I like 'em cheap and easy! ... Figure bases, that is.
Today's Hobby Tip focuses on basing. Whether it be for rank and file army models or for competition entries, such as Games Workshop's Golden Demons, the base is an integral part of the overall "atmosphere" of the figure; that said, despite being fairly important compositionally, that does not mean you need to spend large amounts of money to get reasonable-looking basing. Since getting into miniature painting again several years back, I suppose I've generally been of the opinion that unless I necessarily need to go out of my way for some fancy name-brand product or expensive, spectacular method that I absolutely have to use in order to get a certain appearance or end result, by and large I prefer to do it with cheap and readily-accessible "substitutes." Tools are one thing I don't skimp on: Kolinsky Red Sable paintbrushes, assorted stainless steel needle files in a number of shapes, assorted angles of side- and end-cutters (with some specifically set aside for rough work like sprue- and wire-clipping, and some for fine conversion), a variable-speed Dremel with a ton of attachments and bits, general workshop tools (band saw, router, jigsaw, scroll saw, pyrogravure, etc.), an overhead adjustable daylight painting lamp - I'm sure you get the picture.
I've pretty much used the same materials for basing since starting back in the hobby, and you can see them laid out in the background of the picture above: (from left to right) "ant dirt" and small rocks taken from outdoors, clean non-clumping clay kitty litter, wood glue (aka PVA glue), cornmeal, and bits of extruded polystyrene insulation foam left over from other projects. In the foreground, you can see an assortment of bases themselves - they all use the same materials, with the addition of a few "found objects" in the case of the Ork Nob's base, some shaped lengths of sprue and clipped paperclip segments on the Genestealer Patriarch base, tinted Future Floor Finish and clippings from a $0.99 wall edging brush on the base of the Privateer Press Deathripper, and on the bases of the Necron constructs, um... I guess the only inexpensive oddity there would be the 0.3mm music wire holding up the Scarabs (I've never liked clear plastic flying bases or the built-in risers for Scarabs, so I made my own variable-height ones).
For clarification's sake, what I call "ant dirt" is the ultra-fine to small-grade grit that the ants living between the blocks of my driveway were nice enough to gather, process, sort, and collect for me every summer. Aside from picking out the occasional tiny piece of grass or plant material as I use it (personal preference there, I suppose), it goes straight from a backyard ant mound to the container, and then right to figure bases with a bit of glue. I find it's excellent for anything where I need extra-fine grit or minor texturing (and have gone so far as to "paint it" using thinned wood glue straight onto basing or even models, especially if I want a rusty or muddy texture). The overall mixture from the tub is great for mixing amongst larger pieces rubble or scree in order to fill in gaps, or even just applied to a base as-is to simulate uneven rocky/sandy ground cover.
The cornmeal is pretty straightforwards: it comes in a large can from the grocery store, is pretty much a uniform grain size (slightly larger than the finer ant dirt), is already dried out so I needn't worry about mold growth, and is somewhat moisture absorbent so it dries nice and compactly on a base when spread over already-applied thinned wood glue. It also clumps naturally when wet, and so is good for effects like "built up" texture for footprints or wind-blown debris (basically, when mixed with a little thinned wood glue to thicken it up, I can apply it like a "paste" and push it around with an old brush. I use corn meal on the majority of my basing, by and large, just because it's so versatile; generally I apply it straight on with thinned wood glue.
The clay kitty litter is good because it comes in a variety of "natural" fine-scale rock shapes, can easily be broken into smaller particles or filed down to weird angles for effect, and is probably the cheapest material in bulk out of the lot. Even a small bag of cat litter should last ages and ages. It makes for great fine-scale rubble, miscellaneous debris, rock piles, and even broken concrete depending on the shape and size of the pieces used.
The wood glue in the picture has lasted me quite a while (yeah, it's Elmer's) and is slightly more durable, in my opinion, than regular household white PVA craft glue (probably Elmer's also) and a helluva lot cheaper than the repackaged stuff some companies sell at a profit for modeling (again, probably Elmer's as well). It comes in much larger containers than white PVA glue and (don't quote me) is cheaper because it isn't bleached/doesn't have the whitening agents added to household glue in order to make it "pretty." It dries clear and rock hard, and doesn't leave any more of a "footprint" than CA glue, even.
Extruded polystyrene insulation foam (pink foam, blue foam, EPS foam) is fairly easy to come by in most areas that have warmer temperatures. You can buy it in bulk in large sheets from home improvement/DIY stores (mine was originally 4' by 8' but got broke in half over my knee when it became belligerent about fitting into the hatchback) and is more or less equal in hardness and consistency, regardless of color. (Pink = Home Depot, Blue = Lowe's Home Improvement, and a large 1" thick sheet that's cheap per square foot and can be squirreled away in the garage rafters until needing to get a chunk cut off for a project = pure win!) Yeah, you could go even cheaper and use the white polystyrene that comes boxed with new "toys" as a "shock absorber," but that stuff is a rougher texture, has a larger "grain," and just isn't as convenient to store as a large flat sheet. (Remember I said I generally go cheaper when possible but buy "quality" when I need to - this is one of those instances.) So far as uses: the small off cut chunks like what you see here make great rocky debris, especially with a little texture added. They're also good for use underneath other basing material, such as the "mound" on the base of the Genestealer Patriarch from my picture.
A few asides:
I've personally never used static grass on any of my based miniatures (although I bought a small tub of it some months back when I finally found a brand and shade that didn't have any extra odd colors mixed throughout), but I think I still manage to get a reasonable variety of base appearances - that's why it's not on my short list here.
So far as display/competition pieces go, I've generally used the same style and materials in basing those as I do for "less fancy" figures. I still like to make a good presentation and get across a certain "atmosphere," though, so by and large I've made small-scale "dioramas" with insets to match the basing of most of the models I've entered in painting competitions. My Golden Demon entry at the Games Workshop 2007 Chicago Games Day for example, Gandalf at the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm, was converted and reposed in attempted replica of the "challenging the Balrog" scene from "The Fellowship of the Ring" movie, with the figure atop a 15" long span made from pink insulation foam, Spackle, fine grit, and a reinforcing wood dowel.
I'm sure I'll probably make a fancy multilevel display base at some point - I just haven't yet. The "fanciest" I've gotten so far has been a round 1 1/2" tall resin display plinth with a piece of trimmed-to-shape metal air duct sheeting flush with the top. It had the edges deburred and rounded down with a bastard file (I love that name!) so it can be used - even held upside down - with any of my figures where I've epoxy glued rare earth magnets underneath (so far pretty much all of them).
Hopefully I've gotten across the idea that if you are so inclined you can have basing for your figures that looks good with a little creative use of inexpensive and readily-available materials. I'd appreciate any feedback or other comments on figure basing that people care to throw my way - what do the rest of you use?
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