Top-Heavy, Part IV: Groundwork

datetime April 9, 2020 7:03 AM

Fifth Side-Thing: Diorama Tray!

I like making scenic trays for armies. I’ve done two so far:

I used the same template for both of them, with alterations to the storage compartment underneath the tray. For this army, I want to go back to first principles and design something that’s heavier on the “scenic” than the “tray”.

I need the tray to fit all ten models, but I want it to be structured in a way that optimizes it around display and photography. Specifically, I want the scene inside the tray to have a sloping layout that rises up toward the back, so that models placed anywhere in the scene can be seen properly over each other’s heads.

Also, I need it to fit an… accessory.

A rather… large accessory.

With wheels.

I start with paper templates to figure out how much space everything will need. The wheelie-dealie will take up a large footprint within the tray, so I make sure to leave space on each side for models to sit around it.

(Looking back from the future, I should have left a bit more.)

My swoopy curved tray design from years past looks really awesome as a carry tray, but the way that the sides drop down toward the front can make it slightly awkward to use as a photo backdrop, as any time you tilt the camera left or right, you very quickly find the walls dropping away to expose the room behind the tray.

For the new tray, I wanted a lot more freedom to tilt the camera around, so I opted for a design where the back and one of the sides will be very tall and not sloped, and then the front and the other side will be open. To reduce the sharp shadow of the joint between the two backdrop faces, I opened the angle up between them a few degrees.

(More notes from the future: I probably should have slightly curved the corner instead of angling it, as you can still totally see the break between the panels. Ah well… )

I lay out all of my panels and cut marks in Illustrator, then print out my templates on sheets of paper.

I cut out the paper templates and mark all of my key lines on a sheet of back foamcore. At this point I’ll drop in my handy “transferring paper templates to foamcore” infographic:

I continue to be very happy that I made this graphic. πŸ™‚

The tray is going to have two horizontal panels– one that the models will sit on, and one at the very bottom which forms the floor of an accessory cubby hole. Each of these panels will slot into a groove that I remove out of the upright panels. To create the grooves, I use a sharp utility knife to cut through the paper and foam layers, then slide a metal hoe tool underneath the foam layer to push it up and out of the panel.

Photographs of fully cut panels ready to be glued fill my soul with unicorns. <3

Before doing final assembly, I do a dry fit. The plan is to have a rocky landscape that rises up in successive layers toward the back. I double-check to make sure that I in fact have room for everybody, which it looks like I do (though I’ll lose standing space to the non-uniformity of the rocks).

My previous two trays had panels that opened in the front for accessory storage, but this year I want to put the accessories in the back so that I don’t need to spend as much effort camouflaging them.

I figured out last year when building the ISS tray that a good way to pull containers out of a narrow storage “drawer” is with ribbons. This will basically work like the pulling ribbon in a 9-volt battery compartment.

After that I do a bunch of boring gluing to assemble everything. I’ll spare you a bit of that, and instead finally jump to an explanation of what I’m actually building here.

So as I’ve mentioned, this was going to be my army for Adepticon this year. The convention was planned to hold 3 main Infinity events– two solo, and one team event. There are a couple of awards in the team event for team presentation and team theming, and my goal this year was to win one of them. πŸ™‚

This drawing lays out what I was planning to build. My partner in the event was going to be my friend Tom, and he was going to be playing the Onyx Contact Force army that I painted for him a few years back. To theme our two armies together, we envisioned a children’s cartoon show called The F-Team, fully financed by the Foreign Company as a PR stunt, where the brave soldiers under Hannibal’s command spend every week thwarting the nefarious alien menace of the Claw and its minions. The Claw, of course, is an incredibly subtle and clever joke that I won’t explain because you probably wouldn’t get it. Because it’s so clever, see.

The tray that I’m building here was supposed to be one half of a set that links up together to make a single diorama. On my side, the F-Team would have just arrived in their custom van in response to the landing of the Minions of the Claw in the middle of the desert. The space ship would open up and reveal a giant foamcore claw, upon which would be perched the alien HVT.

It was going to be so great.

And then they cancelled Christmas.

We found out two weeks ahead of the con that it was being cancelled. I had been making incredibly quick progress and was easily looking at finishing my army and both linked trays in time for the event, but the cancellation announcement pretty much knocked all of the wind out of my sails. I didn’t stop working, because I was literally in the middle of painting the last model when it was announced, but my excitement and motivation suffered a bit of a readjustment. In the aftermath of this emotional blow, the other side of the linked tray was determined not to be necessary at this time.

But, I still wanted to finish the army project for its own sake, so after a few days of allowing myself to stew in a depressed funk, I got back to the hobby table, determined to get to the finish line.

So, fine. Let’s make a van.

The van will have moving doors, and will be designed to allow models to fit in both the front and back. All of the measurements were based on the heights and radii of my chibi models; here I’m using Hannibal’s height as a guideline to ensure enough headroom on the doorways.

I spend a few hours with a pencil and a ruler methodically building out the design of the van on a sheet of printer paper. Making sure everything links up from one segment to the next (especially given that the verticals won’t be flat) was a bit challenging, but I’m pretty confident by the end that it should all mostly match up.

I trace the template onto foamcore in the same way as I did with the tray panels… just with slightly more pins this time. πŸ˜›

I only drew one side of the van, so I flip the template over to trace the second side onto the foamcore.

I cut it out, bevel all of the folding edges, and do a dry-fit test fold. Looks like it all linked up pretty well. πŸ™‚

I make some additional cuts to open the windows and free up the doors.

The back seat needs a couch. I make one.

I have enough room in the back to “waste” space on seats, but the same is not true in the front. So, the front seats are just the back piece, which runs straight into the floor.

It’s starting to become clear to me that in spite of my desire to have models sit inside the van when I’m showing off the army, the interior is just too dark for them to be clearly seen, so I think I’ll probably find places for them outdoors instead. Still, I should still be able to take some fun photos of the models driving around if I set the lights up correctly. πŸ™‚

Alrighty, wheels.

If society was functioning right now, I would have just bought a model car kit and stolen wheels from that. Buuuuuuut the pangolins had other ideas, so instead I’m forced to make my own.

I trace circles on a sheet of 1/4″ craft foam using a cork as my template.

I cut the circles out using a knife (it’s hard to do), and then add a ring from thinner foam to make the tire wall.

I cut more of the thin foam into thin strips, and then methodically glue segments of the strips around the outside of the tire, cutting to length each time after the hot glue sets.

They don’t look great, but they exist.


I’ve been holding off on cutting out the windshield because I was worried that it would make the van too weak. I finally glue the van’s sides together (I don’t glue the top frame to the floor, so I can still remove the top and paint the inside), so I can now safely cut it out.


Alrighty, accessories!

The F-Team van will have a spoiler on the back (for… important car reasons?). It needs to rise up and remain sturdy, so I glue a gently bent wire underneath.

The ends are sunk into slots cut in the roof.

I also apparently need an array of roof lights on the front. Easy enough.

The back windows aren’t open; instead, they have angled grills. I cut the shapes out using a knife, but don’t throw out the slugs.

I glue an array of strips across each slug with hot glue, laying each one diagonally on the previous one.

When I’m done, I trim the foam to the contours of the foamcore slugs.

And in they go. Pretty nice. πŸ™‚

The ramming bar thing on the front (I DON’T KNOW CAR WORDS) is also going to be pretty flimsy, so that also gets wire supports.

This gets embedded into slots on the bottom of the front panel.

My god, people. The craftsmanship.

*chef’s kiss*

On hey, it’s a steering wheel.



HAHA yeah it does.


The front doors are just going to swing on the paper layer of the foamcore (not the sturdiest long-term plan, but I also don’t plan to move them terribly often…); however, the sliding door will require something more elaborate. I decide that the sliding door will be held in place by pressure when the door is closed, and with a magnet against the side of the van when it’s open. To keep the door from getting lost, I’m going to lash it to the van with a piece of cloth ribbon.

I mount one end of the ribbon to the door, and the other end is glued inside the van’s wall. I cut out a hole to drop a magnet into, and then… drop a magnet into it.

I didn’t get a shot of it, but the paper panel where that square was drawn was peeled back to allow two metal washers to be embedded inside the wall, and then everything was closed up again.

So, I now have a door panel that can be stuck open or closed, and is kept from drifting too far away by the ribbon.

Hooray! πŸ˜€

Alrightyyyyyy… I think the van’s good to go, so let’s build out the rest of the scene.

The first thing I test is how much vertical space I’m going to need to fit a rocky ledge over the van. Turns out, a lot. Like, more than I allocated for. Looks like I’m going to need to extend the walls upward.

In the meantime, I cut out a piece of 1″ styrofoam to the same dimensions as the diorama floor. Using the van and various models to figure out optimal model placements, I trace out a reasonable layout for the stone ground plane.

I want the ground to slope gradually forward, including a “staircase” structure at ground level. Once I’ve laid out the cuts from overhead, I assign them increasingΒ  depth markers along the side to indicate how deeply I’ll cut each piece out.

The cutting process is pretty straightforward– I cut down from the top to what feels like the right depth, and then slice in from the side until I feel the knife hit the vertical cuts. The chunks then pop right off.

I use a similar approach for the higher levels; those are being cut out of thinner 1/2″ foam, so each one is split into only two tiers.

I keep working down from the top until I reach the ground. I make sure to leave space for a 25mm base to sit flat as often as I can through the descent down the cliff, so that I can arrange the models easily for group photography.

Alrighty, so as I mentioned earlier, I need to make the walls higher given how tall the rise ended up. I’m going to make a foam extension, which I’ll link together with the existing wall by shaving away some of the paper from the back of the current walls to form an interlock.

I cut out panels that follow the same measurements and angles as the back and left walls, but which rise up about 4″. I slice out the foam layer up to the same depth as the paper that I removed on the back.

I glue the two together to form my final diorama walls.


I probably could have just painted the raw foam if I was in a time crunch and needed to finish, but I’m not really in a rush anymore, so I decide to smooth out the layers first with spackle.

The spackle is spread on through a highly complex and very technical process involving a butter knife.

I try to minimize how much spackle goes on– just enough to smooth out the layers, but not so much that it’s forming thick sheets over the foam. The simple reason being, it gets heavy, and heavy layers of spackle can start to fall apart more easily. Remember, this stuff is designed to be patch-filler for walls, not a freestanding construction material!

I let it dry.

This takes most of a Saturday.

Alrighty, time for paint! Foamcore and insulation foam both really hate spraypaint, so I apply a heavy coat of Mod Podge over all of the exposed foam on the van.

I break the model into its component parts for painting. The van is already black, so I get a quick zenithal effect by spraying white primer from above.

I start the paintjob by spraying the van light grey. I don’t do very heavy shades or highlights– the van is supposed to be a background element, and I don’t want it to steal too much attention from the models.

I mask off the top of the van using paper and painter’s tape.

The bottom gets sprayed a dark grey, which shades down to– wait for it– Sombre Grey.

I wasn’t kidding, LITERALLY THE ENTIRE PROJECT has to be included in the lighting scheme. πŸ˜›

The van is going to have a red stripe, so I mask off everything but its intended location.

This gets airbrushed in the same reds as I used on the generic troopers from the army.

For some reason, this time the masking doesn’t work.



Swearing early and often, I manually patch up the greys. It isn’t my cleanest work. :/

The interior furniture is also painted red.

So are the hubcaps.

Head, running, and brake lights are painted various colours.


…we’re done. πŸ˜€

I’ll get some cool shots of it at the end, but for now let’s finish up the rocks.

Sooo, remember how we made the bases?

This is all literally the exact same process.











Aaaaaaaaand back down to orange.

Alrighty, the last thing to do is the backdrop for the diorama…

I put some black scrapbooking paper panels behind the constructed archway, and sketch out a plausible horizon.

I decide to make an illusory continuation of the archway that I’ve created here. I extrapolate out from the existing construction into something that looks reasonable.

This gets painted with the same colours as were used to paint the rocks. It isn’t a perfect illusion, but it doesn’t need to be.

I decided to hand-paint the background instead of airbrushing it.

I don’t think it was a good decision.

It looks… okay. :/

While I have the orange paint mixed up, I use a splatter method to spray some onto the van to make it fit into its environment better. Basically, you thin the paint down to roughly milk consistency, load up a brush, and hold it directly in front of the intended Splash Zone from about an inch away.

You then take a large breath, and exhale ALL AT ONCE in a sharp burst through the brush. The paint will fly out and nicely splatter whatever’s behind it.

And I, err… don’t think I have any other things to do.

I think I’m done.










…so, uh, hmm. Maybe just go look at the last post.

It’s just nice-looking pictures.

Very few words.

There have been too many words already.

Go now, children.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *