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.
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 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.
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).
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!
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!