Sycamore Bark Terrain – Part 2: Building the terrain

Part 1: Prepping the bark
Part 2: Building the terrain
Part 3: Painting & Finishing

Required materials:

  • Sycamore bark (duh)
  • Chunks of insulating foam
  • Hot glue gun
  • White glue
  • Tacky glue
  • Snap blade knife
  • Filler (aka, spackle)
  • Paint brushes
  • Stencil brush or other small, stiff brush
  • Water cups
  • Sand paper and/or sanding block
  • Sand (sifted into fine and coarse grits)
  • Sandbox or other container

After prepping a piece of vinyl tile to use as the base, we’re now ready to begin constructing the hill. (What do you mean “MDF”? Didn’t you read that other tutorial yet!?!)



Note that the grid units on the cutting mat are inches – this is going to be a decent-sized hill.


Step 1: Bulk up using foam

The areas of the base that are marked off with circles indicate where we’ll be placing sycamore bark. I like circles. Feel free to use X’s, squares, trapezoids, or even non-Euclidian geometric shapes if you prefer. We want to put foam everywhere else. The foam is what will form the bulk of the shape of the hill – its height, slopes, etc. You can really experiment during this step to create different kinds of effects for your hills depending on the shape of the foam, how much you use, and how you position it. I’ll be making a relatively tame “rolling hill” in this tutorial, so I’m starting with a big, mostly flat slab of foam. The foam does not have to be flat and level throughout; using a piece with a slight slope to it can help give your hill more character.

When gluing large pieces of terrain together (such as foam and bark when making hills), hot glue is the preferred tool of choice. White glue is easier to work with (to about the same degree that a straw makes it easier to drink from a cup), but don’t. Really, just don’t. It will take way too long to dry, and that’s while working on a project where 75% of the time it takes to make the thing is waiting for stuff to dry in between steps. (Seriously, as you go make your way through this tutorial, count how many times you have to wait for things to dry.) Hot glue takes mere moments to solidify, meaning you can build up layers of foam (and later, bark) quickly, without having to worry about the layers underneath shifting around because the glue is still wet.


Here’s a photo of my gun – er, I mean, tool. Huh, what’s a double-entendre?


Of course, now that I’ve extolled the virtues of hot glue over white glue for this application (see what I did there?), I will say that on some large hills (like the one in this tutorial), I will actually use a thin layer of white glue to affix large pieces of foam to the base. The reason is that I’ve had issues with the hot glue causing the tile to warp upwards a little and not sit as flat on the table as it otherwise would. Out of the bottle, white glue is normally significantly cooler than hot glue coming out of a glue gun, thus it won’t cause issues with warping.  And if it’s not significantly cooler, why on earth are heating your white glue?!?

After pushing the large foam pieces into place, go back and put a thin layer of hot glue around the edge where it meets the vinyl. The reason for this is to hold it in place while the white glue dries. I use both glues for all large pieces that touch the base, but hot glue alone suffices for smaller pieces.

TL;DR: White glue sucks for making terrain. Except when it doesn’t.

Continue gluing pieces of foam in place. We’ll make some adjustments in a later step, but right here in the first step is where you define the height, slope, and contours of your hill. Be generous with the hot glue so that all of the foam pieces form a strong bond. Once you’ve finished gluing all of your foam, take a snap blade knife and use it to trim the edges between the foam and make them smoother. You don’t have to get it perfect; we’ll smooth it as part of those adjustments in a later step.


Step 1 complete. Note that hot glue was used anywhere two pieces of foam come together.

Spend some time with this first step. Envision in your mind what you’re going for, and use some miniatures to test how your hill will work for gameplay. See how many miniatures you can fit on the surface of the hill, and make sure your slopes aren’t too steep to place them on the side. Of course, nothing beats hands-on experience for this sort of thing, so even if your first hills don’t come out perfectly, you’ll learn how to make improvements with your later efforts.


Step 2: Add bark

You spent hours collecting and cleaning your sycamore bark, and now the real fun begins! Grab a few pieces of bark and dry-stack them together on the areas that are marked off. The foam is the workhorse on these hills, forming the bulk and the actual playable surfaces where you can put miniatures, but the sycamore bark posing as rocks makes it much more visually interesting, not to mention creating impassable areas that affect movement, block line of site, etc. You should have various shapes and sizes of bark, so experiment to find what you like best before gluing anything. This time around we’re using hot glue, period. No exceptions. You can build modest outcroppings and ridges or large spires and formations; imagination and preference reign supreme!


A few tips for this step:

  • Even though we glued the foam chunks down and did some carving with the snap-blade knife in the previous step, it’s ok to do more gluing and carving in this step as necessary.
  • The hot glue should be hot enough to melt the foam a little when it’s first extruded. Use this to your advantage by pushing the bark into foam when you glue it in place to create an even stronger bond.
  • The bark will not always fit together perfectly. Be generous with the hot glue and use it to fill in large gaps any secure and wobbly pieces. This stuff is very strong when it solidifies.
  • Don’t worry if you end up with blobs of hot glue visible on the bark; we’ll cover that up in the next step.


After the next step, no one will know that unsightly blob is even there. Well, you will, but anyone who doesn’t read this tutorial won’t. And that, folks, is what lies at the heart of good terrain-making: concealing the unsightly.



Harry Hormagaunt and Ollie Ork Boy inspect the progress on their new battlefield before getting ready to eviscerate each other.


Step 3 – Apply filler

Apply filler using whatever tool you prefer. You have many choices here. If you’re going to use a brush, a chip brush works well. Scraps of corrugated cardboard work decently well, and have the advantage that you can just toss them instead of having to wash them. I’ve found that even when I start out with a brush , I resort to using my fingers at some point, so I’ve taken to foregoing any pretense of working in a civilized manner and just use my fingers from the get go. It doesn’t really matter what you use, as long as you get the filler where you want it to go.

The filler serves multiple purposes. First, it blends the areas where the sycamore bark and foam come together, creating a smoother transition. The other area it smooths are any gaps between the pieces of foam…”filling” them, if you will. If you find that the filler is too tacky, you can try dampening your fingers or whatever tool you’re using.

The next place you want to apply filler is over any of blobs of dried hot glue. See? I told you we’d take care of them. You can also fill any large gaps between pieces of bark, or leave them if you want them for visual interest. A small, stiff brush, such as a stencil brush, works best for getting filler into the gaps between the “rocks”.   Get a lump on the brush, dip in water, and jam it into the gaps.


Once you’re done applying the filler, hurry up and wait for it to dry. It’s best to leave it overnight at the very least. If it’s soft, it hasn’t set yet. It’s also possible that you may have to apply more than one layer in certain areas after the first one dries. Resist the temptation to go on to the next step before the filler is completely dry and set; all you’ll succeed in doing is making a mess and ruining the work you’ve done up to this point.


Step 4 – Smooth the surfaces

Once the filer is dry, it’s time to give the hill a smooth surface. You can use whatever sanding method you prefer, but I recommend a sanding block with a medium to coarse grit. Sand off all of the rough patches of filler and any edges that remain on the foam. You can also create some subtle contours if you work at it long enough. Sanding will produce a lot of dust, so I recommend doing this outside and wearing a mask. You might even want to change your clothes after doing this.


Step 5 – Add texture

After sanding the hill, the next step is to sand the hill (badum tish!). Things get even more visually interesting in this step. First, add a layer of fine sand to the entire surface of the hill, except for the bark. Basically, you want to cover up any foam or filler that you see with sand.

I strongly recommend using a “sandbox” when applying the sand. This will keep the excess sand from spilling everywhere as you apply it and give a place to shake off the excess. Once the hill is covered, wait for it to dry.


Not just for children anymore! Note how the box is big enough to hold two tubs of sand along with the large hill. The bigger the better. There’s nothing better than not having to sweep up sand after a hard day of making terrain.


Unless you’re working on a really small hill or outcropping, you’ll probably have to work in sections. Using a 50/50 mix of white glue and water, brush the mixture onto a workable area, pour the sand on, then shake off the excess. PRO TIPTM: Don’t apply the sand all the way to the edge of the area that you applied glue; leaving an edge of glue will make it easier to apply the glue for the next section.


Take little bites. You’ll notice that it’s almost impossible to keep a super clean edge of sand, but you get the idea.



Loving that zen-garden look!


After the first layer of sand dries, apply some coarser sand to selected areas. To be honest, you can usually get away with going on to this part before the first layer dries, but it’s easier to wait. Your call. A good place to add more texture is the base of the cork where it meets the foam to simulate weathering and small pieces of rock that have fallen away, but you can add coarse patches of rock anywhere on your terrain to make it more visually interesting. In fact, if you don’t plan on using much flock, you should definitely do this to break up the surface monotony of the first layer of sand.


I didn’t bother putting coarse sand over the main part of this hill because most of it is going to be covered in flock later on.


Next, add some larger rocks that you place individually if you like. When applying these, use tacky glue at full strength. But you don’t have to stop with rocks! You can experiment with other scenery items as well, such as ruins, bones, burned-out buildings, vehicle wreckage, mutilated corpses, dead puppies, and other happy things that adorn so much of the grimdark landscape of this fun, child-friendly hobby of ours known as miniature wargaming.


It’s the same picture because I chose not to add any ruins, bones, burned-out buildings, vehicle wreckage, mutilated corpses, dead puppies, or anything else to this hill.

Once everything dries, you can spray a thinned-down mix of white glue/water (about 1:3 to 1:4) to seal everything if you like, but I’ve found that the paint in the next step creates a strong hold over everything.

Given that this step involves painting, one could argue that it should technically go in Part 3, which is titled, incidentally, “Painting.” I’m putting it here because everything leading up to Part 3, including priming, is getting the hill ready for actual painting. Besides, it’s my blog, and I get to make the rules!

There’s not much to this, really. You’re applying a prime coat to a model. If you don’t know what this means or how to do this, I don’t know how the hell you found this blog in the first place, but it’s great that you’re here! For the sake of completion, and because I know how enthralling my mastery over the English language and skill with the written word is, I’ll oblige.

The color of your primer is your choice to make. I most often prime with black, but that’s because a black undercoat works best for the color schemes that I use the most. If I were making snow-covered terrain on the other hand, I probably wouldn’t use black, although I probably wouldn’t use white either; perhaps yellow… If I were making snow-covered terrain, covered in an oil spill that’s being treated with white graphene nanosheets, I, um…well… Hey, look over there! Some noob put twin-linked deathspitters on his carnifex! Ha! What a dummy!

Cheap craft paint works for this, but flat black, interior latex paint may be more economical if you’re going to be making a lot of terrain. Using the largest brush you can get away with will speed up the process. A 2”-3” brush is good for covering most of the hill, while a smaller one is useful for getting into nooks and crannies. You can use the paint straight from the bottle or can, but thinning it with a little water works better in my experience. Thinning can be as simple as dipping your brush in a cup of water before dipping into the paint. You read that right: I don’t even bother thinning the paint in a separate container. If there’s a half-assed way to make terrain that gets good results, I’ll find it.

It’s very likely that you’ll need more than one coat of paint, at least on some areas of your terrain. While sand en masse is quite absorbent, the individual grains are not. You can see this clearly when you paint the coarse sand, as the paint will have a tendency to run off, leaving it only slighty covered. Take the time to retouch any areas that need it, it’ll make the end result better.

It’s crucial to make sure that the paint is completely dry before moving on to the next step. A downside of using latex or craft paint, especially when thinning with water, is that it softens the glue that we used to stick the sand and rocks to our hill. If you start the next step, drybrushing, before the sand has cured again, you’ll very quickly scrape away the layers of sand you spent so much time lovingly applying. There’s nothing more aggravating than wasting time going back to fix work you’ve already done once, so play it safe and make sure it’s dry.

I find this step to be really exciting because priming the hill eliminates its hodge-podge appearance and gives it a clean, uniform look. Once the prime coat is completely dry, you’ll have a durable, attractive piece of terrain. Besides creating a visually appealing texture that lends itself well to painting, the sand and glue give the terrain a tough outer shell. The vinyl base is also quite durable, so unless you’re actively trying to destroy your terrain, it’s going to last for a while.


Congrats on making it this far. It actually looks like a hill. A big, impressive, monochrome hill. Now go add some color and finishing touches!


Part 1: Prepping the bark
Part 2: Building the terrain
Part 3: Painting & Finishing


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