Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Making movement trays on the cheap

This spring, I'm living a dream I've had since I was a wee little wargamer almost thirty years ago: gaming the Zulu War of 1879. However, an early playtest and a fun stop-motion animation revealed that moving dozens (nay, hundreds) of Zulu warriors across the tabletop was tedious and a pain in my back. Literally. I'm getting too damn old to remain hunched over my minis for long. So the solution came naturally: get movement trays for my Zulus. There are certainly a number of fine manufacturers out there, who create fine-looking products at reasonable prices.

However, I'm cheap. Since I would require over a dozen trays to move my Zulus, even a savings of $1-3 dollars per tray would be worth it.

I also like the DIY aspect of gaming. Making a good-looking scratch built object is far more satisfying to me than shelling out bucks for something prefab. So I hit Home Depot and the craft store for the following materials:

Foam craft sheets, 4"x6" and about 2mm thick, just the right height for my penny-mounted Zulus. These can be had at my local dollar store at 12 for a buck.

One of my wife's cannoli tubes. If you are not so lucky as to have a wife who is into making desserts, you can get these on eBay at $6 for four. They come in two sizes, 3/4" and 7/8" diameters. The 7/8" works out to about 22mm, just slightly larger than the diameter of my penny bases. Perfect. What do you do with the other three cannoli tubes? Make cannolis of course! They're delicious!

Self-adhesive flooring tiles. I cut these to match my foam sheets, so I get six bases per tile. Since I'm making twelve trays, I needed two tiles. They run $1 each at Home Depot.

White glue. Again, hit the dollar store here.

Sand. I get more than I need when I empty out my daughter's shoes after she comes home from school. Her playground-leavings also have pebbles and twigs, which will add texture when i apply it to the bases.

Paint. Good old tan and white craft paints, a dollar for 4 oz. at the craft store. Way mroe than you'll need.

Brushes. Best to use ones you can beat the hell out of.

Static grass.

That's it. Total outlay for twelve trays: $8, or about $.67 a tray. Total savings: over $50. I figure that's about a case of my-tee fine beer. Well worth it.

I want each base to hold twenty warriors. I used the cannoli tube to score twenty holes in a fairly irregular pattern. I suppose you could cut the foam into whatever shape you desire beforehand, but rectangles work for me.


Use an exacto knife to cut out the circles you created with the cannoli tube. I suppose you could really just punch the holes with the tube alone, but this will bend the ends of the tube, causing no end of grief from the missus. The Mad Doctor recommends against it.


Cut the tiles to fit the foam sheets with a stout hobby knife. Once the tile is cut, remove the backing and stick the foam sheets on. If you leave a little overhang, as you see in the photo above, don't fret. Chill. You can simply use the texturing to make such errors disappear in the next step.


Texture the base with a mixture of glue, sand, and water (I do 1:1 white glue and water, then add sand until the texture is right). Then, apply to the trays with one of your kids' old paintbrushes. You can tell them the dog got it if they ask.

Let the sand dry, at least eight hours. Remove any sand that accumulated in the holes. Even a few grains will not let the figures lie flush with the tray. Then prime with a spray primer. I prefer black, but that's just me. Now paint that sucker. Apply paint liberally, but do not slop it on, as accumulations at the edges of the holes will cause the figures to pop up.


Mix a little white paint with the shade you used for the base coat. Now dry brush lightly over the sand texture to bring out details. I don't suppose this step is necessary, but to me it makes a huge difference.


Apply static grass, using more thinned white glue to secure it.

Viola! You're done. A dozen trays, capable of holding 240 angry Zulus (note to self: develop new IPhone app), cost me under $10 and only took about an hour or two of hobby time. Now on to Rorkes Drift!
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