Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Going with the flow: Making rivers fast and cheap(ish)

For several years now I've been muddling through with rivers that I've made over time, mainly using perspex, for wargaming tables that I no longer own. These older tables were all somewhat smaller than the one I have now and consequently I've never had quite enough river to do exactly what I've wanted to do, especially in wider span. In the back of my mind I've been laying plans to rectify this situation, and now I've finally started to put those plans into motion.

A picture showing some of my old river stock.
The first new river I've made is what I now term the 'wide' one. This is for representing the widest rivers; such as the Danube, Elbe, Po, etc. Being a firm believer in the right to compress terrain, the actual distance of the span of the river is relatively unimportant providing that the river looks wide enough to do more than get your little lead soldier's feet wet.  It is simple enough to say the river is too wide to shoot muskets across, add 12" to artillery ranges when firing across it, etc. A wargame's table is only so wide and the footprint of impassible terrain is an import consideration. I decided on a span of 180 mm of water with a 30 mm bank. Incidentally, there will be two other span widths of river (a 100 mm wide river and a 50 mm wide river, both with 30 mm wide banks) which I plan to make in exactly the same way so that I have a totally integrated system of waterways. I've also decided to make enough length of each river to cover all (at least most) eventualities.

The basic material for the river is 2 mm thick MDF which I bought in 4' x 3' sheets. This is pretty cheap stuff, from memory it was less than £3 a sheet. 

I undercoated what would be the reverse side with some household emulsion paint to seal it. I've been led to believe that MDF likes to soak up any moisture in the atmosphere which can lead to warping. I don't know if this is true but a little undercoat can't hurt.

Then, for the wide river, I drew out the sections with their bank lines. I drew out a little over 17 feet of straight sections - 12 x 12" long, 6 x 6" long, 3 x 4" long and 5 x 3" long, plus 4 x 6" long sections for three permanent bridges and a pontoon bridge. I also drew out 2 x 12" long sections with tributary points to connect 5 cm wide river sections and 450 degrees of river bends in 15 degree, 22.5 degree 30 degree and 45 degree angles. BTW, my table is 14' 8" long and 6' wide.

I cut the straight edges, where one river section butts up against another using a Stanley knife and a steel rule, then I cut the wavy edges of the outside banks with a coping saw. A little fine sand paper was used to remove any burrs.

Here is one of the tributary sections freshly cut from the sheet and marked out with its pencil lines for the banks. Note the wavy edge that cuts to and fro across the straight pencil line - somewhere another river edge mirrors this edge -  so one saw cut can produce two edges; this saves MDF, time and elbow grease.
Next I added the banks using lengths of foam board (5mm thick) which were cut slightly deeper than the bank depth would be. Note that I cut the internal sides of the bank with a wavy edge before fixing into place with PVA glue. I used a scalpel with a 10A blade to make the cut.

Note that the internal wavy edge was cut using one cut to produce two mirroring edges. Note that the internal banks line up with the internal bank pencil line at the section ends: So the river sections join up correctly. Also note the straight outside edges that overhang a wavy edge beneath, and the slight overhang at the straight section ends. These overhangs will be cut off later.
Once the foam board was stuck to the MDF, the overhangs could be cutaway using a sharp 10A scalpel blade. It's best not to skimp on blades for this. I used three, in all, for doing this. I kept the slightly blunted blades for less precise work at some point in the future.

The banks are almost finished. They just need to be chamfered to produce nicer slopes. The outside chamfer of the bank was the tricky cut as I don't have a knife with a long enough blade to produce it. I had to use a handle-less Stanley blade to produce the cut - and a very sharp blade is essential here.

The Stanley blade being used to chamfer the outside edge using the MDF base as a cutting guide. Not an ideal way to make this cut but, effective nonetheless.
The inside edge is cut at a much steeper angle so a scalpel can be used.

Using the base line of the edge as a guide is the best way to make this cut. It is an easy job to do so you can take your time. The outside chamfer can be clearly seen in this shot. It is much shallower than the internal edge of the bank.
That is pretty much it. Essentially the rivers are made and only need finishing with paint and flock. I used household emulsion paint for mine. I used a mixture of black, blue and green to get a dark colour as the base for the river and then I dry brushed it with a turquoise blue. The water was finished with a couple of coats of clear varnish (more anon). I did the banks in dark brown dry brushed with light brown, and the banks in dark green then flocked. The drying results are pictured below.

Drying the flock. Note the paint tins being used as weights: This was the paint I used: 250 ml Dulux sample pots mixed to required shade in the shop; I got these for £3 a tin and they are all still over half full. Lastly, note the sheets of uncut MDF protecting my wargame table beneath - it's as cheap as chips.
As for the painting of the water, well, it didn't turn out quite as I'd hoped. The colour looked O.K. until the varnish went on. Then, low and behold, the dry brushed blue suddenly went very bright and at least a full shade lighter. With the varnish on I thought that was it. Then, yesterday, I was finishing the painting of the third permanent bridge. I'd run out of my very clear varnish and so I had to use some old yacht varnish I've had kicking around for years, and because it's brownish in colour it gave a completely different finish to the water, especially after three coats. And I liked it more than the other colour.

My new three arch bridge - it's made with foam board sides, artistist mounting card roadway and thin card for the interior of the arches. The brickwork is balsa wood. Note the much darker river!
I had an idea. Always a scary moment, so I sat back and thought some more. I didn't want to spend hours putting three more layers of varnish on my rivers, so what if I added a couple of thimbles full of wood stain to the yacht varnish? I slept on it, I woke up; I went for it.

Wood dye, yacht varnish, a tub of the coffee coloured mix, and a river section half done. This doesn't really show the colour difference....but the next picture does.
This is much better and more what I was originally looking for. It's funny how things happen, sometimes.

Way too blue, now much better.
So there you have it. Lots of river sections done quickly and relatively cheaply. The MDF used cost around £5; the foam board cost £3: the paint used cost £7.50 (£15 outlay but there is lots left to finish the other planned river section projects), the flock used cost £1.50; the varnish cost £7. Other bits and pieces I had hanging around anyway, such as blades and PVA glue, and various DIY surplus / leftovers. It took a whole long day to make and paint the river sections, start to finish, plus an hour to put on that last coat of mucky coloured varnish - which I hope dries by tonight because we're playing with it.

Some of the river sections (about 15') in use in tonight's (continuing) game which I'll report the conclusion of.
So simple anyone can do it. It's not the best river I've seen, by a long shot, but, for time, effort and money spent doing it, I think it's pretty neat.


ColCampbell50 said...

Great instuctive piece.

Don't know if you can get "snap knives" in the UK ( ) but I use them to cut foam core. The extendible blade could help you in chamfering the outer bank. Plus if you get a simple sharpening device, you can maintain a sharp edge on your knife blades.



Hi Jim,

You can get them and I've used them in the past. In fact I have one somewhere, or at least the handle for one. That would have been just the ticket but I didn't have one to hand when I discovered I needed one. I'll have to dig it out and invest in some quality blades.


Lasgunpacker said...

I think those river segments are quite good, and the final color with the brown dyed varnish turned out very well.

I feel like bridge pieces and fords are where the river terrain could get "fancy" if you wanted.

Will McNally said...

Really enjoyed the detailed process description and especially the use of wood dye. I might try using it neat on the batch of canals I have to make.

Eric the Shed said...

excellent stuff

Phil Broeders said...

Looks fantastic. Great technique

Steve J. said...

Those rivers are very effective, and the brown lacquer really helps tone down the blue.

Der Alte Fritz said...

Very inspirational report that makes me want to give it a go.


Carlo said...

Excellent “How to “ piece which I will come back to religiously. Thanks James.

Heinz-Ulrich von Boffke said...


Best Regards,


Gonsalvo said...

Great looking rivers, James!

Jonathan Freitag said...

Excellent result! Color of the water looks is very pleasing.

Scheck said...

A really basic and simple way with a great effect at the end. I like the dimension and proportion very much and its flexibility on the tabletop. Well done! Thank you for this report.

Jiminho said...

This was very instructive and your results are splendid. Encouraging...! Many thanks for posting this.