Building notes. This all started with a cauldron from a Halloween candy. I thought it would make for a good prop. I just didn’t know for what.
Then the GI Joe Discussion Group posted their Halloween contest details. So I thought it would be cool to see Destro and friends growing their pet from the Sunbow episode "Skeletons in the Closet". While the cauldron was cool, I didn’t have a background for the scene I had in mind. Ever since joemichaels70 showed off his shelf displays that used insulation foam for mountains and caves for last year’s Custom Celebration, I’ve been meaning to do something that used it, but never felt comfortable getting started. After seeing meddatron’s, daremo’s, Obiwan Shinobi’s, and DarkWynter’s diorama work at the Fighting 118th’s East Coast Custom Con, and talking with them about how they achieved the textured look of their displays I was confident I could do this. Major thanks to all of those guys for inspiring me to try this and for giving me tips to make it happen. It wasn’t hard. Repetitive, but not difficult at all.
WARNING: this type of insulation foam board is fragile. It won’t break easily but it indents easily, which is why we’re using it, and has a tendency to tear if you go against the grain while cutting or carving. More on that later. When you buy it and store it, be careful to look for something that is scuffed up in the store and even more careful of what may lean up against it or be put on top of it. Trust me on that one.
Things you’ll need
- ¾” x 4’ x 8’ insulation foam board from Lowes ($18)
- xacto knife and blade sharpener
- wood hole punch tool (or anything that can be used to “draw into the Styrofoam)
- acrylic black and white paint
- sponge paint brush ($2)
- regular detail brush
- edging paint roller and tray (ended up just using the tray) ($3)
- hot glue gun and glue sticks
- circular container cover (not necessary but you’ll see what I used one for)
Step 1 Measure your walls
Measure your walls. Then measure again. Then, just for the heck of it, go ahead and measure again. Finally use an actual figure to make sure everything is tall enough and wide enough to be in scale for the figure. Remember that in 1:18 scale, 1 inch in the real world = 18 inches in Joe scale (4 inch figure equals 72 inches or 6 feet tall). One story of a building would be about 6 inches for the interior walls or 7-8 inches for any exterior walls. Use your marker to mark off your measurements and your ruler to measure and to connect any lines.
Step 2 Create a template for any doorways or windows
If you are creating multiple doors or windows you will want to use a template so you don’t have to re-measure them over and over. This will give you a standard look for the entire structure. Cardboard works the best for the long haul because it is easy to cut and lasts longer than paper, but paper will do if you’re only doing a couple. I used paper in this instance because I was only doing 3 doorways and 2 of them needed to have the same arched shape.
Step 3 Cut
Keep your blade sharp. I found it is better to do several shallow cuts rather than force the issue. Any time my blade got dull (just about every 5th-6th cut) the insulation would start to tear instead of slice. For that reason, I kept my blade sharpener right next to me at all times during this project. Overall, I think it is the same as using hobby foam board, just thicker. I used my ruler to keep my xacto blade from going off track which it always wants to do. The cardboard door templates are also nice for keeping the blade close to the shape of the door. As you’ll see I waited on the doors until I saw how the carving would look.
Put together your mock up
One thing you’ll want to do after you cut your walls is to stand everything up with whatever you’re using for a floor (I used another piece of insulation board) to make sure everything lines up the way you want it to. At this stage it is easy to correct anything that might be off. DO NOT wait until putting it all together to find out a wall is a half inch short or you cut something crooked. I speak from experience here. One of my own personal demons is forgetting to account for the depth of the walls where they join. With foamboard that is just a mildly annoying gap, with this thicker insulation board, or wood too, that gap means having to re-cut an entire piece. After you see what is next, you DO NOT want to have to start over.
Step 4 Carve/Draw
In this step you can use whatever sculpting tool you want that leaves the desired shape and depth for creating clean lines in the foam. Since you’ve already done your cuts you most likely have some scraps to do some tests on. I found a rasp (not pictured) that helped with the doorways and the floor, but for the walls I ended up using a wood hole punch. Technically you’re carving into the insulation, but it feels like more like drawing, with a little bit more pressure on it. If you are doing a brick wall you will want to follow you pre-drawn lines. The nature of this project meant no two stones look alike. At first I thought that meant it would be easy because I could just draw whatever I wanted. After a while I learned it is deceptively difficult because you can’t repeat shapes or sizes too much. You can’t go into autopilot because you have to actively create chaos that makes sense. I also tried to line up with stones on all of the walls so that when it was all put together it would look like it all blended together rather than sharp cuts in the stone work. Not necessary, but easy enough I figured why not.
At this point I also carved in the shape of the doors. I did this because I wanted to figure out how the edging stones were going to work, whether I was going to frame the doorway or not, and most importantly I wanted the stones to blend in with the door frame once the door was cut out. In the end, I didn’t frame the doorways like I originally planned. It would have been easy enough but the actual cut of the door frame seemed to fit a more roughed up cut into stone look.
I also went ahead and cut out a secret passage in a hallway section I decided to build. This was a little trickier in that the cuts had to be super-duper precise so the doorway could slide in and out. It still ended up looking like something from Scooby Doo.
Lastly for this particular part of the project I cut out some blocks to do some sculpted stone work. By that I mean I just drew a Destro mask face (think cheesy skeleton head) on some bricks that then got glued onto the side of what would be a pit. Again, whatever you can draw or carve out of the foam will work just as well. I even went back and put some cracks in some of the stone work.
For this project, I wanted to create a pit that was boarded up. After I cut out the circle shape using a Pyrex container cover as a template, I used the hole punch to divide the boards. Then I used the backside of my xacto blade to draw giant curvey "S"s to simulate wood grain. Finally, I cut two thin slices from some of the scrap to be the crossbeams and drew the metal brackets toward each end.
Now that is all project specific, but you could use the same method for exposed support beams, large wooden tables, draw bridges, doors, and framework.
I started with a black base coat for everything. This is going to serve as the mortar for all the bricks and the grain of the wood so it needs to stand out in pictures. It took two coats to cover everything and in retrospect I probably should have done three. No need to be clean during this step. Lay down some news paper, drop cloth, towel, whatever and slap some paint on.
Ok, so I didn’t just buy grey paint. I didn’t want everything to have a uniform color since this was supposed to have a natural stone look to it. So I mixed a lot of white with a little bit of black in my paint tray, scraped off excess, and did some light passes over the “stones”. With each pass came a slightly different shade from stone to stone that blended really well together. And the black paint in the recesses showed up nicely.
Once the stones were painted on the pit, I used some Vallejo saddle brown to go over the wood in the same exact fashion. I did two light layers and noticed all the green foam still poking out from underneath. So I went back over the walls and the pit and touched up 60% of the mortar lines and all of the timber sections. Then more brown for the pit cover. And finally some gun metal and black for the metal bracket and spikes on the cover.
I broke a dozen toothpicks in half and inserted 3-4 into the end of each section and of course where it was going to meet with the floor. I then drizzled hot glue along the edge and on each toothpick. Then I pressed the toothpicks into the corresponding wall and floor sections. Slowly. Making sure everything stayed lined up. Then I went back and filled in any gaps with hot glue. Just be careful and don’t do what I did.
Don’t get burned
That is when I got burned. I wasn’t paying attention and put my thumb right where I had just put some hot glue. The thing about hot glue is that you immediately pull your hand away in reflex to being burned, but the glue sticks to you and so you blister up right away even before you remove the glue. Don’t get burned like me. Pay attention.
This wasn’t necessary either but for the sake of helping make sure this piece lasts a while longer I put black electrical tape along the wall edges on the back of it. This had the added advantage of blocking out any light along the wall seams through the hot glue.
This was a lot easier then I thought it would be. While the work isn’t as clean as I would have liked, I’m pretty happy with how well things turned out for my first attempt. There’s room for improvement, but now I at least have another approach for some of the dioramas kicking around in my head. This entry placed 3rd in that GI Joe Discussion group contest, but it was never about the prizes. I customize for fortune and glory kid, fortune and glory.
drbindy dungeon video tutorials
drbindy shows how to create dungeon or castle walls using insulation foam.
Part 1: Carving
Part 2: Painting