Saturday, November 21, 2009

Basing by numbers

...In which our protagonist gives a step-by-step look at his ridiculously-complicated basing method.

I'm going to show how I make a simple vignette, in this case a base with some troops wading through a puddle, like the one shown above.

Basing. It's another one of those aspects of a great looking army that wargamers either love or (more likely) hate. From the pioneering days of green paint to the the modern age of artificial foliage, it's been a long struggle to balance between the quick and easy, versus the great looking, and again versus the realistic.

My own style has verged decidedly away from the quick and easy, at least for the current 6mm Borodino project-- so don't try it if you haven't got a lot of patience! And remember: I'm not plugging this as the best way to base your figures; it's simply a way, and not even necessarily a good one.

Step 1: you need something to base your troops on.

Well, actually step 1 would be getting troops and painting them; in this case I've already got some painted ones standing by. Anyways, being too lazy (not to mention too inaccurate) to cut my own bases, I much prefer to buy mine. In this case I'm using an excellent pre-cut 60 x 60x 2.5mm MDF square from East Riding Miniatures. Different media have their pros and cons; MDF bases are cheap, fairly durable, and thick enough that you can grab them directly, rather than using the figures for leverage and consequently ending up with an army full of spaghetti spears. On the other hand, MDF is not magnetic, and it swells and warps when wet-- so don't spill your beer.

Step 2: figure out where your troops are going to go.

This means getting out your ruler and sketching some guidelines. Yes, a lot of wargamers are too impatient to bother with such things... and it tends to show. It's worth taking the extra couple of minutes to do this, even if you're using figures cast in strips (granted in that case you don't need to worry about spacing, only alignment).

Step 3: etch and sketch.

The surface of most bases is going to be pretty smooth, which is not ideal for creating a strong bond. If you're planning to use sand, flock, or anything granular as texturing, you will definitely want to roughen the surface before getting out the glue. In this case I've scuffed it using a coarse sandpaper.

Note, however, that I didn't scuff everywhere. Since this base is going to have a puddle on it (which I've sketched in), and since the puddle won't be taking any texturing, I've left it smooth. The two Xs you see in the grid mark where the standard bearers will go in that formation, which is important when it comes to identifying victims for the next step.

Step 4: down and dirty.

Looking at the layout grid for the base, you can see that three soldiers are going to end up with their feet in the muck. Muck, of course, is not generally kind to white uniforms, so out comes the brown wash. Three unlucky Russian grenadiers get their gaiters spattered, and then go in for a bit of amputation!

Out come the side clippers to cut the base off each of the figures, and the needle file to flatten the botttom of the cuts. I've also decided to have a partially-submerged log floating in the puddle, so I've also done some surgery on a twig.

Step 5: stuck in.

At long last, I've finally gotten out the glue. I told you my way was long and absurdly complicated! Most wargamers would probably be done the entire base in less than five steps. In any case, I've used gel superglue to stick my three amputees in place, one at a time, along with the protruding bit of wood. As I glue each figure, I prop them in place while the glue dries. You don't want your grenadiers stuck on there leaning at 45 degrees! Once everything's in place, I brush on some PVA glue to strengthen the join.

Now wait for the glue to dry.

Step 6: work that murk!

Because a single stage would be entirely too quick and easy, I do the water in several layers. First, I paint the puddle green. This represents... algae. Yeah, that's it. Hey, I never said any of this made sense: it just happens to be what I do.

Now wait for the paint to dry.

Over top of the green goes a coat of watered-down brown ink. Since the forward regiment on this base will have already marched through the puddle, I've drawn "ripples" in the brown ink with a wet paintbrush, letting part of the green undercoat show through. Finally, a thick layer of glossy varnish gives the water a distinct shine. Note that I've also glued on a scrap of bark, which will in due time become a boulder.

Remember to wait for each layer to dry before brushing on the next one!

Step 7: everything at once is too much.

Have I mentioned how absurdly long my basing method takes? By this point you should be starting to see why. In this stage I've glued on the front rank of each regiment. Why the front, and not the back, or both? Well, since the grenadiers I'm using are all in an "advancing" pose, the space between the ranks is pretty much inaccessible once all the troops are glued in place. By sticking only the front rank on first, I can deal with the "in between" space without having to worry about anyone's bayonette being in the way. If I were using minis in standing/marching poses, I would definitely glue everything on at once.

...And wait for the glue to dry.

You can also see that I've started to apply my texturing medium, in this case good ol' terrarium sand, stuck on there with undiluted PVA. A lot of people dilute their PVA with water-- a waste of time, in my opinion. The stuff is dirt cheap, spreads nicely enough without being watered down, and dries twice as quickly to boot. And believe me, when you're doing as many steps as I am, drying twice as quickly saves a lot of waiting! Notice, though, that I've been careful not to apply any sand where the other ranks are going to be.

Now wait--again--for the glue to dry.

Step 8: you put three layers of sand?

Yes. Three. Again, this is something a lot of people are going to say is pointless: a bit of static grass will easily cover up the "step" between a single layer of sand and the thick figure bases. Even those who like a flush base will frequently go with some sort of pumice. In my defense, I have only couple of points: firstly, that a single layer of sand will tend to deteriorate from day-to-day handling, whereas the three-layer method simply wears down to the next layer of sand (and for that matter it has so much hardened glue in it that it's much less likely to wear away). Secondly, pumice is comparatively expensive, and a careless brush coated with the stuff will leave white smears all over the place. Sand and PVA, by contrast, cost next to nothing, and the glue dries clear if you get any where it shouldn't be.

Of course, you do have to wait three times for the glue to dry.

Also note that I've capped off the three layers of sand with a dark brown wash. Again, for anyone who cares and who didn't already know, I'm using the Baccus Basing System (with a few minor tweaks of my own).

Step 9: the middle ground.

This is an easy one-- just drybrush the ground between the ranks to suit your usual "ground" look.

(And wait for the paint to dry!)

Step 10: double the fun!

Now, at long last, I glue on the second rank of figures. And wait for the glue to dry. For the sake of interest I like to my my ranks a bit of variation, so here the line is straggling a little bit where it's gone through the puddle.

It might seem like a preposterous amount of waiting to get to this point-- but notice that each of the steps to get here takes only a couple of minutes (well, aside from painting the figures). The trick is to plan around the waiting. For instance, I'll generally do two or three bases at once, working on them for twenty minutes or so in the morning, and again in the evening. Depending on your schedule, you might even be able to do three coats of PVA in a day. Painting is similarly handled-- because I know I'm only going to base one rank at a time, I don't even paint the second rank until I've already started glueing on the sand.

And waiting for that glue to dry.

Step 11: touches and textures.

At long last the base is starting to look good. Here, after the long wait for the glue holding on three more coats of sand to dry and make everything flush, I've drybrushed the ground to bring out the texture. For the sake of a better photo I've drybrushed everything; realistically, this is when I'd decide (more or less) where the static grass is going to go. Obviously, any ground that will be covered with ground doesn't need to be drybrushed.

That scrap of bark I stuck on there also gets its own drybrushing, in this case a medium grey followed by a light grey. When that's dry, a inking with watered-down black brings out the surface details, and you've got yourself a boulder. Finally, I paint the base edges to cover up any messiness from the previous stages.

...And wait for everything to dry.

Step 12: it's alive!

At long last we come to the fake foliage stage. I outlined in a previous post the materials and methodology I use for this. One thing worth repeating is that bases seem to look better when they have a "dominant" type of foliage. In the picture above you can see the bright yellow-greenish mix I've been using in this role; the pic below shows the final result, with other grass mixes and some flocking added. Of course, every different type of foliage you add means having to wait for the glue to dry!

So, after all that it's finally time to give the base a last once-over to make sure everything's the way it should be, followed by a helpful squirt of varnish to keep it that way.

I pronounce this base ready for the gaming table!

...and it's off to join its grenadier division.

For anyone who lost count, I waited five times for superglue to dry, seven times for PVA, a good six or seven times for paint and/or ink, and twice for varnish! I'm surprised the grass didn't end up longer...


  1. I am amazed at your skill and patience but the result it worth it. These bases look better than my 28mm fantasy figures!

  2. Love it! The time it takes pays off in the end. Beautiful minis become masterpieces with a well done base! Congrats!

  3. Great "how-to" article. I'm going to try some on my 6mm ACW figures.


  4. Awesome bases. I'm a real believer that good bases make the miniature. You've just taken that to a whole new level. I don't think I'd have the commitment to base an entire army at that level of detail.

  5. Mike, I absolutely ADORE these 6mm's and am eternally grateful for your clear basing instructions! I was wondering if I might use one of your images for a blog post - I'm trying to give my friends an idea of the scope of the miniature wargaming hobby, and your soldiers are an awesome example of what you can achieve with the smaller miniature scales. Hopefully they'll be inspired!

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