Part 1: Prepping the bark
Part 2: Building the terrain
Part 3: Painting & Finishing
[NOTE: Yes, I’m talking about summer in December. I actually did write this over the summer, but for various reasons, I didn’t post it until now. But at least now you have something to look forward to when it gets warm again.
Also, a shout out to 3-T Studios whose work inspired some of the techniques shown in this tutorial. Their tutorial doesn’t seem to be up on their website anymore, but you can still find them on Patreon.]
- Sycamore bark
- large tub
- large container for drying
Ah, summertime, with its bright sun and warm breeze. What better activity for this time of year than heading indoors, into the basement to work on terrain? Summer is actually a great time to work on terrain if only for one reason: a large part of terrain-making involves turning wet things into dry things. As most of these wet things (mainly glue and cheap craft or house paint) obtain their characteristic wetness by having water as one of their constituents, one way to expedite the wet-to-dry process is through the application of heat. And, as any aspiring astrophysicist can tell you, in a given hemisphere, summer is the time of year when the earth’s orbit brings it into a position where the sun’s rays hit it a steeper angle, thus increasing the amount of solar energy that is absorbed by the earth in the form of heat, resulting in dramatically increased temperatures.
Another terrain-related activity that summer is great for is harvesting natural materials to use for terrain. One material that has much potential for terrain-making is sycamore bark. Pine bark mulch (or “pine nuggets” as some packaging refers to it) has gotten a decent amount of play in the miniature gaming world because it looks like rock, is easy to work with, and can be found at some DIY home improvement stores. (I say “some” and not “all” because in my area, for some reason, Home Depot doesn’t carry it, but Lowe’s does. Go figure.) But another common and easily-obtained bark is that of the sycamore tree.
A significant difference is that sycamore bark is chunkier and not as flat as pine bark, and much less prone to having layers that split apart. The durability alone is a huge plus; when I buy a bag of pine bark, the first thing I do is spend an hour or two sorting out the usable pieces from the stuff that will break apart when you try to work with it. I end up using that stuff for other things… usually mulch. In the end, I find that only about half the bag is usable, maybe less. Besides being more durable, the chunkier texture causes it to lay differently when stacking and gluing, thus producing a different overall appearance in the terrain.
Ok, after a quick Wikipedia search so I could sound smart by including something intelligent here, it turns out that sycamore bark may be even easier to obtain than I had realized because there’s a crap-ton of different types of sycamores out there! So, rather than trying to figure out which particular sycamore I’m referring to in the veritable sycamore cornucopia that exists, here’s a picture instead:
Find something that looks approximately like this, and you’re golden. (Incidentally, this is also the point where someone can shoot me a note telling me that this isn’t even bark from a sycamore in the first place, but some rare tree that’s on a list of protected flora and that I’ve admitted to violating about 17 different international laws.
Step 1: Gather the bark
Regardless of the species of tree, shrub, plant, or animal it comes from, I’ve never seen big bags of sycamore bark sold at a home-improvement store. Hence, we’ll have to gather our own. The first step of course is to find a tree, whether it be at a national park, neighbor’s yard, or your own. (Note: I do not actually advocate getting caught while harvesting bark at a national park.) It’s possible that harvesting too much bark will make the tree more diseases and suffer an untimely death. This is a bonus, because those stupid sycamore trees in my back yard re are constantly shedding all sorts of branches. Seriously, it makes mowing the lawn go from being a twenty-minute job to an hour because of all the branches that have to be picked up first. I mean, it would, if I actually picked up the branches instead of just mowing over them.
So, first get a large tub and gather up a bunch of bark. I recommend getting several pounds’ worth as the next step (cleaning) isn’t really any more difficult with a larger amount of bark than it is with a smaller amount, so may as well do the work once and get enough for several projects. In any case, a few pounds of bark will last you a while, unless you’re planning on making an entire mountain range.
Step 2: Clean the bark
As you gather your bark, you may notice that you’re collecting all sorts of spider webs, bugs and other unsavory things in addition to the bark. This is where cleaning it comes in. You can skip this step if you want, but if you do, you’re probably the kind of disgusting, filthy person who hangs out in their basement making terrain on a beautiful summer day, a living embodiment of the worst gamer stereotypes! I take it back; do us all a favor and just clean the bark!
Step 2a: Bleach
Fill the tub you used to gather your bark with water and bleach (hopefully it doesn’t have any holes at the bottom, like the first one that I used did) and leave it to soak for a day or three. How much bleach? About a quarter to half cup per gallon of water should be good. Don’t worry too much about the exact ratio, we’re just trying to clean the bark up a little; too little or too much really won’t pose any problems.
After a day or two, the water will turn a delightful shade of, um, iced tea brown. Yeah, iced tea, that’s the ticket.
After sufficient time has passed (again, this is more of a “what feels right” measurement than some hard rule; three days at most is plenty, and probably overkill), drain the bleach-water, preferably over a bed of weeds or some other plants that you don’t care about.
Step 2b: Detergent
Same step, different chemicals. Fill the tub with water, adding a generous amount of laundry detergent this time. Again, the exact amount isn’t vital. One or two capfuls in your tub should do it.
Allow the bark to soak again for another 1-3 days, then drain the water. It may turn brown again as more dirt comes off. If a little residual dirt still remains after the entire cleaning regimen, it won’t be enough to make your hands or work area dirty from handling.
Bonus! The detergent is clear in the bottle, but turns purple when sunlight hits it!
Step 2c: Rinse
The step is the most tedious. (Yeah, I know. After spending so much time just sitting back and waiting for stuff to happen, now we actually have to do some work.) After draining the water, give each piece of bark a good blast from your garden hose and set it aside on a large, flat surface or container to dry in the sun.
I know I didn’t need to include a picture of this step, but I thought it looked cool!
You may have realized that the process of cleaning bark is nearly identical to that of washing white cotton clothes. You now know that sycamore bark comes from a tree. But did you know that cotton also comes from a tree? Think about it.
The next step in this process will allow you plenty of time to ponder this cosmic mystery.
Step 3: Dry the bark
The next step in this extremely passive activity is to let the bark sit for a few days to dry. Lay it all out on a flat surface or container (which you already did in the last step, right?) As much as possible, try to keep it one layer thick; the more spread out it is, the faster it’ll dry. Hopefully, you are in fact doing this during the summer, preferably a genuinely hot, sunny summer day and not one of those lame rainy ones. It will likely take at least three days for the bark to dry thoroughly. You can tell that it’s ready when it no longer feels damp or cool to the touch.
I should’ve put a ruler in this picture for scale; there’s a lot more bark in there than it looks like. That sandbox lid is almost four feet in diameter. Seriously. No joke, snark, or otherwise fun comment to be found in this caption.
We’ve come to the end of this section… but we’re only just getting started. Now that the bark is ready to go, we can actually build something with it!
Part 2: Building the terrain
Part 3: Painting & Finishing