Tabletop Gaming — Modeling Tips and Tricks

Fun & Games
Tabletop Gaming — Modeling Tips and Tricks

My Eldar Howling Banshees behind a barricade I made from Stimudents and popsicle sticks. The rivets are thin slices of plastic rod.

In the early aughts, I ran a popular and well-regarded tabletop wargame modeling and converting site called 40K Konversions. It was dedicated to all forms of modeling related to the Warhammer 40,000 universe. For those who don’t know, “conversions” are wargame miniatures that have been altered in some way, from swapping legs or heads to creating whole new figures by parts-swapping, sculpting on new features, and so on. Unfortunately, my site is no longer accessible. I went through my articles from the site and have put together some of the best tabletop gaming modeling tips and tricks that I published. Some are specific to sci-fi/40K gaming, others can apply to many forms of modeling. Feel free to add your own tips in the comments. -Gareth

Vehicle Parts

  • Use 1/35th scale military models (for close-enough 28mm game model compatibility).
  • [Note: As a reader points out in the comments, 1/35th scale is not equal to 28mm. 28mm would be 1/60th. I’m just saying that you can convincingly use many parts taken from models of this scale (and many game modelers do). See the “Looted Wagon Ork Conversion” video below for just such an example.

  • Buy old kits at eBay auctions. Any sort of kits are fodder: Car model, railroad buildings, and of course, sci-fi and military models if you’re doing sci-fi gaming.
  • Many thrift and deep-discount stores sell model kits for super-cheap. Star Wars, Star Trek, and military models have great parts that can be used.
  • LEGO, old Robotix and other building system parts can be had for cheap at yard sales, thrift, and discount stores. Some pieces from these sets (especially Robotix) make great parts for Warhammer vehicles, buildings, and terrain.

Cockpit Controls and Industrial Parts

  • Old computers and printers can yield an infinite number of tiny parts and wires for detailing vehicle cockpits, comm centers and for use as building materials. Inkjet cartridges are ready-made power transformers. Just flip ‘em over, buzz off the raised lettering with a Dremel tool, prime black, and drybrush in metallic colors and add some rust. You;re done! Don’t forget to plug up the ink holes on the tops, or run wires out of them.
  • Cockpit instruments can be added by creating them in a drawing program and reducing them to size for printing. Base the paper instrument sheet on thin styrene. This method works fine on cockpits that can’t really be scrutinized up close. For even more realistic controls, cover the above paper controls with a piece of clear acetate and cover that with another sheet of styrene with holes drilled out above the instrument displays. You’ll be amazed how convincing this looks. If you don’t have clear acetate, you can paint white glue over the instruments. It will dry clear.
  • You can also use 1/35th scale WWII instrument decals. From inside your vehicle cockpit, no one is going to be able to read the teeny letters.
  • Electronics solder makes great wiring.

How to scratch-build vehicle safety belts

Cloth Seat Covers and Safety Belts
Cloth first aid strips make very realistic seat covers and safety belts. Just use sizes greater than the coverage you need and cut to size. The cloth material responds to paint surprisingly well too. Masking tape works great, too. A with some fuse wire, tweezers, and lots of patience, you can make buckles, too.

The infamous blue/yellow two-part epoxy putty, aka “green stuff.” A Games Workshop sculptor once described working in this medium as akin to sculpting in stale bubblegum.

Adding Armor
Don’t spend several bucks a plate for extra vehicle armor. You can easily make your own by cutting thin pieces of styrene sheeting to size. Or even card stock. Simulate weld lines around the plating with Green Stuff or auto body filler.

YouTube player

Here’s a nice video build of a looted Ork tank for 40K using a 1/35th scale M3 Grant WWII tank model

Sanding Gun Barrels
Don’t sand the seam of a plastic gun barrel with a flat piece of sandpaper, it’ll leave flat spots, or an uneven sand. Make a tube out of sandpaper and twist and turn the barrel inside of it.

Realistic Gun Barrels
Always drill out your gun barrels using a pin vise. It adds so much realism. For guns that have side port holes, drill these out first.

Reshaping Hands

  • It’s not easy to do, but you can reshape plastic model hands by putting them in boiling water and while the plastic is still soft, close the fingers around a weapon (or whatever) gently with needle-nose pliers.
  • You can also reshape arms, hands and legs by heating them over a candle, holding the part HIGH enough that it softens, but does not melt and then shaping it before it dries. This is not easy to do and takes practice. Cut notches on the opposite side of where you want the arm or leg to move to aid in the process. Fill any remaining gaps with Green Stuff. Practice on models you don’t care about before you try this on models you do.

Creating Fur
Apply static grass to your model with white glue. When dry, apply a coat of spray matte vanish. Trim grass if necessary. THEN prime and paint to desired colors.

A very handsome urban base can be created with kitty litter, chunks of plastic, and some screen material

Basing Models
If you want your models to be truly unique, try basing them with real rocks! We got this tip from Benjamin Durbin of BatReps. He writes: “I buy slate from a hardware store, at about 3 bucks for a 50 lb bag– I’m sure it’s meant to be used in flower gardens or something. I don’t recall the last time I bought something at the hardware store that wasn’t 40K related. I use vice grips to break down the slate chunks into roughly 40k sized bases.”

Ben is also fond of basing some of his models in plain ol’ American sand. He writes: “It’s irregular (big grains, little grains, light grains, dark grains) so it looks great “right out of the box.” You don’t have to paint it. You don’t even have to pre-paint the base. Just put glue everywhere and dunk it into sand. And the best part is, sand is available in large quantities, for free, at your local playground. (Please do not approach the children.)”

It’s amazing to us how many people follow the GW party line and base their models in golf course green (a.k.a. Goblin Green). We don’t think it looks natural. Mixing different shades of green flocking (you can get other shades at the hobby store) and a few pieces of railroad ballast will make a much more natural-looking base.
For urban basing, you can make bricks and rubble out of Green Stuff, Styrofoam, bitz, etc. You can also buy ready-made 1/35th-scale WWII rubble in some hobby stores.

If you’re basing Necromunda models, for Emperor’s sake, don’t use grass! Use an urban motif. Sand glued onto the bases and then glue applied over the sand (to seal it) makes a durable base. Paint black and then drybrush in grays, black and other dark colors to represent the ash-laden, muck and rubble-covered floor of the underhive.

You can even use hobby ballast to represent grass. Mix fine-grain ballast with hobby sand (or fine sand from your yard). Underglue and overglue for durability. Prime black or dark green and then drybrush in different lighter shades of green to represent grass. You end up with a very durable base, which from a distance, looks like grass.
For another deathworld look, cover the base with a mixture of model train coal and iron ore (available at hobby stores) and ballast (ditto).

Use a combination of the techniques above (sand basing, hobby ballast, rubble) and combine with some static grass (sold through Games Workshop or hobby stores).


  • For more precise control of glue application, coil a piece of thin wire around a toothpick, with the wire coming off of one end. Put a pile of superglue or white glue on a piece of paper and dip the wire in the glue. As the wire gets crusty, snip off the tip and uncoil a bit more from the rod.
  • Tape up (w/masking tape) model parts before gluing to check the fit. When satisfactory, apply superglue along the seams. When dry, sand smooth.
  • Fill small gaps in models with white glue. Apply glue with wire applicator (in small doses so that skin doesn’t form) and then smooth out glue with a moistened cotton swab.

Painting Tips

  • Take pots of your expensive miniatures/hobby paints to your local paint store. Have them match acrylic house paint to your colors. This is better for large terrain coverage (Chaos Black, Goblin Green, Codex Grey) than for use on figures. Miniature paint is especially formulated for miniature use, so the properties of the paint are slightly different.
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment with other brands of acrylic modeling and craft paints. One brand, called Plaid, that’s sold in most craft stores and craft areas of department stores has been reported by some modelers to be nearly indistinguishable from Citadel Colours. The paints cost from US$.50 – $.90 for 2 Oz. (up to four times the amount of Citadel paint) and they’re slightly thicker, so they go even farther when thinned.
  • Save small clear plastic sauce containers from take-out food. Great for mixing paint, glue and sand mixture, holding basing flock, etc. With lids, paints, etc. can be stored without drying out.
  • BlueTac (poster putty) can be used to temporarily hold models and bitz to cardboard or other painting surface. BlueTac can be found in most stationary stores. It’s meant to attach posters to walls without (allegedly) marring them. You can also use a tiny ball of BlueTac for keeping doors closed on vehicles that are prone to opening.
  • Paint stirring sticks (free at paint stores) make great holders of small bits while you paint them. Use BlueTac or two-way tape to hold the items down while you paint.
    Silly Putty can be used for quick-and-dirty masking/frisket material. Put it on the areas you don’t want painted. It will remove without leaving any residue. Works for both brush and airbrush work.
  • There are all sorts of “family recipes” for stripping off old paint. Spic ‘n Span in warm water is one of them. It’ll remove acrylic paint from plastic models within a few hours, and take enamels off if left on overnight. Some swear by Easy Off oven cleaner. PineSol is another popular method (for use on metal minis). Experiment with any of these before you subject your minis.
  • A quick and dirty way to transfer paint from a pot to a palette or mixing cup is to use an old large-bristled brush. Since you don’t have to be fussy about the brush, you can really load it up with paint and then scrape it off on the side of the cup. Just make sure to thoroughly clean the brush before grabbing paint from another pot.
  • If you have trouble (like we do) keeping track of which Citadel paints you have on hand, print out the Citadel Paint Chart on the Games Workshop site and use the order boxes in front of each color to inventory what you have and need.

Tool Tips

  • Paper clamps (aka binder clips) make great modeling spring clamps. Make sure to place card or something else between your work and the clamp jaws so that you don’t mare the surface. Clothes pins make great glue clamps too.
  • Shop the beauty isle of your local drug store! In the manicure section, you’ll find all sorts of sanding supplies. Get yourself a four-way sanding file, which has four grits for sanding and buffing. They even often have small, spongey wet-dry sanding blocks! And manicure scissors make a great modeling tool, too.
  • A walnut cracker, the kind that has curved jaws, makes an excellent bottle opener for stubborn paint and glue pots.
  • A large old butcher block makes a great modeling surface. You can cut on it, paint on it, tack things down on it. Once it gets funky, just get out the ol’ belt sander and re-surface it!
  • A fabric cutting wheel (about ten bucks in a fabric store) is a very useful tool for cutting thin card and styrene sheeting. The blade is very sharp and teamed up with a steel ruler, will produce perfect and quick cuts.

The art of the sprue


  • Save your sprues! These can be used for all sorts of modeling bitz.
  • You can “re-size” sprue plastic by heating it over a candle and pulling on it. With practice, you can even bend it to form rings, rounded rectangles and other shapes.
  • Be careful! The fumes are noxious and you don’t want to set the plastic to flame.
  • You can make a handy glue applicator tool from sprue. Stretch a pencil-length of sprue using the method above, pulling on one end until it’s very narrow. Sand the narrow tip to a point. Now you have a tool for precise glue application. Sand excess glue from the end when needed. As the tip gets gunky, re-heat and re-stretch.

I built the building to the right from the thin styro material that some of my models came in. The base is made from the FedEx box in which they shipped. The “stink pipe” chimney is made from a soda straw. A large impact crater can just be seen behind the building. It was made with blue insulation board (as was the gaming table itself). The street lights are from a model railroad kit I got at a garage sale. The top barrels on the barricade are desiccant canisters that come in some medicine bottles.

You can make nearly every structure imaginable with little more than Styrofoam packing material, shipping box cardboard, cereal boxes, and various cans, bottles, and food trays rescued from your garbage. Develop a terrain maker’s eye and you’ll be amazed at what you’ll see in everyday junk.
Look at the shapes of Styrofoam or paper-based packing pieces used to secure electronics equipment (and other products) in their shipping cartons. Some of these pieces are ready-made buildings, just flip ’em over, paint (with acrylics only), and detail. We’re making a factory complex out of the four styro pieces that secured the speakers for our bookshelf stereo system. You couldn’t find a more perfect futuristic-looking industrial building shape. Some spent ink jet printer cartridges will serve as the power generators for the complex.

Pipes and Wires

  • Flexible soda straws make perfect pipes complete with curved (elbow) sections. Don’t just use the straw as-is, either. You can cut the straight pieces to any length and use the “elbow” part by itself to make all sorts of twisting and turning pipe “runs.”
  • Paint brush or other clear-plastic tubes (like the one’s used to protect brush tips) can also be used as piping. The one for the Citadel tank brush makes a great drain pipe. Paint it black, drybrush in Boltgun, wash in Chestnut ink for some rust, and you’re all set. Having some nice luminous green goo dripping out of it is a nice touch too.
  • If you want more flexible tubing, you can use fish tank or other tubing you can get at a hardware store.
  • To add viscous goo running out of pipes, glue a piece of thin wire to the end of the pipe. Dip it in sticky white glue (that’s been left out for awhile) and let it dry. Dip in white glue again (repeat, like you’re making a dip candle), until you get the desired shape and thickness. When dry, paint with the colors you want your liquid to be.
  • For water running out of pipes, use clear sprue material. Heat it up and shape it so that it looks like it’s running out of the pipe. Careful you don’t burn yourself!
    Guitar strings make great conduit-like cable runs.
  • Solder is also perfect for snaking cables along building walls, inside vehicles, etc. Use very thin plasticard to make the straps that would hold conduit wire onto a wall. Another old wargamers trick is to use the thin metal wrap found around champagne corks to make metal straps.

Water, Gas, Oil, etc. Storage Tanks

  • All sorts of pill bottles, deodorant applicators, and food containers can be used to simulate industrial storage tanks. Develop an eye for seeing what can become of these things with a little bit of primer, paint, rust detailing and glued-on bitz.
  • Plastic toilet tank floats make killer large ball-type storage tanks. Some nice feet, a catwalk and a great paint job and you’re in business. Readily available at building demolitions, junkyards or a couple of bucks at a home store.

Gather up some asthma medicine packaging, a deodorant container, some sand, white glue, some tubing and a nice paint job and a few decals you’ve got yourself an alien fuel depot. [Sadly, I don’t remember who contributed this to my site.]

Towers, Masts, Gangways, etc.

  • You can easily make VERY cool looking tower structures (for power lines, flood lights, antenna, etc.). Simply draw the design of each side of the tower to scale on a piece of paper. Use hash lines on your plans to indicate which tower uprights connect to the other sides, so you won’t get confused as to which sides need both uprights built and which don’t. Use plastic or brass rod and cut them to the proper dimension. Use little blobs of BlueTac to hold the parts directly onto the paper plans while you glue. Save time and materials but making tripod-type towers instead of four-sided ones – and they look cooler too!
  • Gang railing can be built the same as above. When railing is complete, attach to industrial deck plates as outlined below. If you lazy, you can buy already-made gang rails pretty cheaply from Evergreen or Plastruct.

Industrial Deck Plates
Safety deck plating gives everything that essential industrial look, and it couldn’t be easier to make. For the floor/deck base, you can use plasticard, cardboard, balsa, whatever you want. Cut metal screen material (ideally the diamond-shaped kind) to deck size. (We got a pack of sculpture modeling screen for a few bucks in a craft store. It’s perfect.) Spread a film of glue on the base and glue down the screen material. Now, using very thin card stock (thin food packaging and FedEx Letter envelopes work great), cut out a frame that will go around the edges of the deck. Glue this on. When everything is dry, prime in black and drybrush in Boltgun. Voila. Very convincing industrial decking.

The inside of my command bunker, built from Styrofoam shipping material. The floor is made from screen mesh. The two command consoles were pieces from the Robotix toy line. They were putty gray. I painted them in suitably 40K metal, rust, with green-screen displays.

Corrugated Metal Siding and Roofing
Thin corrugated cardboard makes perfect metal siding and roofing when properly painted. You need the cardboard that has the corrugations exposed. You can sometimes get this in shipping material (we got a lifetime supply of it with some furniture we bought), but you can also get it in craft stores. Make sure to get the thin board with the small corrugation for proper scale.

Industrial Garage Doors
You can make very convincing roll-up garage doors with corrugated cardboard. Orient the card so that the corrugations are horizontal. Make a U-shaped frame for the two sides and the top with card (or plasticard). Add a handle (made with stretched sprue), drybrush in metallic colors and you’re done.

Metal Fencing and Window Covering
We wait each Christmas for clementines to come into season, not only because they’re really good, but because the plastic mesh material that covers the little crates is perfect for making metal 40K fencing. Just prime black, db Boltgun, wash in Chestnut ink, mount onto some plastic H-beam, base, and you have a great looking fence terrain piece. You can also use this material to make metal mesh-covered windows.

Steel-Reinforced Windows
Cut rectangular pieces of screening material (either diamond-shaped or square screen look good) so that they completely cover the windows you want to “reinforce.” Make sure there’s enough around the edges for gluing. Prime the screen black and db with Boltgun Metal. Glue the screening in place inside the building. If you want, you can back the screening with black-painted card (or black construction paper), so that one can’t see inside the building (assuming you won’t be detailing the interior.

Very nice sandbags can be made with Green Stuff. Roll out a “snake” of Green Stuff about the thickness of your pinky finger. Slice off a section about 1/2″ long and shape it into a sandbag. Now, use a piece of bandage gauze to lightly press some texture into the bag’s surface. Using a scribing tool or the tip of a hobby knife, scribe a seam around the edges of the bag. You’re done. If you want a sandbag emplacement, gently press the bags into each other into stacks before they dry. For added realism, when they are dry, drill tiny holes into a few bags and white glue some sand running out of the holes and below the bag on the base.

Spent Shell Casings
Tooth picks, pot sticks, dowels cut to appropriate length and painted with appropriate color (Burnished Gold, Brazen Brass, etc.) make convincing casings. A small black line can be painted towards one end to simulate the typical grooves found in shell casings. Who cares if Bolters use caseless ammo? Spent shells are just too cool to pass up.

Battle Damage

  • Spray paint on styro. The solvent will melt parts of the Styrofoam. You can control the process somewhat by “masking” areas you don’t want damaged by covering it in white glue.
  • Superglue on styro has a similar effect (see above).
  • Bullet holes can be drilled with a pin vice.
  • Holes can be nicked in with a hobby knife.
  • Battle damage can be inflicted with a heated-up nail (held with pliers and an oven mitt and done only with adult supervision, if you’re a kid).
  • Use radiating lines of black and gray paint from the point of damage to simulate blast heat.
  • Smoke and fire can be effectively simulated with colorized cotton. The cotton that comes in medicine bottles is near perfect size. Daub the cotton overall in shades of red, yellow and orange to simulate flames, paying more attention to one end. You can do this with a brush, but the most effect method is putting thinned paint into a spray bottle. The hotter you want the fire to appear, the redder you paint. When that’s dry, daub overall in black (and gray) paint, paying more attention to the opposite end from the more red/orange-heavy end. The “hotter” end is the bottom, the darker end the top. You can even store your cotton damage markers inside of vehicle hatches and pull them out when the vehicles are hit.


  • Believe it or not, dry split peas make convincing, albeit large, rivets.
  • You can punch holes on the underside of plasticard to make rivets appear on the reverse. This takes some practice to look good.
  • Squirt-on bead material found in craft stores (for creating glass-like beads) can also be used.

  • Melted styrene rod (a.k.a “micro-rod”) or sprue material can make rivets too. Glue bits of plastic material in a hole. Gently heat with match, candle or micro-torch. Caution. Practice.
  • Cut-off straight pin heads can act as rivets on large spike heads.
  • Make tiny balls out of Green Stuff (Epoxy Putty) and press them gently into place where you want your rivets to go.
  • For flat-headed round rivets, you can cut styrene micro-rod into tiny slices. Make yourself a little measuring jig so all the rivets are the same height.

Barbed Wire

  • The Games Workshop barbed wire is beautiful (and sharp!), but it’s way too expensive. You can make your own for nearly nothing with square-patterned window screen material. First you need to prime the screen in black, then drybrush with Boltgun and add a little Chestnut ink wash for rust. When dry, cut the screen so that you have one long strip of wire with barbs coming off of each side, like this: +++++++++++ Now, twist your wire around four pencils to get the desired coil shape, and you’re done.
  • Watch out, this barbed wire is really sharp, too. If you want, you can also touch up the bare metal on the edges of the barbs.
  • You can easily make tripod posts for your barbed wire too. Cut three equal lengths of thin wooden dowel. Paint to desire wooden post look (you can use brown and black inks like wood stain). Lightly tie the three posts together with thin twine and then spread them out into a tripod shape. Drop some white glue in the crotch of the posts and let dry. Now all you have to do is drape your barbed wire through the tripods and you’re done.


  • Mix water and white glue with fine sand to desired thickness (more sand for a heavier stucco look, less sand for regular concrete). Brush liberally onto styrofoam building elements. Brush with black primer (don’t use spray!) and dry brush with a succession of lighter and lighter grays and finally a light touch of white.
  • When modeling concrete battlements, bunkers, etc. a lot of people overlook pour seams. Most military emplacements of this nature are quickly constructed and appearance is not a concern. Seams between successive concrete pours are usually visible. You can add this realism by using some Celluclay (mix with a little white glue if you have trouble getting it to stick) or even beads of white glue (applied on a horizontal surface, of course). These pour lines pick up the drybrushing and look great. Make sure not to make the pour lines too consistent.

If you want to create fancy looking stone, you can use the same technique used for faux-marbling in the macro world. Paint your surface in Skull White then use a small crumpled up rag to dab into a light gray (or blue) paint. Dab this onto paper to get most of it off and then dab onto your “stone,” covering a lot of it, while letting the base color show through. Next, do the same with a much lighter gray (or blue) and less coverage (keep that rag crumpley!). When done, you can even use a small bird feather or detailing brush to add dark gray, dark blue and or black veins. A few white or light blue veins will add some depth. If done right, this creates convincing marble worthy of the Emperor’s Palace.

Here’s a basic how-to on easy, effective blast crater construction


  • Try the “AOL method” of terrain construction: use an AOL CD (or other useless CD or CD-ROM). Cover the center hole with thin card stock. Build up the rim of the crater with bits of Styrofoam (or outright carve a crater ring from a single piece of styro). Cover the styro with glue and cover that with sand, kitty litter, or other suitable terrain material. Prime (with black acrylic). Paint, add lichen, etc. to taste.
  • Very nice looking craters can be made by molding Celluclay to desired shapes, and when dry, covering with a sand/glue/water mixture, and then hobby gravel. Since this process uses a lot of Celluclay, it only makes sense for small blast craters.
  • A quick and easy way to make craters is to crumple newspaper into tube shapes and masking tape them onto a circular base (AOL disc, cardboard, whatever). Cover much of the paper with the masking tape until you get a nice crater shape. Cover the entire surface with plaster cloth (plaster-impregnated cloth found in medical-supply, drug and hobby stores). When dry, finish as detailed above. You can also use the same basic technique with paper mache.

Make model trees with Steve Delaney


  • Cut up plastic X-mas trees. Artificial Christmas trees can be found at yard sales and thift stores for next-to-nothing. The branches can be cut to make excellent-looking gaming trees.
  • Painted bottlebrushes. When your kitchen bottlebrush isn’t doing much in the way of cleaning bottles anymore, you can cut/shape it to the proper size and then paint and base it.
  • Real tree twigs or roots with lichen foliage make very convincing trees. Roots look more realistic because they have more branchings. You can leave them their natural color or control their look with painting. Build up the lichen in small bits, don’t just use big wads of it. This will give you more control and make a more realistic-looking tree.
  • You make a bunch of convincing hardwood trees by twisting equal lengths of wire (I use the type from a flower shop) together. Splay out and shape the wires on the top for branches and the wires on the bottom for roots. Cover the wire with Sculpey, Celluclay, Spackle/filler, whatever is handy. Drag a toothpick or sculpting tool through the “bark” when it’s partially dry to add texture. When dry, paint and then apply model railroad ground foliage foam or lichen. Base as desired. For tropical trees, you can use the same method, but wrap masking tape (or plaster cloth) around the branches and trunk (instead of the clay, etc.) to simulate palm tree-type bark.
  • For palm leaves, you can use paper (colored green), creased down the center and cut along the edges to represent fronds. Another method (that we prefer) is to sandwich the wire of each palm tree branch with wide masking tape. Then you can cut the tape into leaf shapes and then cut along the edges to make fronds. Make sure tape is very well attached with edges sealed together. Paint. The tape makes a nice texture and is more durable than paper.


  • Balsa strips can be cut to make wooden ladder verticals and rungs.
  • Plastic or balsa strips can be used for the verticals and staples can be used for the rungs.
  • HO-gauge train tracks make nice ladders, too. Remove the metal tracks and use the remaining plastic part as the ladder.


  • Paper mounds taped down to a base with masking tape, covered with plaster-impregnated gauze and then painted and flocked.
  • Scraps of styrofoam packing material shaped into hills with knife, soldering iron and/or foam cutter.

Rocks, Stone, Gravel

  • Large rock and slag piles from cut-to-shape Styrofoam bits.
  • Kitty Litter is a great, low-cost alternative to modeling gravel and model train ballast.
  • Use real stones! Find ones in your yard that will “scale” properly. You can paint them if their coloring doesn’t work at 40K scale. Prime black and drybrush with successive layers of lighter and lighter gray with a final Skull White very light drybrushing.
  • Celluclay can also be molded to desired rock shapes and then, when dry, painted as described above.

Mud Spatter
You can produce very realistic mud spatter on troops, vehicles and buildings using a mixture of white glue, flour, blown paint and a bit of water (just enough to keep it workable). When you have your mixture, load it onto an old toothbrush and then fan the bristles in the direction of the model (along the bottom of the tracks on a tank, for instance).

Sawdust makes great terrain flock. You don’t need to paint it beforehand. Just get fine sawdust, glue onto terrain piece and then paint in different shades of green (Dark Angels Green, Goblin Green, etc.). It works best if you spray the colors on.

Tall Grass

  • Unwound twine works great. Make holes in terrain, spot of glue, push folded-in-half length of twine into holes with brush handle (pen tip, tooth pick, whatever). Drybrush to desired colors.
  • Theatrical crepe hair (found in costume shops). Spread white glue on terrain, glue small clumps of crepe (the fewer at a time, the better). Drybrush desired color.

Tank stowage made from rolled up Kleenex and white glue

Rolled Tarps, Tents, Bed rolls, etc.

  • Rolled Kleenex works well. Roll it up and then wet it with thinned out white glue. When dry, paint and apply to your model.
  • Very thinned rolled up Green Stuff. Use tissue on outside for fabric effect. Roll Green Stuff out between pieces of plastic sandwich wrap so it doesn’t stick to rolling pin.
  • Medical gauze can be used as cammo netting. Wet it in a thinned glue solution, while it’s still wet, apply it to your vehicle, building, etc. Paint.

The post card for my now-deceased (sniff, sniff) 40K modeling site. I used to give this out at cons.

22 thoughts on “Tabletop Gaming — Modeling Tips and Tricks

  1. Rahul G. says:

    This is perfect for the model train enthusiast! What a wonderful collection of tips and instructions!

  2. qwerty123 says:

    Outstanding!   This article gets a definite star in my google reader feed for future reference.

  3. Stefan Jones says:

    I’m blown away. Before my eyes got old I could paint a half-decent 25mm* miniature. But the stuff above is a whole other level of pro.

    * Well, whatever size it was that McEwan made.

    1. Sean Michael Ragan says:

      I’ve always wanted to hack one of those expensive micromanipulators they use in semiconductor testing labs to paint a WH40K mini, then take it to Golden Demon and blow everybody away:  “Dude, how did you paint individual eyelashes on your Commissar?”

  4. Jake Spurlock says:

    Most impressive Gareth.

  5. Anonymous says:

    okay now we totally have to battle – because my Tyranids are totally looking to snack on some Eldar spinal fluid!

    1. Anonymous says:

      I didn’t know you were a player, Nick! How many points of Nids do you have? I have about 1500 of Eldar.

      But, if I got back into 40K, I don’t know if I could play Space Hippies again. I’m really attracted to armies that don’t exist in available models, like a Mechanicus army would be awesome, or — there’s a Space Marines chapter, called the Doom [Something], I think. They have something wrong with their gene seed and they project this all pervasive cloud of bad vibes that demoralizes their enemies. Or Black Templars. Or Forgeworld’s Death Korps of Kreig. Those are awesome models. Something really gothic and dark. It IS supposed to be a dark gothic future. Bring on the gloom and doom!

      1. Anonymous says:

        they’re all caged up, haven’t seen the light of day since spring 2010 – I probably have 2000 points worth, but only 500-600 assembled or painted. Otherwise attracted to Orks or Chaos, but eventually went with ‘Nids because of their modular abilities, and the fact that so few opponents know how to fight back – it’s own type of advantage! Put a vomit-churning Carnifex armed with a bio-canon in front of a squad of Tau and they become puddles of high-tech ooze – within a move my Genestealers charge in and shred up anyone still standing. Okay you got me all nostalgic for my ‘Nids now – gonna have to pay them a visit, maybe feed them a Space Marine to hold them over.

        1. Anonymous says:

          I tend to like specialty armies that are difficult to field, and I think Nids and Eldar are both that. Eldar have a lot of small specialty squads and it’s all about fire and movement. I don’t know that much about Nid armies, but I imagine it’s a combo of special forces and squads of overwhelming bug hoards.

  6. Michael Van Varenberg says:

    nice, i do regular modelling now, this would be a great adventure in modelling for me… nice work man, i think i’m going for the dreadfleet and Knights Templar

    1. Anonymous says:

      Dreadfleet looks SO cool! Tempting, altho I’m not normally interested in gaming fantasy, but I have an attraction to naval wargames (tho I’ve never played any except for a brief stint with Starfleet Battles many moons ago). I kick myself for not buying a copy of Battlefleet Gothic when it came out altho I did buy some of the ships to model.

  7. Christoph says:

    typo on the pic, wrong url :/ is the correct one

    1. Anonymous says:

      The site, which I can assure you was at, is not there anymore. Iwarp asked to put it up when I stopped doing it and only fragments of the site are there now.

    2. Fox Box says:

      Isn’t it a flyer from when the site still existed?

  8. Stiabhna says:

    I need to say this and I don’t care what WH40K fans say.

    Games Workshop are a debasing consumer-capitalist toy company that subverted the gaming culture of 1975 – 1991 in order to flog derivative, semi-plagiarist plastic shit by attaching themselves to American games like Dungeons & Dragons, before immediately switching over to ‘family values’ cartoon-style product.
    They once had a roleplaying game of their own but realised that selling ‘toy soldiers’ was where the moiney was at. And MAN, do they overprice!

    Remember when they published games like ‘Judge Dredd’ or ‘Valley Of The Four Winds’?
    No? Well fuck you, noob.

    All that GW has done in the last 25 years is produce substandard crap that any old Fantasy / Sci-fi fan will tell you is lifted, blatantly.

    1. Michael Gates says:

      There are people who didn’t know this already? I mean, yeah, it’s true… I keep looking at the Tau figures when I go pick up the kids at the gaming shop, and get rebuffed by the ridiculous prices and the fact that there’s no game behind them… but it’s not news. There was a whole little industry of fake Warhammer figures back in the 90s because GW’s figures were so terrifyingly expensive.

      1. Robert Rostad says:

         Debasing consumer-capitalist toy company that they may be, they still make the best paint, which is a good thing for the independent artist. Keep up the good work, Games Workshop!

  9. Julian B says:

    Excellent piece you have here!

    The picture here…

    The flat circular parts are from a Seretide asthma inhaler. If you can figure out how to pry one open they are full of plastic cogs too!

  10. computer mouses says:

    I could attest to it being the very best of all? the high end vaporizers. Ive had all. I’ve got since purchased 15 more of these for friends that wanted them.

  11. Drew says:

    Great stuff. Really good comprehensive list of tips and tricks for conversions and kit bashing.

    There is a cool post that is on a similar topic on this site:

    Taking scenery and gaming tables in world of miniatures and breaking down some of the myths. Not as well written or as comprehensive as your post but decent.

    Interesting how the comments when Games Workshop is brought up always turns into some flame. Shame, they sell toys and try to run a business.

  12. Steve Baker says:


    1/35th scale is nowhere remotely close to 28mm – they are nearly twice as big as you need!

    28mm is 1/60th scale!

    Evidence the fact that most 28mm game rules say that the terrain is 1 inch to 5 feet…and 60 times 28mm is 1.68m or 5′ 6″ – which has been the 50th percentile height of a human male from the 1950’s to the present day.

    HO model railroads are 1:87th scale – so they are far off in the other direction. Model railroad ‘S’ scale is 1:64th – which is really close to 28mm – but sadly there aren’t all that many models made in that scale these days.

    Many plastic kits are sold in OO-scale – which is 1:76th scale – again, better than HO or 1/35th, but still *far* from right.

    Some car models are made in 1:42nd scale…again, better than 1:35th – but still not right.

    Of course if you’re breaking something down to it’s elements to rebuild in a scratch-build, the original scale may not matter…but dropping a 1:35th scale model into a 1:60th scale world is just wrong!

  13. Tabletop Gaming — Modeling Tips and Tricks Sam Brown says:

    Directions for home-making a wet palette belong in here! Typical acrylic paints for minis are made to speed dry. A wet palette stretches the life of your paints, and makes it easy to mix the exact shade you’d like. Best of all, that perfect shade you just mixed will stay fresh for next session if you don’t finish up work in the same sitting.

    Mini model companies like Privateer Press sell wet palettes for 20$ or more. You can make your own from a plastic pencil case, a kitchen sponge, and parchment paper for a fraction of that.

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

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