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Idiots Guide to Making Terrain #1: The Basic Hill

The hill is a critical terrain feature. Not only does it break up the flat, featurless table, it is the building block upon which almost all other terrain skills are derived. Lack of these skills would push some so far as to stack books under a tablecloth1. This is unacceptable, and many would be driven to violence if forced to play under such conditions. Much of your future terrain-related angst can be avoided altogether by simply following these directions.

Some general notes on terrain: Everyone wants to play on a gorgeous battlefield, replete with hills, trees, skulls, destroyed buildings, etc.; but there is a fine line between a functional tabletop battlefield and a delicate 28mm diorama unfit for those with fat fingers and a tendency to throw dice. The wise General chooses to build his terrain to the functional side of the house, with an eye on detail that does not hinder play or break easily. Todays lesson swings WAY to the functional side, but you should still be pleased with the overall outcome.Also, for every hobbyist there are different ways of doing things. This is how I make hills, but it is certianly not the only way or even the best way. This lesson was designed with simplicity and a minimal amount of supplies in mind.

More advanced terrain will be covered later in other tutorials.

Tools and supplies:



  • hot wire foam cutter
  • retractable disposable knife
  • 2" paintbrush marker (sharpie)
  • spackling sandpaper (looks like a mesh screen)
  • shallow cardboard box (what a case of soda comes in)


  • 3/4" pink insulation foam (sold in 4X8 sheets, can also be blue)
  • ground foam flock (IE Woodland Scenics)
  • 1 quart medium dark green latex house paint (cheap gloss or matte)


If you have never built terrain before, you will need to purchase the above items. Dont get all cheap on me now, the only thing there that will break you is the foam cutter. Woodland Scenics makes a nice plug-in model for about $25, dont bother with the battery powered model. The consumables will last you a long time, as well, unless you are opening a terrain factory or are really sloppy.

Stage 1: Planning

Hills can be of any shape or size, but generally they only have to be big enough to put a unit on top, or smaller. Remember, for mass battles where units have to move in formation (like the Stormvermin above) a hill can be an obstacle or a defensive position. If it is meant to be the latter, everybody needs to be able to be on top. Using your marker, make an outline of the base of the hill. As you will see later, the top will be somewhat narrower than that, so allow room around the edges for the slope.


Stage 2: Cutting

Make all of your gross cuts now with the disposable knife. You dont have to cut too close to the lines, but you need to be close enough for the foam cutter to do its job. The Woodland Scenics cutter has about a 5" cut depth, so leave no more than 2"-3" all around.

Pink insulation foam is covered in a thin plastic film to protect it during handling. Peel it off now. Heck, peel it off the whole 4X8 sheet, you wont need it. The foam cutter will slice through the foam very neatly, but not quickly. Be patient and use a steady hand to trim away the excess foam to your outline.

Again, with the foam cutter, cut a beveled edge around the entire piece at about a 45 degree angle, using either the "top" or "bottom" edge as a guide . It can be greater if you want a gentler slope, less if you want a sharp drop. We will cover cliffs and other hill related terrain in another article. Dont worry if your cuts arent perfect, we will correct that in the next phase, but cleaner cuts speed up the process.

The completely beveled hill.


Stage 3: Preparation

Using the spackling sandpaper, sand the edges so that they are smooth and flow gently. THIS SHOULD BE DONE OUTSIDE or you will have pink dust all over everything you own. Be careful not to gouge the foam with the paper (it happens) as big gouges will be obvious when you are done. Take the time to sand off the very thin, fragile edge all around the outside of the piece. Do it now, because later it will just break off, ruining your hard work. When you are happy with the shape of your hill, move on to the next stage.


Stage 4: Painting/Flocking

Using discarded chunks of foam, create a little stand to put your hill on in the box. This will keep you from painting the hill to the bottom of the box.

Now is a good time to make sure the entire hill fits in the box (side to side). If it doesnt, get a new box.

Using your paint (it doesnt matter if it is gloss or matte as long as the color is close) liberally paint the entire top surface of the hill. Dont be afraid to slop it on a little, no one will know, but if you use too little you will screw up the next step.

Shake the ground foam directly onto the WET paint. It will stick nicely. Spread it out by shaking the entire box gently. DO NOT BLOW on THE FOAM. It will just blow into your eye, idiot. Be sure you cover the entire hill. You will be able to get any excess foam back out of the box when you are done, so apply liberally.

Stage 5: Completion

Allow the hill(s) to dry completely, about an hour or so depending on what paint you bought, etc.

Brush off the loose flock into the box with your hand or a dry paintbrush. Any foam in the box can now be poured back into your foam container for future use.

That's it – you now have your own hill. These are attractive, fairly durable, and cheap and easy to make. Make about 4 or 5 of them in different sizes, and never have to tuck a book under a tablecloth again. Do not use a spray sealant on the piece as it will dissolve the foam flock. When the piece gets worn out, you can experiment with it and make something different, or just throw it away.

Hamster Boy

Related links: Woodland Scenics

References: 1. Warhammer Fantasy Battles, Games Workshop 2000, pg 28

Posted in Terrain Building.

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