The display cabinet in my gaming room has custom framed trays instead of regular shelves. Apart from allowing me to adjust the height of different shelves and easily pull out a tray for gaming purposes, it allows me to create little display dioramas. The trays are designed to have exterior dimensions of 24″ wide and either 18″ or 12″ deep (both types fit anywhere in the cabinet). The frame is 1″ wide all around and a bit over 1/2″ tall which allows for easy inserts of 1/2″ thick high density foam as the base layer for the diorama. All trays are spray coated in semi-gloss black with a strong layer of varnish (apart from looking good, this makes it a lot easier to wipe off any paint that accidentally went onto the frame).
For this tutorial I am going to build a diorama display for my Flames of War 15mm German Pionierkompanie (Pioneer Company). The diorama is reasonably elaborate and will show some key techniques such as geoscaping (stuff going into and out of the base surface), magnetising and a few different terrain features. The model-to-surface ratio for the diorama is fairly average for my display trays though probably on the high side for actual dedicated dioramas. I actually need to fit all my armies into the cabinet so I can’t just put a few models onto a big diorama base. The display cabinet can comfortably hold about 36 to 42 trays and while that sounds like a lot, it’s barely enough to hold all my painted models.
The first step of any of my display trays is to plan them out. I use Visio, a geometric drawing software, for this but you can use just about anything. I have templates for the two frame types as well as all base sizes (and vehicle sizes) in my collection so I can pull together a new design fairly quickly. The goal here is to figure out the overall layout of the diorama and ensure that all the necessary models will fit onto the base somewhere. Obviously I need to maintain complete units but I usually also design all the trays for a particular collection in one go. For this example I made up layouts for all my Flames of War German models, including leaving a bit of space for the most likely additions over the next few years. You can’t get this perfect but the last thing you want is to have finished three trays of Germans only to find that you have a single unit of tanks left over without a place to display. The German army will go onto three trays: Pioneers in defensive entrenchment (this tutorial), Panzers & Panzergrenadier on the march across the Russian steppe, and Grenadiers assaulting the outskirts of a town. It’s a bit tight on the last diorama and I might be forced to add a fourth tray at some point. The design for the first tray looks like this:
Note that only one Pioneer combat platoon made it onto the tray. The other one is mounted on Sd Kfz 251/7d and will be on one of the other trays. I am not really designing these trays to hold legal Flames of War formations, just some stuff that logically fits together and tells a diorama story.
Armed with the design I put a piece of 1/2″ high density foam into the tray and drew the individual units onto it. Some design changes were needed right away. In particular, I had to get rid of the ruined building on the top left as there was simply not enough space for all the units otherwise.
For the next step I cut the trenches into the foam and covered the edges with corrugated plastic card strips. These will later be painted to look like wood panels. Individual planks would look nicer but I wasn’t about to glue down thousands of toothpicks. I also glued down self-adhesive sheet metal (called “rubber steel”) onto all the areas where models would be placed later. My Flames of War models have magnetic basis so this will prevent models from sliding around when I take the tray out of the cabinet and onto the table. I added some balsa wood pieces with hot glue (they will be supports for razorwire later). Finally, I used interior spackle to roughly fill in any cracks and build up the earthworks. The small hill section on the top right is based on a 1″ tall piece of high density foam. I cut out two pieces of 1/4″ medium density fiberboard (MDF) to act as the back walls (facing the frame). This gives nice straight edges and prevents any damage to the foam over time. The rocks in front of the hill are cast with out of UltraCal 30 using a commercial rock mold.
While the varnished frame can withstand some paint spillage, it still needs to be protected. So I taped everything carefully with masking tape. Now the fun starts. Brush on a 3:1 mix of Weldbond glue and water onto all surfaces except the plastic card and rocks, then pour on a thick layer of sand (fine playground or bird sand, not the coarse stuff that you get from your own garden). This needs to dry for at least a day and then be vigorously brushed down. I use a stiff bristle hand brush (the ones you use to clean your hands, no idea what they are called). This will take off a lot of sand but it is worth doing now rather than losing the sand after you have painted the diorama.
The rough painting process is fairly straightforward. I use black household acrylic paint (in big jars from the local paint store) to paint everything black, then drybrush all earth areas with brown paint (matched to Games Workshop Bestial Brown for consistency with my model bases), and finally a lighter drybrush with a colour matched to Games Workshop Bleached Bone. I gave the road section a heavier coat of brown and no second drybrush to differentiate it from the regular ground. If your vehicles have no bases then I would recommend using a toothpick or brush handle to create tire marks in the wet spackle during the previous step. My vehicles are all on bases and it would look really odd to have tire marks just in between the gaps between bases.
I then painted the “wood” in the trenches in brown and washed them heavily a few times with diluted dark brown paint (both are just cheap acrylics in large bottles).
Finally, I re-painted the rocks in black followed by a couple of drybrushes in different grey tones. At this paint the tray is done except detailing and foliage. Foliage needs to be places around the bases so I first place all the models to cover their positions.
Next steps is to add a bit of plant life. I put glue on all the spots where there are no models, then took of the models and covered everything in static grass. Shake off the excess and you end up with this:
Finally some bushes and hedges. At this point the tray is completed. This is clearly not the perfect solution for a display tray, as the unit bases don’t really match the tray theme (e.g. ruined walls in the middle of a trench). That said, it is a lot better than a plain shelf to display the models. One down, 44 more trays to build.
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