10 pm

Hiya Dagger & Brush.
Like you I am an Aucklander and also an on and off again wargamer.

Nice list of tools and such, was just wondering if you knew that Gordon & Harris art supplies are an excellent source of tools, brushes, widgets and so forth. They carry 3mm MDF in a variety of sizes and also plenty of foamcore. I often go in to look around and walk out with a tool or doohickey I think will be useful (and then ends up sitting in a box until inspiration strikes).

Also, the wonderful Japanese 1,2,3 dollar or more store on Queen street near the Imax cinema has an eclectic selection of stuff too – They currently offer a D battery hot wire cutter for $3, although I have not used mine yet.

Was just wondering where you sourced your plastic sheet you mentioned in another article? You said it was from some plastics manufacturer…

Anyhoo…. Keep up the great work

13 March 2017 at 10:20 pm
– In reply to: Cinder

Ahoi Cinder. I am a constant customer at Gordon & Harris and the 3$ Japan Stores. They do have good stuff. The wire cutter for 3$ sounds interesting. I am not sure if I trust its quality, but then for 3$ you can’t go wrong. Let me know how it goes.

The plastic sheet comes from Mulford Plastics, Arthur Brown Place Mt Wellington. They sell it in large sheets, but don’t have anything thinner than 0.8mm.

What periods/rule systems are you gaming?

14 March 2017 at 3:27 am
– In reply to: daggerandbrush

Mostly I am a roleplayer – classic 1980’s AD&D without figures but with tweaks and homebrew rule additions. Our little group have been going for over 20 years with 1 campaign dominating the entire time although that DM has taken a backseat in the last few years (he deserves a rest after so much long and honorable service).

Used to play Warhammer decades ago, but I am trying to get them to play Lion Rampant using Perry WoTR Plastics which I am slowly accruing and painting, but new rules meet a lot of resistance with our bunch of stick in the muds… There is interest in American Civil War, but I will leave it others to get the figures and rules

We occasionally play Battletech classic, Axis & Allies, Risk, X Wing and a few other games on long weekends.

I am a very dedicated terrain builder however – even though it just ends up in boxes, never used and unloved.

Thanks for the info on the plastics supplier, plastic sheet at most suppliers is blindingly expensive for the small amount you get. 8mm thickness is a bit too thick for me however..

I will let you in on my little secret, I have been using old records! Yep vinyl LP’s. Using them for hills, forest bases, swamps and marshland etc… A few people at the Auckland Wargames Club have got their hands on some of mine at Bring & Buys. I haven’t shared this idea with the gaming community at large however….

Pros: Readily available at 2nd hand stores, charity shops etc – If you find boxed sets of classical records then they will all be the same thickness, and that thickness mostly continues through records labels (decca, EMI etc…).

They are very thin and sit flat unless you leave them in the sun for too long.

If you were keen you could easily make a whole lot of 12″ or 7″ hexes doing this – I am even considering making a lot of hexon style terrain modules, but I lack a dedicated gaming space at the moment.

Cons: The edges need to have “gunk” shoved around the edges to make them flush with the table, otherwise they have a 1-2mm gap around the edges. But this is easily done and allows a bevel to the edge of the terrain feature.

The plastic on most is relatively brittle – if you cut them you need to cut right through and NOT try and snap them. You will end up with very jagged dag ends hanging off waiting to rip the flesh from your hands.

The edges are VERY sharp and quite dangerous – a bit of filing is needed to take the edge.

I haven’t encountered problems with glue or plaster not adhering, but I imagine some recipes could pose problems.

Will try out the $3 hot wire cutter soon and let you know.

14 March 2017 at 3:44 am
– In reply to: Cinder

I didn’t think about using vinyl records. Good idea. Sorry, I meant 0.8mm and 1mm not 8mm (they have that, too).

I am also a big DnD fan, but dream of a fully modelled, modular gaming board: Forest encounter, Dungeon encounter, city encounter etc. My crypt module was a first attempt and worked out well. I think I will integrate it in a larger set of modules.

I am also making some Frostgrave warbands at the moment and think of making matching terrain.

Finally my 15mm Carthaginians are still not finished, but I painted quite a large chunk of them. Romans are next.

You see, I should be fine for the next decade with projects :P.

14 March 2017 at 5:34 am

You did actually type 0.8mm – I just misread it!!! Guess where I will be heading in the next few weeks?

Strangely the only models we use in D&D are relief maps I have created of islands the group were exploring – It worked rather well with map pins being used to show locations.

My own late medieval collection is swamping me – I may have all the models painted when I reach retirement (maybe).

PS: Have you ventured out to New Lynn and the model railroad supply shop 5 minutes walk from the train station? Only open on Saturdays, run by a nice elderly fellow – Good range of items and good prices on some bits. I assume it is still going, have not been there since last year and keep thinking I should visit again in case the guy has passed away….

14 March 2017 at 8:20 am
– In reply to: Cinder

I did venture there a few years ago, when I still had a car. The selection was good, but he did not have MiniNatur products. I am not sure if it is still running , however.

14 March 2017 at 9:52 am

Great comment thread, full of inspiration & ideas! I can actually second the vinyl LP idea, I’ve been using them too. They don’t warp when painted or covered with plaster, but they are heavy.

14 March 2017 at 9:59 am
– In reply to: cptshandy

The idea is indeed excellent. I would have a problem if they are too heavy. Commissons need to be as light as possible to keep shipping down. For my own stuff I have more flexibility.

Why I started this blog
 | Alamandra
14 March 2017 at 8:40 pm

[…] Anyway I asked how he had made the creation, as soon as I found out I went online to buy some armature wire and various other tools, for a more in depth explanation of the kind of tools I am talking about visit…… […]

14 March 2017 at 8:48 pm

LP’s come in a huge variety of plastics – some are very light and perhaps too flimsy. However most charity shops and 2nd hand shop won’t mind you pulling them out of the sleeves to check them out.

Hoho Captain Shandy – There I was thinking I had a eureka moment which I was trying to keep to myself until I could flaunt my finished items on the interwebs, but I guess us modelers are an inventive and thrifty bunch.

14 March 2017 at 9:33 pm
– In reply to: Cinder

I see. I wasn’t aware they come in different thicknesses. Thinking about it my dad has a collection of really bad Schlager vinyl…I could see some of those really need to be improved by putting a forest on top.

14 March 2017 at 9:52 pm

Schlager? As in German pop music?
I am a krautrock fan myself… (hope that isn’t offensive to anyone).

It may pay to do some internet digging to ensure you are not destroying a valuable pressing though – Some rarities go for crazy money. I gave a friend a white stripes 7″ picture disc I bought at a gig years ago for $8 – Happy Birthday!

Turns out US collectors are paying over $200 for it – Damn, there goes my retirement fund…

One other drawback of using records is they are readily identifiable as 12″ or 7″ – A power gamer can then estimate distances on the tabletop and become a bore…

14 March 2017 at 10:44 pm
– In reply to: Cinder

Ha, that might be a catch. But then I usually play historicals, so powergamers have less opportunity to make cheese lists.

I am originally from Germany thus the Schlager (I am sure there is some good stuff among them, too). I think Schlager is more traditional, rural music. In Germany people just listen to English pop music in my experience. The problem with Schlager is its monotonous rhythm and ear bleed inducing lyrics..

Never heard of Krautrock, but doing some research I realise it is a German version of psychedelic rock etc. Good stuff. Reminds me of Iron Butterfly and Arthur Brown.

The history of the term is also interesting. Seems it made a journey from pejorative to normal use in a British context. I am glad they did not stick with GötterdĂ€mmer Rock. Especially because it should be GötterdĂ€mmerungsrock. 😛

15 March 2017 at 1:41 am

This is a great documentary on Krautrock – Which is where I first came across the term Schlager music

Krautrock sorta transcends Psych rock in my book – far more experimental and far more influential. Lotsa dance music and hip hop stole ideas and samples from them, (Kanye even covered Can!?!?!?!). The drummer from Can recently passed away – what a loss..

And lots of Krautrock was used in early Werner Herzog and Rainer Fassbinder movies, which is an indicator of a great movie!!! And Can are used in the first 10 minutes of the movie Inherent Vice – So you know it’s gonna be great.

Man, talk about walking off the modelling / gaming path.

15 March 2017 at 1:55 am
– In reply to: Cinder

Creative endeavors they all are. Music and modelling goes hand in hand for me. Nothing better than some relaxing tunes and the smell of solvent i the air :P.

15 March 2017 at 8:07 pm

I do not know much about Krautrock but I like tangerine dream. Regarding solvents balsa cement is annoying. Why can’t all solvents smell like petrol.

15 March 2017 at 8:29 pm
– In reply to: alamandrablog

I used Balsa cement in the past and it does stink. I am also not too happy about its strength. I honestly think PVA works just as well.

15 March 2017 at 8:52 pm
– In reply to: daggerandbrush

Yes good old reliable PVA, just a shame it takes a while to dry and some jobs are impractical with it. I have gone on to the revel plastic glue for some permanent bonds with a creation I am doing. I hope it all works now because unlike superglue with plasticard you cannot just break it off without the part not being the same after.