Quick, Cheap Skirmish Horde Basing; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Hole Saw.

So, one of the problems you’re inevitably going to face as a wargamer is simple – you’re gonna run out of bases one day. A lot of companies sell their minis with “integral” display bases that aren’t worth a damn. Especially the cheap shit – Wargames Factory, Reaper, lookin’ at you here. And of course, these aren’t cut to fit on GW’s patented slotted base. The hole’s easy to cover, but still more of a pain that you really want to deal with – not now that GW is charging in excess of a buck a base, anyway.

So I’ve started manufacturing my own, at least for the “horde” models. I put together this tutorial to help you make your own quick, cheap bases in large quantities. Short version is, forty bases cost me ~$2.15 using existing tools (about $30 worth). It’s about the same price as mail-ordering MDF stuff, but you get it now and don’t have to pay shipping..
Tutorial below the cut.

Materials: $2-6 for ~40 “standard” 25mm bases.

• Basswood or Birch plywood, 1/16 inch to 1/4 inch.
Basswood will be cheaper but more likely to split out on you (see below for more on that, as well as some ways to reinforce the wood). I can get a sheet of Basswood that will make around forty 25mm bases or fifteen 40mm bases for ~$2. As an added bonus, you get a bunch of free static grass.
Plywood costs a little more, and can splinter, but is much more durable in the long run. A sheet about the same size costs a little over twice as much as the basswood. It’s harder to use the by-products though.
Medium or High-density fiberboard will also work, but it’s difficult to get in sheets as thin as you want to keep bases, and the resulting dust is not just irritating but actively toxic. Plus, it’s almost as expensive as the birch. Works amazingly on a laser cutter though.
Do not use balsa. It’s splintery and extremely fragile in the thicknesses required for basing.

Plastic sheeting
This isn’t the easiest stuff to cut, and it’s more expensive per base, but has the longest life-span. It also doesn’t require sealing or special care, unlike the wooden bases, but does have a tendency to melt if you’re cutting several bases at once, so it takes longer to process. On the other hand, you can get some really cool effects, like clear bases or pre-textured cobbles.

In addition, I’m currently experimenting with heavy vinyl flooring sheets (the same ones I’m using to do paved roads). They’re a little floppy, but even cheaper than the plywood – just hard to tool without fucking up your equipment. More info if I succeed.

Sacrificial drill block (needs to be thicker than your bit is long, see below for more).
This can be pretty much any quality of wood or size as long as you can brace the material you’re cutting bases from onto it.

1 Sheet of 150-220 grit sandpaper.
I only used about half a sheet, you may need more or less. You can also use emery boards, which I can get for ~$1.50 for ten at the local hardware store.

Waterproof PVA Glue.
I use dollar bottles of Mod-Podge. If you don’t have this, I’m honestly a little worried.

A sheet of paper
Any weight from standard 20# printer paper on up will work. Cereal box card would be even better for reinforcing the bases, but isn’t necessary.

Tools: $20-50 new, ~$15 used.

Electric drill, hole saw, dust mask, face shield/safety goggles. Sanding block or  tape to secure a sheet of sandpaper to a flat surface

First, I found and bought a hole saw. It’s a specialized, but common, kind of drill bit, basically a chuck that holds various cylindrical crosscut saws. I got mine at a local flea market for 50c, because I’m patient and cheap.
Individually, they tend to sell for $15-20 depending on quality, but honestly buying a set with everything you need for the most common scales (1-inch/25.4mm, 30mm, and 41mm) costs about $20 at most home-improvement stores. I got my drill as a present from my folks, but again a corded drill is something you can pick up for ~$10 at the local thrift shop if you’re patient. Don’t buy cordless tools second-hand, though – the batteries are almost always fucked, and it’s usually cheaper to buy the tool new than buy one used and have to go get another battery right away.

The aforementioned hole saw. Still needs cleaning.

The aforementioned hole saw. Still needs cleaning.

Note that a second-hand saw (and, regrettably, a number of factory-fresh tools) will almost certainly need sharpening. A sharp tool will cut the wood, not rip it apart; I recommend the excellent tutorial from The Woodwright’s Shop (“Sharpen that Saw”), which is up on youtube and PBS’s website for free.

When picking a size for your base-making, remember that the size listed on the package is the diameter of the hole it cuts, not the slug it punches out – and we want that slug. So get something about 1mm larger than the base size you need, to allow for the amount of wood the saw removes and give you a little wiggle while you’re sanding the edges.

Step 1: Setup

First off, get out your dust mask and goggles. This will kick up a LOT of fine, irritating dust. You know the way you itch like a motherfucker after a haircut? Imagine that feeling in your lungs and eyes. Yeah.
No, I don’t care that you can’t see quite as well or the air tastes funny. Sawdust can give you cancer if you breathe enough of it. Put them the fuck on.

Next, make sure that you can quickly and easily plug in and unplug your drill – you’re going to need to fiddle with the bit a lot, and fiddling with plugged-in saws is how you lose fingers. Never touch the business end of the tool unless it’s unplugged. I have a power strip bolted to the side of my workbench/desk for exactly this reason, so I only have to reach about a foot.

Find a piece of wood that’s about half an inch thicker than the pilot drill bit in your hole saw – I grabbed this one from my scrap pile. Here you can see me measuring it up against the side. This is to make sure it doesn’t punch through to your working surface, which always sucks. A chunk of 2×4 will almost always be enough. Put this on top of a sheet of paper with the back folded up – it will help catch the sawdust for later (and you want to do that, trust me.)

Yup, deep enough.

Yup, deep enough.

Place the sheet you’re punching bases from on top of your sacrifice block, and get ready to drill. Remember to grip both pieces of wood firmly in your off hand when drilling, or the bit might catch when it hits the wood and split it or throw it around.

Step 2: Drilling

drilling-locating

When you’re aligning the holes, make sure the drill bit isn’t directly in line with the spot where you drilled the previous hole. This helps reduce cracking – you see how the holes I’ve already cut here step down the piece instead of just lining up.

drilling-half-done

Drill with VERY gentle pressure until the saw has cut about halfway through the sheet of material.

drilling-half-done-2

Pull out the drill. This is what the first cut should look like when you’re finished.

Flip the stock over. That hole the pilot drill left should be really easy to find, and ensures the piece will be centered.

Flip the stock over. That hole the pilot drill left should be really easy to find, and ensures the piece will be centered.

Again, drill with gentle downward pressure. Flipping the piece like this adds a couple seconds to the process, but makes it MUCH less likely that the back side will get fucked up or the piece will split.

Again, drill with gentle downward pressure. Flipping the piece like this adds a couple seconds to the process, but makes it MUCH less likely that the back side will get fucked up or the piece will split.

drilling-removing-base

UNPLUG YOUR DRILL FOR THIS STEP. Since mine’s a cheap piece, it doesn’t have a removal slit. You have to pop in a small stick or chunk of wire and lever out the slug. You can cut 2-3 at a time, but any more than that and you’re probably going to jam up the parts or start a fire and no-one wants that. See the end of the article for how to deal with bases that crack (which will probably happen)

This is what your slugs will look like - fuzzy, but round. Note that there's a little bit of edge ripping, but nothing you can't handle.

This is what your slugs will look like – fuzzy, but round. Note that there’s a little bit of edge ripping, but nothing you can’t handle.

It’s also important to take a break every 6-10 bases to let your drill bit cool. Spend that time brushing the sawdust off your table into a baggie and having a breather.

Step 3: Cleaning the bases and recovering the sawdust.

Once you have a big ol’ pile of almost-bases, it’s sanding time. Tape your sandpaper to a piece of wood and put it on your workbench, or clamp it to your sanding block. Emery board users, it works best to place the board up against the desk and hold it in place with your off hand at first.

Pretty janky. First, press the base flat against your sandpaper, and move it with a smooth circling motion. Almost all of the "fuzz" is in the top couple of micrometers, so it will come off relatively easy in a few seconds.

Pretty janky.

First, press the base flat against your sandpaper, and move it with a smooth circling motion. Almost all of the “fuzz” is in the top couple of micrometers, so it will come off relatively easy in a few seconds.

Anything that doesn't come off after the initial sanding, you can remove by cutting gently with a hobby knife, or sanding the edges while gently rolling the piece as you work to keep the circular profile. Emery boards work really well here, but have a nasty tendency to make the piece less circular unless you're careful.

Anything that doesn’t come off after the initial sanding, you can remove by cutting gently with a hobby knife, or sanding the edges while gently rolling the piece as you work to keep the circular profile. Emery boards work really well here, but have a nasty tendency to make the piece less circular unless you’re careful.

And finished. ..hey, that sawdust.. it kinda looks like static grass!

And finished.

..hey, that sawdust.. it kinda looks like static grass! Well, guess what the companies make base flocking out of?

I did this on top of my desk for clarity, but normally you'd do it on the sheet of paper to make it easier. Hold the sanding block vertically and tap it gently onto the work surface.

I did this on top of my desk for clarity, but normally you’d do it on the sheet of paper to make it easier. Hold the sanding block vertically and tap it gently onto the work surface. This is the sawdust from just one base. If you’re using emery boards, you can brush off the desk in between bases. Sweep it all onto your paper and dump into a resealable bag for later use.

Here's the dust from 10 bases, plus a few extras I have to sift out later.. Basically, this shit is identical to mass-production static grass. Just dye it and shake it vigorously inside the ziplock for a minute and it'll build up the necessary static charge.

Here’s the dust from 10 bases, plus a few extras I have to sift out later..
Basically, this shit is identical to mass-production static grass. Just dye it and shake it vigorously inside the ziplock for a minute and it’ll build up the necessary static charge. You can sift it to get out the larger pieces (and, in my case, the spare bits of resin and sprue that snuck in..) or leave them in for texture, up to you.

 

Step 4: Prepping and basing models; reinforcing the bases

A lot of people forget to prep the gluing surfaces on their models, and then wonder why they won’t hold. Don’t be that guy.

model-prep-sanding-base

Since you’ve got the sandpaper right there, keep it set up for now. Use long, straight strokes for best results, pressing the mini gently into the surface.

 

Once you're done, the model should look something like this - the entire base will be marked, with few or no visible low spots.

Once you’re done, the model should look something like this – the entire base will be marked, with few or no visible low spots.

Now that you’re done sanding, at this point you’ve got a choice; reinforce the base on both sides or only one. I’m only doing one for clarity (so you can see the resulting bases in my light box), but you should probably use a heavier paper if you want to do only one side. Again, cereal/rice-a-roni box card is great for this (if Hell on exacto blades).

Spread glue on one side of the base, then press to the paper.

Spread glue on one side of the base, then press to the paper.

Cut around it once the base is adhered - a sharp blade is important for this. Once you've cut out the rough shape, burnish the glue by pressing the base down on a smooth surface and moving it in a circular motion. This makes sure the glue is evenly spread out across the bottom and out to the edges.

Cut around it once the base is adhered – a sharp blade is important for this.
Once you’ve cut out the rough shape, burnish the glue by pressing the base down on a smooth surface and moving it in a circular motion. This makes sure the glue is evenly spread out across the bottom and out to the edges. Pf you want to, at this point you can flip the base over and glue the other side to the paper as well.
Before you base the model, remember to seal the edges and top of the base with a little more glue; this will help them take paint and reduce the odds of chipping.

Optional: Fixing cracked and broken bases.

Hey man, you’re dealing with wood. Shit happens. You’re gonna crack a few no matter how sharp your tool is. But that’s no reason to pitch the parts.
First, sand the halves as above, getting the scrap off the edges. Leave the split alone. Glue the two halves together along the split, and immediately glue them to the backing paper. The paper helps clamp the pieces together. Flip and glue again – I just fold the paper to make this step quicker.

Mark the crack - this is one-sided for easy reference, but all you have to do is throw a sharpie line on it before you finish cutting the top layer, it'll show through the thin paper.

Mark the crack – this is one-sided for easy reference, but all you have to do is throw a sharpie line on it before you finish cutting the top layer, it’ll show through the thin paper.

When you glue on your mini, put the long axis across the gain of the wood; this will help keep it from cracking any further.

When you glue on your mini, put the long axis of its integral base across the grain of the wood. This will help keep it from cracking any further. In general, it’s a good idea anyway – it stabilizes the resulting model.

The finished product:

Here’s the thirty-odd Zeds and muties I based today for my post-apoc collection, mostly using this method. All told it took a little over an hour to make 40 bases and mount the models, which I assembled yesterday. Don’t worry about the “X” on some of the models – that’s just to remind me which ones need some more conversion or minor resculpting before I base-coat them.

m

Mini credits:
Frankenstein Tableau: RAFM “Sinister Scientists” from the Cthulhu range. I used the machinery from the set on my Pinewood Derby car some years ago
Grey Zombie, painted, one arm: Unknown Bob Olley Sculpt from the ’80s. Could be Grenadier, Citadel, Ral Partha, or any of the above – dude gets around.
Plague Doctor: Reaper Chronoscope.
4 shitty green zombies: Reaper “Legends” pre-paints with Wargames Factory bits.
Big-ass white-metal mutie: Paizo – unsure what line, but it’s got a calf-head sticking out of its ass and a conjoined dog-twin and it’s freaky as shit. I love this thing.
White-metal mutant with big claw and snake head – promo model I picked up at PAX years ago; I think it’s from Dead Space.
Two plastics in front, dynamic poses: Mantic fantasy Ghouls. They gave these out as a promo back when they were launching Kings of War, and I snagged ’em for Mordheim.
Everything else: Moderately converted Wargames Factory zed box. These are no longer available, but the vastly better Project Z Zombie Horde is their replacement

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2 Comments

  1. Also, a fine tooth hole saw, while costing more, will produce cleaner cuts.

    Reply

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