Desert Gaming Mat

In this post I'll show you step by step how I made my desert gaming mat.

Gaming is escapism.  The more realistic the battlefield, the more convincing the escape.  A good gaming mat transforms the table into a grassy meadow, sandy desert, scrubland, steppe, an ocean, or even Mars.  The mat forms the foundation for the rest of the terrain and occupies the largest surface area.  If you want your tabletop to look better, start with the mat.

Years ago I bought 4´ x 8´ grass and desert mats and matching hills from The Terrain Guy, which is sadly defunct.  These are still great mats made of fine flock stuck onto a flexible canvas with some sort of thin mastic or epoxy.  In their day they were the best thing going.  But I now game on a 5´ x 9´ table and wanted to level up my mat game.

Also, a benefit of making your own mat is that you can make sure other terrain features like hills, rivers, forests, rough ground, etc. complement the mat.  So you can really indulge your OCD.

What Inspired Me?

I was particularly inspired by the mats created by Wargaming With Silver Whistle.  NB: Buy his book Setting the Scene; it is an incredible resource and inspiration for terrain-making. 

Other guides and inspiration can be found at Tobi's Paint Pot; Big On MiniaturesOperation: Wargaming; ArkieGamer; The History Network; Stew art's post at The Miniatures Page; Silent Invader's post at Lead Adventure Forum; and especially The Terrain Tutor’s video experimenting with different formulations of caulk, paint, and texture. 

These methods all involve spreading caulk, paint, and sand over a cloth, and then painting and flocking it.  My approach is an amalgamation of these sources, tortured overthinking, some experimentation, and experience with a failed mat (more on that later).

 

The Guide

This guide shows how I created my desert gaming mat.  It looks realistic, stands up to gaming, and is easily rolled up for storage.  So it looks good and is also practical.

It’s not difficult.  Yes it is a multi-day process, but only because of drying time.  If you start on a Friday after work you can finish by Sunday afternoon.  The process is messy and caulk is hard to clean, so just buy a big plastic dropcloth and wear clothes you don't mind throwing away. 

This is a social project.  You need two people for the initial steps, and three would be perfect.  Definitely buy plenty of good beer and pizza for your friends kind enough to help out.

NB:  This guide is for a desert mat, but I think the process would be about the same for a grass mat.  You would just use different paint colors and glue on a lot more flock and static grass at the end.  I plan to make one soon and will let you know how that goes.

Here's What Not To Do.

Before diving in, let me tell you what didn’t work.  My first go at this involved a thickish layer of cheap caulk (without silicone) onto which I glued a layer of sand with watered-down PVA (Elmer's) glue.  The texture was great, but the mat was stiff, barely rolled up, and developed fissures in the sand.  It wasn't something you could roll up without damaging the mat, and after unrolling it took at least a day to (mostly) level out.  It was a total loss.

It became obvious I needed to: (1) use the good caulk with silicone for added flexibility and (2) mix the sand into the caulk so that the sand is held together and to the mat by a more flexible medium.  Many of the sources above say it's fine to use the cheap caulk.  I disagree entirely.  Buy the good caulk with silicone:

With all that in mind, here goes nothing…

Materials Needed

Step 1

First you need a table.  I used my gaming table so I would end up with a mat that is exactly the right size for my table. 

If you can't use your gaming table or don't have one, just build a wood frame and stretch the canvas over it.  If you go this route, make sure your frame is square, plumb, level, and won't distort when the canvas is stretched over it.  And make the frame bigger than you need your mat to be.  That way you can simply cut the mat out of the middle to get a nice, even, rectangular mat.

Next lay a large plastic dropcloth over your table.  Use a big dropcloth with plenty of overhang and coverage on the ground to protect against spills. 

 

Once the dropcloth is laid, stretch the canvas over the table and secure with heavy duty clips.  Stretch the canvas as tightly as possible.  If the canvas is loose you will have a crumpled mat once the caulk dries.  You need two people to stretch the canvas properly; three would be ideal.

My table has a 6˝  drop around the sides, so I bought canvas that was 1´ wider than my table.  That let me secure the canvas by clamping the overhang onto the drop.  Your table may be different, and so you may need to use a different method to secure the canvas.  It's not a big deal as long as the canvas is securely stretched.

I didn't take a picture of this step but you can see what I did in the pictures below.

Step 2

The second step is to spread a thin layer of caulk over the entire canvas.  This impregnates a layer of flexible caulk into the canvas.  I don't know if this step is strictly necessary, but it was widely enough recommended that I took it for Gospel.  Also, The Terrain Tutor's testing suggests that sand and paint degrade the flexibility of the caulk.  Maybe the base layer of caulk helps counteract any degraded flexibility in the caulk, sand, and paint mixture that follows.  Maybe not, but skip this step at your peril.

Start by squirting the caulk all over the canvas.  The caulk will come out in "snakes" that you should drizzle liberally onto the canvas:

You will need three to four times more caulk than this.  This was just the first "squirt" doing it for the Gram, but it gives you an idea of the process.

Spread the caulk "snakes" into a thin layer covering the whole canvas.  Work quickly and don't let the caulk dry before spreading.  You really do need two people for this step, otherwise the caulk will dry before you can spread it.  Once spread, the caulk should be at least 1/16˝ thick and probably no thicker than 1/8˝.  You want to end up with something like this:

Note how thin the caulk is.

This is a closeup of the texture of the initial caulk layer.  Note the nuggets and texture.

Let the caulk dry overnight.  Once dry, rub off the nuggets.  The texture will be covered up by the next layer and, in any event, a little texture will probably help the next layer adhere.

There will be areas where the caulk didn’t quite cover the canvas or shrank as it dried.  Don't worry!  Just fill these areas in with more caulk so you have an even base layer.  I used clear silicone caulk because I thought it would do a better job of filling in gaps (and also because I had some at hand and had run out of the other caulk).  As a bonus, the sheen of the clear silicone made it easy to see what areas had been repaired:

The darker spots are the repairs done with the clear silicone caulk.

Step 3

In this step we apply the texture layer.  It is the messiest step, so I recommend you use a big dropcloth and get some friends to help (remember the beer and pizza).

Begin by mixing the caulk, sand, and paint.  Make a big batch in a 5 gallon bucket.  You will need about 12 bottles of caulk for a 5´ x 9´ mat.  Better to make too much than to not have enough.

I did not use exact proportions, but my mixture was more or less 60% caulk, 30% sand, and 10% paint.  You don’t want a lot of paint; just enough to tint the mixture so any damage doesn’t reveal bright white caulk.  For that reason, you should use a darker brown than the base color.  Add some water to make the mixture spreadable, but you don't want it too thin.  I know phrases like "too thin" are meaningless; hopefully the pictures give you an idea of consistency.

Here are the unmixed ingredients in a bucket:

Lovely, innit?

Once combined, the mixture looks like a chocolate milkshake but smells gross (and no doubt tastes gross and is poisonous). You will probably think there is not enough sand, but keep in mind the caulk will shrink as it dries and the water will evaporate.  I suspect I could have added a little more sand and would have been fine.  Too much sand will make the mat stiff and prone to cracking, but I don't know how much sand is too much (I am, however, willing to accept research grants).  Anyways, here is what my mixture looked like:

This is about the texture you want. 

Spread the mixture over the canvas (technically the thin base layer of caulk).  I did this by putting dollops down on the canvas and spreading them with a wide stucco/plaster trowel.  Spread carefully and with a light, even touch.  Avoid pressing into the mat with the corners of the trowel.  The goal is a layer about 1/8˝ thick.

Plop, plop...

You really do want a wide trowel to spread with, and you probably want to spread a greater quantity than shown here for the picture.
 

The pictures illustrate the streaks that result when a grain of sand gets drug by the trowel through the caulk mixture.  There is no way to avoid this.  The trowel also tends to create "swirls" where it is turned.  These can be minimized but not entirely avoided.  The good news is these imperfections can be disguised fairly well by light dabbing with a damp (not soaking wet) sponge.  You don't need to dab immediately after spreading, but I wouldn't wait more than five minutes.

Here is the mixture drying

I did this step with two people and it worked out fine.  But ideally you would have three: one person spooning the mixture onto the canvas, one person spreading with the trowel, and the third person sponging.

Don’t worry if you run out of the caulk and sand mixture.  That happened to me and it was not a problem.  Just let the mixture dry, mix up another batch, and apply where needed.  You will probably need to patch some small areas anyways.

I ran out

This shows the patches.

Step 4

The fourth step is to paint the canvas.  I used Sherwin Williams Baguette for the base coat, Coriander Powder for the mid tone drybrush, and Stucco and Dover White for the highlight drybrushes.  Definitely use latex house paint because it has some natural flexibility which helps avoid cracks. 

Paint the base coat using a roller brush with a heavy texture roller.  Be rather generous with the paint and roll from different directions for an even coat.  I think I did two coats.

Use whatever colors you want.  However, don't go too dark with the base color.  The mat is textured, but not as heavily or finely textured as pure sand or many terrain pieces you might be used to painting.  So a lot of the base color will show through even after drybrushing.  A darker base color will create a starker contrast and look unrealistic over such a large area.

Here you can see the base coat (Baguette):

It took some work to make sure the base coat covered the interstices of the texture.

This is the mid tone (Coriander Powder), which was drybrushed heavily:

The mid tone was heavily drybrushed onto the base coat.

And finally a light drybrush of the highlights (Stucco and then a selective light highlight of Dover White):

The final highlight!

Step 5

The fifth step is to apply patches of static grass and flock.  Just glue the static grass and flock on with PVA glue (Elmer's) and seal with a watered down PVA glue.  I used a static grass applicator; it's like Viagra for static grass.  Once dry, take a stiff toothbrush to the thicker patches to feather them out a bit.

I strategically placed grass patches to cover streaks the sponging did not smooth out.  A few streaks can look good, but I had more than I wanted.

Here's a good closeup shot of the painted mat and static grass.

I used two colors of static grass from HEKI and Peco, and a few clumps of burnt green foliage from Woodland Scenics.  The lighter colored grass is from Peco and was 4mm.  The different colored patches break the ground up nicely.

Step 6

Once everything was dry, I cut out the mat using a utility knife with a sharp blade and a straight edge.  I cut mine so it fits pretty exactly on top of my tabletop and doesn’t hang down.

The completed mat!

What Would I Do Differently?

I'm happy with the mat.  As always, in hindsight there are things I would consider doing differently.  I didn't include these thoughts in the tutorial because I haven't tried them and don't know how well they will actually work out.  But I leave them here for your consideration:

  • I would try cutting the mat out after the first layer of caulk.  I had difficulty achieving clean and even cuts through areas where the sand and caulk mix spilled over the side or didn't quite cover the edge.  This resulted in imperfections on the edges, which you can see in the picture above.  Cutting the mat out before applying the texture may help avoid this, but I'm not 100% sure.

  • I might try a light sprinkle of sand over the wet caulk and sand mixture.  The caulk blunts the sand texture more than I would like, but creates a flexible and sturdy mat you can roll up.  I suspect a light sprinkle of sand over the wet caulk would add texture without adding enough bulk to be problematic.

  • I wouldn't use 4mm static grass again.  It didn't stand up well and gets matted easily.

  • Definitely use one of the bigger static grass applicators.  I used one of the small ones and will not do so again for a project this large.

  • Get a friend to help apply the static grass.  I brushed on the glue and applied the static grass by myself.  It was doable, but a team of two would have been better.

  • Buy more static grass than you think you need.  There will be significant "over-sprinkle" when you shake on the static grass, but it takes awhile to dry enough so that you can brush the excess away to reuse.  That means you are either slowed down waiting for glue to dry, or (like me) being stupid and trying to brush away the excess before the glue is dry so you can go on to the next area of patches.

Conclusion

Thanks for reading.  I hope you found this useful or at least interesting.  It really isn't a hard process, just time-consuming and messy.  All in all, I think it's worth the effort.  My gaming group seems to agree and I hope yours does as well.

If you have any questions or thoughts, comment below and we can get a little knowledge bank going.  If I don't have an answer, I'm sure another reader will.

© 2020 by Fantastic Legions