Tutorial: Display Bases for Miniatures

Crafting a Wooden Display Base
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A finished display base (sans figure).
Tools and Supplies:
  • a wooden base
  • wood stain
  • wood conditioner
  • rubber gloves and an old sock or t-shirt
  • Envirotex Lite
  • a cordless drill or drill press
  • a Forstner bit
  • sandpaper or a sanding block
  • masonite or fiberboard (optional)
  • jigsaw (optional)
  • masking tape
ou've spent hours converting and painting - nae, lovingly crafting a perfect miniature for a competition or as the centerpiece to your army, but something is missing. It just doesn't stand out from the rest. What you need is a display base!

Display bases are, obviously enough, more appropriate for miniatures that will spend much of their lifetimes on display. It makes perfect sense to showcase your best figures this way; even if it's only the commander of your regular army during those times when you're not playing. Luckily, a pleasant display base isn't a difficult task, but it will involve some woodworking skills.

For this tutorial, we'll be building a display base designed for standard wargaming sized bases, and we'll create it so that the figures are easy to insert and remove. This serves many of a miniature enthusiast's purposes, including allowing our newest work to replace the old without having to build a new base. In addition, storage of a display base without a miniature permanently attached is far easier and convenient. Of course these same techniques will still be applicable if you're interested in creating a museum level piece, with the miniature(s) integral to the display base.

The Basics

The start of what will be a display base.
Since many hobby shops carry wood already shaped into suitable display bases for very cheap prices, it's easier to just buy these than to mess with a router.
Though the processes in this tutorial will require some woodworking skills, I'm going to try and avoid excessive reliance on woodshop tools. Not everyone has access to a workshop, so every technique will need to be something that a gamer living in an apartment can do.

To that end, the easiest way to start this project is to buy an unstained wooden plaque from the local hobby shop. Blasphemy! Isn't this supposed to be a tutorial on how to make bases? It is, but if you own the type of router needed to shape the edges on a display base, you already know how to use it and don't need me to explain! For most gamers, however, routing their own bases is just not an option. Don't worry - there will be plenty of work to do yet.

Luckily, ready made wood plaques appropriate for display bases is very cheap, often costing less than a dollar or two (US) and available from most common hobby stores. It doesn't hurt to buy several of varying sizes and store them until you need them. Pick one you like and let's get busy.

Use fine grade sandpaper to smooth down the wooden plaque and remove any rough spots. Even if you're careful in choosing one that has few imperfections, you'll need to sand it down well. Sanding blocks are easier to use for this than plain sandpaper since they can be pushed into the recesses. After sanding, rub your hands over the plaque. What may appear smooth to the eyes can actually be quite rough. We don't want it glassy smooth, but it should be free of all rough spots and feel comfortable in the hands.

Kep's Footnotes: Routing your own Base
Routing bases.
So you're dead set on avoiding ready made plaques for your display base. Perhaps you have extremely high standards, want to use a specific type of wood, or you're just a masochist. No worries, I can direct you to a couple of highly detailed sites:

The DIY Network has many articles on routing projects, though this one in particular is useful.

Pat Warner is a router specialist, with plenty of no-nonsense information on safe router use.

After sanding the base, it's time to decide what sort of miniature will be displayed on the base -- specifically, what shape and size the plastic base of that miniature will be. We'll start with some common 25mm round bases, the sort that Warhammer 40K figures use. Decide where the miniature should be placed and trace the outline on the wood plaque.

Drilling the holes for 25mm bases.
The forstner bit in action.
Round bases are the easiest when you know the secret trick: use a 1" Forstner bit! These are very similar to regular drill bits, but create a flat bottom in the hole rather than a concave depression. The one I'm using in the sample images is attached to a drill press, which makes this sort of work amazingly easy and precise. Thanks to a small point in the center of the bit, Forstner bits can also be used with your common cordless drill. Regardless of what tool you use, make sure to clamp or otherwise secure the wood plaque before drilling or you could have a chunk of wood spinning wildly into a miniature, window, or face!

Keep a spare plastic base handy as you drill to make sure you are drilling to the correct depth. Ideally, you want the plastic base to be flush with the surface of the wood when it's set into the hole. If you like adding felt to the bottom of bases, you will want to drill slightly deeper to take this into account.

Besides being easy to use, Forstner bits are available in just about any size and so will accomodate just about any dimension of round base. Unfortunately, the larger the bit, the more the cost. Some of the larger sizes can cost $20US or more. Your standard trooper size bit (one inch, suitable for 25mm bases) costs around $5-10US but is worth every penny and should last for plenty of display bases.

Square base holes.
Square bases require a different way of creating holes than drilling.
Excellent. Now we can base any Warhammer 40K figure, but what about those square D&D figures or the Warhammer Fantasy stuff? While Forstner bits are awesome, they just can't handle square bases. Routing? Sadly, no -- routing at small scales is extremely difficult without special Dremel attachments, requires some degree of skill and practice, and often takes quite some time.

There is a simple solution. A commonly available hardwood known as masonite is very close to being the same height as your average base, and you can often find cutoffs from your local hardware store for very cheap if not free. You'll need a saw to work with masonite. A powered jigsaw will make the process simple, but a good jeweler's saw with a wide blade will also be up to the task (just make sure you avoid using your fine blades for masonite or you'll likely snap them).

What we need to do first is create a new top for the plaque. Flip both the masonite and the wood plaque upside down and stack the plaque on top of the masonite. Trace the outline of the plaque on the masonite and cut it out. You'll likely need to sand and shave the masonite down to make it match the plaque perfectly; it's better to be slightly smaller than too large. Do not attach it to the plaque yet!

As we did in preparation for creating round holes, decide on a position and trace the outline of the square base onto the masonite. Now cut out the square! You'll have to cut from one or more sides to remove the square. Try to keep them as neat as possible, but don't worry -- the cuts will not be visible when the display base is finished. Once the center square is removed, slide the pieces together as tightly as you can and make sure the square base fits in the hole. If it does, use small wire brads to nail the two pieces to the top of the wood plaque. Do NOT use glue to do this. After you've tried this for yourself, you should find it's far easier to do than it sounds.

After you've created all the square or round holes you want, place your miniatures inside and ensure that everything is placed correctly. Do not add any terrain to the base yet. That will happen in a later step to make sure the wood remains unmarred by stray paint or glue, since these will interfere with staining.

Let's move on to the fun stuff -- staining the wood!

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