The Paint Cried Out, “Stick To Me!”; and the Foam Whispered, “No”.

datetime June 22, 2019 6:58 AM

I’ve never been a gum-chewer. But in the last year, the gum needed chewing, so I got down to business.

That isn’t a metaphor.

About a year ago, someone offered me some gum, and I was intrigued by the vessel it was offered from— not a metallic bubble pack, but a plastic jar with a very interesting lid.

The lid is a truncated hemisphere, but the flat cut of the top isn’t parallel to the base– instead it’s angled, creating an interesting shape. The flap at the top is a separate piece that can be (permanently, and destructively) removed, and there’s a satisfying row of parallel indentations around the edge. As it tends to do, my brain took in the shape of this lid and filed it into the Terrain Scrap Archives, a filing system in my brainmeats where I track “stuff I’ve seen that could probably be used for terrain, someday, maybe”. I didn’t immediately know exactly what use the lids would have, but I knew in my core that there was a piece of terrain somewhere inside it.

Once the idea was registered in my brain, I would periodically re-examine it when I saw the same gum containers at the grocery store. Over time, I came to a few conclusions:

  • The lid’s main value would be as a mass-produced piece of machinery– not a terrain piece in itself, but a prominent accessory on a series of larger pieces.
  • The large round shape lent itself to two main possibilities in my mind: a fan, or a door.
  • Whatever they became, I needed a lot of them, so it was time to start chewing a lot of gum.

I let those gears turn at the back of my head for a while, and started keeping jars of gum in my car and at my desks to gradually grind through. By my quick calculations, I chewed 600 pieces of gum in service of this task. A high price, yes, but great terrain demands great sacrifice.

I didn’t know what exact end goal this would all be applied to until I dropped into my local game store one day last Fall and saw a new set of PlastCraft terrain they’d brought in:

PlastCraft does have some officially licensed Infinity terrain sets (of which I am a pretty big fan), but this one was marketed as generic sci-fi. My personal theory is that it was an attempt to capitalize on the new-ish Star Wars minis game, as the griminess, geometric designs, and general tech level seem to be in keeping with that universe.

I bought a half-dozen buildings from the set, but they obviously weren’t enough to fill a board on their own, so I knew I would need to create some additional pieces to fill out the board. I like to combine artificial and natural elements in my terrain sets, and the red dirt around the bottoms of the buildings seemed to suggest a desert or some dusty red rocks, so I figured that a set of big orangey rocks would make a good complement to the buildings.

I could have taken that idea and just made rocks, but there was another idea that had been bouncing around my mental filing system for years that I thought might make things more interesting:

At the start of the almost-unwatchable movie Star Trek: Insurrection, the Federation sets up an observation post to watch a planet’s native society. Their facility is embedded in the cliffs around the town, and hidden by a holographic facade. At one point, though, a character partially decloaks the facility, leading to some interesting shots of the observation post poking out of the otherwise unbroken stone of the cliff walls.

I always liked that visual, and it’s inspired a few terrain sketches over the years where I tried to embed machinery and buildings inside rock faces. None of them have come to fruition yet, but I decided that this project might be a good opportunity to deploy it on a small scale– not full usable buildings set in rock, but at least some bits of machinery embedded in the rock face to give it a bit of a sci-fi feel.

After a few weeks of brainstorming and sketching, I settled on a design that included some big mining fans, and decided that the time was right to finally deploy the gum lids I had been saving up. I had chewed my way through about a dozen jars over the course of a year, and came up with a design for a foamcore enclosure that would be capped at the top with a gum lid fan. A big part of selling a sci-fi future for me is repetition; manufacturing is only going to get more efficient as technology marches forward, so I like to design my terrain around the concept of “this seemed like a good design, so we made a thousand of them.” Driven by this principle, I wanted to repeat a near-identical fan design all around the board, but keep each terrain piece interesting and unique by varying the rocks each one is set into.

Duplicating a design has always meant a lot of tedious manual drudgery for me– maybe they’ll be able to effortlessly mass-produce things in the distant future, but in the boring present, I usually have to make paper templates, manually trace them onto various materials, and then manually cut everything out for assembly. This process tends to be long and mind-numbing, but a recent acquisition has removed at least some of the pain from this process.

As I’ve mentioned in a few articles by now, I acquired a Silhouette Cameo CNC cutter last year. I call it my “knife printer”– you give the computer a design full of shapes you want to cut out, the computer translates that design into cutting instructions, and the printer cuts those lines into a thin material you feed into it. I was extremely excited at the possibilities this created for mass-producing terrain elements, but this enthusiasm was severely tempered when I discovered that it can’t cut through craft foam. It’s designed to cut through various types of paper, and the thin craft foam that I use for most of my terrain detailing is just a bit too thick for even the longest blade Silhouette makes

That disappointing discovery last year was enough to discourage me from using the Silhouette for any of my next terrain projects. But this new set demanded mass-production of a lot of identical piece, and I was willing to take another  look at the Knife Printer to see if I could coerce it into being helpful.

Ultimately, the concession I made was to swap materials. Thick paper is pretty useless for most terrain applications– not thick enough to act as paneling, and not sturdy to build free-standing structures. However, since these fans would be encased inside the sturdy plastic gum lids and thusly protected from most impacts, I figured that I could get away with relatively flimsy construction on the fan blades.

Having settled on this plan, I made up a fan design in Adobe Illustrator, then exported the design to the Silhouette software and cut the components out of scrapbook paper.

There were three components for each fan– a circular backing piece, then the fan blades, then a front guard. The pieces were all sized to fit inside the gum lids. I mean… obviously. Kinda no point otherwise. 😛

I cut a small notch in each fan blade near the central hub, which allowed me to bend each blade down a bit with the aid of a small pair of pliers.

Because the paper I was using had very little thickness on its own, I opted to create relief within the piece by putting spacers between the layers. First up, I put a tiny piece of foamcore behind the raised part of each blade to let the blades sit out from the backing.

I also put little blocks behind the guard piece to help them sit away from the blades.

I annoyingly didn’t get a photo of the completed fan assemblies at this point, but you can see them a few pictures down. :/

At this point, I was ready to bring in the gum lids. The soft plastic of the flaps turned out to be extremely easy to cut with a knife.

The fan guards looked a bit plain, so I used the Silhouette to cut out some circular nubs to go over them. I cut these out of craft foam– which, as mentioned earlier, is too thick for the Silhouette to go all the way through, requiring me to retrace over every single cut to release the pieces. Which saves some time over manually tracing templates and fully doing the cuts by hand, but not a lot. :/

Once I was happy with the fan assemblies, I sprayed them black and glued each one inside a gum lid.

(Here you can finally see how the pieces look with the spacers in place– a big improvement over the flat paper layers).

Next up, I needed to build the enclosures to go around the fans. Starting from the basic shape in my sketch, I did a bunch of triangle math to figure out how long each of the various segments needed to be, and then used those numbers to build a template in Illustrator.

I printed the template out on cardstock paper and transferred it ten times to a sheet of black foamcore.

Each of the pieces was cut out with a utility knife; wedges were cut out to permit the various folds, in my usual manner.

Everything was then glued together with a hot glue gun.

I like stacking things in rows. <3

My overall concept for the board was that it was a mine of some sort. I don’t personally know a lot about mines, but I’m vaguely aware that mines fill up with various horrible gases that need to be vented out; I figured that these fans I was creating were the outer layer of such a ventilation system. To emphasize their connection to the tunnels below, I wanted to have a visible tube connecting the fans to the ground.

The tubing I used is just some basic electrical conduit I picked up at the hardware store. It has an opening running down one side to let you snap it over whatever wires it’s protecting; I didn’t want this seam to be visible, so I kept it pointed toward the back (which would be embedded in the rock).

I cut these into short lengths, then hot glued them in place with popscicle sticks to hold them at the correct angle.

The enclosures and fans were being worked on simultaneously; this is around the point where both were nearing completion, and were looking pretty dang snazzy if you ask me. 🙂

Two things to note here: first off, I used more popscicle sticks and triangles of black scrapbook paper to fill in the gaps around the conduit. Second, the glue required to join all of this together was pretty heavy, leading to all of the enclosures being heavy enough in the back to fall over, so I added little stabilizer feet at the bottom to help them stand upright for the next stages of assembly.

With the individual components basically complete, it was time to start thinking about how this would all come together into finalized terrain pieces. My basic plan was to pose the fans together into various configurations, then use expanding spray foam insulation to create rocks around them. To support all of this, I used scraps of foamcore to build a really loose skeleton in the shape of whatever rocks I planned to squirt into existence for each one.

To keep the spray foam from making too much of a mess, I used more black scapbook paper as a backing sheet on each piece. This first piece was intended to have a flat edge to let it sit against the edge of the game board, so I folded the paper in half to create both a ground and wall barrier.

The skeleton was hot glued into place, and then I used a pencil to sketch out the vague outline of where I wanted the rock to sit.

As I was working through the early stages of this project, it occurred to me that the final pieces would be more interesting to play on if they were more than just big rocks; to help create more interesting play patterns, I also wanted to have short tunnels burrowing through most of the pieces.

To keep the tunnels sized and shaped in a consistent manner, I built them into the rock skeletons using empty Knorr bouillon containers, of which I have so, so many. I don’t think I’ve used them for a terrain project since the six-hour sewers in 2015, so they’ve just been building up on my scavenged materials shelf. <3

The H-shaped support you see in this shot is something I tossed together quickly to ensure that each tunnel is raised a specific height above the ground, which would let me build standardized stairs and ladders that would work all across the terrain set, without each piece needing its own custom-fit ladders.

The tubes were embedded within the skeletons of most of the terrain pieces. The containers are just barely tall enough for an S5 silhouette to pass through when a flat catwalk is placed on the bottom.

Random progress shot. These two tunnels are raised higher than the earlier ones; these one would have ladders, while the lower ones would have short staircases.

I kept building pieces until they seemed to fill enough space on the board, which gave me seven in total. The 12″ tiles on my kitchen floor are great for helping me visualize things like this. 😀

Alright, time for the gross part. There have historically been two terrain materials I dislike working with– two-part resin that’s often used for creating clear pools of water (because I can never get a complete seal, and it ALWAYS escapes and gets everywhere), and expanding spray foam. Spray foam is a construction material used to fill gaps and prevent unwanted air flow; it comes out of an aerosol can with a long, fat tube on the top. Two chemicals within the can are shot out at the same time; as soon as they mix, they react together, creating a bubbling foam that dries to the touch in about half an hour (and then solidifies in a few hours). It has lots of applications in terrain-making, most notably for creating rocks and other natural substances in whatever size and shape you like.

However, I kind of can’t stand the stuff, because every time I’ve used it in the past, I’ve accidentally gotten it on a table surface, my shoe, my shirt, my dog, or some other unwanted canvas. And once it’s on there, it does NOT want to come out, requiring a very fast application of acetone if you want any chance of dissolving it before it bonds permanently.

So, this time I took no chances– I applied it in the wide space of my kitchen, with a dropcloth underneath, while wearing fully disposable clothes and rubber gloves.

And of course, with all of those precautions in place, THIS time it completely behaved and didn’t get anywhere. 😛

Foaming up all seven terrain pieces took about an hour. The two different colours are ostensibly two different grades of foam– white is “normal”, while yellow is for windows. I’m sure there’s supposed to be some difference between those, but in practice they seemed pretty close to identical other than the colour. *shrug*

Once the foam had set overnight, I tore the excess black paper from the underside of each piece.

That’s about it for the bulk rock construction. On the next page, we’ll start building the ladders and stairs, and learn some deeply frustrating things about the chemical properties of expanding foam. ~_~

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