Building Desert Dwellings

One of the great joys of fighting in the desert is that you don’t need a lot of terrain. That said, you DO need SOME terrain, and two games into our campaign I realised that some more terrain, specifically houses, was required.
I made the daft error of ordering some very nice palm trees on EBay before checking where they were being sent from: China. So much to my annoyance I now have a long wait for those to arrive. Having right royally cocked that up I decided to make the desert buildings from the large pile of rubbish I collectively call my “spares box”. At least I wouldn’t be obliged to wait for the Christmas post to get itself right again.
My main medium for this project would be some high density polystyrene, the blue stuff that builders use for insulation. I had bought a 1″ thick sheet of this a while back and still had the bulk of it lying about. This would not allow me to place figures inside the buildings as the walls would be too thick, but they would be robust and the material is easy to sand and carve, so I made this sacrifice to the God of expediency.
Firstly I drew up my plans. Not very pretty, but I needed to take into account the unusual thickness of the walls, so drawing it up was essential.
2013-12-26 12.24.27I then cut out the basic shapes before I trimmed part of the top of each wall away to allow for a lip upon which the flat roof would sit.
2013-12-26 12.24.182013-12-26 12.33.49Next I glued the lot together with my trusty hot glue gun, taking care to ensure that I suffered several serious burns en route. Hot glueing would just not be the same without extreme pain!
One point to note here. We are not looking for architectural perfection here; this is not a project being built by Richard Rogers. It is not even a project being built by Kenny Rogers. This is a dump in the Libyan desert built by Colonel Gaddafi’s Granny with the help of two goats and a camel, and with most of the building material coming out of the back end of the latter. Thus, keeping it rough and ready is not an issue.
2013-12-26 12.36.392013-12-26 12.38.17Now this was assembled I carved the stonework detail with a sharp scalpel. I did this for the most pronounced areas of wear, following which I used a pencil to simply draw on the detail, pressing firmly to ensure that the polystyrene was nicely marked. I then sanded the whole construct lightly to smooth off any angular corners and provide a genuine “world class dump” look.
2013-12-26 14.02.412013-12-26 14.36.41
You can see that any errors made are easily rectified at this stage with a dab of hot glue and a bit of foam. I find the foam fairly easy to cut. I used the bread knife for most of this (I failed to mention that to the wife), with some fine work being down with a boning knife. I did start out with a sharp blade and all that craft rubbish, but frankly the domestic tools worked better.
Next I added the roof and the doors, all of which were cut from a sheet of artists mounting board, also languishing in the “spares box”.
2013-12-26 14.51.35Following this was the minor but important step of mounting the model on a base. As we’ll see later I want to add some bric-a-brac to the base, but equally importantly this gives the whole model some real strength. The trusty “hot glue gun of pain” was used again.
2013-12-26 16.06.16Next I whipped out the Milliput to make some bits and bobs to put on the base of the buildings. I should not here that I was making three separate buildings, two of which had small shops as part of their construction. As a result some pots, jugs and sacks seemed appropriate. Frankly, I am not very good at this sort of thing, but then I doubt that Mrs Gaddafi was much better, so the rustic look will be fine.
2013-12-26 17.52.35Of course I had mixed up far too much Milliput, so I used the excess to nake a rug hung over the roof of the building and to fill some gaps in the buildings. This wasn’t intentional and I only did it on one building, but it was a worthwhile addition to the process so I am reporting it here.
2013-12-26 17.51.31The next phase is an invisible one, so no photos. I painted all of the building thoroughly with PVA glue. This is because the aerosol undercoat I planned to use will eat into polystyrene, so one needs to seal the building so that none of the paint touches the polystyrene. This is pretty simple if a bit tedious, I drank heavily during this stage in the process in order to ease my pain.
The next bit is more photogenic. I mixed some Polyfiller interior filler with PVA glue and coated the building to give it a rough look as befits the harsh environment of North Africa. The PVA gives this mix incredible strength and sticking power.
2013-12-27 10.02.27Once that was dry I mixed up a stiffer mix of Polyfiller which I then applied with the butter knife, again taking care not to tell the missus. This is really a case of getting it to fit where it touches. The idea is that the original render has been eroded by the sands to time and what remains is pretty shoddy.
2013-12-27 20.51.35Having allowed that to dry I sanded it down fairly vigorously. Being a PVA mix it does not sand well, but retains all of its “rustic charm”. Finally I added some rough stones around the base of the building and then some finer sand towards the edges of the base. I use Sharp Sand which contains all manner of tiny rough stones. I like this as I can seive it and use the rough stones to mark dried up wadis and rough ground. It is far more versatile than builders sand which is just horrible stuff. A note of caution. I use PVA glue to apply the sand and gravel. However, once this is dry use a watered down PVA to paint over the top of the sand and stones as this will fix it in place. Fail to do that and the sand will drop off.
2013-12-28 08.41.00So, that was my building done. Now to the paintwork.
As you’ll have noted above, I planned to use a car undercoat spray to put a base coat on these. However, once I got them outside I discovered that I had run out of grey undercoat. Black would be too dark, so a quick root around in my spares box produced some acrylic paints that I had used to paint my Dark Age buildings back at the start of the Dux Britanniarum project. I was a bit worried that the colours would not be ideal, but in the spirit of getting the bloody job done with the minimum of buggering about, I applied a base coat of Burnt Sienna with a great big brush, making sure I got into all the nooks and crannies.
2013-12-28 11.04.06I let this dry to about 90% dryness before slapping on a semi-dry brush of yellow Ochre and then almost immediately added some heavy duty acrylic white to the mix and repeated the process.
2013-12-28 11.24.38I am very keen when painting stuff like this to never really allow one coat to dry entirely before putting on the next coat. This allows some really nice gradual colour blends. Unfortunately it also means there is no precise formula. However, you do get to a point where you realise that any further immediate addition of colours is not helping, and that’s the point to stop and let is dry out to around 90% dryness. Once that is achieved keep applying further coats of lighter paint until you finally get to pure white.
2013-12-28 11.33.00Let that dry now and then use pure white to bring out the patches of remaining plaster on the building rather than the areas where this has fallen off and the stonework is showing through. Then just dry brush the top parts of the building. With buildings in hot countries I always brush downwards as this seems to suggest the sun bleaching the uppermost parts of the building. Scientifically I am sure that is a nonsense, but it looks right to me!
2013-12-28 12.53.50You’ll see that throughout this whole process I haven’t touched the base. To be honest I wasn’t very pleased with the colour of the sand, so I painted this burnt umber and then dry-brushed that back up with Vallejo Deck Tan. At the end of the day my set up means that the bases will be covered with scattered sand, so this just needs to blend in with that.
Now the building is painted and the base has been sorted out, I concentrated on bits of detail. The doors, the carpet, adding the pots and bits. You’ll see that I have drilled two holes into the base. It had been my play to use cocktail sticks to support an awning, but I can’t find any. So, rifling through the kitchen draws I find some bamboo kebab skewers. (all I really need is a set of welding gear and a barn to be locked in and I can apply to join the A-Team after this exercise in parsimonious construction). I have to make the holes a bit bigger, but these will be more robust. I drill into the base with a pin vice drill and enlarge the hole with a knife and then a circular file.
2013-12-28 12.53.222013-12-28 14.27.072013-12-28 14.27.21Now this is done, I glue the bamboo skewers in place add the awning.
2013-12-28 16.59.512013-12-28 17.00.15I have seen people do a great job with real material on projects like this. That seems like hard work to me, so I use a tried and tested mechanism and use a tissue. I soak this liberally in PVA glue and put in the oven to dry. Once dry I repeat the process and dry it out again. This is a bit dodgy as polystyrene is not naturally at home in an oven, but I keep it to a low temperature and the job is done before the wife realises that her beloved oven is full of poisonous fumes. Arf arf.
2013-12-28 17.41.26Finally I paint the awning (top and bottom) using Vallejo Khaki as a base colour and then some random dark red to get your typical shop-keeper look. And it’s done. Finally I shove the finished buildings on the table and reach for the gin. My work here is done!
2013-12-28 17.43.462013-12-28 17.44.202013-12-28 17.44.112013-12-28 17.44.01If anyone is interested I can post up templates for building these.


9 thoughts on “Building Desert Dwellings”

  1. Thanks for posting! I was looking for some insulation foam in Wickes yesterday strangely enough. I was after some with which to start making my modular gaming board with. They only had regular polystyrene (large grain) style but they did have a very nice 8’x4’x2″ piece for about £22 which is a bargain, not sure how I would get it home easily though.

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